July 21, 2011

It's Not A Competition

As far as I can tell, a tea competition is an event designed to increase the amount of packaging and price of the teas involved.  Joking apart, the actual role of tea competitions seems to be a little unclear.  Though they do give public recognition and exposure to the tea farmers and make attempts to judge the best teas of a particular season, many believe that the tasting preferences of the judges can play too large a role in deciding the direction tea processing fashion is headed--as traditional processing methods fail to impress judges, they fall out of practice for their decrease in marketability.  I've also heard from a number of Chinese and Taiwanese people that expensive competition-winning teas often end up purchased as gifts by and/or for people who don't actually like tea all that much and the tea ends up languishing on the shelf with no one to appreciate it.  And yet, if it performed well in a competition, a tea's got to at least be good, right?

Tennis balls?  Nope, just tea.
I've tried a handful of different competition teas in my time and have genuinely liked a few.  When I saw Hou De carrying a competition awarded Muzha Tieguanyin I decided to take the plunge and buy a can, partly just so I could say I bought a can of competition tea at least once in my life, and partly because a good Muzha Tieguanyin is one of my favorite oolong types.  The competition tea experience is one with a lot of bright packaging designed to make the tea feel more special than your average tea, including a cardboard box with special seal stickers, a can inside the box with a plastic lid and aluminum pop top, and finally a vacuum-sealed polyfoil bag (how we're used to having our tea packaged).  Naturally, the can is mostly for show, but I've been keeping the bag of tea inside it, at least until the bag gets disproportionately small for the container.

On to the tea.  A few of the competition teas I've had were de-stemmed, supposedly in order to maintain consistency for the competition.  Not the case for this tea, which appears pretty standard for Muzha Tieguanyin--dark, with a few deep green and red notes with stems that take on a somewhat golden hue.  What I was most interested about with this tea is the roasting level--how it would compare to the other Muzha Tieguanyin I've had, which at best seem to balance a dryness with lasting high notes and a solid roasted bottom.  Maybe it's not a surprise, but this competition tea, though well-roasted, doesn't have a strong roasting flavor--that would probably be deemed a flaw by most judges.  Interestingly, the most noticeably excellent trait I notice is the mouthfeel, which is thick and mouth-coating, much heavier than the dryness I usually associate with this tea.  The flavor, likewise, displays only hints of (what has been, to me) the region's particular high note, instead existing in more of a juicy realm of fruity/flowery with a bitter streak that can get out of control without timely brewing attention.  While the tea's profile is striking in the early infusions, I'd say it doesn't last quite as long as some similar dong ding or gaoshan oolong I've had recently.  The tea's creamy body, though unexpected, is really enjoyable and pairs best with one of my red clay pots--the porous ones mute the aroma and somehow promote the bitterness, plus the body's already smooth enough as it is!  Interestingly, pretty much all the Muzha Tieguanyin I've purchased does better in zhuni or hongni.

This tea has disappeared and reappeared on Hou De a few times, and there are only a few ounces left at present.  Since I've got quantity I'll be happy to share a sample with the first whoever leaves the first two comments--international people included!  You'll have to email me your address once you see you've made it.

July 16, 2011

Black Butte Tea

Not the blackest butte I've ever seen.  Please forgive the titular pun.
Or, Tea on Vacation Part II.  This past week I've again been fortunate enough to vacation away from home.  This time I've returned to a time-honored summer haunt for my family--Black Butte Ranch in central Oregon.  It's been a great week full of relaxation, physical recreation (including a scenic climb up the pictured butte), productivity (music for a couple of songs and a handful of textual contributions), and--of course--tea drinking!  As I mentioned but didn't document at the time of our last visit, Black Butte is home to a delightful and accessible spring, from which I've been drawing my tea water for the week.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's also been a week of numerous minor tea learning experiences at the mild, reflective pace of a good vacation.  Compared with my last trip, I brought almost everything but the kitchen sink (in terms of tea équipage, that is).  The tetsubin, two yixing pots, a gaiwan, and a dozen or so different types of tea.  Lesson #1: Even on a "fully-equipped" vacation, it's probably still smartest to focus on one tea type, because you probably won't make full use of all the different teas you brought, and you get the benefit of close comparison between different teas of the same genre.  Although I made green tea and a delicious Dong-Ding, I mostly drank aged pu-erh.  If I had left the other teas at home, I could have left the gaiwan and one of the pots, not to mention the tea storage space--ah, the joys of over-packing to avoid silly fear of "not enough variety." 

It was a pretty decadent week, since I usually only drink an aged pu-erh every couple of weeks, but all of the repetition was illuminating.  Firstly, a muted session with an '80's shou/sheng brick reminded me that different weather conditions (it's quite dry here) can affect my sensory faculties and, perhaps, the performance of the tea leaves themselves.  Secondly, the failure of an extremely tight chunk of '80's tuo to fully unfurl reminded me that breaking up large chunks (as gently and possible, even if it's difficult) greatly improves the quality of the session--you don't have to separate individual leaves, but getting the chunk into quarters is significant.  Thirdly, a sublime one-off session with my 1993 7542 reminded me how not all sessions with a single tea are created equal and that there's no shame in the notion that a certain chunk of the cake might be contain a just right combination of leaves, while others may not (Lessons #2-4, respectively).

The final learning experience relates to perspective.  Two years ago--drinking many of the same teas I drank this week, incidentally--I was deliriously eager to try my tetsubin and teas out with mountain spring water.  With a couple more years' experience under my belt, my attitudes to spring water and tea preparation in general have mellowed quite a bit.  Whether it's my rustic palate or my lackadaisical approach, the difference between filtered/Lynnwood spring/Black Butte spring water is not especially apparent to me.  Maybe with some close attention I could tell a difference, but that might spoil the relaxation!  Probably the most enjoyable part of making tea with this spring water is retrieving it--it's really enjoyable to collect the fresh, cold water straight out of the earth and reflect on and feel connected to the elements that come together for a good tea session (definitely nowhere close to the extent that those who are attentive to Chinese elemental tradition do, though).  The water tastes amazing right out of the ground--perfectly cold for a hot day after the bike ride to the spring.  It's also interesting to note that, two years after acquiring the tetsubin and using it with spring water, it still hasn't developed much of a mineral scale/patina at all.  I was really nervous when I first noticed the patina was receding, but now I'm little less anxious; the thing still makes good tea water, and preferable to my other kettles--even to my simpleton's palate.  If anything, I'm wondering whether or not it's really necessary to drive up to Lynnwood to regularly collect water, since the patina hasn't returned.  We'll see after I use up the 10 gallons of water I'm bringing back with me.

Where'd that come from?

The spring is a great spot--issuing straight out of the ground below where I stood to take this photo and running across the ranch.  There's also a stone bench--a great spot to sit and read, write or quietly enjoy the babbling stream, insects, rodents, birds and wind through the pines.

Water mushrooms.

Unlike the Lynnwood spring, which is technically an "artesian well" (meaning that it was originally human-drilled and since then produces water without pumping), this is an honest-to-goodness spring, bubbling straight out of the ground.  While not quite as convenient for jug-filling, it's an invigorating sight to behold.  Here's to drinking tea in the aid of relaxation and contemplation, and to continually learning about it without getting too scientific!