May 26, 2012

Tea Urchin

Today it's my pleasure to write about some samples I received from the generous hands of blog friends and operators of Tea Urchin, Eugene and Belle.  They're currently based in Shanghai and from the impressive breadth of their blog content they're indisputable examples of the new breed of online tea vendors who fearlessly launch themselves into the tea garden trenches, bent on sourcing the best teas as directly as possible and gathering a girthy and transparent wealth of knowledge for their customers (and themselves) in the hopes of further advancing the progress of tea connoisseurship in the non-Asian world.  As far as I'm concerned, there's pretty much unlimited room in the market for vendors of this stripe--the more educated consumers become, the more the market for great tea grows.  In my experience they all tend to be pretty nice people, too!

From what I can tell, the "online tea vendor" moniker is synonymous with "free sample-giver"--from the free samples that most sellers include with orders to care packages like the one Eugene and Belle sent me, it's a wonder vendors don't give away all their stock in seven-gram increments!  Yet, there is always the promise of turning a free sample recipient into a long-term customer...

Autumn 2011 Gua Feng Zhai

Pictured in-focus above is the Autumn 2011 Gua Feng Zhai sheng pu-erh offered by Tea Urchin; it's been a while since I've partaken in any autumn pu-erh (I think maybe some 2007 XZH was the last autumn tea I'd tried before this one).  Plopping a nice chunk into my warmed aged sheng tea pot (don't worry, it'll be just fine) my nose was greeted by that familiar new sheng aroma--grassy with some strained rustic elements and a sinewy back bone.  Let me again state that I'm not a young sheng pu-erh tasting expert or even an aficionado, though experiences like this are always enjoyable and illuminating opportunities.  I know there's more than one bump-on-a-log online who'll grumble that autumn pu-erh isn't worth drinking, but this shit tastes pretty good to me!  Naturally, it's tasting very green and energetic but there's plenty of bitterness lurking in that "oops I let it sit five seconds too long before pouring out" zone, and there's some nice progression happening across the infusions.  How does it compare to other Gua Feng Zhai examples?  Beats the hell out of me, but what's in my cup certainly meets my criteria for what constitutes "good" young sheng!

Summer 2011 Lao Man E
Comparatively, this summer 2011 Lao Man E is less floral and fragrant and visibly more amber in the cup.  While I appreciate bright, energetic teas, my daily drinking these days tends to favor teas with broader characteristics--instead of a punchy young flavor, this tea offers a bit more of a sampler of different earth tones, which seem to complement bitterness more naturally.  I do agree with the Tea Urchin description, though, that this summer tea is surprisingly less bitter than other spring teas I've tried from Bulang.  I'm guessing you'll find even more sticks-in-the-mud declaring summer pu-erh not worth drinking or aging, but if I were going to drink a young sheng pu-erh on a daily basis, it would probably be something more like this.  Keep in mind, I'm the kind of rotten tomato who's inclined to believe that anyone with less than roundabout 30 years of personal pu-erh aging and drinking experience is probably unqualified to make statements about how a particular brand new pu-erh will age.  Rather than desperately rationalizing that the tea we already bought is definitely or will definitely turn into something great, we'd probably be better served by buying and drinking something we already think tastes good, loving it without conditions that it improve at a later date (I'm also now accepting applications as a marriage counselor)! We've all heard that one before, though, right?  If I had more discretionary income, I'd probably be buying one or more of every new pressing made by my favorite vendors, so my savings can at least be thankful that these days I have to focus not on speculative purchases but rather on the teas I drink daily...

Like yan cha!  While my pu-erh purchases are quite cautious, my yan cha stockpile is in a constant state of danger, and I'm always on the lookout for well-roasted teas.  I also received some Da Hong Pao, Rou Gui and Tie Luo Han from Belle and Eugene, all of which are reasonably priced and seem to be traditionally processed.  I can think of few currently-available Tie Luo Han examples that fit what's become ideal in my mind--at it's best, Tie Luo Han is almost not even there--there isn't any high lingering aroma or buzzing mouth activity; it's more of a "feel" tea that can quietly offer an awful lot that other yan cha can't.  Good on Tea Urchin for offering one that's roughly priced at a yan cha "daily drinking" level.  While my 2012 pu-erh purchases are likely to be about as minimal as they were in 2011, I suspect I'll be visiting Tea Urchin for yan cha before too much more time passes.  Thanks again to Belle and Eugene for the opportunity and delicious teas--I'm sure we'll be seeing more and more great Tea Urchin offerings in the near future.

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