Monday, August 15, 2005

Aged Bush Shui Xian

Today's review is the first of a few teas I tried from Imperial Tea Court. First I'd like to point out that their name isn't a stupid pun involving the word tea, a major point in their favor. Their tea comes in little shrink wrapped green packages however, which have 2 problems... they don't reseal, and they're translucent. Tea hates light, which is why most higher end companies put tea in opaque packages. Anyway, their prices are about average with some being quite reasonable, and this one at $180/lb is pretty middle of the road.

The concept of using an old bush as opposed to a young bush hadn't really occured to me, and I remain skeptical that it is gimmickery. At least we're back to Fujian province, makers of some "good-assed teas", second only to Wuyi as a region.

Aged Bush Shui Xian, Imperial Tea Court

Out of 5.
Overall - 3 1/2
Primary Flavors - 4
Secondary Flavors - 2
Aroma - 3
Finish - 3 1/2
Temperament - 2

This was an interesting tea in that it had properties and primary flavor of a straightforward classic oolong but acted more like a complex, fickle oolong in other ways. The initial flavor was similar to a staple like their Aged Oolong that had been made with too few leaves, but after a moment it passed and allowed the undertones to come through... a subtle chocolate with smoke taste that hung around for several seconds, albeit understated. It was pleasant enough, but the flavors didn't entice the way a really good monkey-picked coaxes you to chase them, burning through pot after pot. This is a good tea if you're tired of an agressive dim sum oolong but still want that toasted flavor.

One downside of this complexity is that you can oversteep this tea, both with leaves and with time. This makes it a fairly difficult tea to work with - you want to be liberal enough to bring out the primary flavors but not to overdo it so the undertones stay in bounds. A long leaf, it worked well at 45-45-1:00-1:15. The 4th steeping was usually just to fill up the pot, this tea is only good for about 2 steepings before you're left with weak straightforward oolong which trails off quickly. Considering the care you have to take with it this isn't the end of the world though, you'll burn through it at a normal rate.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

So I've referred a couple of times to the modifications I do to the traditional Gong Fu Cha style of tea making, adjusted for every day use. Since there are lots of variations it's probably easiest to just describe how I do it.

I take 1 tbsp of tight-rolled or 2 tbsp of dried-long tea, and put it in my 6, 10, or 12 oz teapot. The 12 oz is easiest and most common, as I can make fewer batches to fill my teapot, usually 2.
I boil tap water in a metal kettle. While it heats I put aspertame in my drinking teapot, definitely non-standard but it makes me happy. I put a lipped plate under my yixing, it isn't a fancy wooden collector but it does the job. When the water boils I fill the yixing till over flowing and look at the clock. Sometime between :40 and 1:30 later I start decanting it into the drinking teapot. I then refill the yixing without re-heating the water and repeat. It's a stripped down method which makes a pretty good every day cup of tea.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Today I am reviewing perhaps the best Taiwanese tea I've had, which is not saying much. The problem with Formosans isn't that the leaves are inferior, which they are, it's that the Taiwanese are afraid to oxidize their teas, so they all come out mostly green. Take today's tea, for example, a High Mountain Dark Roast. I got pretty excited when I saw this tea. Grown at 6000+ feet, as a rule of thumb altitude is generally required for subtlety in tea. Dark Roast implied that perhaps this tea would overcome the Formosan problem, and Teance's teas are as good as their name is stupid, no kidding. I dream about their Tikuanyin.

In the end, the Formosan Dark Roast was ok. The leaves were quality but the tea was a little green. A little browner and this would have been a real winner, and as it is it was decent, I drank the whole quarter pound fairly quickly.

Teance High Mountain Dark Roast Oolong Tea Tung Ting Taiwan, 2005

Out of 5.
Overall - 3
Primary Flavors - 2
Secondary Flavors - 3 1/2
Aroma - 3 1/2
Finish - 2 1/2
temperament - 3

If you like your oolongs green this is a really excellent tea. The finish was much less sharp than I expected, and the secondary flavors held up. These were what you'd come to expect from a high altitude Wuyi - a nice toasted flavor, with a unique hint of matcha. A woody undertone. The liquor was a darker yellow than I expected with a true oolong aroma.

The tea comes in tight, glossy little knots, some with stem - the bottom leaves. I thought it was interesting they used the lower leaves for such a high grade tea, but the result was fine, it actually probably helped. Being the bottom leaves they unrolled huge, 3+ inches long. If you wanted a tea to make in your gaiwan, this would be a great candidate (both because of the green-ness and because the leaves would stay put in a loose infusion).

Brewing was fairly delicate but the lack of a sharp finish helped with malleability. Since it was so tightly rolled you have to go long on the first infusion, especially if you don't wash the leaves, which I haven't been. A point of order here. In traditional gong fu the rules are pretty firm about washing the pot with boiling water without leaves then washing the leaves with boiling water to clean them and get them unfurling. I have been known to cheat this process in order to save time and get more out of the leaves. For dried-long teas from good importers I don't see a need to ever wash the leaves. For tight-rolls it makes a difference though, no doubt. The best way to do it is to wash the leaves then let them sit for about 5 minutes damp to let them unroll. Like I said though, I've been known to cheat. I usually make several pots at a time and mix them in my bigger serving teapot, and I've found that inconsistencies in flavor from brewing the wash water get smoothed out when pots two, three, and four are mixed with it. That said, if I was serving someone else or really being careful I'd definitely wash a tight-roll tea first.

So back to it, for an everyday cup without washing, I usually did 45-35-40-50-1:00-1:15. This tea finished strong on the 5th and 6th, with more of the undertones coming out rather than fewer - it actually settled down in a good way.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

I killed the Japanese "darker" today. I eked out 6 pots from my brown 6 oz pot. They were pretty good, I wouldn't change any ratings. Remember 6 pots of the 6 oz is a different beast, and frankly not the ideal pot for a straightforward tea like the Yu-cha, but being the last pot I thought I could get more out of it that way.

Tomorrow I'm back to finishing the teance teas before I break open the 1 lb of aged from empire. Aging isn't just for pu-erh... it makes a pretty good oolong too. My next reviews are of the teance teas though, especially my all time favorite, the '04 monkey picked.
So the thing about breaking in Yixing Zisha clay, is that it's not as bad as it sounds. There are numerous writeups, each a little different, about this online like:

The idea is that being unfinished clay, your new teapot has to cure to remove the clay taste and introduce the tea flavor to it. Pots really vary though, and while some leave that nasty film on the surface of the water while they're curing most just have a light clay flavor that goes away fairly quickly.

After seasoning about half a dozen pots now my technique is pretty basic... 2 hours in boiling water, then add a couple tbsp of cheap oolong and boil for 2 more hours. I use The Republic of Tea's Tikuanyin, at $35 a pound and tasting like St. Augustine clippings it's good for curing pots. That's pretty much all there is to it though. No seven days collecting bacteria, no ice-water baths. 2 hours with water, 2 hours with cheap tea. Obviously make sure it's an oolong, but otherwise it doesn't matter.

After that I follow the rest of the rules fairly strictly, I only use high grade tea of similar type, I never wash with soap, only cold and sometimes boiling water to clean it, and my pots have matured pretty well.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

So this week I'm finishing up a really excellent oolong I purchased in Japan. It's not a very good tea for my first review because I don't even know the name for it specifically, I asked the girl if she had Tikuanyin, turned up my nose at it and said "darker" and she gave me this. I had about a half pound, and I'm on my last pot, so I figured I need to hurry up and write about it.

The little Chinese Tea shop where I bought it from is an excellent model for the tea shop I will open when I don't have to work anymore. I believe the name was Yu-Cha, in Harajuku district, over near the new Dior. Downstairs they had a little old man with a beard and everything who reminded me a little of my hero, Pai Mei. He was assisted my an attractive young Japanese girl who tried fairly dilligently to understand the English language around Chinese words I used to describe what I was looking for. Their teapots were exorbinant, even for Tokyo, so I just bought some tea. Upstairs they had a tea room, where for Y2500 (about $25) they would serve you Chinese tea of your choice prepared in the traditional way. We were on a schedule, so I was unable to go upstairs, but I came away with a pretty good tea.

Yu-Cha "Darker", Harajuku Tokyo

Out of 5.
Overall - 3 1/2
Primary Flavors - 4
Secondary Flavors - 2 1/2
Aroma - 3 1/2
Finish - 3
Temperment - 5

This was a straightforward, classic oolong, with a moderately dark liquor. The primary flavor had a bit of complexity with a nice woody undertone. The leaves were loose and long, which lent itself to lots of leaves, but this one especially so. The tea hit its stride when I pushed it up to 2 tablespoons at almost boiling for 50, 1:00, 1:00, 1:15 in a dark clay 12 oz pot. Flavor usually fell off after the fourth steeping, about normal for this type of tea. The most interesting thing about it was the abuse it could take and still keep the undertones intact - I far oversteeped it a couple of times and not only did it hold up adequately, the leaves weren't cached like most high-end teas would be.

The tea smelled good and finished crisp (especially for a dark oolong). I burned right through it, which was a little bit of a downer, it took way more leaves even compared to other dried-longs. It was overall a nice hybrid of a delicate tea with some undertones and harmonics and a tea focused on creating an excellent primary flavor. I'd buy it again for that niche.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Welcome to my really cheesy blog about my secret love, tea. It isn't really secret so much as it is geeky, I tell pretty much everyone how much of a tea snob I am, but it sounds better the way I said it the first time. In the course of my pontificating about oolong, it became clear that the world was sorely lacking a journal about my existential quest for the perfect cup of tea. And there aren't nearly enough blogs, either.

So to begin with, it might be helpful to define just how big a tea snob I really am. I drink oolongs, primarily from the Wuyi region of China and usually grown over 4000 feet. I prepare my tea at home in a slightly modified Gong-Fu Cha style in my collection of Yixing teapots. Occasionally I'll have a nice Ceylon or Pu-Erh, but in the same way I'd have a Diet Coke - the oolongs are where it all happens.

Gong-fu cha is a catch-all for chinese tea ceremonies, and means literally "well made tea". Though it has a ritual aspect, it is less structured than Japanese tea ceremonies and you see far more variations. There are some decent writeups online, I'll try to find a good basic one. For everyday drinking (I often make 6 large Yixing pots a day) I have streamlined the process a bit. It's still evolving, and I'll talk more about the strategy of creating good tea later.

Yixing is a region of China where a peculiar type of clay, Zisha, is dug. It comes in several colors, but they share a unique porousness that allows unfinished pottery to absorb the flavor of whatever they come in contact with. The longer you use a Yixing teapot the more the clay will cure with the flavor of the teas you've used, and thus will make tea which tastes better and better. They say after a few years you can make tea in the pot without any leaves at all... though being hard on my teapots I've never gotten the chance to find out.

Oolong is not a varietal of tea per se, but rather a class representative of the degree of oxidation the leaves are exposed to. Fully oxidized leaves are known as black tea, steamed but otherwise unoxidized are greens, and Oolongs are in-between, partially oxidized. This presents a huge spectrum of tea flavors which can be considered Oolong, but I am primarily concerned with the darker versions as a matter of personal taste. I also only like oolongs from Wuyi or Fujian regions... Formosan oolongs are crap. Vietnamese oolongs are like Texas wines, and Darjeeling is great, but it's a black tea.

So many topics to cover... some future installments (other than reviews of my latest teas) will include the many faces of Tikuanyin, how much breaking in does Yixing really need, Why do I hate Taiwanese tea so much (may be a short entry), and of course how to make the perfect every day cup.