Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Marathon Has Ended

On the 11th day (Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008), I ended my tasting of a well-crafted 2004 Wuyi Shuixian oolong that was harvested from a 200+ years old tea bush. If my notes are correct, this prolonged session yielded 21 infusions in the first three days, using gongfu brewing method. And 16 additional lovely cups were extracted through long steepings (9 - 12 hours each) over the next 8 days. That brings the total to 37 infusions.

On the 11th day, the tea-water tasted thin and light, yet still fragrant and sweet. The last cup was the ghost of something beautiful...a testament of a great tea and the teamaster's skills.

So, what does this extended tasting session accomplish, someone asked me (and called me "nuts")? I've pondered on that question for a bit longer, and I think as far as highly roasted Wuyi yancha oolong is concerned, I have learned the following...a great Wuyi yancha oolong:

(in no order of significance)
1. Has great brewing durability (the reason why it lasted 11 days for me)
2. Has impeccable balance of its roasty, floral, fruity, and sometimes woodsy characteristics
3. Has good active mouthfeel and a long aftertaste / "echo" (chayun and huigan)
4. Has good chaqi (yin or yang), and
5. Tastes great when lots of leaves is used (more than 1:2 ratio of the teapot's volume, up to 1:1)

Before this tea, my personal preference with highly-roasted Wuyi yancha had always been to use 1/2 a teapot full of dry leaves (compacted by tapping the teapot gently while filling it with dry leaves to settle them down). I had been somewhat averse to using more than 1/2. This was because almost each and every time I used more, I had always been rewarded with overly bitter brews, even with flash steepings. So this tea has changed my perspective on how to gongfu-brew a good quality yancha.

One thing that still makes me wonder is why this very tea brewed in a gaiwan can last more than 7 weeks at The Tea Gallery in NYC. When brewed in a Yixing teapot, however, it lasted only 11 to 12 days for all the participants involved (Toki, Salsero and myself). Does the porous nature of Yixing clay affect brewing durability...perhaps through absorption and oxidation? (Anyone?)

My utmost thanks goes again to Toki for this incredible experience and opportunity by providing the tea in question. I am in the opinion that such an superb tea is something that one only finds when armed with knowledge, understanding, passion and a spirit for adventure. Oh, and maybe lots of cash, too (Toki never revealed the price of this tea).

Related Posts

From The Mandarin's Tea Blog:
1. 7542 '88 Qingbing Ended, Vintage Qing Dynasty Brick Began (Aug. 21, 2008)
2. A Marathon Relay Continues (Sept. 1, 2008)
3. Second day of Kung Fu tasting (Sept. 2, 2008)
4. What is detail Tasting? (Sept. 5, 2008)
5. The Morning After (Sept. 12, 2008)

From Teachat:
1. A post by Salsero

From my own blog:
1. The Marathon Has Begun (Aug. 31, 2008)
2. And It Continues On (Sept. 1, 2008)
3. Into The 6th Day of Tasting (Sept. 5, 2008)
4. Elevated Expectations? (Sept. 6, 2008)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Is "Tea Sommelier" a Misnomer?

The use of wine terms and allusions for tea has become more popular in the past few years. While I'm not a linguist, my guess is wine terms are increasingly adopted in tea talk because they have a higher likelihood of being understood by those uninitiated in tea but are more familiar with the wine culture (I'll refer to them as "wine-people" for the sake of brevity). Also, perhaps, wine terms lend to teas a certain charm that wine-people can relate to. Simply put, it's good marketing.

The word "terroir", for example, is brought up in conversations about teas, which like wines, are unique to the place where they were grown in. The French word terroir, after all, was coined by wine makers of old to convey a sense of origin and uniqueness of the grapes and the resulting wines. It is a concept with such universal application that it can be used for everything that grows and exists under the sun. So why not tea.

The most popular wine allusion, probably, is the claim by producers of Darjeeling teas that their products are the Champagne of Teas. I can see the intent, and again, it's marketing. Attaching one's identity with Champagne's venerated image is a good way to relate to a broad range of consumers. Beyond its marketing propaganda, however, I don't quite see any similarity between the two.

There is one wine term that I believe can not be adopted for tea, as it would create a misnomer. The word is sommelier. Tea sommelier just does not make any sense. A sommelier by itself means a "wine steward" or a person who is in charge of the wine provision and the service of it. Is a tea sommelier, then, a person who is highly knowledgeable in and serves both tea and wine? I think those who call themselves tea sommeliers in their profession should reconsider the word's meaning.

Consider the etymology of sommelier:

"Middle French. From somm(er)ier (one charged with transporting supplies), from somier (beast of burden), from somme (burden). From driving a pack animal to drafting wine lists, a sommelier has come a long way. A sommelier is to wine as a cicerone is to beer, though the latter has recently been introduced and is not widespread."

Another version says:

"French, from Middle French, court official charged with transportation of supplies, pack animal driver, from Old Provençal saumalier pack animal driver, from sauma pack animal, load of a pack animal, from Late Latin sagma packsaddle."

I think it's safe to say that a sommelier has got nothing to do with tea in the historical and etymological contexts. Are there any other misapplied wine terms used for tea, or vice versa?

[Edit] PS: In the back of my mind, while writing the post above I vaguely remembered having expressed the same opinion about the use of "sommelier" in conjunction with "tea". Searching for that comment made in the past, I found that Corax of Cha Dao had also expressed the same sentiment in his post "Flavor Hedonics: Pleasure and the Physiology of Taste" dated July 17, 2007. And my agreement to his sentiment was recorded under that post's comment section.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Elevated Expectations?

Last night, after drinking Toki's yancha oolong brew du nuit (steeped from 9am to 9pm), I decided to look for another yancha tea among my stash to do a comparison tasting, sort of. Aha! I found a pack of vintage 2007 Baishuixiang (100 years fragrance -- BSX) oolong, still vacuum-sealed in its little mylar bag.

This tea, among others, was generously given to me by Will and Louise, two of my LA Tea Affair buddies. While visiting Wuyishan last year, they obtained a variety of teas from the local producers and vendors to be brought back to Los Angeles for their personal enjoyment. I am sincerely grateful to them for the potpourri of samples of their acquisitions.

My thinking was to drink Will's BSX and use my recent (and ongoing) tasting of Toki's Shuixian (SX) as a frame of reference for taste, quality and, most especially, firing technique. Granted that BSX tea is not the same variety as SX, I hope they are more or less comparable on the general level, as far as my tasting experiment is concerned.

So, as with Toki's tea, I placed about 3/4 full of the BSX, tightly compacting the leaves by tapping the pot's side gently, into my 80cc 1970's hongni shuipin Yixing pot. With boiling-hot water I flash-rinsed the tea once, and then flash-steeped the tea for 6 infusions. After the 6th cup, I felt that I've had enough impression of the tea for the night (will continue in the morning).

The differences between the two teas were strikingly noticeable. Although both teas have been deeply roasted, the SX managed to give out an upfront yet balanced sweetness and roastiness. The BSX, on the other hand, was skewed much more towards its roasty characteristics. It had thin layers of green and floral characters underneath all the strong, toasty flavors. Also, the BSX tasted rather chaotic in the mouth: burnt toast, some greenness, a bit floral, but highly astringent. I felt that the qi of this tea was also chaotic, giving me an uneasy feeling overall. The aftertaste lingered for quite a while, though unfortunately, it was sour and drying to the throat. I felt more thirsty than before I drank this BSX.

Should I not put as much leaves when brewing BSX tea? Or has my expectations been elevated somewhat by Toki's tea? If my overall expectations has indeed been elevated, then I reckon that I am doomed to spend a large sum of money whenever I shop for a decent Wuyi tea -- that is if I could find such high caliber teas to begin with.

[My utmost thanks again to Will and Louise! Despite my criticism, I am grateful for the lesson I learned from tasting your tea.]

Friday, September 5, 2008

Into The 6th Day of Tasting...

Today, I enter into my 6th day of tasting Toki's Wuyi oolong, which according to his blog was harvested from a 200+ years old Shui Xian bush, and then fired 4 times between May and September of 2004 by a talented tea master in Wuyishan, Fujian Province, China.

For the first 3 days (Sunday to Tuesday), I brewed this tea with regular gongfu methods until such point that I had to infuse the tea for 15 minutes or longer. From then on, I began to infuse it for hours on end. These are the steps I am taking, as suggested by Toki:

1. After concluding the last short-brew steep, pour boiling-hot water into the teapot up to the rim. Place the lid on, and pour hot water over the lid to "water-seal" the teapot.

2. After about 6 or more hours, pour the tea out (to be enjoyed). Then, pour boiling water into the teapot for about 5 - 10 secs before pouring the brew out into a cup (to be enjoyed). The purpose of this short steep is to re-heat the leaves in order to prepare them for the next extended steeping. The leaves must be as hot as possible. Then, I immediately pour boiling-hot water into the teapot again, up to the rim, put the lid on, and water seal it. I let it stand again for hours on end.

3. Repeat step 2. Increase steeping time as necessary, up to 12 hours.

The liquor from yesterday morning's 11-hour steeping was smooth and flavorful. It no longer had the roastiness and the astringency that this tea exhibited during the first 3 days. Rather, it tasted and smelled floral and subtly complex. I can't find the words to describe it. Somehow, it reminded me of drinking an old, top-notch Cognac.

I wonder if an extended tasting session that goes on for weeks is best (or better) done with a heavily-roasted tea. Since roasted tea had to go through the firing process, I would assume that the end product is "clean"...less bacteria, fungi and other creepy microscopic crawlies. Also, the fact that the leaves are always submerged in water inside a sealed teapot probably minimizes mold growth and other nasties from developing. Further, after the tea is poured out, re-steeping the leaves with boiling-hot water maybe helps kill any chances of unwanted stuff from growing too much, too quickly or at all. Lastly, perhaps the fact that tea has antiseptic properties helps keep it clean and safe to consume for much longer.

These are just hypotheses...I'm not sure.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Negative Outlook By a U.S. Tea Wholesaler

I always welcome with delight the latest quarterly catalog from Upton Tea Imports when it arrives in my mailbox. Even though I rarely order from them, the catalog itself is a good read. It is written like a gazette on tea history accompanied with a broad list of tea and accessory selections.

What caught my attention in the Fall 2008 catalog is the short note to the customers on page 3. As a well-established wholesaler and mail-order tea company in the US, their view on the tea industry -- though understandably it may not be free of subjectivity due to their position -- let us peek into the changes and the current condition within the trade. The note reads as such, and I quote:

(Bold format by me)

"A Note to our Valued Customers:

We continue to see challenges in the procurement of top-quality teas from virtually all of the major producing countries. A late start to the growing season was followed by rather warm weather, adversely affecting the quality of the teas from northern India, China, and Japan. With few choice lots being produced, and with sustained pressure on the value of the U.S. dollar, the best teas fetched record prices once again. For the first time we have seen select Assam teas selling at prices formerly attainable only by the best Darjeeling teas!

China Yunnan teas continue to be disappointing. There is hope that the late season will produce better teas than last year's selections, but the proof will be in the samples, yet to arrive."

It's followed by a more upbeat tone...

"But rather than focus on the negative, I must say that we have been enjoying some outstanding new arrivals here at Upton Tea Imports, and we will be receiving several excellent teas over the coming weeks. And even as loose tea prices have been increasing by leaps and bounds, we note that the world's finest teas are still an affordable luxury.

As always, new arrivals are posted on our website as soon as they have been received and checked for quality."

Then it mentions about 3 recent arrivals from Taiwan, which I am leaving out, before the note is concluded.

Altogether, it's realistic but not an inspiring note for tea drinkers, if you ask me.

Left out by the writer of the short note above is any mention of the recent political unrest in Darjeeling (also here) and the effects on the quality of the region's teas. Also, the writer gave no hint as to the causes of Yunnan teas' poor quality, which in the case of Pu'er it was most likely from overproduction, a lack of standard control and the rampant speculation of the commodity. But there are other types of tea produced in Yunnan. What causes the poor quality of non-Pu'er teas from that province remains elusive for now.

As consumers, we are already being pummeled by high gas prices, increasing food costs, weak U.S. dollar, and the poor economy as a whole. Unfortunately, in the scheme of things, what goes on with tea is not at all surprising. We are being forced to pay more and settle for less.

Monday, September 1, 2008

...And It Continues On

Parameter: dry leaves 3/4 pot full , compacted by tapping the pot gently to settle the leaves down. Flash rinse. Gentle stream of boiling-hot water (99-100' C). All time measurement is an approximation, decided by the previous cup's taste and strength.

Day 1: brew # 1 - 4 flash steeped. Brew #5 +2 sec. Brew #6-7 +5 sec.

Day 2: brew # 8 (flash steeped to heat leaves). Brew #9 +5 sec. Brew #10-11 +7 sec. Brew #11-12 +10 sec. Brew #14-15 +15 sec.

...still going strong, ready for day 3!

Per Toki's instruction, keep brewing normally until the tea has to be pushed for up to 3 minutes. Thereafter, each steeping for hours on end will begin.

By the way, I'm not alone -- thank goodness! Salsero is in this, too.

All this tea made me thirsty for some wine...

2003 Saxon Brown Zinfandel
Casa Santinamaria Vineyards
Sonoma Valley
($25, 15% alc.)

Dark purple, almost opaque. Ruby on the rim. Very intense black and red berries, dark cherries, and coffee. Powerful and concentrated, without feeling too heavy. The finish has a roasted oak, coffee and a slight glycerin sweetness. Its high alcohol level (15%) is beautifully balanced by the just-right acidity level, which gives the wine a lively zing and dimension. For a zinfandel lover (me), I love it!

4 stars (vg)

Sidenote: Saxon Brown winery and the Casa Santinamaria vineyards are precious jewels of the Sonoma Valley. The vines in these vineyards are dry farmed, head-pruned and have low-yield (~1/2 ton per acre). Under the talented hands of Winemaker Jeff Gaffner. You've got to love Mr. Gaffner's wines!