09 December, 2013

A Little Learning Goes a Long Way

It may sound a bit hokey, but I love learning.  It is one of the reasons that I am in the academic business.  Turning up to work and being paid to learn something (and, of late, even being given the freedom to choose what to learn) is a great blessing.  I've noticed lately that I am treating tea the same way.  

When, to take an example, I try some 2012 samples from Yunnan Sourcing, I find myself keenly trying to learn about tea.  Over and over again, tea after tea, year after year.  Now, I am not a fast learner.  This is a slow old process, and progress is of the "two steps forward, one step back" variety.  However, it is a huge amount of fun.  So, when I have previously tried both the 2011 and 2013 versions of Scott's Nanpozhai (which were both excellent), trying the 2012 described below is another opportunity to learn.  In this case, I hope to learn what it is that makes Nanpozhai tick.

The village of Nanpo is right next to Bingdao ("Ice Island"!) in the Mengku region of Shuangjiang ["double-river"] county of Lincang diqu.  Bingdao itself is the subject of Scott's "Mushucha" [mother-tree tea] cakes, and is famous for its icy chill - we might reasonably expect Nanpozhai leaves to be similar.

That they are related is clear; that they actually have rather different nuances becomes obvious in subtle ways, in the aroma and tasting cups.  Learning those nuances, or attempting to learn those nuances, is hugely enjoyable.

This is a fantastic little tea.  It is absolutely gripping from beginning to end, and tells a complex tale.  I thoroughly recommend you check out a sample, as Nanpozhai tea is seldom attributed.  It's not even in the ever-mighty Babelcarp.

Tangent: I use Babelcarp at least once per day.  It is, according to the installation of Google Chrome on my ipad, in the top-five sites that I visit.  Lew Perin has given the world much via Babelcarp, and his continued updates are one of the silent treasures of the tea world.  Thank you, Lew.

Why is this tea so gripping?  It is fresh, grassy, and thick with pollen - and then it is cooling and Bingdao-chilled - and then it is sweet Mengku grain - and then, finally, there is a punchy little kuwei [good bitterness].  It soldiers on a long time, and, even after ten infusions, it remains sweet and quite reasonable.  Its internal free energy (heh) is significant.  I don't know how or if it will age, but it is a solid and attention-retaining tea right now.

My spreadsheet tells me I have neither the 2011, this 2012, nor the 2013, and I should do something to remedy the situation by picking at least one cake.  It's not inexpensive ($70something / 400g), but it's a decent price for something so charming.

The other half of the learning curve described in this article is based around the 2012 Manzhuan, also from Yunnan Sourcing.

I previously compared the 2009 and 2010 versions of this cake, although both were autumnal.  While I don't seem to have notes for any 2011 version, this 2012 incarnation is, thankfully, springtime tea.  I don't find myself drinking much in the way of autumnal tea, by choice.  It can be nice - but, with finite time, why not spend the time maximising your probability of success, and therefore drink springtime tea?

Manzhuanshan describes a large area to the west of the Yiwushan area, rather like Yibangshan.  You don't typically hear of Manzhuanshan and Yiwushan being conjoined, but Scott describes this cake as being "classic Yiwu taste".

To me, it doesn't seem immediately similar to Yiwu character: this Manzhuan cake opens with a first infusion that is sweet and cheerful, but doesn't have the Yiwushan straw-like complexity that many of us seem to enjoy.  What it does have is a strong, lasting buttery sweetness, which has presumably been imparted by the wok.  Bearing in mind this tea is now a year old, that flavour is therefore not transient, like many processing-imparted characteristics (smokiness, etc.) that one sometimes find in young cakes.  The thick body is immediately enjoyable.

First infusions are notoriously deceptive, however.  From the second through to eighth infusions, a citric, spiced-green darkness begins to creep in.  There is not much in the way of kuwei, and the buttery roasted sweetness of the first infusion is revealed as being a roasted, quite powdery, wok-flavour in the base of the tea.  The processing has been quite strong with this one, and, with the overall lack of kuwei, can predominate.

Brewed carefully, the sweetness can be made to last, but I was a little concerned for its aging potential, due to its lightness, and the omnipresent roast.  Scott has been very fair with the prices: while the 2009 and 2010 Manzhuan cakes were almost exactly the same price at the time (approx. $53/357g), this 2012 cake, being sold two years later, is just $33/357g equivalent.  That is quite inexpensive, given modern pricing. (Scott only sells a Walongzhai cake for 2013, which is near Manzhuan, and where the cake is a blistering $127/357 equivalent).

So, then, two good cakes, and two good opportunities to learn.  I feel as if I've learned something of the Nanpozhai take on Bingdao iciness, and something of the Manzhuanshan citric strength in its relation to sweet Yiwushan.  One of the great benefits of learning is being proven wrong, however, and I look forward to my own taste-buds contradicting my conclusions in later sessions...


Mighty Tea Monster said...

Speaking of learning...was meaning to ask you your opinion on Chinese literature. You seem to have some experience from hints in your blog here and there. Have any recommendations on Chinese poetry/ classic writings?

Sorry it's off tea topic. Although you must admit tea and poetry/writing are close cousins.

Hobbes said...

Dear Teamonster,

I assume that you're asking for works in translation! The Chinese classics in actual ancient Chinese are often hard even for those who are brought up reading modern Chinese. :)

Classics that often make the "favourites" lists of Westerners include:

1. Dream of Red Mansions / Dream of Red Chamber / Hongloumeng / Story of the Stone (all names for a single work, being classic fiction).

2. Works / translations by by Lin Yutang, such as My Country and My People, Six Chapters of a Floating Life, The Importance of Living, etc.

3. Journey to the West

4. Lunyu / The Analects of Confucius/Kongzi

5. Daodejing / Tao Te Ch'ing

6. Yijing / The Book of Changes

The latter are classics of a Chinese philosophy.

Good luck!



Mighty Tea Monster said...

Thank you,

This gives me a start, I would take with translation and original text.. painfully trying to learn Mandarin and starting to realize I know nothing about Chinese literature.. figured if I could rekindle my love of reading in this language it would speed up the process. That and its another perspective I would like to explore.

Figured you would have good tastes and some insight. Seems you do.

And thanks again,

Hobbes said...

Best of luck! I wouldn't say I had anything close to good taste, however :)



Mighty Tea Monster said...

I dunno.. you seem to have good taste in tea..

Besides.. the start of having "taste" is having an opinion about something I would say.

If that taste is good or not is highly philosophical.. and ponderously impossible to define.

However the road to having good taste is having a strong opinion.. so your half way there.

Hobbes said...

Well, I have no shortage of strong opinions - it's nice to read that may have an upside. :)



Lew Perin said...

Thanks so much for your kind “tangent!” We learn from each other, we tea fanatics, and infect each other with our enthusiasms. I just filled the Nanpo gap, by the way.

Hobbes said...

Excellent catch, Lew!