30 August, 2013

Judge Not, that Ye Be Not Judged

People who write about tea are a famously grumpy bunch.  A number of us, as far as I can tell, are students or academics or similar, and we are therefore not in the profession of suffering fools gladly.  This can lead to the impression that we are miserable, grouchy, Grinch-like individuals, who like nothing better than to steal Christmas.

Although I try to maintain an optimistic outlook*, I was particularly grumpy when I sat down to this session.  This is because, at the time of writing, it is August, I am sat at home with a cold, and am generally feeling quite grim.

Against all the odds, this session with shupu from Teasetter truly lifted my spirits.  I would like to recount the story to you, Gentle Reader, if you will bear with me.

*My students call me "Dr. Who", only partly because of my dress-sense.

The tea world is filled with hucksters, charlatans, swindlers, mountebanks, and scumbags.  It seems that everyone wants to start up a little business on the side, buying cheap tea from China, obscuring it with a suitably evocative name (presumably so that customers cannot buy it elsewhere for the actual, cheaper price), and then selling it at a significant profit margin.  Every web-site is dazzling white (in the "Apple" style); everyone claims to be selling something unique.  They typically last a year or two before the owner gives up, and goes back to the "day job", or perhaps focusses on selling something else.

Wulong is the prime focus of this industry, given its untraceable origins and accessibility for novice drinkers; pu'ercha (usually labelled "pu-erh" as if we were writing via 19th century Wade-Giles) is by no means immune.

Clockwise from top: 2010 "Ethical Agriculture's Wild Grown Pu-erh" [sic], 
2011 "Old Capitol" [sic], 1992 "Sweet Fragrance Pu'ehr Tea" [sic]

You will, therefore, excuse me if I am rather prejudiced concerning new ventures that seem to fit this pattern.  This is merely because we have all seen far too many of them come and go.

It is against this backdrop, while grumpy for the reasons listed above, that I sat down to drink three 4g samples of shupu from Teasetter.

All three samples mixed, with fannings removed

I started browsing the company web-site, and alarm bells started to ring.  It was then that I came to realise that I was viewing the web-site through the rheumy, yellow-encrusted lenses of my own prejudice.  I watched the company's Youtube-hosted instruction video, and was confronted with the honest, sincere face of a young man, which was as free of guile as any innocent soul could ever hope to be.

It also made me realise that the world of tea is much greater than the tiny niche that I inhabit.  If people wish to recommend using a microwave for 3-4 minutes to heat the water, then why should they not?  The whole affair smacks of passion and personal commitment, and I rather like it, grammatical errors and inkjet printing included.

Napolean famously called the English a "nation of shopkeepers", which he intended to be an insult.  However, the entrepreneurial instinct is to be congratulated, I think.

I suspect that the primary market for Teasetter is the USA (the tea may only be purchased in "oz", which Google informs me is approximately 28g).  Certainly, the customers of Teasetter are pleased: there are 128 people who "like" the company via Facebook, and reviews quoted on the web-site rate the teas as being "100/100".  Ultimately, if it contributes to lowering the body mass, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels of your average Westerner, then such ventures are to be applauded.

As far as the tea that I tried, when mixed all together, it was absolutely delicious.  The session lasted a good hour, the tea had no signs of exhaustion, and it remained thick, sweet, and highly invigorating - a welcome cure in between cups of "jiangtang" [ginger soup].  I look forward to seeing Teasetter convert more Americans to drinking decent tea.

28 August, 2013

Haibun Guafengzhai

big fingers
through thin slats reaching -
one last leaf

Sitting with legs crossed at our heavy table, with back straight I pour the tea.  The soup touches every part of the filter, making wet that which was dry.  Collected in the jug, yellow liquid soon turns dark.  My cup, shared with clay frog, makes my breath sweet and cool.

it is enough
just to follow the breathing
and drink your tea

The white butterfly beyond my door knows the sweetness of this tea.  He has his lavender and honeysuckle: both mixed, reminding me of home.

bright green grasshopper 
once you have finished with it
I'll use my toothbrush

Turning to find the vines that cast shadows on my ceiling, I knock over my jug.  Moving quickly, my hands, to catch it before I know it has fallen.

turning, falling
prettier than ever
before it breaks

no matter how hard
I blow I cannot open
the door from here
unfolding my legs
getting ready to move
the door swings open

a man
I've nevet met makes tea
I know so well

26 August, 2013

How Wild is Your Wild-Tree?

In the case of the 2009 Wuliangshan "Wild Trees" from Essence of Tea, the answer is: really rather wild.

Wuliangshan is an area of the world to which I have never travelled, and yet which I totally dig, in both far out and happening ways. 

Of course, this (really rather long) range of mountains is in northern Simao diqu, the next range over from Ailaoshan.  I have previously enjoyed, in excessively extravagant wise, the 2011 Wuliangshan from Scott at Yunnan Sourcing, which is heavily represented on my tea-shelves and which is Superbad.

This tea from EoT is completely different.

I am always grateful to Mr. Essence for his unique samples that give insights into otherwise unobtainable aspects of pu'ercha, usually those very hard-to-find guarantees of actual laoshu material.  I remember fondly, among many others, the 2008 Laobanzhang which was 100% laoshu, and quite an education in itself.

Shown above and below, my first impression of the leaves was, "Yikes: these are scarlet!"

The first time around, with this tea, I could not get past the "red" character: the soup was immediately orange, and, while light and crisp, it seemed to be everything that was difficult (to me) with red-leaf pu'ercha: I felt that it had a very "low ceiling", despite being crisp and fresh.  I piled in the leaves, and the character remained almost entirely unchanged - it was impossible to overbrew, such was (as I perceived it) the limitation of the leaves.

My journal had, after that first session, "I could drink this stable, fresh, crisp, and unchanging little red tea all day".

Taking pity on me, Mr. Essence sent me another sample - a much larger quantity, in fact.  He urged me to try it again.

It turned out that this charitable act was just what was needed.  It was an abject lesson in getting over oneself.  Yes, the leaves were very red.  Yes, there was a long distance to be covered between trees and processing location, giving time for oxidation.  All that is true.  Yet, the tea itself shines through its processing.  In the second and third sessions with this tea, it delivered a sweetness and charm that works slowly on the affections, winning you over such that, before you know it, you realise that you have thoroughly enjoyed the session.

What a curious experiment, and a lesson learned with thanks.

23 August, 2013

China Chadao Event: Epsilon, Zeta, and Eta

And then the last three samples came upon them, from the benevolence of China Chadao, and there was much rejoicing and heating of kettles.

Given your razor-sharp deductive powers, you will, Gentle Reader, undoubtedly surmise that I drank the first of these samples ("epsilon") out in the garden.  You may also recall that I received the samples in unanonymised format, and hence knew in advance to break out the shupu pot for this 2012 Douji "Phoenix Shupu".

I spent a happy afternoon under our willow tree, where the somewhat dodgy white-balance in the above photograph will also allow you to conclude that I had only my ipad available, instead of my trusty (and now rather reverend) Nikon.

The tea was fine.  It was a bit empty, and definitely "shupu", but it was fine.  I didn't give it a very fair shake of the dice, because the water I have available for brewing under the willow tree amounts to a vacuum flask filled with hot filtered water, rather than my usual tetsubin + spring water.  After a few infusions, it had worked whatever magic it was going to work.  I'm not convinced that Douji has really nailed shupu yet.

Back in the comfort of the house, I gave "zeta" its full hour in the sun.

As you will see from the leaves pictured above and below, this is unpressed maocha.  It is, according to Mr. Jerry, the 2011 Douji "Pashi" special maocha, which is not for sale.  There is a number of products that Douji distributors get as "specials", not for normal resale, and I suspect that this might be one of them.  I remember that these "specials" are indeed rather special.

I suspect that "Pashi" refers to Mengpashashan.  This has long, beautiful leaves and the sweet scent of fresh pu'ercha that makes it all worth while.

The soup is orange already, as shown above, and has the densely humid (almost liquorice-like) flavour of darkened 'Banna leaves.  It has plenty to keep my attention, and is smooth with a rounded texture that pads the mouth nicely.  There is a reasonable finish, although not much in the way of kuwei [good bitterness], which is something that I associate as being a danger with storing maocha: it can run out of steam very early.  The storage conditions imparted from the presumably South-China storage are homogenising but enjoyable.  "A touch generic.  A lot of caffeine - a lot!" I have noted in my journal for the day.

Finally, the "eta" sample...

The leaves have darkened already, and have, again, the scent of South Chinese storage: bookish, dark, and rich.  The leaves themselves are small and fragmented, as with many Douji cakes.

The warm, humid scent continues into the wenxiangbei [aroma cup], with a heavy orange soup that has aged well: bitterness remains, but it has filled out into a warm, broad base.  It feels "bottom heavy", which is a good thing for a pu'ercha, given that the base of the tea tends to age at the expense of the "top notes".

It has all the richness of a good 'Banna tea.  It is, in fact, the 2010 Douji "Youleshan" from their single-mountain range.  These are usually quite decent examples of their mountain, if typically rather pricey such that I stopped buying them around 2008-9.

With many thanks to Jerry for the fun set of samples, I hand the floor over to you, Gentle Reader, for a comparison with your own notes, if you have them.

Addendum: notes added to the 2009 Yunzhiyuan "Youle zhi Chun", pictured below.

21 August, 2013

Beijing Subway II

twenty people
ignoring one another
sway in unison

(written between Anzhenmen and Heixinxijie Nankou)

19 August, 2013

Battling the Elven Hordes

I used to read Tolkien when I was a teenager.  I played Warhammer.  I played Warhammer 40,000.  I played AD&D.  Yes, I owned a d20.  I had a range of model paints with colours such as "Chaos Black".

So, you can imagine my delight when a teafriend from Singapore by the name of Elvin came to write to me, sending a batch of extraordinarily tasty goods.  I imagine this particular teafriend with slightly pointed ears, moving stealthily through woodland groves, wearing a cloak of invisibility.  His chadao knife probably has the name "Grymthir" or "Orckiller".

Even the packets in which the samples arrived reminded me of lembas waybread from The Lord of the Rings...

"One small bite is enough to fill the stomach of a grown man."

"Red Dayi" 7532-208

These two particular teas were reliable stalwarts, to which I fled in terror following sessions with particular unpleasant young shengpu (which shall remain nameless).  In each case, Elvin's teas fortified me like lembas and reminded me that pu'ercha should be delicious.

7532 is a pretty-looking member of the Menghai family, in my opinion.  It has some glamour, and probably drives a car that is far too ostentatious.  As pictured above, the leaves tend towards the small-to-medium sizes.  When the warm water hits the leaves in the pots, it releases a scent which makes me recall the immortal words of  RZA, "That's how you know it's on."

Suddenly everything is good in the world, and the memory of the shockingly bad young shengpu from the previous sessions is instantly erased.

This warm and comforting classic has the spiced character of good tea, aged somewhere warm and humid.  Singapore is good for tea.  This particular example is solid, and imparts a vibrancy in the mouth which is entirely different to the immediate, gripping numbness of the pesticide-soaked shengpu that I just fought.

Every aged tea is an education.  Every data point demonstrates something new, and this is one of the (very many) reasons that I enjoy pu'ercha quite so much.  In this 7532, we have the residual deposits of its initially floral nature, retained in the nose, but tempered with time.  Evolution of personalities is a subject that I find infinitely fascinating, for it is something in which we each have a stake: whether they be the evolutions of our own characters, those of our sons, or those of our tea-cakes.

My journal page above may give you the hint that this tea was so good, in fact, that I had to spread it over two days: to abandon it after a single session, and not to return to it, seemed something of a sacrilegious act.

(Old) Dayi cakes are famously sturdy.  Even this eighth batch of 2002 (the "208") is fine indeed, suggesting that the stability of Dayi across multiple flushes is retained.  My general rule-of-thumb is to buy as close to the first batch as is available, given that the youngest (and usually strongest, most potent) leaves occur at the beginning of the year's production cycle.

That said, while it is woody, with a good base of solid pine, it rapidly requires longer end-to-end brews, whereby the next infusion sits in the pot while I enjoy the current infusion.

"Reliable" is Dayi's by-word.  While the price of more recent cakes has gone through the roof, they used to be very humble in pricing, and consequently worth keeping around on one's shelves.  Perhaps the prices will return from the stratosphere once market forces return to something resembling the "norm" over the past few years.

Following another shocking session with a to-remain-nameless young shengpu, I again turned to Elvin's sack of redemption.

This time, it was the 1997 7542 - as reliable as it gets.

Another day, another bag of lembas, pictured above.

7542 is not pretty.  It was, dare I say, smacked with the Ugly Stick when it was young.  However, it tends to age nicely, given its youthful vigour, and we can all hope for such forgiveness of our difficulties as we age.

Examining the photographs of the leaves, above, you will be able to guess their approximate age directly from the colour.  Unsurprisingly, the mineral humidity of Singaporean storage hangs about them, promising good brews ahead.

The dense aroma of that tea-scent that I seem to map onto the word "vanilla" is all over this pu'ercha.  In contrast to the 208 described above, this 7542 has plenty of staying power, and its duration suggests that it has been stored well for its 16 years.

The body is as smooth as one would hope, conveying plenty of substance - the mark of, in my opinion, a tea that has something to say.  "Gentle confidence", I have in my journal, pictured below, which is a fine characteristic indeed.  This tea has mellowed with the years, but has a spine of iron.

"The red-orange soup tastes like liquid rosewood, as if I had somehow found a means of brewing the teatable itself."

The dense vanilla sweetness, with the scents of mineral sharpness, grants me the comfort I seek.

"This is tasty!  Tasty!"

My dear wife seems to like this one, and I can only agree with her enthusiasm.

We both raise a cup to Elvin and his charming gifts.

May, 2015

Deeply satisfying, this is the scent of "real tea".  It fill the throat, and stays there, with heavy rosewood sweetness.  It is not complex in original flavour, but age has made it so.  The orange-red soup brings a sense of peace.  What more would one require of a tea?

16 August, 2013

China Chadao Event: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta

Today it is time for Douji, a.k.a. "The Douj" or "El Doujerino" where it has come to my attention that I should emphasise that the pronunciation of this brand is "DOH GEE", and not "DOO-GEE" as I recently heard to comic effect.  Chinese is not a friendly language, but it is at least predictable and largely unambiguous.  Yes, I still suck significantly (p < 0.05) when it comes to communication in Zhonglish.

With whopping great big piles of thanks to Mr. Jerry of China Chadao, this is the first half of a two-part tasting event.  As with other recent events, I ordered my "inbox" and invited the first dozen souls to be participants.  As before, if you, Gentle Reader, are one of those souls and happen to have found time to try the samples, please do append your comment below.  If you have not found time, then, as always, fret not and enjoy them in your own time.  This is tea, after all.

The first thing that you will observe from the above photograph is that I was sent the original, unanonymised versions of these teas.  Therefore, I am at a very slight advantage when it comes to guessing the origin of these samples.

We can also see that this "alpha" sample is none other than the weeny little Xiangdou [fragrant-Dou(ji)] brick.  This is, traditionally, the least expensive of the Douji house blends, comprising maocha from Bulangshan (trousers), Menghai (darkness), and Manlushan (heaven knows - it is the Mengsong region of Menghai).

Douji does a nice range of "travel" teas, weirdly enough.  For example, what should ordinarily be expected to be a crime against the senses, the Xiaojinzhuan [little golden brick] turned out to be really rather nice, despite being packaged as a series of "chocolate bar" squares.  These little bricks are, likewise, often very drinkable.

It will be no surprise that the brick has suffered, in the usual manner of bricks (pictured above), from compaction and fragmentation - but such is the way of the brick.

The Xiangdou is deliciously sweet in its rugged, slightly rough way.  It is a very decent baseline blend, demonstrating that an interesting patchwork can be created by careful selection of humble plantation leaves.

This Xiangdou is yellow, strong, sweet, and, as the name suggests, fragrant.  I enjoy the heavy, dark-green Menghai base, the Bulangshan potency, and perhaps the sweet fragrance may be assigned to the remaining component in the blend: the Manlusha leaves.  It is a mainstream, but most enjoyable, creation.  By the fifth infusion, it is extremely ordinary, if it is possible to be ordinary in the extreme.

Working our way up the Douji food-chain...

The "Shangdou" could be roughly translated as "upper Dou(ji)", in the sense of a superior grade.  Though there is nothing in the above photograph for scale, you can see that the weight (100g) makes this a xiaobing - it is actually rather tiny, although a wee bit bigger than the 75g brick shown previously.

Getting into your average Douji cake is like breaking into Fort Knox.  You can't do it without significant collateral damage; in this case, it means shredding the wrapper while the big sticker (shown above) clings on for dear life.  I have a lot of shredded Douji wrappers knocking around.

This "beta" sample looks really rather good, as you might agree from the photographs above and below.  I could take a bite out of those dark, pretty, large leaves.  There is a sweet grain-like aroma that promises much.

The presence of the granary-sweet scent of the dry leaves is explained when we find out that the blend contains general "Simao" leaves as well as Mengku-region leaves, in addition to the standard Douji base of general "Menghai" leaves.

This generic (and charming) Simao / Lincang character continues into the aroma of the wet leaves.  It has a husky Simao flavour that is very satisfying, and which reminds me of some of the recent Yunnan Sourcing blends that I have enjoyed so much.  There is some kuwei [good bitterness], but it remains, at heart, a mainstream tea.  After four infusions, it has descended into standard green territory.

One step up the hierarchy comes the Dadou...

You know, by now, what to expect from the derriere of the cake; I leave you to imagine my helpless screams as I attempt to gain ingress.

This "gamma" sample is, as with many Douji cakes, very "easy on the eye":

The fragmented leaves have the sweet-green scent of 'Banna proper.  The blend contains leaves from Manzhuan, Mengsong, and Youleshan, and so we are well embedded within the canonical tea area for this blend.

This is sweet and vivid, and I likes me it. Yes, it is plantation tea, but it manages pleasing hints of a tobacco base, with the evident darkness of Old 'Banna.  It is a remarkably stable blend, not falling apart in any manner, which reminds of the skill of those generations of master blends responsible for the usual "English Breakfast" that my fellow Englishmen consume by the gallon, in the sense that it is utterly unchanging in its blend, with a consistency that is very difficult to achieve (as a blender).  I totally love English Breakfast, by the way, despite it not being English, nor much to do with breakfast.

This is cake that is also very enjoyable when young or old, as will be seen in a moment...

"Thunder peals; I smile and drink my straightforward Dadou in peace."

The image below comes from my first encounter with Douji's common range of lower blends: a 2008 brick of Hongdadou.  (Recall that, while most of these are the "red" blends - Hong - there sometimes may be found the "blue" blends - Lan - which are more potent, and aimed at storage.)

The "delta" sample is none other than the very same 2008 Hongdadou, provided by Jerry as a comparator for the 2012 "gamma".  The amusing thing is, I can remember that session with the 2008 brick vividly - such are the mysteries of "flavour memory".

This cake has picked up the "south China" storage effect, which is pleasant - but perhaps a touch ubiquitous.  If you've tried one mainstream 'Banna cake aged in south China, you can probably guess how this one turns out.

A core of sweetness remains in this tea, among all that malty redness that one would expect, but I am pleasantly surprised to find that some of the "creamy" sensation of the original 2008 brick, and which I can remember so clearly to this day, remains in the leaves.  It is clean and fresh, if perhaps underpowered.

This makes for an interesting comparison with my own 2008 Dadou, which is much less "red malt" and much more "sharp pine".  Both genres are very pleasant to me, but I must confess to being slightly more in love with the drier version (stored here in England) than this "delta" version - it feels as if the core has been burned out of the latter, while mine still retains some energy.  As always, different strokes for different folks.

Thanks again to Mr. Jerry for the opportunity to get reacquainted with these constant and pleasing blends.