Monday, December 19, 2005

Geraldo on Dian Hongs Cup2Cup: Yunnan Gold from Adagio and from Silk Road Teas

[from an email to corax. posted by permission.]

To learn about tea I sometimes go on jags. If Japanese sencha is an undiscovered country, I am apt to buy small parcels from ten sources to learn a little of the breadth and scope of it. Recently I hunted down every tea I could find that traveled under the name of Makaibari Silver Tips, and I had parcels arriving from three different countries. From experiences like these I have learned that a dozen teas sharing the same name are not necessarily similar.

I took an interest recently in the fact that my friends Mike and corax like certain black teas -- what the Chinese call hong cha or "red tea," and particularly Dian Hong, or Yunnan red. Of Dian Hongs, the absolute finest is that made entirely of golden tips, and typically known as Tippy Yunnan, or Yunnan Gold.

On a tea forum, I asked posters to share their favorite sources and preferred parameters for brewing Gold Yunnan. Further, I begged, bought, and borrowed many samples from generous friends with whom I often rendezvous in a virtual Shambhala teahouse, The House of Three Dragons and One Crane. Over virtual dim sum and sticky rice balls, we talked Dian Hong and tried many brands. In the meantime, back in reality, several forum members responded to my inquiry. One knowledgeable person sang the praise of Dian Hong from a surprising source: Adagio Tea. I had not made a purchase from Adagio in five years, but emboldened by the recommendation, I ordered four ounces.

Of all the Dian Hongs I tried (Yunnan Gold from at least fifteen sources), Adagio's was best. It is spectacularly golden in color. It releases an intoxicating and pungent aroma in the dry leaf. It brews up thick and tasty and luscious, carrying that great Yunnan trademark flavor. And the happiest aspect? It’s inexpensive! Many sources provided excellent Dian Hongs, but Adagio’s is superior. And the other sources' Dian Hongs are sometimes so expensive that the imp who resides in my wallet and protects my meager cash supply whimpers and squeals as I press the “Add to Shopping Cart” button on my internet screen.

I have learned that price often predicts quality in tea, but not always, and especially not always in Dian Hong. For example, the most expensive, from Seattle’s Black Pearl Teashop, did not compare favorably to the less expensive and wonderful versions from Meru and Upton. Yunnan Sourcing LLC also provides excellent Dian Hong, but one must pay for the overseas shipping and hold one’s breath on SAL.

Recently I traveled to Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and The People’s Republic of China to meet my pen pals, burn under the tropical sun, and pursue my obsession with tea. I took along no tea from home, deciding that would be like carrying coals to Newcastle.

In exotic Malaysia, on the mysterious island of Penang, in the chaotic city of George, I came across a teashop that stocked a fascinating canister with many Chinese characters and these words in English: “Dian Hong.” I bought it. And in my hotels, after long days gulping gallons of Wuyi, Dancong, Tong Ting, Li Shan, Ali Shan, aged and young sheng and shu pu’er, and many other teas, I retreated to that Dian Hong for one last cup before passing out at night. In the mornings, prior to setting forth into the huge tea districts of gargantuan cities, I would turn to the Dian Hong from Malaysia for my first tea of the day. The canister held the perfect amount for my one-month sojourn. I nearly finished it by the end of my adventure in Asia, and came home with just enough to send a small sample to corax. He is quite elderly, you know, and I like to show him some respect.

When I returned to my home, I received in the mail four ounces of Silk Road Tea’s Yunnan Gold, High Grade (Item #B-YG-2). I doubted that it would stand up to my favorite (and far less expensive) Adagio's Gold Yunnan. My gustatory and olfactory memories are not as developed as I would like, so to compare them, I knew that I would have to drink both in one session.

My partner in this comparison was my octogenarian mother who lives next door. In her kitchen I prepared a batch of each purveyor’s Dian Hong -- employing vessels and procedures as identical as I could make them. I used twin glass brewing vessels, twin sharing pitchers, and four identical cups.

For this comparison, I employed classical Petro-vian hong cha brewing parameters, to wit: four grams of tea, seven ounces of water at a roaring boil, and three minutes of infusion.

In the dry state, as noted above, the Adagio is bright gold, with large leaves in twisted strands, very similar in appearance to cigarette tobacco. Also as noted, it is pungent, almost smoky. By comparison, Silk Road Tea's version is comprised half of green and half of yellow leaves. I presumed that this boded ill for the comparison. SRT’s Gold Yunnan’s aroma is less pungent, but it is winy and more complex.

In the cup, they are identical in color -- a deep, intoxicating brown. The aroma of the liquors followed suit, respectively, to the aroma of the dry leaves. They were both incredibly inviting.

I told Mumsy that one cup held an outstanding but inexpensive Gold Yunnan, the best I had found in my research. I told her that the other cup held an expensive Gold Yunnan from a highly reputed importer of world-class tea, a Gold Yunnan I had not tried. I asked her which of the two was the most expensive. She instantly identified Silk Road Tea’s Gold Yunnan. Mumsy said that it has more character, more flavors, and more strength. She said it has a better and longer aftertaste--as well as more authority. And Mumsy’s right. While both are truly excellent, Silk Road Tea’s is a better beverage.

For those wanting a remarkable Gold Yunnan at a very good price in comparison to many on the market, I would recommend Adagio’s. But for those willing to pay more for the actual top-drawer tea of this ilk, then Silk Road Tea’s Gold Yunnan is the best pick. Of the many I have tried, SRT’s is the best of the best.

Tonight, in The House of Three Dragons and One Crane, I sat with one of my cronies and described the Malaysian Dian Hong as we chewed dried orange peels, nibbled tea eggs, and spooned up our pu'er gelatin. He told me that in the physical world he lives not far from the Malaysian Peninsula, and that he'll call the Penang shop on the phone and persuade the shopkeeper to send me another canister or two. If that works out, then I'll put Mumsy's discriminating abilities to the test once more and share with you the result of my next Cup2Cup comparison.

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