Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Shape-Shifter: Anodyne on the Many Tastes of Golden Yunnan

EDITOR'S NOTE: The assamica cultivar indigenous to Yunnan (or 'Dian' as it was anciently known) produces what many tea-drinkers consider the ne plus ultra of red teas (hong cha, what the English tradition knows as 'black' teas). It is especially prized when brewed from leaf containing a high proportion of tips. A particularly exquisite version of this tea is produced, necessarily in relatively small quantities each harvest, from all Dian Hong tips. (And although Dian is traditionally saluted as the birthplace of tea, this all-tips hong cha is relatively a very recent invention, dating only from the 1930s. Since that time it has become a favorite gift for the Chinese to give to kings, presidents, and other heads of state -- an infallible index of its value and rarity, reminiscent of the 'tribute teas' sent to the Emperor.)Because the processing turns these tips a dusky gold color -- ranging from dun to khaki to sandy yellow -- this top-grade Dian Hong is sometimes known as Yunnan Gold or Golden Yunnan. Other labels, intended to signal its rich and rare status, include such terms as Royal, Imperial, Pure Gold, Monkey-Picked, Premium, Tippy, Golden Thread, and so forth.Like all teas, this top-grade Dian Hong varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, from year to year, and even from harvest to harvest (there will be two or three harvests of it in a year's time). Those who hope for a stable unchanging taste profile are bound for disappointment; but our intrepid Anodyne, who has guided us ere now through the Dian Hong maze, now offers us a key to understanding the broad spectrum of flavors this remarkable tea can assume. To that end, this review gathers taste profiles from several different premium Dian Hongs now or recently available:
• Tribute Tea's "Yunnan Gold Bud" (two lots)
• In Pursuit of Tea's "Royal Yunnan" (several lots)
• Silk Road Teas's "High Grade Yunnan Gold" (two lots)
• Yunnan Sourcing LLC's "Premium Yunnan Black Gold" (Fall 2005)
• Yunnan Sourcing LLC's "Yunnan Premium Gold Tips Black Tea" (Spring 2006)
• Yunnan Sourcing LLC's "Jiu Wan Black Gold Compressed Black Tea Cake" (2005)

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I have referred to the ongoing search for a particular flavor and aroma profile in a golden Yunnan as being that quest for the Holy Grail, or perhaps akin to Ahab's obsession with the white whale. Teas most certainly do change lot to lot, season to season, order to order, cup to cup--and that's a given. But golden Yunnan seems even more reluctant to be pinned down than some teas. Like Thetis -- the beautiful sea-goddess of ancient Greek mythology -- attempting to escape the embraces of Peleus, Yunnan is adept at shape-shifting.

The story goes that Peleus, King of Phthia, was given some tips on how to subdue Thetis to her original form and win her as his bride. In some sources it was Proteus, a shape-changer himself, who gave Peleus advice. Other sources credit the Centaur Chiron. But whoever the advisor, Peleus was successful in his quest. Finding Thetis in a cave, he held her close no matter what shape the sea-nymph took as she moved in rapid succession from shapes such as bird, tree, or tigress. She finally gave up and shifted back to her original form, acknowledging that Peleus would not have been able to subdue her except by having a god as ally.

Just as Thetis could change into distinctly different shapes and forms, a golden Yunnan's aroma and taste profile will change radically enough to sometimes make you think you're drinking an entirely different tea. First of all there are the youthful golden Yunnan teas which focus on that ethereal honey and "orchid" floral range. They may have the appeal of being fresh tasting and youthful, but if you're looking for depth, you won't find it here.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from youthful are the golden Yunnans I have referred to (borrowing a term from Tolkien) as “Woodwosian.” These golden Yunnan teas forego the fresh floral and honey profile and sink into old forest darkness with a sweet-woody-fruity and sometimes malty-earthy depth. Their sweetness contains the sappy tang of Forest Honey, reminiscent of molasses.

In times past, I have often referred to a mocha-like Yunnan with velvety maple sweetness. This was the Yunnan that had depth and body, a brown velvet cloak type experience. A few of us seem to remember a spicy Yunnan that is harder now to come by. I have even begun to wonder if the peppery note was associated with astringency and was a sensation on the tongue more than an actual taste. But I still do seem to remember Yunnan teas with spicy notes that could be peppery but could also have a clove-like spiciness to them. I have further pondered if these flavors were more prevalent in the Yunnan teas that were more a mix of black and gold rather than some of the more predominantly gold Yunnans we see now. Whatever the reason, the spicy Yunnan, at least as I seem to remember it, is a shape-change I've not recently seen come back to its original form.

In the middle we seem to have a lot of the vin de table golden Yunnan. Those "quaffable but not transcendent" Yunnans (to borrow a phrase from the movie Sideways). This kind of golden Yunnan has some level of sweetness in the aroma, but mostly falls out along the lines of dominant but clean earth and smoky aromas and flavors. This sweetness may or may not make it into the cup. Smoky notes may or may not move toward savory, a hint of smoky-sweet ham or bacon rind.

There is also the earthy/smoky golden Yunnan that moves toward leathery notes. I've had more purely malty golden Yunnans as well as ones with an almost cedary note in the cup.

Sweetness in the golden Yunnan teas seems to range from floral honey to maple (light and dark) to dark Forest Honey (and almost molasses type taste) to a sweetness I associate with a meaty baked ham or the sweetness of wood smoke. The sweetness I sometimes experience as maple is reminiscent of a March walk at the local nature center during sugaring time. The aroma is a combination of the sweetness of sap being boiled down into syrup, a faint hint of wood smoke, and a whiff of emerging earth.

Further down the scale, is the Yunnan which is predominantly earthy but not such a clean drinker. It has a slight muddiness on the palate, the earth almost seeming to cling to the teeth. And even further down a rung on the Yunnan ladder is the flatly earthy Yunnan which has an unpleasant metallic edge to the earth, a "tang" that is connected to a very high level of astringency. It can actually make the stomach hurt.

Of late, I have finally had a chance to sit down with the Tribute Tea Yunnan Gold Bud that I bought back in August/Sept 2006 and a cup of the newer Tribute Tea Yunnan Gold Bud purchased in October 2006; call these Old Lot (OL) and New Lot (NL) respectively. Cindy W. alerted me that in that interval, the previous tea was gone and replaced by a new lot. Sniffing the brewing leaf of each confirms a difference.

The OL has come the closest to that beloved In Pursuit of Tea (IPOT) Royal Yunnan that kept me company much of 2005. I parted ways with this tea in January of 2006 when it changed rather drastically, and have not yet sampled it again, so I don't know what the IPOT one is currently doing. At some point I do plan to taste this one again, as for awhile, it was such a favorite of mine. The IPOT Royal Yunnan (thru much of 2005) is the tea I referred to as "Woodwose"; the August/Sept 2006 Yunnan Gold Bud from Tribute Tea had some of the same characteristics: a darker more rustic profile with a fruity-woody-sappy note and hint of dark Forest Honey (which has a hint of that molasses "tang").

For a very brief time, as I discovered from an order I made in July 2006, the Silk Road Teas High Grade Yunnan Gold carried hints of this "Woodwose" style of Yunnan. That changed very dramatically in their lot #CDO (August 2006 purchase), a Yunnan tea that has none of the old forest style but is a youthful Yunnan focusing on lighter aromas/flavors of floral and honey.

As they are steeping, the Tribute Tea OL carries forward more of that dark rustic scent, a sappier edge that reflects that slight molasses "tang" of Forest Honey that I find in the taste profile. The NL has some similar aroma but comes forward with less rustic edge, still very sweet and a bit smoother.

Once the leaf is removed, you really note how the OL comes forward with the sweet-woody aroma. That is not quite as pronounced in the NL, though it still retains the dark "old forest" type of character. The NL is decidedly not one of those youthful profile Yunnans that are all about honey and floral. The latter can be rather pleasing in its own right (when the balance is right, meaning right for my own tastes), but it's just not what I first look for in a Yunnan tea experience.

The Tribute Tea NL has veered a bit off the path from the OL that I quite liked, but not enough so that I am hollering "what happened to it?" They do have similar profiles, what I think of as a dark forest or old forest or Woodwosian taste.

The aroma of the NL is very sweet and rich, carrying that hint of Forest Honey and even some maple notes. The OL has the sappier aroma and a woodier rustic edge. The OL produces a more rustic and darker flavor in the cup, I think. Kind of a woody/cocoa/malty/earthy thing going on. The NL is a bit smoother (less of that sappy "tang") but also not quite as dark or deep.

Again, I tend to think of these two teas in terms of the forest. The OL takes you much more deeply into the forest, that section of forest where the trees totally over-canopy and block out the sky. The NL is a section of forest that isn't quite as over-canopied. A little sun occasionally peeks through and gives the forest floor a different aroma. Sun-warmed bark and earth versus shaded earth.

As to which one is better, I suppose it depends on what you're looking for. That sweet-woody/malty rustic edge might be pleasing to some and less so to others. This is not an inexpensive tea, and so it greatly depends on what one is looking to find in a Yunnan tea and willing/able to spend. I find this still hovering more closely to what I personally favored in the IPOT Royal Yunnan during much of 2005 but have had trouble finding since.

Both of the aforementioned teas are in contrast to two samples (shared with me via a friend, not purchased directly from source) of Yunnan Sourcing LLC's Premium 2005 Black Gold Yunnan (purchased by sender in Sept 2006) and their Yunnan Premium Gold Tips Black Tea, Spring 2006.

The 2005 Yunnan Sourcing LLC Black Gold Yunnan has some definite earth (hint of smoke) in aroma and taste, which is somewhat balanced out with a malty sweetness in aroma and in the cup itself which still renders a dominant note of earth. Just slightly muddy, in that the earth coats the palate and becomes the dominant note in the finish. On a second tasting, the 2005 Black Gold Yunnan really exudes some smoke and dominant earth. It's rustic in style, but not in the same way that I define the rustic or old forest character of the Tribute Tea's Golden Bud Yunnan. The Yunnan Sourcing LLC doesn't at all have the woody-fruity range (or the Forest Honey note) that makes a Yunnan tea say old forest or dark forest to me. This Yunnan Sourcing LLC tea is more what I tend to often find in Yunnan teas, a bit heavy on earth and smoky notes, and often exuding a slightly savory (and sometimes leathery) note as well. Drinkable. I can enjoy it, but it's not the Holy Grail, not the White Whale Yunnan experience. Third tasting: this is definitely a Yunnan focused on smoke/earth, a nod toward savory but without the strong savory component of the Jiu Wan Compressed Black Gold Yunnan (also from Yunnan Sourcing LLC). It has a light sweetness but it's more the sweetness of wood smoke than a floral or honey or maple sweetness. I did find that decreasing leaf amount made it drink cleaner (though still earthy/smoky) and less muddy on the palate.

The Spring 2006 Premium Gold Tips Yunnan (also from Yunnan Sourcing LLC) has, as I expected, a very youthful profile, much more in keeping with the Silk Road Tea Yunnan High Grade #CDO style (August 2006 purchase) with focus on orchid/honey.

The honey/floral is very predominant in the Yunnan Sourcing LLC Spring 2006 Premium Gold Tips Yunnan. And those flavors do meander into the cup. And yet this one doesn't get as astringent as some of the more youthful profiled Yunnans do. Some of the ones higher in orchid notes pack more pungency. This one is smoother than you might expect which is nice. You detect some deeper notes in the cup, just a hint of something "bass" that grounds it, which I think is that combo of very light earth/malty. I can imagine that an autumn leaf toasty aroma comes up against the floral/orchid, but maybe I just have autumn on the brain.

We were nibbling some pumpkin bread after we tasted the teas (the pumpkin bread I made with Yunnan tea in it in lieu of water), and the pumpkin bread totally killed the youthful 2006 Yunnan as expected. For me, these youthful golden Yunnan teas are a solo drinking Yunnan, not ones that I'd pair with food. The 2005 Black Gold actually was rather nice with the pumpkin bread since the earthy notes in the tea underscored the flavors in the pumpkin bread quite well. And it was even nicer with a DARE maple sandwich cookie, as the maple sweet of the cookie enhanced the notes in the tea--the earth/smoke/slightly savory notes were well met by a stronger presence of maple sweetness. In essence, the cookie added to the tea something I'd like to be there inherent in the leaf itself, in a much more subtle way.

Since I have two rather youthful tasting golden Yunnan teas on hand, I am now tasting the Yunnan Sourcing LLC Spring 2006 Premium Gold Tips with the Silk Road Teas (August 2006 purchase) Yunnan High Grade, lot labeled #CDO, hereafter referred to as YSLLC and SRT.

As noted, both show that youthful fresh Yunnan profile with sweet notes I associate with floral and honey. Though today, as I upped the leaf amount from previous brewing attempts, the SRT carried forward distinct maple notes as well. There is, perhaps, a touch more "bass" in the SRT one, a hint of malt in the aroma to go with the floral notes--both malt and floral find their way into the cup as well. YSLLC has the fresh floral/honey character and drinks with a touch less "bass" than the SRT one. The SRT carries a slightly heavier body in comparison. The overall floral is higher in the YSLLC one, and yet unlike some teas with high floral notes, it doesn't become too pungent and remains smooth.

As to golden Yunnan, she is indeed a mistress of many shapes and forms. Having held onto golden Yunnan through many different shapes, I expect -- like Peleus with Thetis -- to continue to hang on, waiting for the eventual transformation back to that certain beloved profile.

"… though she takes
a hundred lying shapes, hold fast, be firm
until she has regained her own true form."
(-- Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book 11, transl. Allen Mandelbaum)

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Sources for teas mentioned:
Silk Road Teas
Tribute Tea
In Pursuit of Tea
Yunnan Sourcing, LLC


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the article. I have tried a pure Yunnan Gold and one mixed with non-gold tea. The pure Yunnan Gold was quite enjoyable, and I think I'll try them from the vendors you mentioned.

I had a question on your brewing of this tea. What sort of parameters do you use? I have only done the English method on my hong chas. I assume you using boiling water. What sort of infusion times do you use? (I'm already familiar with "gongfu" style)

anodyne said...

I also tend to use the English method mostly on these golden Yunnans. My standard brewing time is usually 4 minutes, and I tend to use 1-2 heaping tsp if brewing by the cup. For the ones that have that "youthful" profile, I might shave off some brewing time as they tend to get more pungent. And yes, I've mostly used boiling water. I don't tend to fuss much with specific parameters on most of these golden Yunnans, I fear.

The pure golden Yunnans seem to tolerate longer brewing times and more tea in proportion to the water--for my own tastes, I mean. The Yunnans that have more a mix of gold and black I shave off tea amount and perhaps some brewing time, too.

Once in a great while I'll increase leaf amount slightly and decrease to 3 minutes. Just depends on the profile of the individual tea. But I've not done too much with short multiple steeping of golden Yunnan as some do.

I've been told that I tend to brew teas more "strong" than other palates prefer, so I'd guess that had better be taken into consideration.

Excuse delay in replying. I don't get notice (except via the ever-watchful corax :-) when someone adds a comment.