this order was my first interaction with teafountain. in the ordering process, i had a couple of phone conversations with Rover, its proprietor, and i found him personable, polite, and very efficient. he also knows his stuff -- i think he said it's 30 years now that he has been purveying tea. he also mentioned that he has merchants onsite [in asia] whom he depends upon to source the best teas; they send him [many] samples from which he chooses for his catalogue. my parcel was sent quickly and packed carefully. the teas arrived packed beautifully in small cylindrical metal canisters. the client-side service was excellent.
now, about the tea itself.
first some general observations. my sense of dian hong ranking -- i am speaking here in the very broadest terms -- is that the higher the proportion of bud to leaf, the higher the echelon [and cost]. i presume the proportions are measured and mixed by weight when the teas are being batched. based on this scale of proportions, tea-producers in yunnan itself will sometimes offer 10 or 12 'grades' of dian hong [i am using the word 'grade' here in the sense of quality -- not in its technical professional sense of leaf-size]. the top grade of dian hong should be composed, then, of pretty much all bud; the color of the dry leaf in such case will be much more tawny than black.
based on these specific criteria, teafountain's 'golden monkey' offering is at or near that top echelon. the front label of their item #1059 reads: 'prime china black tea. yunnan golden monkey highland superior thea sinensis. briskly fired golden needle tippy variety.' in particular, the terms 'golden monkey' [黄毛猴 'huang mao hou,' like its synonym 猴子采 'hou zi cai' or 'monkey-picked'] and 'golden needle' [金针 'jin zhen,' a variant of 金丝 'jin si' or 'golden thread'] are meant to signal that the mix is of extraordinary quality, specifically because it has an extremely high proportion of bud. indeed the back label states: 'ingredients: delicate whole leaf black tea with golden tips from the yunnan province in south china.'
we might reasonably infer, from the phrase 'with golden tips,' that the proportion of bud, while high, is not at 100%. but in the case of teafountain's #1059, inspection of the infused leaf reveals that the mix is basically all bud.
in virtually every such high-end dian hong that you are likely to encounter, any non-bud leaf that is included will be approximately the same length as the bud. this uniformity helps, in and of itself, to produce a dry leaf that is visually pleasing. non-bud leaf is also likely to be smaller rather than larger in size.
now: when we say 'smaller in size,' how far down the branch are we talking? this may qualify as an actual trade secret; i don't know. but veteran brewers of dian hong admonish that the boldest leaf [souchong or larger] is likely to produce a somewhat bitter brew. i have noticed that even premium dian hongs that have a relatively lower proportion of tips [such as upton tea's 'organic yunnan select dao ming'] tend toward the smaller-sized leaf. a very small percentage of what's here in the teafountain tea may actually be first leaf and not bud, but i cannot imagine, after careful visual inspection, that they have gone further down the branch than that.
in view of all this, what are the criteria of excellence one might seek in such an elite hong cha? that topic has been the burden of many of holly's essays on the 'yunnan quest,' at CHA DAO and on various e-lists; and also of geraldo's recent congou ranking on the 'tea-disc' e-list. perhaps [as with, say, human beauty] there is no single set of criteria that will satisfy all of us. but we can at least begin to sketch out the contours of such a set, according to the information we receive via the sensory manifold. as a rough beginning, one might propose the following:
SIGHT: as much gold as possible, indicating high proportion of bud/tips. [vendors sometimes refer to the 'plumpness' or 'fatness' of these buds as an index of quality; is there any biochemical or botanical validity to this, or is it purely a visual aesthetic?] *** i have also noticed, though not across the board, that some of my most delicious dian hongs come lavishly powdered in a golden dust. whether this is some residue of the blossoms' pollen, or the crumbling off of the downy 'hairs' [毛 'mao'] of the tiny leaves and tips -- or some combination of the two -- i do not know. but a tea that is especially rich in such dust is often the most rich and layered in its flavor profile. *** and, a' propos, one can tell as one decants the brewed liquor of such tea that it tends to be somewhat cloudy, rather than entirely clear. for several centuries at least, a china tea's quality has [partly] been gauged in direct proportion to its clarity; but in this case i am inclined to posit an inverse proportion instead. the chinese will also speak of a tea's 口感 'kou gan,' i.e. 'mouth feel,' noting that a tea may seem 'thick' or 'thin' in the mouth; the suspension of a dust like this in the liquor need not be the only source of such a perception of density, but it is certainly one ready and obvious cause of it.
SMELL [of dry leaf]: a pungent, rich dian hong aroma. [by contrast, some other very high-grade teas, especially pu'ers, have little or no aroma in the dry leaf. but that strikes me as anomalous, as taste and smell are so closely linked physiologically. i would not be surprised to learn that presence or absence of aroma in the dry leaf is directly proportional to the moisture content of the leaf.]
TOUCH: i have noticed in some very delectable dian hongs that the dry leaf is unusually 'pillowy' or springy to the touch. some other very high-grade teas will feel much more dry or solid -- even brittle.] whether this is, however, an actual index of quality also remains to be investigated.
TASTE: ay, there's the rub. see below.
we live with [and via] our five senses all day, every day. that very constancy fools us into thinking that the sensory information we take in and process is ordinary and therefore simple. it is only when one attempts to describe one's sensory intake that one realizes how difficult and subtle a task this is. meditation on this realization has led the spiritually-minded to see 'splendor in the ordinary' [to borrow thomas howard's felicitous phrase]. but the problem -- the difficulty -- remains. that said, i will try to talk about my subjective experience of tasting.
what's surprising to me about this year's crop, at least, of top-echelon dian hong -- i.e. those teas that are 100% bud, or nearly 100% -- is that they are all, regardless of vendor, less dramatic in taste than those that include a small [i.e. very small, even tiny] amount of [non-bud] leaf in them. tea-fountain's #1059, being basically all bud, is no exception in this regard: it is supremely delicate and nuanced in its flavors -- the flavors it does have -- but it does not seem to have as much complexity to the taste as the top-echelon dian hongs that have impressed me in the past.
the fact that i have noticed this in the comparable tea of other vendors -- including the extremely pricey 'imperial yunnan gold' from ITC, the getting-more-expensive 'royal yunnan' from IPOT, the more moderately-priced 'jin-si golden tips' from hou de fine teas, and the even more affordable 'yunnan pure small bud black tea' from YSLLC -- leads me to wonder whether it may be a reflection of the 2006 harvest. too much rain? too little sun? or vice versa? some newly-popular quirk of production? surely not all of these dian hongs are being grown or processed by one single plantation or tea company. and yet they do seem to share this striking characteristic -- call it a demureness or tentativeness of flavor. what is to be done about this? add more leaf to the bud, in tiny proportions, to ramp up the flavor as much as possible without provoking bitterness? that seems to be the case with YSLLC's 'premium yunnan black gold' dian hong. this is somewhat less expensive than the 'pure small bud' grade, but [at least in its recent iterations] it seems to me to be much more complex in its flavor.
speaking of provenance, particular harvest year, etc: i am grateful to scott wilson of YSLLC for labeling his 'premium yunnan black gold' as 'fall 2005 tea -- aged just enough.' mike petro has already called for more explicit reportage of this sort in advertisements of pu'er cha, and i cannot think of any tea type for which more documentation of this sort would not be welcome. in the indian and ceylon traditions, we are already regularly told the name of the estate [and sometimes even the particular flush] from which a packet of premium tea comes, along with its 'grade' or leaf-size; so too with some oolongs and pu'ers we will often be told the name of the 山 ['shan' or mountain] on which the leaves are grown. but in the case of china hong cha, we are very rarely provided such information -- beyond some general indication from the name of the tea itself [e.g. 'dian hong' is from yunnan province, anciently known as dian; keemun, i.e. 'qimen hong' or 'qihong,' is grown in the qimen precinct of anhui province; etc]. scott wilson is once again the partial exception to this rule: in the case of his 'yunnan pure small bud black tea,' he lets us know that this high-end dian hong is 'created from highest grade small bud Simao spring season tea.' we have to bear in mind that really detailed information about provenance may not even be readily available to the vendor in some cases, but again, i am sure most purchasers would be grateful to have it -- as much of it as is available.
you will note the word 'highland' in the label information for teafountain's #1059; this may well be a translation of 高山 ['gao shan' or 'high mountain'], a term we generally associate with premium oolongs. and of course the best darjeelings are grown at high elevations as well. the indian 'black' tea [~ hong cha] that is grown at a somewhat lower elevation is assam; the 'highland' designation in the teafountain label is thus the more interesting, for these dian hongs, like pu'er cha, are produced from the assamica cultivar, not c. sinensis var. sinensis. in any case, with this word 'highland' we are a step closer to some awareness of what french wine-makers would call terroir. but for a really comprehensive evaluation of what is alike and different about these various dian hongs, one will absolutely have to have much more extensive information about the provenance and harvesting of each. ideally also about the process whereby it is produced; but the most intimate details of that are likely to remain proprietary in the majority of cases. we can hardly blame tea producers for that, can we?