Monday, May 28, 2007

Filling in the (Green) Spaces

[[EDITOR'S NOTE: This memorandum from Geraldo was furnished to CHA DAO at my special request, as I knew he had been surveying the field of lu cha for some time now. With his customary enthusiasm, he has begun to get a sense of the lie of the land. With his customary generosity, he shares his findings with us here.]]

Friends tell me I pursue tea with abnormal fervor. They even evoke “insatiable.” In the early days of my enthusiasm, I hunted tea from India and smaller countries in that huge region. Next, for a long while, I preferred Keemun. During one lengthy interval, I convinced myself that Taiwan’s Oolong was superior to any other tea. As my friends attest, I keep a special area in my heart for Pu’er, and I have explored the exotic realms of Heicha. I dote on Chinese Oolongs (loving in particular Dancong and Wuyi). Since 2004, I’ve been hopelessly hooked on Sencha and its expensive cousin, Matcha. Further, I have endeavored to learn through experience all I can of Hongcha. Often I kick against the daily impediments that rise like mountains between me and the tea I want to brew and drink, impediments such as a career, family, writing, motorcycles, reading, gardening, sleep, eating, the cinema, and insufficient hours in a day. But one vast region of tea escaped me thus far: Chinese Lucha. Late this past winter, I determined I would learn at least a little about green teas from China. I’d tried them on several occasions, but never seriously enough to remember from year to year their names or how I reacted to them. This spring I’ve kept a list, and I undertook the happy task with a modicum of thought. As green teas became available, I bought them.

The impetus for this was a gift from a good friend. Last fall in Shanghai he bought some 2006 Yang Yan Gou Qing (YYGQ) and sent it to me. This tea originates in the Yang Yan Mountains of Zhejiang Province. As I learned to brew it, I came to love it. It is vegetal and satisfying, delicious and calming. After awhile, my stock dwindled, and I grew twitchy at the prospect of having none on hand. (For a fuller understanding of this, you may want to substitute “murderous” for “twitchy.”) I wrote my friend and commanded he return on the instant to Shanghai and comb the alleys to find and procure more. He did return to that city, but replied to say he could locate none of the treasure I so ardently desired. I peeled myself from the ceiling and wrote to Daniel Ong of TeaSpring asking if he could source it for me. His business partner is a devotee of Lucha, and so it came to pass. They ordered it (they are saints), and I had nothing to do in late winter as leaves grew in Asia but wait and wonder whether other green teas were like my beloved YYGQ.

I have learned (and you, kind reader, no doubt already knew) there are many green teas and many grades of each. Some are fried in a wok and others steamed. Some are bud-laden and others full-leaf. Some are small and delicate, others huge and imposing. Some Lucha leaves are fuzzy as caterpillars and others flat as paper. My recent explorations have been enlightening and fun.

Anodyne recently posted here a wonderful review of three Long Jing green teas. Compared to her excellent report, my own notes are brief, truncated, and coarse. I tried fourteen different green teas, and for several of those, two or three of various grades from different vendors, totaling twenty.

Before I list the teas, I’d like to remark upon a discovery I would have thought anti-canonical. This has to do with freshness. I learned from the ’06 YYGQ that as time elapsed, the tea improved. Many teas improve with age, either maturing or mellowing. We know that as decades pass, Sheng Pu’er undergoes a marvelous metamorphosis. Some Oolongs, if carefully reheated over many years, take on a fine and distinguished character. Shu Pu’er benefits from two weeks in the air, and even Matcha is better forty-eight hours after I open the tin. Scott of e-Bay’s Yunnan Sourcing likes to add “Aged just enough” as a by-line to some of his Dian Hong listings. I’m certain there are other examples of this phenomenon, and there are just as many teas that quickly lose some of their best qualities when exposed to air. From my experience, First Flush Darjeeling serves as a prime example. But I can say my favorite green teas are those that improve over time. I hesitated at first to mention this to friends who know more about tea than I do, but at last I screwed up my courage and blurted my observation to one who has long been my tea-teacher. Given all I have read on Lucha vis-à-vis freshness, I expected a fiery retort, but he agreed whole-heatedly. He carefully ages his green tea, much preferring it when it has some maturity.

I like writing about tea because I do not have to claim any expertise. I can skip down Layman’s Path and write what I think. If I err, it matters not. My next observation might illustrate this. I’ve decided that Lucha comes in two basic flavors, one sweet, delicate, and narrow, the other soft, hearty, and wide. Of those two—perhaps resulting from my love of Sencha and Matcha—I prefer the latter. By no means do I dislike the more delicate green teas with their light honey and citrus notes, but I do love the green teas that carry the heavier, rounder, bigger, softer flavors and aromas of an herb garden, almost the effect of drinking vegetable bisque. Now I must stipulate I am no connoisseur of green tea by any means—most of these types of green tea I’ve tried just once. I have almost no experience in the genre. For example, I cannot judge one parcel of Tai Ping Hou Kui against others of its ilk, having had that tea from just one parcel arriving just this season. My criteria of comparison are, to put it simply, incredibly limited.

Here, then, is the list. I began it as a mnemonic device to trigger memories next spring at re-ordering time. Seeing it, ancient corax asked me to share it with you. The items are not in preferential order. I disliked only one. Asterisks by five of the items denote those I love especially and want to buy again (if I ever run out of green tea). Initially I drew the line at three asterisks, then four, then five. Many are deserving.

1) Yang Yan Gou Qing:
a) Harvested in 2006. Gift from friend. Shanghai purchase. This one's my favorite. It sparked my interest, and age does not seem to hurt it. In fact, I think it tastes better now than when it was fresher.
*b) Harvested in 2007. TeaSpring. Not as sophisticated, complex, and flavorful as 1a. As with the 2006 version, this tea has improved markedly in the few, short weeks I’ve had it here. Wonderful, delicious, refreshing green tea. Smooth. Addictive.

*2) Meng Ding Gan Lu. TeaSpring. It has many flavors and is not too subtle for my crass tongue. Yum!

3) Bamboo:
a) 2007 Supreme Emei Mountain Zhu Ye Qing. Dragon Tea. It's a yummy bamboo, my first of the genre. Excellent.
b) 2006 Supreme Emei Mountain Zhu Ye Qing. TeaSpring. More buttery, less astringent than 3a. Very tasty. Better than 3a.
c) Premium Bamboo Shoots. Yunnan Sourcing. Some vacuumed and frozen/ refrigerated. Some vacuumed un-refrigerated. Experiment in storing. Good value for price.

4) Ding Gu Da Fang. TeaSpring. Pungent, hearty, strong. Vegetal. Very yummy.

5) Bi Luo Chun.
*a) Dong Ting Bi Luo Chun. TeaSpring. Many tiny hairs. Vegetal and sweet. Brewed strong, it has a great flavor. Definite favorite. Hard to praise is sufficiently.
b) Early Bi Luo Chun. JingTeaShop. Light but flavorful. Not as full and delicious as the superb 5a.
c) Dong Ting Bi Luo Chun in a can. Awoono. An e-Bay auction win for $1.00 plus exorbitant shipping from Canada. This is an eminently drinkable beverage, but it does not compare with 3a.
d) Supreme Dong Ting Bi Luo Chun. Dragon Tea. Extremely furry leaves with many silver hairs afloat in the liquor. Actually clogged my Zylindro filter. Use a teapot or gaiwan, not a brewing mug. Very close second to 5a, but not quite as vegetal and satisfying. This tea may taste even better in a week or two once it acclimates to its new environment.

*6) Meng Ding Huang Ya. TeaSpring. A yellow tea (huang cha) I re-ordered. I tried it last year. Yummy but subtle. Many delicate nuances. Inviting aroma. Rich aftertaste. A wonderful tea, much better than last year's crop from TeaSpring—and last year’s was good.

7) Emperor Long Jing. TeaSpring. Sweet and lemony. Again, very delicate. The flavor band might be too narrow for me. I prefer a bigger initial flavor-burst with more complexity, but I’m guessing aficionados (which I am not) would enjoy this tea very much.

8) Xu Fu Long Ya. TeaSpring. This tea has a very nice bouquet, but it is one of the milder teas. I'm learning I like green tea with oomph. By “oomph,” I mean big body and flavor, not bitterness. Let me hasten to add that only #9 (below) seems bitter.

9) China Yunnan Green Silvertip. Upton's. This is inexpensive and brusque tea. Gave it to my office-suite neighbor.

10) Silver Strand Premium Green Tea. Yunnan Sourcing. Some vacuumed and frozen/refrigerated. Some vacuumed un-refrigerated. Experiment in storing. Good value for price. Taste has markedly improved in the month I’ve had it.

11) Liu An Gua Pian.
a) Liu An Gua Pian. TeaSpring. Very nice, oolong-like green tea, all leaf. Vegetal aroma with wine flavor. Floral. Big flavor.
b) Supreme Liu An Gua Pian. Dragon Tea. Somewhat more sour and less refined than 11a. This may improve as a little time elapses.

12) Yong Xing Huo Qing. TeaSpring. Tightly rolled into pellets. Slight smoke at first. I’ve been using slightly hotter water (175°F) for this Lucha. This is not a favorite. I suspect there is a method to brewing it that I am not approaching.

*14) Tai Ping Hou Kui Monkey King. Dragon Tea. Impossible not to fall instantly in love with this beautiful tea. The huge leaves with crisscross patterns are gorgeous. The tea’s aroma is piney and vegetal, and the flavor is cedary, floral, vegetal—not too sweet and not too sour. The tea as I brewed it has a big flavor. Most excellent.

— Geraldo (geraldoxyz@charter.net)

8 comments:

Jo said...

Geraldo,
thank you for sharing this article with us. Your writing is absolutely marvellous. While the writing on Cha Dao is always in a class of its own when compared to the rest of the blogging world, your writing takes the crown. Highly sophisticated (while pretending to be the opposite), very funny and heart-felt.
Regarding your observations about the influence of freshness on tea flavour, I'd like to add my own observations to yours.
While Japanese green teas usually follow the rule "the fresher the better" (I haven't really come across any exceptions to that rule), many Lucha seem to indeed benefit from a little maturing.
You mentioned First Flush Darjeelings as an example for teas that don't age well. I haven't found that to be completely true. I'm still drinking a 2yo FF Darjeeling (Thurbo Tippy Clonal 2005) with as much pleasure as in the spring 2 years ago and believe it hasn't lost much of its "essence". But I have come across FF Darjeelings that lose most of their intricacy after a very short storage period. I believe this is related to the quality of the tea - not purely depending on grade, but rather the time of the harvest within the flush. Teas that are harvested towards the end of the FF period and the start of the "Banjee" growth can still be graded as top grades, but the initial flavour is quickly lost.

Grasshopper said...

Dear Jo--Thank you for the very kind words. Now I'm levitating. You've made my day, and ancient corax is probably hopping about full of pride too. Thank you also for the info on Darjeeling. I did not know the particulars you've shared. I wish you all the best. Gratefully, ~geraldo

Anonymous said...

Sorry but where can I find Dragon Tea?

Grasshopper said...

Hi, Anonymous,

You can find Dragon Tea here:
http://stores.ebay.com/Dragon-Tea-House

And TeaSpring here:
http://www.teaspring.com/

Salsero said...

Hearty thanks to Geraldo and Corax. A wonderful summary, and a fitting amplification of Anodyne's preceding post.

Grasshopper said...

Dear Salcero,

Thank you for praise, for placing me beside Anodyne, whose discernment and taste I admire. Next year, Mao Feng! :-)

All the best,
~geraldo

anodyne said...

Ah, you said the magic word: Tai Ping Hou Kui. I've had two dreams specifically about tea so far. And I once woke up so certain that I was smelling Tai Ping Hou Kui; it's a favorite green of mine.

We've been drinking some of the same teas here of late it would seem. Very much enjoyed your impressions!

chamekke said...

Geraldo, I absolutely love the passion and detail of your review. I'm fairly new to Chinese greens too, really have only just begun exploring them, and reading about your experience has been a treat. Thank you.