One of my favorite China green teas over the years has been Taiping Hou Kui. Something about the elusive fragrance so impressed me that I once dreamed about it and woke up just sure I was smelling this tea. It's one of the rare times a tea aroma entered my dreams, though I have dreamed about tea in other more prosaic ways. Once in dream, I was just reading and reciting a list of Darjeeling gardens over and over. TeaSpring offers this '07 spring Cha Wang (Tea King) as their "highest grade...only the finest and perfectly crafted leaves" being selected. Their website says that it comes from Hou Keng village, "at the foothill of Tai Ping county" in An Hui province. They note that the tea is also known as "Tea King Monkey Chief, Tea King Monkey King, and Tea King Monkey tea."
I have had it in times past from assorted vendors. It has been at least good and other times much more ethereal and seductive. In the Taiping Hou Kui I've most loved, there has been a distinct sweet-floral note I've referred to as orchid (for lack of knowing what else to call it) that shape-shifts in and out. Some Taiping Hou Kui has been more savory (even brothy) and less ethereal. Other Taiping Hou Kui has been more nutty or nutty-vegetal with a light lemony note, and etc. In the Taiping Hou Kui I've most loved, the floral sweetness lingered almost silkily on the palate. This current tea isn't falling out to be the absolute best of what memory pulls forth, but it shows some level of that floral note that caresses the palate. The floral shows up in the aroma as well, especially as the leaves are still steeping.
The appearance of the leaf is such a pleasure. Huge flat leaves with criss-cross pattern. In the Cha Wang, they are especially long and even and lovely. TeaSpring notes that the crafting of the leaves is such that they can be stacked one of top of another, and the point out the reddish color apparent on the stems--a characteristic of this tea. It is not easy to find a vessel to brew the leaf. I opted for a taller glass cup rather than trying to get them into a gaiwan and risk breaking them. The leaves were too lovely.
The time I was most impressed by this tea was in 1998, when I had a Private Reserve grade of David Lee Hoffman's Silk Road Teas Taiping Hou Kui. I made the following notes: Delicate, ethereal aroma...light floral on top of vegetal. The cup itself is very pale, quite mellow, and faintly sweet...the water seems to have almost had a magic wand waved over it as it becomes very silky in the mouth. It is a refreshing green, light, almost with a hint of lemon on the tip of the tongue. Delicate. Exquisite. Requires your full attention. Then on another brewing of this same tea: This time around I at least doubled the amount of tea that produced the results in my post above. Today's cup was still quite pale, but the aroma was so much more intense--definitely hints of floral and spice with an underlying richer savory quality. Instead of the aroma being something you had to search for, it wafted right out of the cup. Still delicate. Still exquisite. But this time the aroma demanded your attention rather than waiting for you to make the first move in leaning over the cup to sniff.
As noted, I have had Taiping Hou Kui when it's been satisfying but less exquisite, too--more savory and brothy and aggressive with much less of that ethereal sweetness that turns the liquor almost silky. I'm not sure exactly where I place this current '07 one. Certainly it's more ethereal (and with lemony nip) and more like the Private Reserve SRT one than some of the more savory or brothy ones I've had. This one falls out in the nutty-vegetal range more than truly savory or brothy as I define that for myself. But I am not sure exactly where I'd place the level of that silky sweetness along with some of the best I've had. The memory plays tricks. Along with the Bard, I also sometimes "sigh the lack of many a thing I sought."
In May of '05 I had a Taiping Hou Kui via TeaSpring, too, with the following observations: This Teaspring Tai Ping Hou Kui avoids that heavier savory/broth note I've had in one previous lot via SpecialTeas (though from notes, I see that a different lot I had from this source was more brothy while another focused more on the floral). It seems more akin to the 1998 Silk Road Teas Private Reserve'Tai Ping Hou Kui, focusing more on the floral notes with mellow vegetal sweetness. I am only working with fading memory, but I seem to remember a more piercing nectar sweetness in the Taiping Hou Kui from Silk Road Teas. The sweetness in this TeaSpring tea is softer, more vegetal-sweet, and less nectar-y. But this is a much less rustic interpretation of the tea than I've had from some sources, in which I'd noted an almost bacony savory note. This particular tea is soft, yet with a full penetrating aroma. Again, this is a tea I rather want to associate with the term nutty, but it is the vegetal-nutty or asparagus/vegetal I am thinking of, not the toasted-nutty quality. This is another tea where you really need to get enough leaf in the cup to get the full aroma/flavor. I really am enjoying the aroma of this one especially...back to spending as much time sniffing the cup as I sip...and spending time with the empty cup aroma as well.
With this '07 Taiping Hou Kui, just as with the tea in '05 from TeaSpring, I want to again compare this one with that ultimate 1998 SRT Private Reserve and say that the level of sweetness in this current offering isn't at the level of that one. Again, yes, the sweetness attaches more to vegetal in this '07 one and less to nectary-floral-sweet as in that amazing Private Reserve SRT Taiping Hou Kui. But maybe it's only that memory thing. Each season, an order of Taiping Hou Kui has been very much a pleasure at whatever level I've enjoyed or experienced it. But there does seem to be a certain balance that works its magic in the deepest way--a blend of light savory with a mellow vegetal rescued by lemony nip and an infusion of a piercing floral-sweetness that lingers on the palate like silk on the skin.
Is the precise detail of the 1998 Private Reserve Taiping Hou Kui only imaginary? I am not so sure it really matters. Perhaps it is as shadowy as the dream I once had about the aroma of this tea. As poet Mary Oliver notes in "The Plum Trees" (as collected in American Primitive):
so sensible as sensual inundation. Joy
is a taste before
it's anything else, and the body
can lounge for hours devouring
the important moments."
Holly L. Hatfield-Busk