Monday, July 24, 2006
corax notes for the tea-disc summer wuyi yan cha tasting
here, late but in earnest, are my tasting notes for the summer 2006 wuyi rock teas generously supplied by blake ross. as the identities of each are now widely known, i will include the listings along with my remarks here, though it should be noted that i did not keep an eye on them as i was making my notes during the tasting itself -- just as i also did not look at others' tasting notes while i was writing my own. [i did consult and think about the ID list, as well as some of the other tasters' notes, as i reflected afterward on the entire procedure.] my notes on each -- before and after the brewing process -- are detailed below, and followed at the end by some general comments.
[A] Taiwan Shui Xian [www.shanshuiteas.com]
dry leaf appearance: green, fisted. looks like a taiwan oolong, maybe 45-50% oxidation.
dry leaf aroma: virtually nil
infused leaf appearance: very uniformly dark green in color. some surprisingly large leaves amongst the unfurled. as expected, some stems.
infused leaf aroma: pungent vegetal/tea scent
liquor appearance: dull medium gold, very little ruddiness to it.
liquor aroma: some of that characteristic 'wuyi' type of scent to it, but much 'greener' than the typical wuyi tea.
taste: more vegetal than the average mainland shuixian, reflecting perhaps its less-baked nature. there are some floral notes that almost hark to the baozhong here. the finish is fairly dry but not terribly 'puckery'; a touch of acidity in the aftertaste.
[B] Organic Wu Yi [www.rishi-tea.com]
dry leaf appearance: very dark green -- so dark as to be almost black -- twisted leaf with some breakage [probably during shipping] -- pieces almost small enough to be counted 'fannings.' as you will see from the photograph, the smallest of these made their way into the bottom of the cup, even through the mesh of a medium-fine strainer.
dry leaf aroma: a surprisingly fresh scent for leaf so dark. but very faint.
infused leaf appearance: dark olive-green, somewhat scrappy, not entirely unfurled by a first infusion.
infused leaf aroma: first sniff, nutty, yielding in a second or two to more vegetal.
liquor appearance: pale copper, ringed with a green hue around the wall of the cup.
liquor aroma: a 'clean' scent, which i find often correlates to a certain astringency on the palate.
taste: this tea quickly offers a spectrum of tastes from what i think of as 'high' [light or subtle floral] to 'low' [nutty], the latter resonating with what one finds in some shuixian teas. it is not as astringent as one might have expected. the aftertaste tends a bit to the metallic.
[C] Da Hong Pao [www.teaspring.com]
dry leaf appearance: very substantial leaf size, fairly lightly twisted such that each leaf's width is still suggested. dark green.
dry leaf aroma: just a hint of earth or must at the opening -- instantly morphing [even as one sniffs] to a fresh tea scent [but a more generic aroma than what i think of as the distinctive 'oolong' scent panel]
infused leaf appearance: collard-green colored, beginning to unfurl.
infused leaf aroma: a brief hint of floral, giving way almost immediately to a light vegetal.
liquor appearance: medium [dull] gold.
liquor aroma: very faint, very subtle, almost entirely floral.
taste: my first inclination was to say 'restrained,' but as i continue to sip on this tea i am inclined to say, rather, 'faint' -- as if the tea were stale or not of a premium grade. what taste is there is good, and suggests a distinguished pedigree somewhere along the way. little astringency, but also a negligible finish.
[D] Traditional Da Hong Pao [www.teaspring.com]
dry leaf appearance: this looks to be a heavily oxidized tea. almost no green leavening the brown color. large leaf size, perhaps even wider than [and at least as lightly twisted as] 'C.'
dry leaf aroma: almost like hongcha, again underscoring the high oxidation level of this tea.
infused leaf appearance: very dull dark green, some leaves fully unfurled within the first infusion.
infused leaf aroma: nutty, inviting.
liquor appearance: not especially dark or deep in color, but more ruddy in hue than that of 'C.'
liquor aroma: this liquor fairly instantly sings 'da! hong! pao!' -- it would be hard to miss that aroma.
taste: not as sweet as the aroma of the liquor had led me to expect, but a fairly satisfying [if undistinguished] brew. the floral notes assert themselves first, leaving the nutty for the middle and finish. not especially astringent, but with a tenacious aftertaste.
[E] Imperial Rou Gui [www.sevencups.com]
dry leaf appearance: twisted leaf, somewhat more tightly twisted than 'C' or 'D,' perhaps about as oxidized as 'C.' i expect the leaf on the bush was somewhat smaller than either of those.
dry leaf aroma: virtually nil
infused leaf appearance: dark green, fairly well unfurled for a first infusion
infused leaf aroma: almost entirely vegetal
liquor appearance: deep buttercup gold
liquor aroma: very faint, almost undetectable
taste: surprisingly bitter; neither particularly floral nor especially nutty. medium astringency and a fairly quick finish.
[F] Tie Luo Han [www.imperialtea.com]
dry leaf appearance: another fairly-highly-oxidized tea here, leaves of various sizes fairly well rolled.
dry leaf aroma: another faint fresh 'tea' scent, but again not especially oolongy as i perceive it.
infused leaf appearance: some cut leaf in this batch; deep forest-green notes among streaks of brown.
infused leaf aroma: quite floral overall
liquor appearance: medium gold with a russet tone to it
liquor aroma: not surprisingly, somewhat [faintly] floral
taste: the floral aspects of the taste are quite distinct on certain parts of the tongue, but vanish [characteristically] fairly quickly. the lower notes of the taste -- not quite 'nutty' in this case, but somewhat between that and the vegetal -- step forward next. only in the long finish does some astringency appear, along with [interestingly] a tiny sour note.
GENERAL COMMENTS AND REFLECTIONS:
the parameters i used for all six teas were as follows: 4 grams of leaf, 4 oz of water [heated to 'fish eyes' boiling], infused in a porcelain cebei for 30 seconds [just slightly longer than the traditional 'three breaths' duration]. decanted into porcelain tasting cups. most of these teas could have gone for several infusions, but i decided for the purposes of these notes to write about a single infusion of each.
i thought hard, to begin with, about brewing parameters, both in deference to blake's generosity and just because this was not a light undertaking: it deserved careful consideration, just as the other tasters gave it. in the end i decided against the professional taster's method, because i wanted [as it were] the best of both worlds: to set up, on one hand, a fairly strict and uniform preparation- and tasting-environment, so as to level the playing-field as much as possible, and also to observe how the teas would perform in a 'normal' home environment -- which is, after all, the way almost all of us prepare and drink our teas.
as kevin 凱聞 astutely noted and mentioned in his blog, 'A' is not a true wuyi tea, but rather a taiwan shuixian. as the shuixian varietal apparently originated in the wuyi area, however, i decided to include 'A' in my tasting notes. i brewed and tasted it last of the six, by way of foil or contrast to the five mainland teas supplied.
i gathered my data [as detailed above] in one longish session. later the same day, but while the entire cumulative experience was still fresh in my mind, i began to ponder the sum total of my results. returning to the originary questions that blake posted to tea-disc:
> What qualities are we looking for?
> What are the standards for good Wuyi tea.
i saw that these queries go to the heart of the whole tea-tasting enterprise, but are not identical in their focus. nor are they likely to elicit uniform answers from all tea-drinkers. first off, of course, not all tea-drinkers will be looking for the qualities that tend to characterize wuyi yan cha. so their answer to the first question will obviously be 'not the qualities these teas have to offer, thanks!' setting that reaction aside, however, the question of standards for wuyi teas remains. is there a set of standards that will apply to all wuyi yan cha? perhaps not, although there tends to be a certain uniformity to the appearance of the dry leaf, a certain portion of the color-spectrum to which the brewed liquor tends to adhere, and a certain readily-identifiable taste [or rather, complex of tastes -- for wuyi yan cha is nothing if not complex in the tasting, from the beginning of the sip to the end of the aftertaste] to the brewed liquor.
blake's questions intimate the desire or quest for a canon -- a 'measuring-stick' or standard of quality by which we can gauge each wuyi tea. once again, we come to this quest somewhat late in the enterprise, as the chinese themselves have been at it for hundreds of years already. indeed some traditions trace the origin of oolong teas precisely to the wuyi area of fujian. of such teas, the traditional 'four famous wuyi yan cha' are da hong pao ['big red robe'], tie luo han ['iron warrior monk'], bai ji guan ['white cockscomb'], and shui jin gui ['golden water turtle']. and of these four, we included only the first two in our tasting. so right off the front end, we have departed from traditional canons. there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that approach, but we should recognize how we are proceeding. there is no inherent reason that shuixian or rou gui, for example, might not rise to the top of our own personal canons of wuyi excellence. but such a revisionist position ought to be arrived at only after long and very broad exploration of the field.
the inclusion of one 'formosa' oolong here -- the shuixian -- reminds us, first and foremost, of the unimaginably vast variety of what we may call 'china teas' [including, without political implications either way, those from taiwan]. it causes us to remember, moreover, that not all shuixians are from the mainland; that, of mainland shuixians, not all are from fujian; and that, of fujian shuixians, not all are from wuyi shan. similar complexities obtain for each and every other oolong, and probably for most china teas across the board. blake's questions -- disarmingly simple to begin with -- become more and more complex themselves, in view of all this.
all our on-list discussions, beforehand, of whether/how to standardize our preparations and tasting procedures, themselves served to highlight the inherent variability and mutability of all such human enterprises. some of the variables, in the larger scheme of things, include:
** type of tea
** specific varietal of this type
** the specific harvest from which this leaf comes
** the specific lot of a given harvest from which this leaf comes
** storage and shipping procedures
** shelf-age of the tea leaves
** type of water used
** brewing parameters: timing, proportions, equipage
and of course none of this begins to account for the incalculable variation from one palate to another, and how differently even the same palate may react or perform on different days, depending on health, energy, thirst, hunger, stressors, etc.
despite this ever-turning kaleidoscope of variables, we somehow seem to manage to produce and discern our individual likes, dislikes, and preferences. those preferences tend to be reliable enough for us to be able to walk into a tea-shop [or browse a website] and say, 'ah, i want some of this tea,' or 'erm, i don't so much like that one.' [and, too, it's the illusion of stability in the material world, in our sensory manifold, and in our aesthetic responses, that tends to flummox us when we order a beloved tea months later, only to find that it's not nearly as good as what we remembered.] because not every vendor's tie luo han is identical, and because probably not even the 'same' tie luo han -- i.e. tea made similarly from the selfsame bushes, from one year to the next -- is always going to taste the same, we afford ourselves the fun of shopping around, trying new sources, crowing or quibbling over old ones. and because the cha dao is a long, winding road -- one that we eventually come to see stretches across our entire lifetime -- the gradual accumulation of age and experience tends to shape and affect our tastes themselves. our very preferences, sometimes so strong that we almost feel they sketch the contours of our personality, are not as granitic as we might like to pretend. over time, the tea itself teaches us, and changes us.
we could have done our tasting in a number of other ways. for instance, we could have chosen just one wuyi yan cha, say da hong pao, and obtained that from six different vendors. or we could have chosen the 'four famous yan cha,' plus four that are not on that list, and tried to see whether the 'famous' teas in fact deserve their lofty reputations. or we could have assembled several tasters in one location, and had a skilled tea-brewer prepare the tasting for all of them at once, so that they could experience [blindfolded or not, as we pleased] the very same brew, out of the same sharing pitcher [thus eliminating several of the principal variables listed above]. but i am content, even delighted, with the way we have undertaken this very tasting. it offered some challenges and some potential surprises and some actual delights. the focus entailed in this exercise ensures, i'm betting, that none of us will look at yan cha in quite the same way again.