Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Anodyne on Taiping Hou Kui from TeaSpring

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):

"...there's nothing
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."

Source: http://www.teaspring.com/

Holly L. Hatfield-Busk


MarshalN said...

Regarding the name, if translated fully and more or less literally, it should be Great Peace Monkey Leader (or Chief, or perhaps Optimus). I think the reason it's called Moneky Leader is actually because Hou Keng, the place where the tea should be harvested, is literally "Monkey Ditch". The best of the leaves harvested there is therefore "Monkey Leader".

Julian said...


Another really nice note from you.

I have actually tried getting this tea directly from a tea garden, so I know a bit about the processing.

In short, the old process is more roasted and nutty. The new process is more vegetal and feminine.

It is a really special tea, truly unforgettable.

As for the name, I just happen to look into it sometimes before.

The TPHK tea actually belongs to a family of teas known as Jian Cha (pointed tea).

There are many different kinds of Jian Cha. The best comes from the 3 villages of Houkeng, Houchun and Yanjiachun.

The next best is called the Kui Jian which are highly regarded.

This tea is called Hou Kui because it was originally produced in the village Hou Keng.

Kui is the name of the person who makes the tea famous.

Kui also means strong, or as Marshall pointed out, leader.

Unlike the other Chinese green tea, the best TPHK leaves are big and strong, rather than small and tender.

And so the tea is called Hou Kui.

But even that has changed.

Nowadays, TPHK generally refers to the entire family of teas coming from the original area of Taiping county.

Just like xihu longjing tea originally covers only the lion peak mountain, then the Meijiawu vilage, then extended outwards again.

Sorry for this long note.


anodyne said...

Thanks to you both for the additional information. Love the details! I wonder then if what I perceived as the more "rustic" character of some of the THK (that moved toward what I think of as savory)is the "old process" you refer to, Julian? And the more ethereal vegetal with lemony nip and more pervasive sweetness is the "new process?"

I appreciate the more precise translations as I don't have that ability...and the explanation Julian has given is really useful to me in separating out what the different parts of the name THK refers to as that otherwise remains something of a mystery to me.

The container I have this tea in releases the most tantalizing fragrance when I open it. Certainly something draws me very much to this tea.

MarshalN said...

I'm not personally very familiar with TPHK at all, but I'd venture to guess that the "higher" or in your words, ethereal fragrance you find are the new style. That's been a general trend in Chinese tea drinking recently -- they prefer a higher, more immediate and usually more floral fragrance... that can be perfumy at times and IMHO not necessarily better.

anodyne said...

For me, the key to the THK that I have most enjoyed is not solely a "higher, more immediate and usually more floral fragrance." The key, for my personal preference, is that *balance* between a higher sweet floral note and some more savory/vegetal "bass" with that citrusy/lemony note to add the "edge" to the whole equation. With my own preferences, so often it's the *balance* of flavor and aroma notes that produces that ultimate cup. The ultimate cup is like that musical chord which only fills out when each note comes through in a certain proportion. It's not just the notes played but how the keys are touched. I often like what I call "rustic" against a hint of something more floral, thinking back to what I noted about a particular China Sichuan Zao Bei Jian:

"The dry leaf has a most gentle hint of milk chocolate aroma. Brewing, I am reminded of why I am drawn to the tea...hints of cocoa, spice, earth, and what I think of as a musky floral. In the pot, once steeped, this aroma continues to build and intensify. Like one of those tiny rogue whirlwinds, the kind that seems to come up out of nowhere, the flavors and aromas separate and then mix together in a balance that I find very pleasing. The earth has a sweetness to complement it, not leaving it as a single characteristic in the tea, but a blended whole."

Again, it's the balance of the flavor/aroma notes that will often draw me to one tea over another.

Julian said...


Yes. And as you say, it is the matter of proportion. The old process has more of the bass element, while the new process has more of the treble element.

But may be I have been presumptious to attribute the difference just to the process alone.

My experience with the longjing tea that I work with is that in April when the tea is fresh, it is more bass (very nutty fragrant, savory and vegetal sweet), but comes June, it has mellowed and turns up more of a floral, asparagus sweet note.

So even a single tea can come out differently at different times.

There is too much variables in one process, let alone two processes.

I will get in touch with the tea garden again, and see what I can get more of regarding the more old and new processes.

Will report back if I have more to share.

I wish I have those years of tasting experience that you and Marshall have.

If you like, it might be best if you taste them and judge for yourself the subtle differences.

The tea garden cupboard is pretty empty at the moment, but they might have a few samples lying around.

Here is my contact form:

anodyne said...

Julian: I wish I have those years of tasting experience that you and Marshall have.

Holly: I don't have the benefit of the knowledge of culture, language, geography, processing, etc that many here do. So when I approach the teas for tasting, it's rather like wearing blinders. It is, in some ways, an intimate experience, just me and the cup before me, as I can't pull from those other interesting areas to any great degree. Only what I pick up here and there from reading. So I don't have too much to clue me in beyond that bit of reading and just what is in the cup at hand set against other tastings I've made notes on over the years. Just me and the cup. Not sure if that's good or bad. It's just what IS. :-)

I appreciate all the details added here by you and others to help "fill in" some of those blanks.

I tend to think so much in images when I taste teas. I think back to the first description I ever read of Taiping Hou Kui(before I'd ever tasted th tea) from Kit Chow's ALL THE TEA IN CHINA. I didn't know whether to take it as truth or as the kind of truth tucked into myth and faery tale, but I loved the visual of the tea growing:

"...on the northern slopes" with "rain half the year and mist and clouds the rest." But mostly I loved the visual of the orchid trees and the book's suggestion that "the leaves as they open are naturally scented by the myriad of wild cymbidium orchids that blossom all over the mountains just at that time."

Whether this was truth in truth or truth in myth, it struck me as a stunning visual which still hangs with me...and I suppose that's the reason I look for that "ethereal" floral scent and why I refer to it as orchid. :-)

Julian said...

I have finally got hold of the tea garden.


It was quite hard. They have been out planting trees in the summer, on lands that were previously used for growing rice.

For conservation.

There are a few things I learn.

The old process involves baking tea using bamboo, in seven stages (from high to low heat), and so is extremely time consuming.

1 hour cooks just 1 kilogram.

But the tea is said to be more fragrant and lasts more infusions.

So they switched over to the new process, which is 3 times faster.

The new process uses metal, and produces tea that looks far more attractive, as it involves pressing.

You can see some pictures here, I hope to get more next year:


So this will explain the difference from your earlier tastings.

All the TPHK now is made using the new process.

Another reason for variation of taste is the exact locality of where the tea is grown.

Some factors are which side of the mountain the tea is in, whether it is facing the sun, the altitude etc.

Traditionally the best tea comes from high misty places.

Quite so fascinating ...

It is refreshing for you to talk about musical choir.

The only time I have heard of it is the effect of rolling has on the tea drinking experience.

Heavy rolling is associated with bass notes as vice versa.


Julian said...


Sorry I miss your last post!

I am not sure about the orchid myself, I need to see it myself next year.

The Chinese tea literature mentions orchid everywhere, so I am not surprised to see it mentioned.

What really amazes me about this tea is this:

1. The leaves, can you imagine, becomes so big in just a few weeks, way way larger than biluochun, longjing and the like.

2. The history - I think it is the first Chinese tea to win international award in modern China (I define as after the fall of the dynasties).

3. The place - Yellow mountain, the tallest mountain of eastern China that produces 4 of China's 10 famous teas.

And Taiping lake, just open for development. Breathtaking.

4. The people. Hey they are nice!

5. The tea - you say it better. The Chinese call it Hou Yun, or Monkey Rhyme.

I have it every morning!