Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Corax on Two Organic 2007 Dan Congs

My generous friend Geraldo, a tea-pundit of great eloquence and wit, recently shared out a few precious grammes of two teas obtained from Imen at Tea Habitat in Palos Verdes. A good Feng Huang Dan Cong tea is worth anyone's attention, of course, but these were both really extraordinary. Both were labeled organic; both from 2007 harvests. Moreover, Imen awarded both teas six stars (out of a possible six). So my esteemed colleague Monkeytoe and I brewed these two teas, cup to cup, and sampled them together.

After a brief rinse and a minute's rest, each was brewed in a porcelain gaiwan: 4 grammes leaf to 5 oz water (crab eyes), for an infusion of 3 breaths' length to start. The teas were tasted in cups of pure white porcelain, so as to get the clearest possible impression of the color of the brew.

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黄枝香 Huang Zi Xiang [Orange Flower Fragrance] Dan Cong

Imen's note reads: 'This tea is from a 50+ years old tea trea, strong orange flower fragrance, light roast, hui gan is fast and strong. It's another tea that can get you drunk.' [$19.00 per ounce]

INF1: The first infusion had a pronounced floral fragrance, edging toward that smell of indole that one associates with civet musk, jasmine flowers, and orange blossoms. Its color was a very pale golden/peachy hue. The flavor was very light -- even ethereal, as rose water is, and pitched very much toward the top notes. Fairly low astringency.

INF2: Here we began to taste the nutty flavor that one associates specifically with oolongs. The color deepened. The finish was long, lingering, and very much 'orange' flavored -- almost as if one had drunk actual orange juice that somehow had no sugar in it.

INF3: The orange-juice aroma was more present than ever. The flavor was a bit bitter this time, as if one had chewed the pith out of a pithy orange rind. Perhaps it needed an extremely short infusion for INF3, or cooler water?

INF4: This infusion was brewed at 'shrimp eyes' rather than 'crab eyes,' and a scant three breaths' time. The result was less bitterness, still very 'orangey' in flavor, and still tenacious in its aftertaste. As the brew cools, it has a hint of greenness -- rather like what one finds in a first-flush Darjeeling.

INF5: Back to 'crab eyes' and three full breaths for this infusion. The orange scent is delicate and quite attenuated now, but the first sip is very floral. The distinctive orange flavor of this liquor seems to emerge more as the brew cools in the cup.

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姜花香 Jiang Hua Xiang [Ginger Flower Fragrance] Dan Cong

This tea was labeled po tou, that is, 'ridge top'; these leaves, then, are apparently from the mother tree (mu shu, 母树) for Jiang Hua Xiang tea. (Perin's Babelcarp site [sub uoc.] defines mu shu as 'one of a small group of trees constituting the original gene pool for a cultivar, from which cuttings are taken for vegetal propagation.') And indeed, Imen's note reads: 'This tea is from a 200 years old tea tree grown organically, aroma is light, subtle yet strong and lingering. Ginger flower has a defined aroma that's powerful but not over powering. This is a BEAUTIFUL tea!' [$25.00 per ounce]

INF1: The liquor had the same pale-peach tone as the previous tea -- a characteristic hue of dan congs. This tea was silky on the tongue -- not quite like a 'milk oolong,' but with a thicker mouth-feel than the Huang Zi Xiang. Again a distinct perfume note, but not at all orangey: rather, for one evanescent flickering moment, like the sweetness of a shu pu'er. No bitterness and no virtually astringency. But also -- as far as we can tell here -- no fragrance that smells like ginger flowers, nor like actual ginger.

INF2: Again, one is reminded of pu'er -- a certain earthiness in the first taste, though this vanishes almost instantly. Still very silky. What is notably lacking in this tea so far is the nutty quality that shows up (one might say characteristically) in oolongs.

INF3: Here is where the 'oolongy' flavor emerges. What's more, the finish is the longest and most pronounced yet. The nutty oolong flavor seems actually to grow in the minutes after the cup is drained. This tenacity is one of the signs of power in a tea -- the sort of experience that simply does not come from tea bags. The odd fillip is the slight hint of soapiness in the flavor of this infusion, continuing also in the aftertaste.

INF4: The infused leaves, some of which are two inches or so in length, are a dull olive green in color, with blushes here and there of a dark maroon. Still a bit of soapiness to this infusion. Aside from that, the basic tea flavor seems to have been reduced to the stature of a fairly ordinary oolong. Is this tea spent?

INF5: The soapy quality is now virtually gone. Still a very silky brew. The aftertaste, though fainter now, is still tenacious.

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How to sum up? At first I was going to say, 'Feng Huang Dan Cong is not a beginner's tea.' But that sounds both condescending and fundamentally wrong-headed. Condescending, in its disregard for the fact that the most advanced Zen masters strive always to maintain a 'beginner's mind'; and wrong-headed, because neophytes to cha dao deserve, at least as much as anyone else, to be exposed (as often as possible) to the very best tea there is -- for the sheer glory of it, and in order to help develop their sense of what the highest quality in a tea can entail.

But it probably is fair to say that Feng Huang Dan Cong is not a tea to be drunk in a desultory or off-handed fashion, unless one's wealth is beyond the dreams of avarice. At its very best, this type of tea is one of the masterpieces of the tea-maker's art. It is not a big, brassy, stentorian tea: its notes are nuanced, subtle, sometimes ethereal. One must pay close attention in order to hear them, stilling the surrounding noises. Perhaps precisely because of its delicate nature, Dan Cong is (for me at least) a tea to be savored on special occasions, rather than as a daily drink.

These Tea Habitat teas were excellent examples of the well-crafted Dan Cong. They maintained their elegance throughout several infusions each, and proffered the hallmark Dan Cong aftertaste -- rarefied and tenacious at the same time. At up to $400 per pound, these teas are surely what most people would term 'high-end.' They are both gorgeously made (though I was a bit surprised to see a stem in the second tea) and each leaf, in its dry state, certainly resembles a wu long, a 'black dragon.' The long and the short of it is that this was a memorable, a luscious experience, for which I am most grateful.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Cup2Cup: PurePuer Tea’s “1960s Liao Fu Green Loose Tea” & Hou De’s “70s Aged Liao Fu San Cha”


People who love pu’er often seek out other close relations to the pu’er family. Liu Bao, Liu An, Tianjian, Quianling Tael, Huazhuan, Heizhuan, and many other heichas exist for the hunter of pu’er-like teas. The classification of the many types is complex beyond my abilities to comprehend and is also a topic of hot debate among experts in tea taxonomy. I’ll leave the finer points of classification to them. My joys are more visceral. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to taste incredibly old and delicious Liu An and Quianling Tael when I visited China. And a friend sent me some of his grandfather’s extraordinary aged Liu Bao. But other non-pu’er age-able teas have never been much to my liking until recently. Now there arrives on the scene a tea new to me, and it’s very much worth buying and drinking: Aged Liao Fu San Cha.

My first encounter was with PurePuer Tea’s expensive “1960s Liao Fu Green Loose Tea.” Here is their description:
Factory: Liao Fu
Harvest Year: 1960s
Type: Raw/Sheng
Harvest Area: Yunnan/North Vietnam border

This very rare green loose tea is in extremely limited supply. It has an earthy orchid/ginseng flavor and aroma. The color is a crystal clear, reddish amber. This tea, a product of dry storage, is smooth, from your mouth to your throat. In latter brews the taste becomes sweeter.
Soon after I purchased several grams, PurePuer sold out of it.

Next I encountered “70s Aged Liao Fu San Cha” at Hou De Fine Asian Art. Having enjoyed PurePuer’s product and become curious as to the difference between the 60s and 70s versions, I purchased some grams of the Hou De product. A link in the product description will take the resourceful websurfer to Guang Lee’s informative blog on the subject of Liao Fu. The article is too long to quote here in its entirety, but it is well worth reading.

My tasting notes are as follows:

Leaf Weight & Vessel Size: 1.6g of each in 1.5oz identical porcelain gaiwans.

Water temp: Just off boiling in the first four infusions, boiling in subsequent infusions.

Infusions: 15s, 10s, 15s, 20s, 25s, 30, 35s, 40s, 45s, 1m

Appearance Dry Leaf: Virtually identical -- small leaves, HD’s significantly more stems than PP’s. Stems removed for this tasting. General light coat of white frost -- both samples.

Appearance Wet Leaf: HD Liao Fu is mostly in pieces, with the black chopped appearance in keeping with humidity in storage. PP Liao Fu, in contrast, larger leaves, less black.

Liquor: Early steeps, the color of straight bourbon, fading normally in later infusions.

Aroma: Spicy, woody, earthy. Aroma much stronger from gaiwans than from cups. The PP smells noticeably spicier, less dank in the fifth and sixth infusions. In the seventh and eighth infusions, the difference becomes more pronounced.

Flavor: In the first steeps, no apparent difference. Slight but not unpleasant sour tang that I associate with humidity in storage. Pleasant thickness. Mouth watering. Both are camphory, minty, tasting of aged tea. In the fifth and sixth infusions, the PP becomes somewhat cleaner, woodier, spicier than the HD. The PP has a slight nutmeg quality. The difference -- if it really exists -- is very subtle. In the seventh and eighth infusions, the aged character of both becomes more pronounced -- the minty camphor more apparent. Oddly, the teas at room temperature are identical in flavor. The small difference is in the first hot sips. In the ninth and tenth infusions, the evolution continues -- the paradoxical standing back of some flavors, allowing others their chance to please the senses.

Concluding Remarks: These two aged san chas are not very different, but Pure Puer Tea’s 1960s Liao Fu Green Loose Tea might be the tiniest bit better. This is actually a bigger criticism of the 60s Liao Fu than of the 70s iteration. I would have thought a forty-year-old tea would exhibit a more distinct profile; instead, the contrast between it and the 70s is minute. The difference resides more in aroma and wet leaf appearance than in other dimensions of the tasting experience. But they are both excellent and exemplars of the top of their genre. I’ve tasted no other border teas or heichas that are even one-third as good as these. Of course, they are neither in the realm of 70s #7532 nor the best versions of ’88 Ching Bing. Yet their cost does not approach the rarefied and dizzying outlay of cash that one must hemorrhage forth to procure the better aged sheng beeng chas. Simply stated, the great aged shengs of Yunnan are better. But the charm and value of these san chas is in the suggestion of age and quality at a price that is not horrific. They offer many benefits of aged pu’er -- notably an evolving profile through many infusions. I can drink them without feeling that I am a profligate wastrel, and I can say to myself that I am drinking good aged tea.