Saturday, March 29, 2008

Cup2Cup: Xi-Zhi Hao’s "2007 Da Xue Shan" in Mao Cha and Beeng Cha


The transubstantiation of tea leaves into pu’er has long been a point of interest for me on my travels through tea. When Guang Lee of Hou De Fine Asian Art offered the mao cha version of 2007 Da Xue Shan, I bought it and was quite pleased with the tea’s physical beauty, strength, and refinement. A friend purchased the beeng cha version of the very same leaves, somewhat more expensive gram-for-gram. I was extremely curious to learn how the two forms of pu’er made from one source of leaves might compare. How does steaming and compressing affect the characteristics of pu’er? Would the appearance, aroma, and flavor differ to any significant extent? I would have been just as excited if the comparison was available through products from Liu Da Cha Shan, Chang Tai, Mengku, or any other less expensive line of pu’ers. That the teas were produced by Xi-Zhi Hao’s San Ho Tang was not the trigger of excitement in this case. I contacted my friend and proposed a trade: some of my mao cha for some of his beeng cha.

Here is Mr. Lee’s accurate description of the beeng cha, and it describes the mao cha as well:
Harvest Year: 2007 Autumn (Gu Hwa)
Production Year: 2007
Producer: San Ho Tang
Type: uncooked cake

Description: Collected from over 2000m Da Xue Shan (Big Snow Mountain) by minority people, the tea trees there are ranged from 700 to 1300 years old. Very limited quantity of cakes will be made from those precious single-regioned mao cha. Hou De is happy to get some and share with Xi-Zhi Hao fans!

Those massive and meaty leaves look very dark and healthy. "Hair" on the tips are golden in color. The aroma from the first and second brewing has a complex mushroom-fruit-flower-nutty and woody combination. The amazing rich fruity -- like mango, apricot -- fragrance becomes more dominant later. Complexity in the liquor and taste is also Wooowww ...; bitterness runs deep into the throat and gradually transforms into sweet after-taste, harshness can be felt around the tongue and quickly disappear, a fruity acidity is persistent and gives the structure a nice boost. Hui Gan in after-taste is incredible. Liquor is crystal-clear and light amber in color. With so many complexity in aroma/taste, I found the tea is amazingly enjoyable right now. Aging potential? With such a dynamic complexity and robust liveliness.. Next question, please!

The unfurled mao cha look simply beautiful! Thick, soft and flexible.
For the comparison, I brewed 1.9g of leaf in identical 50ml gaiwans. I used identical brewing methods (water heated first to Fish Eye, increasing through the session to Old Man) and drank from matched white cups. I did not employ sharing pitchers or strainers. These latter two were unnecessary. The tea’s gorgeous, large, unbroken leaves make brewing simplicity itself. Because I used miniscule gaiwans, I tasted two infusions at once, so the tastings were combinations of infusions 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6, etc. I did have to break a leaf in each gaiwan to make them fit.

When I noted the beeng cha’s dry leaves were flatter than the mao cha’s, I smiled at my amazing powers of observation ("Holmes, you are a genius!"). The mao cha’s dry leaves were noticeably lighter in color. This mao cha differs from other young mao chas I’ve encountered -- the leaves are fatter, thicker, far less papery and fragile than other nascent mao cha leaves. The dry mao cha’s leaves have more silver than the beeng cha’s leaves.

The wet leaves of the mao cha are lighter in color -- dull olive. The wet leaves of the beeng cha are darker green. Through the session, each unfurls into stunning examples of perfect leaf. I have never encountered the like. The liquor follows suit: the mao cha’s is a shade or two paler. The liquor of each is crystal-clear.

Some aged sheng will fill my kitchen with a marvelous aroma when I pour the hot water onto the leaves and release the happy spirits pent up within them. For the most part, though, analysis of aroma is best done from the gaiwan’s lid. I found the mao cha carried a pungent and piney aroma, and the beeng cha offered less pine and perhaps a bit more sweet spice, but the difference in this regard is not significant.

In flavor, the two varied most in the early infusions. After that, sad to say, the flavors were virtually identical. I’d hoped for startling variation of the sort that would exemplify the miracle resulting from pu’er’s compression. The kou3 gan3 (mouth feel) was equivalent and silky. There was a slight difference in strength -- the mao cha’s liquor seemed stronger in ru4 kou3 (initial flavor burst). The hui gan seemed equivalent: a beautiful sweetness that developed slowly. They both were impressive in the property of sheng1 jin1 (generation of saliva). This last is a wonderful attribute.

Da Xue Shan seems infinitely infusible. Even using tiny gaiwans, I became over-hydrated before these pu’ers gave up. I attribute this to the leaves’ thickness. Those fat boys from Da Xue’s snowy slopes can hold and then release flavor for hours. I like most Mengku Factory pu’er produced from the same area, but Mengku’s pu’ers do not have leaves as thick.

The strengths of both the beeng cha and mao cha are their mouth-watering character, the fine and sweet aftertaste, the silky mouth feel, the eye-popping beauty of its leaves, and a certain refinement typical of Xi-Zhi Hao’s products. Were I forced to find fault, I might mention that the pu’er lacks a wide flavor band, most noticeably a dearth of cha2 di3 (tea bottom). Da Xue Shan plays the high notes faultlessly, but the tune (albeit of sufficient volume) might be a tad thin. This attribute seems more common in "single-regioned" pu’ers. Blends, especially traditional blends, are likelier to pull out all of the pipe organ’s stops, filling the church from pulpit to choir with both low thunder and high trills. Xi-Zhi Hao’s Classic 8582 and 7542 blends provide stunning contrasts in this regard. They are overtures to Da Xue’s etude.

Side note: Some bloggers posted harsh reviews of Da Xue Shan, even while they noted that criticizing Xi-Zhi Hao seems to be in fashion. I cannot agree with those reviews. This is excellent pu’er. I’ve tasted far, far worse many times. Reviewers of late take relish in setting themselves above all teas, lining them up like ducks in a shooting gallery. What book reviewer hates books? What movie critic abhors the movies? A connoisseur and friend (who must remain anonymous) recently wrote this in an e-mail:
Reviewers fail to enjoy the tea that steeps before them because they are always in tea critique mode. Thus, they miss most of the joy of the thing. For me, when a tea possesses a really nice quality, that does the job. It's not about the qualities the tea lacks. Their appraisals work in reverse to this.
My friend states the case eloquently. If a beeng cha of Da Xue Shan were to cost the collector $20.00 rather than $96.00, there would be none available for sale today.

Just one year out, the comparison is not as fruitful as it certainly would be twenty years hence. I ask, therefore, that readers send me samples of both in 2028 -- when I’m seventy-two. (Ancient Corax will be pushing one hundred-thirty, propelled as ever by rivers of Da Hong Pao.) A comparison of the same sheng leaves in twenty-year-old mao cha and beeng cha would provide truly wonderful information, especially into the nature of mao cha, into its age-able-ness or suitability for maturation. I enjoy mao cha, and I often purchase purportedly aged mao cha, chiefly because I can afford it. But I have noted here at CHA DAO that aged mao cha does not provide the incredible magic of great, aged beeng chas. We can surmise that tea traders first compressed pu’er to make it easier to transport to far-flung destinations on the Old Tea Horse Road. Unlike Da Xue Shan, most mao cha is frustratingly fragile, and will shatter under even the mildest, scrutinizing squint. Compression allows pu’er to age at the correct pace—neither too fast nor too slow.

In general, I did not uncover what I sought. Neither flash of lightning nor clash of cymbals emerged from this comparison. But that lack of difference is, by itself, an important bit of education.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Future of Tea Culture

I'm just back from a quick jaunt to Hong Kong and the mainland of China, and hope eventually (time permitting) to tell you more about all of that. Today, there's just one major point that I want to make. It's about a poster ad that I saw repeatedly, in many different stations of the Hong Kong underground, known as the 'MTR':

'The Wisdom of Oriental Living. Creating a Family-Oriented Community with the Oriental Culture.'

My first response to this was, 'Good for them. They're not afraid to embrace and preserve the glorious, millennia-long traditions of their culture.' (This is all the more important in the wake of the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong, in which so much of the cultural history of China was just eradicated; the ironic result is that to learn about 'Old China,' in many ways the best places are now Taiwan and Hong Kong.)

My second response -- registered with particular pleasure -- was 'Hey, those people are drinking out of gaiwan!'

... so they must be drinking TEA!' I was delighted to see that as a synecdoche of Chinese culture, they had selected tea -- a theme, of course, that I myself have chosen on more than one occasion.

But my third reaction was: 'Why did they choose models for this poster who are obviously middle-aged? Why not shoot the photo with people in, say, their early twenties?'

Is this ageism on my part? Certainly not. Is there a logic to depicting the bearers of culture and traditional wisdom -- tea-related or otherwise -- as being in their forties or fifties? Absolutely. But my question was prompted by another, deeper question: What is the rhetorical purpose of this poster? I.e., what is it trying to accomplish communicatively?

Unless I miss the point profoundly, the goal of this advertisement is to convey to the younger generation -- people now in their teens and twenties -- the importance of preserving, cherishing, and celebrating traditional Chinese culture. Hong Kongers the age of the models in the photograph are not likely to be the target audience of such coaxing: they are either already doing such preserving, cherishing, and celebrating, or have already turned their backs decisively on such Olde Ways.

This is not a new concern of mine. As a classical scholar, one of my principal worries is the diminution (not to say total eclipse) of classical learning in the (post)modern era. There is so much other knowledge to be known now; how, in the twenty-first century, are we to make a cogent case for devoting years of one's life to the minute and careful study of the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome? I have also worried aloud, ere now, specifically about the effacement of tea culture in Pacific Asia. When traveling in Taiwan, in Hong Kong, and in the People's Republic of China, I have made it a point to ask young people whether they drink tea, and if so, what sort of person that makes them. A disturbing number of them said either, 'No; I just drink coffee,' or 'I do drink tea, but my friends think I'm weird.'

So this is a larger cultural shift that I am detecting, and not just on the mainland of China. I am fairly certain that the creators of this 'Oriental Culture' advertisement were themselves sensible of it, and wanted to do something about it. It is perhaps not coincidental that I found the poster in Hong Kong, where for so long the occidental influence has been felt on every level -- cultural, political, economic. I saw many more Asians eating with forks in Hong Kong than in either Taiwan or the PRC.

One other question that needs to be asked and answered is, 'Are all such cultural shifts necessarily bad, even if they appear to involve the loss of something that many deem precious?' -- and, perhaps prior to this: 'Is it even possible to halt the flow of cultural change?' Time and tide, as they say, wait for no man. Cultural change, in some sense, is the very metric of human existence: a stagnant culture is a dead one. And, of course, by no means all change is bad. Surely it was a step in the right direction when folks in the USA stopped burning people at the stake for their religious beliefs; and I'm quite certain that we are better off without slavery (though a waggish colleague, when I remarked on this to him, replied simply: 'You want fries with that?').

The rub comes when something beautiful and potentially beneficial, such as tea culture, develops and blossoms over a course of many centuries, and then seems to be waning, not to say in actual danger of extinction. You cannot force such things onto people who don't want them, or who no longer want them; it may be that in a few decades the widespread practice of tea-drinking will have outlived its attractiveness or usefulness in Chinese culture. What is interesting in this regard is the burgeoning interest in Chinese teas outside of Chinese culture -- in the USA, in Europe (particularly France), and of course in Japan -- just at a time when it seems that its cultural weight may be on the decline in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. (I write in full cognizance of the current interest in green, wulong, and pu'er teas in Pacific Asia. Such teas are being sold there by the ton, literally, each year. But my query stands: Is this interest on the wane among people of the younger generation?)

Is it possible that the cultivation of tea in China and Taiwan may become principally an export industry? That may be its only hope of economic feasibility. This could have the concomitant result, not insignificant by any means, of better pay for the laborers in the tea gardens -- perhaps even 'fair trade' wages. But unless the retail cost of such teas skyrockets even beyond the increases we have seen so far, to the point that it is irresistible for these growers to continue producing it, one fears that it may eventually disappear anyway. Even the lure of financial gain may someday be insufficient to keep this ancient heritage alive. So far it has survived, I think, on love above all: the love of the tea farmers for the craft and traditions they have inherited from their forebears. And of course, the love of a delicious cup of tea. But if that vanishes -- and if they discover they can make more money by using their time and energies in other ways -- what comes next?

We may shrug and say: après nous le déluge. We may console ourselves with the assurance that even if this worst-case scenario obtains, it could not come to pass for decades at least. But as some disquieting signs are already beginning to appear, it is perhaps worth our while to think ahead a bit.

And that, dear reader, is why there is CHA DAO.