Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tasting Wuyi Tea: Three Da Hong Pao Selections


How oddly paradoxical that we attach elaborate verbal descriptions to visceral, sensual experience. But how else could we, at such a far remove from one another, communicate about tea?

The range in tea is wide enough that experiencing it is rather like reading the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Tea comes at me in phases or in waves: Darjeelings, Assams, Wuyi Yancha, Taiwanese Oolongs, Nascent Sheng Pu’er, Aged Sheng Pu’er, Shu Pu’er, Non-Pu’er Heicha, Yunnan Hong Cha, Jiang Su Hong Cha, Chinese Lu Cha, Japanese Green, White Tea, Yellow Tea, Matcha, Tie Guan Yin, Dan Cong ... and then back, perhaps, to Darjeeling. And within each genre of this library of tea, there are various provinces, mountains, regions, factories, vintages, blends, recipes, altitudes, vessels, and parameters. When I have made my way through the Complete and Unabridged Norton Anthology of Tea, even merely skimming as I do, I have little exact memory of what I read when I started. There are too many thousands of pages, and my memory is far from eidetic. And to make it all even more complex, I’m not the person I was when I began the journey. But just as the greatest poems taped to the desk and re-read daily remain great all of one’s life, so do the most comforting of teas remain forever in one’s memory.

I’ve returned recently to oolongs from the Wuyi region of Fujian Province, and I’ve tried to distill what I have noticed into the simplest terms. First, to my senses, the range of quality in teas purporting to come from Wuyi is even greater than the range of quality in other teas, and price paid seems to be no predictor of the quality one finds in the SAL parcel when it at last arrives. Buying Yancha through the mail is truly a roll of the dice!

Next, there are certain dimensions of taste or sense experience that can be expressed in bi-polar adjectives especially apt to this genre. Here is my twice-distilled list:

Thin vs. Thick
Sour vs. Sweet
Bitter vs. Smooth
Fruity vs. Spicy
Lighter Roast vs. Heavier Roast

Only two of those descriptors always carry negative denotations: Thin and Sour. And too often the Wuyi tea one finds in the box from China is indeed thin and sour.

In addition to those dimensions of taste, there are other qualities to be considered when brewing a Wuyi tea. These seem more common to the panoply of tea in general: among them are leaf size, aroma, aftertaste, strength, and brewing endurance.

Perhaps the most common Wuyi tea on English-language tea vendors’ websites is Da Hong Pao, variously translated as "Big Red Robe," "Great Scarlet Cloak," and so on. Much can be said about whether we can correctly term any tea not from the original DHP mother bushes as “Da Hong Pao,” and whether teas made from bushes cloned or styled after those old, original plants should be called “Little Red Robe” or some other name entirely. I leave that discussion for enthusiasts with a scholarly bent. I find it easier to refer to a product by the name the vendor appends to it. I drink tea for the sensual experience.

Today I am remembering three versions of Da Hong Pao that I quite enjoy:

Dai [sic] Hong Pao Heavy Roasted Strong Taste, 2008 production, sourced from GrandTea

Dai [sic] Hong Pao Medium Roasted Fragrance, 2008 production,
sourced from GrandTea

Premium Da Hong Pao Chinese Oolong Tea 2008 production, sourced from Dragon Tea House

These produce excellent beverages, and they show the range available at a price I can afford. All three are big and thick in the mouth, and they are not sour in the least. So they easily pass the first test. They are strong, and in my fashion of brewing, I can enjoy one gaiwan session for hours with any of these three Yanchas.

GrandTea’s Heavily Roasted presents a very pleasant bitterness. The flavor is not bright, exactly, but it is bracing. The aftertaste is strong and pleasant. I consider this to be among the better of the espresso-style of Da Hong Pao products. The appeal is such that I bought it twice.

GrandTea’s Medium Roasted could hardly present a more different character. It’s big in the nose, fruity, sweet, and surprising. It presents sugary fruit flavors akin to Tie Guan Yin or other balled oolongs. Drinking it is rather festive. The lively aftertaste is long lasting. While this tea is certainly worth the money I paid, I would likely prefer to drink GrandTea’s Heavily Roasted. (I state this preference not to deprecate the Medium Roast; in fact, many might prefer it.)

The Premium Da Hong Pao from Dragon Tea House is smooth, spicy, sweet, subtle -- and my favorite of these three. It is a tea for cold nights, for contemplation and quietude. It offers sophistication and a wide flavor band. I am not one to judge the degree of roast, but I’d guess that Dragon Tea’s Premium falls somewhere between GrandTea’s Heavily Roasted and Medium Roasted. That quality alone, however, would not explain my preference. The Premium DHP’s leaf itself seems to be of higher than usual quality for the price range, and for the money, I think Premium DHP from Dragon Tea is a great buy. I love the tea. (As a side note: I’ve bought a quantity of this tea for the purpose of aging it for two years. Will it improve during that time?)

I can roll the expensive dice, spend five or six times more money, and perhaps end up with fancier Da Hong Pao, but long experience shows that the results might not be that much better.

If I find myself reaching for a container of tea without thinking, then by my definition it is good tea. If I am hungry for a tea, it is good tea. I can distinguish between having an interest in a tea and having a craving for a tea. The former triggers the itch of curiosity; the latter gives voice to that which cries for comfort. The former is cognitive; the latter, primal. What draws me at this point to each of the three fine teas discussed here is craving. I come to my senses reaching for them, up there, on the shelf. But had I not been curious, had I not been interested in discovering, I would not possess the comfort of them now.