Monday, May 03, 2010

Cup2Cup: Compressed Da Hong Pao


Tonight I will enjoy two of my favorite Wuyi teas. They are both Da Hong Pao cakes: Deluxe Compressed DHP Cake from My Fine Collects, and Supreme Aged CHP Cake from Dragon Tea House. The former, I learned from vendor Chris Lau, is comprised of 2005 leaves compressed in 2006 by the Yi Min Yuan Tea Factory, and I received it from Hong Kong in late November of 2008. The latter is comprised of 2005 leaves, and I do not know what tea company produced it. It came as a gift two months ago from a tea-loving friend, and I am delighted to have it. Both of these teas have provided many hours of almost sublime enjoyment, and while I fear that comparison might produce a loser and a winner, I cannot restrain my curiosity. I am going to compare them cup2cup. Perhaps it’s nicer to say that I’ll enjoy them both in the same session.

To that end, I’m using two 100-ml gaiwans. Generally I employ 70-ml zisha teapots, but I wonder whether different flavors from different clay teapots might be significant enough to affect the outcome. I’ll leave that experiment for a later date. Into each gaiwan I’ve placed 6.3 grammes of tea—following the recommendation of Chris Lau received in correspondence. I am making an issue of the weight in this case because generally I do not weigh DHP. To brew loose, non-compressed DHP (the norm), I fill the brewing vessel about two-thirds to three-quarters full and press it down gently. But because this is a night for compressed Yancha, I cannot judge proportions by sight, and my old JS-300 V scale—accurate to a tenth of a gramme—comes to the rescue.

I wash DHP once. I brew it with very hot water. The first infusion after the rinse is fifteen seconds, and the following infusions are flash infusions until the flavor wanes. Then I step up the infusions by fifteen-second intervals. I do not know if this is the best way to brew DHP, but it’s the way I know. Because I am accustomed to these parameters, I’ll use them this evening.

The two cakes are quite different. The Deluxe cake began its life at 400 grammes, the Supreme at 125 grammes. The Supreme is very tight (almost shiny) and very black. The Deluxe is somewhat less tight and perhaps tinged with a tiny bit of red. The Deluxe teacake is, in fact, rather like a shu pu’er beeng cha. Dry, the Deluxe has a hint of earth in the aroma, and the Supreme has a pleasant molasses aroma. Gram-for-gram, the Supreme is roughly twice as expensive as the Deluxe, and that is quite expensive. I try to ration myself with these two teacakes, and to drink them both tonight is quite exciting. Is that not ridiculous? I have tried many compressed Wuyi teacakes, and some were excellent. These two are simply my favorites.

In the first infusion after the wash, the Deluxe is, surprisingly, darker than the Supreme. The Deluxe presents spice aroma from the gaiwan’s lid, and the Supreme presents, interestingly, black pepper. Wow.

In the mouth they’re wonderful tonight. The initial flavors in the nose make me think of chocolate syrup! In the fourth infusion, the liquors from the two teas turn out the same: orange-red. They both taste of cherry cider—the Deluxe with a savory character and the Supreme with a sharper, sweeter quality. But primarily I notice that they are extremely similar. The Supreme is perhaps a little livelier.

In the sixth infusion I note from them both a mineral taste, one I equate with good DHP. The Deluxe continues a little woodier, almost oaken, but that is not a significant note. Given the different weights, years, and companies, the similarity in their flavor profiles is rather amazing. The Supreme is juicier, sweeter, tarter—but not by much.

I am this evening writing more of Ru4 Kou3, the initial burst of flavors in my mouth and nose, than of Hui2 Gan1, the sweetness of aftertaste, because in this case one tea affects the other too much to draw out any different Huigan notes. In fact, these two Wuyi teas are difficult to parse even in the first hot sips. It occurs to me now that I love them both because they share a single, particular flavor range I like. This revelation would not have come to me had I not undertaken a cup2cup session.

I like to store Da Hong Pao to see if it will change for the better over time, but that storage can be fraught with danger because the long, dry oolong leaves are so very friable. What goes into the storage box in perfect strips of tea leaf can emerge later—despite the most protective packaging—as bits and pieces. Compressed cakes prevent this sad shattering. Likely oolong from Wuyi was first compressed for ease in transportation and to protect it from breaking into powder. I have seen compressed Shui Xian and Da Hong Pao shaped as zhuan cha, fang cha, bing cha, pucks, and even little fingers like Tootsie Rolls stuck together in a sheet. I suppose there are other shapes I’ve not encountered.

The best compressed DHP is not as good, I suppose, as the best loose DHP. The cakes’ flavors and bouquet are a little more subdued and subtle. Somehow they recall sensations from further back in the memory. To explore them requires a little more mental spelunking. Loose DHP is about instant floral bursts and sweet fruit aftertastes, and the compressed oolong is more about considerations and suggestions. The quality of loose DHP is unrelated to fancy name or price charged. Buying mail order from vendors foreign or domestic, one rolls the dice, and often, one loses. The same holds true for compressed DHP. But I am pleased to report that these two, the little Supreme and the larger Deluxe, both serve as excellent exemplars of their ilk. I enjoy them because they are comfort-teas appealing to both the scholarly and the informal in us, and because I have a little of each socked away for down the road, the way, the cha dao.