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A Calm Fragrance in Autumn

A lazy trail of incense drifting over the pot, the tea steeps in silence, peacefully abiding.

This month’s Global Tea Hut offering is a relatively unique creation, a Honey Scent Oolong (Mì Xiāng, 蜜香, also titled “Calm Fragrance”, Yǐ Xiāng Rù Dìng 以香入定). This leaf was crafted from the Four Seasons cultivar (Sì jì chūn, 四季春) which has been intentionally bitten by the leafhopper so highly prized for the creation of Eastern Beauty Oolong (Dōngfāng Měirén, 东方美人茶). The tea was then oxidized a fair amount before rolling and roasting, becoming a style known as Concubine Oolong (Guì Fēi, 貴妃茶), but with a deeper roast.

mixiang-leafThe result is a golden cup of sweet nectar whose aroma carries the mind across fields of blooming flowers. Even the aroma of the warmed leaves, devoid of any water, is indeed an incense into itself.

Sipping this tea brings me back to the days when I first discovered the joy of unscented loose leaf tea. The gentleness on the tongue, the incredible aroma, and more crucially the way in which it opens my senses to the world around me, outside of my thoughts.

outdoor-autumnAs I hold my cup, I hear the strumming of music on the speakers and the notes are more vibrant. I see the orange and yellow maple leaves outside my window and the blue-gray of the distant sky as though for the first time. The colors each seem to glow. Each sound – a drop of water, a clink of saucer, the softly breathing dog beside me – becomes somehow more vivid and real for this moment.

Although it is certainly a luxury, I highly recommend Global Tea Hut to anyone who can afford it and who wishes to explore and learn from the world of tea. Such experiences as this are meant to be shared.

I raise my cup to you, fellow tea lover. Experience this moment with me.

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2016 Dong Ding from Wistaria

This was a gift from the incomparable Tammie from her recent trip to Taiwan. In Taipei there’s a well-known teahouse called Wistaria (紫藤廬) which I have been privileged to spend time in. Their tea is superb and they know it very well.

The tea house is situated inside an old Japanese mansion that dates back to the occupation of Taiwan by the Japanese. The inside (built in the 1920s and restored in 2008) is a beautiful mix of paper screens, dark wood, and tatami mats. This is all quite a contrast when you realize that they don’t actually serve Japanese tea!

The tea service at Wistaria is traditional Chinese Gong-fu Cha. I’ve written about Gongfucha before, but briefly it lies somewhere between a miniature ceremony and a means of preparing the best tea possible. Everything you need is provided: delicate Yixing teapot, scoop, tea pick, cloth, bowl, cups, pitcher, and other accompanying tools. If you don’t know how to prepare the tea, the kind staff is happy to guide you.

The tea they serve at Wistaria is, in my experience, top notch. They also serve food, and I remember it being delicious, but the tea so far outshone my other senses that it’s pretty much all I can remember. Metallic Wuyi cliff tea, cloud-like Bao Zhong greens, salty sweet Ali Shan oolong, and earthy Puer are all available for the discerning customer.

dongding-cup-liquorI was humbled to taste this wonderful gift so far from Taipei. It is a green oolong from Dong Ding (aka: Tung Ting, 凍頂) mountain in Nantou county, central-eastern Taiwan (I’ve actually been there too). I don’t know all the details about this particular Dong Ding, but here’s what their menu reads (translated by another friend, James):

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Jiang-jia Tung-ting oolong

From the same tea plantation of “zhi-teng” (Purple Vine), an Autumn tea full of the flavor of this season, makes your mind wonder in the world of “Jiang-jia” — A spectacular scenery described in the Book of Songs. [The Book of Songs is one of the classics of Confucianism, full of great poems that are meant to be sung.]

And my experience? Wonderful.

The first cup had an enchanting aroma. I noticed candied sugar and the scent of sweet syrup. The liquor is golden-green and tastes of jasmine flowers and sweet cream. At the same time there’s a broth like quality to the tea. A bit of salt and vegetables that seems to appear in the mouth. The experience reminds me a lot of the Winter Sprout oolong I found at Song Tea in San Francisco, but maybe a little less intense.

The following infusions lost some of the sweetness and the salty broth character became more pronounced. By the fourth and fifth infusion there was only a hint of sweetness like a delicate layer of marzipan as it washed over my tongue. I increased the infusion time to about five minutes at that point and was rewarded with another few delicious cups before I put this tea to bed.

It was a delight to be taken back to Taiwan with one cup of tea and returned to my home in the next. This connection is one of my favorite things about the tea experience; it’s quite literally an adventure in every sip. Thanks again to Tammie for this opportunity and thanks to Wistaria for providing such a wonderful leaf. May your cups be filled with adventure too!

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Puer is the New Black

It’s no secret that I love a good Shou Puer (熟普洱茶). Misty Peak Teas just began offering a new cake they call “The New Black”. Even though the name is light on information (region, factory, etc.) I’ve come to appreciate these elegant names for Puer cakes; they give a little personality to the tea and make it memorable. I’m still very much enjoying the “Brown Sugar” Zhuan Cha from White2Tea, for example, and their labels really make a splash. Of course, the best is when I can get a fun name in addition to some real production notes, and like White2Tea, here Misty Peaks provides.

This tea is a 2012 harvest, whose leaves were aged for one year and then fermented for four months. The description on the site lists it as having a, “fresh tea taste while still bringing a wonderful earthy character” and I think this is fairly accurate. Having brewed this tea around thirteen times, I noticed both a sweet energetic quality as well as a lot of earthy flavors.

I brewed 9 grams in my Jianshui (建水) pot for about 10 seconds to start and increased the infusion time from there. The flavor I found that most stood out in the first handful of infusions was a distinct leatheriness with a bit of an iron tang. It reminded me of visiting leather workshops when I was young. Walking in, the scent of of oil, cured leather, and metal pervaded the room like an incense. The aroma of my cup was much the same. In the mouth, the leather was complimented by a lingering sweetness that gradually grew stronger as the infusions progressed.

The wet leaves gave off the dusky aroma of a wet stone cellar that was delightful. I wanted to leave my nose in the pot as the steam billowed around me. The liquor was a beautiful gold and black color in the fading sunlight of a late summer afternoon.

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As infusions number four and five trickled into our cups, I realized that the leather had faded to the background and the sweetness had come to the fore. It was definitely a “wet”, clean taste and texture, bringing to mind bold black cherries. It was not a candy sweetness that I’ve tasted in very young generic Shou, but something with a bit of astringency holding it together. I’m not sure what to attribute as the source of the wetness, but it was distinctly different from the “old book” dryness that appears in so many of my older Shou cakes. I wonder if with age the sweetness will evolve to a dry texture, or if it’s a property intrinsic to this cake? Such mysteries are a source of great interest to me with aging Puer.

Over the course of a few hours I managed to derive around ten infusions out of these leaves and only reached about a two-minute infusion time. I continued drinking them the next day, and the pot continued producing a clean tasting, wet, ruddy liquor that was a comforting complement to yet another afternoon. It’s worth noting that the tea was sent to me as a sample, and the part of the cake (or “Bing”, 饼茶) which I received was the very center, which in my experience tends to last longer than the outer edges. Still, this Puer clearly has a lot of life to it and doesn’t wash away easily.

The often encyclopedic names of Puer cakes can be difficult to parse for those who don’t make it a topic of study, and with a growing market for aged tea in the West, I’m glad to see the evolution of interesting titles from reputable tea vendors like this one. I have a feeling that the fascination with real Puer has only just begun on our side of the world, and that I’ll be drinking (and sharing) many more teas like this in the near future.

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2003 Tong Qing Hao Sheng Puer

This afternoon my wife found a nice-looking little bag of Puer leaves in our Sheng Puer box. It was labeled (in my handwriting) “2003 Tong Qing Hao”, but had no other information. What was this mystery tea? We decided to drink it to find out!

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We were originally going to do a rinse, but the rinse (a nearly instant infusion) was so golden and beautiful, we ended up drinking it as the first infusion instead. This proved to be a great idea.

As the liquid rested in my mouth, the aroma held a delicate fragrance. It was sweet but not cloying, like the smell of a honeysuckle bush as you walk by on a spring day.

The flavor was dry, sweet, and also definitely astringent, but the astringency only served to balance the sweetness rather than take the tea into bitter territory. A perfectly ripe lychee fruit came to mind, or the pith of a sweet orange. There was perhaps the mouth feel of a sour apple with a little bit of the texture of chalk. Altogether a very interesting and delicious tea!

2003tongqinghao-cupsOne surprise was that even though the flavor was very balanced, this tea still tasted very young for leaves that were 13 years old. Perhaps the leaves were just stored in a dry place or the date was wrong, but it definitely didn’t have any of the earthy characteristics of a mature Puer.

This was a good tea to kick-start an otherwise lazy afternoon. Seven infusions later we were awake and ready to get things done. I can always recommend an energizing Sheng Puer for a productive day!

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An Ordinary Treasure

I’d like to share my experiences recently with a 2004 “Ordinary Treasure” Sheng Puer from Global Tea Hut.

I had tried this small package of Puer once casually when we got it in the mail, and I enjoyed it immensely. I love a good raw Puer (Shēng chá, 生茶) now and then, but most of my collection is still fairly young. Older raw Puer tends to be expensive, and certainly wasn’t something I expected to receive with my magazine.

Fortunately there was enough left in the tin for another try because I wanted to write a little about my experience. Today I brewed the last 7 grams in my Jianshui pot, gongfu style.otreasure-leaves

The liquor had a beautiful golden orange hue, like a sunset over the water. Being fairly loose, this tea does not need any rinse, nor a lengthy first infusion. The sunset appears almost at once. In fact, I had to cut my first infusion with a little extra water because it was a bit too intense. It actually felt elegant as I added the extra water and watched the tea’s deep orange fade to gold. Perhaps that’s where I saw the sunset for the first time.

Smooth and mellow, the flavor was comforting and energizing at the same time. While there was a definite sweet taste, it wasn’t the sweetness of fruit. More the earthy sweetness of oats and barley with a little bit of toasted almond. Despite it being only early afternoon, sipping this tea brought to mind the beautiful mountain sunsets of Yunnan; I think I could feel the cool breeze on the evening of a hot summer day.

At the third infusion the body became thicker with more of a eucalyptus effect, though still sweet and mellow. How enchanting! I found the heaviness unexpected for a Sheng and yet very welcoming. I wonder if this is the stage between a young Puer’s sharpness and the aged earthiness that I’ve found often arrives when raw Puer gets closer to the 20 year line.

The fourth and fifth infusions mysteriously remind me of nothing short of a Hong Cha! So rich and mouth filling with that hint of tannin. Even the liquor’s color belied its processing.

otreasure-hatThe sixth infusion went back to tasting more like Puer with a cedar flavor and a hint of an astringency along my tongue. It was still very drinkable though, and that’s with only about a two minute infusion.

Brewing this tea was quite a delight, all the way to the last drop. Many thanks to Global Tea Hut for bringing these leaves to the community. I hope to find more gems like this in the mysterious world of aged tea, and I hope you find some too.

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Misty Peaks 2016 Mao Cha

Spring rain, dappled sunlight on leaves, and fresh tea: these things come together in my cup, a gift from the hundred hands of the earth.

Last month I received an exciting gift! Nicholas from Misty Peaks tea sent me a small package of their 2016 spring harvest. Misty Peaks is a unique and fascinating tea company. Where most vendors on the Internet sell various lots chosen from among hundreds of farms, Misty Peaks source their tea entirely from one family in Yunnan Province (the birthplace of tea in Southwestern China) and thus are able to guarantee a quality and artisanship that is remarkable. I feel very privileged to be able to drink and write about this tea so soon after its harvest.

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The dry leaves I received are beautiful: large, long, and wiry. The package didn’t give a name for this tea apart from the harvest time, but I’d call this a spring Mao Cha (“raw tea”; see my other post on the topic for more information).

I used approximately 5g of leaf in my Jianshui Sheng puer pot (140ml) to infuse this tea. Once warmed, the aroma is like warm strawberry jam, like you might put over shortcake in summer. I nearly ate my pot.

misty-mao-cha-liquorThe liquor has the color of straw and gold. My first infusion, at about 30 seconds (with no rinse), has a flavor that is surprisingly light, but sweet and creamy with no bitterness at all. There’s a hint of peat in the aroma that makes me think of autumn leaves. The taste is very refreshing.

That first infusion was light enough that I revised my initial assumption of a young sheng puer that might make a bitter brew. So for the second and third, I bumped it up to about 45 seconds to see what it would do. The result was still light and sweet, with only a hint of astringency on the tongue. The fourth I pushed a bit with an infusion of about 1:20, and still it was mellow and satisfying, with only an increased astringent character and less sweetness to show for the “long” infusion. I enjoyed it so much I wished I had tried a longer infusion right off the bat!

misty-mao-cha-setupAfter first misjudging the capacity of this tea, I felt that a second tasting was required. To that end I waited several weeks and brewed it again, this time with a freer hand and less care for the time!

Again with no rinse, this first infusion was about 1:20 and I was rewarded for my patience!

Now the color is a deep amber and the aroma is fragrant like spring flowers. Today is wet with glimpses of sun on the tree buds and perhaps as a result I feel like I taste the sweetness of spring rain. The first three infusions are soft and comforting. I love how the huge leaves just melt under the hot water as each infusion begins.

misty-mao-cha-wetContinuing with this relaxed brewing, I made several more infusions at around two minutes and each one is like eating a sweet flower petal: gentle and a little bit musky. I made a total of four infusions with little change in this tea’s magic.

It’s a wonderful experience to have such a forgiving and smooth tea from so recent a harvest. I will be ordering a cake of this tea for my collection and paying closer attention to Misty Peak’s offerings in the future. But for now I’ll be paying attention to my cup, the sigh of the wind, and the warm glow of fading sunlight on the grass. May your Spring be as comforting.

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2015 Laos Ban Komen Maocha

Today I found a package in my box of Sheng Puer that I haven’t yet opened (let’s be honest, there’s two boxes of Sheng Puer and many unopened packages, but I digress). This beauty is from my last trip up to Camellia Sinensis in Montreal. I remember having it recommended to me by one of their tea crew, and being intoxicated by the smell of the leaves. Much like the aroma of roasting oolong in Pinglin, the crisp fruity sweetness of Máochá brings back memories of walking around tea factories in Southern Yunnan.

Máochá is so fun to brew: toss a pile of it into a gaiwan and pour on the boiling water. The result? A golden cup of thick liquor with the taste of freshly cut hay. There’s also a floral component, like the sweetness of honeysuckle, that I find very comforting. A mineral overtone is unmistakeable, but it doesn’t result in a overly dry mouth feel.

That honeysuckle sweetness is more prevalent in this Laos tea than in other Máochá that I remember. It’s not really a perfume, but more a gentle sweetness that just tickles the senses.

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So, if you’ve read this far and have no idea what kind of tea I’m drinking, maybe I should explain a little about Máochá (毛茶 or sometimes Mao Cha).

Máochá isn’t technically Sheng Puer (生普洱茶), even though it is often placed in that category. Literally it is something close to “raw tea”; the fresh tea picked from the large leaf varieties of Camellia sinensis that grow in the south-western region of China, or in this case, Laos. (Aside: It is always important to remember what Global Tea Hut wrote in their October 2015 issue: “tea regards no borders”. While you can talk about tea practices, production techniques, and preparation, the tea itself, “belongs to Nature”. Our political and social delineations of territory don’t mean anything to the tea plant, which just grows where it finds itself, and produces leaves that are adapted to its climate and terroir.)

laosmaocha-wet-2Most Máochá is steamed and then pressed into cakes, producing Puer as it ages. Some, however, is left raw, and this is the tea that a lot of the locals in Puer-producing regions drink as their daily beverage. Made with minimal processing, Máochá has very little in common with the Puer that much of it becomes, evolving much more like a Green, or even a White tea.

Characterized by large, wildly twisted leaves that glow with a green and gold energy, Máochá can harbor some delicious flavors that are not seen in any other tea category. In fact, I’d much prefer to think of Máochá as its own type of tea rather than trying to explain how it comes from a world of Puer, but acts like Green tea.

As I’ve written about before, most tea drinkers in the tea producing regions of China don’t drink tea gong-fu style, nor with western style strainers, but grampa style: just leaves in a jar with hot water. Máochá lends itself really well to this style of drinking. The massive leaves just melt as you pour in the water. It’s a beautiful thing. Máochá is great for every day drinking, and usually rather inexpensive compared to Sheng cakes from the same region.

Like other tea (outside the Hēi chá category), I’d say that Máochá is better within the first year after harvest. It can be aged, but in my experience the flavors can become overly dry and dull the older it becomes, unless aged very skillfully. I imagine that the process of pressing Máochá into Sheng Puer cakes offers the leaves some protection against the elements which the raw tea doesn’t have. Then again, I have tried fewer than six different Máochá in my time, so please conduct your own research and let me know!