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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!

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1993 Blended Taiwanese Oolong

I wish I had a better name for this tea, but it’s a little bit of a mystery. A birthday present from my friend Ben, these leaves are a blend of various Taiwan-grown cultivars carefully aged since 1993.

This is such a fascinating tea! The flavors are very difficult to describe. Woody and earthy for certain, but not like a Shou Puer. This is more the woodiness that you get when munching on wild blueberries and a bit of stem or leaf ends up in your mouth. In fact, wild blueberries are a good metaphor for what I taste in my cup. Sweet and earthy with a light perfume.

93-blend-cupThe liquor is a golden orange in the cup, and has the aroma of a freshly toasted pie crust, hot out of the oven. Honestly, every time I smell the warm scents coming from this tea my brain is confused because they seem like a cross between the caramel roast of a Wuyi cliff tea (Yan Cha) and the fruitiness of lightly toasted Dong Ding.

The flavor reminds me a little of a 1982 Bao Zhong from Red Blossom (apparently I haven’t reviewed that one yet, but here’s a similar tea): sweet and fruity but also heavily roasted. I wasn’t able to find out exactly what leaves are in here, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there’s a good quotient of tea from Pinglin, where Bao Zhong is made.

What a wonderful gift, and I bow humbly to Ben for his kindness, my cup of tea steaming in my hands.

 

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Tea as Patience

I make a fair amount of tea during the average day. By the time some evenings roll around I’ve brewed three or four pots of different teas, each one usually three to six times. One thing that this practice has shown me is that not all tea preparation is equal. Many infusions end up being brewed while I’m working, reading something on the Internet, or having a deep conversation. The result? The tea becomes just another beverage.

That’s not my preference, of course. I’d much rather be aware of my tea making. Not only does a carefully, mindfully prepared cup of tea taste much better, the experience of making the tea itself becomes enjoyable. I’ve written about “tea as meditation” before, but today I was struck by one particular aspect: patience.

One of the most interesting and unique parts of making tea by hand is the steeping time. The way I see it, this single factor sets it apart from other artisan beverages like wine, beer, whiskey, etc. To make the best tea, we have to be very careful about how long the leaves sit in the water. Too long, and a bitter cup of tea results; too short, and a watery cup is what you get. While using a timer is almost essential when starting out, as familiarity develops the practitioner gains an intuitive sense of when to pour out the pot. Either way, we must wait, and wait, and wait, but not be distracted! Our awareness must remain on the tea as it sits there in silence. A vigil of the leaf.

While waiting for thirty seconds or two minutes can certainly be annoying at times, I see this as a wonderful part of the practice of tea! Annoyance, after all, only appears when we’d rather be doing something else. When it arises, I try to notice that it’s arisen by saying to myself, “well, now I am annoyed; how interesting! I want this tea to be complete so I can go do something. This is what restlessness feels like.” And then I wait, and wait, until the tea is ready.

I encourage everyone to try this practice! Being present with the emotions when we resist an experience can be very interesting indeed! And what a short meditation it is: the time it takes to steep a pot of tea. In many cases less than a minute! Better still, the result is not just learning about our own mind or cultivating patience, but we get a delicious cup of tea as the icing on the cake. If only all practices of meditation could have such a tangible reward.

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Kabusecha and the Warm Teapot

The super rich, spinach-and-seaweed aroma of a Japanese green tea is the result of many different factors. One technique pioneered by Japanese tea farmers is the practice of covering some of their plants for a few weeks just before harvest. The covers are permeable mesh or bamboo, allowing only a little sunlight to reach the tea during this period. The result of this practice darkens the leaf as the plant tries to produce more chlorophyll in its attempts to reach the sun.

When these covered teas are harvested, they become either Gyokuro, the most savory of green teas; Tencha, used to make powdered Matcha; or Kabusecha, a unique form of Sencha that is a real treat for the senses.

A recent excursion allowed the purchase of some Kabusecha Saemidori from Camellia Sinensis tea house. I’m quite familiar with the covered Sencha served at Dobra tea room, and it’s always been one of my favorite green teas, but at most other tea shops I usually lean toward earthy Puer and heavenly Oolongs. I’m very glad that I made an exception here, and honestly I have to thank my wife and my good friends for picking this tea in the first place.

The dark green leaves are finely cut into medium-size pieces, as is typical for all but the most rare tea made in Japan. Gently infused with relatively very cool water (approximately 50-70 degrees Celsius) they produce a light pea-green liquor that just radiates happiness.

It’s not just the flavor, though.

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Let me share with you my favorite part of this ritual. I’ve mentioned it before, but one of the great joys of brewing loose leaf tea is getting to experience the aroma of the warmed leaves, and this is doubly true for Sencha.

First, warm your tea pot. It doesn’t matter what kind of pot, although something with a mesh strainer is going to resulting infusion much more tasty. All you have to do here is pour hot water into the empty pot, let it sit for twenty seconds or so, then pour it out (you may as well warm your cups with the water when you’re done).

Next, pour in some tea leaves. If you want to measure, I’d say around six grams of leaf per 200ml of water, but I usually don’t bother. Roughly two tablespoons is a good rule of thumb. Also – and this is a point that ruined many pots of Sencha for me in the past – don’t use a teapot that holds more than 400ml of water. For Japanese tea especially, the infusion will need to be very careful, and large pots make this nearly impossible.

Now for the magic.

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Just after adding the leaves, cover your tea pot with the lid, trapping the leaves in with the warm, moist air.

Then comes the reward! After letting the leaves sit in the warm pot for around a minute, carefully lift the lid and stick your nose in. (Fair warning: if you heated the pot with boiling water, there may be steam escaping and you definitely don’t want to stick your nose in that! So it’s best to lift the lid, let any steam escape, and then inhale.) The resulting aroma is a life experience in itself.

What if I don’t smell anything?

It’s worth mentioning that if your tea is getting old (more than a year since harvest) or if it has been stored with too much exposure to air or light (often the case for tea purchased from jars or in clear containers), you may not get much aroma. Fresh and vacuum sealed tea will provide the best experience, but you can always try to warm the pot with hotter water and leave the tea inside for a longer period if you don’t smell anything. Chances are that if you don’t get a blast of deliciously savory aroma from the damp leaves, the taste of the infusion may be dull and flat.

Assuming all goes well, steep your Sencha with warm (about 70°C) water for between 60 – 90 seconds. The exact count varies but you can solve this riddle by pouring out a small quantity of tea during the steep and tasting it to see if it’s ready. Be quick, though; a few seconds can make or break a Japanese tea!

Even though it’s a tricky style of tea to get perfect, I really encourage everyone to try their hand at Sencha. The resulting incredible flavor and aroma you just can’t find in any other tea. Be patient with yourself, and when you smell the tea, really let it pervade your senses. This is the communion with nature that tea brings to us. It is a gift of the leaf, and more than worth the effort needed to find it.

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Kuwapani Royale 2015 Second Flush

This delightful surprise was sweet and quite chocolatey. I felt like I was drinking a fancy dark chocolate. The effect was notably drying but with a wonderfully thick mouth-feel that raised my spirits considerably after drinking (not that I was feeling particularly down to begin with, but still).

I had the good fortune to stop by Stone Leaf Teahouse on my birthday for a few pots of Chá (actually, this “good fortune” was thanks to the wise suggestion of my wife). I enjoy every chance I have to talk to the owner, John, and this time he informed us that the shop had recently acquired not one, but TWO Nepalese second flushes (the summer harvest) from a well-known garden called Kuwapani. I’ve enjoyed many Kuwapani teas before, both first and second flush, and I’m always interested to try new lots. One of the versions that John had on tap was named “Kuwapani Royale”, and with a name like that I naturally I had to have a pot.

kuwapani-royale-dryAt this point if you’re asking yourself, “but what kind of tea is this?”, what we’re looking at is a black tea (or red tea to be more accurate). But Nepal produces black tea with leaves that are more akin to Chinese cultivars than the large Assamica style so popular in Western black tea. The result is a light and very aromatic infusion modeled on the teas of the Darjeeling region of India, just over the mountains to the south. As I’ve mentioned a few times before, tea from Nepal and Darjeeling have become increasingly difficult to distinguish, and I think this is ultimately a good thing. Both regions are producing superb-quality leaf and I’m very happy to see such amazing tea coming from countries like Nepal who possess less of a tea-growing pedigree.

Second flush leaves tend toward brown with hints of green left-over from the plant’s early-season energy. Compared with first flush leaves which can be mostly green with only a hint of darkness creeping in, you can definitely see the effects of a later harvest. Just like a first flush, well-made second flush leaves should be mostly full (unbroken) and leathery with at least a few tips present in the mix. This Kuwapani has everything I’d expect in appearance: tippy, hints of green and gold, small twisted leaf sets, but I suppose I might not pick it out of a crowd. The rich taste and chocolate aroma are what really sets it apart.

kuwpani-royale-wetA good three-minute steep was needed to really draw out the flavors from my second and third infusions, which is surprising given what I know about Darjeeling and Nepal teas. My experience has shown the style to be fairly delicate. It seems that this tea holds on to its energy tightly. A nice side effect of this was that there wasn’t a hint of bitterness in the cup afterward, which is definitely not what I was expecting.

Altogether a great birthday tea (among many!) and one I’m going to be drinking again. If only all second flushes were this great.

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1998 White2Tea Shou Puer Tuo

When I saw that White2Tea had revived the legendary 2002 White Whale puer tea, I immediately placed my request. Google that tea, it has quite a reputation.  It’s a shame to order only one item from such a noble company, though, right? I decided to add just one more tea to the order, conscious of my ever-expanding puer collection. Two-thirds of what I have are Sheng, so I felt justified to add a Shou to the list. I drink those more often anyway. (What’s Sheng and Shou?) At a recommendation from my friend Ben I tacked on a small Tuo from 1998 without too much of a name. Just an extra, right? An opener? Well… I need to tell you about this tea.

Are you familiar with a Tuó? It’s a “nest” shaped chunk of pressed tea leaves, aged. I think it’s fair to say that most puer is shaped as a Bǐng (饼) or cake: basically a big disc somewhere between 100-400 grams. The other two most common shapes are the Zhuān (砖) or brick, and the ball-like Tuó (沱).

98white-dryThe dry leaves on the Tuo don’t give much away. They’re certainly dark, yelling “Shou!”, (“ripe” tea, meaning accelerated aging) with just a hint of a reddish glow that implies a good storage. As soon as they enter the warmed pot, though: wow. Rich, earthy aromas. Like being in a bookstore. Not just any bookstore either, but one of those tiny, poorly ventilated shops in the unfashionable section of town with floor-to-ceiling stacks of yellow-edged Sci-Fi from twenty years ago. Is that not a common memory? Maybe I’m weird. Anyway, that’s what this tea brings to mind.

A dusky red-black liquor promises wonders, and this tea does not disappoint. In the mouth it’s smooth and malty, with just a touch of dry sweetness. It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a treat like this. Both my wife and I immediately remembered our first trip to Camellia Sinensis in Montréal so many years ago, and drinking whatever aged beauty they had on the menu. It was like this. Sheer perfection in a cup.

98white-cupsThe tea was so thick that I started feeling full after just a few cups. But I had to keep going. About seven infusions later, the magic began to wane, and I was once again just a normal human sitting on a normal couch drinking a normal Shou puer. That’s not extreme longevity for a Shou. But for those seven infusions I was a god sitting on Mount Olympus supping on Ambrosia and Nectar. I hope you can relate.

Even after number seven (this was with eight grams of leaf in a Jianshui pot) I managed to create at least four more infusions with a delicious earthiness that, if somewhat lighter, were still within the realm of enjoyable.

I don’t know if it’s because of the age or what, but I can definitely recommend this one for anyone who loves puer or the smell of ancient books. Or if you’d like to be a greek deity for a few infusions. It just goes to show that the single-origin Shengs of the puer world aren’t the only ones with something special to give. As White2Tea says, “blank white wrappers are adept at hiding the true value of a tea.”