Category Archives: Tastings

Master’s Collection Hsinchu Oriental Beauty from Adagio

As I mentioned last week, I recently was given a gift certificate to review some teas from Adagio. A long time ago I was a regular on their sleek website with all its tea information and community resources, but since then I’ve been more drawn to smaller specialty shops. To really see what they could offer, I decided to jump straight for the “Master’s Collection” teas. My second try was their “Hsinchu Oriental Beauty”.

I appreciate the naming of this offering, as even among specialty tea shops, it’s rare to see Hsinchu listed so explicitly. Hsinchu is a region in north-western Taiwan where Oriental Beauty (東方美人茶, Dōng Fāng Měi Rén Chá, or sometimes simply 白毫 – Bái Háo) is grown and processed. This remarkable oolong, which I’ve written about before, is gifted a very special technique around the harvest time. Before picking, the farmers encourage a species of leaf hopper insect to bite the leaves of the tea plant, triggering a chemical reaction that our taste buds find delicious.

masters-baihao-liquorBrewed for about 2 minutes at 95°C, the aroma of this tea was striking as soon as it came out of the gaiwan. Definitely Bai Hao. That roasted grain and honey sweetness is recognizable anywhere. In fact, the perfume it gave off was almost overly sweet, reminding me somewhat of a Dan Cong. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Bai Hao quite this dramatic before, and I’ve drank a lot of it. I would recommend keeping the infusions short for this tea or at least taking care how many leaves are used to avoid being overwhelmed!

That bold sweetness continued for another four infusions, so the life of the leaf is not in question. Sometimes Dong Fang Mei Ren Cha is called “honey oolong” and this sweetness is the reason. The liquor feels like a mouthful of amber honeycomb.

masters-baihao-wetIf Bao Zhong is a Dragon of Spring Dawning, Bai Hao is a Dragon of Autumn Twilight. It’s a warming tea ready to impart a touch of kindness to a rainy day or to glow in the shadows of a sunny afternoon.

Our days can be full of chaos and confusion, so please, take a moment to watch the swirl of leaves in your pot. I hope you can see within the all the hands (both human and insect in this case!) whose lives are intertwined with the tea. We’re all in this together.

Master’s Collection Formosa Pouchong from Adagio

Back when I first fell in love with loose leaf tea, I quickly discovered Adagio. Compared to my other favorite of the time, Upton Tea Imports, Adagio had a sleek website, a more curated selection, and excellent packaging. Their online communities provided a space for tea discussion long before Steepster. While their selection is great, their focus on mass-appeal teas and blends eventually led me to more specialty shops and I haven’t been back for years. Unexpectedly, last week I had the opportunity to get my hands on some of their newer offerings. Specifically I went right for the “Master’s Collection” that seemed to fit my interests. Fair warning: I received a gift certificate from Adagio that paid for most of the cost of these teas.

Having spent a wondrous adventure drinking tea in Pinglin, Taiwan, my first pick was what Adagio calls “Formosa Pouchong”. While exotic-sounding, this is an old way of referring to Bāo zhǒng oolong tea (包種茶). If you’ve never encountered these names, I’ll unwrap it a bit. “Formosa” is Portuguese for “beautiful” and it was a name used for the island of Taiwan from the 1500s through until the Japanese occupation in the late 1800s. A particular style of green oolong (light bodied, light roasted or un-roasted) is produced in the Wen Shan area in the north of Taiwan that is known as Bāo zhǒng or “wrapped item”. The name likely comes from some of the steps used in processing these gently twisted green leaves. Before the advent of modern Pinyin transliteration, “Bao zhong” was often rendered as “Pouchong” in the West, and here it sometimes remains.

If you’d like to read more about Bao zhong or Pinglin and my time there, I have several posts on the topic ranging from my original telling of the story, to some tasting notes, to a comparison of different leaves.

I brewed these dark green leaves at 90°C for 2 minutes. The dry leaf was dark and matte green. In my experience most Bao zhong is fairly bright. Unlike some rolled or more heavily roasted oolongs, I think Bao zhong is best consumed during the five month period after its harvest and a dull leaf can sometimes point to older tea. Once in the cup, however, a bright green liquor and delicate flavors told a different story. This tea brings to mind ancient moss-covered temples and glowing statues of Quan Yin.

Here’s what Adagio has to say about this tea, which I’d say accurately summarizes the color of the liquor and the texture on the tongue.

The liquor is a pale golden-green color with melting-butter texture, uplifting floral notes and mild, succulent flavor. The sweet floral nose lingers long after the last sip.

I managed a good four infusions, increasing the time of each, before this began to loose its flavors. Longevity like that in an oolong is a good sign of quality leaf. The aroma of toasted sunflower seeds and nuts was just as I was expecting, although it was considerably less pronounced than some Bao zhong I’ve had in the past. The body is excellent and buttery in the mouth, making for a good session tea. I’d recommend this for big cups and bold brews rather than sipping delicate gongfu infusions.

Wen Shan Bao zhong is always a treat for the senses, and can be a surprise for those who’ve never had such a lightly oxidized oolong before. Its flavors are almost overlapping with the character of a Liu’An Guapian or Long Jing – both quintessential Chinese green teas – and yet there’s also something more. A subtle air lives in this kind of tea that pervades the mind and brings a sense of calm, where green tea would raise the energy instead. Overall, I’m glad to see that Adagio can source some unexpected treasures and spread more good tea into the world.

 

A short tea adventure in Vancouver

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Vancouver for a couple of days and so naturally I had to know: what’s the tea scene like?

Short answer? It’s amazing. I need to go back.

I got some fantastic recommendations over Instagram from the Vancouver Tea Society, and did a little planning. It was a pretty short trip, and I had a lot of other things to do so I couldn’t justify spending four hours in each of the (seven!) suggested tea shops. To that end I picked two.

o5 Tea was the closest option to where I was staying in Kitsilano, so that was an easy choice. I was able to taste some impeccable 2017 Darjeeling First Flush while there. The kind and knowledgable Jacob made a great cup, which I paired with an (also delicious) Autumn harvest for comparison. There were so many teas on their list that I wanted to try, I’m definitely going to have to visit there again.

I was in the city with several of my friends who had not been introduced to the wonders of gongfu tea, so I also set up a Puer tasting at Silver Crescent Tea. We drank a very smooth younger (2012) Sheng, a malty 90’s loose Shou with huge leaves, and an older (1998) 7543 Sheng. As I was talking too much with Erick and Keira I didn’t get any tasting notes, but they were a great spectrum of the Puer world.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that yet another West Coast city has such great tea, but it’s welcome news. Next time I hope to be able to spend a week just sitting and sipping throughout the city. Well done, Vancouver, well done indeed.

Marshmallow Puer: 2005 Yunnan Sourcing Bo Wen

Recently I had the pleasure to order a pile of tea from Yunnan Sourcing, a company I’ve admired for a long while but from whom I had never ordered. This chronicles my first tea from that order, a 2005 Bo Wen “Yue Chen Yue Xiang” Ripe Pu-erh.

This is a 12 year-old Ripe (Shou) Puer, and as such my expectations are that it would have an earthy sweet flavor with dark liquor and ideally a pleasant mouth-feel. That said, 12 years is still barely middle-aged for a tea like this and while I don’t expect as much nuance from a Shou as I would a Raw (Sheng) Puer, this should only improve in the coming decade.

 

I used 8 grams of leaf for my pot. The cake was very easy to break apart, which is satisfying to me. Having to chisel into a cake with a jack-hammer is never a fun experience. In the pot, the aroma of the warmed leaves was astoundingly sweet, but not at all overwhelming. It was tempered by a gentle scent of old parchment and mushrooms. Overall a good sign.

For each infusion I steeped the leaves approximately 45-50 seconds. That’s a little longer than I normally would infuse a Puer like this, but any less time and the broth looked much too thin. While an inky blackness isn’t always desirable, I like my Puer to have some color to it, and with the extra wait I was not disappointed.

The dusky red liquor was quite malty and creamy on the tongue. The texture and flavor reminded me of nothing less than marshmallows, yet with a subtle hint of old parchment aroma following behind.

After a few similar infusions, I’d characterize this tea as comfortable. Its notes are not overly dramatic, and the flavor is mostly sweet rather than old tasting, but the thickness is undeniable. It’s neither cloying nor dusty, and I think it will be a delightful sipping Puer.

Sometimes when I describe buying a brick or cake (Bing) of Puer, people are surprised at the cost. This one was not expensive, and moreover, you’re getting quite a lot of tea! Just some quick math: a 350 gram Bing for $35 USD, at 8 grams of leaf per pot, is about $0.85 USD per pot. One pot makes maybe an average of 8 infusions, so that’s about $0.10 USD per cup. And this is for a 12 year-old tea! A good deal if I ever drank one. So go out there, fellow tea lover, and get yourself some old Puer (but leave some for me!).

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.

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):

dongding-menu

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!

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.

newblack-liquor

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.