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.
The 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.
As 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.
What a great name Wu De and associates have chosen for this month’s tea. The gift from Global Tea Hut this December is a bit of loose Spring 2007 Shou Puer they call “Old Man Camphor” (老夫樟 or Lǎofū Zhāng).
Earthy and with a wonderful aroma. Just by the smell it makes me think of some really great old Sheng (生 or raw) Puer that I’ve had in the past, but those teas were all more than 10 years old and this is a blend from only 2007. It’s rare in my experience to find such delicious old-book notes in a Shou (熟 or ripe), so I’m very pleased to have this in my cup. The closest Shou I can think of is the 1998 Xiaguan from Camellia Sinensis, but this has some characteristics that are unique. The mouth-feel of those old Shengs was leathery and dry, but Old Man Camphor is quite smooth and clean feeling on the tongue, which is not a judgement on the quality of either tea, only a comment on the differences of the experience which I find fascinating.
When drinking this tea I feel my mind transported to a far-away oak grove, surrounded by ancient trees and stacks of drying lumber. The scent of woodsmoke floats around my nose, a delicate reminder of a warm glowing fire that keeps out the chill of winter. I can almost feel the snow in the treetops. This image is appropriate for the region of Northern Vermont where I live and the brisk time of year, and so nature complements my tea. Or perhaps my tea complements nature. Either way the experience evokes a harmony in my thoughts that is sorely needed.
The Global Tea Hut magazine this year is filled with wonderful writing and tea knowledge as usual. Besides a very good discussion of the processing of Shou Puer and the ten factory leaf grades (which layers nicely on their previous Puer special edition), there are some really inspiring poems in the margins. The accompanying stories of the Tea Hut crew’s adventures through Europe are inspiring and make me want to host more tea gatherings myself!
But enough analysis. As Wu De is quoted as saying at a tea gathering in the last article, “[this] is the tea we are having in this moment.” Be here with your cup (whatever it may be!) and enjoy. I’ll be here with mine.
This month’s offering from Global Tea Hut is a pair of organic teas from Mr. Xie in Ming Jian, Nantou, Taiwan. One is processed as a green oolong, lightly roasted. The other is processed as Hóng Chá (红茶), or what we might call “black tea”. Both sets of leaves were made from the same garden and (I believe) around the same time, which makes this a very interesting comparison indeed.
I set up another tasting, much like my post on bi lo chun last week, with two small gaiwans and my small Totoro tea pet to assist us with his invaluable perspective. These two teas are quite different, despite their similar origins, and further demonstrate the profound effect of oxidation, rolling, and roast.
The warmed leaves have a delicious aroma. The oolong smells buttery and with an unmistakably light roast and the scent of chestnuts. The hong cha’s leaves give off a hint of candy sweetness, but mostly smell of dry bark in spring. When I say “warmed leaves”, I mean the leaves in the pot before they’ve been infused. It’s possible I’ve never mentioned this here, but if you warm your teapot before brewing, try putting the leaves into the empty pot just afterward and quickly shutting the lid to let them absorb some of the moist heat remaining. After a few seconds, lift the lid and inhale the aromas of the warmed leaves. This can produce an amazing effect, all before even adding water to your leaves!
Both of these teas have been allowed to grow without pesticides, which means that many of them have been nibbled by small insects before the harvest. This can be a very desirable event. The resulting tea, characterized by the iconic Bái Háo (白毫茶), tends to have a sweet rich flavor like honey. This tea magic is due to several factors including defensive compounds that the plant releases when it is attacked, as well as the beginning of oxidation while the leaves are still on the tree. I can taste the effects in both of Mr. Xie’s teas.
The oolong (infused with no rinse at around 2 minutes) produced a golden liquor. The flavor was buttery with quite a roasted and honeyed aroma in the mouth. The roasting of this tea was clearly done with a lot of skill! The finish was crisp and short, not lasting as long as I wished, but that only encouraged me to make a second cup!
The mouth feel was very pleasant, more light and silky than thick and creamy, but it paired well with the aromatics of this tea. The third infusion brought out something like the flavor of oranges, which perhaps was there before but hidden by the roast. Usually I would say “citrus” here, but in this case that word really didn’t fit; I was really getting the sense of oranges.
The Global Tea Hut article accompanying this tea reads,
The oolong tea is bug-bitten, plucked, withered outdoors, and then indoors, shaken and mixed in piles (jiao ban), withered more, pan fired (sa cheen) to arrest oxidation and kill green enzymes, rolled to break down the cells and further oxidation, as well as to shape the tea (ro nian), and then roasted twice — once to dry the tea and then for a longer time to add flavor and fragrance.
The Hóng Chá’s liquor was a delicate tan, as expected, and the wet leaves had the sweet smell of candy sugar. The taste, however, was very surprising. I was expecting something like either the minty quality of Sun Moon Lake or the chocolate notes of Feng Qing, but instead it reminded me of nothing else but maple syrup. Not that extremely sweet Grade-A stuff or the sugar paste that you find in restaurants, but thick, dark, Grade-B maple syrup fresh from the tree: still sweet, but more like caramel (if you were under the mistaken impression that Grade-A maple syrup means higher quality, you might be surprised to know it’s just a designation of color and season of production).
To quote Global Tea Hut,
The red tea is also bug-bitten, plucked, and then withered indoors, piled on bamboo mats for 12-24 hours. It is then rolled for up to ninety minutes before being roasted dry. … This results in a deeper, darker liquor than the oolong — though less refined.
I only made three infusions of these teas during this sitting, but I think that both could easily have made five to ten with their flavors intact. Neither has full leaf sets, and there were lots of broken leaves and stems (even with the rolled oolong), but this tea does not suffer from that. Based on the appearance of the leaf damage, I’d say the broken ones were in that condition on the plants, not because of poor handling. I also noticed that the cha qi was very energetic. I’ve felt this before with arbor tree sheng puer, where the tea seems to infuse a “wild” energy in the body, but I think this is the first time I’ve felt the same with an oolong and a black tea.
Organic farming and hand processing mean that leaves may not look as immaculate as some other teas, but that does not mean that they are poor quality! The skill of the farmer is always present in your cup: the growing conditions, the picking, processing and roasting are all equally important. The proof is always in the taste.