Tuesday, January 30, 2007

corax on cloud's 2003 silver dayi sheng pu'er cha

the munificent mr chan kam pong, known online as 'cloud', has supplied a staggering number of samples -- literally round the world -- to participants in his 'Let's have a cup of 2003 Silver Dayi' tea tasting. for this, four entire bings of 2003 silver dayi brand sheng pu'er cha were broken up and distributed. no detail was left unattended: even the postage was tea-related, using special HK postage stamps that featured traditional chinese tea-containers with their red labels. there are copious photos of the tea in various stages of dismantling and packaging on cloud's website. his only stipulation was that each participant in the tasting produce a 200-word review of the tea.

i was the fortunate recipient of one of these samples. for my review, my fantasy was to produce a poem in traditional 七言 詩 [qi yan shi] form -- the seven-character genre popularized in classical chinese culture, from the han dynasty onward.
the genre became famous in the bo liang format, so named after the 柏梁 臺 'bo liang [cypress beam] pavilion' in the gardens of the long-reigning emperor wu 汉武帝 [han wu di, trad. 漢汉武] of the western han dynasty, but arguably reached its zenith centuries later, in the seven-character 近體詩 [jin ti shi] of the tang dynasty.

but even if that had been within my poetic power, i knew it would have severely reduced my readership! so i have settled for the faint impression of a tang-style poem, in the verses tendered below. i say 'faint' because -- even apart from the loss of the vital tonal 'music' of chinese verse -- the bo liang demand of universal end-rhyme is virtually impossible to achieve in english. in poor recompense for this loss, i have tried to achieve an english prosody that might seem to invoke the traditional rhythmic chanting style used for declaiming such poems in putong hua, and have preserved the essential couplet-compositional nature dear to chinese poets. given the stringent limitations of the metrical genre, and my attempt to use [wherever possible] single-syllable words, i have set aside my usual austere tea-tasting reportage for a more impressionist group of images. i hope that these will nonetheless evoke something of the luxuriant experience, and sensuous pleasure, of a pu'er cha tasting. think of this poetic rendering as rather in the relaxed mode of 古詩 [gu shi, a less stringent genre]. chan kam pong, xie xie ni!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ · ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

gu zheng sings its clear sweet notes.
warm sea breeze wafts through the room.

table set with cups of jade,
gong dao bei and pin ming bei.

water boils to eyes of crab,
wets the leaves of chan kam pong,

silver dayi sheng pu'er,
nestled in the white gaiwan.

brief to rinse, and then to rest,
then again -- this time to brew.

in a flash i scent the smoke,
wood-fires built in far yunnan,

made to dry and parch the leaf.
first brief sip rolls on my tongue.

tea is thick, rich, strong, forthright,
tawny hue of tiger's eye,

coats the mouth and lingers long.
not a tea for faint of heart.

brew and brew and brew and brew,
each infusion, longer still,

keeps the pu'er taste alive:
smoke and wood, with moss and must.

further brews, and then a mix
first of bitter, then of sweet.

sharp smoke scent, slow sip, and then
cool and fruit. and then, smoke yun.

dry sensation, not too strong
tugs at tongue and mattes the mouth.

further brews: the sweet hui gan
fills the mouth when sip is gone.

many brews: the leaf, first brown,
swells and grows, and flushes green,

full of smoke, then more alive;
gives its liquor, rich and gold.

comes the evening. shadows fall.
round the moon a wreath of ... cloud.

-- corax

Monday, January 29, 2007

Comments on a few Bay Area tea establishments

I happened to find myself in the San Francisco area for a photonics conference (as one so often does), and managed to drop into a few tea spots between wavicles. There seems to be a proliferation of such, similar in style but very different in atmosphere. In case it's useful to anyone, here are a few sententious comments:

  • Imperial Tea Court, Chinatown and the Ferry Building.
    I prefer the original location for dimmer, quieter, more retreat-like atmosphere. The new location is separated from the (rather classy) Ferry Building mall by not much more than a partial lattice, and on this nasty January day was reasonably quiet but frigid. Have yet to meet Roy Fong, who seems ever to be in the warehouse or out buying; but Grace is a charming presence. They have a bunch of above-average pots and other useful teaware, though the best pots are NFS. Plenty of tea on offer in both locations, at high prices -- generally, however, commensurate with quality. Tastings are a bargain by comparison. Service by elegant young men. (Why so rarely women in this business?)

    The Ferry Building ITC location has a fair amount of food on offer; most people there seemed to be more dining than drinking. Combined with admittedly pleasant aromas from the center's other food and personal-care vendors, I found this to be somewhat distracting. Personally, were I in that neighborhood, I'd save my caloric quota for Yank Sing, an upscale dim sum house in the heart of the Rincon Center complex. Beyond the HK-class food, there's a kind of waterfall from the atrium ceiling that adds good feng shui or something. I can't speak for their tea, since I'd brought a very nice (code for "wanted it back right away") new Yixing pot and a bag of SRT's cheapest but IMO best-tasting fenghuang dan cong for my host.

    I was somewhat uncomfortable with the instructional style, which I did not experience directly (being a take-charge kinda guy) but repeatedly witnessed. My impression was that both server/teachers and customers were getting lost in mannered ritual at the expense of the tea. Watching people awkwardly slurp from gaiwans instead of decanting was vicariously embarrassing -- nothing wrong with the act, but it was clearly out of character for those partaking. Worse, they seem to use near-boiling water indiscriminately. When I asked for something much cooler for our long jing (a delicate green), I was politely asked what temperature I'd like -- a good response, but the wrong place to start. (I just asked for a pot of cold water to mix ad lib.) I'm wondering how many people who start the cha dao here (or in many other places) ever learn that green tea does not taste like spinach? Even many oolongs can't take this treatment. As long as I'm ranting, I'll also complain about the gaiwan we were given, much too large for the amount of leaf it contained. I dropped a broad hint, and was offered another a good 10% smaller.

  • Red Blossom Tea Company, Chinatown.
    This tiny, deep shop has just a couple of tasting tables between rows of paraphernalia, with most tea in the back. Pots and gaiwans fairly priced, though most a bit fancy to my taste. Not exactly a secluded experience, right on Grant St., but pleasant and informed service. And the staff seemed able to establish a quiet zone around each table.

  • Vital T-leaf, two Chinatown locations (head office in Seattle).
    The main store is a magnet for extroverts, open to Grant St. and with a riotous agglomeration of 20-something passersby enjoying free rounds at the bar with the friendly energy of a post-(winning) game beer crowd. Staff young as well, with Benihana-type cheerful showmanship blending with as much serious information as people seemed able to absorb. A very large range of teas, many flavored (not my cuppa) and flowers/herbs (even a couple types of kuding) in tins and open trays, which may be OK if turnover is high. Many Pu-erhs also on display, including presentation bing and zhuanchas of at least two kg and a 30-yo shu cake for $380. (Latter was plastic-wrapped, so the aroma was inaccessible. Looked authentic, though.) Many pots at fair prices, though again only a couple I'd want. My sense was that the staff was entirely prepared for a much more serious tasting experience during times quieter than a Saturday afternoon.

    A couple of blocks uphill is a more intimate satellite shop, with a representative stock (including the $380 shu bing) and less riotous atmosphere.

    After this pair of visits, I stoked the furnaces with a nice plate of gnow nam chow fun; being dangerously awash in cha zui at this juncture, only water else passed my lips.

  • Teance, Berkeley. Best for last.
    This was supposed to be the penultimate scene of a day's nostalgia tour of Berkeley, following a walk around the Vine St. Gourmet Ghetto-as-was (where I used to buy coffee in his one shop from Mr. Peet) and before trooping up Grizzly Peak for a characteristically stunning sunset. A careful drive along Solano failed to produce this establishment, even as an emergency call to Joe K. confirmed the location. Fortunately, my friend's Blackberry was web-enabled, so we were able to discover that they had just moved down to the Flats. The unprepossessing neighborhood prompted speculation about marketing mistakes, but their new (of two months) home proved to be in the middle of a cluster of assorted shops and restaurants fine enough to qualify the whole as a Destination.

    Teance offers a stylishly sparse ambience reminiscent of, but more elegant than, the late Wild Lily Tea Room. (In fact, it has much the pleasant ambiance of NYC's Tea Gallery.) The front is an open shop, with an appropriate number of teas and some nice teaware of diverse styles -- the celadon (per former establishment name) perhaps the best on offer; three exceptional Yixings were unfortunately NFS.

    The tasting area is a single circle of about a dozen seats in several nicely designed stations, so as to be serviceable by one or several people. Tasting are again a bargain for the quality. Our server, one Darius (I forbore the bibulous pun about one man's Mede being another's Persian) seemed quite well informed about the qualities of his stock, and helped us to a selection of interesting oolongs. Aware that we were not ignorant of technique, he also offered a broad range of pots and gaiwans, as well as mixing and serving gear.

    I was concerned at how empty the place was, given a sunny-Sunday mob in the environs. Perhaps they do mostly a take-out business. At least until it's (re-)discovered, though, I'd make it a top choice for area visitors with transportation.

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    On a final note, I stopped into a number of Asian grocery stores, apothecaries and tchachke shops in the ongoing quest for cheap'n'cheerful shu Pu-erh to bring to Chinese restaurants. Every such place I looked had one, and only one, cheap bing on display: a 340g "black tea" from Hung Chong Tai in HK, of which maker Samarkand has written on RFDT. Is this a conspiracy? I did finally do the experiment of asking a back-alley TCM outfit for something better, but that's another story.

  • Saturday, January 27, 2007

    Notes on the Pathology of Sinensis Psychosis

    [[EDITOR'S NOTE: this piece by our own geraldo originally appeared on 15 june 2006 at teemann.blogspot.com. it is reposted here by the author's permission.]]

    When I travel, I usually go to the trouble of packing a gaiwan and some pu’er in my carry-on, and I considered myself a little obsessive and eccentric for doing this. For alcoholics, travel simply entails getting drunk in new places, and I wondered if my enthusiasm for tea, and for pu’er in particular, was taking me to a similar, single-minded location. In short, I feared I might be suffering from Sinensis psychosis, an over-the-top fixation on pu’er that pushes aside other worthy considerations. This troubled me somewhat until I learned that I am not alone in the determination to mix sight-seeing and pu’er-drinking.

    Several of my tea-friends in the U. S. have extraordinary tea kits that they carry about. The kits resemble those fancy, shiny cases with the cut-out foam holders for protecting exotic handguns or camera lenses. But instead of guns and lenses, their cases cradle little Yixing pots, sharing pitchers, and cups.

    Recently I visited New York. It was my first trip there, and I went to meet and drink tea with several of my pen pals. We took the ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island. As soon as the ferry got under weigh, my friend whipped out his tea kit. He had, besides his metal tea case, a book bag, and in it a thermos of very, very old pu’er. We cruised past the Statue of Liberty, and small, red Coast Guard gunships flanked our ferry like little piranhas flanking a fat koi fish. As our ferry chugged along, we drank aged pu’er from fine porcelain cups. I never expected to catch my first sight of the Statue of Liberty as I held a cup of ancient pu’er in my hand, but I could not have asked for a finer experience. Later we partook of a very similar tea break in Union Square. There, amid street-dancers, goths, panhandlers, and vegetable-wallas, six of us sat together on park benches and tasted tea that was all about forests and quietude. The juxtaposition was wild and unforgettable.

    I have friends in Guangzhou, China who cannot set aside their pu’er fixation while they take in the sights. I had the pleasure of visiting those friends six months ago. Like St. Louis and New Orleans, Guangzhou is a river town. The Pearl River bisects the city, and there, close to the river’s mouth, the river is wide. Working boats ply the current, carrying grain, coal, cars, people, and who-knows-what else to far-flung destinations. The Chinese love holidays and celebrations as much as anyone, and they love parades, too. Guangzhou’s residents have merged their river and their celebrations. In Guangzhou’s parades, the floats literally float, and the Pearl’s channel is the parade route. Neon lights festoon tugs and transport boats, depicting themes important to the city. Along the river’s banks, all the towering buildings are faced with flashing neon. At night, Guangzhou looks like Las Vegas. It’s spectacular.

    One night during my visit we took a two-hour excursion on a three-decked boat while floats paraded on the river. The upper deck of the excursion boat was fitted out like a restaurant, with about twenty tables under the stars. We sat there atop our great pile of floating neon and cruised past neon-encrusted sky-scrapers. Disco music and Madonna blared. In a shrill voice, a tour guided chanted her script over a loudspeaker. We floated through a giant Asian fantasyland, and the experience was magical.

    Amid all this, one of my Guangzhou tea-friends ordered six tall glasses of hot water. He used two of them as tea vessels for brewing aged sheng brick, and he managed to pour the tea back and forth into the other glasses until he had created excellent tea. So we sat high on the boat, feeling the throb of the motors, hearing the pounding music, transported by Guangzhou’s city fathers into a psychedelic pu’er trip complete with world-class light show, and we drank steaming-hot aged sheng from cocktail chimney glasses. Only a person suffering from advanced Sinensis psychosis would go to that trouble at that time and that place to brew tea. And the tea did not diminish the magic of the moment. In fact, the aged pu’er added a wonderful counterpoint to the chaotic visual and auditory stimuli. My Guangzhou friend is a real piece of work, a non-stop, happy epicure of tea, a true disciple of Cha Dao. He never tires of tea. Tea commands all of his thoughts, and he perceives the world through tea-colored lenses.

    In Guangzhou I tasted congee for the first time. As you probably know, it is rice gruel, usually a little thicker than gravy, and it is good, especially with bits of vegetables and meat added to it. I had the pleasure of trying it at a roof-top restaurant in the busy heart of the city. Once again, my Guangzhou tea friends produced a little chunk of aged pu’er and brewed it as we waited for our meal. What fun it was to dine at this restaurant and enjoy congee and aged pu’er. The day was perfect, the sun shining, the restaurant lively and crowded.

    Six months later, on the other side of the world, I had my second helping of congee in New York City at a restaurant called, appropriately, “Congee.” Our host on this occasion produced some excellent aged golden melon, and requested that the waiter bring a pot of hot water. The golden melon was perfect for this occasion—as it brewed during our meal, it offered many infusions and never became bitter. The congee, by the way, was fantastic, served with garlic, ginger, and fish.

    Tea people travel with tea. They keep it near at hand. They plan ways to consume it wherever they may find themselves, and the inclusion of tea adds a festive magic to the occasion that renders it indelible in the mind’s eye. I will never forget standing in a crowd at Kennedy International Airport, looking for a pen pal I’d never met in person. My eyes moved over the masses, wondering who in that huge group was the friend I was to meet. I saw a smiling, bearded man holding a Yixing teapot above his head. What an elegant solution to our tacit puzzle!

    The world, once so big, has grown small, and the Internet is rapidly smashing the walls that governments have built between cultures. Tea, and all it entails, will never fully catch on in the west—our people will not give over the time and energy required to brew good tea in its proper fashion, seeing it, instead, as a chore rather than steps toward relaxation and ordering the mind. In a nation of latte shops and drive-thru grab-it meals, westerners will never take time to explore the avenues of contemplation that tea could offer. Programmable coffee-makers and gong fu tea pots are symbols of diametrically-opposed worldviews and lifestyles. But a few of us, Sinensis psychotics, will carry our little tea sets with us.

    For us, I know now, tea is a vehicle, a ferry motoring along on life’s currents, and it carries us into the moment. Guangzhou and New York were more vivid—not less—for tea’s influence. For tea enthusiasts, travel is not about new places to drink tea—that’s looking at the wrong page in the wrong book. Instead, life is about friends and clarity and this moment’s joy. Tea is a pretext for the full experience. It diminishes nothing. Look for us on rooftops and boat decks, clacking our gaiwans, distilling the essence of the very now.

    — Geraldo (geraldoxyz@charter.net)

    Saturday, January 20, 2007

    cha dao and CHA DAO

    [EDITOR'S NOTE: this is a somewhat expanded version of a recent post to the newsgroup rec.food.drink.tea, affectionately known to all as RFDT, where the term cha dao was brought up.]

    the phrase 'cha dao' is not an uncommon one. it is likely to show up in a variety of places and contexts where china tea is concerned, including even vendor sites, where it will be associated with the implements used in gongfu cha -- the tongs, scoop, pick, funnel, etc. the word 'dao' [or 'tao,' as it is transliterated in the in wade-giles system] means -- literally or metaphorically -- 'road' or 'path,' so that 'cha dao' might mean 'tea road' or 'the way of/to tea.' the cha ma gu dao, or 'old tea horse road,' was in fact a system of trade-routes on which tea was exported from pu'er, in yunnan province, to various other parts of china and beyond.

    [[photo from ebay's chineseteapotgallery]]

    the word 'dao,' like the english 'road,' can also have profound metaphorical applications. indeed 'life is a journey' [and the related 'time is a moving object'] have been identified by george lakoff, mark johnson, and mark turner, in their landmark books METAPHORS WE LIVE BY and MORE THAN COOL REASON, as two of the basic 'conceptual metaphors' of the english language. [a very handy example of the road/journey metaphor is robert frost's famous poem 'the road not taken.'] the image is immediately evocative.

    this 'road' metaphor was clearly an irresistible one in chinese culture, even in ancient times. to someone familiar with chinese culture, the word 'dao' immediately recalls the classic text DAO DE JING [or, in wade-giles transliteration, TAO TE CHING], traditionally ascribed to a sage named 'laozi' [W-G lao tzu]. along with the ANALECTS of confucius [kong fuzi or kongzi; W-G k'ung-fu-tzu] and the YI JING [W-G i ching], it is arguably one of the three most influential texts in premodern china. certainly daoism has undergone numerous permutations and expansions over its considerable history, as thomas michael elaborates in his recent book THE PRISTINE DAO. the rarefied, austerely philosophical version propounded by laozi was but one iteration of this; over the centuries, popular/populist forms of daoism have included such features as shamanism, spiritism, and alchemical inquiries into physical immortality.

    in more spiritual contexts, the term 'dao' [in the phrase 'cha dao'] might be used to connect the more metaphysical aspects of tea-drinking with various philosophical or religious systems, such as daoism [taoism] or its avatar, zen buddhism. [the japanese term that translates 'cha dao,' namely chado or sado, is used to refer to the study of the cha no yu or tea ceremony; here its zen connections are perhaps as clear as anywhere. see e.g. wikipedia sub uoc. 'chado' for a handy summary.] certainly daoists and buddhists alike would affirm that the universe, and everything in it, is pulsating with qi [W-G ch'i] -- the energy that literally makes the world go round; they would readily recognize the phrase cha qi as referring to the qi to be found in tea [and absorbed by the one who drinks it].

    all that said, i think the term 'cha dao' can have a simpler, secular application as well: our abiding interests in tea, pursued over time. this is made easier to grasp by the fact that 'way' or 'road,' as we have noted,is used as one of the basic metaphors of human life. [come to think of it, i wonder if the vendors who run inpursuitoftea.com -- no professional affiliation here, n.b. -- intended their company name as a loose english translation of 'cha dao.' sebastian, frank, are you guys reading this?] since the words are putonghua [i.e. 'mandarin chinese'], i thought they would encapsulate the subject-matter of the then-fledgling blog in a brief and elegant way.

    in any case, because of this propensity to obfuscation, i have adopted the convention [on the blog itself] of writing 'cha dao' [in lower case] to represent the latter meaning, and CHA DAO, all capital letters, to refer specifically to the blog itself. i recommend this convention to others as well, if only to save time and confusion.


    Thursday, January 18, 2007

    The Whiteness of Tea and Snow

    Mid-afternoon, the skies darkened and took on that soft blurry greyness that means it is snowing even if you can't see individual snowflakes. A Silver Needle white tea (source unknown) perfectly matches the way the snow is erasing the definite lines of the landscape. Jean Mouton's Nesciens Mater sung by The Gentlemen of St. John's is the perfect echo of the white tea and the sky. The snow, the tea, the music all have the ability to erase what isn't of the precise moment.

    "Even I
    am not sure
    what my heart's secret is,
    but I know
    it has to do
    with winter,
    with the slow wheeling stars
    and the stillness of snow."

    Michael Spooner/"Winter Nights"
    (collected in: A Snowflake Fell/compiled by Laura Whipple)

    I think of the times I have sat in the sunroom turned moonroom on frosty January nights, watching the moon snagged in the branches of an oak tree. Yinzhen Silver Needle in a small cup that has a pattern of frost crystals on the interior glaze. I remember the very subtle and velvety cream corn sweetness of the tea I had at one time. It is such a delicate experience of its own, so easily lost in the noise of the day, let alone the "noise" of blending it with other teas or flavors or scent. There is something I love about the smell of freshly fallen snow. It definitely has a scent, almost a subtle sweetness. But it is truly defined more by a non-scent, a light sweet iron-edged clarity that is made up more of what smells are not present than what smells are.
    The ultimate white tea experience, like white snow, is defined for me in a similar way.

    Sunday, January 14, 2007

    The Beginning of a Journey

    I stared at the objects in front of me. There were four tea canisters and two teapots, with a layer of dust upon them, sitting on the table in front of me. I was thinking of something, but wasn’t certain what the thought was about – perhaps it was about the excitement of an inheritance, or what disappointment I might find inside the canisters.

    Last week my grandmother called. “Are you still into that tea thing of yours? There are some tea canisters and teapots from your grandfather, come by and see if you want them, nobody else in the family drinks tea except you now; so either you take them, or we’ll throw them away…”

    My memories of drinking tea began about the same time I tasted my first beer – more accurately, the foamy cream of a strange mixture of beer and stout. My grandfather would scoop a generous portion of the cream with a biscuit and let me munch on it, much to the displeasure of my grandmother.

    In the hot afternoons of a tropical sun, my grandfather would sit on the verandah, drinking his strange mix of beer and stout, while I play, study or draw nearby. A biscuit with alcoholic cream was my occasional reward for leaving him alone to his reverie.

    In the late afternoon, he would take out his tea set: a little pewter container with a cover full of holes to drain water, a little yixing teapot, and four tiny round white thin porcelain cups. He would then brew tea, and if I still didn’t bother him, let me have a small cup of the rich brown tea. I didn’t know what it was called then, it would take me years later to realize that it is a Phoenix Dancong…

    On some days he would hang out at the Clan association. I shall explain a little on this. In the past, Chinese immigrants would sail far away from motherland to seek opportunities in other countries. Over time, people who discovered that they came from the same village, region, or county, and share the same family name, began setting up clan associations to help them keep in contact with the affairs and news back home; sometimes, clan associations also helped them find wives.

    The clan association was a wonderful place. It was situated by the busy river, where barges, loaded with cargoes and cargoes of items, including tea, bustled in and out of the quay, unloading and picking goods. As kids I would join my cousins who lived by the river to scrounge from barge to barge for things that fell out during the unloading and loading – pieces of dried anchovies were my favourite. Sometimes the tea merchants would come when the shipment was in; there were those who loaded large wooden crates on to a long vehicle called a lorry, and others who came on a retro-fitted bicycle with a large wooden platform with wheels attached in front for transporting heavy items. They would load the front with crates of tea, and then peddle to their shops at the tea street – we had one then – which was not far from the quay.

    The old folks would sit by the sky-well, to enjoy some sunlight while basking in the cool penumbra of the interior. The charcoal stove would be on, and a group of old folks, including my grandfather, would sit around a small table catching up on events back home in China and here. Someone would be brewing tea; while waiting for the water to boil, he would take a small packet of tea, and crush it lightly in his hand. He would then unwrap the packet. He would separate the crushed leaves, whole leaves, and tea dust on separate pieces of paper. Holding the pot in one hand, he emptied the tea dust into the pot, and knocked the pot with his hand several times to make sure there’s an even spread on the bottom. Then he would pick up the whole leaves and, tilting the pot on the spout, throw in some leaves; then he levelled the pot and placed the crushed leaves inside the pot, to its rear. When this was completed, he emptied the rest of the whole leaves into the pot, filling the pot to almost half full.

    The water would be boiled by now, kicking and fuming. The old man would pour some hot water into a bowl in which a set of small tiny cups sat, and then he would pour the water into the pot from a high level, once the pot overflowed, he sliced the foam off the mouth of the pot and covered it. He would empty the rest of the water on to the pot. My favourite part was always to watch the steam rising coyly from the heated pot, turning and twisting, dancing away into nothingness; and the water evaporating from the surface of the pot, as if the pot is a thirsty drinker, sucking up all the water.

    Back in those days there were few tea accoutrements, bare hands did most of the work. The old man would wash the cups in the hot water, rolling the cups on their sides, take them out, and placed it on a porcelain container with holes, much like my grandfather’s pewter one, where the teapot also sat, impregnated with tea. The action was fast, quick, and unceremonious. Pick up the teapot, take aim, and pour out the liquor, fast and furious, till the cups overflow with a dark rich amber fragrant tea.

    The others would reach out, pick up the tiny cups, cut the excess water collected on the base of the cup on the edge of the porcelain container, and with a throw back of the head, emptied the tea into their mouths. The back to what they were doing, the tea drinking forgotten momentarily, till the thirst arose later.The tea drinking was more like a pause in the things they were doing, the pipe smoking, the chess playing, the heated discussions, the talk about the events in the war, the current politics. The short tea session was never a focus on its own, it was an accompaniment to the other daily events, daily chores.

    For me it was different. The fragrant of the liquor pulled me towards the cup, drawing me into the amber liquid. There were times when the fragrance just filled my head till there was nothing else, just the tea, and the smell. Then reality returned, and I would be among old men in a hall lit by the light from the sky well. Reality was the old man throwing out the water in the container on to the ground around the well, and reality was when one of them would ask me to bring tea to the folks upstairs.

    Upstairs was an opium den. It was a place for the opium addicts who could not kick the habit, thrown out by their families, and taken in by the clan association. When they were no walking around with only half of their souls in the body, they would be lying on mattresses, smoking away, hoping to die in faked blessed state.

    I would bring the tea up to these men, rouse them from their stupor, and watch them take the tea. The fragrance of the tea mixed and blended strangely well with the smell of opium, it was a fragrance that lured and teased, ruffled the hair, tugged the collar, asking one to sniff deeper, to fill up the lungs with this strange heady fragrance. So I lingered longer upstairs with the fragrance, sitting at the threshold to the verandah, watching the barges unload the cargoes, and sniffing the fragrance from within the dark room, lit by sparks of amber from the opium pipes.

    “So have you checked out the teas inside yet?” grandmother’s voice rang behind me. I startled, not because of her voice, but because of the memories that were still fresh in my mind. I ran through my mind, locating segments of memories to the pots in front of me, and the canisters too, except two, the dull pewter ones. The other two pewter canisters had lacquer varnish, and I pretty much knew what were inside them, except for the two unvarnished ones.

    Well, they are mine now, my share of my grandfather’s inheritance and legacy. I picked up one, shook it for a feel of what’s inside, and pulled off the lid.

    And so began my journey with pu’er.

    -- Danny

    Wednesday, January 10, 2007

    Anodyne on Assorted Golden Yunnan Tastings or The Illusion of the Questing Beast

    Since Corax has mentioned some of these teas in his previous entry of January 9, 2007, I thought it was a good time to post some random tastings. I have often had folks write to me and say something like "I tasted a Yunnan (or Keemun, etc) once, and I didn't like it." Given the wide spectrum of flavors and aromas I've experienced, particularly with Yunnan teas, I always ponder which particular flavor profile someone has tasted and rejected. There are indeed more than a few from which to choose. For some of us, that quest to find a particular flavor and aroma profile is an on-going one. The object of each of our desires may indeed be a very different beast.

    High Grade Yunnan Gold B-YG-2
    New (December 06) order direct from vendor

    This is not a tea that strikes my own preferences as "High Grade." In taste and aroma, it is a very typical (vin de table) Yunnan taste that includes rather too much of a smoky note and not much else filling in. It stands rather solo in flavors/aroma. Not complex. Not filling in with malt. Not filling in with maple. Or spice. Or cocoa. Or florals. It's not the "youthful" style that I had in August 2006 in the #CDO lot from this source. But neither is this the lovely rich Yunnan Gold High Grade I had from SRT in July 2006 which showed forth with some (Woodwosian) fruity-woody-Forest Honey sweetness. I even preferred the SRT March 2006 order of High Grade Yunnan to this one. Some palates might refer to this one as a bit leathery, but I find it more smoky than leathery. It's also much less savory than some Yunnans can be. I refer here to a flavor that goes beyond smoky to a hint of sweet wood-smoked ham rind or bacon. It is a range of flavor I found in the TeaSource Golden Downey Tip Yunnan and described on February 10, 2006. The SRT Yunnan is more just distinctly smoky as I find it. This isn't an undrinkable Yunnan by any means, but this falls short of what I expect in a Yunnan Gold labeled "High Grade" sold in this price range.

    Yunnan Golden Buds
    New (late December 2006) order direct from vendor

    Again, what I received doesn't match what a fellow Yunnan lover had just previously described to me, so there must be a couple different teas from this source with this label or perhaps a lot change. The website refers to this tea as being known as "Jin Ya,” a top-grade Yunnan that is “picked in the early spring when the tea plants are budding with the year’s new growth.” The tea before me is another very common (vin de table) Yunnan experience. Like the one from Silk Road Teas, it focuses on smoky-slightly savory notes and earth with a hint of malt. It doesn't come forward with anything remotely Woodwosian. No molasses/Forest Honey sweetness, no fruity-wood, no spice, no cocoa, not even a maple emphasis , etc. The savory-smoky note carries a hint of sweet (as in smoked meat sweetness), but not the singular honeyed notes I've had in the Yunnan Golden Buds from this source in times past. I just don't find the "lingering notes of honey and spice" that are given in the tea's description. Not in this tea. These lingering honeyed notes have been there in times past though, and I have enjoyed them.

    Both teas are drinkable but not compelling by any means. They do not show what this tea is truly capable of doing.

    1059 PRIME CHINA BLACK TEA "GOLDEN MONKEY YUNNAN" Highland Golden Needle Superior Tippy Grade A
    Sample received from a friend in December 2006

    Corax has already filled in the particulars of this tea in his January 9, 2007 entry. I only had a small sample amount, so it's harder (for me) to get much of an olfactory hit from smelling the leaf, but it seemed to carry a light honeyed sweetness in the dry leaf against a deeper note. While brewing in the gaiwan, there was an initial scent that was quite delicate--a floral honeyed note that I associate with "youthful profile" in Yunnan teas. In the cup, it deepens out with some malty notes underpinning the more delicate honey-floral that sits atop the darkness. Reminds me of how one's eyes adjust to the dark, and then you suddenly see a pinprick of winter star against the night sky.

    This is somewhat reminiscent of the Golden Bud A from http://www.pu-erhtea.com/ I had many moons ago, October of 2005 to be more specific:

    Just tasted their Yunnan Golden Bud A, which proves to be quite a different Yunnan experience than I've had to date. It has a very pronounced floral-fruity range to it with honeyed notes and very light earth. The floral lingers quite distinctly into the aftertaste. This is not the heavy mocha-rich and spicy type Yunnan experience, but it has a beauty all its own. While I have encountered some light floral notes in Yunnan before, I haven't encountered it at this level or with this fruity characteristic. This really leaves a lingering aftertaste. Website notes that this golden colored Yunnan tea is organically grown and is made up of the buds of the spring first crop.

    Yunnan tea can be very deeply rich and satisfying. I think this is the first time I've encountered it where it had this "perky" quality--a bright, fresh fruity-floral taste and scent that was not masked by earth. There is even something almost Darjeelingesque about this tea, which is not something I've ever felt about a Yunnan tea before. Very much enjoying tasting this one.

    And back to the current cup of tea before me, the Golden Monkey Yunnan #1059: while it reminds me of the profile of the Golden Bud A of 2005, this tea hasn't the fruity range I noted in that tea, nor quite the remembered (if memory serves, and we all know that it may not entirely serve) pungent floral-honey hit of the Golden Bud A. This Golden Monkey Yunnan tea "speaks" primarily through the delicate floral-honey notes rather than the malty undertones. The cup, as it empties, is filling up with a sweet floral-honey scent, which is also what lingers into the aftertaste. Though it likely is not identical in taste, what it reminds me of is the Provence Lavender Honey I very much enjoy. And this is an interesting point to set against the darker molasses-like Forest Honey sweetness I found in those deeper Yunnan teas I referred to as Woodwosian. Both have honeyed notes, but the teas are completely different just as the dark Forest Honey is very different from the lighter but pungent Provence Lavender Honey.

    I have learned to have some appreciation for the way these "youthful" Yunnan teas speak, though it is not the profile I most desire. I note that I even choose different drinking vessels for this type of Yunnan.

    Yunnan Gold "Everyday Tea"Spring 2006
    Sample received from a friend December 2006

    The tea is mildly sweet with very light spicy notes as it cools slightly. It is not smoky or savory as some “everyday” Yunnans are wont to be, both in aroma and in the cup. It does not become overly astringent, quite pleasantly mild and mellow. Malt/earth in the cup and perhaps even a light cocoa note. Very pleasant and easy to drink if not a “wow” kind of golden Yunnan experience but seemed decent enough at the price point offered. I have ordered a bit more of this one to continue to drink and see if my impressions continue to be the same.

    “Jin Si” Golden Tips Yunnan 2006 Premium
    Sample received from friend December 2006

    This tea is also what I think of as the “youthful” Yunnan profile. It has a very pronounced floral/honey note coming through, but is is a darker and spicier honeyed note than the Golden Monkey Yunnan #1059 above. There is malt and earth in the cup and less of the honey floral in taste than the GM Yunnan #1059 as I brewed it here this first time. Not as much of the honey-floral lingering into the aftertaste as in the GM Yunnan #1059. The empty cup shows a full spicy-honeyed note, less delicate than the lavender honey of the GM Yunnan. In spite of the deeper and less delicate honey-floral-spice, I just don’t find the honey in the taste itself as much as I do in the GM Yunnan. This isn’t quite the Forest Honey note either, but it is closer to that than the more delicate Lavender Honey note of the GM Yunnan. It’s more like one of the deeper/spicier wildflower or thistle honeys I’ve had maybe. Definitely darker than the lavender honey but not as molasses-like as the Forest Honey. Lovely full aroma in the empty cup.

    Yunnan Jing Mao Hou Select
    Sample received from a friend December 2006

    This tea is referred to as “Golden Monkey Hair” according to the website. It can get quite astringent if you don’t hold the reins on brewing. Light sweetness in aroma and malty undertones. I am not sure how to define the sweetness as this is not the honey or maple sweet a Yunnan can sometimes have. Not floral really, unless a hint of that as it cools. It’s almost a sweetness I’d associate with grains. Not a Yunnan that excites me personally, though I do need to go back and try it again.

    Golden Yunnan Organic
    Sample received from a friend December 2006

    This is a tea with some gold tip mixed in. Very muted sweet note after brewing. During steeping there was almost no aroma. Quite astringent. As it cools, some light spicy notes develop in aroma. Very little flavor coming through at all on this one. By now, granted, my palate is more than a bit jaded. But I am just not impressed in any way with this one. I'd rank it last in all the ones I've been sampling.

    Royal Yunnan
    January 2006 order direct from vendor

    I went back to the IPOT Royal Yunnan that I ordered in January 2006 which was so radically different from the Royal Yunnan I’d been drinking copious amounts of in 2005 (the one I called “Woodwose”). I wanted to see how it compared with the Yunnan teas I’ve been sampling again lately. This tea, in 2005, had the full dark and rich fruity-woody range—that sweetness of Forest Honey with a molasses tang. Later lots of this tea were less so, but still had a full bright maple sweetness. This 1/06 purchase changed quite radically. One year later it still is as I remember it. The fruity woody sweetness is no part of this tea. The maple scent is much more subdued with light spicy notes, and the cup is a rather unexciting malty-earthy. The richness has just been drained out of it somehow. It’s just very bland compared to what this tea was doing in 2005. I have not tried this tea again except once (maybe back in March) again in 2006, so I don’t have a current frame of reference as to what the tea is doing. But this is not remotely going to cause The Yunnan Dance of Joy. Not even a skip. I am not even getting out of the chair. “Cellaring” the tea did not seem to change it for the better in any way I can detect.

    Yunnan Gold Tip
    Sample direct from vendor January 2007

    This a mild and mellow type Yunnan with a light sweet aroma that hints of floral and light spice, a characteristic that meanders lightly into the cup itself. Not high in earth or malt in the cup itself, though there’s a hint of the malt and cocoa with the light floral. It’s a rather restrained Yunnan, not doing anything negative but neither is it filling out in those mocha rich depths. It is definitely not a candidate for Woodwosian status, as it does not have that fruity-woody-Forest Honey character. It does not have the intense honey-floral sweetness that some of the Yunnans with “youthful” profile exhibit either, though the floral notes are there, and that’s rather how this tea wants to “speak.” It does not cross over to the smoky/savory notes that some Yunnan will show. It just doesn’t excite me.

    Yunnan Special Grade
    Sample direct from vendor January 2007

    Yunnan Special Grade has a very similar profile to the Yunnan Gold Tip. The empty cup of Yunnan Special Grade has a full honey-toasty scent that is not as distinct in the brew itself. The Yunnan Gold Tip didn’t show as much aroma in the empty cup. There’s a touch more of the sweet-floral in Yunnan Gold Tip in the taste itself compared to the Yunnan Special Grade, though they have similar aroma profiles. This Yunnan Special Grade shows a touch more malt in lieu of the floral emphasis of the Yunnan Gold Tip as I brewed them today this first time.

    Neither tea excites me personally because I tend to crave a different balance of flavors and aromas than these teas show. I had to use a certain cup to really catch the full aroma on both of these teas. I note that some teas tend to present their aromas more aggressively and easily, others less so. I have a certain tall footed cup which starts out more narrow but opens toward the top with a wider fluted mouth, and for some reason, this cup/mug will coax the aroma out of some teas better than other cups. My normal drinking cup also has a wider fluted mouth but the overall cup is shorter and wider, and that somehow does not work as well for certain teas.

    Without using that cup, my impression was that the Yunnan Special Grade had the deeper aroma compared to the Yunnan Gold Tip. When I made the latter tea again in this particular cup, I realized that the aroma had bloomed more in this cup, and that the two teas were not as different in their aroma as I first thought. In this case, the cup mattered.

    In all of these tastings, none of the teas warrant, for me personally, The Yunnan Dance of Joy. I was a much happier drinker of golden Yunnans in 2005 than I was in 2006, with the brief exception of that July 2006 Silk Road Teas High Grade Yunnan Gold and the one single order (never-to-be-repeated) from Tribute Tea. The knight, sorely tried, (and by now a bit jumpy from caffeine overload) begins to wonder if the Questing Beast is but an illusion. One source notes the Questing Beast of Arthurian legend "lived to be hunted, and when she was not being pursued, she lost vitality and wasted away." The beast is a bit more benign in the T.H. White version and considerably darker in others. That loss of vitality would describe more than a few of the golden Yunnan teas I've tasted in 2006. I do have some appreciation for the "youthful" Yunnans which emphasize the floral and honey notes, particularly if they can meander into the taste of the cup itself and linger into the aftertaste. But they are still not the profile I prefer as much as I can appreciate what they are doing.

    Still questing for that particular Yunnan flavor and aroma profile. And if the attention I have paid to the Questing Beast should account for anything, the vitality of said beast should be improving rather than declining.

    Tuesday, January 09, 2007

    corax on teafountain's #1059 'yunnan golden monkey' dian hong


    this order was my first interaction with teafountain. in the ordering process, i had a couple of phone conversations with Rover, its proprietor, and i found him personable, polite, and very efficient. he also knows his stuff -- i think he said it's 30 years now that he has been purveying tea. he also mentioned that he has merchants onsite [in asia] whom he depends upon to source the best teas; they send him [many] samples from which he chooses for his catalogue. my parcel was sent quickly and packed carefully. the teas arrived packed beautifully in small cylindrical metal canisters. the client-side service was excellent.

    now, about the tea itself.


    first some general observations. my sense of dian hong ranking -- i am speaking here in the very broadest terms -- is that the higher the proportion of bud to leaf, the higher the echelon [and cost]. i presume the proportions are measured and mixed by weight when the teas are being batched. based on this scale of proportions, tea-producers in yunnan itself will sometimes offer 10 or 12 'grades' of dian hong [i am using the word 'grade' here in the sense of quality -- not in its technical professional sense of leaf-size]. the top grade of dian hong should be composed, then, of pretty much all bud; the color of the dry leaf in such case will be much more tawny than black.

    based on these specific criteria, teafountain's 'golden monkey' offering is at or near that top echelon. the front label of their item #1059 reads: 'prime china black tea. yunnan golden monkey highland superior thea sinensis. briskly fired golden needle tippy variety.' in particular, the terms 'golden monkey' [黄毛猴 'huang mao hou,' like its synonym 猴子采 'hou zi cai' or 'monkey-picked'] and 'golden needle' [金针 'jin zhen,' a variant of 金丝 'jin si' or 'golden thread'] are meant to signal that the mix is of extraordinary quality, specifically because it has an extremely high proportion of bud. indeed the back label states: 'ingredients: delicate whole leaf black tea with golden tips from the yunnan province in south china.'

    we might reasonably infer, from the phrase 'with golden tips,' that the proportion of bud, while high, is not at 100%. but in the case of teafountain's #1059, inspection of the infused leaf reveals that the mix is basically all bud.

    in virtually every such high-end dian hong that you are likely to encounter, any non-bud leaf that is included will be approximately the same length as the bud. this uniformity helps, in and of itself, to produce a dry leaf that is visually pleasing. non-bud leaf is also likely to be smaller rather than larger in size.

    now: when we say 'smaller in size,' how far down the branch are we talking? this may qualify as an actual trade secret; i don't know. but veteran brewers of dian hong admonish that the boldest leaf [souchong or larger] is likely to produce a somewhat bitter brew. i have noticed that even premium dian hongs that have a relatively lower proportion of tips [such as upton tea's 'organic yunnan select dao ming'] tend toward the smaller-sized leaf. a very small percentage of what's here in the teafountain tea may actually be first leaf and not bud, but i cannot imagine, after careful visual inspection, that they have gone further down the branch than that.


    in view of all this, what are the criteria of excellence one might seek in such an elite hong cha? that topic has been the burden of many of holly's essays on the 'yunnan quest,' at CHA DAO and on various e-lists; and also of geraldo's recent congou ranking on the 'tea-disc' e-list. perhaps [as with, say, human beauty] there is no single set of criteria that will satisfy all of us. but we can at least begin to sketch out the contours of such a set, according to the information we receive via the sensory manifold. as a rough beginning, one might propose the following:

    SIGHT: as much gold as possible, indicating high proportion of bud/tips. [vendors sometimes refer to the 'plumpness' or 'fatness' of these buds as an index of quality; is there any biochemical or botanical validity to this, or is it purely a visual aesthetic?] *** i have also noticed, though not across the board, that some of my most delicious dian hongs come lavishly powdered in a golden dust. whether this is some residue of the blossoms' pollen, or the crumbling off of the downy 'hairs' [毛 'mao'] of the tiny leaves and tips -- or some combination of the two -- i do not know. but a tea that is especially rich in such dust is often the most rich and layered in its flavor profile. *** and, a' propos, one can tell as one decants the brewed liquor of such tea that it tends to be somewhat cloudy, rather than entirely clear. for several centuries at least, a china tea's quality has [partly] been gauged in direct proportion to its clarity; but in this case i am inclined to posit an inverse proportion instead. the chinese will also speak of a tea's 口感 'kou gan,' i.e. 'mouth feel,' noting that a tea may seem 'thick' or 'thin' in the mouth; the suspension of a dust like this in the liquor need not be the only source of such a perception of density, but it is certainly one ready and obvious cause of it.

    SMELL [of dry leaf]: a pungent, rich dian hong aroma. [by contrast, some other very high-grade teas, especially pu'ers, have little or no aroma in the dry leaf. but that strikes me as anomalous, as taste and smell are so closely linked physiologically. i would not be surprised to learn that presence or absence of aroma in the dry leaf is directly proportional to the moisture content of the leaf.]

    TOUCH: i have noticed in some very delectable dian hongs that the dry leaf is unusually 'pillowy' or springy to the touch. some other very high-grade teas will feel much more dry or solid -- even brittle.] whether this is, however, an actual index of quality also remains to be investigated.

    TASTE: ay, there's the rub. see below.


    we live with [and via] our five senses all day, every day. that very constancy fools us into thinking that the sensory information we take in and process is ordinary and therefore simple. it is only when one attempts to describe one's sensory intake that one realizes how difficult and subtle a task this is. meditation on this realization has led the spiritually-minded to see 'splendor in the ordinary' [to borrow thomas howard's felicitous phrase]. but the problem -- the difficulty -- remains. that said, i will try to talk about my subjective experience of tasting.

    what's surprising to me about this year's crop, at least, of top-echelon dian hong -- i.e. those teas that are 100% bud, or nearly 100% -- is that they are all, regardless of vendor, less dramatic in taste than those that include a small [i.e. very small, even tiny] amount of [non-bud] leaf in them. tea-fountain's #1059, being basically all bud, is no exception in this regard: it is supremely delicate and nuanced in its flavors -- the flavors it does have -- but it does not seem to have as much complexity to the taste as the top-echelon dian hongs that have impressed me in the past.

    the fact that i have noticed this in the comparable tea of other vendors -- including the extremely pricey 'imperial yunnan gold' from ITC, the getting-more-expensive 'royal yunnan' from IPOT, the more moderately-priced 'jin-si golden tips' from hou de fine teas, and the even more affordable 'yunnan pure small bud black tea' from YSLLC -- leads me to wonder whether it may be a reflection of the 2006 harvest. too much rain? too little sun? or vice versa? some newly-popular quirk of production? surely not all of these dian hongs are being grown or processed by one single plantation or tea company. and yet they do seem to share this striking characteristic -- call it a demureness or tentativeness of flavor. what is to be done about this? add more leaf to the bud, in tiny proportions, to ramp up the flavor as much as possible without provoking bitterness? that seems to be the case with YSLLC's 'premium yunnan black gold' dian hong. this is somewhat less expensive than the 'pure small bud' grade, but [at least in its recent iterations] it seems to me to be much more complex in its flavor.

    speaking of provenance, particular harvest year, etc: i am grateful to scott wilson of YSLLC for labeling his 'premium yunnan black gold' as 'fall 2005 tea -- aged just enough.' mike petro has already called for more explicit reportage of this sort in advertisements of pu'er cha, and i cannot think of any tea type for which more documentation of this sort would not be welcome. in the indian and ceylon traditions, we are already regularly told the name of the estate [and sometimes even the particular flush] from which a packet of premium tea comes, along with its 'grade' or leaf-size; so too with some oolongs and pu'ers we will often be told the name of the 山 ['shan' or mountain] on which the leaves are grown. but in the case of china hong cha, we are very rarely provided such information -- beyond some general indication from the name of the tea itself [e.g. 'dian hong' is from yunnan province, anciently known as dian; keemun, i.e. 'qimen hong' or 'qihong,' is grown in the qimen precinct of anhui province; etc]. scott wilson is once again the partial exception to this rule: in the case of his 'yunnan pure small bud black tea,' he lets us know that this high-end dian hong is 'created from highest grade small bud Simao spring season tea.' we have to bear in mind that really detailed information about provenance may not even be readily available to the vendor in some cases, but again, i am sure most purchasers would be grateful to have it -- as much of it as is available.

    you will note the word 'highland' in the label information for teafountain's #1059; this may well be a translation of 高山 ['gao shan' or 'high mountain'], a term we generally associate with premium oolongs. and of course the best darjeelings are grown at high elevations as well. the indian 'black' tea [~ hong cha] that is grown at a somewhat lower elevation is assam; the 'highland' designation in the teafountain label is thus the more interesting, for these dian hongs, like pu'er cha, are produced from the assamica cultivar, not c. sinensis var. sinensis. in any case, with this word 'highland' we are a step closer to some awareness of what french wine-makers would call terroir. but for a really comprehensive evaluation of what is alike and different about these various dian hongs, one will absolutely have to have much more extensive information about the provenance and harvesting of each. ideally also about the process whereby it is produced; but the most intimate details of that are likely to remain proprietary in the majority of cases. we can hardly blame tea producers for that, can we?

    Michael Plant on 2005 MengHai XiShuangBanna Sheng Pu'er

    [[from an email to corax. posted by permission.]]

    I seldom pounce on newly arrived Pu'erh, letting it sit inordinate amounts of time until the world is fed up with waiting for reports, and moves on leaving me alone without expectations. In that spirit, I waited till this morning to make my first brew of a 2005 XiShuangBanna Meng Hai Factory tea of which I have a tong.

    The tea has that nice bitter grapefruit-citrus base, shows light yellow in the cup, and gives more mulchy/pondy/floral notes when steeped hotter and/or longer. Its finish is clean as a whistle. It's a bit astringent. Wet leaf is not funky/floral, but nearly so in the first few steeps. In later steeps, the leaf aroma reverts to clean citrus fruit. Harsh notes rise only when the steep is left too long.

    Now around the sixth steep, a slight citrus-floral note rises from the cup. It's a beautiful thing and a good one.

    My guess is that during the next several years, the citrus-fruit notes will recede and the pondier and mulchy-floral notes push their way forward. The tea will become finicky, getting harsh if not carefully watched and monitored. Still later, as that harshness softens, I hope for plum-wood florality and camphor in fits and starts. How do I come to this?