Friday, November 30, 2007

What Makes a Great Tea?, Part II


Next in the Yixing-versus-gaiwan saga, I tried the 1998 Haiwan Sheng Beengcha #7548, apparently one of the last batch of beengs made by Chef Zhou before he started the Haiwan factory. (It comes wrapped in the CNNP paper.) Very tightly compressed, the dry cake smells wonderfully of menthol and mint and eucalyptus -- and a creamy sweet something else. It's doubtless unfair to compare apples and oranges (or Banzhangs and Yi Wus) but I'll do it anyway: there are so many ways that this tea is entirely unlike the 2005 Xi-Zhi Hao, including age and the clear fact of blending. Location, too. Part of the blend here is a harvest from Yi Wu -- which is unmistakable: that dry and spicy-sweet pine forest floor smell. Love it.

This time around I used the 100-ml gaiwan and a Yixing pot that has grown on me -- a 100-ml Tian Qing Ni Xiao Pin purchased from Seb and Jing. The pour is good but not great (I like the liquor to flow a little faster, though some might find this rate just fine). The pot has developed a spectacular patina and feels to the fingertips like good stoneware, so I have been using it more and more for mid-aged sheng puerhs. Size is perfect, too. For each I used 5 grams of leaf.

Wow. What a tea. I love it. A nice blend that has passed its first ten years quite well, it would seem. In the warmed gaiwan I smelled camphor right away. After a moment the aroma had become: raisins! Fermenting fruit, sweet and spicy. The gaiwan's rinse was a greenish-yellowish liquor tending to orange. The green was a surprise, but perhaps a reminder that this is very much a dry-stored tea. After the rinse the gaiwan lid smelled of brassy vegetation (cabbage?) and the cup: burned floor of a pine forest. A good start.

The aroma cup after the second infusion (15 secs) was sweet and salty -- what in lesser teas might be closer to "fishy." The soup almost seemed bubbly and oily, and it coated the mouth and throat -- seeming strangely lighter "on the edges" -- whatever that might be. That Yi Wu "pine" made itself known right away, and everything was balanced. Dry but not overly so -- sweet and spicy and, I wrote: "pure" ...

Third infusion (20 secs) and the liquor turned golden orange; stayed that way throughout. In fact, what the tea achieved at this point it maintained without let-up for at least seven more infusions. The brew truly had a "soup stock" kind of character to it. That's meant to be a compliment. It was "light" but with substance. The aftertaste was sweet and spicy without bitterness, and coated the mouth and throat. (Not so much the lips.)

At one point early on I smelled the gaiwan and it was as though someone had lit up a joint. I kid you not. A strong smell, too, that lingered. That gave way after a minute or two to something I described as "BBQd shellfish." The earlier salty sweet fishiness was mingling in lovely ways with the pine spiciness. What a tea.

I drank until starved; had lunch; then started again with the Yixing pot. In all fairness, I think I need to re-do the Yixing test -- my mouth had been spoiled by homemade turkey soup (excellent, by the way, and happy Thanksgiving!), but the pot experience, if muted just slightly, did come close to what had happened with the gaiwan. The liquor became orange-gold right away, and the nuances were harder to find with the Yixing, but the tea was lovely again. And before giving up on notes and attention with a later brew, I did write "wintergreen." This after many many infusions.

An aside re: timing and subjectivity. After the tasting I searched on the '98 Haiwan to see what, if anything, folks were saying about it. Found this review by Phyll Sheng, whose opinion I value and follow. About a year-and-a-half ago (May, 2006) he didn't think much of the tea. And, according to the follow-up comments, there was consensus. File under: Go figure! Phyll, if you read this, send me your mailing address -- you should try the cake again. :-)

Finally: apologies for the poor quality photographs. Not my thing. I did, however, have two comparison cups of Haiwan brew at 45-second infusion. Orange-red, crystal-clear liquor. Great. Was about to photograph them when my wife came home, saw various cups of tea lying around, gulped down the two comparisons, and walked into another room. On her way out: "Hmm, nice tea. Thanks!" So you'll just have to image the side-by-side. There was, I think, no difference.

Next up: same test, gaiwan versus Yixing, this time with Shui Jin Gui Wuyi yan cha. Over and out.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What Makes a Great Tea?


Recently I fell down the rabbit-hole and, under the illusion of acting via my own free will, decided to conduct an experiment: brew the same tea twice, with roughly the same parameters, first using a gaiwan and then a Yixing pot. All the while making careful notes.

The goal: determine once and for all if one brewing vessel is "better" than the other. I know, I know, it's all relative and personal and a contrivance -- but, tea-crazed as I am (you must be, too, if you're reading this) I decided to run the exercise anyway. The subject comes up often enough, doesn't it? If nothing else, it'd be a chance to slow down over a few hours to pay attention to a great tea (I would be tasting a high-quality sheng pu-erh) and also to find the limits of an excellent new pot I found for brewing younger sheng.

And report my findings, should they make a difference.

Like many folks in this realm, I love Yixing pots. Now and then in a quiet moment I like to dip into, among other books, Lim Kean Siew's The Beauty of Chinese Yixing Teapots for a good dose of Yixing porn (to coin a phrase): page upon page of pictures of Lim's own pots which, he says, "range from the lowest to highest grade." Accompanying notes match teas to individual vessels. I've had this intriguing book for many years and it remains a favorite, partly for the gallery of gorgeous images, but also for the brief text in which the estimable Lim (who died recently) holds forth on the idea of "affinity" between a pot and a tea. He argues that there are no hard-and-fast rules regarding clay type and favorable teas, or pot shape and tea, or -- etc. Rather, he says, the affinity between a tea and its pot is something a little more mysterious, magical even: "It is the magic of Yixing clay. So clear is this phenomenon that I am tempted sometimes to say that even though the teapot has no tongue, it can speak for itself and tell you if the tea suits it or not" (ibid., p. 22). The book offers examples of pots speaking for themselves on the subject of tea. If not poetry, certainly poetic.

Lim's book -- which documents his own "experiment" with Yixing -- is in part a celebration of tea and pots, but it is also one fan's response against what passes for conventional wisdom, even rules, in the tea world. What is the standard? he asks. What drives the standard; what determines one way over another? How can you pinpoint quality? And what is the basis of this or that steadfast rule? Not particularly new questions, you'll agree, but ones that seem to come up again and again in this rarified community of ours, where East and West meet to teach and learn and separate myth and fact, substance and hype, over a cup of tea.

[Aside: another great pot book is the massive Chinese Yixing Teawares, a hardbound, stunningly gorgeous catalogue of pots from the collection of Taiwan's MAI Foundation.]

But what about the tea?

An excellent post on THE HALF-DIPPER (a tea blog you should know if you don't already, by an eloquent cat named Hobbes in Oxford) decided the cake for me: 2005 Xi-Zhi Hao Lao Banzhang (spelling differs slightly in various places).

Hobbes's post inspired me to try this particular tea again anyway; it had been a year since I'd brewed it. I wanted something big -- Banzhang! -- that would make itself known, so that within certain fireworks any difference(s) between gaiwan and pot might be clear rather than subtle and nuanced. A fair theory -- on paper, anyway. The Xi-Zhi seemed to fit the bill.

Would've been best to use two vessels of the same size but, making do with what I have, I used my newish 150-ml Yixing pot and a 100-ml gaiwan. Following my standard tasting-test ratio of 5 gr per 100 ml, I adjusted to 7.5 gr of leaves for the pot. I also followed the fairly standard brewing process of 20-15-20-25-30-35-45 seconds (etc.) for infusion time. First (20 seconds) was rinse only.

A year ago I'd paid some attention to the 2005 Xi-Zhi Hao, comparing it to two other impressive Banzhang cakes (notes posted here on CHA DAO) -- but I did not recall what I'd said and chose not to refresh my memory until after tasting the cake again.

(Funny that I'd be moved to experience Banzhangs in the same month, almost exactly one year apart. Hobbes must be right: "Cold November mornings were made for teas like this.")

The dry cake is lovely to behold -- big, flat leaves, loosely packed together -- and it smells truly like a big Banzhang tea: a sharp, dry, perfumed and very familiar green aroma fills the nose (if not the room itself).

I decided to brew in the 100-ml gaiwan first -- this is my standard method for benchmarking teas, anyway. Seemed reasonable to start with the familiar -- draw out what I could based on old habits -- and then compare the brew to what happens in the dance with a Yixing pot.

I recently acquired the pot from Scott at Yunnan Sourcing. I've had a fair amount of difficulty finding a smallish shengpu pot that satisfies with frequent use, but this one is magnificent. (Borrowing, ahem, a page from Lim's book, for me there must be some magic in the pot. Most have either been too big for daily use, or have lacked magic.) This one pours beautifully and I like the simple lines. Clay seemed to be of excellent quality, too (purportedly 1992 Zhuni, though that ultimately doesn't matter to me), and has a ring to it that makes me think it is high fired. For these and other reasons, including magic, I just love the pot. I've used it every day since it arrived in the mail, roughly a month ago. Sheng pu-erh, five years and younger, daily.

So -- everything lined up, time to begin the experiment.

For the aroma in the lid, after a 20-second rinse in the gaiwan, I wrote: "Smoky sweet, but better than ash or cigarettes. Faintly: Chinese medicine. Liquor: crystal clear, tending towards orange." (Last year I wrote: "After sitting for a minute the rinse smells smoky but not of cigarettes." How's that for consistency in a tea?)

Reading the newer words now, just hours later, I can say unequivocally that these are the notes of someone who is looking forward to the imminent pleasures of a great tea. Pot, gaiwan, leaf, water -- it is "all dialed in" as the hip kids say, and -- to mix metaphors -- we're about to reach cruising altitude. (Actually scratch that, I have no idea whatsoever what the hip kids say. And they definitely don't mix metaphors.)

But you get the idea. The aroma in the lid and the rinsed gaiwan said: "Sit back and enjoy the flight."

Problem is, there really wasn't much of a take-off, let alone a reaching of cruising altitude.

The apparently impressive tea -- rich with real Banzhang tree flavors and packed with elusive Qi -- didn't really do much for me this time around, no matter how I brewed it. It was good enough, but hardly amazing. By the fourth and fifth brews there was a little bitterness in the brew that seemed to bring forward a perfumed aftertaste, but after the hints, the teases, there was no big ... arrival ... of anything. Just really subtle hints. The soup was "thick" -- that's all I could come up with in my notes -- but for flavor I once wrote "tasteless." And my note for the 30-second brew was one word: "m-e-l-l-o-w."

I must report that it did seem ever so slightly better with the Yixing pot. There seemed to be a better balance between the sweet and bitter. After the rinse I wrote: "here the smoky aroma has crept away, into the recesses of another, darker aroma -- sweet and bitter -- but what is it?"

For both brewing styles, the "rinse" aromas were lovely, but they made promises that mostly came to nothing. The pot-brewed soup came with an almost immediate aftertaste, something like Muscat on the lips and throat, but it was a tease that didn't fill out or last for very long.

Last year, at the 25 second infusion, I wrote: "Still restrained, but complex. I want more, because the hints are amazing."

Ditto for this year.

Understand, I'm not this obsessed all the time. Well, okay, maybe I am this obsessed all the time, but I definitely don't have the hours every day to pour so much attention into a single tea session. Like many of us (I'm guessing) my daily tea brewing and drinking is some kind of bastardization of the gongfu method: small pot, lots of leafage, multiple & quick infusions. It's that simple. And I choose teas based on whim. Whatever strikes the fancy. In other words, it's not always this precise.

But I had a plan. And, here I found myself, in the middle of an experiment comparing gaiwan to Yixing, in which the real question suddenly became: what exactly makes a great tea great?

With this particular tea, I couldn't see it. Apparently the 2005 Xi-Zhi Hao Lao Banzhang was featured on the cover of Pu-erh Teapot magazine and ranked first in its production year by a group of Asian collectors (?) -- so it comes with pedigree. There is something there for me -- a reminder of greatness; as I said, a tease -- but the tea never really rises to the occasion. (As an aside: if anyone would like to recommend a brewing style for this tea in the comments below, please do. I'll try anything to make it come alive. I will, by the way, be conducting the five-minute stress test, a.k.a. competition-style brewing method, and will post the results.)

Is a good tea a strong tea, flavor-forward -- full of fireworks and fury? No. Some are this way; but not all. It isn't a requirement. Some are quiet and restrained and nuanced. They wake up slowly. But you stick with them because there is a payoff ... somewhere. Somehow. They do eventually wake up. Right?

Someone recently posted an improvised guide to "benchmarking a good tea" on the LJ Pu-erh Community site. One consideration was "lightness" -- a quality described as something like an initial tastelessness that however "comes back from within." Sounds great! And I like the idea of the return, the rhyme, the aftertaste from within -- especially because this benchmark quality seems to contradict another on the same list: "A good tea will have a full body [when consumed] ..."

(Read the comments to that LJ post; additional benchmarks are offered and seem just right.)

This tea seems to have neither lightness nor heaviness. Nothing "oily" even if there is a little thickness to the soup. That's my own personal take on it; let the stoning begin.

Maybe it comes down to this. To adapt a famous aperçu of Tolstoy, all bad teas are bad in the same way, but all great teas, are great for their own reasons.

Well. Whatever Leo might've said, the point applies. A tea can be great for many different reasons. I've drunk some that make themselves known immediately. Others that make themselves known slowly -- taking their time, like a good long story with a worthwhile punch line. Others: it's all about the aftertaste. Yet others: it's about something else. Qi. Or whatever you'd like to call it.

Something in the Xi-Zhi Hao Lao Ban Zhang makes me want to say it is "great" or even "regal" -- but I think that's me giving in to the influence of what I've heard and read about it. Physically, it was "soothing" to drink -- but again, to me, hardly a great tea.

On the opposite side of a benchmarking list for great teas is a list of excuses for why a supposedly good tea doesn't shine. Poor storage. Incorrect water. Wrong pot. Wrong gaiwan. Wrong attitude. Poor attention. Afternoon session, not morning. Morning session, not afternoon. Catching a young sheng pu-erh in the wrong year. Or during a dry season. And on and on. That's all good and well -- but a great tea should make itself known despite the difficulties.

Please don't say it is all "personal taste" because while that is true, I do believe that quality finds company. Or, at least, quality finds an audience. Some teas are -- must be -- better than others. Better leaf, better farming, better process for turning into a tea cake. Better storage. And so forth. Me, I'm still in search of that consensus. And so, next: same test, different tea.