Saturday, August 29, 2015

White2Tea Tea Club - August 2015 (Da Hong Pao oolong)

I am one of the newest members of the White2Tea monthly tea club.  My first month was July which I'll likely post about later, but today I had two of the three teas featured in the August package which highlighted some Wuyi oolongs.

Although White2Tea's primary focus is in puerh, they do have some select Chinese black teas and oolongs.  The tea club package for August hints that they are in the process of adding new oolongs to the selection, one of which will be an aged Da Hong Pao.

To give some perspective on what some age can do to a Dahongpao, the package included a sample of freshly roasted Dahongpao for comparison to the aged DHP.  So it made sense for me to drink them on the same day.

These teas are reportedly made by the same farmer on the same land, but the aged one is about 8 years old.  At first glance there are not too many visual differences, though the aged one may be slightly more brown.  The aroma though does reveal more roast scent in the fresh version where as the aged one has a bit of leather smell instead.  Both teas have a dominant chocolate smell in the dry leaf.

Both teas brew a nice clear reddish brown liquor with similar looking wet leaves, but the similarities stop there.  The brewed fresh DHP smells of fresh cherries and strawberries and is very candy-like.  The gaiwan lid actually smells exactly like cotton candy.  The brewed aged DHP has a darker aroma of black cherries and raisin with a hint of fig.

The mouthfeel of the fresh DHP is very thick but otherwise not very active, while the aged DHP has a very soft body and a mouthfeel that is active with pleasant astringency and tartness on the back and sides of the tongue.

The enclosed description newsletter with this month's teas mentioned that the fresh DPH will have "thrashing youth" and "harsh and sharp" roast flavor compared to the aged one which should be "mellow" because the "fire flavors have subsided."  After tasting these teas I can easily agree that the aged DHP is much more mellow than the fresh.

The fresh version is initially very sweet and fruity, though almost unnaturally so-- like strawberry candy as opposed to real strawberries.  The roast flavor does seem harsh and almost gives the tea a plastic taste, but the fruit flavors keep it enjoyable.  The aged one still has a dominant presence of fruit in the initial brew, but the fruits seem more natural and darker, like black plums, black cherry, and autumn apples.  The aged DHP is definitely very mellow compared to the Fresh and has a hint of that "dry leather" taste that I find in some aged teas.  With the roast flavor being less prominent, the aged tea takes on an obvious mineral/earthy clay flavor under the fruit notes.

The aftertaste of both teas is pleasant and  follows the main taste.  The fresh DHP has a lingering strawberry jam aftertaste and the aged one has a nice apple cider aftertaste with an apple peel flavor in the back of the throat-- I'm not sure what it is about apple peel aftertastes, but all my favorite roasted oolongs have this.  Both teas have a floral component to the aftertaste which begins to show up after a few infusions.

As the teas evolve over further infusions the aged one seems to remind me more and more of a slightly aged sheng puerh as some orange peel and coriander flavors start to come through.  Much to my surprise the fresh one began to transform with very strong and dominating presence of guava!  It still remained candy-like though, and had nearly an identical taste as a guava candy that I am very familiar with.  My favorite Chinese restaurant has a large bowl of them on the checkout counter, and I used to sneak extras into my takeout bag until very recently when I found out that I can buy them in bulk at my local Asian supermarket.  These would be a great way to extend the aftertaste of this tea if you wish.

Overall it is almost difficult for me to say which of these teas I liked better.  As of right now the Fresh Dahongpao is not a tea that White2Tea is planning to have for sale (at least in its young state) and was simply included as a comparison tea for the aged version.  The club newsletter actually mentioned that it would "likely not be a crowd favorite, though some may love it."  I do agree that the "freshness" of this recently roasted tea does come across as "harsh" and "sharp" and the flavors seem almost unnatural, but the flavors are definitely interesting and the tea seems a bit unlike other teas I have had which makes it something I would enjoy drinking from time to time.  I drank it today on a mild summer day which was nice, where as the aged DHP would be cozy on a cool autumn day.  The apple peel taste of the aged tea is a key flavor I love in roasted oolongs and easily makes this one I would consider buying more of.  As of right now I do not know the price since the website has not been updated yet and that would be an important deciding factor.  I also think that the aged one would do better with even more leaf.  I had my gaiwan about 1/3 full but would definitely like to try this tea again with at least 1/2 full.

The third Wuyi tea included in this month's package is called "Clover Patch Oolong," which is reportedly very different from the DHP despite coming from the same farmer.  I will brew that one soon!

Keep an eye on the White2Tea oolong page where we'll hopefully see some new teas added soon.  I still need to try more of the ones that are already there as I've only had the OBSX so far, and it's REALLY good.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Beautiful Taiwan Tea Co. - Formossa Assam (Farmer Lee's Black Tea from Sun-Moon Lake)

Many tea lovers can relate to or have at least heard about someone's eye opening experience of trying good quality loose leaf tea for the first time.  It's very exciting to have a new tea that is so dramatically different or better than what you've had before that it changes what you thought you knew about tea.

I probably haven't given Assam black tea a fair chance and gave up on them too quickly years ago after having a few underwhelming experiences with some.  I remember them being very bold and trading complexity in favor of in-your-face strength.  (Though some of that may have been my brewing methods which were not as controlled then as I try to be now.)  In general though I associate Assam black tea with Breakfast blends, and I typically tend to gravitate toward more fruity and lighter tasting teas.  I have avoided Assam for a while now.

If you missed it, a few months ago Beautiful Taiwan Tea Company (based out of Indiana, USA) had a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a sourcing trip to Taiwan and other parts of Asia.  They have already been sourcing tea from Taiwan for a few years and they try to negotiate with the farmers directly as much as possible when buying tea.  The Kickstarter project funds would allow them to expand their travels and selection, and they offered various quantities and types of tea to anyone who backed the project.  I had already tried some of their high mountain oolongs a couple months before and am very happy with the quality.  Based on the amount of tea they were promising and their past experience with sourcing good tea, it was an easy decision to back their project.

Beautiful Taiwan Tea had a successful Kickstarter project and after their travels I had two boxes with almost 10 total ounces of fresh oolong, green, puerh, white, and black teas.

Among Beautiful Taiwan Tea Company's offerings is Farmer Lee's Black Tea from Sun Moon Lake.  On the website they list this tea as "Formosa Assam."  Although Assam tea is traditionally from Assam, India, the Sun Moon Lake area of Taiwan is well known for their versions of Assam too and have been growing it there since importing the plant from India in the mid 1920's.  Even today the Tea Research and Extension Station near Sun Moon Lake still actively studies new hybrid varieties of Assam tea.1

How does Farmer Lee's Formosa Assam compare to my memory of bold and overpowering Assam from years ago?

Upon opening the bag I am first amazed by the aroma coming from the dry leaves.  Is this really black tea?!  At first I thought I may have opened a bag of oolong or maybe Darjeeling.  I mention Darjeeling because in addition to blackberry and blueberry this tea also has a nice muscat grape and raisin aroma that you can find in Darjeelings.  One of my favorite Darjeelings also has a similar blueberry aroma.

It's clear from the dry leaves that this tea was carefully produced and handled to avoid breaking the leaves too much.  They are twisted/horizontally rolled to maintain the length of the leaf.  The unpleasant Assam I had years ago looked like small broken pieces and had a generic "black tea" aroma without any memorable characteristics.

I have brewed this tea both western style and gongfu style, and this is a black tea that definitely does well gongfu style.  Using 3g in an 80ml gaiwan with near boiling water for 30s to start works well, but even with varying those parameters a little I have never managed to get any bitterness or unpleasant astringency from this tea.

The deep reddish orange liquor has a thick mouthfeel and sweet aroma, and the wet leaves maintain the fruity aroma which seemed to deepen into black cherry and chocolate.  Before even taking a sip I knew that this tea was in a completely different class than the Assams of my past.

Tasting this Assam for the first time was my exciting Assam eye-opening moment.  This Assam is NOT bold and in-your-face strong, yet it does provide a full flavor and full body.  This Assam does not have a flat generic flavor that lacks complexity but has a variety of interesting flavors that work very well together.  The flavor maintains some of the blueberry from the leaf aroma, and the grape notes come through as a sweet red wine flavor.  The taste has some of the malty creaminess that you might want from a black tea, yet is extremely well balanced with the fruit flavors and sweetness.  I never add cream or sugar to my tea, but this Assam has a natural creaminess and dark honey/molasses sweetness already, and I urge anyone to who usually does additions to give this one a try without any extras first.

Unlike the Breakfast blends that I usually think of when I think of Assam, I think this Formasa Assam would be perfect as a dessert tea.  The berry flavors, creaminess, and sweetness combined is really not much different from eating a nice slice of cheesecake with blueberry topping.  And interestingly, every time I finish a session with this Formosa Assam the sweet fruity aftertaste lingers for at least 10-15 minutes, and I feel a satisfactory fullness and warmth in my belly that I might get from eating the actual cheesecake, minus the calories!

I have measured leaves from this tea as long as 9+cm!
Beautiful Taiwan Tea Company's Formosa Assam from Farmer Lee in Sun-Moon Lake has definitely changed the way I think of Assam black tea.  In fairness to Assam teas in general, I believe my experiences in the past may have been a combination of low quality tea and poor brewing parameters, but Farmer Lee has definitely set the bar high now and I'm definitely going to give more Assam teas a try to see if any can come close to how much I have enjoyed this one.

Link to Beautiful Taiwan Tea Formosa Assam.

1(Sun Moon Lake reference:

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

2005 Manzhuan Raw Puerh - Xiangming Factory

2005 Manzhuan Raw Puerh - Xiangming Factory

(note:  This is a re-hosting of my review of this tea which I wrote in March 2015 on Reddit /r/tea)

I picked up this aged raw pu-erh from White 2 Tea (unfortunately it is out of stock now).  This was pretty much a blind buy, but I had heard good things about this one from and decided to get it.  I’m not able to read the information on the wrapper, but White2Tea says:
Manzhuan mountain is near Xiangming, located west of Yiwu. The label reads “Manzhuan Early Spring” and was pressed at Xiangming Longxing factory, near Xikong, in April of 2005.

2005 Manzhuan Raw Puer - Xiangming Factory
The 357g cake appears to have good quality leaves that are not tightly compressed which makes it fairly easy to break up without doing too much damage.  I was originally not going to say anything about the aroma of the dry leaves, but one interesting note that came to mind from them is a hint of watermelon.  Not a strong artificial watermelon, but the nice subtle watermelon aroma that I get when I’m eating actual watermelon.

Setup: I ended up using about 7g per roughly 120ml and that worked great.

My first infusion was about 10 seconds with water right off a boil and subsequent infusions were around 15-45 seconds then longer as it tapered off.  It seems like it would be very difficult to over steep this tea.  I felt that I could be very relaxed in the time between pouring the water in the pot and pouring the tea into the cup and always get a proper tasting brew.

The liquor is a nice light to medium orange color and very clear.   The wet leaves and tea have a really nice sweet aroma of butterscotch and apricot with distant floral notes and only very slight clay-like earthy notes, which may have been enhanced by the clay pot itself.

The mouthfeel of this tea is very viscous.  At first I did not detect any astringency at all, but then began to notice a hint of it-- it’s the type of astringency that is actually welcomed and seems to awaken the taste buds a bit without being dominant.

The taste of the first one or two infusions is reminiscent of freshly fallen autumn leaves, and I imagine that drinking this at that time of year would greatly enhance the flavor.  A slight hint of smoke is present, but I hesitated to mention it because this is not a smoky tea at all.  The third and fourth steeps started to show the most floral aspects of this tea.  The floral notes that were distant in the aroma come through strong in the taste here-- not as the tea hits the tongue though, but it seems to mature as a nice dominant aftertaste that lingers in the mouth for several minutes between sips.  This tea is also very sweet and reminds me of honey and apricot.  I lost count of how many infusions I did, but the same leaves provided me with tea all day long today, and the very late infusions had a hint of citrus fruits and orange zest.

One thing that impressed me is how mellow this tea is right from the start.  I find that some puerh are very bold and intense early on even with extremely quick infusions, and it’s not until the 4th or 5th steeping that they start to deliver a more balanced flavor profile.  This tea though seems to deliver a nice balanced flavor right away, and it stays that way throughout the subsequent steepings.  You may interpret this to mean that the tea doesn’t provide a huge range of complexity, but I personally think this is a nice property to have when considering a tea that I would want to drink often, even on a daily basis.

Overall this tea is extremely smooth and mellow and does not have anything that comes off as harsh, extreme, or unusual; perhaps it is the 10 years of age that has allowed this tea to be so mellow.  (When I drink aged teas I wish could go back in time and taste them when they were young to compare!)

I also want to point out what this tea is NOT.  Compared to some other puerh, this tea is not real earthy, it does not not conjure images of tobacco and barns, it is not real medicinal or have a strong camphor taste (only very slight), and it does not have an "antique" flavor or tree bark flavor-- I do enjoy all those flavors in puerh, but sometimes it is nice to have one on the opposite end of the spectrum with its strong floral and fruity notes.  That sweeter flavor profile combined with the ease at which it is to brew this tea would make this a perfect introductory puerh or a puerh for someone to try who has tried other puerh before and didn’t like it.

(Although this tea is currently sold out, I have since found some teas that are similar to this and I will post about that at a future date.)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Introduction and Tea Memories

2003 Xiaguan "Xiao Fa Tuo" shou puerh

I am starting this tea blog mostly as a way to organize and share my notes, photos, and thoughts about various teas I enjoy (or even the ones I do not enjoy).  I have been drinking tea on and off for as long as I can remember, but it was not until late 2014/early 2015 that I began to drink it on a more serious level and challenge myself to try many different kinds of teas and really get to know the flavor profiles of each one and perfect my brewing methods with each one.  I hope to post a mix of short tea reviews/tasting notes among some lengthier writings, and also whatever else tea-related I find myself interested in over time.

The tea that really motivated me to take the plunge into the world of tea is nothing more than a 2003 Xiaguan "Xiao Fa Tuo" shou puerh.  Someone with a lot of experience in puerh might consider this a "daily drinker" -- a good tea, but nothing to get too excited about.  To someone new to Chinese teas though, a name like that can be a bit intimidating.  Not to mention the appearance of the tea itself.  A nest-shape of tightly compressed brown worm-like leaves that smell like something which should be left outside, not brought into the kitchen where we prepare and eat food.

2003 Xiaguan "Xiao Fa Tuo" shou puerh - 100g tuo

But to me this round green box contains more than just tea-- it has the ability to conjure memories of the past and generate new ones.

Having grown up in central Kentucky, the aroma of this shou puerh brings memories of home.  It has a distinct earthy aroma that I describe as a "horse farm," which might sound bad, but it's actually a good thing to those who live in the horse capital of the world.  Truth is, I find riding horses quite terrifying though I have done it a few times, but my family has a tradition of going to the track a couple times a year to watch horses race.  Sometimes though I find that we spend less time at the side of the track and more time in the paddock enjoying the horses in a calmer setting.

Another similar aroma I find in this Xiaguan shou is that of a tobacco drying barn.  As a kid in Boy Scouts years ago we would often go camping on various farms, and one in particular that I remember had a black tobacco drying barn at the edge of the main field.  During rainy weather we would hold our meetings inside the barn surrounded by the big leathery brown leaves hanging from the rafters.  Tobacco farming in Kentucky has been declining for years and I rarely see the crop growing anywhere now days, but the Xiaguan shou aroma makes it feel like I am back in that barn right now learning to tie knots, read topographical maps, and carve wooden sculptures with a pocket knife.

When I first brewed the Xiao Fa Tuo, I wasn't too surprised to find that it has a taste consistent with the aroma-- it had the horse farm and tobacco barn flavors in addition to some smoke and clay flavors.  The mouthfeel is quite interesting-- it's thick, yet it feels very soft/smooth too; almost as if the volume of tea weighs less than the same volume of water would if physics did not have laws.

2003 Xiaguan "Xiao Fa Tuo" shou puerh

Tasting such an earthy tea for the first time was a strange experience though.  I definitely liked the tea, but I wasn't sure if I loved it.  It was certainly different from all other teas I have had in the past.  I had heard though that puerh can change a lot over subsequent steepings so I kept steeping it to see what would happen.  Around the 5th or 6th steep I noticed that the flavor mellowed out quite a bit to reveal flavor characteristics of leather and wood.  This tea went from good to amazing!

The later steeps brought back more memories.  The wood flavor notes reminded me of an incense that my old college roommate and I used to burn.  He acquired this incense in a large jar from his older brother and it had no packaging, labels, or wrapper.  We actually had no idea what scent it was supposed to be.  We just knew it as the velvety reddish-purple sticks among the assorted rainbow in the jar.  But the woody note in this tea is the same.  Perhaps it is cedar?  Not freshly cut cedar though, but that of an old cedar tree that has long since fallen to the ground where the forest has had some time to try to reclaim its nutrients; a microbial process happening over time like the microbial process that created this tea.

In addition to this tea bringing back memories from long ago, this tea also has new memories attached to it that are now locked within the green box.   When I see this tea I think of the night I bought this tea in December 2011.  I had gone in to the tea shop while my wife and I were waiting for our turn to ride a horse-drawn carriage around a block of our town.  It was the third time we had ridden in one; the second was at our wedding, and the first was on the night of our first date.  Also that night we visited my good friend's parents who had both been battling cancer.  That was the last night I saw either of them before they passed away months later.  The days following the purchase of this tea I also came down with strep-throat and felt horrible-- That week of strep throat with high fever and swings of chills still sits within the top two or three moments of the worst I have felt in recent memory.

Every time I saw the green box for a while I kept thinking about how awful it felt having strep throat, which caused me to delay drinking this tea for over 3 years after buying it.  It was like Beethoven's 9th in A Clockwork Orange.  So I pushed the puerh to the back of the cabinet to let the memories fade a bit, like a strong shou puerh wo dui aroma.

I'm glad I decided to pull this tea back out and finally give it a try.  It has helped opened up the world of tea for me and has since lead me to discover and try many more teas.  As I explore them one by one and continue to learn more about tea, I enjoy creating new tea memories as well as revisiting the old ones.