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Journal

Our final “new” pu-erh is even older–it’s a loose pu-erh sold to us as “17-year-old Menghai Dayi Gong Ting Pu-erh.”  Like our unwrapped 2003 brick, this tea comes to us without formal packaging or pedigree, so we’ve got to take its provenance with a grain of salt and pay attention to our senses to determine its quality.  “Gong Ting” refers to the erstwhile tradition of the best teas being gifted to the Chinese imperial court.  Today, it’s often used to describe loose cooked pu-erh of the smallest grade.  One look at the leaves of this tea and it seems to be a fair appellation–they’re tiny!  The tea seems to be almost entirely composed of buds, too, which range from dark brown to golden in color.  I can see this grade being included in a blended cake, but it’s hard to imagine a cake made of leaves this small–it seems like it wouldn’t manage to stay together!

As might be expected, the high number of tea buds included in this tea indicate above-average sweetness.  When it comes to pu-erh, though, tons of buds also seem to inevitably bring high notes in aroma as well as the strength and occasional harshness that improves significantly with age.  Luckily for us, this tea’s already had its fair share of storage and the flavors are blending pretty well.  Compared to our other new teas, the mouthfeel is surprisingly dry–I wouldn’t say astringent, but it doesn’t leave a thick or oily texture in the mouth after swallowing.  There’s also a considerable amount of strength to this tea–what would most likely come across as intense bitterness in a raw pu-erh is here a slight sharpness that develops into musty sweetness in the finish.  It’s pretty amazing to me that a tea can undergo ripened pu-erh processing as well as aging and retain as much of an edge as teas like this have.  To me, these kinds of characteristics are indication that the tea will only continue to mellow with further aging.  As it stands today, this is a great ripened pu-erh option if you’re interested in a tea with a bit of a kick.  It’s not the supremely mellow experience of our 2003 brick, but it’s also a better choice for gong fu, with quite a bit of development and stamina over multiple steepings, developing deeper flavors as the infusions wear on.  I wouldn’t rule out mixing a bit of this with the 2003 brick for a broad-ranging blend, either!

Our next “new” pu-erh has actually got some age on it–it’s a 250 gram brick from 2003.  Like our ’09 7452 cake it’s hard to start talking about this one without raising some common confusing aspects of the pu-erh experience.  For starters, the brick is called “Menghai,” and as the last notes mentioned, this tea was created in Menghai county, Yunnan province, but not at Menghai Tea Factory.  Secondly, you can see that this cake is a different shape–indeed, it’s not the standard 357 gram bing (disc-shaped cake) into which the majority of pu-erh is pressed; it’s a 250 gram rectangular brick.  Though this shape is not the #1 norm, it’s relatively common and 250g is the standard brick weight.  You may also notice that these bricks have no wrappers (aside from the bamboo wrapper that holds multiple bricks).

  As is sometimes the case with aged pu-erh, this cake was either never wrapped or was removed from its wrappers some time in its eight years of storage.  Although this does mean that there is much less information to verify a cake’s age, origin and authenticity (no wrapper, no nei fei pressed into the cake), it usually means that the cake will sell for much less.  In other words, you can get a better deal on an unwrapped aged cake than a wrapped one, and just because it’s unwrapped doesn’t mean it’s not good!  Rather than relying on information provided on a wrapper, though, we have to use our senses to decide whether a tea’s a worthy investment.

This brick’s relatively dry Yunnan storage means that the leaves flake pretty easily off the cake surface–in fact, the brick itself is a bit flexible in hand.  What has struck me most about this cake during tasting is its mouthfeel–it’s by far the smoothest and roundest of our three new teas, and there’s nary a hint of astringency to be found from start to finish.  The tea liquor is also the darkest of the three–it’s a barely penetrable black, even in our glass cups.  While I described our 7452 as the best choice for gong fu brewing, my recommendation for this tea is “Western”-style brewing in a mug or pot–like we serve most of our teas at Miro.  While it does stand up to a few repeated steeps, the body is fullest and most impressive when it’s allowed a nice long 5+ minute steep.  Additionally, the flavor more fully develops given some extra steeping time.  The tea isn’t quite as complex as the Menghai Factory blend, but it’s a brilliant example of ideal mouthfeel for any pu-erh.  The eight years of aging have definitely contributed to this characteristic, as well as the mellowing of the flavor.  There aren’t as many high notes up front, and there’s little to no remnants of the flavor that freshly-processed ripened pu-erh exhibits.  Some teas seem designed for careful connoisseur attention over the course of numerous steeps.  This one, however, seems best drunk casually on a relaxing afternoon, as it exemplifies the calming, mellowing characteristics to which all pu-erh should aspire.

It’s been quite a while since we’ve had new ripened (cooked) pu-erh offerings at Miro Tea; a few months ago we sold out of the last of our 2007 Chang Tai Red Crane cakes, and shortly after our 2006 International Tea Expo Memorial cakes disappeared–a lot of customers have asked after the teas, wondering when we’ll be restocking them.  Sometimes the unfortunate thing about the aged pu-erh world is that once something is gone, it’s really gone–our supplier sold out close to a year ago, so all we have of those two cakes is memories!  Fortunately, though, it’s also an opportunity to try some new teas, thanks to our new partnership with Yunnan Sourcing!  We have three new (to us) ripened/cooked pu-erh cakes that are already available at Miro for your tasting pleasure–Jeannie has introduced a couple of them at our weekly tea tastings (Saturdays at 1 pm) and they’ve gone over quite well.

Before I launch into notes about one of our new cakes, it might be helpful to reference the introductory article that’s been on this blog a few years already.  We get a fair number of customers inquiring about this strange pu-erh tea they’ve had once or only heard about, but in most cases it turns out that they’re more specifically looking for ripened or cooked pu-erh.  It’s the one that looks extremely dark in the cup (sometimes almost black) and is usually extremely smooth in the mouth, with full body, earthy flavor and often times a nice round sweetness.  Raw/green pu-erh, on the other hand, looks much lighter in the cup, has more of a straw-like flavor, is often bitter and astringent, and only develops rich smoothness after many years (often decades) of careful storage.  If you don’t care to reference the lengthy article, here’s the main thing that separates ripened pu-erh from raw: ripened pu-erh is artificially aged over a short period of time using a special process not unlike composting wherein the leaves are heaped, sprayed with water and change physically and chemically due to the autothermal generation of heat.  The piles are shifted by knowledgeable tea masters to ensure their even processing, and when they’re ready, the leaves are usually compressed into large cakes (just like raw pu-erh).

This, the first of our new offerings, is a 2009 example of Menghai Factory’s 7452 recipe.  One sentence in, and I’ve already mentioned some of the classic confusing pu-erh details.  What’s Menghai?  Well, Menghai (pronounced mung-high) is both a county in China’s Yunnan province (where all pu-erh comes from) and the name of the most famous pu-erh producing factory.  Therefore, it’s possible to describe a tea as “from” Menghai without it being from Menghai factory (as you’ll see with our next tea).  Menghai Factory is widely believed to be the first factory to have perfected the processing whereby ripened pu-erh is created, though there’s some disagreement as to whether it was back in the 1950’s or later around the 1970’s that this was accomplished.  Either way, their recipes are tried-and-true in the pu-erh world and we’re happy to be able to share with you an example of “industry standard” pu-erh.  Speaking of recipes, the final confusing issue is that of recipe number–7452 is read as “seventy-four five two.”  “Seventy-four” refers to the year the recipe was created (1974), “five” refers to the average grade (size, corresponding from low to high) of leaves used, and “two” is Menghai Factory’s “code”–any recipe tea purchased from Menghai Factory will always end with a “2.”

Many Menghai recipes are made every year.  This one, in fact, isn’t–there’s a red ribbon embedded in each 357 gram cake denoting its status as a special release.  Unlike raw pu-erh, which takes decades to mature, ripened pu-erh is ready to drink immediately.  This doesn’t mean, however, that it won’t improve with age–the fact that this tea’s already a couple of years old means that any sharpness or “fermented” taste from its processing has had some time to mellow and the flavors are well-blended.  The reasonable percentage of buds visible in the cake indicate that it’ll have some sweetness or at least some nice higher notes in the flavor.  It doesn’t disappoint in that regard–the first thing to come out in tasting was a nice malty sweetness.  The body of this tea is also somewhat light for a cooked pu-erh, which can be a nice change of pace from what is often a rather heavy tea genre.  Of our three new pu-erh teas, this is my pick for gong fu brewing–you might need to use a few more leaves than usual (I’d recommend at least 7 grams for 100ml), but the blend of leaves produces a nice session that really gets going after the first two infusions–full of changes on the palate, varying degrees of mouthfeel and a welcome bit of complexity.  Brewed long in a mug or pot, the tea is quite flavorful, packed on numerous different levels.  There are more “boutique” brands of ripened pu-erh, but Menghai Factory continues to deliver quality tea at extremely affordable prices–this 7452 cake is a solid stand-by and a good reference to which our customers can compare other teas.

Today it’s my pleasure to introduce a very special tea we’ve recently begun serving at the store. Jeannie purchased this Chinese black tea at the end of 2007–three years ago! Until now it’s sat sealed in a faraway corner of Miro’s storage. Jeannie recently remembered the tea and upon trying some was pleasantly surprised. Not only had the quality of the tea not degraded during its storage, the astringency had mellowed considerably and the tea was actually much more pleasant to drink than it had been three years ago!


Unfortunately because of the time that’s elapsed we know little about this tea other than the fact that it’s a high-grade Chinese black–the large bags it was stored in have only generic tea labels and the words “Special Grade” handwritten by our wholesaler. So, in absence of a more accurate name, we’re calling it “China Vintage Special.” I recently took the opportunity to give this tea a try and was quite pleasantly surprised. I don’t drink a lot of black tea but always appreciate a complex tea no matter what genre it belongs to. As you can see above, this tea’s leaves are quite long and though there are some golden buds present, it’s nowhere near as tippy as our Yunnan Gold Fancy.


When you see this tea in the cup, it’s easy to understand why the Chinese call black tea “red” tea; they’re going off of the liquor color not the dry leaf color! Indeed, this tea is a deep amber red with a nice surface sheen but great clarity, to be expected from the leaf profile. The word that kept ringing in my head while tasting this tea was “clean;” there certainly is no excessive astringency, nor is there any muddiness or harshness of flavor that can often plague cheap black tea. The flavor is a balanced mix of both high, sweet notes and a lower, maltier, medium-bodied base. Compared with our other Chinese blacks, this tea’s certainly unique. The range of flavor and mouth sensation is much wider than that of our bassy Keemun; compared with Yunnan Gold, it’s a bit drier, less pungently sweet, and purer. Additionally, there’s a definite vibrant energy to this tea’s mouthfeel and finish that really reminded me of the experience of drinking fresh Chinese green tea.

Because it’s been aged a couple of years, I recommend brewing this tea just a little bit stronger to reawaken its complexity. As shown above, the leaves don’t open fully even after a full steeping–a sign that this tea will actually be good for a few tries or maybe even steeped gong fu style. Stop by and try this special tea soon–we’ve only got a limited quantity and it’s already proven popular with our more discriminating black tea drinkers!

Elliot

There’s no denying that fall is now upon us–as we say goodbye to those hot summer days (or in our case here in Seattle, give up on this year’s summer ever actually happening), it’s natural for our tea tastes to shift a little bit. Those vegetal green teas and light, floral oolongs that were thirst-quenching during summer months may not seem quite as comforting when the weather starts cooling off and daylight hours wane. Wuyi oolongs to the rescue! These oolongs are traditionally higher-oxidized and much more roasted than your typical green Tieguanyin and High Mountain Taiwanese oolongs, which means their pure floral notes are rounded–a bit fruitier and accompanied by a robust roasted note, which makes them perfect for cold weather! Coincidentally, these teas are traditionally given a period of several months to rest after processing to allow the flavors to blend successfully, which means they’re drinkable right when fall comes around!

We’ve just received this year’s harvest of five different Wuyi rock oolongs–Da Hong Pao, Tie Luo Han, Rou Gui, Old Bush Shui Xian and Shui Jin Gui. Like last year, we sourced these teas with a whole lot of help and legwork from our good friends at Seven Cups tea. It’s exciting to get these teas because of the change in season, but also because it gives us a chance to compare a second season of tea with last year’s harvest. The above shot (photos by Jeannie) of our new Da Hong Pao’s luscious leaves tells the story pretty well–the leaves are dark brown with a few rusty edges, a sign of plenty of careful oxidation and roasting. In the cup it’s dark reddish amber, which is another great sign. Tasting these teas, I was really excited to notice plenty of fire taste–the roasting is still pretty apparent, and that’s the way I like my Wuyi rock oolongs. With a heavier roast, the tea’s quality is less susceptible to deterioration (if it’s well-stored, of course), and its characteristics will continue to develop as time passes.


Since we still have a small quantity of a few of last year’s Wuyi oolongs, we’ve also had an opportunity to compare what a year does to a similar tea. Tasting last year’s Old Bush Shui Xian, I was really surprised how much the roasting flavor has mellowed in a year’s time (considering we haven’t stored the tea specifically for aging). The gentle floral notes and mineral aftertaste are more prominent and the roast lingers in the background. The 2010 counterpart, on the other hand, is quite robust with up-front roasting and floral notes that are more apparent in the nose after swallowing. Most interesting, though, is that it’s possible (even easy) to draw a clear connection between this year’s tea and last year’s, despite the obvious differences. Likewise, the Da Hong Pao’s incomparable high acidic notes, Tie Luo Han’s rich broadness, and Rou Gui’s fruity/spiciness all are apparent, there’s just more of an element of fire in the mix.

Everyone has their own tastes for oolong. Right now, these teas taste perfect to me. They’ve been in my cup almost every day since they arrived (a very good sign!). As they mellow out in the next few months, though, I think they’ll become even more accessible and balanced, which is one of my favorite things about Wuyi oolongs–they’re always drinkable, but they’re also always changing.


Greetings, patient readers! I’ve had precious little tea news to report for a long stretch; unfortunately, managing day-to-day store operations takes precedence over fun blogging projects, and we’ve been quite busy in the store preparing for the holidays and attending to our loyal customers. This news, though, is too tasty to keep under wraps: With the help of Seven Cups we’ve recently acquired a selection of five top-quality Chinese Wuyi oolongs, which we are now featuring in a special seasonal menu in the store–and just in time for this spate of extremely cold days!

High-quality and authentic Wuyi oolongs can be difficult to come by, which is why Seven Cups’ sourcing skills (they literally personally source all of the teas they carry, traveling to each province of origin and purchasing teas from the tea masters who produce them) are much appreciated–these are great teas.

If you’re not familiar with Wuyi oolongs, here’s a brief introduction from way-back. Generally, these are stripe-rolled, roasted Chinese oolongs. Most are named after the cultivar, or genetic “type” of tea plant that they come from. My goals with bringing our customers these teas are first to replace our out-of-stock Wuyi offerings, and second to offer a broad range of teas that exhibit the potential quality Wuyi oolongs can aspire to, as well as the differences between different tea cultivars and processing, with special emphasis on roast level. So, without further ado, here are some brief impressions on our new teas.

Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe) pronounced DAH hung POW
The most widely-acclaimed Wuyi oolong is also the most often-faked. Because of its international popularity, authentic Da Hong Pao is almost always one of the most expensive Wuyi teas, but its popularity is earned. This Da Hong Pao blends the tea’s unique acidity with a really smooth body, making it a little less bright but more balanced than some other examples. The roasting is on the lighter side of medium, with plenty of room for the tea’s floral and buttery aspects to shine, and the rich mouthfeel marches along nicely through the infusions. Da Hong Pao is the standard by which all other Wuyi oolongs are measured, so trying a good one like this is “required tasting,” both so you can understand the ideal characteristics of these teas, but also so you can understand what makes the other cultivars different. Most importantly, though, if your only Wuyi experience has been low-grade, over-roasted generic Wuyi oolong with the words “Da Hong Pao” slapped on the box for the purposes of extra profit, get ready to have your eyes opened!

Lao Cong Shui Xian (Old Bush Water Sprite) pronounced LAOW CHONG SHWAY see-en
Shui Xian is the most widely-cultivated Wuyi oolong (not sure why, but I assume it’s because of the plant’s hardiness and yield); it’s even popular enough that it’s also cultivated in Taiwan and Feng Huang in Guangdong province. This particular Shui Xian is grown toward the center of the Wuyi reserve and it comes from plants that are over 30 years old. This means the roots have had plenty of time to penetrate the rich soil and receive a well-rounded nutrient supply. This tea offers one of the higher roast levels of the five, but I’d still say it occupies the “medium” range of the spectrum. Shui Xian offers a really balanced flavor with equal measures of flowers, fruits and a wee bit of spice. On first tasting, this is near the top of my list for favorites, and it’s one of the better values of the five. I really enjoyed the thick mouthfeel, and there were some interesting changes from infusion to infusion.

Rou Gui (Cinnamon/Cassia Aroma) pronounced ROW GWAY
Rou Gui is another very popular cultivar, and one of the most distinct-tasting ones at that. Like the name implies, this tea tends to be spicy. I was really impressed by this tea’s medium roasting; many Rou Gui I’ve tried tend to be heavily roasted. To my tastes, a medium roast compliments the dark spice notes more elegantly, although I do have to say I’d prefer heavy roasting to a light roast. This tea has a good, strong tea base, and is honestly probably my favorite Rou Gui I’ve ever tried.

Shui Jin Gui (Golden Marine Turtle) pronounced SHWAY jin GWAY
Shui Jin Gui is one of my favorite Wuyi cultivars; in my experience it tends to be medium-light roasted, silky smooth, with a pure flavor that makes me want to keep drinking and drinking. In the past week, this tea has already become a favorite with some of our regulars–it’s complex, mellow, and the lightly toasty aroma is remarkably chocolatey. In the cup, it’s one of the lighter of the teas, but I think a lighter roasting is appropriate for a tea with such a nice, darkly floral character.

Tie Luo Han (Iron Warrior Monk) pronounced TEE-eh luh-wo HAHN
Finally, we have this light-roast Tie Luo Han. Although the roasting level is denoted as “light,” after tasting this tea a few times I’d place it more on the medium level, although it’s certainly not as heavy a roast as this tea traditionally receives. I’ve been really surprised by this tea’s flavor, which strongly reminds me of the sort of spiced apple desserts that are a hallmark of fall and winter American cuisine. The lighter roasting really showcases this fruitiness, whereas a high roasting would probably obscure this element and completely alter the character of the tea. This tea might win the award for most complex of the selection as well.

I hope you’ll take the opportunity to stop in and try a few of these teas–In China, winter is traditionally viewed as the best time to drink these warming, roasty teas, and I find myself agreeing more and more with every sip!

Welcome to 2009! To finish off the recent series of Wuyi Yen Cha posts, I’ve got tasting notes for our Rou Gui (which we call Wuyi Cassia). I’ll do my best to keep this post a little less long-winded than the Da Hong Pao tasting notes, but sometimes nerdy tea enthusiasm exceeds my restraint! As I mentioned in the introductory post, Rou Gui is both a “tea type” and a genetically unique cultivar of the tea plant. Although Rou Gui isn’t one of the four famous Wuyi oolong cultivars (known in Chinese as the Si Da Ming Cong–Da Hong Pao, Shui Jin Gui, Tie Lo Han and Bai Ji Guan), it is certainly one of the more common varieties and is often served at restaurants alongside Shui Xian as a popular table tea. In spite of its popularity, it’s still very much possible to find premium examples that stand up to elite gong fu grades of the Si Da Ming Cong.


The dry leaves aren’t too different in appearance from those of the Da Hong Pao–nice big, whole leaves. They’re perhaps a bit darker with a little more contrast between the frosting and leaf color. Smelling the leaves after the first infusion, I notice that the roast seems a bit more dominant than with the Da Hong Pao. Similarly to the other tea, though, the roast in the aroma diminishes after a couple of infusions. If I had to use one word to contrast this tea with the Da Hong Pao, I’d use “darker.” The heavier roast is immediately apparent, and the characteristic Rou Gui flavor takes slightly more effort to appreciate. It’s there, though–“Rou Gui” is often translated as cinnamon or cassia–as the roasting character diminishes over the 2nd and 3rd infusions, a delightfully dark spiciness emerges. This tea’s acidity is nowhere near as pronounced as the Da Hong Pao’s is, and the body tends to be a bit fuller as well. Later infusions produce a balanced but fading combination of roast and spice, with the expected astringency getting my mouth watering. Compared with the Da Hong Pao’s high and penetrating notes, this Rou Gui’s full, round and dark bottom makes for a pleasant contrast.


Examining the spent leaves shows some similarities with the Da Hong Pao–leaves alternate between very dark to slightly greener, but there are many large examples to be found. Our staff’s reaction has been split between these two teas–to me, that’s a sign that they’re both good! Personally, my tastes gravitate a bit toward the slightly lighter roast (you can see below that the Rou Gui’s leaves are more blistered than the Da Hong Pao’s), but the full body and darkness of the Rou Gui makes for an excellent and comforting winter warmer!


Elliot

At long last, I’m here to present tasting notes for our two new Wuyi Yen Cha. I started introducing this tea in an earlier post, so I’ll only add a bit more info with regards to its origins. As I mentioned in that earlier post, Da Hong Pao is both a “finished” tea type and a genetically unique cultivar of tea plant. However, the history and origins of the Da Hong Pao cultivar are labyrinthine and hotly-debated. Guang at Hou De Asian Art has written two extremely illuminating articles about the origins of the Da Hong Pao cultivar (Part 1, Part 2), so I won’t go too in depth regarding the history. Suffice to say that, yet again, there are plenty of tea merchants in China who are willing to pass off cheaper, often inferior Wuyi oolongs as “Da Hong Pao” and selling them to ill-informed customers at much higher prices than they deserve. This problem is compounded by the fact that many skilled Yen Cha tea masters have different opinions about which cultivar is proper for making a Da Hong Pao. This makes Da Hong Pao shopping very difficult for consumers, especially in the West. After trying as many “Da Hong Paos” as possible, I’m beginning to gain a modest understanding of Da Hong Pao’s unique flavor profile. To me, Da Hong Pao is typified by a fruity, floral flavor that comes across as very “high,” and acidic (i.e. lively and stimulating in the mouth). Of course, these characteristics can vary based on the innumerable other factors involved in processing, but the best Da Hong Paos I’ve tried all seemed to exhibit this flavor while the others tasted like overly-roasted generic Yen Cha. Outside of searching for Da Hong Pao’s unique flavor, choosing a good example is a matter of meeting the criteria that all Yen Cha should meet–balance between roasting and tea flavor, mouthfeel and body, and aftertaste.


Enough tea geeking–let’s move on to the task at hand: tasting our new Da Hong Pao! As you can see in the above picture, the leaves are large, complete, and dark in color with a light frosting. Large, complete leaves is a good sign–it means the tea has been handled with care and will be much more forgiving when brewing (broken leaves make strong, astringent and bitter tea much more easily). After loading up the gaiwan and pouring off the first quick infusion, the leaves smell incredible–the roast comes through first in the aroma, with a gentle, warm charcoal note which is followed (especially if you inhale deeply) by a pointed touch of flowers. As the infusions wear on, the roasted aroma backs off quite a bit–by the second and third infusions, the floral and caramel notes begin to rival and overpower the roasted ones. The flavor of the initial infusions is less dominated by the roast. At the first brief steep, it’s nice and light, with a bit of acidity edging in. Later, the acidity comes into its own, combining both aspects of fruit and flowers in a way that is unique to Da Hong Pao.

The final infusions begin to taper off in strength at just the right time–right when you’re ready for the tea to back off. As you can see in the picture the infused leaves are a sight to see! Even with multiple infusions, the leaves of a good Yen Cha will retain their stripe-rolled shape, never fully unfurling without help. The unfurled leaf on the left is MONSTROUS. By far the largest leaf I’ve found in so far in the entire batch–it measured 4 inches! Also of note is the difference in coloration–this tea’s heavy oxidation leaves some of the leaves greener while some take on a darker, brownish color. As you can see in the final picture of the gaiwan, by the end of a brewing session, the leaves are positively overflowing. In my experience, a lot of leaves is the best way to ensure a long session with a Yen Cha, but short steeps are a must. If you only want a couple of good steeps out of your tea, reducing the leaf weight and lengthening the infusion time will also provide very good results with this tea.


Finally, I’ll draw attention to this close-up picture of one unfurled leaf. In the macro picture (please excuse my camera’s quality) you’ll see some bubble-like blisters on the surface of the leaf. This sort of appearance is evidence of the tea’s roasting level–lighter-roasted Yen Cha will show pretty much no bubbles on the leaf surface, while “traditional” Yen Cha will sometimes be covered in such blisters. If flavor alone isn’t enough to accurately reveal to you the tea’s roast level, inspecting a nice whole leaf is usually pretty reliable. “Traditional,” (in the parlance of Wuyi Yen Cha) means heavy roasting. As I understand it, most Yen Cha used to be heavily roasted, and lighter and lighter roasts have only more recently come into fashion. Today, “tradional” connotes a high roast. If the tea’s good, though, you should be able to taste and smell much more than just charcoal without trying too hard! I would consider this Da Hong Pao to be a Traditional-style Yen Cha, though its firing wasn’t extreme. Hopefully sometime in the future we’ll be able to offer a lightly-baked Da Hong Pao–the difference can be very educational and can be illuminating for entry-level Yen Cha drinkers who might think all Wuyi oolongs taste the same! Stay tuned for tasting notes for our Wuyi Rou Gui and, more importantly, have a happy new year!


Elliot

Although we’re featuring botanicals this month, I can’t help but feature a couple of new arrivals to our tea menu–two Wuyi Yen Cha. I discussed this oolong type in a previous article, back when we had a serviceable but not outstanding example to provide our customers. Now, we’ve got two outstanding Wuyi oolongs and each deserves its own tasting notes.

As I noted in the introductory article, Wuyi is a mountain and nature reserve in Northern Fujian Province, China. “Yen Cha” means “rock,” “crag,” or “cliff” “tea,” since the area is known for its precipitous mountain cliffs and many of the most famous tea bushes were first discovered clinging to the edges of the rocks. This first tea I’ll be writing up is known as Da Hong Pao, or “Big Red Robe.” If there is one flagship Wuyi Yen Cha, it’s got to be Da Hong Pao–this tea is one of the Chinese 10 Famous Teas and certainly has the most worldwide recognition of all the Yen Cha. Because of its reputation, Da Hong Pao is often subject to falsification. Tea wholesalers will often sell low-grade, extremely high-roast Yen Cha under the name “Da Hong Pao” just to capitalize on the tea’s reputation. This sort of practice can ruin the beginning tea enthusiast’s experience with Yen Cha–a lot of tea drinkers think all Yen Cha taste the same (extremely roasted) and aren’t worthy of attention as a serious tea. The fact is, Da Hong Pao has a characteristic flavor and mouthfeel, so long as the producer is skilled enough at making the tea. This is mostly because “Da Hong Pao” is not only a specific tea (as in beverage), it’s also a genetically unique cultivar of tea bush that is reproduced asexually by planting cuttings from a parent plant. The same is true of Rou Gui (known at Miro Tea as “Wuyi Cassia”), our second new Yen Cha. Rou Gui is a less famous Yen Cha, but it is very popular in China as a solid Yen Cha choice. Rou Gui is so-named because of its cinnamon-like cassia aroma and flavor, which are more pronounced in higher grades.

Sitting down to taste our two new Yen Cha was a real pleasure, since they both exhibit the classic characteristics of high-quality Yen Cha but definitely taste distinct from one another. In addition to offering tasting impressions for these two teas, I hope these posts will serve as aids for brewing Yen Cha gong fu style; they can be tempermental, especially when used for multiple steepings, but a couple steps will greatly improve your drinking experience. The first step is to “stuff the pot.” As you can see in this picture, my tiny (90 ml) gaiwan is about 3/4 full of leaf (over 5 grams worth!). This is a crucial step; for one thing, Yen Cha leaves are not especially tightly-rolled, so they look bigger than, say, a pellet rolled oolong, when in actuality the weight is lower. Secondly, packing the leaf in will make the tea last many more infusions. The second big step is using very short infusions. When I prepare Yen Cha, the first 4 infusions are generally instantaneous–as soon as the water has filled the pot or gaiwan and the lid is on, I begin pouring. Because there is so much leaf, there’s a danger of oversteeping. If you keep the first few infusions short, you’ll be able to really appreciate the changing character of the tea from steep to steep. After the first four infusions, I’ll generally increase the infusion time by about 10 seconds per go, up to about 45 seconds, then by 15 seconds for two more, and a couple extra long infusions to see if the tea has any juice left. The third tip is to use a pot or gaiwan that retains heat very well–this porcelain gaiwan is a good device for accurately conveying the flavor of this yen cha, but a nice thick, high-fired Yixing clay pot will keep the temperature high, allowing the water (as close to boiling as possible) to extract as much flavor as possible, which is key during later infusions. Following these three principles (which differ quite a bit from more standard gong fu practices) has really helped me get more mileage and enjoyment out of my Yen Cha, and goodness knows I drink a lot of Yen Cha.

The flavor you should expect from a good Yen Cha brewed in this fashion should present a balance between the tea’s roasting level (which varies from tea to tea) and the flavors of the tea leaves themselves, which also varies from cultivar to cultivar, but ranges from fruity to flowery to creamy to spicy, depending on the Yen Cha. Mouthfeel is usually pretty thick and a bit of mouth-watering astringency (due to the teas’ roasting) generally starts to mount in later infusions, and many Yen Cha possess a pleasant and active acidity that tends to sparkle on the tongue. Really good Yen Cha will also exhibit what the Chinese call “hui gan,” which is literally untranslatable, but roughly means something like “returning aftertaste.” That is, the tea’s flavor remains in your mouth after drinking, and is often enhanced with your breathing.

I’ll be back soon with my impressions on our new Da Hong Pao and Rou Gui!

Elliot

This cute little mini-cake is 100 g, the same weight as a standard “bird’s nest” or tuo cha, and about 250 grams smaller than your average pu-erh bing. As the attractive wrapper (I love the texture and slight transparency of the paper) says, this tea was produced by Chang Tai factory to commemorate (Ji Nian) of the 2006 tea culture expo in Taipei, Taiwan. The Chang Tai blender reportedly blended this cake from the best of 150 loose pu-erh leaves provided by the factory, and the aim was to reproduce the characteristics of the legendary “Hun Tie” (iron cakes) from the 1950’s. While it’s difficult to imagine how a blender could know (much less reproduce) how the 1950’s cakes tasted and smelled when they were young, there’s no question that this is high-quality pu-erh.

It’s evident from viewing the exposed cake that it’s very well-compressed, which happens to be one of the defining characteristics of “iron” cakes. There’s a healthy proportion of buds on the surface, and also plenty of dark, juicy-looking leaves. One of the more difficult things about iron cakes and machine-molded cakes in general is that it’s more difficult to break into the cake for brewing without breaking or damaging all of the leaves. The fact that this is a mini cake compounds this difficulty, since it’s thinner and smaller than your average bing. Using a small pick meant for tuo chas with care, though, I was able to break the cake into relatively whole and manageable pieces, using an intact specimen for tasting. This pu-erh is so well-made that it’s a shame it’s only available in mini cake size; I’d love to own large cakes of this tea.

The aroma itself is a complex puzzle, shifting between thick, date-like fruit smells to intoxicating wet flowery notes. There’s no smokiness and no off or dirty smells, and the shifting nature of the aroma is a really good sign. I found the elements of the aroma variously popped up in the liquor, which complemented them with a hearty but subdued bitterness, a smooth finish, and a nice thick, viscous mouth feel. This isn’t arbor pu-erh, but it’s about as good as plantation pu-erh can hope to be. The only real drawback is the mini-cake form, which isn’t really necessarily a drawback; the small cakes are extremely affordable, especially for someone who’s interested in experimenting with aging pu-erh but doesn’t want to break the bank. The unfurled leaves are in pretty nice shape (provided you can get them free without breaking them)–some large examples for full body as well as healthy buds and fledgling leaves for light sweetness. As far as Chang Tai leaves are concerned, they’re much better than the average.

As with all of our pu-erhs, we’re offering this tea in 1 oz samples as well as in whole cakes, and both are 15% off through the end of November, making this cake an even better deal.

Elliot

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