2013 San Ke Shu, Yunnan Sourcing

I guess I need to promise to review something that’s not fromYunnan Sourcing in the near future here… Can’t really help it though is Scott sells good tea and that’s most of what my present tea cabinet consists of…  Anyhow, I was sifting through the dregs of my San Ke Shu jar this morning, and realized that after the few whole fragments I pulled out, the rest may be dust after this. As this may be the last real session I have with this terrific tea, I felt obliged to write a post for it, so here goes:

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Last call…

The dry leaves by themselves still smelled amazing, like vanilla and spice. The rinsed smell opens into green earthiness, with sweet musk and peat moss.  The first infusion is unexpectedly thin and bitter, but not necessarily in a bad way. There’s plenty of depth and sweet Lincang floralness already, and the leaves aren’t even open.

Year three is in my experience when sheng puer starts to show the very first signs of aged flavor, and I’m seeing a little bit here… There are still the soft vanilla candy flavors that I’ve known from this tea, but now something else has creeped in, probably best described as “woodsy” in the manner of tree bark and lichen (sounds weird I know), and maybe some tobacco.  Steepings two and three certainly have this quality, along with a strong kuwei (bitterness that fades quickly into sweetness) and lots of texture. While I can’t say that I regret finishing this cake while it was young, I’ll probably always be curious where this would have gone now… I’m really enjoying some of these drier and more textured dark flavor notes. This tea is at once very sweet and very bitter, floral and woodsy, light and dark (like Darth Vader). It is a complicated character indeed (like Darth Vader).

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Steeping five yields a deep yellow soup, notes of star anise, vanilla malt, and tree bark (lol at that description, but it’s how I feel). Knowing when to drink a tea is always a bit of a challenge, especially as I’m just now getting a feel for how Colorado dry storage affects my puer (it doesn’t kill it). My philosophy has been if it’s good now, drink it now, but I’m always tempted to hang onto fragments such as this, “just to see”. As I’ve discussed is the case with gongfu brewing in a session, there is no such thing as absolute better and worse, just change over time. The challenge is locating our own preferences within that. Certainly, there are those that would advocate that aging puer is mandatory, but I don’t believe that at all… You have to do what makes sense for you in this moment, because we don’t know what the future holds for any of us, tea included. Maybe this is where the human tendency to speculate about alternatives comes in (or in my case hanging onto fragments of mostly finished tea cakes); we want to know where that other road would have lead. I guess with tea, unlike life, we can sort of do this…

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Was it as good for you as it was for Pancake the tea pig?

Having said this, may our understanding of the view of tea deepen, and our realization grow vast as space.

-Ginko-san

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2015 Da Xue Shan, Yunnan Sourcing

For a tea from relatively less mature trees, the aroma of the rinsed leaves is surprisingly sweet and thick. I can already smell the usual suspects for a tea from this region- honey, tobacco, and wildflowers. The first infusion yields a pale yellow tea soup. At the first couple sips, it feels perhaps a bit thin, but is textured and has real huigan (lingering sweetness and aftertaste). I find it to be grassy, with light honey suckle and sugar cane notes. The second infusion is a much darker yellow with a thicker flavor profile; there is an almost syrupy sweetness and some encroaching bitterness that I can tell is about to pick up… Otherwise the same grassy Lincang profile as the initial steep.

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I’ve never been quite sure how to open one of these…

The third infusion brews a beautiful golden liquor. There is some bitterness indeed, but still not as much as I’d be anticipating… It is still sweet, dense and highlay enjoyable. Because of the relatively low price point and age of the tea trees, I keep looking for something to find wrong with this tea, but I’m still grasping. Perhaps there is a touch of dryness, but that could be from my own storage conditions. Of course, tea doesn’t have to be expensive to be good, just as it doesn’t have to be cheap to be bad.

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Golden soup

The fourth infusion is bolder, with a heavier emphasis on tobacco and dark straw. Now the huigan is starting to feel a little thin, and a bit watery. At steeping five it might be petering out a little, which is fine at this price point. There is still sweetness and layered raw puer complexity, but it’s fading rapidly now into dry grey tones. Again though, this still gave four solidly enjoyable steepings which is more than can be said for other teas in this price range. My feeling is that Scott presses teas in this range as more “store now, drink later” types of affairs (e.g. San He Zhai, Mang Fei). The base material is fine, but not really enough for me to enjoy it as a young tea by itself. In five to ten years though I could see this being an enjoyable middle aged tea…

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That said, it’s still going on steeping six… Plenty on sweetness, and retaining its Lincang flavor profile of wildflowers and honey. This bodes well for aging, it’s just not quite there as a young tea.

Note that I could also see this as someone’s first foray into young raw… I’d absolutely endorse it as such.

I sing this song so that everyone’s passion for and understanding of good tea may grow.

-Ginko-san

Wild Da Hong Pao, Yunnan Sourcing

I woke up to another snowy day, after the most mild climate-change-winter Imaginable, so with the weather change I needed tea to help myself aclimate.  The choices as such were either fermented puer or oxidized oolong. I went with the later as to finish off a bag of Yunnan Sourcing’s Wild Da Hong Pao I ordered late last year. Compared to the Shui Xian I reviewed in my immediately previous post, the DHP smells much smoother and greener, with stronger grilled vegetable aromas and a somewhat lighter tea soup. The first sip floors me completely. The gaiwan is probably a bit overpacked because I wanted to finish the bag, but there is hardly any harshness to this tea. Instead, there is a big, round mouth filling sweetness that goes all the way down the throat and doesn’t quit. Notes of grilled zucchini, caramel, sea salt.

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The second infusion yields a dark orange soup, lots of sweetness but otherwise nothing really changed from the first. This profile likely indicates a slightly lower level of oxidation than the Shui Xian, with sweeter and more vegetal tones. The leaves have a tinge of green as well, so this is more in the middle of the rock tea spectrum (remember these are a particular subset of oolong which come from an area of China known for its mineral rich soil). The third infusion happens to more reflect this minerally nature, with a drier, more textured and subdued soup. Here are the charcoal, earth and creek silt I had been waiting on. There is some bitterness also, but like I said, I probably overpacked the gaiwan…

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Too many leaves!

I reheat the water for the fourth infusion, and the Da Hong Pao continues its progression towards textured earthiness, though it’s vegetal notes still linger. What I enjoy most about the tea though is its texture and full mouth feeling. This is, of course, why we practice gongfu tea brewing- to appreciate the subtle changes and nuances hidden n the tea, and to draw them out as a new dancer takes center stage in each subsequent infusion. The fifth infusion is smooth and mellow, with more friendly floral flavors than any of the previous ones. Looking back, we can appreciate the evolution of a tea over time. Just as with biological evolution, one stage is not better or worse than the last, or superior or inferior to the next; the tea doesn’t “build” to anything, it just changes, and we sit with the changes, taking note and appreciating that this change is the nature of things.

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Good water is as important as good tea

But to return to the world of value judgements, I prefer the more roasted Shui Xian just on a personal level. I found it to be richer and more nuanced, though there’s certainly nothing to complain about here. This is just lighter on the Yan Cha scale, and I happen to prefer darker. See how relative truths of preference can coexist with absolute truths of change and thusness?

Thinking such thoughts while drinking awesome tea, my mind is filled with joy. May all who ponder with their tea be thusly inspired.

-Ginko-san

Bonus picture of sugar gliders eating yogurt:

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They’re hard to get a good picture of…

Ceng Gao Cong, YS

I told you I’d get around to reviewing something that wasn’t a raw puer some day!  Today we have Scott’s old bush Shui Xian, “Ceng Gao Cong.”  For the uninitiated, this is a Yan Cha, literally “rock tea,” a kind of oolong that grows in or around the Wuyi mountains in Fujian province.  These teas tend to be heavily roasted, and are known for the mineral-rich soil in which they grow.  Together, the roasting process with the unique terroir, these teas tend towards dark, savory flavors with textured mouth feelings.  Without further adieu, here are this morning’s notes:

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7 grams for my little gaiwan

When warmed up, the dry leaves have a heavy roasted fragrance like sweet coffee grounds. The rinsed leaves give off more vegetable tones, but still amid the backdrop of charcoal and coffee. In fact, the rinsed tea soup is so densely red-brown I decide to go ahead and drink it. It opens into a textured and mouth coating floral bouquet with strong notes of roses, creek silt, charcoal and caramel. The first proper infusion is all about texture; silty and spicy, there are pleasingly sweet qualities floating amidst the more nature-y flavors which ground this tea.

The viscosity that I associate with the Shui Xian varietal breaks through in the second infusion. This cup is notably smoother than the previous ones, and there is a soft, welcoming bitterness to accompany the toffee and caramel flavors clamoring to the front. The third infusion returns again to charcoal and roses, though I likely need to reheat my water at this time. There is still a balancing act going on here between bitterness and sweetness, between domestic and natural flavors, and I love it.

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Dark soup, puer remnants scattered around

In the context of Yan Chas, rock oolongs, I still can scarcely believe how dense this tea is. Visually, the tea soup resembles an aged puer, such is its dark color. The fourth infusion then (I need to review my notes to determine where we are, in my tea drunken state)? More of the same, which is very very far from being a complaint. As seems to be the case with oolongs (which generally can’t be pushed as far as puers when brewing gong-fu style), this later steep is more delicate than the previous ones, and this allows its spicy and mineral-y nuances to really shine. I may even detect notes of red wine and wild honey; this tea really has some tremendous depth to it.

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Letting it ride

In my experience four steeps is usually where rock oolongs peak, so I let the fifth steeping ride for a little longer than I otherwise might. This yields a gorgeous rust colored tea soup, with mossy smooth notes and hints of Asian spice. I go ahead and begin the sixth, and probably last, infusion while I enjoy this cup. I’m quite sloshed now from this tea already, and there’s not a lot of point in pushing to eight cups like I do with puer tea anyhow. I also take a moment to enjoy the sweet and musky smell of the empty cup, which is important to do when brewing tea of all types. As expected the final infusion, is all about texture, it’s more forward qualities having died down. I’m still struck by how thick and viscous the soup is though; this is still probably the densest yan cha in my own recollection.

I don’t always drink rock oolongs, but when I do, i look for an experience like the one above; sweet, textured, complex, and with gentle, unyielding cha qi (tea energy).

Thus the cuckoo has sung its song, drunk on the nectar of awesome tea. May all who drink from this source remain for a long while in the state of tea-bliss.

-Ginko-San