Arbor varietal

You Think You Know Yunnan?

Oh, hi.

You’re still here. Damn…have you been waiting long? Two months? Really?! Ummm…

Yeah, I had…uh…Carpal-depress-‘o-flu. It’s contagious. I’d stay back if I were you. Now where were we…January? Ah, yes.

To say it’s been a rough Winter is an understatement. I spent three weeks of it on my second bout with “Le Plague”. This put an even greater delay on my tea reviewing schedule – even well beyond the usual procrastination. One can’t really judge a drink when they can neither taste or smell. However, there were some strong contenders that braved the challenge.

Along with my usual morning matcha routine, I also attempted to drink copious amounts of white tea. I figured, if I couldn’t taste anything anyway, a good white tea won’t really matter. Most people can’t taste the stuff anyway unless they over-brew it. I can…but I’m “sensitive”.

There were three Yunnan white teas I had at my disposal. One was a rougher white known as Yue Guang Bai. Loosely translated, it means “Moonlight White”. The process for making it is slightly different than other white teas. Instead of being dried like other teas, it instead goes through a process (I’ve heard) that is similar to maocha (proto-pu-erh). It shows in the initial taste – rough, leafy and slightly earthy.

The second on hand was a favorite of mine – sun-dried buds from the Ya Bao (Arbor) varietal. The stuff reminded me of a Greek Mountain herbal infusion on smell and sip. As for the buds, they always looked very un-tea-like, but – man! – could they take a beating! I could boil the heck out of ‘em and still get three infusions-worth.

And speaking of boiling. Good ol’ Chuck – the husband half of The Jasmine Pearl Tea Merchants – corrected me on an assumption I held that only Fujian-produced Silver Needles were the best. He brought forth one that was produced in Yunnan, looked exactly like the Fuding/Fujian stuff, and smelled five times better. As in, the leaves actually had a smell. Citrus, as a matter of fact.

So what is an indecisive sick boy to do when he can barely taste anything through his congestion? How does he choose which white tea to go for? Answer: He doesn’t. He mixes the three together.

The result was…well…I couldn’t tell you exactly what it tasted like because I couldn’t really discern much past my clogged palate. What I can tell ya was that I did taste it? Quite a bit! That says something about the strength of these Yunnan whites. What’s even better? When I brewed ‘em up in a pot, I used boiling water. This doubled their taste output.

I only did a pot of all three once, and I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t try it again. Perhaps, now that my nasals are clear, I’ll revisit the unprofessional blend. As it stands, though, Yunnan whites are quite the powerhouse to the palate. Even a sickly one.

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Wednesday, March 21st, 2012 Steep Stories No Comments

Very Well, Give Him Tea Cake

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

I received an e-mail some two months back from Canton Tea Co. wondering if I had interest in reviewing a new sheng (raw) pu-erh. Far be it from me to refuse such an offer, I nodded (and typed) an emphatic, “Yes!” The only question would be where to put the review. I contribute to three different sites and keep my own blog for musings and unique teas. As I was pondering this, the tea arrived a short week after.

Canton Tea Co. described this as a sheng pu-erh made of “just-pressed” maocha (unfinished pu-erh leaves), and that it was privately commissioned by them from a small tea farm in Yunnan. That’s right: A custom-made pu-erh. I guess this was Canton’s way of saying: “We have a tea cake named after us, what are you doing with your life?”

Ah yes, the term “tea cake”, I almost forgot to get to that. For those in the pu-erh know, post-fermented and/or aged teas are often compressed into different shapes. These forms are almost always cake-shaped. “Beencha” (or “bingcha”, depending on your pinyin) literally means “tea cake”. Personally, I think the pressed pu-erhs look more like Frisbees…but I don’t think there’s a fancy Mandarin word for that (but I’m sure someone will prove me wrong).

But I digress.

While I was pondering where to put a write-up for this tea, I decided to take a sliver of it to work. I found most shengs could take a Western brew-up pretty well – even allowing three steeps. The flavor I expected was the usual rustic, earthy, and somewhat winy lean of raw pu-erhs past. That was not the case here. In fact, it was rather light, fruity and floral – kind of like un-pressed maocha, but not as brusque. Perhaps I should’ve read the fine print on Canton’s custom tea.

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

Not only was it a sheng beengcha specially made for Canton Tea Co., it was also one of the youngest pu-erhs I’ve ever come across. The stuff was plucked, pressed and packed in the spring…of this year! Up to this point, the youngest sheng I had tried was at least three years old. That would explain the green tea-ish flutteriness I felt on the tongue. That settled the inner debate of where to put the write-up. Youngest pu-erh ever? Custom-commissioned? Yeah, that’s unique.

Now I had to give it a more thorough, worthwhile look-through.  Canton also mentioned in the tea’s profile that the leaves were of the “Arbor” varietal – a wide-leafed cultivar often used for pu-erh. They were also labeled Grade 6 and above. I had absolutely no idea what that meant.  What I did know was that the leaves looked like a sliver of tree bark in their pressed form – wonderfully sweet and floral tree bark.

Brewing instructions on the Canton site recommended a gongfu prep using a 3-4g chunk (a teaspoon) in 203F water and a first infusion of twenty seconds. They also mentioned that it could infuse up to six times. I already knew it could hold up to Western prep rather well, but I wanted to see how a gongfu go-ahead would fair. Instead of twenty seconds for the first steep, though, I went with thirty. I also followed that up with three more infusions – another at thirty seconds and the last two at forty.

First infusion (thirty seconds):  The liquor brewed pale (but crisp) yellow with a wonderful aroma of tangerine blossoms – sweet and citrusy. It reminded me quite a bit of a white tea I had from the same varietal. The taste was smooth, lightly citrusy as well, and only mildly grassy on finish.

Second infusion (thirty seconds): A bit of a deeper yellow-gold liquor this time around, and the scent had more of a floral presence. Also in the aroma was a distinct feeling of “smoke” – not sure how that got there. The flavor began with a clean introduction that emboldened to a lemongrassy top note before trailing off pleasantly into Mao Jian green tea territory.

Third infusion (forty seconds): The liquor color hadn’t changed, but the smell was dominated by lemons and flowers – faintly, of course, but still there. Flavor-wise, it delivered a crisp smack of citrus, then smoothed out to a completely green tea-like palate delivery. Pu-erh? What pu-erh?

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): This hadn’t weakened in either color or scent; the yellows and lemongrassiness still reigned supreme. The taste was still crisp, and there was no change to the spry citrus mouth-feel. On the finish, I got some of the residual, pu-erh-ish mustiness.

Photo by Davis Doherty

Photo by Davis Doherty

Beyond the four I wrote about, this could’ve easily gone on for another three infusions. Any brewing beatdown I gave the leaves, it took with steeped stoicism. Much like a loose sheng pu-erh I wrote about last week. Canton Tea Co. was spot-on in their belief that this was a perfect introductory pu-erh for the uninitiated. It lacks some of the feeling of “old” that its mature cuppa compatriots possess. It’s the perfect gateway to the world of aged teas, and I bet it could age well on its own. If I had a pu-erh cellar – and if I believed I could live past fifty – I would experiment. You’ll just have to take my word (and theirs) for it in the meantime.

To purchase the 2011 Canton Tea Co Special Puerh, go HERE.

(Title “inspired” by Eddie Izzard, watch and laugh.)

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Sunday, November 20th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

I work for tea money.

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