beengcha

Tea, Flutes, and Yellow-Hatted Hoffmans

The Lan Su Chinese Garden is one of those places in Portland that’s a must see, if only for its attention to detail and authenticity. The entire structure is comprised of the garden proper, several period-specific buildings, a Koi pond, and a two-story tearoom toward the back – all taking up an entire city block. It is an awesome sight to behold. And the whole thing was constructed by artisans from Portland’s sister city in China, Suzhou.

This summer, I had the opportunity to partake of the garden on three occasions. One was a simple outing to show it off to relatives. The second was a wedding steeped in kickassitude. And the last wa an invitation I received from my friend HappyJ to partake of tea and…flute music?

That wouldn’t necessarily be a reason I would usually go into Portland proper, but I figured, “Why not?” How often to I make trips out to see music? (Answer: Never.) The musician in this case was a flautist by the name of Gary Stroutsos – whose music is steeped in Native American tradition. He was already starting his set by the time we got there. What we weren’t expecting was how crowded it was going to be.

The space the garden had allocated to him couldn’t seat very many, but every chair on the interior was occupied. HappyJ and I had to settle for outdoor seating at first, which was fine. It gave us an opportunity to hear the music while at the same time taking in the sounds of waterfalls. On occasion, we would even comment on what we were seeing or hearing.

Any attempts to talk, however, were greeted with a puckered, “Shhhh!” from a man seated across from us. I have no other way of describing him, except to say that he looked like Dustin Hoffman (a la Rainman) in a yellow hat.

After he shushed us, though, he continued to carry on muted conversations with his wife. A meditative hypocrite, splendid. I could’ve sworn he was heckling us, too.

Luckily, he and his gaggle of New Age-y senior citizens left relatively early. That and the Garden volunteers added extra seating on the interior – allowing us to hear what Stroutsos had to say. It turned out that he was a very genial guy with a quick wit about him. If there’s one thing I appreciate in musicians, it’s a sense of humor. He even serenaded a baby. That’s just spectacular.

Once the flautist set was over, HappyJ and I retired to the tearoom. Without exaggeration, it is the nicest tearoom in Portland. Too bad it has one of the most longest names in existence. Could I think of a better one? No. “Tower of Cosmic Reflection” does fit it to a “tea”.

HappyJ sipped an old-growth sheng pu-erh, whereas I went with something I hadn’t tried before (as is my nature). They possessed a 2005 Yunnan Jin that’d been pressed into a beengcha cake. Yunnan Gold? Aged? Cake? Four of my favorite words. And it was exquisite to the taste – honey-like, peppery, and with a subtle winy note on the end.

We parted ways shortly after. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday unless rare, casked ales was involved. I went home far too caffeinated – to the point of being called tea-drunk. Case in point:

I said this to my sister, “I need to tell you something.”

My sister looked up and said, “What?”

“I’m not your ‘holla-back’ girl,” I replied with a giggle.

I was cut off of tea for the rest of the night.

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Thursday, September 27th, 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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