The retaste project 8: Mandarin’s Tea 2006 Yiwu

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This is a cake that I received from Toki, proprietor of Mandarin’s Tearoom, way back when.  It wasn’t too long after we met, if I remembered correctly, and he gave it to me when we met up one of those times in New York City.  Strictly speaking, this doesn’t belong to the retaste project, because I have been lugging this tea around with me in various parts of the US, rather than storing it in Hong Kong.  It has spent time in Boston, Ohio, New York state, and Maine.  I drank it once before after receiving this cake, and am now trying it for the second time.

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The cake is full of little buds, and very few larger leaves.  I remember when I first tried it, the tea was somewhat smokey, and was not the most pleasant to drink. It’s rather loose, compression wise, and after a few years of moving around, the wrapper has accumulated a fair amount of broken leaves and bits.  I brewed those instead of breaking more leaves off.

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The resulting cup is rather interesting – a nice minty taste that touches the throat, a good, solid, Yiwu profile, and reasonable viscosity. There is still just a hint of that smoke left in there somewhere. It tastes like old tree tea to me, and these days, those things cost a pretty penny. It’s a pretty good tea, and I can see it getting better over time. I guess my roaming US storage didn’t kill it, now I wonder if my Hong Kong storage can improve the tea.

Tea with friends

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It seems almost frivolous to talk about tea when Japan has suffered one of the biggest earthquake in recorded history.  I was on my way from LAX to Hong Kong while it happened, and when it struck I think I just got in the air, eventually flying through Tohoku, completely unaware that 35,000 ft below me was death and destruction on a scale that is hardly imaginable.

Traveling with me was some teaware.  I have virtually nothing here in Hong Kong to make tea with, and so I transported a few things so that it will be possible for me to host a few friends for some tea.  It is always difficult to devise a course of teas for people who have varying levels of experience.  In the group of five (not counting me) was one MadameN, a serious tea friend, and three relative novices.  Left to our own devices, the serious tea friend and I will probably drink a parade of young and old puerh.  MadameN normally humours my habit, to a reasonable limit.  Then you have the novices, who may or may not react well to any or all of the teas, and it’s always a bit of a crapshoot because of that uncertainty.  I settled on a menu of a green tieguanyin, a slightly aged baozhong, traditionally stored Guangyungong bits, and in the end, an impromptu Golden Needle White Lotus, courtesy of said tea friend.

It is always fun to drink tea with people you’ve never done so before, especially if they’re encountering something for the first time, or have very little experience with what they’re drinking, because all of a sudden you hear all sorts of new perspective on the drink that you’re so familiar with, and end up learning more about it in the process.  The green tieguanyin is the most familiar to all, I believe, and goes over as well as one would expect such things to do.  The aged baozhong received mixed reviews, not least because the tea itself is odd — aged, but not too much so, and the liquor was a nice reddish colour.  It is slightly sour, with that vaguely chemical smell that sometimes accompanies aged oolongs.  It was likened to paint thinners as well as meicai (preserved Chinese vegetables), which is quite apt, I think.

The Guangyungong bits elicited some interesting comments, ranging from a certain hollowness, to varying responses on the bitter/sweet balance in the tea, and the earthiness of the brew.  Some were very attuned to the aftertaste that both the baozhong and the GYG present, while others were less aware of their existence.  What I always find most interesting though is that what tea drinkers see as good tea is often not necessarily considered good by others.  Sometimes there’s a lot of navel gazing when tea drinkers talk to each other about teas, and forget that for most people, none of the teas we drink are actually good (i.e. taste good, in a juicy, flavourful way), but perhaps merely interesting.  The Golden Needle White Lotus, for example, does well up front, but when stressed to a slightly longer (1.5 minutes) steep alongside the GYG, it’s obvious that the GYG is sweeter and better.

What’s most important though is that everyone had, I think, a good time.  Tea is best drunk with friends, and if I could, I would do this every day.

A tea meeting in New England?

I know there are plenty of tea drinkers in New England, more specifically in the greater Boston/Massachusetts region.  Is there any interest, anywhere, for a meeting of some sort?  I have been thinking that perhaps that would be a useful and interesting thing to do, if we can find the time and, more importantly, space for such a meeting.  Is there any interest?

An upgrade in taste

As I returned to the US and brewed up my first pot of tea here… I find myself deeply dissatisfied with what I’m drinking.  When I left, I would be quite happy drinking this.  No more.  Now this tea, some aged, broken cake, seems thin and weak.  It’s got decent flavours, but the body is not there, nor does it have the depth that I need.  The $100 cake I bought a few days ago that is traditionally stored since 2001 seems leaps and bounds better.

Uh oh, I think my tongue just got upgraded.

Puerh poker

While I was in Beijing my friend L gave me two decks of cards.  One has these — leaves of various places — printed on them, while the other has pictures of various villages that produce puerh.  I find it interesting how the ace of spades is from Longpa, while my favourite, Yiwu Gaoshan, is only a mere ace of clubs.  The other two are Yibang (ace of hearts) and Yiwu Guafeng zhai (ace of diamonds).

There’s the rest of the deck too, all with leaves from different places.  You can see that someone spent a lot of time collecting all this, documenting them, and then putting them to good use.  There’s a scale next to most of the cards too — you can see faint lines here in the scan where they say “5” “10” etc.  I think that’s cm, to give you a sense of how small (or large) the leaves are.

It’s not necessarily of any real use per se, but it’s definitely interesting.

Incense and tea

Some people like burning incense while drinking tea.  I must say I’m not a fan, although aesthetically it can be a nice thing to see/have.  Some would argue that incense makes the room more pleasant and calming, and that a certain amount of nice, understated aroma is great for dispelling any kind of stress that one may have from the vagaries of modern life.  The picture above is a line of just-finished agarwood.  It was, certainly, very nice to have a little aroma in the room, but at the same time, it means that it interfered with the proceedings of drinking and tasting tea.  Moreover, in a case where the incense is so prominently displayed, it actually got in the way of the tea preparation.  Our host was more concerned with not breaking the incense than in pouring a good cup.  The tea suffered.

This brings me to a larger point, which is that oftentimes we put the emphasis on the wrong things when making tea.  Teaware, preparation procedures, setting, temperature….. all these things can get in the way of making tea.  I believe human attention is finite, and what is spent on one thing must be taken away from something else.  Someone who is spending a lot of time watching the clock to make sure the infusion is exactly 20 seconds is inevitably taking something away from some other part of the tea preparation process.  Someone who is too preoccupied with the beautification of the pot with a brush is probably not paying enough attention to the tea inside the pot.

Practice will alleviate a lot of these problems, but I think more important is an acceptance that no cup is “perfect”.  There’s always a better cup somehow, somewhere.  Focusing too much on form and the peripheral things will only detract appreciation of what’s really important.

News from Beijing

Behind the Great Firewall of China, there’s not much you can do, blogging wise, unless you happen to use Sina.net as your platform or you find a proxy.  So now, jet lagged and hovering somewhere (time wise) in the middle of the Pacific, I am writing this of my two day trip to Beijing, a week after the fact.

All my friends in Beijing seem to be better off now than they were last time I was there in 2007, which is heartening.  I don’t mean that only in terms of material wealth or some such, but also in terms of their tea philosophy, if I may use such a term.  Everyone seems to have found their own preferences and tastes, and are pursuing them actively with more involvement on the production end of things.  People who used to be mere merchants are now makers, or at least closer to a maker now than they were a few years ago.  It’s always nice to talk to folks who are passionate about what they’re doing.

Which brings me to the tea that I’ve had — too much tea in the span of a few days to really discuss in detail, but a few things jumped out as interesting.  One of my friends is now a part owner of a teahouse, and he also goes to Fujian every year to source stuff on his own farm for his shop.  Among the things he’s doing is making white tea.  It’s not just any ordinary white tea though — he roasts them ever so slightly, and then ages them.  Here’s a comparison of a 2006 yinzhen vs a 2010 one.  You can figure out which is which.

The aging gives the tea a bit more sweetness and mellows out the flavours, although it also means the tea loses some of the fragrance, as is normally the case with aged teas.  Four years is not a long time, and I’d imagine the tea can change a little more.  White teas are always ageable, but it’s nice to see that he’s producing them specifically for the purpose of aging (thus the roasting).

I also tried some puerh while there.  Beijing stored puerh really isn’t ideal, but if done carefully with a lot of water containers boosting the humidity of the storage unit, it is possible to produce nice, round tasting tea that doesn’t have that typical dryness one might associate with overly-dry storage conditions.  I think that’s actually quite important, as dry tea makes for bad tasting tea.  My friend L is now storing tea in bags, all within a big cooler (think camping) and slightly moistened.  He found a guy in Kunming who goes up to the mountains all the time and spends a lot of time thinking about how to make good tea, and the results show — soft, supple tea that tastes good.  I wonder how they’ll age in a decade, but so far it’s promising.

On the other hand, I visited Maliandao again and it seems like things have normalized a little there.  While two more tea malls have opened up since I was there, for the most part business seems to be down.  Granted, I was there on a rainy day, which most definitely put a damper on traffic, but I think a lot of stores aren’t doing as much business as they used to.  Xiaomei’s store is still there, but now the clientele is mostly of a wholesale nature, with very little retail sales going on.  As I predicted long ago, everyone who wanted to build a tea collection has one already, so there’s very little impetus to buy more.  I certainly felt that way — walking around the shops, I had very little interest in trying or buying tea.  I’m sure there are hidden gems here and there, but I don’t have the time to go through them one by one and try them all out.

The best part of the trip was simply seeing everyone again, and having tea with them.  Tea is ultimately a social drink — while it can be great alone, it’s better with friends.  Too bad that part of tea drinking is often what’s missing in the Western experience.

Mandarin’s Tearoom 2010 Mingqian Shifeng longjing

Longjing is my first love.  I’ve talked about longjing a long time ago.  It was the tea that got me into tea drinking.  It’s the tea that my grandpa likes to drink a lot (yes, in grandpa style), and it’s also the drink of choice for folks from my area of the country.  All this oolong stuff is just silly, and puerh is obviously crap.  Longjing (and maybe biluochun) are the gold standards of what constitutes a proper tea.

I used to be pretty serious when brewing longjing — gaiwan with a fairness cup to cool the water, a soft pour, quick(ish) steeps.  The resulting brew comes out very, very light in colour.  The best longjing, as my old post already mentions, are usually very faint in colour — almost white, rather than green, is the norm.  If your leaves are dark green and the tea comes out yellow, it’s probably harvested later or low grade stuff.  If someone sells you a mingqian (pre-Ming) longjing for $400 a pound and it’s the colour of pine needles, it’s no good.

Another physical trait of decent longjing is that they tend to be hairy, and the buds should ideally be very thick and round.  They should look “fat”.  If the leaves look “skinny” to you, it’s probably not a very good grade, although of course individuals differ, and the ultimate test is still in the taste.  Using appearances to judge tea is a very flawed way to do so, but for something like longjing it is actually possible to get some idea of what the tea is like before even trying it.

I don’t drink much longjing these days, mostly because they tend to be expensive, and I don’t drink much of them to warrant a purchase.  Every year I might drink it a handful of times, and the rest, unfortunately, turn to yellow tea, old, somewhat weird tasting, but still drinkable.  They are hardly worth the cost, however.  Not being near the source also doesn’t help — longjing is something you need to purchase in person, rather than from some online vendor.  Being in the US hasn’t helped my longjing habit.

I did receive a sample recently from Toki, however, so I broke it out and gave it a spin.  It was a generous sample, so I didn’t use all of it.  First off, the leaves

The colours here are a little off — my house has poor lightning for pictures, which is why these days I don’t take as many pictures.  You can see the white tuffs of hair on the right hand side on one of the leaves, and scattered around.  Different longjing from different vendors always look different.

These days when I make longjing, I generally use a gaiwan and make it the old fashioned way — in the gaiwan as a sipping cup.  If that’s how people used to make it for hundreds of years, then I see no reason why we should go all fancy on it.  It is, in other words, grandpa style with gaiwan.

How much leaves to put into these things is key — too much and you risk stuffing the cup and making it incredibly nasty.  Too little, and it’s going to be bland.  For this sort of brewing, if it covers the bottom of the cup it’s probably about right.

Now, how’s the tea?  Fragrant, with a nice minty feel down the throat.  I find it to be beany, which is normal for this kind of longjing.  It’s not too astringent even when brewed for a while — which is a good thing.  I’ll probably make it once the gongfu way, but drunk this way the tea is quite nice.

Weeks old tea

I went to the Tea Gallery yesterday. Among the many things that Michael, the proprietor of the Tea Gallery, has been experimenting is one scary sounding thing — drinking teas that have been brewing for weeks on end.

I think I am fairly brave sometimes when it comes to tea, but even that, initially, has me feeling rather skeptical. After all, I have tried having forgotten tea in a pot for weeks on end and ended up with nasty, white mouldy tea that smelled sickly sweet and forever screwed up the pot, so the idea of drinking stuff that have been brewing a few weeks is, to say the least, a little alarming.

Yet that’s not really what’s going on. What Michael does is basically brew the tea fresh everyday using new water (and drinking the previous day’s brew). On and on it goes. I have now tried a few teas at different “ages”… from a week to a few weeks. None are mouldy, and all of them, though light, are still drinkable and enjoyable in their own way. Mind you, I think a certain amount of proper processing and what not is probably required, but maybe it’s not as far fetched as it seems…

Location, location, location

Storage is important, I think that’s a point that has been hammered home many, many times by now by a wide variety of people, on or offline.

How important is it, exactly?

I went to the City today, and in the afternoon met up with a few tea friends at The Tea Gallery. Among the teas we had was a side to side comparison of a cake that Michael, the proprietor of the place, that are of the same batch. Except — although it was one batch of tea, some stayed in Hong Kong for an extra three years while the others he brought with him three years earlier to New York.

While we brewed it a little too heavily, so it was rather difficult to swallow, it did, in some ways, accentuate the differences between the two teas. It was immediately obvious that the New York cake brewed a lighter colour, and the leaves of that cake is also of a greener hue, while the Hong Kong one is darker overall. The Hong Kong cake tastes a bit older, especially if you drink it side by side with the New York one, and less green — it has something extra. The three years definitely made an impact.

What was rather interesting was that the last cup, Michael mixed the two — and the tea was actually more interesting, although, it was also weaker, and having endured a number of rather bitter cups, maybe it just wasn’t as strong? I’m sure he’ll be brewing it tomorrow (because the leaves are hardly spent), and I might hear about it again.