2006 Jasmine sheng minituo

No, the title is not a joke.

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I got this bag of minituo from a friend back in 2006 while I was doing research in Beijing. The friend is not a tea drinking friend, but I appreciated the gift nonetheless. Having said that, I never actually worked up the courage to try it. I remember when I first got it, I could smell the jasmine pretty clearly from the bag, even though it was pretty well sealed. The minituos then sat in the bag for six years, and was recently retrieved from my storage because Lew of Babelcarp wanted to try it. Well, why not? You gotta try everything once. I figured I’ll give it a go too.

I grandpa’ed the tea, since I was expecting the worst – a cross, perhaps, between a nasty stale green tea and an awful artificial jasmine. I didn’t really want to risk it by going heavy with a gaiwan, and this thing certainly isn’t going to see the inside of any of my teapots. The thing took a little while to loosen up, and once loose, it mostly stayed at the bottom of the cup, with a few stems that look like they came from a Japanese sencha floating upward. The brew was darkish, and surprisingly drinkable, probably because I only used one minituo for a large mug. More, and I think the tea might have been nasty. There is a jasmine scent, but it’s not too strong and entirely bearable.

Not surprisingly, contrary to its claims of using top quality tea, the leaves were chopped beyond belief.

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I think I also spy some grain husks and other random objects in there that isn’t quite properly tea. Oh well, who knows what it is. It was drinkable enough that I didn’t immediately want to throw the rest of the bag away. Maybe I’ll try it again in six years.

The best tea-at-work companion

I think it is safe to say that, us being all tea addicts of some sort or another, that we have to drink tea every day. The result of no tea can be quite painful, literally, and going anything longer than maybe 36 hours without tea is not something I’d advice you do. Since I get home quite late on most days, drinking tea at home after I get back is not normally a practical solution. Since I don’t get up early enough either, the only solution to proper caffeine update during the day is to drink at work.

I know lots of you drink tea at work. Some bring in what looks like a full gongfu set, with gaiwan, water source, a tray, and some cups. Others bring in modified sets with a few elements missing, but good enough for drinking. Or, you can just grandpa it.

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This is what passes for work setup for me. It actually works surprisingly well, and as long as you pick the right teas, it can yield decent results. In my cup right now is a lightly roasted Taiwanese oolong. Yesterday it was some aged tieguanyin that performs remarkably well in grandpa style. One thing I’ve been doing lately is that I drink the entirety of the cup when I am drinking the aged tieguanyin, and then right before I leave for work, I fill it up with boiling hot water and close the lid. The next day when I come in, the tea’s brewed again, with a nice brown colour, and a pleasant, sweet taste that is very typical of nice, aged oolongs. You should all try it sometime, even after a long gongfu session. It’s a great way to finish a tea.

Tea purgatory

Quite a few of you have the same problem – how to deal with teas that are really inferior, so that you don’t want to drink them every day.  However, you have too much of it, so you have to get rid of it, somehow, especially if you paid for the privilege.

These teas are often acquired with the best of intentions – you bought it thinking it might be good, and end up being a disappointment.  You bought it as an impulse (say, while you were traveling) and when you got home, it is no longer so good. Sometimes you got the tea because you used to like it, but your tastes changed. Or, you got it from some other means – a gift, an accidental find, etc. Either way, now you’re stuck with this tea that isn’t really quite that good.

I have a lot of these teas, as I’m sure a lot of you do too.  Giving them away, or selling them, seems wrong, because they’re not particularly attractive.  After all, you don’t really want to give bad tea to people, especially if they’re newcomers.  The only tea I happily give away is cooked puerh, since I almost never drink teas of that genre, and I know there are others out there who will appreciate it way more than I do.  The rest of the time, however, whether it is bad black tea, bad young puerh, or bad oolong, I’m stuck with it.

One way for me to get rid of such teas these days is to drink it at work, where I’m condemned to drink such things grandpa style, for lack of proper implements (or time) to do it right. I could probably bring a tea set to work, but since I just started less than a month ago, bringing such things, even in Asia, might be a little off.  So these days, I’m drinking some terrible, terrible work tea – a box of very run of the mill Assam, an old can of cooked puerh from Mengku that I had stashed away for no reason, and some 4 years old baozhong that I’ve been aging myself.  The baozhong is probably the most interesting of these teas, seeing as it was purchased fresh in 2007 and now approaching five years old in the same bag.  When I opened it it smelled distinctly like a slightly aged oolong – a little of that slightly plummy, sour fragrance, but when I brewed it, grandpa style anyway, it was still mostly like a duller green baozhong.  It clearly needs some more time.

I suppose this is a good thing, in the sense that I’m drinking some of these leftover teas that I’ll never otherwise touch and which will forever linger in tea purgatory until I fish them out for some reason. Now, they’re being consumed in a willy-nilly manner at work, purely for the caffeine effect and not much else.  I do need to find a more permanent solution to the work-tea problem though, because otherwise I’m going to be stuck with bad tea for a long time, and then my good teas will be in tea purgatory.

Finding winners

I think one part of any hobby that requires collecting is the fun in finding winners.  Some hobbies, like stamp collecting, have what I think of as high transparency.  Everyone already know what’s out there, and generally speaking, people have a fairly good idea of the rarities that may exist and how much they would go for.  Once in a while there’s a surprise, but those are few and far between, and generally require some luck to land on.  Then there are things like puerh drinking, which also has a collecting component to it.  Here, I think the transparency is both high and low — high for a small constellation of “famous” cakes which everyone knows about and is sought after, not always for the right reasons.  Then there’s the rest of the teas out there, largely unnoticed, flying under the radar.  Some can be very good, and in some cases even better than some of the more famous productions, but very often, they are duds and deserve to remain in the background.  The joy of finding a hidden gem, however, is great.

Hobbes at Half Dipper has just talked about two cakes that I recently got samples for from Yunnan Sourcing — the purple and red Yisheng from 2005.  These are sister cakes to the red Yisheng that I bought in Beijing back in 2007, and which Hobbes has diligently reviewed after he purchased some himself.  I remember trying the one I bought with the one that YSLLC currently offers, and decided on the one that I eventually bought because I thought it slightly better.  I don’t remember seeing the purple there, or if I did, it was more expensive and thus ruled out of consideration.

I’ve seen the cakes surface on Taobao since then, but never really found reason to try them again, especially since it involves buying a whole cake.  With YSLLC offering samples though, I decided to take the plunge.

Yesterday I had the red, since I know it better.  As soon as I opened the sample bag, I could smell the tea.

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Using my trusty young puerh pot, it brews dark

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The tea was, according to Scott, aged in Xishuangbanna, and it shows.  Kunming teas don’t age like this, and one of the reasons I decided to try the tea at all was because of this storage claim.  In my experience, teas stored in Xishuangbanna in general are quite good.  They mellow much faster without the dryness that Kunming has, which I find to be draining on a tea.  Drinking this red Yisheng, I am reminded of my own cakes — and wonder how they’re aging in Hong Kong.  Unfortunately, I have no basis for comparison, but this tea is very nice, showing signs of age as well as a solid Yiwu taste and mouthfeel, with good qi and longevity.  I like this.

The red is, according to Scott, a fall tea, while the purple was picked in the spring.  So it’s only natural that I try that today as a comparison.  Right away, you can tell that the leaves are smaller and more buds are present.

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The colour of the liquor is largely similar, with perhaps a hint darker than the red.

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The true test, of course, is in the way it goes down, and here the extra rainy season it endured is obvious — the tea tastes more aged.  It also has more punch, being a spring tea, and it lasts forever.  Three kettles of water later, it still yields a strong cup.  For the purposes of record keeping, I took the leaves out for some pictures

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With the purple on the left and red on the right.  Then, having taken said pictures, the purple leaves are now back in a mug for some grandpa style drinking.  Interestingly enough, drinking it this way yields a slightly smokey note that was not present in the normal brewing.

Both of these teas are what I would consider great young puerh that are starting to show some age, while having enough “stuff” to go on aging without worries about deterioration, which is more than I can say about many other cakes of this vintage.  The purple is punchier, while the red is mellower, which some might like.  I remember the great feeling of having found a “winner” in the spring of 07 when I bought the Yisheng in Beijing, back when Douji was a relatively obscure brand and nobody has heard of Yisheng before.  Drinking these now, I have the same feeling, and wonder why I didn’t try the purple one first.  I wish I have my own cake here to compare, but it’s probably better that they are in Hong Kong, safely tucked away from my evil clutches.  Taobao’s offering are similarly priced, and if you factor in proxy costs and other sundry charges, YSLLC is as good as any.  Of course, your mileage may vary, but I think this tea deserves at least a hearing.

Grandpa style techniques

Life has been pretty busy the past few weeks, and I’m getting ready for a trip, so things have been hectic.  Tea has been mostly confined to grandpa style tea.  Having been doing it recently though, I have a few ideas.

1) Never, ever go below the halfway point in the cup when drinking, and preferably keep it at 2/3 full at all times.  You need that amount of tea to re-add water and not end up with a really diluted cup.  This is pretty obvious.

2) Use a lidded cup, if possible.  Don’t cover when making the tea initially.  However, start covering the cup once you’re refilling the cup the 2nd or 3rd time.  This way, the extra heat retained helps extra the tea a little more.

3) When pouring the water, especially a little later (or when the tea has cooled) pour with vigor, and pour along the edge of the cup.  That way, your water will stir up the tea a little and it helps mix the old tea and new water together a little.  I noticed a difference between pouring in the middle and pouring on the side.  Pouring on the side helps the flavour a little later on.

4) It’s actually a good way to drink tea this way as a method of evaluation.  In a way, grandpa style is just a big mug of competition tasting done over a long time.  There are nuances that you’ll get from the tea that you don’t necessarily get from brewing normally.  One of my puerh, for example, displays a smokiness that is not evident when brewed “normally” but the smoke comes out in a grandpa brewing.

5) Don’t add too much leaves.  It’s very easy, when used to gongfu brewing, to use too much leaves for grandpa style.  It’s very toxic.

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.