Experiencing Tea, Part Two

In the last post, we dis­cussed some traits tea drinkers focus on when eval­u­at­ing or com­par­ing teas.

In the sec­ond install­ment — we’ll call it the lab sec­tion — we can put these con­cepts to use in describ­ing the rel­a­tive mer­its of two puer.

Visual Inspec­tion:

left: 90s meng­hai grade 2 loose
right: 80s meng­hai white nee­dle golden lotus

The White Nee­dle Golden Lotus, a leg­end of the Meng­hai Tea Fac­tory, has tiny buds coated in a del­i­cate white frost.

Its younger brother, Meng­hai grade 2 loose puer of the 1990’s has a smaller per­cent­age of buds, a more thor­ough wo dui (wet pil­ing, the arti­fi­cial fer­men­ta­tion process), and a rusty coat­ing in place of the frost.

Visu­ally, it is not easy to dis­tin­guish between the two. In fact, the younger tea is often passed off as the famous White Nee­dle of years past.

There are other rea­sons to pair these teas, how­ever. The 90s Meng­hai rep­re­sents my favorite style of cooked puer (except­ing the WNGL), and is con­sid­ered a very good tea in its own right.

First Cup:

I brewed the teas side by side in a tiny pair of match­ing teapots, using only 2 grams of each.

The WNGL (right) brewed a darker cup, with a more dom­i­nant golden rim.

This dif­fer­ence was con­sis­tent across 10 or more infu­sions, not a result of slight dif­fer­ences in brew­ing time.

 

Hui Gan:

The hui gan of the WNGL is very sub­tle, and prob­a­bly over­pow­ered by the ‘richer’ cooked puer. I have just fin­ished tast­ing the WNGL in iso­la­tion and notice a very long but sub­tle min­eral fin­ish, com­bined with the sen­sta­tion of mint and a strong reac­tion from the sali­vary glands.

The 90s Meng­hai has a much more typ­i­cal coat­ing effect with a sweet, malty fin­ish. Some­where between grains and hay.

Down The Hatch:

With the WNGL, no strong pres­ence man­i­fested in my throat, which is just fine. I could feel the warmth go all the way down to the top of my stom­ach on the very first sip.

The 90s Meng­hai coats the throat nicely, but rarely ven­tures any further.

Cha Qi:

I have tried these teas sev­eral times in an attempt to accu­rately trans­mit the com­plete expe­ri­ence through writ­ing. I am pre­pared to admit now that it just isn’t possible.

I can offer that the cha qi of the WNGL is strong, but straight­for­ward. It leads me down to a quiet, med­i­ta­tive state — far deeper than my usual rock tea. I have a feel­ing that this alone is what makes it so sought after. In fact, it pro­vides more qui­etude than many of its aged sheng contemporaries.

It pro­vided some strong pres­sure on my brow, and a gen­tle warming.

The 90s Meng­hai pro­vides a stronger warm­ing, but in the end, it does not lead the mind nearly as far towards a con­tem­pla­tive calm as its older and wiser sibling.

Ver­dict:

The White Nee­dle Golden Lotus truly lived up to its leg­endary sta­tus. The 90s Meng­hai was a good tea we can enjoy with frequency.

Now that we have some prac­ti­cal exam­ples of what sep­a­rates a good tea and a great tea, I hope we can con­tinue to refine our sen­si­tiv­ity and share in the joy that comes from expe­ri­enc­ing tea.

Green Puerh Q&A

The Green Puerh class hosted by Tim­o­thy and Michael pro­vides an oppor­tu­nity for some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent from our usual fare.

Michael began with a young, unblended sin­gle estate tea, 2008 Bing Dou. Tim­o­thy con­trasted this with a semi-fermented, clas­sic Meng­hai recipe, 2002 7352.

The duo did their best to explain the dif­fer­ences between the small batch and fac­tory teas, but hav­ing a full house of new and old tea lovers alike, a num­ber of insight­ful ques­tions arose.

Why is one cake looser than another?

Fac­tory stan­dards are most often pro­duced with hydraulic com­pres­sion, which usu­ally results in a fairly dense tea cake. The tea busi­nesser who com­mis­sions a spe­cial pro­duc­tion may request that the cake be com­pressed in the old style — the bag of tea leaves to be pressed is placed between two parts of a stone mold, and a worker stands on top of the mold. Com­pared to the mech­a­nized approach, this yields a loose cake, where one can eas­ily flake off a piece by hand.

Why not loose tea?
One guest noted that we often enjoy puerh tea in loose form as we do with oolong. So why do we see most puerh end up in com­pressed shapes?

The rea­son, as most read­ers have already guessed, is ease of trans­port. A dense tea brick takes up much less space than the same weight of loose “mao cha” and made a more effi­cient use of carts trav­el­ing on the Tea Horse Road.

Much fur­ther along on our tem­po­ral Tea Road, we have dis­cov­ered that blend­ing and com­pres­sion (now favor­ing cakes over bricks) results in a more com­plex aged tea when com­pared to loose puerh.

OK, I get the dif­fer­ent ‘blends,’ but what does this Recipe Num­ber mean?

At first sight, we often have noth­ing but an opaque num­ber and our own senses to go by when judg­ing a fac­tory tea.

I decided the best way to break down the code is in a graphic — I hope this will not offend the design­ers in the audi­ence too greatly.

The first por­tion needs lit­tle explain­ing — this 7352 blend was first used in 1973.

The “aver­age” grade of leaves I believe to be some­what sub­jec­tive. Puerh leaf is graded by size, 0–8, with 8 being the largest leaves. This is sim­ply a mea­sure­ment and not qual­i­ta­tive — that is, there is no ‘bet­ter’ end of the scale.

A cake is a blend of sev­eral grades, and the mid­dle digit rep­re­sents a rough esti­ma­tion of the mean leaf size.

Please elab­o­rate in the com­ments if you can do better!

The final digit rep­re­sents the tea fac­tory who processed the cake. Under social­ist con­trol, there were 3 fac­to­ries of note.

  1. Kun­ming
  2. Meng­hai
  3. Xiaguan

All three fac­to­ries are oper­ated pri­vately today under the same num­bers, but many other num­bers have been added. Cat­a­loging them is left as an exer­cise to the reader.

Say, what’s that other num­ber?
OK, nobody asked this, but any­one still read­ing obvi­ously has a strange fix­a­tion with num­bers, ala Lennon.

Today, a sec­ond impor­tant num­ber is printed on the face of a Dayi wrap­per. It indi­cates the year and batch of pro­duc­tion. Ex. 801 rep­re­sents the first batch of 2008, while 809 rep­re­sents the 9th batch of the same year. Some col­lec­tors seek out the 1st batch each year, while oth­ers con­tend that the qual­ity of each batch is indis­tin­guish­able from another. Quite often, the first batch is sold at a small premium.

This batch label­ing began in 2004, but the astute reader will notice that this short hand only accounts for a 10 year span, and the planet recently turned a decade older. 2010 pro­duc­tions, 2nd batch begin again as 002.

Usu­ally, the year in long form will be printed on the back of the wrap­per, so no need to worry about the sorry lives of tea anthro­pol­o­gists in the dis­tant future (after all humans are killed by poi­so­nous robo-gasses).

When did Meng­hai become pri­vate?
Meng­hai Tea Fac­tory started pro­duc­ing com­mer­cial prod­ucts in 1989 under their own Dayi brand. By 1996, all of the prod­ucts were of the pri­vate brand. Dur­ing the tran­si­tion period, for­eign tea orders (includ­ing Hong Kong) were made only via the government’s CNNP, until reforms finally allowed the orig­i­nal tea fac­to­ries to fill orders directly.

But…
Many of these details are less impor­tant than the expe­ri­enced gained by drink­ing the tea itself. The way the tea tastes, lingers in your mouth and throat, and the way that it makes you feel are the most impor­tant parts of judg­ing the tea. But the curi­ous among us sim­ply can­not resist dig­ging deep into the prove­nance and his­tory of tea.

Per­haps this short primer will inspire some­one to take a closer look at some facet of tea they have yet to uncover.

Sharing

Shar­ing tea is one of the great­est joys I have found. Quite often, peo­ple are gen­er­ous enough to share with me as well.

After enjoy­ing the con­trast of two grades of Shan Lin Shi, fresh from Tai­wan, our friend Ben­ito offered another spe­cial treat.

This mini-beeng is made of very high qual­ity leaves. It isn’t punchy in its youth, but rather sweet and buttery.

If you are only drink­ing alone, you are miss­ing half of the expe­ri­ence. But don’t take my word for it… share some tea.

Royal Orchid Tea Museum

We made our sec­ond trip to the Royal Orchid Tea Museum, cur­rently under a seri­ous pro­gram of improvements.

The event car­ried a water theme — an exhi­bi­tion of Shui Pin Yix­ing teapots from Ming to mod­ern, and, a sam­pling of sev­eral Shui Xian teas.

I offered two pots of my own — 1970s hong ni and 1930s zi ni. Kai sug­gested my elder pot was orig­i­nally made for export to Japan.

To break up sev­eral rounds of Shui Xian, we also enjoyed a spe­cial puerh from old trees. The bun­dle of leaves was so large that we had to cut it in half to fit in the widest gai­wan we could find.

I was allowed to exper­i­ment with a Japan­ese sil­ver ket­tle — one of the most stun­ning pieces of teaware in the col­lec­tion. The freshly boiled water really punched up some 90s puerh I was brew­ing, but did lit­tle for my pot of Shui Xian, already gone flat after many brews.

A Visit to Yumcha — The Cha

I usu­ally pride myself in being able to rat­tle off the 8 to 10 teas we drink dur­ing the course of a meetup. How­ever, in the com­pany of Dae and David I finally met my match. Dae says she hasn’t drank this much tea since her trip to Tai­wan — I am indeed strug­gling to remem­ber every tea. I’ve done my best to recall them in no par­tic­u­lar order.

1996 Huang Yin — Sun Sing
1997 Meng­hai 8582
1980s Xiaguan Tra­di­tional Char­ac­ters
2004 Sil­ver Tip Puerh — The Tea Gallery

1950s “Raisin Bread Aroma” Shui Xian
Wuyi Baozhong

Sun Moon Lake Assam
Win­ter 09 Shan Lin Shi Jade vs. Shan Lin Shi Medium Roast

2010 Shin­cha — Ippodo

A tea or two may have been for­got­ten, but an amaz­ing Memo­r­ial Day week­end with friends will be remem­bered for a long time.

NYC Tea Meetup #1

In search of the elu­sive Tea Pearl, brave friends gath­ered at The Tea Gallery for the first NYC Tea Meetup. Being the inau­gural I decided to doc­u­ment this one in some detail — I expect that I may drop off sooner or later as the jour­nal of record.

Mys­tery For­mosa Oolong

When I arrived Tim had already wres­tled Win­nie out of her seat and had taken over as Tea Mas­ter. In a large pot of Tai­wanese clay, Tim brewed up sev­eral rounds of the unknown tea. He tried to get us to ignore his brew­ing chops by sug­gest­ing that the real tea mas­ter only focuses on lin­ger­ing fla­vors and aroma, not the ini­tial impres­sion of the brew. Nice save!d

This was a nice tea, what­ever its source. Thanks to Tim for pro­vid­ing it. We returned to this tea sev­eral times.

100 Year Tree

Win­nie regained her chair to brew this Yan­cha in her own style. Roast was appar­ent but plenty of other fla­vors and a great mouth feel came along to the party. Brew #3 was knocked out of the park, but the tea dropped off quickly after­wards. The aroma of the tea was very impres­sive, chang­ing from brew to brew but remain­ing vivid. For me this tea had a lot of “downer” qi. Dae agrees. I won­der what this tea would do if pushed hard.

2008 Bing Dou — Ice Island

Michael returned home and took over brew­ing. Tim returned after fetch­ing his friend Tony from Hong Kong — a friend redis­cov­ered in NYC after 25 years. Best of all, Tony loves tea and was glad to join us.

A vin­tage gai­wan was soon stuffed with wet, rinsed leaves. We drank this for sev­eral rounds in Michael’s sig­na­tures knock­out style before the leaf was fully open.

Then, he started to com­bine two batches, to leave some in his new Yixing.

Our orga­niz­ers Mike and Katy fur­nished us with a fine selec­tion of snacks to put off the munchies from Michael’s pow­er­ful brews. Tim was too tough to par­take in any snacks. The “bo’lay” was not too strong for Tony. He was well seasoned!

Japan­ese Puerh


Tim and I have been talk­ing about this tea ever since Win­nie men­tioned it a few weeks ago. Now she is attempt­ing to hide it from the tea drunks. The shy tea even­tu­ally reap­pears as a nightcap.

Dry leaf smells like black licorice cer­tainly, but also some­thing reminds me of the Long Jing Hong Cha exper­i­ment. Adrian thought that tea was more of a hei cha than a hong cha (fer­mented vs oxi­dized), and that is cer­tainly the case here.

Wet leaves had a very intense aroma, Tim placed it as d’dok cha, a Korean puerh.

Taste was smooth and light, hard to pick much out. This could be due to the small quan­tity of leaves used, but more likely because of the ear­lier abuse from Michael’s 15 minute Bing Dao brew — Time to quit for the evening.