This week's column by Ctein
My tea adventures in Minneapolis last month started off with Jon Singer and me throwing a tea-tasting at Fourth Street Fantasy convention, a tradition there. You can see pictures of the two of us waxing enthusiastic about a number of fine leafs near the beginning of DD-B's Fourth Street Fantasy 2013 photo gallery.
Jon is a much bigger tea geek than I am. In truth, Jon is a much bigger geek about many things; he's one of the world's great polymaths. If you want to know about formulating porcelain clays, ceramic glazes, or dye lasers, ask Jon.
Jon is also one of the world's great networkers; a fair number of you already know Jon. So, it seemed like a fine idea to see if I could arrange for the two of us to meet Bill Waddington of TeaSource (see my last tea column). Bill was off on a junket of his own—vacation plus tea buying plus a tea purveyors' convention, but we managed to work things out so the three of us could meet up on Jon's last day in town.
When we arrived at Bill's St. Anthony store, he was just setting up to do a cupping (top illustration). Cool! I'd never participated in one of those before. Bill and his staff were testing the teas he'd just brought back. Teas are evaluated on the appearance of the dry leaf, the brewed leaf, and the flavor and fragrance of the brew. I learned that Americans give the brew about 70% weight, but Chinese connoisseurs weight all three factors almost equally. (I'm a typical American tea drinker.)
Near-boiling water is poured on the tea in the brewing cup, the cup is capped and the tea brewed for five minutes. The tea is poured out into small white bowls and the brewing cups inverted to dump the brewed leaf into the lids. Tasting spoons (front and center in the picture below) are used to ladle out tea from the bowls. Vigorous slurping commences.
Five minutes with boiling water is an absurd over-brewing for most teas. You're not trying to figure out the optimum brewing conditions; the idea is to extract every flavor note from the leaf for comparison purposes. With practice you learn to ignore the bitter, astringent components as noise in the system and can concentrate on the signal. Needless to say, Jon and I were not practiced. I had some opinions about the stand-alone teas, but I'd not want to make any bets about how much of that was real and how much was entirely my imagination ("golden tongue"?). On the other hand, I had no problem making valid side-by-side comparisons of different batches of the same tea.
A 2013 Puer
Our conversation moved on to puers and darks. Some of what I told you previously was wrong. These are closely related teas, manufactured in similar ways, but the difference is primarily biological, not regional! The primary active microorganism in the puers is Aspergillus Niger. In the dark teas, it's Eurotium Cristatum. That's what gives them their distinct qualities. Different regions have different dominant microflora, so the puers and darks are usually associated with certain regions, but it's really all about the little buggies.
Another difference between the two types of tea is that a good dark will reach its peak in about five years but not improve particularly after that. A good puer may continue to improve for decades. Which took us to our next treat. Knowing that Jon and I were especially interested in these, Bill reached into his travel bag and pulled out several beengs* he'd brought back from China. We decided to try an unusual-looking, brand-new 2013 uncooked puer.
Unlike other beengs I'd seen, the leaf in this one was a clean fir-green in color. I've seen puers in colors from olive brown to chocolatey black, never one that was so distinctly green. It smelled very light and fresh; it did not have any of the smoke or dirt notes common to puers (which Bill doesn't particularly favor, although I do). Bill's guess was that a very light brew would be good for this tea, maybe a minute.
The brew came up a pale golden green, not like other puers I'd seen. It didn't taste like any, either. It was light and fresh, and had not the least hint of smoke or dirt about it. The best way I can describe it is that it tasted like a really fine green tea underlaid with muscle. If that makes any sense. We all thought it was fabulous, and repeated brews from the same leaf were just as good as the first, as the flavor evolved with each pour. I can't remember how many we did. Six? Eight? The leaf still hadn't given out.
This was an extraordinarily good tea. That's specially remarkable because it was a brand-new, immature, unaged puer. Bill thinks it will, in fact, mature very well. Still it was already one of the nicer teas I've drunk. The only reason Jon and I didn't buy beengs on the spot is because Bill's shipment hadn't come in yet. I'll probably even buy two beengs, one to drink immediately and one to put in the back of the cupboard for 10 years.
I'll give you the name of the tea as soon as Bill lets me know it's in stock. This will be one of the more expensive beengs in his store, probably in the $60–$70 range, but keep in mind that's getting you 12–13 ounces of tea. Fabulous tea (which this is) at $5 an ounce is an amazing deal.
Speaking of amazing deals....
One of the display teas in the TeaSource stores is a "1000 Taels" Qiang Liang dark tea log (Figure 4). Weighing in at 80 lb, it retails for a whole penny less than two grand. $25 a pound for good dark tea is quite the bargain and TeaSource sweetens the pot (ahem) with a "Buy 10, get the 11th FREE" offer. Now, who could pass up a deal like that!
The three of us got discussing that tea, and Bill described how he'd brought a log of it to the recent tea convention. Along with a buzz saw. He entertained his audience by sawing slices off the end of the log like some giant kielbasa.
Thoughts enter my head about a Texas Chainsaw Tea Ceremony.
We'd been chattering away for two solid hours when a staffer interrupted to remind Bill that he had a scheduled phone call coming up. We were having such fun we could've spent the entire day gabbing. (For all I know, Bill's staff has instructions: "Hey, if it looks like I'm going to blow off the whole day geeking out, come tell me I have a phone call to remind me that I'm actually supposed to be do some work around here.")
On the way out, Bill surprised Jon and I with lovely gifts of some slices, weighing about 4 oz., from the tea log massacre (below). We were thrilled. No way was I going to wait until I got back to California to try this out. That evening, when I got back to where I was staying, I brewed myself a cup. It was marvelous. It didn't have any hints of smoke or dirt. I shared some with my friend Peter and he described it as being most like a green tea to him. I would say more like an exceptionally good wulong; it had more complexity than I'd associate with a green, plus an almost floral quality.
When I got home, I brewed a pot for myself and Paula, who has no love at all for smoke or dirt qualities in tea and so Is not fond of typical darks and puers; she favors darjeelings and wulongs. She loved this is much as I did and agreed that the closest we could compare it too was excellent wulong, although it was clearly its own beast. Twenty-five dollars a pound? This tea is worth 10 times that.
If you and 500 of your closest friends want a superlative light and refreshing tea at a bargain price, you could go in on a joint tea buy. The price tag doesn't say anything about shipping costs being included, but I suspect that if you want to buy 10/11 of these logs, that could be open to negotiation. I'm reasonably sure a buzz saw isn't included, so that would be a modest additional expense.
No, I'm not willing to organize a group purchase.
But...you can buy a smaller amount of this same tea at a still very reasonable price.
That's it for teas this time. Next week it'll be back to infrared photography. Or, maybe, those informal regular lens tests I promised. We'll see. Meanwhile, Column 300 is fast approaching (this is #295). So, keep it tuned to this station.
©2013 by Ctein, all rights reserved
*The word means "cake" in Chinese; e.g. a "beeng cha" is a "tea cake."
Ctein (his only name, pronounced "kuh-TINE") is TOP's regular weekly columnist. His columns appears on Wednesdays, and one out of every four is off-topic.
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