Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Comparison of Four Da Hong Pao Oolong Teas

We sell a lot of oolong tea in our cafe, primarily because it is delicious, but also because it is a good intro tea for many people. This is especially true for those who try the light roast oolongs from Taiwan or Anxi in China. With their high floral notes, slight sweetness, and forgiving steep times, they make a perfect introduction for many people to venture into the world of tea. More complex oolongs, such as the twisted oolongs from Wuyi, Fujian, China are a bit harder to get just right on the steep time, and often the charcoal roast puts people off until they know what they are doing and what they are drinking. We have a fabulous 2015 Winter Harvest Long Feng Xia and 2015 Winter Harvest Ali Shan right now, both of which are high mountain green oolongs from Taiwan. We also have several other oolongs (a couple competition oolongs from Taiwan done in the traditional style, a Mao Xie [Harry Crab] and medium roast Tiequanyin from Anxi, China, as well as an amazing Baozhong twisted oolong from Taiwan. However, we have not had a good Da Hong Pao or Wuyi oolong to offer so I have been on the hunt for one.

Over the past two weeks I compared four different Da Hong Pao oolongs from various vendors, trying to find one that I thought was the best. All of them were very good, with some slightly better than others.

For the tea to be a true Da Hong Pao, it must come from within the Nature Preserve located just outside of Wuyishan, Fujian, China.

This is Tongmu Guan village, where Cindy's tea comes from.

As you can see, the mountains are not just rocks, but they are rocky. The tea farms can be seen spreading up the hillsides a bit from the village, as well as the extent of the mountain environment and the little villages located up and down valley.

This sample came from Lydia, and although I enjoyed it, I did not end up buying it. The aroma was wonderful, with shifting flavors of honey and melon. After 4-5 steepings, the flavor dropped off significantly.

TDS - 79ppm
PH - 7.47
Temp - 165

Brewed Tea
TDS - 181ppm
PH - 6.42
Temp - 165

TDS - 102ppm
PH - 1.05

This sample came from Scott, and again, I found it to be another fine tea, if not slightly subdued to the other two samples with a slightly heavier roast profile coming out in the tea.

TDS - 67ppm
PH - 7.39
Temp - 165

Brewed Tea
TDS - 178ppm
PH - 6.17
Temp - 165

TDS - 111ppm
PH - 1.22

The next one is one I have actually bought over the years. It comes from Winnie and is a delicious example of a Da Hong Pao. Full of complex flavors including lemon, honey, citrus and orange - really a top notch tea.

I didn't take any photos of the tasting for some reason; must have been busy that day.

TDS - 73ppm
PH - 7.53
Temp - 165

Brewed Tea
TDS - 161ppm
PH - 6.53
Temp - 165

TDS - 88ppm
PH - 1.18

The final one, coming from Cindy, is perhaps the best of all of them. Sweet on the tip of the tongue, with smoke at the end, the tea is smooth and more complex compared to the others. Sitting with the tea and enjoying the flavors transmute as they cross your palette is a wonderful way to pass the afternoon.

TDS - 106ppm
PH - 7.45
Temp - 165

Brewed Tea
TDS - 232
PH - 6.38
Temp - 165

TDS - 126ppm
PH - 1.07

Interestingly, Cindy's tea had the largest difference in terms of TDS, but was third in terms of PH. Both Winnie's and Scott's were slightly more roasted, and that is apparent in the greater change in PH, as charcoal roasting makes the PH of the tea water turn more alkaline because of the carbon. Cindy's TDS change was the largest, resulting in the more complex flavor profile that was noted in the tea.

Da Hong Pao's are amazing teas, and although I cannot claim to be an expert by any means, I'm pretty happy with how the tasting went. Both myself and a good friend who tried all of the teas with me agreed that the two best were from Winnie of Teance and Cindy of Wuyishan.


Now to get into the harder part - what varietal is Da Hong Pao? I'm hesitant to put anything out there, as there seems to be a lot of confusing opinions on exactly what varietal Da Hong Pao comes from. Babelcarp states that Da Hong Pao is both a varietal and a type, meaning that there are true Da Hong Pao tea bushes, but that any clippings or clones taken from these original Da Hong Pao bushes (depending on who is doing the counting, there are 4-6 of these original bushes still alive today) are also Da Hong Pao. However, it gets confusing because the clones of the original bushes have been given their own names - Dahongpao, Shui Xian, Qi Dan, Bei Dou, Rougui, and others. Austin of Seven Cups says something very similar, in that Qi Dan is a varietal, but originally came from a clone of the original Da Hong Pao bushes. Winnie of Teance, who is an expert and a person I highly trust, states that Da Hong Pao is a blend of these clones. A short thread on TeaChat also supports this theory, that Da Hong Pao, whatever it might have been in history, is now a name for a type of oolong coming from the Wuyishan area of Fujian, China. Scott from Yunnan Sourcing simply states that Da Hong Pao is a varietal, but doesn't say anything more.

Part of the problem is that no one has actually done any genetic tests, or at least there are no English language sources if such tests have been conducted. One genetic study supports the notion that Da Hong Pao is a varietal and a type, in that Dahongpao, Shuixian, Qidan, and others are all of the same genetic family. Other genetic studies have demonstrated that the varietals - whatever they may be - do cluster around their own regions, so that Fujian varietals are more closely related than they are to those found in other growing regions.

So, what is Da Hong Pao? My understanding currently is this - when I write Da Hong Pao I am thinking of the TYPE of oolong, coming from several sub-varietals that most likely were at some point taken from the original plants but now have been given their own names. This oolong is also more tied to terroir, processing, and style, most likely a blend of the various sub-varietals. When I write it as Dahongpao, that is in reference to an actual sub-varietal that may be made into Da Hong Pao, but could also be made into Shui Xian or blended with other sub-varietals to end up with Da Hong Pao. There is no definitive answer, because there are no definitive studies.

But really, for most people none of this matters. What really matters is whether one enjoys the tea, and a good Da Hong Pao is certainly an enjoyable experience.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Puer - 2006, 2007, 1995

Puer - Puerh - Pu-er

Oh, how people love to tell stories about puer. The "drinkable antique" fills books, Facebook groups, and hundreds upon hundreds of blog posts. I find it fascinating how people are head-over-heels about puer, but not necessarily other teas, especially considering that we know the least about most of these puers compared to other teas. Ages of trees are thrown around like facts when really it is all made up. Varietals are tossed around like soccer balls, when really again, we know hardly anything. Even the location of the harvest is largely made up, yet people will stake their lives on so-called "single origin" puers. The puer market is one giant illusion, with little transparency and jianghu players throughout.

But that rant is for a later post, when I, naive as I am, have more knowledge and education surrounding this tea. The main point here is that if you are a tea buyer - hold off on puers until you get a good handle on the truth behind them, or if you must have a few for your customers, focus on shou or cooked puers that come from the main "factories".

Yunnan and Pu'er. The main centers are listed: Xishuangbanna and the Six Tea Mountains, Lincang, Dali, Dehong, and Pu'er.

2006 Dali Xiaguan Jia Ji Sheng

I have been sitting on this sheng for a couple years now, and put it out recently or our customers to enjoy. Pulling the tuocha's out of the tong was a magical experience, as the smell oozed out and began to pervade my nostrils. Breaking apart the tuocha was perhaps even better, as the aroma rose and coated my fingers, leaving the residue of a properly aged puer for me to enjoy. The tea had hints of spice and black pepper at the front, mellowing to a smooth finish with hints of sweetness and hay towards the end. Drinking the tea was a pleasure, and the effects lasted long after the last drop had been drunk - I continued to taste the tea for several hours after. It proved to be a great seller, and we quickly went through our 5 tuochas. I put one last one aside to age for a few more years, and then gave the remainder of one tuocha to some friends to try.

The tuocha before being broken up.

As we roll through winter here in Colorado, I will continue to pull out various sheng and shou puers for people to enjoy. I find winter to be the prime drinking season for puers, and plan on featuring several rare ones for people to try over the next several months.

I came across this print by Utagawa Toyokune, the great master of ukiyo-e and found it relevant to my current thoughts around puer. Although it is a print of kabuki scene in Japan, it illustrates the intrigue, mystery, and showmanship surrounding puer in the contemporary market.

2007 and 1995 Mao Cha Sheng

A couple years ago I bought a couple pounds of a 2007 and a 1995 loose sheng from a particular vendor. I've sat on these, continuing to age them, as well as bring them out from time to time to share with friends and others. To me, these illustrate perfectly the real puer market before and at the height of the boom. Little information is known on these shengs, other than they come from Xishuangbanna and the year they were harvested. At the time, prior to the re-invention of puer and especially pressed puer from Yi Wu and other villages around 2004, most was harvested and then sold to "factories" for fine processing. That is the case with these - most likely a mixture of "wild arbor", "terrace", and other leaves all mixed. Most was probably turned into shou puer at the factories, but some was set aside and aged as mao cha such as this. The flavor profile fits the location of Xishuangbanna, but beyond that it is hard to pin-point much more. The 2007 has aged well, mellowing into a nice sheng that is fairly easy to approach. The 1995 is even better, with more complexity in the flavor profile - including some interesting notes of spice, wood, and fruit.

2007 Mao Cha Sheng

1995 Mao Cha Sheng

A very nice pluck coming from 1995, demonstrating the quality of this sheng.

Now for the numbers...

2006 Dali Xiaguan Jia Ji Sheng

TDS - 86
PH - 7.49
Temp - 165

Brewed Tea
TDS - 407
PH - 5.85
Temp - 155

TDS - 321
PH - 1.64

2007 Mao Cha Sheng

TDS - 73
PH - 7.32
Temp - 160

Brewed Tea
TDS - 400
PH - 6.05
Temp - 156

TDS - 327
PH - 1.27

1995 Mao Cha Sheng

TDS - 76
PH - 7.57
Temp - 165

Brewed Tea
TDS - 240
PH - 6.17
Temp - 153

TDS - 164
PH - 1.40

What do the numbers reveal? Well, preliminary data suggests that the ages of the puers are correct. The 2007 and 2006 extract almost the same as a fresh green, but less than an oolong or a shou. The 1995, because of it's age, did not extract as much, resulting in a lower TDS difference. The only other tea showing these characteristics so far are charcoal roasted Da Hong Pao's. Logically, this makes sense, as the older the tea, the harder it is to get them to "open up". Likewise, the more roasted an oolong, the harder it is to get it to "reveal itself to you."

But really, all of the above is beyond the point. Tea, and drinking tea, is about sharing and enjoying with friends. So, I end with this photo of a good puer session I had recently with friends. Enjoy!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Glenburn's Autumn Crescendo - The Embodiment Of A Fall Tea

It's fall here in Colorado, with the official start of winter just around the corner. The "winter" and "fall" harvests just wrapped up in many of the tea growing regions, such as Taiwan for Winter Oolongs and Darjeeling for the Autumn Encore teas. I already talked about this year's Long Feng Xia from the winter harvest that just came in - delicious, refined, clean. The opposite could be said for the fall teas from Darjeeling, including Glenburn Estate's Autumn Crescendo. I've brought this tea into the cafe going on three harvests now, and each time I am reminded why I love this tea. It is, if one understands the land, the environment, and what is happening to the tea plants, the embodiment of fall. Smoother and sweeter than the Second Flush teas, the Autumn harvest exhibits to me the perfect notes of what I would expect from a fall tea. As the nights cool and the sun dips lower on the horizon, the plants begin to pull back their life force into the main branches and roots, leaving behind the glucose and starch in the leaves. Plucking the leaves now, when the glucose, starches, carotenoids, and anthocyanins are more prevalent, while the polyphenols, chlorophyll, and amino acids are reduced results in a slightly sweeter, smoother, more mellow and robust tea, especially when the leaves are allowed to oxidize to around 50%(?) or so.
The Glenburn Estate gardens tumbling down the side of the mountain.

The Glenburn Estate is located on the northern edge of the Darjeeling Hills, backed up against the mighty Himalayas, which rise in the background. The cool air comes down from the Himalayas, pulling cold, moist air from the glaciers and blanketing the tea gardens in the fall.

Looking south at Glenburn, with the town of Darjeeling to the west, and the low, hot plains off in the horizon. The hot air on the plains holds back the colder air from the Himalayas, creating the micro-climate that results in the Darjeeling Hills ability to grow such amazing teas.

As Sanjay Sharma, Glenburn's Manager noted, "only in Autumn did I find those delicate floral notes with very mellow cups and basically fruity undertones - not like fresh fruit but moistened dried apricots, maybe raisins - and, in the dry leaf, hints of chocolate" (Koehler 2015, p. 181). These are the notes found in the Autumn Crescendo and that one would expect from a quality fall tea processed in such a way as to pull out the flavor profile that are being exhibited in the leaves by the plant during this time. Along with the Moonshine First Flush from Glenburn, the Autumn Crescendo might be my other favorite from the Estate.

No real whole leaves as one finds in the other flushes, most likely from the more fragile nature of the fall leaves.
As for my readings, which are starting to provide some interesting baseline data from which I can begin to pose questions and hypothesis from, I got the following numbers:

TDS - 82ppm
PH - 7.41
Temp - 165

Brewed Tea
TDS - 373ppm
PH - 5.61
Temp - 158

TDS - 291ppm
PH - 1.8

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Tale of Two Dragon Wells

Dragon Well, or Long Jing is one of China's "Ten Famous Teas" and rightly so. A high-quality Long Jing is a delicious experience for any tea drinker. Trying to find quality, authentic Long Jing at a price that makes sense for the current market is a task, but still possible. I ordered two different Dragon Wells from two different vendors recently, both of similar grades. One was "superior" and the other was "special" - top quality other than they were not pre-qingming. The price-point difference per pound was only $12, but the subtleties in flavor and aroma stood out.

Dragon Well comes from Xihu (West Lake) area of Hangzhou in the Zhejiang Province of China. Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejian, and has a population of over 8 million people. The Xihu area is on the outskirts of Hangzhou, like Boulder is to Denver, or Sonoma to San Francisco. As you can see from the map below, a small set of mountains are located just to the west of Hangzhou, which is where Long Jing should come from.

This set of mountains has been designated and set aside as a scenic preserve and authentic Dragon Well should come from within this designated area. As you can see from the image below, this area is relatively small, and is just outside of the sprawling Hangzhou area.

As a result of Dragon Well being one of China's Ten Famous Teas, production cannot keep up with demand, just like many other well known teas. However, it is fairly easy to tell true Long Jing after tasting them for awhile.

A close up of one of the samples.

The other sample.
 The two Dragon Wells that I was tasting on this day - a Special grade and a Superior grade - had obvious and marked differences. One smelled fresh, with the aroma of summer still prevalent when opening the bag. The other was more subdued, with less fresh aroma. One also had more uniform and standard green coloring of the dry leaves, which is one of the hallmarks of a top quality Long Jing. The other had less uniformity and more varied colors, edging toward blue/dark green leaves.

The two compared after one steeping.

A close up after two steepings.

The other one after two steepings.
 After tasting them both for two steepings each, I set aside the one that I felt was not as high of quality, and enjoyed three more steepings of my favorite one. The difference between the two was subtle, and whether a customer could tell the difference I don't know. For me, the subtle sweetness and nutty flavor of the one was obvious, while the other one's lack of fresh aroma and lasting flavor made it stand apart. The measurements also reinforced my tasting profiles:

TDS - 74ppm
PH -7.42
Temp - 165

Brewed Tea (One I liked)
TDS - 241ppm
PH - 6.55
Temp - 155

Brewed Tea (One I set aside)
TDS - 235ppm
PH - 6.74
Temp - 155

My guess is that the one I set aside was picked slightly later and not treated to as high of standards, resulting in a slightly rougher tea, a bit more dry, and thus harder to extract from. The one I liked, on the other hand, was held to a higher standard during processing, resulting in fresher leaves that extracted a bit better. For me, paying the $12 more per pound to get the higher quality tea, despite being of the same "grade" is worth the price. It is also a lesson in knowing your vendors and what they specialize in.