Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Tag: Oolong (Page 1 of 7)

The Ruckus over Ruan Zhi

Ruan Zhi—or “soft stem”— is a particular cultivated variety (or cultivar) of tea plant originally hailing from China, before making its way to Taiwan, and then migrating further along to Thailand and Myanmar . . . I think?

I say “I think?” because, well, information is not all that clear about the cultivar’s origins. As a result, I’m going to have to approach this write-up in reverse. That being: focusing on teas that were made from said cultivar once it made its way to Thailand, and even as far away as Myanmar. After that . . . I’ll attempt to elaborate upon the soft-stemmed tea bush’s checkered past.

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A Tie Guan Yin Flight from Taiwan

Tie Guan Yin is one of the most interesting takes on oolong ever developed. Despite its ancient-sounding name—invoking the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Guan Yin— the “Iron Goddess of Mercy” only dates back to the 19th century. Hailing from Anxi county, in Fujian province, China, this complicated style of oolong originally began its life as a medium-roast, “strip leaf”-shaped incarnation; similar to Wuyi Mountain yanchas, or Phoenix Mountain Dan Congs—only nowhere near as dark. That changed around the turn of the 20th century when the processing techniques grew even more labyrinthine.

Image mooched from Wikipedia.

Contrary to popular belief, though, Tie Guan Yin didn’t start out as a processing style of oolong. Rather, the style was inspired by a slow-growing, low-yielding cultivar of the same name.

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A Tea Pairing from One Wuyi Artisan

For those that have tuned in to my li’l corner of “the In-Tea-Net”, folks can tell I have an affinity for talking about where the tea comes from. I have focused a lot of text-space to estates, gardens, factories, and the farmers that supply their wares to them. Less frequent, though, are my forays into focusing on the ways-‘n-means of the artisans.

Image owned by Seven Cups.

Mainly because . . . the opportunity hasn’t arisen.

Until Austin Hodge of Seven Cups Fine Chinese Teas contacted me.

Austin Hodge; Image owned by Seven Cups.

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A Tea Leaf on the Wind

In the hierarchy of tea businesses, monthly tea subscription services are like man-buns.

Unless you have a really good reason for starting one—or your name is Toshiro Mifune—it is usually best not to. Since 2014, there has been a veritable surge of tea start-ups, and the route they’ve all chosen? You guessed it, the monthly subscription model. When I attended World Tea Expo that year, every new vendor present was either (a) trying to start one, or (b) “thinking” of starting one. And from a business perspective, it makes sense.

All a potential “monthly” vendor had to do was acquire enough wholesale product at cost in order to meet the demand of their current subscriber base. They could easily keep a tally of how much to purchase and when—i.e. once a month. This strategy kept costs low and overhead even. No gambling.

The problem?

With a glut of so many subscription services out there, and a dearth of people interested in tea, it’s hard to stand-out. A vendor would need to have a very unique angle to the strategy in order to stick out in the rough. And, no, custom blending doesn’t count. At least, not anymore.

So, when I was approached by Tea Runners in June of this year, one can understand why I went into the conversation skeptical. I was approached by Charlie Ritchie, and—just from the initial email—I already liked the guy. His tone was conversational, jovial, and it didn’t come across as a normal cut-‘n-paste e-mail job. Even it if was, I couldn’t tell, so . . . go him! That and his replies to my queries were prompt and polite.

Tea Vendor Etiquette Level: Wizard.

After the initial message, I did a little research. I, at least, wanted to give this li’l start-up the benefit of the doubt before I turned my nose up. I went to their bio and saw . . .

Left to Right: Charlie Ritchie and Jewel Staite. Image owned by Tea Runners.

Wait a minute . . .

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Rethinking Tea Categories

Editor’s Note: This is merely a thought exercise by the author. The opinions reflected in the below narrative do not reflect the opinions of the teaware on staff . . . or this editor, for that matter.

Seriously, I just work here, guys.

A thought occurred to me over the years. No one has come to a clear consensus as to what the proper tea categories are. The general consensus is that there are six: Heicha (Dark Tea), Hong Cha (Black/Red Tea), Wulong, Green Tea, Yellow Tea, and White Tea. However, some say that yellow tea isn’t its own category (even though it clearly is). Others champion the stance that dark tea shouldn’t include sheng (raw) puerh. Others still believe puerh should be its own category. Hell, even some international trade laws only recognize two tea categories.

So, this got me thinking . . .

If I were the end-all/say-all authority on tea lexicography, how would I divvy up the different tea types? What would my breakdown look like? Well, in order to answer that question, I must breakdown (and in some cases, outright destroy) existing trends. This might over-complicate the issue, and over-simplify other things. But this is my write-up . . . and I’ll do what I want. So, here we go:

*dons helmet*

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A Hundred Years is “Oolong” Time

Last weekend, I drank an oolong that was—quite possibly—a hundred years old.

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Rou Gui’s Revenge

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but Rou Gui was the first Wuyi oolong (or Yancha) that I ever liked.

Image mooched from the Almighty Wiki.

Before a certain Da Hong Pao back-flipped my palate, I never really took a liking to Wuyi rock oolongs. They always tasted like . . . well . . . roasted rocks. In leaf form. Rou Gui, while as “burnt”-looking as the rest of them, seemed different. Not sure why, but there was room for more subtlety in the palate delivery.

Since then, I’ve come to appreciate a myriad of Wuyi oolongs. So much so, that poor ol’ Rou Gui kind of got left in the dust. Tie Luo Han took point as my overall favorite. Then I got an e-mail from Jeff Kovac of Four Seasons Tea some random month in 2016. He wondered if I got to one of the samples he sent some months back, particularly a Rou Gui called “Niu Lan Keng”.

I told him I hadn’t (but left out the part where I didn’t plan to). My exploration of Rou Gui as a tea was—so I thought—finished. However, Jeff re-emphasized that this stuff was special. It hailed from the same growing region as the really special Da Hong Pao he passed my way did—Zhengyan. Specifically, the Niu Lan Keng growing region.

Because the growing region was so narrow in parts, not very much was produced. Some farms lay between ravines of mountains. Tea plants grew in ravine corridors. Like this:

Image owned by Four Seasons Tea.

With low yields on a regionally specific tea came a high price tag. This tea cost even more per gram than “Mother Tree” Da Hong Pao. That, in and of itself, was astounding.

Sometime in autumn of last year, I finally got around to brewing it up. Was it at all special? I aimed to find out.

Most Wuyi oolongs I’ve come cross all have similar appearances. The leaves are long, twisty, and (for the most part) soot black—usually a result of the charcoal roasting. I was surprised in two ways with this one: (1) Some of the leaves actually had a shade of beige or green to their color. And (2) when I tore open the bag, all I could smell was straight butter. Well . . . butter that’d been roasted on charcoal. (Is that even possible—roasting butter on charcoal? Someone get on that.) Point being, it was a lovely visual and visceral bouquet. Yes, you’re catching me using the word “bouquet” in one of these yarns. Don’t get used to it.

For brewing, I approached it as . . .y’know what? I wasn’t really paying all that much attention. I knew I wanted to use a yixing pot; I know I wanted three or four successive steeps. Didn’t really care what leaf amount either. I guessed that I put about a tablespoon of leaves in the yixing pot, and I suppose each steep was about thirty-to-forty seconds. But—honestly—I didn’t care. The very essence of “gongfooling” as opposed to gongfu.

Each infusion was the color of steampunk magic brass. Not to be confused with normal brass, which is a bit dull on display. The liquors were bright, spry and . . . well . . . downright magical-looking. Magic brass; I’m sticking to that. The “roasted butter” showed up in the steam smell, along with fruit and roasted poetry. The taste was . . . oh my lord . . .

Stone fruit wine. I really don’t need to go any further than that. No, not plum wine. That’s common. I’ve never tasted anything like this, but winy notes were all over the place—but thankfully without any of that tannic, corky crap. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a Wuyi oolong that was this tart and fruity, but in a refined and experienced sort of way. I certainly have never had a Rou Gui that was like this. Further infusions got even sweeter.

I guess I did have more to say about Rou Gui. A sweet taste was the sweetest retribution. This expensive beauty killed me with kindness. Revenge is a cup of tea best served cordially.

To by the Niu Lan Keng Rou Gui, go HERE.

Looking for Hui Gan in High Mountain Oolongs

“This tea had quite a bit of Hui Gan,” someone said to me once.

“Who’s Hui Gan?” I asked, thinking they were referring to a Chinese scholar.

Clearly, I’d never heard the term before. Several people had used it in my presence, and I nodded as if I knew what they were talking about. Of course, I didn’t. I had to consult a more knowledgeable tea blogger friend to have it defined for me.

“Hui Gan” can be translated as “comeback sweetness”. And—like everything else in Chinese—what that means is a tad esoteric and abstract. Finding a definitive answer online was even more elusive. Some people referred to it as the lingering sweetness found in some teas after sipping. Others claimed it was the reflection of that sweetness later down-the-line. As in, a mental reflection, followed by a craving. Like tea drinker déjà vu . . . or something.

The last time I heard the term, it was from Greg “Norbu Tea” Glancy. We were discussing his Ali Shan offerings, and he mentioned that his new Winter ’16 oolong had “great Hui Gan”. I was interested in doing a back-to-back comparison of that tea with a batch of the Spring 2016. Both were greener style, high mountain Ali Shan oolongs, and I thought it’d be interesting to do a side-by-side. The whole Hui Gan hullabaloo became an added side-quest.

One fine day off from work, I got to brewing.

Both teas looked exactly the same—large, ball-fisted green leaves with li’l necktie stems. The Spring smelled buttery and floral, whereas the Winter had more of a “sweet bread” smell. And, I’ll be darned, that sweetness did linger, but it didn’t “come back”. But I wasn’t sure Hui Gan was supposed to show up in the aromatics or not.

These were my findings after the first infusions finished steeping.

Editor’s Note: Forgive the redundancies between the video and the narrative. The Lazy Literatus filmed the tasting notes before undertaking the write-up. That . . . and his attention span is quite short. 

 

I filmed about six minutes worth of additional material with two more infusions . . . but I screwed it up. Royally. I over-steeped the second infusion on both by a good ten seconds, and they turned out tasting like burnt salad. The third fared way better—the sweetness came back!—but the leaves were still a bit shaky from the earlier abuse. That and I accidentally thought “lingering sweetness” was “comeback sweetness”. Nope . . . totally different.

But then I let a few minutes go by . . . and then a few more . . . and then a few more after that. Then I suddenly had an itch in my right index finger. I grabbed my electric kettle, filled it with water, and put it back on its little ol’ heating pad. Once I saw those little fish-eye bubbles, I stopped the heat, and did a fourth re-steep of both.

And then a fifth.

I think I got a good two or three more infusions out of both those sets of leaves. In all honestly, I had planned on doing an entirely different tasting session after those two oolongs. But I lost track of time . . . by a good two hours. The tasting session started at around 11AM, and I carried it on until about 4PM. The only reason I finally stopped it was because I had to leave the house to meet friends in the early evening.

Did I find the elusive Hui Gan? I still have no clue. Its like the Carmen Sandiego of taster notes. Once you think you have it pinned down—whether by sensation or semantics—you find you’re nowhere near it at all.

Perhaps I’ll reflect on it more, at a later juncture.

Sweetly.

To buy the Winter ’16 Ali Shan oolong I test-drove, go HERESee if you can find Hui Gan.

I “Heart” Doke

I “heart” the Doke tea estate.

Photo by Rajiv Lochan.

No, I’m not ashamed to use the word “heart” instead of “love”. Especially today. Okay, I winced a tiny bit at the grammatical incorrectness of it (and the cutesiness of it) . . . but the sentiment still stands. And, given when this blog is going up, the cutesy incorrectness is fitting.

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The Harendong Estate

Four years ago, I “discovered” the Harendong estate.

Image owned by Harendong

I put “discovered” in air-quotes because . . . it’d been there for eight years by the time I ran across it. Perhaps I should say, it was new to me. They had a booth at the 2013 World Tea Expo—under their Banten Tea brand—and the thing that excited me about them was where they were from.

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