Glen and Lamu of Crimson Lotus Tea are one of my favorite husband-‘n-wife puerh hunter duos.
Up until 2016, I only knew of them, and the good reputation they’d garnered over five years as trustworthy sellers of Yunnan’s favorite export. However, over the last couple of years, I developed a bit of a quixotic, after-hours correspondence with the Glen half of the team. During the spring and early summer months—while they were on one of their annual sourcing trips—I’d occasionally hear from him (or vice-versa) . . . at 2AM.
In one such conversation, he casually mentioned they’d been invited to tour an old growth tea forest few Westerners had ever seen. He immediately had my attention; the words “secret tea garden” scrawled into my brain. A week-or-so-ish after that conversation, they posted this video on their YouTube channel.
NaNoTeaMo, Day 26: “Obligatorily Weird Thanksgiving Tea Post”
I think it’s mandatory that if one is going to post a blog on Thanksgiving Day, they actually have to give thanks to something or someone. And, trust me, I will do just that. But not right this second. You see, I have a weird Camellia species to talk about first.
In 2013, I was a regular follower of UK-based Canton Tea Co.’s Tea Club blog. Two of their employees went on a sourcing trip to Yunnan province, China, and picked up something rather unique. I certainly hadn’t heard of it before, and I try to keep my ear to the ground regarding anything “weird”. The blog entry featured a Dian Hong (Yunnan black tea) that had been fired in red cane sugar.
Back in May – as all two of you readers may already know – I attended my third World Tea Expo. The Finest Brew’s booth was easily a tea blogger favorite. The company was run by two Sri Lankan borthers, and they possessed some weird things I’d never seen before. They had no problem showing off their weird wares to us.
Before leaving the Expo, they made it a point to gift me with two unique white teas. Both were made in the same style – that of Yue Guang Bai (Moonlight White), a white tea from Yunnan province, China. The kicker though? Only one of them was from Yunnan. Yiwu Mountain, to be precise.
Image credit: Tea Urchin
The other was produced on a small plot of land on the New Vithanande tea estate in southern Sri Lanka (Ceylon).
Image credit: DiscoveringTea.com
What was even weirder; both teas were produced using the same cultivated variety of tea plant – a so-called “purple leaf” cultivar of assamica. The only differences between the two white teas was their terroir and age. The Yunnan-produced stuff was crafted in 2011, whereas the Sri Lankan batch was harvested in 2014. It was only a matter of time before I subject them both to a side-by-side . . . tea fight.
The T Project Grand Opening – Teashop Adventure Week
Several months ago, I stopped through Northeast Portland to stay a spell at Tea Bar. And it was . . . crowded. As a self-professed introvert, I don’t do well in crowds. If I’m with peers, I mind them less. But if alone, crowds feel suffocating. While I was happy that Tea Bar was doing well, the sheer volume beautiful twentysomethings enjoying their lattes was panic-inducing to my olden heart. My plan was to grab my usual Lapsang Latte and go.
Then, toward the back, I saw a familiar face – Mizuba Tea’s Lauren Purvis was conversing with someone. Someone I knew! I thought. And I bee-lined for them . . . totally not thinking that I was interrupting a professional conversation . . . which I was.
The woman Lauren was speaking with was Teri Gelber, a soon-to-be teashop owner.
For years, I was taught that, sure, a young sheng (raw) pu-erh could be good, but it had yet to reach its full potential. After all, pu-erh was meant to be aged – to mature over time. Particularly the raw variety. However, I’m starting to rethink my stance on that. Sometimes, just sometimes, a younger, just-plucked, newly-pressed pu-erh can stand up against its older beengcha brethren.
Two months ago, I received a text from Nick “Misty Peak Teas” Lozito. He had just returned from a sourcing trip to Mount Yiwu, Yunnan province, China, where his farming contact was. Nick direct sourced from one farmer, and one farmer only. All the products he carried were from one dude. I covered his outfit a few months ago. But I digress . . .
Nick practically said, “Dude! You’ve gotta try this autumn flush I got. It’s amazing.”
He was too busy to get together that week, what with a newborn son and all, but he dropped some off at Tea Bar – the local outfit that carried his sheng to serve. I made the trip out to North Portland to try it. And, boy, he wasn’t kidding.
I wasn’t used to judging pu-erhs by their recent seasonal plucks. Usually, that was Darjeeling territory. Pu-erh is generally judged by the year it was plucked/pressed, not the month. But there was a definite difference between the spring 2014 Yiwu pu-erh and the autumn. I just needed to judge for myself a bit more thoroughly.
In the meantime, Misty Peak Teas was carving out a niche for itself in the online community. I was hearing rumblings about how good the stuff was from other fellow bloggers. Their wares were even receiving accolades on Steepster. To date, the 2014 cake was the highest rated pu-erh on the site. Impressive, given the competition.
Alas, life got in the way, and I didn’t follow up with Nick for a more thorough tasting until . . . well . . . yesterday [at the time of this writing]. He cut out a section of his day in which to entertain my urge to drink more of the autumn tea.
When I pulled up to “Misty Peak HQ”, I was told to come around to the back. There he was on a green blanket, feeding his four-month-old, Vincenzo. It was far too adorable a sight not to snap.
Then we got to drinking.
First, as a palate starter, Nick broke out a cake of his 2005. It was the one year from that farm I hadn’t tried yet. The leaves were large and lovely.
Brewed gongfu, the liquor was a deep brass, and I tasted straight stone fruit, earth, and ancient civilization. Is that a taste? Well, it is now.
I was in a daze, and we had only just begun.
Next up, he offered up the autumn 2014 side-by-side with the spring.
The spring pluck was fruitier, but the autumn was somehow sweeter – more mature. On a blind test, I couldn’t tell them apart, but the difference in maturity was there, if subtle. The autumn was just a shy bit better. It was like comparing two pieces of cheesecake based upon how many strawberries were topped on ‘em.
Further down the line, we compared two 2012s, binged on some pu-erh that’d been left outdoors to cure. (For the heck of it.) Mizuba Tea’s Lauren Danson also stopped by to join in the festivities for a quick minute or three. What was initially intended as, maybe, an hour’s tasting session turned into three.
After I-dunno-how-many cups of 2005, 2012, and 2014 teas, I was good and basted. Feeling the Universe and s**t. But it was high time to retire. Before I left, though, Nick brought out a really interesting sight to show off. A giant ball of pu-erh. No seriously.
Look at that thing. Apparently, the farmer plucked it the same month Nick’s son was born, and pressed the ball to the newborn’s exact weight. I held it. The sucker weighed about seven pounds – and change!
As I made my farewells, I made it a point to acquire a cake of the autumn 2014.
Oh yeah . . . I was supposed to be devoting this entry to making a case for young pu-erh. Look, it’s a subjective thing. If you prefer the aged stuff, you’ll likely stick to the aged stuff. Young pu-erh tastes young. It’s like a green tea with lofty aspirations, or Luke Skywalker before raging against the second Death Star. All I wanted to show was, a great time could be had with the new as well as the old. And the less stuffy you are about either, the better.
Fengqing is a county located in Lincang Prefecture, Yunnan Province, China.
Source: Yunnan Adventure
The Almighty Wiki listed at least four different ethnic groups indigenous to the region, two of which I recognized as pu-erh producers. In the early 1940s, the Fengqing Tea Factory came into existence and was instrumental in the development of Dian Hong (Yunnan black tea) as we know it today.
To date, I’d only ever tried two black teas from Fengqing and no pu-erhs. Angel from Teavivre approached me a few months ago with an opportunity to sample – not one, but three – offerings from the county. A unique black tea and two pu-erhs, respectively. I jumped at the chance, and over the course of a week I took a veritable sipping journey to the region.
Looking at these li’l suckers was a trip. They were indeed as advertised – gold-tipped leaves that pressed into the shape of pearls. I’m not sure how many leaves made up one pearl, but by the looks of it, several. On aroma, they gave off a fragrance similar to any other gold-tipped Dian Hong, but with a more earthen, leathery edge. Similar to another Fengqing black I had years ago.
For brewing, I went with a scaled-down, gongfu approach. Three pearls to a 6oz. steeper cup of boiling water. First infusion was for thirty seconds, followed by further steeps with an added twenty seconds successively.
The first infusion – I’ll confess – was the rinse, which I should’ve dumped. But I never dump the rinse; seems like a waste of tea to me. So, I’m incorrectly considering it the first infusion. Anyway, the rinse was pale, but the second and third infusions brewed boldly dark crimson. The aroma on each steep was straight chocolate by way of a rawhide belt. On taste? Again, straight chocolate. No rawhide this time, but a bit of honey, some pepper, and a whole lotta “yum!” It was note-for-note like the pressed Fengqing gold bars I coveted months ago.
Pu-erhs from Arbor cultivars were among my favorites. This wasn’t the full cake, but rather chunks of it shaved off for easy sampling, which was fine. The pressed leaves looked like – well – wood that’d been shaved off the side of an “arbor” tree. Albeit far better smelling. This was an earthy pu-erh to the core – notes of earth and dust were prevalent. Commonplace in a ripe/cooked pu-erh, but I also detected an underlying sweetness.
For brewing, I stuck with a typical gongfoolish approach – several different steeps at varying degrees of time. Then hoped for the best. It was my way. Thirty seconds for the first, adding ten to the subsequent infusions.
The liquor for the first three infusions brewed dark crimson to blackest night (with a red tinge). The aroma from each possessed that same wood-sweet earthen sensation from the dry whiff. In fact, the same characteristics showed up in taste. Sure, it had all the trappings of a regular cooked pu-erh (minus the young fishiness), but there was that sweetness – just out of sight, but still making its presence known. Not strong but subtle; like being waved at by a pixie.
When I went to open this sucker up, I was greeted by (fittingly enough) a chunk of brick. I’d had teas from a zhuan cha (or “brick tea”) before, but this was the first chunk I had to play with at home. Like the Arbor Tree pu-erh, there was an earthy smell with a tinge of sweetness. No young pu-erh fishiness here, either. The smell was straight-up ancient.
For brewing, same ol’ same ol’, like with the other pu-erh. Gongfoolishly with a side of “tired”.
After pouring three successive infusions of the stuff, I noticed the liquor gradually darkened from deep crimson to brown-black. Typical of a shou (cooked) pu-erh, but the majesty for this one was in the aroma. As is common knowledge, I’m not much of a fan of cooked pu-erh unless it’s had about five years to age. Well, this had about nine, and it showed. Each infusion was earthy, slightly smoky, deep-bodied, practically chewy…and damn smooth! The mouthfeel was like an Italian red wine. Heck, on the last infusion I dared, I was having flashbacks of a good Barbera.
Hrm…that should be a new taster note – earthwine. Yes, perfect! I vote this one as the poster child.
I’d be hard-pressed (heh, get it?) to find a favorite out of the three. All I will say is that they occupied the same pantheon of “Awesome!” in their respective categories. The cooked pu-erhs were miles ahead of others I’ve tried, and those black pearls…man…I want to pair that with chocolate ice cream someday. In short, all three roads led to the same destination…
Of all the tea blogs I’ve written, none have possessed the traction that my Nan Nuo Mountain coverage displayed. And I don’t mean in terms of viewership. (Let’s face it, what viewership?) But rather the enormity of vendors that specialize in single origin teas who’ve contacted me in its wake; I think the count is up to three? Point being, for that reason alone, it’s my new favorite post. Because of it, I wouldn’t have run into So-Han Fan.
Said wacky gent is the proprietor of West China Tea Company, which (I’m guessing) is a fairly new outfit. I’d never heard of it before, and I’ve been around. (Er…not like that.)
So-Han’s primary focus is – as the company name implies – teas from Western China, with a strong emphasis on Yunnan. He contacted me via my “normal” website, and mentioned that he carried two unique teas from Nan Nuo Shan (my favorite mountain, remember?). That and he also mentioned digging my tea fiction. Way to butter up the blogger, S-H. *heh*
Point being, I was more than excited to experience other teas from Nan Nuo, but when they arrived…there was a dilemma. I couldn’t tell the two apart. S-H had mentioned in the e-mail that I’d be able to identify them easily…but my blind eye-‘n-taste-testing skills weren’t that…uh…honed.
Both looked (and smelled) like loose sheng pu-erhs.
Sure, one smelled grapier than the other, but I needed a bit more of a walkthrough with these. S-H gladly got back to me about the two teas. When he finally identified them, my mouth was agape.
The process – as described to me – for making this tea was…confusing. As far as I know, the leaves don’t go through a standard quickening of the oxidation process. (I.e. No cooking, roasting, pan-frying, kill-greening, speed-drying, what-have-you.) Instead, the leaves are…uh…massaged every two-to-three hours after picking to hasten the drying/dying process. In other words, old school oxidation by way of hand.
As I mentioned above: When I first received this sample, it was hard to tell it apart from a regular loose sheng pu-erh. The only thing that differed was the color of the leaves themselves – ranging from green-brown to black. However, the aroma was indiscernible from a sheng, which probably can be attributed to its “raw”-ness.
For brewing, I decided to do as the West China Tea Co. website suggested, and went with a gongfu-ish prep. They recommended a pre-wash…but I always end up drinking the pre-wash anyway. So, three steeps to start – each at thirty-to-forty-seconds.
The results were dark amber infusions with earthy-to-floral aromas. Nothing special was leaping out at me, yet. Then I took a sip. Holy whoah. It was like someone decided to see what would happen if a high altitude black tea made sweet-sweet love to a young sheng pu-erh. Flavors present were flowers, fruit, earth, sweetened wood, and…blanket.
Yes, blanket. This was one heckuva relaxing black tea. I just wanted to curl up with it, and talk about our future plans together.
Probably one of the most unique aged shengs I’ve come across. It was made in a small village called Duo Yi, at the summit of Nan Nuo.
Photo taken (and owned by) Villie Jokinen
No paved roads lead to the village, and many of the tea trees in the area range from 700-to-900 years old. This Nan Nuo sheng wasn’t commonly prepared for export, but rather used for everyday drinking for the Hani folks that prepared it.
The leaves were just as long and twisty as the Nan Nuo hong cha, but greener and wider. Plus, the scent they gave off was straight grapes. I’ve only ever encountered one other pu-erh that had that aromatic effect. Said smell also helped me tell the two teas apart.
In a typical gongfoolish fashion, I brewed about a tablespoon of the long leaves in a 6oz. gaiwan – using boiled water. Each infusion was roughly thirty seconds. To be honest, I wasn’t keeping accurate count.
The result was three starter steeps of bright green-to-amber liquors wafting springtime scents of lemon and grapes. On taste, the grape lean continued even stronger. There was a winy note to the pu-erh, one that comes with at least five years of age. The sensation was like tasting a heated Riesling. In more oblique terms, it was like being fed grape juice that was pulverized by the feet of a goddess.
Nan Nuo pu-erhs still have no equal.
I have to be an indecisive schmuck again. Everyone’s a winner here. I’m so beyond ecstatic that I got to try such a rare black tea from the mountain, and even more stoked that there was a new style of Nan Nuo pu-erh I hadn’t tried yet. The only thing that’s settled is that Nan Nuo Shan is now on my tea-do vacation list.
I talk a lot about new and interesting teas on this blog. It’s kind of my thing. But this article’s going to be a little bit different. I’ve always tried to talk about the origins to unique teas, or the regions they stem from. This is the first time where I was actually there when the tea was conceived. And it all started…in a bar.
On October 23rd, I made the two-hour trek to Eugene, OR .for an event called Tea Beer Fest. Of course I was going to go; how could I not? That’s – like – the combination of my two favorite things on the whole planet. I’d heard about the event through Josh “J-TEA” Chamberlain, and the fine tea lad even acted as a gracious host for my soon-to-be-tea-drunk arse.
When I first met up with Josh, it was – fittingly enough – at his teashop. J-TEA HQ. As I sipped copious amounts of sheng pu-erh and aged Baozhong, I even got a brief tour of the operation. Eventually, I had to address the elephant in the room. And by elephant, I mean…bourbon barrel.
He told me several months prior that he’d acquired such a barrel from the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky. I was just surprised it hadn’t been used yet. Originally, he told me that he was going to load it up with Eugene Breakfast – a Yunnan Dian Hong – but was a little tight-lipped about his hesitance to barrel said tea.
Teabeer drinking commenced later that evening. As I was I-fergit-how-many-pints in, I brought up the bourbon barrel again. Because nothing says social tact like beer. I barreled into the subject with all the finesse of a village idiot. Keep in mind, this is how I recall the conversation…and granted, it’s a little fuzzy.
“So…how come you haven’t loaded that barrel with tea, yet?” There might have been a slight slur to my speech at this point.
“Truthfully,” he began (and I’m paraphrasing). “I sell a lot of Eugene Breakfast. I don’t know if I have any to spare for that.”
I mused. “What tea do you have that you’d want to sacrifice to the altar of awesomeness?”
(Okay, I didn’t quite put it like that, but – in hindsight – I wish I had.)
It wasn’t the first time, I’d operated in a “soft” consulting capacity before. For some reason, people in the tea industry/community value my opinion. Not sure why, sometimes. But this was the first case where someone had remembered one of my suggestions…over beer. I prayed to whatever Tea Gods that existed on high – heck, even Lu Yu himself – to make the tea turn out well.
The day after Christmas, my can arrived. Yes, I said can. Because everything that’s wonderful in ‘Merica comes in a f**king can!
The moment I got the can, I pried it open with my house-key and just…inhaled. It smelled like the inside of a bourbon barrel, as it bloody well should have. Strong peat and gasoline aromas invaded my nostrils like a sophisticated frat party. Whiskey notes took point, followed closely behind a hint of pu-erh earthiness. Not pu-erh fishiness – earthiness. This was a quality five-year-aged Yunnan cooked pu-erh; from that I could tell. The two different aromas complimented one another, translating from oak to earth with nary a jarring sensation.
(Sidenote: A day didn’t go by when I wasn’t caught just sniffing the can for minutes on end. One time, my sister/roommate came in as I was in mid-whiff. I had to say something akin to, “It’s not what it looks like.”)
I dug into this the very night I got it. I chose to brew it two different ways – one gongfoolishly, the other Western-ishly. The first: Boiling water, thirty-second steeps. The second: Boiling water, three-minute steep. The vessel I used was a gaiwan, and I infused 1 tablespoon of leaves.
For the gongfoolish prep, the liquor brewed up…well…dark as night. Even after only thirty seconds, the brew was as dark as any – uh – dark tea I’d ever tried. The aroma from the cup was almost strictly pu-erh-ish – alternating between earth and wood. Not so with the taste. On first sip, I was met with bourbon-drenched oak. A feeling I’d only encountered with bourbon barrel-aged beers. It was sweet, smoky, vaguely alcoholic, and flowed right into a cooked pu-erh woodsiness.
Most alcoholic barrel or drench-scented teas I’ve come across usually have the savory notes on the finish as a compliment. A subtle nuance in its character. This was the first time where I ran into such a flavor on introduction. Not even the one whiskey barrel-aged Lapsang Souchong had so strong an intro.
When gongfu-ed, the leaves lasted a good eight infusions before diluting. The pu-erh notes took over after about Steep #6, but still…that’s a long way to go for a scented tea. Brewed Western-style, I have to say the results weren’t that different. It lasted three good, strong infusions, but the notes were exactly the same. No real change.
My only real regret is that I didn’t have any original, unscented cooked pu-erh on hand to compare and contrast. No matter. I suppose I’ll make do with what I have in front of me – a can I can repeatedly sniff like glue.
I’m still in the midst of a bit of an oolong kick. It “mostly” started because I was attempting to whittle down my backlog of unique teas. However, for some reason, the oolong-ing just…stuck. I do have my guesses. They make me feel really good.
And not just “ZOMG-IMMA-CAFFEINE-MACHINE!!!” good – like, “Zen” good. A coworker even remarked that I had an unusual spring in my step one day. I never have a spring in my step; it’s more of a subsistent shuffle.
My only response to them was, “It’s the oolong.”
“Long what now?” was the almost-inappropriate reply.
One of the culprits for my recent bout of “good-mood-itis” was an offering from a new operation called Tea Setter. A few weeks ago, I watched one of Tea For Me Please’s podcasts. She was interviewing the purveyor of Tea Setter – one Matt Kitchen.
(Sidenote: Great name, dude. Seriously. You must be a foodie girl magnet. The tea biz is just icing on the cake.)
Around the same time, I noticed Matt had commented on one of my blog entries. See, vendors, that’s how ya do it. Engage the communi-“tea”. Ego boosted, I decided to peruse his start-up’s site. Given my current penchant for all things oolong, that was the section I went for. He only carried oolongs and pu-erhs. (Edit: And soon, green tea.) Hardcore.
Then I saw it…like some kinda dark, leafy beacon. Four words gave me an instant tea-boner. Too inappropriate? Who cares! It’s true. Those words: “Wild. Arbor. Oriental. Beauty.”
Alright, a bit of a history lesson.
Oriental Beauty (or “Dong Fang Mei Ren”) is a style of oolong originating from Taiwan. The leaves for this type are allowed to have bugs – known as leafhoppers – attempt to pick at the leaves. For protection, the leaves take on a bit of a characteristic change to deter the pests. However, as a result, the flavor profile of the leaves also change…for the awesome!
Oriental Beauty also goes by the more common name of “Bai Hao Oolong”, which was the first way I ran into it. It is probably my favorite type of Taiwanese oolong, with Ali Shan-produced ones rounding a close second. So far, I’ve tried several from Taiwan, and a variant from Fujian province, China.
The one on Tea Setter’s page…was from Yunnan. Wu Liang Shan, to be precise. Instead of a smaller leaf – like with its Taiwanese forbearer – this one utilized a larger tea leaf cultivar (or group of cultivars) known as “Wild Arbor”.
This is a fuzzy term referring to cultivated varieties of tea trees that have “gone feral”.
Not quite like that…but close.
In China, it is not uncommon to find tea plantations abandoned for centuries. Of late, these have become a treasure trove. Many of the once-cultivated tea trees have returned to their more natural state, and – thusly – their flavor profile is affected…for the awesome!
Teas made from truly wild (or “ye sheng”) tea trees fetch a pretty high price. Wild Arbor teas go for much less, but – in some cases – taste just as good. Such tea trees often produce exquisite pu-erh-ready leaves. I tried a few in my time. I even notched off a few wild-crafted white and black teas. An oolong, however…
That was something new and weird.. And – as this blog indicates – I’m all about the new and weird. I even zapped Mr. Matt a message wondering how he came across this variant. He said:
“We offer a small variety of hand selected teas that I have chosen from dozens and dozens and dozens of tastings. And that is how I came across this Oriental Beauty. From a large group of oolongs that my distributor had to sample. I kept getting dark oolong after dark oolong that was just too intense and I know wouldn’t appeal broadly and then I cam across this and it was like a breath of fresh air. Sweet and crisp, a little bite, and the grilled peach notes were subtle to intense depending on what infusion I was on. I actually had to email the distributor to make sure this tea wasn’t artificially flavored.”
I dug into it about a couple of days later.
The leaves themselves were long, twisty, with the occasional tippy piece in the fray. There wasn’t much of an aroma to speak of, alas. So, I had no idea what I was getting into. For the first infusion, I did what the instructions told me to. I steeped the leaves in a gaiwan for twenty seconds. The second time around, I added…uh…I forget how many seconds. I think it was thirty. Third time: About forty-five. The results were strangely staggering.
First infusion (twenty seconds): The liquor was yellow-gold without much aroma. However, the taste was straight fruit – tart and sweet all at once. Very much like I expect from an Oriental Beauty – variant or no.
Second infusion (thirty seconds-ish?): Bolder notes of…bergamot? How odd. Definitely a citrus lean. The darker liquor was also a shocker – more mahogany than gold. There was also a mineral note to the end, not surprising from a Chinese oolong.
Third infusion (forty-five seconds): Still strong on the fruit notes, but with the added verve of a roasty appeal. Just a shade darker than the second infusion. Mineral and earth still showed up at about the mid-point yet were quickly pummeled by a feeling of “plum”.
I kept steeping this until I forgot how many infusions I was at. The fruity lean never let up until the very end (whenever that was). Any notes I would’ve had on the successive sips were lost amidst groans of tea drunk delight.