Friday, 26 August 2011

Competition Muzha TGY

Tea: A high-roast awarded Muzha tieguanyin from Elliot Knapp
Origin: Muzha, Taiwan

Many thanks to Elliot for generously providing me with this a sample of competition TGY from his stash purchased from Houde. Elliot talks about the tea on his own blog here.

This tea is a rather special one in several ways, the first and most obvious one being that it's competition grade and will be my first taste of awarded tea. Likewise, I have yet to find out the effects of the Taiwanese terroir on tieguanyin oolong, a variety best known for its roots in mainland China. Probably the most interesting and particular characteristic, however, is the level of roast used on these leaves during processing. To paraphrase Elliot, though not a traditionally processed TGY (traditional processing being very high levels of roasting and oxidation, more or less the opposite of most TGY sold in shops nowadays), the amount of roasting this tea was subjected to is unusually high as compared to the kinds of teas which are usually awarded in competitions (judges with modern tastes are developing more and more bias towards greener oolongs).

What with all the unfamiliar territory, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this tea bears many similarities to an aged oolong. Upon bringing the aroma cup up to my nose my first impression was of caramel sweetness, doubtless a product of the roasting applied to the leaves. This scent then evolved into the domain of fruits and flowers (with a clear note of lilacs in the second infusion; something I associate with the very few examples of green TGY I've actually liked), and finally something resembling roasted coffee. The caramel and roast remain fairly constant throughout the first four or five infusions, though the scents gradually open later and later before disappearing altogether.

The taste of this tea is tough to describe, I think because it didn't seem to have any particular flavours which stuck out and thus were easy to identify. All aspects of the flavour profile fitted into each other so seamlessly that I didn't really notice any particular notes of dark fruit or roast that would be expected of a traditionally processed TGY (though the processing on this one is not quite traditional, it's my closest frame of reference). The overwhelming impression is of the mouthfeel, which was impeccably smooth. No roughness, no astringency, no sourness. No wonder it stood up in competition.

In his review, Elliot remarks that the tea doesn't show as much endurance as some of the other oolongs he's partial to, and though I eventually got a good number of flavourful brews out of it, the character of the tea went through a turning point around the fifth infusion and changes dramatically. Whereas in earlier infusions, the brew was incredibly well balanced with no flavours out of place, a distinct vegetal note first emerged in the aftertaste and then grew to fill the whole cup. Brewed a bit cooler and with longer infusions, I found this cool, green, and slightly sour taste refreshing, though perhaps that's because I'm used to finding it in an aged oolong that's on its way out.

On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring this unfamiliar territory and learning a bit about what makes a competition tea, albeit one which is less than standard fare. Variety is the spice of life, as they say, and I hope to see more not-so-green teas recognised in the future.

Edit and Addendum on September 2, 2011: As it turns out, my assertion that the level of roast applied to this particular competition Muzha TGY was unusually high was a bit misguided. In fact, the amount of roasting on this tea is more or less typical for an awarded example, it's just that roasted teas in general are not awarded quite so often. For the record, the roasting was electric.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Redressing the Balance

The past few weeks for me have been quite hectic and, as far as tea goes, unusually characterised by a lack of meaningful experiences (hence a similar lack of posts). I've been seemingly chronically out of form and as a result the tea I've been drinking has generally not been as good (plagued by astringency, fragrances that never open up, and vegetal notes that used to and should be subtle sticking out like a sore thumb); a real shame as I've been sharing tea with friends old and new more than ever recently. Whereas a solitary, meditative half-hour (or hour when I could find one in which I'd be left undisturbed) by my kettle used to be a daily routine, since the end of July I've had only a handful of these sessions.

I've always found the tea that I brew for myself to be better than the tea prepared for a group tasting. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised or embarrassed by this; navigating the ever-changing subtleties of any social situation is a perennially downplayed and undervalued skill, add to that trying to feel your way through making a good cup of tea and all the variables associated with it without any instruments while always staying on top of the conversation, and you've got yourself a sizable challenge. The real world, as it turns out, is a rather messy place, and having been jolted out of the moment during private tea sessions by everything from the family dog barking at the mailman to an unexpected visit from my grandparents, achieving an atmosphere of quietude with the mixed gatherings I've been hosting in the past little while is a tall order.

Having tea alone has always been de-facto "me time", and not having it recently has left me feeling unbalanced. When I drink tea by myself I try not to do anything but enjoy the tea I'm drinking. I strive to appreciate the finer qualities of a tea as well as the ones I'm not so fond of. Rough or smooth, fragrant or muted, tea is what it is, and I try to do nothing more than experience the moment I'm in as fully as I can without passing judgement. Admittedly, I'm not great at it, but even in just making a stab at fully appreciating a tea, everything else gets put aside. The result is that for a little while I don't worry about school deadlines, work stress, social conflicts, or any of the other stresses of everyday life.

Out of all of this I take a lesson in the value of taking time for yourself, but especially in the value of spare and simple experiences in general, experiences which don't bombard you with so much information that has to be sorted and prioritized before the task of processing any part of what's been presented can be addressed, and instead feed only what can be processed in real time. In short, the value of being fully in the present moment. I've always enjoyed my solitary sessions, but thanks to the contrast a few weeks of switching them out for group tastings, I'll have a greater appreciation both for the tea brewed and the time to think.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Da Fo Longjing - Spring 2011 from World Of Tea

Tea: Da Fo Long Jing from World Of Tea
Origin: Zhejiang, China
Harvest: Spring 2011

First off, I should point out that long jing (and, in fact, greens in general) is a genre of tea I know little about. When it was sold to me a couple of months ago by a seriously jet lagged Jean (one of the small shop's co-owners) just back from this year's Asiatic trek to buy a fresh supply of teas, I was told that this particular long jing was pretty good, but not the best. Never having tried a long jing before, this suited me just fine. What with this genre's reputation for being tricky to brew gongfu-style, I thought I'd give it a few practice sessions before posting some tasting notes and in the meantime keep it as fresh as I could by not opening it too often and storing it in the fridge.

As I sit down to start the session that will form the basis of this post I crack open the airtight seal on the bag of leaves and inhale deeply as is my custom. Because the leaves still cold from their refrigerated storage I can't smell much at first, but as the leaves warm up a little and especially with the aid of the heat from my gaiwan a thick, oily, leguminous scent is released; it's the kind of thick scent that reaches into the back of your mouth and tickles your salivary glands. I don't often feel like drinking greens, but when I do and I open up this package the need becomes strong.

I prepare the first infusion and the first thing that's apparent is the colour of the liquor: light translucent green. A top quality long jing should be more or less clear; this one isn't, but then it isn't a top quality long jing. To my unpracticed eyes, however, it still looks as though it's hardly been steeped.

Rolling the liquor around in my mouth, the initial pan-fried oily smoothness rapidly gives way to a semi-floral, semi-leguminous sweet character. The aftertaste is cooling and fresh.

I push the second infusion a bit farther, and in tasting it the results are obvious. A new sharp bitter note immediately surfaces and subsides just as quickly into a pleasant coolness. This tea feels great on a warm summer day, the cooling feeling in the mouth leads up to cooling chaqi flowing throughout the body and I notice that the air pushed over me by the ceiling fan on my back porch now feels a perfectly pleasant temperature. At the same time the yang qi trapped within the arrested growth of the buds blossoms inside of me, leaving me feeling fresh and awake.

This tea doesn't have the same endurance as the oolongs with which I am more familiar, taking a dive after about the fourth infusion, but considering that this is a green tea and not an oolong, I'm quite happy with its stamina and move on to inspecting the spent leaves. They're a little bit broken and there's the odd leaf floating around on its own, but in general this tea is made up of downy sets of two leaves and bud. Every time I scoop the tea out of its bag, the scoop comes back covered in thousands of tiny trichomes. That, to me, is a good sign.

In the end, I am most taken with this tea's vivacity. From the moment I open the bag to the last cup washing down my throat its qi is apparent. Though it lacks the subtlety or gentle qualities of other teas in this regard, I always end my sessions with this tea feeling calm, energized, and ready to start my day.