Sunday, 18 March 2012

Ali Shan Oolong - Spring 2011 from Teamasters

Tea: Another gaoshancha from Stéphane, and again a generously included sample with my last order. Stéphane's notes on this luanze oolong can be found here.
Origin: 1450m up Ali Shan in Taiwan
Harvest: April 23, 2011

What this spring will surely lack in maple syrup production (unseasonably warm temperatures are causing the trees to bud early, at which point the sap can no longer be harvested to be boiled down into syrup) is already being made up for in increased opportunities to drink cooling teas outdoors. Today the mercury soared into the twenties (in degrees Celsius, of course), and so after regaining my composure I ventured out onto my back deck to taste a new tea.

Like all my teas with a low level of oxidation and roasting that I want to keep tasting fresh, I've been storing this sample in a small section of my fridge devoted to such teas. Thanks to the low temperatures, the teas coming out of there generally don't have much aroma until they warm up, generally quite rapidly inside a preheated gaiwan. Even when chilled, this tea lets off a concentrated oily perfume indicating that almost a year after harvesting the leaves are still holding onto their freshness. Warmed up, these same characteristics intensify along with a pronounced sweetness that now joins the ranks of the other aromas; when mixed under the lid of the gaiwan the collective impression is of a creamsicle!

Over the course of the first infusion the tightly rolled leaves hardly open, though they do swell up a little as the water begins to work its way in. The bright green liquor from my gaiwan looks even more appetizing in the light blue caress of my super thin porcelain cups, and tastes as good as it looks. From the first sip a wave of cooling energy spreads through my chest and arms, making my fingers and the tip of my nose tingle pleasantly. Satisfying but at the same time light and sweet, drinking this tea is reminiscent of the best parts of eating fresh corn on the cob. The liquid's texture is incredibly smooth as it slides down my throat leaving behind an evolving aftertaste, eventually resolving into a sweet minty taste which cools the mouth with every inhalation.

The leaves open much more rapidly over the course of the second steeping, releasing finer aromas and overall increasing the concentration of the liquor. I feel as though I'm drinking some kind of peculiar and delicious potion as watered down honey turns to sweet menthol on the tongue and hints of the lightest of spring flowers in the nose. The first cup gone, I inhale deeply the fine floral sweetness found at the bottom of my apparently empty cup. The lasting sweetness is incredibly clean and smooth, metallic springs to mind, if that descriptor can be used flatteringly. Between infusions I reheated the water to see how this tea would respond when pushed, and a shift towards complexity in the aftertaste as well as a smidgen of chalkiness in the mouthfeel were the only changes. As I steep and re-steep this tea, some of the finer aromas give way to mellower counterparts, but the clean texture, mint aftertaste, and prominent sweetness remain to refresh the drinker.

This tea gives me the impression of what it might be like to skim the absolute top notes off lower altitude oolongs and drink them separately. Unsurprising and fitting, I suppose, this being a high-altitude oolong. Clearly I need to drink more goashancha (then again, with such a wonderful genre, how could this not be the case?)! However, the best and most central part of this tea must surely be that sweet minty freshness lasting a year since harvest, and seemingly just as long in the mouth; that little green gem at the bottom of every cup.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Semi-Wild Baozhong: One Year Later

 ...sort of. I first reviewed this tea back in June of 2011, little more than a month after it had been harvested in Taiwan. Now, just over ten months from the baozhong's late-April harvest, I'm drinking part of a portion I set aside for 'aging'. Not having the patience for serious aging, I elected to leave a few grams of the tea in the bottom of the plastic sack it arrived in for a few months as more of an extended airing out to see what would happen. I've been drinking a little bit of it every couple of months to check up on it, and at this most recent trial I feel the changes are significant enough to be of interest.

Initially, this tea was full of strong notes of raw vegetables, as well as having a long lasting fresh aftertaste and a few rough edges that needed managing. All of those traits still exist, but have undergone great changes in proportion and character. Chiefly, while this tea still tastes and feels very fresh, it has lost most of its raw character. In days not so long gone by the liquor bore a similarity to fresh green beans in its raw and slightly biting edge of freshness, but now that bite has been tamed, only appearing briefly in the first gaiwan infusion. More akin to lightly steamed beans, the tea has become more savoury and rounder. I tasted this tea when it was fresh and then again a couple of months ago with a friend who tends not to enjoy overly vegetal teas such as this one. Having mellowed out significantly by then, my friend was surprised to find out that the tea he was enjoying that day was the same one he hadn't much liked a few months prior.

The strength of aromas in this tea has waned over the year, but the pleasant sweetness and lightest of floral notes are still to be found in the bottom of the cup, largely bereft of the vegetal notes that accompanied them in days of yore. The fading of the rawness from when this tea was fresh has allowed other elements to come to the forefront, namely the mouthfeel and the aftertaste. If this tea was initially silky smooth, then now it's more like cashmere. The liquor is still very light and fresh, but has become full to the brim of umami. (Umami is a tricky thing to describe if you don't already know what it is, and apparently as much as a quarter of the population can't taste it, but 'brothiness' seems as good a descriptor as any.) Smooth and dry, but full of substance, this tea's mellow and satisfying fresh character makes it great for drinking outside in today's record-breaking high temperatures (12C; it's early March in Canada, I'll take what I can get).

Only a few months of airing out have made this tea much more manageable, and in a pot dedicated to all things green and fresh I really don't have to pay much attention to it so long as I stay mindful of water temperature. What seasoning this pot has brings out the aftertaste in the tea, leaving sunflower seeds and a cool, minty freshness on my breath long after I've stopped drinking.