Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Tag: Ali Shan

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.

Dark Tea from Taiwan

In late 2013, I thought I tried the rarest, weirdest, most unheard-of tea unicorn out there—a heicha (dark tea) from Taiwan.

dark tea

After three years of palatial growth, though, I’m now convinced that it was a Yunnan grown puerh that was merely stored in Taiwan. Still unique, but not quite the unicorn I thought it was. However, I learned of a group who might have created one.

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When You Wish Upon a Taiwanese White Tea

White Tea Week, Day 3: “When You Wish Upon a Taiwanese White Tea

Back in the Fall, I saw a retweet from Greg “Norbu Tea” Glancy that just about put me into cardiac arrest.

Japanese White Tea

Japanese. White Tea. Oh. My. G-word.

I saw mention of something like this existing on (of all places) Wikipedia a year prior. Not sure how such a mention got there. I think one of the Wiki article writers planted it there to screw with my mind. Yes, my mind – personally! The article has since been updated/edited, but at the time, I went on a research binge to find out more.

Queries turned up nothing…until Greg’s retweet. Unfortunately, the tweet from the company in question was dated for back in August. I checked the site, and the Japanese white tea was gone. It’d sold out in days after its mention.

In true tea-fanboy fashion, I repeatedly contacted the vendor, and gave my best beggar-eyes. No luck. They were fresh out. Not even test-samples. I made…uh…”ridiculous offers” to even smell a bag that had housed the white tea leaves.

crack

Nothin’.

After a day or two of pouting, I returned to business as usual. Another round of Japanese white wouldn’t be available until May of the next year. I’d just have to live with it. But how?

Oh yeah.

I thought back to the entirety of the year, and to the teas I’d tried. Then I thought back to Greg and Norbu Tea. There was a type of white tea from another Asian isle that was hard to find – two actually! – and I’d sipped ’em both.

Tsou-Vayiyana Nano Alishan High Mountain White Tea

This white tea from Ali Shan (my favorite Taiwanese mountain), was from the Qing Xing cultivar. I tried it completely by happenstance at World Tea Expo at the Tsou-Vayiyana booth Norbu Greg was working at. The taste blew my mind. Alas, I didn’t have more time to concentrate on it, seeing as I was already well beyond tea drunk at the time. However, I did give it a proper treatment at home a few months later.

The dry leaves looked like…well…dry leaves.

Ali Shan

Not much else to say there. The smell, though, was pure wilderness with a slight tickle of lemon on the back-whiff. This may sound sacrilegious, but it reminded me of an American-grown white tea I tried. Same lemon-leafy fragrance finish.

I used roughly 3 grams of leaves, placed ‘em in a 6oz. gaiwan, and used 175F water for the brewing. Then I waited for about three minutes. And…prayed I didn’t screw it up. I didn’t have a lot of this stuff to go around.

Ali Shan again

The liquor came out practically clear with a smidge of yellow. At first, I thought I’d brewed it wrong. Was the temperature wrong? Should I have gone higher? Was the infusion time too short? But then I smelled it. Lemons and flowers wafted from the cup. Score! On taste, it was exactly how I thought it would, based on the aroma. Lemons, citrus, flowers, and…autumn dominated the cup.

I tried a second infusion at five minutes, but that appeared to be too long – given its more leafy kick. That said, when done right, it hit all the right white tea marks. And then some.

There was something missing, though. Oh yes, I needed to compare it another white tea from the same country, but a different region/cultivar because…well…it’s me. I gave Greg my best beggar eyes, and got this.

Zhao Lu

For some reason, the bag made me feel alarmingly inadequate.

Norbu Tea Zhao Lu Bai Cha

This hefty bag o’ leaves stemmed from Nantou county, Taiwan, and were from the Jin Xuan cultivar. The tea plant type was usually used for oolongs and occasionally black teas – rarely white teas. It was also – blessed be – a white tea that Norbu Tea personally carried. I remember missing the last batch by a matter of days.

The leaves for this white tea looked like…well…leaves again. Forest green, plucked whole and dried leaves. No other nuance to the appearance besides that.

Zhao Lu, too

As for aroma, there was more to talk about there. I whiffed straight olive leaf, mint and sage. Very little processing, but a whole lot of natural awesomeness to potentially bestow. I was starting to see a pattern to these Taiwanese whites.

A small confession: Before this official trial run, I actually dipped into it several times. I mean, wouldn’t you if you had that much white tea to play with? I did it delicately, I boiled the heck out of it, I treated it like a green tea, I took it for long walks on the beach, we woke up in Vegas…then everything got blurry. Point being, this tea held up to some pretty unusual punishment on my part. But it was time to give it a more clinical whirl.

madman

The brewing instructions were thankfully lax. Norbu Tea recommended “grandpa style” – leaves put at the bottom of a cup, 160F water, and a ten-to-twelve-minute steep. I went with a 6oz. steeper cup instead, opting for something more – shall we say – proper. It’s nice to know there’s a white tea out there you can totally forget about while you’re taking a shower.

The liquor brewed pale yellow – as expected for any tea worth its weight in “white”. A fragrance of lemony herbs emanated from the cup with a subtle sweetness on the end. As for taste, I don’t know where to start. On the one hand, it was as herbaceous as a White Peony, on the other it was melons and muscatel – like a Darjeeling white. Somewhere in the middle, tropical fruit notes happened. Not sure how, but they were there.

As luck would have it, I received the perfect chalice in which to grandpa-style the heck out of this white tea. And it was in the shape of Chewbacca. The results were unsophisticated, tea-geeking bliss.

Chewie

Later that week, I finally went about trying the Ali Shan white and Zao Lu Bai Cha back-to-back. The results were…conflicting. No, not bad. Just…oh hell, it was like judging a mud-wrestling competition – no matter who lost, everybody wins.

The Ali Shan white had a darker liquor and a more robust flavor. Sweetness began on the initial sip before dissolving at the top note, to be replaced by a caramelized almond sensation – wrapped in lemons. The Zhao Lu Bai Cha went down a more subtle and floral road. It retained its sweetness throughout, sure, but remained – how should I put it? – fluttery. Which one was a favorite?

Hard to say.

back-to-back

If you ‘re no stranger to this blog, you know what I did next. I mixed them and blended both of the leaves for a second brew. Just for s**ts and giggles. Fusing both liquors turned up a magical cup of melon-on-lemon action. Brewing the blend by the pint just turned up straight lemons! As opposed to…uh…bi-curious lemons? Where was I going with this?

Oh yeah, I love both of these teas. I love them both together. Taiwanese white tea should be more of a thing than it currently is. Formosa oolongs are great for every other time, but Formosa whites keep me from taking a nap in the late afternoon. And taste damn good, to boot.

With goodness like this, I can cope with waiting another year for a Japanese white tea. For someone so full of lament, I have it pretty good. Yes, I’m bragging – Taiwan pint held high – in ode to granted wishes.

I apologize for nothing

I Can’t Believe It’s Almost Not Oolong

Norbu Tea has been one of my go-to hookups for weird teas for – well – almost as long as I’ve sipped. Greg Glancy seems to have a palate similar to mine, or at the very least an unrelenting geek-ish lean for teas with stories behind them. I finally had the pleasure to meet the man behind Norbu at World Tea Expo in June. Finding his booth was like hunting down a Wonderland rabbit-hole, but once I did I was glad for it.

Greg in garb.

Greg in garb.

One of the strange, new items I picked up from the Tsou-Vayiyana booth he was co-hosting was something dubbed, “Ali Shan Hong Cha”. It already had my attention for having my favorite Taiwanese tea mountain – Ali Shan – in the title. The leaves were ball-fisted like an oolong but darker in appearance. The aroma it gave off reminded me of unsweetened chocolate and oak barrels.

It was one of the first teas I tore into when I returned home.

Without exaggeration, it was unlike any black tea I’d ever tried. When I brewed it Western-style, the first characteristics that emerged were malt and (the aforementioned) unsweetened chocolate. With further infusions, the sweetness kept creeping up until it was indistinguishable from a black tea from that region. A bit of oolong minerality showed up by the third steep. Yes, this lasted three strong, Western-style steeps.

I also found that the longer I steeped it for, the sweeter it grew. Even more so than a Ruby 18. There were quite a few times when I infused this sucker before taking a shower, came out fifteen minutes later, headed off to work, and it was still good. Nary a tannic overtone.

Western-style

Something was amiss about this so-called “Hong Cha”.

Greg informed me via Twitter that he and the growers had agreed to redub the tea “Ali Shan Red Oolong”, and asked for my thoughts on it. I put my teasnob cap on (more of a metaphoric fez, really), and asked if it was fully oxidized…or only mostly oxidized.

Max

He informed me that it was the latter – 90% oxidized, just shy of being a “Hong Cha” of its prior title. This prompted me to experiment with it some more. I had yet to wrongfu the heck out of it.

One particularly low-key and experimental day, I decided to do it “gongfu-ish”-style to see what would happen. I dusted off my ol’ gaiwan, took about a teaspoon of the ball-fisted leaves, boiled some water (then let it sit for a minute), and played with multiple infusions.

IMAG1130

Done this way, the oolong-ish characteristics really showed through. Not in a typical Ali Shan-ish sorta way, though. Far from it. A first infusion gave a medium-to-full-bodied brew like a brandy oolong, while further infusions darkened, felt roastier on the mouthfeel, and developed an alternating palate of wood, leather and…well…more dark chocolate.

If I were a choosing man, though, I would say I preferred the Western approach. It was just dark enough to handle the longer steep times, and more of the flavor was imparted per cup. That…and it handled lazy brewing perfectly.

My kinda tea.

Lazy Teapot

Teapot Image Mooched from Yanko Design

Throwing in the Towel after a Tea Fight

A couple of weeks back there, I attended a different sort of tea meet-up. The Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance and The Jasmine Pearl Tea Merchants joined forces for a movie night. The movie in question? Tea Fight (or “Dou Cha”) – a Taiwanese/Japanese co-production centering almost entirely around tea, and the people who drank it. One of the Jasmine Pearlites described it as “tea porn”.

Sold.

The Jasmine Pearl were serving up hojicha and Mayucha sencha, while PDX Tea Dave brandished some Taiwanese oolongs. Fitting given the origin(s) of the movie. I was looking forward to it on a scholastic level; I’d never seen a movie that focused completely on tea. Well, except for a rather cool, teacentric episode of Sherlock. The writer part of me wanted to see how it was done so I could compare it to my own tea-fiction-y efforts. Another thought that ran through my head: When/where did Portland get so many hot tea chicks?! (It was ruining my concentration.)

Ahem…

The movie opened with an anime sequence – yes, an anime sequence! – explaining the backdrop. In the distant past, there were two rival tea clans – the Female Golden Tea Clan and the Male Golden Tea Clan. The Female clan brewed tea that instilled a sense of calm and peace, whereas the Male clan’s brew instilled passion and aggression. Due to a misunderstanding involving a Japanese tea merchant (surnamed Yagi), the Male Golden Tea Clan exterminated the Female.

In the ensuing kerfuffle, a little boy combined both the Male and Female liquors, drank them, and turned into a dragon. Realizing the wrong they’d done, the Male Golden Tea Clan scoured the remains of the Female clan’s village for any surviving tea bushes. There were none – save one. A single plant rescued by the Japanese merchant, Yagi.

And that’s just the first ten minutes of the movie.

The rest of it deals with the descendants of the two tea clans and the father/daughter heirs to the Yagi family. I won’t give anymore away than to say that the movie plays out like Karate Kid meets Romeo & Juliet by way of Sideways. The story is told in broad strokes – as it should be – and particular emphasis is placed on tea brewing. Albeit exaggerated.

From a tea geek’s perspective, I found some of the brewing techniques fascinating. The Male Golden Tea Clan pressed their tea into beengcha cakes, scraped leaves off, stone-ground them to a fine powder, and then whisked. The Female Golden Tea Clan…uh…did tea-fu. (No, seriously, it looked like they splashed water in the air, and went all Crouching Tiger with it. Quit epic.)

The Yagi family stone-ground their own matcha!!! I want my own stone-grinder! If I had one, I could finally realize my dream of making green rooibos matcha. And, wow, I’m getting way off topic.

In short, the movie was cheesy in all the right ways. It was the first media-ish piece I’d seen that captured the true grand scale that tea’s multi-millennial history encompasses. And it took me over a week to watch it. I’ll explain…

I actually had to leave the PDX Tea/Jasmine Pearl event early for…beer. Yes, beer subverted tea. A friend of mine made a homebrewed oatmeal IPA and was unveiling it for swigging. Couldn’t be passed up. However, I was able to at least take in over half of Tea Fight before leaving.

And I was humbled.

For the better part of November – as some of you know – I’d undertaken a NaNoWriMo project. For those not familiar, that’s where a writer tries to concoct 50K-word novel in a month. That’s right, a month. My initial goal was to cheat and repurpose old blogs into a book; I called it “CheatoWriMo”. Unfortunately, nine days into the project, I had an inconvenient epiphany – dictating that I start from scratch. The new idea was pure tea porn.

At first, I was engaged in the project, but the narrative was heading in a direction that I didn’t quite like. The entire affair was starting to make me feel uncomfortable, and I wasn’t quite sure why. Maybe it was the fact that it hit too close to home, or maybe it was just bad writing. I dunno. Then I saw Tea Fight…and I was ready to throw in the towel.

While it wasn’t a perfect movie by any stretch, it did what I was trying to do and did it better. What I had put to paper so far didn’t convey what I wanted it to. And Tea Fight did. Toward the tail end of the week, I announced that I was scrapping my little tea tale. I couldn’t even stand to look at the manuscript.

In the interim, fellow Tea Trader and NaNoWriMo participant – Courtney the Purrfect Cup – had reached the 50K mark. I was proud of her. She  and another compatriot – authoress Katrina Avila Munichiello – plus others in the NaNo group  urged me not abandon the project, but instead give it room to breathe. An answer would come, they stressed.

Yesterday, I finally finished watching Tea Fight, and came to a realization. I totally missed the point of the movie. Yes, there actually was a message it was trying to convey, and it was oddly relevant to my mid-writer’s crisis. One of the deus ex machina characters in the movie was the ancient tea scholar, Lu Yu. He appeared occasionally to motivate the characters forward. I won’t give away the movie’s ending, but the overall moral was (paraphrased slightly): “Your true fight is the one with yourself. Tea is innocent.”

All this time, the story made me uncomfortable because I was drawing upon more of myself than from stories prior. Actual life experiences were being used as a basis for the plot. I was blaming the material, but – in reality – it was me. The story wasn’t crap; I was crap for trying to quit. Only time would tell if it was a train wreck.

At the time of this writing, I was undertaking another challenge. The Canton Tea Co.’s Tea Club had sent me some Ali Shan and Li Shan (i.e. Taiwanese oolongs), and they were asking participants to choose a victor. This proved a difficult comparison, but in the end, Ali Shan won me over by a hair. However, the best results came from mixing the two. Unity superseded the tea fight. Right now, I’m swigging the mixture by the pot…

And listening to M.C. Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit”.

To read what I have so far on said “tea porn”, go HERE.

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