Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Tag: Norbu Tea (Page 1 of 2)

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 Déjà Vu

NaNoTeaMo, Day 5: “Dark Tea Déjà Vu”

It all started with a tweet . . . when I was drunk.

teabeer drunk

Not tea drunk, actual drunk.

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The White Pu-Erh for the Right Time.

At the end of June, Portland, Ore. was dealt one of its most severe heatwaves in recent memory. And I got the flu during it. A mere week ago, we were dealt another STRONGER heatwave . . . and I got the flu again. That’s eerily coincidental.

Luckily, I caught this one in time and doused myself with various forms of ‘Quil on the market. That and I offset the medicine head with copious amounts of apple cider vinegar and lemon juice. But of course, there was also the issue of what tea to drink.

For most normal people that isn’t an issue, but tea still had to play an integral part somewhere. When knee-deep in flu-plague the recommended real tea is white tea. Straight-up young tea leaves and buds that are withered, dried and nothing else. They supposedly have antiviral properties, but – like the downy furs on the leaf buds – the science is a bit fuzzy on that claim.

The problem with most white teas, though, is that they aren’t strong enough. Okay, not entirely true. White tea leaves actually possess more caffeine than any other type because of their minimal processing. However, for most types to taste any good, they have to be brewed as light as possible. Boiled to death, yes, one would get the necessary daily-start caffeine wallop, but the brew itself would taste like a grassy turd. There are exceptions to this, but they’re hit or miss.

My phlegmatic redemption lay in the form of two freakish teas from Norbu Tea I had in my repertoire that – as per usual – I had yet to get around to writing about. There were pu-erh teas out there that were made from young tea leaves and buds.

White pu-erhs

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Old and Clean – A Pu-Erh Perplexion

Okay, learning time.

Everyone knows about black tea, green tea, oolong, and so on . . . but I’m sure there are some newbies passing by this article that don’t know what pu-erh is. Well, I’ll tell you, but I’ll keep it brief. In short, it’s heicha (dark tea). Or rather, tea that’s meant to be aged. The leaves are processed in such a way that they’re only “mostly dead”.

miraclemax

Meaning, they still go through an enzymatic change (i.e. fermentation) well after processing and pressing. Pu-erh, specifically refers to aged teas from Yunnan province, China. Like champagne, pu-erh is not pu-erh if it doesn’t hail from this province. All pu-erhs are dark teas, but not all dark teas are pu-erh. Got that? No?

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The Ballad of Wild Bourbon Black

After covering more barrel-aged teas than I ever thought possible, it was only a matter of time before an idea struck me. It wasn’t actually my idea, though. The lead blender at Smith Teamaker suggested several years ago, “Why don’t you try it yourself? Get a barrel and just roll with it.” Not his exact words, but the idea stuck.

When visiting a friend up in Seattle, I brought up this notion. I also lamented that acquiring a large bourbon barrel – and finding someplace to put it – was a near impossibility. My friend said, “Well, they do make micro-barrels.” The idea blossomed into a kernel.

A few years later, I was perusing the Bootleg Botanicals Facebook page. They were starting up a new line of alcohol infusion kits. The new line included 3-liter micro-barrels for aging. In the comments section, I inquired about procuring a used one for experimental purposes – at whatever fee. Ryan Belshee – the co-owner – gave me the titular reply of, “Lemme see what I can do.”

Less than a week later, he came back to me with confirmation that he could acquire a used 1-liter barrel. It had been used for aging bourbon. The next obstacle was finding the right tea to put in it.

I mentioned my percolating idea to Norbu Tea’s Greg Glancy. The notion of a bourbon barrel-aged anything intrigued him. He offered up some of his back-stock for the experiment. Plenty of his wares sounded enticing, but in the end, I chose his 2012 harvest Ye Sheng Hong Cha as my guinea pig.

Upon receiving the tea, I immediately dug in to confirm whether or not it would complement a bourbon note. The resulting brew was wood-sweet (like a Keemun), Earthy (like a sheng pu-erh) and malty (like a second flush Assam). Unlike any other Yunnan Dian Hong I’d tried. Might’ve been due to it’s uh…wild-ness…

Or something.

Ryan Belshee contacted me a week or so later informing me of the micro-barrel’s arrival. We arranged a day to play around with it. The micro-barrel was – for lack of a better word – adorable.

Far smaller than I thought it would be. We determined that roughly 200 grams of tea leaves would fit inside. The real challenge was how. The micro-barrel’s original bunghole (yes, that’s what it’s called) was extremely small. We needed an opening that was roughly eleven-or-so inches in diameter.

Luckily, Ryan had a drill on site with that size of bit. After making a large enough opening, we journeyed to a brewery supply store and picked up a plug for the bunghole. (*snicker*) Then, it was time.

The 200g pile o’ leaves were poured into the barrel and duly plugged.

I guesstimated that the aging process would only take about two weeks. Most companies I’d encountered usually barrel-aged their teas for a month and a half. Given the smaller size of this barrel, I figured it would be done aging in half that time.

Roughly two days went by when Ryan imparted some advice. “Don’t you think you should tap the barrel to see how the tea is doing?”

“Nah,” I replied, “should be fine.”

“Just humor me.”

“Okay(?).”

The next morning, I did so. Due to some of the residual moister in the barrel, the dry leaves had become more pliable. This worried me a little. Following that, I brewed ‘em up for a taste-test.

Whoah, I thought. In only two days, the flavor had changed. The tea was noticeably oaky and had taken on a bit of the liquor sweetness. Not peaty, just sweet.

I got back in touch with Ryan and said, “Change of plans. We’re tapping this in a week; not two.” The moisture and rapid flavor change worried me.

Two days later, I tapped the barrel again. This time, I brewed the contents and the untampered tea leaves side-by-side. Just to see how much it was changing.

The barrel-aged version differed from the original in its…almost tiramisu-ish quality. Both retained the same sweetness and woody taste, but the barreled rendition had more of it. It was noticeably more molasses-like.

That Sunday, I did the final tapping with the Bootleg Botanicals team. We laid out a tray, covered it in tinfoil, and spread the barrel-aged leaves on it.

Melanie Belshee (Ryan’s wife) pre-heated their stove at the lowest setting, and then turned it off. The tray of leaves was placed inside to quicken the drying process. Whatever residual moisture remained would vanish quickly with very little flavor loss, or so I hoped.

Once finished we did a side-by-side cupping of the original Ye Sheng Hong Cha, and it’s “Wild Bourbon Black, Mark-1” sibling.

While all the taster notes I mentioned earlier were there, all three of us agreed that there wasn’t enough of a liquor note to justify the laborious process. The flavor had changed considerably. It was sweeter, smoothed-out, and more layered. But nothing about it screamed “bourbon”, save for the smell of the dry leaves.

It was time for Mark-II.

For a second attempt, we decided to take another 200 grams of leaves…and spritz them with actual bourbon, prior to placing it in the barrel.

The hope was that it would dry out the leaves and prevent any moisture from collecting. Not that there was much moisture left in the barrel, anyway. I taste-tested it a couple of days after, and the results were…”off”.

I couldn’t explain why, but the flavor was muddled – schizophrenic, even. Like it couldn’t tell if it was tea or liquor anymore.

A few days later, I gave it another go. Things had considerably improved. It had a lot in common with the Mark-I, but the flavor was considerably dryer – more astringent and lingering. Similar to a dry Riesling, if I wanted to reach for a comparison.

As of…well…today, Wild Yunnan Black, Mark-II is still in the barrel. I haven’t dared do a final tapping, seeing what it’ll do as time passes. Thus far, the flavor hasn’t changed much. It’s still wood-sweet, oaky, dry…and only subtly liquor-like.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I may have jumped the gun with Mark-I. Perhaps, the ideal process was what I originally had in mind – a two-week aging cycle with a partially-moist barrel, followed by a good drying. These two experiments weren’t failures by any stretch, but not complete successes, either.

Oh well, if at first you don’t succeed…

Drink and drink again.

The Dog Days of Summer, Sipping Darjeeling

Over the course of the Summer, I was occasionally called upon by my brother and his wife to watch this li’l guy.

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Why does he have a cone on? I’ll get to that…

Bro and sis-in-law were called away this time to take on the wilds of Canada with her family. I housesat and dog-sat in the interim. The first couple of days saw the dog and I getting used to each other, as is often the case. The galoot would test the boundaries (and my patience), and I would develop a routine around his quixotic, Bernardian behavior.

The wrinkle this time around was his butt. No really.

Before the bro-fam left for Canada, a flea had bitten him, and said hindquarters itched profusely. He would do what any dog did – bite the ever-loving hell out of it. Unfortunately, being a dog, he didn’t know when to stop. Hence…cone.

For the house/dog-sitting week, I only brought a few teas to subsist on. One of these was Norbu Tea’s Thurbo Oriental Moon, First Flush, 2014. I had plenty of it, and I figured it would do the trick. If it didn’t, I brought back-ups.

Short version: I never had to rely on the back-ups.

The leaves were like that of first flushes I’d seen before, but what surprised me more was how tippy the leafy bouquet was.

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Seriously, like, every other piece was a tip varying amounts of downy fuzz present. Usually, such a thing is only present on Darjeeling oolongs, but I wasn’t complaining. The dry aroma was nutty, slightly citrusy, and – of course – herbaceous by any good first flush standards.

Brewing was easy enough. 1 teaspoon, 6oz. steeper cup, hot water, three-minute steep…and done. Yet I still observed a bit of care when brewing – making sure I didn’t over-brew. Some Darjeelings didn’t take to that well.

The liquor brewed to a green tea-ish pale gold with an aroma of grapes and nuts.

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I swear, Darjeelings this year have had the grapiest aromas compared to prior ones. Not muscatel wine grapes, just straight grapes. This was one of the sweeter ones on fragrance alone. Taste-wise, there was a creamy introduction, followed by something akin to…blueberries(???)…and a finish akin to a dry Riesling. Of all the first flushes I’ve tried thus far this year, I think this was the best.

No wonder I lived on it.

Over the course of the week, I brewed it hot in the mornings before work and got the dog fed. After work, I brewed the same leaves iced prior to a dog walk.

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It held up just as sweetly in a pint glass on the rocks.

The owners came home to a happy dog-sitter and a slightly spoiled brat of a Saint Bernard.

I’m not sure why I always turn to Darjeeling every time I watch that dog. Heck, this is the second (or third?) blog I’ve written on the subject. But, hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Or just put a cone on it.

Three Words: Japanese. White. Tea.

This all started a year ago, and it’s all Greg’s fault.

By “a year ago”, I literally mean a year ago! Like, last August. And by “Greg”, I mean the dude behind Norbu Tea. One fateful day, in August of 2013, I noticed he had retweeted something interesting.

Alas, I’d seen the update too late. They’d sold out of that batch of Japanese white tea in less than two months. I even wrote about said lament in an article on Taiwanese white tea. However, they did encourage me to check back in a year – when the new harvest came in.

And wait, I did. Like some kind of deranged tea stalker.

Over the course of the year, I checked the site at least once a week. Hitting refresh a few times before moving on. That fierce determination lulled a bit in the spring months, but this last July…all that stalking paid off. A new batch had come in! Same location, same growing months, different cultivar.

For those not in the tea “know”, the Japanese don’t usually deviate from producing green tea. In recent years, that’s been a-changin’ – what with increased production in Japanese black tea, oolong, and in some cases, heicha. All that said, white tea was still undiscovered territory.

The farmer that devised this stuff hails from Gokase Town, Nishiusuki District, Miyazaki Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan. Say that five times fast. The region has had a healthy history of tea experimentation, particularly in oolong production. White tea, though, was a new venture. The farmer(s?) in question had only been at this style for two or three years.

The cultivar utilized for this batch was 100% Kanayamidori. From what I could find, it was registered in 1970 (source: My Japanese Green Tea), and is best known for producing very fragrant leaves. Ideal picking occurring in early-to-mid-May. The product I chose to buy was plucked around May 9th, and – according to Yuuki-Cha – was notably sweeter than later plucks. They had me at “sweet”.

Unlike Chinese white teas, these leaves were mostly un-tampered with. Plucked, withered and dried; no rolling that I could see, or at least not much. That and none of the leaves were “downy furs” young. They were youthful, yes, but more like toddlers in the leafy scheme of things. In appearance, they reminded me of Taiwanese white teas I’d tried. If I were a “Lay” tea person, I’d think these looked like lawn shavings. The aroma, though, would’ve dispelled that . It was note-for-note like Arya Pearl – a Darjeeling white of similar aesthetics – spicy on the nose with a grassy bend.

There weren’t any brewing instructions to go by on the Yuuki-Cha page, so I had to work with prior white tea knowledge on this. I went with roughly 170F-ish water and a three minute steep – roughly 1 tsp. of leaves in a 6oz. steeper cup. It worked for everything on the light end of the tea spectrum.

The liquor brewed a bold (if pale) yellow with an aroma of straight…well…sweetness. Not like a flavored tea, more like a fruit of some sort, but I’d be hard-pressed to narrow it down. It was just fruit-sweet on the nose. Same with the taste; first sip and I was whistling. This was perhaps the sweetest white tea I’ve come across since an Ali Shan Taiwanese white, or a Makaibari Silver Tips. Nothing about this outright screamed, “Nippon!”, save for a smidge of nuttiness on the aftertaste.

In baser terms, it was like a Taiwanese white tea seduced a Darjeeling white in a pachinko parlor, skipped town, and was greeted a year later with a bouncing baby Kanayamidori at its doorstep.

Worth the year-long wait? I’d say, “Mostly yes.”

White Buds Pu-erh

White Tea Week, Day 7: “White Buds Pu-Erh”

Okay, technically, this is cheating. It’s not really a white tea. Hear me out.

Just yesterday, I covered aged white tea. The process for that is relatively simple. Find a cool, dry place to store it, keep it covered airtight…and forget about it for five years. Awesomeness can – and may – ensue. If pressed into a beengcha (tea cake), even better. Gives one something to work for. What I haven’t covered, though, is the difference between aged white tea and pu-erh made from white tea leaves.

Sheng (or raw) pu-erhs are made from tea leaves that have been wok (or pan) fired then sun-dried. After that, they’re either compressed into cakes or other shapes, and ferment naturally on their own. The other type of pu-erh – shou (or cooked) – goes through a more…impatient process. Machine-tumbling and wet-piling. Think of those like composting mulch, then you’ll get the idea.

wet-piling

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Cooked pu-erhs do take on some interesting characteristics once given a chance to age naturally after the initial compostumble-stuff. The gold medal, though, goes to the shengs. They’re my chosen form of pu-erh-ing. And we won’t even go into the larger family of heicha (dark tea), of which pu-erh is a part. Too much ground to cover.

(Sidenote: Yes, I’m skating over a lot of pu-erh knowledge for the sake of witticism. I’m no expert on the subject. Just a taster.)

The first “white tea” pu-erh I ever tried was almost entirely by accident. A local tearoom was carrying something they dubbed “Silver Needle” pu-erh. Back then, my weird tea radar was in its infancy. While I was eager to try it, I didn’t just stop my life in order to hunt it down. I waited a good week, at least.

It was exquisite. And since then, I had three or four others that met similar approval. Most of these were five-year or ten-year teas. What I was really curious about was how a white bud pu-erh held up somewhere closer to infancy. By a twist of fate, a White Buds Sheng Pu-erh (2011) was hidden among the Taiwanese whites I received from Norbu Tea.

white buds

Image mooched from Norbu Tea

The leaves were definitely white buds to the core. All light green needles, young forest green leaves leaves, and fuzzy excellence with a smell that could best be described as…uh…sheng-y. There were more needles than straight-up leaves, though, which was a plus. Subtler than most other raw pu-erhs, I really couldn’t make out much other than grass, wilderness, wood, and a smidge of something almost stonefruity. It reminded me of straight-up White Peony that’d been in storage for a couple of years.

chunk

For brewing, I boiled water and approached it like any other sheng pu-erh. Gongfool-style, all the way. I took a hefty enough chunk to fill a teaspoon, and placed it in a 6oz. gaiwan. Three successive infusions were a good enough judge of character, each one at about thirty-to-forty seconds.

Over the course of three infusions, the needled leaves had broken apart and infused to varying degrees of yellow. The first infusion was obviously the lightest, but the other two were around the same shade of pale gold. The real difference between the three lay in the flavor.

Each one had the citrus and grass lean in common. But the further down the white rabbit hole I went, the bolder the profile became. Lemons, forest, and hay were the dominant nuanced notes on display. Smoke was a trait that showed up in the underpinning. Not that I minded.

infusions

Even after three years of aging, the white tea profile still dominated the flavorscape of this still-young pu-erh. Some wine notes were emerging, but only in the aftertaste. Given another three years of resting on its pressed-leaf laurels, I’m sure more fermented characteristics would emerge. As for now, it was like a white tea that could take a pu-erh punishment. I’ll drink to that.

*****

And that, folks, is the end of White Tea Week. What did I learn? Well, nothing I didn’t already know. White tea is awesome. It got me started on the road to orthodox tea appreciation, and it still holds the crown.

What did I benefit from seven days’ worth of white tea blogging? My teeth have never been whiter. I was fighting a cold/flu-plague, but it seems to have retreated thanks to all the antiviral badassery from the teas. And lastly, my outlook has never been whiter. Er, I mean brighter!

In the end, it’s nice to know what’s out there. I’m reassured that so many countries are playing with the tea type.  After all, I’m only getting started.

Image copyright Oleg Kozlov – iStockphoto.com

Image copyright Oleg Kozlov – iStockphoto.com

Smoked Tea with Friends

Days like this are frustrating. One casually glances around at different tea vendors, and then…it happens. There is a particular tea that catches the eye and doesn’t let the gaze turn away.

That was my reaction to Norbu Tea’s Jin Xuan Xiao Zhong. (Try saying that name three times fast.) The extensive bio said everything I wanted in a tea. From Taiwan? Check. Jin Xuan cultivar? Check. Smoked over sugarcane? Wait…what?!

Yes, this was a sugarcane-smoked black tea from Taiwan, utilizing the Jin Xuan cultivar of tea plant. Said cultivated variety is usually used for oolongs of the same name, particularly Taiwan’s answer to Quanzhou Milk Oolong. I hadn’t had a black tea made from the cultivar, let alone a smoked black from it. My tiny brain knew about pinewood smoked black teas (the typical Lapsang Souchongs), oak-smoked oolongs, and cinnamon-smoked teas, but this was new and unique. And as all three of you readers know, I like “new and unique”. It’s kinda my thing.

I picked some up a week later. Got to brewing that night. This was one subtle and resilient S.O.B of a tea. Like a ninja mime that was accidentally lit on fire. It was smoky yet sweet, floral yet malty – all juxtaposition, but with a bit of a bite. That and it lasted three solid Western infusions.

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Norbu’s Greg Glancy, however, passed on an interesting tip: I should try it gongfu-style and compare. That seemed like a worthy enough approach, but then an odd thought hit me. I didn’t want to do this alone. This required spectators and additional commentary.

I put out an invite to friend’s PDX Tea’s David and Blackstone Hermitage’s Danica. The former was always worthwhile company for trying weird teas, the latter was a staunch Lapsang Souchong fan. Perfect chorus for a cupping session.

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The first phase of the “plan” was to pick up David before said session. Danica agreed to host us at The Blackstone Hermitage, David’s duty was brewing equipment, and I…well…brought the tea. I arrived early on David’s side of town and had roughly an hour to kill.

While wandering the block, I spotted a brewery accidentally. Yes, I had not intended on that. Stop looking at me like that! To make time go by faster, I tried a few of Base Camp Brewing’s samplers. One of which was a stout…with a marshmallow in it. No wonder they dubbed it “S’more”. And the odd combination worked entirely too well.

Basecamp Marshmallow

That successfully annihilated the time, and I headed back over to David’s block. First, I went back to my car to check on the teas, update various social networks about the weird stout I just had, and so on. Then I closed the door…with my keys in the car.

I walked over to David’s and explained the situation. We went to my car, and I proceeded to call locksmiths and different outlets provided by my insurance company. All the while, two homeless people kept commenting about how much they wanted my shoes.

Note to homeless people: Don’t do that. It’s creepy.

At one point, David and I even tried to beg a AAA office to throw me a bone. They weren’t having any of it, though. Apparently, we tea men look threatening, or something.

Eventually, I got a hold of my insurance’s roadside assistance hotline. (Dunno why it took me so long.) And we headed off to the Blackstone Hermitage.

Danica greeted us when we arrived, supplied me with a parking pass, and we headed in. First thing I marveled at was how clean her place was. It made me wonder why I couldn’t keep a room so in order for more than a day. I have a problem, I guess. But back to tea…

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I don’t remember exactly how many infusions we did, but the Jin Xuan Xiao Zhong lasted us a good two hours. Dave kept the hot water coming, and the leaves held up each and every time. Smoky sweetness didn’t let up until the last three infusions or so, remaining steady throughout. While I preferred doing it the Western way (for strength’s sake), this was a close second, if only for resilience alone.

In addition to the Jin Xuan Xiao Xhong, I also brought two aged oolongs that Norbu Tea had provided me. One was a 1983 Tie Guan Yin Greg used to carry, the other – one we went with – was a Baozhong of indeterminate age. Greg even said as much on the bag:

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(Personal stash – not a website tea.)

Late-70s (?) – Early 90s (No way to tell) Baozhong

They told me 1970s, and an expert in Taipei said maybe late 80s to early 90s. Who cares? It tastes good. 🙂

To measure that tea in taster notes would be unfairly futile. There are no words for how wonderful it was. I can only sum it up with Danica’s reaction: It made her cry. Tears of joy, of course.

Good and tea drunk, we called it a night with promises of future tastings. That has yet to happen, but it’s kind of comforting knowing that you can count upon tea friends for impromptu tea tastings for the sake of “science”. Unique smoked teas, aged oolongs and friends.

There were far worse ways to spend a Friday. I could’ve been locked out of my car with a marshmallow-dolloped, smoked teabeer in my hand. Wait. That sounds awesome.

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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

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