2015 was a year of ups and downs, like a lot of years. But there was one particular occurrence – while in hindsight it was rather small – sort of summed up this mixed bag of a year. And that small occurrence started with this bag.
I’m not exactly sure when I got it, but it was a present from Gary “Tea with Gary” Robson from Red Lodge Books & Tea. I, either, received it when I visited his shop in Montana back in 2014, or was presented it upon his visit to Oregon. Can’t recall.
All I remember is that he told me it was a roasted oolong. Where it was from, how it was made, what type of oolong? I had no clue, I didn’t inquire further at the time. I smelled the contents of the bag . . . and was immediately turned off. The burnt looking leaves smelled like burnt rocks.
Of course, I didn’t tell him that. I accepted the gift, and drank it later that week. Yep, it was just as awful as I imagined – like licking a charcoal cube that’d been rubbed in manure. Needless to say, I didn’t revisit it . . . for several months.
As the year went on, I sampled many interesting and wonderful teas. Major standouts were oolongs from Wuyi Mountain. As a general rule, I typically didn’t go for Wuyi oolongs. I didn’t like the flavor profile. That of burning . . . and rocks. (Why did that sound familiar?)
In the Fall of 2015, I was introduced to four that seemed like statistical outliers to my “anti-Wuyi” rule. During a Tandem Tea Tasting in October, I was introduced to Que She, also known as “Sparrow’s Tongue, put out by Seven Cups. I even had to haiku about it.
In early November, I was introduced to a Wuyi oolong that shattered my preconceived notions. It was Ban Tian Yao, which literally translated to “Half-Heaven Goblin”. I sampled that (literal) unique beast on a fateful visit to Phoenix Teashop with my brother.
Said trip also involved a flying couch.
Mere days after I wrote some copy on that very subject of Shui Xian for a client. So eerie was that coincidence, I had to write about it, and my general malaise towards Wuyi . . . with exceptions. My position was softening; I could tell.
The crème de la crème, though. The pinnacle of the year was getting to try the “O.G.” of all Da Hong Paos, thanks to a random e-mail from Four Seasons Tea. Without exaggeration, it was one of the most perfect oolongs I’d ever tried.
A title I never bestowed on any Wuyi oolongs before.
By sheer coincidence, within a week of doing that write-up, I saw this article making the rounds in the online tea community. Newer Da Hong Pao offerings were becoming blends of other tea tree cultivars besides the revered Qi Dan. Some were blends of Rou Gui and Qilan.
Wait, Qilan, where had I seen that name before? Oh right! Gary’s tea gift! That was a Wuyi?! Of course it was . . . burnt rock taste. Then a funny thing happened.
The last week of December, I had a craving. This urge shocked me to my very core. I wanted to brew nothing but Wuyi oolongs. Maybe it was the colder weather, or my off-kilter mood – not sure. All I knew is that I wanted to taste distilled, burnt-rock-water.
I didn’t have a lot of the other, better Wuyi oolongs I had the rest of the year. So, I braved the Qilan again. One morning before work, I brought water to a boil, put a bunch of leaves in my travel mug, and then subsisted on that for the rest of my shift.
It was wonderful.
No, the tea hadn’t changed. No, I didn’t brew it any differently than I had before. My palate had changed. This was the first time that I could actually document that sort of change. And it was a really rapid change, only three months of transition. Pretty damn quick for a journey from hate to love.
And that was a perfect allegory for 2015.
It was – in no way – a perfect year. I lost two grandparents. The reality hit me that I would be entering my 40s and had accomplished . . . very little in the preceding time. I was still cleaning toilets for a living.
On the upside, though? I went to World Tea Expo again – got to hang out with all of my old tea crew in person one more time. I met my childhood favorite author in person, and had him sign a book for my dad. I notched off scores of wonderful teas, and some of them were even more unique than my “Tea Want!” roster could’ve ever categorized. I was able to write a “forward” for an actual, published tea book.
The biggest accomplishment, though . . . I hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol in over a year. I even forgot what life was like with it. I gave it up before it took hold of me, curbed the addiction I knew it was turning into – came to the realization that a short buzz wasn’t worth the potential harm. To my car, to my pride, to the people in my life. I also knew that there were many other people that weren’t so lucky.
My palate had changed.
As I write this, I’m going through several steeps of some more Old Bush Shui Xian. Sure, there is that bit of burnt rocks feeling on the tongue mixed in with earth. But man! . . . It sure is wonderful.
2015 was a palate-changing year. Can’t wait to see how it changes in 2016. Maybe I’ll finally write a book about it.