Monday, February 27, 2006

Shan Shui Premium Winter Tieguanyin 2004 and 2005

Premium Winter 2004 Tieguanyin
Premium Winter 2005 Tieguanyin

There is now an 05 Premium Winter as well as the previous 04 Premium Winter Tieguanyin to choose from. Brian Wright emailed me some very good tasting notes on both which helped me decide. At least in a manner of speaking. I decided to order both because it was a tough call as to which I might prefer. Even yet it's a pleasantly tough call to say which I prefer as I like the subtle differences in each. Just as the vendor notes, the 05 comes across as a touch 'lighter,' which is not to say it doesn't carry a fullness of its own, just lighter to me in comparison to the 04. The 05 really comes through with that ripe fruit against the toasty aroma (which vendor calls 'smoky'), and the fruit-sweet does come into the finish of the tea, lingering as an aftertaste. The website notes that the tea was 'baked conventionally' but that the aroma is 'very similar to that of charcoal-baked Tieguanyin.' It's that quality that I think of as toasty, though it also has a woody association to me as well. These teas are not the style of Tieguanyin that comes through with a more singular floral note.

Though the vendor calls the 05 'reminiscent of baked sweet potato,' I keep wanting to say that there is a lighter citrusy quality to the 05 that lingers into the finish. It's a bit brighter in fruit tone than the deeper 04. Both aromas have that fruity character, but the 05 registers higher on the aromatic scale, which gives it that bright note that lingers rather differently into the finish.

I often go back to the mental image of walking in a forest when I try and pin down these elusive differences. The 04 is an older forest where the treetops overhang and merge with each other, blocking out sunlight. The 05 is a newer growth forest that has more sunlight filtering through the branches. If the character of the tea was a feeling, you could close your eyes and feel the difference on the back of your neck and shoulders. In the new forest (05 Tieguanyin), you take in the woody depth around you but feel a slant of sunlight filter in and warm the back of your neck and brighten the darkness of the trees. In a similar way, the 2005 tea has a more citrusy brightness that gives you a pleasant sensation of sunlight on the back of the neck. It is a quality that somehow enlivens the 05 Tieguanyin, just as the feeling of sunlight/warmth can break in on a cloudy day and suddenly give the room a different atmosphere.

I was quite happily drinking a Shan Shui Tieguanyin last February, too, and posted: We have had a 30 mph wind whipping the snow across the roads today and sending dry leaves skittering over the crusted yard snow like demented birds. Lovely to sink into a tea that exudes so much warmth, both literally and in the pictures it conjures up with that heady fruit and flower aroma and taste.

Today there is no snow (yet) but we have had a day of chilly rain that is supposed to turn back to snow at some point tonight or tomorrow. That is why I've been craving this particular Tieguanyin. I like the contrast of the flavor/aroma against this cold time of year. As I have lived with both these teas a bit longer, I am leaning slightly toward the 2005 Tieguanyin with that note that mentally transfers as 'bright sunshine.' It just is, as Brian Wright observed in an email, a bit more 'interesting,' though yes it is a 'stylistic preference.'

Upton's Golden Temple Yunnan and Silk Road Teas Yunnan Gold High Grade, Cup to Cup

Cup-to-Cup Comparison of

Yunnan Gold High Grade (B-YG-2) Silk Road Teas/ (large 1/2 pound bag purchased within the last couple of months)

China Yunnan Golden Temple (ZY93) Upton Tea/ (10 gram sample amount packed on 2/20/06)

Brewed in two small cebei pots (one with carp/dragon motif, the other grey with white herons), with a full/rounded tsp of leaf to each, water to boiling, four minutes plus a few extra seconds because, yes, something distracted me.

Upton's Yunnan Golden Temple has a sweet mocha scent with hint of floral, without the more aggressive and sometimes rustic twist one gets in a Yunnan like this that can, for me, be interpreted along the scale of lightly to more moderately smoky to even savory. The tea has a light 'good earth' (clean sun-warmed earth, not metallic or cellar dank). The light sweetness shapeshifts from a touch of maple sap to a hint of lavender honey, more so in aroma than taste. It is quite mellow and softer than the Yunnan Gold High Grade from Silk Road Teas. Smooth, but without the darker depths of the one from SRT. This Golden Temple is in marked contrast to the aforementioned TeaSource Golden Downey Tip Yunnan which strikes me as the most rustic of these three with its distinct savory note. The empty cup of the Golden Temple is very reminiscent of either a dark honey or maple sap now that the tea is gone.

The Silk Road Tea Yunnan Gold High Grade exudes a darker sweet mocha aroma with slightly rustic twist, a bit forest-oaky as I interpret it to myself. This does follow into the taste--the clean 'good earth' and a darker note that adds more complexity and also slightly more pungency to the cup. The latter serves to brighten the cup, even while it takes away some of softness. The softness in the Golden Temple is pleasing, but you do lose some of the depths of flavor/complexity. The empty cup is reminiscent less of honey and reminds me more of maple sap sweetness mixed with the smoky aroma as it is boiled down into syrup.

Depending on one's preferences, the 'soft' character of the Golden Temple might be a plus if you eschew the smoky notes in Yunnan and want a very velvety smooth and less pungent experience. On the other hand, the lack of other characteristics flattens out Golden Temple tea just a touch, even while allowing the velvety character to show rather nicely.

The Golden Temple is a rather genteel Yunnan. Suave. Soothing to listen to. A smooth talker who spends more time indoors than out. Yunnan Gold breezes in from the outdoors, carrying a whiff of old forest and adventures.

Back in 2004, I had also sampled the ZY93 Golden Temple, and wasn't finding it quite as pleasant as I did in the above re-sampling. From old notes:

Golden Temple Yunnan
Sampled 1/26/04

Instead of the sweet mocha-honey aroma of some Yunnan teas, this one initially comes forward more aggressively with earth. Less honeyed in sweetness (aromatically speaking) than the recent sweeter notes of floral-spice-and honey I found in Yunnan Golden Buds ( As the tea cools a bit, the sweeter notes do come forward, but not with the same level of honey-spice I found in the Golden Buds (though this stayed mostly in the aroma with that tea). In the cup, earth is quite "there" as the predominant note. Not much spice to speak of in taste compared to the no-longer-available Imperial Yunnan (which I preferred over this one at this time). Taste is mostly earth/malt without sweeter notes to balance it. This one really says earth to me in the more aggressive way I found it in In Pursuit of Teas Royal Yunnan. [Current note: of course, many moons later, my opinion of IPOT Royal Yunnan soared, though it has since headed earthward again, based on the last lot I sampled.]

The aroma of this tea is pleasant, but there's just not much happening in the cup. In 3/03 I'd written of this tea that I'd like less earth and a touch more spice/sweet. The flavor doesn't zing.

And back to February 27, 2006. I am finding the current ZY93 not as high in earth as I did back in 2004 and 2003. I still don't find much 'spice' in this particular tea, but the balance of earth to mocha sweet is pleasing me more in this current lot. I note that I referred to the lack of 'zing' in this tea back in 2004. The soft character of this tea really does get in the way of the tea's ability to 'zing,' but in the current lot, that balance of earth to sweet and the mellow character is a bit nicer, and I find I mind less the lack of 'zing.'

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

the teahouse trend in china

Here's an item on the trend in teahouses in China:

The interesting thing here though is that the just lump all teahouses into one generalization, which is not the case. There is the "chayi guan", or "tea art teahouse", a style of teahouse finely decorated, with pretty girls in pretty costumes who give tea art performance - which is to say, they brew gong fu tea. You pay for a private room, and see tea performance, drink the tea, and have light snacks like dried fruit and melon seeds. It's a very refreshing place to go after a hectic day. And that's why people go there - to take a break and relax. But it's expensive. It costs about 250 yuan. That's more than $30 US for an hour or so of relaxation.

Ordinary Chinese, whose salaries are 1000 yuan (about $125 US) or less can't afford to go there. But the middle class in China is growing too, so more people are able to afford an occasional visit.

The girls that work there go to a special school to learn tea art. And they can earn a salary of 1000 yuan a month or more - which is pretty good. A school teacher in china earns 1000 yuan a month.

Lately I have been reading a lot on teahouses in China. They first appeared in the Tang Dynasty. Even in Lu Yu's day, there were already simple teahouses. And their style continually changed over time. Song dynasty teahouses evolved into a more refined form from those of the Tang - gathering places where the literati would go to try new teas (the teas of different areas brewed with spring water of different areas), compose and recite poetry, play music, and look at scroll paintings.

Today, there are many many different styles of teahouse in China. And that article is correct; since the 1990s, teahouses are becoming more and more popular in China.

-- Warren Peltier

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Yunnan Gold Quest: Three Teas Cup to Cup/Silk Road Teas, Floating Leaves, TeaSource

I am drinking this morning a TeaSource Golden Downey Tip Yunnan (recent purchase) compared cup to cup with Floating Leaves Yunnan Gold (a not-so-recent purchase, so it may not necessarily be what is currently offered, I don't know--these teas do change!).

FL=Floating Leaves

I don't tend to brew my golden Yunnan teas with any degree of precision, so each roughly 8 ounce mug probably holds a very rounded and overflowing two teaspoons of leaf, steeped for four minutes.

While steeping, the TS Yunnan has an aroma that is almost savory (a hint of smoked ham type scent), an edge that isn't found in the FL Yunnan. Once leaf is removed, the TS Yunnan backs off a bit from that savory note that was more dominant with the leaf in the cup. It is more muted now and sits behind the sweeter scent. Still, there's something not unlike a hint of brown sugar ham glaze in the TS one that is not present in the Yunnan from FL. The aroma of the Yunnan from FL has that mocha sweet combination of light maple-earth without the savory edge. It drinks with a fairly distinct level of earth along with hint of sweet and something close to a grain-like note, not quite malty.

The most obvious difference is that savory note in the Yunnan from TS. I think some would identify it as a lightly smoky characteristic, but I've experienced that, too, in Yunnan teas and this seems slightly different from just a smoky note. It's smoky in the way a brown sugar drizzled smoked ham rind might be, if you thought of that in a much more muted way than you usually experience it. It actually gives the perception that the tea is richer. I sometimes describe this brothy or savory note in a green tea as a 'nourishing' type characteristic. Something that sets the mind just on the edge of thinking soup/broth. And that isn't unlike the way this tea strikes me, even though it retains a Yunnan character. It does transfer to the taste as well as being part of the aroma. The Yunnan from TS drinks just a touch smoother as there is slightly more pungency to the cup from FL, though not distressing in and of itself.

Oddly enough, I had made these teas in two different mugs which just naturally seem to fit the character of each tea. The TS with the savory note is in a thicker Bill Campbell Northern Lights glaze pottery mug. And the feeling of the mug's thicker rim and earthy brown background with wavy aurora borealis blues is just totally in keeping with the experience of the tea itself. The FL Yunnan is in a taller white footed mug with thin texture at the wider rim, and it seems in keeping with this tea's rather different profile--a lighter and less elemental aromatic and taste which might just contain a hint of something floral. These are very different Golden Yunnan experiences, and one person might well favor one over the other. In a different tea mood, I might well have found myself crabbing about the savory note in the TS one, but this snowy morning it seems rather pleasant.

Neither tea hits me at the same level of preference I had for the In Pursuit of Tea Yunnan in times past. The last order, as I noted in a previous review, was sorely disappointing.

...and this probably now sends me back to a point of comparison to the current Silk Road Teas High Grade Yunnan Gold, which has maybe now turned into the default favorite since the IPOT favorite has fallen out of favor. (I leave out Imperial Tea Court's pricier Imperial Gold Yunnan, which tends to stand above the rest in price as well as my favor, but which isn't a daily drinking Yunnan based on the price, more's the pity).

And so...tossing a cup of Silk Road Teas (SRT) High Grade Yunnan Gold into the mix, a fairly recent purchase. It does not have the more dominant savory note that is in the TS one. It does have that light maple sap sweet note with a hint of spice and even a waft of floral scent. This tea has a rather 'fresh' character to it and is much less elemental than the TS one. The SRT Yunnan has more layers to its aroma than the FL one, and these seem to meander into the cup itself better than in the FL one. I catch more hint of the maple sap note in the SRT Yunnan Gold, not quite as much earth, and slightly less pungency. Overall, the balance just works better for me. It is a more refined tasting cup than the more elemental TS Yunnan, though the character of that latter can be pleasing in a different way as the mood strikes, I think.

Aroma on the SRT High Grade Yunnan is really coming forward now--that very distinct maple sap note (but less spice in this one) and hint of floral. Those softer characteristics are in the cup as well and do smooth it out more than the one from FL that I have on hand, giving the SRT Yunnan an overall better balance.

Now that it has cooled considerably, there is a rather puerh-like scent to the cup holding a scant amount of the elemental Yunnan from TS. This tea is a bit of a rough and tumble type character that has its own level of charm.

Right now, I am still overall favoring the SRT one while longing to have the experience of the past IPOT Yunnan.