Saturday, April 21, 2012


March in the Northern Rockies is shifty.  It is mostly a grey waste, an extension of winter that may be momentarily punctured by a 57 degree sunbeam that feels like a zephyr from the Isle of the Blessed.  You wouldn't know that much is changing except that there are robins here and there, the tips of hyacinth leaves emerging from beds warmed by houses, and, every now and again, a brilliant day when you can sit on the back stoop in a t-shirt while snow melts off the roof and drips on your head.


March's back and forth between dominant winter and nascent spring lead me to experiment with a few Hong Shui (红水, red water) oolongs from Taiwan.  The light to medium roasting of these generally well-oxidised teas is usually accomplished in such a way that the fresh brightness of the leaves is not compromised.  And the roast adds a layer of depth, warmth and richness not usually found in an un-roasted oolong.  The only thing more disappointing to me than an over-roasted tea is an old tea that has soured from bad storage.  (Or puerh that tastes like rubber) 

                                      Like the hyacinth leaves, curled and waiting for the heat.

 The three that I have been drinking of late have only solidified my respect for the nuanced approach of those who process these teas.  I acquired all three of these Hong Shui samples from Stephane Erler of Teamasters blog.  As with pretty much all of Mr. Erler's oolong selection that I have had the pleasure of trying, I found all three delightful.  The roaster has obviously exercised restraint and therefore these teas personify the delicate balance between fresh and roasty that makes the genre so compelling.

                                                         She flew all the way from Taipei.       

All three had more pronounced light and fresh characteristics than roasty ones.  But scents of toasted rice could be detected when the leaves were added to a heated pot or gaiwan.
And they all possessed sweetness and purity. 

                                                  More "gold water" than "red water" 

All three teas were grown in Nantou county, which appears to be the birthplace of this style of oolong.  Read more here.  As with most things Chinese tea, it is a bit of a challenge to find information about HongShui oolong as is demonstrated in this blog post.  A good source is the Teamasters blog itself.   

Of the three, the most elegant was from high in the Shan Lin Shi growing area.  It was harvested in the Spring of 2010.  This tea took my mouth and throat captive.

               As can be seen the leaves of the Shan Lin Shi are dark green, large and lovely.

I had three sessions with this tea: one using a pot, the next a gaiwan and the third using the pot again with a bit more leaf.  Using more leaf proved unnecessary since this tea is quite powerful.  Just covering the bottom of the brewing vessel with dry leaf suffices.  The smell of the dry leaves is bright and fruity, but when they are added to a heated vessel, the scent becomes quite rich and toasty.  The tea is extremely active in the mouth and throat, gripping the sides of the tongue and coating the throat initially with cool mintiness and then a long and deep sweetness.  

                                                    I love the look of these frayed stem-ends.  

 The tea tasted a bit more flat when brewed with a gaiwan-- somehow dulled, but still nice.  Increasing the leaf proved a mistake as the tea grabbed the underside of the tongue in an unpleasant way during the 3rd and 4th infusions.  This was the most expensive of the three teas (more on the other two later), justifiably so.  More complexity, mouth activity, vividness.  That throatfeel followed me throughout the day.

These leaves put me in mind of a trip we made to Shan Lin Shi in the early spring of 2010, just a few months before these leaves were harvested.  The day was lovely--clear and warm.  

                                                      Tea leaves shining in Shan Lin Shi.

Not bad weather for February 2nd.  I will post more on what we learned in Shan Lin Shi and about the two other Hong Shui oolongs from Nantou.  Happy early spring.

Starting Out

Greetings teafolk.  I have toyed with the idea of starting a blog for at least a couple of years and it is finally time to dust off the old keyboard and begin sharing some thoughts about tea.

While not averse to a second flush darjeeling or a fresh gyokuro, I am a lover of Chinese tea in particular.  When I first became enamored of Chinese tea, in the heart of Chinatown in San Francisco, it was, in part, because I felt presented with a challenge.  The world of Chinese tea seemed exceptionally arcane.  I had (have) a lot to learn.

First there was the sheer variety of forms of Chinese tea. The semi-oxidised teas in the oolong family alone seemed (and in many ways still seem) pleasantly daunting to comprehend.  Then there is the fact that I live so far from the places where such tea is grown and made.  And I didn't know anyone in my locale who had much experience with Chinese tea.  Finally, the tea literature in English was, in my opinion, quite paltry.  The books I got hold of seemed to be either too basic or to project a mystical or religious aura onto tea and its uses that tended to obfuscate the plant and the growing/processing/brewing techniques that go into making a fine cup of tea.  Not that there is anything wrong with writing about tea's effects on meditation or Bodhidharma's torn-off eyelids.  I lean toward that stuff myself.  I simply craved different, more detailed information.  

                                                                        This one's not too bad. 

There was not, at that time, quite the proliferation of tea blogs there are today.  There were, however, three blogs that, more than anything aside from drinking enough tea to re-fill Glacial Lake Missoula, have been indispensable.  I would like to tip my hat to MarshalN, Hobbes and Stephane for taking tea seriously and for sharing their thoughts and experiences so consistently.  

In more recent years I have enjoyed and gleaned a great many tips from countless postings by other tea bloggers like Brett, Gingko and Matt.  Thanks be to the tea blogging community.

As stated, drinking tea (both good tea and not so good) has been the surest learning tool.  The tuition has been steep, namely due to diving in a bit too enthusiastically in the financial sense.  There is a spendthrift in me that I have learned to curb by degrees, especially after amassing puerh for aging in a climate that seems singularly unsuited for it.  In terms of the USA, I think only Tucson, AZ would be less well suited.  (More on Montana storage later)  And I'm not willing to go to great lengths to humidify the stuff, so I'm sitting on a pile of tea that is slowly losing vigor and that I won't be able to drink fast enough to not destroy my nervous system.  Samples anyone?  (After 7 years of drinking lots of tea daily, I have noticed the effects of hong cha and green puerh intensifying in an unpleasant manner. Time to cut back?  Damn.  Anyone else?)

                                                 Deluxe tea humidifier.  No, that's not mold. 

I have, perhaps only in the last year, learned to be a bit more conservative in my purchases.  It was probably "good" to go hog wild early on because I drank a lot of different kinds of teas and got a sense of what I liked and what was worth spending some dough on.  Besides, restraint can be so....boring.  My favorite quote that I have used for years to rationalize all reckless spending, drinking, etc. comes from William Blake (aka, "Wild Bill"):  "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."  Well, it can also lead to credit card debt and if that is "wisdom" I am yet to experience it as such. :-)

        From "The Illuminated Blake" by David V. Erdman.  A plate from "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell"

Yes, staid old restraint is the rule these days.  I'm more careful about buying large amounts of very good but very expensive tea (not always the same thing), and I've gotten tired of spending on mediocre or bad tea that is often advertised as being the best tea in the universe.  In fact, it is usually a sign that something is awry when such claims are made.      

While restraint has become the rule, the obsession continues.  I'm starting this blog because I want to learn more about tea by setting down my thoughts and sharing them in a public format.  I welcome all comments, contributions, quibbles.