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.

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