I picked this up today at Tillerman Tea in Napa, California’s Oxbow Public Market. This shop very quickly became my favorite retailer to buy from after being introduced to it a couple years ago. While they may not have half the ambiance of larger tea shops (it is a very nice looking stall in a communal market), they more than make up for it with incredible customer service, in-depth knowledge, dedication to freshness, and consistently high quality. I’ve learned plenty from stopping into places such as Imperial Tea Court and Teánce, but this is the only place where I regularly learn something new with every visit and usually get an engaging, friendly discussion along with my fine tea.
This time around, I walked out with a true gem. This is a spring 2010 traditional LiShan rolled oolong by teamaster Chen Huan Tang. Higher oxidation around 30%, compared to contemporary Jade oolongs around 20-25%, and with a lighter, more balanced roast than most “roasted” Taiwanese oolongs. I was surprised to hear this is the highest elevation growing area in Taiwan, around 2,000 meters – placing it near the highest in terms of tea cultivation worldwide.
I can say with confidence that this is the most wonderful Taiwanese rolled oolong I have been acquainted with. Whilst presenting distinctive characteristics and very heavy aroma, it excels in balance. Even the afteraroma that lingers well beyond 15 minutes on the 11th infusion (tried to test on the 10th but – oops – had another cup before it started to diminish) is balanced with an equally lingering, crisp, clean aftertaste. The progression of infusions is both dynamic in flavor yet somehow consistent in cup profile. Every infusion features layers of aromatics, tastes, and tactile impressions that shift throughout each draught with increasing range up to the 6th infusion where it holds through the 10th without diminishing a bit. I can not point to a single “peak infusion” since it is only a character shift with the range of different flavors being maintained until I ran out of water in the first round. I am sort of blown away that the “opening up” of flavor is so gradual and fluid to the high plateau it reaches starting at the 6th brew. I’m used to these rolled oolongs (heck, most oolongs and puerhs in general) presenting in a 1-2-3-4 series of flavor steps followed by a steady decrease… This is more like a smooth ascent up a sloping hillside.
Let’s see… Onward to the notes… Better be a bit more specific than usual per the parameters.
In a small glazed ceramic gaiwan I used 4.02g with 53.12ml-60.35ml water heated to 84 degrees C with progressive infusions continuing down to 75 degrees C or until I ran out of water. First four infusions at 15 seconds, then increased up to 45 seconds through to the 10th-13th infusions and added 5 seconds per infusion from then on. Had to stop at 20th infusion, though there is still a very full flavor. Water temp never exceeded 87 degrees in the kettle and no heat was added once brew temperature was achieved for each round. Water was municipal East Side Petaluma tap water (piped-in Russian River water treated with sodium hydroxide for pH and gaseous chlorine as residual disinfectant, pH 7.8, about 130ppm total hardness), aerated, run through a Brita filter, and aerated again prior to heating in a stainless steel electric kettle. Last thing eaten was a vanilla and fudge drumstick ice cream cone 3 hours earlier. Single rinse with 4 second contact time to open leaves a tad, take in wet leaf aroma, and take a baseline photo.
Leaves are glossy, dark green with yellow stems. Dry fragrance is sweet lettuce-leafy with a cream-like tang. 4g covers about half the area of the bottom of my gaiwan. By the 8th infusion the leaves have filled the volume to where the lid rests and by the 20th it is necessary to push the leaves about with the lid to stir as they exceed the water line. Wet leaves carry heavy perfume of many flowers, spices, foliage, and heavy dairy products. Most significant of these are carnation, butter lettuce, basil, thyme, lavender, cinnamon stick, balsa wood, apple peel, freshly washed hair (odd but distinct and pleasant), mulched grasses, brown pear, and churned buttermilk. Leaves take a little while to expend with my short infusions but are almost exclusively intact 3 leaf and a bud sets with deep spinach green leaves up to 8cm long with fresh sea lettuce elasticity and slightly firmer texture closer to nori. Terminal buds are very small and just emerging from the twig. Twigs are olive green after infusing. Liquor is clear, light-yet-saturated Chardonnay-yellow with a couple dust-sized particles with no sieve used. Liquor aroma carries on aromas of leaves but less spice, more cream and chlorophyll-sweet. Very soothing and full aroma – actually has a rich tactile impression in sinuses or mouth when breathed in.
Full, buttery body. Body is equal to or greater than most puerh I’ve had. Leafy-pear sweet, cinnamon stick and pink peppercorn spice, basil and honey-infused cream sour, glutinous umami, faint marble salt note, and the mellow bitterness of marsh grasses. Mouthwatering crispness circles in and out in a perpetual cycle for over 5 minutes after a draught. Heavy nose of tropical flowers and foliage, rice, cream, chives, and squash. Name a type of monocot plant and there’s a similar muted aromatic or flavor characteristic. Cycad or palm fronds most similar to me, but there’s even a bit of pineapple hiding in the aftertaste. Wet terra cotta or baked adobe brick mineral “ting” alternates with rice/grass pollen in crisp flavor that moves about the tongue. Very, very smooth, but a bit of light whole-spice wetted cinnamon and clove astringency begins to appear in near the back of the tongue from the 9th infusion on. Breath is thick, sweet, perfumed, heavy, and refreshing when exhaling immediately after swallowing. This is accompanied with or followed by a sort of pleasant warming rush from the chest cavity to the five radial points (most notably a rush to the head). Sort of forces a “Woah” or “Mmmmm” like how a refreshing cold beverage forces an “Ahhh”. Lingering rice-like sweetness makes the mouth water for the duration of the slowly-receding aftertaste. Very soothing.
I’m really astonished by the lasting quality of the tea and how I can still conjure up over ten distinct flavor characteristics in the 20th infusion. At the 16th brew it tastes like the 6th steep of a “really good” LiShan oolong. The cinnamon note remains mild but increases a bit with each infusion. Definite note of pear but most of the fruit is in the aroma and nose and takes the form of the smell sliced fruits emit from a dehydrator. I’m playing it safe with coolish water and short brew times out of the desire to maintain flavor and really am not worried in the slightest about risk of producing bad flavors by overbrewing. The most significant astringency is still much less than spinach leaves and the bitterness never reaches the level of mineral water. I’m sure I couldn’t produce a bad tasting brew from this without stewing in boiling water at high concentration. It would be a shame to drive off so many lovely florals, though. Orchid, gardenia, tulip, carnation, water lily, wood rose, ginger flower, orange blossom, lavender, and a whole slew of mixed wildflowers pushed off by excessively hot water would be sort of heartbreaking after taking in what this can offer.
There’s two summary metaphors I can think of to embody this tea:
The essence of sitting on a warm, sun-heated deck surrounded by rich, fresh, green, mist-covered fields and fern-filled woodlands in the emerging morning sun of springtime.
The root personification of “Woah” a la Keanu Reeves.
Take your pick.
Light – but not Jade – oolong awesomeness.