30 Tasting Notes
When we got in our spring harvest last year, it quickly became legendary. I was so happy to see it enjoyed by so many people, but also nervous about whether the next harvest could live up to its reputation. After sharing all the kind words said here on Steepster with the farmers through our friend and Tieguanyin devotee Weiwei, our friends in Anxi decided to send us an even more exquisite autumn harvest.
Now, spring has returned. I expected to have to wait another three weeks or so to get any of the spring Tieguanyin, but Weiwei, whose father has devoted his retirement to finding the best Tieguanyin in the world, was able to secure this early harvest. Usually Weiwei will describe a fine Tieguanyin as ‘passable’ and a mind-blowing one as ‘pretty good.’ I have been waiting to try this Tieguanyin which she called ‘amazing.’ I thought that she would just send a sample for me to approve, but she just made the call and sent a full batch of this tea. We got a large portion of the farmer’s harvest. Since they are a family operation and hand-pick everything, only 15 pounds were available when we shipped. I already asked Weiwei to have them reserve whatever is left.
I tried to describe the tea when I made a product page this morning, but it is so hard not to resort to ridiculous metaphors. This tea is the essence of spring. It is like all the young flowers, the delicate buds, the vibrantly green grass have all been crystallized into this drinking experience. It is supremely humbling. Thank you Weiwei, for the confidence to bring us this tea so soon after it was picked.
I really look forward to sending this out to all my friends here on Steepster and hope that everyone has an equally incredible experience with it. Happy Spring!
I can’t believe that Wang Yanxin was able to convince the Banzhang Ancient Forest Workshop to part with seven more bricks of this beauty. It is everything I love about sheng pu’er, thick and nutty like Farmer’s Cooperative, yet sparkling with hints of orange and melon. Banzhang Mountain is a magical place.
I have been checking in on the region using google satellite images, and it is still just as remote. The old village has only six houses! The new village has a whopping eleven. You can see the winding footpaths where the villagers walk to wild-harvest this tea.
I will admit it, I bought the last brick of this from Verdant Tea when it was running out, and have felt guilty for not letting it go with so much interest, but how could I? I recently tasted some 15-year tea from the area and it blew my mind. This is already getting there. Luckily I don’t have to feel so guilty anymore with a few more bricks back in stock.
I wanted to meditate today on the idea of blending teas. You can probably tell from the Verdant website that we love straight up tea with a passion. So what’s with the blends? I see a lot of back and forth about blending in general on the forums here and elsewhere. Some people find it to be fun and interesting to try blends, looking forward to the additional flavor dimensions, while others feel that it distracts from the subtlety of the base tea.
For me, a blend is a commentary, a literary criticism, an essay, on the tea I am using as a base. The tea is the theme of the essay, the main thesis statement. The spices, herbs and flowers are all supporting paragraphs. A good essay will hash out all the possibilities of the thesis in several paragraphs before returning to the theme with a new understanding. For me, a good blend will use things like elderberry or galangal to help clarify the taste of the tea.
When I drink Xingyang Nuggets, I taste the dark sweetness of elderberry and the slight floral spice of galangal already. They are there in the tea. By adding the spices, I am giving those hazy feelings a place to “crystallize” and make themselves known. A blend for me is always going to be exploring and pushing the basic flavors of a straight up tea with the goal of helping the taster come to a new understanding of what the base tea has to offer.
For that reason, it is sometimes especially fun to try a tea by itself, and then try one of the blends and see how the flavors relate. This also means that every time I drink a base tea on its own and taste a new flavor it gives me new ideas for blending.
Hopefully this makes sense. There are a lot of reasons to drink straight up tea and a lot of reasons to drink blended tea. This is just one perspective that I have been thinking about a lot recently that has been guiding my “play” with new blending.
Sorry to be absent for a while on Steepster. We have been busy putting the finishing touches on our new website. With that done, I hope to contribute more to the conversations here, and answer whatever questions I am able to.
I thought that with the season, yabao would be a good tea to meditate on. Here in Minnesota, all the trees are just bursting with little “yabao” buds. They are those hard buds ready to unfold into a clump of leaves. I can only imagine the little buds in Yunnan right now and the Xingchen workshop busy picking.
I stumbled upon Yabao as a complete accident. I drank tea with the same vendor every day for a month or so, and each day they would pull out something new and crazy to challenge me, asking me questions about what I tasted. Finally, they ran out of new things to show me, until he remembered yabao.
The vendor looked sort of shifty-eyed around him before pulling a pressed brick of the buds out from under his desk. He wouldn’t say a word about it before I tried it. When I was at a loss for words, tasting something I had never before experienced, a look of triumph appeared on his face. “I bet you have never had THIS one before, huh?”
He was right! I didn’t even know what those strange little buds could be. He explained that they are picked in late winter and that only a few of them can be taken from each tree so as not to stunt the tree’s growth. I unfolded a bud for me and showed how many layers they have. We counted over a dozen.
I resolved to get some of this tea. I went back every day asking him about the yabao, but he didn’t want to part with any. He only had nine bricks. Finally, right before I left, he gave me one of his bricks. Last time I was in China, he was pleased to hear that I was going to brew it at my wedding for the guests.
The woman in Kunming who represents Xingchen workshop was so surprised when I walked into her shop and immediately identified a bag of yabao. She practically jumped out of her seat. “Don’t you want jasmine or something? How do you know about yabao?” I explained to her trying it before, and she invited me to sit for the full afternoon drinking some pretty crazy teas.
I was able to get back in touch with her workshop when I started Verdant Tea. In fact, yabao was one of the teas I was most excited to share when I was just getting started. It is a subtle experience to be sure, but one whose depth is rewarding under the right circumstances. I enjoy yabao the most in the evenings when it is dark and quiet, as it reminds me of mulling spice, of cedar wood chests, and the like. It is fun to see others discovering yabao as well. Happy tasting!
This Silver Needle Jasmine truly came about as a sort of conspiracy between Wang Yanxin, our scout for Yunnan teas, especially fine pu’ers, and Weiwei, Verdant’s employee in China who works with farmers mostly in Laoshan and Anxi.
Both Weiwei and Wang Yanxin have some of the most formidable and discriminating palates in the world. The conspiracy here is that neither of them have any inclination towards jasmine tea at all. When Weiwei and I are drinking tea together with a workshop or farmer, she always asks for a glass of water to discreetly wash the taste out of her mouth when jasmine is served. I would just shake my head. Come on Weiwei, you can find some of the most heady and floral Tieguanyin, but take that profile a bit further towards Jasmine and you wash your mouth out with water?
Wang Yanxin always had a bit of jasmine on hand, and was known for supplying Qingdao with the best jasmine of anyone. One day I asked her if I could buy a bit of her jasmine to take home for family member less inclined towards pu’er than myself. She flat out said no. She said that normal jasmine is not good to drink, and pulled out a variety that cost several hundred dollars a pound. “This is the only one you can have.” Wang Yanxin has a strong will, so I didn’t argue. I tried to pay, but she gave it to me for free. She said that she didn’t want my family drinking anything less.
Keeping this in mind, I imagined a pretty cold reception when I started making inquiries on a jasmine for Verdant Tea. To my surprise, Weiwei said that her and Wang Yanxin had been talking, and they thought they found something that was good. I asked Weiwei if she liked it. She seemed slightly embarrassed to say yes, but admitted that she did. Wang Yanxin pulled her connections to get us a jasmine from Yunnan, made with a silky silver needle white tea. Weiwei approved the scenting.
When I got the first box, and cut open one of the heat-sealed bags, I knew that Wang Yanxin and Weiwei had found something special. Most of the tea-lovers here in Minneapolis that come by Verdant HQ when new shipments get in are pu’er or oolong people. This jasmine seduced pretty much everyone.
The update from Wang Yanxin and Weiwei is that they are now actively scouting more jasmines. In my last shipment, there were over 40 new samples to try. This silver needle variety actually got them excited to drink jasmine. I get jasmine pearls, little blooming teas, twists of scented Huangshan Maofeng, and a large variety of possibilities. While none have yet approached this one for staying power, it is good to know that my friends in China have broadened their horizons.
The first time I encountered Dancong Style Oolongs was at the most posh tea house in Qingdao, China. This was the kind of place that you go to be seen- When you go in the massive double doors carved from solid walnut, you are greeted by an entire limestone stalactite formation meticulously transported from a cave in Yunnan to be the waterfall feature here. On the left is a Ming Dynasty fishing boat turned into a tea pavilion on the indoor pond.
Even though I was there on grant money to do research on tea culture, from the humble farms of Laoshan to the high-brow teahouses like this, I felt humbled and asked for a table in the least fancy-looking part of the building. When the menu came, it was a rolled string of bamboo strips with the tea names carved in wood. Starting my research in a city obsessed with Laoshan green tea, and Tieguanyin, I had never before come across Dancong. I saw it on the menu and ordered.
It was prepared for me in traditional Southern China gongfu ceremony with gaiwan. The taste kept me sitting for hours getting the tea re-steeped. They were probably wondering when I would head out or order a different tea, but the taste was so intriguing.
I found Dancong to be elusive, a shapeshifter just slightly out of reach. My tea vocabulary was smaller then, but the apple notes and the texture were wonderful. After that, I asked all around the tea markets about Dancong, but nobody had any.
Only recently was I reminded of this experience by Steepster friends logging Dancong tasting notes. I asked a friend in QIngdao to have her tea friend in Guangzhou send some Dancong samples for me to try again. She ended up sending about a dozen, all of which were mind-blowing.
In the first round of tasting, I actually picked out a Mi Lan Dancong over this, because it had more of a “smack in the face” intensity that you couldn’t ignore. Then I came back to the Huang Zhi Xiang. It was a more quiet tea. I realized that if you are willing to listen, willing to taste, this tea had much more to give then any of the other samples. It is about two dozen teas in one. It recaptures that “shapeshifter” experience I had with my first Dancong.
I have found myself brewing Dancong every day without fail since the last shipment came in, and I still love it. I love it so much that I am actually re-assigning one of my favorite Yixing pots from Big Red Robe to Dancong. That should be an interesting flavor experiment v. gaiwan steeping. What I love about this tea is that it always has something new to offer. It is the essence of a multi-dimensional tea. It is a challenge to rise to. It holds my attention like an aged sheng pu’er might.
I hope that other tea lovers will fall head over heels for this like I have. I know that I will be requesting another 50+ samples to try to pick out another type of Dancong to expand the line- that is, if I can find one to live up to this Huang Zhi Xiang.
I have been drinking this tea non-stop since it came in. This is a find of my friend Wang Yanxin, who first introduced me to all the small cooperatives in Yunnan. I want to do a full description of its flavor in a tasting note, but that will take more care and re-tasting. It is one of the best sheng pu’ers I have tried, period.
My love affair with this tea, along with some prodding from Steepster friends has convinced me to do a Yunnan-themed Cyber Monday. Pu’er bricks, and our white, black and green teas from Yunnan, will be between 30-50% off. Check it out and invest in a brick of this for yourself if you can.
With the arrival of the 2004 Peacock Village Shu, I feel that some sort of cycle has turned upon itself, and brought me back to the starting point of my love affair with pu’ers. When I first moved to China as literature and philosophy teacher at Qingdao University, and as a tea researcher, I knew almost nothing about the vast world of pu’er. For tea lovers, pu’er is truly the last frontier. When you have explored all the other teas out there, pu’er is waiting patiently to reveal its mysteries.
Qingdao has a tea district where all those most devoted to the culture would congregate. I used to go visit Wang Huiming to train in proper Fujianese tea ceremony. Every day I would pass a small shop filled to the ceilings with pu’er bricks, and a young tea-scout named Wang Yanxin. Finally I put aside an afternoon to visit Wang Yanxin and listen to her stories.
She got into the tea business when she was 20 years old, and started spending summers in Yunnan working with small growers, learning the pu’er trade, and tasting some of the finest bricks in the world. She is now 28 years old, and has quickly risen to become one of the most respected palates out there, and certainly the most formidable source for pu’er from small growers in the whole region. Most shops offer some decent quality brocks from Mengku, Haiwan or Xiaguan, but these big companies make it easy, grading their teas, printing catalogs, sending samples, etc. Wang Yanxin was determined to be different, and work with the small growers to bring something to market beyond what most in China had ever experienced. Despite having to go down to Yunnan every month or so to try new pressings, advise growers, etc, Wang continues to succeed.
So what does this have to do with the Peacock Village 2004? That first day I visited Wang Yanxin, I told her that I wanted to fall in love with pu’er. She told me that she would help if I was willing to visit twice a week until I understood. I readily agreed, and we started down the path of shu and sheng pu’er. She was patient, starting with the simplest bricks, teaching me to taste the major flavor profiles commonly found in pu’er. She showed me how pu’er steeps out in time, how it grows with age after being pressed.
Finally, I was beginning to understand. That was when she pulled out the first “Graduate Level” tea for me to try, the Peacock Village 2004 from Tian Di Ren Workshop. I fell in love instantly. Everything suddenly made sense. The lower quality bricks we started with all had a heaviness to them, a certain lingering feeling that was unpleasant. This brick was crisp, light and perfect. I was so excited to taste all the different flavors, and Wang was pleased to hear me describe them.
I may have had a lot of pu’er since the Peacock Village, but it has remained a favorite, representing one of the ideals that a shu pu’er can reach for. I made the call a few months ago to discontinue the Fuhai brick, feeling like it was almost what I was looking for, but falling just slightly short. I debated for weeks about what to replace it with that would be a step closer to my ideal, and finally remembered my beloved Peacock Village Shu.
Wang Yanxin actually tracked down 25 bricks for me! I am grateful to her for everything, and grateful to everyone for the chance to share this.