Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

Teas Cupped on Aug 7

Some teas are available year round: standard, average priced Chunmee and Gunpowder Green teas, Black Orange Pekoe, middle to low grade Jasmine and Oolong teas are some examples.  Yet even with these teas, samples from an anticipated incoming batch must be tasted.  Cupping is more important when it comes to higher grade teas that are truly seasonal.  By August, Green teas from early spring have been stored for more than a few weeks.  Even when properly stored, these must be examined with even greater care since freshness can no longer be taken for granted.

What follows is a list of teas that came together because they happened to arrive within a day of two of each other. The following day meant several Keemuns; the tasting on day after that comprised Assams.  In spring (with Green teas), the groups make for easy categorizing, and this easy logic is also found in Oolong after the autumn harvest.  For weeks in between, the following mix is fairly representative.

The first was a Huang Shan Maofeng Green (Yellow Mountain).

Huang Shan Maofeng (Yellow Mtn, a green tea from Anhui)

This tea from the area inundated with tourists in Anhui is one of China’s traditional top 10 teas.  The tea’s identification with Yellow Mtn, is no small factor that accounts for its fame.  This one was clean, light, and there was no easy objection.  Yet I remembered the same Green from another shipper that was more exuberant, if that term can be applied to a minimalist Green tea, yielding more aroma and taste besides the expected cleansing, pleasant mild vegetal flavor of the cup here.  Yes, the better tea was about 40% costlier and I hesitated to buy not only beause of the price but because this tea seems to have fallen out of favor in recent years, at least in the U. S.  market.

There are other China Green teas that can be had for less money with virtually the same flavor profile, so the allure of this tea is probably very much dependent on it being an expression of place.  At this component declines in importance to the consumer, it is easy to see why this tea has waned in prominence.  So, that was a pass.

The next was also a big name Green, from Zhejiang: AnJi Bai Pian, a Green tea that has the word “white” in its name that seems to cause more confusion than edification.

AnJi Bai ('white") Green tea

The “white” refers to the leaves that turn ivory after being infused.  More and more of late, this distinctive feature is harder to find.  Too much rain, too much sun, lower leaves rather than the tippy top pluckings — all account for whether the infused leaves pretty much stay green or turn that amazing shade of ivory-celadon.  This is a high priced Green and therefore demands careful cupping.

It is one thing to brew “friendly,” that is, adopting temperatures and times that allow teas to show themselves at their best.  But when cupping is done with a view to buy or not to buy, strict or hard brewing is called for; this will allow any defects to come forth.

In the case of the AnJi Bai Pian before us on this day, it was obvious that the tea had come from lesser quality leaves.  Not only did the leaves not change color, but the leaves are quite large and were beginning to show tinge of yellow.  Even this grade, however, was not inexpensive; so, another pass.

Gu Zhu Zi Sun is a mouthful.  This is a relatively well known tea from Zhejiang, and its delightful “purple bamboo” in the name understandably draws one in.

"Purple Bamboo" Green tea from Zhejiang

Alas, no hint of purple can be seen in the leaves, yet the image still appeal.s    Kit Chow writes that this tea dates back to the Tang dynasty when it was a tribute tea.  The tea name was inspired by the pointed buds of the spring flush, reminiscent of bamboo shoots.

Purple Bamboo: good plucking quality is evident.

The cup was bracing and not over-friendly, which leads me to ask:

If we are to drink these three Greens, what is the drinker going for; what is the tea consumer asking for from these teas?

3 cups of Green: Yellow Mtn Maofeng, Anji Bai, Purple Bamboo

What these 3 teas share is a big name: one for the mountain associated with the gardens; another attained its fame because a subtle but discernible color transformation results when hot water is poured onto the leaves, and the 3rd because it has enjoyed traditional renown.  The flavor profile was these 3 are not dramatically different: pale gold in the cup, these are not assertive, not easily described other than to say light and delicate, which might be just another way of saying rather minimalist in flavor and not too extraordinary or remarkable.  These teas do not come cheaply.  They are more than pleasant, especially if the drinker knows a little about China Green teas, but what would drive the marketing of these teas?  It seems overly optimistic to expect that the name alone would entice.

Next in line on the counter were two Da Hong Pao (DHP).  Similar to the fortunes made with Puer some years ago, this amber Oolong is making some tea farmers and producers rich.  The tea has a lot going for it: as an expression of a famous and scenic park reserve (Wuyi) where the plots are very small, thereby dictating small harvests; the fact that visitors and anyone who skims for information will learn that there exist six mother bushes, and “da hong” mean “big red,” a felicitous color ubiquitous in celebrations.

Da Hong Pao -- a Wuyi Rock Oolong

Again, I pose the question about what it is we ask from such a tea.

Da Hong Pao - the infused leaves

At the lofty prices to which DHP teas are pegged, I think a note of umami in a long finish is an essential component.  In the delivery, one first senses fire and roasting; the aroma is undeniable and easily fills the room in which the tea is brewed.  That sensation is followed by the taste of what was smelled, toasted grain and vanilla, a hint of sweetness, and enough going on in the mouth to demand more sips.

Deep apricot-caramel color shows higher firing used for Da Hong Pao.

The two samples in front of us this day, however, just seemed to be highly roasted dark Oolongs.  I missed the layers to savor and to wonder about; the finish was one-note, of fire in one instance and of over firing in the other.  So, two more passes.  None of the teas tasted so far would be purchased.

By now the room was fragrant with the bouquet of two other Oolongs, one a Huang Zhi Xiang, a type of single trunk Oolong and two honey-orchid single-trunk Oolongs.

Huang Zhi Xiang oolong

Keep in mind how much aroma the 3 cups could yield, plus that little bit that escaped the brewing mugs when the tea was poured.  Not even the lids had been lifted, and yet the luscious high aroma of Oolongs beckoned, not of flowers or orchards but of toasted grain.

Huang Zhi Xiang in the cup: note how light the brew color is, keeping in mind how dark and hefty the dry leaves are.

From this category, I ask that the teas offer a long finish, extravagant aroma that transfers to the palate, and notes of dried fruit — ephemeral but distinctive enough to make you return to the cup again and again.  There should be a good deal to savor when held in the mouth.

The two honey orchid Single Trunk teas were easy, because this was a pairing, making for ready comparison.  The first cup that seemed so delicious became a bit less attractive when the second (and as we learned later after checking the quote) was sampled.  In that second cup, we found a focus and concentration of the deep fruit that makes this type of tea so enjoyable.  If I had to identify the taste, longan comes to mind immediately.

The other was a Huang Zhi Xiang, an Oolong with long straggly leaves that are not particularly noteworthy.  This tea, at its best, shows off an astounding fragrance (xiang means fragrant).  We’d samples 3 already this season and had not chosen any.  This one was the best of the lot, with a delicate honey character that seemed to combine flowers and grain,  but after some wavering, we also passed.  The demand for such a tea is not high, which is unfortunate because it is a lovely, delicious tea that can be addictive, yet the price is daunting.

The last cup of that morning was a Huang Jin Kwei, an Oolong with “gold” and “osmanthus” in its name to convey its remarkable fragrance, even though no flowers are added.

Huang Jin Kwei Oolong -- the greenish hue tells you right away that this was made in the light/fragrant style.

This particular sample, however, had been made in the “light/fragrant” style: lightly oxidized to produce a friendly, very floral tea rather than one that emphasized the roasted feature of Oolong.  Strong plumeria notes wafting up from the cup make this a very approachable tea, and this is apparently what the domestic market in China now seeks.

Huang Jin Kwei ~ pale, golden brew; more Oolongs are now made to produce this result.

Such teas do not keep very well and don’t have enough concentration to bloom when brewed in gongfu sets.  The first cup or two, however, are undeniably gentle and welcoming.

So this particular morning’s session with no teas going onto an order form.  As my tasting colleague remarked, we felt rather like Goldilocks, finding one tea too light/green and another too fired.  What was missing was balance, when all the features you ask of a particular tea (aroma, taste, finish, etc.) come into harmony.

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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung