Saturday, November 07, 2015

Fengqing Dragon Pearl

Production of certain teas can wend their way deep into a region's history and dianhong- the malty Yunnan red tea - was surprisingly born out of WWII necessity.  As the Japanese controlled the black tea producing regions of eastern China,  a tea company sent the able Mr. Feng Shaoqiu west to Yunnan to develop a new base for black tea production.  According to the Yunnan gov't site, black tea was critical for the Nationalist Chinese government/KMT to get the much needed foreign cash from the Western export market to fight against the Japanese invasion.  The first shipment of dianhong was sold to  England via Hong Kong as the middlemen for an astounding $8/lb.  Life in a Teacup also has an interesting take on dianhong's origin story but omits the "dianhong=export $$$=guns against Japanese" angle.   Regardless of where the tea revenue went, dianhong was a huge boost to the warn torn economy not only to the region but the nation.  Mr. Feng and his crew indisputably introduced a delicious new tea to the world and served the nation in one go.  
I wonder if those tea vendors that label their high-end dianhong "imperial" know it doesn't apply to the Chinese end.  The only Chinese emperor who could have drunk dianhong was the last unfortunate Puyi who obviously would not have been gifted dianhong during his tenure as a Japanese puppet nor as communist persona non grata.  However dianhong was a gift for the Western royals including Queen Elizabeth II so I guess imperial designation as a marketing term has some validity.  For imperial grade, I expect the golden tips to shimmer with a fine thick fuzz of golden hairs.

Most of the dianhong comes from Fengqing as the original region Mr. Feng chose supposedly for producing the highest quality leaf.  I would have thought Mr. Feng more sensibly chose the region with the best roads and steady mass production over absolute best leaf but this source indicates he did choose an area for the impressive tea forest which had poor road access and facilities.  His mandate was to produce the highest quality tea to fetch the highest market price.  Still, there's no reason why you can't have dianhong made from tea grown anywhere in Yunnan as dianhong 滇紅 means red tea from Yunnan ( "Dian/" =short name for Yunnan and hong/=red tea).  I've had dianhong from nearby Simao as well as the high altitude dianhong YS gets from Wuliang as well as supposed wild tree dianhong.  Most are satisfying to pretty good but it's very rare I find magical dianhong.  To those more in love with the wild mood swings of puerh,  dianhong lacks such dynamism and behaves much more like pumpkin pie.  About 8 years ago I had a compressed dianhong from YS that had a lovely smoky flavor and it was the closest any tea could come to tasting like bacon. 

To rev up a sleepy Saturday afternoon, I brewed up one of the Teavivre samples Emmett included for me.  Less than a decade ago I used to chug dianhong by the gallons.  At first, imperial Yunnan gold used to be a special treat for me as I procured dianhong overpriced from western outfits like Adagio and Rishi. Then I found budgetlicious China prices on ebay and YS- I started glugging more dianhong than water.  But familiarity led to contempt and I ran against a hongcha wall where for a few years I simply could not swallow any more Yunnan gold.  It taught me if you really love a particular tea- don't drink your fill even if you can.

A few years ago I started drinking dianhong again- the lengthy hiatus made me appreciate dianhong's reliable malty goodness again.  This sample is hand rolled into pearls.  I brewed it in a glass teapot so I can peep in but I shouldn't have. It's not unlike seeing a lady's tight hair bun unravel in a messy way. The tea is comforting- solid and robust in the classic hongcha way. Thanks to Emmett.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Brewing Fannings

What to do about the pesky bits of tea crumb that are unfit for teapot brewing?  Like taxes in life, you simply cannot avoid fannings in puerh.  Even if your whole leaf cake arrived in pristine unmolested condition, careful excavation for a session will still generate crumbs. You think you can steam your way out of it, but still somehow fannings were hiding in the cake originally.  Tuos and bricks tend to have lots of chop so you are guaranteed fannings.  Puerh samples by their very nature produce abundant fannings.  Fannings simply indicate broken up leaf but fannings and dust have specific grades- I'm talking about leaves broken up smaller than the size rice grains that can seriously clog up your teapots.  While I will brew the larger broken leaves for initial tastings,  I rarely brew up the smaller fannings because I always have bigger leaf to brew.

I brewed up the fannings of a ho-hum 90's sheng yesterday for kicks. This stone pressed aged beeng was almost a quarter fannings- completely battered by the boat journey from China.  I was just tired of seeing the half cup of fannings in the wrapper continually degrading into yet smaller pieces every time I handled this beeng that I resolved to drink it up once and for all.  I tend to keep larger amounts of fannings with the original cake and the smaller amounts I toss in separate canisters- one for sheng one for shu.  I've brewed up shu fannings with regret- life is too short for that.

Fannings are graded inferior to whole leaf and I've often seen whole leaf tea vendors dismiss fannings as producing a bitter harsher brew. With other types of non-ageable teas, freshness could be a big issue with fannings but how about puerh.  Fannings with greater surface area leach more quickly so it's a lot easier to overbrew than whole leaf but is the taste significantly inferior?  Puerh fannings definitely should age faster and I'll empirically agree that they definitely oxidize faster.

You can gather dust and fannings up in a teabag and determine for yourself.  I brew fannings in a sieve for convenience. Flash brewing control is the key- no teapot I have drains fast enough for crumbs even if clogging were not an issue.  My sieve yields a decent enough cup that was not too different from the whole leaf session of this tea. However this aged sheng is like peanut butter- mediocre at it's best and worst.   I tend not to get the best puerh brew from a sieve I'm guessing from lack of heat retention in my setup.  I often employ a sieve when traveling and for me it beats brewing grandpa style.  Tea sieve is definitely more grandma style.

I'm sipping shu while waiting for the kiddies to come knocking any minute as tonight is the favored American holiday where adults are forced to distribute free candy to anyone knocking. For years I tried to hand out healthier nut/raisin packs/granola bars but kids were so damn unappreciative that I went back to conventional sugar bombs.  I got some "Cry Baby" sour balls for good pranking fun.  Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

03 Menghai Crab's Claw

Feasting on the sweet ample flesh of Dungeness crabs is one of the true luxuries of living in the Bay Area.  In an attempt to share this seafood goodness with my east coast family,  I used to fly with a cooler full of live crabs on JetBlue. But the hairy eyeballs I would get from flight agents was enough deterrent that I stopped doing it after a few occasions.  This year, I'm not sure if I will indulge in a full crab feast as there's been massive toxic algae blooms on this side of the Pacific due to the warmer waters. Yesterday I really had a hankering for a crab and I had to make do with canned crab claw meat from Sri Lanka.   

Post Saturday crab omelette brunch, I wanted to pick out a tea to settle our laden bellies. I got lazy and unimaginative and pulled out the 2003 Menghai Crab's Claw.  Crab's claw or crab's feet (螃蟹脚/pang xie jiao/Viscum Articulatum Burmanum) is a parasitic vine - a type of leafless mistletoe growing among the older tea trees. Crab's claw is blessed with a long long list of purported medicinal healing properties ranging from spleen re-invigoration, hypertension, to joint pain.  Indeed I bought it back in '06 to help cure my husband's persistent cough. I could not attribute it's dubious efficacy to the low dosage or lack of shelf life but I enjoyed the tea for itself.

The underlying tea was quite gentle even back then and it was one sheng I could drink without burden. A light bulb should have gone off in my brain that I should stick to older cakes but my clueless younger self did not quite fit the pieces of the puzzle.

It's been almost ten years I've brewed this puppy and I am pleasantly surprised the taste is still refreshing and light- completely smooth and soft in the mouth. It didn't get weaker nor did it get stronger. I got almost excited that I sniffed a tiny whiff of camphor scent in the teapot.  There's only a wee bit of claw sprinkled on top so the taste and fragrance is really the underlying tea.   I do find that the crab's claw can soften the taste of a brew when I add some of the Jingmai crab's claw Ira gave me previously to sheng.

The verdict many come to is that crab's claw is one of the novelty fringe tea gimmicks you might try once or twice.  Since you can get just pure crab's claw from YS and other outfits to enhance your sheng of choice,  it's definitely not worth buying pre-sprinkled beeng. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Yan Qing Hao Gushu Shroom

Autumn is a season that is often tinged with regret especially more so in years when the first half of the year you struggled and struggled against life's forces without reprieve.  One's sorrows can be even harder to bear in the long days of winter.  But I pump both my fists up in the air and vow to enjoy the last warm days of fall and to regret nothing.

This Friday, I was the happy and grateful recipient of a tea box from Cha Kung Fu's Emmett. His wife recently gave birth to a lovely daughter so I feel even more grateful and surprised he could squeeze me in.  I've only done auntie duty but I know how precious even one free minute can be when you are taking care of newborn.  Congratulations Emmett!

Emmett procured some quality Yanqing Hao with a group purchase from a Taiwanese supplier last fall.  Not sure what I was doing that I would miss out on such a plum opportunity but through Emmett's generosity I still get to try.  I brewed the '07 Gushu Jincha this morning.    The more believable gushus I've had tended to be gentle on the body and yet potent - like a really good acupressure massage.  And so it was partly so with this YQH.

Every genre has it's cliches and sorry I had to pull a "gentle yet powerful" on you dear reader.  Those words are applied more commonly to colon cleansers than it is to puerh although some sheng can boast both applications.  But what do I mean exactly? Because the "gentle" adjective on puerh rides a fine line between pleasantly mellow and outright weak, the tea needs to manifest some energy on your body not to be dismissed simply as feeble.  My husband's friend had swung by to help with some physical labor and even with the few thimblefuls of this YQH I served them- they told me they were able to power through thanks to the tea.

As far as the decade old taste goes, this jincha was a tasty brew that made me regret not having tried it when it was a youngish sheng-  it must have been a sparkle in the mouth as a newborn.  From Yan Qing Hao's facebook page, I found their album for this '07 Jincha but not much description:
As any useful Yanqing Hao data on the web was scarce, I ended up clicking through Mr. Yan's Yunnan trip photos on houde.  I'm surprised how young and plump-faced he looked a decade ago. I'm also surprised how similar vendor photos of Yunnan maocha buying trips tend to be. You can check a box for the following types of photos all with the tea vendor looking sweaty:

  • shot holding a sack of precious maocha
  • shot of bamboo pan with sun dried macha
  • shot in front of the wok full of dry-fried maocha
  • shots with native tea picking grandmas or better yet maidens
  • shots with village kids...
(I was too lazy to make a photo collage...)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Autumnal Brew

To properly celebrate the autumnal equinox in Berkeley, I rely on pumpkins to signal the end of summer.  Because the seasons can be ambiguous and inconsistent in the Bay Area, we have to make a special effort to denote the seasons. 
Warty squashes thankfully have their admirers and if I had my way, I would fill up my house with dozens of misshapen varieties. Once I had a tower of blue triambles as our Christmas tree.  This year I settled on the blue Marina di Chioggia being more mindful of their culinary ends while my husband chose the peachy Galeuse d'Eysines.  Supposedly sugars leaching through the skin is what causes these peanut skin like protrusions so this beauty must be quite the sweet bomb. We have about six months to keep it so I may not split it open until next year.

In cooler weather, I find the darker roasted brews more appealing- roasted oolongs and yanchas fitting the bill. I find I've become less finicky and I tend to brew what's within easy reach. I've been going through leftover Wuyi Star yanchas from my rock bottom yancha phase.  While I would not bother to buy their De Hong Pao again, it's quite alright on a autumn Sunday afternoon for some warm cozy feels.