Saturday, September 13, 2014

Not All Tea is Sacred

One of my lovely friends A is one of the most open minded generous souls I know.  She's traveled to many remote corners of this world including Afghanistan but now is happily rooted in the Big Island of Hawaii.  She told me a golden tea story which I share with you now.  She was hiking in a remote valley in Nepal when a traveling Nepali family joined them on a narrow footpath.  Sometimes they would overtake her, and she would overtake them. After a few hours, they were sitting for a break and waved to her to join them for tea.

My friend was honored to be asked and as the guest was offered the first cup.  Every one was smiling at her urging her to drink so she enthusiastically took her first sip.  It was and remains the most vile thing she had ever downed-  she struggled mightily to keep her gag reflex in check.  She even managed to smile and finish a cup.  She was certain yak dung was the principal ingredient in this horrible brew. Though she graciously tried to refuse any more, she had to endure unending rounds of refills till the tea ran out.

I think there is some debate currently about relativity in the quality of tea.  I thought I would talk about shu since it's a genre with less dogma or ego.   Shu drinkers are already a beaten lot without the pride of connoisseurship.  Shu tends to be made with lesser grade leaves that isn't good enough for sheng, composted in giant piles under stained wool blankets then raked around by men without hair nets.   Generally shu drinkers do not make too much an effort to pretend shu is something refined and amazing and are most grateful when the tea doesn't taste like the smears of a barnyard.   Also with shu,  a drinker's reaction tends to be more visceral:

Bad shu=triggers gag reflex and/or delivers regretful amounts of intestinal distress.
Good shu= does not offend and can be drunk without a grimace.

I've had a friend spit out his first cup of shu- a Menghai Golden Needle White Lotus no less and to those unaccustomed to the taste of dirt- it's undrinkable. It took me years to get past my initial unfavorable response. But among those who count themselves as shu drinkers, I rarely see heated debates around the merit of a shu.  At the positive end, reviews tend to cluster tepidly around "not so bad" to "pleasant".   Drinkers tend to have lower expectations with far less at stake with shu which makes for a more open mind.  No one to impress and not much to be impressed by.

When a shu is even a notch above ho-hum i.e. mellow, smooth, and drinkable,  I am exceedingly pleased.   These De Hong High Plateau bricks I re-upped last year at $16.80 a kilo are as fabulous as cheap shu will ever get- it's got an herbal finish with a lively mouthfeel.  I had to go through perhaps 30+ shus- most forgettably decent, some scar-inducing - to reach a shu I consider kind of compelling.   I've drunk enough factory floor shu to know I don't have to keep on prying my mind open when the shu is out and out disgusting even after multiple rinses and past the fourth brew.  But most often, many shus are just kind of pleasantly boring and really - not many will think too hard about it or get too hot under the collar about it. 

8 comments:

  1. Shou has earned my respect as a counterbalance to the cold feet of some young green teas and Wisconsin winters. And I have to take my hat off to folks like Crimson Lotus and Rich (Steepster) who are not only chasing down, and finding, the shou with chocolate or Extra Plummy flavors, but they have managed to give up morning coffee in favor of drinking shou, which is more than I have managed to do. If I want the good stuff, I know who to ask. Thanks for the recommendation here too, I'll check it out!

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    1. Cywn,

      Shu definitely has it's place more so during the cooler seasons. What would you consider to be the good stuff? I've given up on buying shu as the 40 cakes and numerous shu samples I already have go mostly untouched. I'd buy more if amazing shu was out there as I've got no shortage of pretty good shu. I think that's the problem with shu- it's nigh impossible to find a knocker.

      H

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    2. Again, I would defer to Glen and his wife Lamu at Crimson Lotus, Lamu is from Yunnan and shu is their company speciality and family staple. These folks focus on nuances in shu, whereas I am merely a gulper. A tea drinker friend of mine who is a Chinese medicine doctor suggested to me I should balance my stomach qi out from raw tea by drinking cooked shou. I have followed his advice, but I treat cooked tea as a medicinal, Glen and Lamu focus on finer attributes. I would talk to them for ideas on finer shou. If somebody is going to ask me for a shou to just balance out qi, I would say get a 7572 with a couple years age on it and call it a day.

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  2. Shou is definitely something I've struggled with. Prior to discovering sheng, I was convinced that I hated puerh. I kept thinking that something must be wrong with my taste buds because other people buy and drink it. I'm still searching for a shou that I love but I think we are getting closer. There are so many vendors custom making their own cakes now. They're using increasingly higher quality leaf rather than just buying whatever junk they come across.

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    1. Nicole,

      Menghai probably has been making high end shus for the longest. Still nobody puts their best leaves into shu. You can try the shus of higher leaf quality but don't force yourself to like it. Don't doubt your own tastebuds.

      I've quaffed many a high end Menghai and other gong ting style beengs; they are nice but they don't make me particularly excited to drink shu.

      H

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  3. I agree with you that shu puerh performs much better in cooler temperature ... here's the season (almost) !

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    1. Dear Ira,

      We must then get together for a winter shu session!

      H

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  4. :-) This made me chuckle. ;-)

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