As I wrote about in my other blog, we went to Portland, Oregon for a book show last week. I was there to roll out my new book (Who Pooped in the Cascades?) and to take a look at interesting books from other authors — not to mention a whole lot of networking. What I didn’t mention in that other blog was that I took some time out to meet fellow tea blogger Geoffrey Norman for a cup or three of tea (and maybe a beer or two, but that’s completely beside the point). I told Geoffrey to pick his favorite tea shop in Portland and take me there. He chose The Jasmine Pearl on NE 22nd, and the adventure went from there…
My son, Doug, accompanied Geoffrey and I to the shop, and we entered to the wondrous smell of tea blending and brewing. We met the owners and several other staff members, and then settled in to browse.
As I typically do when entering a new tea shop, I explored their tea list to see what they had available. They had the usual selection of flavored teas & scented tea (Earl Grey, Moroccan mint, jasmine pearls…) and old standbys (tieguanyin, English breakfast, gunpowder green…). They also had some very interesting-looking varietals and single-source teas, including kukicha, dong ding oolong, and Gaba oolong.
After we looked around a bit, they informed us that tasting was free and pretty much everything was available to taste. One of the staff pulled out a couple of gaiwans, along with cups, strainers, and other related accoutrements, and asked where we’d like to start.
We started with the kukicha and dong ding oolong, and they were both good. The Gaba oolong, on the other hand, was an absolutely wonderful, and it has a great story behind it, too — but that’s for another blog post.
After going through the oolongs, Doug chose to try his favorite, a lapsang souchong, and he ended up loving it.
I, on the other hand, wanted to try pu-erhs.
I asked her what was their richest, earthiest, most complex pu-erh. She immediately guided me to the Gold Nugget. Not to spoil the ending to this story, but I ended up buying some to bring home.
It looks like any other brick of pu-erh when it’s wrapped up like that, but when the wrapper comes off, it gets different. It seems that it has the name “Gold Nugget” for a reason.
Most pressed tea is made with larger leaf varietals of Camellia sinensis, and the leaves are laid out rather randomly. This requires flaking off bits of the tea with a pu-erh knife or some similar implement. This shu (“ripe”) pu-erh uses whole leaves, but they are rolled up like an oolong or gunpowder tea first. These “nuggets” are then pressed into the cake.
When I’m comparing tea, I like to keep the variables to a minimum. The little pile of nuggets in the picture weighs 7 grams. I put them in my infuser and did a 10-second wash with boiling water, which I drained out completely. Then I added 16 ounces of boiling water and let it steep for three minutes.
To me, three minutes is a long steep time for a shu pu-erh. When I’m drinking my favorite pu-erhs, I usually go for more like 90 seconds. Our first taste of this in the tea bar, on the other hand, was steeped for five minutes, because I told her I liked it strong.
I do, indeed, like it strong, but after steeping for five minutes, the flavors are rather muddled together. That’s why my first pass at home was for three.
The result was exactly what I had asked for: rich and complex are great adjectives for this tea. This is pretty much the polar opposite of the last pu-erh I blogged about. I will, however, be using longer steep times than usual for my first infusion, simply because those nuggets are rolled so tight that it takes a couple of infusions to open them up all the way.
All in all, it was a great trip, and I came back with some great tea, lots and lots of autographed books, and some fond memories. After the tea tasting, we met my wife at a sushi restaurant and had some wonderful sushi rolls and interesting beers. I wouldn’t say Geoff knows as much about beer as he does about tea, but I think we’ll be having some future conversations about the differences and similarities in teas and beers.
At World Tea Expo this year, I picked up a Laotian pu-erh (well, technically a “dark tea,” since it doesn’t come from Yunnan) from Kevin Gascoyne at Camellia Sinensis Tea House. I mentioned this in a blog post back in June, and said I’d be tasting it and writing about it “soon.” Well, since it’s a very young sheng (a.k.a. “raw”) pu-erh, I figured it wasn’t a big hurry, and “soon” ended up being October. Oh, well. Had to get all that Oktoberfest stuff out of the way first, I suppose.
Let me begin by explaining the label and the style of this tea.
That big “2011” on the label is the year that it was produced. Most pu-erh drinkers will tell you that a sheng pu-erh should be aged a minimum of five years before you drink it. I certainly won’t argue that the flavors improve and ripen as the tea ages, but in my humble opinion there’s nothing at all wrong with drinking a young sheng. I enjoyed the bit that I took off of this 357-gram beeng cha (pressed cake), but I’ll be saving most of it to drink as it matures. Will I be able to hang on another three years or more to drink the majority of it? That remains to be seen.
The words “Phong Sali” do not refer to the style of the tea, but to its origin. Phong Sali (or, more commonly, Phongsali) is the capital of Phongsali province in Laos. Technically, as I mentioned above, this tea style should be called by its generic name (“dark tea”) rather than its regional name (“pu-erh”), because it doesn’t come from the Yunnan province of China. Since the little town of Phongsali (population about 6,000) is only about 50 miles from Yunnan (which borders Phongsali province on the west and north), I think we can let that bit of terminology slide.
“Old tree” refers to the tea plants themselves. In most modern plantations, the tea is pruned to about waist height to make it easy to pick. In many older plantations, the tea has been allowed to grow into trees, which can reach heights of thirty feet or more. The particular tea trees from which this tea comes are over 100 years old.
Tasting the tea
Unwrapping the beeng cha provided my first close look at the tea. The leaves are quite large, and the cake is threaded with golden leaves that didn’t oxidize fully.
There is still enough moisture in the cake to make it fairly easy to flake off some tea from one edge. Shu pu-erh is often dried very hard, as it is “force fermented” so that it will be ready to drink earlier. Sheng pu-erh, on the other hand, needs a bit of moisture in it to continue fermenting over time. I decided to try it in a gaiwan rather than making a large cup, so that it would be easier to experiment with multiple infusions and smell/taste the tea as I went.
I used water just a bit cooler than boiling (water boils at 202°F at this altitude, and I used 195°F water for this tea), and roughly 7 or 8 grams of tea. Unscientific, I know, but I didn’t measure it. I steeped the tea for just a minute the first time, and got a delicate but flavorful cup of tea. The flavor is similar to a characteristic Chinese green tea (think dragonwell), but more woody and with a bit of spice.
The picture on the right shows the leaves, uncurled after the first steeping. They are large, supple, and fragrant.
That one-minute steep wasn’t really enough to hydrate the leaves, so I went for a second steep at 1:30 (pictured at left above). Much more flavor, but still extremely delicate compared to a fully-aged sheng pu-erh. I enjoyed a third and fourth steep, which had only minor changes in flavor, but was interrupted before I had a chance to keep going and see how it stood up to eight or ten steeps. An experiment for a quieter day, I suppose.
This tea is definitely worth enjoying a bit early, and I will definitely be coming back to it. Again, we’ll see how much survives to full maturity. I’m not very good at waiting!