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Our final “new” pu-erh is even older–it’s a loose pu-erh sold to us as “17-year-old Menghai Dayi Gong Ting Pu-erh.”  Like our unwrapped 2003 brick, this tea comes to us without formal packaging or pedigree, so we’ve got to take its provenance with a grain of salt and pay attention to our senses to determine its quality.  “Gong Ting” refers to the erstwhile tradition of the best teas being gifted to the Chinese imperial court.  Today, it’s often used to describe loose cooked pu-erh of the smallest grade.  One look at the leaves of this tea and it seems to be a fair appellation–they’re tiny!  The tea seems to be almost entirely composed of buds, too, which range from dark brown to golden in color.  I can see this grade being included in a blended cake, but it’s hard to imagine a cake made of leaves this small–it seems like it wouldn’t manage to stay together!

As might be expected, the high number of tea buds included in this tea indicate above-average sweetness.  When it comes to pu-erh, though, tons of buds also seem to inevitably bring high notes in aroma as well as the strength and occasional harshness that improves significantly with age.  Luckily for us, this tea’s already had its fair share of storage and the flavors are blending pretty well.  Compared to our other new teas, the mouthfeel is surprisingly dry–I wouldn’t say astringent, but it doesn’t leave a thick or oily texture in the mouth after swallowing.  There’s also a considerable amount of strength to this tea–what would most likely come across as intense bitterness in a raw pu-erh is here a slight sharpness that develops into musty sweetness in the finish.  It’s pretty amazing to me that a tea can undergo ripened pu-erh processing as well as aging and retain as much of an edge as teas like this have.  To me, these kinds of characteristics are indication that the tea will only continue to mellow with further aging.  As it stands today, this is a great ripened pu-erh option if you’re interested in a tea with a bit of a kick.  It’s not the supremely mellow experience of our 2003 brick, but it’s also a better choice for gong fu, with quite a bit of development and stamina over multiple steepings, developing deeper flavors as the infusions wear on.  I wouldn’t rule out mixing a bit of this with the 2003 brick for a broad-ranging blend, either!

Our next “new” pu-erh has actually got some age on it–it’s a 250 gram brick from 2003.  Like our ’09 7452 cake it’s hard to start talking about this one without raising some common confusing aspects of the pu-erh experience.  For starters, the brick is called “Menghai,” and as the last notes mentioned, this tea was created in Menghai county, Yunnan province, but not at Menghai Tea Factory.  Secondly, you can see that this cake is a different shape–indeed, it’s not the standard 357 gram bing (disc-shaped cake) into which the majority of pu-erh is pressed; it’s a 250 gram rectangular brick.  Though this shape is not the #1 norm, it’s relatively common and 250g is the standard brick weight.  You may also notice that these bricks have no wrappers (aside from the bamboo wrapper that holds multiple bricks).

  As is sometimes the case with aged pu-erh, this cake was either never wrapped or was removed from its wrappers some time in its eight years of storage.  Although this does mean that there is much less information to verify a cake’s age, origin and authenticity (no wrapper, no nei fei pressed into the cake), it usually means that the cake will sell for much less.  In other words, you can get a better deal on an unwrapped aged cake than a wrapped one, and just because it’s unwrapped doesn’t mean it’s not good!  Rather than relying on information provided on a wrapper, though, we have to use our senses to decide whether a tea’s a worthy investment.

This brick’s relatively dry Yunnan storage means that the leaves flake pretty easily off the cake surface–in fact, the brick itself is a bit flexible in hand.  What has struck me most about this cake during tasting is its mouthfeel–it’s by far the smoothest and roundest of our three new teas, and there’s nary a hint of astringency to be found from start to finish.  The tea liquor is also the darkest of the three–it’s a barely penetrable black, even in our glass cups.  While I described our 7452 as the best choice for gong fu brewing, my recommendation for this tea is “Western”-style brewing in a mug or pot–like we serve most of our teas at Miro.  While it does stand up to a few repeated steeps, the body is fullest and most impressive when it’s allowed a nice long 5+ minute steep.  Additionally, the flavor more fully develops given some extra steeping time.  The tea isn’t quite as complex as the Menghai Factory blend, but it’s a brilliant example of ideal mouthfeel for any pu-erh.  The eight years of aging have definitely contributed to this characteristic, as well as the mellowing of the flavor.  There aren’t as many high notes up front, and there’s little to no remnants of the flavor that freshly-processed ripened pu-erh exhibits.  Some teas seem designed for careful connoisseur attention over the course of numerous steeps.  This one, however, seems best drunk casually on a relaxing afternoon, as it exemplifies the calming, mellowing characteristics to which all pu-erh should aspire.

It’s been quite a while since we’ve had new ripened (cooked) pu-erh offerings at Miro Tea; a few months ago we sold out of the last of our 2007 Chang Tai Red Crane cakes, and shortly after our 2006 International Tea Expo Memorial cakes disappeared–a lot of customers have asked after the teas, wondering when we’ll be restocking them.  Sometimes the unfortunate thing about the aged pu-erh world is that once something is gone, it’s really gone–our supplier sold out close to a year ago, so all we have of those two cakes is memories!  Fortunately, though, it’s also an opportunity to try some new teas, thanks to our new partnership with Yunnan Sourcing!  We have three new (to us) ripened/cooked pu-erh cakes that are already available at Miro for your tasting pleasure–Jeannie has introduced a couple of them at our weekly tea tastings (Saturdays at 1 pm) and they’ve gone over quite well.

Before I launch into notes about one of our new cakes, it might be helpful to reference the introductory article that’s been on this blog a few years already.  We get a fair number of customers inquiring about this strange pu-erh tea they’ve had once or only heard about, but in most cases it turns out that they’re more specifically looking for ripened or cooked pu-erh.  It’s the one that looks extremely dark in the cup (sometimes almost black) and is usually extremely smooth in the mouth, with full body, earthy flavor and often times a nice round sweetness.  Raw/green pu-erh, on the other hand, looks much lighter in the cup, has more of a straw-like flavor, is often bitter and astringent, and only develops rich smoothness after many years (often decades) of careful storage.  If you don’t care to reference the lengthy article, here’s the main thing that separates ripened pu-erh from raw: ripened pu-erh is artificially aged over a short period of time using a special process not unlike composting wherein the leaves are heaped, sprayed with water and change physically and chemically due to the autothermal generation of heat.  The piles are shifted by knowledgeable tea masters to ensure their even processing, and when they’re ready, the leaves are usually compressed into large cakes (just like raw pu-erh).

This, the first of our new offerings, is a 2009 example of Menghai Factory’s 7452 recipe.  One sentence in, and I’ve already mentioned some of the classic confusing pu-erh details.  What’s Menghai?  Well, Menghai (pronounced mung-high) is both a county in China’s Yunnan province (where all pu-erh comes from) and the name of the most famous pu-erh producing factory.  Therefore, it’s possible to describe a tea as “from” Menghai without it being from Menghai factory (as you’ll see with our next tea).  Menghai Factory is widely believed to be the first factory to have perfected the processing whereby ripened pu-erh is created, though there’s some disagreement as to whether it was back in the 1950’s or later around the 1970’s that this was accomplished.  Either way, their recipes are tried-and-true in the pu-erh world and we’re happy to be able to share with you an example of “industry standard” pu-erh.  Speaking of recipes, the final confusing issue is that of recipe number–7452 is read as “seventy-four five two.”  “Seventy-four” refers to the year the recipe was created (1974), “five” refers to the average grade (size, corresponding from low to high) of leaves used, and “two” is Menghai Factory’s “code”–any recipe tea purchased from Menghai Factory will always end with a “2.”

Many Menghai recipes are made every year.  This one, in fact, isn’t–there’s a red ribbon embedded in each 357 gram cake denoting its status as a special release.  Unlike raw pu-erh, which takes decades to mature, ripened pu-erh is ready to drink immediately.  This doesn’t mean, however, that it won’t improve with age–the fact that this tea’s already a couple of years old means that any sharpness or “fermented” taste from its processing has had some time to mellow and the flavors are well-blended.  The reasonable percentage of buds visible in the cake indicate that it’ll have some sweetness or at least some nice higher notes in the flavor.  It doesn’t disappoint in that regard–the first thing to come out in tasting was a nice malty sweetness.  The body of this tea is also somewhat light for a cooked pu-erh, which can be a nice change of pace from what is often a rather heavy tea genre.  Of our three new pu-erh teas, this is my pick for gong fu brewing–you might need to use a few more leaves than usual (I’d recommend at least 7 grams for 100ml), but the blend of leaves produces a nice session that really gets going after the first two infusions–full of changes on the palate, varying degrees of mouthfeel and a welcome bit of complexity.  Brewed long in a mug or pot, the tea is quite flavorful, packed on numerous different levels.  There are more “boutique” brands of ripened pu-erh, but Menghai Factory continues to deliver quality tea at extremely affordable prices–this 7452 cake is a solid stand-by and a good reference to which our customers can compare other teas.




This week, we will

be hosting some exciting new events in the shop. Tomorrow night,

this group reading of Seattle poets featuring Megan Snyder-Camp, Laura Shoemaker, and Sarah Steinke. An MFA graduate of the University of Washington creative writing program who has taught at the UW and Hugo House, Megan Snyder-Camp is here with her debut book of poems, The Forest of Sure Things (Tupelo Press). This received the Tupelo/Crazyhorse Award for outstanding first book. “Megan Snyder-Camp’s poems, like mosaics, are built of curious and gem-like pieces: stand close and they’re entrancing; take a few steps back and they reveal a sweeping, vaster movement of mind. With a quiet magical realism and audible adoration of language, Snyder-Camp builds an intensely personal yet clearly narrative frame. With a documentarian’s eye (and a wonderfully inventive, graceful sense of form), she gazes at our deepest fears and embraces the insistent beauty of the new.” – Lia Purpura. Laura Shoemaker, who has taught writing at the University of Washington and Hugo House, has had poems in FIELD and The Bellingham Review, and is here with a new chapbook, For Want (Finishing Line Press). Sarah Steinke, an MFA graduate of the University of Washington, has taught at Seattle Pacific University, has had work published in Laurel Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. She is presently Artist in Resident at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, working on poems addressing Advent.

Marching right along, it’s my sensory pleasure to introduce one of my personal favorite tea types–Charcoal Roasted Dong-Ding.  Charcoal roasted Dong-Ding has become about as crucial to my everyday survival as Wuyi Yan Cha oolongs, and that’s saying something!  Although we’ve recently had some really nice “contemporary”-style Dong Ding oolongs, I’ve still been hoping to get hold of some more traditionally roasted (with charcoal, rather than a baking machine) tea.  Though both methods will caramelize a tea’s sweetness, a well-done charcoal roast adds both a note of roast as well as a dynamic connection with the earth that just isn’t there when a machine is used–surely traditional Chinese medicine would favor traditional charcoal roasting because it adds the element of fire to the tea processing, which contributes balance.  Unfortunately even machine roasting isn’t very fashionable right now and judges are choosing greener and greener teas as competition winners.  Combine this with the fact that charcoal roasting is a difficult skill that is being passed down to fewer and fewer tea masters and you can see how a good traditional Dong Ding is becoming harder to find and more expensive. 

Let me tell you–it’s worth it.  This tea is an excellent example of a lighter charcoal-roasted Dong-Ding: the charcoal note is present in the tea flavor, but it doesn’t dominate.  The tea’s natural floral notes are still preserved but are made slightly acidic by the roast–the lively acidity is evident in the cup where the tea liquor starts out light orange but darkens quickly as it cools down and interacts with the air.  The brewed leaves don’t quite pop open as completely as green oolong, which is another sign of a healthy charcoal roast.  

It’s too bad that charcoal roasted Taiwanese oolongs are becoming more difficult to find abroad–it’s hard to understand how both green oolong and traditional oolong can’t just coexist equally on their respective merits, but popularity ultimately determines the availability of a tea.  For now, at least, we can appreciate the best of both worlds!

Elliot

Here we have an even more unusual tea to continue with our selection of new Taiwanese oolongs.  Yes, you read the title correctly–this tea is billed as Taiwanese Big Red Robe.  But just how close is this tea to Fujian’s most famous rock oolong?


My first question encountering this tea was “Which tea plant cultivar was used?”  After all, even in mainland China, there’s quite a bit of disagreement as to which plant actually constitutes Da Hong Pao.  Our tea source revealed that the Taiwanese farmer who produced this tea actually used Buddha Hand leaves but processed them in the Da Hong Pao style.  I’m not exactly sure what this means, since I can’t call to mind any other examples of Da Hong Pao coming from Taiwan, so it might be that the producer chose the mother of all marketing buzzwords to get people interested in her experimental tea.

Despite its tenuous claims to the title of “Da Hong Pao” this tea is certainly an exceptional experiment.  Though its name conjures ideas of roasted rock oolong, in reality it’s closer to the Red Jinxuan we last featured.  I’d describe this tea as even closer to a black tea–the liquor is a deep crimson color and the leaves are even darker green with much more red present.  Compared with the Jinxuan, the liquor has a more present astringency in the finish, toward the back of the mouth.  What really surprised me in comparison with the Jinxuan was this tea’s up-front fruity note.  Now knowing it’s from the Buddha Hand cultivar, it’s easier to understand, but even for Buddha Hand this is almost a punch-like fruitiness.  Apparently the processing includes organic treatment like our Oriental Beauty and Red Jinxuan, so perhaps there is also some leaf hopper effect happening as well.

This is an extremely interesting tea unlike any I’ve tasted before–we have a very limited quantity, so please stop by soon if you’re interested in trying it out.

Elliot

Our next two teas are major departures from what’s become the Taiwanese oolong norm.  First is this Red Jinxuan…oolong?  It’s probably accurate to call it an oolong–probably more accurate is the appellation “Hong Shui” which refers to an older style of oolong processing that emphasizes high oxidation and lower roasting.  The party line is that this type of oolong processing has fallen out of fashion, but over the past couple of years I’ve been seeing more and more hong shui oolongs showing up online and at domestic Taiwan oolong suppliers.  
If you hang around Miro Tea, you’ve probably already seen or tried a Jinxuan oolong or two–it’s become a popular cultivar in Taiwan for its yield and robust, creamy body.  This one’s very different from the pellet-rolled, green examples we’ve had so far.  The leaf shape is almost like Baozhong, but it’s pretty clear that the oxidation level is much higher.  The large, twisted leaves are almost black with a bit of light frost on the edges. 

According to our source, Drew, this tea is completely organically grown, like Oriental Beauty, and the leaf hopper insects’ bites impart a sweetness into the end flavor.  Tasting the tea, I found it to be unlike the other Hong Shui oolongs I’ve tried.  It has an astounding mellowness–there is really no astringency to speak of, and the thick body coats the mouth almost immediately.  The flavor develops more after swallowing–it’s not as up front as some teas.  The wet leaves are full of grainy notes and, when inspected, are fairly uniformly dark green (as opposed to our Oriental Beauty, which has that iridescence to it).  Still, there is a bit of redness on the stems and leaf edges that show the very high oxidation that this tea underwent.  With its mellowness and closeness in characteristics to black teas, I think this is a tea that might go down well with fans of our China Vintage Special black tea.

Elliot

Before we continue with the final three new-new-longs, it’s time for a quick introduction of three we’ve been remiss in mentioning.  These teas, also supplied by Drew, have been enjoyed by Miro customers since mid-November.  They include two Dong-Ding oolongs and a High Mountain Baozhong.

The first Dong-Ding is called “Xiao Ban Tian,” and it’s the greener of the two.  This tea is an excellent option for those interested in branching out from our Lishan and Alishan oolongs; it’s floral and full-bodied with less of a vegetal note than the Alishan and a bit more of a light fruity note than the Lishan.  As you can see in the above picture, the tightly-balled leaves have a nice coat of down, indicating they were plucked quite young.  As processing fashions change, I’m hard-pressed to identify what exactly defines a Dong-Ding as a Dong-Ding–I usually expect them to be more oxidized and roasted, but this is a solid high mountain oolong.  According to Drew, “Dong-Ding” can be fairly applied to any teas from the Lugu region, which clears up the confusion on the appellation but still leaves us unsure what to expect a Dong-Ding to taste like until we actually try it!

The second Dong-Ding is from a mountain called Shan Lin Xi, one of the three most famous Taiwanese mountains.  Its processing is more what I’d expect for a Dong-Ding–the leaves have received a light machine roast, visibly darkening their color just a tad.  The liquor is still pure like the Xiao Ban Tian, but the roast accentuates the fruity note.  Since we’ve been serving it, this tea has become even more exciting–it won the gold medal in the bi-annual Lugu Tea Competition.  Lucky for us, we got ahold of our stock before the competition–gold medal winners increase drastically in price and supply becomes instantly scarce!

Finally there’s our new High Mountain Baozhong.  Baozhong is a classic Taiwanese tea–famed for both its loose, stripe-rolled appearance and its unparalleled floral notes.  This organic Baozhong is totally au natural–it’s quite stemmy, which adds a little rustic element to its appeal. 

The flavor, though, is classic Baozhong; lighter than pellet-rolled high mountain oolong, but with a floral nose that goes on and on.  Baozhong is another great alternative to the standard high mountain teas, and it’s also quite enjoyable iced.

Join us next time for another of our brand new teas–a traditional Charcoal-Roasted Dong-Ding!
Elliot
Tea farm at the base of Alishan Mountain

Next in our series on Taiwanese winter oolongs at Miro Tea, we are going to introduce you to the man  behind the teas, my good friend Drew.  It is Drew who helps me locate the best oolongs of each season and makes sure we are always well-stocked with the highest quality Taiwanese oolongs that are most representative of each category.  I met Drew on my first day in college and to this day, he’s the friend who doesn’t let me live down certain events in my life that he had the fortune/misfortune to witness.  We should all be so lucky to have such a good friend.  In my first post, I had mentioned how a good friend was responsible for introducing me to what great tea was all about.  Well, that good friend was Drew.  He had already been studying and learning about teas long before I even met him and by the time we met, he demonstrated to me the variety of teas that existed outside of my limited knowledge of tea, at time, and introduced to me the concept of artisan teas, direct farmer sourcing and gung fu tea preparation. In my mind, the idea of Miro Tea was born the moment he served me that first cup of gorgeous delicious tea.

Since our college days, Drew left Seattle for warmer climates and settled down in Taiwan with his lovely wife Joyce, where they’ve established an envious life of teaching, exploring, and writing, as well as lots and lots of biking across the Taiwanese countryside.

I never considered how conducive the terrain and landscape of Taiwan was for cycling until I learned of Drew’s cycling endeavors and from reading his blog, Taiwan in Cycles.  There, he chronicles all his excursions and the very rich cycling culture in Taiwan,  all the while taking lots of photos of the people, locales, bikes and of course, tea!  Some of the tea related rides that he’s written about are his Nantou trip, Ali Mountain, and my favorite piece on the Lugu tea district and it’s prestigious bi-annual tea competition.

And so it is during these bike rides that Drew ventures out to the Taiwanese mountainsides and discovers some of the obscure but talented tea growers whose teas we enjoy at Miro Tea.  We’re so lucky to have him as our exclusive liason to help us insure that our customers have access to some of the most exceptional teas that Taiwan has to offer.  He’s been generous by allowing us to access his long developed relationships with the tea farmers and has become our “feet on the street” or in this case, “wheels on the mountain” for premium quality, yet reasonably priced Taiwanese Oolongs. With his friendly disposition, sense of curiosity, and utmost respect for the farmers, he’s been able to establish great relationships with many of the local tea growers from each of the major tea growing regions.

Handmade Tea Baskets

One thing that people often misunderstand is the process of gaining access to teas grown by small tea farmers. It’s not as simple as picking up a phone or knocking on a door.  Cultural rules dictate and respect for the farmers must be acknowledged.  Relationships based on personal interactions and trust are established over time.  Thankfully, Drew is the person that we trust to develop that special relationship for us in Taiwan.

Teas in Taiwan are usually hand plucked by the family members who own and cultivate the tea farms

When selecting teas, Drew knows the characteristics of a truly premium oolong and starts by looking for only hand-made, organically-grown Oolongs that are typically cultivated at a high elevation.  This ensures that care was taken in making the tea and it further increases the chances that the cultivated oolong tea will be delicious. Also, Drew and I share a very similar palate for oolong teas, which allows me to put my full trust in his selections, enabling us to get premium oolong teas to our store and customers in very short order.

Fresh tea leaves being spread out to wilt in the sun before the bruising and rolling process.
The photos shown on this post were all taken by Drew this winter on Ali and Dong Ding Mountain.  We’ll be sure to post more photos of the tea farms as we get them from Drew.  Be sure to check our blog again for the final three oolong tasting posts, which will be posted in the coming weeks.  Cheers! 
Certain teas are almost always identified by one easy-to-remember umbrella name, like Dragonwell or Tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy).  There may be a more specific appellation to describe the tea plant cultivar or specific growing location, but the common name is always there.  Today’s tea definitely doesn’t fall into that category–alternately known as Bai Hao, Dongfang Mei Ren, Oriental Beauty and Fancy Formosa, it can be tough to tell just which name is “correct.”
What’s indisputable, though, is that Oriental Beauty (we’re using its most common English handle) is a Taiwanese oolong like very few others.  Looking at the tea’s close-up portrait above, you might even mistake it for a Darjeeling with its silvery tips and the leaves’ rusty hue.  Indeed, the resemblance is remarkable (though a true tea sleuth would likely point to the presence of stems and the by-and-large unbroken condition of the leaves as evidence that it’s not Darjeeling).  Still, the comparison rings true in some ways–the reddish color of the leaves gives away this tea’s high oxidation–it’s sometimes as high as 80%, which is treading mighty close to black tea territory.  It’s also often unroasted and dried using an extended withering process.  Perhaps most interestingly, Oriental Beauty producers actually encourage a parasitic “leaf hopper” insect to bite the tea leaves–the insects’ saliva produces a chemical response in the leaves that is absolutely crucial to achieving its hallmark flavor characteristics. 

Like out High Mt. Alishan, it’s been quite a while since we’ve had a new Oriental Beauty oolong.  Compared to other years’ harvests, I think this tea is on the lighter side–it’s more delicate and subtle rather than robust or verging on malty.  This subtlety allows the tea’s floral aspects to come out more than usual–the aroma has much more of a flowery scent, though the primary flavor is still fruity/honey notes.  Drinking my first cup, I was immediately struck by some astringency at the front of my mouth, which actually complemented the tea’s sweet finish quite well.  This tea’s special processing makes for really interesting-looking wet leaves, with an almost iridescent quality to the oxidized patches, which often cover most of an entire leaf.  We recommend a slightly longer (4 minutes for a large pot or mug) steeping to fully develop this oolong’s body.

Elliot

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