Friday, September 12, 2008

Mystery Xiaguan Tuocha

Jade Cicada of the Pu-erh LiveJournal Community found this Xiaguan tuocha hiding in a vendor's cart, selling for $8 a piece. She supposed it was shu, but later found that something was different about it. To help identify, and reassure her opinion that it is not a young Xiaguan shu, she enlisted the help of a few fellow tea enthusiasts. It took me a while to get to this, but here we go.

A simple examination of the dry leaf already reveals much. The color of the leaf is dark, however, the golden color of the buds and stems show that if it were a cooked pu-erh, it would have to be on the light side of fermentation. Though these looks alone aren't revealing a lot, the smell of the dry product gives big hints towards the identity of the tuo. A floral/honey aroma is what comes from it. This is the main giveaway that it is, in fact, uncooked. I can't recall a cooked pu-erh that smelled anything like honey and flowers.

The white you see is mold. Showing only on parts of the tuo, I would say this is a sign of wet storage at one point or another. White mold is said to be ok, and some say that an aged pu-erh will not be good without it. The mold is not just on the outside, but spread throughout the tuo. In fact, there is more visible on the inside. This is likely because handling of the outside has rubbed some of it away.

Whew! While rinsing and warming up cups, it is completely obvious that this tuo is a sheng, uncooked pu-erh. Smoky, spicy aromas fill the air around the table. Aroma from the cup is mellow, with a woodiness, and a hint of sweet. Color is a deep red match to my gongfu table. Taste is smooth, relaxed, mellowed out. Flavor is actually pretty minimal. I get a good sweetness, a lovely wood and, yes, a pleasant aftertaste. The aftertaste is sweet and lingers for a long time. No acid, no bitter, only perhaps the slightest touch of astringency.

My conclusions. It is definitely a sheng, no doubt about it. It underwent some wet store, and it's my guess that this mellowed it out significantly. Depending on how long the wet storage was, I would guess anywhere from mid to late 90's. It could be as old as early 90's, but that would mean a short wet-store, and a very long dry-store. It is a boxed tuo, so a long dry-store is actually likely.

Did I like it? I did, a lot. It's not a complex tea, in fact, it is quite the opposite. Mellow sweetness, but with enough wood/leaf flavor to keep it interesting and very enjoyable. If intense flavors really do make good aging candidates, then my guess is the lack of bitter, astringent, and acid flavors in this tea means that it won't stay as tasty in the long run. Another 5, 8, even 10 years? Sure, I think a few more years would make it delicious. But I also think that it's already delicious enough to enjoy regularly.

So, congratulations JadeCicada, on finding this little gem. Not only is it a cheaply bought aged tea, but it's well stored, and very tasty. Thanks for bringing me into this tasting.

Here is JC's original post on livejournal. Here's the follow-up on livejournal. Here's the post on TeaChat. Here's JF's entry.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


I received this as part of a tasting from Eric of Me And My Tea.

The leaf is a deep green and looks more suited to a kitchen's chopped herb jar. The smell is enticing, a deep, sweet gyokuro aroma, and light milky smell resembling matcha. Tencha is the precursor to matcha, so it seems natural that they should smell similar. Tencha is grown similar to gyokuro, with a period of shade before harvest to develop higher chlorophyll levels, which among other things, produces a sweeter, grassier tea. After harvest, tencha is ground for many hours into a fine powder, matcha. Matcha is then whisked in hot water and drunk with a slight foamy head. Matcha is the tea used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

Knowing that this tea had been shade-grown like gyokuro, I decided to steep it at a lower temperature of 150°, a good temperature for matcha as well. Due to its fluffy nature, I also used 3.5 tsp leaf in 180ml, as opposed to my usual 2 tap/180ml I use for sencha, and it took some convincing to get the leaf underneath the waters surface. In my attempt to brew this tea using gyokuro parameters, I upped the time to around 2.5 minutes.

The resulting tea: clear, quite grassy, and a little sour in aroma. The taste surprised me with how similar it was to gyokuro. No bitterness at all, abundance of grassiness, sweet, the slightest tang, and pleasant vapors reaching the nose. I was expecting the buttery, milkiness of matcha, but that is definitely not what I got. As I look at the spent leaf, I see that I could have used twice as much, 7 tsp. Shocking.

I enjoyed this one quite a bit. The flavor is light enough that I find myself downing cups much quicker than I normally would. Although it is light, there are still prominent tastes, the grass, and a pungent sour. The sour develops after many cups, and could seem nasty if one doesn't enjoy the taste. I do, somewhat, so I did like this tea. At $50 for 4oz at Harney & Sons... I wouldn't say it's worth it. Very nice to have as a sample, but I feel that the money would be better spent on a good quality gyokuro. Tencha is a great novelty for the matcha drinker, or any green tea enthusiast, for that matter. It lets the enthusiast become more intimate with matcha's path to powder.

Thanks Eric, for letting me try this exclusive tea.

Other reviews of this same tea can be found at TeaNerd, Me And My Tea, and perhaps elsewhere.