Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cold Winter Nights

A long hiatus, drawn to a close as the cool, crisp air of winter envelops the small town of Eugene, Oregon.

Cold winter days need warm, steamy drinks. Sniff the aroma, taste the sensation.

Review coming soon.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sencha Ashikubo

Sencha Ashikubo was sent to me as a sample from Davids Tea. DavidsTea caught my eye with an awesome website (even though it's pink now...), and their Sencha Ashikubo caught my interest with its "traditional wood-fire drying" description. But just where is Ashikubo Valley? I had to do some research to find out. There wasn't an official Ashikubo Valley on the maps I was looking at, so I had to look into less official sources. Ashikubo is said to be a valley area in the outskirts of Shizuoka City, in Shizuoka Prefecture. Further, Ashikubo is supposedly where the first tea plants took root in Shizuoka, grown from seed by a monk in 1244, which began the transformation of Shizuoka into the leading sencha producer of Japan. One would think this kind of history would earn you a place on the map.

Sencha Ashikubo could be blocked under the category of Hika Sencha. Hika is a Japanese word used to describe a roasted aroma, and can be used as a descriptive term for all sencha. Houjicha would be said to have a very strong hika, while most sencha and gyokuro are said to have very little to no hika.

Enough research into a tea will leave a man dying to try some, so I'll dive right in.

The aroma from the dry leaf is especially strong, a pervasive hika that reminds one of roasted barley and grains, but there's also a sweetness to the smell that draws one in closer. The leaf doesn't look any different than your regular asamushi sencha, so I'll use the asamushi time recommendation of 1.5 minutes, with my general sencha parameters of 2tsp/200ml/176°f.

The liquor is a light green-yellow, a pleasant reminder of asamushicha. A strong hika and some light, placid vegetal character make the aroma up into a foody concoction that beckons a rumbling stomach. The mouthfeel is very light, like watery tea-air, and easily slips over the tongue and down the throat. This lightness is reflected in the taste left behind. The overall crisp flavor is made up of flavors of barley-grain, fresh wood (no charcoal), and a stimulating, slightly astringent vegetal-grassiness. A sweet honey after-aroma lingers and adds a nice dimension to the tea.

I expected a sencha that was composed entirely of a barley flavor and left little else to explore. Sencha Ashikubo provided more. The expected barley had a fresh wood quality to it which surprised the senses. To help wash itself down, the tea provided a vegetal quality that wasn't run off by the firing. I noted some astringency, but shaving some time off the steep, and keeping it under 1:20 would have staved it off. But the astringency gave the tea its own palate-cleaning quality which isn't common. I think this sencha would make an excellent after-meal tea, and could be a more pure replacement for the genmaicha cravings. It stands on its own quite well.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

O-Cha Surugawase Sencha

I received this new addition to O-Cha's lineup the other day. Before I could try it, I read about it being difficult to brew. This excited me. I rarely have problems brewing sencha, so something that might challenge me to improve my technique was most welcome.

The dry leaf is neither light nor dark, neither very broken up nor whole. What the dry leaf does have is an abundance of stems. I tend to favor stemmy teas, I think the stems add complexity to the overall flavor. The smell from the leaf is pleasant, with a little bit of tart.

My usual parameters were used for the first infusion (2 tsp - 180 ml - 176°f - 1.5 min). The only tweaking of these parameters usually has to do with the infusion time. 45s for fukamushi, 1-1.5 min for chumushi, 1.5 for asamushi, 1 for karigane, guricha, and mecha. If the 1.5 minutes is too long, I'll adjust to a 1 minute infusion and see how that works. 2nd infusions need less time, and I generally just pour hot water in, and a few seconds later, pour the hot tea out.

The color comes out as a light yellow-green, full of small tea particles. The aroma is subdued, but sweet. The flavor is astringent. Light in the grass and vegetals, but there's an astringent sensation of the tea biting the tongue. It's quite surprising, and somehow enjoyable. I think this astringency is what makes the tea. Without it, it would taste ordinary. A few minutes later I get another shock from what this tea gives: a might caffeine kick in the rear. I start shifting in my chair while a light sweat breaks out.

Following infusions are smooth and creamy, while the liquor is still full of particles. Towards the bottom of the cup, where the particles lie, the astringency returns.

Now, just what brewing parameters should be used? I have no fracking clue. You can check this thread to see where the conversation has gone. I believe that the astringency is the product of an odd processing method where the leaf was slightly oxidized. Might it have been a mistake? It's possible. I see two possible brewing techniques: do it normally and get used to the astringency, or brew at cool enough of a temperature (~140°f) to keep the bitter bits from being released en masse. One could also try filtering out the particles which might be responsible for the astringency. I will continue to tweak parameters, and leave a comment on this post if I do find Surugawase's "sweet spot."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Kuradashi Gykuro Hibiki-an

Hibiki-an Kuradashi Gyokuro "Super Premium." The "super premium" title is just some marketing mumbo jumbo that Hibiki-an thinks makes their tea sound better. Really, it's just there for hierarchical sake. Kuradashi refers to the type of gyokuro it is. Kuradashi gyokuro can be summarized as an intentionally aged tea. Traditional gyokuro is aged for up to 6 months, while kuradashi gyokuro can be stored over a year for enrichment. Hibiki-an aged their kuradashi in unsealed foil bags in wooden boxes, which are then kept in a refrigerator. For more information than you probably want on Hibiki-an's kuradashi, and kuradashi tea in general, see here.

The first thing noticed in the tea liquor is how clear it is. Wow! I'm not well versed in the area of gyokuro, but I've never seen one come out so clear! Along with the color, the aroma is also subdued, but has notes of sweet honeydew and grass. I'm also somewhat surprised at how light the flavor is. There's no punch, not at all, instead, if one weren't paying attention, it might seem like water! But there is still some viscosity that follows the honeydew and grass on their sweet passage across the tongue, and the very slightest hint of astringency that is the tea telling you it's still there. A later note on this tea is that it stays very consistent from steep to steep, hardly being able to distinguish one from the next. It does drop off in flavor in the 4th infusion, even though the flavor consistency stays.

Synopsis: A much refined tea for the initiated palate. Likely a pleasure to those new to Japanese greens as well, but more stimulating for those who can appreciate the flavors locked by refinement. In other words, experienced tasters can be analogized to sound systems with very powerful amplifiers, being able to pull out tastes that could easily be looked over as "noise." Characterized mostly by the sweet honeydew, it is an easy-to-enjoy pleasure, but at $24/40g, it's also a very expensive one.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

1991 Alishan Aged Oolong

There's no story behind this one. An aged Taiwanese oolong that has a hard roast, so has likely been reroasted frequently, and not forgotten.

Little black balls of oolong. Like most aged oolong, they can really pack a punch. They open up after a rinse with an aroma that's thick with cookie-dough sweetness. The liquor starts with some charcoal in the mouth, but is all sweetness after that. Full flavor, high sweetness, rich, and thickly sweet.

For most, I imagine this will be too sweet and not have enough else going on. I love it, but as it's turning out, I can only drink it as frequent as once a week. Otherwise it can be too sweet to the point of disgust. Luckily, later in the session, the sweetness dulls down, or the taste buds adjust, and the tea becomes a nice charcoally sweet blend, still with the flavors of raw cookie dough (or you can think of it as caramel and coffee).

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Lishan Taiwanese Black Tea

Recently I made my way to the local tea house, J-Tea. Josh of J-Tea specializes in Taiwanese teas and carries a nice range of their oolongs, as well as a few other teas. However, one of the teas that caught my interest wasn't an oolong at all, but a black tea, a Taiwanese black tea. I know lots of people are interested in these rare-production teas, so I wanted to share my experience with it.

The tea hails from Li shan, or Pear Mountain, in Taichung County, Taiwan. Lishan can also refer to the mountainous range around Pear mountain. The mountain is named after the numerous pear orchards which used to be the mainstay of the mountain, but currently, the region is famous for its tea. The tea here is grown at an elevation of 1600-2600m.[1]

Here's the story behind this Li shan black tea. Summer harvests in this area tend to create astringent teas, so many farmers don't bother with a summer harvest production. This farmer had something else in mind. Thinking the astringency would affect a black tea less, he decided to try his hand at producing a special quality black tea. This black tea is made from the same bushes that will be producing jade oolong in the winter, and it was picked and processed exclusively by the same man.

The leaf is of top grade, very long and full, and the leaves sport a tough hide. Big long twigs accompany the leaf with their golden color. Having the giant leaves means that more leaf needs to be used to get a thick flavor. I added a good amount, then went on to brew the tea in the usual black tea fashion (212°f - 3-5min). I noticed about a minute into the steep that aroma was radiating from the gaiwan, a tell-sign that a steep is complete. After this, I switched my prep to gongfu-style.

The notes on the tea punch out as follows: Aroma is complex for a black. There's the upfront deep sweet notes, but there's also complexity hiding as notes of honey and some fruit (like Darjeeling terroir). A light mouthfeel gives the illusion of an understeeped tea, but a viscous and sweet character provide contradictory signals. The flavor is indeed complex, like the aroma. Up front there's some of your usual black tea notes, but complexity is added by a fruit character (think Darjeeling, Nilgiri), honey, and a sweet huigan; honey and fruit return in the aftertaste and afteraroma. After a few cups, a drying mouth is noticed. This complex tea lends itself to more than 5 more infusions.

The spent leaves have a virescence to them (hard to capture on film)... A true black tea shouldn't look like this. I remember Josh was telling me something about incomplete oxidation, though I dismissed it as I thought he was referring to the golden twigs. When buds and twigs get fully oxidized, they turn gold. When leaves get fully oxidized, they turn black. Well, I guess he was right. The greener leaves would mean incomplete oxidation, and this would in turn account for the added complexity I was describing, as well as the hardy durability.

Summary: I love it. It's a rare-production Taiwanese black tea with oolong characteristics, good complexity, and surprising longevity (for a black tea). In retrospect, it reminds me of Glendale Estate Nilgiri, but with much more to offer. It's not on J-Tea's website, but if you contact Josh, I'm sure an order can easily be arranged.