25 June 2012

Many Teas Deserve a 2nd Chance

Many old oolongs can taste rather odd.  Older oolongs - those with at last 20 years of age - can taste exceptionally sour, bitter and "wet.”  They can smell musty, “ripe,” and seem otherwise unappealing.  There can be an indescribable taste/aroma of "oldness" that is referred to as "陳味.”  While the aging process can be thought of as “softening” the tea, I also imagine that it’s the breakdown of the product that what we're tasting; the unique flavors being, in part, a result of decomposition.  Lovely!  From experience, I will also say that unless an aged tea is roasted to death, aged teas also require more patience and experimentation to draw out their best flavors.  It could be a mistake to try an aged tea once and quickly write it off a horrible, as so many of them have potential that can be worked out, but that is a topic for another time.

After my recent experiment with tea-infused liquor, I thought more about how we come to acquire a taste for things that endear us to their "acquired" properties.  What possesses college students, for example, to drink the most unholy of spirits (that would be Tequila...I hate the stuff from the first to the last drop regardless of what premium cactus it comes from) party after party?  And many actually come to enjoy it!  Or what person, upon first eating the Chinese preserved duck egg, has the immediate initial reaction that it’s so yummy as to ask for seconds & thirds, or to compel themselves to add it to their congee, or mix it with salted eggs & steam it with lettuce and conpoy...?  I can say the same about bitter melon, I don’t think any child loves it, but the taste grows on you as the bitter gives way to an understated sweetness - a mature flavor profile - that is actually enjoyable.  Interesting.

I think back to the first time I had real Chaozhou style gongfu tea.  I was barely a teenager and it was so strong and the infusion so thick and bitter.  It was not enjoyable.  How did that awful encounter eventually lead me to become a tea lover?  I look back and find that some of my favorite things in life began with less-than-pleasant experiences.  Many different edibles (spicy food, moon cake, sashimi...), alcohol, tea, hiking, Zen, pants….

If many of my favorite things started off as unpleasant experiences, I wonder how much more in life I’m missing out on because I refuse to try them out or give experiences second chances?  The first time I met my Tieguanyin teacher's wife, she served me a mediocre, pricey tea, and then another, and it wasn't until 3 or 4 teas later that I was told they had a lot of much, much better stuff that they don’t stock on their retail shelves.  I probably had pu'er over 50 times (not counting restaurant tea) before I had an eye-opening experience that led me to enjoy and appreciate it.

I recently had the chance to try a rather rough tea that, I believe, has the potential to shine if it receives some refinement via skilled roasting.  It reminded me that I should try to keep an open mind and give experiences and people a few chances to put their best foot forward, since some of the best things in life don’t always reveal themselves to us on the first go-around.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

16 June 2012

Spring 2012 Oolong…Liquor!!!

My last post was 2 months ago, wow, long break.  Work has been intense without much opportunity to concentrate on a nice cup of brew, let alone write about it.

The experience of tea, as we all know, can be calming and induce self-reflection.  Sometimes, though, what I crave is something intense, with a kick.  No, I’m not talking about a high-fire oolong…I mean something with a lot more firepower.

Introducing my latest impulse buy/experiment:

Hour 1

High Mountain Vodka

Purely a spur of the moment creation, I freely admit that I had no clue how to do this “the right way” and that I didn’t care.  I picked up a bag of the freshly-arrived Alishan HM oolong (I know, green oolong?  Me?!?  We have so much to catch up on…), drove by a Safeway (our grocery stores now carry liquor) and felt like getting salad, beef, and a bottle of vodka for my tea.  Trust me, it all makes sense.

I put the 5-times distilled vodka into a bowl with about 2/3 ounce of tea (no idea what I’m doing).  I soaked for about 20 minutes.  The leaves started to open and when I shook the bowl, tea dust settled.  I scooped the leaves into the empty vodka bottle and used my trusty alcohol Brita (that would be the Brita filter that I use on crappy mixer alcohol to “charcoal filter” it. I swear it makes junk taste better but I’m not responsible if it makes you go blind, grow hairy palms, hate tea…) and filtered the alcohol through it 3 times.  The smell was less and less “napalm-y” with each pass through the Brita.

Alcohol went back into the bottle and I shook it around a few times.  After a few hours, the leaves continued to unfurl and the fragrance of HM tea became more pronounced. 

As of right now, about 26 hours later, the bottle looks like this:

Hour 26

2/3 of an ounce of tea leaves are growing.  The leaves have no doubt absorbed a significant amount of alcohol: I didn’t want to contaminate the taste by putting in brewed leaves…yes, I realize how silly that sounds when that statement refers to a $10 bottle of vodka.  The aroma is just like the Alishan – it is quite nice – and the taste has the bite of vodka with the sweet/floral notes of Alishan.  It also has a very apparent HM aftertaste that lingers.  I knew there was a reason that I wanted to use good tea….  6 minutes later and I can still taste the unmistakable flavor notes of HM oolong.

I’m sure this has been done before; I could have read a few articles online before bottling.  It doesn’t matter, this was an impulse experiment and so far, it is turning out nicely.  I see no harm in leaving the leaves in for a while, I think the alcohol content is high enough to kill a wide variety of bacteria and if the lid starts to bulge, I will certainly throw this out before some botulism-like organism gets me.  Or not.


-I chose vodka because it is a neutral, relatively tasteless spirit.  I appreciate that it’s clear so that I can see the degree to which the tea infuses the liquor.  Some people may prefer gin or various other grain spirits.  I hate gin.

-I chose a vodka that is both inexpensive (on sale!) and has been distilled multiple times.  My alcohol Brita’s charcoal filter further removes some of the edge/bite.

-I decided to use a tea that has less body/depth and more aroma.  A roasted oolong would be too heavy and might make the drink even more bitter/astringent and/or produce that irritating “hairy tongue” sensation.  I could have used a cheaper HM tea, but my $10 vodka demanded the best.  I bet a Four Seasons or light Dancong would also work nicely.  I would like to try this again with a Baihao.  Dong Ding?  Are you crazy, that’s for drinking, not for playing with! 

-I expect that at some point, over-steeping the tea will produce bitterness.  Next time, I will pick out the stems and use less leaf.  I think 1/3 – 1/2 an ounce would have sufficed.