Tea Together Tuesday: Yancha Season

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Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share your perfect tea for autumn. And, well, while I’ve talked about my love of hojicha in the autumn before, I have to say that this autumn, I’m all about yancha once more.

Last year, I got my first traditional clay pot, a Da Hong Pao Chaozhou pot from Bitterleaf Teas. I actually bought it for an historical video (I told myself), but it has come be one of my favorite pieces. But since I seasoned it with yancha, I found myself ignoring it more and more as the weather got warming and I was less drawn to the rich, nutty, roasted flavors of what is probably my favorite of my favorite teas. Now, as the days grow shorter and the mornings cooler, I find I want that warm, comforting roasted flavor.

Yancha is rock oolong tea from the Wuyi mountains in China. It’s typically roasted, and can have aromas of fragrant woods, flowers, or even fruit, with a pronounced minerality in the flavor, call the “rock taste.” The naming of the teas and the (likely-apocryphal) stories behind many of those names lends a sense of romance and whimsy to a tea that hardly needs the help. While I had had yanchas in the past, it was when I got my Chaozhou pot and knew I wanted to use it to recreate Yuan Mei’s introduction to Wuyi oolongs that I really started appreciating all yancha had to offer.

Now, this particular tea is from one of my favorite, Wuyi-focused tea companies (although I have a couple right now — if you’re in DC, definitely check out Valley Brook Tea in Dupont Circle!) and one that I discovered when I first started focusing on yancha: Old Ways Tea. Over the last year, I’ve gotten to know many of their teas quite well. While I’m not a fan of the packaging waste, I like that their teas are conveniently packaged to try just a little (or share with friends!). If I were in the mood to write a “gift guide,” I might mention that the traditional 5-8g packages would make excellent stocking stuffers.

Anyway, this tea is their Lao Cong Shui Xian, or Old Tree Shui Xian. The leaves are appropriately gnarled and large, like the roots of an old tree, and the flavor is warm and complex. I get a strong roast note, but in a fragrant way, like sandalwood or incense, and a sweetness that reminds me of maple syrup. The whole effect is like autumn in a cup, or seven. Of course, the autumnal color palette of the seasoned clay doesn’t hurt the effect. It reminds me of crisp winds and falling leaves, misty mornings, and the smell of smoke in the distance. It’s close and cozy without being stifling or cloying. And after a long, hot summer of cold-brewed green teas, I’m ready for it again.

NB: I don’t rightly know if this is a tea that I purchased or if it is one of the gifts that Phil tends to tuck into my orders from them, but I was not provided any particular incentive to feature it here. If you are interested in collaborating with me, please read my collaboration information for more details.

Tasting Tuesday: 2008 Da Hong Pao from Old Ways Tea

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Let me tell you a secret: I don’t really enjoy writing down tasting notes. I find it removes me from the experience of a tea and interrupts my enjoyment. But the exercise is an important one to be able to converse intelligently among many in the tea community, so I practice it at least once a week. Yet, my dislike means that often I end up taking notes on teas that I feel more of an academic interest in for these weekly posts, rather than a tea that I find truly exciting.

Well, the other week, I went live with Ezra, known as @the_god_of_tea on Instagram, and had this aged Da Hong Pao and I found it so interesting that I rather regretted that our conversation was so engaging that I barely paid it its proper attention. So I resolved to take notes to share with everyone, and perhaps see if I can make an attempt to quantify what I found so compelling about it. As I’ve said before, Da Hong Pao is one of my favorite teas, from a variety that has quickly become my favorite among teas, yancha. Now, I realize that modern Da Hong Pao is rarely plucked from the original mother tree, and that it is most often blended from different yanchas, particularly Shui Xian and Rou Gui, but as I have tried most of the yancha varieties, I find that Da Hong Pao is most often the one that just has the certain special something that I enjoy. I find it reminds me of fresh cookies or brown sugar cake, a lovely warm comforting flavor.

I brewed this tea in my Chaozhou clay pot, which holds about 80ml of water. I used half a packet of tea from Old Ways, which is about 4g. I brewed at 99C. I warmed the pot and warmed the leaves and was able to detect aromas of leather and wood from the warm, dry leaf. I did not rinse, choosing instead to jump right into brewing.

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The first infusion went for ten seconds. The wet leaves gave off aromas of warm cinnamon coffee with cream. The liquor was a rich mahogany color and had a rich mouthfeel with nutty and creamy flavors. I was reminded of nothing so much as hazelnut tuiles with caramel and coffee buttercream. There was a faint leathery aftertaste.

The second steeping, for fifteen seconds, yielded aromas of cream, honey, nuts, and leather on the wet leaves. The flavor developed a slight tannic bite with a sour aftertaste that I found enjoyable, but with a rich roasted, leathery flavor underneath, and perhaps a slight undertone of sweat. It is a very sensual tea and fills the mouth and facial cavity. I was reminded of how Shuiwen from Floating Leaves Tea calls teas “puffy” and I think it might be something like that.

The third steeping was also for fifteen seconds. The roast aroma came through more on the wet leaf. The mouthfeel was pure coffee and cream, with an ever so slightly lighter colored liquor, perhaps cherrywood rather than mahogany. The flavor still had a pleasant tannic bitterness on the tip of the tongue and a sourness under the tongue that reminded me of the lightly roasted coffee from our favorite artisan roaster. The lingering flavor was coffee with cream.

The fourth steeping was for twenty seconds and yielded aromas of roast and wood on the wet leaves. After that, I simply forgot to take notes on the flavors. The body feel and experience of this tea was languid, like a cat stretched out on a velvet settee. I resumed my attention for the fifth steeping, which I let go for forty seconds. I noticed the wet leaves taking on the “wet paper” aroma that I notice as yanchas start to fade. The flavor, however, was still surprisingly bright and warm.

The sixth and seventh steepings both went for a minute each. The sixth yielded a honey-floral aroma on the wet leaves and flavor that seemed to be a mellowed amalgam of the flavors of the previous steepings, with a brightness that reminded me of a citrusy black tea cutting through it. The seventh aroma continued to fade, but with a surprising sweetness that came through as the other flavors dulled.

I steeped the tea for an eighth time for two minutes and was rewarded with a cup of tea that, while faded in flavor, color, and aroma, still managed to be enjoyable and warming, beyond a mere cup of tinted hot water. And it lacked the wet paper/pasta water flavor I get at the end of a session of other yanchas. The ninth steeping, for three minutes, showed that the tea was well and truly done. It still might have been nice steeped grandpa style, as I often do with my yanchas, but the main session was over and I was confident there would be no new tasting notes.

I think this tasting quantified the enjoyment I got from this tea in a strange way, in that it showed that it is somewhat unquantifiable. If anything, it is likely the complexity of flavors that draws me to Da Hong Pao, particularly aged Da Hong Pao. That leathery undertone in the flavor and aroma draws in a poetic part of myself. Indeed, I believe this is one of the longest tasting posts I’ve written, at least in recent weeks. And I still maintain that my first impression of any Da Hong Pao I’ve tasted is freshly baked brown sugar cookies, fresh from the oven, which is perhaps more of an emotional association than anything else. I’m curious to try the 2000 Da Hong Pao to see if the further aging will change my impression of the tea in general, particularly since it will be the oldest Da Hong Pao I will have tried thusfar.

NB: Nothing to declare. If you are interested in why I switched from tea reviews to tasting notes, read the explanation in this post. If you are interested in collaborating me or contacting me to offer my notes for your tea, please read my contact and collaboration information.

 

Outings: Valley Brook Tea in Dupont Circle

Recently, Nazanin over at Tea Thoughts told me about a new tea house that had opened in the Dupont Circle neighborhood called Valley Brook Tea and I knew I had to check it out. I work nearby, so I’m around there frequently and when I looked and saw that they had coffee-shop-style hours, starting at 7 a.m., I realized that this was a place that I could stop before work, especially if I left early enough to allow some time to sit and enjoy my tea. So I stopped by before work last week to check it out and see if maybe it was somewhere I wanted to go for a special treat during my work day on my birthday.

Well, it definitely was. I had a lovely time spending a half an hour sipping tea and chatting with owner Yunhan about their teas, tea culture, and how he probably has Teavana to thank for even being able to open a business like this. It’s a converted Starbucks, which is apparent, but Yunhan says he has plenty of people come in who say that they don’t drink coffee, but love tea. I was particularly pleased to see them get a little write up in the Washington Post’s Weekend section in their article on places to get a good cup of tea (which also includes Ching Ching Cha, which I have visited before).

I returned a week later for my birthday in the middle of the day, armed with an hour to spend and another tea friend, Peter. Once again, it was raining, and I found myself reaching for the yancha. While I had tried their Jin Mudan the first time I visited, this time I wanted to try their Rou Gui, after having Yunhan talk it up to me while we were chatting the week before. Interestingly, it was less sweet than I usually think of Rou Gui tasting (I also find cinnamon to taste sweet), but it was still spicy and delicious, and the cup aroma was a deep, roasted sweetness. An hour of tea and talk, with Peter and Yunhan was delightful and the perfect interlude for my birthday.

The shop itself is an interesting space. I need to return on a sunny day to see how the round alcove in the front is in proper light because I have a hunch it will not only be gorgeous, but also a lovely place to take some photos. The store is a converted Starbucks, which is obvious from its setup. The counter with treats and a tea bar is right up front as you walk in, with a small seating area to one side, and a staircase to a larger upstairs room. The upstairs room has a large communal table, a few free-standing tables, and a few half-booth tables with outlets set into the benches. There is also a seat with comfy chairs. It’s a nice space to sip and chat, sip and think, or sip and work. Unlike Ching Ching Cha, it has a decidedly modern and unfussy feel. It seems like it would be decidedly un-daunting to a tea newbie, especially since Yunhan is always willing to help show you how to use a gaiwan.

The teas are served either pourover, into a sharing pitcher for drinking in the shop or in a to-go cup, or else for $2 extra, are served in a gaiwan with a 1-L carafe of water. The teas themselves are fantastic (caveat: I’ve only tried two and both were yancha), and it’s nice to be able to visit a tea shop and drink a cup of tea with the person who sources them and can tell you about the specific regions and villages they’re from. They also sell their tea, and it seems they have an online shop, so non-DC-area residents can try them. I’m certainly going to go back and try them all.

Now, I was being sociable and not trying to take too much time out to take photos, but the other striking thing about Valley Brook is their beautiful collection of teaware for sale. They have shelves of beautiful enameled and handmade teaware as you walk in, just opposite the counter where you order, and more small things right next to the register. they even have a collection of statuettes of people doing yoga that are like little yogi tea pets, in honor of the yoga studio that is kitty-corner to the shop across the intersection of P St. and 21st. I thought that was a clever little nod to the fact that they’re not just there to serve dedicated tea nerds like my friends and me, but also to bring quality tea to anyone who stops by, even if it’s just for a cup of tea after yoga class.

And if they get caught up in a conversation with Yunhan and start a new love of traditional Chinese tea culture? Well, that has to be even better than Teavana.

NB: I will disclose that Yunhan remembered my birthday and gifted Peter and I with bodhi leaf tea strainers as a small gift, but I was not paid for this post and all thoughts are my own.