Tea Urchin -Gua Feng Zhai: Autumn 2011-

(An update of note 03/09: Tea Urchin’s recent post on A tea trekkers guide to Gua Feng Zhai.)

Please excuse my absence… I had intended to post during the previous weeks; however an increasingly consuming health issue that had kept me from being able to comfortably sit since the beginning of January had completely soured my mood.

Finally over this past weekend following a lengthy series of chiropractic adjustments, and coupled with a healthy dose of physical therapy, I began to feel increasing relief. I don’t think I had realized how much I had missed taking tea without the fear of discomfort until this morning when I had a fully pain-free session with a remaining sample of a Gua Feng Zhai sheng cake.

EugeneTea Urchin– had graciously sent this sample to me back in December. I wanted to write about it for as long. While I had remembered from my first experience with this tea that I thought it was exceptional, this was a considerably more profound exchange with the notable lack of discomfort. I felt as if the tea and I had become one at multiple points. I found myself not wanting to part with the experience, and was reluctant to do so even when the leaves had finally given up their last bit of energy.

The perceived purity of the leaf from the cake is one of its most remarkable traits. While the slightest note of smoke may have whispered among the fresh green in the dry nose, it all but vanished with the preliminary flash rinsing, leaving only the faintest note of oak lingering in the second and third cups.

The tea exhibited a strong characteristic of sweet grass during the first third of the session. This was delicately streaked with a trace of youthful ku wei which actively engaged the tip of the tongue and the sinus cavity. Throughout each subsequent steeping the flavor profile expanded with a powerful series of minor and major notes, dwarfing what may have initially suggested humble simplicity. The symphony moved in a circular motion throughout the mouth, from the tip of the tongue up across the hard and soft palates and down before flooding forward.

I made particular note of a detected ‘thickening’ in the throat beginning around the 6th or 7th steeping.

With this tea I also found myself taken by the density of its liquor. The leaves sang within the pot as they thickened and exhaled with each addition of heated water. Tiny beads would ping outward from the entry point of the pour just below the surface of the liquid to the rim of the cha hai. The broth would then thread as it was poured into the cup forming foam clusters in the center of the soup, while short pearl-like links strung along the edges. It was a beautiful sight to behold.

The consuming movement of its cha qi became wholly calming, and well, just a bit more. I had become surprisingly intoxicated to the point of near sedation around the 8th steeping. My eyelids were heavy. My limbs felt light. The palms of my hands were damp. My thoughts concentrated. They did, however, become increasingly softened and blurred around the edges as my time with the tea came to a close. My tea taking partner Newt appeared content by proxy while lying next to me, intently observing.

This tea remained decidedly thick and substantial throughout the session in excess of the above brief details, even after the exhausted leaves had rendered a nearly transparent broth.

Did I enjoy this tea? Most assuredly, yes. I can’t say that I have attached myself to many teas in the way that I have this one. While I am more than aware that some of this feeling may have developed out of the lack of the negative effect of the health issue after a period of it being present, I choose to never underestimate the powerful effect of an excellent tea. This Gua Feng Zhai left me contented and wanting to share this experience with others. I ask; how can that not be the greatest outcome of any moment with a tea?

Notes taken on 25th February.

Steeping listening: Johann Johannsson: and in the endless pause there came the sound of bees

2003 Banzhang Mountain Farmer’s Cooperative Wild Arbor Sheng

This remaining sample of Mt. Banzhang Farmers Co-op Sheng from 2003 -as you can note from the image just below- was loose and comprised of considerable stem and broken leaf. I can’t readily recall at this point if the previous quantity I steeped had retained any notable cake form, but I do remember a greater presence of full leaf. The tea comes from a respectably sized (1kg) hand-pressed ball in a cloth sack, as opposed to a paper-wrapped brick/cake/tuo/etc.

I sifted stray particulates from the leaf and stems. From this sifting to its wait in the cha he, the smokiness of the dry leaf was redolent of a Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong complimented by the faintest baked currant note. Once in the embrace of the warmed porcelain of the gaiwan, the inherent brashness of the tea’s personality burst forth from the cup with the fury of a storm cloud. David uses campfire as a descriptor in the tea profile on the Verdant site, to which I would most assuredly co-sign. This aromatic rush was heady and invigorating.

During the initial steeps, I varied the times from a brief 3 and 5 seconds to lengthier 13s and 15s, and back again to test the endurance and flexibility of its flavor profile. The longer times were heavy with smoked musky wood. The shorter times yielded a far gentler taste rich with toasted hazelnut. No matter the length of time, each steep was accented with a dark sweetness. The broth altered from copper to variations of yellow.

There were sips within the first 6-8 steepings in all honesty where I felt the tea was an absolute beast. This is when my mind recalled a Cloud’s Tea Diary entry suggesting ratios of broken leaf to whole leaf for use in steeping sessions, with an expected outcome of creating a more consistent tasting experience beginning to finish. Essentially, there would be a quantity of ‘open’ leaf from the start. I remembered the tea being robust from my first experience, but wondered if the quantity of broken leaf here was contributing to its’ far greater impudent nature this go-around.

Progressing onward with steeping, the tea exhibited a complex array of major and minor notes. It offered complimenting shades of black cardamom, pepper, ginger, baked fruit, and roasted almonds in the mouth, which progressively dominated as the smoky embers began to dissipate into the memory.

The activeness of this tea was of particular interest to me. It was immediately noticeable on the tongue where it provided a tingling sensation similar to Sichuan peppercorns. Not content to focus on one area, this playfulness made appearances in the temples and crown of the head which heightened my awareness throughout the session. Most notable however, was the counterpoint in its’ qi. While the mind ran into overdrive, the body became calmed and tingled at the extremities, which is a sensation I have generally noted as a stronger element in far older teas.

Compared to a handful of other sheng-pu recently experienced, this was the more challenging, and ultimately rewarding. While some have been polite to the point of being shy, this tea announced itself from the outset, taking some time before allowing its inherent humility to move to the fore. The pu’er offered at Verdant from my experience is notable for the obvious curatorial eye, or rather taste, exhibited in the selection. This one is a particular stand out among some very healthy competition.

Oh, and a certain furry companion of mine who is seldom far while I am taking tea would like to say hi.