Water lessons learned

For the years preceding this blog, I used Poland Spring for exclusively steeping. At this time it read as non-intrusive upon various teas to me. It was also very easy to get my hands on, as most shops within walking distance carried it.

As my tea explorations progressed, and my sensitivities increased, I began to realize how it yielded excessive high notes, and allowed little lows. And so, I began actively reading/researching about water importance.

This series of posts by MattCha became very influential to my decision-making at this point. (MattCha’s Blog was the first tea site that I read with regularity, along with MarshalN’s A Tea Addict’s Journal, for just such posts.) I started to actively look for better water to use, and fell into using Fiji during a period when I was predominantly drinking cooked and aged raw samples, which worked a treat.

With a new-found uptick of young raw puerh in my diet, I began to note that the Fiji was a bit heavy-handed with these teas. However, Poland Spring, my old option, still delivered rather sharp, undesirable highs. I looked outward again for a complimentary water.

Upon discovering Zhi Zheng via Tea Urchin’s blog my water choice broadened again. Theirs was the first producer site I had visited with a suggested use of water for steeping their tea; Volvic, an ancient volcanic sourced water from Auvergne. With a Whole Foods now within walking distance, and several satisfactory test sessions, I made the total switch. It gracefully allowed the highs and the lows of young puerh, as well as the important middle notes, where previous waters had leaned to one side of the equation.

Most recently while commenting on a post by MarshalN on water importance, I made mention of how I grew up near a natural spring that my family drew from with regularity. I thought it would be interesting to see how it affected the tea, as I remembered it being fantastic drinking water as a kid. Of course, there would be no way possible for me to use it with any regularity considering the distance, but I felt it would be an interesting experiment.

As we were just home visiting my family following a lengthy gap of time the other weekend, we visited the spring, and brought home two jugs of the water to test out. What I experienced with it was surprising.

Tasted before steeping, the first thing of note was how heavy the water felt in the mouth. While not to the degree of mineral water from Saratoga Springs, it surprised none the less. I later read that someone had measured it presenting in excess of 200 TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) at their time of visit, though they didn’t offer an exact number. Considering earlier use of Fiji and Poland Springs, and still drinking both on occasion, it felt heavier than both.

(For comparison: Fiji has a TDS of 210, Volvic a TDS of 109 – 130, Iceland Spring a TDS of 36 – 48, Poland Spring a TDS of 37. Evian, which I have often read as being less than complimentary to tea steeping, has a TDS of 309 – 357. (I also noted that in June of 2012, China refused an Evian shipment for a second time noting excessive nitrite levels.) Finewaters.com, interestingly, lists the Virginality of certain waters depending on how protected they are from their surroundings. This is an interesting point to consider with the ever-expanding impact we have on our environment.)

I have since used the Troy Springs water with two separate puerh that I have experience with; the first with a PaSha from Che Ma Xuan, the second with a JingMai from Zhi Zheng. The affect on the yielded liquor was notable in the color of the PaSha, the Volvic produced a pale yellow, and the Troy Springs a hazy yellow-orange. The JingMai, by contrast, presented a less significant variation in tone.

In both instances, however, the water produced teas’ that were highly one-dimensional in taste and energy. The eight channel stereo surround presentation courtesy of Volvic became a mono recording through a single plastic speaker. Neither tea achieved any distinguishable highs or lows, their dynamics became severely flattened. They both became heavy, lifeless… completely undrinkable in my opinion.

It was a little heartbreaking to say the least.

I am still not quite done yet with the water. I want to give it a go with a 2003 cooked tuo that I am quite fond of. I am curious as to the effect it will have upon something a bit darker and meatier. Perhaps, in this case, it will be positive.

We as tea drinkers understand water importance, but sometimes it takes a truly profound experience to fully know it. And this experience was so much more distinct than any previous waters used.

This experiment also highlighted the importance for me to give the X of the X + Y = Z in my posts. Noting water used when discussing our readings of teas should certainly be a given considering the depth of its impact.

(Note: Apologies for the lack of images. They didn’t take to the memory card for some reason… This may, or may not, have to do with me dropping the camera. Ahem…)

Che Ma Xuan Pasha

My budding love affair with Che Ma Xuan sourced cakes stemmed from correspondences with Eugene (Tea Urchin) about the NaKa region.

I have since greatly enjoyed the various cakes sampled; a BingDao, two NaKa, a MengHai, a YouLe, and now a PaSha… each lovely, each unique.

courtesy of Eugene (Tea Urchin)

courtesy of Eugene (Tea Urchin)

courtesy of Eugene (Tea Urchin)

The dry leaf of this early spring 2011 sourcing from PaSha offered what I find in a sum of youthful puerh, an intense aroma of pasture –a muddle of humid dark grass with faint traces of fruit, and hints of flowers. This PaSha offered an additional expression in the form of a vaporous smudge of candy-like sweetness.

The first yielded broths were thick in body, buttery smooth. Each contributed to the increasingly distinctive mouth feel as they dramatically bowed from the tongue into the hard palate.

As the soft palate became engaged, my mind went into overdrive scrambling to identify notes as they appeared in flashes –cherry wood, sweet tobacco, flowers of undetermined variety, menthol, spice, corn (??)… all seemed right, yet potentially incorrect.

The tea truly opened up around the 6th and 7th steeps with a penetrating sweetness. It rounded out the existing notes, filled the mouth, and reached easily into the throat. It soothed. The lips became coated with tea oils.

A latent veil of coolness began to rise from the front of the mouth into the sinus.

The considerable nature of its sweetness soldiered on well into the final cups –I took the leaves to a healthy 15 steeps.

Its energy was ever-present, built gradually, and weighed heavily on the shoulders. It calmed. The body pulsated with warmth, which was notable as cool breezes rushed in from the patio door behind me.

I fought a bit with this PaSha; not in steeping, but in defining the nuances of its flavor. It confounded me with its profile. I look forward to a session or two more –on the back of three to date– to truly define all of its subtleties. This, I am afraid, will have to wait for a cake to arrive.

It seems a potentially good tea for aging, if considered for its now complexity and vibrant nature. It is also priced nicely at $50 for a 357g cake.

Should you be interested in this PaSha, or any of the previous Che Ma Xuan cakes, please contact Eugene for samples, and or cakes.

2012 JingGu from Bannacha

I had ordered a cake each of Bannacha’s JingMai and MangJing pressings about a month back after a ridiculous sum of time browsing the cakes for sale on his site –three months or more, as I have said before in a post, I have purchase commitment issues.

image courtesy of Bannacha

Unbelievably, despite how anxious I was to receive the cakes on top of a mistyped zip code, I have still not had the pleasure of a first run with either of these teas.

I encountered a bit of a distraction.

The culprit, a lovely JingGu sample which William –whose Bannablog should definitely be checked out and followed– graciously included with my order, and stole my attention.

(This tea was made by a friend of mine who has recently acquired an abandoned tea garden in a remote place around Xiao Jinggu. The tea garden is pesticide free and a great care and each tea tree has plenty of room to grow a solid root system. The garden is so remote that the leaves have to be processed on the premises in a small workshop. –Bannacha product description)

It was a surprise to realize upon checking my note-book that I had not previously encountered a JingGu puerh. So, a bit of a first date here… well, second really.

Its’ yielded broths were generous in the mouth, possessed of sweet grass, meadow and floral notes that had presented in both the dry leaf, and cup nosing. The tea was thick in body. As intakes of liquor were held suspended in the mouth, it suggested pushing its dense sweetness into the tongue and increasingly soaking the teeth.

The tea was impressively bright, fresh and full throughout the session, though restrained in its subtle changes. It was not eager to rush its evolutions, nor declare them. It reminded me of Phill Niblock compositions where his use of “close ratio tones” produce “overtone patterns” as he noted in a Rob Forman authored article published in the Weekly Dig. A blink of an eye would have resulted in a missed fluctuation.

Its aromatics progressively sank into the throat and chest, influencing the exhaled breaths.

What impressed me most about this tea was how elegantly it both rested in the mouth physically, and sank into body throughout the session. It was soothing, relaxing, near to hypnotic. I would happily drink through a cake of this tea in a single month as it is now, aging-schmaging.

As William notes in his product description, “It is certain, this tea was made with great care.” There are lovely teas, and then there are LOVELY teas. This Jing Gu most certainly falls into this latter category.

1950s Pu Tian Gong Qing with a friend

This morning as I rummaged through various bags of samples and small quantities of aged puerh searching for my teas of the day, I happened upon the 50’s Pu Tian Gong Qing Liu Bao from Essence of Tea. It was one I had ordered a small quantity to accompany the purchase of the book noted in its product description, Lao Liu Bao Tu (Pictures Of Old Liu Bao Tea).

(I emailed David asking if there was anyway possible for him to get a copy of the book for me before I had even ordered the tea. Happily he could, and now stocks the title on the site. It is a gorgeous book of photos and text. I urge anyone with even a passing interest in liu bao to grab a copy.)

I had one session with it previously; today, it was time to share the remainder with a friend.

My friend/co-worker/tea-pal TK and I have so far only drank together at work. And so, we tend toward the good to great cooked pu, and oolongs of various stripes. Every now and then, we take in the odd new cake or a less complex aged puerh, but rarely at-home quiet-time teas. I guess it was time to break our unspoken rule.

He, somehow, caught sight of the bag before I could surprise him with it. He was notably excited as he anticipated the first cup to land on his desk. (TK seems to have a sixth sense for these things, as he spied the 70s Jiang Chen from across the room when I brought it in the first time.)

As I poured the first steep, and a golden halo edged the broth, it was clear that I had made a good decision.

Possessed of all the lovely medicinal and earthy tones looked for in a good liu bao, it carries with it an added heaviness and tone which is assuredly a product of its age. The broth was abundantly thick in the mouth from the first sip. TK suggested it was gelatinous in feel; I couldn’t have agreed with him more.

We paced the tea out to absorb its energy slowly, as I recalled that it sets deeply into the body –my first exchange with this liu bao left me barely functional for an hour or so after the last cup.

Between the two of us –starting in the morning– we steeped the leaves for all they had in them.

TK came over with a tea-crazed sort of look –which I assuredly was also sporting– following a series of morning and then post-lunch steeps, asking if he could take it for another. I had to tell him that I hadn’t even gotten to it yet following my lunch.

I had then accidentally left the leaves steeping for an hour or so while on an errand. Upon return, I assumed the broth would be undrinkable. What I hadn’t expected was one of the most heavy and sweet broths of my portion of the session.

I brought the filled pot into TK for its last steep, and left it on his desk. It’s always sad to see the good old ones come to an end, and that was its last sigh.

It mattered little as the mouth was left feeling saturated with oils and essences which lingered ad infinitum. I carried traces of its heavy, nutty sweetness on the tongue hours after my last steep. As I type, I swear it still lingers along the soft palate. Perhaps, this is a trick of the mind.

This type of tea isn’t exactly taken for its endless complexity; which is frankly fine by me. What is important is its aged qi and the elegant sweetness that haunt the mind and body. Yeah, I know, that reads like a load of waffle, but it is what it is, and this liu bao is assuredly rather special.

Taken with a dear friend only elevates it that much higher.