Friday, April 8, 2016

Rou Gui oolong, reviewing an exceptional Wuyi Yancha

I recently bought a Rou Gui oolong from Cindy Chen and it was awesome.  Tea reviews are usually presented as objective judgments, listing characteristics, or often only taste elements, sometimes only indirectly implying personal preference.  But I'll come right out with it:  this was clearly one of my favorite teas that I've ever tried.  A lot of the review summary can be spanned by naming one taste element:  peach.

a day at work

Teas can express a range of taste aspects so it's not so unusual for one to exhibit a pronounced fruit or floral flavor (or earthiness, or mineral element, etc.).  It's also not unusual for teas to achieve natural sweetness--the effect, not caused by a type of sugar, of course--or to have clean flavors, or show good balance.  It is unusual for a tea to taste like a sweet, ripe peach, passing on the illusion of that juiciness, or even the taste and feel of the fuzzy skin (that last part I probably just imagined though).  Actually eating that fruit is a distant memory for me now, since I live in the tropics.  There are lots of wonderful papaya, mango, and pineapple but almost no peaches, and certainly no great ones.

Rou Gui is often said to taste more like cinnamon, most typically, with the name more or less meaning cinnamon.  Other versions can be earthier, or a bit floral, and the general category type includes some baseline mineral flavors.  This is probably what they're best known for, tasting "like rocks," although to me that typically is the underlying base, with spice and dark-wood-range earth more predominant, on top of that or in front of it, however you like the space analogy.

To be honest, I'm skeptical when I hear about such things myself, some pronounced taste element matched with exceptional balance in a tea.  I tried a decent commercial Dan Cong not that long ago that expressed some intense fruit flavors, a very interesting tea, but the experience was nothing like this, falling short on a few levels.  It's unusual for a tea to cross over into a different level of experience.  Per some tea reviewers they have that experience all the time, and there are so many varied great teas out there that maybe they really do.  I'm reminded of the first time I tried a truly great Tie Kuan Yin, the way that floral component and feel really shocked me, or the first time I tried a good version of Darjeeling, how those opened new doors on what tea could be.

drawing on experience

I'll get back to review-mode before touching a little on some background about Wuyi Yancha oolong, how it is made.  A full description would require a longer, separate post, so I'll just start to mention a little from a recent discussion with Cindy.  She's been there and done it; she lives it.  She says that an older uncle serves more in the role of "tea master," although people that claim that title have usually taken a few courses and tasted a lot instead of having spent their lives immersed in making or selling tea.

Judging from the pictures she shared it takes a small army to complete all the laborious tea processing steps, all supervised directly by experienced family members who work like fiends during harvest and processing critical steps.  I'm jealous, really.  I grew up in a rural area in the US--Pennsylvania--and I miss the feel and smell of country life, even the work aspects.  Or maybe that's mostly nostalgia; that working like a fiend routine can be a little demanding, and it might not take many 14 hour work-days to appreciate not doing that again.  But back to that Rou Gui.

Review, and rambling on

It's hard to really get past the peach, and one really doesn't want to.  I suppose that's unless one doesn't like sweet, fruity teas, balanced with mild mineral and earth aspects, in which case someone might actually not like this tea.  But that would be weird.  The other normal supporting elements are there, a dark toffee sweetness, a distant underlying base of mineral elements, not at all pronounced, and a bit of dark-wood taste that stands out a bit more than that base, some spice, but nothing so pronounced.

Someone else might "get" something I completely don't, like malt or cocoa, or that sweetness might flag vanilla for them, but that's just how tasting can go, complex flavors really do combine a lot of subtle aspects.  Adjusting brewing can vary what "comes out," and lots of tastings would provide a deeper understanding of what is there, but I've only tried this tea a few times.

It's all well presented, very clean and balanced.  There is essentially no astringency, as black teas would go, so normal for the type.  The tea has enough body to give it a full feel to go with the sweet and complex tastes.

It doesn't seem like a difficult tea to brew in terms of not screwing it up, but with more care someone could extend the experienced results of this as a very good tea further and further into the range of greatness.  It would be a shame to brew it too strong, to lose some of the effect, to give up a wonderful balance, but it's not as if brewing to counter some negative aspect is an issue.  It should be easy to get the tea to express most of that basic range, so the tea isn't "temperamental" about brewing parameters.  At the same time it's not like a mid-range black tea or lighter oolong where it wouldn't matter so much to optimize the potential, related to teas with far less potential, this is a tea one would want to pay a lot of attention to.  Brewing it "Western style" or God forbid "grandpa style" just wouldn't come up.

I recently made the tea for two visitors at the house that have no background at all with tea.  Sometimes it works like that, that a tea is so good that I want to share it (although intuitively hoarding it might occur to me instead, and I wouldn't share it in terms of giving away much).  One was a bit shocked by the experience, happy to be trying a tea like that, but it was so unfamiliar that the best he could describe it was saying the taste was really rich.  That is a good start.

On making this tea, and Wuyi Yancha in general

It's a bit late for me to admit that I'm not impartial but I regard Cindy as a rare online friend.  What a strange world we live in, that a friend could be someone you've never met.  She's just nice in general, I am certain, but she was recently so kind as to go through lots about the process of making this tea, continuing way past some basic explanation to running through the steps in detail.  I won't get to much of all that here but I'll add a few comments relating to this tea.

Don't just take my word for it; let me cite a description of Cindy that stuck in my mind, from an author that is sort of "one of those names" in tea, Jeff Fuchs, who was there in Wuyishan in person not so long ago:

Cindy is made of tea it seems. Rampant energy, talking of nothing else, she knows tea from the soil to the very skin of the leaf and through the various stages it is a subject that is part of her. Her entire family for generations has produced Rock teas (called ‘yen cha’ locally), named for the fact that the teas generally grow in small terraced plots amidst stone and shadows where the teas must struggle to find a root-hold in the soils...

He goes on more about that region, and those teas, even talking through another fascinating review of the taste of a Rou Gui that I won't mention here.  It really is worth a read, a lot of content packed in a short space, at least compared to this rambling on.

On to passing on some of what Cindy said herself:

It is not easy for the Rou Gui to have the fruit taste.  It [relates to] Matou yan, a rock in the Wuyishan mountians.

Note that in a previous article Cindy went through a lot of factors that affect a tea, which went far beyond the normal expectations, moderate rainfall and such.  Cindy feels that the type of terrain, the specific growing location conditions, and the minerals in the soil--her point here in this quote--all lead to the final characteristics of these teas.  I've recently discussed the balance of inputs of location (terroir:  soil type, rainfall, temperature, etc.) with another tea producer, and in his case he saw processing as the main input.

One might read this as claiming the opposite, but I think that Cindy wouldn't necessarily disagree, since she also repeatedly claims that one key is skill in processing.  I don't see it as a conflict, since I get the impression that the results could never be the same without all those inputs coming together in just the right way.  She mentions organic growing conditions in a very specific environment as one factor, along with mineral content, but in describing every processing step she mentions the importance of getting that step just right.  The final output isn't a tea that tastes exactly like some pre-defined optimum, the same tea every year, it's what these natural best inputs together draw out.  More on that related to this Rou Gui:

In the oxidation step, we knew this tea would have a very strong peach  taste.  Because when the tea was processing all the house was full of peach  flavor.  After this step we do the baking, a process we repeat a number of times.

And from there the conversation moved on to some related topics:

If you taste the tea in  2015 you will not get this feeling, because the tea still has too much charcoal feeling, so that you cannot get the taste the tea clearly.  So that is why we always sell the rock tea in the next year.

Of course I've left that close to her original words, to retain the sense that feel and taste of the tea really are sort of overlapping concepts.  In that earlier post, on inputs to making Wuyi Yancha, Cindy described how different types of teas are processed best related to different levels of roast.  Some other articles claim that less is more, that only lighter roasts are somehow valid, but the sense I get from her is that there is an art to making that sort of choice.  It does tie back to personal preference on some level, but that it's not nearly as simple as saying one set of processing parameters is best.

same tea, different picture

It's normal for people to talk about level of roast when discussing this general category of teas, or the amount of "char" effect, so it may stand out that I've not brought this up (in this tea review; of course I've discussed it in many).  It just wasn't an aspect that stood out in this case, not that the tea was heavily roasted, or lightly, but the effect was just transparent.  Cindy claimed that this was in part because these types of relatively more roasted teas should "rest" for a year prior to selling, and this tea was made last year, when that component would have been more noticeable, not so well balanced.

There is room for a lot of background discussion on lots of points, many of which relate to type and preference.  According to Cindy there is no simple formula to get the teas right, and every step and decision is based on experience.  I won't do any of it too much justice given that scope and the level of impossible to describe skill-input required but I will share a lot more of Cindy's description of processing steps in another post later.

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