Saturday, August 26, 2017

2007 Xiang Yi "Hei Cha Zhuan" Hunan Brick Tea

cool looking tea

I'm reviewing the third tea from an order of a few kinds of hei cha (from Yunnan Sourcing), part of a long awaited step to explore the type further.  So far I've covered a shou pu'er and Liu Bao in an earlier post, and now I'm onto a Hunan Brick version.  I'm excited to pass on results, even though I'm only started on the tasting, but I wanted to mention a post-script related to the last tasting first.

that order; modest priced versions, but interesting so far

That shou was nice (with full names for both above).  Others have been reviewing and discussing it online and it's quite well received, complex, with a good range of aspects, full flavored and pleasant, with no negative aspects (no mustiness, off flavors, tar, or petroleum, definitely no fishiness).  It might not pass for a much higher end tea due to the complexity and aspects range only extending so far but it's nice, if considering value as a main factor perhaps even exceptional.

The Liu Bao I found to be a bit musty, although I still liked it.  That's the part I really wanted to talk about here, that per later input others suggested that with some airing out that may subside.  I don't mean the week or two of rest teas are recommended to undergo after shipping, a settling in, the idea is to store it well away from other things with strong scents in a paper bag for half a year to a year.

Really it's hard for me to put it on a scale just how musty the tea was, as wetter stored versions go, since I just don't have much experience with that.  To some others that element might seem really mild, or maybe it could seem like the tea couldn't really completely come back from it instead.  I still liked the tea, it was interesting, but it might well be a good bit better in a few months to a year.  It's probably as well we're moving through the end of the rainy season here so the oppressive humidity will ease up in another two months, to help it air out.

Or after checking out an annual humidity graph for Bangkok maybe not.  I could swear the steam-room level of humidity I'm experiencing right now eases up, more than the bump down from over 80% to over 70% as shown there.  At least that tea won't dry out too much.  I'll check back on how that goes.

what the chunks look like

The Hunnan Brick tea review

The first look and smell of the tea was exactly what I'd been expecting for other types of hei cha; rich, sweet, a little earthy, and complex.  The scent reminded me of figs and stored hay bales, or a lot like an old canvas Army tent my parents used to have.  It weighed a ton, and stayed a little musty from seemingly never completely drying out, but it had a really cool smell.  I guess it smelled like figs and stored hay bales.

Thinking back that tent may have been from the Korean war era, since it was around in the late 70s (I'm a bit old myself since I was too), and it probably wasn't even new to my parents then.  It's conceivable that it could've been really old instead, but my guess would be that it was a 60's era tent (so post-Korean conflict, pre-Vietnam ramp-up).  They don't make them like that any more, and they shouldn't; that thing was heavy, and beyond that smell being cool it was probably a little like hanging out in the stacks in a library basement.

The appearance is what I'd have expected too: well-compressed chunks of a dark tea.  It looks and smells a little like that compressed Yunnan black tea brick I reviewed and bought awhile back, now that I think of it.

The first rinse was a bit light so I'll start in on the first real infusion.  It is a lot like that black tea brick.  The taste range from the scent is there, figs, an old version of dried hay, not really dry, light bright tones but earthier and sweeter range, with some depth to it.  It's clean in effect, not off in any way.  That part of the range sort of reminds me of the Yunnan compressed black tea but it's the underlying tone that really does.  It includes layers of molasses earthiness and sweetness with an unusual mineral tone, like the scent of an artesian well that draws up minerals from deep in the ground.  I really like that part, although I suppose that maybe not everyone would.  It's not off in any way, not difficult to appreciate, but it is different.

one version of an artesian well; this one is for local deer to get a drink

It's complex enough that different reviewers might fill in different 8 or 10 aspect descriptions for it.  I'm going with fig, older hay bale, mineral, and molasses as a start but really I think cocoa sort of works, and there's another dried fruit element that's quite pronounced, with fig not quite capturing that range.  I'd meant to check the Yunnan Sourcing description but hadn't yet; lets try that:

This is from the Xiang Yi Tea Factory in An Hua county of Hunan Province.  Xiang Yi is the second oldest producer of Hunan Hei Cha after Bai Sha Xi Tea Factory.

Hei Cha Zhuan (lit. Black Tea Brick) is composed of An Hua grown tea that's been picked and processed with frying, rolling, wilting and then sun-dried.  The bricks are tightly compressed which allows for slow but determined post fermentation. These are unique from Fu Bricks in that the golden flower spores are not introduced into the tea and as such don't exist.

This particular brick was stored in An Hua County of Hunan from 2007 until June 2016.  The smell of the dry leaf is that of dried fruit... very sweet and dense fruitiness happening.  The brewed tea is sweet and thick with (not surprisingly) strong fruit sweetness (think dried plums).  Tea can be infused 7 to 10 times if brewed gong fu style.  We recommend loosening the tea using a pick into smallish chunks layer by layer.  We also recommend using a clay pot and the hottest water possible.

I meant to edit that but it's all too interesting.  Unless I'm remembering wrong that compressed black tea was sun-dried, but surely the processing was completely different beyond that.

Kind of strange to be passing on background description during a review, instead of before or after, but I checked the Steepster reviews--it came up looking for this product page--and they were all pretty consistent.  Everyone liked it, and the different descriptions match well this time (maybe they cheated, and copied).  People only saw a lack of complexity as a possible drawback, but everyone reviewing it seemed to want to own some.  A couple of reviews mentioned an umeboshi flavor aspect, a Japanese salt plum, per Wikipedia more closely related to an apricot.  I'm not sure about that; I try strange Asian foods more often than most but don't keep track of them all.

Related to their take on aspects "plum" is the consensus for that fruitiness (that I'd left at fig and some other dried fruit), with sourness and wood also mentioned.  I suppose there is a bit of sourness, which would come across completely differently without that sweetness, fruit, and earthiness filling in the rest.  It's just a short step towards how dried plums come across, but absolutely nothing like the final effect in the Chinatown version that you get, that really intense sweetened and flavored version.

that Teasenz shai hong compressed black

It would be interesting to comparison taste this with that Yunnan compressed black tea, and to a limited extent I am comparing to the memory of it.  On the next infusion the sourness does pick up; I think that's actually common to both but a little more pronounced in this.  All those reviews really do capture the main flavor elements going on, with that fruit range (plum, etc.) and the lighter earthy tones (bark, aging hay bale) as the main experience.

Under all that though there is an interesting context tone for the flavor, that mineral range, which I'm describing as the scent of an artesian well.  If you pulled that out the experience wouldn't hang together in the interesting way that it does, and to me it's interesting on its own for being novel.  Or maybe I just like that smell.

Forgive another flashback:  when I was a child my grandparents, the set I saw less often, my mother's parents, had an artesian well flowing right in front of their house, piped up in such a way you could kneel down on a steel grate and drink constantly flowing water pouring out of a metal pipe.  The idea is that somehow underground pressure forces water to flow without pumping, like a natural spring, just related to the pipe running down into the ground instead.  Similar pipes sticking out of the side of a hill were kind of common back there.  In this case they used that as a water source.  You could stop and get a drink on the way past it, and every time we visited that's exactly the first thing I would do, and every other time my path naturally crossed by it.  That mineral smell is unforgettable, and that water was delicious, sweet and full of flavor.

Looking around online related to that well I tested how this tea does brewed for five minutes instead of more on the order of half a minute to 45 seconds.  An optimum infusion time would really vary by proportion used and personal preference, with water temperature and all the rest factoring in.  It's still fine; not better for being overbrewed, but the tea takes it well.  It's a good chance to get a look at what's going on in the tea from a different perspective, like the idea of using a bit of an oversteep (one standard, long brew time) to help identify flaws in standard tea tasting.

The idea of the earthiness being bark or dark wood really comes across brewed strong.  The feel thickens a good bit, and the aftertaste is really pronounced.  It's actually kind of nice, that mineral range, the sweetness, the sourness and fruit offsetting each other, with a rich sweetness and the mineral stronger in the aftertaste version.  I would prefer this tea brewed medium to slightly stronger, not exactly like this infusion, but the flavors and general balance work well at any intensity, so it might as well be a little stronger than average.  I tend to go the other way with most darker roasted oolongs, with lighter being better, and in the middle with most black tea types, not preferring them especially strong or light.

As I see it this tea would work well with different kinds of foods.  Drinking it alone would be fine, as some sort of afternoon tea, but that range could work well as a counter for something completely  different in taste, lighter in scale, maybe like a dried pineapple danish.  My thinking is that it's not so subtle that it's a strain to "get it," and the interesting way that complexity crosses your palate could be emphasized further by tasking you mouth to switch back and forth between two different ranges of flavors.  It would also help stop the effect of mild sourness from building up.

On the subject of "meditative space" that came up in the last review this time this house is quiet as a tomb, except for the odd tropical bird piping up, perfect for tasting.  My wife took the little noisemakers to a Chinese class (Mandarin) and a pre-school sort of event for my daughter.  She's three years old but just switched to her second school, from a Chinese-Thai local version to a British international school, but it still works out to have her do a weekend two hour social outing back there while my son does a language lesson.  I suppose that's intended as an explanation for why this rambles even more than is typical, venturing across online review and into what to snack on while tasting the tea.

more trouble than she looks to be in the pictures

Perhaps partly because I don't get this kind of quiet time often it's nice mostly drinking teas that aren't very challenging.  An example will clarify what I mean:  another review I've been meaning to get to is comparing two more of Cindy's teas (Wuyi Origin Wuyi Yancha oolongs).  I love those teas, and they're surely fantastic, two of the better teas I will have ever tried, but for those I would do well to spend an hour and a half mostly focused on the tea instead.  Tasting just one cuts back the scale of the task, and makes it easier, and I might finish most of that tasting and note-taking in under an hour.  For trying this tea alone, the Hunan brick, I'm free to mess around a little, to focus in and then check on something else.  I just passed on a lead on a Nepal tea contact while I was writing this.

Trying the tea again lighter works a little better, but in the middle towards the stronger side is how I like it.  It doesn't seem to transition much anyway; not like I'm missing something there.  In a couple of limited senses the complexity is limited but I like the tea; the aspects are nice.  It brews a lot of consistent infusions.  I've lost count of them, but aside from needing longer times to keep the intensity up the tea is still going.  I think some of the range has narrowed and the feel might be thinning but otherwise it's similar to the earlier version.  It moves a little towards metallic from mineral and thins as even more infusions pass but otherwise just keeps going.

I don't think this is the kind of tea I'll experience more and more from as I experiment with brewing adjustments but I will enjoy trying it lots more times.

This part is probably going to sound a little crazy but someone just asked for recommendations for a tea to try mixed with ice cream (I warned you) and this might work.  I recommended making up a version of Thai iced tea instead, trying to get that spicing blend to balance.  That would be especially suitable since it's like cooking; you could keep adjusting spicing to make it work well with the ice cream (only vanilla, I think; it would be uncivilized to try any other flavor with it).  But this tea or that Yunnan black brick might work too, brewed really thick.  A more obvious answer would be to go with a malty Assam, I guess, or a chocolatey Yunnan Dian Hong (more standard black), but I think the range of those two brick teas might also work well.

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