Ten minutes before seven on a Friday night, and Teance was already half full. The guys were handing out Lavender Mint as a preface, which I suppose could make a great palate cleanser. I was focused on snatching a seat at the end of the bar for some writing surface(*) and a peek at the action.
A few minutes into her presentation, Winnie signaled Darius to start the first round of the night: White Peony Longevity Brow from Fujian. The region is most similar geographically to California with the coast on the opposite side, and the white varietals take a liking to this terroir, so Fujian produces the most white tea in China. The buds for the white tea need to be harvested in the first 3-4 days of April just before the rain comes, because the buds will open up and become leaves as soon as it rains, causing a coarser profile. Picking is done by hand, so you get about 5 pounds a day if you’re really skilled. Theoretically, white tea should be sun-dried (green tea is wok-dried), but given the high foggy mountain of Fujian, the leaves are instead dried with hot air on bamboo racks. Winnie had to go around to taste the different piles of new teas (and here I forgot the exact word she used because I hadn’t asked Ms Colleen to borrow her pen yet. I was cocky you see, I thought I could remember things.) to choose her favorite. Her favorite turns out to be the melony type, so that’s what we get at Teance: a really, really smooth, sweet melony White Peony.
The second round was the Silver Needle, also from Fujian. It’s grassier than the White Peony.
The third round is what many people came here for today: Pre-rain Longjing. (I actually came for the Dafang, which was advertised a few weeks back but hasn’t arrived yet.) This tea is so sensitive to steeping that every time I try it, it tastes different. The first time bought me with the surprise factor, the second time was a twist (not in the cocktail sense, but from nutty to leafy by steeping only 1/5 of the recommended time), and this time gave a nice comfy pat on the shoulder.
A few notes from Winnie’s talk:
– The tea hills in Hangzhou aren’t that high, Lion Peak is only 400 m, which explains why the crop is more easily affected by industrial pollution.
– Picture shows the old Longjing bushes being separated from the new varietals with colorful flag lines: the new varietal yields more tea but also more stringency, so old is better.
– The tea leaves are actually crafted with BARE hands on a 100-Celsius-degree wok! They should make superhero movies about teamakers, call them the T-Men who can touch scorching woks and toss tea leaves in them like kids playing in the water. The man also presses the leaves to make Longjing’s distinctive flat shape. Bare hands, too. Each drying takes 20 mins, then the tea takes a rest, then shaping takes another 20 minutes, and the leaves have to be dried the same day they’re harvested.
Along with the teas came handmade tea-flavored cookies by Hanna. One kind was lychee red with rosebuds, the other was matcha with genmai (toasted rice) on top, a cute deconstruction of genmaicha. Later in the night Hanna gave us her loved-by-everyone cream puffs, and the right way (I think) to eat them is to stuff the whole puff (the size of a kumquat) into your mouth at once, like eating sushi, so that you get Fourth-of-July fireworks: mint, grape, jasmine, citrus, berries. Yes, loved by Ev.’ry.One.
While Winnie was telling us about the White Snake tale of Hangzhou (which doesn’t have a happy ending so I’m not reciting it here), Darius steeped out the Anji Bai from Jiangsu. If there’s one thing I learn from tonight, it’s how much a tea can vary from season to season: this Anji Bai is a whole different universe from the Anji Bai of last spring, and I like this year’s turnout 50 times better. No more buttery note, the Anji Bai of Spring 2012 boasts a direct, bright, clear, gently spicy flavor of Persicaria odorata (Vietnamese mint). The Anji Bai is relatively new and unknown, said Winnie, it’s also machine-made.
The fifth round: Wild Mulberry Leaves from the Yao Village, Guangdong. This herbal “tea” is controversial: I like it, Darius complains about it being too “plumy”. My note has smooth, sweet, thirst-quenching (copied from Winnie). It reminded me of a Vietnamese drink that I can’t remember now. Darius said it must be an Asian thing because Winnie likes it, too. 😀
The Wild Mulberry was followed by Phoenix Honey Fragrance Oolong, also from Guangdong. It lives true to its name: fragrant, flowery with a cleansing taste. Steeped for 15-20 seconds.
Next came Winnie’s favorite-red-tea-ever Meijan Red from Fujian. In her words: it’s totally different from any other red/black tea. And it is. Its complexity makes every description, except dark, correct. One second you taste vegetal, the next floral, the next fruity. Mr. Jules, a tea poet who also sat at the bar, commented that it had a hint of white pepper. It was sold out tonight.
We ended on a chilled note: Cold Infused Tieguanyin. The top-grade oolong is passed through a rice mill to remove the burnt fringe of the leaves, which takes away some of the roastiness and makes it taste better when cold? The section for iced tea in my heart has already been taken by the sassafras, which is banned by the FDA; anyway, the guests tonight seemed to think fondly of this cold Tieguanyin.
Due to some minor debility, the result of a whole week of going to bed at 6 AM and getting up at 10, I thought of not attending this harvest party. So glad I didn’t follow through with that thought. The tea, especially the Anji Bai and the Meijan were worth delaying my flight. In fact, I’m so excited by them that I’m writing this post while waiting for security at the airport. Did you know, they don’t open between 1 and 3:30 AM?
(*) My extreme gratitude to Ms Colleen who sat next to me and so kindly lent me her spare pen. What good is a notepad and a writing surface without a pen?(**)
(**) My purple ink tea pen was safely tucked away in my backpack as I had to leave for the airport soon after the tea party. I’m a careful packer. I made sure I didn’t forget my pen.