An old vendor returns
Does RFDT still have a following?
This post may read like a promo or shill. That is not my intention;
rather, I hope to make a good and non-self-promoting resource more
rapidly available to fellow tea-drinkers - at the risk of driving up
prices and depleting stocks of what I hope to acquire!
Many of us remember David Lee Hoffman from his days running Silk Road
Teas, or have seen him in the Les Blank documentary film. SRT changed
hands a few years back, with David exiting the business for a time. He
is now back, d/b/a The Phoenix Collection. Product choices, currently
available only by paper mailing or conversation, cover a manageable
selection of "normal" teas and many Pu-erhs (some older than most of
us), currently being inventoried for sale. He has a more businesslike
management now than in SRT days.
I just received a test order of 14 teas covering several of the usual
styles. What follows are brief notes, just to give an initial sense of
how the offerings shape up. Prices seem to be in line with quality, with
several favorable exceptions. Minimum order seems to be 1/4 lb. for
loose teas, and whole cakes or other natural units for others.
David's Green Private Reserve
"All In This Tea" focused mainly on greens, so I wanted to try whatever
he currently picks as his signature offering. It is apparently made from
a varietal called Mei Zan (or something like that). Leaves are about 1"
long, very clean and uniform. They appear to this untrained eye to have
been rolled and then flattened, perhaps by pan-firing. Color is a dull
green-gray. Flavor is more vegetal than brothy; I usually prefer the
latter, perhaps more Japanese style, but find this one quite appealing.
Wondering if the dull color might indicate processing that would render
the product more robust than senchas and the like, I have left a sample
open to air. It seems to be holding up pretty well. I'm always looking
for good greens that don't have to be rushed into the cup to avoid
staling, and this may be one such.
Lu An Guapian
This all-leaf style is one of my favorite Chinese greens, for the
buttery taste (like a malolactic chardonnay) and forgiving brewing
requirements. This lot was a good example of the style, and a good value
at $40/lb. I give away a lot of melon-seed to beginners as well as
swapping with more experienced friends, and enjoyed this one.
Golden Bi Luo
Wanted some nice Yunnan Gold, since those I've tried in the past two
years have been disappointing. (The hoarded remnant of a large lot of
2007 from Yunnan Sourcing is holding up OK; some of these seem to keep
well.) David's recommendation was this snail-rolled example, which is
very pretty and would make a good gift. It is a brighter and cleaner
taste than most tippy or all-bud dian hongs I've tried. For me, that's a
plus: most of them are cloyingly sweet/musky for my taste even when made
thin, suited only to the tiniest cups. This is more refreshing and
invigorating, like fino vs. oloroso sherry. Bit pricey, but reasonable
for the quality - and produced good liquor for many more steeps than I
would expect from a dian hong. (Showing how tastes vary, one gold-loving
friend strongly preferred the rather cheaper offering from
Tuochatea.com. Why it's good to try a lot of leaf...
Phoenix Bird Oolong, High Mountain
David was justifiably famous for these at SRT, and this example respects
the tradition. Only made it twice so far, so can't say much, but it
certainly ranks among the best of the 30-40 I've tried. It did well with
three characteristics I look for in dan cong-type oolongs: strong flavor
for at least 12-15 steeps, persistent taste in the mouth for hours
afterward, and minimal astringency in later steeps. Latter is a real
issue for me with most Phoenix oolongs; I wonder if this one might be
slightly more oxidized/fermented than usual? (Leaf color post-brewing
supports this hypothesis.) As is frequent but not universal with the
type, the unbroken, twisted leaves are delicious chewed up right out of
Fisted oolongs not reviewed he a very reasonable everyday Tieguanyin,
and a competition grade of the same style. Somebody accidentally (?)
took these away with a bunch of other outgoing bags, and I need to get
some back for a careful tasting before commenting further.
Pu-erh Cha Wang, 1995 King of Tea
I never met one of these I didn't like, and rarely met one I could
afford. This one runs to form: $320/lb and stunningly good. With intense
flavor from a small pinch of tippy leaf, and no problem extracting 15 or
more good steeps, it's actually a bargain per unit pleasure. -Just kind
of a high ante. Of the dozen or so of this style that I've tried, the
only comparable one I recall was from Roy Fong, some years ago, and (I
think) about the same price.
Bamboo Fragrance Pu-erh (green)
I have yet to love a bamboo-roasted Pu-erh, and this is no exception. So
I don't feel competent to comment on how good it is or is not for the
genre. Perhaps there's a special trick to brewing these that someone
Tibetan Brick Pu-erh 2002
About as ugly as they come: twiggy, loose, powdery, completely composted
cake. I was not optimistic. Turned out to be delicious from the first
steep. (I only do a "rinse" when tea is visibly dirty; don't want to
miss anything, and early notes are sometimes best.) Pretty good but
predictably pondy at the start; free, however, of mildew taste. Later
steeps were wonderfully sweet and complex, and quite different from many
"normal" pressed-cake ripe Pu-erhs. This one must have been carried on
the back of an especially pleasant horse. Or perhaps whatever processing
technique produced the friable structure did something especially good
for the chemistry. Certainly not a shu Pu-erh of the sort that allegedly
converges with old sheng; rather, excellent as a separate species.
Liu An 1999 basket
Melon seed that's been to hell and back? I don't usually like these
cousins to sheng Pu-erh. This one is a rare exception. When made weak
and oversteeped or at too low a temperature, it tasted to me like one of
the smoky malts - say, Talisker or Laphroaig - with too much water:
harsh, smoky, a huge hole in the middle where all the real flavor and
fragrance belong. With plenty of leaf, boiling water and in-and-out
infusions, it is rich, complex, sweet and a lovely color, and lasts for
many infusions. (I've made it three times so far, and ran out of time at
more than ten, with plenty of flavor left.) Possibly the best example
I've tried yet - of only 6-8, to be sure.
Nannuo Mountain Wild bingcha 2002
Specially recommended by the vendor. Good, powerful, but by my standards
still on the rough side for drinking. Tastes like it might age well.
Nannuo Mountain "Camouflage" bingcha 2006
Even rawer than above, with similar promise. Visually, a stunning cake -
among the three or four prettiest I've seen. Big leaves, well assembled
in a cake pressed lightly enough to remove single leaves w/o damage.
Another great gift or presentation-serving tea, IMO.
Yiwu bingcha 2004
This small (250g) cake smelled mellow and sweet dry, and followed when
wet. It's a sure winner, for those who prefer the sweet and fragrant
Yiwu character. Though still young, it is quite ready to drink. I made
it several ways; though abuse could make it a little astringent, it was
good for many delicious steeps under all circumstances. I plan to get
more of this to store, in hope that it will keep all the good aspects
while losing the few asperities.
Green Pu-erh large-leaf 1995
Best, perhaps, for last. I've not yet had maocha I didn't like a lot;
presumably, it's not worth the trouble of handling such a fragile and
low-density product unless it's pretty good. (Or else most maocha is
better than most pressed cake, which I rather doubt.) The one is just
plain stunning. Don't know how else to put it, and I wouldn't mention it
at all had David not affirmed that stocks are solid. It's a pretty leaf
dry and drained, and infusions are good first to last. I've made it with
water from about 150F to boiling; all did fine, though somewhere between
those extremes worked much better. Though the infusion is still more
green than red, I'd call this a ready-to-drink Pu-erh: further aging
will no doubt change it, but could hardly make it much smoother. In my
experience, this is flat-out the easiest sheng Pu-erh to brew well and
possibly the easiest to brew to its best potential. And at $80/lb
(equivalent to about $63 for a 357g bingcha, if bingcha were really 357g
as promised), that's a very fair price for the age and quality. I'll be
loading the shelves with this one.
As a side-note, I've been experimenting a lot with adding divalent
cations (calcium/magnesium) to the too-pure local tap water. Since these
Pu-erhs are so good and yet (for the sheng) still unripe, they make
interesting test subjects. I find dramatic differences, whether the
salts are added in brewing or to the fair pot. (Still teasing these
effects apart; might report later.) I recommend exploring at least this
one variable in water when exploring interesting teas.
Would welcome others' experiences with DLH offerings, since I can't
quite afford to try all 300.