Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Bao Zhong

Name: Bao Zhong
Origin: Pinglin, Taiwan
Harvest Date: April 27, 2014
Type: Oolong Tea
Purveyor: Everlasting Teas
Preparation: One teaspoon steeped in about eight ounces of 200deg F water for 4:30 (I am unfortunately unequipped for gong fu cha), sipped plain

As I tasted this Bao Zhong, what was most striking was how different the notes seemed now that I set down to taste it with intent. I had had this tea - the same batch, bought in the same canister - a few times before, either flying out the door in the morning or sitting watching a movie. But this was my first time focusing on exploring deeply and intricately its profile. Normally this would result in a refined and nuanced understanding of how I already know the tea to taste; instead it resulted in a surprise: the brew tasted like a completely different category of tea. Has that ever happened to you? It was certainly a first for me.

The dry leaves are long and twisted, like desiccated tree trunks. There is an overtone of blue to the brown that gives them almost a mystical quality. A ton of maltiness, manifested largely as vanilla, dominates the aroma, and there is also a certain sweetness that is hard to place. Let's put it somewhere between molasses and caramel. The same exact notes in a white wine would indicate more oak than grapes. But of course, such concentration of notes is plainly expected with dry tea leaves.

The steeped tea is exceptionally light in color. If I didn't know any better, upon looking at the completed brew, I would say that the bag had just gone in there. The hue is somewhere between lemongrass and sea green, not especially out of line with the tinge on the dry leaves, and if the thinness of the color were not so distracting it would be really quite enjoyable to contemplate visually - in fact, I quite think it was anyway.

The aroma, notwithstanding the paleness, is very pungent. Plenty of maltiness, a little sweetness around the edge. As I asked my wife if she thinks the particular note is more like vanilla or molasses - in the very middle of my sentence - I realized that it is neither so much as chestnut. (With which thought my better half concurs.) This nuttiness is not pure nuttiness per se, but a curious result of maltiness, sweetness, and floral notes combined into one. Or is, perhaps, all nuttiness like that?

It is at this point that I realize that this is not a typical oolong. The snobbier subset of aficionadoes will scoff here. Outside the base and narrow paradigm of packaged nonsense that Americans eating Chinese take-out mistake for oolong tea, they sniff, there is no "typical" oolong so much as a wide and diverse spectrum of teas from across the Orient that happen to be treated similarly post-plucking. And it is not that these aficionadoes are wrong - they are quite correct - but is is still plainly possible to identify certain notes common to oolongs and easy to distinguish in a blind tasting an oolong tea from a green, black, or white.

And yet there I was, exploring a Bao Zhong from a batch that I had sampled many times in the past without having ever noticed the first discrepancy, and realizing that it came off very - eerily - similar to a green tea. A Hairpoint green is what was specifically brought straight to the front of my mind, there to remain indefinitely.

For a brew whose aroma is stuffed with maltiness and chestnuts, the liquid is rather thin. Tannins are there on the side of the mouth, but light. The flavor is delicate. I get grassiness. It is a wee bit acidic but in a mild, balanced way. Maybe it is a simple matter of me not being able to get this whole green tea thing out of my head, but I taste all of those Hairpoint notes, albeit without quite choking on them as one might with that green. All of this is a compliment to the Bao Zhong, by the way.

The finish is simple and wonderful: the notes fade a little, and I found myself licking my chops, enjoying the sweetness as it comes out deliciously on the edges of the mouth for one last hurrah before the next sip.

We may never know for sure, but I believe that if it was a blind tasting, I - and not for nothing, but I am not new at this - would not have guessed that the tea is oolong. Being wrong about something I ought to know? Happens to me more often than I care to admit. But having a tea taste so radically different just because I pay a little more attention than usual? That has never happened to me before. I must admit, I rather enjoyed learning anew how rewarding it can be to pay attention to what it is I drink. It was a great and humbling lesson.