In 2016, Master Zhang taught us much about tea: from the effect of varietal on flavor, to the way that a single varietal can express differently in different regions. He has shared some of his most compelling experiments like Original Oolong Revival, and given us an excellent education on aging oolongs and the effect of roasting styles.
To close out the year, we had to give Master Zhang the reins of our CSA-style Tea of the Month Club for December 2016. His only prompt was to share whatever he was most excited about. He put together an entire set of five oolong teas with the goal of shining a new light on the most famous varietal of Anxi: Tieguanyin.
Master Zhang is constantly working on new projects, setting aside small parts of his harvests all year long in every season to finish in small batches. Doing so allows him to keep refining his technique, playing and adjusting to see how small changes to old and new techniques will bring out new elements in each season’s picking. While these harvests are often kept aside for Master Zhang to drink himself or age, he also works each season to share these with friends and peers, colleagues and fellow tea masters in Anxi, Taiwan, Guangzhou and beyond.
Master Zhang calls these teas his little experiments, and this year-long work means he is always working to challenge himself, collaborate, learn and explore. These experiments don’t make it to market without a special request or comission, and are usually never shared outside of Mater Zhang’s close personal network of trusted friends. Out of all of his experiments this autumn, Master Zhang hand picked these five new teas to share with all of you.
All five teas are autumn harvest Tieguanyin varietal, but each tea is startlingly different. By changing the way that he fluffs and turns the leaves, adjusting the oxidation time, the roast temperature, the shape, and more, he fine tunes each batch to let the Tieguanyin varietal shine in a new way.
We fell in love with every tea he picked out. His curated CSA box was a bold statement on the role of the tea master – the craftsman – and their responsibility to bring out the best in every tea. We couldn’t be happier to make the teas in December’s box available now to everyone through Master Zhang’s permanent collection.
Master Zhang’s Original Tieguanyin Revival is based on his ongoing research into very early Anxi oolong that used the ‘Wulong’ or Ruan Zhi varietal leaf, a half-rolled / half strip-style shape, and a very meticulous turning and fluffing process that goes further than most modern tea would.
In this experimental offering , he has applied his research to the Tieguanyin varietal and provided enough roast for a deep, rich aroma (nong xiang ). The result is a tea full of roasted chestnut flavor, and a soothing licorice and ginseng note complemented by sweet tropical florals. This exciting offering brings out a truly unique side to Tieguanyin that doesn’t come through in more modern processing techniques.
This Hua Xiang Qing Xiang Tieguanyin from Master Zhang was a great favorite among December club members!
Hua Xiang refers to the fact that Master Zhang picked and processed this Tieguanyin to bring out the most floral elements possible. Perfectly dialed-in hand turning and fluffing process help capture peak florals. A few movements too many or too few and the tea can go in a very different direction.
Qing Xiang refers to the light oxidation and roast. Heat is only applied to this tea to stop oxidation and eliminate moisture, but not to change the flavor fundamentally. The result is a beautifully clean, sweet, and rich tea with potent florals. Lilac, jasmine, and vanilla linger on the pallet. The juicy impressive sweetness of this tea is a testament to the quality of the leaf and the skill of Master Zhang in his craft.
Ming Hua Xiang Traditional Tieguanyin was one of the biggest surprises in December’s club box, and has been one of our favorites to share with friends and family over the holiday season.
Ming Hua Xiang describes tea flower aroma – the scent of camellia sinenses in bloom! The tea flowers blossoming around Daping village are an incredible and potent aroma, perfuming the fields in early autumn. Tieguanyin varietal has a unique marigold and honey aroma, and a dark floral quality.
Master Zhang’s careful traditional processing preserves an incredibly green quality in this tea, a rich thick soybean-like flavor tempered by bright Chrysanthemum floral notes. A lingering pine flavor in the aftertaste made this one of the most complex teas in December’s subscription box!
Master Zhang’s Yun Xiang Medium Roast Tieguanyin is a technical beauty, In addition to being a wonderful tea to sip and savor, its unique taste and texture make it perfect for learning about more advanced elements of tasting tea.
Yun is a complex concept, and can be literally translated as “charm.” But the yun of a tea is more than simple appeal – yun is what makes the tea powerful and lingering beyond the common concept of aftertaste. Only the finest teas have a perceptible quality that would be described by professional Chinese tasters as yun.
While there is no complete agreement on how to put yun into words, we notice a light cooling sensation and a tingling almost electrical texture on teas that have yun. This feeling builds up with every sip, making each steeping more and more commanding.
Master Zhang’s ability to bring out yun through his craft is something to see. The yun quality usually only comes through in particularly old tree stock (such as Old Tree Shui Xian or Single Tree Sheng Pu’er). Master Zhang creates this through careful charcoal roasting over several long sessions and many days, relying on his experience and senses to get the finish perfectly right. The yun of this Tieguanyin is a delight to discover and an exciting prompt for us to translate more video from our farmer-partners teaching us about this important concept.
Master Zhang’s Mi Xiang Dark Roast Tieguanyin is a cozy treat where careful roasting brings out natural sweetness in the Tieguanyin leaves, like honey.
Indeed, Mi Xiang is literally “honey fragrance.” In other finishing styles, honey usually takes a backseat to more powerful florals and fruit flavors in Tieguanyin, but Master Zhang here has brought out the subtle, thick and rich honeyed quality of Tieguanyin through his precise roast.
We have so much respect for Master Zhang’s values in roasting tea. So many workshops will roast to impart heavy handed roast flavor, and in doing so, burn their tea and compromise its original integrity. Master Zhang roasts slowly and with perfect precision so that even a tea this dark tastes only of itself and not of roasted flavor.
The result is a tea full of honey, bread and elderberry, a true cozy delight in the cold months of the year.
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