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Originally shared in our Tasting Journal Newsletter, Saturday 09/19/20
What does Qianjiazhai taste like? Is it possible to convey a true, faithful sense of a place through taste, texture and aroma?
These are the questions that kept us up late together with Master Zhou, cracking walnuts picked from nearby high mountain top trees. We were dipping the pieces in wild honey, a counterpoint to the incredible sheng pu’ers Master Zhou was pulling out.
We started with rich, fruit-forward and definitely sweet Gu Hua sheng, picked in early autumn, and moved our way through to early spring harvests from younger trees, to the oldest trees, seeing the intensity of texture and aftertaste grow with each new pot.
Yet with each taste experience, there was of course a common thread, something holding together each tea as distinctly of the special place of Qianjiazhai. This land that takes us three days, three flights, and fifteen hours of buses, ATVs and finally hiking to get to, feels truly special. Even at high altitude (2000+ meters!), the air feels thick, charged with fresh evergreen, herbaceous wildflowers, and fresh rain – a refreshing balm to the travel, coming together on the palate with the aromatics of the sheng pu’er.
This most remote mountain within mountains that Mr. Zhou and the rest of the Dongsa Cooperative call home is a place that every tea they produce calls back to. So the question we pondered at the time was: can any specific harvest, plot, or old tree picking express this place more faithfully than the rest?
Hikling beneath tea trees & walnut trees (left)
view from near the Li Family’s home (right)
What we learned over several days – and what has only become more clear with each journey to Qianjiazhai – was that the shifting weather, swinging between cool wet nights and sunny bright days, means a shifting sense of place. Along a single hike, you might experience wet tree bark, wild tulsi, mountain flowers, and rocky earth. In this way, each unblended tea from Qianjiazhai expresses a different aspect- painting a portrait through its unique complexity.
Master Zhou’s idea to answer our question was to try to capture all those feelings in one tea. This was the seed to the Harmony project, the Zhenyuan Dongsa Cooperative’s one and only blended tea. Mr. Zhou works with the Li Family, the Deng Family, and all of the members of the cooperative to pick out the most iconic old tree harvests, combined with younger, earlier spring Zun pickings to create layered texture and deep aftertaste, while blending in Gu Hua for big flavor. The result is a portrait of home – the Harmony Xiao Jin Gua; meticulously pressed by hand using traditional cloth wrapping techniques and gentle steaming.
Brewing up the 2019 Harmony Xiao Jin Gua today, I can’t help but admire Master Zhou’s subtlety and success in capturing the sense of place by bringing together the most evocative parts of each tea in the blend. The wet leaf aroma is full of creamy fruity apricot, but tempered by a rocky, foresty element
The sense of the first sips is like transitioning from sunny daytime to misty cool night in Qianjiazhai, shifting from juicy, sweet fruity flavor and tulsi aroma into cooling forest aftertaste and a tingling sensation on the tongue. This sensation grows if you let the tea sit and wait between sips to “listen” to the tea the way you might stop to take in a view on a hike.
As the tea steeps out, the immense rocky minerality comes forward, a reminder that these forests are thousands of meters up, and clinging to steep rock against all odds.
By late steepings, the separate notes really cohere into a singular creamy powerful texture with floral aromatics and a lingering cooling sensation. The full effect is invigorating, like really being there hiking among stands of ancient tea trees.
The loose traditional compression on these 250g Xiao Jin Gua make for great aging, by the way. This morning, we were sipping some of the earliest Harmony Xiao Jin Gua experiments, and I can’t help but admire how much nuance, texture and complexity a few years brings to this incredible tea. I’ve pulled a dozen of the 2019 for personal drinking, and I recommend that you grab a few to drink now and enjoy in years to come.
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