A Pretty Special Dancong

It's a blooming fruit basket.

I'm not inclined to writing rave reviews of things I eat or drink, but this 2015 dancong oolong from Wudong mountain is something quite special.

Quiet, nuanced, and delicate, it opens with an upfront fragrance of white lilies, orange zest, and honey.

The second steep offers mango and banana on the cusp of ripeness. Plenty more follows on the third steep, with honeydew and figs on a backdrop of more mango and lychee.

With the fourth and fifth steeps, almonds, raisins, and candied winter melon strips come to the fore.

Subsequent brews show paling vigour — the fruits become less prominent, hanging instead like morning mist in the distance, but still persistent. For a tea that isn't augmented with flavourings and ingredients, this is really quite extraordinary.

An Old Shuixian

And why it's like wine.

While tea is often regarded as a bedfellow of sorts with coffee, the former, I opine, actually shares more similarities with wine. And I think this can be easily illustrated with vintage/aged teas.

A shuixian 水仙 from the 1980s.

A shuixian 水仙 from the 1980s.

You see, freshly roasted coffee beans are good for two weeks to a month, if stored properly. When ground, the lifespan is considerably shortened, which explains why you should only grind your beans just before you make your cup of coffee.

But proper tea has a much longer shelf life. In fact, some teas get "better" with age. Now before we get to that, it should be pointed out that "better" might be a bit of a misconception. The passage of time does not imbue quality to a product. All things decay as they get older; some take a few days, some a few centuries. But in certain cases, the process brings about desirable characteristics. Take wine for instance — tannins, anthocyanins and a host of other organic compounds go through some form of alteration as the wine ages. As a result, it becomes smoother or rounder and develops secondary and tertiary aromas and flavours. The same could be said for beef, certain cheeses, and other foods.

So, unlike coffee, some teas get "better" with age, like this 1980s shuixian. It's actually a serendipitous discovery — I stumbled upon it while trying to hunt down a tea tray. Quality-wise, it's nothing to write home about, but 30 years of sitting in a dark corner somewhere has earned the tea pretty special traits. It is rich, complex, and almost savoury, evoking bitter dark chocolate and baked earth framed by a sense of austerity.

It's not the kind of tea that I'd reach out for on regular days. But when there's an onset of melancholy, I know where I can find some reassurance.

Tea and Tenmoku Tasting

An experiment with Jian/tenmoku ceramics.

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In December 2014, we hosted a tasting session where we served various types of tea and wine in conventional porcelain/glass vessels alongside tenmoku cups and bowls. The purpose of the experiment was to explore how tenmoku — historically known as Jian wares, or 建盞 (jianzhan) from 建窯 (Jianyao, Jian kiln) — could affect our perception of the beverages' flavours and textures.

The experiment yielded pretty intriguing results. One member of the tasting panel, who runs a wine retail and auction business, commented that the wines served in tenmoku vessels seemed softer and more rounded, giving the impression that they were more aged/matured than those served in conventional glasses. The same effect could also be observed with the teas, as other panel members said they found the teas in the tenmoku vessels tasted smoother and fuller.

A magnet adheres to the surface of a Jian ceramic bowl (tenmoku) from the Song Dynasty.

A magnet adheres to the surface of a Jian ceramic bowl (tenmoku) from the Song Dynasty.

One explanation Taiwanese tenmoku ceramicist Zhang Gui Wei offers for this phenomenon is that authentic and properly fired tenmoku ceramics possess a certain magnetic field that affects how tea's (or any other beverage's) flavours and texture are perceived. But that is not to say that there is a structural change to the drink — as the biomedical engineer on our panel pointed out, it seems unlikely that the cups could alter the liquids on a molecular level.

Zhang also claims that certain tenmoku vessels possess far-infrared properties that could have a beneficial impact on the sensory perception of the flavour and texture of tea.

While there is no evidence to support these claims, a scientific report, Learning from the Past, reveals some interesting findings that might possibly hold some answers.

Whatever the case, our observations at the December 2014 tenmoku tasting session illustrate that tenmoku vessels do have an effect on the drinks they contain, be it tea or wine. We don't yet know why, but we're more than happy to drink out of them anytime.