I found out about this tea because people on a tea forum were arguing about whether there could be such a thing as “Japanese pu-erh.” The arguments went “but who cares where it comes from” on the one hand and “if it's not from the Yunnan region of China, it's just sparkling post-fermented leaf water."
My reaction was more like this: wait, you mean there's more post-fermented tea for me to drink? Sign me up immediately!
(For those who haven't been here the whole time and/or who wisely don't cram their long-term memory with every Tea Fact they encounter, here is a brief refresher. There are many kinds of tea, including:
white: minimally processed young leaves and buds
green: oxidation of tea leaves is stopped by a heating process
oolong: tea leaves are partially oxidized
blackred: tea leaves are oxidized
darkblack: tea leaves are subjected to a fermentation process
And we have to do the strikethroughs, because “black” tea in the West is “red” tea in Asia, and “black” tea in Asia is post-fermented tea. It is even more confusing because as always, “Asia” and “the West” don't all use the same nomenclature. Consider this to be less Tea Fact and more Tea Generalization.)
I obtained the particular Japanese post-fermented tea that was being argued about, and I am happy to report that it is wrong to call it “Japanese pu-erh” on every possible grounds. It is not from Yunnan, but if it had been made in Yunnan with Yunnan leaves using the same production process, it would still not be a pu-erh. It is distinctly its own form of Japanese post-fermentation.
One of the major things that sets this tea apart from a pu-erh production style tea is that after the initial fermentation, this tea is subject to a second fermentation using koji as an inoculant. Koji is a fermentation agent used to make sake, tamari, miso and about a million other fermented things. If you want an extraordinarily good marinade, drop a food item (and this works for everything from salmon to cabbage leaves) in shio koji and let it sit for a day.
So what does koji do to tea? The end result is a fermented tea that embodies the low, dark silkiness of a pu-erh with a sharp, high counterpoint of citric astringency.
The first time I had this tea, I brewed it gong fu style for no reason other than that it was easy and that's what I normally do and the directions on the packet said to steep for three minutes and I don't believe in destroying good tea with that kind of bullshit.
On the first steep, my reaction was “I'm not sure these two tastes go together.” The second steep, I decided that in fact, these tastes were enemies: the sourness overpowered the beverage. But by the time I got to steep three, the astringency toned down and the dark notes of the first fermentation started to come through. The flavors married into a complex, balanced tea that had most of the depth of a good pu-erh but most of the height of citrus: an extraordinary range of flavor to capture in one mouthful. Once it hit that point of perfection, it stayed there, steep after gorgeous steep, only fading to a slow, low graceful finish with steep #8. This tea was a true enemies to lovers tea with a long, full HEA.
the climate catastrophe
I don't know if it's grumpiness or despair or…whatever, but for some reason, the last few weeks I have felt more doom and gloom on climate issues than usual, and since I've never been particularly chipper, this is saying a great deal.
It doesn't help that when I look into doing things that people suggest to save emissions—for instance, taking the train to my mother's eightieth birthday party this September instead of driving—I discover that a train ride that would be a long day in many other parts of the world with an actual functioning transit system would be 60 hours here, and that is assuming that the trains run on time, which they often don't. And when they're late, it's not a matter of minutes, as it is again, in parts of the world with real travel. No; they're late by somewhere along the lines of one to twelve hours.
My current status is frustration at the world, its politics, and most of all, myself for not being perfect.
the duchess war
A thing you may not know about me: my father loves trains. He has been working on a model railroad my entire life. He used to take us out to wait in the desert near train tracks, so that when one came, he could chase the train. He buys videos of trains going through alpine vistas and he watches them daily.
I like trains a little bit less than my dad, but this means I still have enormous appreciation for them. One of the things I love about writing later in the nineteenth century than the Regency (which terminates in 1819) is that I can write people taking train journeys that feel new and delightful.
Robert and Minnie have multiple train sections in The Duchess War in large part because my dad taught me to love trains.
So after I brewed this tea the first time, I had a moment at the end where I said to myself: wait a second, I didn't like this tea for the first two steeps, but I ignored the instructions on the packet because I was like, “ridiculous, who is going to make a tea and steep it for three minutes, that's some American stuff right there.” But maybe that was the problem?
To make a long story short, I did a bunch of googling in both English and Japanese to try to figure out the best way of brewing this tea, and I finally broke out my tiny kyusu and tried 2 g of tea / 70 ml and a 30 second first steep instead of 1g / 15 ml and a 10 second first steep.
It turns out that this tea is absolutely extraordinary for all steeps if you don't stubbornly think that you know everything there is to know about brewing a tea you've never had.
Until next week!
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