北斗(Bei Dou, Lost Robe), My New Tea Bae
Some time ago, I was fortunate enough (read: persistent enough) to win a voucher for some tea at Mei Leaf (pronounced “may leaf”). Up until that point, I’d been following Mei Leaf on YouTube for almost a year. If you read my review on The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, you know I’m nothing short of a tea fanatic. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to return to China to work after I finished uni, and I needed to find other places to get reasonably priced Chinese tea. Don and his team at Mei Leaf do a wonderful job of not only marketing Mei Leaf, but also of educating the tea-drinking community about the tea itself, along with dropping tidbits of Chinese tea culture. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, check out their YouTube channel, or follow them on basically any social media outlet available to you (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook). You’ll be a connoisseur in no time.
With my voucher, I decided to buy Bei Dou (pronounced “bay dough”), which I’ll discuss below, and Hu Xiao Qi Lan (“who see-ow chee lan”) which is also known as “Summer Haze.” I generally refer to teas by their Chinese names, because that’s the way I know them best, but where applicable I will also include the English names and the Chinese characters somewhere in the post (I plan on doing a series of tea reviews). Mei Leaf calls Bei Dou Yi Hao (北斗一号) “Lost Robe,” though I also found sources referring to Bei Dou as “North Star.” I’m not that familiar with this particular cultivar of tea, so I welcome clarification on the subject. [Edit: I checked the Mei Leaf website and it seems they also have Bei Dou listed as “North Star,” I suppose they also decided to give it a store name.]
Regardless of their English names, both Bei Dou and Hu Xiao Qi Lan are both types of rock/cliff oolong. This means that they come from Wuyi (“oo-yee,” 武夷山 )Mountain in China’s Fujian (“foo-jee-in”) Province. There are many different kinds of cliff tea, the most prized of which is probably Da Hong Pao, or Lost Red Robe. Cliff teas are characteristic for their aroma and warm flavors. The smoke used in the processing of cliff teas often imparts a deep, earthy flavor and depending on the particular cultivar you might detect notes of fruit, fudge, or honey. I’ll discuss Hu Xiao Qi Lan more in another post. For now, I’ll focus on Mei Leaf’s Bei Dou. I drank a spring 2016 variety of Bei Dou, which means the tea is fairly young. It’s not uncommon to get cliff teas that are about a year old, but if stored properly, cliff teas get better with age. One of these days I may try aging teas myself, but I’m hopelessly in love with cliff teas, which means I can never manage to keep them in the house. I brew at least 5 grams of tea per day, and if I’m taste testing, I might drink upwards of 15 or 20 grams. I try not to drink that much tea though, because after about 10 grams (which makes about 5 or 6 hefty cups of tea) I start to feel lightheaded (lightheadedness a symptom of drinking large amounts of high-quality tea).
For reference, I used clean tap water because it tastes better in tea than the filtered water that comes from the refrigerator. Filtered water in the U.S. has a bit of a chlorinated flavor, and in my area the tap water is clean enough to drink anyway, especially after I’ve boiled it. I’m not quite sure why the water from the tap tastes different, but the reason most likely has something to do with the minerals in tap water. I used 8 grams of tea in a standard 100 ml gaiwan. I played around with the brewing temperature but found Mei Leaf’s recommended 99C (just below boiling) temperature to be perfect. Hotter water produced a sour burnt coffee flavor while cooler water produced flat-bodied tea. To boil the water, I just put it in a kettle on the stove. Before brewing the tea, I inspected the leaves. They were long, dark, and somewhat twisted, which is what you would expect of high-quality cliff oolongs. Though the tea came packaged in what was essentially cardstock and plastic, Mei Leaf included an oxygen absorber to prevent the tea from oxidizing. This is extremely important, as over oxidized tea has sub-par flavor.
To smell the aroma of the leaves, I wet the gaiwan with the near-boiling water, then poured that water into a fairness pitcher (gong dao bei, 公道杯). After pouring the water out, I put the leaves in the gaiwan, closed it, and gave it a shake. I lifted the lid and took a big whiff. The leaves smelled like chocolate cake and tiramisu. They were earthy but did not smell like soil. The leaves smelled more like clean, dry Earth, or perhaps like the embers of a fire. Once I’d noted the smell of the dry leaves, I poured water into the gaiwan and brewed the tea. I’ll make a post later about brewing tea with a gaiwan using the gongfu method. I wouldn’t recommend it for all teas, but it certainly helps bring out the flavor of Chinese teas. After pouring the brew into the fairness pitcher, I once again smelled the leaves. The moisture transformed the aroma. This time the leaves smelled more life firewood and less like chocolate. There were hints of fruit, though I could not figure out which fruit I detected.
The first brew of the tea tasted like coffee, chocolate, and red fruit all mixed together. I chose the color red arbitrarily, but that was the feeling I got, and I associate “red fruit” with a particular flavor. Something like candied hawthorn. There was absolutely no bitterness in the tea, and the overall flavor was very dark. Bei Dou’s flavor matured with each subsequent brew. The warm fruit notes evolved into a more fully bloomed warm candy flavor. The “mouth feel,” while not very thick, was quite satisfying. I experimented with different infusion times for this tea and found that for Bei Dou it’s best not to rush the brewing. While sometimes I do a lot of quick, successive brews, I found that with Bei Dou it’s best to let the water rest a little bit between filling the gaiwan and pouring it out. The color of the tea liquor was exactly as I’d expected; It was a somewhat clear brownish-red. I would have like the color to be a bit more vibrant, but what the tea lacks in color it makes up for in flavor.
I’m incredibly impressed by this tea. My experience with buying Chinese teas in the west had not been positive until I came across Mei Leaf. Previously I’d purchased Harley and Sons Lapsang Souchong and found the tea to be so unpalatable I threw it out. I’m glad I’ve found at least one place that sells pretty good tea. Thank you, Mei Leaf.
Click here to navigate to the Bei Dou product page.