One of our new Chinese green teas that I'm the most excited about is an organic Tai Ping Hou Kui--the name means Tai Ping (a county in Anhui province) "Monkey King/Chief," and is pronounced "ty-ping ho kway." Why am I so excited by this green tea? One look at the pictures and you'll get about half the reason; the flavor, of course, is the other half. Tai Ping Monkey King is one of the rarest of the famous green Chinese teas, for a number of reasons. Like many others, the best varieties are sourced from very limited areas--just the small villages in the foothills of Tai Ping county--and are only picked on a specific spring day: the first day of Gu Yu season. Additionally, the process is all (by its very definition) hand-made. As you can see in the pictures below, this is an unusual tea! Similarly to Liu An Gua Pian, Tai Ping Hou Kui is made from uncharacteristically large leaves, though buds are included. During the firing stage of processing, the leaves are briefly pressed against a wok with a hemp cloth. One of the most visually appealing aspects of this tea is the criss-cross weaving pattern that is still visible in the leaves (see the close-up).
Due to its rarity and popularity in China, this tea is often unheard-of in the West, and what little of it reaches us seems to be a shadow of the tea's legend; small, broken, brittle leaves that are temperamental to brew, while descriptions of Tai Ping Hou Kui refer to 15 cm-long leaves with red stems, traditionally bound by cotton string. The truth is, the top grades of Tai Ping Hou Kui sell for around $1000/lb.--at the tea farm! With such limited access and prohibitive prices, it can be hard to find a reliable source for a decent grade that displays the tea's classic characteristics without breaking the bank. The secret is eliminating as many middlemen as possible between China and the local American tea drinker, which is fortunately what we've done with this organic Tai Ping Monkey King. The grade we've sourced has a good leaf appearance in terms of uniformity and intact-ness, and after drinking one cup, you'll realize that this flavor can't be found in any other Chinese green. Perhaps most importantly, the cost is affordable enough to drink this tea every day!
With no further ado, I'll move on to the tasting notes. Using the same parameters as the last two teas, we brewed this Hou Kui gong fu style in a gaiwan, and using a traditional competition cupping set. Gong fu brewing a Tai Ping Hou Kui is always a fun experience--the leaves are huge and spill over the top of the cup, but as soon as the water hits them, it's like brewing spaghetti, or playing with seaweed. The first infusion yielded a delightfully light, floral brew. The liquor is bright green and slightly cloudy. The first time I tasted this tea, I was really happy that the unmistakable flavor was there, and not difficult to perceive. Underlying the flowery notes is a bit of a vegetal sweetness and the main element that constitutes the "unique" Hou Kui flavor--I'm always tempted to describe it as a sweet, pleasant "leathery" note, and I've heard others describe it as reminiscent of tobacco. Perhaps I've not precisely put my finger on it, but combined with the floral and vegetal notes, this darker element makes for a complex and balanced cup. I'll be interested to hear any readers' impressions after tasting this tea. The second infusion revealed an explosion of body, depth, and a reduction of the floral lightness. Third infusion was similar, with an acceptable amount of astringency. The fourth was one of the more interesting infusions--the body lightened up slightly, recapturing some of the ethereal sweetness of the first infusion. Similarly, the fifth infusion retained a light body but the sweetness and flavor began vanishing. Much more complexity, activity and excitement than I was expecting! After infusion, the dark green leaves show their early spring origins with vivid greenness and supple feel.
Competition brewing offered nothing particularly revelatory--only that the tea will make a good cup brewed Western style (small amount of leaves, more water, fewer and longer infusions) and that it'll get bitter if you steep too long and with too hot water (no surprise in green tea land!). In all, I'm even more impressed with this tea now than I was when I first tasted a sample in June. Although I've tasted higher (and much more expensive) grades, for the price, this grade offers this tea's characteristics in a very approachable and non-finicky way. With top-grades, you get larger, more complete leaves and subtle lightness that is best enjoyed with great attention and focus. Here, you won't have to hunt for the flavor, but you also won't be saying to yourself "This just tastes like every other Chinese green I've ever had..." Tai Ping Hou Kui is one of my favorites, and I can't wait to start sharing this tea with our customers the day it arrives!