Roy Fong's OMG Tea Class: It Really Was That Good!

It was a full house last night at the Ferry Building for Roy's eagerly awaited "OMG" Tea Class, where he brewed and discussed five extraordinary teas from his personal collection. Tea lovers from around the Bay Area and as far away as Texas joined us, as did "tea celebrity" James Norwood Pratt. It was a great group of a dozen folks who are passionate about tea and eager to taste some teas they've never had before.

The evening started with the loose-leaf version of our Imperial Tribute Harvest Purple-Tip Puerh. Although this tea was picked just two years ago, it comes from a grove of ancient tea trees, hundreds of years old, in a remote forest in Yunnan. The leaves tell the story of how different this tea is. It consists of leaf buds that are large and resemble bamboo shoots. Instead of the usual green, they're so full of flavor and nutrients that they're actually a reddish-purple color. We use a photo of the cake form of this tea in the logo for this blog!

We've written extensively about this incredible tea and its rich, fruity flavor without a hint of the bitterness you usually find in recently picked Yunnan teas. Every time we drink it the flavor gets sweeter and more concentrated, similar to the way grapes slowly turn into raisins. It was a fittingly "OMG" introduction to the class!

Next it was time for everyone to get hands-on. We passed out gaiwans that contained a small pinch of Imperial Lotus Heart Dragon Well; the assignment was to add additional leaf to taste and try brewing this king of all the early spring green teas. Then Roy demonstrated his preferred technique--not for everyday brewing. Load up the gaiwan with double the amount of leaves you'd usually use and brew in barely lukewarm water. When he shared his tea it had an amazing, thick viscosity; unusual sweetness; and just a hint of astringency to balance the flavor and show that the tea wasn't underbrewed.

Then we opened the freezer for a novelty from Taiwan: su dong cha, or "frozen tea." This tea is flash-frozen moments after processing is complete; in fact, freezing replaces the final stage of drying the leaves, which is usually accomplished with heat that drives off some aromatics. Frozen tea uncannily preserves the florals in Taiwan green oolong; as Roy put it, it's "like drinking flowers." Normally only tea farmers in Taiwan get to enjoy this treat, but Roy air-shipped a small quantity for the class.

Finally, we concluded the evening with a side-by-side comparison of two 1989 puerh cakes Roy bought in Yunnan 20 years ago. They've been aging in his warehouse ever since. The interesting thing is that although the cakes started out identical, different storage conditions have left one cake green, with little oxidation and no fermentation, while the other has fermented into the classic shou, or dark aged, state. Both cakes yielded rich, fruity infusions and the bright, clear liquor that's a mark of quality. However, the green cake's liquor was golden amber, while the shou cake yielded a ruby red brew with even thicker viscosity. You could still taste smokiness in the green cake from the leaves' original drying process; the shou tea has a sweet, fresh earthiness balancing the fruit. In all, the two cakes provided a great lesson in how fine puerh evolves over time, and what a big difference storage conditions make in the outcome.

We live-tweeted the class from Twitter and, as it turned out, so did one of the attendees! If you missed the class but would like to learn more, here's a copy of the handout.