PTR Keemun Tasting

To follow up on the theme of Keemun, I did a Keemun tasting at the Perennial Tea Room here in Seattle. I collected eight different samples from five different tea shops (Perennial Tea Room had three represented, Teahouse Kuan Yin supplied two, and I had one each from the Market Spice store, Barnes & Watson Fine Teas, and Floating Leaves Tea).

Keemun tastingThe teas were divided into three categories: Congou (or unknown grade), Mao Feng, and Hao Ya A. The attendees, including myself, some of the PTR staff, and PTR customers who had signed up, tasted the samples within each category side by side.

Keemun comes from a very small area (Qimen county, Anhui Province…about 870 square miles, with a total county population about a third that of the city of Seattle). Despite this, several people said they found it interesting that the flavors were so varied. Some seemed floral–especially rose–while others were deep and smoky. And this variation could be found within the same grade, not even comparing one grade to another. Just one more reminder not only to experiment with your brewing methods, but also try the “same” tea from different vendors. Just because it says “Keemun” doesn’t mean you’ll get the same flavor from one company to the next.

Something I found interesting was how there wasn’t a lot of consensus about the “best” in any category. Often times at a tea tasting, one or two samples will rise to the top as being better than the others. This time it seemed more to be about people’s individual preferences. Some people liked the rose-like Keemuns, others liked the smoky ones, while another group liked the “plain black tea” samples. Some preferred the simple-but-bolder flavors, while others went for the lighter-but-more-complex.

Here are my own quick tasting notes:

Congou or Unknown Grade

A: (MS) Pretty good Keemun–not fantastic, but enjoyable.

B: (PTR) Ranked lowest of this grade for me. Kind of mineral/metallic tasting.

C: (TKY) Second favorite. Better flavor than A or B, but less interesting than D.

D: (B&W) My favorite–more smoky like a Hao Ya.

Mao Feng

I apparently got caught up in the experience of tasting because I don’t have any notes on either of the Mao Feng teas.

Hao Ya A

G: (PTR) The basic flavor was more chocolatey, but less complex than sample H.  My partner Loren chose this one as his top choice of all the options.

H: (TKY) I liked better because the mouthfeel was smoother and had a bit more complexity (though admittedly that flavor was less like chocolate and more light a light smoke).

What We Don’t Know About Keemun

I recently offered a tea tasting where participants compared different Keemun teas. We compared grades (gongfu/congou, mao feng, hao ya) with each other, as well as different vendors’ products of the same grade with each other.

In preparing for the class, I tried to fill out the Keemun article on the Tea Geek wiki. As I researched, I kept coming up with additional questions that I wanted to know. In the end, I got enough information for an informative class, and at the same time was appalled at how little good information there is about Keemun in English.

Here are some of the things I could NOT find information about, in question format. If you happen to have a line on good answers or information sources on any of these, I’d love you to post a comment or send me email.

1) Keemun Black Tea (Qimen Hongcha or Qihong) is supposedly made only from a particular varietal–kind of like Tie Guan Yin. Is this true, and what’s the name/classification/genetic identifier/ etc. for the varietal/cultivar/clonal?

2) Many tea vendors say that Keemun is one of the only sources of a substance called myrcenal that imparts some of the rosey/toasty flavor unique to Keemun. Yet I can’t find other references to it other than by people who are using this “fact” to sell tea. Is there such a substance, what is it, and is it indeed unique to Keemun (and oil of bay, as mentioned in James Norwood Pratt’s New Tea Lover’s Treasury)?  Any other chemical or biological points of interest?

3) Are there technical classifications that can be easily described and differentiated to explain Hao Ya A, Hao Ya B, Mao Feng, Xin Ya, and Congou? Are there other grades? Is there really a Keemun grade that is rolled like Gunpowder? (I’ve seen claims that there is, but never seen a picture or real-life example.)

4) Any good descriptions on the production methods? Statistics on amounts of genuine Keemun? Statistics about counterfeit Keemun production?

5) Geography–I can find Huangshan City and the Yellow Mountains to the north in Google Earth, but so far haven’t had much luck with other geographical information specific to Keemun tea. Is there much to know other than that the area is gorgeous? 🙂

6) History–what reliable information is there about She Ganchen / Yu Quianchen / Hu Yuanlung or whoever started production of red tea in Anhui? Can the oft-repeated date of 1875 be verified? Can the mysterious inventor of keemun be actually tracked down to being a failed civil servant or other particular biographical information?