Monday, June 25, 2012

2001 Jasmine Liu An

2001 Jasmine Liu An
Here's a little something different.  Recently picked up some Liu Bao/Liu An samples from Red Circle Tea.  I started the morning with the 1994 Liu Bao they're currently offering.  It was a nice, comfortable tea with a satisfying creamy quality and a pleasant cooling/warming sensation deep in the chest.  I wouldn't call it an exciting tea, but it made for an enjoyable session nonetheless.  After sitting with this tea for awhile I decided to try another of the samples I picked up, the 2001 Jasmine Liu An.  Interesting, yes?  I had no idea what to expect.  Opened the packet to smell the dry leaves and was hit with about as intense an aroma of quality milk chocolate as I've ever experienced, even from an actual chocolate bar.  Definitely a nice introduction for a chocoholic like myself :)   Upon rinsing the leaves the aroma stayed just as intense, only deepening to something nearly identical to baking chocolate.  Dark and bittersweet, but oh so tempting.  Where's the jasmine, you ask?  It finally made an appearance rising with the steam from the tea soup, mixed with a fascinating assortment of fragrances -- medicinal herbs, roasted chestnuts, a bit of fig, a wisp of smoke.

This tea turned out to make for a fun, if different, tea session.  I was surprised to pour it and find it very light in color.  A real contrast to the shu-like Liu Bao I'd just finished.  The same contrast showed up in taste, as well.  The Liu An lacked the dark smooth creaminess of the Liu Bao and carried instead a surprising dark roasted oolong-like flavor.  In fact, with it's chocolatey roasted aromas and aftertastes it seemed to echo a few aged shui xians I've had.  A good cleanliness to this tea, as well.  It seems to have been nicely stored.

I think the most fun I had with this tea, though, was in enjoying the evaporative fragrances from the bottom of the cup.  There were so many different and interesting scents going on, many that I don't often find in the teas I drink.  While the jasmine was present it wasn't nearly as dominating as I feared it might be.  Age seems to have mellowed and broadened it somewhat, and as for the other interesting aromas and flavors I'm not sure if those were originating from the aged jasmine component or the liu an tea base.  Probably the mixture of the two, I'm guessing.  The spent leaves included a few whole leaves in the mix along with plenty of chop, as well as containing a smattering of small round yellow seeds.  They looked very much like the little round seeds I found once in an "orchid puer" tea sample I picked up a few years back from Red Blossom Tea, which turned out to be quite undrinkable, although I just learned that this tea is meant to be brewed in a larger teapot, Cantonese style, and not gongfu cha like I had prepared it (see comment below from Peter Luong of Red Blossom Tea).  This Jasmine Liu An was quite drinkable in comparison.  I quite enjoyed it, in fact.

All in all, a very different and surprisingly fun tea experience today.  I'm tempted to pick up some more of this Jasmine Liu An just to set it aside and see what continued aging does to it.

* * * * * * *
(Additional information)

So it seems that Red Circle Tea doesn't have a big following among certain tea drinkers, hm?  I don't like to put vendors in a bad light and usually just keep mum about teas and vendors I don't like, but we reap what we sow and this vendor certainly isn't alone in certain practices.  Claims such as "rare tea," "hard to find," "ancient tea," not to mention questionable prices, seem quite common among tea vendors.  Occasionally (rarely is probably the best word to use here) these are merited but often they are not.  It's definitely a buyer-beware market.  For most of us, it's necessary to educate ourselves by tasting lots of tea, including teas from vendors whom we know little about.  It's all part of the process.  No shame in tasting, testing and learning.  Never let anyone tell you otherwise!

I've since learned a bit more about this Liu An -- specifically, what those little "seeds" are.  Turns out they're not seeds, at all.  Neither are they related to jasmine.  They're the flowers of the Aglaia odorata plant, otherwise known as the Chinese Perfume Plant.  It's also sometimes referred to as the Peppery Orchid Tree, although it belongs to the Mahogany family (meliaceae) and not the orchid family (orchidaceae).  But this may explain why some teas that have these flowers in them are referred to as orchid teas, like the Aged Orchid tea I purchased some time ago from Red Blossom Tea (not Red Circle, although both 'red' and in the SF region), a tea which I didn't enjoy at all (most likely due to incorrect brewing, see comments below).  In fact, I had a hell of a time picking all the little flower balls out of the holes of the ball filter on the yixing I was using at the time.

Just as with this 2001 Jasmine Liu An tea, the Orchid Black tea from Red Blossom (which was listed among their puerh selections) was advertised as being extremely rare and a unique and special find, a claim which turns out to be more full of holes than that frustrating ball filter.  Apparently these teas are quite common and inexpensive in China, a point which MarshalN made and which others I've since talked to have confirmed.  Yet another good lesson in "buyer beware."


  1. Jasmine Liu'an is not basket Liu'an - they're different teas. Don't expect them to age the way normal liu'an does. What you're having here, if it's really from 2001, is basically stale tea.

  2. MarshalN -- I was hoping you'd stop by to enlighten. I gather this tea is called Liu'an because it uses the same sort of leaves that are used for basket Liu'an, only these have been left (more or less) 'green.' I see it's also had some Wu Yi tea mixed in, along with the jasmine flowers. But given the 'green' nature of sheng puer, and the fact that Wu Yi oolong is often stored and enjoyed after some aging, I'm not getting this difference between "stale" and "aged."

    1. I just went to their website to take a look. It's a doozer. $40 for 1oz is a ripoff of epic proportions. Assuming these are American ounces, you are buying the equivalent of a $500 a cake puerh. That's some pretty decent pu you're buying there, at that price.

      "A blend of Liu An green tea, from Liu An province with Wu Yi tea from Fujian province and Jasmine flowers. Aged with care over 10 years for a complex, deep, rich and totally unique taste. This tea has qualities of dark roasted oolong, spicy notes of cinnamon and nutmeg, and a sweet jasmine air to the finish. A rare find, this tea is no longer produced."

      What's Liu An province? Do they mean Anhui? There's no such thing as Liu An province in China. A rare find? I can find you jasmine Liu An in any old teashop in Hong Kong, for almost nothing. It's a cheap, cheap tea. I've never had a lot of fondness for Red Circle's goods (echoing Nick below - very expensive for not much) but this one takes the cake.

    2. Good to know a bit more. Didn't mean to get your hackles up. Still have some of that Taiwan beer around? ;)

      Someone also informed me that the seeds seen in the photo of the spent leaves are orchid seeds.

    3. I also posted queries about their tea on their blog in response to the price tags and request for further information that were never replied to, or allowed to be posted to the blog. This further lowers their credibility.

  3. Just recently learned of Red Circle Teas. Their prices seem pretty outlandish, strictly aimed at wealthy SF denizens who don't know enough about tea to know you can buy excellent stuff for cheaper, elsewhere. Worth it?

  4. Nick -- your sentiment shared by many. No argument on my part. I've only tried a few of their teas, and haven't been moved to order any samples of the puerhs they carry. I found them sometime back while googling "red tea" when I was in a red tea phase. I did enjoy their Ying De red and compared it to a few (much cheaper) Ying De tea samples from other vendors. I found Red Circle's Ying De the most enjoyable of the bunch.

  5. Yikes! I would need a second mortgage to purchase some of those teas.

  6. Hello!

    This is Peter from Red Blossom Tea. I've been following this thread with interest for the past week and wanted to weigh in on the discussion. While I can't speak for what Red Circle Teas offers and prefer not to comment on other vendors in general, I can tell you as much as I know about the tea we are selling as "aged orchid".

    My parents originally purchased this tea in the eighties, and we have one wooden carton of it left in storage. The wooden carton itself is a testament to its age, since wooden containers were banned in the 1990s by US Customs. We bought the tea in the 80s, and called it not "liu an" but "lok on" (the Cantonese pronunciation.) We have a longer description of the tea on our website so I'll not get into the details. (But I think it's a worthwhile read) However, I wanted to comment on several things related to it.

    First, brewing and flavor profile. This tea was meant to be brewed in very large teapots using a small amount of tea leaves. It was never meant for gongfu cha preparation. Brewing in a concentrated fashion will produce a very bitter and very intense result. Brewing in a traditional Cantonese style with a larger teapot would yield a pleasantly smooth, sweet and aromatic tea.

    Second, rarity and availability. Almost all the customers who continue to ask for this tea are older Cantonese tea drinkers. While we didn't want to sell what we had in stock, we did want to offer one that was relatively less expensive. So I tracked down the producer 3 years ago in hopes of having more produced. They said yes, but while very inexpensive, we would be required to order a minimum of 1 ton. It's much more tea than we can handle, especially because it was for such a small subset of customers, so we chose to pass. As far as I know, it is difficult to obtain this tea as it is no longer a type that is produced. It is indeed an old tea that we have limited stock of. In the past year, we only sold this tea in any larger amounts to Hong Kong or Cantonese tea drinkers.

    Third, I wanted to discuss pricing and value – especially the notion of perceived value. If one were to use only the cost of production as a basis for calculating price, most tea prices will fall within a very narrow band. After all, even the most expensive teas are but the leaves of a tea plant, processed into a finished tea. Pricing for tea, however, is based on a whole host of factors that include: availability, demand, appearance, aroma, and flavor.

    What really drives premium pricing is perceived value. For example, I just spent 2 weeks in Anhui. There, I was told by a Taiping Houkui producer that Americans can’t afford his teas. He was right: the Taiping Houkui he produces sells for 36,000 RMB (about $6,000 US) for 300 grams. It was also the same tea given to Vladimir Putin by the Chinese government as a gift. Is there a significant difference between his Taiping Houkui and the one we finally decided on that we offer at $228 per pound? Yes, the more expensive one is smoother, and more complex. Is it worth that significantly higher price? To me, no. To those who buy it and can afford it and appreciate it, yes.

    So we set the value of a particular tea based on what we think it is worth. For the Aged Orchid, that pricing is based on several things: that we can’t get more of the tea once we’ve sold it, that we think it’s a wonderful tea, that there are customers who will purchase it at that price point because they feel it is worth its price.

    I hope I haven’t gone on too long in this response, but my intent was to provide a different (vendor) perspective on pricing and the tea market and to better explain how we do it at Red Blossom. The caveat is, we do not speak for other tea companies and how they choose to price their products.

    Warmest regards,


  7. Peter,
    Excellent response, and not at all too long. In fact, I greatly appreciate hearing from the vendor's perspective, especially in terms of pricing. You have insight in this area that few can speak to. I wholeheartedly agree with your points in paragraph 6. I recently had the great fortune to sample some 50's Red Mark from Wisteria Teahouse, a truly special tea. Is it worth the current astronomical prices? As you put so well -- "To me, no. To those who buy it and can afford it and appreciate it, yes." Reminds me so much of the art world, honestly.

    Also interesting to learn that your Aged Orchid tea is best brewed with a larger teapot and not gongfu style. No doubt that's why I found it so unpalatable. I still have the rest of my sample tucked away somewhere. I'll definitely be pulling it out to try again. Thank you for pointing that out :)

    And thank you once again for your comment. Very informative, and deeply appreciated!

  8. (Peter, I've edited my original post above and made reference to your comment and the note about brewing the Aged Orchid in a larger teapot)

  9. 50s red mark from Wisteria? Wow. Ironically enough, I visited that tea house on several occasions but but might as well have been on the opposite side of the planet, as it got me no closer to such premium wares. Just who are you, radishes? :)

    Someday I'll have to write a song about the ironies of being poor while loving premium teas.

  10. haha -- just a foolhardy tea drinker who happened to be in the right place at the right time :)

  11. I've been kind of hesitant in trying some of these teas due to the prices, but am very curious to try them. Guess I'll have to bite the bullet and dive in. Thanks for the great information in this article.

  12. Hi Dan, thanks for your comment! :)
    My experience with Red Circle Tea has been hit or miss, and I still haven't been moved to try any of their puerh offerings. I think that some of their red teas are quite good though.