I feel like I shouldn’t even be talking about this tea. There’s really no telling whether we’re ever going to see it again. The Golden Fleece, true to name, has already developed a mythic eminence among those few who’ve had the opportunity to experience it. “Why?” is a question that recurs often. Why… this inexplicable privilege? And the apparent difficulty of obtaining even a small quantity of this stuff only intensified the pounding I felt in my heart at the prospect of parting with any of it. Truly, when we realized how little there was, the temptation to tell no one and keep this tea to ourselves was very strong. But David was adamant, and the best part of me completely agreed, that to not share this tea would do it dishonor.
It has been my good fortune and great pleasure to try many inspiring teas, but this Dian Hong, which we came to call the Golden Fleece, immediately stood apart as one of the finest things I’ve ever had the chance to drink. I’m sure this will all inevitably sound hyperbolic, and in any case, it is known that I’m nothing close to an unbiased source on these matters… But I just want to say, for whatever it’s worth, I’m writing this in earnest as an endeavor to draw out and unburden myself from the weight of the inspiration this tea has placed inside me. Apart from that, I can’t see any other gain in writing about a tea that we don’t have, and perhaps may never be able to obtain again. Whatever the case, I must speak… it can’t be helped.
A little back story. David first told me of this tea about a month and a half ago, while we were still hard at work getting the new Verdant website together. I was surprised to hear him emphatically going on about “the most exquisite Dian Hong I’ve ever seen”. It’s not common to hear David talk about black teas in this manner; most often he’s praising a Sheng Pu’er or a Dancong that has recently inspired him. I probably reach for the black teas far more often than he does, so this got my attention; but I was so busy at work on the website that I kind of had to forget about it.
Anyway, we finally got around to staying after work one Friday evening to relax and drink some teas, and he brought the sample of this Dian Hong out for us to try first. I remembered how he told me that the tea buds of this Dian Hong were extraordinarily beautiful. Indeed, on inspecting the plump buds closely I was struck by their beauty. Light shined off of them, glowing and golden, giving the appearance of something very precious. (Note: photos have yet to do them justice.) I observed closer and commented about how the downy filaments on the surface of these buds looked unreal, like I wasn’t even looking at tea, but rather was looking at the fleece of some enchanted mythical creature. Now, none of us really remember who said it first, but perhaps it’s most correct to say that the words appeared somewhere between the three people present at that drinking session. What we do know is that one of us then uttered the words “Golden Fleece”, at which point we all looked at each other and agreed that we couldn’t call this tea by any other name from that moment forward.
So then David brewed it. I took a good ten or fifteen seconds just to appreciate the aroma of it in my cup. As a serious fan of gourmet mushrooms, I melted in the sensation of this fragrance, which was like walking into a large room where a master chef was laboring to perfect the finest mushroom soup anyone had ever prepared. I gazed into the pure, liquid gold color of the liquor and imagined all the very best qualities of morel, chanterelle and truffle mushrooms synthesized to perfection. First sip… a moment of silence… then the only comment I could make…
“It’s not even fair.”
The texture of silk, a delicate effervescence, as if an exquisite sauce had been made from the very spirit of Yunnan and poured over that platter of incredible mushrooms. An incomparable tea. Only a few sips of this heady brew and I was tea drunk. The tail and aftertaste revealed a sweetness like vanilla and honey. These sweet things seem far away from the savory qualities described above, but somehow this tea manages to bridge, no… encompass the spectrum of all these flavors in a way that is completely integrated, and hard to comprehend. But how it works doesn’t need to be understood, because it works so magnificently. Further cups had me writing notes such as: feathery, lush, luxurious. And the spice of this tea, it’s like pepper, cinnamon and clove, but it doesn’t bite you – which I mean in the best way. The image that comes to mind is of a large and powerful enchanted creature (something like the forest spirit in Princess Mononoke) that has amazingly soft fur, and is completely at peace with letting you nuzzle and rest against it. That’s what this tea is like for me… an encounter with the forest spirit of Yunnan.
It’s only appropriate to know that all of this was wild-picked in Xishuangbanna. I asked David where Wang Yanxin could have possibly found such a tea, and he said she didn’t explain much about that first sample she sent us. She only sent this one Dian Hong and wrote on the label, “This is the one. Best Dian Hong. Taste slowly.” Indeed. There was no question in my mind about whether we should try to get more. Although, the possibility of sourcing this tea did raise some questions. We don’t do grades of tea; it just doesn’t fit into the curatorial rigor of our selection process and goal for the Verdant collection to carry more than one representative of a given tea, unless they’re expressing dramatically different things. We were already carrying another very good Dian Hong at an attractive price point, and it was popular. The Golden Fleece, because of its rarity, would have to be twice the price of our Yunnan Golden Buds. And at that point, we didn’t really know how much of the Golden Fleece we’d be able to acquire, much less how much was harvested to begin with.
After some careful deliberation, it was decided that the Golden Fleece was just so outstanding and unique that an exception could be made to source some quantity of it as a special limited offering alongside our other Dian Hong. The price and uncertain supply factors certainly made it out of the question for Golden Fleece to replace our other Dian Hong. And in any case, we found them distinct enough to exist side-by-side in a way that could be justified. So we ordered about ten pounds to be included in what was our next shipment at the time.
I vividly remember the day it arrived. I had more anticipation for Golden Fleece that just about anything else in the shipment. We were going through the box of sealed tea packages and pulled out all the ones that were labelled as wild-picked Yunnan budset tea. The red bags piled up in our office. We opened one of them to check, and in the first one found the Wild-Picked Yunnan Jin Jun Mei we ordered. Then we opened another bag and there was the Golden Fleece. The two Yunnan black teas were sent in the same colored bags with similar labels.
Anyway, I went home that night a bit drunk on the thought that we’d secured ten pounds of Golden Fleece. But then… The next morning I came to the office and David gave me the news. “I did a thorough inventory of the shipment last night, and it turns out that there’s only two pounds of Golden Fleece. The rest is the Jin Jun Mei.” Two pounds. That’s all we could get, and all that was available apparently. “Will we ever be able to get more?” I asked. David gave the answer I was most unprepared to hear, “Honestly, it’s impossible to say one way or another. When these two pounds are gone, we may never see this tea again.” It was at this point that the temptation to keep it all to ourselves had to be fought.
When you love something, and know how ephemeral your time with it is… that one day soon it will be gone… that it may never come back… and you’ll only be left with a memory to treasure… perhaps a pang of nostalgia… Well, let’s just say that it took some strength to come to grips with the situation, and accept the circumstances as they were. Ultimately, David made the point, which I already knew deep inside of me, that we should be grateful to have had the privilege to taste such a tea even one time – and not take that for granted.
That week we had scheduled a tea tasting for about sixteen guests at our office, and we had raised some anticipation for these attendees to try the Golden Fleece and purchase some if they wished to. It was before we understood how little supply we had. The day before that tasting, we were due to make the Golden Fleece available for purchase on the website, and I had to lobby with David for setting aside an appropriate amount of the tea to be available for our local guests. After that was done, we put Golden Fleece on the website with the limit of a two ounce maximum quantity per person and watched it sell out in a few hours. The most limited-edition tea we’ve ever carried.
As expected, the Golden Fleece we set aside for our local tasting was nearly cleaned out by the end of the night. I like to remember how, when we brewed it for everyone, a good friend of ours was at the end of the table and I only had about half a sip left in the serving pitcher to pour for him on the first round. He was still grateful, and appreciated what he had before him with no less care. This particular friend is a flavor aficionado, with highly developed taste from many years of developing an amazing talent for cooking, as well as from taste training in fine wines. The look on his face when he took that little sip for the first time… how to describe it? He ruffled his brow in a kind of quiet shock and consternation mixed with obvious signs of deep pleasure. He turned his face to me, wide-eyed, and whispered, “…the texture …this is wrong.” To which I replied, “Like I said… it’s not even fair.” He nodded, quietly repeating the words to himself.
I’ve now had four sessions with this tea, always preparing it gongfu style in a gaiwan. It blows me away every time, and what further bewilders me is that none of us have yet managed to exhaust all the flavor from the buds. I’ve steeped it out over twenty times in a given session and it just keeps going, even into the next day. We always get waterlogged long before we’re able to make the buds reach their limit… if they have a limit at all. My mother picked up some of this at our tasting, and she told me that she recently re-steeped it many times over for three days. The further I go into a session with this tea, the more its headiness gets to me; and in my tea-drunk musings I start to imagine that I’ll never reach the end of it… because it really may just be some enchanted mythic thing that always keeps one of its feet firmly planted in eternity.
There has been rumor from Wang Yanxin that we may be able to secure more of the Golden Fleece. But after all that’s happened, I’m not sure I’m going to really believe it until I see it. At any rate… if by some grace it does become available again, I can only suggest that you try some while you can – and taste slowly.