7 Tasting Notes
I bought a 100-gram package of this Yunnan Gen Ben Shi Imperial tea a couple of years ago, brewed it on three separate occasions, and then it sunk in my tea closet. I recently rediscovered it, and I’m finding it delightful.
I reviewed my notes for those earlier tastings, and my comments were generally favorable, but not overwhelmingly so. Then I noticed that I had used a 208° brewing temperature in those earlier tastings. That explains it. In the intervening two years, I have gradually learned to brew almost all congou teas at 195°F, regardless of what the vendor’s brewing instructions say. The only teas I brew at 208° are Lapsang Souchong and pu-erhs.
Anyhow, this tea is malty and lightly sweet — characteristics that are mostly obliterated by brewing it at higher temperature. (The 212° recommended by Upton is simply barbaric.) I brew 8 g. of dry leaf in 12 oz. of 195° water for 1:00 min. and 2:00 min. respectively for the first two infusions, and in 8 oz. of water for 3:00 min. for a third infusion. There’s not a lot of complexity in the liquor, but it’s a nice self-drinker with mellow flavor. No need for milk or sweetener.
It’s kind of a moot point now, though. Upton still has a page for this tea (“ZY47”), but the page contains a notice that the tea has been permanently removed from their catalog. Ah, well…it wasn’t a spectacular tea — just a nice Yunnan black at a very affordable price. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of other tasty Yunnan teas.
Based on its description, I was expecting a much sweeter tea than thepuriTea’s Hong Jing Luo actually is. But after my jolted expectations subsided, I realized that there was depth in this tea that deserved further exploration. After a couple of tastings, it grew on me, and now I’ve developed a real affection for it. It strikes a wonderful balance between the dry, leathery intensity of a non-smoky Keemun and the mellow, malty smoothness of a Yunnan gold, but with more leather than malt.
Perhaps my tasticles aren’t refined enough to detect all the nuances included in the description, but I definitely get malt, roasted pumpkin, dry wood, and tobacco. There is a certain deep, primordial quality that’s characteristic of a strong Irish twist tobacco, mingled with an oak-wood note.
As for the other, sweeter elements mentioned in the description—raisins, sweet potato, cocoa, brown sugar—I don’t find them. Instead, there’s a subtle spiciness that I find most intriguing. There is sweetness, but it isn’t overt in the first couple of infusions; it’s present mostly in the finish, as the other flavors dominate. In the later infusions the leatheriness recedes and the flavor is mostly a light, malty sweetness. It’s not a tea I drink every day, but when I’m in the mood for it, nothing else will do.
The aroma of the dry pearls is intoxicating, and the aroma of the brewed liquor is no less so. In the first infusion, there’s a pronounced winelike flavor and aroma, with deep chocolate undertones, smoothed by a faintly sweet, almost-vanilla flavor. As the liquor cools, the tangy-sweet taste of baked berry pie emerges, and when it cools to lukewarm there’s the creamy flavor of a chocolate malted milk shake, but with just the right amount of natural sweetness. If you enjoy self-drinker teas that need no added milk or sugar, you’ll love this one.
In the middle infusions, the chocolate and fruit gradually give way to the flavor of malt. In the later infusions, there are some light toasted tobacco notes in the aroma, but the flavor is pure malt. Surprisingly (for a red tea), the flavor becomes progressively sweeter (although lighter) in the 4th and 5th infusions, much like a fine ripe pu-erh. But there’s no pu-erh earthiness here.
I infuse for 2:30 for the first infusion to get the pearls to open, then drop to 1:30 for #2, and lengthen the steeping time for later infusions.
Red Dragon Pearl is truly an extraordinary and unique tea—very complex and more interesting tea than most other black teas I’ve tasted. I’m hooked for life; I will never be without this tea.
The full name of this tea shown on ZhiTea.com is Royal Gold Yunnan Needle.
OK…I admit it - I’m a Yunnan gold tea junkie. I keep several different Yunnan golds in my tea closet, and I appreciate the subtle differences between them, but Royal Gold Yunnan Needle is consistently the best of the bunch. It is naturally sweet, with nuances of dried apricots, honey, and spice. It’s opulent, luxurious, seductive tea. Good for multiple infusions.
At the time of this writing, ZY84 is the second best Yunnan gold tips tea I’ve ever tasted—the best being ZhiTea’s Royal Gold—and it’s a very close second. In fact, I’m still having a difficult time deciding whether Royal Gold is worth its significantly higher cost, relative to ZY84…but these notes are about Upton’s Yunnan Rare Grade, so I’ll stay focused on that.
There is certainly ZERO problem deciding whether ZY84 is worth its cost. It is a superb value in a Yunnan gold tips tea. The bag aroma is astonishing. Yeah, I know…it sounds like hyperbole, but anyone who has had the pleasure of sticking El Schnozzola in a freshly opened bag of ZY84 knows exactly what I’m talking about. The fruitiness is remarkable.
It’s less fruity in the cup, but I don’t care. It’s still an extraordinary tea. My notes on the first cup say, “It’s a richly flavored, naturally sweet tea, but it has no single dominant characteristic. There’s some leather, some spice, more malt, a bit of cocoa; it’s a melange, really.” (4 infusions in the first tasting.)
Second tasting: “…has a smooth, almost creamy mouth feel. There’s a light sweetness on the tongue, and a lingering light sweetness in the finish.” (4 infusions)
Third tasting: “Magnificent tea. It has an intense cocoa-malty creaminess…”
…and so on until I polished off the entire 80-gram bag — more than enough to explore this tea thoroughly.
I typically use 8 grams of leave in 12 ounces of 208° water for the first two infusions (1:00 and 2:00 minutes, respectively). Then I reduce the water to 8 ounces or less with gradually longer steeping times for the subsequent infusions…up to 5 infusions.
Is there Yunnan tea of this kind that’s better than ZY84? Yes, so for that reason alone I won’t give it a 100% rating. But so far I haven’t had any better Yunnan gold at this price point.
UPDATE: Alas, Upton has raised the price of this tea…significantly. I haven’t tasted the new lot. Perhaps it’s better…although it’s difficult to imagine it being sufficiently better to justify the cost increase (nearly $11.00 per pound more than the previous price…and it wasn’t cheap then either). Too bad for Upton, but there IS better Yunnan gold, and I’ll buy that instead of ZY84. They’ve priced themselves out of consideration.