At the tea house the other night, Mrs Kim did a comparison of their authentic Taiping Houkui 2009 vs a second grade spring 2013 production. Following the trend of many other teas, of the last few years authentic, long leaf Taiping Houkui is nearly impossible to find outside of China. Production is very small, requiring great skill and care to harvest at process only the most perfectly formed leaves. Since the Panama World Expo in 1915, Taiping Houkui has won several awards, including the title, King of Green Tea, in 2005. What we do find on the market is a shorter leaf version with a much brighter green colour.
On the left is the 2009, and on the right is this year's spring harvest. The differences in size and colour are obvious. The authentic version has leaves up to 15 cm long, much longer than the lower grade leaves.
Starting with the 2009, Mrs Kim dropped a few tong-fulls of leaves into a glass infuser. The traditional technique is to cover them them water, then swirl them around in the infuser. As the leaves soften in the water, they swirl gracefully around like ribbons. In China, this part of the process is known as the Phoenix Dance.
The 2009 Taiping Houkui produced a bright golden infusion. The smell and taste were comparable to the deep roasted bitterness of Dragon Well and highlighted with a strong burst of sweetness on the tongue.
Next came the 2013 Taiping Houkui. The infusion was noticeably greener and slightly stronger with an overwhelming grassy flavour. Though it had freshness on its side, it lacked the dynamic range of the real deal.
Comparing the used leaves, some further subtle differences emerge. The meticulous selection of the 2009 leaves were more luminous and had perfectly clean edges, a trait of the rare cultivar use exclusively for Taiping Houkui to produce young leaves of this size. The inferior 2013 sample showed thicker, jagged leaves, lacking the distinctive youthful characteristics of the original. Straining my ear to follow Mrs Kim's instructions and descriptions in Korean, for her final appraisal, she broke out in English, referring to the 2009, "This tea is more beautiful!"