30 December 2008

In search of Korean oolongs

I stopped by Korea on my way to Taiwan to attend a wedding. . . and for tea.  I emailed a few of the blog authors on my roll who have written about Korean tea and they recommended that I visit the cultural district of Insadong in Seoul to find some unique stuff.

I had a hard time finding a shop that (1) offered Korean Oolong (2) had staff that spoke enough English to communicate with me (3) offered tastings of their product.  But Insadong itself is a neat experience, close to museums, several palaces from past dynasties, old shops and restaurants.

                        insadong street 2

It's rather fitting that the shop I ended up spending the most time in was one that specialized in Chinese and Taiwanese oolongs.  Their shelves were full of puerh tongs, high mountain teas, and various metal and earthenware jars of aged oolongs.  Here, I finally got to taste Korean oolong and some good green tea.

korean tea in insadong - best korea green in blue A view of the teahouse's selection of pots and Korean greens - notice the model of Taipei 101 on the counter!

The oolong I tasted was very light, with some grain-like flavor notes.  Several of the Korean oolongs that I came across had the Chinese characters for Yellow Tea on the label, but none of the shopkeepers I spoke with could explain to me if all Korean oolongs were called Yellow Tea.  This particular tea reminded me of a mix between four seasons and barley tea; pleasant but no body or hui gan.  I didn't get deep enough into the conversation to ask what varietal the leaf was - I was just happy that this shopkeeper could speak enough English to accommodate me.  I eventually bought a box of her best green tea that came from a farm that she and her parents supervised the production for during the spring.  She brewed roughly 2-3 grams in a small Korean-style handled pot, using water that was probably around 160-170 degrees.  The tea was a pale yellow with a mellow mouth feel.  Only slight astringency, but I think it would turn out smoother in a gaiwan.  A very light floral fragrance unlike any Chinese or Taiwanese tea, but more vegetal in taste than floral.  In some ways, it reminded me of a mellow Longjing, but without the body or aftertaste, although this tea did have a smooth finish.

IMG_3181  Nice Korean green tea

I was told that while Insadong would be a convenient place for me to find some tea samples, it would be more expensive than other places.  I ended up picking up various other Korean oolongs from other shops along the way, but I have yet to try any of them since they didn't do sampling.


29 December 2008

Good tea dust may make an interesting blend

       tea bagsa selection of tea bags 

I'm not talking about the fancy tea bags made of high-quality cotton or silk which contain quality leaf.  I'm talking about regular tea bags that contain tea "dust" or broken up teas. 

I've spent the last several months collecting various types of tea bits and dust from processed oolongs of various types:  Alishan, Lishan, Baozhong, Jinxuan, Oriental Beauty, Dong Ding....  I've even collected the dust from several puerh cakes and quality black teas as well.  Using unbleached fiber tea bags, I've tasted teas from a single type of oolong, like just a Lishan teabag, and I've tasted blends of several teas.  My conclusion is generally the same:

No matter how good the tea is, its dust and bits aren't representative of the taste to the actual product

You may be saying, "well, duh!"  However, I found the leftovers from these high quality teas to be quite pleasant.

Tea dust can be found at the bottom of the bags/cans/boxes that teas are sold in, or they are found at the bottom of the pan or floor of a roasting machine.  Much of the dust is the result of the processing of the tea and has a distinctly different taste and aroma than the tea that is to be used for brewing. 

tea dust which teas are in here?

The tea bits that I used were broken pieces of product.  Baozhong, for example, is fairly brittle and long in shape, so it's easy to crush and break into pieces. 

broken baozhongbroken-up Baozhong

Many people can appreciate the convenience of a tea bag.  Because dust from several different teas may all be mixed together to produce a tea bag, it's not always easy to discern exactly what type of tea one is having when drinking from a generic green/oolong/black tea bag.

The next time you buy a big bag of tea, save the dust and put it into a cloth filter (even a coffee filter will work).  It's not the same as the tea itself, but it may be an interesting blend and will probably taste better than what you get at the restaurants. 

23 December 2008

A fine Winter brew

       Frozen palms  A frozen palm tree in Seattle

It's cold up here and we're getting lots of snow dumped on us; there hasn't been a winter storm like this for over 10 years.

Stuck at home, but glad I've got a lot of nice teas to drink.  I received some tea samples from a tea friend in California and they reminded me that something dark and malty would feel nice on a cold day, as I watch the snow fall and I get more anxious about how I'll get to work tomorrow.


Another tea friend left some factory floor puerh of unknown age to try.  I'm not a big drinker of puerh - it's nice once in a while - but I don't crave it like I do a good roasted oolong.  On a chilly day when you can feel the cold seep through the windows and into your bones, like today, it's a welcomed brew.  Creamy and rich, with the full-body and smoothness that only age can produce.  A depth of flavors that's not quite perfect like a famous, aged cake, but a variety of flavors that blend well together, like a smoothie blended with different earthy flavors of mushroom, dried herbs, bark and some citrus flavor notes too.

Winter continues to roll in.  With my cup and brew in hand, the cold world seems farther away.

Life is good.  Drink good tea and enrich your life.

17 December 2008

Mid-Season's Greetings

...and Happy Holidays!

What better way to symbolize the wonder of the season than with this tea wreath. 

After a particularly long session of sampling various good oolongs, I was left with a giant pile of leaves to play with.  I thought it'd be fitting to create a nice holiday wreath with it, which is punctuated by the mellow green leaves of infused green tea.

                         tea wreath - edited

Take care of yourselves and stay warm this winter.

13 December 2008

What is wrong with Taiwan's tea this season?

I've had some Baozhong (1st, 2nd and Honorable mention - one crop of winners among many) and some Alishan from this season.  The award-winning Baozhongs taste light and clean - like the winners from past seasons - but not quite as full-bodied and round.  The Alishans I've tried lack the body, fragrance and aroma that I've had from the same producer in the past.  It tasted more like a Four Seasons varietal - flatter and greener than I expected.


I spoke with some producers of Four Seasons, Lishan and Tieguanyin in Taiwan and they all told me that the weather has been too warm and a bit too wet to produce outstanding tea.  In one of the emails I received from a tea farmer friend in Muzha, she described the season as typical of "暖冬" or warm winter.  I haven't gotten all of the details about what the particular characteristics of a warm winter are, but I'll write more about it in a few weeks when I sit down with the producers.

So for now, all I can say is that the teas I've had fall short of my hope for an outstanding taste like I've had several seasons ago, but I've got hope that there could be some great stuff out there. A friend whose family produces award-winning Lishan tea had them express-mail some samples that should arrive shortly.  I'm crossing my fingers that this may be something good!

12 December 2008

Does the color of your porcelain tea cup matter?

Porcelain tea cups come in a variety of colors and glazes. Some are bright shades of the primary colors, some are subdued earth tones. Others have patterns and texture as well.

I personally like a thin celadon pottery that is light green in color. I like delicate cups that have wide lips, helping the tea to cool before I sip it. 

      celadon cups

When at a tasting, though, it's nice to have a cup with a white interior. This allows for better viewing of the tea's color. A quality, fresh and lightly-oxidized oolong tea shouldn't be muddy looking, and a fresh Longjing should be a soft green. Color is just one measure of a particular tea's quality, but it can tell you something about the tea before it even touches your mouth.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

07 December 2008

Processing Oolong

In preparation for my trip to Asia this winter, I'm reading as much as I can about the processing of Oolong.  The basics are in many tea books, English and Chinese, but I want to get into the nitty-gritty of it from people that have actually done it before.  Particularly difficult to find are first-person accounts of processing written in English that can be easily-shared on this blog.

I came across a pretty detailed account of Baozhong processing on the blog for Red Circle Tea based in San Francisco.  You may read more about the processing for Baozhong here:

           Red Circle's Baozhong Processing Feature

The first oolong I've ever seen produced was Taiwanese Tieguanyin.  Before I can start making it with the masters, though, I'll begin with Four Seasons Tea this winter.  It's a light roast that shouldn't take more than a day to complete after the tea leaves have been oxidized.

                  dong ding tasting

Baozhong tea is one that used to be among my favorites.  It has, over the last decade though, gotten greener and less oxidized, to the point that I find it too fresh and green for an oolong.  The prize-winning Baozhongs are exceptionally green and fresh - the leaves are a beautiful jade color and the tea liquid infuses into a light brew with a greenish hue.  This is the trend and the experts and consumers seem to enjoy it.  However, Floating Leaves' Baozhong farmer prefers a more oxidized and roasted Baozhong himself and will agree to make a special batch of it if so requested.  The only problem is that he has quite a large minimum order for production.  I hope that maybe a few teahouses can get together and split the minimum order so that I can taste the wonderful, full-bodied Baozhong that I used to love.

04 December 2008

Finally understanding one of my first tea teacher's words

He speaks melodically, with a cadence that reminds me of a poet reciting a favorite verse. An accomplished man of the arts, Tano Maeda was one of my first tea teachers.

Tano is a Buddhist filmmaker and the director of the International Buddhist Film Festival. Last I heard, he was also the director of the Tea Arts Institute in the SF Bay Area. I met him through Winnie (of Teance in Berkeley) and he taught me about Green teas, corrected my brewing method, and tried to instill in me a sense of peace and calm in my pace - something that I'm still working on.

When I think of him, I usually recall how he had - on a few occasions - casually mentioned to me that he traded in some luxuries and a closet full of Armani suits to do something that he is passionate about. I was too green at the time to understand and wrote off his statements as either indirect boasting or just the same old story I've heard from him before.

But I think I get it now. I've been trading in some of my material items and replacing them with the beautiful experiences in life.

green lake 1

                         So far, so good.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

02 December 2008

Is aged tea ware always better?

More learning from Daniel at Arts de Chine

In Daniel's collection are some Qing dynasty brewing vessels, like gaiwan and teapots, as well as some Ming dynasty porcelain. The distinctive cobalt glaze of the Ming dynasty that has been so widely duplicated is a popular design for tea ware.

Both Daniel and I believe that the usage of different clay teapots will enhance the tea that is brewed within it. But is the same true for an antique vs. a modern gaiwan?

Per Daniel, antique gaiwans have porcelain that is mixed and made by hand, molds that are hand-made and a product that is fired at less consistent temperatures than the machines that make porcelain today. Because of these and several other factors that he explained, the porosity of the ancient porcelain should be greater.

Modern gaiwan are largely made by machines that pound the raw materials into the powder/paste that will then be molded into the final product. Not only do the machines create finer and more consistent "mash," but the usage of modern technology allows for higher firing temperatures and more consistent thickness. Consistent density of good porcelain products should be easier to achieve with modern machinery.

celadon tea ware set

Daniel told me that he had a friend and fellow tea lover that believed that he could tell the difference between not only tea that is brewed in an antique vs. a modern gaiwan, but also the taste of tea that is simply placed in an ancient vs. a modern porcelain tea cup. Porcelain here is the central argument, as there can be some taste differences if you put tea in a porcelain, metal, plastic or clay cup. After much experimentation and blind tasting, the result was that his expert friend - as Daniel had already guessed - could not pick out the difference.

Porosity is important for teapots, since this quality can, among other things, help round out an especially harsh tea. Among its many names, gaiwans are known in Cantonese as a "steaming pot," its primary purpose to trap heat for delicate brews, such as less-oxidized teas. Thus, I believe that higher porosity, as in the case of antique porcelain, may not be a favorable trait for gaiwans as it may be for clay pots.

So does a significant difference in taste exist? Perhaps, but if the experts can't spot the difference with any level of consistency, then the difference is not significant enough for me to necessitate usage of antique porcelain.

My bottom line is that a nice Qing-dynasty gaiwan may cost you $1000. A nice modern gaiwan may cost you $20. Without being able to conclusively say that the old gaiwan significantly enhances the taste of a good tea, I'd opt to spend the difference between the two on some good tea. The beauty of an aged Wuyi tea vs. a grocery store tea bag - now that's enough of a difference for me to care. Antique collectors will definitely disagree with me, but like I've said all along, I just like tea.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.