30 December 2009

Invincible, infallible taste-buds? No such thing

There are too many factors to consider in tea tasting for there to be any one person that can set an absolute standard for what is “the best” or what is “right.”  Don’t think that the competition judges get it right, either.  When you have to taste hundreds or thousands of teas in one afternoon and only have a few moments for each one, it may be the luck of the draw for the producer whether he gets a prize or not. 

If you’ve read the reviews of teas in the “Art of Tea” magazine, you’ll know that the experts that review are mostly experienced, “master-level” tea people.  However, not only do they never completely agree on which tea tastes best, but they can’t even agree on what each tea’s flavor, aroma or energy are.  Depending on the tea, temperature, brewing vessels, water, our own health and qi, our individual tea experiences will vary (this proclamation also serves as my official, public disclaimer to write-off all my past and future tasting errors!).

I often say drink good tea, with “good” being defined by yourself, and your own definition coming from experience, guidance (through well-intentioned tea educators, tea houses, books…) and your innate spring of wisdom.  Naturally, each tea will have a signature taste that you can learn to appreciate as well.  “Good” will change for you over time. 

I will also say that there are tastes that are NOT correct and are NOT good.  I’ll use charcoal as an example.  A good charcoal-roasted tea is hard to find in the US.  Few produce it anymore; it’s labor intensive and costly. 

I had the good fortune of being in Taiwan at the right time and meeting the right tea craftspeople to see actual charcoal roasting being done.  I’ll detail it more in a later roasting post, but it takes longer to charcoal roast a tea and it takes more diligence, since the temperature changes often and one must watch closely to prevent the tea from burning.  A properly roasted tea of any sort should have some fire, but should NOT look shiny in the light.  A lot of so-called charcoal roasted oolongs have an immensely strong taste of fire that covers the body of the tea.  Some may find the immense taste of fire to be enjoyable, not unlike overcooked bacon that is black, smoky and crunchy, but that’s not tea that has been roasted correctly.  There are issues if the leaves fail to open.  I have canisters of tea on a rack that, very fortunately, have a strong enough tea base to withstand the over-roasting that I’ve applied.  A small batch of Alishan, though, was over-roasted until some of its base flavor was replaced by fire.  It’s shiny, dark and fails to fully open in boiling water.  Experts in Taiwan say it can be fix, but the base is dead and it will not produce good tea.  A good charcoal roasted oolong – even recently fired - will open and showcase the tea’s flavor; this I’m positive of.

As a student of the roasting craft, I have a passion for learning and then passing on the essence of tea love.  I’m lucky to be able to enjoy extraordinarily unique teas, and I want others with such a penchant for it to be able to try and understand what I think is good as well.  A well-roasted charcoal tea, even a recently roasted one, will have fire and smoke in the taste, but it will still be round and delicious.  The charcoal is not meant to supplant the tea’s taste, but to augment it.

When I parted ways with Mr. Zhan of the Nine Pots Manor, I left with the feeling that the lingering questions I had about tea roasting, the energy of the brew and learning to master one’s own skill would be answered by his tea water.  As I left, he placed into my bag a present, one that I feel he thinks might further my learning.  To share the spirit of tea love and my commitment to spreading the virtues of good tea, I will send the first three people to comment/email/knock on my door a 5g sample.  It’s aged, it was once charcoal roasted, and it will be quite unlike anything you’ve had before.  If you have the affinity to be able to enjoy this brew, I hope that you will be able to share this tea with a friend(s) and will continue to contribute positively to the movement for good tea and tea knowledge.   

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

25 December 2009

What a Merry Christmas Present!

A good friend of mine received a brick of pu’er about 15+ years ago from her tea-retailer friend in Taiwan.  She first told me about it 2 years ago, but couldn’t find it for me to try.  Turns out the tea was hiding in a cabinet she uses for books.

tea brick 1         tea brick 2

It is the 七三磚餅, “7 3 Brick” from the 1970s.  I don’t know much about pu’er, so I looked it up in Chan Kam Pong’s intro to pu’er book and only found this tea in cake form. 

The book is a useful guide for identification of teas, but there’s not much additional info about it.  I contacted pu’er expert Daniel of Arts de Chine in Vancouver.  He said that this brick was popular and well-known back in the day, but as to taste and quality of this particular brick, well, he would have to try it before being able to comment.  After trying a bit of his blue label cake last last fall, I’m happy to oblige!


A tea friend gave me the catalog for a Beijing pu’er auction that was held a few days ago.  The one on the bottom is the 7 3 brick – 4 bricks valued at 24,000 – 32,000 RMB. 

What a present! 

23 December 2009

DIY to Learn it Best

"You have so many questions.  Touch it once and you will learn yourself."

試聽知識 - the knowledge gained from experimentation.  I'm fortunate that my teachers are quite patient with me.  I can be like a monkey child, I point to everything and ask what it is, how it works, how to do it....


"What's that?" I ask him on the way back to my quarters.

"A dragon fruit bush.  We saw that yesterday, remember?"

"Oh yah.  What's that over there?"

"Oh, that's Dong Ding mountain coffee.  My cousin grows it.  Do you like coffee, do you want to try?"  My teacher takes me to the bush where we pick some of it off; it has bright red skin that will turn brown after it's picked and oxidizes.  "Eat the skin.  It's sweet."

                             DD coffee bean

Dong Ding mountain has changed a lot.  It used to be considered a sacred place, the home of the tea that made Taiwan famous for oolongs.  Many people who have never been still consider it to be a somewhat magical place.  Nowadays, you will see fruit trees/bushes, vegetable farms, wild pig farms, and some coffee bushes amidst the tea fields.


"Why talk so much?  Drink it and you'll know yourself. The brew doesn't lie."

The Happy Farmer's wife stated her opinion emphatically and it is both true and correct.  She comes from a family of farmers and her husband sees himself as a tea craftsman rather than as a tea culture person or a big retailer.  She's unafraid to criticize other farmers or retailers by name, especially those that she feels do dishonest business or are lazy with their craft.  She also knows everyone else's business, and after a few pots of tea, so will you. 

Mrs. Happy has a sharp memory and prepares a bowl of tea for me as I walk inside her shop and sit down next to her daughter who's studying elementary English, but is too shy to practice with me.  Mr. Happy is on the mountain preparing for the upcoming tea competition.  I look at the leaves in the bowl and at the brew.  The fragrance is floral and extravagant; it lingers in the air like royalty.  It's been over a year since I've had their tea and my mind immediately registers its signature sweetness.  Mrs. Happy and I look at each other for a moment as we smile.

"The story is in the brew" I said to her.  "People don't need to waste their breath with more examination or chatter over this tea." 

Truth is, though, I love to talk to tea people about tea.  Most producers are happy to talk as well, partly out of politeness, partly because they are entertained by those who have enthusiasm for their work.  Sometimes one should tread carefully, though, as some tea people misunderstand enthusiasm for prying or spying.  My experience has been that the world of tea tends to be vast and quite transparent; there will always be experts willing to chat, even though they may not agree amongst themselves.  Mrs. Happy, though, would rather talk to me about the latest "farmer gossip," so in this case, the best story really is in the brew itself.

Do you want to know about the oxidation level, tea base, cultivar and roasting of the tea?  It's in the leaves, the brew, the aroma and the taste.  Pay attention and learn what the characteristics of major types of teas are.  We can learn about fire, as in why heat causes some teas to produce a rich, full-bodied fruit flavor, or how it can be used to tame the astringency of a mediocre tea base.  The masters that craft the tea can see through its beautiful aromas and tastes to understand the true base of the tea.  By paying attention and listening, we too can learn to see into the souls of our brews.

17 December 2009

Hold back your reservations and listen to the leaves

"It's not unlike your Dong Ding teacher's wife. Good tea, it, ng, has the good stuff on the inside that you have to bring out."

We were all laughing heartily by this point.  We'd just had a good joke over his own wife being decades older than me (I swear she looks like she's a college student) and now he was transmitting to me what he thought was the essence of the art of roasting, via a comparison between the roughness of unfinished tea, and, well, my teacher's wife.  Make no mistake about it, she was actually quite a looker back in the day!

Mr. Zhan is not a highly-visible, public tea figure, but the people in the tea world know him.  He is the owner of Nine Pots Manor in Taipei.  It's not an easy place to find and it's not a teahouse, but a by-appointment retail and tea roasting site.  He doesn't solicit for business and his focus is on the art and culture of tea more than the sale, although he happily fills orders for customers that find their way to him and appreciate his craft. 

"Whether we believe it to be good or bad, the farmers and producers that make it put their souls into their tea.  With good inputs of water, work, weather and soil, all tea is good.  After they do their jobs, it's our job to bring out the full potential of the tea with the roast."

The roast is where the art of oolong crafting resides.  Roasting, I've come to see, is not just about the manipulation of heat, air and labor as I have previously written about.  It's a meditation into the inner world of the tea itself. 

"Tea has its own personality and potential.  We must listen and understand that energy.  The tea guides us in the roast.  Most people have their own notions and force a tea to be made or roasted a certain way. That is not right.  Like raising children, we must raise tea with understanding.  The leaves talk back and will tell us how to handle them - if we listen."

Mr. Zhan, like Mr. Zhou, is a tea culture figure (茶藝人) whose primary focus is on the philosophy and culture of tea.  You are unlikely to hear a tea farmer talking about taming the energy of a brew or listening to the leaves for guidance.  You will also unlikely hear a wholesaler talk about the essential goodness of all tea, either.  Different worlds that share the same space.

My time with Mr. Zhan and his wife was brief, but it was a top highlight of my trip.  Taste each tea with a simple goal of understanding what it will teach and reveal to you, and you will certainly develop an even greater attunement and gratitude for the experience.

Drink good tea and enrich your life. 

11 December 2009

Notice the sensation first, not the flavor

Question:  Boiling water...why is it used for brewing oolongs? 

Answer: Because the "Experts" do it.

Yes they do (at least the honest ones), but here's why.  The teahouse owners buy from producers or distributors that use boiling water, whether in a bowl, gaiwan, glass, or competition "mug".  Not knowing why, some retailers use the same method.

Oolong is brewed for longer periods of time in boiling water to allow people to test for bitterness and astringency, which show up more clearly with high temperature water.  Tea is brewed longer so that the underlying characteristics of the tea cannot hide.  Unacceptable bitter or astringent levels are revealed in a tea with a poor base.  However, though manipulation of heat, oxidation, roasting, brewing and chemicals, a poor tea base can hide behind decent aroma and flavors.  Inferior tea at superior tea's prices - it's way too common.

If I were to buy tea from someone I didn't know, I'd watch to see how they brew my tea.  If they cheat, then I'll ask to brew the tea myself.  I generally brew any tea that is bought in a gaiwan myself to test what it will taste like in a regular brewing environment.  That's usually when I taste to see if the aroma, mouth-feel and flavor will be acceptable. 

Good tea can withstand boiling temperature, but it may not be at its best.  Sub-boiling tea makes Taiwan oolongs open up wonderfully, and as a secondary benefit, will result in more brews for the tea.

07 December 2009

Going Green

I'm lucky to be in Taiwan during tea competition season.  I prefer winter season teas to spring season ones; I think they have more body, but sometimes at the cost of smoothness and/or fragrance.

I've already tried some competition-grade Alishan and Baozhong, among other teas.  After several seasons of trying various competition-winnings teas, I am certain that the general trend for teas is becoming greener in taste.  Oxidation and roasting levels are lowering.  Judges are, in theory, reflecting upon the taste demands of consumers.

The trend of going green in teas is a shame.  Greener teas require less work and don't need as strong of a tea base to produce (although the best ones will still have a very good tea base).  Producers are incentivized to do less work and create teas that are closer to the green tastes of winning teas.  More and more tea fields are maximized for production versus quality, and the result is inferior grade product.  Over time, tea masters lose their skills, and the art of roasting - which is all-important for oolongs - will diminish.

My Tieguanyin teacher is currently preparing for the competition.  The submission of teas is tomorrow.  He is one of the few tea producers left in Muzha that makes non-blended, high-roast TGY.  We worked on the 2nd roast of his tea all day yesterday and now that he's 2/3 of the way towards completion, I already know he won't win any awards.  I've tried winning teas for years and they are light-to-moderate roast, mid-oxidation with a very strong and clear fruit fragrance that is a major characteristic of the tea.  The brew tends to be closer to yellow than the traditional orange. 

Anxi, the birthplace of TGY, produces tea that is so green and fresh that it makes me feel nauseous.  It is difficult to find a skilled master roaster there nowadays.


"It's too green, I don't like it.  Ng...just too green, what a shame."

The Elder had just come back from Pinglin where he was working with some Baozhong specialists prior to the recent competition.  I told him I thought such was the trend for all Taiwan teas, but he said that you can still find really good traditional-style production, although I think it's a bittersweet story.  Since there's less demand for traditional-style oolongs, the prices aren't as high as ones that are competition-style.  However, the cost to produce old-school teas, in terms of labor & resources, is higher, so the tea farmers that don't "sell out" make less money.  There are still some random, old-school holdouts that refuse to go with the tea trends, but they're dying out.  Others simply must make tea that sells to support their families - very understandable.

"It's just tea" you might say, and you wouldn't be wrong.  However, tea is an integral part of the culture here; it's a philosophy, an art and a symbol of identity and pride.  Everyone in Taiwan knows that their high mountain teas are world famous and they tout that with pride.  There are permanent exhibits on teaware at the National Palace Museum, and it's a rumor that if the deal goes through, a Chinese consortium may buy an entire mountain in Taiwan to produce high mountain teas. 

On my way now to Dong Ding to try competition teas; they should be doing it later this week.  No revival of Hong Shui style there, although competition-style DD hasn't gone as green as many other teas.  My teacher's nephew will submit for the competition and he generally wins in some category.  I congratulated him last winter on receiving a 2nd place prize and my teacher nearly smacked me on the head.  His nephew dared not to raise his head.  That tea base was very good, my teacher said, and it should have won 1st place or higher if his nephew had taken the time oxidize and roast with complete focus.  Talk about pressure!

04 December 2009

Cutthroat High Mountain Tea

"Young man, Taiwan tea is complicated." 

The Alishan tea producer sat next to me, with a few of his cohorts sniffing his competition-grade teas.  Such is the tea life in Taipei; walk inside a random tea shop and you might get to meet some of Taiwan's most famous producers.  To the Alishan tea producer's left was the descendant of the first Pouchong farmer in Taiwan.  Pouchong because he's old-school.  Way before Baozhong made its way to Pinglin, it was grown in Nangang (now a fairly industrial neighborhood).  Quantity nowadays is extremely limited, to the point where most people have never even heard of Nangang Baozhong, but some producers there still make it in the traditional style that I like - higher oxidation with strong mouth-feel and some smokiness.

Mr. Waha the Alishan maker (I'll call him that; he chuckled uncontrollably several times when I told him about teas I like) thinks I'm an old man with old-school tastes.  No doubt.  High mountain teas, especially Alishan, are expensive, he says, not just because of an accepted market price.  He explained that prices are high because labor, for one, is scarce and expensive. Pickers band together to price gouge.  Prices of picking have more than doubled since a few years ago.  It's hard work that increasingly few want to do, and understandably so. 

There is a schedule for picking as bands of pickers move from one plot of land to another.  The problem is that it's difficult to plan and schedule in advance what day to have pickers come, since conditions change every day.  On your scheduled pick day, you may find that the leaves just aren't quite ready yet - maybe they need another day or two on the bush.  But if you call off the picking, you might not get another slot until quite a bit later.  Mr. Waha said that this leads to all sorts of persistent problems, like ongoing feuds between farmers (I imagine some sabotage as well), possible bribery of pickers and worst of all: good crop that is left on the bush because no one is available to pick it off. 

"Problems and fighting happen every year.  Very common.  Tea is a business after-all."

I sat and admired Mr. Waha's samples of tea that he will submit for the competition judging next week.  As usual, the oolong balls have the stems removed so that the brew will highlight only the best aspects of the tea. 

After trying Mr. Waha's tea, I'm relieved that there is good Alishan tea this year, and hopeful that the same is true for the other high mountains as well.


Drink good tea and enrich your life.

27 November 2009

A Revival for Red Water Oolong?

It seems that there’s been some more chatter about Hong Shui Oolong recently.  When I wrote this post about it back in July, I didn’t have much information about the tea beyond the books I have (in Chinese), the article about Dong Ding in the “Art of Tea” magazine (Issue #4), and some posts that Guang from Hou De had written.

In the last few months, there have been articles about Hong Shui from Floating Leaves Teahouse in Seattle and a recent one by Tea Parker in Taiwan (in Chinese), among others.  Floating Leaves started carrying a Hong Shui oolong this past fall, and Hong Shui is a tea Stephane from the Tea Masters blog enjoys.  A thoughtful and recent review of Tea Masters’ Hong Shui oolong can be found at MattCha’s blog.

Why the popularity in a tea that, as one producer in Tea Parker’s article put it, requires no small amount of effort and time?

Both Stephane and Hou De, among other tea retailers, have carried this tea for quite some time.  There are also many reviews about this tea (from various retailers) online, but the problem is that I’m not quite sure – and many people may be in the same boat – about how to judge this tea.  We can expect, for example, some green teas to be vegetal or grassy, some Taiwan High Mountain teas to be floral and aromatic, Baozhong to be light and crisp, etc.  I expected an example of Hong Shui to taste like Dong Ding and instead thought that it tasted like a cross between a Yancha and an Oriental Beauty.  I sent a sample to a tea friend recently and labeled it “oolong 2” for him to try, and he thought it was some kind of new hybrid oolong, tasty but not quite sure what to think about it.

With a clean slate for learning about its taste, I’m open to the unexpected flavors I’ve been getting from this tea.  It has a body and character that can be deep and rich, like a Wuyi Yancha, from the high oxidation.  It has energy and a robust mouth-feel from the roasting, but expertly done, it will be smooth and round.  There is a sweetness in the brew that is characteristic of tea from Dong Ding; a velvety, fruit taste.

Taiwan Hong Shui Oolong – developed and perfected in Dong Ding – is a traditional, old-school production method for oolong from the Nantou area.  My interest in understanding tea production techniques that still exist will undoubtedly lead me to try to learn more about Hong Shui in the near future, as well as to find a better translation for it than “Red Water Oolong” or “Crimson Brewed Oolong.”  What if the Shui (水) refers not to water itself, but to a part of the processing, like the 走水 part of oxidation?  Makes sense to me, but let’s see what the old masters have to say about it.

In the meantime, try some of the season’s new, good teas that have come out and enrich your life.

24 November 2009

It Slips Through Your Fingers

Clay, that is.

I've been taking ceramics lessons for about a month now.  My very first piece was completely finished just a few days ago.

                         tea piece 1

It's a tea tools holder, in a bluish-green metallic glaze. 

size of tea tools        tea tool holders

I'd like to learn more about how shapes, materials and the application of different heat and glazes affect the tea that is brewed.  Yixing clay is special because of its high mineral content, especially of metallic elements.  None of the pieces that I will produce with the clay that I use, however, will make good tea.  Yixing clay and related types of clay are unique and will enhance oolong teas.

Short of being able to find good tea pot clay to use, my best hope for eventually being able to make high-quality teaware will be with a high-quality porcelain clay.  I generally prefer using a gaiwan anyway, so creating a thin, strong and visually appealing piece is my goal.

21 November 2009

Yummy Winter Tea?

The harvest and production of Winter Taiwan oolong has begun.  It's not easy, though, to get a straight answer out of most producers on how each season's crop is doing. 

I called my Dong Ding teacher yesterday to chat about this season's harvest.  "It's good.  Yes, fine, fine.  Are you in town?  When are you coming back?"

Those are his favorite questions.  

I didn't sense a high-level of excitement from him about the harvest.  Whether in tea or in life in general, we can often learn just as much about people and situations by what they don't say, as well as what they do.

Then again, I did call him at 8 am when he usually wakes up later.  I'll cross my fingers and hope he was just groggy.  We'll see in a few weeks.

04 November 2009

I still like it HOT

We started with a over 1/2 pound of unsealed Winter 08 Alishan High Mountain tea, and by the time we were done, only about 1/2 of that was left (granted, I also gave away some samples that we had to tea friends that stopped by that day).  The results of our first test?

Boiling water releases the full body of the rolled-oolong leaves, as well as the full sweet & floral aroma.  However, boiling water also causes the tea to taste “cooked” after a few infusions.  The result is that after about 3 or so infusions, the tea experiences a loss of the delicate flavors and smells that were previously present.  Complete floral notes with the high mountain characteristics are greatly reduced, and the brew loses some of the characteristic sweetness and hui gan.

Water that is cooler will yield more brews of high mountain tea.  There is a characteristic tanginess to the tea from the buds that are present in each rolled-oolong ball, which is reminiscent of the underlying “fruit/floral sourness” (果酸) that can be found in some types of tea-bud teas.  However, water that is too cool will fail to bring out the full body and aroma of the teas, since the mature leaves of the oolong require more heat.

Daniel remembers one of his Taiwanese tea retailer friends saying that 92-95 degrees celcius is the sweet-spot for high mountain teas.  With that said, each tea for each season will vary, as will the amount of tea used, the time needed for each brew and the type of brewing vessel used.  I still really enjoy the first couple of boiling-water brews for a high mountain tea.  I can see why so many tea retailers and producers use boiling water in Taiwan, because it really does bring out the highlights of the brew. 

No right answer, just a matter of preference.  Too hot and one may miss the delicate tastes and flavors.  Too cold and one will miss the complete body and aroma of the oolong.  Hit the sweet-spot and you might have both.  Only a good tea will reveal the complexity of tastes and smells that we’re aiming for, though.

31 October 2009

Testing a Theory about HOT Water and Alishan

In Vancouver now.  Tomorrow, I head over to have tea with my tea friend Daniel at Arts de Chine.  In a post from nearly two months ago, I stated my belief that good high mountain tea can take boiling water, whereas Daniel is of the thought that sub-boiling, hot water is more suitable.  We both agree that optimum water temperature may not be boiling, but we’re also quite weary of the discussions about “proper” water temp; we’re more interested in what a tea reveals when different types of water, temperatures and brewing vessels are used. 

For our first round of experiments, I’ve brought with me a sealed 1/2 jin bag of Winter 2008 Alishan that I bought from Floating Leaves Tea.  Since it’s from a past season, this tea’s been heavily discounted, but it’s also likely going to be the best Alishan I’ll be having for a few seasons to come.  This statement will be confirmed after the release of the winter harvest several weeks from now.  Last weather report from the harvest area:  warmer-than-normal temps following massive rainfall (from the typhoons) and anticipated dryness until the harvest.  Not sure how that’ll affect tea, but I’m of the belief that stable, moderate weather generally produces the most suitable tea.

In other news, I started a ceramics class several weeks ago and produced my first few pieces.  One is a cylindrical holder for tea tools, and another is a small jar for storing tea.  I finished a porcelain tea caddy with my instructor this week, but I’m going to have to work on deepening the base and smoothing out the walls.  Pics to follow!

21 October 2009

Loosely-rolled Oolong balls

Modern day oolong balls are mostly finished in electric-powered rolling machines.  Depending on the type of tea, farmer or processing method, the tea may first begin with some hand-work, but end up being finished in a machine.

Back in the day before machines, though, oolong was rolled by hand and tools.  A part of the process, especially for Tieguanyin, included the tea being put in a cloth bag that was twisted up and then kneaded by foot.  There's also a hand-crank machine that looks like two stub-spiked columns - some kind of medieval torture device - through which one would place a bag full of oolongs to be rolled.  Although there are modern machines that automate the rolling process, I still see the hand-crank one in operation for at least a part of the process.

A tell-tale sign of old oolong will be that it looks less tightly-rolled than modern oolong balls.  It's tough to beat the pressure that contemporary, electric-powered machinery can apply to the tea leaves.  I haven't done any research into taste differences between tightly vs. loosely-rolled teas, but I'm guessing that modern teas may retain their flavors and aromas longer.  However, loose-rolled teas may achieve flavor stability faster after firing (because the loose shape would, theoretically, allow for more airflow to the tea and aid in the "reducing fire" stage) and age more easily.

1980s Dong Ding   Spring 2009 Dong Ding

                       (Old 1980s Dong Ding [L] and Spr 09 Dong Ding [R])

Old oolong will also be brownish in color if they haven't been re-fired, and blacker in color if they've been re-fired over time.  There are merits to both methods of storing and processing old oolongs, but the resultant taste is of course, much different.  So far, I slightly prefer a light touch of re-firing over time, but that's also because it's not easy to find a 20+ year old tea that has a strong base and hasn't been touched again since it was made. 

I have a gift from a tea maker that is a large sample from a big bag of teas into which he puts remnants of his select production into.  It's at least 20 years old and every brew tastes different.  Never re-fired again, that tea is known to friends as my pu-er-oolong.  It tastes ancient - a bit like mildewy pu-er - and is generally unpleasant.  But it's old and hasn't been touched by fire since each tea was made.  This tea just goes to show you that old doesn't always mean good!

13 October 2009

Roasting Series – Changing Tastes

I’ve found that lighter-oxidized teas need less roasting time to achieve a desired taste, but that the flavors can also change quite rapidly.  I bought several samples of Longjing from tea retailers around 2003 and noticed that their flavors had all changed quite noticeably within 1 month.  I am sure that if one were to graph the subjective flavors of the tea (ie. good to bad; fresh to stale; floral to muted…) over time, there would be a non-linear change in the taste of green tea as it moves farther away from its production date. 


(A very rough representation of flavor loss for green tea over time)

I’d say that between 1 to 2 months out, the flavor would be subtly different.  6 and 7 months out, though, the difference would be more apparent.  Past a certain point, stale tea just tastes stale.  Heat can be applied to green teas to help wick away the staleness, but it’s difficult to replace lost flavors or aromas with greens.

Oolongs with body are more interesting for me to play with.  It’s possible to bring back lost flavors or reveal hidden ones that hadn’t been brought out before.  Roasts and re-fires also change the taste of the tea, so that after many cycles of proper roasting, rest and aging, there is a unique flavor profile that develops.  The process requires attentiveness, or the result will be over-roasted tea.  In cases where the roast is too much but the tea hasn’t been burnt (or roasted to death), the tea will need to undergo a natural reduction of fire, “退火” or “下火,” for which time is the best remedy.

I find that one of the hardest parts about tea roasting is to know what the product will taste like in the next week, month or year.  As the tea is roasted, it’s tasted and smelled at regular intervals to see when it’s ready.  However, once I feel like a tea is done and I stop the process, I often discover that the taste I liked after the final roast and the one that the tea takes on after it rests are quite different.  The problem then becomes one of how to seal in the flavor that I wanted when I finished roasting.

Recent conversations with my roasting teacher have revealed some important differences between what some amateur roasters have said about roasting technique, vs what his experience and skill favor.  There are some important things to note with the roasting process, which I will talk about in my next Roasting Series post.

07 October 2009

Tea Tech 3.0 – The Revolution is Coming

We’ve got tea blogs.  We’ve got tea twitterers.  Tea websites, social networking, forums, online videos and all sorts of other uses of technology to spread tea love.

The best thing about the internet – for tea – has been our ability to gain and share knowledge, as well as to buy from retailers all over the world.  Had a great pu-er from NYC?  Well, chances are, your friends can buy that same tea online.  The speed of the internet also allows us to (theoretically) support or discredit what people are saying about tea.  I am referring only in part to the tea details that are debated online.  More importantly, access to rapid info and communications creates a feedback system where we as a community have the ability to identify good/bad tea and good/bad/overpriced retailers.  As a community, we also (theoretically) have the ability to dictate taste.  Knowing that Taiwan oolongs are judged based upon current consumer taste profiles, so too is there a way to tap the community to understand what people seem to like drinking, and to improve upon those products.  For savvy tea merchants and producers, there is valuable data to be had.

Like all businesses where the face-to-face contact with clients is important, the ability for the tea experts to connect with their supporters and customers is vital.  That’s what I feel like I’m missing from my tea experience.  If I enjoyed a great green tea that I got from Japan, for example, I’d have to call/email the retailer with my questions and comments.  However, it’s not an exchange that benefits the tea community by staying on some site or repository somewhere.  The tea merchant has also probably answered my questions a million times before (good idea for many tea retailer blogs to post FAQ sections).

I propose that tea tech 3.0 will come about soon as a measure to bring tea experts and their supporters together online.  Using web conferencing technology, experts may be able to have open Q&A sessions at designated times, or to do group tastings online.  Since tea is so different each season, such a setup would also mean that a tea lover in Malaysia can log in to taste and interact with the tea retailer in real time.  The retailers have often worked with the producers of their tea to understand optimum brewing of the tea.  More than taste alone, such a system brings us back to a feeling of belonging to a greater community of tea lovers.  Since we’ll be having an online tea party with 20 or 30 others, it’ll be easier to correct our brewing, share tasting notes/experiences, and call out crap tea.

Lastly, these online sessions, I think, would bring the tea experts to the forefront.  Tea experts: brush up on your gong fu because tea consumers are smarter and better informed now than ever, thirsting for answers to some difficult questions.

Whom, among the brave and skilled tea retailers, is up for the challenge?

03 October 2009

Would You Pay $3/month for Bliss?

Puerh.  I still don't drink a lot of it, but I'm starting to develop a taste for it.  It used to be that when people asked me what I thought about puerh, my answer was the same:

"I can understand that some people really like something about it, but I don't like it more than oolong.  I just don't get it."

I questioned the reasoning behind drinking a tea that tastes like a basement smells when there's so much other pleasant stuff to try.  Shiuwen at Floating Leaves would then patiently say to me that one day, I would try a puerh that would taste so good, like "silk water," and then "Bah!" I'd get it.

That happened when a tea friend served me a 1950s/1960s sheng puerh in August.  I admittedly know little about puerh, but my friend mentioned that the tea was similar to a blue label cake (藍印餅) from around that time period, though I wouldn't know which blue label cake or what that really means since I've never had any other examples of that age of cake before. 

The mouth feel of my friend's tea, though, was amazing. Soft and smooth, just like silk water.  The flavor was only mediocre to me, probably because it's so wildly different than anything I've ever had, but wow, exceptionally smooth mouth feel with intense sweetness that lingered.  It didn't have a hui gan like an oolong has, but a satisfying and deep sweetness that revisits not in the throat but as an airy flavor bouquet with subsequent exhalations.  My tongue felt limp and soft, and the inside of my mouth felt like it was coated with a light touch of oil.  Complete qi from the tea extended up to my crown and down again.  The experience and the energy from the brew was superb.

My friend told me that such a tea still costs nearly $5,000/cake, and that's if you can get a good deal.  Holy smokes!  But he explained that although this cake was very expensive, there are ones that are similar in style, from the 1980s, that may cost less than $1000 from a good source.

Expensive?  Yes.  But he put it this way:  taken as a whole, the tea leaves, environmental factors, human technique and cake quality were generally better in the old days.  It's his belief that in a hypothetical sci-fi situation where we could, right now, take a 1950s red label puerh (about 60 years old) and then time-jump to the year 2060 to taste the old red label against a premium 2000s cake, the one from the 1950s would clearly be better [his caveat was that he has been wrong about how a puerh cake's taste changed over time, so we just won't know how modern cakes will compare to red label until, well, about 2050-2070 or so.]

If you bought a good 1980s cake for $1,000, you could look at it like you paid about $3/ month for it.  Taking a good tea base that was pressed into cake form, you are essentially paying for the time it took to perfect the product.  If we have a stellar vintage sometime over the next 10 years, it's unlikely I will live long enough to enjoy it when it has softened to the extent of a famed 1950s era cake.  I have never had any other tea like it, so while it may be expensive, it's worth paying for so that I can experience it within my lifetime.

Very few teahouses will serve this type of tea, since very few people have it.  I remember seeing red label puerh on the menu of Wistaria Teahouse in Taipei.  I don't recall whether or not there was pricing for it on the menu, but I'm sure it would cost quite a bit more than the $100/pot aged Dong Ding (also completely worth the price).

A tea lover that finds, experiences and can join with the essence of an extraordinary tea will have a life-changing experience.  A stellar tea overwhelms the senses, enveloping the mind in delightful intoxication that one will never forget.  To experience the pinnacle of the art of tea craftsmanship and the beauty that can be created by a human's manipulation of leaves, heat and water is beyond magnificent. 

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

01 October 2009

Who's Qualified to be a Tea Expert?

I'm not sure.  I've heard about a lot of different institutes that convey this title and various other degrees of "expertness."  There are several in Taiwan and China, and a few that I know of in North America. 

I remember reading about the exam requirements for a particular certification in Taiwan.  A core requirement for passing is a blind taste test of different teas, which consists of them lining up a bunch of teas for you to determine which is an oolong, red, green....  I thought to myself "Seriously?!?!  Passing this exam would qualify one to be a tea expert?!?"  A run-of-the-mill, once a month tea drinker could probably pass that.

I heard about another certification program that was more difficult, requiring lengthy classes and study.  A part of the final exam required identification of oxidation and roasting levels of oolong based upon one's senses.  A tea acquaintance, who is certified as an expert in Gong Fu tea preparation by the Taiwan Tea Arts Association (台灣茶連會), graduated from this program.  She said it wasn't hard with practice, but then again, her family has grown oolong for 4 generations. 

I met a tea master in North America once.  We sat down for tea and I told him that I had brought some of my own.  I had packaged one of my better Dong Dings in a ziploc bag for convenience (having meant to drink it at the park earlier in the day) and I pulled that out for him to try (I realize my packaging would be akin to putting a nice bottle of decanted Bordeaux into a thermos).  He put my tea in a giant pot that had been seasoned for high-roast tea and proceeded to brew for several minutes.  I anxiously watched the pot, waiting for him to pour out the infusion - but I dared not interrupt the master at work.  The infusion came out dark and rich, but not well-brewed like an infusion from a well-done Chaozhou Gong Fu style brew.  It had smoky and woodsy notes with the characteristic tartness of some kind of cliff tea.  He declared my tea to be bland and too lightly oxidized - but not bad - and proceeded to tell me that he had better Tieguanyin for me to buy.  Oh wait, I forgot to tell him that we were drinking a Taiwanese Dong Ding from 1 season ago.  That tea also won a 2nd place award that season.  [Side note: I don't necessarily think that award teas are "better" or more suitable for my tastes.  The producer of this DD was disappointed because with that tea base, he could have oxidized it more to produce a fuller body and more complete finish - but he played to the tastes of the judges to win.]

I respect people that are willing to share and learn from others.  The bottom line for tea lovers, though, should be enjoying a cup of tea, preferably one that tastes good (if not naturally, then with a lot of milk/sugar/lemons added) and be happy.  We need not be tea masters to know what we like; even tea masters change their taste preferences over time.

It's not wrong to love your Dong (Ding).

20 September 2009

Qing Era Porcelain

The latest piece in my collection is a mid-late Qing dynasty gaiwan.  The collector I bought it from dates it to the late-1800s.  I was most interested in figuring out how this piece - the shape, materials, processing - would affect my tea brewing.

The person that I bought the piece from theorized that it would be best used for high-fire oolongs, helping to soften the brew.  I tried the tea on a phoenix dancong and a green puerh before buying and thought the vessel good enough to purchase for additional testing.

gaiwan 1     gaiwan 2

The piece is more rice-bowl shaped than modern gaiwans.  Back in the day, these types of gaiwan weren't used for brewing tea as we do today.  Tea leaves were placed in the bowl, hot water was poured in, and one would sip from the bowl, using the lid to push away the leaves.  Some teahouses and restaurants in Asia still serve their customers tea this way (more for novelty than for function). 

Hand painted peach blossoms on the gaiwan and stylized characters on the holder.  The material is a coarse porcelain, light gray, with flecks of minerals from hand-pulverized clay.  Wood-kiln fired with bits of ash that stuck to the piece.

gaiwan grit 1  gaiwan grit 2

The lid doesn't fit perfectly onto the piece either, which is typical of many antique gaiwan.  This was probably a mid-grade piece for that time.  A higher-quality mid-Qing gaiwan is on my wish-list.  That has more ornate decorations, higher-quality porcelain and a higher-standard of craftsmanship (and an exorbitant price to match!).  

There are gaps between the lid and bowl due to it imperfect roundness.  The wide-bowl shape aids in cooling the temperature of brewing tea.  Lastly, the coarse porcelain is more porous than the modern stuff that is pulverized to a mash-like substance before shaping, which would further provide temperature-cooling properties, as well as affect the body and mouth feel of brewed tea. 

I ran several tests with this piece against my modern gaiwans and even my wood-fired gaiwan from the 1980s and found that this gaiwan didn't brew higher-oxidized or higher-roasted oolongs as well.  The attributes of this gaiwan are in opposition to a good yixing pot, which I think is the best brewing vessel for a highly-oxidized, high-fired oolong.  Tieguanyin and Wuyi Yancha tasted bland with this gaiwan, as if their flavors weren't being released. However, light oolongs like Baozhong and Alishan turned out quite nicely.  The floral notes were well balanced and the brew was smooth and light with a uniform hui gan.  Green teas (Long Jing and Sencha) also turned out very well, superior to all other brewing vessels I have.

18 September 2009

Good Old Teas

I love aged oolongs, but why?

It's because many older teas that have been aged well are from superior crops, representing an age of tea that we may never have again.  Skill, technology, weather/soil/growing conditions and the tea plants are changing, and the particular tastes of teas that I love are changing, too.

Take Dong Ding for example.  Zhou Yu of Wistaria teahouse in Taipei told me that the early-to-mid 1980s are the golden years for the tea.  Indeed, a good example from that era is truly exquisite, costing as much as thousands of dollars a pound.  If you are lucky enough to try a pot of one his 1980s Dong Ding, it will set you back about $100.  But for that price, you will get to relive a part of this tea's glorious history. 

I've mentioned that it's difficult to find an example of this type of tea that is very good.  I've gotten samples from all over the world of aged Dong Ding in particular and I'd estimate that 1/2 of them have been roasted to death; they taste burnt.  Some retailers have said that the taste is a result of charcoal roasting and is supposed to be present. That is complete BS for a tea of such age.  More-recent charcoal roasting will indeed have some smoky notes with "fire," but will not taste burnt either, unless the tea was over-fired or burnt by accident.  Another tell-tale sign of tea being roasted to death is if the leaves fail to open even after multiple infusions.  Examples of fake or poorly-roasted teas in my collection have dark caramel hues, overpowering burnt aromas and fail to open when brewed.  Some retailers have argued that the frequency of roasting that old teas require result in tea that does not open.  I will say with complete certainty that very good, very old, rolled oolongs exist that have been re-roasted several times and will still open.

As my Dong Ding teacher said, it should be no surprise that people lie to make profit on supposedly aged products because prices are higher.  He's shown and explained to me how roasting and aging can be manipulated (through heat or chemicals) to mimic some of the tastes of aging.  But if you pay attention to the smell, look, taste and underlying body, you will get a sense of the quality of the tea.  As Zhou Yu has said, good tea has good "qi" that makes you feel comfortable and balanced. 

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

05 September 2009

Releasing the Taste of Oolong Buds?

With regards to Taiwanese oolongs and water temperature, I agree with Shiuwen Tai at Floating Leaves Tea's position that a solid Taiwanese oolong, whether it be Four Seasons or Shanlinxi, can withstand boiling water.  That's not to say that boiling water is optimum for the best brew, only that it can be used without destroying the tea. 

I visited Daniel again at Arts de Chine this past weekend. We shared a 20+ year old Shui Xian (non re-roasted), several green puerhs and a 1996 Zhencong Tieguanyin.  It was the first time that I've had an aged & non re-roasted Wuyi cliff tea and the softness and fragrance were both evident.  It had a hint of aged tartness, but the high roasting that the tea had undergone so many years ago had given way to a soft and pleasant mouth feel without harshness or characteristic astringency. 

We got to talking about water temperature.  His position is that the optimum temperature depends upon the leaf configuration and type of tea being used.  High Mountain teas with the bud, he said, would benefit from lower heat.  The bud is too delicate for boiling water and although the overall taste may be more evident when boiling water is used, it might scald and prevent the release of the bud's flavor. 

While this might be true, I think that the flavor of high mountain tea is not dependant on the bud.  Puerh tea may also include tea buds, for example, but requires hotter water to release its flavor.  I promised to bring several high mountain teas with me to Arts de Chine next time I go for experimentation so that we can try to figure out if there are some tastes that we're missing.

28 August 2009

No More Da Yu Ling High Mtn Tea?

The tragic typhoon that struck Taiwan earlier this month may possibly lead to the passage of an earlier-proposed law to prohibit commercial farming at elevations above 1500 meters.  Such a law would affect the high mountain tea plantations at the highest altitudes.  Dayuling oolong around Lishan and the various types of high mountain oolong produced around Taiwan's highest peak of Yushan, as well as some Shanlinxi and other types of tea would be impacted. 

One statement in the article, quoted from an interview with the executive manager of the Meishan farmers' association, put the loss of Alishan tea's winter crop at 30%.  Quantity aside, quality will probably also be affected, as I hypothesized in a previous post.

This news snippet came to me via tea friend Michael Coffey of teageek.net, and the full article can be found here:

                                High Mtn Tea Article

I don't think it's a high probability that this law, first proposed in 2005 and stuck behind a backlog of other legislation, will pass.  Even if it does, it affects a small amount of tea produced in Taiwan, but that effect would be to some of Taiwan's premier-grade high mountain oolong.

When I visited tea farms in Nantou County earlier this year, specifically on Fenghuang mountain (Taiwan's Phoenix mountain), there was evidence of soil erosion in many areas.  I was taken to locations higher up in the mountain where rock and mudslides had caused extensive damage.  The culprit?  Land that had been cleared of trees and been improperly terraced for tea production.  We had to re-route along the roads we were traveling on several times due to them being washed away.  Several other roads that we traveled on that appeared to be relatively new had major fissures across them and some appeared to be sliding down the side of the mountain as well.  Shoddy work and natural weather conditions have created potentially hazardous conditions.  There should be more oversight to ensure that tea plantations and public infrastructure are correctly built, but in the face of a monster like Typhoon Morakot, the destruction would still have been severe. 

Tea farmers that I've talked with alluded to questionable government dealings that have led to expensive and low-quality public works projects.  I was shown roads in various areas all over northern Taiwan that were in a perpetual state of repair, as well as random structures, like pagodas and tea stalls, with exorbitant price tags.  In a country that is no stranger to corruption, one must wonder how greed and shoddy work may have led to unnecessary loss of life from natural disasters.

27 August 2009

Can't Fight My Sweet Tooth


If it tastes sweet, especially if it's naturally sweetened, I'll probably want a sip or two.

A reader commented recently that she loves black tea with milk and sugar.  You know what, it does indeed taste good with milk and sugar.  It can also taste really good on its own, with honey, or mixed with juice.

I had some Louisiana-style southern food last week and was offered an all-you-can-drink glass of sweet tea for $1.50. 

"We make it with the best tea bags you can buy!" the lady behind the counter joked.  Yes, probably the best tea bag you can buy from the grocery store, but with all of the high fructose corn syrup that's mixed in, I don't care what kind of tea it is, or if there's any tea left in it at all.  Sugar is MSG for beverages.

"You look kinda drunk, son," said the owner as he rolled up next to me in his truck.  I was staggering out of the joint after my meal, red in the face (from eating too much hot sauce) and hollering loudly with my friend after finishing off some fried gator. 

Yup, I was sugar high.  Nearly as good as a tea high, but not quite.

18 August 2009

Pay Attention and You'll Feel Its Spirit

How deeply have you looked into the leaves and the brew of your favorite tea?  Can you pick out some of the characteristics that make it unique? 

I believe that every master tea maker leaves behind a part of their identity in their product.  Drink enough tea from a single producer and you will know that maker's signature taste.  There is a taste and beauty in each tea that is testament to the maker's passion and craftsmanship.  The taste can tell you a story as you sip it.  The ability to communicate ideas, skill and emotion through manipulation of air, heat and leaves is what makes tea an interesting art to me.

My friend, whom I'll call Dean, is a reflective tea drinker.  Drink tea with him and you'll know what he thinks of the tea by how he drinks it and what he doesn't have to say about it.  I think that in his mind, excellent tea doesn't need to be announced; it just is and one should know as much.

I see my friend only on occasion, but we spend hours chatting and drinking tea together until we turn red.  I like to bring him my favorites to try.  On my last visit with him, I brought tea that I had finished myself.  There are technically 4 tea seasons for Dong Ding tea, but only Spring and Winter are really sold (whether some producers mix these with Summer and Autumn teas I cannot say).  I had some decent Autumn tea to hone my roasting skills with.  The tea is harsher and more astringent than the main harvest leaves, but cheaper and less heart-breaking for me if I screw up the roasting.

As we sat drinking some Korean green tea, I pulled out a bag of my own creation, #603, and let him sniff it.  A curious smirk appeared on his face - the smell reminded him of something.  He brewed the tea in a porcelain gaiwan and continued to smirk. 

"I did the finishing roasts on this tea, it's not my best work, so tell me exactly what you think.  It's an Autumn harvest oolong tea." 

"Hmm."  Dean played with the leaves and brewed again.  "You were anxious and bored when you made this tea, weren't you?  But your Gong Fu is better than mine, I gained all of my knowledge from books and never had a teacher.  Not bad."

"Wow, you're awesome, I'm really impressed!"  I was indeed anxious.  Dean could smell my mood in the tea and he also tasted my hurried nature as I made it, due to too much heat applied too quickly.  The base of the tea was harsh, but my first finishing roasts had tempered it quite a bit.  Afterwards, I got impatient and tried to bring the taste back out, resulting in the over-application of heat.  Not perfect, but it has my signature taste in it; sweetness with a hint of something that can remind a drinker of anything from roasted marshmallows to dry twigs.  As both my own self-nature and roasting technique improve, so will my taste. 

Ultra-expert tea drinkers can also track the changes in the taste and technique of master tea roasters as the roasters themselves change, grow and explore new ideas.  My Dong Ding teacher once said that only good people can make good tea, and good energy in the tea comes from good inputs, like the right water, environment and care.  The essence of each tea maker can be found in the leaves that he touches and crafts.  Take time to connect with the spirit of your brew and another level of insight and understanding may open up.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

14 August 2009

Typhoon Morakot's Destruction

The recent typhoon that struck Taiwan has caused a lot of damage to the island, mainly to the south, as it hit Taiwan and headed NE to China and Japan.

Taipei and most of Northern and Western Taiwan were spared the bulk of the wild weather, but they did receive a lot of rain.  Central Taiwan was mainly ok, although Alishan seems to have been hit pretty hard.  A lot of people are still trapped in various pockets where heavy rains and mudslides washed away roads and bridges.  I was watching a broadcast from a Taiwan news channel last night and it doesn't seem like the government has enough resources or equipment to help everyone.  Taiwan's government just requested some heavy lifting helicopters and industrial equipment from the international community, and the US military should already have arrived with supplies and support.

I called my teachers earlier this week to see how they were doing.  My Dong Ding master's wife puzzled me during the first few minutes of our conversation - she seemed completely fine, like nothing had happened.  I anxiously requested the status of her health/husband's health/family/home and she said everything was fine on the mountain and "very beautiful."  But those weren't her first words - all she could keep asking me when I called was, "When are you coming back?"  Ha!  I told her I wasn't calling all the way from the US to set up a travel schedule, I was worried that she had been washed off of the mountain!  She said it was nice for me to be concerned, but I didn't need to worry.  She also said the tea is good, and I didn't need to worry about that either.

Dong Ding is in Nantou county, though, and not too far away from Alishan.  Alishan had a lot of rain and destruction.  There was one story about a quick-acting tribal chief in a remote village on Alishan that got all of his villagers together and packed them into the tribal lodge to get away from the typhoon.  The village was destroyed, but the government commended him for responsible leadership that saved the villagers. 

The tea crop of high mountain oolong from Alishan may be limited this year, and the massive rains may have caused damage and affect the quality for a season or two.  There hasn't been an extraordinary crop from Alishan for several seasons, and I don't think that we'll see one anytime soon.

In the meantime, Taiwan is still dealing with the aftermath of the typhoon.  Thousands have died, thousands more are missing, and tens of thousands are stranded with few supplies.  The destruction in Taiwan is the worst from a typhoon in decades.  The government recently announced the acceptance of donations to help with the recovery effort.  You can visit the Taiwanese Economic and Cultural Office's site to view instructions on how to send donations via wire to their recovery fund. 

27 July 2009

Tea Stem Deodorizer

I've brought up tea storage vessels before.  It's true that farmers and producers that I've met say that thick-gauge plastic bags have been fine for them, although most don't intend to age the teas in them for decades.  Tea experts also carefully re-roast/refresh the teas every so often.

The consensus is that good tea goes into a vessel.  Where the disagreement occurs is what type of vessel to use.  Many people use clay or earthenware pots that have several layers of cloth or some other type of semi-permeable covering over the opening.  Porcelain, glass, metal, coated tins, and certain types of rock also have fans that swear by them.

              clay tea jar  Zisha Clay Tea Jar

Just like prepping clay teapots, I think that storage vessels should be prepped as well.  Washing is a given, and boiling or hot-water treatment may help.  Once that's been done, though, one last step that I've been recommended to do is to use a tea product to absorb moisture and off-odors from the vessel.  The product of choice?

Tea stems!

                           tea stems circle 2

Why stems?  Aside from their cheapness, roasted stems are good at absorbing odor.  It's exceptionally dry and has a surface area that is made to absorb and transport (water and nutrients).  Yes, I know, it's dried and dead, but it's still pretty effective with moisture and smells.  If you don't have stems, put in some decent grade tea.  If it's old and musty tea, you can use some kind of tea freshening method on it first .

After a few days with the stems inside, toss them away, wipe down the vessel and it'll be ready for use.  I put a good oolong into the clay jar above and it turned stale and lost flavor - wrong choice for that tea.  I just picked up a nice, green puerh brick that should do nicely, though.  Happy to report that I found something to put inside the clay jar!

Regarding pewter, which is one of my favorite container types, one must be careful of where it's produced.  Cheaper pewter products from less-reputable producers can contain high levels of lead, which may leach into the tea and damage both the tea's flavor as well as one's own health. 

23 July 2009

Old Happy's Alishan

It was my second time visiting his shop.  Its not particularly easy to find and it's interior is quite disorganized.  Walking past it, I would never have guessed that it was the headquarters of such a skilled and well-known Alishan high mountain oolong producer.

But there I was, standing next to giant drums of tea as I stepped inside the fluorescent tube lighted room.

"I don't have time to drink tea with you today."  The busy tea master was sitting on one side of a square table, the type that you'd find many Chinese people playing Mahjong on, accompanied by 3 assistants, all hurriedly picking at something, discarding, and adding to a growing pile of green balls at the table's center.

tea stems Stems only

           De-stemmed oolong  oolong without stems

"Thank you, but I'm not here to drink tea.  I'm here to order samples for purchase." 

YES!  Purchase was the magic word.  As the last syllable echoed in the room, a jubilant woman flew out from the back room, shuffling her slippers as she ran.

"Oh, it's you, young sir!  We had no idea you would visit us today, come, come, sit here."  She pulled the desk chair from her computer table, on top of which an ancient looking block sat; a computing device that probably displayed archaic fonts in the ugly green of yesteryear's technology.

I watched as the table full of tea people hurriedly picked and sorted tea.  They were picking off the stem from completed Alishan oolong balls, separating the good stuff from the coarse stuff.  The tea master pointed his mouth towards me but kept his eyes on his work, as he excitedly said, "We're preparing for the competition.  This is our best Alishan this season.  I would let you try it, but I have no time now.  Maybe you can try it if you come back later." 

My light conversation with his wife revealed how much the flavor changed by picking off the stem.  She told me that less-stemmed tea doesn't have the astringency, bitterness or "distractions" of stemmy oolong.  It is a time-consuming process, but the labor produces a brew that focuses on the best aspects of the tea's flavor. 

Farmers tend not to waste any consumable part of their harvests.  Tea producers are no different.  Stems can be brewed, further roasted and brewed, or roasted and used for a different purpose, one of which I'll share with you in a future post entitled "Tea Stem Deodorizer."

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

20 July 2009

2006 Hong Shui Oolong - Re-fired Review

I had my first taste of this tea years ago at a tea fair in California, although I didn't know enough about tea back then to pick up on the characteristic higher oxidation level of this tea.  Prior to my most recent purchase, my last taste of it was with Stéphane of Tea Masters in Winter 08.  He had a solid example of Hong Shui for us to enjoy.  However, the beauty of the tea was eclipsed by an even finer example of an old, 1980s Dong Ding that he had brought with him.

                           hong shui leaves vs qingxin1

Top leaf is from a Qingxin varietal - note the tinge of red on the outside edges.  Bottom two are from Hong Shui, although most examples of this type of tea may not have leaves as red as these.  I overexposed the frame to highlight the color difference.

Hong Shui is no longer a mainstream production method for oolong, nor is it one that I have either studied or tried many samples of.  I'm not sure what the correct English translation would be, but "Red Water" is literal.  Hong (red) also refers to the color of the leaves, whose edges give us one method for gauging oxidation levels.

In an issue of the "The Art of Tea" magazine, I read about how Hong Shui was the traditional way to produce Dong Ding.  Hong Shui oolong has a higher oxidation level that is generally over 50%.  Taking a look at my collection of old Dong Ding teas from the 80s, though, I noticed that none of them are oxidized to the extent of a traditional Hong Shui tea.  For a traditional, aged example of this tea, one may need to look for a left-over from an even earlier period.  The production methods for both modern Dong Ding and Hong Shui oolong are similar, but the latter is even more time-consuming and labor-intensive.

Modern Hong Shui Oolong, although produced in the same region using the same type of tea plants and similar techniques as Dong Ding oolong, is not what one would consider a modern-day Dong Ding.  I made the mistake of expecting the tea I bought to taste complex & light with sweet notes like a Dong Ding tea, and instead, I found a brew that reminded me of Oriental Beauty and Wuyi Yancha (cliff tea), with some strong Dong Ding traits.  Unlike other Hong Shui teas I've seen, though, the redness wasn't as uniform throughout the leaf.

Sweet and smooth with a tea color befitting a high-oxidized oolong (again, I think of Oriental Beauty).  Light notes of fruit.  The tea begins with a sweet, honey scent, and continues to a subtle floral aroma - none of which are overbearing.   An orange-colored tea liquor, full-bodied mouth-feel and smooth finish complete the brew.  I didn't detect a strong hui-gan or hui-wei from the brew, but the tea does leave a satisfying finish in the mouth.

The tea that I am talking about is Hou De's house-exclusive 2006 Hong Shui Oolong.  Per Hou De, it was re-roasted in 2007 and 2009.  One of the advantages of a high-oxidized oolong is that its flavor and roast remains more stable over time.  You'll likely find that old-school, traditional higher-oxidized oolongs with a good base can be stored & aged and have a fairly stable flavor profile.  Age a modern high mountain tea or low-oxidized Tieguanyin and you may find that its flavor doesn't keep quite as well as the old school ones.  The roasting process itself to maintain and/or revive the teas requires skill and patience.  I have samples of my own overly-anxious roasting that have resulted in a short-lived burst of flavor with a secondary scent of "fire" that is right under the tea's own fragrance.  Result?  Incomplete. 

Guang of Hou De did the re-roasts of his Hong Shui oolong and he may have also done a lot of work with the original processing of the tea as well.  He has been able to deepen the flavor of the tea without loss to aroma or the tea's accent tastes.  The brew remains soft, with many of the characteristics of Hong Shui tea that I remember.  Guang's roasting is controlled and patient; I didn't taste or smell the changes to the tea that would be the result of over-anxious roasting, the slight burnt smell of too much heat, or the dryness in the brew of a tea that's had heat applied to it for too long. 

Interesting, unique, and beyond the brew itself, quite a good example of a quality, domestically re-fired oolong.  This tea inspires me to journey and find a traditional, old, aged Hong Shui from Dong Ding mountain. 

12 July 2009

Learning to Differentiate Laowei

There is a lack of descriptive words for tea's flavors and scents in English, most likely stemming from a lack of translations for them. 

There are only a handful of basic taste categories that we experience.  Sour is one of them.  When it comes to tea, though, there are many different types of sour, both as sensations and as flavors.  Sour as a sensation would be like biting into a lemon and getting that puckery "damn that is sour" taste, accompanied by a scrunched up face.  Sour the taste could be like the tartness of a Granny Smith apple, or a balsamic vinaigrette.  Both are pleasant, both are sour, but also quite different.

Laowei, "old flavor," is present in many old teas.  It can be a good thing, such as the soft and gentle aroma (with just a hint of mustiness) that would accompany the breakdown of a fine oolong.  Or it can be nasty, like the foul decomposition of an old, improperly stored puerh cake.  Laowei as a taste may also have a certain characteristic flavor profile, such as the light and pleasant pluminess of an aged oolong, or the camphor-like quality of an aged puerh.  Or it may taste unpleasantly sour, like a bit of rancid goat milk been mixed in with the leaves. 

When I buy teas from vendors online that have written flowery, wonderful prose about the delights of their product, only for me to feel disappointed that my brew doesn't quite match, I'd like to know what I may have done wrong in my brewing or tasting.  I think the next evolution of tea tasting will be technology that will allow people to brew and drink tea with the producers or retailers online. 

06 July 2009

Happy to find another local teashop with a solid Shanlinxi - tea review

I visited Xiu Xian teas in Bellevue late last month.  I met Mako - one of the owners - as well as her helpful Taiwanese employee, Jenny.  Xiu Xian teas opened their first teahouse in Kent several years ago, and a second store in Crossroads Mall was recently opened.  Good business means that the market for quality teas is growing; awesome.

There are many teas to choose from at Xiu Xian, including blended teas (e.g. fruit and floral blends), and a selection of greens, oolongs and puerhs.  I wouldn't say that Xiu Xian specializes in Taiwanese oolongs, since many types of Taiwanese teas are not yet available for purchase.  I say "yet" because it seems that they do intend to carry some in the future seasons, when Jenny may become their Taiwan tea buyer.  She mentioned to me that she might return to Taiwan sometime around the mid-Autumn festival.  I hope that she will opt to go later in the year, though, since Autumn is too soon for her to buy the winter crop of high mtn teas.  Unlike certain types of teas, like Four Seasons or Jinxuan, or some mainland oolongs, the two main tea seasons in Taiwan are Winter and Spring.  On my last trip, I missed the winter harvest by a few weeks, which generally occurs in late November/early December.  The quality of autumn high mtn teas is quite a bit different (and less complete) due to the weather, growing conditions, etc. and thus, do not compare favorably with the main harvests. 

From Jenny's recent trip, she brought back several teas that are available for purchase in limited quantities.  One of the interesting things about Xiu Xian is that unlike other teashops that sell by pre-packaged weight or by the ounce, this shop sells by the gram (although I don't know if there's a minimum purchase, as buying only 1-2 grams of tea would be odd).  I was fortunate to come on a day when I could try the Alishan, Shanlinxi and Oriental Beauty that she had brought back.

I've tasted several high mountain teas this season from several different Taiwan tea sources and have found the season to be ok. That is, not great, but not terrible.  Shiuwen at Floating Leaves in Ballard takes good tea quite seriously.  She didn't think that this season's Alishan was good enough for her customers, so you'll find that there isn't one for Sp 09 (although her last season's Alishan is more complete than anything I've tried this year). 

Xiu Xian's Shanlinxi is one of the better ones I've had this season.  Light and fragrant, with some citrus and light fruit tastes.  At roughly $10/ounce, the price is fair. 

I was happy to find a good quality Shanlinxi at Xiu Xian.  According to Jenny, the tea she has on hand is exploratory in nature.  If customers react favorably to it, they will carry more of it in the future.  I was a bit disappointed by the absence of Lishan or Dayuling-style teas there, though.  In recent years, my taste has changed so that I now prefer the deeper, richer and bolder tastes of Lishan teas.  However, it is not easy finding a good Lishan or Dayuling (I have in fact, never had a real Dayuling, as that tea is extremely limited in production and most such teas are just Dayuling-style) and the pricing is generally in excess of other high mountain teas.  Altitude is one indicator of price, but not the only one.  If it was, Jade mountain tea would be pricier and tastier than all of the others, which it is not.

The exception to my preference for Lishan is the "Happy Farmer's" superb Alishan tea that is no longer available for purchase in the US (or outside of Taiwan, I believe).  His pricing is easily double or triple that of other Alishan teas, but his quality and the undeniably high-level of craftsmanship and quality that is evident in his leaves justifies his pricing.  I've been told that his Baozhong is even better, but I have yet to try it.  Perhaps this winter will be a lucky one for me.

27 June 2009

NO WAY! Not after 6 lessons

He guaranteed that after 6 lessons, I'd be able to roast - with skill and competence - ANY oolong tea.  How?

Hailing from an academic background, my potential instructor had spent several years uncovering the fundamentals of tea making and turning it into what he considered to be a foolproof method of instruction.  Per his syllabus, we'd spend several classes learning about the plant's structure, growth and care.  Then we'd learn the theories behind application of heat and the oxidation process.  And then on the last class, we'd have a whole-day roasting session, after which he guaranteed that I'd be able to roast anything well.  The guaranteed, foolproof method would be taught to me for a hefty sum; he brushed off the price by saying that no other person's instruction could give me the skills I needed in such a short amount of time.

"Hmm, one should be careful with whom they call teacher" said the Elder.  "The price isn't cheap for 6 lessons.  Also consider the likelihood that you'll be able to roast any type of tea in 6 lessons and after only doing it once."

I knew he was right, but I didn't have much time to learn and I really wanted to do theory and coursework.  "But no one else can teach me the methods in such a short time" I protested.  "Even if I learn a bit from you and my other teachers, all of my knowledge will be in pieces; I want formal education." 

The Elder nodded. He understood what I wanted, but didn't want to come out and say directly that he thought it was a bad idea.  "Maybe you should go and take one class and see what you think.  Can you do that?  Then, and this is important, ask him to try his tea.  I know this guy, he has a lot of influence in certain parts of the tea world, but wasn't originally a tea maker.  You can try his tea and see for yourself if he's worth learning from."

Taking his advice, I went to class for one day.  It was in a specially-designed classroom within the instructor's house, which he had built to accommodate his tea lectures, tastings and possibly some areas to manufacture product as well.  We spent several hours going over the tea plant and how oxidation occurs, why and how certain tastes develop, and the effects of nature and environmental factors on the quality of the product.  No roasting, just theory.  I took copious notes, though, and indeed found the class to be quite interesting.

As we neared the end of class, I asked if we could spend some time trying his tea.  I wanted to see if he had skills in roasting that I would want to learn.  I picked several teas - lightly oxidized Baozhong, a High Mountain varietal, and some other tea that I had never heard of (but was of moderate oxidation). 

My instructor is a tea master in his own right, but likely not a master tea maker.  His teas tasted "off," lacking any kind of distinctive characteristics.  His oolongs tasted like the opposite of my past roasting experiments.  Whereas my anxiety led me to add too much heat to my tea, his tea recipes led him to under-roast, preventing the true flavors from revealing themselves.  On top of that, the tea base was marginal.   Thanks professor, but that's all I needed to know that I wouldn't be coming back to class.

"You were right" I told the Elder.  "I was incorrect to think that I could learn to roast everything in 10 days.  I guess it's not a process of learning that can be rushed."

"Yup...we've been doing this for decades, every day, this is our life and our business.  No one can learn it in 10 days and expect to be an expert."

I didn't find this particular teacher to have bad intentions, I believe that he honestly feels like he's got real skills.  But delusion is a part of this business just as much as any other.  I'm just happy that there are people who know better, like the Elder, who were around to pluck me away from those that can't provide true tea education to me. 

Lesson learned:  Pick your teachers wisely; it's also ok to have more than 1.  A farmer once told me that good tea can only be made by good people, so without purity of heart, it's just hot water and burnt leaves.