27 January 2009

Approximating the taste of early oxidized teas

He reached out to pluck the leaves off of the bush with the speed of a possessed monkey. 

"I used to be pretty good at picking leaves when I was young," he said, "then my father started to teach me how to make tea and found that I was good at that too."

My Dong Ding teacher used to be a top producer in the area.  He sold so much tea that he was able to retire after less than 20 years of production.  Nowadays, he spends his time with his wife making small batches of tea just to keep his skills sharp.  He sells tea only when he feels like it and he doesn't tend to take students.  Like many other old tea makers, he is quite eccentric, but grounded in his principles: a passion for the craft; a love of the natural environment, and a desire to only associate with those things and people he deems to be "good."

"I'm a retired man and have no need for money.  Like the place I live, the food I eat and the tea I drink, I only associate with those that are undefiled."  My teacher is straightforward; I'm lucky to be worthy enough this day.

The plucked leaves in his hands go into a plastic bag that he tells me to hold and shake lightly in my hands as we descend the mountain.  The tea leaves from soft-stem, wild and qingxin varietal bushes are a part of an experiment he wants me to try.

                             tea natural oxidation

"This is how people first experienced oxidized teas.  Go back to your place and when the leaves in the bag start to change color, put them in a cup and pour hot water over them."  He was teaching me about tasting the natural flavor of the leaves.  "You will see what tea used to taste like, before people learned how to control the oxidization level and to roast."

The taste is quite strange, green and vegetal, but also very natural and "sweet" in the sense of its purity.  The smell of the leaves has a bit of fruity sweetness as well.  Amazing how controlling heat and fire can so dramatically change the taste of the brew.

IMG_4068 An example of a finished oolong - this is a roasted Tie Luohan Wuyi Tea from an old bush

25 January 2009

Different places to learn about tea

In America, one of the few places to learn about tea is at your local teahouse, which one hopes has an expert of some sort that knows a thing or two about tea that is more than what might be found on Wikipedia.

            roasted yushan oolong - LJX High mountain tea in the roaster

In Taiwan (or China/Hong Kong/Korea/Japan...) your average shopkeeper knows much more than the average proprietor in the west, since these shopkeepers are so much closer to the source.  This is where the growing areas are, the main distributors are based, and where the population is generally more savvy when it comes to tea drinking. 

My friend the wholesaler said that an interest to "learn about tea" is too broad, since its breadth of knowledge is so vast and unending.  He recommended that I first think about what it is that I want to learn about, and then go to the right people to find that knowledge.  Farmers are the best source for knowledge about growing tea, varietals, how weather/soil/environment affect the tea, and the such.  Producers are a good source for understanding how the tea leaves are processed and turned into maocha, the base from which oolongs can roasted and refined.  The roasters/crafters can teach about how to correctly turn the base into the final product that is sold.  Shopkeepers know a lot about the tea jargon, pricing, and have a wider knowledge of different types of teas than producers and roasters because they sell a lot of different things. 

Yes, there are shops that grow, process, roast and sell, but like the old adage, if you do everything, you excel at nothing.  The best people that I was able to learn from chose one area to concentrate on, and let other experts do their part.  If you're lucky enough to travel here and learn about tea, do be specific in what you'd like to learn and from whom.  The Luyu center in Taipei, for example, has an excellent series of classes, some of which are translated into English, that cover tea appreciation, brewing, etc.

19 January 2009

How refined porcelain can enhance your brew

In a past post, I wrote about how my tea friend Daniel of Arts de Chine and I believed that old porcelain brewing vessels did not significantly affect the taste of tea. 

Although I knew that different types of tasting cups would also affect the taste of tea, I didn't know to what extent until I recently tried tea in a custom, hand-made porcelain tasting cup made from Dehua clay.  I am not quite sure why this particular type of clay can enhance the tea, but the clay itself and the shape of the cup do significantly affect and can improve the taste of tea.  I tried several types of astringent oolongs using different cups, and the taste in the Dehua porcelain made the tea rounder, softer and more aromatic.

Dong Ding cups - pricey one on top Dehua cups on top and left - same tea in all 3 cups

These cups aren't cheap, roughly 10 times more expensive than a good-grade of a regular cup, or about 25-30 times more expensive than a mass-produced one you can find at a regular store.  I bought a few from the only proprietor that carries this specific cup, Wistaria Tea in Taipei.  I have been told that there are brewing vessels that can be made with this clay that would further enhance the tea. 

Good tea, good clay, good water, good company...drink good tea and enrich your life.

Good company

I had a great time chatting with Stéphane of the Tea Masters blog over several pots of tea in Taipei. I told him a bit about my travels in the mountains and my tea roasting adventures - more details to follow in later posts - and he shared many delicious pots of tea with me as he told me some stories about his 12.5 year "tea journey" in Taiwan.

                           stephane and me

It's nice to meet up with fellow tea lovers. He's got some really good stuff too, including a wonderful green puerh that will be fantastic and some special old teas that are quite difficult to get your hands on.  You can check out his stuff on his blog, which is on my blogroll to the left.

09 January 2009

My first encounter with real Osmanthus

It smells sweet and so wonderfully fragrant that for a second, I wonder if someone sprayed perfume on the plant.

Osmanthus, otherwise known as Gui Hua, is used for scenting a variety of food and cosmetic products.  It is also used as the fragrance for Gui Hua Oolong, adding its distinctively wonderful perfume.

I saw it up close for the first time when a farmer friend picked me some from his plantings.                 

                        guihua or osmanthus bush

I went to a well-known teahouse in Taipei yesterday called Wang De Chuan and tried their Oolong cake.  It's made with high mountain tea "cream" that is mixed with a light ice cream, accompanied by twigs of light and dark chocolate with real gold flakes sprinkled on top.  A light Osmanthus honey with the flowers from the plant decorates the plate.  Their house-made Osmanthus honey is probably the tastiest one I've ever had.

                              pricey cakes


06 January 2009

An expert's account on this season's Taiwanese teas

3rd place winter 08 TGY 3rd place TGY winner from this season - moderate roast

I was fortunate enough to sit down with a tea merchant for tea yesterday and talk for a few hours about his tea, and Taiwanese oolongs in general.  He confirmed that this season's teas are not as full-bodied as last winter's, but they're still good.  I tried some of his high mountain teas and found them to be of a consistent standard - good enough to buy.

The merchant told me that the problem wasn't too much moisture, but too high of temperature.  I've written before that a tea maker friend that I talked with last month said that this winter was too warm.  The higher temperature causes the tea leaves to grow faster, but doesn't allow them time to "mature" properly.  The merchant told me that most of the Qing Xin varietal of teas are picked at the 60-70 day mark, but that this year, most of them were picked closer to the 50 day mark, thus depriving the leaves of as much as nearly 30% of additional maturation time.  The result is a tea with less body.  The merchant told me that some of the high mountain teas grown in central Taiwan at the highest altitudes received slightly more maturation because the temperatures were a bit cooler than lower-level teas, like Four Seasons and Dong Ding. 

However, a friend that makes Tieguanyin told me that his tea this year is exceptional - good enough to win the 3rd place prize in the most recent judging.  I tried it and found it to be pretty good; light-moderate roasting with a fresh, crisp meadow taste and distinctive notes of fruit and smoke.  A strong and clear hui gan and a full-mouth fragrance that extends into my head.  Slightly astringent - it would be even better with a bit more roasting, but that's not the trend for any of Taiwan's award-winning teas.  I also tried a sample of an award-winning Anxi Tieguanyin from this season and it is REALLY green, like a green tea, but the tea base itself is strong.  If the producer had chosen to oxidize it more in order to do a moderate roast, this tea would turn out to be excellent.