26 April 2009

The Hidden Roasting Method - Part 2 - Initial Experiences

I've only used my Aroma-brand rice cooker for rice cooker roasting/freshening.  My first experiment was with a Shanlinxi high mountain oolong that a friend gave me in early 2008.  It was a premium-grade product  and I had a bit more than a 1/2 pound of it.  Excitedly, I opened the gift, only to find that the bag it came in had off-gassed into the tea, creating a plasticky odor.  I brewed the tea several times and it tasted really off.

Having nothing to lose, I put the entire bag into my cooker and added a bit of water under the lid to create some steam.  I figured that the steam would help the tea to release its odor.  Adding water directly to the tea would have, in my opinion at that time, created too much direct moisture in inconsistent spots.

The result was simply marvelous.  That is how I first got addicted to using my rice cooker to freshen all of my good but old teas.  There are, however, important shortcomings with the roaster that I'll mention in later posts.

One of the big and important differences between roasting with rice cooker and a roasting machine is that a rice cooker is meant to cook by enclosed heat.  Once the contents to be cooked are placed within the unit, it's sealed up and no air circulates.  A tea roaster is made so that air can easily circulate within the unit.  Roasting machines continuously circulate air.  The circulation of air is vitally important, as it not only carries away improper odors in the tea (Zawei), but the oxygen assists in creating the proper smell of the tea.  Too much air, though, is not a good thing either, nor is exposure to air with strong odors (like perfume, foods, etc).  I once used my rice cooker to work on a tea while a friend cooked lamb meat with a lot of garlic and onions and you can imagine what my tea tasted and smelled like.  I imagine that a convection oven would be even better for roasting tea than a rice cooker, but I've yet to try. 

Since I've started to warm the teas with the lid partially open (via a chopstick that keeps the lid from closing), I believe that my results have improved.  Additionally, whether with a professional roaster or a rice cooker, there is no exact recipe to follow.  Tea changes every season and throughout the season, so knowing when a tea is "ready" is a matter of experience and personal preference.  I have yet to be able to exactly reproduce two batches of the same tea.  My masters have said that this is not possible to make teas that are exactly the same unless the exact same tea was roasted in identical conditions at the same time.  Vary the time by even a few days and the result will not be the same - but generally close enough.

How do you know if a tea you've been working on is ready?  Brew it, then smell and drink it to see if it's the right flavor.  How do you know if it's the right flavor?  Remember what the flavor and smell is of the tea that you like.  In my roasting experience, I've created some surprisingly good products that were actually mistakes.  Take it easy and play around with the tea.  Take a black tea and add different extracts to it.  There's a lot of fun to be had through experimentation

In part III of the series, I'll give a quick rundown of some of the important lessons I've learned from my experiments.

18 April 2009

30 Infusions with ONE pot of Tea?!?

Yes, and possibly more!

A producer was talking about one of the teas that he made, which he said was especially hardy and could keep brewing.  When I asked him how many brews, he said at least 30.

I thought I had heard wrong.  Thirty in Chinese can sound like "three or four," and I said to him that 3 or 4 infusions wasn't that much, to which he replied, "You didn't hear wrong the first time, I said 30."

This method is primarily for oolongs that have a fair amount of oxidization and more than a light roast, so many high mountain teas, Baozhong, and light Tieguanyin may not be the most suitable candidates.

Maybe you can't get to 30 pots with your tea, but you may be able to get quite a bit more than what you've gotten in the past.

What you'll need:

-tea pot

-tea tweezers

-tea boat/bowl

-clean plate

Put in between 5-8 grams of tea into your pot, pour in boiling water, and brew the tea.  We stayed in the 30-60 second range for our infusions.  Some of you may have read that teas are brewed using only 3 grams, so doubling or tripling the amount is what causes the yield to grow.  When I do Chaozhou style gongfu tea, I use 10+ grams to give it the full body and depth.

After 6-8 infusions, you will experience flavor loss.  Take your tweezers and stick in inside the pot.  Your objective here is to move the leaves around.  Try to move them from one side of the pot to the other, and try to mix them around as you move along the entire interior of the pot.  Once you're done, begin brewing again.

After several more infusions, you may feel that finally, the tea is done and needs to be tossed.  Don't give up!  Take a clean plate and dump out all of your leaves onto it.  Then take your tweezers and fill the pot again with the leaves; really pack it in.  Then start brewing again.  At this stage, I still got many more infusions.  Naturally, they didn't have the complete body and flavor that the initial brews had, but these infusions still had the tea's essence and flavor notes.

I tried this on several types of teas and found that it works better with teas that have more oxidization and more roasting.  Wuyi cliff teas work well with this method.  This also works for a gaiwan, but for me, not as well as with the pot.

13 April 2009

The Hidden Roasting Method - Part 1 - The Equipment

First, the equipment.  There are many types of rice cookers on the market, some of which are very fancy and can cook an entire meal at once.  My rice cooker is a simple one with two buttons:  cook and warm/off.  I bought it at Costco 3 years ago for about $40, putting it in the budget category.  However, it's simple to operate and has a non-stick interior surface.  This type of rice cooker is the most common type currently being used.  A small heating element at the bottom of the cooker engages with the metal container holding the rice and water, heating the container and cooking the rice.

               rice cooker  My Aroma brand cooker

The other major type of rice cooker, one that has a cult following, is the Taiwanese Datong/Tatung brand.  The type of rice cooker that most people associate with this brand is one in which there is a small, removable, metal container inside of the rice cooker that is quite a bit smaller than the cooker.  Rice is placed inside of this small container, which is in turn placed inside the cooker.  Water is added not into the container, but into the space between the rice cooker's interior walls and the container.  The heating element at the bottom of the cooker heats the water and the rice is cooked by the steam that is generated.  Below is my lovely, artistic rendition of the process:

       taitung style cooker - complete

Fans believe that the Tatung steam cookers make rice that is fluffier and have a better texture than through induction-heat cookers.  I will say that when my Costco-bought rice cooker makes rice, the top layer is dry because it's without water as the rest of the rice cooks, while the bottom layer is more moist because it's been in contact with water the longest. 

Alternatively, the problem with the Tatung cookers is that the rice at the bottom of the container gets too hot and sticks to the bottom, often turning brown.  Many people do not mind this; my friends' dad likes to pick it out and eat it like a wafer.  With Korean stone pot rice at restaurants, the waitress will bring tea for you when you've finished your rice so that you can mix it with the hard rice that is stuck to the bottom, turning it into a light rice soup.  In Cantonese claypot rice dishes, the crunchy, stuck-on rice at the bottom of the bowl has a texture that many people love.

                   taitung   Tatung-brand rice cooker

In Part 2, which will probably not be the next post, I'll talk about some of my initial experiences with rice cooker tea roasting.  Look for it!

The Hidden Roasting Method - Using a Rice Cooker

I first heard about this method several years ago and thought it was a joke.  Shiuwen of Floating Leaves said that she had heard of people using rice cookers to roast tea in places where they didn't have access to professional roasters.  After some consideration, I thought that it could totally work. 

A rice cooker has a fairly high internal temperature, can accommodate variable amounts of tea, and its non-stick surface would prevent the tea from burning too easily.  In addition, the warm setting of most rice cookers would be in the approximate temperature range for removing the moisture from a stale oolong and to bring out flavor (I'll call this process re-freshening or re-firing, instead of re-roasting).

In Part 1 of this series, I'll show some of the differences between rice cookers; an explanation of the equipment used.  A future Part 2 post will talk about some of my experiences with using this technique.

In the spirit of finding new ways to enjoy tea in its many wonderful aspects, I hope that tea lovers everywhere will continue to experiment.  Just for fun, I've even put juice/nectar into the rice cooker with some tea to see what kind of flavored teas I could create.  This Hidden Roasting Method will be a series of articles where I'll publish my notes and experiences from the rice cooker roasting process.  Try my techniques or let me know about ones that you've created.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

01 April 2009

Sorry, I didn't this Morning...

100   year old dong ding bush1  100+ year old Dong Ding tea bush

My Dong Ding teacher's wife is an expert roaster herself.  Her method of roasting is completely different than most other tea makers.  It's an advanced-level technique that requires even more precision in temperature adjustment than usual forms of tea roasting, and more robust maocha in order to make good tea.  A poor tea base roasted using her method would result in a tea with some foul flavors.

"I will teach you if you want to learn. But if you want to learn my style, you must unlearn the other styles of roasting - they are wrong."

I once again found myself transported into a Kung Fu movie.  The dialogue - I imagine - would go something like: "Young man, I will teach you my Kung Fu.  It is better than their Kung Fu.  Climb up the mountain without a rope and chop down all of the trees with your bare hands.  Then wrestle a gorilla.  If you succeed, I will teach you.  You will be invincible."

Maybe I won't be invincible, but under the guidance of my masters, my tea will be tasty.  Each style of roasting has its own merits and is suitable for different types of tea.  Some need low to high temperature, some may benefit from high to low, and yet other teas may be best after fluctuating temperatures.  Or a tea may just need to sit for a while and be roasted again.  It's in the roasting process that the master crafters can most distinguish their product, oftentimes creating a signature taste.

I tried the master's wife's tea.  It is definitely good and demonstrates mastery of the art of the roast.

"My tea is good; the famous merchants still buy from me," she commented to me casually.

"Yes," I said, "this tea is exactly what I expected from you.  But this is not my tea cup."

She looked at me with furrowed brows. "I already washed the cups and they are all the same."

"My dear lady, my hearing is not perfect, but my sense of smell is very good.  I can smell the saliva on this cup's lip - it's not mine."

She grabbed my cup and inspected it closely, just about rubbing it into her nose.

"I'm sorry, maybe somebody didn't brush their teeth this morning."  The old masters aren't as troubled by a bit of dirt or a lack of perfect hygiene like us anal city folk.

"No need to apologize." I hurriedly thought of a line to help her save face. "I appreciate the extra flavor and qi from an old master."

                            palm and mei hua 1

She smiled and poured the rest of the tea into a thermos for me to take with me on my hike.  It was the best bottled tea that I've ever had.

Still drinking good tea and enriching my life.