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.

21 June 2009

Wild Goose Chasing for Old Tea

Cool people abound in the tea world.  Sit down at a teahouse and it's not hard to meet someone that shares your passion for the brew. 

But lately, I've been recalling some of the crazies in the tea world too, the same type of crazies that exist anywhere else.  And the liars, the cheaters, and scoundrels that I have come across. 

It's story time again.

In the tea mountains close to Taichung, I was introduced to a man that billed himself as being the one of the biggest tea distributors in the area.  He made so much money that he built tea warehouses, a new guesthouse, bought more tea fields, new homes....

As the only guest of his new guesthouse, he obliged one evening to teach me "about tea."  If it weren't for the fact that the friend that introduced us was a local tea celebrity, I probably wouldn't have gotten any face time at all.  He brewed me some Lishan high mountain tea and made a comment that Dayuling is overpriced, but he had better stuff that was cheaper.  Nodding to him with feigned amazement, I wondered why his Lishan had no high mountain qi.  The voice of my Dong Ding master started echoing in my head; "You can't trust anyone in the tea business, they're all liars."

When we finished drinking a few cups at his tea table, he took me into the back room where he was working on roasting teas. The room was an outgrowth of the house. It had clean, concrete floors and unpainted white drywall - roughly 8' x 8' in size.  In it was a large bamboo basket tea roaster, big enough to roast about 12-15 pounds at a time, and a few sacks of oolong.  He went through some motions to show me how they do the re-firings in the room, then brought me into another roasting area where he had machinery to do actual roasting and oxidation.  Cool stuff, but I wondered what kind of tea he was making.  He showed me bags upon bags of oolong and some green tea as well. 

"I do big business.  Each of these bags contains about 30 jin of tea."  It seemed like he wanted me to know how important he was, and possibly what a waste of time it was for him to be entertaining me.  "There's just so much to learn," he said to me in passing as we sipped tea at his table again, "I have been doing this a long time, and generations before me, too.  That's why our tea is so good - we have experience."  "So know that when you buy tea from me, it's all the real stuff.  That's why I'm #1, because people know and trust me."

Or maybe they just don't know better.  As is true in any business or endeavor, the most famous and/or most profitable company/individual may not be "the best."  In fact, they likely are not.  They just may be the best at making money or at marketing themselves.  Many famous people and institutions in the finance industry have made tons of money over the past several years, only to be revealed lately to have engaged in some very shady, dishonest and fraudulent activity.

I still couldn't tell exactly what kind of tea I was drinking.  He told me it was Dong Ding, but it had poor tea base, too much fire, and deep vegetal notes that were unbalanced.  It tasted both raw and overcooked at the same time. 

Not wanting to leave empty-handed, I bought two bags of aged oolong from him.  I had been on a quest to find aged tea anyway, and figured that if I was going to buy anything, might as well be that.  My master later chided me for wasting money.  "I know his father," my teacher chortled, "there are no more honest people left in this business, remember that."  That was my teacher's way of saying this guy's tea sucked.  I hadn't tried it yet so I wasn't sure, and my teacher has a policy of not trying other people's teas.  The tasting would have to wait.

I brought the teas back to Taipei for the Elder to taste with me.  We opened the bag and immediately noticed that it looked like charcoal.  The tea balls glimmered in the light - glossy like the side of a painted teapot.

"This is tea?  Hmm...."  The Elder has been in the tea business for ages and he knows more about it than most.  Although I don't always agree with his tastes, his knowledge is indeed vast and he could tell just by looking and crushing the tea in his hands that it was junk.  It's no wonder he thinks I'm always being cheated, most everything I ever bring for him to try is suspect.  Good tea I know is good, no need to verify.  Everything else I enjoy discussing with him in detail.

We brewed it and found that it was not aged tea at all.  It was a few seasons old that had been roasted so that the taste would resemble something that had some characteristics of age to it.  After many infusions, the oolong balls failed to open, staying rigid and tasting burnt and smoky.

"Your teacher is right, there are a lot of liars in the tea world.  This is not good tea, it's been roasted to death to mimic aged tea." 

"I didn't think I would get good tea off of that maker," I told the Elder,"but I had to buy something from him and thought it worth a gamble.  He was cheesy looking too, and could only talk about how famous he is.  Do you know him?"

I handed the Elder the other wholesaler's card.

"No.  There are so many wannabes in the tea business, maybe he's big, but anyone who sells this kind of junk cannot be good.  Hmm...." 

The Younger walked in carrying a few bags.  He eyed me curiously, suspicious of the "delightful surprises" that I may have brought for them this day. 

"No need to try, it's the usual junkie tea.  So hard to find good, aged oolong."  I began to realize that it's a fool's errand to try to find the really, really good stuff at a reasonable price.  You'll waste a lot of time, energy and money doing it.  As my master said, better just to find someone you trust that sells good stuff, and buy it from them.  The goal is to drink good tea, not to go on a wild goose chase.

"HA!  You think good tea is so easy to find?  Aged tea - most of it is fake.  Do you really think that the best tea makers just have giant sacks of good aged tea in storage, ready to sell to you 20 or 30 years after they make it?  NO WAY!  They are mostly leftovers of teas that didn't sell out.  The best producers sell out their teas every season."

I do know some producers that keep tea around from a particularly good season to age, but the quantity is usually small.  The quest to find really good, aged teas is not easy.  For every good one I find, I have several more samples of poor quality or fake ones.  But most people just wouldn't know the difference, and that's what the merchants are counting on. 

It makes sense to me that at the retail level, there is a big markup on good, old teas.  The effort and skill it takes to find them and to bring them back for sharing are beyond the scope of non-professionals.  The problem is, even many tea vendors here and abroad do not have the old, good stuff.  But it doesn't mean they won't try to sell you something like that.

Which is a story for another time.  Drink good tea and enrich your life.


19 June 2009

Tea Cup Competition - Smooth Vs Bold

After a week of using my new, wood-fired gaiwan, I have gotten used to the particulars that it requires to brew better tea.  Water temperature that is a tad lower than I usually use, a slightly longer brewing time, and unlike my basic gaiwan, this one prefers to have the lid kept closed between brewings.  The result is tea that tastes more "alive;" the fragrance alone lingers on the lid for over 15 minutes, which is about 13 minutes longer than with my other gaiwan.

Having definitively decided that this is the better brewing vessel, I had to choose a suitable cup to match.


The candidates above, from L to R, are:  Qing-dynasty wood-fired cup; modern hand-made Dehua oval cup (Blanc de Chine porcelain); modern hand-made Dehua round cup, and a regular, nothing-special porcelain tasting cup.  The test brew:  Winter 2008 Dong Ding.

After the rinse and the first two pours, it was evident that the normal tasting cup - the standard - showed unremarkable improvements to the taste of the tea.  It felt like the cup was preventing the subtle flavors and aromas of the tea from showing up.  The round Dehua cup (my daily drinking cup) had fragrance that lingered within it for several minutes.  Improvement to the taste of the tea was marginal in comparison to the oval Dehua cup and the Qing cup, so it, along with the standard, were removed from the competition.

          IMG_4948 IMG_4947

The semi-finals:  Aged vs Modern beauty.  Pour after pour, the Qing cup gave the tea bold and strong flavors.  It highlighted the tea's thick, fruity taste without making it overbearing.  This cup captured the essence of the Dong Ding and clearly demonstrates it to its user.

The oval Dehua cup I know very well.  It makes tea soft and gentle.  It gives balance to my brews, providing a smooth surface that each drop wants to cling to, as if reluctant to depart from it.  It makes the Dong Ding taste silky and refined, taking the edge off of the slightly-astringent bite of bitterness that comes from the brewed stems.  I spent 3 hours at Wistaria trying cups, as Zhou Yu and his wife sat by me working (with an occasional grin as they found my experiments to be borderline obsessive).  Because of its ability to balance tea, I only use it on good teas that I've already bought - it gives too many benefits to teas during a tasting.

Drinking a sip from each cup, one after the other, is revealing.  Qing first followed by oval Dehua results in a smooth liquid with a slightly off taste, as if the liquid is not reaching the correct tastebuds.  The other way around results in astringent tea that is slightly bitter - too much flavor. 

I brewed two other teas - a Winter 07 Dong Ding and a 94 Tieguanyin.  For the moderate-roast but high-fire Tieguanyin, the Qing cup made the flavors pop out.  Overwhelmingly fruity and deep, with the richness of charcoal fire.  However, it was too much flavor for my enjoyment; the Hui Gan did not appear until several infusions later.  The Dehua cup made the Tieguanyin soft.  Purists might not like it this way, as TGY is a favorite for the espresso-like brews of the Chaozhou Gongfu method, aimed at bringing out the deep richness of the tea.  But I want to taste the spectrum of the tea's flavors and scents. 

I prefer smoothness, but can see instances where the Qing cup could better highlight the tastes of teas that I don't know well.  I think it would do particularly well with Wuyi cliff teas.


The winning combo for me - wood-fired gaiwan, Celadon Dehua pouring pitcher and Oval Dehua cup.  Balanced flavors that reveal different taste sensations from the beginning of your first slurp, to the time you swallow, and then when the aftertastes return in the Hui Gan and Hui Wei.  With a bit of good tea residue, the pitcher will retain its fragrance overnight. 

My Dehua teaware is from Wistaria (Zi Teng Lu) in Taipei.  Unfortunately, they don't currently ship orders like this overseas, so you've gotta find a friend to help.  These Dehua cups are about $15-$25 each.  The celadon pitcher, if I recall correctly, is about $50.  The Gaiwan is from Arts de Chine in Vancouver, BC and was about $56 CDN.  The Qing cup was about $27 CDN.

08 June 2009

Tasting from Wood-fired Porcelain

                  -more tea with Daniel of Arts De Chine-

I like to visit Vancouver once in a while, it's a beautiful city.  Daniel's shop is my favorite place to get teaware, as I find him to be knowledgeable, honest, and to have good prices.

I went to him needing good porcelain.  My Dehua cups and pitcher that I bought in Taiwan earlier this year showed me that the clay - whether in porcelain, earthenware or Yixing-style pots - could significantly enhance my tea.

I showed him my Blanc de Chine cups made from Dehua clay.  Daniel admitted that he's not particularly sensitive when differentiating the tastes between different types of porcelain, but Peter- another tea friend that had joined us that day - said that he could not only taste, but smell, the differences between a normal cup and my Dehua ones.  He said that given the quality and the flavor balancing, the pricing of my pieces was good.

This got us talking about porosity of teawares again.  Daniel added that it's not just porosity, but also the physical attributes that contribute to the enjoyment of each cup.  A smooth finish with a nice cupped edge may be more pleasing to people than a rough, thick cup made of dull and unshapely clay.  The way a cup's shape retains heat or more-quickly cools a brew, or how it is shaped to trap or release fragrance, also change our tea-drinking experiences.  His comments are definitely true about the tea-drinking experience, but what I was looking for was more discussion on how, in a qualitative way, the properties of a vessel would improve the actual taste and smell of a brew.  I told Daniel that I didn't care if my gaiwan was ugly and misshapen as long as it made better tea than what I currently had (and that it's within my budget, of course).

Except for my celadon teaware, I gravitate towards whatever makes my tea taste smoother and more refine.  Daniel said that kilns that are wood-fired, versus gas and electric-fired, produce teaware that many find to be superior.  One reason may be that the gradual heating up and cooling down of the kiln takes more time and allows the porcelain to transform more completely.  In nerd speak, if we were to graph kiln temperature as a function of time, we'd see that wood-fired kilns would be more of a bell-shaped curve, and gas and electric-fired ones would be more of a v-shaped curve.

I got a basic, contemporary gaiwan that is a reproduction of a Qing-dynasty design.  It is not particularly impressive to me except for the fact that its wood-fired nature is supposed to provide me with better results.  I'll get into the experiments later, but I'll tell you that it is indeed superior to my daily-use gaiwans.  For significantly more (but still a bargain for what it is), Daniel has an actual mid-Qing period gaiwan that is the style, size and shape that I'm looking for.  I know that piece will be far superior to all of my current gaiwans, but that purchase will be for another time.



02 June 2009

Tea Tuition

The Elder told a friend of mine recently that he was afraid that I was getting ripped off on some of my tea buying trips.  He was concerned that I was paying way more for tea than it was worth.  Granted, we often have different tastes, but he knows pricing better than anyone.

My reasoning to him has always been quite simple:  tuition fees.  I learn a lot from many of the people whom I buy tea from.  Their pricing may be a bit more, but I am confident that their products are locally-made with top-quality ingredients and good labor, and they are generous with how they educate me.  It's not out of stupidity or naivete that I pay a premium sometimes, it's my way of repaying some of my teachers for allowing me to spend days or weeks learning from them.

One thing that I firmly believe in is showing gratitude to the people that teach me or share with me - regardless of what I think of their product.  If I spend a considerable amount of time at a tea store, I never leave without making a purchase; I have a lot of tea strainers and jars that make great gifts. 

dans les mains humides de HK #16

Teahouses don't generally make a ton of money. They serve you samples hoping that you'll like something enough to buy some.  Every teahouse has stories of the usual freeloaders that may buy something for every 10 times they stop by for a free cup and conversation.  Please tell your friends to support their favorite tea spots with some business; freeloaders aren't so good for that.