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.