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).