29 January 2010

How many times does that Bush get picked?

“How many seasons are there for oolong?”

I came across this question a while back in an article that was intended to help tea buyers better understand the products for purchase.  My guess is that the author has a specific number in mind.  The honest answer is that it depends.

Dong Ding, for example, has two prime seasons – spring and winter.  However, there are often 5 harvests – 1 for each season, twice in the summer.  Further, there may be an additional picking after the main winter picking, called Dong Pian, for a total of 6.  Why might one not know about the non-main harvests?  It’s often mixed in with main harvest teas, or can be used to produce other types of teas as well.

Oriental Beauty, on the other hand, has only 1 official harvest that is used for production of that tea, around late May – June.  There may be multiple pickings during the main harvest, though.

However, each farmer works differently.  Some may harvest year round, and some may only harvest twice a year for production (and either leave tea to grow on the bush or pick and discard the other seasons…).

25 January 2010

You have permission - buy it based on its looks

Many tea lovers also appreciate beautiful teaware and antiques.  At many tea stores, you'll find a selection of unique and/or antique teawares for collectors.

Sophie of Wistaria in Taipei is a collector and admirer of the arts.  She also has quite an eye for antique pieces.  There are many such teaware pieces at the teahouse.

"How do you know a piece is real?  What are the signs, say, for this cup that tell you its an antique?"

I was holding in my hand a thick celadon cup that was likely from the late 1800s, one of the many types of tea cups that are sold in the shop.

"I don't know for sure.  I tell customers to buy what they like.  No one can guarantee the age of an antique.  The prices are based upon our belief of the age of the piece, the beauty and the rarity.  If a customer ever buys an antique item from us and decides later that they think it's not really old, they are free to return it."  Sophie's answer is direct and honest.  You can't know with absolute certainty, and the fakes are getting so good.  The factories can take bits of authentic antiques, mash them up, and put them in commonly-checked spots of a replica piece - such as the bottom of the cup.

"Many of the big auction houses have sold many, many fake items without knowing it.  They only continue to do so because so many people don't know better."  Zhou Yu agreed that antiques should be viewed as an object of personal desire.  Whether new or old, its biggest value is in personal enjoyment.

They opened up their antique cabinet and pulled out a stack of cups, eggshell Dehua porcelain that are likely from the early 1900s.  Mr. Zhou put one on the table, rinsed it with hot water, and then filled it with tea.  He pushed the cup in front of me for a sip.

"This is thin and beautiful.  I know such a piece takes the work of a skilled artist."  My ceramics classes were helping me to better understand and appreciate teaware.  To be able to shape clay into such a level of thinness is a master-level skill.  I admired the beauty of the piece, but it didn't make the tea taste better.  For me, the greatest value of antique pieces is neither its beauty nor its rarity, but its ability to improve the taste of my brews.

"So you don't like it more than the other cups you have?"  Mr. Zhou and Sophie watched as I took another sip from the cup.  It was Dehua pottery from way back when Dehua still had lots of good clay.  Nowadays, there are more fakes and the industrialized process can produce lower-quality pieces.  I still prefer my oval-shaped Dehua cup to any other piece I own, and that was made in 2008.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

13 January 2010

The eroding landscape of high mountain teas

"The more fake a tea is, the more fragrant and delicious it can be.  The more fake a tea is, the more it can sell, and for a high price.  This is the world of tea that we live in." 

My Dong Ding teacher's viewpoint on the eroding landscape of tea is reflected in what happened to Alishan late last year, when typhoons destroyed 1/2 to 2/3 of the winter crop.  It is natural that higher demand results in increased production and/or increased prices.  The demand for premium Taiwan high mountain oolong is insatiable, made even more so by its rapidly growing popularity in China that's fueled by deep-pocketed tea enthusiasts. 

Alishan has been so heavily farmed and terraced for tea that its soil is increasingly unstable.  Trees on mountains grow deep roots that anchor the soil.  Remove the forests and grow shallow-rooted plants and there is no stability in the landscape.  I've seen it everywhere; on Fenghuang mountain, Shanlinxi, Longfengxia, and Dalun mountain.  Beautiful tea terraces that encircle entire mountainsides.  Where is the excess moisture to go?  It's no wonder heavy rains can wash away entire sides of a mountain.

I met some old tea farmers in Taipei as I was having tea with the Younger one day.  The farmers said that tea needs space to breathe.  It needs the natural landscape to balance its environment.  It needs to be trimmed and hacked every once in a while so that it can fight to grow back.  Sometimes a bush must forego the harvest for a few seasons to produce good leaves again.  Trees, fruit bushes and other types of vegetation add to the unique characteristics of tea.  Plants thrive, they think, when their natural environment is left as pure and natural as can be.

05 January 2010

The Dude’s Good Dirt

The Dude rolls out of bed at dawn.  He boils water to fill a pot of tea that he’s already brewed from for a few days; farmers don’t tend to waste anything.  His wife’s been awake for nearly an hour and has made a simple breakfast of rice porridge and leftover chicken that is hearty and sustaining.  She sets a serving in front of The Dude, grabs her sweatshirt and paddy hat off of the stool in the corner, and sets off to join the rest of the tea pickers in the field as they prepare for the morning harvest.

Meanwhile, The Dude finishes his meal and picks his teeth clean with his pinky nail.  He meanders over to the courtyard where the tea pickers will offload their baskets of leaves and begins to sweep the cement floor with a straw broom, shooing away the dogs that lay there.  A blue tarp is unfolded and placed in a corner of the courtyard, upon which leaves will later rest.

tea tarp

After a morning of picking, the workers gather for an early lunch.  A pot of rice and some veggies & meat complete another hearty meal.  Bones – even chicken bones – are thrown at the dogs that pace around, still eying their previous sleeping spots that are now covered with leaves.  One dog scampers across the courtyard, running over the tea as he hurries to catch a food scrap. 

After the tea is dried outside, it’s placed on racks inside to continue to oxidize/wither.  Other batches of tea, some being made into cold brew or lightly-oxidized fragrant tea, are in various stages of being processed.  A big, metal, cement-mixer like machine heats the leaves to 140 degrees+ celcius as it rolls around, its function to halt the oxidation of the leaves.  A very green and raw scent lingers thickly in the air. 

cement mixer

We test the tea that comes out of the cement mixer, just for fun. The Dude grabs a wet porcelain bowl and puts in a big pinch of steaming-hot tea leaves.  The bowl is black wherever he touches it – extra flavoring from the broom dust/lunch/bug squashing….  The aroma is floral & fresh, the taste is raw & vegetal.  I smile at The Dude and drink without hesitation – it’s good dirt in there, I tell myself.

converyor belt machine

We dump out the leaves from the oxidation-stopping machine and haul it over to a belt-driven drying machine, whose function is to remove the bulk of the moisture from the leaves.  We dump the leaves into the top of it and wait as it dries the leaves and moves them out via a belt at the bottom of the machine. 

bottom of machine

The Dude reaches down and grabs a handful of hot, dry leaves that have accumulated in a pan.  He fills a small bag and tells me to take it home to drink later.  “Freeze it and brew it while still frozen – it’s very refreshing,” he instructs me before adding, “do you think it smells kind of like Marijuana?”  Grateful, I take the bag from him whilst unable to stop staring at his hands, which show all the signs and by-products of the day’s labor.  I’m surprised by his comment and can only muster a lame and nervous response of, “The tea smells good.  Heh heh.”  He carries on with ball-rolling the tea for later roasting.

I always rinse my tea leaves and offer up that first brew to the dirt from which it came.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.