31 December 2011

30% or more tea, NO additional cost, ACT NOW!!

Tough economic times have dramatically increased people’s interest in squeezing more out of what they already have.  Use less toothpaste/soap/detergent, lower the thermostat, drink milk past its sell by date….

Get more brews from your tea.  Increase your yield 30%, 50%, 100% or more?  It can be done!

A few years ago, my Dong Ding teacher taught me to triple the number of brews from my tea.  As tea infuses in a pot or gaiwan, it expands, but the bottommost layer has less room to expand, so it releases its flavor relatively slower.

tea pile

(Pulled straight out of my gaiwan after 9 infusions, the bottom is still more compressed than the top – I’ve got at least 5 more decent brews here)

The trick is not to just pull the brewed leaves out, flip it upside down and stick it back in your pot/gaiwan.  You should take it out, loosen it up, spread it, then stuff it back in.  Full instructions are linked to HERE.

You may have seen some tea retailers or servers use a gaiwan lid to push the steeping leaves around, as if that would help to squeeze more flavor out.  I don’t think this lid-play does anything to add extra infusions.  I’ve watched the tea masters do this so they can see the color of the brew, as an indicator to the “readiness” of the tea.

The dump-out, re-fill method that I’ve outlined seems to yield more infusions for me when I use a pot than when I use a gaiwan.  It works best with rolled oolong and not so well with green tea; moderately-well for pu’er. 

Drink good tea, get more brews, enrich your life for less!  Happy New Year!!

25 December 2011

A near-empty tea packet brings back unexpectedly pleasant memories

I finally finished a full inventory of my tea last week.  The result?  Not enough!  It’s been a couple of winters since I’ve been to Asia, so I definitely need to re-stock on my next trip.

Although I have written about a few of the more well-known tea retailers that I’ve visited, there are many more that I have yet to mention.  Hole in the wall places, previously well-known tea makers, beautiful teahouses - the variety is astounding.  I endeavor to visit new places on each of my trips and I make sure to always learn something from each retailer that I go to, and to pay them tuition by way of a purchase.  My inventory includes hundreds of samples from dozens of shops.  Most of them have a memorable back-story, some of which I recount with great pleasure.


The Central district is the financial and nightlife center of Hong Kong, its “Downtown.”  About 10 years ago, my friends and I would frequent the awesome-value joints there (not common, considering some of the hottest & priciest joints are there).  We’d “treat” ourselves to such delights as a sizzling hot plate steak meal, complete with soup, veggies, rice, a cold drink and dessert, all for $5.  Bellies full, we’d waddle a few blocks up the way to the drinking district and get $.70 happy hour beers, after which, we’d stumble over to some late-night joint for a snack.  Good times.

Years after, I still visit Central every time I’m in Hong Kong, and as my love of tea has deepened, so too has that area become more interesting.  The adjacent districts of Sheung Wan and Western to the west, for example, still have several old tea stores, while some of the snazzier teahouses can be found in the Admiralty and Causeway Bay districts to the east.

The delightful nature of serendipity has guided me to cherished memories time and again, bringing me to the doorway of a none-too-special shopping arcade several years ago.  On my way back to Central from my friend’s place, a sudden and unexpectedly heavy rain shower - common in sub-tropical climates - led me to seek shelter in the foyer of this non-descript building.  As I reached behind me to grab a tissue out of my pack, a sign on the wall pointed up.  On it was a stylized teapot with a clever pun on the word for “bottle,” alluding to a tea vessel.  A warm room and a cup of tea would be excellent for a stupid me that was too thoughtless to carry an umbrella during the rainy season. 

Following the sign, I came upon upon a small store and walked inside.  Tables and shelves were stacked with all manner of teapot.  Many had detailed info placards like the collector sets that my dad had bought in Beijing, but most others just had a simple price label.  Some of the pots were very expensive, and they just sat there on tables and shelves of varying heights, open to being touched and admired.  I dared not touch anything out of fear of breaking something that could cost anywhere between $50 to $7,000+.  I had never seen so many different types of teapots in one place before, the diversity of colors, shapes, textures and sizes was extraordinary. 

The proprietor sat near the entrance of the store with a friend (who turned out to be his “student”), examining a few pots and drinking tea.  Transfixed by the wonders before me, his call brought me back to the present.  “Do you like drinking tea?” he asked.  His student looked up and smiled.  “Come join us, we are having a Tie Guan Yin.”

Just my luck, my favorite tea.  I walked over, looked into the cup before me and saw an amber-colored brew.  “Thanks so much, traditional Guan Yin, just my type.”  I took a sip and found much comfort in the warm brew.  “I am very impressed, you have so many teapots, I never knew of such a store as yours.” 

The owner chuckled with amusement.  A long-time collector of pots, he admitted that he was no tea expert, more of a teapot “geek.”  He found it amusing that a foreign-born Chinese person like me was fond of tea, no less particularly fond of traditional-style Guan Yin.  He mentioned that he sold mediocre tea best suited for everyday drinking and for seasoning teapots with.  He explained that he had pots to suit all six types of tea and that his most expensive pots were priced because of their craftsmanship, history or aesthetics, not necessarily because of their functionality.  I recall that we chatted about his home village, his interest in tea culture and his favorite teas.  His student taught me a few things about the sound of teapots and basic differences in the clays, and we had a nice time drinking some of his brews.  He invited me to return again later in the week, promising to bring an aged tea from home to share with me.  I offered to buy a small bag of oolong from him, but he gave me a sample of it instead and told me to save my money for tea that was more suitable for my tastes.  What a kind man and kindred spirit, I remember thinking.

As I was leaving, I wanted to ask him why his signs weren’t bigger as to attract more customers, but he didn’t seem like the type to really need the sales.  Neither was the store well-suited for foot traffic from window-shopper types.  I don’t know why I didn’t end up visiting that store again, although I did leave Hong Kong less than 48 hours after and I probably just ran out of time.  I remember thinking to myself that he had a great thing going, to be able to share his passion with like-minded collectors without the financial pressures that face most retailers.  Even now, the recollection of the shop and its owner bring me joyful sentiments.

Who knows if my presumed background of this unique storefront and its owner is accurate, but as I held the foil sample bag last week, I couldn’t help but to wonder when I would have my own little space to share my trinkets with that that fate brings my way.

If not for the small sample bag that I uncovered, this experience may have remained a pleasant but dormant one left in the heap of my brain’s “to sort before I die” memories.  Now, it’s been moved to the stack of “found treasure” experiences, with a part 2 that I hope to add in the not-too-distant future.  Maybe he’ll even have a little chunk of nice pu’er in his shop when I visit!

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

30 November 2011

Over-roasted tea may not improve with age

When an oolong has been over-roasted, time and patience are necessary for it to have a chance to recover.  Weeks or years may pass before the fire subsides and one can taste the tea base again, but all too often, the fire remains long after the roast.  Some of the aged oolongs that one may come across were once over-roasted teas that have been set aside to rest and recover over the years; they’re sometimes forgotten about.  Some of these teas have been roasted to death and the tea will never recover.

Those searching for a pleasant aged oolong should recognize the difference between an aged tea with potential and one that has been roasted to death.  Irrecoverable over-roasted teas are especially shiny, have a particular taste that can seem nutty/smoky/caramel-like, and fail to open when brewed.  There are several retail and online shops that pass such tea off as premium, aged tea (with the lofty prices to match), but don’t fall for it!

A simple way to understand the differences is through some experimenting.  Ten to 20 grams of a hardy, well-oxidized oolong like a traditional TGY or Wuyi oolong would work nicely.  If you have a mini-roaster, set it to 90+ degrees and intentionally over-roast the tea over several hours until it smells like it may be burnt.  If using an oven, set it to over 200 degrees.  Loosely wrap the tea in foil and leave it in the oven for at least several hours.  This is not enough roasting to kill the tea, but it will be enough for you to taste significant changes to the tea.  You can try it shortly after and note how different the base of the tea is from the pre-roasted version.  Better yet, wait several days or several weeks for the roast to subside and taste the tea again to see what’s changed. 

As usual, buy small quantities to sample before making a bigger purchase.  You may end up with little baggies of junk this way, but that’s way better than big bags of crap!

26 October 2011

Oxidation Levels and Flavor Profiles

The process for making oolong involves more steps than other types of tea.  The most important steps for determining the fundamental taste and base of an oolong during its processing are in the oxidation.

Oolong oxidation will produce 4 major categories of flavor/aroma.  From light to heavy oxidation, those categories are:

1)  菜香 (Cai Xiang) - Vegetal, such as Baozhong.
2)  花香 (Hua Xiang) - Floral, such as Alishan high mountain tea.  This category is often further subdivided by the types of floral, such as 蘭貴 (Lan Gui - orchid) or 桂花 (Gui Hua - osmanthus).
3)  果香 (Guo Xiang) - Fruity, such as Dong Ding or Muzha Tieguanyin.  A traditional medium-high oxidized, medium-high roast Muzha TGY may even have notes of ripe fruit, 熟果香 (shu guo xiang).
4)  蜜香 (Mi Xiang) - Honey, such as Oriental Beauty.  A highly-oxidized oolong’s flavor is also said to sometimes resemble 焦糖 (Jiao Tang) or caramel.  I think that tea that has been over-roasted and allowed to rest a while will also infuse tea that is caramel in color and has sweet notes.

Several different leaf varietals are used in the production of Taiwan oolongs, the most prevalent of which is the Qingxin varietal (青心).  Nearly all high mountain oolong is produced with Qingxin leaf.  Dong Ding oolong is also produced with Qingxin, and often with Ruanzhi (軟支, soft stem). 

I greatly prefer medium-oxidation teas to light or high-oxidation ones.  General taste profiles are helpful to me (in addition to other info/experience) when identifying different types of high mountain oolong.  Lishan tends to have a higher-oxidation level than Alishan, for example, and also tends to taste more fruity than floral.  Shanlinxi usually has an oxidation level between Lishan and Alishan and has a uniquely fruity and floral profile. 

05 October 2011

Food and Tea…Together

I love Vancouver BC’s Chinese food and its availability of all things Chinese (herbs, snacks, music…).  Vancouver’s Chinese radio station is great as well, especially on Sunday afternoons when they have cool talks on a variety of life and lifestyle topics.

1986 dd It’s Fall, time for darker, full-bodied teas like this traditional Dong Ding

A few months ago, the station did a segment on ideas for food and tea pairings, given by a long-time tea drinker who is also a self-trained chef.  I tuned in late and missed a lot of the segment, but he talked a lot about the contrast of flavors.  You don’t want to, he said, pair similar foods with similar teas, just as you wouldn’t eat a sweet dessert after drinking orange juice, which would mute the desserts bounty of flavors.

The guest speaker compared tea pairings to wine pairings, which he has also studied in.  Because of tea’s relatively delicate tastes, he recommends foods that are lighter in flavor.

Some of his recommendations:

-With a sweet dessert, he recommends a smoky and/or bold tea, like a Wuyi Yancha or a Tieguanyin.  Pu’er also works, but doesn’t always highlight the range of a dessert’s flavors.

-For foods that have some tartness, like cheese, he said something like a traditional Phoenix Dancong with strong oxidation and a fruity note would be good.  Per his reasoning, Taiwan’s Oriental Beauty may also be a good choice.

-For a light and dry dessert (e.g. pastries, sponge cake…) he believes that a fresh and “thinner” tea, like a green Longjing or a white Longevity Brow (Shou Mei) would work nicely.

-For an after-dinner digestif, Pu’er is a wonderful choice.  He said something thick and heavy, like an old pu’er or a cooked cake, would work best.

In addition to pairing tea as a beverage with different dishes, there are many blog articles and even a few Chinese cookbooks that have touched upon using tea in cooking.  The trick is to make the tea a star in the dish, not just a supporting character.

Experiment and enjoy the new experiences of paired consumption.

04 September 2011

The invisible energy around us

The subtle energy and air of the human body – how does one measure it?  Does it even exist?  If so, how do we make use of it?

I know that this debate continues both within the tea community and beyond.  Qi manipulation is a part of the body of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).  Last year, a Qigong doctor traced my leg pain to a misaligned disc in my back that months of treatment by various doctors and chiropractors could not identify.  One’s ability to sense and manipulate qi depends on many factors, and each person’s baseline ability seems to vary. 

Each individual’s experience with qi also differs.  In several issues of “The Art of Tea” magazine, there were reviews of pu’er tea where several tea masters were asked to independently taste and rate each tea.  Their sensations of each tea’s qi were quite different from each other.  The qi doctor told me that the sensation of qi is generally the same, but each person has a unique interpretation of it.  The ability to reliably identify the feeling of qi from other biological and environmental phenomena requires experience and training.

How does the breath of life affect our tea experiences?  I believe that tea can be a complete sensory experience.  Just as a delicious meal may activate multiple senses and provide complete satisfaction, so too can a beautiful tea.  It will delight us with its aroma and flavor, and make us feel complete with its lingering energy.  But how exactly are we able to differentiate between the tea’s energy and our own?  How do we know that what makes us feel happy and complete is the complete energetic nature of the tea and not our own minds providing a response for us?

Really, we don’t.  The feeling of qi and unseen energies are subjective and cannot yet be accurately measured by scientific equipment.  Several years ago, for example, my sister had a Feng Shui/Qigong consultant walk through her house.  The master came upon a piece of “antiqued” furniture and said that the energy from it was off the charts; it was holding unstable energy in it that had been absorbed through generations of ownership.  The consultant said that the energy of living organisms is absorbed into all of the things around us, such as furniture (and presumably teaware).   My sister revealed to her that the new piece was antiqued, not an antique, and was made to look old for decorative reasons.  The Feng Shui consultant, whose dowsing rod had been twirling like a weathervane in the middle of a storm, put her instrument back into her satchel of doo-dads and walked into another room as if nothing had happened.  That experience proved to be a load of hot air rather than a demonstration of qi energy.

I believe that qi exists and I believe that there is energy all around and within us.  It can contribute to our unique experience and enjoyment of many things, including our tea sessions. 

22 August 2011

Slow Brew for a New Experience

A flame, a stand and a tea pot. 

Room temperature water and tea goes into the pot; heat the pot over a slow flame.

Works well with a full-bodied oolong tea or a complex pu’er that’s already been infused a few times.

New dimensions of flavor and taste.  This method forces you to really slow down to enjoy a nice cup of tea.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.


05 August 2011

A Cheap Spot Roasting Solution

A good, well-oxidized oolong can last for years.  Some teas are OK just being put into a jar and kept over time, but most will benefit from regular re-roasting.  I usually spot roast by putting tea in a sheet of paper that I circle over a flame.  A quick touch-up makes a stale tea more enjoyable, but doing more than 10 minutes of spot roasting by hand gets tedious.  There are specialized spot roasting sets, but they’re not cheap. 

Teaguyver (that’s me, at least for today) pieced together a suitable & cheap spot roaster.

spot roaster

I took the lid and base from a yixing gaiwan.  The base went on top of the heating stand for a chocolate fondue set that I had (>$10).  Light the candle, stir it around from time to time, and you’re good to go.

I spot roasted a 2009 Dong Ding that had gone stale in my jar.  20 minutes made a HUGE difference - 30+ would’ve been even better.  The stale flavor of a tea is very noticeable, but staleness doesn’t taste the same between different teas.  For this Dong Ding, it’s a raw, vegetal taste, like past-date celery. 

moisture(the moisture on the lid after just 2 minutes)

The point is to remove moisture and extraneous tastes.  There’s quite a bit of moisture that accumulates in the tea; I put a lid on top of the heating tea to show the escaping moisture.  It came out for a good 7 minutes. 

Some notes:

-I don’t think spot-roasting works as well with a lid.  It is important to trap some heat, but air circulation is important as well. Sticking some chopsticks/skewers between the lid and the base will help retain heat and provide better air circulation.

spot roaster refined

-An enclosed shape, like an old teapot, would be a good spot-roasting vessel.

-Spot roasting should be done shortly before drinking the tea.

-The process will not turn a “bad” tea into a “good” one.  It will help a good oolong that no longer tastes very good turn into something more pleasant. 

-Spot roasting will not return a tea to its original condition.  The taste will be improved, but different.

I love oolongs.

31 July 2011

Competition Oolong can taste funny as it ages

It can taste magical when it's fresh, with so many layers of flavor and aromas that a thesaurus may be needed to adequately describe its characteristics.  They can also be very expensive.  Depending on the tea, the top-prize oolongs can go for more than $1000 USD/pound – that’s if you even get the chance to buy them. 

Depending on the tea and the competition, there may be quite a number of winners – grand prize, first prizes, second places, 3rd places, honorable mentions….  If you’ve ever chanced to buy a competition oolong and have kept it around – especially the less-oxidized one – you may have noticed that its taste changes a lot as it ages.

I pulled out a 2nd-place Muzha TGY sample that I found while unpacking the other day and brewed it.  I remember how it tasted nearly 3 years ago – full bodied, fruity, truly alive.  I checked the tasting notes from my trip and it was something that I would have bought if there was any supply to buy.  I tasted the sample and it was expectedly stale.  Its roast had faded, but there was more clarity for me to taste the tea base.  It tasted off, unpleasant and unfulfilling. 

Why would such a well-roasted tea deteriorate so much?  It happens a lot with competition teas and I think that the original processing and oxidation of the tea is to blame.  This tea, and many like them, was not adequately oxidized before it was baked.  As the fire and roast fades, one can more easily compare the tea base to the tea’s roast, and there is a big gap.  Could such a problem be “fixed” so many years after?  Kinda yes, mostly no.  To re-roast the tea’s base, one must be able to heat the core of the tea and force out the extraneous flavors using increasing levels of heat; heating and rest must be alternated.  Finally, one must seal in the flavor with a correct finishing roast.  However, finished teas have already been touched by high heat and it’s difficult to produce a great result through re-roasting.  The best that one can hope for is to transform the tea into a more consistent taste, but it is very hard to make it excellent.  Oxidation happens before the tea is finished and first touched by fire, so it is not easy to alter the taste from the original oxidation process.  Can it be done?  Master roasters have given me mixed answers, but I have yet to have any of them successfully bring such a tea back to life for me.

Like a green or high mountain tea, the competition oolongs are meant to wow you when they’re fresh.  There may be value in holding on to the tea for a long while, but if we go by taste, they tend to taste best shortly after production.  I know that back in the old days, many competition teas were stored and aged (you can still buy some decades-old prize-winning oolongs; they’re not cheap) but changes to tea processing, oxidation levels and consumer tastes have altered the storability of these teas.  A quick spot roast right before drinking will make it more palatable.  I have several different spot roasting sets on order – stay tuned for results from my next round of experiments.

14 July 2011

10 Bucks for 15 Years of Aged tea

Ten bucks an ounce, fifteen years old, real Dong Ding tea…and you can buy it right here in the US.

Shiuwen at Floating Leaves brought back a limited supply of aged Dong Ding from her recent tea-buying tour.  I tried it when it came in over a month ago, but I haven’t (and still haven’t) experimented too much with it or taken the time to understand the tea. 

It is aged and its musty/fruit tartness/mellowness is developing.  The tea base is stronger than many other aged teas at this price and beyond.  As nice as it is to drink now, it will very likely taste quite a bit better if it’s stored in stoneware for a few more years to pull out the lingering extraneous flavors, harshness and fire.  I’ve got some stored in porcelain, tin and clay to see how it turns out over the next few months.  Clay tends to pull too much life out of oolongs, so I’ll have to transfer it to a less porous material for aging.  For $10, it’s worth buying to keep around for a while; there is no more quantity of this product for her to purchase.  Her $7.50 aged Muzha TGY is still a great value, she’s almost sold out of it with only a limited supply left in Taiwan for her to bring in.

I’ve bought about 15 different aged oolongs over the past 4 months and most of them were substandard (most were reasonably priced, some were spendy).  I dipped into Taobao and received my first aged teas “straight from the producer,” but it was a huge let-down.  I sent some over to Gingko at Life in Teacup to try (she is a Taobao tea-buying expert) and  she was kind to not make me feel embarrassed by my first foray into the massive Taobao emporium of stuff.  I’ve got to admit that it was exciting to read about the products and await their arrival….

Oh Taiwan, when oh when will I return?  It’s been so long that I’m even missing the scent of the stinkiest stinky tofu (which, when fried, actually tastes pretty dang good).

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

29 May 2011

Spring 2011 High Mountain Oolongs

I was worried that they wouldn’t be very good.  The variation in quality for Taiwan’s spring oolongs isn’t as big as for winter teas, but still, no one wants a relatively poor product.  Winter, though, typically has wetter and colder weather that can affect both the leaves and harvesting times.

The early reports for Taiwan’s spring weather showed more rain than usual.  Pickers cannot/should not harvest high mountain tea after heavy rains.  They normally wait some number of days after the heavy rains before picking.  The extra time on the bush can definitely affect how “good” the tea ends up being.  There was a tea season about 3 years ago when nearly every high mountain tea had a bitter base, something the farmers explained as being a by-product of an especially rainy and cold season that delayed picking (I still have several samples from that season, leaves were thicker and larger than normal).

I’ve been anxiously waiting for Floating Leaves tea to re-open after their spring tea tour and buying trip.  Shiuwen and Floating Leaves consistently have high-quality Taiwan oolongs and I respect that she will not buy a certain tea if it’s not to her standard (hence she did not have Dayuling for a number of seasons).  Although I’m not a huge fan of greener oolongs, it’s very hard for me to resist a good Lishan that she often carries.  I was relieved when she returned this past week with some solid high mountains.  The Dayuling in particular is good, the Lishan is pretty smooth (it needs a few weeks to settle down and blossom) and the Dinghu Alishan was surprisingly good (this Alishan does not have the typical flavor profile of Alishans, but it’s my favorite growing region for this tea because of its clean & clear characteristics).  Good stuff, relieved I am.

I am most anxiously awaiting the special-request teas that will arrive in 2 weeks.  A 15-year old Dong Ding for $10/oz and a limited-production charcoal-roasted Dong Ding.  I also got a sample of a 3-year old moderate roast/oxidation Muzha Tieguanyin that is very good – can’t wait for that to arrive, too.  More reports and tasting notes to come.

Drinking good tea and continuing to enrich my life.

15 May 2011

“Spell it the Right Way!”

My Chinese handwriting is ugly, so bad that elementary school kids laugh at me.  It’s so bad that I don’t handwrite anything in Chinese anymore (typing is faster anyway) and because of that, I recently forgot how to write my Chinese name at a banquet I went to.  Sad….

When I visit Asia and buy a load of tea, I have to keep track of them with labels (many high mountain teas, for example, are packed in the same type of generic bag for oolongs).  The first time I went to Dong Ding and met one of my teachers, I brought back a significant amount of tea to practice my roasting with.  On each bag, I wrote “Dong Ding X1” so that I knew it was my practice tea.

My teacher doesn’t care what I write on the bag as long as I pay for it!  However, the guy down the street was more particular about my methods.

About a 15 minute drive from my teacher’s house, we met a fellow tea producer and old friend of his.  As I pulled one of the bags of tea from my backpack to share with him, Mr. 8 (I think he had about eight teeth, definitely less than 10) saw my writing on the bottom of the label, grabbed the bag from me and said “This is wrong, you wrote it wrong, spell it the right way!”


Mr. 8 reached into his cabinet and pulled out a box with English words on it.  He pointed to the label, “Tung Ting.”  This was, he said, the correct way to write it.  He wasn’t mean or rude, he actually seemed pretty amused and looked as if he was excited to have the opportunity to share his knowledge.

Tung Ting is from the Wade-Giles system of romanizing Chinese and predates the wider-spread usage of contemporary Putonghua Pinyin.  If you visit Taiwan, you’ll find that there is a mix of several different types of romanization.  The usage of Putonghua Pinyin has increased, but there are many that don’t use it, not just because they don’t know how to, but for various political reasons.  Folks such as Mr. 8 are resistant to mainland Chinese influences and thus, they cling to systems that were in use before the Communists took over the mainland.  Fair enough, if I were to buy tea from him, I’d respect his preference.

Ahlisan wulong and Pingling Pouchong are just as good regardless of how it’s spelled.  Drink good tea and enrich your life.

04 May 2011

Pu’er isn’t the only type of “ripe” tea – Aged Teas V

Pu’er tea comes mainly as green/raw, cooked/ripe, or a blend of those, but pu’er isn’t the only type of tea that can be considered cooked or ripe.  So can oolongs. 

Oolong teas that have received a healthy-dose of roasting can be called “shou” tea as well.  These teas often have a good level of oxidation to boot (a sufficiently-oxidized tea makes for a more complete and stable roasted tea).  While “shou” can be interpreted as ripe (such as with a banana), shou also connotes something that is ready to eat (such as steamed fish, prepared meats, etc) or “cooked.”  The cooked class of oolongs can include such teas as roasted Wuyi Yancha or traditional Tieguanyin. 

I like all kinds of good-tasting tea.  Lighter oolongs, such as Taiwan high mountain oolongs, contemporary mainland Tieguanyin and Baozhong can taste very good when fresh.  They can have a plethora of flavor notes and scents that show up beautifully in both gaiwan or pot.  The problem for me and many tea drinkers who down pot after pot of tea is that green and green-oolong teas hurt our stomachs.  Ten+ pots of a roasted tea wouldn’t faze us whereas 3 or 4 pots of greener tea wouldn’t feel so nice. 

Aged oolongs tend to have been oxidized and roasted.  If you go on Taobao and search for aged oolongs, the vast majority of the teas (that are at least 10 years old) will have been roasted (be prepared, you will get an enormous number of hits).  These cooked teas are easier on the stomach.  I’ve mentioned before that some people call aged teas “laoren cha” or old folks’ tea.  The fact that aged oolongs tend to be cooked also makes them more appropriate for tea drinkers that have sensitive stomachs.   

Why not just drink cooked pu’er?  It’s cheaper, tastes good, is easier to find, and each pot goes quite a long way.  All true and valid points, but an aged oolong can be enchanting in a multitude of different and additional ways.  It’s really just a matter of personal taste, since a good ginger or chamomile tea might beat both pu’er and oolong for soothing a stomach.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

21 April 2011

The Greening of Traditionally Oxidized Oolongs

There has been a continuing trend of oolongs going greener (less oxidization, less roasting) over the past decade or two.  Jason Chen’s latest book about his experiences with Phoenix and Tieguanyin oolongs finishes off with a similar assessment.  He writes that at one point, Anxi Tieguanyin was so popular that tourists and wholesalers clamored up to the tea mountains, clogging the narrow roads and driving up prices with their bidding wars.  The popularity of Taiwan’s lower-oxidized teas caused some tea buyers to request a similar product be made with Anxi’s famous Tieguanyin.  Thus, Anxi Tieguanyin – according to Jason - dropped down to an oxidation level of 15% or less to meet the demand for a light-tasting and fragrant product.

Less work and less roasting goes into the contemporary versions of the tea, which also allows farmers to produce more of it.  One may also reasonably surmise that the level of oolong production and roasting skills have declined over time.  I find it ironic that of all of China’s teas to go green in order to mimic Taiwan’s high mountain oolongs, it was Anxi Tieguanyin, a tea known for the high oxidation and roast that is needed to achieve its full body.  There are surely several other oolong varietals that would suffice in making a high-fragrance, light-tasting oolong, but few have the allure of an Anxi product with the famous Tieguanyin name.

Phoenix Dancong is another tea that is traditionally highly-oxidized and roasted, but has also changed in the last decade or two.  Nowadays, you can find an increasing number of variations of this tea (osmanthus, almond, apricot…) and even some that taste like a green oolong.  The very characteristics that make the tea a “Phoenix oolong” can be said to be missing in some contemporary interpretations of the tea.  Still, contemporary Phoenix oolong remains more similar to its traditional form than Anxi Tieguanyin.

What does that mean for a tea when its characteristic scents and tastes have changed?  For Tieguanyin, we have what’s called the 觀音韻 (guan yin yun), the characteristic notes that are unique to the tea; 岩韻 (yan yun) similarly applies to cliff teas.  If we compare a tea that is produced on Alishan but has no high-mountain qi, for example, with one that is produced on the lower Meishan (a production mountain for Alishan) but has the full bouquet of an Alishan-type tea, which one is truly the “real” Alishan?  Do we define by taste or origin?  What essential components qualifies a Dong Ding tea to be a Dong Ding tea?  The producers/retailers/market will continue to call a green Anxi oolong a Tieguanyin while traditionalists, like my Tieguanyin teacher, lament the fact that contemporary versions of the tea are nothing like what is supposed to be a Tieguanyin tea. 

If a tea tastes good, then it’s good to you, even if it’s not really what it claims to be.  I received a sample of an aged cliff tea from a tea friend that knows I like tasty, old leaves.  The sample came labeled “Big Red Robe” but it didn’t taste like it, more like a Shui Xian.  I tried it a few days ago and it had clear and strong cliff tea yun; quite a nice tea.  I asked about the origin of the tea and she said it’s a Wuyi tea with no specific, identifiable varietal; the label was a misnomer.  Because of this, the tea sells for quite a bit less than it could if it was actually a Da Hong Pao or Shui Jin Gui.  Consumers, we believe, pay more for the fame of the tea type than the taste (but naturally, they pay more for a tasty, well-known tea than a less tasty one).

If you enjoy drinking a brew, then have another cup.  I have seen too many people prevent themselves from enjoying another cup of tea because it didn’t taste/look/smell like an oolong/Darjeeling/aged pu’er/Longjing should…even though it tasted good.  I have also seen too many people try to enjoy a bad tea because it was famous/rare/expensive.  Two years ago, I encountered a gentleman that was trying to sell his private collection of pu’er.  He had a factory-floor, nugget-style pu’er that he claimed was from the 60s and worth thousands a pound; he was willing to part with it for 1/2 of its supposed “market value.”  It honestly smelled and tasted like urine; I was trying to figure out how he kept his face straight while drinking it.  Last year, I saw dogs and birds running around tea that was undergoing solar withering and I wondered if animals were running around and doing business on the floor of the factory that this old nugget pu’er was produced in.  It’s more likely that the tea had been poorly fermented and poorly stored, though the pungent aroma was quite unique.  Poo-er?  Truly.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

10 April 2011

The Value of Bronze

I use many different types of storage for my oolongs.  Stainless steel, tin, pewter and aluminum are some of the metal storage containers that I have.  Copper and bronze containers, though, I don’t use.

My problem with copper (and bronze, which contains copper) is that it may tarnish or oxidize.  That green-colored deposit that you may have seen is the by-product of this oxidation, and I have seen it mostly on older copper and bronze vessels.  There is an associated rust-like/tart smell that develops as well.  Tea stored in a bronze container can pick up the smell from the metal.  Steel and quality pewter, on the other hand, don’t impart odors to the tea.

I’ve been told that bronze in particular makes a high-roast oolong taste more balanced and soft.  I had a friend store a roasted Tieguanyin in a bronze tea caddy for about a month, while I stored the same exact tea in a glazed clay jar and a thin-walled tin caddy for about a month as well.  A few tea friends and I tasted all 3 teas and found them to be vastly different.  The clay pulled away the biggest amount of fire from the tea, making it taste soft and delicate.  The tin trapped too much air with the tea and made it taste stale.

The bronze, though, surprised me by pulling out some of the fire from the roast while leaving the tea full-bodied.  It made the tea taste energetic and highlighted the fruit note of the Tieguanyin.  A very nice surprise, but the bronze had the predicted side-effect of imparting a tart smell and taste to the tea.  The bronze tea caddy had already oxidized to the point that there was some green and white oxidation both inside and outside of the caddy, so there was a strong odor in it already.  Perhaps a newer bronze container would benefit the tea without causing the side effects.

Although the farmers still shake their heads at me every time I tell them about my experiments, I continue to be fascinated by the effects that different materials have on tea that’s being stored – even for a short period of time.  As in the simple experiment with Tieguanyin above, all 3 teas tasted different enough after 1 month of storage that a taster thought – reasonably so – that they were 3 completely different teas.  I used a clay jar to store a roasted oolong that I had previously thought to be too strong for my tastes and after 6+ months of storage, it was actually enjoyable, definitely a candidate for a good-value daily drinker.  Experimenting with storage, re-roasting and just patiently waiting for natural changes has led me to re-evaluate the suitability of several teas that I’ve tried.  I can’t say that these experiments have caused me to bring a tea from my bad column onto the good one, but I’ve definitely gained some surprisingly pleasant tasting experiences.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

03 April 2011

A Dark Pu’er Brew is Nice…Mind the Dirt

Chilly and wet winters mean that my friends and I drink a lot more pu’er.  There is something comforting about a cup of dense and malty tea that helps to dispel winter’s gloom.  When I’m in the mood for a dark and thick pu’er, I’m not particularly picky.  I want a clean-tasting, cooked cake that I can brew dark.  At least 6 grams of tea in a small pot for 2+ minutes; it pours out thickly and tastes deep & substantial.  The brew is satisfying on a cool day, like a tea “comfort food,” the brewed version of a hearty slab of meatloa.

I like cooked pu’er a lot.  It’s widely-available, even good ones are affordable, and I don’t have to wait decades before I can enjoy a cup.  I recently found one that is a clean and straightforward cooked tuo that’s less than $3/oz.  There are many even cheaper ones (all over Taobao, for example) but I don’t have any and haven’t tried many that are available at a retail location over here that’s cheaper, tastes as clean as and brews as well in a pot (for 3+ minutes) as this one. 

To be able to sell a tea over here for less than $3/oz after considering the many various mark-ups along the way (US retailer markup, transportation charges, distributor markup, producer profits, etc) means that it probably cost the producer less than $.30/oz to produce this tea [I don’t think there is rule of thumb to calculate the difference between the production cost and retail price, I just happen to know the wholesale price and retailer/distributor mark-ups].  That’s pretty cheap for tea production, considering some Muzha Tieguanyin costs upwards of $4/oz to produce.  And I bet there’s a lot of tea that costs even less than $.30/oz to make. 

Which makes me wonder sometimes, what’s in that tea?  Yes, there are supposedly several levels of industry and government regulation of tea; the blue “S” stamped on the wrapper is supposed to mean that the tea is safe to consume.  I’ve so far never become ill from consuming tea, so I actually wonder more about the composition and production methods.  What kinds of fertilizers, pesticides, etc are used and in what amounts?  How much of that is passed off into the tea?  How are the leaves processed, sorted and cleaned, and what “hygiene” practices are used when the leaves are placed in heaps to ferment for long periods of time?  Who packages the tea and do they use gloves when they do it (I highly doubt it, I’ve never seen any one use gloves when they’re oxidizing, roasting or packaging oolongs that cost 10x+ more)?

A pu’er retailer told me several times that back in the day, pu’er production was pretty dirty.  Many Tea farms also raised pigs and chickens close by (many still do), so the same farmer might be feeding the animals one minute, scooping up their poop in the next, and then sweeping up tea a little later on.  Who can say if back in those days some of the tea farmers used the same hose to clean the pig pens that they would then use to begin the fermentation process of the pu’er?  I know, I’ll drive myself crazy thinking about these things and wondering about things that will detract from the experience. 

What all this does make me wonder about, though, are the foul tasting/smelling pu’er teas that I seriously wouldn’t be surprised to learn contained something nasty.  Oh well, we all run into poo-er from time to time and we’re still OK.

For the moment, the blue “S” will do, regardless of how much confidence I place in it.  Just wondering….

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

23 February 2011

A Friend’s Teahouse in Eugene, Oregon

J-Tea International is in the same city as the University of Oregon, about 5+ hours south of Seattle and halfway down the state of Oregon on a drive down to California.  It’s not a particularly scenic drive, but the drive is worth it to see an old friend.  It’s a long overdue trip and I plan my visit to occur just a few months after all of the renovations to his teahouse have been completed.  It’s pretty nice.

teahouse outside

Josh is an interesting guy and he also knows a lot about tea.  He has lived in Asia longer than I have and probably reads, speaks and writes in Mandarin Chinese better than I do (he did live there for over 6 years and got his MBA at Cheng Kung U).  We get along well because we both love oolong, especially Taiwanese ones. 

teahouse 2

His remodeled teahouse incorporates a lot of built-green concepts, including the usage of natural lighting (windows all along the front; nine skylights), recycled and/or low-impact building materials, etc.  And yes, he drives a hybrid as well (although I’m sure he tries to get around by foot when he can). 

J-tea stocks a variety of Taiwanese oolongs, as well as various black teas and mainland teas.  He also has a lot of unique teaware and antique pottery (I like his antique porcelain jars).  We drank several of his teas and he tried a few of mine.  I like some of his Dong Ding, I like it when Dong Ding is robust and full-bodied. 

What is of most interest to me, though, are his two aged Dong Ding oolongs, one from 1982 and one from 1986.  Curiously, the older one is considerably cheaper than the 1986 tea, but once you try both of them, you’ll know why.  The 1986 aged Dong Ding is a balanced and moderate tea.  It has some tartness from the age in the first infusion that gives way to a smooth, sweet and balanced brew.  The 3rd-5th infusions yield a delicate brew with a slight hui gan; it is quite a nice tea, even more so with sub-boiling water in a good Dong Ding pot. 

There is aged tea, good aged tea, and great aged tea (yes, there is stuff beyond great, much of which is difficult to find and can be pricey).  This tea is very good and will become better in the years to come.  I asked Josh to tell me more about the tea after I had the chance to try it with my own teaware and he said that it received the 銀牌獎 (gold medal) from the 2007凍頂老茶展售會鹿谷鄉凍頂茶葉生產合作社 (long name, it’s a 2007 aged Dong Ding competition).  It’s true that many of the tea competitions are kind of hokey and the winners jack up their prices, but the quality of the tea is judged by people who really know tea (whether or not we agree with the criteria they use for judging is a different story).  This tea is $25/ounce, which I think is reasonable for a tea that is tough to find outside of Taiwan and sold by a reputable retailer that will ship just about anywhere.  I’ll write more about value-priced aged oolongs that contribute to the experience of trying and collecting aged teas in the future, but this is a nice treat and very good experience to have with a high-quality aged Dong Ding.

1986 dd

Josh also sells tea plants…you’ll have to ask him what kind he grows.  Good guy, nice tea place, good tea – just my kind of place. 

[correction:  he has Sochi cultivar plants, but they are not necessarily for sale…sorry!]

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

18 February 2011

Age is just ONE factor – Aged Teas IV

Like anything that may derive some value from its age, a tea’s age can only tell you a part of its story.  It may not even be the most vital part of the story.  There is value in aged teas because it’s uncommon and has inherent quantity limitations.  Daniel’s special Congou tea that is intact and nearly 100 years old probably doesn’t, by his own admission, taste exceptional, but it’s very rare and valuable.

Tea has a shelf-life and period for optimum taste, depending on what one is looking for.  This is not unlike wine or cheese or cured/aged meat, all of which reach an optimum maturation point for which it may be best enjoyed.  All genuinely old teas are interesting to me because they are unique.  We can manipulate the taste/smell/feel of a tea through various techniques, but we cannot make a 20 year old tea overnight.  With that said, old teas may be interesting, but few of them that I’ve come across are worth their price simply because they don’t taste good and they probably never will. 

I was looking up at the upper side-wall at Floating Leaves Tea yesterday as Shiuwen and I were chatting.  That is where some of the odds & ends tea from various seasons are stored.  I jokingly said to her that she should do less business each season so that she would have more aged tea to sell in 20 years.  It’s not easy to anticipate the changing tastes of consumers or the volatility of demand, which is why nearly every retailer will have some leftover teas (later becoming the coveted “aged tea” that so many look for).  Twenty years later, some of these aged teas will be phenomenal and some won’t.  Shiuwen’s Nangang Baozhong will be exceptional, as will some of the Dong Ding. 

I wondered why more people haven’t thought about storing and aging oolongs, like they do pu’er?  Perhaps it has to do with the limited (but growing) appeal of aged oolongs, or the fact that a good aged pu’er currently fetches 4-5 figure prices whereas most aged oolongs are still in the 3-4 figure range.  It may also be that pu’er generally tastes and feels so much better after aging, whereas many oolongs taste exceptional when they’re fresh.  Regardless, my focus now is to collect good jars of all sorts and then to fill them with tea.  I was recently inspired by Josh Chamberlain of J-Tea in Eugene who is holding a tea-sealing ceremony (a get together of tea lovers to put their tea into various types of pots/jars, seal and date them, and enjoy tea and snacks as they do it) soon.  He also has a great aged Dong Ding that will be even better in the years to come (and it’s only $25 an oz!) that I’ll talk about in an upcoming post. 

In other news, I close on my home purchase next week (and my wedding is the week after, figured I’d do it all at once!).  I talked to my architect-friend yesterday about designing some kind of tea space either as an addition to the house or as a separate unit in the yard and wow, it’s going to be a lot more expensive than I thought.  In the meantime, my REI tea tent will have to suffice, although it might snow soon :)

Drink good tea and enrich your life.   

11 February 2011

Processing Shan Lin Xi

Several of Taiwan’s oolongs are world-famous.  Dong Ding, Bao Zhong, Oriental Beauty and high mountain oolongs are just a few of the well-known ones.  Each type of tea has variations in how it’s processed and produced. 

Shan Lin Xi is a type of high mountain tea produced in central Taiwan’s Nantou county.  You can see it from Dong Ding mountain and one can get there in less than an hour by car.  It is more accessible than Da Yu Ling and possibly more scenic than Li Shan.  What makes Shan Lin Xi a little different is that modern-day production of it relies more heavily on humidity and temperature control…via air conditioning.  I’m not familiar enough with the entirety of the process to describe it here, but I’ve seen giant warehouses being used in the withering and oxidation process.  Air conditioner-assisted tea production also occurs with some other teas, such as some Bao Zhong and Ali Shan oolongs, but it’s more widespread with Shan Lin Xi production than I know it to be with any other type of tea.  I have never, for example, heard of A/C being used for Dong Ding or Muzha Tieguanyin.

I visited a Shan Lin Xi farmer/producer in that region during the off-season last year and she told me that there is a difference in taste between low-tech and high-tech production of the tea.  She believes the A/C-assisted variant produces a more consistent, quality product.  She did admit, though, that a side-effect of using A/C may be a flavor note that is unique to Shan Lin Xi tea that has undergone this type of processing.  People have gotten used to that unique note, though, so they have come to expect it and identify it with this tea.  That made me think of Diet Coke, doesn’t taste the same as “Real” Coke, but a lot of people like that unique taste anyway.

This season’s high mountain tea has been surprisingly good.  After 2 winter seasons of lackluster ones, it was pleasant to try several good high mountain oolongs from several stores.  Nice.

Drink good tea and enrich your life. 

22 January 2011

Great New Tea book by a Local Expert – Highly Recommended

English-language tea books tend to be either about the experience of tea or they give a cursory and broad introduction into the different types of teas.  Few Chinese-speaking tea experts have written English-language books; fewer still have ones that I think are worth reading.

Jason Chen of Luyu/CC Tea has just published one that is excellent.  A Washington State-based tea merchant, he’s been in the business for about 15 years.  His latest book, published with both Chinese and English content, is titled: A Tea Lover's Travel Diary: Phoenix Single-Tree Oolong Tea Tie Kuan Yin Oolong Tea.  Obviously, this book is about both of these teas and provides in-depth accounts of his experiences learning about and buying them directly from the farmers (he also met many tea folk that were helpful with the completion of this book).  The book is rich with unique insight and is accompanied by a trove of pictures that detail his experiences over the years.  Even better, the pictures are his own, taken on the same camera that his father gave him decades ago.

Many bilingual or translated tea books can be disappointing because the English is simple and lacks depth.  That is not the case with this book, which makes it such an excellent read.  In fact, it can be argued that many of the Chinese explanations are cursory and the English accounts are detailed and explanatory.  Although there are relatively few actual “diary” entries, the explanations that accompany his many pictures themselves serve as pictorial journal entries. 

This 232-page color, picture-filled book is a great buy ($17.56 on Amazon).  Truly an impressive book to add to one’s tea library. 

I am still waiting for a tea master to come out with something like this book, but for Dong Ding teas.  Zhou Yu of Wistaria is well-qualified for the task; let’s keep encouraging him to do so in the near future.

15 January 2011

The Beautiful Hue of an Old Oolong – Aged Teas III

Old oolongs take on a beautiful brownish-caramel color as they age.  Old Baozhongs which were once bright and green take on this mature hue as well.  Outside of high-oxidized and/or high-roast oolongs, very few modern oolongs have a color that is similar to aged ones.  This is one sign that the tea has some age.

old nantou tea finalAn old tea from the Nantou-area; loose rolling. Over 20 years old

It’s also why I am wary of old teas that have been over-roasted or were “very recently” roasted again with high fire and end up looking black, glossy and/or charred.  The purpose of a re-roast should be to reinforce the body of the tea and to moderate the moisture.  Not only is a gradual temperature change in the roast necessary to correctly remove that moisture content (for taste, storage and aging reasons), but it also prevents the tea from burning and losing flavor.  However, it’s that burning taste and aroma that many tea drinkers identify with traditional, older oolongs.  Most tea drinkers may not know what an aged tea’s color should be, what characteristic tastes should be present, or what an oolong ball’s shape may mean, but they are likely to know that more traditional oolongs were both higher oxidized and had higher levels of roast. 

old tgy finalAn aged Anxi Tieguanyin, about 20 years old

An over-roasted oolong that has been allowed to sit for a bit has a full taste that may also be described as nutty and is reminiscent of traditional oolongs. It’s not wrong for tea drinkers to think of this taste or to look for these characteristics when they search for old teas.  In fact, less-than-honest retailers know this, which is one reason they create fake aged oolongs with such a flavor profile.  It’s aromatic but not necessarily fruity or floral.  It’s not to say that no old oolongs are ever over-roasted, as that would be untrue.  Over-roasting makes it difficult to taste the tea’s base or to study the leaves, but I believe that no exceptional aged oolong is over-roasted. 

Over time, even a charred oolong will change in color.  It’s true!  Take an oolong that has been so over-roasted that it’s charred black, put it into a clay jar that is not air-tight and leave it for years.  Not only will the fire recede and the taste soften, but the color will soften as well.  Whether or not that tea will ever turn out “good” is a different story!

Color is one useful indicator of the age of an oolong.  Aside from using a subjective, relative assessment of taste to judge age, there is no objective method that I am aware of to accurately gauge the age of an oolong tea.  But all of this is an exercise in personal tea education, as my fundamental belief continues to be that if it tastes good to you, then it’s good.  At least to you. 

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

03 January 2011

Backyard Teahouse

There are many things that I like about Taiwan, but if I had to name just two, I would say I love Taiwan tea and its hot springs the most.  Interestingly, both of these have been deeply inspired by Japanese culture (which some would point out were in turn inspired by Chinese culture).  Taiwan underwent some major transformations when it was occupied by the Japanese military.  Hot spring culture flourished under Japanese rule and the Beitou hot springs area was developed by the Japanese as an important R&R destination.  The Japanese also encouraged the development of several domestic oolong cultivars, such as Qingxin and Qingxin Damou/Dapa; a Taiwan government site gives a bit more information here.  The famous (and pricey) black tea produced in south-central Taiwan is a hybrid cultivar developed from Indian black tea that the Japanese imported into Taiwan and spent many years working with.  It is now known as Taiwan tea #18, Hongyu.

I’ve been looking for a new house to move to for about 6 months now and high on my list of wants is a hot tub.  I went to view a house this evening with a nice hot tub and as I stood there admiring it, I realized that I probably wouldn’t love sitting in the middle of my backyard in full view of my neighbors and completely exposed to the environment.  I wished that it was inside of the adjacent shed instead; Seattle is both rainy and chilly.  That in turn got me thinking:  what if I could have an outbuilding with a tub inside of it (preferably at ground level) and a tearoom as well?

I spent the last few hours surfing online for ideas.  I did a quick web search for “Japanese Tea House” and looked through the amazing images of them for great ideas.  Given enough time and a big enough budget, I’m sure that I could design and build (or have built) a pretty sweet little outdoor sanctuary.  I found a site for a local guy that did just that and now offers the plans to do the same for $250.  His teahouse looks like this:


(credit: Ron Konzak, http://www.japanesehomeandbath.com)

A very nice and simple structure that I could definitely personalize for my uses.  Ron has also been working on plans for a Japanese bath and I’m sure there’s a way to integrate both into a very pleasant design.

A teahouse with my very own tea area and bath – very nice!