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.