20 September 2009

Qing Era Porcelain

The latest piece in my collection is a mid-late Qing dynasty gaiwan.  The collector I bought it from dates it to the late-1800s.  I was most interested in figuring out how this piece - the shape, materials, processing - would affect my tea brewing.

The person that I bought the piece from theorized that it would be best used for high-fire oolongs, helping to soften the brew.  I tried the tea on a phoenix dancong and a green puerh before buying and thought the vessel good enough to purchase for additional testing.

gaiwan 1     gaiwan 2

The piece is more rice-bowl shaped than modern gaiwans.  Back in the day, these types of gaiwan weren't used for brewing tea as we do today.  Tea leaves were placed in the bowl, hot water was poured in, and one would sip from the bowl, using the lid to push away the leaves.  Some teahouses and restaurants in Asia still serve their customers tea this way (more for novelty than for function). 

Hand painted peach blossoms on the gaiwan and stylized characters on the holder.  The material is a coarse porcelain, light gray, with flecks of minerals from hand-pulverized clay.  Wood-kiln fired with bits of ash that stuck to the piece.

gaiwan grit 1  gaiwan grit 2

The lid doesn't fit perfectly onto the piece either, which is typical of many antique gaiwan.  This was probably a mid-grade piece for that time.  A higher-quality mid-Qing gaiwan is on my wish-list.  That has more ornate decorations, higher-quality porcelain and a higher-standard of craftsmanship (and an exorbitant price to match!).  

There are gaps between the lid and bowl due to it imperfect roundness.  The wide-bowl shape aids in cooling the temperature of brewing tea.  Lastly, the coarse porcelain is more porous than the modern stuff that is pulverized to a mash-like substance before shaping, which would further provide temperature-cooling properties, as well as affect the body and mouth feel of brewed tea. 

I ran several tests with this piece against my modern gaiwans and even my wood-fired gaiwan from the 1980s and found that this gaiwan didn't brew higher-oxidized or higher-roasted oolongs as well.  The attributes of this gaiwan are in opposition to a good yixing pot, which I think is the best brewing vessel for a highly-oxidized, high-fired oolong.  Tieguanyin and Wuyi Yancha tasted bland with this gaiwan, as if their flavors weren't being released. However, light oolongs like Baozhong and Alishan turned out quite nicely.  The floral notes were well balanced and the brew was smooth and light with a uniform hui gan.  Green teas (Long Jing and Sencha) also turned out very well, superior to all other brewing vessels I have.

18 September 2009

Good Old Teas

I love aged oolongs, but why?

It's because many older teas that have been aged well are from superior crops, representing an age of tea that we may never have again.  Skill, technology, weather/soil/growing conditions and the tea plants are changing, and the particular tastes of teas that I love are changing, too.

Take Dong Ding for example.  Zhou Yu of Wistaria teahouse in Taipei told me that the early-to-mid 1980s are the golden years for the tea.  Indeed, a good example from that era is truly exquisite, costing as much as thousands of dollars a pound.  If you are lucky enough to try a pot of one his 1980s Dong Ding, it will set you back about $100.  But for that price, you will get to relive a part of this tea's glorious history. 

I've mentioned that it's difficult to find an example of this type of tea that is very good.  I've gotten samples from all over the world of aged Dong Ding in particular and I'd estimate that 1/2 of them have been roasted to death; they taste burnt.  Some retailers have said that the taste is a result of charcoal roasting and is supposed to be present. That is complete BS for a tea of such age.  More-recent charcoal roasting will indeed have some smoky notes with "fire," but will not taste burnt either, unless the tea was over-fired or burnt by accident.  Another tell-tale sign of tea being roasted to death is if the leaves fail to open even after multiple infusions.  Examples of fake or poorly-roasted teas in my collection have dark caramel hues, overpowering burnt aromas and fail to open when brewed.  Some retailers have argued that the frequency of roasting that old teas require result in tea that does not open.  I will say with complete certainty that very good, very old, rolled oolongs exist that have been re-roasted several times and will still open.

As my Dong Ding teacher said, it should be no surprise that people lie to make profit on supposedly aged products because prices are higher.  He's shown and explained to me how roasting and aging can be manipulated (through heat or chemicals) to mimic some of the tastes of aging.  But if you pay attention to the smell, look, taste and underlying body, you will get a sense of the quality of the tea.  As Zhou Yu has said, good tea has good "qi" that makes you feel comfortable and balanced. 

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

05 September 2009

Releasing the Taste of Oolong Buds?

With regards to Taiwanese oolongs and water temperature, I agree with Shiuwen Tai at Floating Leaves Tea's position that a solid Taiwanese oolong, whether it be Four Seasons or Shanlinxi, can withstand boiling water.  That's not to say that boiling water is optimum for the best brew, only that it can be used without destroying the tea. 

I visited Daniel again at Arts de Chine this past weekend. We shared a 20+ year old Shui Xian (non re-roasted), several green puerhs and a 1996 Zhencong Tieguanyin.  It was the first time that I've had an aged & non re-roasted Wuyi cliff tea and the softness and fragrance were both evident.  It had a hint of aged tartness, but the high roasting that the tea had undergone so many years ago had given way to a soft and pleasant mouth feel without harshness or characteristic astringency. 

We got to talking about water temperature.  His position is that the optimum temperature depends upon the leaf configuration and type of tea being used.  High Mountain teas with the bud, he said, would benefit from lower heat.  The bud is too delicate for boiling water and although the overall taste may be more evident when boiling water is used, it might scald and prevent the release of the bud's flavor. 

While this might be true, I think that the flavor of high mountain tea is not dependant on the bud.  Puerh tea may also include tea buds, for example, but requires hotter water to release its flavor.  I promised to bring several high mountain teas with me to Arts de Chine next time I go for experimentation so that we can try to figure out if there are some tastes that we're missing.