27 November 2009

A Revival for Red Water Oolong?

It seems that there’s been some more chatter about Hong Shui Oolong recently.  When I wrote this post about it back in July, I didn’t have much information about the tea beyond the books I have (in Chinese), the article about Dong Ding in the “Art of Tea” magazine (Issue #4), and some posts that Guang from Hou De had written.

In the last few months, there have been articles about Hong Shui from Floating Leaves Teahouse in Seattle and a recent one by Tea Parker in Taiwan (in Chinese), among others.  Floating Leaves started carrying a Hong Shui oolong this past fall, and Hong Shui is a tea Stephane from the Tea Masters blog enjoys.  A thoughtful and recent review of Tea Masters’ Hong Shui oolong can be found at MattCha’s blog.

Why the popularity in a tea that, as one producer in Tea Parker’s article put it, requires no small amount of effort and time?

Both Stephane and Hou De, among other tea retailers, have carried this tea for quite some time.  There are also many reviews about this tea (from various retailers) online, but the problem is that I’m not quite sure – and many people may be in the same boat – about how to judge this tea.  We can expect, for example, some green teas to be vegetal or grassy, some Taiwan High Mountain teas to be floral and aromatic, Baozhong to be light and crisp, etc.  I expected an example of Hong Shui to taste like Dong Ding and instead thought that it tasted like a cross between a Yancha and an Oriental Beauty.  I sent a sample to a tea friend recently and labeled it “oolong 2” for him to try, and he thought it was some kind of new hybrid oolong, tasty but not quite sure what to think about it.

With a clean slate for learning about its taste, I’m open to the unexpected flavors I’ve been getting from this tea.  It has a body and character that can be deep and rich, like a Wuyi Yancha, from the high oxidation.  It has energy and a robust mouth-feel from the roasting, but expertly done, it will be smooth and round.  There is a sweetness in the brew that is characteristic of tea from Dong Ding; a velvety, fruit taste.

Taiwan Hong Shui Oolong – developed and perfected in Dong Ding – is a traditional, old-school production method for oolong from the Nantou area.  My interest in understanding tea production techniques that still exist will undoubtedly lead me to try to learn more about Hong Shui in the near future, as well as to find a better translation for it than “Red Water Oolong” or “Crimson Brewed Oolong.”  What if the Shui (水) refers not to water itself, but to a part of the processing, like the 走水 part of oxidation?  Makes sense to me, but let’s see what the old masters have to say about it.

In the meantime, try some of the season’s new, good teas that have come out and enrich your life.

24 November 2009

It Slips Through Your Fingers

Clay, that is.

I've been taking ceramics lessons for about a month now.  My very first piece was completely finished just a few days ago.

                         tea piece 1

It's a tea tools holder, in a bluish-green metallic glaze. 

size of tea tools        tea tool holders

I'd like to learn more about how shapes, materials and the application of different heat and glazes affect the tea that is brewed.  Yixing clay is special because of its high mineral content, especially of metallic elements.  None of the pieces that I will produce with the clay that I use, however, will make good tea.  Yixing clay and related types of clay are unique and will enhance oolong teas.

Short of being able to find good tea pot clay to use, my best hope for eventually being able to make high-quality teaware will be with a high-quality porcelain clay.  I generally prefer using a gaiwan anyway, so creating a thin, strong and visually appealing piece is my goal.

21 November 2009

Yummy Winter Tea?

The harvest and production of Winter Taiwan oolong has begun.  It's not easy, though, to get a straight answer out of most producers on how each season's crop is doing. 

I called my Dong Ding teacher yesterday to chat about this season's harvest.  "It's good.  Yes, fine, fine.  Are you in town?  When are you coming back?"

Those are his favorite questions.  

I didn't sense a high-level of excitement from him about the harvest.  Whether in tea or in life in general, we can often learn just as much about people and situations by what they don't say, as well as what they do.

Then again, I did call him at 8 am when he usually wakes up later.  I'll cross my fingers and hope he was just groggy.  We'll see in a few weeks.

04 November 2009

I still like it HOT

We started with a over 1/2 pound of unsealed Winter 08 Alishan High Mountain tea, and by the time we were done, only about 1/2 of that was left (granted, I also gave away some samples that we had to tea friends that stopped by that day).  The results of our first test?

Boiling water releases the full body of the rolled-oolong leaves, as well as the full sweet & floral aroma.  However, boiling water also causes the tea to taste “cooked” after a few infusions.  The result is that after about 3 or so infusions, the tea experiences a loss of the delicate flavors and smells that were previously present.  Complete floral notes with the high mountain characteristics are greatly reduced, and the brew loses some of the characteristic sweetness and hui gan.

Water that is cooler will yield more brews of high mountain tea.  There is a characteristic tanginess to the tea from the buds that are present in each rolled-oolong ball, which is reminiscent of the underlying “fruit/floral sourness” (果酸) that can be found in some types of tea-bud teas.  However, water that is too cool will fail to bring out the full body and aroma of the teas, since the mature leaves of the oolong require more heat.

Daniel remembers one of his Taiwanese tea retailer friends saying that 92-95 degrees celcius is the sweet-spot for high mountain teas.  With that said, each tea for each season will vary, as will the amount of tea used, the time needed for each brew and the type of brewing vessel used.  I still really enjoy the first couple of boiling-water brews for a high mountain tea.  I can see why so many tea retailers and producers use boiling water in Taiwan, because it really does bring out the highlights of the brew. 

No right answer, just a matter of preference.  Too hot and one may miss the delicate tastes and flavors.  Too cold and one will miss the complete body and aroma of the oolong.  Hit the sweet-spot and you might have both.  Only a good tea will reveal the complexity of tastes and smells that we’re aiming for, though.