30 December 2009

Invincible, infallible taste-buds? No such thing

There are too many factors to consider in tea tasting for there to be any one person that can set an absolute standard for what is “the best” or what is “right.”  Don’t think that the competition judges get it right, either.  When you have to taste hundreds or thousands of teas in one afternoon and only have a few moments for each one, it may be the luck of the draw for the producer whether he gets a prize or not. 

If you’ve read the reviews of teas in the “Art of Tea” magazine, you’ll know that the experts that review are mostly experienced, “master-level” tea people.  However, not only do they never completely agree on which tea tastes best, but they can’t even agree on what each tea’s flavor, aroma or energy are.  Depending on the tea, temperature, brewing vessels, water, our own health and qi, our individual tea experiences will vary (this proclamation also serves as my official, public disclaimer to write-off all my past and future tasting errors!).

I often say drink good tea, with “good” being defined by yourself, and your own definition coming from experience, guidance (through well-intentioned tea educators, tea houses, books…) and your innate spring of wisdom.  Naturally, each tea will have a signature taste that you can learn to appreciate as well.  “Good” will change for you over time. 

I will also say that there are tastes that are NOT correct and are NOT good.  I’ll use charcoal as an example.  A good charcoal-roasted tea is hard to find in the US.  Few produce it anymore; it’s labor intensive and costly. 

I had the good fortune of being in Taiwan at the right time and meeting the right tea craftspeople to see actual charcoal roasting being done.  I’ll detail it more in a later roasting post, but it takes longer to charcoal roast a tea and it takes more diligence, since the temperature changes often and one must watch closely to prevent the tea from burning.  A properly roasted tea of any sort should have some fire, but should NOT look shiny in the light.  A lot of so-called charcoal roasted oolongs have an immensely strong taste of fire that covers the body of the tea.  Some may find the immense taste of fire to be enjoyable, not unlike overcooked bacon that is black, smoky and crunchy, but that’s not tea that has been roasted correctly.  There are issues if the leaves fail to open.  I have canisters of tea on a rack that, very fortunately, have a strong enough tea base to withstand the over-roasting that I’ve applied.  A small batch of Alishan, though, was over-roasted until some of its base flavor was replaced by fire.  It’s shiny, dark and fails to fully open in boiling water.  Experts in Taiwan say it can be fix, but the base is dead and it will not produce good tea.  A good charcoal roasted oolong – even recently fired - will open and showcase the tea’s flavor; this I’m positive of.

As a student of the roasting craft, I have a passion for learning and then passing on the essence of tea love.  I’m lucky to be able to enjoy extraordinarily unique teas, and I want others with such a penchant for it to be able to try and understand what I think is good as well.  A well-roasted charcoal tea, even a recently roasted one, will have fire and smoke in the taste, but it will still be round and delicious.  The charcoal is not meant to supplant the tea’s taste, but to augment it.

When I parted ways with Mr. Zhan of the Nine Pots Manor, I left with the feeling that the lingering questions I had about tea roasting, the energy of the brew and learning to master one’s own skill would be answered by his tea water.  As I left, he placed into my bag a present, one that I feel he thinks might further my learning.  To share the spirit of tea love and my commitment to spreading the virtues of good tea, I will send the first three people to comment/email/knock on my door a 5g sample.  It’s aged, it was once charcoal roasted, and it will be quite unlike anything you’ve had before.  If you have the affinity to be able to enjoy this brew, I hope that you will be able to share this tea with a friend(s) and will continue to contribute positively to the movement for good tea and tea knowledge.   

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

25 December 2009

What a Merry Christmas Present!

A good friend of mine received a brick of pu’er about 15+ years ago from her tea-retailer friend in Taiwan.  She first told me about it 2 years ago, but couldn’t find it for me to try.  Turns out the tea was hiding in a cabinet she uses for books.

tea brick 1         tea brick 2

It is the 七三磚餅, “7 3 Brick” from the 1970s.  I don’t know much about pu’er, so I looked it up in Chan Kam Pong’s intro to pu’er book and only found this tea in cake form. 

The book is a useful guide for identification of teas, but there’s not much additional info about it.  I contacted pu’er expert Daniel of Arts de Chine in Vancouver.  He said that this brick was popular and well-known back in the day, but as to taste and quality of this particular brick, well, he would have to try it before being able to comment.  After trying a bit of his blue label cake last last fall, I’m happy to oblige!


A tea friend gave me the catalog for a Beijing pu’er auction that was held a few days ago.  The one on the bottom is the 7 3 brick – 4 bricks valued at 24,000 – 32,000 RMB. 

What a present! 

23 December 2009

DIY to Learn it Best

"You have so many questions.  Touch it once and you will learn yourself."

試聽知識 - the knowledge gained from experimentation.  I'm fortunate that my teachers are quite patient with me.  I can be like a monkey child, I point to everything and ask what it is, how it works, how to do it....


"What's that?" I ask him on the way back to my quarters.

"A dragon fruit bush.  We saw that yesterday, remember?"

"Oh yah.  What's that over there?"

"Oh, that's Dong Ding mountain coffee.  My cousin grows it.  Do you like coffee, do you want to try?"  My teacher takes me to the bush where we pick some of it off; it has bright red skin that will turn brown after it's picked and oxidizes.  "Eat the skin.  It's sweet."

                             DD coffee bean

Dong Ding mountain has changed a lot.  It used to be considered a sacred place, the home of the tea that made Taiwan famous for oolongs.  Many people who have never been still consider it to be a somewhat magical place.  Nowadays, you will see fruit trees/bushes, vegetable farms, wild pig farms, and some coffee bushes amidst the tea fields.


"Why talk so much?  Drink it and you'll know yourself. The brew doesn't lie."

The Happy Farmer's wife stated her opinion emphatically and it is both true and correct.  She comes from a family of farmers and her husband sees himself as a tea craftsman rather than as a tea culture person or a big retailer.  She's unafraid to criticize other farmers or retailers by name, especially those that she feels do dishonest business or are lazy with their craft.  She also knows everyone else's business, and after a few pots of tea, so will you. 

Mrs. Happy has a sharp memory and prepares a bowl of tea for me as I walk inside her shop and sit down next to her daughter who's studying elementary English, but is too shy to practice with me.  Mr. Happy is on the mountain preparing for the upcoming tea competition.  I look at the leaves in the bowl and at the brew.  The fragrance is floral and extravagant; it lingers in the air like royalty.  It's been over a year since I've had their tea and my mind immediately registers its signature sweetness.  Mrs. Happy and I look at each other for a moment as we smile.

"The story is in the brew" I said to her.  "People don't need to waste their breath with more examination or chatter over this tea." 

Truth is, though, I love to talk to tea people about tea.  Most producers are happy to talk as well, partly out of politeness, partly because they are entertained by those who have enthusiasm for their work.  Sometimes one should tread carefully, though, as some tea people misunderstand enthusiasm for prying or spying.  My experience has been that the world of tea tends to be vast and quite transparent; there will always be experts willing to chat, even though they may not agree amongst themselves.  Mrs. Happy, though, would rather talk to me about the latest "farmer gossip," so in this case, the best story really is in the brew itself.

Do you want to know about the oxidation level, tea base, cultivar and roasting of the tea?  It's in the leaves, the brew, the aroma and the taste.  Pay attention and learn what the characteristics of major types of teas are.  We can learn about fire, as in why heat causes some teas to produce a rich, full-bodied fruit flavor, or how it can be used to tame the astringency of a mediocre tea base.  The masters that craft the tea can see through its beautiful aromas and tastes to understand the true base of the tea.  By paying attention and listening, we too can learn to see into the souls of our brews.

17 December 2009

Hold back your reservations and listen to the leaves

"It's not unlike your Dong Ding teacher's wife. Good tea, it, ng, has the good stuff on the inside that you have to bring out."

We were all laughing heartily by this point.  We'd just had a good joke over his own wife being decades older than me (I swear she looks like she's a college student) and now he was transmitting to me what he thought was the essence of the art of roasting, via a comparison between the roughness of unfinished tea, and, well, my teacher's wife.  Make no mistake about it, she was actually quite a looker back in the day!

Mr. Zhan is not a highly-visible, public tea figure, but the people in the tea world know him.  He is the owner of Nine Pots Manor in Taipei.  It's not an easy place to find and it's not a teahouse, but a by-appointment retail and tea roasting site.  He doesn't solicit for business and his focus is on the art and culture of tea more than the sale, although he happily fills orders for customers that find their way to him and appreciate his craft. 

"Whether we believe it to be good or bad, the farmers and producers that make it put their souls into their tea.  With good inputs of water, work, weather and soil, all tea is good.  After they do their jobs, it's our job to bring out the full potential of the tea with the roast."

The roast is where the art of oolong crafting resides.  Roasting, I've come to see, is not just about the manipulation of heat, air and labor as I have previously written about.  It's a meditation into the inner world of the tea itself. 

"Tea has its own personality and potential.  We must listen and understand that energy.  The tea guides us in the roast.  Most people have their own notions and force a tea to be made or roasted a certain way. That is not right.  Like raising children, we must raise tea with understanding.  The leaves talk back and will tell us how to handle them - if we listen."

Mr. Zhan, like Mr. Zhou, is a tea culture figure (茶藝人) whose primary focus is on the philosophy and culture of tea.  You are unlikely to hear a tea farmer talking about taming the energy of a brew or listening to the leaves for guidance.  You will also unlikely hear a wholesaler talk about the essential goodness of all tea, either.  Different worlds that share the same space.

My time with Mr. Zhan and his wife was brief, but it was a top highlight of my trip.  Taste each tea with a simple goal of understanding what it will teach and reveal to you, and you will certainly develop an even greater attunement and gratitude for the experience.

Drink good tea and enrich your life. 

11 December 2009

Notice the sensation first, not the flavor

Question:  Boiling water...why is it used for brewing oolongs? 

Answer: Because the "Experts" do it.

Yes they do (at least the honest ones), but here's why.  The teahouse owners buy from producers or distributors that use boiling water, whether in a bowl, gaiwan, glass, or competition "mug".  Not knowing why, some retailers use the same method.

Oolong is brewed for longer periods of time in boiling water to allow people to test for bitterness and astringency, which show up more clearly with high temperature water.  Tea is brewed longer so that the underlying characteristics of the tea cannot hide.  Unacceptable bitter or astringent levels are revealed in a tea with a poor base.  However, though manipulation of heat, oxidation, roasting, brewing and chemicals, a poor tea base can hide behind decent aroma and flavors.  Inferior tea at superior tea's prices - it's way too common.

If I were to buy tea from someone I didn't know, I'd watch to see how they brew my tea.  If they cheat, then I'll ask to brew the tea myself.  I generally brew any tea that is bought in a gaiwan myself to test what it will taste like in a regular brewing environment.  That's usually when I taste to see if the aroma, mouth-feel and flavor will be acceptable. 

Good tea can withstand boiling temperature, but it may not be at its best.  Sub-boiling tea makes Taiwan oolongs open up wonderfully, and as a secondary benefit, will result in more brews for the tea.

07 December 2009

Going Green

I'm lucky to be in Taiwan during tea competition season.  I prefer winter season teas to spring season ones; I think they have more body, but sometimes at the cost of smoothness and/or fragrance.

I've already tried some competition-grade Alishan and Baozhong, among other teas.  After several seasons of trying various competition-winnings teas, I am certain that the general trend for teas is becoming greener in taste.  Oxidation and roasting levels are lowering.  Judges are, in theory, reflecting upon the taste demands of consumers.

The trend of going green in teas is a shame.  Greener teas require less work and don't need as strong of a tea base to produce (although the best ones will still have a very good tea base).  Producers are incentivized to do less work and create teas that are closer to the green tastes of winning teas.  More and more tea fields are maximized for production versus quality, and the result is inferior grade product.  Over time, tea masters lose their skills, and the art of roasting - which is all-important for oolongs - will diminish.

My Tieguanyin teacher is currently preparing for the competition.  The submission of teas is tomorrow.  He is one of the few tea producers left in Muzha that makes non-blended, high-roast TGY.  We worked on the 2nd roast of his tea all day yesterday and now that he's 2/3 of the way towards completion, I already know he won't win any awards.  I've tried winning teas for years and they are light-to-moderate roast, mid-oxidation with a very strong and clear fruit fragrance that is a major characteristic of the tea.  The brew tends to be closer to yellow than the traditional orange. 

Anxi, the birthplace of TGY, produces tea that is so green and fresh that it makes me feel nauseous.  It is difficult to find a skilled master roaster there nowadays.


"It's too green, I don't like it.  Ng...just too green, what a shame."

The Elder had just come back from Pinglin where he was working with some Baozhong specialists prior to the recent competition.  I told him I thought such was the trend for all Taiwan teas, but he said that you can still find really good traditional-style production, although I think it's a bittersweet story.  Since there's less demand for traditional-style oolongs, the prices aren't as high as ones that are competition-style.  However, the cost to produce old-school teas, in terms of labor & resources, is higher, so the tea farmers that don't "sell out" make less money.  There are still some random, old-school holdouts that refuse to go with the tea trends, but they're dying out.  Others simply must make tea that sells to support their families - very understandable.

"It's just tea" you might say, and you wouldn't be wrong.  However, tea is an integral part of the culture here; it's a philosophy, an art and a symbol of identity and pride.  Everyone in Taiwan knows that their high mountain teas are world famous and they tout that with pride.  There are permanent exhibits on teaware at the National Palace Museum, and it's a rumor that if the deal goes through, a Chinese consortium may buy an entire mountain in Taiwan to produce high mountain teas. 

On my way now to Dong Ding to try competition teas; they should be doing it later this week.  No revival of Hong Shui style there, although competition-style DD hasn't gone as green as many other teas.  My teacher's nephew will submit for the competition and he generally wins in some category.  I congratulated him last winter on receiving a 2nd place prize and my teacher nearly smacked me on the head.  His nephew dared not to raise his head.  That tea base was very good, my teacher said, and it should have won 1st place or higher if his nephew had taken the time oxidize and roast with complete focus.  Talk about pressure!

04 December 2009

Cutthroat High Mountain Tea

"Young man, Taiwan tea is complicated." 

The Alishan tea producer sat next to me, with a few of his cohorts sniffing his competition-grade teas.  Such is the tea life in Taipei; walk inside a random tea shop and you might get to meet some of Taiwan's most famous producers.  To the Alishan tea producer's left was the descendant of the first Pouchong farmer in Taiwan.  Pouchong because he's old-school.  Way before Baozhong made its way to Pinglin, it was grown in Nangang (now a fairly industrial neighborhood).  Quantity nowadays is extremely limited, to the point where most people have never even heard of Nangang Baozhong, but some producers there still make it in the traditional style that I like - higher oxidation with strong mouth-feel and some smokiness.

Mr. Waha the Alishan maker (I'll call him that; he chuckled uncontrollably several times when I told him about teas I like) thinks I'm an old man with old-school tastes.  No doubt.  High mountain teas, especially Alishan, are expensive, he says, not just because of an accepted market price.  He explained that prices are high because labor, for one, is scarce and expensive. Pickers band together to price gouge.  Prices of picking have more than doubled since a few years ago.  It's hard work that increasingly few want to do, and understandably so. 

There is a schedule for picking as bands of pickers move from one plot of land to another.  The problem is that it's difficult to plan and schedule in advance what day to have pickers come, since conditions change every day.  On your scheduled pick day, you may find that the leaves just aren't quite ready yet - maybe they need another day or two on the bush.  But if you call off the picking, you might not get another slot until quite a bit later.  Mr. Waha said that this leads to all sorts of persistent problems, like ongoing feuds between farmers (I imagine some sabotage as well), possible bribery of pickers and worst of all: good crop that is left on the bush because no one is available to pick it off. 

"Problems and fighting happen every year.  Very common.  Tea is a business after-all."

I sat and admired Mr. Waha's samples of tea that he will submit for the competition judging next week.  As usual, the oolong balls have the stems removed so that the brew will highlight only the best aspects of the tea. 

After trying Mr. Waha's tea, I'm relieved that there is good Alishan tea this year, and hopeful that the same is true for the other high mountains as well.


Drink good tea and enrich your life.