Saturday, September 27, 2008

Fujian Wuyi Mountain

Tomorrow I leave for Wuyishan at 10 AM.  I am perhaps a little bit too excited, but that's probably understandable to anyone who would read one of these tea blogs.  Unfortunately another Typhoon - Jangmi - is hitting Taiwan today.  Wenzhou, where I live, is almost right across the strait from Taiwan, fortunately Wuyi is farther inland.  I should be fine, although the weather might be lousy.  I hope they do alright in Taiwan, this one is supposed to be stronger than the last.

I am continuing a long and illustrious tradition of tea bloggers on my journey. In preparation I consulted blogs and received many helpful replies to my inquiries from those who have gone before. Some of the blogs I found useful were these two from Chadao: post one and post two
And also a nice blog (short) describing a trip to Wuyi in Oct, 2007.  Just under one year ago.
There are of course many Chinese resources, blog posts, tea chat type sites, company websites, etc.  

I have had fun planning my trip to Wuyi, and hopefully will have even more fun starting tomorrow, or at least the day after. Although according to my map Wenzhou is only 260 KM from Wuyishan as the bird flies, the Lonely Planet guidebook says the bus ride is 12 hours.  That makes an average of about 22KM per hour.  I'm hoping that either Lonely Planet is wrong or outdated.  I have a sinking feeling that its right and the road is not very direct.  I don't think there are any direct flights.  It would probably take only 20-30 minutes by plane.

Thanks very much to everyone who wrote blog posts about their trips and those who gave advice via email.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Why Drink Tea?

If you have not stopped by the mandarins tea, read this post and followed the link, please do so now.  The link is to a not so obscure newspaper, The New York Times; the story, of course is about tea.
The story is about a very interesting man, his life, and tea.  Later in life he moved to America and taught the Japanese tea ceremony.  Through this article I was introduced to the Urasenke tea ceremony tradition, and found out about their schools in the US. I like the way the article portrayed the man, and the tradition.  It had me thinking about tea all afternoon.
After dinner yesterday, my wife asked me to make her some tea.  I usually don't drink tea after dinner, because I am sensitive to caffeine.  I hadn't had gongfu cha, or tea brewed with a gaiwan in about three days, as I had been sick and busy.  I had things to do last night, and was thinking about work the next day.  After the water had been heated and the tea things set right, I took a deep breath and noticed such a change in my mind and body.  As I opened the bag of tea, I felt peaceful.  Manipulating the gaiwan, I was content and my muscles relaxed.  Just a few minutes preparing tea, and the whole mood and rhythm of the rest of my evening changed.  Especially approaching the tea table without a desire for tea myself, I remembered why I like tea to drink tea.
I have not been making tea with Chinese/Japanese tea sets for my whole life, I am not a master of tea.  I like the flavor of tea, and often take some in an insulated cup with me to work.  I can understand why people think Chinese/Japanese tea preparation is a bother, but last night I remembered why I like it.  As Mr. Yamada is quoted at the end of the NYT article 'As for those who think they are too busy to make time for tea, “You discover that you are not as busy as you think you are.”'

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Origin of Fenghuang Oolong Tea (ii)

Red Fungus Tea (红菌茶)
  During the Song Dynasty1, the people of Fenghuang mountain found the 'red fungus' tea teas, made tea and drank it. They thought the the flavour very good, and so began digging up young plants and transplanting them around their houses. From this time, the cultivation of tea by the people of Fenghuang started.
  Even today on the ancient Fenghuang mountains, in areas not yet opened for agricultural productions as well as slopes and cliffs, 'red fungus' tea trees still grow.
'Red fungus' is the wild fore bearer of the cultivated 'bird's beak'2 (also called Fenghuang shuixian.3) It is because the gorgeous light red color which appears on the edges of the tender new leaves that this tea gets its name.
  Over many years through the process of growth and natural propagation, there developed 'hong xin' and 'baixin' varieties of 'red fungus' (These are terms used by the locals, the actual leaves are green, and not white.4)
  This variety grows at 450 Meters or more above sea level in barren hills and wild peaks, or in clifftop or amidst brushwood. Sunlight and mist are beneficial, but shade and rain are harmful. They have high resistance to insects, cold and drought, and are a very hardy variety. This variety exhibits strong growth year after year in places like Fenghuangji Mountain's Weiyan cliffs which are 1,498 Meter above sea level, below the sheer rock face of Wanfeng mountain, or the gravelly soil on the slopes of Daxinkuyundu Mountain.
 The appearance of these bushes are almost exactly the same as the 'bird's mouth' tea bush, but there are some differences between them. The first difference is the new tea shoots, one is dark green, the other light, one has hairs, the other none.5 'Red fungus' young leaves not only have hairs, they have lots of them. The second difference is on the back of the 'red fungus' mature leaf, there is hair. The 'bird's beak' has very little or no hair at all.

1 Northern Song 960-1127 Southern Song 1127-1270
2 鸟嘴 niaozui
3 水仙 The same shuixian characters as one of the 4 famous bushes of Wuyishan.
4 红心, hongxin, red center: refers to the reddish color of the leaves of one variety, 白心, baixin, white center: are the plants with normal green color leaves. It seems like they are called white because of a lack of [unusual] color. The book is not why 'xin' (heart or center) is used. It seemed to suggest that the red coloring was on the edges of new leaves.
5 At this point, the text is not explicit about which has hairs and which none, but it can be inferred from the order which they are referred to and the hair of the mature leaves that the 'red fungus' or hongjun is the hairy one at all stages .

Xiaoguang's Tea Tray

My friend just switched to a new larger tea tray.  His old one was bamboo, and beginning to split apart.  His new one is also bamboo, but it is laminated under high pressure with lots of adhesive and a good topcoat of laminate or something similar.  On the left hand side of the tea tray is found the design pictured here .  I had looked at it a few times until I noticed something wrong.  The legend in the upper right hand corner reads as followed (re transcribed from up-down, right-left to left-right, up-down)

I translated the poem, and have arranged it as the artist has above

On the mountain road, the small hut
is refined, travelers
are few. The er-
hu's song
instead of a RA

The use of one English word strikes me so funny here.  At first I didn't understand that the five English letters were one word.   The free verse is beautiful, but what is the English word doing hanging off the end making it almost impossible for English speakers or Chinese speakers to get a full understanding without help unless they speak at least a little of the other language?  Who came up with this? I like how the author made such a simple legend into a poem and a thing of beauty as much through the wording, simplicity and arrangement as through the scene described.  Then, it seems the author becomes a little bit evil... was he thinking that most people who bought this would never really read the whole thing?  Was it a jibe at the complacency of humans to add this bit of a foreign language just to make the customer work for this little gem?  If so, he certainly provided me with some entertainment. My only answer to the question is that this is a haiku, and it works out to the proper number of syllables in Japanese when the English for radio is added.  Unfortunately I don't speak Japanese, so I have no good way of testing this hypothesis.  It works out to 13 syllables in Chinese(including the English), and looks like free verse, although very short.

The Origin of Fenghuang Oolong Tea (i)

Legend has it that the Fenghuang mountains are the birthplace of the She Nationality1, and therefore it is also the origin of oolong tea.  During the Sui, Tang and Song Dynasties, wherever the She people were to be found there were oolong tea bushes cultivated.  The fate of the She people is one unseprable from oolong tea.  They live and flourish in the same areas.  During the Sui dynasty, an earthquake caused a volcanic eruption, and all of the tea bushes in the whole area of Gouwangliao in the Fengniaoji mountains2, the native home of the ancestors of the She people, were killed by the fire.  The only places where gardens remained was in Wudong mountain and Daizhao mountain.3  Following the movement of some of the She people to the east, oolong cultivars were brought to Fujian.  Today, most of the residents of Shiguping village in Fenghuang Town4 are She, Shiguping village's mostly produces Shiguping oolong tea which is one of the famous cultivars of Fenghuang oolong.
  During the Song dynasty, the people of Fenghuang town found a "red fungus tea bush5" with red leaves which were sharp like a bird's beak.  When this was processed and imbibed, they thought this was even better than oolong tea, so they began to experiment with cultivating it.  At this point in time, the Song emperor Zhao Bing6 was being chased by Mongolian troops, he fled south into Chaozhou.7 From this time the legend amoung the people about the emperor Zhao Bing started.  "Zhao bing was on the road to Wudong mountain, and was unbearably thirsty. The mountainfolk offered him the liqour of the 'red fungus tea.' After drinking it he praised the tea, saying it was good." Because of this the people called this 'Song Variety' tea.  Because of these stories, Fenghuang teas probably originated during the Song Dynasty.  With the already supernatural name of Fenghuang (phoenix), upon hearing the story of the thirsty emperor Zhao Bing and his praise of the tea, the name 'birds beak tea' became slowly more and more popular amongst the people.
  Another story has it that the mountain people of Fenghuang heard that the Song emperor was fleeing towards Fenghuang mountain, and boiled tea to welcome his illustrious imperial highness... This story shows that Fenghuang tea already existed during the Song Dynasty.  Some say that Fenghuang tea has a history of over 900 years, some say more than 1000.  Professor Yan Xuecheng of the South China Agricultural University8 isolated a sample of cells from a Fenghuang tea leaf.  From his tests and analysis of the sample he found that the cuticle was of a primitive type.  From these results it can be infered that the history of Fenghuang tea is much older than 1000 years.
  From the time of the first people of Fenghuang mountain discovering and exploiting 'red fungus' to the time of the Ming dynasty; from wild to cultivated; from digging up and transplanting young shoots to using seeds and finally to artificial propagation techniques the people of Fenghuang are constantly practicing careful propagation, screening,ever aggregating experience in order for constant optimization of the tea, and constant development of tea production.

2 凤鸟髻山狗王寮
3 乌岽山, 待诏山
4 凤凰镇石古坪村  The term fenghuang means phoenix in Chinese.  It is the name of a township, and the name of a mountain range in the prefecture of Chaozhou.  Since the tea comes from this area, it is also called phoenix tea.  I hope my translation is clear enough so that the reader can tell when the text refers to each one, and that it is not cofusing.
5 红菌茶树
6 赵昺
7 潮州 Chaozhou is a prefecture in the far east of Guangdong province near Fujian.  The dialect in Chaozhou is actually more similar to Fujian dialect than to Guangzhou dialect.
8 Yan Xuecheng 严学成 教授(professor) of 华南农业大学(South China Agricultural University

My Notes
This is the first I have heard of the She people being the first cultivators of oolong varieties of tea, although this does not prove anything.  Much of the legendary parts of this are open for debate, but then again, some legends do have basis in fact.  I am not sure of the usefulness of this bit of text, but it should serve to edify the translator and perhaps a curious reader or two as to some of the legends surrounding the origins of this wonderful tea.  It does suggest further research - vis. the work of professor Yan Xuecheng of South China Agricultural University.  I plan to do three more short translations from this book about the development of Fenghuang Tea and historical varieties.

This exerpt is taken from a book called 凤凰但从 of the publisher's series 中国名茶丛书 from the publisher 中国农业出版社.  ISBN 7109108759.  This exerpt is from pages 5-6.  My previous post on this same blog of a list of names was an effort to organize all of the names of bushes I found throughout this book.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Phoenix Single Bush Oolong Names

Phoenix Single Bush Oolong or Fenghuang Dancong Wulong (凤凰单枞乌龙) has many different names for different bushes. As confusing and sometimes frustrating for the new connoisseur, this is inevitable because of the very nature of the tea. The goal is to get a tea from a single bush, so logic follows that types of fragrances and then specific bushes should be named. It is mostly for my own edification that I attempt to organize a list of names and translations. I found a list in a book about Dancong Oolong, which I duplicate below with my own translations of the names.

壹 - 黄枝香(栀子花香)型  Gardenia fragrance type
1. 宋种黄枝香      Song variety gardenia fragrance
2. 宋种黄茶香      Song variety yellow tea fragrance
3. 大白叶              Large White Leaf
4. 黄茶香              Yellow tea fragrance
5. 老仙翁              Old fey gaffer
6. 宋种2号            Song variety No. 2
7. 佳常种              Always fine variety
8. 棕蓑挟              palm frond coir clasped under the arm
9. 特选黄枝香      Special selection gardenia fragrance

贰 - 芝兰香型       herbal fragrance type (literally, the glossy ganoderma and the fragrant thoroughwort fragrance type)
1. 八仙                  Eight immortals
2. 宋种芝兰香      Song variety herbal fragrance
3. 竹叶                  Bamboo leaf
4. 鸡笼刊              Chicken cage
5. 芝兰香              Herbal fragrance

叁 - 蜜兰香型       Honey orchid fragrance type
1. 蜜兰香               Honey Orchid fragrance
2. 白叶单枞          White leaf dancong
3. 香番薯              Fragrant sweet potato

肆 - 桂花香型      Osmanthus flower fragrance type

伍 - 玉兰香型      Jade Orchid fragrance type

陆 - 姜花香型      Ginger flower fragrance type
1. 柚叶                  Pomelo leaf
2. 杨梅叶              Waxberry Leaf
3. 姜母香             Ginger root fragrance
4. 火辣茶              Fiery spice tea

柒 - 夜来香型       Fragrance which comes in the night type

捌 - 茉莉香型      Jasmine fragrance type

玖 - 杏仁香型      Almond fragrance type
1. 锯剁仔             Saw cut seed
2. 杏仁香             Almond fragrance

拾 - 肉桂香型     Cassia fragrance type

The Colonial World Fairs Collection

The Dutch East Indies company put on a Colonial World Fair of objects and photographs collected in its colonies. There is now a website where many of these photographs are available for research.

These photos can be searched at a site called The Memory of the Netherlands here. The keyword 'tea' will bring up 15 photos, one of which is shown here. There is one other photo of a man in a tea field, and 3 photos of tea in processing or packaging. More interesting photos are forthcoming if the Dutch word for tea(thee) is input. There are 275 results for Dutch, I tried French, but I didn't put the diacritical over the 'e', so the results weren't useful.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Yuexi Emerald Orchid

Yuexi Emerald Orchid is a new tea from Anhui province (Yuexi Cuilan 岳西翠兰) Yuexi is a county on the border of Hubei province and this tea is a fairly new one. I had never heard of it, but a friend of mine who knows I like tea got his father to buy an extra half kilogram bag of the tea from his hometown to give to me. It was quite a thoughtful present, and great because I had never tried this tea before, and there is nothing I like better than trying a new tea. I was not sure what to expect of the tea from the package. However, It did say that it was organic on the cover, and my friend told me his father likes tea. The bag also proclaims the provincial and national recognition the tea has received. It began receiving awards in 1985, I think it was 1987 when it was declared a 'China Famous Tea' It can be found on babelcarp here

When I opened the bag I smelled the leaves right away. They smelled sweet and little bit like hay.

To brew my first gaiwan I used all leaves that had fallen on the table when I was pouring a portion of the tea out of the bag for use. I used boiling water that had been cooling for a few minutes and used all of the dry leaves pictured in a very small gaiwan. probably about 100ml or less. First poured a bit of water in to smell the fragrance. It smelled like fresh tea leaf -- a little bit like wintergreen.

First Infusion -- I infused this tea for about 45 seconds to a minute because I used few leaves. It was slightly astringent, but not unpleasant. The gaiwan lid smelled vegetal, a little bit like fresh cut grass. The chaqi was light and heady, but easily felt. This tea is certainly a green tea, but unlike the Zhejiang greens that I have been drinking (mostly Longjing and Wuniuzao.) The color of the soup was a bright green, not like the blue-green I was expecting from the description on the package.

Second Infusion -- About 1 minute. Still a little bit astringent, but very refreshing. Strong sweet wintergreen smell on the gaiwan lid. The feeling of the chaqi became more powerful, very heady. I realized during the second infusion that the flavour of this tea was most akin to fresh tea leaves than any other tea I have ever had. During a trek in the mountains last week to collect mountain spring water, my friend and I had been tasting the tea buds of wild tea trees on the path. Vegetal, somewhat evergreen and wintergreen like in flavour. This is what kept coming to mind. There is also a buttery mouthfeel flavour in the background, but the fresh tea leaf dominates.

Third Infusion -- Just over a minute. Weakening, but still refreshing. This tea has a very nice chaqi, which is refreshing, and energizing, but relaxing at the same time. I felt energized, but more mentally than physically. Could definitely feel Chazui coming on sooner than most teas, but in a very pleasant way.

Fourth and Fifth Infusions -- Used boiling water. The tea became much weaker, but was still refreshing and pleasant to drink. Wintergreen on Gaiwan lid still present. The soup in the last picture is from the fourth infusion.

The leaves were very delicate, this tea is very tippy and the leaves are less robust than Zhejiang Greens. I unfolded some of the leaves, but most of the ones that got into the gaiwan were broken, because I had used the fallen pieces. Most of the tea is not so broken up. My first impression is that the flavour of this tea is not very complex, but it is unlike any other green tea I have ever tasted. The only tea that reminds me of the fresh leaf flavour is a cheap Tieguanyin that I bought last November and stored in the freezer for the past 6 months. The Tieguanyin absorbed too much moisture because it was not properly sealed, and became very vegetal, but not in the pleasant way of this tea. It is so tippy, and the chaqi is of such a quality that I feel this tea may have been somewhat expensive. Another indication of quality is the number of infusions. I don't think I have ever gotten this much tea or chaqi out of so little green tea leaf. My friends father bought two bags and kept one. I hope he didn't spend much on me, but am flattered either way. May have to give some of it away in order to finish it before it looses these great attributes. If any of my readers really want to try Yuexi Cuilan, I would consider sending a bit, I don't know if you are allowed to mail the stuff under new Olympic China Post rules, but the regulations should be relaxed by the end of next months.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Wuniuzao Buying Expedition

I went with my friend into the hills of Wuniu village to purchase some of the tea of the same name for sale in his shop. There are small tea gardens all over Wuniu. It is not the same as large tea producing areas in China. Wuniuzao is not a internationally or even nationally famous tea. While it is certainly far from unknown, most of it is sold locally. Because of this, you wont find the same sort of monoculture you would find in places like Anxi(where Tieguanyin is produced) or many places in Yunnan, for example. Even in other parts of Wenzhou, specifically Taishun and parts of western Yueqing where Yandang maofeng has much larger areas of concentrated tea cultivation. The second picture is a Buddhist temple with Wuniuzao in the foreground. This may or may not be grown by the monks, I did not inquire within.

After passing many beautiful sights on the road, we came upon the house of the farmer. Unfortunately the colour of the tea had turned a bit yellow. It was sweet, and still good green tea, but it is harder to sell if the colour is changed, especially when the buyer is giving it as a gift. Colour, leaf shape, entire leaves, as well as short young buds are all important.

Unfortunately, I left the house in a hurry, and neglected to change the camera batteries, so after attempting to take one picture, I had to make do with my cell phone camera.