Thursday, May 14, 2009

Teamaster's and Toptea Hongshui

Hongshui oolong is a style of tea created on the island of Taiwan by mixing Anxi and Wuyi processing techniques. They are ball shaped (like Anxi oolong) but more oxidized (Wuyi oolong) and not as heavily roasted (Anxi oolong). I read this information on the Houde blog here, and it sounds believable. However, in the past I think more oxidization and heavier roasting was more common in Anxi than it is today.

Terence, a tea friend of mine has sent me three different samples of Hongshui, the first I believe was from Houde, and I liked it. But, if I remember correctly it was only one session worth a couple of months ago. Later, after I expressed interest in the Hongshui, Terence sent very generous packages of Hongshui from Teamasters, and Toptea.

The Teamasters Hongshui is from Dongding, it is ruanzhi cultivar, and was plucked in November, 2008. The dry leaf is dark, black and green, and very shiny. The photograph below shows the leaf resting after a flash rinse.

I decided to compare the two teas from Teamasters and Toptea in order to gain some insight into Hongshui. I preheated glass mugs, added about two grams of each tea and infused them in about 75 ml of water for 6 minutes. I also compared a Spring 2008 Classic Dongding at the same time because both Teamaster's teas I had on hand were from Dongding.

I found the Toptea Hongshui darker, and thinner in the mouth. A pleasant fruity flavor, but the huigan was very weak. The Teamasters Hongshui was astringent, cloyingly sweet, and not as pleasant as the Toptea after 6 minutes, but the huigan was very pronounced. When brewed properly, this tea would have a lot to offer. The Dongding was darker, with slightly less huigan, but very intriguing to me personally because of an intense cardamom or mace aroma/taste. It was very hard to pin down exactly, but it reminded me of my father's recipe for mulled cider. I even had hints of cinnamon, but not pungent like cinnamon usually is.

In a comparitive tasting with two gaiwan, I used relatively fewer leaves brewing the Teamasters than with the Toptea. I still found it darker, but thinner in the mouth and with an almost unnoticable huigan compared to the Teamasters. It seemed that the Toptea had a higher oxidation which would explain the darker soup. A more thorough roast would explain the lack of any astringency. Perhaps a more thorough roast would also explain the thinness and lack of huigan, although I am not certain. I am not certain of the prices of any of these teas, as they were gifts, but The Teamasters Hongshui certainly had more to offer.

I later brewed the Teamasters in a zini ball shaped pot which I use for Taiwan oolong. A couple of days later after the pot had dried, I could still smell the distinctive aroma of the Hongshui.

In the first two infusions, there is a mild roasted taste, and a very distinctive hickory flavour. The tea is very sweet when not over infused. The above picture is from the second infusion.

By the fourth infusion pictured above, the roast taste was no longer present.The hickory began to relax by the fifth infusion. By the seventh infusion 4 minutes produced a weak cup, but up until the sixth (pictured below) that powerfuly sweet huigan was still present.

I was impressed by this tea. It has a great huigan, and a good roast, that is noticeable, but that did not affect the tea adversely. In my opinion, one must be careful when brewing this tea because the roast did not penetrate the middle of the leaf fully, so too much leaf or over-infusion will make it cloyingly sweet. This Hongshui tea soup was lighter in color than the other two I have tried, and may be lightly oxidized by Hongshui standards. In Phyll's blog, you can find an excellent picture of a more oxidized 2006 Hongshui also from Teamasters.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Lipton Tea Now Rainforest Friendly

Lipton, a brand owned by Unilever is in the process of having all of it's tea certified rainforest friendly. This doesn't mean much to me personally, but some of the figures quoted by the article in The Guardian were pretty amazing.

"Unilever, a European based Anglo-Dutch food and household products maker ... accounts for about 12 percent of the world's tea..."

Read the rest of the article here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hongshui and Taiwan Oolong Education

Let me start out by saying that I have tried a lot of "Taiwan Oolong" teas. However in the past few weeks I have realized that I don't know as much about Taiwan Oolong as one ought to after trying so many. My latest sojourn in China has lasted almost two years at this point, and I have had a few different Dongdings, Alishans, Dongfangmeiren, a Guifeicha and countless high mountain oolongs and many just marked "Taiwan syle oolong."

Late last year, I began trading teas with a couple of people in North America, and one of my tea friends Terence seems to have taken it upon himself to provide me an education in Taiwan oolong. I don't mean to sound facetious, as I am sure this wasn't premeditated, but it is what he acheived.

In addition to many other nice oolongs that Terence sent, he ordered me a Dongding Classic and a Hongshui from Teamasters. I opened the Dongding as soon as it arrived, and the first brewing was quite enjoyable. I had never had such an oxydized dongding before, and had never really understood what made Dongding teas special at all (one of the pitfalls of drinking fake TW oolong thats really from Fujian.) However, I quickly lost interest in the Dongding because I believed I had ruined it by not sealing it properly. Everytime it was infused it was overbearingly sour and so cloyingly sweet I would get a stomachache.

In general I noticed that many of the teas tasted like they had absorbed a lot of water and often tasted very sour compared to the "Taiwan" teas I had enjoyed previously. I tried roasting in my rice cooker and even a little pan frying to liven things up. Finally, while perusing some ancient entries in MarshalN's web log I read through a post about Taiwan oolong which helped to explain my conundrum. Taiwan ball shaped oolong is generally tighter than their Fujian counterpart. The roasting, therefore, cannot penetrate as easily to the center of the ball. Anxi oolongs usually have the stems removed and each ball is one individual leaf. Taiwan oolongs include the stem and many larger balls are made up of two leaves and a bud.  The stem can also influence the taste of a tea, often adding mouthfeel; but will absorb water easily and can cause a sour taste.

When I finally put all the pieces together I began to brew these oolongs less agressively. I used less leaf and was careful not to overbrew, and I began to finally capture the fleeting and elusive tastes I had been only able to extract rarely from so many of these teas.  I habitually drink Yancha, like a lot of leaf and don't mind an overbrew, but can't stand a weak cup. To brew my newfound Taiwanese teas, almost opposite parameters were required, and this also helped me to pay more attention to Yancha brewing and overbrew less. I began to get eight infusions where previously I was getting only three. Strong Yancha is still a personal favorite, but exploring a tea in all of its potential can be quite satisfying.

The next entry in this web log will attempt to compare Teamaster's Dongding Hongshui from October, 2008 with two other teas. 

Thursday, April 23, 2009

2009 Yancha Harvest Has Started


A tea picker with baskets full of the spring tea harvest in Wuyishan, Fujian province.


Each day the local temperature is rising steadily. Last year the tea harvest started in earnest in May, This year in the second half of April the harvest is already in full swing.


Pickers harvesting Dahongpao in Tianxin village.


Tea pickers taking advantage of the clear weather to pick tea in the mountains.

Original article from Xinhua news

Monday, April 20, 2009

Shanghai Yuyuan Garden Tea Festival

A short video in English about Shanghai's Yuyuan Garden Tea Festival. Not very informative, but enough to make me wish I was there.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Chaozhou Style Tea Stove

My tea stove for Chaozhou style Gongfu tea arrived by courier this Friday. I was so happy when it finally arrived that I fired it up right away, and made a huge mess in my mother in law's kitchen. I remember a thread on Teachat where someone asked if you could use one of these things inside. The answer is certainly not. They don't burn very well without lots of fanning which blows ashes everywhere. (Below is a picture of my stove in the process of covering my mother in law's kitchen in a thick coat of ash.)

One thing I did not realize about these thing is how hard they these stoves are to get going. Perhaps mine has a bad draught, but it took me over an hour to get water boiling. This is hard for me to admit because I pride myself at being good at burning things. The second time I got the fire going faster by making a tool to get the charcoal started. I put a wire handle on a can and poked big holes in the bottom. The olive pit charcoal goes into the can which is then held over a gas stove burner.

This stove was originally sold as an alcohol lamp setup with the option to add a clay center which holds the charcoal which can be seen behind the dollar bill in the first picture. Unfortunately the outer stove cracked because of the high heat. I considered trying to get a replacement, but I think I will find a proper charcoal stove or just wait until I go to Chaozhou where they should be plentiful and cheap. (Cracked stove pictured below)

The kettle is small, about 500 ml, but it is enough when doing Gongfucha with a very small pot. If you go above 100 ml pot, you can only get about 2 infusions and then you have to wait another half an hour for the water to boil. I used cold water for the first kettle, and then used pre-boiled water from an insulated bottle for subsequent kettles. The mouth of spout is very small which I didn't like at first, but it allows for very accurate pouring. The name of the designer is stamped between the spout and handle.

I like the side handle on this kettle, it seems well designed and allows for comfortable pouring. The knob on the lid is very thin and stays cool enough to touch even when the kettle has been boiling for awhile. The lid is very thin and flat and seems very delicate. I am afraid it would fall off when pouring if not held on. Besides the lid, my only other problem with the kettle is that it seems to have some sort of light glaze. The bottom of the outside of the kettle seems to be glaze free, but there is some glaze on the inside of the kettle. In the picture below, the line where the glaze ends on the inside is visible. It looks like part of the bottom is wet, and part is dry. It is actually all wet, the darker area is the 'glaze.' The glaze is very thin and does not really look like most glazes, so it may be something else as I am not familiar with pottery and ceramics. Glaze is mostly an issue because the olive pit charcoal smoke supposedly imparts some of it's characteristics on the water in the kettle. Perhaps this is just sales pitch to move Olive pit charcoal at 10 USD per pound.

Of course the most important question is how much difference all this equipment makes on the final product. Despite all the bother and mess, I was not disappointed. I brewed my GuShuCha, or Ancient tree tea which I bought from Mrs. Yu in Wuyishan, and was well pleased. This tea had a better mouth feel, was significantly sweeter and the Yanyun (岩韵)was more pronounced. I especially noticed a difference in the Chaqi, both in the head and stomach. I have consumed about a half pound of this tea in the past few months, and tried it with water from a spring, bottled waters, filtered waters and water boiled with bamboo charcoal; but the tea was far more enjoyable steeped in untreated tap water boiled in this stove. I also used a brand new unseasoned (Dahongpao)Zhuni pot.

I also tried the April 2008 Fenghuang Dongding Classic from Teamasters. This tea was also more enjoyable when brewed in a gaiwan with water heated on the stove. Unfortunately I had previously ruined this delightful tea by not sealing it properly. It was quite nice before I let it absorb moisture.

In conclusion, these stoves seem to make a difference in the quality of the water. They are quite fun to play with, and the patient will enjoy brewing tea with these. I now fully understand why according to the traditional Chaozhou gongfu rules, a stove is placed seven steps from the tea set. With overenthusiastic fanning, guests would be covered in ash. I also read that when a gentleman constructs a tea house, he ought to hire a servant boy to clean up and help make tea. I fully endorse this suggestion. I don't see myself a gracious enough host to entertain guests with erudite references to the classics while sweating over a tiny stove seven steps away slowly becoming coated in ash. I shall hire a servant boy immediately. 

Zhejiang (and Guizhou) Green Teas

Yesterday I had a great tea day. I went to my friend's shop because he had some tea merchants from Lishui (a prefecture level division of Zhejiang province) at his shop.  They brought Anji Baicha, Xihu Longjing and Wuniuzao in large boxes and bags, altogether there must have about 200 pounds of tea. I took a blurry picture of all the boxes of tea which I won't post. (Below is a photo of some tea samples. The larger green leaves[upper left] are 'Anji baicha,' the other two are 'Wuniuzao.')
I really liked the white tea that they brought, although I thought it tasted a lot like green tea. Finally I realized that what they meant by 'baicha' was actually 'Anji baicha,' which is just a green tea from Anji in Zhejiang that is called white tea.  (Pictured below)

I drank about 4 different varieties of tea, and they were all enjoyable as green tea always is when it is new. (Pictured below is one of their 'wuniuzao' teas)

Of course, none of the teas were actually grown in the areas they were supposed to have been grown in. All were grown and processed in Lishui. It is very hard to sell green tea for a good price in many places in China if it is not a famous name. I don't drink enough green tea to really be able to tell just by looking that these teas were not real, and they still tasted good. I did notice that the tea they were calling 'Wuniuzao' did not have the dark fat 'posterior' which is common to first flush teas of that varietal.

On Friday I looked in on a new tea shop opening up near my friends, they sell only green tea from Guizhou. I tried some of their most expensive tea which was called Cuiya (翠芽, emerald buds or emerald shoots.) It was a very well made green using only very short buds, no leaves. The firing was also done well as the buds almost all stood upright at the bottom of the glass. I usually like to drink a lower end green tea with leaf/bud sets as they have a more robust flavor, but this tea had a rather full flavor. It was slightly hard to enjoy as they were still remodelling and the whole place stank of paint.

The Guizhou shop also used a lot of big names like Biluochun, Zhuyeqing, etc. They said this was just a way to describe the processing method and not an attempt at tricking people. They hadn't stocked all their teas yet so I couldn't check them all out.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Heap of Tea

This past October I made a trip to Wuyishan and bought a fair amount of tea, which in the past few months has been almost completely consumed. It was clearly time to order more.

I have been meeting lots of nice tea people online, and some of us got together to make a group purchase. The Yancha on the counter here is about 12 kilograms of Beidou #1 and Laocong Shuixian. The roast is pretty heavy at the moment, but ought to relax nicely in the next month. All told, the roasting at this tea factory is pretty good, but there was a sample of Shuijingui which got burned. I recommend over roasting a small portion of stale tea to anyone who has never done it, because I can't describe the flavour and even if its slight, it never goes away and its very different from a heavy roast.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Ninth Eccentric of Yangzhou

Walk from Yixing number one factory past the gate of the number two factory, and then cross the street. The studio of the 'Ninth Eccentric of Yangzhou' is two small rooms slightly below the level of the street. There is an eccentric mix of not so old antiques, and dusty paintings hung so close together that the edges are frayed. Two bird cages hang near the door, from the bottom of one of these hangs a tiny fighting cricket cage with the dried carpace of a formerly large cricket.

The "Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou" were eight scholars and artists from Yangzhou, Jiangsu province. The Ninth Eccentric is certainly an artist. The casual observer recognizes this fact immediately as he wears two scarves, a velveteen suit jacket, long hair and a goatee.

This artist's paintings were not very appealing to me in terms of style, but his Yixing carving was some of the best I have seen in Yixing. I selected a tea canister and a small tray which I use for gongfucha. It is not my intention to come across overly sarcastic in my description. The workshop was cold, the paintings not to my liking, and the artist himself likable and strange at the same time. There was an overabundance of Mao era memorabilia and "antiques" of this kind. At the same time he reminds me of the old books describing Yangxian (Yixing) pots. They werethe product of a co-operation of potters and scholars who would carve a line on the pots, or design their ideal tea pot and press their chop underneath it. This 9th Eccentric of Yangzhou truly creates some beautiful Yixing artwork

Friday, January 16, 2009

Tea in Winter

A heavy frost will damage the crop.

But a light frost will improve the flavour of next spring's tea.

Tea flowers have opened and wilted already.

The view over a tiny tea field down into the valley. The frost melts quickly under the direct sun, while frost it the shade lasts until late in the day

When climbing in the hills, one cannot always stop to boil water, but holding a few tender buds in the mouth refreshes the spirit as well as weary feet. Frost covered buds were sweeter and more fragrant.

Friday, January 9, 2009

My Trip to Yixing

Last week I went to Yixing for 7 days. I think this time of year was probably the best time to go to Yixing, as no one else was there! The busiest time of the year is in March and April. In case anyone else is planning to go, the place to shop for pots is not in the center of the city of Yixing, but in the town of Ding Shan which is part of the county of Yixing, but lies 14 kilometers from the city center. Entering Dingshan by bus, one is impressed by how devoted they whole place is to earthenware clay. The most striking part of the landscape is the profusion of abandoned gas stations. Remarkably tall domed pavilions were erected over the pumps. Many over 20 meters tall. The large paved areas of these old filling stations have all been commandeered as storage facilities for oxidizing the rock that will be crushed for Yixing clay.

Ding Shan would be a miserable place to spend a week if you didn't like teapots, or at least some sort of earthenware or ceramics. For example: flowerpots and large jars. The main attractions of Ding Shan besides the shopping are the Yixing factories number one and two, the Yixing museum and the place where famous Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo went to school.

Stone Marker with Dongpo written on it

Previously, the Yixing ware shops were spread around all parts of the town of Yixing. There was a large market across from the museum, which is almost abandoned now, however many artists keep studios on the grounds adjacent to the museum. There is also a market next to the bus station and many shops on Jiefang Rd. Probably the most expensive place to buy a pot are the shops inside the grounds of Factory number one. I expect prices are so high there because rent is too. There are lots of decent shops near factory number one as well.

In the past few years people have been moving slowly buy surely to the new ceramic market. This is a very large area full of shops which specialize in Yixing and nothing else. The new market has at least 8 sections. Each section has roughly 20 buildings, and each building has around 10-20 shops depending on the size of the individual building and of the shops.

The New Market

The new market has shops which deal only in Yixing teapots, with a few selling tea and other tea supplies. There are barely enough restaurants, convenient stores and hotels to keep one alive though ones pot shopping experience. I stayed in a hotel within district H. There was a computer in the room, and the place was new so I was very pleased at 120 RMB per night.

Yixing was a great place to explore, I felt a week was not quite enough, but I did waste a lot of time helping a friend purchase supplies for his retail outlet. We saw the sights within Yixing, but did not explore any of the beautiful countryside beyond.

Shrinkage in Zhuni Pots

I know zhuni shrinks a lot, but I never realized how dramatic it really is. A picture I took in Yixing illustrates this more succinctly than I ever could in words. On the right is the raw zhuni pot and on the left is the fired one. They are from the same mold.

I was talking to a potter who told me fake wrinkles were made on zhuni pots by pressing toilet paper onto the unfired clay. Below are pictures of the toilet paper supposedly used to fake the wrinkes.

Toilet paper texture

This toilet paper is a lot different than what I grew up with and is not super soft. I thought other Americans might not understand using toilet paper to fake zhuni, but it really does remind me of zhuni wrinkles.

Toilet paper packaging