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.