Apr 29, 2010

2010 Shincha News (7) - Da Fo Long Jing Price Index

2010 Shincha News (6) is here.

News is from Xin Chang International Tea Expo. Xin Chang, the Geographic Patent production region of Da Fo Long Jing, launched its Price Index Bulletin. This is something ever new to Chinese green tea! I am both amazed and delighted by it.

The direct outcome is, prices of tea become ever most transparent to farmers, dealers, retailers and, of course, tea drinkers. There will be more confidence and less guessing in tea trades. Although the Price Index is for Da Fo Long Jing only, many tea professionals believe this will serve as an important reference index to other tea varieties. Da Fo Long Jing is one of the top ten famous teas of Zhejiang province. Zhejiang is the largest green tea province in China. And green tea has more market coverage in China than other teas. Therefore, the Price Index can be influential in various tea markets in China.

The Price Index is based on Da Fo Long Jing daily trades carried out by the 21 largest providers in Xin Chang County, computed with statistical formulas. The Price Index is computed daily, weekly, monthly, and then an annual Index will be computed based on records in May. For example, the bulletin in the photo shows wholesale prices of #43 cultivar Da Fo Long Jing of different grades on April 21, 2010.

* What does this mean to tea farmers?
- Tea farmers will know what the fair market price is. Small farmers can refer to the Price Index when they sell their tea. They may not get the best price, but they won't get lost and sell their tea for too low price to a dealer.

* What does this mean to tea dealers?
- Tea dealers will have a better idea about what is the best price they can get. When they buy large amounts from large providers, the price should be quite consistent with the Index. When they buy smaller amount, the price will be higher, but with the Index serving as a reference.

* What does this mean to retailers?
- Retailers will pay more than dealers. But they will be looking at the Index and decide how much more they are willing to pay. In addition, a current trend is more and more retailers deal with tea farmers directly, and the Index provides useful price information.

* What does this mean to consumers?
- Consumers know the product price has to include operational costs of the retailer and the dealer. But with the Price Index, consumers will know much better how much the retailer markup is. There should be some profits earned by the retailer. But if the markup is too high, then the consumers will know the retailer either stretch for too much profit or doesn't have the best supply source. And they will look for other retailers that provide more reasonable price.

* What does this mean to international retailers and consumers?
- Theoretically it helps when international buyers know about domestic market prices. For some products (such as electronics, and, maybe, puerh), this is not hard, thanks to the modern information technology. But for many tea products, when the domestic market is highly disordered, and even domestic buyers are  not sure of the "real" price, it will be even harder for international buyers to know the market. Inevitably, international buyers will have to pay markups due to shipping and other operational costs. But it helps a lot knowing what percentage of their payment comes from the cost of tea and how much everything else costs them.

The system is brand new and we have yet to see how well it works and how precise the Price Index is. But I believe this is a good start, and the application of Price Index may extend to other regions and for other teas. Most Chinese tea products are completely manufactured in hands of tea farmers. That means, all the rest of the tea trade chain, dealers, distributers and retailers, mainly provide service of trading, distributing, packaging and selling, without any value-added processing to the tea itself. Therefore the Price Index reflect key information on the cost of the tea. (- with some tea blends and flavored teas as exceptions, but tea blends are generally rare in Chinese teas, and most naturally flavoring of tea, such as Jasmine flavoring, is done by farmers or local factories.)

One Price Index can't provide a consumer everything she needs in tea shopping. Many retailers strive to offer excellent customer service, user friendly shopping system and nice service environment. All of these will be rewarded by the market. The Price Index can't possibly cover products with extremely small amount (which may not be the case in Da Fo Long Jing but possibly for some other teas). The Price Index will not likely help markets of "the most famous teas" such as Xi Hu Long Jing and Bi Luo Chun (basically they are so hot and almost nobody can predict or control their prices). But still, I believe the Price Index can be a powerful tool for both consumers and tea professionals, because in today's market, very often tea is more mysterious than what most people would love it to be, and the price index promotes the transparency of tea market.

In recent years, some tea drinkers, including me, almost miss the era of state-owned tea companies, when there was consistent standards on grading of almost every tea, when the best tea professionals in the country worked for state-owned companies, when the price was consistent across board and proportional to quality. But it's only fair to say there were also a lot of problems at that time, and top quality teas are more accessible nowadays. In all these years of market chaos, tea business is actually thriving. But now for the "tea industry" to further thrive, probably it's time to use some market tools like the Price Index to keep the trade in order.

Apr 26, 2010

Meng Ding Snow Bud (Xue Ya) (蒙頂雪芽)

Let me say first that I do love this tea very much. I will describe all the great features of this tea first, and then tell a little about my mixed feelings about this tea.

Mount Meng is one of the most famous tea mountain in China with probably the longest culture history. In ancient time, people believed "brewing Meng Ding (top of Mt. Meng) tea with water from the center of Yangzi River" is the highest level of tea enjoyment. The harvest standard of Snow Bud on top of Mt. Meng is, when there are only 5% of the tea bushes start budding. It takes about 80,000 tea leaf buds to make roughly 500g of the final tea product. A skillful tea harvest worker may well spend half a day to get just enough tea leaf buds to make 100g final tea product.

Dry tea leaves - they should actually be called tea buds!

I've just realized that I had been anal about NOT using a scale. Although I use a scale to weigh tea all the time for other people, I never knew the exact amount of tea I used in each cup! So today I thought I would just use a scale, at least once :-D It turned out I used 2.5g leaves. It's about just right amount for me. So I think up to 3g tea in a mug will be ok. More than 3g will make the mug too crowded with tea leaves.

I used the middle-throw method (中投法)as described in the post about Long Jing.

I am obsessive about the view of tea leaves in water!

I think I said just a few days ago that Huang Shan Mao Feng has the most beautiful leaves. But these guys are actually as good, or even prettier!

The leaves dance in water, up and down, up and down...

Then finally most of them sink to the bottom. I love the way how they stand up straight all the time.

The taste: light vegetal, with sweet aftertaste. It feels clean and moist in mouth, and the tea radiates some cool feeling even in hot water.

This is first yellow tea we've ever carried. Yellow tea was developed from green tea technique. After the tea is heated (in this case, pan-fried) to have the enzymes killed), the tea is allowed further oxidation with optimal temperature and humidity. Therefore, oxidation in yellow tea is different from oxidation in black tea or oolong. In yellow tea, the oxidation is not catalyzed by the tea's own enzymes, but triggered by outside environment factors such as temperature and humidity.

Here comes my mixed feelings.

Oxidation of this tea is very light. If we compare this tea and another Meng Ding Snow Bud I had last year, the differences are big, although both teas are great. The other tea has larger buds, and deeper oxidation, and therefore more typical sweet taste of a yellow tea.

Currently in China, Green Tea still dominates. A direct outcome is, many other teas are green-tea-ized. The most popular Tie Guan Yin is made to be very green. And many yellow tea products is made very green.

Recently I discussed with a friend who has dealt with yellow tea for many years. In his opinion, it's not possible to make Meng Ding Snow Bud into typical yellow tea with deeper oxidation, because the buds are so young and tender. On the other hand, the other Meng Ding Snow Bud I had last year (which I loved very much), in his opinion, is more typical yellow tea, but should be called Meng Ding Yellow Bud (Huang Ya) instead of Snow Bud, because the buds are larger than the standards of Snow Bud. So here is the trade-off, you may choose the precious Snow Bud, but it can't have the typical oxidation level of a yellow tea. On the other hand, the bonus is, if we forget about the yellow tea, and compare this tea with a green tea, the price of this tea is much more friendly than a first-harvest green tea with comparable youth and tenderness.

I hesitate to call this tea yellow tea, because, as you can see, from leaves to liquor, it's all green! I hesitate to call it green tea either, because it does intend to be a yellow tea, and it does have some nice sweet aftertaste of yellow tea. I guess it's not my own dilemma and it's shared by many tea people.

Apr 24, 2010

Discussion on Long Jing (1)

Historic Site of Long Jing (or so called "Dragonwell") - Courtesy of 家在龙井村 at http://wangxl123.blog.sohu.com/

 In Long Jing (just as in many other teas), there are a lot of confusions, ambiguity, misunderstandings, odd terms, conflicting views... yet it is one of the favorite tea beverages, adored by many people, from emperors to ordinary citizens, across China and world wide. I hope, through discussions, we can have clearer view of Long Jing. If that can't be achieved, then just for the fun of talking about it :-D

I started this discussion on Steepster a few weeks ago, and found myself writing long and dry information on and on :-p But I will try to write more. Here is what I've already posted on Steepster:

I have been pondering on this for a while, and would like to start a discussion about it. Not sure if it should be in the general discussion, I will put it under "companies and promotions" (since inevitably I will have to mention a few of my favorite products, which are sold in our store). However, the purpose of this thread is not promotion. Nor do I mean to give people one-directional advice. I will talk about my understanding of Long Jing tastes, and would love to hear what people think. Long Jing (like many other teas), is like an unfathomable pond. It may take forever to thoroughly understand it, but it's always fun to explore it.

I will focus my discussion on factors affecting Long Jing flavor, and how can one choose a Long Jing product based on these factors. I will go over these factors in this sequence: climate (brief), cultivar, harvest date, geographic site of plantation and processing.

Factors affecting tea flavors:
The flavor of most tea products are determined by several key factors, including cultivar from where the tea is harvested, geographic region where the tea is grown, climate of the production year, harvest time and how well the tea is processed. For Long Jing, all these factors are important, but some contributes more to the final quality of the tea.

1. Climate factor
For Long Jing (and many other green teas), the drinkers’ focus is almost entirely on the early spring tea of the current year. Therefore climate of the production year is entirely out of control of tea drinkers.

2. Harvest date
Compared with other tea genres such as black (red) tea and oolong, harvest date of Long Jing is extremely important, because during the harvest season (late March to early May), the new leaves and buds change every day. Each year, prices of Long Jing products are directly related to their harvest dates, and generally the earlier the harvest, the more expensive the tea is (if other cultivation conditions are same). In the harvest season, the day of Qing Ming (which is April 4th or April 5th on international calendar) is a landmark. The pre-Qingming tea is made with the youngest and freshest leaves. Gu Yu (also called Grain Rain, around April 20th on international calendar) is another landmark. Tea before Gu Yu is also very fresh, but not as precious as pre-Qingming tea. Therefore, early spring harvest of Long Jing can be divided in three sections.
1.     Pre-Qingming, which is from late March to the day of Qing Ming.
2.     Pre-Guyu, which is from the day of Qing Ming to the day of Gu Yu.
3.     After Rain (post-Guyu), which is after April 20.

Pre-Qingming Long Jing is the most precious. However, tea tasting is always subjective, and some people do prefer pre-Guyu tea to pre-Qingming tea. Pre-Qingming Long Jing has more subtle, sweet flavor (often described by Chinese tea professionals as “chestnut-y”, while pre-Guyu tea has stronger toasty flavor which may be favored by people who have heavier taste on tea.

Pre-Qingming Long Jing also has the best leaf shape, each piece of tea has one bud and one or two small leaves. In Chinese green tea drinking, watching the leaves dancing in water is an important part. This also contributes to people’s enthusiasm at pre-Qingming Long Jing.

3.   Cultivar
Long Jing, sometimes is taken as a tea processing method, sometimes as a place (Long Jing Village), and sometimes as the name of tea cultivars named Long Jing (including a few similar cultivars). Traditionally it was simple – Ling Jing was just understood as tea from Long Jing cultivar cultivated in Long Jing village and surrounding areas. In modern agriculture, the Long Jing cultivar is propagated into different regions of the province, even to other provinces. And traditional Long Jing production region (such as Long Jing Village) started to grow non-Long Jing cultivars (most of which are early ripe cultivars, because the tea can be sold for a very high price in late February to Mid-March, before the real Long Jing is harvested).

(I once discussed in my blog about Wu Niu Zao, a non-Long Jing cultivar that is commonly used to make Long Jing style tea, even in the hometown of Long Jing.

The names of Chinese tea are very confusing. Some teas are named after their cultivars (such as Da Hong Pao and Tie Guan Yin), but many are named in other ways. I personally wish the name Long Jing restrictively used on tea made from Long Jing cultivars only. But there is no strict official definition yet for the term Long Jing. Therefore, I believe it’s always important to know what tea cultivar your Long Jing is from. After all, the genetics of a tea determines many of its most important inner characters. Cultivar is a more important determining factor of the tea quality than all the other factors discussed here. For example, if you like Gala apple, you may find Gala apples shipped from different states share much more similarity to each other than the similarity between Gala apple and Macintosh apple from the same ranch. 

When I buy Long Jing, I stick to Long Jing #43 and Long Jing Jiu Keng Group cultivar, two popular Long Jing cultivars of relatively large annual production. Between the two cultivars, many people believe Jiu Keng Group cultivar tastes much better, but some people believe both are great and each has its own characters. In terms of leaf shape, Long Jing #43’s leaves look slightly prettier, and this partially contributes to its popularity. Besides, Long Jing #43 grow buds and leaves about one to two weeks earlier than Jiu Keng Group cultivar, and the latter one sometimes does not have pre-Qingming harvest.

It’s up to each tea drinker to find out which Long Jing cultivar she likes the best. But I would definitely find out the cultivar of a Long Jing product before purchase, and I believe cultivar overrules harvest date and production region.

Apr 23, 2010

Gongfu vs. mug brewing (3) Oriental Beauty (Bai Hao Oolong)

Introduction and index of these experiment series of Gongfu vs. mug brewing is here.

I've taken some mug brewing tasting notes at Steepster.

So far I've done mug brewing for 2 Oriental Beauty products I have. Here are the dry tea leaves, with Superior (higher) Grade on the top.

I think, this tea is perfect for mug brewing! The mug is great for the optimal brewing leaf:water ratio of this tea. And tea leaves of Oriental Beauty seem very forgiving and cope with of long infusions very well. Besides, there is no problem for all the leaves to sink to the bottom, which makes drinking from a mug easy and convenient. 

The two Oriental Beauty products have slightly different styles. The Superior Grade product (by the way  it's my favorite Oriental Beauty so far, and was reviewed by Eric in Tea Finely Brewed) has slightly larger leaves, and the flavor leans more toward sweet, floral and honey, while the other one feels warmer with deeper spicy, cinnamon aroma. Both of them performed really well in mug brewing. Unlike some of my other mug brewing experience, I feel these products are not short changed by mug brewing at all. I guess the reason is, Gongfu brewing is mostly for large amount of leaves and shorter infusion time, which is not essential for Oriental Beauty. When Gongfu-brewing Oriental Beauty, I would use more leaves than in mug-brewing, but still not as many leaves as when I brew most other oolongs. In most oolong Gongfu-brewing, my teapot or gaiwan ends up loosely filled with leaves. But I prefer using less tea for Oriental Beauty. Still, Gongfu-brewing will yield more infusions. But even in mug-brewing, both of these two products can easily give more than 3-4 infusions. 

If I arbitrarily assign a grade A for this tea in gongfu brewing, then I will give mug brewing an A as well.

Will I mug brew it again? - Sure I will. Recently more and more often, I take a glass mug with loose tea and a small thermal pot to meetings. I enjoy the tea, and enjoy having people curiously stare my tea, or even curiously ask for a sip! I mostly use a mug for Chinese green tea, but realizing the convenience of carrying a mug everywhere, I am now even more motivated to discover more teas with mug-brewing potential.

Will I recommend mug brewing of this tea to other people? - Definitely! Besides, I would recommend Oriental Beauty to all the black tea lovers. In my eyes, Oriental Beauty has many favorable characteristics of black tea. Actually I am often feel a little puzzled this is not called a "black tea". Oriental Beauty is basically a oolong, made with oolong processing method. But on the other hand, with >60-80% oxidation, it almost can be called a black tea!

Apr 21, 2010

2010 Shincha News (6)

2010 Shincha News (5) is here.

The busiest season for most Chinese green teas has passed.

Huang Shan Mao Feng harvest ended around April 20. In some regions, production was reduced by early April rain. But the rain only made tea leaves grow more slowly and better! Huang Shan Mao Feng grows bud later than many other green teas, and didn't suffer from the early March snow weather. The cold weather did postpone the tea harvest, which is not entirely bad. Many people say, the post-Qingming (harvested after April 5) tea quality of this year is comparable to pre-Qingming tea of the past years. And the small amount of pre-Qingming tea is just wonderful! In the remote mountains, many Huang Shan Mao Feng farmers don't enjoy as many economic opportunities as their colleagues in Long Jing and Tie Guan Yin production regions. Due to reduced production of Long Jing and other famous teas, this year, Yellow Mountain tea villages attracted more tea buyers and for many farmers, it's a season of happiness and good fortune.

Xi Hu Long Jing harvest is close to an end. But there is still tea harvested after Gu Yu (Around April 20 of each year). For tea farmers, post-Guyu harvest doesn't bring in as much income as early harvest, but a thorough harvest is essential for the health of Long Jing tea bush. The post-Guyu (Yu Hou, or After Rain) Long Jing is of much lower price. It's not at the same quality level as early harvest, but still has rich flavor and is a good economic choice. For American buyers, due to the high cost of shipping, it may not be always worth it to buy post-Guyu Long Jing. We will see if we can get some and make it as an economic option of our Long Jing collection. Because of the great tea processing tradition in Hangzhou, post-Guyu authentic Xi Hu Long Jing is still very well made and so much better than many other unauthentic Long Jing of even earlier harvests.

Snowflakes on Green Lake (Bi Tan Piao Xue), a jasmine green tea made with youngest spring tea leaves, is being made now. I am enthusiastically looking forward to it. The combo of elegant jasmine flower and tender tea leaves is just great for this season. For lovers of jasmine green tea, I would recommend this tea as the highest level of jasmine green tea.

For oolong lovers, the season of excitement is coming. Tie Guan Yin will come in mid May, as well as many other varieties. Before May, there will be some Tie Guan Yin products hitting Chinese market. But most of them are from warmer areas of lower elevation. The best high mountain tea still needs more time to grow. Due to the high shipping cost, we will wait till May to get our first group of 2010 spring Tie Guan Yin and other oolongs.

Meantime, you don't have to wait for spring oolong harvest. Autumn products of 2009 are very good and they have their seasonal features. Besides, after a year of rest, 2009 charcoal roasted Tie Guan Yin tastes even better now!

So little time, so many teas to drink! Do you know that more than 80% of the Chinese tea products we enjoy today were developed in only the past 200 years? And we constantly enjoy teas that were tributes restrictive to the emperor family of Qing dynasty. Aren't we lucky people!

Apr 19, 2010

Semi-wild pre-Qingming Huang Shan Mao Feng

Huang Shan Mao Feng is probably my favorite green tea. It tastes like high mountain mist, last for more infusions than most Chinese green teas, and it has the most handsome leaves!

This year, the first Huang Shan Mao Feng I've got is a very unique one. It's made with semi-wild tea leaves. These tea bushes were planted in the planned-economy era of China. Then in 1990s, with urbanization and development of (what I would call) capitalism, more and more farmers went to metropolitan China to work in large factories or as janitors, sanitation workers, waiters and in various other urban, low-income professions. Therefore, these tea bushes were abandoned for over ten years. They started to mingle with other wild trees and bushes. Then, in recent years, the fields were bought up by a small tea factory in Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain), and they started to take care of the tea bushes. Their way of taking care is merely manual management to maintain the shape of the tea bushes. There isn't much more that can be done. The fields are very much isolated from the outside world. The only road leading to the tea fields is barely 6 feet in width. The slopes are extremely steep, perfect for growth of tea but not for "modern" agriculture. There isn't any pesticide or artificially synthesized fertilizer applied to the tea bushes. Although the product is not certified organic, it is organic tea in real sense.

After a few experimenting years, this is the first year relatively large amount of teas is produced in these fields - roughly 15 lb. produced from the first harvest, and some more to come from later harvests in early and mid-April.

Here is a photo the tea factory sent to me about their semi-wild tea fields. It's my type of small heaven!

The ultimate evaluation of a tea is based on its flavor. In my opinion, the greatest difference between semi-wild tea and regular tea is richer flavor. For green tea, early spring is the best season (and the only season for many products). The earlier the harvest, the more refreshing flavor a tea has. Then in later harvests, flavor becomes heavier, but meantime, some bitter, astringent side tastes may build up too. The semi-wild tea has the pure taste of early spring, but it has richer flavor than other teas harvested at the same time.

Natural beauty of the dry leaves.

I always use a glass to brew Huang Shan Mao Feng. Can't miss the view of tea dance!

I love it when the leaves all "stand up" in the water like many little trees.

When most leaves sink to the bottom, the tea is ready for drinking. If you gently blow the water surface, you can "drive" away the suspending leaves. Many people would prefer using a gaiwan, to avoid any fight with the leaves. When using a gaiwan, I believe it's a good idea to leave the lid OFF most of the time.

I think I've got to get a glass gaiwan for green teas!

The tea has a light green bean / edema-me aroma. The first infusion doesn't feel as strong as some other teas. But the first 3-4 infusions are very consistent in flavor, and the refreshing aroma doesn't get weaker. As a thrifty-minded person, I re-infused this tea for many times. To other tea drinkers, I would recommend at least 5 infusions. This tea lasts more infusions than most other green teas I've seen.

To me, this is the most exciting time of Spring!

Semi-wild tea bushes/trees are rare, but are found in various tea production regions (such as Anhui, Fujian and Yunnan). Some of them will become completely wild and dissolve in the background of wild woods. Some of them may be reclaimed by tea farmers. I believe, what this small tea factory in Huang Shan has done, managing them at a natural level, is a best way to treat these semi-wild tea bushes.

The most celestial taste of tea often comes with some heavy topics. Drinking this tea, I can't help pondering on the tea agriculture and tea "industry", and all the impacts it receives from social changes.

Why were the tea field abandoned in 1990s? Obviously, tea farmers could earn more money as janitors and waiters in a large city! Today, the redemption of abandoned tea fields is a good sign. The tea is valued much more than it was in 1990s. But even up till today, tea farmers in Northern China generally make much less money than tea farmers of the "most famous" teas such as Xi Hu Long Jing, Tie Guan Yin and Wuyi Yan Cha. In Yellow Mountain regions, many doing-well farmers are organized by their villages or local factories. But many other tea farmers don't enjoy such organizations and constantly struggle between low sale price and what tea quality they can afford to produce.

In recent years, human labor becomes more and more expensive in China. A sign of this is many urban manufacturers of cheap products have gone bankruptcy, and more and more farmers go back to their home villages as rural income started to get higher than the low salary they can earn from the cities. I hope this means more tea fields will be used to produce higher quality teas, and the market rewards farmers better.

Apr 17, 2010

Discussions on organic cultivation of tea (1)

To tea drinkers, the safety standards of tea leaves is always important. From time to time, concerns are raised about these standards (such as pesticide use, heavy metal residues...). But there are not many systematic studies on these issues. Sometimes, media reports are even influenced by myths and paranoia.

Tea is an agricultural products. However it's unique in many ways. In most tea producing regions, regulation on pesticide use for tea is much stricter than the regulations for other agricultural products such as crops, fruits and vegetable. Besides, the processing of many tea products (especially when high temperature is applied) largely helps purify the products. Therefore, most studies on safety standards of agricultural products don't provide good information about tea products.

Here are mainly excerpts of conversations between some Chinese tea professionals/tea farmers and tea consumers (drinkers, vendors...). They are not objective studies. But I believe they can reflect at least some of the truths, as well as breaking some myths. The discussions are about organic cultivation in broad sense, not just restricted to official organic certification. I started these inquiries and collected these conversations mainly to satisfy my own curiosity on this issue, and the conversations happened randomly here and there. Besides, this is a complicated issue and I am a poor writer. To make it easier for me to write and probably easier for people to read, I would just put the contents in bullet points. (Lighter-colored texts are my additional comments.)

1. Q: Is heavy metal residue a major concern in tea? (this turns out to be a relatively uncomplicated issue...)
    A (from a Tie Guan Yin manufacturer): In the past, some tea products were found to have high heavy metal residue. All of these products are from plantations next to roads with relatively high traffic, and the heavy metal of concern is mainly lead. Tea products from road side plantations are the bottom quality teas and probably you've never had any. (I guess I've never had any and most viewers of this blog have never had any tea of that low quality. But from the view of the entire "tea industry", it's still worth thinking where those low quality teas go. My guess is for extraction of tea ingredients and for making cheap type of teabags. But it's just my guess.) High quality tea is always cultivated in well-managed plantations, away from contamination, and most of the times, up in the mountains (this is often true for not just Tie Guan Yin, but tea of other genres too) where few mobiles or none could reach.

2. Q: How much pesticide is used on tea? (Here included are some answers I've got. Answers from other people about different tea types are quite consistent with them.)
    A: (from a Tie Guan Yin manufacturer) There is no need to apply pesticide during the winter and before spring harvest, because the bugs are not out yet by the time. In summer, pesticide is used, but only the minimum amount necessary. Currently all pesticides allowed to be used on tea are pyrethroid pesticides, which have the fastest degradation rate among all pesticides. The pesticide is degraded in 3 days, and tea is only allowed to be harvested at least 10 days after pesticide application.
   A: (from a Tie Guan Yin farmer) In Fujian province, even when pesticide is applied, most of the time it's not directly applied on tea bushes, but applied to floral, non-tea bushes planted next to tea bushes. The floral, non-tea bushes can attract a lot of the insects in tea plantation, and therefore pesticides applied to them will reach most bugs. This is an interesting idea, and probably partially explains why tea plantations are often seen with floral bushes and trees planted near tea bushes. Later, I did see a few photos demonstrating what he said. For example, this man is applying pesticide on grasses in a tea plantation. This is a corner of a tea field, and tea bushes are several meters behind him.

  A: (from a Huang Shan Mao Feng green tea manufacture) There is no need to apply pesticide during the winter and before spring harvest, because the temperature is still low and there are barely bugs by the time. We make Huang Shan Mao Feng only in early spring, and the harvest of the entire year ends around April 20. There aren't many bugs in such high mountain before May. (This is the one who provided the wonderful semi-wild Huang Shan Mao Feng to us.)

  A: (from a government employee of Fujian) Pesticides regulation is much stricter on tea than on other agricultural products. For example, Kelthane was banned in 2002 all over China for tea. It was banned even earlier in Anxi County of Fujian. However, Kelthane is still widely used for fruits and vegetables. And Kelthane is widely used in developed nations including US and Canada, for fruits such as apples, peaches and grapes. I did some internet search on Kelthane. Kelthane leaves relatively higher DDT residue than most other legal pesticides. But since it's still allowed in developed nations, I assume all these countries believe the pesticide residue can be minimized through guidelines and regulations. Another example of pesticide not allowed for tea but allowed for other agricultural products is Methamidophos. It was banned on tea, vegetables and fruits in 2001 throughout China (most other countries in the world banned it for fruits and vegetables too). But it is being used for crops in many countries in the world, including developed nations such as US and Canada. In terms of the concerns of Kelthane, Methamidophos and some other highly dangerous pesticide, tea products are much safer than fruits, vegetables and crops.

  A: (this opinion has been expressed by several oolong people who work on Tie Guan Yin, Yan Cha and Taiwan oolongs) Besides the strictly controlled application amount, the high temperature processing of tea leaves, as well as sitting time will further cause degradation of any pesticide residues. We usually drink a tea many days after the harvest of tea leaves. The fruits and vegetables we eat are not treated with such harsh procedures, and they can't sit around for many days before we eat them. In this sense, tea is much safer than fruits and vegetables. (That being said, fruits and vegetables, especially those produced in developed nations, are generally safe too, because the amount of pesticides and periods of application are strictly regulated. These people's point is, tea is no less safe than many other food products, which I agree.)

3. Q: How can the government enforce these regulations on pesticide? As far as I know, large companies will submit samples and pass government inspection, but most farmers won't do the same. (In upscale tea market, most tea is from farmers and small factories rather than large companies. Large companies have very high quality tea, but there aren't many large tea companies in China and none of them dominate the market.)
   A: (from a Tie Guan Yin manufacturer) Nowadays many smaller factories like ours would obtain government inspection certification, because consumers are more and more concerned of safety of agricultural products. As far as I know, most farmers will not go through government inspection, because it's costly and unnecessary for the family size small production. But all the farmers I know of are extremely careful about using pesticide. They would minimize the amount because overuse doesn't promote the quality of the tea. Farmers sell tea leaves to factories. Factories that failed to pass inspection will be shut down, and farmers who sell bad tea leaves will have trouble selling their tea in future years.

  A: (from a Tie Guan Yin farmer) You've got to see what one has to do to spray pesticide. It's not an easy job. One has to carry a huge tank on his back, walking up and down the slopes of many acres under the summer sun. Who would like to do it frequently? Some media reporters wrote about tea farmers using pesticide. But if any of them had seen a tea field and tried to carry a pesticide tank, they wouldn't have imaged that we used large amount of pesticide. (It's true that summer in Fujian is scorching and Tie Guan Yin plantations, as well as many other tea plantations, are very hilly, sometimes even hard for one to hike without anything carried.) 

  A: (from another Tie Guan Yin manufacturer) Farmers would work out their best to minimize pesticide use, not only because of the regulations, but also because it's costly both in money and in human labor. Most ranches and vegetable fields are flat and can be even installed with automatic spray system. But the natural conditions of tea field doesn't allow such mechanic device at all.

  A: (from a Long Jing green tea farmer) To many people, market demands are even more effective than government regulation. Families in my village can easily sell high quality spring new tea for 1500 yuan per jin (This is like $200 per lb. The price quoted is when they sell tea to large company buyers and is much lower than the final market price) and to us, all the focus is on the quality of tea. We can even afford hiring workers to manually remove bugs and weeds. But we can't afford risking our quality and reputation.

Apr 16, 2010

Making tea grapefruit step by step

Here is a post about my first attempt of making tea grapefruits, and some background of this special tea that was once homemade in many families in South China.

Here is a post about the first tasting of a grapefruit aged tea.

People asked me how to make them. Actually it's very easy, since I am a very clumsy person and can't really do any complicated hand crafting :-p

I took some photos along the way, not very systematically though. Some of the photos are about making tea grapefruits and some are about making tea pomelo. Traditionally in China and Southeastern Asia, pomelo, tangerine and some other local citrus fruits were used. But in New England, grapefruits are the easiest to find and to handle (it's almost impossible to turn inside out an orange or tangerine skin without damaging it), and one can always get organic grapefruits from local market (The outside of skin will have direct contact with tea, so organic is the better choice. Obviously this was not a concern in traditional society, but a big concern nowadays!). Pomelo is nice for this purpose, but it's harder to get, and I didn't find any certified organic ones. Besides, the size of grapefruit is very convenient. Especially when I wasn't 100% sure what I was doing and was still experimenting on different teas to use, it was good to make smaller tea citruses with grapefruits, instead of larger ones with the big pomeloes. But the following pictures include both grapefruit and pomelo.

Step 1 - Carefully cut the fruit skin in two sections (preferably a bigger section and a smaller section). Don't penetrate the white inner lining of the fruit and force out any juice. Then, carefully peel off the two sections. This takes some exercises, but it can be a fun game after dinner :-D

This is a pomelo.

Step 2 - Don't turn the skin inside out immediately. Leave the two sections on counter top, and let them get half way dry (depending on how dry the room is. In our heated room in winter, it took about a few hours). Inspect them from time to time. If you attempt to turn them over too early or too late, they can be easily broken.

This is a pomelo. For pomelo, during Step 1-2, you need to constantly peel off the white inner lining, so that the final fruit skin won't be too thick.

This is a grapefruit:

Step 3 - After the fruit skin is turned over, let it further dry. For my grapefruits, it took about 8-16 hours. And it takes much longer for pomelo. Check them out constantly to monitor how dry they are. If the fruit skin gets too dry, the shape of the final work will be ugly, besides, it may become to dry to let your needle go through when you sew them up. If the fruit skin is not dry enough, it will take very long for the final work to thoroughly dry out, and there is the risk of gaining molds if the fruit is left too humid. But in New England, with heater on in winter, it never gets too humid. So later I discovered that I would rather start Step 4 earlier than later.

Step 4 - When the fruit skin is ready, sew on the rims of the two sections to attach them. When they are half way attached, stuff in the tea. (I've explained in my earlier posts why I chose puerh and Taiwan Wuyi.) Then finish sewing. Try to stuff in as much tea as possible so that the fruit will be maintained in a nice shape later. I used hemp thread. It's tough, nice and natural.

My first tea grapefruit is ugly:

Later I started to make better looking ones :-D

This is a pomelo!

It takes much longer time for a pomelo to thoroughly dry out. I put it on a colander so that it can dry evenly all over.

Finally I wrapped them up with napkin tissue. I've ordered some traditional puerh wrapping cotton paper and would like to use it in the future!

Then I put them in brown paper bags and stored them in a dry corner of my bedroom. I haven't decided it yet whether to put them in some air tight container later. If put in an air tight container, probably they won't need any other treatment in future years. Otherwise, I may need to pan roast them or oven bake them to remove any moisture. Or probably just lay them out in the heated room in winter. My room in winter is so dry that I believe it's very safe for these tea grapefruits.


Apr 15, 2010

The real spirit of Boston Tea Party

People talk about Tea Party more and more. Tea Party... Tax...

I guess, for tea drinkers and non-drinkers, Tea Party could mean enirely differnt things.

Here is my view of Tea Part as a tea drinker.

Tea Party is not about dumping tea, but about drinking good tea from a fair market. Boston Tea Party protested, rejected and destroyed tea from British East India Company. But the partisons didn't stop drinking tea. Throughout the time, people fought for drinking Bohea (which is Hokinese pronunciation for Wuyi tea), which was a "smuggled" tea under the British colonists' law. It's not about choosing oolong over black tea, but about choosing a tea with consumers' free will and with fair market price. 

Today, tea market in America is a free market. But, selecting tea of high quality and fair prices are important issues. Consumers can influence the market and improve the entire tea trade by refusing to be settled with low quality or unfair prices.

And, of course, Boston Tea Party demonstrated how tea can change the world. Tea is part of the history of Independence of America,  just as it started and terminated many wars in Chinese history.

Apr 13, 2010

Brewing Long Jing (dragonwell)

It was a pleasant job packing the pre-ordered tea into parcels to send to people. Just handling the new spring green tea already made me feel caffeinated!

I tried to put together a short "brewing instruction" to include in the package. But still I am not sure if it's an ok instruction. Giving brewing instruction is always complicated and something I always hesitate to do. By doing it, you are instructing people to use an exact amount of leaves, exact volume of water, exact temperature and exact infusion time (although most of my brewing "instructions" lack the exact numbers for these parameters). But how is it possible for all the people to do exactly the same thing? And usually in tea brewing, simultaneous deviation from a few parameters result in smaller disaster than missing just one parameter, whether it's temperature, leaf amount or infusion time.

Chinese green teas are relatively easier to deal with. So I dare to send this to all the people. But still this is only one of the many ways to brew it, and in my eyes, one of the easiest way.

Vessel: A small cup, glass, or liquor glass (about 8 oz.). A mug (about 10 oz.) is good too. (I love glass mugs!)

Water temperature: 185 F to 195 F. Don’t use newly boiled water or water temperature lower than 175 F. To get a suitable temperature, you may bring water to boiling and then let it sit in kettle for 5 minutes. (This method actually minimizes the chance of leaves being scorched even if water temperature is a bit high.)

1.   Pour water to fill about ¼ of the cup (or glass/mug)
2.  Throw tea leaves to let them just cover the surface of water (Maybe a little more. I have relatively light taste on green tea. Many people would add more tea leaves than what I do.)

3.   Gently swirl the cup for 15-30 seconds, to allow leaves get wet on both sides. (Sometimes unnecessary, but it won't hurt.)
4.   Pour in more hot water to fill about ¾ of the cup’s total volume. (It doesn't really matter if you fill the cup to more than 3/4 volume. But I think it looks NICE not having the cup filled all the way to the top.)

5.   Wait for leaves to sink. Start drinking after 1.5 to 3 minutes, when most leaves sink to the bottom of the cup. (If leaves don’t sink, it’s probably due to low water temperature. Wave them away with a fork for the first infusion, and then use hotter water for the second infusion). (I personally don't mind start drinking when there are a few leaves still floating around. If taking smaller sips, usually you won't be eating leaves.)

6.   Drink till there is ¼ to 1/3 cup of liquor, and then pour in more hot water for the next infusion. Repeat to infuse the tea for a few more times. (Because of the leaves, it will be hard to drink all the way to the bottom anyway.)

The above is Da Fo Long Jing, Long Jing cultivar #43. Below is Shi Feng Long Jing (Weng Jia Shan), Long Jing Jiu Keng Group cultivar. 

I have to admit, I am often shamed of myself for messing around with both the photos and the webpages. I don't know how to get them right...

Apr 12, 2010

First tasting of my Home-made tea grapefruit!

A lot of things to do. But I've got to write this down when I can still recall all the details!

So, I made some tea grapefruits in the past December and January. Here is a post about them! I am a super clumsy person, so I was really excited that I can MAKE something.

Although these are supposed to be aged for years, I thought I should open some and monitor the change of tea from time to time. So here is the first tasting that I did yesterday.

Before I receive my hand-made organic cotton paper from Yunnan, I would use regular napkin tissue paper to wrap them.

This is one of the first ones I made last December, when I was still struggling with sewing. I picked a relatively ugly one to open first. Most of those made later were slightly prettier. The label means 2009, December 2. So far I tried 3 types of tea. "B" is what I used the most. It's a 2006 Taiwan Wuyi. It's a relatively inexpensive tea, and currently I can get as much as I want. Besides, I've found it to be very mellow and its flavor mixes well with herbal drinks. So I thought probably it would be suitable for tea grapefruits. 

Traditionally the tea citrus is made with puerh (in Guangdong and Yunnan) or oolong (especially Fo Shou Oolong in Fujian and Southeastern Asia). But so far I don't like shu puerh as much as most other teas, and I feel good sheng puerh could be a bit expensive to fill grapefruits - even for cheap Xia Guan tuo, you know, its future is EXPENSIVE!) So my current choice is this Taiwan Wuyi. I would like to try more teas when I feel more sure with this.

It smells good! Chinese like aging orange and tangerine peels. The aged peels are used in cooking and as herbal medicine. From outside, the tea grapefruit smells pretty much like aged peels.

When put side by side, the tea from the grapefruit (on the left) looks the same as regular Taiwan Wuyi. But it smells of slight aged peel aroma.

Same amount of tea in two same gaiwan (but I forgot to take photos of the gainwans). I guess this is 3-4 grams of tea in a 100ml gaiwan. After an instant warm-up rinse with boiling water, I made the first infusion as what I usually do with most oolong, Interestingly, the tea from grapefruit (on the left) yield slightly darker liquor. The two teas are same tea of the same age. But possibly the one was oxidized more with the moisture (and maybe biochemical contents as well?) in the grapefruit. The tastes of the two cups were very different. The tea from grapefruit tasted a lot brighter and complex, while the regular Taiwan Wuyi tasted darker and mellower. 

Throughout the entire time, the smells of wet tea and gaiwan lids were very different. The regular tea smelt more regular, but the grapefruit aged tea smelt of some light citrus notes.

For the second infusion, I let both teas infused for 1 minute, so that any differences would be more enlarged. This time, the grapefruit peel flavor in the tea on the left is more prominent. At one moment, I thought the bright fruity flavor was really nice. But at another moment, I thought the grapefruit peel flavor was still too "raw", with some astringency in it. 

When making aged peels, the citrus peels used should be aged for at least three years to let all "raw" taste in the peel convert to a woody, deep aroma. In modern Chinese food industry, when they make "aged peel" snacks, although there is no 3-year aging, they would boil the peels and infuse them with syrup or honey to remove the rawness. If you bite on an orange peel, you will know what I mean. Raw orange peel, although tastes fresh, bears some astringency and spiciness that are not so pleasant. When the tea was aged in the grapefruit, it didn't get too much of the astringency, but still, I think more time is needed to let the peel's flavor convert to be more "ripe". Overall, I am glad that the flavor seems all "logic" to me and it's developing in the right direction!

For the third infusion, I let both teas infused for 3 minutes. This time, both teas tasted even stronger. Still, the regular Taiwan Wuyi tasted very mellow, with sugary mouth feeling typical of Taiwan roasted oolong. The grapefruit aged tea seemed to be sending a lot of different flavor signals to the tongue. I had difficulty to describe what flavors it exactly had. For some reason, the complicated flavor made me believe this tea is very healthy (I don't know why, but probably to me, slight bitterness, astringency and overall orange peel flavor all indicate healthiness).  By this time, my husband (who is generally not a tea drinker) came over and I let him taste the two teas. His response was, the grapefruit aged tea was a little astringent but tasted more interesting, with some floral notes (however I don't think his floral notes are the typical Taiwan high mountain oolong's floral notes). 

Overall, a problem I've found about tasting two teas side by side is, I can't be sure how much time to leave between sips from the two different cups. On one hand, I thought they should be tasted one immediately next to the other, and that's all the purpose of tasting two teas side by side. On the other hand, many teas have great aftertaste and mouth feeling, which sometimes last many minutes (even hours when it comes to some sheng puerh) after each sip. This Taiwan Wuyi doesn't have as complicated layers of flavors as some other oolongs, but it has great aftertaste. It usually leaves the mouth and tongue feel sweet and cool. Now when I tasted the two Taiwan Wuyi together, there was no way for me to determine what kind of lingering aroma was from which tea. 

The opened grapefruit was tied up, and the tea will be tasted again after the summer. I can't decide yet wether to send some to my mother now or laster when it's more aged. But I somewhat feel she will like this tea!

Apr 11, 2010

a great charcoal roast Tie Guan Yin

Personally I think this is the best 2009 charcoal roast Tie Guan Yin I've tasted. It's made by a group of tea professionals who have been working hard for years to revive the traditional Tie Guan Yin. Due to the change of tea tree materials in recent decades, they are not there yet. But they are closer and closer to the goal.

A relevant question is, is it worth it paying all these efforts to make traditional Tie Guan Yin? Obviously the market doesn't favor it. In Chinese market, modern green style dominates the Tie Guan Yin market. Most so called roasted Tie Guan Yin products are left over tea from previous years, not carefully roasted, not with charcoal. Even traditional green style Tie Guan Yin (featured with warmer fragrance and fruity aroma) is not as much favored as modern green style.

First infusion:

Seventh infusion:

Spent leaves:

Anecdotally it is observed that many seasoned Tie Guan Yin drinkers tend to more and more prefer traditional style and charcoal roast tea. But these are just a small group of tea drinker, compared with the entire market. Some teas, including traditional Tie Guan Yin and other products, are appreciated more by tea professionals and seasoned tea drinkers, rather than by the entire tea drinker population. These teas are often called "Shi Fu Tea" (Shi Fu 師傅 meaning a skillful tea worker). I don't know how the market will finally respond to such "Shi Fu Tea". But I like traditional Tie Guan Yin very much and have found it more mellow to the stomach than modern style. So I hope these people keep their good work going!

(Small scale wholesale of this tea is available while supplies last.)