Jun 29, 2011

Taiwan "style" Oolongs (0) - why they caught my attention

Taiwan "style" Oolong, with the stress on "style", meaning these teas are not from Taiwan, but use the same cultivars and techniques as for Taiwan Oolong.

I have been interested in these Taiwan "style" oolongs for a few years, due to a series of facts that I've observed:

1. Taiwan style oolong is raised extensively in Asia - including Zhejiang, Fujian, Sichuan, Yunnan, and more provinces in China, also including Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and probably more Asian countries. And now the oolong raised in New Zealand is a rising star!

2. Taiwan oolong is often more expensive in mainland China than in US - considering the transportation distances, this is quite odd. When I go back to China visiting family and friends, I often gift them with Taiwan oolong. The tea was purchased from Taiwan, shipped to US, and then carried by me to Beijing. Probably in future, Zealong will also travel across oceans like this. My friends in northern China often resent about how hard it is to get good, authentic Taiwan oolong, not because there is none in the market, but because the market is flooded with a lot more fakes. When they get some good, authentic ones, often the prices are shockingly high.

3. There is a lot of Taiwan style oolong produced in China. Oddly, this doesn't help bring down Taiwan oolong price in China, but cause authentic Taiwan oolong to be more expensive, as there is much less authentic than inauthentic. Quite a few of my Chinese friends say, you can't get authentic Taiwan oolong for a price lower than $$$ - but this doesn't make much sense to me, because buying a tea for a price three times higher than its price in Taiwan local market doesn't make it more likely an authentic Taiwan oolong. Some fake oolong products are packaged beautifully and have rather high prices, because there are people buying them.

4. In Fujian, including Anxi, home of Tie Guan Yin, there are quite a few plantations managed by Taiwan tea professionals. The cultivars, core staff and equipment are all from Taiwan. I heard such kind of plantations exist in Vietnam and Thailand too, and imagine they can produce very high quality tea. However it's hard to get their quality confirmed, as rarely one can find products plainly labeled as Taiwan style oolong made in Vietnam or Fujian. But with time being, I did find a few Taiwan style oolongs made in Sichuan and Yunnan and honestly labeled so.

5.  So far in China, many people are crazy about Taiwan oolong, but probably more people buy fake products than authentic ones. In spite of all the efforts of some producers in making high quality Taiwan style oolong, no such product has yet become very popular in the market. Ironically, low quality Taiwan style oolong with fake labels often sells better than high quality Taiwan style oolong with honest labels.

6. Supposedly there is some high quality Taiwan style oolong produced in Fujian. But so far I haven't seen one that catches my attention. A friend of mine, a Tie Guan Yin seller, once tried to source some "famous" (or "infamous") high quality Fujian "Taiwan style oolong" for his store. He failed to do so, because, as he told me, he couldn't afford buying Fujian produced Taiwan style oolong for almost the same price as authentic Taiwan oolong. According to him, the tea was almost as good as, and as expensive as, authentic Taiwan oolong. The price was not entirely based on production costs, but rather because the producer could easily sell it to other vendors as "authentic Taiwan oolong". My friend figured he wouldn't be able to sell it for a high price as Fujian oolong, since consumers wouldn't like to pay such a price for a Taiwan style oolong that's not made in Taiwan. He wouldn't want to label it as authentic Taiwan oolong either, because no matter how good it is, such kind of labeling is deceiving behavior.

7. There are a lot of fake Taiwan oolong in Taiwan market too. A Taiwan tea farmer I know once told me how disappointed he was to learn that a wholesaler he had known for a long time started to shift most business to "imported" oolong. I don't know how common this phenomenon is. But there is a tea I bought directly from a Taiwan wholesaler that I highly suspect is "imported".

8. So far I haven't learned of any reasonable way to distinguish an authentic Taiwan oolong from Taiwan style oolong made in other places. In reality, there are many ways to detect the physical appearance, processing style and flavors of the tea that are "typical of authentic Taiwan oolong" or "typical of fake products". But all these criteria evaluate the quality, but not source of the tea. Surely there is a much higher proportion of top quality tea among authentic Taiwan oolong, and Taiwan style oolong is more likely to be of lower quality, because Taiwan has the best natural and technical conditions for its oolong. But there is also low quality authentic Taiwan oolong and high quality Taiwan style oolong, and there are products of equally high quality and from very different sources. If a tea is from a Taiwan oolong cultivar, the plantation is managed by experienced Taiwan tea professionals, and the leaves are harvested and processed by skillful Taiwan tea workers (such tea is not rare out of Taiwan), then how can one tell if it's from Taiwan or elsewhere? I can't think of a way to tell. In recent years there are authentic Ali Shan Oolong with DNA certification. But as I've spent more than few years studying biology, I've found this DNA certification thing doesn't make biological sense. It sounds more like a mental comfort for people who see DNA as mysterious and ensuring. In another aspect, this DNA certification thing also reflects how much fake products have interfered with the market of authentic products, so much that people have to try every way possible to certify the authentic ones.

9. Considering all the energy and brain work it costs to make fake labeling, to market a fake tea as authentic and to produce the tea to begin with, I wonder why such energy and intelligence can't be used on making some tea of solid quality. Can't people make good money at all with honest labeling and price consistent to quality? I guess I am not the only one wondering so. On the other hand, I also wonder why fake tea sometimes sells better than honestly labeled Taiwan style oolong of higher quality. Is it because the label is even more important than the quality in eyes of many buyers?

10. I have been thinking of above issues for a long time but hadn't tried to sort out my thoughts. This writing is largely inspired by Zealong, the New Zealand Taiwan style oolong. I obtained the three products of Zealong last year but had been flooded by a lot of other tea samples since then and didn't get time to try these Zealongs. Then the recent interesting reviews and discussions on Zealong by Mattcha and Sir William reminded me of this tea and inspired me on thinking and writing a little more about Taiwan style oolong.

A tea professional I highly respect once said, There is no best tea. But authenticity is the basic and ultimate standard for tea. I appreciate the effort of some tea professionals in making high quality Taiwan style oolong and labeling it as what it truly is. I believe most of them have genuine interest in making tea, not just making money. So far, no such product has achieved huge market success yet, and the market sometimes even encourages fake labeling. But I guess people involved in fake labeling have limited professional future in tea making, and people who are truly interested in making good tea always have a chance to succeed in the market. Currently Zealong seems to have a bright future. I am curious to see if some other Taiwan style oolong will catch up with it.

So this is basically why Taiwan "style" oolong has caught my attention. I will go over a series of such products and here is the plan:

1a. Zealong Aroma - I've got to put it in the front because it's probably my favorite Taiwan style oolong so far.

1b. Zealong Dark & Zealong Pure.

2. Yunnan Ji Bian oolong - Qing Xin (Green Heart) Oolong cultivar from Taiwan, 2300m plantation, certified organic, I have to try it no matter what!

3. Sichuan High Mountain Oolong

I will add more if I think of more :-D

Jun 25, 2011

3 aged Dan Cong (1&2)

To me, comparing these 3 Dan Cong's with different ages is an interesting experience.

The first one is a 1994 Dan Cong, cultivar unknown.

The dry tea leaves look dark and heavy. In my eyes, the appearance is not much different from a Dan Cong of a recent year. The smell is very pleasant. When I get an aged oolong, what I care the most is, I don't want it to smell either damp or burnt.

Considering the tea looks heavy and the leaves may expand dramatically, I used only less than 1/2 gaiwan-ful of dry leaves. It turned out to be a fair amount. The dominant impression I got from the first a few infusions was sweetness. The tea is very, very sweet. I don't remember having any other non-puerh tea that's so sweet. The tea also has some herbal aroma. Like some other aged oolong that I appreciate, the tea has rich flavor, but feels easy and soothing on stomach. The tea has some typical "flavor of age", which is enjoyable to me as it doesn't taste damp. 

The less than 1/2 gaiwan-ful of dry leaves, after being spent, became about 4/5 gaiwan-ful. Usually I would like to see spent leaves loosely filling the gaiwan, without being tightly packed. In a later tasting, I used a little more than 1/2 gaiwan-ful of leaves, and decided that for this tea, I would prefer using smaller amount of tea leaves.  

This tea seemed to last forever. But later infusions were much lighter. So I ended it at certain point. Overall, the sweetness in the first several infusions was very prominent, surprisingly prominent. In later infusions, the sweetness was still there, but felt more "regular". When the sweetness faded, the herbal and woody flavors stood out more.  The tea leaves expand little by little over infusions. From the spent leaves, it looks like I should have gone for some more infusion to fully use these leaves.

The second one is a 2002 Dan Cong, cultivar unknown, but flavor is within the range of Milan (honey orchid) Dan Cong.

The dry tea leaves and liquor color are not that much different from un-aged dark roast honey orchid Dan Cong - however, most of the dark roast Dan Cong's are made into dark roast at the end of its harvest year, so sometimes the age of an un-aged dark roast Dan Cong is not obvious to me.

The flavor of this tea bears only a hint of "flavor of age". It has a lot more uprising aroma than the first one. Actually I was quite surprised a 9-year old tea could retain so much aroma. In my impression, the uprising aroma of a tea would disappear gradually as the tea ages. One thing that has made me feel unsure of aged oolong is, I often love the uprising aroma of many oolongs and don't want to let it disappear in aging.

Overall I like this tea very much, but if I were not told the age of the tea, I don't think I could have guessed even a rough figure of its age. It tastes warmer than newer oolong, and the light "flavor of age" may serve as a hint. But I don't have enough experience to tell if it's 5 years old, or a little more, or much more. Besides, from its well-maintained aroma, I guess this tea has been stored in a relatively dry and well-sealed environment. Would I like it as well if it were at its third year? Very possibly! In this sense, I am not sure if I like this tea because it's aged, or because it's well-made from the beginning and well-preserved afterward. I think that's a constant question I have with quite a few aged oolongs and that's one of the major reasons I have been unsure about aging oolongs.

I started out to write a blog about the first tea, the 1994 Dan Cong. Then I got the 2002 Dan Cong and thought the two aged Dan Cong would be an interesting comparison. Then, one day I heard of this Dan Cong of 40-50 years in age. It's not something one can bump into frequently, and it's from a farmer I personally know. So even though I wasn't in a mood of collecting aged Dan Cong, I decided to get some just for the sake of experiencing it.  So I will review it and continue the comparison in a short while!

Jun 15, 2011

Mango milk "tea"

There is no tea in it, not even "herb", yet it's called "milk tea". Some people would add some red tea into it. But I don't, thinking tea doesn't yield significant flavor in such a blend.

Fruit milk tea is a seriously important thing in Taiwan. Once I had a Taiwan roommate and we made fruit milk tea every summer afternoon. We always skip the "boba" or "pearls" (little starch balls commonly added to milk tea) and only use fruit and milk. I love all kinds of fruit milk tea, even apple has a different taste when made into milk tea. But mango is one of my favorites. Papaya is another of my favorite. Strawberry is good too, but I always find the strawberry seeds annoying. Kiwi is nice and interesting. When blended, it (probably its seeds) has a hint of peppery flavor along with the normal kiwi taste. We also used cantaloupe and honeydew melons sometimes. Sometimes we blended in banana to sweeten the beverage. But these days I seldom use banana. For some reason, banana blended in milk tastes very sweet to me, almost too sweet for me to handle.

Making mango milk tea is very easy. Usually I use one of this kind of yellow mango (or two, if they are really small), two glasses, and 1.5 glasses of milk.

The Mango is sliced into small pieces, and completely homogenized with milk in a blender.

There are a lot of milk tea shops in China. I've seen some milk tea shops in the States too. The best shops always use real milk and real fruits. And when they do so, usually they have their blender and fruits displayed on the front counter. In China, milk is more expensive than a lot other things. So some shops use milk powder, condensed milk or condensed cream as the base of the beverage. Of course it can never be as good as real milk. In the States, fruits are relatively expensive. I've seen some shops using flavoring powders or flavoring liquors to yield fruit flavors. Most of them don't taste awfully bad, but can never be compared to real fruits. If a fruit milk tea doesn't use real milk or real fruit, I would rather skip it. So when I walk into a milk tea shop, I always look for their blender and fruits displayed somewhere up to the front. If they are there, then very likely the fruit milk tea is the real thing.

There can be things added to fruit milk tea with a lot of options such as honey, sugar, ice, "starchy pearls", tea, whipped cream, vodka... But basically, the secret to a good glass of fruit milk tea is simple - real, fresh milk and real, fresh fruit.

Jun 5, 2011

CNNP colorful stamp sisters and brothers

These two CNNP green stamp brothers are not the same tea, and very likely not from the same factory. 

A friend of mine once said, you never know how many products share this same green stamp jacket! Indeed! Meantime, many other CNNP products share the same jackets of yellow or red or other colored stamps.

CNNP (or Zhong Cha, 中茶) is notorious for contracting out a lot of its products. To be more accurate, it's not even contracting out. Here is my simplified interpretation, with many of the not-so-juicy details omitted, and with possible misuse of some political terms :-p

(The name of CNNP has changed long time ago, but it's just easier referring to it as CNNP.)

In the "state-owned" era (when all businesses were owned by the Chinese government), all tea companies were literally affiliated to CNNP. Then, in late 1980s when "capitalism" started, control of tea businesses was more and more transmitted to local companies. Up till today, many tea companies are still state-owned in name but are no longer under centralized administration of CNNP - as reflected by profit distribution. No longer collecting profits from local companies as before, CNNP said, Ok, now let's follow Free Market Rules. All local companies should pay for using CNNP trademark! This last for a short while. Then bigger local companies, such as Meng Hai Factory and Xia Guan Factory, said, Wait a minute! Why should we pay for using CNNP trademark while we could have our own trademarks? Hence came the trademarks such as Da Yi and Xia Guan (including the "crane" and a few other trademarks). Soon, more and more companies did the same. CNNP's policy of collecting fee for using its trademark was issued in 1988. Da Yi's trademark was registered in 1989. Xia Guan's "treasure flame" trademark (used for mushroom tuo and relevant products) was registered in 1990 and "crane" trademark was registered in 1991. In 1990s, Da Yi and Xia Guan had products with their own trademarks and with CNNP trademarks. But eventually they managed to get rid of CNNP trademark gradually.

Current CNNP brand products are still from various factories, including Kunming Factory, which is highly respectable. Some popular CNNP products (such as 7581) are only made in Kunming Factory and are more reputable than some other CNNP products. Meantime, a lot of CNNP products are made by numerous unknown factories. These factories are willing to pay for using CNNP trademark because their own trademarks wouldn't have the same level of market influence. Some of these factories are good, but there are so many of them, and some are quite bad. In recent years, with rapid growth of CNNP, more and more tea merchants and consumers are questioning on CNNP's loose control of its trademark authorization.

The trademark control problem of CNNP is much more severe today than 10 years ago, partially because 10 years ago, factories, even mediocre small factories, didn't have much incentive to make bad tea. Some people say, vast majority of pre-2005 Yunnan puerh is good tea. To make it a stronger statement, some people would narrow the range to pre-2002 or even pre-2000 tea. But anyway, what this means is, before puerh had the market hype and before puerh brought in mad cash, puerh production was normal, and usually a normal puerh is a good tea. If we exclude fake products from the discussion, authentic pre-2000 products are rarely bad. On the other hand, this doesn't mean all pre-2000 products of CNNP are super great. Some of them are from reputable large factories, and some of them are from less known factories. Some are amazingly good, and some are of quite average quality. The large quantity and uneven quality are partially why many pre-2000 CNNP products without clear manufacturing information are less expensive than some early-2000s routine products with Da Yi or Xia Guan trademarks. For the same reason, some good pre-2000 CNNP products can be of great value because the price is based pretty much on the tea itself but not on trademarks or other fringing information.

In reality, a challenge of choosing these pre-2000 CNNP products is, there is no information of production year, tea factory or tea leaf source. Only when the tea comes in whole boxes (a box, or Jian, typically contains 42 cakes for the 357g standard cake), production information may be (but is not always) presented on a piece of paper in the box. But in another sense, this challenge of missing information is not much bigger than the universal challenge of buying puerh - we just need to keep it in mind that the wrapper doesn't tell much about the tea, and sampling before buying bulk is always a good idea.

At the end, I just want to show a pre-2000 product from a small factory using CNNP inner label. I think the wrapper, along with the factory name in English, is silly in a cute way :-D

Jun 1, 2011

ATB Blog Carnival - Milk Tea... Tea Milk...

This blog entry is part of ATB Blog Carnival hosted by Gongfu Girl. A full index of blog arnival entries can be found here

The topic of this blog carnival is: about how to brew a specific type of tea. 
This blog post was written a year ago. I pulled it out since it fits the topic. I also added a few notes on it.

Before I ever tried adding tea to my milk (I haven't tried adding milk to tea yet), I had Milk Tea (it should be more precisely called Tea Milk, in fact) with my Tibetan buddy, Laja.

The milk tea Laja makes is easy. He just throws tea leaves into boiling milk. I read it somewhere that tea made in this way is called "Sweet Tea" or "Lasah Sweet Tea". But Laja just calls it Milk Tea. I asked what tea he used, and he had no idea. He only knew it was The Tea. Based on what I heard, what I read, and what I saw from tea products, Tibetan tea is a Hei Cha (what Asian would call Black Tea, which is different from the Black Tea in western sense), which is somewhat similar to Shu Puerh. However, this guy has no idea whether his tea is a Hei Cha or not. I guess if you drink it every day (scientifically speaking the milk tea is physiologically essential in traditional Tibetan diet), it's part of your life, it's The Tea, and the genre and category don't matter at all. These days I see Laja about once a year, and every time I had his tea but forgot to ask him to show me the package of dry tea leaves. So I haven't yet figured out what he uses for his milk tea. He told me that any black tea can be used. From time to time, he has tea sent from his hometown in Qinghai. But when he first came to America and didn't have any tea in hands, he even used the regular type of Lipton teabag. Now I think, if Lipton teabag can be used, then pretty much any tea can be used for it.

(Later, after a few phone conversations, Laja and I guessed that very likely his hometown "black tea" is some sort of Hei Cha from Hunnan, possibly Black Brick Tea. But I also have the impression that the tea leaves somehow looked like some Sichuan Hei Cha. Anyway, Laja's tea seems a Hei Cha. Puerh is also commonly consumed in certain regions of Tibet. - May 2011)

I don't often feel a need for milk tea. But out of curiosity, I tried making it for a few times, mimicking what Laja did, with some modifications. A modification I've had is packing tea in a bag. Laja would throw tea leaves in the milk and eat the tea leaves eventually. I would rather not eat the leaves. To save a filtration step, I seal the leaves in a small teabag.

At the first, I tried using the last bit debris of a 2004 Xia Guan Tuo.

I planned to make only a small bowl of milk tea, so I packed up only small amount of the tea debris. In my impression, Xia Guan Tuo is very strong and that much in a small bowl would be enough.

However, the milk tea turned out rather weak. I boil the milk in a small pot. When steam started to rise, I threw in the tea pack. Then after the milk was fully boiled, I let the electronic stove adjustment lever stay at about "11 o'clock" position with very weak heat for about 5 minutes. Then I squeezed the teabag and threw it away. To my surprise, the strength of Xia Guan Tuo seemed to be entirely shaded by the milk. Besides, since this is a sheng puerh, it doesn't change much of the milk color, which was very unexciting to me. So the second time, I used a 2009 Bulang Stamp Tea, Shu.

This is the Bulang Stamp Tea by itself:

This is probably one of my favorite Shu so far. But I've never really got super excited about Shu, most of which tastes hollow to me. What I like about this tea is, it's relatively lightly fermented, compared with most Shu. After each sip, there is actually some "kick", a little bit similar to the aftertaste of Sheng. But after all, I don't treasure Shu that much and wouldn't hesitate to throw it into some experiment. So I made a teabag with this tea. And this time, I used a lot more tea, probably twice as much as last time.

Boiled in milk, the tea changed the milk to a pink color.

This time, the tea taste was much more explicit. And I think it tasted more like Laja's tea. But still, I feel I could have used even more tea. With either Sheng or Shu boiled in the tea, the tea elicits some special "fat" flavor from the milk. The flavor is unique to lamb or beef. I used to dislike such flavor. But in recent years, frequently fed lamb by Robert (I sometimes joke that he must have been a Muslin in his last life), I've started to like such "nomad" flavor more and more, especially when it's not too strong.

It seems to me that the milk tea can make me go a long way. When I had a bowl of milk tea after a meal, by the time of the next meal, I didn't feel very hungry at all. Does this mean the milk tea can possibly be developed into some slimming tea? :-p

I would also like to try red tea, especially Darjeeling and Kenya black tea, in milk too. Darjeeling boiled in milk makes Nepal milk tea. Actually, in most milk tea recipes, concentrated tea is made first, and then it's mixed with a lot of milk and some sugar. But our milk, even whole milk, is not as rich as the "original milk", and I usually only have 2% fat milk at home. So boiling tea directly in milk is the easiest and produces rich milk tea.

(As I started drinking more and more milk tea, eventually I found it more convenient for me to make darker tea first and mix it with whole milk.  - May 2011) 

Some people believe British custom of adding milk to tea originated from Tibet. According to that theory, Tibetans influenced Nepali in making milk tea; then this drinking custom was brought to India, including Assam Province; and British people learned of adding milk to tea from Assam tribes. I don't know where this story is from, but it sounds very possible.

May 2011 -

In the past year, especially during the winter time, I made milk tea frequently with Fu Zhuan, a favorite Hei Cha of mine. The tea and milk are perfect match! I also "milked" some Black Brick Tea, Tibetan Ya Xi Hei Cha, Thousand Liang Tea/Qian Liang Cha, and a few other Hunnan Hei Cha and Sichuan Hei Cha. They are all pretty good! So, if you are a hard-core tea lover and not fond of the idea of adding milk to tea, I urge you to consider the option of adding tea to milk, haha :-D

To me, a constant problem is, even when whole milk is used to make milk tea, the milk is somewhat diluted eventually. One solution I've learned from a Uyghur friend is adding "milk skin" to the milk tea. "Milk skin" is the top layer of boiled milk. The fresh version of it (if you scratch the bottom of the saucer that has just been used for boiling milk, you will know it!) is heavenly delicious. But I only got some dried milk skin, which is perfect for milk tea. It looks somewhat like this:
Some Mongolians and Uyghurs like putting broken pieces of it in milk tea. It add milk flavor to the tea, and the soaked pieces are quite tasty too.

My Uyghur friend said, at home, they sometimes also add rose petals to the milk tea. This sounds terribly luxurious to me! But it's a great idea if you have lots of roses growing out of your window. I don't have fresh roses to eat. But ever since I heard of the rose milk tea, I've been dreaming of getting some rose jam for my milk tea!