May 28, 2012

silver needle - new and 1 year old

Because of my own physical conditions (I think I'm the slightly "cold" type according to Chinese medicine theories), I have been interested in aged white tea. In Chinese medical theories, white tea has great cooling power and could be too "cold" for people who are the "cold" type (e.g. feeling cold easily in winter, having cold feet or cold back sometimes...). However, with time being in aging, white tea will become "warmer and warmer".

There is a saying that some traditional tea stores in Guangdong would only sell white tea aged for 3 years or so. But I haven't got it confirmed by more than few people. Part of my family is from Guangdong, while I myself am from Beijing. I know many Cantonese would be reluctant to drink any tea that doesn't look dark red, and meantime, I know some Northerners grown up with green tea would be reluctant to drink tea with a hint of red color. I think this has a lot to do with not only cultural aesthetics, but also regional climates and diets.

I drink new white tea from time to time, but not very often. Since I've tried some aged white tea that pleased me a lot, I have been drinking a lot more white tea that has been aged for 1-5 years than the new white tea. The aged white tea I've collected are all White Peony (Bai Mu Dan) and Shou Mei (Longevity Brow). Somehow I don't feel Silver Needle, which is composed of tea buds only, is good for aging. But I don't have much experience in aged white tea. I would like to see more people's review on aged silver needle and other aged white tea. Besides, if some day you dig out some accidentally aged white tea from a corner of your home, definitely try it and let the rest of us know!

I've written about a 2005 Bai Mu Dan here. I've also tea logged a 2009 Shou Mei on steepster. SororiTea Sisters reviewed the same 2009 Shou Mei. And this tea has recently been reviewed on by creator of the website Alex Zorach.

This time, my focus is comparing a 2012 silver needle and a 2011 silver needle. I haven't intentionally aged silver needle or obtained any aged silver needle. Since there is a little left from last year, I thought it would be convenient to do a quick comparison.

2012 silver needle:
(I feel I generally like White Peony more than Silver Needle. So this year I wasn't even sure if I would still get some Silver Needle. But then I saw this Silver Needle that looks absolutely adorable. So I thought I would get some, if not for anything else, just for collecting some good-looking Silver Needle! Then after I tasted this tea, I was really glad that I had got it.)

If you are interested in doing some geeky reading, here is an article on Alex Zorach's blog about definition of white tea. Here is an article on on oxidation of tea, again by Alex Zorach. Here is a blog I wrote about white tea. As you could see from each of these writings, white tea is a tea whose oxidation enzyme is not dis-activated. And therefore white tea is a tea more ready to change than most other teas.

2011 Silver Needle on the left, and 2012 Silver Needle on the right. The new tea look significantly greener than the older tea.

2011 tea:

2012 tea:

 2011 on the left and 2012 on the right.

2011 on the left and 2012 on the right.

2011 on the left and 2012 on the right. 

2011. Notice the multiple red spots. 

2012. Few or none of the red spots.

I used 1.4g of each tea in each gaiwan. The useable volume of the gaiwan is about 80-90ml. I poured in boiling water, covered the gaiwan and let the tea steep for about 3-4 minutes.

The flavors of the two are very different. They don't taste like the same tea! The new Silver Needle has a brighter and more floral flavor. The older one has a deeper tone, somewhat woody and herbal taste. Starting from the fourth infusion, it seems to me that the 2011 tea taste smoother, with less woody and more honey flavor. Meantime, the 2012 tea's floral note is not as uprising, but tuned down a bit with a brighter honey taste. Both tea can go for quite a few infusions, that is if you use hot, hot water ;-)

Overall, the 2012 Silver Needle is my favorite new white tea in all these years. But the lovely floral note in its flavor may not be the flavor to remain if the tea is to be aged for years. I guess I will be drinking more new white tea this year! The 2011 Silver Needle doesn't taste as complex as the previously mentioned 2009 Shou Mei. Maybe it's because of age. Maybe it's because bud tea doesn't age as well as leaf tea. Overall, my favorite aged white tea so far is still the previously mentioned 2005 Bai Mu Dan. It's from this guy, who now has got a "real" job and no longer sells tea.

(I would like to include samples of 2012 silver needle, 2011 silver needle and 2009 Shou Mei in a small sample set in the next blog sale. Probably 4g 2011 Silver Needle [since I have little left], 8g 2012 Silver Needle and 8g 2009 Shou Mei. If you have some left over older white tea that you can barely consume by yourself, I urge you to run a blog sale or swap!)



The 2009 Shou Mei (photos taken about a year ago)

May 22, 2012

mother's tea

This tea was not made for Mother's Day, since obviously they don't celebrate Mother's Day in rural Anhui :-D But it was a nice coincidence that the tea was made at the end of April, shortly before Mother's Day. The tea is casually named so, because it's made by a mother, and many people knew about this tea through her daughter.

I got this tea for a few reasons.

First, it's an excellent example of inexpensive manually processed tea. It's probably the least expensive manually processed tea I could ever get. This is mainly because the "mother" who makes this tea makes it for fun rather than as a job. The tea is made with a method similar to that of the Zen Patriarch Tea, which is a gem and many grades higher than this tea. The "mother" who makes this tea is one of the people who makes Zen Patriarch Tea. The leaves of this tea are from the same tea bushes for Zen Patriarch Tea, but these are much older leaves. Nowadays, most late-season tea leaves would be processed by machine, since they are relatively cheap and not always worth manual work. So I think we are lucky to have this old lady who enjoys manually processing this tea.

Secondly, in Chinese culture, there is great admiration of longevity and wisdom of senior people. Items passed on from senior people are often seen as auspicious. The mother who makes this tea is an ordinary woman who doesn't have a lot of money and didn't receive much education. But in her 60s, she is healthy and still working hard to take care of her mother in law, and sometimes her children and grand children as well. Being healthy, being able to enjoy working and surrounded by a nice family are some of the greatest fortune. In this sense, I think this lady is a person of fortune. This is also why we carry a small amount of her tea in our web store without a profit. I just hope to take a share of her senior fortune :-D

Thirdly, the daughter who sells this tea (who is by the way one of the several "amateur tea sellers" whom I'm going to write about) is one of my favorite green tea sources. The previously mentioned Zen Patriarch Tea, my favorite green tea from last year, and quite a few other green teas I enjoy are from her. I always love high end green teas. And because I use relatively expensive international shipping, in recent years, most of my green tea selection focuses on rare and high grade teas so that the shipping costs are more or less justified. But basically all my favorite producers have their focus on tea itself rather than grading or pricing of the tea. Getting incomes from tea is always important. But if a producer is crazy about tea, labeling or pricing never comes prior to tea itself. Many producers of the best green teas are capable of producing high quality inexpensive teas, and they would make inexpensive tea with the same sincerity they have on high grade teas.

The daughter who sells this tea is from a tea farmer family of rural western Anhui. Similar to the guy who is from a Huang Shan Mao Feng village, she has also settled down in Hefei, the capital city of Anhui. She often invite her mother to enjoy the big city and have some leisure time with her family in Hefei. Her mother stays with them from time to time, but always insists on going back home when the tea season comes. Even when sometimes the train and bus tickets of going home costs more than some late-season inexpensive tea could be sold for, the mother would go home to make tea anyway, because "you can't let the tea leaves get wasted!"

In the past a few years, the daughter has sold this tea through the internet, mostly to a bunch of acquainted tea drinkers and retailers. Once her mother learned of her tea was sold on the internet instead of on a "real" market, she said to her daughter, "You must be kidding! How can you possibly sell something to somebody you can't actually see while he can't actually see what you are selling!" Later, as described by the daughter, her mother was "completely in awe of modern technology!" I've found her mother's reaction interesting and cute :-D My own mom has never learned to use VHS (till the day it was thrown out), often misuses her cell phone and often messes up with her digital TV. But she is getting her coffee through internet now :-D Starbucks is very expensive in China and isn't nearly as good anyway. With our family's miserable history of coffee drinking, her current coffee is actually the first good coffee she has ever enjoyed, although I'm paying for it and she has no idea how somebody would ship the coffee without the buyer ever meeting him to hand over the money :-D

May 16, 2012

Concept Tea (11) - Orchid and sheep droppings...

(Concept Tea (10) is here.)

This is not about orchid. But, several years ago, I learned very nice tips about orchid fertilization from my roommate, who is from Taiwan and is so knowledgeable about gardening, especially anything tropical. He is a tropical fish lover too and kept a big fish tank. He never used commercial "plant food", but fertilized all his plants with the tank water (a.k.a. fish feces water). He often says, fish feces is wonderful! Indeed, when I was with him, my orchids enjoyed his fish feces and thrived.

This blog is not about orchid, but about tea and poops... A Tie Guan Yin with outstanding orchid aroma cultivated with sheep droppings.

My favorite Tie Guan Yin producer is a very young guy from a Tie Guan Yin family. He inherited a lot of traditional wisdom of tea cultivation and received higher education from a first-tier technology university in China. He is always keen to integrating modern science with the traditions of tea production. He is crazy at experimenting on things and likes to cooperate with other tea guys to do crazy things.

Once I asked him what was his "secret" of making delicious tea. I have to admit it was more of a compliment than a question, as I didn't expect him to explain to me in details. But, "goat droppings!" is his answer. He said, winter fertilization is key to tea cultivation, and goat droppings is heavenly winter food for Tie Guan Yin tea trees. I was a little surprised and said, "so, that's the most important thing in Tie Guan Yin cultivation, and you just told me the 'secret'?" Then he told me that it's nothing secret. Basically many tea farmers in Fujian know it, and goat droppings are still commonly in use, yet few people would do it perfectly, due to the intensive labor and high costs involved. Only crazy people would bring "goat droppings fertilization" to an ideal level.

This year, I got this tea from their factory. It's not a routine product. The leaf materials are from their partner organic farm run by another young man who has the financial security to do crazy things without restriction of budget or profit outcome. Besides organic cultivation and generous use of traditional fertilizers, what's interesting is a lot of their fertilization is from sheep droppings that are transported by cargo train from inner Mongolia - it's like transporting sheep droppings from Wisconsin to Florida.

Why from Mongolia? A very practical reason is, Fujian is a small and highly populated province, and you can hardly collect that much sheep droppings :-p Besides, with agricultural development and higher density of tea plantation and orchards, there is even less space for goats or other domestic animals. Most other southern provinces have the similar situation. In Inner Mongolia, livestock is a backbone industry, and sheep droppings are abundant. In addition, in the north, animals are bigger and fatter, and droppings are supposed to be more nutritious :-D But anyway, I see this sheep droppings fertilization as more of an exploration than some long-term operation. If sheep droppings can demonstrate great values in promoting quality of the tea, then this experiment may encourage people to open a lot of options of organic fertilizers.

This tea, in short, is my favorite modern green style oolong throughout the years.

I used a small porcelain teapot to brew it and this was proved to be a good idea! A porcelain teapot or a gaiwan makes it convenient to experience the "lid aroma", aroma from under the lid of the brewing vessel. The lid aroma of this tea is wonderful. The taste is rich of orchid aroma and the buttery protein kind of taste usually found in tea from environments abundant of natural nutrients. The liquor texture is smooth and soupy. And the extra soupy feature is something in common that I've noticed from quite a few organic oolong. This may have to do with the rich pectin contents resulting from carbon nutrients in organic fertilizers. Synthesized fertilizers simply don't have such outcome because they are rich of nitrogen but short of carbon nutrients. 

The leaves are not perfect. Due to the weather of the harvest period, this tea was harvested when leaves were slightly older than preferred. In spite of that, the tea is still my favorite modern green style oolong. And the imperfect leaf condition gives me hope that the tea could be even better in a future year with better weather conditions and better processing.

Although the leaves of this tea are not perfectly young and tender, the leaves look succulent and lively. Against the current trend of Tie Guan Yin leaf materials, these leaves are not from new bushes either.

In recent years, Tie Guan Yin lovers may have noticed that towns of Anxi County (where Tie Guan Yin originated) took turns to be the new "hot spot" of Tie Guan Yin. These towns, Gan De, Xiang Hua, Long Juan, Jian Dou... are old producing areas turning into new stars one after another. If you ever wonder why, here is an important fact behind this phenomenon: these towns, one following another, cultivated new bushes either by removing older bushes or by converting other agricultural fields into new tea plantations.

In modern green style Tie Guan Yin production, New Bush is a key word. Why is that? Because new bushes have the best-nutritious leaves to support the taste of freshness and orchid aroma emphasized in modern green style Tie Guan Yin. Then, what's wrong with old bushes? Why aren't their leaves as good? It's largely because the tea bushes don't receive the best nutrients over the years, and synthesized fertilizers can never do as well on them as the traditional organic fertilizers. Nowadays, many modern green style Tie Guan Yin are advertized as from "new bushes", or 2-3 years old bushes. But what are people going to do with them after they are no longer new? A tea bush is a plant. It shouldn't get "old" or "weak" after merely a few years. It's getting "old" and "weak" only because the original nutrients in the soil are exhausted and they are not taken care of properly.

So far, what has been happening is, after one "hot spot" has its tea bushes growing older, people's interests all go to the next "hot spot" with newly planted bushes. Then, what will happen to the "no longer new" bushes? Some tea bushes, as they get older and "weaker", would be used to make cheaper and cheaper teas. Some farmers would chop them down and make space for planting new bushes all over again. But then there are problems. The soil may have already been exhausted by the previous cultivation. How long will it take to recover? Besides, typically the new tea bushes will take in all the human labor without any yield in the first year. Then, at certain point, these factors, along with the ever increasing labor costs in China, would make some farmers think, is tea cultivation still worth it? Wouldn't fruit orchards and many other things be easier and more profitable?

The pursuit of "new bush" creates dead circles (I have to mention that it's not everybody's opinion, as many people, consumers, tea sellers, producers all included, are very enthusiastic about new bush Tie Guan Yin), because new bushes can't stay new forever, and all the endeavors on new bushes are only for short-term gain. But a different way to view the whole situation is: if soil and tea bushes are well fertilized, then old bushes are not inferior to new bushes, and then there is no need to run after new bushes. Instead of staying busy chopping down old bushes and growing new bushes, the money and efforts could be spent on maintaining good nutrients for the established plantations. There might be more input than profit in the initial years, and it may not bring in a lot of quick money, but the benefits seem long-term and sustainable. I've exchanged some conversations with quite a few Tie Guan Yin producers on this, and I think it's their vision of ecosystem and effective fertilization that convinced me this is a much better approach than the cycle of planting new bushes.

So the concept behind this tea is very simple - many other things are by far not as important or useful as, em... poops!

May 12, 2012

circa 1990 Menghai 8972 brick purely dry storage

In China, many aged puerh products are emphasized to be "purely" dry storage. The "purely" doesn't just stress how dry the storage is. Most purely dry storage puerh has been stored in drier regions in Yunnan, which are not very dry regions to begin with. Some humidity data are mentioned in this post about another of my beloved dry stored tea. In Chinese puerh industry, the "purely" in "purely dry storage" mainly emphasizes that the tea has been dry stored in its entire life, without intentional or accidental dampness. By this definition, not all Yunnan stored tea can be called "purely dry storage", because there is a rain season in many regions of Yunnan and "accidents" happen.

Besides, I can't say there isn't any emphasis of dryness in the word "purely", because it's mostly used in Yunnan stored puerh. It seems many merchants and collectors in Guangdong and Hong Kong would call their dry stored tea just "dry storage" and rarely use the term "purely dry storage". I don't have enough experience to compare the pros and cons of Yunnan dry storage and Guangdong dry storage. But a currently popular hypothesis is, tea ages more slowly in Yunnan, which is much drier than Guangdong, but the aroma is maintained better. Here, "better" depends on one's preference though, and an alternative is to say "the aroma is different from that results from Guangdong storage". But when people say the aroma is maintained better in Yunnan, my understanding is, the aroma referred to is the prominent honey and floral aroma. In this sense, I do believe the aroma is maintained better in drier Yunnan.

This 8972 brick, I would call it "circa 1990" because as many tea of its time, the production date is not labeled anywhere and the date document (sometimes found in a whole box of puerh bricks or cakes) is nowhere to find. 

This tea is sometimes referred to as "Cultural Revolutionary Version brick", as it's made following the formula of Menghai factory's famous "Cultural Revolution brick" issued during the Cultural Revolution era. The word "Version" should be emphasized because it's not a CR brick but rather a brick that's made after the CR era following its formula. The first batch of "CR Version brick" was made in 1989. These bricks that I've got are said to be the 1989 batch. But there isn't really a way to confirm it. Besides, it's a little too convenient to say it was made in 1989, as that's the earliest possible time. But then, with dry storage, the age of a tea is actually less confusing. There is basically no way to fake the age of a dry stored tea. Any faking method would ruin the aroma and/or the outlook of the leaves. So after tasting this tea, with its leaves and aroma typical of dry storage, I would guess, still guess, but with confidence, that this tea is very likely from 1989 or shortly after it. Hence I arbitrarily call it "circa 1990".

Upon opening this tea, my first impression is, it's so clean, even for a dry stored tea! "Clean" doesn't mean it won't have any stones, grain shells or hairs in it :-p So far I haven't seen any, but who knows! It feels clean mainly because its leaves look handsome and "unambiguous".

Then this impression of "cleanness" remained all the way in my drinking. At this point, the brick is tight enough to hold together but easy enough to break. So I manage to pry off leaves without many crumbs. The brick doesn't have "covering layer" (many big factory products have higher grade leaves on the covering layer and lower grade leaves inside), and the leaf material is consistent inside out.

I guess, being clean isn't really an important thing in aged puerh. But I myself like clean tea. I do drink "dirty" tea sometimes, but I like clean tea! And I deeply appreciate how clean this tea is - probably not as clean as a new green or oolong, but it's really clean! For this tea, I didn't even use a strainer between teapot and teacup, which I used a lot for most puerh.

The taste of this tea is where I made my guestimation that this tea is from "circa 1990", or as early as 1989. It tastes smoother than the "butterfly tuo", the liquor feels more soupy, yet the aroma is still prominent. I guess 20 something years is the only way for the tea to get all these characters.

Overall, I like this tea even better than the "butterfly tuo", which I already like a lot and of course it can still further "grow up". I almost wanted to include this brick as a "concept tea", but dropped the idea because the concepts in it are quite similar to the concepts in the "butterfly tuo", which I've already included in the "concept tea" series. But probably this tea is an even stronger representative of this type.

I will not repeat the thoughts that I included in the post about the butterfly tuo. But there are a few interesting things that I want to mention about this tea:

1. I think it's quite drinkable now and guess that's the peak or near the peak stage for this tea. This is just my guess and I don't really know it. The tea still has some light bitterness background in the taste, and is not as smooth as a lot of shu puerh. But the aroma is rich and pleasant. I somewhat believe you can't have all the great things all at once. I guess (without much confidence but still an "educated guess" haha...) with time being, both the bitterness and the aroma will get weaker. At certain point, when the bitterness almost disappears and aroma is still strong, that will be my favorite stage of the tea. And I think the tea is very close to that stage now. But I value aroma very much and it may not be the preference of everybody's. If somebody values mellowness more than aroma (and I know a lot of people do), then they may have quite different definition about the tea's peak stage. I've seen people saying it must take dry storage forever (or at least quite a few decades) to make a tea drinkable. I guess those people simply have very different flavor preferences from mine.

"When would a tea reach its peak", and "how old is old" is a very interesting topic and I would like to write a different post later to compare what some tea professionals think of it (I will only go over what they say because I don't have much to say on the topic but have great interests in learning about people's thoughts of it.)

2. Overall I like this tea better than the butterfly tuo. And this tea is more "mature" than the butterfly tuo. But currently this tea is not more expensive than the butterfly tuo, which is already less expensive than many other aged teas. I'm not the one who made the prices. But I think their prices do follow the market rules. This brick comes "naked", with a standard CNNP wrapping for a whole pack of 4 bricks, but without wrapping for each individual brick. "Clothing" matters, not just in social events :-p Besides, the butterfly tuo, although rare, does have some established market among people who know about it. And so far I've only seen one batch of it from 1996. In contrast, the 8972 brick was made in different years. Late 1990s ones are not naked anymore and have individual wraps. But overall, most of them don't bear production dates. If under the same dry storage, a late 1990 version can't taste anywhere similar to an early 1990 version. But I somewhat believe prices are often made far before the tasting takes place. I think the multiple batches are confusing enough to affect the price. For collectors who buy in bulks and expect to sell them in bulk after a number of years, this tea may not be a good investment choice.

3. It's pretty much unknown to me how various regions, harvest seasons, leaf grades and other factors contribute to the taste of a tea after years of aging. Interestingly, I've noticed some common flavors between this brick and the butterfly tuo. I have a 1996 Menghai tuo (which I will blog about later) that's from the same factory as this brick, and is in the same age period as the butterfly tuo. However, the 1996 Menghai tuo doesn't share much commonness with either is brick or the butterfly tuo. This seems just too complicated!

May 8, 2012

brewing green teas with Petr Novák shibo set

Well, I guess shiboridashi was meant to be for green tea to begin with! But for a long time I forgot about this fact, as I enjoy using Petr's shibos for oolong and puerh - they have the perfect size and hand-grab feeling. The little "teeth" at the spout does a great job filtrating liquor out of brewed tea leaves. And, they don't get your fingers burnt! I never feel 100% comfortable using gaiwan for gongfu tea, and used to take teapots as much as possible. But suddenly, Petr's shibo became my new "gaiwan" :-D

Last time when we got a bunch of Petr's hand made tea ware (tea bowls, shibos, teapots...) for the web store, I selfishly grabbed this cute red shibo set for myself before showing it to anybody :-p Then in this spring, when new green teas arrive, I suddenly realize this is a perfect set for green tea! Oh well I guess I'm the last one to realize this :-p But I mean, many people use shibos for Japanese greens, and they are actually perfect as well for Chinese greens. And this specific set has everything I love as a green tea set!

For green tea that requires a lower temperature, the shiboridashi with lid removed serves as a perfect water cooler, and the small tea bowl that comes with it can be used as a brewing and drinking vessel. It's quite small, but perfect for tea that you've got to be thrifty on.

Cooling water:

Pouring water in the little tea bowl and throw in some Bi Luo Chun:

Bi Luo Chun "germinates" at the bottom of the bowl!

An Ji Bai Cha brewed in a similar way:

Tea that can tolerate hot water well can be brewed in the shibo directly, such as this Huang Shan Mao Feng:

Somehow I feel the color of the red glaze matches spring green very well! And the white inside is perfect for appreciation of green tea leaves.

Brewing Yong Xi Huo Qing is as easy as throwing tea grains into a bowl of hot water.

Then the tea grains would "germinate" in water.

 Then it takes a couple of minutes for the leaves to get fully expand.

 The monkey seems as thrilled as I am!

Teas like Bi Luo Chun and Yong Xi Huo Qing stay put at the bottom of the vessel and don't usually get into the way of your drinking. For some other teas whose leaves would go up and down in the water, or float around, the lid could be useful.

This is how people use the lid of a traditional gaiwan to wave away tea leaves when drinking green tea. You can do pretty much the same with the lid of a shibo :-)
(This is my favorite actress in my favorite Chinese TV version of my favorite book, The Story of the Stone.)
For most Chinese green teas, I would use hottest boiling water, or water temperature very close to boiling point. Hot water could be very helpful for green tea leaves to open their cells and release flavors. Then a tea bowl with wide opening is really handy. It allows hot steam to escape fast so the water wouldn't stay too hot to get the leaves "cooked". Meantime, the thick wall prevents water from cooling down too fast. I didn't analyze all this before using this shibo. But once I started, I found myself using it most of the time since the green teas arrived a few week ago. Then I came up with all these guess-analysis about why it seems so great for green teas!

May 4, 2012

Discussion on Long Jing (7) - What's in the debris of Long Jing?

(Other discussions on Long Jing are here.)

When I bought Long Jing this year, my friend in Long Jing Village send me a small pack of "Long Jing debris" (sifted broken pieces and older leaves) as gift. I appreciate this gift very much, for a few reasons.

First, the gifting culture in China has a lot of subtleties. Usually, expensive, delicate gifts symbolize great respect. But sometimes, casual, inexpensive gifts indicate very close friendship. Every time I get a gift like this Long Jing debris, the Da Hong Pao teabag, and the "granny tea", I feel glad that I'm not just seen as a client, but a friend.

That being said, for those of you who would send gifts to some Chinese in the future, don't take my words about casual gifts too seriously. Follow your heart, and when you are not sure, choose relatively formal gifts :-p Chinese society is full of these subtle manners. Another subtle culture is about paying restaurant bills. I've educated my husband (who is a Chinese Canadian yet "not Chinese enough") about when to pay the bill and when to let others pay the bill, using numerous examples, analogies and historical stories. Sometimes, paying the bill is a big sign of respect, but sometimes allowing somebody else to pay it is a big sign of respect. The opposite of the "big sign of respect" could lead to very bad outcome! After all these years, he hasn't got it yet :-p and often take the wrong choice! But people like him anyway :-)

Secondly, the Long Jing debris tastes good. I know a Long Jing lover who visits the villages in the central producing region every year around Qingming (Qingming is April 4 or 5) for tea shopping. He is a very savvy buyer and always looks for the best quality/price ratio. Once he told me that sometimes he would ask the farmers to sell him the Long Jing debris the farmers take as daily drink, because it's for sure authentic, inexpensive and tasty.
The Long Jing debris doesn't taste as mellow and smooth as a normal Long Jing product. The flavor is a little inconsistent with a mix of grassy, sweet, floral and nutty tastes. But after all, the debris of a good Long Jing is way better than a mediocre tea. I used a little strainer over a tea bowl to brew it, and it went for 2-3 infusions, and I could go for more!
Thirdly, it's quite interesting to peep into the Long Jing debris and see what's there. Actually, it could tell a lot about the tea!

Taking a close look at this dish, we could see some broken pieces, some "yellow/brown/red flakes", some "fluff balls" (by the way, I would like to discuss more about fluff balls later. Meantime,here is an interesting and lengthy discussion on teachat that's dedicated to those "fluff balls")... and, there are quite a few small whole leaves and buds! The leaves and buds are part of the reason why the savvy Long Jing shopper says tea debris is a good deal. When the Long Jing product is sifted at the end of the processing, the sifting method tend to throw out smaller and lighter pieces. Therefore, there are always some "escaped" leaf buds.

Then I picked out a few "representatives" of each type of things in this pile, including: some tea crumbs, some broken leaves, some normal-to-small leaf buds, some tiny small buds, and some "fluff balls". Long Jing's harvest season is very short. Traditionally, summer and autumn harvest yielded cheaper teas. Nowadays, due to the high operational costs, farmers in the central production regions of Xi Hu Long Jing no longer make summer or autumn teas. All the harvest and production happens between the end of March and the near the end of April - this is also why when tourists visit Long Jing region in other months, they should be cautious about their tea purchase, as most farmers (actually all of those I know) no longer have any new tea for sale after early May. 

Within this short time period, tea changes a lot. Therefore, there is the old saying in Long Jing region (and some other green tea regions as well), "It takes 3 days for treasures to turn into grasses." On the young leaves and buds in this photo, we can see some fish leaves (such as on the one at lower left) - the one or two small, undeveloped, nonfunctional leaves at the bottom of the leaf stem. Not all spring tea harvests keep the fish leaves, and some fish leaves are broken off in the tea processing. But when you see fish leaves, they indicate first harvest of the spring. In mid- to late-April harvest of Long Jing, fish leaves wouldn't be seen, neither in the debris or in the regular products. Similarly, the little "fluff balls" are tiny leaf hairs accumulated in tea processing. The tea leaves are rich of tiny hairs in early spring. Harvest of a few weeks later will not have so many leaf hairs. In Long Jing processing, these little fluff balls are sifted out in the last stage, but usually there are still small amount left in the tea. If a Long Jing doesn't have any single one fluff ball, there are two possibilities, (1) the tea is from the very top layer of a batch, as the fluff balls and any crumbs tend to "precipitate" to the bottom of a container; (2) the tea doesn't have many tiny hairs to give rise to fluff balls, and this has to do with either the tea cultivar, or the harvest date. There is a small chance of the third possibility which I would like to discuss later in a "fluff ball" post.

Farmers from various tea regions have told me that they take sifted broken leaves, tea debris, "yellow flakes", or "granny tea" as daily drink. More or less, it's because the farmers are very thrifty. If a tea can be sold for a lot of money, they would see it as a terrible waste if they drink it themselves instead of selling it. Sometimes the head of the household (usually the old father) simply forbids family members from taking any high grade tea as daily drink. However, this life style is changing as farmers' living standards improves. One farmer once said to me, "We are farmers of the 'new society' of 21st century. Why live a miserable life when you could have a better one?" But even not for being thrifty, many tea farmers and even tea dealers drink all kinds of "debris" and "yellow flakes". It's because those broken leaves are all good stuff. Besides drinking them up, what can you do with them otherwise? It's a sin to throw them away, and don't ever expect teabag manufacturers would care to collect these "deluxe" types of debris ;-) 

May 1, 2012

ecastasy of green tea season

"This is crazy!"
When I lived in Beijing, every four years, there would be a "crazy summer" - the summer when FIFA (of the soccer) World Cup happened. During the time, everybody was in sleep deprivation (because usually the World Cup schedule follows that of European audience). Every night was a carnival. The air was sweet. The sidewalks of the city were full of beer parties and large screen TV with live soccer games going on. In weeks, everybody would feel this light dizziness day in and day out (due to sleep deprivation). But everybody was dreamy and happy.

It was quite a phenomenon, especially considering China has never got a passable soccer team!

I thought of those crazy summers because in recent years, the only time when I have the similar dizzy, dreamy, sleep-deprived days are during the "April madness" - the green tea harvest season! Most of the green teas that I buy each year are small-production teas, which would be sold out shortly after the harvest. And some of those relatively large-production ones, such as Long Jing (still small production but already much larger than many rare teas), also require frequent attention and contact with the producer - that's the price to pay if you want to buy famous tea directly from farmers for much lower price than in a large-city tea store, yet of much higher quality! And, there is 12-13 hours time difference between Massachusetts and China. I guess that's why everything in the green tea season feels so similar to World Cup season to me!

Usually, my "April madness" starts in mid March, when the weather forecast starts to be important for Long Jing. For Da Fo Long Jing, it's relatively easy - just grab the early harvest and done! For Xi Hu Long Jing, since I can't afford (or don't want to pay for) the earliest harvest, I would check out the price change twice a day and aim at the day that (I guess) has best quality/price ratio. I'm very privileged to have my friends reserving the tea for me every year in recent years. But still I've got to keep in touch with them every day, so to make the purchase decision at the earliest possible time.

Then there are the battles for other first harvest famous green teas. Then there are waves and waves of first harvests of less famous Anhui green teas. Anhui is probably my favorite green tea province. I never know how many various green teas you could get there! In traditional Chinese tea industry, there is an old saying, "Spend you entire life learning about tea, and at the end, don't expect you know all the names of teas." In fact, give me another 30 years, I wouldn't expect myself to know all the names of Anhui teas. There are so many hidden gems.

This year, I actually made a plan for green tea purchase - the first year ever that I had actually made a green tea plan :-p But then there are always some accidental discoveries or good tea with good prices that bumped into me. So I guess, in the future, if I make a plan to buy 10 teas, it would be a relatively accurate estimate that I would end up with 20-30 teas :-p Then I get tea samples from producers and suppliers. Many of those teas would be unknown to me, and (fortunately? unfortunately?) many of them would be already sold out by the time I taste the sample. Then there would be such resolutions, "Next year I'm sooo getting this tea!"

Then there is the annual green tea group purchase that I participate in China. In the group purchase, one would get a dozen or so various new green teas, quite a few of them would be rare or small-production teas that are unknown to me. A micro blog sale I run last year included quite a few teas I obtained from the group purchase. Obviously, the group purchase has been more and more popular over years. In the past, I didn't remember I had to wait in front of my computer at 2:30am to sign up. But this is what I had to do this year. Again, there was the deja vu feeling of World Cup summers! The online sign-up started in the afternoon of Chinese time. Within 10 minutes after the sign-up program was opened, all of the 100 orders were taken - which means those of my peer green tea drinkers in China weren't doing any work under the noses of their bosses in an afternoon of a Friday :-p I managed to sign up in the second minute and there were already more than 2 dozen people signing up before me! So I know how it feels when you have to compete against people of the most populated country for green tea :-D

If the "April madness" sounds a little crazy, I'm just glad that I'm not the only one :-) There are many, many green tea drinkers who are as crazy, or even crazier!