Dec 26, 2010

Meng Ding Snow Orchid 蒙顶雪兰

The tea is from Meng Mountain (production region of Meng Ding Snow Bud and some other famous teas). The tea is a newly designed scented tea, however the processing procedure is inspired by and largely follows traditional method. In fact, in Chinese tea market, traditional scenting with real flowers/fruits is still seen by most producers and buyers as the only acceptable way of making scented tea.

I was lucky to have got a small sample of this tea from a supplier, as 2010 is the first year this tea has arrived the market, in very small amount.

The green tea that serves as a base in this tea is made in the mode of Meng Ding Gan Lu (a historically famous green tea produced in Meng Mountain), whose fuzzy structure can better absorb any fragrance than Meng Ding Snow Bud. 

The tea is very fragrant and sweet. One important thing I've learned from this tea is, now I know exactly what "orchid aroma" is. "Orchid aroma" is a very important descriptive term used in Chinese tea jargon. The orchids many Chinese Southerner are familiar to are supposed to be fragrant and sweet, but with smaller flowers, unlike most orchids we see in market with more showy flowers but little scent.

As a Northerner, I didn't have much clue about the real "orchid aroma". I see it again and again in tea books, but I've never tasted an orchid flower. I understood "orchid aroma" as the good aroma in many teas, only at the conceptual level. Since this tea is scented with orchid, it gives me a good idea what "orchid aroma" is. In the past, I had "orchid scented" teas a few times from Asian groceries. But they were not up to the level of fine tea and I could hardly recognize any aroma from them. This tea has very intense aroma and the aroma does resemble what I've experienced from a lot of high quality green tea which were not scented at all. The aroma is just amplified in this tea due to its scented nature. Now I know what "orchid aroma" is. And now I know my favorite Orchid Fairy Twig does have the typical "orchid aroma", and the Yong Xi Huo Qing has some "orchid aroma" too! And the lovely Tong Cheng Small Orchid, it's not called orchid just for the outlook of its spent leaves! This is very enlightening experience to me, because no description or learning through other ways can replace tasting.

This also makes me think again about many people's view toward scented tea, as discussed by Alex Zorach and me in the past. I am sure there are other tea drinkers who talked about this topic too but can't get all the relevant articles off the top of my head. These days, it seems that I see more people who look down upon scented tea than who appreciate it. I believe it's largely because of the large amount of poorly made scented tea in the market. If seeing from the inner quality of various types of tea, I don't think scented tea should be considered as an "inferior category". Not all the people would like the floral fragrance from scenting. I personally drink a lot more unscented tea than scented tea. But if a scented tea is well made with high quality tea and flowers, it's excellence is undeniable. There is good tea and bad tea. There is well made tea and poorly made tea. Any tea can be good or bad, well made or poorly made, whether it's a jasmine green or a Long Jing.

Traditionally orchids have been adored by Chinese literati and admired as a creature with noble virtues - because naturally they grow in the mountains, not requiring much nutrient or care. Their pure white florescence, implicit yet long lasting aroma and simple living conditions are seen as symbolization of hermit life, which is the ultimately ideal life in eyes of many Chinese literati.

Together with plum flowers and chrysanthemum, orchid is one of the favorite flowers used in traditional Chinese poems and paintings.

This is one of the best valued orchid paintings of Zheng Banqiao, a great poet and artist in Qing dynasty.

The man who invented processing procedure of Meng Ding Snow Orchid, He Zhuolin, was inspired by an old painting of orchid and tea bush growing together. Orchid and tea plant are both seen as "noble plants" in Chinese culture. There is some connection between people's love of tea and love of orchid.

I am very excited to experience the physical, not just conceptual, resemblance between green tea flavor and orchid flavor. It's very possible that Chinese people's love of orchid has greatly influenced processing of even non-scented tea, so that the green teas with "orchid aroma" has been the most adored and highly-regarded green teas in, at least, the past a few hundred years.

Dec 18, 2010

Wrestling of Dragon and Tiger 龍虎鬥

A tasting notes about this was logged on Steepster. Viewers’ discretion is necessary!

And later, I tried various versions of it!

“Wrestling of Dragon and Tiger” is a traditional way of tea drinking in some ethnic cultures of Yunnan. It’s not 100% puerh (and sometimes black tea is used instead). It’s a mixture of liquor and puerh. I’ve read about it in quite a few books but have never seen it’s practiced. So I did mine based on guestimation and imagination :-p

In my nutrition knowledge, it can be very unhealthy to take alcohol and caffeine together, when both are in large doses. But with large amount of one and small amount of the other, it seems ok. That’s why Irish coffee with Bailey is supposed to be ok, but nobody would put a shot of rum in a shot of espresso.
I thought of this exotic drink at a cold night. I have some ginger brandy as my "flu formula" and some other liquors for making cocktails. A shot of my cheap brandy always does miracle and makes my instantly warm. So at that cold night, I thought some brandy and some shu puerh may boost up some warmth. Indeed it worked perfectly! So the second time, instead of using some left over puerh leaves, I used some newly brewed puerh to get more taste of tea. And I tried a third time with Yunnan Golden Bud. Besides, I cut down the amount of alcohol. In the initial taste, I said, "When made a warm drink, everybody should cut off half of the amount of alcohol that she usually feels comfortable with." And later I thought, it should be cut down to 1/5 or less, since the alcohol rises with hot steam and gives you a light drunk-feeling very efficiently!

Here is my notes from the first drinking - The light drunk feeling came before the taste of tea. Besides, I did get peanuts and chocolates right next to me, in case I would feel the drink burning my stomach lining (luckily it didn’t). The steam of alcohol rushed through the throat as well as the nose. Then the taste of tea kicked in and lingered around. That’s the way to get both tea drunk and alcohol drunk with just one bowl :-D

Here is a record of what I did with Yunnan Golden Bud and rum.

First, I use the lid of the rum bottle to measure 1/2 to 3/4 lid-full of rum, and put it in my small chawan. According to the books, it's always crucial to add tea into alcohol, not the other way around. That's very reasonable, because alcohol is lighter than water. If alcohol is added on top of tea, it all floats on the surface and you are very likely to get drunk, as well as a big hit on the stomach.

Then, I used hottest possible water to brew some strong tea (ideally the tea should be brewed by boiling in water on fire). And then the tea was poured into the chawan. Then the drink is ready!

I like the name of this drink. It's exactly how it feels!

But it's NOT a daily drink. Don't let them fight each other too often, or the world will be upside down!

P.S. - Since I will be in Yucatan during the holiday, now I am considering the possibility of puerh-tequila as a New Year celebration drink :-D

Dec 14, 2010

Concept Tea (5) sampling a 2002 CNNP shu brick

I got a sample of this from Da Dian, and here is the link of this product in Da Dian's taobao store. It's a very pleasant tea, even for me, who is not crazy about shu puerh. I think it's a very good deal for people who love heavily fermented Shu. As an independent puerh manufacturer as well as a CNNP sales agent, Da Dian has sharp eyes on puerh. (By the way I don't sell this tea, but Da Dian is a seller that I would recommend to people who shop from taobao.)

It's a great tea, but not a super unique tea. However, I still see it as a Concept Tea, because it serves very well to demonstrate a few important concepts in puerh.

First of all, stored all the time in Kunming, capital of Yunnan, this tea is an excellent example of a product of dry storage. Dry storage may not be the only good way of storing puerh, but it's one of the safest ways. It's also my personal preference of storing puerh. Probably it's because I grew up and have lived all my life in very dry regions, humidity makes me nervous and I can easily dislike tastes caused by humid storage. Very dry storage or less dry storage, it's just personal preference. But for people who are curious about it, this tea can serve as a "standard specimen" as a purely dry-aged Shu.

When I drank this tea, I constantly compared it to my 2002 CNNP French Export 7581 shu brick, which is another excellent example of purely dry-aged Shu. Both bricks have been stored dry, and their leaf grades are comparable too. But I would take Da Dian's brick as a "concept tea", because it's a dry-aged tea that has reached its peak. This leads to the second concept the tea demonstrates.

Secondly, this tea is an excellent example of a Shu at its peak. By comparing this tea and my 2002 7581 brick, I can see a big difference in their levels of fermentation, although the leaves were both from 2002. Personally I still prefer my 2002 7581 brick, which has more kick (I mean, aromatic aftertaste rising to nasal cavity), and whose "aroma of age" is more subtle. But I can imagine some other people may prefer this more deeply fermented tea, which yields liquor of richer texture, smoother, with very dark and warm "aroma of age". By comparing these two bricks, I am again confirmed that I personally prefer pre-peak puerh, and I am glad that my 2002 7581 bricks still have some years of shelf life. About his own 2002 CNNP brick, Da Dian's comment is, "It fits tastes of all the people in the world!" It may sound a bit exaggeration, but in some sense I think it's very true. This tea is perfectly smooth and sweet. One may critique on its depth or power of lingering taste, but would still find this tea very pleasant to drink.

About his own 2002 CNNP brick, Da Dian suggests that it should be consumed in few years, because with time being, the tea will step down from peak stage and will start to fade. I personally don't have the expertise to predict the shelf life of a tea. And I understand even highly experienced tea professionals bear the risk of inaccuracy when they predict the shelf life of a tea (although more often than not they are quite accurate). But I always appreciate such attempts of carefully estimating the shelf life of a tea. Nowadays many people, including manufacturers and sellers, would only tell you a puerh is "the older, the better". But in reality, no physical existence is "the older, the better". It's simply against the 2nd law of thermodynamics, one of the basic truths of the universe :-p Da Dian never hesitates to give you an estimation of the potential shelf life of a tea. His estimation is probably accurate, and probably less so. But he allows his thought to be tested by time, instead of just throwing us the simple theory of "the older, the better". That's one of the things I like the most about Da Dian  as a manufacturer.

Thirdly, both this tea and that 2002 7581 brick are excellent examples of how much taste lower grade leaves can yield. This tea is made with leaves of Grades 7-9 mixed.

Dec 9, 2010

2005 Bai Mu Dan (White Peony, 白牡丹)

Can white tea be aged as what they do with puerh? I don't know. I am generally very conservative about it. There are historical records of keeping white tea (as well as oolong) for years and use the tea for medical purposes. But I've never seen historical records of keeping white tea for connoisseur appreciation. But then, no record doesn't necessarily mean non-existence. Luckily I got this 2005 Bai Mu Dan sample from a supplier, and of course I wanted to try it.

Dry leaves: very lovely. Color is overall darker than new Bai Mu Dan. I added two photos of new Bai Mu Dan at the end of this post for comparison purpose.

I put this much in a glass mug. Later it turned out a bit too much for mug brewing. But the flavor was fine and didn't seem over-brewed.

I brewed the tea in a glass mug and put a gaiwan lid on top of it to conserve the heat. I like to have a lot of heat in white tea brewing.

The leaves are beautiful. Due to the processing method of white tea, the cells are well preserved in the tea leaves, which enables the tea leaves to last a long time without degrading.

Overall I love the taste of this tea. It has much "darker" taste than newer white tea. The flavor remotely resembles Oriental Beauty, Moonlight White and a non-smoked lapsang souchong I recently had. It has a unique chocolaty taste that I've never found in another white tea. I enjoy drinking it very much and will stop worrying about any of my white tea that can't be consumed in a few years.

About long-term aging of white tea, I've seen opposite opinions. The advocates say that white tea has cells more intact than any other tea (which is true) and therefore the leaf contents are in better conditions to age and develop favorable flavors (which I don't know). The opponents say that few other teas have the biochemical basis of Yunnan large-leaf varietals, and therefore can't develop complex flavors through aging (this sounds plausible too). But one thing that's pretty much for sure is, white tea can possibly have much longer shelf life than some other teas, due to its intact cell conditions. From this tea, I've seen that white tea can possible develop some unique, darker flavor through aging. But when would be a peak time for such flavor and will the good flavor fade within several years, only time can tell and only those who care enough to experiment can discover. Personally I wouldn't invest time and tea to experiment on it. But who knows, maybe some of my white tea will accidentally end up in the closet for years and give me some new knowledge :D 

These are photos of a new Bai Mu Dan taken last year. However, this tea is of a lower grade than the above 2005 tea.

Dry leaves are more colorful, with a lot greener leaves. The 2005 tea mainly has black leaves and white buds.

Tea liquor is of lighter color than the 2005 Bai Mu Dan.

Dec 6, 2010

What's your puerh collection style?

In China there is a common saying that there are a few types of puerh collectors, named by their collecting styles. One type is called "philatelists", who collect a few cakes/tuos of each product. Their collections cover a wide range of puerh brands and products but with only one or a few representatives of each product.

A second type is "ti collectors". A ti (or tong) typically has 7x357g puerh cakes, or 4x250g tuos or 5x100g tuos. The number may vary depending on the specific product. Traditionally a ti is wrapped by bamboo shoot shells which provides the most favorable environment for puerh aging.

A third type is "box collectors" who collect whole boxes (jian) of puerh. For example, for Dayi and most other 357g cakes, each box/jian has typically 6 ti, which are 42 cakes. It's not uncommon that some fans (obviously, those with larger houses!) would collect one or more boxes of some popular Dayi or Xia Guan products each year.

The last type is called "sample collectors" who collect as many samples as they can, not to keep them but for tasting purposes. Here in US, there are not as many free tea samples, but still many vendors offer sample options for puerh. After all, it's always important to sample a puerh before buying a big cake.

For my personal collection, I am pretty much a "ti collector". I love to have replicates of my favorite products, but feel I can't handle too much. Even if I have enough storage space, mentally, I won't be able to handle many whole boxes of puerh.

Besides, I love samples. For good or for bad, I've probably collected more samples than I can really consume in foreseeable future. One of the most interesting character of puerh is its unpredictability. Tasting is believing.

As an inexperienced puerh drinker, I think sampling is always important. What makes tea appreciation easy is, everybody can taste a tea and tell if she likes it or not. Sampling endless varieties of tea products and finding out what you like is always fun! On the other hand, puerh tasting has its limitation. One can tell if she likes a tea or not at current moment. But it's highly unpredictable how likable a puerh will be in future years. That's why after tasting countless puerh samples, I feel I haven't known better. Anyhow, I still enjoy sampling. It's a journey, not a race. That's my excuse :-p

Dec 2, 2010

last bowl of 2010 semi-wild Huang Shan Mao Feng

My last bowl of 2010 semi-wild Huang Shan Mao Feng, which I started to enjoy from here.

There wasn't much left so I had to use a small tea bowl.

In traditional green tea business, it was taken as great pride and bliss when a tea product was sold out far before the start of the next season. Large tea houses would even use fireworks to celebrate it. Having  a tea sold out fast was interpreted as a nice achievement of the tea house. It was celebrated also because all the precious green teas went to appreciative drinkers, and no tea would be wasted by getting stale in the warehouse.

For personal collections of green tea, I believe it's also better off finishing a tea far before the start of next season, rather than having more than enough and having the tea stale and unwanted later. Wasting tea (actually wasting pretty much anything) makes me feel guilty :-p It's not just because of the cost. The great Confucius said, "Too much is no better than too little." I've found this very true in many aspects of life, including tea. Sometimes, by having too much, we may not get more happiness. Instead, that may just dilute the happiness.

It's great to have just enough green tea, or a little less than enough. (I know it's easy saying than doing...) Then the thirst for spring tea will build up in the coming months, which will make the new harvest even more exciting!

Nov 29, 2010

a small teapot that changes it all

A few months ago, when Steepter's Select (which is not available now) had this cute little glass teapot from Samovar Tea on promotion, even I almost wanted to buy one. I said "even I" because I love yixing and porcelain teapots a lot more. But for a moment I was totally attracted by the little glass teapot. Small glass teapots are all cute! The teapot itself was not new to me. But I have to say, Samovar presented it in a very lovely way! It was on promotion with their Four Season oolong, which makes perfect match with the 4 oz. glass teapot.

Later, I was very grateful to see some tea drinkers mentioning that they used Samovar's 4 oz. glass teapot to brew some oolong from Life in Teacup, and enjoyed the tea much more than when they brewed the tea less gong fu style. I was very grateful, because I myself could never make such a positive influence. People were drawn to the cute teapot not just because of Samovar's reputation, but also because of their successful presentation of the product. When I went through the product web pages, I enjoyed watching the video clip which demonstrates using the cute teapot for gongfu brewing of oolong in a very beautiful and simple way. The 4 oz. little glass teapot is indeed a very good start point for people to use gong fu style. It's elegant but not as complicated as yixing teapots. Besides, its transparency provides a great view of tea leaves. The pairing up of Four Season and the glass teapot in the promotion was also very smart. As many other greener oolongs, Four Season yields much more in gong fu style than in other styles.

Thinking a teapot sometimes indeed gives us a whole new experience in tea drinking, I brought this Kamjove travel gong fu teapot to Life in Teacup. I don't expect it to make as large an influence comparable to that of the cute little glass teapot of Samovar. But maybe some people would find the Kamjove travel gong fu teapot very useful and handy.

I have always been a fan of Kamjove travel gong fu teapot. Kamjove was originally a manufacturer of electric pumps and compressors, which are still a big part of its production now. The company is located in Chaozhou, where everyone loves gong fu tea. The CEO of the company is an enthusiastic tea lover. His love of tea drove him to develop product lines of Kamjove tea devices, including several dozen various models of travel gong fu teapots and electric kettles. I've found it interesting that after becoming a large mechanic manufacturer and a millionaire, the guy isn't just satisfied with collecting some expensive traditional tea ware. Instead, he would like to make some modern, geeky tea ware himself. A typical engineer! And I think he is a savvy business man too. Their tea devices turned out more famous than their mechanic devices. After all, if 1 in every 10 tea drinkers in China uses a Kamjove teapot (and break one from time to time), their sales figure will be huge. I, as a tea drinker, have owned a few of them, and sent out several of them as gifts. I don't like using electric kettles. But I know many people using Kamjove kettles too. 

The one I previously used looks like this.

I've found its size (120ml infusion cage) perfect for gong fu style brewing. It strains water even faster than some faster-straining teapots. Besides, sometimes I would use its glass mug alone for green tea. I loved this teapot and once gave a same teapot to a friend who is a Chinese artist. Later he told me that at the beginning he didn't want to accept the gift at all (I was like, "what!?!") because it looked too geeky for a teapot. But he admitted that eventually he found it very convenient and lovely.

Later I switched to the one in the earlier photos. It's slightly larger (140ml) infusion cage). I like the smaller size and the slim look of the older one. But when I used the glass mug for green tea brewing, at the end of the brewing, I found it hard to reach the bottom of the slim mug to get spent leaves out. So I like the stout shape of the new one better. Besides, the new one has an infusion cage that can be interlocked with the glass mug, which makes it more convenient to carry the teapot around in one piece.

Nov 24, 2010

why red tea (红茶) is called black tea

As many people know, "black tea" in western tea terminology is assigned to the tea genre that's called "red tea" by Chinese people. In China, there is a "black tea" (Hei Cha) category which is somewhat similar to modern shu puerh. Why is Chinese "red tea" called "black tea" in the Western Hemisphere? This has to do with the history of tea trade.

Following historical study is from the book China Oolong by Gong Zhi, one of the most renowned tea scholars in China. I found this interpretation very plausible.

By the time I heard of this book, it was already out of shelf of most bookstores. It's a book adored by tea drinkers, especially oolong lovers, but it's not a best seller that one can find anywhere.

I was very grateful to have found full text of this book on the internet. Mr. Gong, the author, has authorized his young colleagues in Wuyi to publish all contents of this book on a few major Chinese tea social websites, without asking for anything in return. It's a fortune for many tea drinkers to get access to this book.

So here is my interpretation of Mr. Gong's study in his book.

According to historical records, Wuyi Oolong was the first Chinese tea exported to Europe in the 16th century. Large export of Wuyi tea started from the 17th century. For a long time, Bohea (pronunciation of Wuyi in the local dialect) was used as the name for Chinese tea. The name "oolong" is from Wuyi. In both domestic market and international market, Wuyi Tea was also called Wuyi Oolong. Therefore, the term Oolong Tea has been commonly used in the international market since the 17th century. The word "oolong" in Chinese means "black dragon". Oolong Tea is "black dragon tea". In the international market, people used "Black Tea", the shorter form of Oolong Tea, to refer to the oxidized tea from Wuyi. So when the term "Black Tea" was first used by Europeans, it referred to oolong tea, not red tea.

Before mid 20th century, both in China and in the international market, tea was categorized in two types, Green Tea and Red Tea, simply based on color of tea liquor. Therefore, oolong tea was regarded as a type of red tea. Even today, I know some Chinese northerners who are still confused about the tea types. They thought traditional Tie Guan Yin was a red tea and modern style Tie Guan Yin was a green tea, because in the traditional tea houses before mid 20th century, oolong was categorized as red tea.

With increasing tea export, more and more other tea products joined the tea export in the 17th century and following centuries. Some of these other products were oolong, and some were red tea. All of them were called "black tea". By this time, the "black tea" in the international market would be either oolong or red tea. Bohea became a term restrictively used for upscale oolong from Wuyi.

Later on, with large amount of Indian and Ceylon red tea entering the international market and with decreased tea export from China, international tea market started to be dominated by red tea, which would be commonly called "black tea". Therefore, today, the term "black tea" in English refers to what Chinese call red tea.

I've found Mr. Gong's study very interesting. Even in English style tea drinking, many "black teas" aren't really black in color. So I had ever wondered where the name "black tea" was from!

Nov 22, 2010

2009 Nan Mei Village Sheng

Tasting notes on this tea was posted on Steepster

Puerh is probably already the tea category that's easiest to be tracked by companies/producers. However, big factory puerh is only a small part of the scene. I hope I am not messing up Steepster's system by putting up a lot of tea products made by "unknown" :-p

It's a tea sample. Normally I would drink a 1-year-old sheng only when it comes free :-D But actually this tea is very drinkable and not harsh at all. I am glad I've got it.

I started drinking without paying much attention, only thinking I would get rid another sample. Then it really pleased me with very sugary flavor and great after taste. So at the end, I spent quite some time appreciating the leaves.

According to historical record, puerh won love of the mandarins in Beijing some 300 hundred years ago. I imagine most of them were Manchurian who had a lot of meat and dairy in their diet (isn't that partially why we love puerh today!). Even then, I have a hard time relating some puerh to tribute tea for the royal families. As for this Nan Mei tea, I have no problem imagining it as a tribute tea. Great leaves, friendly taste, lingering aroma and sweetness. The Emperor would love it!

Nov 19, 2010

2010 Wuyi Shui Xian

A friend of mine once said if a tea makes you want to infuse it again and again, till the aroma fades into a sweet water taste and you never want to end the session, then it must be a great tea. That's what I feel about this Shui Xian.

Most Wuyi producers would not release a tea before letting the fire fade for a few months. By now the tea is already mild enough to drink. The first a few infusions still bear a hint of "fire taste", but to a nice degree, for this season.

The later infusions are smooth yet strong. It's the strength of this tea that makes me understand the historical record of Wuyi tea - "Every family proudly speak of their tea aged for two years..."

The tea started with dark, chocolate color dry leaves, and ended with dark green color spent leaves with red edges.

Nov 17, 2010

sipping tea in a war time

What is it like? I don't know. But when sipping a great Dian Hong (Yunnan red/black tea), I often let my mind travel through history back to 1938.

Starting from 1937, wave after wave of refugees fled from occupied northern China to the Southwestern provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, leaving behind them everything of their previous life. It seems to me a miracle that once settled in Kunming, central city of Yunnan, people immediately picked up their tea drinking routine, and the tea houses in Kunming boomed.

The "official" Japanese occupation in China last eight years (1937-1945). But the military invasion actually started long before that and can be traced back to 1931 or even earlier. During the war, hundreds of millions of people died. Numerous temples from Tang, Song and even earlier dynasties were demolished. Many precious ancient books were bundled and sold for pennies by the measurement of "height of walk stick". Culture was ruined and elegant life styles were lost. Yet people had their tea, in war or in peace, in tea houses or in their bombarded homes, at weddings or funerals. For thousands of years, drinking tea is part of people's life. Even in a war time when everything was ruined, where there was tea, life was going on.

Life was not just going on. Life thrived. The best universities in China retreated to the Southwest around 1938 and stayed there till the end of the war in 1945. With extremely limited resources, for eight years, scholars and students lived in poverty and under frequent military air attacks from Japanese army. Yet they neither stopped their academic activities nor stopped drinking tea. The tea houses of Kunming were filled with students and professors, many of them would become the best contemporary writers, scientists, scholars or educators of China in the coming decades. Chen Ning Yang, the Nobel Prize winner of 1957, spent his war time in Kunming. His close friend, Huang Kun, wrote later, "Without hot water supply in our dorm on campus, we had our routine discussions on physics topics in the tea house... We stayed in the tea house every day between dinner and bed time." Up till today, some of my favorite writers are those who spent their war time in Kunming. Some of my favorite Chinese essays are about life and tea houses of Kunming during the war.

During the war time, people not only drank tea, they also create tea. To me, Yunnan red tea is always special, not only because of its unique bold flavor, but also because it's a tea that was created during the war time in 1939. In 1937, Feng Shaoqiu, the creator of Yunnan red tea, was forced by the war to leave Keemun, where he had made great contribution to the processing procedure of modern day Keemun red tea. When most major tea producing regions in China fell to Japanese occupation, Chinese tea professionals started to look for new potential regions for tea production. In Yunnan, they found great soil and best tea tree varietals for red tea. When Feng started his work to build a tea factory in Fengqing, Yunnan, he had almost nothing, no constructional materials, no skill workers and no equipment. The entire country was in war, and all kinds of resources were in short. But miraculously Feng and his colleagues managed to build up a small factory and produced 15 tons of red tea in 1939. The 15 tons was tiny amount compared with today's tea production. But from then on, Yunnan red tea was sold to the Western Hemisphere, first by way of Hong Kong and then by way of Burma. Trade of Yunnan red tea greatly contributed to the national income in early 1940s when China's economy was largely devastated by the war.

No, I am not missing the war. It's one of the most devastating things that can happen to a society. But when I look back into history, I am in awe how much people achieved in war time, beyond survival. I believe what is not destroyed by the war, can live stronger than ever.

War kills, ruins, destroys. But war didn't diminish tea. It only caused another tea variety to be invented. Such connection always makes me think Dian Hong is a tea full of life.

Nov 8, 2010

traditional processing of jasmine green tea (1)

In his blog Ten of China's Underappreciated Teas, Alex Zorach included two scented tea, Jasmine Tea and Rose-scented Tea. I am very glad to see them being acknowledged! Jasmine green tea is one of my favorite tea varieties, and I too, feel it's often undervalued, both within and out of China. Historical record of tea being scented by jasmine, rose and other fragrant flowers can be traced back to the 13th centuries. Throughout hundreds of years in history, Jasmine Tea has been cherished by people of certain regions. For example, in China, Beijing (northern China), Sichuan (southwestern China) and Fuzhou (southeastern China) are a few historical centers of Jasmine Tea appreciation. Jasmine Tea is also the favorite drink of many Chinese Muslims in the North.

I believe one of the reasons why Jasmine Tea is undervalued is that in modern time, traditional techniques of Jasmine Tea processing are very often ignored. Sometimes, improperly made scented teas make people believe scented teas are inferior teas. And then, lack of market acknowledgment leads to further loss of tea processing traditions.

"Being natural" doesn't always mean the same thing in modern sense and in traditional sense. For example, if an organic, 100% natural jasmine essential oil is used to mix with other 100% natural ingredient to make a fragrant oil for scented tea, it's probably considered "natural" in modern sense. But from the view of traditional tea workers, it's very "unnatural". Traditionally, a Jasmine Tea must be made with real jasmine flowers. Jasmine essential oil is a natural product - I sometimes use it to make facial moisturizer and I like it much better than many commercial moisturizers. But in the processing of Jasmine Tea, only the use of real flowers is considered "natural".

Naturally made Jasmine Tea doesn't come easy. It requires freshest jasmine flowers. Jasmine blooms in the afternoon. Flower buds are harvested in the afternoon right before blooming. Then the flower buds are laid in special containers and "nurtured" so that in early evening they will start to bloom. The blooming flowers are then have their sepals removed and added to green tea. Tea leaves are highly absorptive and will take in the fragrance of the jasmine flowers in the next 12-24 hours. During the time, the tea and flowers should be carefully stirred up and re-mixed for many times. At the end, the "used" flowers are removed from the tea.

This may already sound tedious. But we should keep it in mind that this is only less than 1/4 of the entire work. The above described is one scenting cycle. Higher end products of Jasmine Tea are usually scented four times or more. For instance, the best Jasmine Dragon Ball typically goes through seven scenting cycles which takes totally more jasmine flowers than green tea by weight. After all the scenting cycles, there is a "promoting" step which uses the largest and best jasmine flowers to further promote the fresh taste of the final product. Then these flowers are removed from the tea. Sometimes the producers through in another batch of fresh jasmine flowers in the final products for decoration and more fragrance. Some producers don't do this and they believe the highest level of Jasmine Tea is having the jasmine aroma all over the tea without a single petal seen.

Yet this is not all the work. Some specific teas require multiple times and various levels of roasting between and/or after the scenting cycles. Some techniques include using fragrant flowers of another  species (michelia) to "lay the foundation of the fragrance" before the scenting cycles with jasmine flowers.

Traditionally and naturally made Jasmine Tea is very unique. The fragrance of jasmine flowers is powerful and long lasting. On summer nights, I love having a few jasmine flowers next to my bed. Their aroma lasts for many hours. On some winter days, I would suddenly crave for some Jasmine Tea. It makes me feel as if I were in a soft bed full of jasmine flowers.

In some sense, Jasmine Tea is an odd tea. Some Jasmine Tea has flower petals in it, some doesn't. Even when there are petals, they are only the flowers added to the tea in the final stage. All the flowers used in the scenting cycles and the "promoting" step were removed from the tea once they gave out all their fragrance. Therefore, when you have a nice cup of Jasmine Tea, half of the key ingredient, the flowers, are not physically in your cup. Yet the soul of those flowers, the essence of their fragrance will linger around infusion after infusion.       

Nov 4, 2010

Moonlight and Beauty

About Moonlight White and/or Moonlight Beauty, there are many versions of the story about how it is [they are] made. Some people say they are the same tea and some people say they are not. Most of the time, I don't like mysteries of tea, because many of them are not intrinsic mysteries of tea, but rather man-made. Some tea producers seem to be determined to confuse people about what a tea is.

This version of story about this Moonlight White is a relatively simple one. According to the producer, leaves were harvested at night under moonlight (hence the name of the tea) and were laid on the floor of a room in a single layer (no overlapping of tea leaves) to be dried completely in dark in several days. That's all. I am not sure if the moonlight harvest is just a "romantic" factor here. But I guess the key here is the tea was harvested and dried in dark.

According to the producer, it's crucial to have the leaves dry in a room without any exposure to light, and without leaves overlapping with one another. Otherwise the tea would not have black leaves and white (silver-tipped) buds, but a mixture of green leaves, red leaves and white buds instead. I did see Moonlight White with green leaves and white buds before and I guess it used a different way of processing. A quick hypothesis I can think of to explain the difference is, when dried in sunlight, the leaves dry faster and therefore oxidation level is lower. When dried in dark, the leaves take longer time to dry, hence longer time to oxidize, and hence darker leaf color. But I am not sure if the "absolutely no light exposure" and "absolutely no leaf overlapping" policy is just another "romantic" factor. Compared to all other white teas I had had, this Moonlight White has the highest oxidation level. The taste even remotely resemble that of a red tea. I can see why some people would compare this tea to Taiwan Oriental Beauty (Bai Hao Oolong), which is a highly oxidized tea too.

2nd infusion.

7th infusion.

What makes this tea special is that the leaves were harvested from big tree (乔木) of Jing Mai (景迈) which are also used to make high quality puerh. The producer says because of the inner quality of the leaves, this tea can last 20 infusions or more, much more long lasting than regular white teas. My tea session didn't go as much as 20 infusions. But it did last a good 9 infusion or so. I didn't use many dry leaves from the beginning, and the spent leaves only filled 1/3 of the gaiwan. The tea can tolerate long infusion very well and is generally very smooth. So I guess if you fill the gaiwan with a lot of leaves, it can indeed give you many infusions. But so far I prefer to use less amount of dry leaves, because to me this tea is not about power and dramas, but about mellowness and sweetness.

From time to time, I hear stories of some people selling Moonlight White as fake Bai Hao Oolong. Actually, I don't think it's possible. Moonlight White is as great a tea as Bai Hao Oolong. If a tea is used as fake Bai Hao, it can't be an authentic Moonlight White either. The real Moonlight White is from big trees of Yunnan, and many of these trees, such as all of them in Jing Mai, are from elevation of above 1000m (3000 ft.). You can almost always tell from the beautiful leaves.

(I categorize this post in both "white tea" and "puerh" only because Moonlight White sometimes is referred to as a type of puerh. But I personally don't think it fits in the definition of puerh.)

Nov 1, 2010

why do I write about tea

This is part of the Blog Carnival of Association of Tea Bloggers hosted by Jason at Walker Tea Review. Please click the link to see the host's blog for a full list of all participating blogs.

Why do I write about tea? First of all I take poor pictures. What else can I do? :-p Secondly, sometimes I've got crazy thoughts running in my small head and I must squeeze them out by writing :-p

Well, seriously, why do I write about tea?

First of all, I enjoy the communications in tea writing. Writing, especially blog writing, to me is not a one-directional activity. The great joy is in sharing and exchanging ideas. Currently, tea drinkers are still a rather small community. Many tea drinkers are loners in one way or another. These days, most of the time when I drink tea, I use my tiny 100ml vessel, skip the sharing pitcher, and drink alone in a cup as big as my teapot, missing my tea friends. Sometimes reading tea notes from other people on the same tea I drink feels almost like drinking with friends. There are many tea writers/bloggers who inspire me to write, including the list of Tea People on the side column of this blog page, the great writers in Association of Tea Bloggers, and Jackie and Peter at Leafbox Tea, who always write smart and beautiful tea articles. Reading these people makes me feel I am having fun with them in tea drinking and tea writing.

In addition, writing about tea is how I express and practice what I believe. My tea philosophy is, tea is a luxury of time, but not necessarily a luxury of money. One gets the best taste of tea not by spending the most money, but by having the most fun in exploring, learning and appreciation. My personal philosophy is largely influenced by Buddhism and Confucianism. One of the most important Confucianism doctrines says, Wisdom and Compassion come from critical thinking and diligent study on specific subjects (格物致知). I believe there are many different subjects for different people to study, respectively, to get enlightened. To me, tea culture is such a subject.

To me, writing is more personal than business. In writing and tea drinking, I believe having fun is the most important. But meantime, personal writing helps me, as well as other small business tea sellers to build up friendship with tea drinkers. Many of us don't hire professional web designers or market managers to promote our business. But writing is one way to demonstrate we are serious about tea.

Oct 28, 2010

tea and the inner climate of the body

About the photo: Dance of the Han, by Robert Seto. Don't they all look tea drunk? :D

Having a lot of teas in stock makes me feel like a king :D The moment deciding which tea to drink is always a sweet moment. Most of the time it doesn't seem an entirely arbitrary decision. Actually, there seems an inner me who decides which tea I "need". (And occasionally the "need" is "coffee", which can surely be deemed as an herbal tea. Haha.) A good tea doesn't only bring pleasant taste to me, it makes me feel good inside out. For example, today I was feeling cold, not because of the weather, and not due to short of layers of clothes. It felt like having a tiny glacier inside me. That's why I reached for my favorite charcoal roast Tie Guan Yin. Sip after sip, I feel the little glacier inside me is melting and I start to sweat slightly. This makes me feel so strong and alive.

Some people I know have very prominent seasonal patterns of tea preference. I myself have such pattern too. In spring months, I crave green tea, and almost never touch red tea. Then from some day in September, I would start to yearn for red tea from time to time. Generally, I drink "greener" teas during Spring and Summer, and "darker" teas during Autumn and Winter.

But it's not always about seasons. There are summer days when I feel a strong need for "high fire" teas such as Yan Cha. And there are winter days when the heated room is so dry and I crave some Sheng puerh. In some sense, these can all be explained by Chinese medical theories. For example, it's believed that in summer days, people's yang spirit emerges to the very surface of the body, and the core of the body is surrounded mostly by yin. Hence a Chinese herbal medicine doctor would often emphasize the importance of drinking hot/warm water in summer, even more than in winter days. I believe human body is an extremely complex system and general theories, no matter oriental or occidental, traditional or modern scientific, can't summarize the mechanisms of every single body. Therefore, I sometimes vaguely understand why I "need" certain tea at certain time, and sometimes I have no understanding but just follow the senses. Very often, I am amazed that one's intuition often brings one to what's really good and healthy. (I have to admit that to me this is restricted to tea and following my intuition to ice-cream doesn't have such healthy outcome.)

This unknown, ever changing inner climate of the body is also why I never believe it's fair to say one tea is "healthier" than others. There are few things in this world that are "the more, the better". One man's sweet treat can be another man's poison. Nowadays in food industry, it's amazing how many clinical studies on "health benefits" of things are actually sponsored by or affiliated to corporations that sell these things (and very often, by large corporations that sell these things not in their best or most natural forms, corporations that are more interested in selling then in the food stuff itself). Tea is not an exception. Many of these things, including tea, are indeed healthy in one way or another, but probably not at all "the more, the healthier". I do believe one tea can be healthier to a specific person than another tea, and one tea serves a person better at one time than at another time. But I guess tea drinkers have to rely on themselves to discover. Human body is a complex and ever changing system. Clinical studies can hardly tell you what tea is the healthiest to you on a specific day.

So, I wonder if you tea drinkers sometimes feel a changing pattern of desire to certain teas, and what the pattern is like. Does seasonal climate affect your tea drinking? Does weather affect your tea preferences? Are there specific teas that you crave in cold? In a heat wave? On a rainy or snowy or windy day?

If you don't feel such a pattern at all, it's actually very good too. An herbal medicine doctor once told me that people who are not sensitive to seasonal or environmental changes are usually the physically fittest ones.

Oct 25, 2010

2002 CNNP French Export 7581 Brick Shu

Tasting note was recorded on Steepster. And here are a few pictures.

In short, I adore this tea, which had never happened between me and a shu.

Among all the tea categories, puerh Shu is probably the one that I like the least. I occasionally enjoy shu, but had never felt the “magic” as I would find in some other teas. After trying some older shu that everybody else adores but I feel at the most neutral, I’ve kind of settled with the few inexpensive products that I can get along with, and I haven’t been trying a lot of new products recently. Generally my take of shu as a “restaurant tea”, “milk tea” and “tonic drink” may have largely held me back from exploring it as a gourmet tea.

Now here is another shu that’s supposed to be “really, really good”, according to some friends. I wondered if it would taste good to me.

This brick is in a paper box without any information about the production date, which is not uncommon for puerh products before 2005. I got the production date from the supplier, whom I 100% trust. But in general, I believe for products like this one, people should always taste a sample before buying a whole brick or cake. Inside the box is a thin layer of paper wrap, which I had to tear into pieces to get the brick out. The brick is made with Grade 8 leaves, which are larger and older leaves with some stems. Although it was the first time I had pried off flakes of leaves from the brick, I already got a small stone slightly larger than peanut size, which of course is nothing extraordinary for a puerh brick. :-p

I used a 150ml purple clay teapot for this tea. Although the teapot is indeed suitable for Shu, the real reason I used it is that I thought the teapot was already “soiled” by other shu products I had before. So you know my general attitude toward Shu. :-p I used tea leaves of the size of a oreo cookie and had the first several infusions as short as possible (approximately 10 seconds).

Now I want to say this is my favorite Shu so far. But please notice that this conclusion is from someone who doesn’t have much experience with lots of good and expensive Shu (many of them are so rare and legendary that I can’t manage to have them). One the other hand, I would recommend this tea to people who like black tea and/or dark oolong but don’t like Shu, because this may be the “likeable” Shu.

I like this tea first of all because it doesn’t have a hint of over-fermented (Wo Dui) taste. Nor does it have the un-offensive but rather hollow taste I often find from a Shu. Secondly, I was glad to have got some kicks from this tea. (To me, “kicks” means prominent aftertaste, especially a taste rising to nasal cavity and back of the throat.) Besides it has all the nice characters of a shu and yields many soupy and sweet infusions.

This is why I really love this tea. Would I call it a gourmet tea? Yes and no. Yes because it tastes great and it’s rare. No because look at those leaves! It’s typical of a puerh brick to have coarse leaves. After all, originally puerh brick is supposed to be enjoyed by nomads and boiled on campfire. Its charm is not elegance but unruliness. For us modern geeks, nomad life is an intriguing fantasy. Next time after my lamb chop meal, I am going to enjoy this tea and dream of the life on the prairie! :D

Oct 21, 2010

Huo Shan Huang Ya (霍山黃芽)

Huo Shan Huang Ya (Yellow Bud) is one of the teas that have longest history but changed a lot throughout history. The name of this tea was recorded in history of Tang Dynasty as one of the tribute teas. But the tea people drank in Tang Dynasty was dramatically different from what we have today. In Ming Dyansty and Qing Dynasty, this tea won national popularity. Most loose leaf green and yellow teas we have today follow the processing methods developed in late Ming to Qing Dynasty.

Production of Huo Shan Huang Ya was discontinued between early 1950s and early 1970s. The production started again in 1971, when there were still a few tea farmers in their 70s or 80s who knew how to make this tea. Since the discontinuity of production was only 20 years and the resumed production was under direction of people who had the expertise, we can assume the tea we have today is quite similar to what this tea was like in Ming Dynasty. However, it's also worth noticing that the processing method of this tea was adjusted in mid-1980s to make it more similar to a green tea. This was due to market demand, according to the book 中国茶谱. In some sense, making a yellow tea greener can be called a betrayal of the tradition, because yellow tea is very unique and doesn't have to be made greener to be valuable. But as we know, such betrayal of tradition happens from time to time with a market incentive. In recent years, yellow tea has received more and more attention and in a process of revival. In America, I've heard more and more tea drinkers talking about yellow tea too. Currently, market demand on yellow tea is increasing. Both Meng Ding Yellow Bud and Huo Shan Yellow Bud, although still often made greener than they should be, start to have more and more traditional style yellow tea products, again, with a market incentive. Sometimes, in tea or other fields, it's easy for us to blame producers for chasing market profits and giving up traditional values of their products. But in fact, without consumers caring about traditions and without intellectuals advocating for traditions, how can we account producers for all the loss of traditions.

This is the first time I've had this tea. I got it, again, from my group shopping organized by a tea lovers' group in China. This product is a "greener version" of this yellow tea. Currently in market, greener version of this tea is still more commonly seen than the traditional yellow version. But this year some friends of mine got some yellow version this year, which makes me feel hopeful to get some in future years.

Although a green version, this tea has a honey hint flavor unique to yellow tea. The liquor is less green or bright than that of a typical green tea.

Unlike green tea, yellow tea is an oxidized tea. Unlike oxidation in red tea or oolong, the oxidation of yellow tea is driven by hot and humid environment after its enzyme loses activity. Oxidation in red tea and oolong is mainly driven by the enzymes in tea leaves. The unique oxidation in yellow tea causes its unique flavor.

Like many other great things, yellow tea was very possibly created by accidents. After the "kill green" step in green tea making (when enzymes are killed), if the tea is not cooled and dried soon enough, tea leaves will be oxidized to certain degree and become yellow (similar phenomenon can be seen if cooked vegetable/beans are kept humid and hot in a sealed container for a while). Once this happened and gave the tea enjoyable flavor, people started to intentionally let it happen to make yellow tea.

An alternative hypothesis is that yellow tea was created before green tea. And later one, some people improved the processing procedure and eliminated any delay that may cause oxidation. Hence green tea, an un-oxidized tea was created.

So there is no final conclusion yet whether yellow tea appeared in history before or after green tea. But this makes me think that traditions of tea making are complicated. With small adjustment in the procedure, a yellow tea can be made greener, and a green tea can be made yellower. Then it's really hard to say which way is THE tradition, the original tradition or the newer tradition, the most classical procedure or the reformed/refined procedure.

Oct 18, 2010

Tong Cheng Small Orchid (桐城小蘭花)

I don't know how many Chinese green teas there are. From books and articles, I've read about probably 200-300 specific kinds. From time to time, I bump into a tea that's not recorded by the books I read (such as the Orchid Fairy Twig). Also from time to time, I see information about some tea that I've never tasted. Then I would put it on my wish list and hope someday I can taste it. But there are always more teas on the wish list than what I have time to try. This tea caught my attention because my friends recommended two suppliers who are actually not sellers but were just selling their family tea once every year. In both families, the tea is made by the retired parents from tea plantations they no longer cultivate, as a result of a policy called "returning agricultural fields to forests". This policy is applied in some provinces in order to restore forests, as in the past a few decades Chinese forests were severely encroached by agricultural fields. So the tea trees of these two families are currently growing in wild conditions, and the parents harvest leaves in spring just because "the leaves are there". I had the ambition of getting some of this tea for Life in Teacup store, not because of its "organic conditions" (although organic is good and important, it's not officially tested on this tea), but because in my past experience, some "wild" teas taste great. But eventually the tea was sold out fast and I ended up only getting a small bag to share with family and friends.

Tong Cheng Small Orchid is a close relative to Shu Cheng Small Orchid (舒城小蘭花), which is a historically famous green tea from Anhui. But with so many teas in market, even famous teas may not get a large share of the market. Shu Cheng Small Orchid is available in Chinese market, but not in large amount. Tong Cheng Small Orchid is much less seen.

Dry leaves.

In this brewing session, I accidentally threw in too many leaves. But this tea tastes great in high concentration, without any bitterness. This tea is called "Small Orchid" partially because of its "orchid aroma" and partially because its open leaves in water look like small orchid flowers. I always have difficulty describing tastes of green tea. In Chinese tea jargon, the highest praise on a green tea is "orchid aroma". But then this is different from the "orchid aroma" of Tie Guan Yin and some other oolongs. I would say this tea has typical green tea type of "orchid aroma" and it has the taste of high elevation (it's from approximately 800m above sea level). But I know it's not effective description :-p

The seller is proud of the tea's taste but is so humble about the tea processing. A few times she mentioned to me that "it's just a farmer's tea" and that her parents couldn't afford the time or energy to carefully make all the leaves into perfect shape. The dry leaves don't look as well trimmed and pretty as many other green teas, but still I think they are so lively and beautiful. Then once tea leaves started to expand in the glass, they were brilliant! In Chinese green tea drinking, enjoying the view of leaves is a big part. Many top notch green teas are made in the most fastidious way and almost all the tea leaves are of same size with perfectly intact blades and buds. These tea doesn't have as perfect leaves. But I've found these little wild leaves not a bit less beautiful.

If I may assume Tong Cheng Small Orchid originated at approximately the same time period as Shu Cheng Small Orchid (Tong Cheng and Shu Cheng are two cities some 50 miles apart, and the two Small Orchid teas are somewhat similar), then Tong Cheng Small Orchid was invented in late Ming Dynasty (16-17th Century). Then it's another one of the currently existing oldest green tea varieties in China (most teas with even earlier origins changed to deviate from their original processing methods). Tong Cheng is a city of literati. Probably half of my favorite Qing Dynasty essayists (essay is a "hottest" literature form in Qing Dynasty) are either from Tong Cheng or mentored by Tong Cheng scholars. Therefore I feel it's my great luck to have this tea, the exactly same luscious liquor and same elegant dancing leaves as enjoyed by my favorite essayists hundreds of years ago.