May 29, 2010

Between Green and Red (1) - Cui Yu (Green Jade) Oolong

Oolong, as a semi-oxidized tea, is often said to be in a state between Green Tea and Red (black) Tea. It's often interesting to me comparing products of the same tea cultivar made with different processing techniques. This happens a lot in oolong. I also believe for green tea lovers and black tea lovers, oolong is a great tea type to expand their tea territory. One can always find oolong products closer to green tea taste or black tea taste. Then it's possible to move to the other side little by little. Therefore I plan to go over several pairs of oolongs. Each pair of tea are made with leaves of the same cultivar, but one is lightly oxidized, and the other is more oxidized.

Here are two Cui Yu teas made with lighter and heavier oxidation. Cui Yu (Green Jade) is one of the four major oolong cultivars in Taiwan. The story about origin of Cui Yu and another Taiwan Oolong cultivar, Jin Xuan, is here.

The first Cui Yu Oolong is typical Taiwan light oxidation style. It's indeed very close to green tea, both in color and taste.

The light oxidation technique retain the refreshing taste of high mountain oolong to the largest degree. The tea has an uprising fragrance of spring grasses, with some floral notes. The tea doesn't last for many infusions, usually 3-5. I would recommend this tea to every green tea lover. I've found the taste of this tea is somewhat between Japanese green, Chinese green and most other greener oolongs.

The second Cui Yu Oolong is made with Dong Ding style technique (featured with medium oxidation and medium to high roasting). It's a Grade IV (Award of Excellence) from 2009 winter Tea Competition of Nantou County Tea Commerce Association. (See more descriptions of Competition Grades of Taiwan Oolong here.) All the teas in this competition are either in or influenced by Dong Ding style. Cui Yu is a new cultivar in Taiwan oolong history, and most Cui Yu products we see in market are greener style.

(This is a little off-topic: Sometimes leaves of Cui Yu are mixed among others to make Dong Ding Oolong, but we wouldn't know if the product is not labeled with tea cultivar names. And often they are not labeled. Traditionally Dong Ding Oolong should be made with Green-heart oolong cultivar only, but nowadays there are more leaves from other cultivars used, sometimes all leaves are mixed to make a Dong Ding product. Such mixing sometimes promotes tea taste by combining various flavors. But it's also very confusing, because very often cultivars influence tea tastes much more than geographic locations of tea production.)

Now back to the topic - This Dong Ding Cui Yu, I think, is very unique. It serves as an excellent contrast with the popular greener Cui Yu. This is the first Dong Ding style Cui Yu I had. If I hadn't seen the product label and had done a blind taste, I guess I would have been totally confused. I would have thought it was like a Dong Ding Oolong, but I would have been deeply puzzled because the taste was quite unique and unlike other Dong Ding products I have seen. I put this tea in a tea guessing game on TeaChat, because I think it's a very tricky one :-D

Dry leaves are by far not as green as the other one. These look typical Dong Ding to me.

Tea liquor color is closer to a traditional greener style Dong Ding I have, and is nothing similar to the other Cui Yu.

Then I brewed these two teas side by side in small tea bowls (and by the way I found both of them are good for mug/tea bowl brewing).

I first put some 20 dry tea leaf grains in each tea bowl (fewer grains of the greener Cui Yu because its tea grains are larger). This was when I thought of using number of tea grains as a measurement in the Quick Notes 1d of tea brewing. I would rather counting tea leaves than using a scale. Although I use scales to weigh tea products all the time, I am anal about NOT using a scale in my personal tea drinking - it's just my idiosyncrasy :-p

All pictures have greener Cui Yu on the left and Dong Ding Cui Yu on the right. Greener Cui Yu's leaves are generally thicker and more intact, compared with Dong Ding Cui Yu. This is partially because Dong Ding Cui Yu was more heavily processed, and partially because this greener Cui Yu is from a higher elevation than leaves of the specific Dong Ding Cui Yu. Since leaves of the two products are not from the same production location, the comparison is not perfectly scientific. It's more of a fun game :-D The photos do not perfectly reflect their differences either. But fortunately the differences are big enough to stand out.

Finally their spent leaves. Greener Cui Yu on top and Dong Ding Cui Yu at the bottom.

These two teas have been kindly reviewed by tea drinkers at Steepster and Teaviews.

May 27, 2010

What do you do with the first infusion of an oolong

When people brew oolong, the first infusion is often discarded. It's called "rinsing the tea" by some people, and "warm-up infusion" by some other people. I prefer to call it "warm-up infusion", because I drink it up most of the time (which is not a common practice) and I don't want to feel like drinking dish-washing water :-p In addition, I believe functionally, the warm-up step is almost essential for many oolongs.

The historic root of "washing the tea" is the combination of a few factors. Many old people would say, the discarded first infusion is meant to be an oblation for the God (whatever relevant God s/he is) and ancestors. This is an important aspect of Chinese traditional life, considering tea is always an essential part of traditional ancestor worship ceremony. Another tea custom related to ancestor worship is, in Gongfu tea session, when several small tea bowls are used, it's the best to arrange them in a half circle, but never in a straight line. The reason behind this custom is, only at ancestor worship, the tea bowls are lined up in front of ancestors' memorial tablets. In other words, it's considered improper and ominous to serve a living person in the same way as serving tea to ancestors (who are dead people). On the other hand, there were numerous rules in Chinese traditional society, so many that at certain point people may get tired of them. Nowadays, many young people don't care about the old rules, or don't know them at all. Sometimes the young people may break the rules and are chided by the old guys. I do follow the "not to line up the tea bowl" rule, because you never know if a guest in front of you minds a lot about any ominous signs. But when I drink tea alone, I steal most of the first infusions which are said to belong to ancestors :-p

As a science major, I believe many cultural phenomena have physical science reasons behind them. Many oolongs, fisted or strip-shaped, are tightly rolled. And therefore it's often necessary to allow them sometime to "wake up" in hot water before they can yield full flavor. I believe that's an important reason for the "warm-up infusion". I usually use hot boiling water for the warm up, pour the water in brewing vessel, let the water submerge tea leaves, and then pour water out as soon as possible (some people would hold it longer for this infusion). Then I would spend a minute or so taking care of other things, so that the tea leaves further "wake up" in the hot vessel before the official "first infusion".

The "rinse" or "warm up" infusion also helps remove small pieces of tea debris. This can be important because many people prefer not to use a filter in their Gaiwan brewing sessions. Some oolongs, such as Wuyi, Dan Cong, many Taiwan oolongs and traditional style Tie Guan Yin, have very neat whole leaves. With these teas, after an initial rinse, there won't be much more debris coming out of later infusions.

A side benefit I've experience from drinking the warm-up infusion is, by tasting it, I get an idea how fast the tea leaves opens and release flavor. I usually use 20 sec. to 30 sec. for each of the first a few infusions in a oolong session. Some teas, such as an excellent Tie Guan Yin, can yield a sweet and fragrant warm-up infusion. Then I would use shorter time (around 20 sec.) for the next a few infusions. Many people may think it improper to drink the warm-up infusion. So I steal this infusion only when I drink alone :D

Some people believe the purpose of rinsing is to clean the tea. I generally believe tea is already one of the cleanest food stuff in our life (considering the entire procedure of sorting, pan frying, and/or roasting). In certain type of modern sanitary view, anything handled with human naked hands without gloves is thought of as "not perfectly clean". But it's not in my concern. Besides, I don't believe a short hot water flush can clean anything to much extent. If a tea is not clean enough, a rinse won't help anyway.

I've also known people who don't carry out a rinse or warm-up infusion. A Taiwan tea farmer once told me he would never rinse his tea because his tea doesn't have debris and he hates to discard any tea water. That's understandable. I often feel the tendency not to discard any tea water either. If you prefer not to have a rinse or warm-up infusion, then probably a longer initial infusion is necessary.

For a few times, I've seen people who rinse all types of tea, including green tea. Seeing green tea rinsed, makes my heart ache.

At the last, I want to address a myth. It's more than two or three times that I've read a statement that "the Chinese always rinse their tea and discard the first infusion". It's not true. I can't speak for all the Chinese, but most Chinese I know don't "always" rinse their tea, and many never rinse their tea, especially considering green tea drinkers are still the largest tea drinker group in China.

May 25, 2010

Competition Grades of Taiwan Oolong

Taiwan has great oolong tea competitions. The competitions are organized by local tea associations and endorsed by local governments to guarantee their credibility. The participants are mostly oolong farmers. Each candidate tea is submit by a total of 20 tai jin (12kg, or about 27 lb.). Winners of the competitions win honor, and their competition tea can be sold for a good price. Most competitions hold evaluation events twice a year, spring and winter. Although in current market, many Taiwan oolong products are not labeled with their cultivar names (Qing Xin/Green Heart; Jin Xuan/Golden Lily; Cui Yu/Green Jade; Si Ji Chun/Four Season Spring), in most competitions, different cultivars are put in different groups. The products called Oolong are all from Green Heart (the original Taiwan oolong cultivar). The other three cultivars are put in the same competition group called "New Cultivars Group" in some competitions and in some other competitions, they are put in three individual groups.

The competitions select teas very strictly. Only teas of the best quality can enter the final competition, and the rest will be rejected. Teas from some competitions are very hard to get. Most competition teas are sold out before or soon after the awards are publicized. And for most competitions, it's extremely hard to get the top award teas. Generally speaking, I am most interested in competition teas that are relatively accessible with affordable prices.

Taiwan Oolong Competitions have unique culture, and in my eyes it's an admirable culture that can be adopted by other agricultural fields and other production regions. I think the advantages of Taiwan Oolong Competitions include:

1. All teas are submitted by farmers or tea merchants who are directly related to tea farmers. The honor goes to the farmers and local factories, the real producers. 

2. Each award title is restricted to the specific 27 lb. tea submitted to the competition. The same farmer may submit multiple entries to a competition and may win multiple awards of various levels. But a farmer may produce hundreds of pounds of tea each year, and winning awards doesn't mean all this farmer's tea is award-winning tea. When you buy a competition tea, what you get is just the tea accepted and strictly inspected by the competition committee. Taiwan Oolong Competitions' solid credibility is established on this strict rule.

So far we have been dealing with award-winning teas from two competitions.

1. Mei Shan Village Farmers' Association (梅山鄉農會) Competition (Mei Shan is a high mountain region of Ali Shan Moutain range). It's one of the highly reputable competition of light roast high mountain oolong. Candidate teas are from tea plantations of 1200m (3600 ft.) elevation. There are five evaluation events every year in this competition. We focus on Spring and Winter competitions, products from which are the most popular. The award levels are (from the highest): Superior Grade (特等獎), Grade I (頭等獎), Grade II (二等獎), Grade III (三等獎), three-plum-flower (三朵梅) - we label this as Grade IV, two-plum-flower (二朵梅) - we label this as Grade V.

2. Nan Tou County Tea Commerce Association (南投縣茶商同業公會) Competition (Nan Tou is the home county of Dong Ding Oolong). This competition is featured with medium to high roasted tea products. It is one of the most inexpensive competitions in terms of the final prices of award-winning teas - this is compared with other competitions, but the teas are still generally more expensive then non-competition tea products in the market. There are two competition events every year, in spring and in winter.

The award levels used to be titled: Superior Grade (特等獎), Grade I (頭等獎), Grade II (二等獎), Grade III (三等獎), Excellence Award (優良獎) - we label this as Grade IV

But starting from this spring, the award titles are changed to: Superior Grade (特等獎), Grade I (頭等獎), Gold Medal (金牌獎), Silver Medal (銀牌獎), Excellence Award (優良獎). I guess the changes are because people simply prefer Gold or Silver Medal to Grade II or  III. But the competition is still the same. In fact, all competition teas are of solid quality, and generally have better quality than teas of grand titles given by many commercial companies.

May 23, 2010

What is puerh? (1)

Ha! I don't know. But it's interesting to look into all the different definitions of it. Even if you and I end up being even more lost, just for the fun of looking :-D

I always feel I don't really understand Puerh, which is partially because puerh is hard to understand from the beginning, and partially because I have very limited experience with old aged puerh. Old puerh is both rare and expensive, and I am often reluctant to spend big money on what I barely understand. Following are some notes I've taken in my efforts of trying to know more about puerh. I will first go over five different definitions of puerh. Then in the second part, I will go over some of the hottest debates about puerh (debates that didn't lead to standard answers). And in the last part, I will go over what I've read from a few tea books and how they treat the concept of puerh differently.

Due to the confusing situation we may soon get into, let me define a few terms first:

Young Sheng - Sheng puerh that's younger than 8 years old (some people think this number should be 15, but I guess most people agree younger than 8 years is a young Sheng, and here let's not consider tea of 9-15 years old).

Old Sheng - Sheng puerh that's older than 15 years old.

Modern Shu - Shu puerh that's made with Wodui (fast fermentation) technique. If by any chance I say "Shu" without additional notes, then I am most likely meaning "Modern Shu".

Definitions of puerh.

(The blue-colored texts are definitions quoted from official documents.)

Definition 1 - by Yunnan Province Standards for Puerh, DB53/103-2003, application started on March 1, 2003

"The raw materials of puerh come from Yunnan big-leaf tea tree cultivars grown in certain regions of Yunnan. The leaf materials are sun-dried and processed (my notes: Based on context and practice in reality, I believe the "processing" here include both fast-fermentation of modern shu puerh and slow-fermentation during the course of traditional storage.)  with post-fermentation (my notes: this is in contrast with pre-fermentation/oxidation in red tea. In puerh, fermentation happens after the enzymes in tea leaves are partially killed.) to become loose tea or compressed tea of puerh. Puerh products are of brown to red color; the liquor is dense, bright red, with unique aged aroma, rich flavor and sweet aftertaste; the spent leaves are of brown to red color." 

Did I hear somebody say, "Wait a minute... So, by this definition, young sheng is not puerh?" It's one of the big ongoing debates about puerh. Although not mentioned here, in a later part of the document, it's specified that the post-fermentation include both traditional storage (for years) and modern Wodui technique. It's actually quite interesting to see how the Official Standards (Yunnan Province or National) changed in just several years, and think why they changed.  

Definition 2 - by Yunnan Province Standards for Puerh, DB53/103-2006, application started on January 1, 2007

Puerh is unique geographically-patented products of Yunnan. It is made with Yunnan big-leaf tea tree cultivars grown in locations that are qualified for puerh production regions. (my notes: the document defines such qualified regions else where.) The leaf materials are processed with specific methods and become products of specific unique characters. Based on processing methods and how inner characters of the tea are formed, puerh can be categorized into Puerh Sheng and Puerh Shu. 

Puerh Sheng is made with Yunnan big-leaf tea tree cultivars grown in locations that are qualified for puerh production regions. The leaf materials are processed with procedures including kill-green, roll-and-twist, sun-dry, steam-compress, etc. Puerh Sheng products are of dark green color. The aroma is refreshing, pure and long-lasting. The flavor is rich with sweet aftertaste. The liquor is green to yellow, clear and bright. The spent leaves are bountiful, of yellow to green color.

Puerh Shu is made with Yunnan big-leaf tea tree cultivars grown in locations that are qualified for puerh production regions. The leaf materials are processed with post-fermentation (fast or slow) to become loose tea or pressed tea products. The products are of brown to red color; the liquor is dense, bright red, with unique aged aroma, rich flavor and sweet aftertaste; the spent leaves are of red to brown color. 

Compared with the 2003 version, major modifications on the definition in 2006 version include:
- The concept of Geographic Patent is introduced. 
- The terms Sheng and Shu are included in the definition.
- According to this definitions, Young Sheng is counted as Puerh. Old Sheng is counted as Shu. 

I highlighted "fast and slow" because I didn't find explanations within the document about how fast and how slow. I believe, based on context, that "fast" means modern Wodui (渥堆) post-fermentation and "slow" means post-fermentation during years of storage. Based on this definition, Old Sheng can be called a Shu. I know people who would call Old Sheng "Shu", and also know people who won't call it so. If an Old Sheng is called "Shu", then a potential problem is, how can a modern Shu puerh and a traditionally stored Old Sheng share the same name while they are from very different manufacturing procedures?

Later on, with the development of administration system on food products, National Standards replaced Province Standards on many food products, including puerh. 

Definition 3 - by National Standards for Puerh, GB/T22111-2008, application started on December 1, 2008. The "Definition" section of this document is exactly the same as that in 2006 Province Standards.
The text of puerh definition is the same as in Definition 2. 

Since Puerh Wodui procedure started only in 1970s (if we don't consider super-wet storage which was conducted even before 1970s, is a little bit similar to Wodui, but not exactly is), the puerh definition before 1970s didn't need to involve concepts of Sheng or Shu at all. Here I will call the pre-1970s puerh definition Historical Definition.

Definition 4 - Historical definition. (my notes: although called "historical definition" here, up till today, there are still people who believe this should be THE definition of puerh.) This definition is quite consistent with the above cited Definition 1, except that in the historical definition, there is no product made through Wodui. Puerh is seen as a product of post-fermentation during years of storage. 

The above Definition 1 is cited by Meng Hai Tea Factory (manufacturing factory of Da Yi). I don't know if it's because they prefer this definition or because they haven't updated their website information since several years ago. Their website does indicate that Definition 1 was (at least partially) forged "by more than twenty tea experts from China, Japan, Korea, Malasia, Hong Kong, Aomen and Taiwan in an international puerh conference."  

Definition 2/3 is cited by Da Yi (Taetea) Group. Interestingly, Meng Hai Tea Factory is under the management of Da Yi Group, yet they use different versions of Puerh Definition. Is it because the factory sector and the management sector have different view of puerh definition? Or probably the inconsistency is simply a result of website update lag. Probably update lag, because on another page of Da Yi website, there is the definition used by Meng Hai Tea Factory. 

What's more interesting to me is, on the website of Da Yi (Taetea) Group, the specific definitions of Puerh Sheng and Puerh Shu are slightly different from those in the National Standards document. So maybe this can be called Definition 5. 

Definition 5 - by Da Yi Group. Their interpretation is different from the National Standards mainly at:
- Da Yi defines Puerh Shu as fast post-fermentation product, which is in contrast to the highlighted part in Definition 2/3. 
- Da Yi points out that "although new Sheng and new Shu have very different characters, with time being, for example, after 10-15 years, inner characters and flavors of the two will be close to each other."  (my notes: this is another major debatable point, among numerous others, about puerh definition.)

Besides all the various definitions, another major stream opinion is, none of the above definitions is proper. There are various reasons (which don't necessary agree with each other).

If we compare all the five definitions, what seems most interesting to me is, Definition 5 is the one currently used by most tea manufacturers and tea sellers, not exactly Yunnan Standards or National Standards. It is indeed easier to use, especially in the conversations among manufacturers, sellers and consumers. With this definition, a tea cake won't be called different names (Sheng and Shu) during its entire shelf life. Besides, this definition also clearly separates products of fast (Wodui) and slow (storage) fermentation. Potential problem of this definition is, the meaning of the term Shu (ripe) is somewhat affiliated with fermentation. When a Young Sheng is newly made, it's definitely Sheng. But many people think it's odd to still call it Sheng after 20 years when the tea is very much fermented with time being.

Another interesting phenomenon is, the change from Definition 1 to Definition 2/3, although may not be a direct result of industry influence, it seems that puerh companies indeed benefit from such changes. Definition 1 doesn't see Young Sheng as a final product of puerh, while Definition 2/3 justifies factories to sell Young Sheng, as well as Modern Shu as Puerh. Therefore Definition 2/3 is clearly very inclusive. Whatever out of the factories can be called puerh. Some people believe such changes in definition reflect the natural changes in puerh technique, puerh market mode and puerh purchase habit. Some other people believe such changes are due to the factories' manipulation on puerh standards. I think, it may have to do with consumers' mentality. Nowadays, good Old Sheng is rare and expensive. Many consumers can mostly afford Young Sheng and Modern Shu. It may sound not cool to buyers if most of their purchase is not counted as Puerh by some standard definition.

Since Definition 5 is in some sense clearer than the National Standards, why wouldn't its terminology adopted by the National Standards? I have no idea, but guess (without much confidence) that the National Standards were probably compromise of different views. 

May 19, 2010

China's Famous Teas Top 10 - money and power?

There are various versions of Chinese Famous Teas Top 10. The most "official" version was from the Agriculture Department of China in 1959. In this version, the Ten Famous Teas are:

1. Xi Hu (West Lake) Long Jing (Dragonwell) 西湖龍井
2. Bi Luo Chun (Green Spiral Spring) from Dong Ting Mountain 洞庭碧螺春
3. Huang Shan Mao Feng 黃山毛峰
4. Lu Shan Yun Wu (Lu Shan Cloud) 廬山雲霧
5. Liu An Gua Pian (Melon Seeds) 六安瓜片
6. Jun Shan Yin Zhen (Jun Shan Silver Needle) 君山銀針
7. Xin Yang Mao Jian 信陽毛尖
8. Wu Yi Yan Cha 武夷岩茶
9. Tie Guan Yin 鐵觀音
10. Qi Men (Keemun) Red Tea 祁門紅茶

In some other versions, Du Yun Mao Jian (都勻毛尖) replaces Xin Yang Mao Jian. As great as Du Yun Mao Jian, it's understandable why Xin Yang Mao Jian was selected into the list in 1959. Xin Yang Mao Jian was one of the first group of teas that won international award in 1915 Panama World Expo. Besides, Xin Yang is in He Nan province. Located in central China, the national influence of Xin Yang Mao Jian was greater than Du Yun Mao Jian in history.

In some versions, there is Bai Hao Yin Zhen (白毫銀針), which is quite understandable. The official version lacks a representative of white tea.

In some versions, there is Tai Ping Hou Kui (太平猴魁), which is quite understandable. Whether or not listed in the top 10, Tai Ping Hou Kui is one of the most prestigious and expensive teas in China. However, there are more than 30 provinces in China and there are too many great teas in An Hui province only. With Huang Shan Mao Feng and Keemun Red Tea (both are from An Hui ) in the list, the official version had to exclude Tai Ping Hou Kui.

Puerh was not nationally popular in China until recent decades. But once the value of puerh is widely recognized, many puerh fans protest that puerh was not included in the Top 10. Actually in 1959, most people didn't know much about puerh yet. But nowadays, puerh is included in some versions of the Top 10.

Some versions include Dong Ding Oolong of Taiwan.

In all previous versions of Top 10 I've seen, there are always Xi Hu Long Jing, Bi Luo Chun and Huang Shan Mao Feng. Generally speaking, these, in my opinion, are the most popular teas of China in the past 100 years (considering green tea has been the main stream in tea drinking of China, in spite of the rise of oolong in recent decades). If a Top 10 list doesn't include these three teas, then I personally think the list doesn't have reference value.

Now comes the 2010 World Expo famous teas official Top 10 list, which is the strangest Top 10 list I've ever seen. Here is the list:
1. An Xi Tie Guan Yin
2. Du Yun Mao Jian
3. Hu Nan Hei Cha (Hu Nan Black Tea, "Black Tea" is the Chinese sense of post-fermented tea, not the "Black Tea" in western sense)
4. Xi Hu Long Jing
5. Wu Yi Yan Cha
6. Run Si Keemun Red Tea (What is "Run Si"? I had to google to learn that it's a company name.)
7. Yi Xiao Tang Liu An Gua Pian (What is "Yi Xiao Tang"? Again, I had to google to learn that it's a company name!)
8. Tian Mu Lake White Tea (This is a green tea, from the same cultivar as the famous An Ji White Tea. This Tian Mu Lake White Tea is by far not as famous as An Ji White Tea.)
9. Zhang Yi Yuan Jasmine Green Tea ("Zhang Yi Yuan" is a company name too. But to be fair, this company is very much different from above-mentioned companies. This one has 110 years of history.)
10. Fujian Fu Ding White Tea (It is Bai Hao Yin Zhen. The official name specifies it's Bai Hao Yin Zhen from Fu Ding county, not from Zheng He county.)

I am totally shocked, not because two of the "favorite 3" in my mind were excluded from the list. I think it's actually all right if the rest of the list were fair. Xi Hu Long Jing is still in the list. I guess, if it were not there, all Chinese, even non-tea-drinkers, would think the list were a joke.

What shocked me the most is Tian Mu Lake White Tea. I am sure it's a great tea, but in terms of popularity, I wonder if it could possibly enter "top 200" China famous teas. The tea is introduced from An Ji, home of An Ji White Tea. But Tian Mu Lake White Tea is not comparable to An Ji White Tea in terms of quality, popularity, production, history... actually not in any aspect. Yet An Ji White Tea was excluded from the "Top 10". An Ji White Tea being excluded is not a big problem. After all, there are so many famous green teas in China. However, it seems to me a huge problem that Tian Mu Lake White Tea is listed as "Top 10". No that it's not a good tea, but how exactly did it get there? Some tea professional says that the top manufacturers of Tian Mu Lake White Tea paid $$$$$$ to get in. I don't know the source of the information, but I am sure it takes something, money or something else, for it to be listed in the "Top 10".

What shocked me the second hardest is that of the ten famous teas, three of them are named with manufacturing companies (number 6, 7 and 9). Keemun, Melon Seeds and Jasmine Green Tea are all historically great, no matter who the manufacturers are. Historically (such as in 1915 Panama World Expo in San Francisco) it happened that tea products of certain manufacturers were given international awards. But all of them are examples when the manufacturers were The Master level manufacturers regionally. It also happened that tea products with company names were included in tea encyclopedia books. But all of them are examples when the companies designed or invented those tea varieties. The three teas in the current "Top 10" list are none of such cases. Zhang Yi Yuan Tea House of Beijing does have a respectable 110 years of history. In spite of that, the jasmine green tea produced by Zhang Yi Yuan is not an invention of this company. The other two companies don't even have a impressive history, and in my eyes it's very odd to have their names in front of two most famous teas of China. When reporting about the "Top 10" teas, many media removed the names of the two companies, which, I guess, means that I am not the only one frustrated by the names.

Previously I've seen companies are included in events of famous tea selection, which didn't surprise me as much. After all, it's easy to figure out who paid for those events. But this "official" list did shock me! My initial, intuitive response to this "Top 10" list is, How dare you! But then, I thought, should I be shocked at all? After all, today is not 1915. Nowadays, World Expo is a commercial event. Isn't it the most normal that money talks?

Besides the big shocks, here are a few smaller surprises of mine.

1. Hu Nan Hei Cha, I had never thought this would be one of the "Top 10". It's said that the committee (I don't know who they are, how many people are there and how they made the selection) was determined to be "politically correct" and would include at least one tea from the "Six Varieties" (green, white, yellow, red, oolong and black). So here Hu Nan Hei Cha is the representative of Black Tea. Many people thought puerh would be the representative. But it's a fact that not all the people agree that puerh is a Black Tea. More important, people simply don't agree on the answer of the basic question "What Puerh Is". Probably such ambiguity cost Puerh its place in the "Top 10". Also I guess (which may not be true), because Puerh is already hot and Yunnan province is already making big money from puerh, probably Hu Nan province has stronger incentive of lobbying around to get their tea into the "Top  10".

2. Lobbying power of local government cannot be ignored. It surprises me that 3 Fujian teas are in the "Top 10". It surprises me only a little, because it's indisputable that the best white tea of China is from Fujian, and the other 2 Fujian teas are famous Tie Guan Yin and Wuyi. Therefore it is understandable that 3 Fujian teas are in the "Top 10". However, considering how many great teas there are in provinces such as Zhejiang, An Hui and Jiang Xi (which got none of its great teas in the "Top 10", not even the wonderful Lu Shan Cloud), I can imagine how hard Fujian province would have to work in order to get 3 teas into the "Top 10". In fact, in the past 10-15 years, Fujian province has made great efforts (including government funded advertisement on national TV, special tea tax policies and political lobbying) to promote their teas, first Tie Guan Yin, then Wu Yi Yan Cha, and in recent year or so, Fu Ding White Tea. It may seem somewhat unfair that 3 teas from the same province enter the "Top 10" list. But I guess we can't blame a local government for doing all they can to promote their teas.

3. It surprises me a little that a jasmine green tea is included in the "Top 10". I personally love jasmine green tea, but I also think one can easily find dozens of other teas more suitable to the "Top 10" list. Again, power of the company, and probably the "political correct" factor also partially caused the committee to select a representative of flower scented tea. A positive light I can see from this, however, is that it may help promote jasmine green tea generally. It's not an uncommon thought that jasmine green tea is usually made with inferior tea leaves, which I strongly disagree. I believe, any tea can be made with inferior tea leaves, or great tea leaves. We can't blame a whole tea category just because of some bad products.

May 17, 2010

Two Great Teas of Jiang Xi Province (1) - Orchid Fairy Twig 蘭香仙枝

This spring my biggest nice surprise is from Jiang Xi.

Jiang Xi Province is home of Lu Shan Cloud, one of the most famous Chinese green teas. Jiang Xi has long history of being a center of tea production and tea trade. It also provided tribute tea to royal family of every dynasty in Chinese history, since the earliest record if Tang dynasty. The historically famous Jiang Xi green tea is not frequently seen in western market. Even in Chinese domestic market, Jiang Xi tea is often overshadowed by teas from its surrounding provinces, An Hui, Zhe Jiang, Fu Jian and Guang Dong. However, as one of the oldest tea centers of China, Jiang Xi is full of tea treasure.

This is the tea that gave me the biggest surprise - Lan Xiang Xian Zhi (Orchid Fairy Twig, 蘭香仙枝). It's from the remote 800m (2400ft.) mountain range of the beautiful Wuyuan, Jiang Xi. The tea grows in the wild, without using any pesticide or artificial fertilizer. It's not certified organic, but it's organic in the real sense. This is my first time to have this tea. My heart was full of curiosity about it.

The tea is completely hand-processed. The dry tea strips are not as pretty as machine-processed tea, but the dry tea leaves look tight and heavy. The dry tea aroma is one that I had never experienced from any other green tea. I think, the dry leaves smell of honey and flowers.

The tea leaves are tight and heavy. Therefore they sink in water fairly easy. When brewing this tea, instead of pouring water on tea leaves, you can throw tea leaves in water, and they will soon sink to the bottom. If you prefer to use a gaiwan, then make sure to allow more time for the first infusion, because the tightly curled tea leaves will need some time to open themselves. This tea was harvested in mid-April, which is the earliest time of harvest for this elevation. Therefore I used lower than boiling water temperature (about 90 C or 195 F).

At the bottom of the water, the tea leaves opened little by little, like blooming flowers. The flavor has something very honey-like, something I had never experienced. I think, this is the most wonderful green tea experience for me this spring! Long Jing, Huang Shan Mao Feng, Snowflake on Green Lake... they are all fabulous. But nothing compares to experiencing a new variety with a whole new flavor profile. From the first sip, I knew I was committed to this tea and I would have to look for it every spring in the years to come!

Although I reminded myself the leaves were tight and seemingly small amount may end up being a lot, alas, I still used too many leaves. The photo above and the photo below was the same cup of tea! What's great, though, is that even with so many leaves in a cup, the tea didn't yield any bitterness or astringency, but only rich flavor. I think that's a great demonstration of high mountain, slow growing leaves.

When giving me this tea, the manufacturer told me apologetically that this year, due to the impact of the cold current in March, there is no Superior Grade, and their highest grade this year is only Grade I. After tasting this tea, thinking of what he said about this excellent tea being "only Grade I", I feel I like this manufacturer even more. 

A few decades ago, when the entire Chinese tea industry was state-owned, in spite of problems here and there, the grading system for tea was very much standardized and strict. My dad told me this story again and again. Thirty years ago, when he went to Hangzhou, he got some Grade Four Long Jing, which was the best in domestic market. And the tea was fabulous, although it was only Grade Four. Today in Chinese market, we see more and more Superior Grade products. Sometimes, Superior isn't even enough. There are grades above it, with various names, Royal, Imperial, Taoism... you can forge endless grand titles with Chinese characters :-p Yet there are many small manufacturers who are very loyal to their own standards. Their pride is not built on calling all their tea Superior Grade and above. Instead, they are proud of it if their Grade II tea is better than Grade I tea of other companies. 

May 15, 2010

Concept Tea (2) - Red (black) Tea Dan Cong (紅單欉)

Seriously! I am drinking a Dan Cong red (black) tea :-D

In early March of this year, many Chinese tea producing regions suffered from snow and frost. Mt. Wudong, home of Phoenix Dan Cong, is one of the regions that suffered the most.

These are some typical scenes of tea trees being frozen and withered leaves after thawing of frost. (Scroll down the page for photos.)

It's the worst natural disaster in tea plantations of Mt. Wudong since 1943. It's estimated that spring production of Dan Cong was reduced by more than 60% percent. Even worse, most damages happened to the best tea trees - those at 600m (1800 ft.) elevation or higher.

I was both glad and excited when Zhi, a young farmer of Mt. Wudong, told me about his Red (black) Tea Dan Cong. On the morning of March 10th, when he saw acre after acre of frozen leaves, Zhi's heart sank. It was the day when many tea farmers witnessed their tea leaves, even some tea trees, killed by ice and frost, just five days or so before spring harvest. On the day many people lost their entire spring production, Zhi didn't want to give up. He made a quick decision and did something I had never heard of. Actually it's something that even Zhi had never heard of. It was just a thought that came to his mind, and he grabbed the thought. Zhi called up all his friends and assistant works, and they spent the whole day harvesting on the frost-damaged tea leaves. Plant tissues respond to various environmental shocks, including freezing shock, with oxidation. Therefore, when the semi-frozen leaves were harvested, they were already heavily oxidized. Overly oxidized leaves are not suitable to make the delicate Phoenix Dan Cong. But they can still be used to make some tea. While rush-handling all the frost-damaged leaves in one day, Zhi and his companions didn't have time to categorize the leaves by cultivars. They had all the leaves mixed while processing them, and made this Red (black) Tea Dan Cong. Theoretically this tea is no longer "single cultivar", with leaves of various cultivars mixed together. But all the leaves are high quality, high mountain tea leaves which were supposed to be leaf materials for Dan Cong. Therefore I would still prefer to call this tea "Dan Cong".

As soon as Zhi told me about this tea, I decided to get some. I was very curious about how a red tea Dan Cong would taste like. And I was very much impressed by Zhi's creativity and decisiveness. In addition, this tea is much less expensive than regular Dan Cong products, because, after all, it's a product of accident. By making it, the tea farmer and his friends only expected to have some production, instead of nothing, from these frost-damaged leaves. It sounds like a great tea with very reasonable price. Besides, darker oolong and red tea both have relatively long shelf life. So I thought, I would like to get some no matter what. Even if it doesn't turn out as great as expected, I will just take it as souvenir of the historic frost calamity of 2010.

The dry leaves of the tea looks just like normal Dan Cong.

First infusion:

Seventh infusion:

The tea liquor looks bright and silky. The flavor is somewhat like Mi Lan (honey orchid) Dan Cong, and somewhat like Almond Dan Cong. Made with leaves of various cultivars mixed, this tea doesn't have as focused as a flavor profile as most Dan Cong products. The fragrance is not as prominent as high quality Dan Cong products. But the flavor is rich and powerful. The aftertaste has great aroma, and the sweet aftertaste is strong. It looks like that overly oxidation caused the tea to lose some fragrance, but the flavor of the tea was largely saved by Zhi's timely processing. Something else that I like very much about this tea is, the texture of the liquor is very smooth. It's the "rice soup" or "oily" texture as how Chinese oolong drinkers would describe it. Such liquor texture is only found from top level high mountain leaves with great inner characters. I enjoy this tea very much, and meantime, I can't help thinking what a pity it is - if it were not for the frost disaster, this tea could have been even a lot better. And then, I also feel lucky that after all, the leaves were not wasted, and were still made into good tea. Besides, as a product of accident, this tea does have some red tea characters that I had never seen from a Dan Cong tea.

I don't know yet if this tea will be made again next year when the climate is normal and leaves are fine. But anyway, I would like to include this tea in my "Concept Tea" collection, because I think it's really unique. Chinese people often say, "The taste of tea is the taste of life." Sometimes one may have the best qualities but not the best of luck, just like whatever good tea leaves there are, a snow storm can easily ruin them. Sometimes there is no way to argue with the nature or the fate, but it's possible to negotiate our way to get the best results within our limits. We all know it's much easier saying it than living it. Therefore I admire what Zhi has done with this Red Tea Dan Cong. From what I know about him, this young man in his early 20s has great expectations in tea!

Also worth mentioning is that all the tea leaves are from Zhi's plantation in transition for organic cultivation. His plantation has been on an organic transition certificate, and he plans to obtain the organic certificate in a few years when the transition period is finished. Zhi and I also exchanged some conversations about challenges in organic cultivation and possible solutions, which I will include in future blog entries.

I’ve set aside some samples of this tea for fellow bloggers. Please see recent events for blogger free sample information (you will need to scroll down to the bottom of the linked page).


This spring has not been easy for tea farmers. In southern Fujian, first, in early March, new leaves of Huang Jin Gui (Golden Osmanthus) cultivar were largely killed by the snow and frost. Then in early May, after several excellent sunny days with great Tie Guan Yin harvest, it rained for weeks. When the rain started, a Tie Guan Yin farmer told me, "Our most expensive leaves are still in the tea tree, and we can't harvest on them in the rain!" And yesterday he said to me regretfully, "Many of our best leaves grew old in the tree while it was raining!" But he also told me that we should feel grateful for the great weather from late April to early May, when harvest was smooth and great tea was made. He said, "If we don't get a lot of leaves good for light-oxidized Tie Guan Yin, we will make more medium-oxidized product. If we don't get as much Mao Xie and Ben Shan, let's hope we can still make plenty of Qi Lan." He was a little sad, but not gloomy. "Tea is a gift of the Nature. Sometimes we get more, and sometimes we get less. We have to take whatever it is, and life is going on." To me, what's great about getting into tea business is, I've come to appreciate the tea in my cup more than ever.

May 13, 2010

White Teas, names and more

White tea is lightly oxidized tea. It's made by directly drying (sun-drying or roast drying) and withering tea leaves, without killing the enzymes in the leaves. Since the enzymes in the leaves are not killed, oxidation happens to a small degree before the leaves are thoroughly dried. This is the case of traditional white tea only. I've had some Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain) white tea, made in colder climate zone, and therefore with almost zero degree of oxidation.

Bai Hao Yin Zhen (白毫銀針 Bai Hao Silver Needle) is probably the most precious white tea. After the tea leaves are harvested, only the leaf buds are used to make the final product, and the extra leaves will be used to make Gong Mei (Tribute Longevity Brow, 貢眉, whose lower grade is Shou Mei / Longevity Brow, or Sow Mee, 壽眉). When making Bai Hao Yin Zhen, all the imperfect buds, even those with tiny bug bites or smallest discoloration, will be removed -  this is the ideal standards and nowadays there are actually Bai Hao Yin Zheng products of various grades.

Compared with other tea categories, white tea category is smaller, with relatively fewer varieties. Besides the most famous Bai Hao Yin Zhen and Bai Mu Dan (White Peony), there are also Shou Mei (the lower grade of this tea is often seen as Sow Mee sold in Chinatown grocery stores as an inexpensive white tea), Gong Mei (貢眉Tribute Longevity Brow) as previously mentioned, and Fujian White Jade Bud (also called Fujian Green Snow Bud, as its leaf color greener than other Fujian traditional white teas). These are all the traditional white teas recorded in the tea books I've seen. Besides, Yunnan, Anhui and other provinces make white tea of various kinds, but large scale production has started only since recent years. Fujian province has started producing a New White Tea (新白茶) since 1968, mainly to supply Hong Kong and overseas markets. It's less expensive than traditional white tea. But sometimes Beijing Wu Yu Tai Teahouse carries a King Grade of this New White Tea, the annual production of which is said to be only about 100 pounds.

About White Tea, also worth mentioning is the Seattle White Peony Homemade by Brett of Black Dragon Tea Bar!

There are several names affiliated to white tea that are quite confusing and therefore worth some scrutinizing.

1. Silver Needle is not necessarily a white tea. For example, Jun Shan Silver Needle (Jun Shan Yin Zhen, 君山銀針), one of the ten most famous Chinese teas (there are various versions of the "top ten", but Jun Shan Yin Zhen seems to show up in most of those versions), is a yellow tea. Besides, Gui Lin Yin Zhen is a green tea from Gui Lin region.

2. If a tea's name include "white tea", it may or may not be a white tea. For example, An Ji White Tea (An Ji Bai Cha, 安吉白茶) is a famous green tea from Anji, Zhejiang province. White Monkey (Bai Mao Hou, 白毛猴) of Fujian province is mostly said to be a Green Tea. But White Monkey is an odd case. Most people say it's a semi-oxidized Green Tea. But theoretically if a tea is semi-oxidized, it's not a Green Tea. White Monkey is also called White Green Tea in Fujian. So I guess you can categorized this tea in whatever way you like. The confusion is understandable though. After all, when people started to invent a tea, nobody would think, "Today we are going to invent a white/green/red/yellow tea." The tea just came out in whatever way it could be.

3. If a tea's name include Bai Hao (or "silver tip", 白毫), it may or may not be a white tea. For example, Yun Hai Bai Hao is a green tea from Yunnan.

4. Recently, I read about the most confusing white tea names ever. It's in 品茶圖鑒 by 陳宗懋 Chen Zongmao et al. (2009). Traditionally, Bai Hao Silver Needle comes from Fuding (tea is roast dried there) and Zhenghe (tea is sun dried there) of Fujian province. White teas from these two regions use slightly different techniques, but the final products are quite similar. In all the other sources I've seen, white tea from these two regions is consistently called either Bai Hao Silver Needle or Silver Needle Bai Hao, which are treated as the same name. But in this book, the authors claim that the white tea from Zhenghe is called Zhenghe Bai Hao Silver Needle, while the white tea from Fuding is called Silver Needle Bai Hao. That's to say, Bai Hao Silver Needle and Silver Needle Bai Hao are two different names. On the one hand, the first author of this book is an Academician of Chinese Academy of Engineering. So I think I should take him seriously. On the other hand, I feel the authors didn't give thorough explanation on the two names. I have yet to see if there are other people who share this view.

Besides the name confusion, the discrepancy of various versions of white tea brewing methods is larger than in many other teas. My understanding of white tea is, it was very gently processed, without rolling or squeezing, and its cells are better maintained than cells in other teas. Therefore, it takes higher temperature (newly boiled water) and longer infusion time (5 minutes or longer) for water to infuse into the cells of white tea, especially for Bai Hao Silver Needle, whose leaves are nice and complete. Initially, it actually surprised me to see some sources suggest using lower temperature (180 F or lower). But after all, there are no fixed rules about tea brewing. Higher and lower temperatures may work for different people. I've seen people who were somewhat intimidated by the temperature restriction and thought that using very hot water for white tea was not "right". Therefore I sometimes just can't help urging people to give boiling water at least one chance. It may or may not work for each person, but it does no harm to try it at least once.

In Chinese medical theories, white tea is deemed as one of the teas with strongest cooling power. It's a great beverage when the body is annoyed by cold sores, dry throats or dry eyes. It's also a great relaxing drink when one feels anxious or worried. For people whose "inner heat" is weak (for example, if hands and feet easily feel cold in winter days - I sometimes feel that way), white tea may not be a daily drink, but can still be an occasional enjoyment, especially in days when the air is warm and dry.

Recently, there was breaking news about White Tea. Last year (2009) in Xi'an, intact tea leaves of White Tea was discovered in a newly explored Song Dynasty (about 1000 years ago) tomb! Initial analysis indicates that the leaves are Bai Hao Silver Needle, same tea as what we drink today!

From the following photo (from Tea Time magazine), the tea leaves look pretty much drinkable!

Personal declaration: Please do not put entries of this blog on Unsnobtea. I have no affiliation with Unsnobtea or any of their products.

I am sorry to have put it in this way, but so far I haven't found any contact information of Unsnobtea to talk with them about their using other people's blogs to endorse their own commercial website.

Other forms of discussion and sharing of information are always welcome, given proper communication.

May 10, 2010

Ban Na Sunset

Oh! What a cheesy name! But that's what I can think of so far to name this tea.

I heard of the idea from a friend - it's a popular way of drinking tea among Yunnan people (which part of Yunnan, he doesn't know though. Yunnan is so large and diverse!).

Step 1, brew Yunnan green as usual. This time I used a Yunnan roast green (the one that was made on January 1, 2010). The original version is using Yunnan sun-dried green though. I don't have any of it, but puerh young sheng is basically the same thing, just it's hard to get a young sheng with beautiful leaves. Next time I will try using the Guan Zi Zai Yi Wu, which has the most beautiful leaves I've seen from a puerh cake.

This is the amount of leaves I used, and later it turned out a bit too much. Or, my mug is too small.

Step 2, enjoy the first 3 infusions as usual. But for this, I refilled the mug every time when the tea liquor was about half of the cup volume. This is partially because I wanted to keep the strength of the tea, partially because I did use too much leaves. Yunnan green is strong!

Step 3, at the end of the 3rd infusion, when there is about 1/4 volume of the liquor left (I assumed 1/4 was better than 1/3 because the more newly added hot water, the better the tea would be infused), add in Yunnan red (black) tea.

Step 4, refill the mug with hot water.

That is it. Then you can re-infuse on and on. This lasted a whole afternoon for me. Eventually the leaves expanded a lot and there is relatively small space for accessible tea liquor. I guess, this is a tea enjoyed by people who drink a lot of tea and don't have much time to take care of their tea brewing. In other words, this is a tea for real workers to gulp, not for Gongfu drinkers to take sip after sip. So for such a purpose, this mug is too small. 

The first infusion after adding red tea was a bit astringent. But I didn't mind at all. Yunnan people would say if a tea is "bitter without biting your mouth and astringent without sticking to your tongue", then it's a good tea. I kind of agree. The astringency instantly became sweet aftertaste. Then later in the many infusions, the tea became smooth and remained flavorful.

Supposedly, Yunnan sun-dried green (such as a young sheng) is even stronger than roast green. So next time when I have a whole day of work, I will start the day with some Yi Wu leaves in a big mug and add in some Yunnan red tea later on. It can be a good companion without much attention required.

P.S. I brewed it again in my travel tea bottle for a road trip. It's a very convenient way to have tea during a trip, and I infused the same leaves over and over during the whole afternoon trip.

May 5, 2010

Chinese Teas that have won international awards

Most of them are already well-known teas. My purpose of summarizing a list is not just showing what they are. After all, there are so many teas, and non-award-winning teas can be as great as award-winning teas. What makes me want to list them is, I think there are some interesting patterns.

Here is the list. (Lighter-colored texts are my comments.)

(Listed information is from China Cuisine Association.)

1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition

Gold medals: 
1. Keemun (Qi Men) Red (black) Tea; 
2. Tai Ping Hou Kui; 
3. Hui Ming Tea; 
4. Xin Yang Mao Jian; 
5. Jiang Xi Zhu Lan (Pearl Orchid) Green Tea; 
6. Northern Fujian Shui Xian.

Silver medals: 
1. Guang Xi Sounth Mountain Bai Mao (Silver Tip) Tea
2. Jiang Xi Gou Ku Nao Tea
3. Northern Fujian Shui Xian (from another manufacturer)

(These are all good stuff!)

1956 Leipzig Trade Fair
Gold medal: Jun Shan Yin Zhen (Jun Shan Silver Needle)
(Good stuff too!)

1983 Twenty-second Judging of the International Institute for Quality Selections in the Canned Food and Other Food Products Selection, Rome, Italy
Gold medal: Chong Qing Tuo (unlike Xia Guan Tuo, Chong Qing Tuo is a pressed product of green tea)
(Hmmm... It's a good tea, but, among all the teas, how did this one make its way to the conference?)

1984 Twenty-third Judging of the International Institute for Quality Selections in the Canned Food and Other Food Products Selection, Madrid, Spain
Gold medal: Gunpowder Green Tea (Ok, it's a good tea. But still, I can't believe this won "gold medal" in an international conference. This is a good, cheap tea, and I like it. But this tea is not by any means representative of elegant green tea.) 

1985 Twenty-forth Judging of the International Institute for Quality Selections in the Canned Food and Other Food Products Selection, Lisbon, Portugal
Gold medal: 
1. Zhu Ye Qing (Bamboo Leaf Green);
2. Si Chuan Zao Bai Jian Gongfu Red (black) Tea; 
3. Si Chuan E Mei Mao Feng
(It looks like Chinese provinces take turns to attend these conferences. Sichuan does produce very nice teas.)

1985 International Culinary Tourism Association, Paris, France
Gold award: Fuzhou Jasmine Green Tea

1986 Twenty-fifth Judging of the International Institute for Quality Selections in the Canned Food and Other Food Products Selection, Geneva, Switzerland
Gold medal:
1. Zhe Jiang Zhen Mei (Precious Brow) Green Tea;
2. Sichuan CTC Red (black) Tea; (Now CTC black tea stepped on stage! Not that there is anything bad about it. But I have difficulty relate Chinese tea to CTC black tea.)
3. Si Chuan Zao Bai Jian Gongfu Red (black) Tea

1986, International Culinary Tourism Association, Paris, France
Gold award:
1. Fuzhou Jasmine Green Tea Teabag
2. Red (black) Teabag; (This was made in Shanghai. Shanghai is not a tea producing region. So it was unknown where the raw materials of these teabags were from. Possibly Zhejiang province.)
3. Zhejiang Zhen Mei (Precious Brow) Green Tea ("manufactured in Shanghai);
4. Gong Xi Green Tea ("manufactured in Shanghai);
5. Phoenix Brow Green Tea ("manufactured in Shanghai);
6. Fujian Tie Guan Yin (packed in tea tin, which sounds to me like the most generic Chinatown type of Tie Guan Yin - I may be wrong though); 
7. Fujian Healthy Slimming Tea; (what??)
8. Zhejiang Gunpowder Green Tea; (now this tea does look prestigious among its peer gold award winners...)
9. Ying De Red (black) Tea Teabag;
10. Some Teabag called some "Youth Beauty Tea" of some brand (what??)

(I am really curious how they gave gold award to a "slimming tea" or "youth tea", based on flavor or based on "outcome"?)

1986, the 9th International Food Awards, Barcelona, Spain
Xia Guan Tuo

1987, Twenty-sixth Judging of the International Institute for Quality Selections in the Canned Food and Other Food Products Selection, Brussels, Belgium
Gold award:
1. Keemun Gongfu Red (black) Tea
2. Zhen Mei (Precious Brow) Green Tea
3. Gift-packaged Chinese Famous Tea, made in Guangdong (the product name doesn't specify what tea it is)

1988,  Twenty-seventh Judging of the International Institute for Quality Selections in the Canned Food and Other Food Products Selection, Athena, Greece
Gold award: Shi Feng Long Jing
Silver award:
1. An Hui Zhen Mei superior grade
2. An Hui Zhen Mei first grade

Here are some patterns that I've seen from above lists:

1. The best award list was in 1915

2. There is almost no international awards specifically for tea. In most events for culinary or beverage awards, tea is put in the "others" category. It almost looks like most of these events don't deal with tea seriously, and some of the awards are like jokes. In Judging of the International Institute for Quality Selections, Tea was put in "Canned Food and Other Food Products" category. Now this category doesn't exist anymore, and tea is in "Diet and health Products" category. Sounds better, at least. Their most recent brochure of this category is even featured with a cover image of a teapot and some herbal blend. Progress, indeed. 

3. When there was no "food industry" in 1915, tea (and probably other food) awards were for the purpose of evaluation, and represent professional honor. Then later on, food became an "industry". Therefore many of the above mentioned awards are run by "the industry" and the incentives for companies to participate is commercial promotion.

4. In the past century, the global "industry" system became more and more complete, while Chinese tea "industry" largely fell behind, which, may not be entirely a bad thing. When Chinese tea industry met the international food industry system, what we saw, along with some good products, were teabags and slimming tea (!) that won "gold awards". Meantime, teas that won domestic awards within China were more likely the "real stuff". And many domestic awards are given to tea varieties (submitted by their home provinces) instead of to companies or brands. But in recent years, there start to be brand-name tea products that win awards. I haven't figured out yet how you can compare a tea variety with a tea brand. 

5. It puzzled me for a while how a country decides what to send to an international award committees. Then I realized that most food samples to the award committees are sent by companies, not governments or non-profit organizations. Very likely only when the companies think an award leads to market influence and better profits, they would participate in such events. And obviously not all companies can afford attending these events. For example, currently, International Institute for Quality Selections charges 1100 euro for each submitted food sample (which is quite reasonable and standard for food industry, I guess). Many tea manufacturers wouldn't be able to afford it, and on the other hand, for many precious, small tea varieties, winning such an award doesn't bring much market benefit. In this sense, I think the World Tea Expo. (an annual event held in Las Vegas) is a very positive and promising event in "tea industry". Its charges on registration, exhibition and tea championship sample submission are significantly lower than those in other food industry events. More importantly, it's completely about tea. Currently it doesn't seem to have very large international influence. But I think, very likely, American tea market will grow very fast, and this event will have increasing influences on American as well as international tea market.

6. In China, before 1990s, tea industry was state-owned. Hence there was the rather odd phenomenon that some teas were submitted to the award committee as tea varieties while some were submitted as products of state-owned tea companies. Now with the economic reform in China, tea production is no longer controlled by state-owned companies. And I have no idea if they are still attending these events. The record I got ends at the year of 1988.

May 4, 2010

Concept Tea (1) - a special edition Tie Guan Yin

In my eyes, a "Concept Tea" is a tea made to showcase some concepts. It is often rare in the market, and by making it, the manufacturer has a broader goal than market profit. May it be the redemption of a fading tradition, experimental techniques, or even outcome of an accident, the tea expresses some ideas from the Shi Fu (師傅, an experienced, highly skillful tea worker). The tea may prevail the market in the future, or it may remain within appreciation of small groups of tea drinkers. No matter what its fate is in market, I believe, the tea should be valued for the concepts behind it. Tea is a wonderful beverage. It is one of the few food and beverage products whose markets are not dominated by major varieties, major brands, major companies or major manufactures, not in the past thousands of years, and I believe, not in the future either. This is because of the diversity in tea, the many thousand tea varieties, and dozens of ways to make a tea with each cultivar. 

I will start a blog series exploring some Concept Teas, as well as include some of them in our store collection. 

Here is the first one, a traditional style, charcoal roasted semi-Tie Guan Yin

Dry tea leaves:

First infusion:

7th infusion:

I would like to try the mug-brewing version of this tea. But this time, I use my favorite little tea bowl instead.

It's one of the best charcoal roasted teas I had in 2009. The flavor is powerful, with ripe fruit aroma and strong sweet aftertaste. It lasts for many infusions. Besides, it's entirely tolerant of long infusions, and yield consistent flavor in multiple infusions of mug/bowl brewing. If I were not told so, without examining the spent leaves, I probably wouldn't be able to tell the leaves are not all Tie Guan Yin.

What's special about this Tie Guan Yin? It's special mainly in two ways:
1. It's made with both Tie Guan Yin leaves and Mao Xie (Hairy Crab) leaves to promote a great flavor profile
2. It's charcoal roasted by skillful workers with 40 years of experience.

It took me some time to decide what to call this tea. I am very reluctant to call it blended Tie Guan Yin, even though it's made with Tie Guan Yin and Mao Xie blended. The reason is that in current Tie Guan Yin world, a "blended tea" is almost always a negative title. The modern blended tea has betrayed the tradition of Pin Pei (拼配, Mix and Match) since long time ago. In modern days, some people mix Mao Xie and other Se Zhong oolong (which are all generally significantly cheaper than Tie Guan Yin) into Tie Guan Yin to maximize profits. In this behavior, Se Zhong cultivars are deemed as "inferior" or "cheap" cultivars, and the manufacturer wouldn't let consumers know about the blending. 

In the real tradition of Tie Guan Yin Mix and Match, the purpose of blending is to achieve the best combination of tea flavor, so different teas are not just "mixed", but their flavors should "match" each other. Besides, although one can always use the best Tie Guan Yin leaves to make the most expensive tea, sometimes, mixing high quality Tie Guan Yin and high quality Mao Xie (which is a lot cheaper) can generate great flavor at much lower costs. 

This tea is the only one I know of that was made with such traditional Mix and Match method. To me, it's important to include it in our collection, because it's a Concept Tea - I call it so because it's not commonly seen, and I hope there is more of this kind in the future. I think, the concepts behind this tea are:

1. There are many ways to make a great tea. An outstanding tea product comes from top quality leaves, top tea workers and perfect processing. A manufacturer doesn't have to stick only to the most expensive and trendy varieties. 

2. A great tea doesn't have to be expensive. The charcoal roast taste of this tea is one of the best, but it's not an expensive tea. In my opinion, the charcoal roast work on this tea is even better than that of our popular Tie Guan Yin Traditional Charcoal Roast (which is reviewed at Steepster and Teaviews). But due to lower costs of Mao Xie leaves of even top quality, the manufacturer has given us very friendly price of this tea. Therefore this tea is even less expensive than our current popular Tie Guan Yin Traditional Charcoal Roast.

I’ve set aside some samples of this tea for fellow bloggers. Please see recent events for blogger free sample information (you will need to scroll down to the bottom of the linked page).