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.