Feb 28, 2011

Xia Guan Jia Ji Tuo (下关甲) and Xia Guan Yi Ji Tuo (下关乙)

Xia Guan is probably the most renowned tuo manufacturer. They make so many types of tuos. Just in their basic routine Sheng tuo products, there are (graded based on leaf materials used, from highest grade to lowest grade):
Te Ji 特级 (Superior Grade)

Jia Ji 甲级 (Grade One or Grade A) - "Jia" is like letter "A" in the alphabet, meaning number 1.

Yi Ji 乙级 (Grade Two) - "Yi" is like letter "B", meaning number 2. But in recent years this product is also labeled as 一级 (still "Yi Ji" in pinyin),which literally means Grade 1, but compared with Jia Ji, it's in fact Grade Two. The product name in English can be very confusing. Therefore, if you see a Xia Guan product labeled as Grade One, it's necessary to figure out if it's 甲 or 乙。

Bing Ji (Grade Three) - "Bing" is like letter "C", meaning number 3. But in recent years, this product is also labeled as 大众 (meaning Folk Grade). This product is mostly sold to Northwestern China and is not as commonly seen as products of other grades.

Besides above grades, there are tuos of Superior Grade and Grade One for Taiwan market, and there are tuos of other lines with fancier names.

Xia Guan Factory gives little information about comparison of these tuos in terms of their tastes and how they age. There are many different opinions among tea drinkers. But there is no dominant conclusion. Some believe the higher the grade, the better the tea ages. Some believe Grade Two ages better than Grade One. I don't have much idea about this, and haven't had much hands-on exploration. But here is one study I recently done, with a Jia Ji Tuo and a Yi Ji Tuo, both from 2004, stored under similar conditions.

Jia Ji

Yi Ji

Jia Ji

Yi Ji

Jia Ji (left) & Yi Ji (right) 5g in 90g gaiwan

All following photos have Jia Ji on the left and Yi Ji on the right.

First infusion - Some people say, Yi Ji ages faster than Jia Ji. In this brewing, Yi Ji does show darker liquor color. Taste of Yi Ji is less smoky, more woody and has a woody type of sweet. But Jia Ji has more prominent smoky aroma (by this time not very aggressive and quite pleasant to me) and overall stronger taste. I feel I like Jia Ji better.

Second infusion -

Third infusion -

Fifth infusion - in later infusions, the color difference between tea liquor of the two is not obvious on the photos, but there is indeed a color difference.

Spent leaves -

Personally I like Jia Ji better for its more prominent aroma and stronger taste. But it's just my personal preference. Yi Ji does taste more aged, sweeter and mellower. I don't have very big preference in "aroma of age", and to me tastes of other aspects are more important. But I can imagine many people may prefer the taste of Yi Ji, and if the tea ages for more years, probably Yi Ji taste a stage ahead of Jia Ji in terms of sweetness and "aroma of age". But before that happens and before it's really tasted, everything I guess now is only a hypothesis.

I don't really like tasting two teas side by side all by myself. It's too busy and yield too much tea at one time for me to finish. Besides, it's hard to keep tasting going while allowing enough time to experience the aftertaste of each tea. Besides, the aftertastes of different teas can mingle and "contaminate" each other, even if I rinse my mouth after each sip (which I couldn't manage to do throughout the entire time). But comparison of the two tuos satisfied my curiosity very well :-D

Next time, let's have a comparison of Jia Ji and Te Ji :D

Feb 25, 2011

first sip of 2011 spring tea

There was 3 inches of snow fall last night. But spring has already come!

Before the winter started, everyone was saying this would be the coldest winter in recent thousand years. I don't know if that turned out true. But it has been a cold winter. This tea, Frosty Spring, was harvested in Yunnan in late January, almost three weeks late than last year.

Overall, I feel this tea is pretty similar to what it was last year. It tastes a little sweeter, maybe because of the colder winter, maybe it's just my thirst for 2011 new tea :D

The tea bowl is made by Petr Novák. It's my recent favorite for green tea.

I also chewed a few leaves. They don't have more flavor than the tea liquor, but are quite palatable. A tea friend (who made the tastiest steamed buns) once told me she likes mixing small amount of spent tea leaves into the vegetables and meat stuffing for steamed buns. I would like to try it someday!

Feb 21, 2011

2007 Lao Lin Cang Silver Tip Tuo

The tea leaves are from ancient tree of Nan Mei village. I tried a Nan Mei village tea last year and liked it very much. While I was thinking of buying more, it was all bought up by somebody! What one fails to grab is always the best :-p From then on, I had the name of Nan Mei village in mind. Rumors are a lot of puerh products claimed to be Bing Dao tea are actually made with harvests from Nan Mei village. I have no way to find out how true it is. But Nan Mei village is indeed very close to Bing Dao, and therefore its taste is somewhat close to that of Bing Dao.

This tea is from a factory that was bought up by another company in 2007. Therefore, the trade mark as showed on the wrapper (the little hills) no longer exists. There have been more than a few tea factories in Lin Cang and their names are all something like Lin Cang Tea Factory. So the trade mark is important for recognizing products.

These products were made with leaves from old tree in Nan Mei village. It used to be common to use leaves from old trees to make puerh. Nowadays, not many factories make 100g tuo out of leaves of old tree. So these tuos mark the end of an era for this factory. Interestingly, a few people, including an award winning tea export, Yang Zhaofei, started a new company, Old Lin Cang, to continue the products and styles of their old factory. I think that's a neat idea and wish them good luck! One of the factory traditions that they have retained is using leaves from old tree only, for all their products.

I don't think I am very crazy about puerh. But I do love puerh from Lin Cang region very much. Sometimes, when I recommend Lin Cang tea to people, I would say, even I love it :-p Unlike a lot of teas from Meng Hai, many Lin Cang teas are very drinkable when young, with great mouth feel and floral aftertaste. I believe that's why Lin Cang was one of the most important tribute puerh regions, and Meng Hai was never one. One thing I am not sure yet about Lin Cang tea is, if it's so tasty when young, and if its strength is the aroma, will it age well? Taste is subjective to each individual. I already suspect that I would rather drink Bing Dao and Yi Wu before they get too old, but I shall wait to see more. I remember seeing a very positive review of a 1980s version of this tuo by a famous tuo collector. I still don't know if that means the taste absolutely improves after 20 years, but I guess at least the review indicates this tuo has pretty long shelf life.

There was something else that made me intuitively like Lao Lin Cang as a company. Shortly after I made my purchase of some tuos and cakes from them, they started a promotion with reduced prices. The price difference was not large before and after the promotion. But I got a few extras of these tuos from them, and these tuos are my recent favorite! Besides, there was a letter explaining the matter, hand-written with an ink pen, from the manager, who happens to be an outstanding calligrapher. The calligraphy on the letter is at artistic level. I don't think the manager hand-wrote this letter out of a spirit of perfect customer service. I guess he would just take any opportunity to use a pen and write something physically on a piece of paper, and typing was just not an option for him. These days I've almost entirely lost my capability of hand writing, and my ink pen has dried out for years. So I read this letter with a lot of admiration.

Feb 17, 2011

a personal review of 2010 tea

(Photo by Robert Seto.)

Every year, my greatest tea pleasure comes from varieties that are completely new to me. In the past year, I was very lucky to have tasted some new varieties. Some of them I had wanted for years. Some of them were completely surprises and found their own ways to me.

New varieties that I tried in 2010 and absolutely adored include:

1. Orchid Fairy Twig - my favorite green tea of the year!

2. Zhang Ping Shui Xian - one of the most aromatic Fujian oolong I've had! I didn't get time to taste this tea until early this year. But it's a 2010 autumn tea. I also managed to obtain a privately charcoal-roasted version of this tea, which will arrive in a few weeks. 

3. Tong Cheng Small Orchid - It's somewhat similar to a few other green teas from Anhui. But I was very excited to taste this tea, just for the sake of getting hold of it.

4. Zen Patriarch's Tea - One of the tastiest green teas I had in the past year. Besides the taste, it just feels great to have a tea rooted from the earliest Zen-tea culture. In addition, thinking of this tea, I will always remember sipping it from Grandpa's gaiwan in my parents' sitting room on summer afternoons. Every time upon the first infusion, my mom would say, "This tea smells so good!"

5. Yong Xi Huo Qing - It's so much better than I had expected that I felt guilty for having neglected it in all these years.

6. Huo Shan Huang Ya - a traditional yellow tea made into green tea in modern time.

There were teas that came out of accidents. I don't know if they will be produced again in the coming year, but I enjoyed the experience of having them. One such tea is the Red Dan Cong, as a result of artistic rescue of blizzard-attacked tea leaves. Another is Wild Oolong from our Shi Fu of Tie Guan Yin, in order to kill time while yields of a few other oolong varietals were diminished by the snowy weather.

There were also familiar varietals that were from unique sources or made in novel ways. One of them is special edition Tie Guan Yin (blended with high mountain Mao Xie). Semi-wild Huang Shan Mao Feng is another unique product of a familiar variety. It's another of my favorite green tea of the year. Every time drinking it, I felt like to kiss my teacup out of joy :D Although being quite insensitive about puerh, in 2010, I got this one that made me feel like falling in love. It's a bold idea blending old tree leaves. It can be a wonderful idea when the producer knows what he is doing.

In my tea adventure of 2010, I also had a lot of fun making my first group of Tea Grapefruits (this actually started in the last few days of 2009) and trying out the legendary Battle of Dragon and Tiger.

I am grateful that 2010 was a great year of tea. Now waiting for the earliest 2011 green tea to arrive in several days, I expect to have a lot of fun of tea drinking in 2011 too. Cheers!

Feb 10, 2011

CNNP An Hua Factory Hand-Constructed Fu Zhuan brick 手筑茯磚

By weight, this tea is by far the one I consumed the most since the autumn started. In some sense, I feel as if I am not *drinking* it as a tea, but *eating* it as some soup.

It's a 1kg brick, and the first 1kg brick that I think I can finish in foreseeable future :-p

The most important feature of Fu Zhuan is "golden flowers" - yellow fungal growth inside the brick. In traditional Fu Zhuan market (which was mainly in Muslim and Tibetan regions of Northwestern China), amount / density of golden flowers was the sole criterion to evaluate the quality of Fu Zhuan. Therefore, in the package of almost every Fu Zhuan product, the manufacture would brag about how abundant the golden flowers are on their Fu Zhuan. The frequently used advertising is "Abundant golden flowers and rich fungal aroma" - which may sound funny if used on any other food product :-p

Usually the golden flowers are not seen from the surface of the brick.

Once pieces are broken off, "golden flowers" inside the brick are exposed.

Compared with typical Fu Zhuan in the past several decades, this Fu Zhuan uses leaves of significantly higher grade. This one I tealogged on steepster is a typical old style Fu Zhuan with much older leaves and a lot more stems. Usually older leaves and a lot of stems are necessary for a brick to nurture "golden flowers". There is technical challenge involved when higher grade leaves are used in a Fu Zhuan. But interestingly, golden flowers in this brick are really abundant. And to my surprise, I barely found any golden flowers in the older style Fu Zhuan I tealogged on steepster - which might be just an exception, since that product has a reputation of having lots of golden flowers. 

Sometimes I gongfu-brew this tea. It has all the sweet, buttery aroma of Fu Zhuan, and tastes smoother than most other Fu Zhuan products that are made of older leaves. The tea doesn't have much aftertaste. It's bold and straight forward, not the lingering type. Probably it's these features of this tea that make me almost feel as if it's a soup instead of a tea! Sometimes, it feels like a need to drink it after a big lamb chop meal. This tea makes me feel as if I were a nomad or a hunter on the prairie :-p

More often than not, I feel it a little funny gongfuing such a tea, a drink of nomads. So sometimes I make it into milk tea by mixing half a glass of tea with half a glass of milk. When mixed with milk, the tea's taste is weakened. But it's a very pleasant way of drinking milk, and I think I enjoy milk tea in winter more than in summer. 
In the past, I had Fu Zhuan only occasionally. The typical Fu Zhuan was made of crude older leaves and a lot of stems. In fact, I never dislike the cheap Fu Zhuan. It tastes quite sweet. The one I tealogged on steepster is a typical old style Fu Zhuan. It looks somewhat scary, but tastes ok. But with the older, crude style Fu Zhuan, I never drink Fu Zhuan as frequently as I am drinking the current one now. I had been wanting a kettle to boil Hei Cha (or sometimes even puerh) for some time. But it was not a great need until I started to make Fu Zhuan a winter night routine. Eventually I bought this simple kettle from Amazon. I throw Fu Zhuan pieces in cold water and boil them on the stove to make a big pot of tea for the night, and often there is extra for the next day.

Hu Nan Hei Cha ("Black Tea" in Chinese traditional terms) has become more and more trendy in recent years. Last year, to my surprise, Hu Nan Hei Cha was even listed as one of the top 10 Chinese Famous Tea in Shanghai World Expo. I immediately thought the top 10 list must be a list of money and power. And later I was confirmed by one of the organizers of the "top 10 list committee" that each representative (local government OR a company) was officially required to *donate* 1500K rmb (USD $230,000) to be listed as one of the "top 10". I never think it's fair to list Hu Nan Hei Cha in top 10 of Chinese tea (besides, Hu Nan Hei Cha is not one tea at all, but a general category). But if seeing Hei Cha fashion from a more positive view, I am glad that the promotion of Hei Cha is not just a market hype, but involves significant changes and improvements in products. This CNNP An Hua Factory product is quite different from typical Fu Zhuan in the old days.

Seeing the changes in newer Fu Zhuan and some other Hei Cha products, I hesitate to call them "new style" and the older style "traditional style". For example, this CNNP An Hua Fu Zhuan is hand-constructed, while the older-style ones are mostly machine-compressed. But wasn't hand-constructing the only way to make a tea brick 100 years ago? Then this newer product is closer to tradition. Besides, Hu Nan Hei Cha had its brilliant history of being a royal tribute tea. Was the royal tribute in Qing dynasty all made with crude, lower-grade leaves? The newer Hei Cha products made with higher-grade leaves, who can say they are not closer to the traditional tribute tea?

By taste, I think Fu Zhuan is one of the most friendly teas - sweet, easy to brew and almost no bitterness or astringency. It has some marine / sea weed taste that some people may not like. But the marine taste of Fu Zhuan is not as overwhelming as in some other teas. In fact, I usually dislike marine taste in tea, and Hei Cha (especially Fu Zhuan and a few other Hunan Hei Cha) is probably the only tea with marine taste that I adore. But I don't know if Fu Zhuan can ever get popular in modern society. About Fu Zhuan, one of the most interesting feature is, of course, its golden flowers. This feature, I believe, is also why people may reject Fu Zhuan. I once run a golden flower survey on TeaChat. Although there are not many responses, it demonstrates something - people would either take it or reject it, without much hesitation in either way. The overall result of this survey is quite similar to that of a same survey I once ran on a Chinese tea forum. As much as it's adored by many ethnic communities, Fu Zhuan has never been popular in "mainstream" society in China any time in history. Most of my Hunan friends never consume Fu Zhuan. You can't blame people for not wanting to put some yellow fungi into their mouths. But then, I am not here to say Fu Zhuan *cannot* become popular. I somewhat feel Fu Zhuan gets along very well with meat/dairy dominant diet, which was not typical in ancient China but more of a trend in modern China and most parts of the post-industrial world, for good or for bad.

This tea may never get much attention from the administrators. But sometimes I am curious about this - if FDA were to inspect a Fu Zhuan, would they ever approve it as a food / beverage product? Last time when I gave some Fu Zhuan sample to a friend, I said, half-jokingly, "It's not FDA-approved. It has yellow fungi, a lot. You are welcome to take it away and do whatever you wish with it. I didn't urge you to take it with you. I am not suggesting you should drink it. I am not suggesting anything..."

(I put a "puerh" label with this blog entry, mainly because Hei Cha is categorized with puerh in many books and by many vendors. However, I personally think Hei Cha and puerh, either sheng or shu, share very few common features and don't belong to the same category.)

Feb 4, 2011

a bite of spring

Yesterday it was "Happy Rabbit Year!" Today is the First Day of Spring! Soon you will see our trouble is, our holiday season is too long!

Today being the first day of spring may sound a little funny, especially if you live in New England. It's an important day on Chinese calendar, but it's a day marked based on movement of the sun, and therefore, the First Day of Spring is always on February 3rd, 4th or 5th (most of the time on the 4th) on the international calendar, which is pretty much a solar calendar. On this day, the sun has finished 25% of its journey between winter solstice and summer solstice. So, no matter where you are, whether it's warmer or colder, the sun announces the start of spring based on its own term. In fact, the sun is always right. Look what a nice sunny day we had after a blizzard week!

In many Asian cultures, on the First Day of Spring (as well as some other important day), spring roll is always in the menu. In Northern China (and largely in Southern China too), the spring roll  can be made in many ways, with many ingredients, but the key ingredient is always bean sprout. Bean sprout is one of my favorite vegetables. It goes well with almost anything, meat, shrimp, sausage, toufu... But even when it's made in the simplest way, I love it all the same. In Northern China, the tradition of eating spring roll on the First Day of Spring is called "taking a bite of spring". To me the sensation of chewing on fresh, juicy bean sprout indeed feels like spring.

The spring rolls I made today were very simple. I had bean sprouts immersed in newly boiled water for a few minutes, took them out, seasoned them with only salt and sesame oil, and wrapped them in Vietnamese rice wrapper. My favorite wrapper is what my grandma made with wheat flour and bean flour mixed. Unfortunately I didn't inherit the skills, and bean flour is hard to get nowadays, even in China. But I love rice wrapper too, and it's very easy to use - immersed in water for a few minutes and it's good to eat.  

Earlier today, before I had a chance to take a bite of spring, I took a sip of spring too! It was some Tong Cheng Small Orchid green tea, brewed in my plum flower Yixing and poured into my newly obtained Petr Novák's tree bark teacup. This combination gives me a lot of spring feelings. I love teacups that feel rough in hands and smooth on lips. And I love botanical themes. The tree bark teacup is perfectly what I want! The size is perfect for my tea drinking routines too. When having green tea with this 180ml yixing, I usually leave 1/3 of the tea in teapot, and this teacup holds the other 2/3. When having oolong, I use a 100-150ml teapot most of them time, and this teacup can hold all the tea poured out of the teapot! Most of the time when I buy tea ware, I consider functions (size, strainer, spout...) first. But it's so nice to find some tea wares that both touch my heart and have the right physical parameters!

The Yixing is handmade with aged Duan clay - usually when I see a nice teapot handmade with good clay, I don't feel I have to buy it. There are too many good yixing teapots and other good tea wares, and I won't be able to afford a lot of them. But plum flowers always mesmerize me. This one is engraved by a Yixing engraver whom I've admired for some time. Finally, I just couldn't let this teapot go, because the engraved plum flower follows the style of a Qing dynasty painter whom I adore, and the engraved poem is so beautiful and it's by the same painter. This poem is the type that there is no way to translate. Basically it's about one's love of tea and plum flower :D