Mar 29, 2011

2008 Jing Mai Ancient Tree cheap small cake sheng

I think this is a lovely little cake. It has the charming Jing Mai aroma, almost no bitter taste and very light astringency which dissolves instantly.

It is a 100g small cake. Unlike most cakes of its size,  this cake is made by manually compressing with a stone mill. The cake is even looser than most manually compressed large cakes and is very easy to dissemble. The loosely compressed cakes may not be suitable for decades of aging. But it's quite drinkable now anyway.

What's good about it being loose is that one doesn't have to crush a lot of leaves when prying on the cake. The cake is composed of consistent leaves from old trees. It's nice to get them as almost whole leaves in brewing.

This cake is very inexpensive. Some of my friends say, unknown small factory inexpensive products of arbor tree or ancient tree can rarely be good... don't buy them... I followed the advice. I didn't buy them. This one was given to me for free and I love free stuff! :-D The manufacturer said, "If you hire someone to do marketing for you, you've got to spend money. If you hire a designer to make your product or store look good, you've got to spend money. If you put on advertisement, you've got to spend money. If you hire people to write good things about your products, you've got to spend money. Then, I thought, instead of doing any of the above, I would rather give up some money by giving tea for free to people so more people will know my products." That's how I got this little cake. And I like the manufacturer's philosophy. Recently, Dayi has put on its smart looking commercial on the major TV station (and the most expensive one) of China, which is said to be a 50 million rmb ($7.5M) deal. We've got to have some puerh manufacturers that give us free tea instead of letting us pay the expensive TV advertising bill.

And this little cheap unknown cake, I ended up liking it a lot. Not that I would start buying unknown cheap little cakes. But I can surely consider buying more after tasting some sample.

The cake is claimed to be a product of ancient tree (but ancient tree in Yunnan can mean any tree of 100 years or older, not necessarily "ancient-ancient"), and from early spring (there are indeed quite a few buds and spring twigs). Still I am not sure of its age-ability (but at least, after its first 3 years, the cake stays well). And of course arbor trees or ancient trees can have different conditions and different levels of rarity. But the price for such a cake surprises me. Anyway, the quality of this little cake is more than reasonable for its price. And I know I've yet to experience more to fully understand why there is such huge price difference between teas, or, in other words, why such huge quality difference between teas of the same price range.

Mar 25, 2011

Discussion on Long Jing (3) - Five dragons

Discussion on Long Jing (2) is here

Photo is from 家在龙井村

She sent me quite a few pictures but this is my favorite. I love those hams hung off the eaves! Hangzhou is one of the food paradises in China. It's so much easier to get tea shipped across the Pacific. But the ham and other food, I can only dream of them.

Long Jing literally means Dragonwell - a well whose name is Dragon. People in Hangzhou (where Dragonwell is located) often say, the title of "Long Jing" include 5 dragons. Here they are:

1. Dragonwell is the name of the above mentioned well. In ancient time, the well didn't dry up even in drought years. Therefore people believed there must be dragon (which is in charge of water in Chinese mythology) living in it. That's how the well gained its name.

2. Dragonwell is the name of a Buddhism temple, which was built in the 10th Century and located near the famous well. But the current temple is 90% newly rebuilt.

3. Dragonwell is the name of a village. Long Jing Village is a center of the famous Shi Feng (Lion Peak) Long Jing. Another famous center of Shi Feng Long Jing is Weng Jia Shan Village, also located on the Lion Peak Mountain.

4. Dragonwell is the name of tea tree cultivars - there are a few commonly used Long Jing cultivars.

5. Dragonwell is the name of the tea product made with traditional Long Jing processing method.

I think the above 3, 4 and 5 are very important when we talk about authenticity of a Long Jing.

For #3, the location is not necessarily Long Jing Village, but should be in or next to Lion Peak Mountain.

#5 is usually not a big problem, because it's easy to tell from the appearance of the tea product. But about tea processing, in recent years, there is rising concern about many producers using machine processing to replace traditional manual processing.

#4 is very often overlooked by tea drinkers pursuing authentic Long Jing, but I think it's often a bigger concern than #3 and #5. I believe genetics is the number 1 important factor that determines the taste of a tea. Traditionally, non-Dragonwell cultivars have been used to make Dragonwell-style tea, but they cannot be called Dragonwell or Long Jing, even if they are grown in Long Jing village.

Mar 21, 2011

Discussion on organic cultivation (3) a piece of news from Menghai

Discussion on organic cultivation (2) is here

It's a piece of news from Agricultural Department of Menghai County. It caught my eyes because it's about Zhang San (章家三队, the 3rd Team of Zhang - "team" is a residential unit in rural China), which, believed by many professionals, may have the best small tree (30-50 years old) puerh in Bulang region.

The news is about the recent pest outbreak. It's supposed to be a normal news. I would like to discuss on it here, because probably I am not the only one who would find it a bit odd, if reading between lines.

Here is a link with the news from the government website:

If you are interested, you can google translate the text. But I will briefly summarize it here.

1st paragraph: There is a pest outbreak involving multiple pest species. Economic loss is in millions of RMB and still increases.

2nd paragraph: Experts are working on it and training farmers to fight against the outbreak.

3rd paragraph: According to analysis of the experts, causes of the outbreak are: (1) Long-term shortage of management, including lack of trimming; (2) lack of fertilizer; (3) climatic factors.

4th paragraph: Currently, people are working on: (1) training farmers on harvesting, fertilization, trimming and pest prevention; (2) trimming off and removing dead and damaged branches with pests; (3) apply fertilizers to strengthen surviving trees; (4) apply pesticides efficiently, including using biological pesticide, application skills and applying all fields simultaneously. 

Well, most of the experts' opinions, I can't say they are wrong. Although we don't like to see pesticides, at a pest outbreak, in order to save the whole village's production, probably that's the only choice. And the experts did recommend some biological pesticide and application strategies. But overall, I feel I would expect more in-depth advice from the experts than above mentioned. Also, I got an impression that the experts' advice just focuses on the current pest outbreak, as if it were not connected to everything else. Or probably this is just what the reporter has taken from the experts - but even in that case, I am still shocked what a superficial view the reporter took out of a pest outbreak.

About the news report, what seems most odd to me is the third paragraph. From a consumer's view, I feel what the experts said about "shortage of management" (lack of trimming, letting the tree grow on their own...) is ideal situation for puerh. Thinking positively - what these experts said make me like my own stock of Zhang San tea even more :-D Thinking negatively - are the experts blaming farmers' way of cultivation for the pest outbreak? :-( Do people think pest outbreak will not happen when "right" management is used?

I think it's fine that the experts train the farmers about everything mentioned in the 4th paragraph in response to such an emergency situation. But as for long term cultivation and management, I doubt the experts are qualified to teach the farmers. Zhang San is a place with tradition of tea production throughout generations. Many tea professionals comment that in Zhang San, farmer's processing skills for Mao Cha (raw tea before compression) are respectable, which makes me think usually the farmers know how to grow tea well before they know how to process tea well. Zhang San is also one of the numerous villages in Yunnan that hadn't even seen pesticides or other modern agricultural technologies by early 1990s.

In China, organic movement is at its beginning stage. As much as I like the idea of organic movement, I always feel some concern about it. While agriculture of some crops in some areas is being converted from non-organic to organic, the opposite is also happening, as it has been happening world wide since the so called "green revolution" in agriculture. My concern is, if all the focus of organic movement is on conversion "from conventional to organic", and not enough prevention action is taken on the change from traditional "cleaner" agriculture to "modernized" agriculture, then we may see some kind of polarization in the future - small amount of agricultural products are made purely organic, and very expensive; meantime, most other agricultural products are made very non-organic, and consumed by most ordinary people. Such polarization is already more or less happening in developed countries. But when it happens in China, it can be much, much worse.

In recent years, food safety of agricultural products in China have caused a lot of concerns nationally and internationally. But it remains a challenge how to address these concerns. In many discussions among Chinese scholars, media workers and officials, strengthening inspection standards and educating farmers are stressed. I have no problem with the first point. As for educating farmers, generally speaking, I think it's necessary and a right thing to do. But then, I think we should also be very cautious on this. In some areas, maybe we have a lot more to learn from the farmers than to teach them. In some other areas where agricultural practice is very unfriendly to the ecosystem, while educating farmers is important, it's as important to examine what have been taught to the farmers in the past 20 years. Many of the unsustainable agricultural practices we blame today, were taught to the farmers as new technologies and blissful means toward "agricultural modernization". Some of the eco-friendly practices we've learned as new lessons today, were known to the farmers 100 years ago. Experts and educators should always be careful what they teach to the farmers.

Mar 17, 2011

Concept Tea (6) - 2008 CNNP sheng, puerh?

Concept Tea (5) is here.

This is a tea with CNNP brand label. Many CNNP products, such as this one, are from unknown factories - CNNP is infamous for contracting out a lot of its production. Generally speaking, this is bad. But on the other hand, it does allow some opportunities for good small factories to contribute. 

The label says "thousand year old tree tea". But of course I have no way to tell how old the trees are.  

The tea leaves are of very high quality and the tuo is well made. I forgot to take a photo of tea in a cup.

I like this tea very much. It's not as aromatic as some other sheng, but it has very long lasting aroma and sweet aftertaste. Its flavor also feels heavy enough to further develop in future years (but this, is just my guess, because I don't really have a methodology to know how it will develop in future years).

This tea is nothing novel. I include it as a Concept Tea mainly for fun :D What causes the question mark after puerh in the title is, the tea leaves in this tuo are from Myanmar. According to the National Standards for Puerh (defined by some official documents in recent years and summarized here), "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." Of course Myanmar is not one of above mentioned "puerh production regions". But does it make this tea non-puerh? I believe most people's answer will be "no" - we can't say it's non-puerh just because it's produced out of Yunnan. This tea looks 100% puerh to me. Ecosystems extend above country, province and county borders. This is one of the reasons why many people challenge the idea of geographic patent of tea. 

Another relevant example is the village of Gua Feng Zhai, a rising star of Yi Wu region, sitting inches away from Laos border. Traditionally, people in Gua Feng Zhai set up their toilets on trees. There is a local joke saying that it's not uncommon if you climb up a tree to empty your bladder and find yourself on a tree branch in the air of the Laos side of the border. Gua Feng Zhai produces very high quality puerh. But I guess it's not because the tea is produced on the Chinese side of the border. It's not likely that the Laos side of the border doesn't grow any tea trees, and it's not likely that the Laos tea trees are in any way different from those on the Chinese side.  

In these cases, I guess most people believe the tea should all count as puerh, no matter in which country the tea is made. But there are more debatable cases and more complicated questions on the geographic patents of other teas, such as Xi Hu Long Jing, An Xi Tie Guan Yin and numerous Taiwan oolong products raised in Fujian (or Vietnam, or Thailand) by Taiwanese tea farmers.

Something else interesting about this 2008 CNNP tea is, it was made in 2008, the so called "sequela year" of puerh. Not that every puerh from 2008 is bad. In fact there are some very good ones. But 2008 was the year when, after the puerh madness of 2006-2007, many tea trees were over-harvested and started to yield poorly. I don't know if that's why CNNP got these tea leaves from Myanmar. But even compared with tea leaves from better years of puerh, these leaves are very good and have been carefully processed. I guess, it's very possible that Myanmar, being out of the puerh madness center and with lower labor cost, can produce much higher quality of tea than tea produced in Yunnan with comparable cost.

Mar 14, 2011

Between Green and Black (3) - Southern Fujian Shui Xian

Between Green and Black (2) - Fo Shou is here.

A few times I bumped into questions like "what's your favorite tea?" or "what's your favorite oolong?" There is no way I could answer the questions. I have no clue. Too many choices. My mind would blank out. But if asked "what's your favorite tea cultivar?", I would immediately have "Shui Xian" in my mind, although I am not 100% sure of the answer either. I love Shui Xian very much, because it has various styles, and so far I like every one of them that I've tried.

I've never had very green version of Shui Xian, and don't know if Shui Xian is even suitable for light oxidation, since not all cultivars perform well with very light oxidation. I like the intermediately oxidized Zhang Ping Shui Xian very much. Recently, I was very lucky to have got some charcoal roasted Zhang Ping Shui Xian, privately roasted by a very young Senior Tea Taster in Xiamen.

This mini cake is slightly heavier than the unroasted version, but looks more compact. It's about 9.5-10g. I put one whole cake into a 150ml teapot. But later I thought probably I should have broken it in halves. It's too much tea to take in one time, by myself.

The taste is somewhat similar to that of roasted Tie Guan Yin. But this Shui Xian cake is only medium grade. Top grade roasted Tie Guan Yin can have roasted aroma as well as prominent floral or peachy flavor. I have yet to experience more Shui Xian cake to see if Shui Xian can catch up with Tie Guan Yin in that aspect.

What's in common between the roasted and unroasted Shui Xian cakes is, they both cause prominent honey sweet aftertaste. The roasted version has some dark fruity flavor, but not as fruity or aromatic as the unroasted version. The roasted version has great throat feeling and smooth liquor texture.

First infusion:

Third infusion:

I forgot to take photos afterward. 

All of these cakes came in small sealed bags. I guess, ideally I should take them out of the little bags and put them in a ceramic jar. But the little bags are convenient and safe. So probably I will only break some of them. If they can develop some peachy fruity aroma after several months, like what happens to some roasted Tie Guan Yin, it will be fantastic. But currently I can't predict how they will develop.

Another Southern Fujian Shui Xian I currently have is from last spring. It's in the regular pearl shape, roasted.

It's a very pleasant tea, but not yet a top grade tea. I guess, if higher grade leaves were used, and processed in exactly the same way, the tea could have been even better. Currently in tea market of China, Southern Fujian Shui Xian isn't commonly seen, and there aren't a broad range of products to select from.

A few years ago, I could easily get grocery level Southern Fujian Shui Xian sold by Hong Kong companies (some of those grocery products are not bad at all, but not made of high quality leaf materials). But within the market of mainland China, it was barely seen. In an article, a writer and tea book author once wrote about the abandoned Shui Xian plantations in Southern Fujian. In 1990s, when the state-owned tea companies started to withdraw from business, and with various opportunities of economic development, many tea farmers abandoned their Shui Xian plantations, or chopped down all the tea trees and changed the plantations into orchards - similar story to what happened to Southern Fujian Fo Shou, and somewhat similar story to what's happening to some Yunnan farmers who would switch their tea plantations to coffee fields, as covered by a recent article of Corax at Cha Dao.

What makes me feel very optimistic about Southern Fujian Shui Xian is, in just past few years, I could clearly see it was definitely coming back to the market, more and more. When there is a market for high quality tea, and when tea farmers can make good profits, we will all have better chances to get high quality tea for a reasonable price.

Mar 11, 2011

updated Tea Harvest Calendar

Recently I did some updating on a Tea Harvest Calendar I made a few years ago. From time to time, people send me questions about harvest times of teas. In fact, I am not sure how to make a harvest calendar that's easy to read and inclusive of important tea information. Still, I am afraid I get stuck in between - the current harvest calendar is not easy to read, and it seems forever impossible to be inclusive. But this is the best I can do so far.

In addition, I am not exactly sure why people would like to see a harvest schedule (but indeed many people would like to). Most teas we can't get within the few weeks after harvest. And most teas are not in the best state within weeks after harvest - even for fresh-tasting green teas like Long Jing, old tea farmers would say, the tea starts to taste the best after 1-3 months of careful storage. But as a curious person myself, I can surely understand people's curiosity about tea harvest schedule. Besides, during those winter months, it's always nice to have a harvest schedule so that you would feel there are things to look forward to, especially if you are a green tea lover :D

Another potential challenge of a tea harvest schedule is, up to now, the accessible varieties of Chinese green teas in foreign market are still quite limited (many famous green teas have very small annual production and are of limited amount even in Chinese market) - what's the point including teas that most people cannot get access to? Some of those teas are still on my wish list, and some of them I don't get hold of every year. But I guess one reason to include them on the harvest schedule is, so that we have something to dream of :D The great diversity of today's US specialty tea market may not be something one could dream of 10 years ago. In the years to come, there will surely be more and more varieties and products of quality.

So here is the tea harvest schedule. The image can be clicked to enlarge. A web version is posted here:

I am sure there is a lot of negligence. I will keep working on it. Feedback and critiques will be highly appreciated.


Throughout the year, the relative positions of the sun and the earth can be expressed by 24 solar terms. Dates marking these 24 solar terms stay almost the same year by year on the international calendar. The 24 solar term marks directed a lot of agricultural activities in traditional society of China, including tea cultivation. On this Tea Harvest Calendar, the harvest dates of various teas are sorted in temporal order based on the solar terms they belong to.
More information about the 24 solar terms can be found on this webpage of Hong Kong government:
(Name translations of the solar terms are slightly different between this Tea Harvest Calendar and above webpage.)
Tea harvest dates vary slightly from year to year. The system of solar terms helps us understand how tea harvest is connected to climatic patterns.
This Tea Harvest Calendar includes names of the 24 solar terms in English and Chinese, their dates on the international calendar, and harvest times of some well-known Chinese teas. Additional notes are made about climatic changes and traditional agricultural events of some solar terms.

Part 1.
Part 2.

Part 3.

Sources of information:
1.     Tea farmers, who are, of course, the best sources of anything pertaining to tea.
2.     中国茶谱 Wan Xiaochun et al. (2007) The Book of Chinese Tea. China Forestry Publishing House, Beijing.
3.     中国茶经 Chen Zongmao et al. (1992) The Tea Classic of China. Shanghai Cultural Publishing House, Shanghai.
4.     中国茶叶大辞典 Chen Zongmao et al. (2000) The Encyclopedia of Chinese Tea. China Light Industries Publishing House, Beijing.
5.     中国名茶图谱 Shi Haigen et al. (2007) The Atlas of Chinese Famous Teas. Shanghai Cultural Publishing House, Shanghai.
6.     品茶图鉴 Chen Zongmao, Yu Yongming, Liang Guobiao & Zhou Zhixiu (2009) An Atlas for Tea Tasting. Yellow Mountain Press, Hefei.
7.     中国乌龙茶 Gong Zhi (2004) China Oolong Tea. Zhejiang Photography Press, Hangzhou.
8.     中国红茶 Gong Zhi (2005) China Red Tea. Zhejiang Photography Press, Hangzhou.
9.     茶文化学 Liu Qinjin et al. (2000) Studies on Tea Culture. China Agriculture Publishing House, Beijing.

Mar 5, 2011

Tibetan Hei Cha Ya Xi Grade (藏茶芽細)

Sichuan is the major supplying province of Tibetan tea. Starting from Qing dynasty, Tibetan tea from Sichuan is categorized into several grades. Ya Xi is the second highest grade. Since its leaves are younger and tender than regular grades of Tibetan tea, this tea is often brewed in a teapot, instead of boiled in a pot on stove top, in consumption. Without an exception, Tibetan tea of Ya Xi grade is made of tea leaves from above 1000m (3000 ft.) elevation with tedious processing. In traditional Tibetan society, Ya Xi grade was exclusively for royal families, Lamas and affluent merchants.

The tea I've got here is packaged in an elegant, hand-woven bamboo encasing. Bamboo is the most common and inexpensive material in the mountains of Sichuan, and hand-crafted packages were common and inexpensive in the old days. But today, hand made packages with natural fibers are less and less seen. So in my eyes, this bamboo encasing is exceptionally adorable.

One has to dis-weave and tear open the bamboo encasing to take out the tea. Breaking such a nice package makes me feel seriously guilty!

Based on my past experience with Tibetan Hei Cha, I have the impression that many of them are quite strong in taste, stronger than what they look like. So I used less tea than I would normally use for other Hei Cha or shu puerh, and brewed the tea in a 150ml small teapot, with 10 seconds infusions. However, I can imagine no real Tibetan would brew Hei Cha in a 150ml teapot. It's just a convenient volume for me. But maybe brewing in a larger pot is more suitable for this tea.

The flavor of this tea is somewhat earthy - it's not the soil type of earthiness found in some shu puerh, but rather the grassy type of earthiness. And there is some mushroom taste that's similar to what's found in some shu puerh. One thing I like very much about Hei Cha is, from time to time, you may find some features in it similar to certain features of shu puerh. But in Hei Cha, you will probably never get the stinky taste of over-fermentation, which is not rare in shu puerh. I think I also got some marine taste (seaweed taste) to a degree that I can enjoy (I dislike marine taste in other types of teas but like it in Hei Cha), as well as some grassy taste (which I think is less enjoyable than the grassy taste of some green teas). The aftertaste is not prominent. I feel the strength of most Hei Cha is not at aftertaste or multiple infusions, but at unique tastes.

The tea tastes stronger than indicated by the liquor color, and last for as many infusions as puerh. This surprised me a bit. Most Hei Cha I've had so far doesn't last for many infusions. They tend to give all they have in the first a few to several infusions. I guess it's mainly because most Hei Cha products are made of older leaves, even with significant amount of stems. This tea is made of much younger and tender leaves (however, still much older-looking than leaves of most other tea types). Besides, the geographic elevation of production must contribute to the durability of the leaves in brewing.

Not surprisingly, this tea mixes with milk very well. The more I drink Hei Cha, the more I tend to believe in the story that Englishmen might have got their milk+sugar style of tea brewing from Tibet, by way of Nepal and India.

Many Tibetan people like to brew a tea, store it in a thermos overnight, and enjoy it the next day. It's probably largely for the convenience. But some people also believe the tea improves by sitting overnight. I don't know if that is true. Since I often have a few different types of tea throughout a day, I usually save left-over tea leaves in the pots and brew them the next day or even a few days later. I did this for a few times on this Tibetan Hei Cha Ya Xi, and noticed I did like the latter infusions better for there was less grassy and earthy taste. But this could be simply because when the tea was weakened in latter infusions, it reached a favorable concentration for my taste buds.

Overall, I like its unique taste, the comfort the tea brings, and its convenience. Along with my beloved Fu Zhuan, this tea and a few other Hei Cha are good for large volume brewing to be saved for casual drinking of a whole day. Mixed with milk (and maybe sugar too), they also make great after-dinner beverage, especially after a heavy meal.