Jul 23, 2011

Discussion on Long Jing (6) - QingMing vs. GuYu

Discussion on Long Jing (5b) is here.

Qing Ming (around April 4) and Gu Yu (around April 19) are two important landmark days of solar terms in the traditional calendar system of some eastern Asian and southeastern Asian cultures. Solar terms document movement of the sun throughout the year, and is very important in directing agricultural activities of east Asia. Many of the solar terms can also apply to other parts of the world, especially regions in temporal zone of the northern hemisphere. Therefore I can constantly observe solar terms such as Qing Ming (marking the start of spring), Small Snow (marking approximate start point of winter snow) and Jing Zhe (marking the "awakening" of mosquitoes and bugs) in New England. Equinox days and Solstice days are also included in the solar term system.

Here is a tea harvest calendar based on the solar terms. By the way, the Major Heat (a landmark point of solar terms whose meaning is reflected by the name) of this year happens between yesterday and today (July 23, 2011). If you are in the Northeast of America, probably you already experienced it in a very deep sense.    

I used the same brewing method as in discussion 5b to brew a pre-Qingming and a pre-Guyu Shi Feng Long Jing. Both are made from Jiu Keng Group cultivar, by the same family in Long Jing Village. Within a small clique of fans, people often call product series of this family by the family address, 2xx Long Jing Village. 

The pre-Qingming one was produced on April 3, and the pre-Guyu one was produced 5 days later, on April 8. In warm spring weather, 5 days makes a big difference on the tea harvest. On the other hand, the difference between this two teas is not as prominent as, for example, a pre-Qingming from April 1 and a pre-Guyu from April 18. So, after all, pre-Qingming and pre-Guyu are only approximate concepts. Sometimes, the harvest date is more informative than labels of Qingming or Guyu.

The two teas are made by the same family. However, they were not processed in exactly the same way. The pre-Qingming one was completely manually processed, as pre-Qingming Long Jing production is very small and deserves the best attention. Most families in traditional Xi Hu Long Jing regions process their pre-Qingming tea manually. The pre-Guyu one used semi-manual processing, as it's usually of much larger production and there can't be enough tea workers to do the complete manual processing.

In all the pairing photos here, pre-Qingming is on the left and pre-Guyu is on the right.

Dry tea leaves

Dry tea leaves of pre-Qingming

Dry tea leaves of pre-Guyu

2nd infusion:



As seen in the cups, pre-Qingming Long Jing has a lot more buds than leaves. Pre-Guyu Long Jing has fewer buds and larger leaves.

Spent leaves:



Overall, the taste differences between these two teas is obvious when you taste them side by side, but the difference is rather small when you are not tasting them side by side. Their harvests are only 5 days apart, but there was surely a lot of growth going on in these 5 days. That's why Long Jing, as many other prestigious green teas, has its harvest time documented not by season or month, but by date. When tasted side by side, the pre-Qingming displays more prominent "aroma of spring" - green, floral and uprising. The pre-Guyu has less of this green, floral aroma and its aroma doesn't last as long as that in pre-Qingming. On the other hand, the pre-Guyu has slightly heavier taste and stronger "throat feeling" (I mean, more prominent flavor sensed near the throat region). But again, the difference is small. The price difference, however, is big. The price difference, I think, is not just based on their taste difference, but largely because of the time-line labels they bear.

The difference between pre-Qingming and pre-Guyu is probably even smaller this year, as the harvest of the traditional cultivar (Jiu Keng Group) was quite late in this past cold spring. In a few pieces of field in Mei Jia Wu, there was no pre-Qingming harvest at all. In some other years, when the harvest is overall earlier, pre-Guyu may taste significantly "older" than pre-Qingming.

When I was a child, as I remember, most pre-Qingming served as precious gift (in the gifting culture in China, it's important to use the best as gift and keep the modest grade products for oneself), treat for important guests and for grandparents. For daily drink, most of us Northerners were happy enough to have pre-Guyu. In some years there was no pre-Qingming harvest (this didn't happen often, but was not super rare either), then people would think pre-Guyu was as good as pre-Qingming, as it was harvested in similar climate as pre-Qingming of other years. That was a time before market-economics and modernization.

In the past decade, I don't remember ever hearing there wasn't a pre-Qingming harvest in a year. I suspect most people would harvest the tea as early as possible (and it must be pre-Qingming to be early enough), instead of let the nature determine when start harvesting. Sometimes people value the pre-Qingming label so much and neglect other important parameters such as cultivar, producing region and, sometimes, even the taste itself. Therefore in recent years, very oddly, even in Hangzhou, the capital of Long Jing, some lower quality tea of earlier harvest date is sold for much higher price than higher quality tea harvested only several days later.

Well, I am not trying to bring us back to the days of government planned economics. Nowadays we do enjoy a lot more convenience in tea drinking. Today, getting pre-Qingming Long Jing shipped to North America is so much easier than getting it shipped to Northern China in the 1980s.

As precious as pre-Qingming is, it's not necessarily the best tea for everybody. In China, some old-fashioned tea sellers would often remind their customers that many old-fashioned tea drinkers would even prefer the pre-Guyu to pre-Qingming, because they would think pre-Guyu is more flavorful and has more "kick". I call them "old-fashioned" because the "new fashion" seems to be "the more expensive, the better" :-p In my own shopping experience, for tea or other things, I like it when sellers give reasonable recommendations on less expensive options. Sometimes I like the most expensive item the best and love to splurge on it. Sometimes I like a less expensive item the best. When I don't have to pay the highest price to get my favorite stuff, I think, the happiness doubles :-D

Jul 17, 2011

my personal history of coffee drinking

What?! Coffee?!

Well, first of all, maybe coffee counts as some sort of "herbal" "tea"? :-D

Secondly, I do like coffee. And it's something quite unique that I've adopted in my adult life. I can't recall my early history of tea drinking, since it was too much of daily life and all memories were blurred. I can't recall my early history of alcohol drinking either, because, as you may know, Chinese kids can start drinking alcohol from whatever age. Up till today, I've never been a frequent alcohol drinker. But my first glass of wine was too early to remember :-p So for me to review some personal history of beverage, what's left is coffee.

My earliest coffee experience was at the age of 10 or so. Back then, coffee was not commonly seen in China. One day, we got an "expensive and fancy gift" - instant coffee by Nestle Cafe :-D On a Sunday afternoon, during our usual tea time, we made some instant coffee. Nobody managed to finish the third sip and everybody was deeply puzzled how come this dark brown, bitter and sour thing was said to be a very popular drink in the Western Hemisphere :-p  So we put away the coffee and barely had it again. Later, probably in another gift set that we received, we "discovered" coffee mate, and found coffee more "bearable" with coffee mate added. For a few times, we received ground coffee as gifts. We thought of it as more complicated to handle and less "bearable" than instant coffee.

In the old days in China, milk usually arrived (or was purchased) every morning, and was immediately boiled and taken as part of the breakfast. There was almost never cold milk stored in the fridge. So it was only years later that I "discovered" milk for coffee.

By the time we made coffee more "bearable" with coffee mate, all of us basically lost interest for coffee and thought it could only be enjoyed by some people for mysterious reasons. So we seldom had coffee again, and re-gifted all our coffee to other people. Back then, coffee was a trendy gift. But I suspect some friends who received our re-gifted coffee didn't enjoy it more than we did :-p

In 2000, the second year I got my driver's license, I took a road trip to the southwest and drove for more than 3000 miles in 10 days, all by myself. That was when I felt a need for caffeine and found some coffee didn't taste bad at all (I mean those cups of coffee I had in rural restaurants...) So when I came back home, I started drinking coffee in the morning, Nestle or Maxwell instant coffee...

All those years I had been in the States, I didn't pay much attention to Starbucks, not even curious about it, as I was not yet a coffee drinker. Then, in the summer of 2001, I "discovered" Starbucks, in Beijing - because, back then, all cool kids in Beijing were supposed to have Starbucks experience. So I found out Starbucks ice Mocha was my favorite, huh, desert beverage! Back in the States, I did notice ice Mocha here is a lot sweeter, too sweet for me to handle. But I enjoyed my Starbucks experience and stopped by from time to time.

At about the same time, I lived with a nice couple who shared with me their coffee made from a filter drip coffee maker. They had very high quality coffee and rotated flavors from time to time. Soon I happily found that I lost tolerance of instant coffee. Meantime, I started to realize Starbucks seemed quite expensive, considering the cost and quality of home brewed coffee.

In 2003, I had another roommate who kindly shared with me her coffee made from a stove-up Moka pot. That just blew me away! From then one, I became a loyal fan of Moka pot. Then I got a coffee grinder and started buying coffee beans. In 2006, after I moved to an area within the territory of Trader Joe's, I started buying organic, fair trade beans from them. I appreciate it very much that they offer such a broad range of coffee. In recent years, I buy most of my coffee beans from a Guatemala plantation. It's not certified organic. My husband once spotted the plantation on his bicycle and decided to take a tour in it. According to him, the environment and operation of the plantation are quite convincing, so whether or not it's certified organic doesn't make a big difference. Also it's not Fair Trade certified, but for us, it's direct trade anyway. 

This is my personal history of coffee drinking. I am glad I "discovered" coffee and fell in love with it. I am also very glad that I wasn't eternally cast away from coffee after my first few painful tastings. Finally I am glad I didn't stop at instant coffee. Overall I am just an ordinary coffee drinker, not an "aficionada". I don't actively look for new types of coffee, and feel satisfied with my simple coffee ware. Till now I still feel lucky that I formed a bond with Moka pots, as none of my Moka pots ever costs more than $20. Even the one on my wishlist is under $50. So to me, coffee drinking is a lot less expensive than tea drinking :-D

What beverage do you like other than tea? Any other coffee+tea lovers out there?

Jul 12, 2011

gossip... gossip...

This is old news. But I've just found out about it, and think this is seriously juicy... :-p

Zhang Tianfu is like the Godfather of Fujian tea. He is one of the first generation biology professors of China, and has conducted tea research for more than 70 years.

Guess what! Zhang Tianfu got (re)married, last year, at the age of 100! In the wedding photo showed here, the bridegroom, Zhang Tianfu, was then 100 years old and now is 101 years old (actually 102 years old by Chinese way of counting). The bride was 58 years old by the time of the wedding.

I have to say, Zhang Tianfu looks very young for his age (his wife too!). I guess he has no problem to live above the age of "tea longevity" (108 years old). Those tea companies eager to sell tea by its health benefits, should just get him for their TV commercials :-D

By now, Zhang Tianfu has broken the record of Chinese celebrity wedding age set by C. N. Yang, the Chinese American Nobel-prize winner physicist who got (re) married at the age of 82 to a 28-year-old woman! When C. N. Yang got married, I was thinking, working on science and keeping the brain active must help a lot to retain one's youth and vitality! Now Zhang Tianfu must be a very convincing example how one can stay young with tea! Well, in fact, C. N. Yang is an enthusiastic tea drinker too. He spent a big chunk of his youth in Kunming during the war time, drinking tea and studying physics. (His story was mentioned in my earlier blog here.)

As gossipy as I am, I dig up a bit more... Zhang Tianfu's wife was an acrobat when she was younger. She was widow of a tea scholar who was son of Wu Juenong. And Wu Juenong (1897-1989, quite long-lived too!) was like the Godfather of Chinese tea. He was second to none in in the Chinese tea history of 20th Century, and was respected as the Contemporary Tea Saint by Chinese tea professionals of a few generations.

So much to gossip about tea romance and tea karma :-D

Jul 10, 2011

some suggestions for new puerh drinkers - shu

(I post this on Steepster a few months ago. This is pretty much the same as the steepster post, with a few points added at the end.)

First, I have to admit that I have very limited knowledge about puerh, and I am not learning fast. I think what makes me qualified to give new puerh drinkers advice is, I am not crazy about puerh - This may sound a little illogical. But what I mean is, just because I don't have a broad love of puerh (I don't like most shu and I don't like a lot of sheng), my advice might be useful to those who don't have a broad love of puerh either. Sometimes when I recommend a puerh to someone, I would say, even I love it - if I can enjoy it, probably you can too :D

I will start with shu, because most shu tastes stinky to me. Therefore, if a shu tastes good to me, chances are most people would like it.

1. Select a shu - most of the suggestions here only make sense when the products considered have clear information about production year and manufacturer. Such information is almost essential, but more than a few products in the market don't have such information. If a product is just named "puerh" without additional production information, then there is no way to give any general advice on it.

I select shu with very conservative criteria. I look forward to expanding my horizon (mostly by getting free or cheap samples instead of making bold purchases). But I suggest beginners to use very conservative criteria in choosing puerh. Here are some criteria:

1a. I would look for shu products of about 3-years in age, or older. It's not that all younger shu products are stinky. I've had one or two new shu that are not stinky at all (which left me happily puzzled). But we are talking about being conservative here. Many products need a year or two to shed off the stinky flavor from deep fermentation.

1b. Many people believe, when you look for a shu, don't even bother with small factories, go for the large factory products. I do believe there are some very good shu products from small factories. But I agree it's a safe way to go for the large factory products first. A most conservative list of large factories would include (and their products are widely available in western market):
            * Da Yi - probably the most popular factory for shu
            * Xia Guan
            * CNNP  - It's the factory for some classic products. Unlike Da Yi and Xia Gua, CNNP does contract out a lot of their products (but not for some classics such as 7581), which is bad. But there is still the quality control, and usually when a product is bad, it's bland tasting, not of worse problems.
            * This list can expand with a few more factories, but that's where debates may start. For people who have just started exploring shu, I think Da Yi products can already keep them busy for quite a while. 

1c. It's probably common sense now - you don't have to buy a whole cake or tuo to experience a product. Sampling is almost essential.

2. Brewing a shu - whether gongfu style or a big teapot is used, I think following tips may help:

2a. Rinse the tea generously. Rinse the tea with boiling water for 10-15 seconds, and discard the water. If rinsing once is not enough, then twice. Some shu doesn't require rigorous rinse, but even in that case, a thorough rinse will not exhaust its flavor. When you know a specific puerh better,  you will have more precise sense how much to rinse it. But at the beginning, rinsing the tea generously can reduce the off flavor of fermentation as much as possible, and therefore you can have a more pleasant first encounter with the tea. :D

2b. Start with low leaf:water ratio and increase it in future sessions if necessary. When using gongfu style, I would start with 3-4g tea in a 120ml vessel, and 5 seconds for each of the initial infusions. When using a large teapot, I would start with less amount of tea than what I would normally use for red tea, and add more boiling water whenever the teapot is less than 1/3 full. If the tea liquor looks like dark soy sauce, then probably less tea leaves or shorter infusions should have been used.

As much as I have said that I am not crazy about shu, there are indeed a few shu's that I love very much. To name just a few, there is the good old (and cheap, if home-aged) 7581. Also there is the good and popular 7262. Not only it's tasty, it also has intriguing characters in aging. According to Taiwan puerh professional Shi Kunmu, some 7262 aged in Malaysian dry storage developed into a stage resembling old sheng - I haven't experienced a shu of such characters yet, but think what he said about 7262 is quite plausible. A favorite of mine is the one in the photo of this blog, shu brick compressed with Y421, a high end loose shu produced by Kunming Factory. Y421 is a routine loose tea product, but for some reason I don't see a lot of bricks made of it in the market.

Obviously I haven't found all good shu, due to my lacking of enthusiasm in shu overall. If one is very interested in shu, I am sure there are numerous good choices. That's why I emphasize conservatism for people who newly explore shu. It's important not to be freaked out from the very beginning, and in fact there are lots of awfully freaky shu products out there.

If you by all means just dislike shu, I think that's fine. There are many other teas to enjoy anyway. One saying I somewhat disagree with (although I can understand where it's from) is, "Shu is an acquired taste." My thought is, don't bother to acquire the taste, but we can always keep ourselves open to it. If it's your cup of tea, eventually it will find its way to you. If it's not your cup of tea, then there is no obligation for you to like it, and it's ok to give it up.

Jul 5, 2011

my father's first encounter with Lipton

My father's experience is shared by quite a few, though not a lot of, people of his age. At the time, my father was more confused than anything else. But looking back now, we all think it's quite funny.

In 1980s, China's economy was just starting to open to the world, development was fast, and new things came out every day. My father was working in the first American-invested hotel in Beijing as the manager of restaurant department. It was a vacuum period for restaurants in many cities of China. Most of the best restaurants were in high end hotels. A typical high end hotel, such as the one my father worked in, could have up to seven, eight or more Chinese restaurants in it, plus one or two western style ones. So my father was in charge of restaurants in their hotel, and part of his job, is checking out good food in various places of China.

Once my father attended a banquet in Shanghai, exclusively for professional epicures like him. They had course after course of exquisite dishes. At the end, waiters brought green tea in large cups, for mouth washing. The tea was fresh Long Jing. Using tea for mouth washing was never a big trend in China. But my father and his colleagues swiftly followed the procedure, as every Chinese intellectual must have read the most influential book in Chinese literature, The Story of a Stone (also named A Dream of Red Buildings/Chambers, which, I think, is a bad English name for the book), in which the mandarin family uses tea for mouth washing after each meal. My father thought the mouth washing ritual was fine, but it was annoying to him that fresh Long Jing was abused in such a way. Any cheap, fresh green tea would have served the same function well. In his traditional value system, there is nothing bad about luxury, but purposeless wasting is a totally different story.

After the Long Jing mouth washing, they were served tea, this time, for drinking. The waiters brought beautiful and elegant bone china cups with matching saucers. In each artistically made cup, there was the (said to be) highest grade Lipton black teabag, the supposedly great tea to end their grand meal. My father is a green tea drinker in his entire life. So he took the Lipton tea as a "foreigner's tea"experience. That was his first encounter with Lipton, so was most of his colleagues. However strange it may sound today, back then, none of them was shocked by the Lipton teabag after a fine meal and Longjing mouth washing. They were only a bit confused.

That was in 1980s, when hotels and restaurants aimed at serving uprising elite class of China and foreign tourists. A lot of strange things came out with big price tags, simply because there were people willing to pay for them. It was also the time when the finest imported French white wine was mixed with Sprite (yeah, the Coca Cola company product) to serve in expensive restaurants.

Many of those strange things gradually disappeared when Chinese people saw more of the outside world, and when a lot of rich people were enlightened on better ways to spend their money. In recently years, my father's Lipton story comes up to my mind from time to time, because only in recent years, I've realized Lipton has always been such a big deal in China. Today, few Chinese would see teabags as high-ranking or fancy, but simply convenient way of tea drinking. But it shocked me, again and again, to hear some Chinese tea professionals talking about the admirable business achievements of Lipton. They say, With so much tea produced annually, why hasn't China ever had a company like Lipton? China needs its own Lipton! In addition, I've seen lengthy articles (written by tea professionals) about how Chinese tea industry needs to strengthen itself to realize its "Lipton dream"...


Maybe I am not the only dumbfounded?

(The photo on the top is a scene from 1987 TV series version of The Story of a Stone, the ladies rinse their mouths with tea after a meal :-)