Feb 27, 2012

writing about tea (1)

Last year, The Association of Tea Bloggers had a blog carnival on the topic of Why I Write about Tea. There were quite a few interesting entries on the topic. Here is the host post of the blog carnival by Jason Walker. Here is my participating post in that blog carnival. Besides, Alex Zorach once wrote on "writing about tea" here.

Recently, for various reasons, I thought a lot about writing, especially writing about tea. I'm not a well trained writer, and one of the reasons I feel comfortable about tea blogging is, I could always write whenever I wish, as much as I wish, and however I wish, without worrying if I would get an A or an F :-p So as always, I will just write whatever comes to my mind and try not be be disorganized. Here I will cover:

1. Options of writing about tea online
2. My challenges in tea writing and how I overcame some of them
3. What have I gained from tea writing

1. Options of writing about tea online:

a. Of course, blogs! :-D

b. Teatra.de - by the way I am @gingkoseto there :D
I have been watching this site growing. Although it's not yet the largest online tea community (I guess Steepster is the largest one so far), it has been growing rapidly and I believe it has great potential to get really big. It has a lot of cool features that are not found else where. It hosts tea blogs (I have a mirror site there lifeinteacup.teatra.de). More importantly, it organizes a blog network, which nurtures active communication among bloggers and blog readers. Besides, it has a twitter-like system serving tea enthusiasts. And of course it has online forum too. Basically I feel it has all features modern internet tea surfers want, and from time to time, it creates some feature that nobody had ever thought of.

c. Ratetea.net - It's a tea product review site, so I can't write much there. But I read a lot there. Since it has the focus on product review, one can get very clear and convenient information on what other people think of a specific product. Besides, there are a lot of tea articles on the site that focus on unbiased scientific information, environmental sustainability of tea products and healthy life styles. For active bloggers, another attractive feature of this site is it links reviewer's blog site to his/her ratetea.net profile. So a good product review helps attract traffic of fellow tea drinkers to the reviewer's own blog site.

d. Steepster.com - by the way I am @gingko there :D
I love its tea logging feature, and "logged" about tea there from time to time. I also know some people who don't have a blog site but use steepster as their personal log/database for tea drinking. I enjoy tea logging because it's more relaxing and casual than tea blogging. Although as I said, I don't try to be highly organized in tea blogging, I still would like my blogs more presentable than not. But when I tea-log, it's more like free writing, and present-ability is barely a concern. When I enjoy a tea, it just feels good to write it out at the moment, with the teacup in my hand. This works especially well when I don't have time to write a more organized article but desperately want to document the moment :D Sometimes I would use my tea logs as raw materials, and organize them into blog posts, preferably with photos added. 

Some very serious tea drinkers have complained about the rigid format of steepster's tea log. For example, the shortest infusion time you can choose is 15 seconds, which could be much longer than what you use for a Yan Chan brewed in gongfu style. In addition, there is only one set of infusion time and temperature, while these parameters often change from infusion to infusion, and people like me never give up any tea after merely one infusion :-p In spite of all this, I still love the tea log.

Besides the above mentioned, there are some social network sites that can be used for tea writing. I personally don't like facebook (maybe I am too old to get its meaning haha...), although it does have some writing devices. I suspect I don't get all the fun of facebook or twitter kinds of sites because I barely carry a cell phone with me :-p Well I often carry one of these guys with me and pretend it's my smart phone :D

I enjoy twitter a lot more than facebook though - by the way I am @lifeinteacup there :D I feel it's a nice site to communicate with other people, read smart quotes and share them with other people. But it's not for systematic writing.

Besides above-mentioned options, online tea forums are nice places to communicate with other tea drinkers. I have a list of online tea forums here and try to update the list from time to time.

But I don't think online tea forums are made for systematic writing either. A downside of online forums, including tea forums, is that sometimes they contribute to fragmentation of your thoughts and writing. Online forums sometimes nurture the most interesting discussions. But I hope many of these discussions can be well documented by the discussion participants. I know some people who don't have tea blogs but often give very good thoughts on tea forums. I personally think all these good tea drinkers should establish their own tea blogs, or establish their accounts at teatra.de, ratetea.net and/or steepster.com, so I would know where to visit them if I recall something interesting that they have written and want to recover all the details.

In another aspect, online forums are more for interpersonal communication rather than personal writing. Even in my list of "the most active online forums", there are forums with rather low traffic, because after all, the population of tea drinkers has yet to grow. If there is nobody around to interact, then there is no interpersonal communication. In contrast, with the above a, b, c, d options of tea writing, one could enjoy interpersonal communication, but could also write just for personal reflection or personal documentation. So I would like to see more tea drinkers using the above writing options on top of online forums.

Do you know of other places/options for online tea writing? Please share!

Feb 21, 2012

a personal review of 2011 tea

Due to my winter traveling and the cold I caught after getting home, this review is badly delayed, so was my routine establishment of new year resolutions. But I think I've still caught them all before the Tibetan New Year anyway :-)

I will go over them by which comes to my mind first...

1. My favorite tea of 2011, which was also a new tea experience for me, was this green tea, Bai Mei Hua Jian. It's an unforgettable beauty, and also falls in my favorite scope of Anhui green tea.

2 and 3. Two other green teas that I love very much and considered myself very lucky to have obtained, are Tai Ping Hou Kui and Lu Shan Cloud Mist. There are always some nice, unknown tea varieties that are hard to come by in the market. But Tai Ping Hou Kui and Lu Shan Cloud Mist are two of the most famous Chinese teas that are known by so many people yet still hard to find. Their common problem is small production.

Tai Ping Hou Kui "in a broader meaning" is commonly sold in China. But with increasing labor cost and due to some other factors, it has been ever harder to get the really traditionally made Tai Ping Hou Kui. The difference in taste is much greater than the difference in the outlook of leaves.

I know this man who obtains new harvest Lu Shan Cloud Mist each spring from its central production region. His offerings are usually in a scale of smaller than 10 lbs. for each plantation, and most was sold through his email list before ever making its way to his store. Ever since I knew this man, I have been interested. But I don't buy the tea every year, because it's an expensive tea that people crazily grab off as if it were free. In early spring, it's already stressful enough to haunt producers for Long Jing :-p  But Lu Shan Cloud Mist of 2011 was somewhat special to me. This tea was produced in a below 500m (1500ft.) location of Lu Shan Mountain, not the highest elevation of production. But it was a bad spring for the region. Nearly all locations above 500m of elevation had zero production, and even below 500m locations had many new tea buds killed by the cold weather. And you know I love survivors!

Ok, another excuse for my procrastination of writing on these teas is I didn't want to talk too much about them while they were still in stock of our web store.  I believe background information of a tea is always interesting. But I also believe one should avoid having his/her first experience of a tea influenced too much by fringing information. Like Mark Twain said, "Don't let school interfere with your eduction." ;-)

4. Another new tea experience in 2011, Jing Shan Tea (径山茶). Someday I will write more about this tea. It was a tea on my wishlist for a long time. Not only it's a famous green tea from Zhejiang, it's also an important landmark in the history of zen tea culture, and a connection point between Chinese and Japanese zen tea culture.

5. A bunch of Taiwan *style* oolongs. I've written about this Zealong and plan to write more about the other Zealongs, a Yunnan produced one and a Sichuan produced one.

6. There are a few very unique teas gifted by tea friends, and I've started a blog post about them long time ago. But writing is challenging to me, especially when it comes to more emotional topics. So I haven't managed to finish it yet. 

During this review, I just realized how much overdue homework there is in my tea documenting!

Besides, I feel terribly guilty for not having tasted two very special teas I've got in 2011. One is an organic Tie Guan Yin from my favorite TGY producer. "Organic" is not what makes it unique, but it's the specific organic fertilizer used for this tea. Another one is Song Tea (宋茶 named by Song Dynasty), which is supposedly the ancestor of Dan Cong and said by many people an extincted tea processing method. But a friend brought me some from this island inhabited by descendents of Song Dynasty royal family refugees. Since both of these teas are oolong, they somewhat made me think I didn't have to worry too much about their shelf life. But I think I shall taste them soon!

Feb 18, 2012

Concept Tea (10) - Salute to Xia Guan, with Jing Mei Tang Red Iron Cake

This Jing Mei Tang (静美堂)product, according to its owner, Mr. Huang Chuanfang, a leading figure in Taiwan puerh industry, this tea was made to salute and pay respects to Xia Guan (下关)old style iron cake with red printing on the wrap.

This tea was made in 2007, using primarily leaf material from 2006 (said by the inner ticket of the cake), mixed with some leaf material from 2002 (this is hearsay but somewhat confirmed by the tea leaves).

The wrap and inner tickets are beautiful, as always.

The leaves are a mixture of various grades, dominated by medium-low grades.

I wanted to give it a closed-up side view, because I've found it an interesting and neat technique that's used by a few puerh products that I like very much. This cake is an "iron cake", meaning tightly pressed. But the edge is quite different from the edge of tightly pressed cakes from large tea factories such as Da Yi or Xia Guan. For example, if you compare the following photo with this one (which is a Da Yi Peacock cake), you can see this one has somewhat squared edge and a flat side surface. This type of edge looks and feels tight, but it's actually not that painstaking to break the cake with a prying needle. I have seen this type of technique mainly on tea cakes made by Taiwan producers. A Yunnan native producer that I like very much, Da Dian, uses this technique on his iron cakes too. He is an admirer of Taiwan Chen Yuan Hao (陈远号), and has been telling all the people how much he appreciates tea pressing techniques he has learned from Mr. Chen Huaiyuan, owner of Chen Yuan Hao.

I believe the purpose of such pressing style is to let the tea aging benefit from tight structure of the cake, without making it a huge pain to dissemble the cake. The pressing style of this cake allowed me to pry off some relatively wholesome leaves. I could pry off some wholesome leaves from Da Dian's 2010 iron cakes too. I could never do the same on most other young iron cakes.

The tea liquor looks and tastes quite dark for its age - mind you, this tea has been in purely dry storage of Kunming and New England. The color tone is probably due to: (1) those leaves from 2002; and (2) the medium-low grade leaves that overall age faster than high grade leaves.

I've included this tea as a concept tea, because it was made to embody a few concepts cherished by its producer. These concepts include:

1. Medium-low grade leaves are wonderful. In puerh, high-grade isn't necessarily superior to low-grade. The grades are more of descriptions of leaf size and age, rather than evaluation on them.

But high-grade and low-grade leaves don't have to fight against each other (I've seen people fighting over the comparison and ranking, passionately). I believe either could be good, all depending on whether it's well-made.

2. Blending, the good kind, can do wonders on puerh.

3. You've got to take your time to make a puerh product. As mentioned on the inner ticket of this cake, it was made in 2007, using leaf materials from 2006.

It has been a common practice in big factories that they use leaves from the previous year or years ago. Such practice is partially out of convenience - large factories have overstock each year and will need to use it up at certain point anyway. On the other hand, in the old days, a tea was made based on how much time it was needed to make it, not based on when it should appear in the market.

In recent years, most tea cakes are made in the same year when the leaves are harvested. It's almost an unspoken rule that cakes made of spring leaves must come out before May, or asap - otherwise, some would say, how do you prove it aloud to everybody it's spring tea? But in the wake of "puerh madness", quite a few small producers have started to reflect on the tradition of tea processing, and there have been some products that are not made in a rush.

Besides the above, the pressing technique is also an interesting phenomenon to me.

Feb 12, 2012

Yi Liang "Long Jing" (宜良龙井)

Yi Liang Long Jing (宜良龙井), a.k.a. Bao Hong Tea (宝洪茶) is a historically famous green tea. In the title I put "Long Jing" as quote-and-quote, as it's not the "real" Long Jing from Zhejiang. However, the name Yi Liang Long Jing is not a recent invention and has at least a few hundred years of history. Until recently, I hadn't got a chance to taste it, as its popularity has long gone in tea market. Out of curiosity, I asked my Yunnan black supplier for a couple of samples of this tea.

This tea is produced from Yiliang county of Yunnan. Tea from Yiling has been famous since Tang dynasty. Up till Ming dynasty, Bao Hong Tea was a royal tribute tea all the time, and was given the title of "the best tea of China" by some scholars. I didn't find out when its nickname, Yi Liang Long Jing, started to be used. But I guess it was after the "real" Long Jing became the nation's favorite.

The processing method of this tea is somewhat similar to Long Jing and the physical appearance of the final product is similar to Long Jing too.

Compared with the "real" Long Jing, this tea has more uprising aroma, which may or may not considered a merit. In fact, in spite of the similarity in the outlook, the two "Long Jing" don't have much similarity in their tastes.

I personally still prefer the "real" Long Jing, which has more implicit aroma and a deeper, complex flavor profile. However, who knows if my personal taste is partially a result of the Chinese "main stream" taste formed in the past a few hundred years? I have grown up in a tea culture dominated by green tea, and have been influenced by the tea aesthetics which takes the "real" Long Jing as one of its best representatives. If some people outside this "green tea traditional culture" taste and compare the two "Long Jing", I don't think all of them will prefer one same tea to the other. After all, who is to say "what's the best tea" and "which is the better tea?"

Another nickname of Bao Hong Tea is Ten Mile Aroma. There are also local proverbs saying that "When the tea is fried in one room, the aroma fills the entire courtyard; when the tea is fried in the yard, the aroma fills the street; when one cup of the tea is brewed, the aroma fills the entire room." This reflects how much local people love this tea.

Feb 3, 2012

Song Luo (松萝茶)

I got this tea from a green tea group purchase last year. In the group purchase, there were quite a few high end teas and rare teas. But producer of this tea proudly announced that he was delighted to learn that all other teas cost a lot more than his in the market. In fact, that's a big difference I often see between tea producers (and probably direct traders as well) and business people. Business people are often proud of how expensive their products could be, while tea producers are often proud of how much more quality they could offer under the same price tag.

This tea is not widely available in market, for various reasons. But according to the producer, considering the fresh leaves and processing costs, this tea could be sold well under 110 rmb per jin, that would be approximately $15 per pound. It's not a prestigious tea, its leaves neither the youngest of the season nor from the highest elevation. But I would say this is a sincerely made tea, and it tastes better than some of the not so sincerely made tea under a famous tea label.

I was enthusiastic to obtain this tea because it's said to be made with the traditional Song Luo Tea processing method, which is a tradition almost lost.

Although far from popular in Chinese market or international market nowadays, Song Luo was probably the earliest pan fried green tea. One of the best representatives of Song Luo, Tun Xi Green (from Tun Xi, Anhui), was one of the earliest Chinese green tea imported by the United States, the most popular green in the international market, and the most exported green tea from China. Due to the profit it brought from the international market, Tun Xi Green was once upon a time called "green gold" by tea dealers of Anhui.

Why is Song Luo less popular nowadays? Probably many factors contribute to it. Song Luo is one of the oldest green teas existing nowadays. It has a history of more than 400 years. Most green teas of today (more than 80%, as I estimate) are from the past 200 years. This doesn't include teas with same names as in ancient records but no longer follow the same processing methods or are actually entirely different teas.

As one of the earliest "modern" green teas, Song Luo enjoyed great reputation. Meantime, tea techniques have progressed all the time. Inevitably, Song Luo would be surpassed by a lot of new comers. Personally I think Huang Shan Mao Feng is one of the better new comers. But I'm sure I haven't tasted the best Song Long. So there hasn't been fair comparison yet.

Other factors contributing to Song Long's recession may include market choices and change of people's taste. In my experience with this tea and my previous experience with a Tun Xi Green (which was not yet made with exactly the traditional method), Song Luo tea's taste is relatively bold. This is consistent with historical record of this tea. In the past a few hundred years, Chinese people's appreciation on green tea was more or less dominated by subtle and implicit tastes. This is probably partially why Song Luo is no longer seen as a high end tea. But just because of this, I could see its potential of reviving as a high end tea in international market, as western people seem to generally have heavier taste on tea than Chinese. Even contemporary Chinese, due to the dietary changes, may have heavier and heavier tastes.