Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Fin de siècle

I wasn't quite expecting to find anything like this in the forest during a short weekend getaway. A Russian train from the turn of the century parked in a small green field surrounded by forest. The interior brought us back more than a hundred years, to the times of the Czar. To one side of the room was a tea table that looked inviting enough. Its old-fashioned attractiveness made me question if I was still in the right space and age.

We brewed Dongding oolong tea and put together a sparser cha xi that will not overwhelm the tea experience visually. An attempt at bringing two rather diverse elements together somewhere amidst roaming wildlife that fortunately did not come anywhere close to our windows. Also, I would like to think that few before me have had the privilege of enjoying fine oolong tea in a setting like this.

Although a light oolong, the dried leaves are a bit more roasted and thus smell sweeter than regular green oolongs. More roasting removes the moisture and increases the leaves' sugar to water ratio. With nature on my side, I found that the clean forest air also helped to highlight this aspect of the tea and brought out the complexity of its aromas.

The infusion was light green with a broth-like aftertaste that reminded me of slow-cooked bouillon. With the mixed clay teapot, I managed to push the limits of this tea and reached 6 brews before I was ready to call it a day. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Same tea, different pot

Dong ding oolong
When it comes to oolong teas with light oxidation, the gaiwan is the most common teaware used to prepare this tea. To achieve a higher resolution in the taste profile of this tea, I thought I might give it a try with a clay teapot. By a higher resolution, I mean tasting notes that appear in higher densities in the mouth cavity and can be felt most prominently on the tongue followed by a trail of flavours that enters the nose.

Mixed clay teapot
I confirmed the following theories with medium roasted oolongs but have yet to do the same with light oolongs. With a gaiwan, you will get a bit of everything: fruity and nutty notes with a weak aftertaste that seems detached from the roasting. When brewing medium roasted oolong in a teapot, the lighter fruity notes are felt less, the roasting presents itself more robustly, balanced with a lengthier aftertaste and  an emerging sweetness. The extent to which tea, water and teaware materials interact bears the most influence on the end result.

To brew this light oolong from Dong ding, I used a teapot made from zhuni, zisha, sandstone and yellow clay. The colour of the infusion came out stronger than one would have expected from a gaiwan and the fragrance leans a bit on the heavier side where the sweet smell clearly stands out from the rest.

The floral, fruity and grassy notes coat the tongue surface very evenly, similar to the bouquet where every flower stands out in its own little way. After a while, the flavours also extended to the back of my throat. I thought that the heaviness could be attributed to the longer aftertaste and higher resolution of this tea infusion from the pot. Compared to the gaiwan where mostly fragrant notes are emphasised, I also like today's experiment where a change in teaware has helped to reveal the other side of this tea previously unknown to me.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Fresh pu'er, anyone?

My pu'er roadmap
Teaparker posted a question on his blog yesterday:  how tasty is young and fresh pu'er? A question that challenges the norm where trendsetters would go for aged pu'ers, the older, the better.

What about young pu'ers? In fact, a good quality pu'er tea can already be consumed at a young age. Delicate and fragrant, these young leaves mature into aged pu'er that exudes a mellow charm with the passing of time.

The grading of pu'er teas is a very demanding task as this brings into question the age of the tea tree's age, it's cultivar and region of growth. These factors all play decisive roles in the quality of the final product. It was a widespread belief that newly made pu'er teas cannot be used immediately and require some years of storage before they become palatable. Truth is, good pu'er teas should taste good from the outset. Hence, a good piece of cake with proper storage conditions work most favourably towards improving quality and increasing value.

So far, I have found the humidity levels in a tropical climate to be ideal for my pu'er cakes. Of equal importance are the conditions of  your storage location, which should be shaded, clean and well-ventilated.

A respite from tea

As I embark on my water retasting project, I also decided to experiment with different boiling vessels and prepare tea with various combinations of mineral water brands and kettles. Obviously, some combinations made the tea taste worse than I have known them, leaving behind prominently burnt notes in my nose and mouth, not to mention a headache. In such cases, it is sensible to give your body a break and flush away the bad taste.

What went into my gaiwan today? It is technically speaking not tea but a restorative concoction of  goji berries and chrysanthemum flowers. The berry fruits are sweet and mildly tangy with a texture that is similar to sun dried tomatoes before infusion. The flowers smell beautifully comforting with a sweet fragrance. Delicious!

Friday, August 10, 2012


"Tea is not but this.
First you make the water boil,
Then infuse the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know."

Utterly simple yet complicated. I have been pondering over these few short lines from Sen Rikyu for a while now and concluded a few things.

As easy as the topic on tea may sound, there are a few preparatory steps that culminate in the final enjoyment of tea: a good understanding of the kind of water you need and how to bring it to a boil, a careful selection of the teaware that you find most suitable for the tea that you will brew and the interaction between your five senses and tea.

Once a certain person came to Rikyu and asked him what were the mysteries of Tea. "You place the charcoal so that the water
boils properly, and you make the tea to bring out the proper taste. You arrange the flowers as they appear when they are
growing. In summer you suggest coolness and in winter cosiness.
There is no other secret," replied the Master. 

From here, I am beginning to see how great tea masters worthy of their salt use layman's language to convey a deeper, underlying message. What beginners perceive to be menial tasks of boiling water, infusing, pouring and drinking tea can be translated into bringing water to a sufficient boil without depleting its oxygen content, infusing tea adequately, knowing when tea is ready to be served and appreciating the beverage.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Now and then

08.08.08 - Four years ago this day, as the Beijing Olympics commenced, I found myself transiting in Hangzhou, China's tea capital. Although I already was becoming a regular tea drinker, I did not have a deeper appreciation for tea as a cultural heritage and was not really well-informed about this subject matter. This visit planted the seeds of tea love and joy in me. I grew very fond of tea ceremonies and found myself frequently locked in a gaze at tea masters engaged in an enchanting and seemingly complex ritual of examining, sniffing, brewing and pouring tea.

Today, my role has entered transition and I am in a place between observing, brewing and drawing conclusions about tea. My preferences have evolved and my tea choices expanded beyond the category of Japanese green teas. A lot has changed I must say, and I hope this is all for the better. A great pastime, albeit an expensive one.

While browsing Taipei's endless rows of tea shops earlier this year, I bought a highly oxidised roasted red oolong tea also known as Wa Cuo '瓦厝‘ red oolong. My guess is, the name could point to the red tiled roofs that were hallmarks of older colonial architecture.

The brew is clear, golden and with a tinge of red thanks to its higher levels of oxidation, this tea has a few elements of surprise awaiting me - Walnut, cranberries and a medium body with a pleasant aftertaste. I picked a Zisha teapot to prepare this tea because clay teapots help to trap heat and coax more flavours out of  the tea leaves.

A pleasant afternoon spent retracing my footsteps and recounting the various milestones in this short span of time. I am also happy that my initiative to start a blog about tea has allowed me to share precious tea moments with others and more importantly as a diary for lasting memories.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Use force if necessary

2011 Ali Shan Oolong
With tightly rolled Oolong tea balls, brewing requires more strength of pour in a controlled manner. After all,  we do not want the tea leaves to spin in all directions, resulting in a messed up brew.

Set leaves into a spin
The usual rules of engagement hold - preheating your gaiwan and cups. Meanwhile, estimate the right amount of tea to use. With a compact tea such as this Ali Shan high mountain oolong, I would recommend enough tea to cover the bottom of your gaiwan and keep enough room for the leaves to expand during infusion. This ensures maximum flavour release.

The next step involves infusing your tea leaves with a strong pour of hot water from the side of the gaiwan. This sets the tea leaves into a circular spin and helps the leaves to open up most effectively. In the first infusion, floral and delicious milky notes with a hint of umami presented themselves without hesitation. This is a sign of a successful brew.

What about unsuccessful first attempts? One will notice that the brew is not as flavoursome and somewhat muted. It is advisable to increase the strength of your pour throughout the cup, ensuring that each leaf opens up from then on.

Having said that, it is most rewarding to get it right the first time because there are limitations to salvaging a brew gone wrong when tea leaves cannot unfurl sufficiently at the first contact with water. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

After the rain

It was a warm afternoon followed by a thunderstorm, I was wondering if my sheng pu'er biscuit turned any easier to peel and prepare because of the higher levels of humidity in the air. This is a tea I usually reserve for colder days, but I was looking forward to tasting it in today's weather that resembles the tropics where it is most ideal for longer term pu'er storage.

Flaked sheng pu'er leaves from a 200 years old tree
Already, the first pieces came off very easily by hand. I continued working on the edges that present the easiest parts for peeling. Hard and messy work that explains my rarity in drinking this tea and a neglected Meng Chen style, canon-spouted tea pot that is well suited for this tea.

Tea is almost ready
The movement of the water level close to the spout helps me determine when infusion is complete. The brew is a  transparent golden liquid with a more distinct fruity note that was not picked up before. Indeed, no two tea sessions can ever be the same!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The missing and mismatched pieces

Some aspects in this tea picking scene do not seem to fall in the right places. Can you spot them?

- Tea picking is a job mainly reserved for women which very likely has to do with their nimbler fingers that add a soft touch without hurting the leaves during the process. The figure in this picture is more likely a man.

- After picking the leaves, this guy may be left without a bag or basket to deposit his harvest.

- Lastly, take a closer look at his hands and how they approach the tea bush. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Mit Kirschenblüten bemalte Zisha-Teekanne (Verkauft)

Teekannen gehören für den Teeliebhaber zu den beliebtesten Stücken. Allerdings findet man nicht so leicht eine Teekanne, die zugleich praktisch, gut gefertigt und erschwinglich ist. Ich bin wohl eher keine Teekannensammlerin. Wenn ich gelegentlich an einer Teekanne interessiert bin, lege ich vor allem auf die Form und Funktionalität wert, oder aber auf den artistischen Wert, wenn ich ganz begeistert bin – und der Preis stimmt! 

Was ist denn die beste Form für eine Teekanne? Ich würde sagen, rund oder kugelförmig, oder in Anlehnung daran kürbis- oder birnenförmig. Diese Formen ermöglichen eine effektive Konvektion während der Teezubereitung.

Beim Wählen einer Teekanne sollte man auch die gesamte Materialstärke prüfen. Im Idealfall ist der Boden der Teekanne dicker, und verringert sich die Materialstärke zur Spitze hin. Ein dicker Boden hält die Wärme, während der Wärmeverlust an der Spitze relativ hoch ist. Dies führt zu einer nachhaltigen Wärmezirkulation in der ganzen Teekanne, so daß jedes Blatt optimal ziehen kann. Selbstverständlich ist dies nicht für jede Teekanne der Fall. Bei Bedarf kommt man auch mit einer gleichßig verteilten Materialstärke aus.

Diese violette Schönheit wiegt 170 g und hat eine Füllmenge von 176 ml. Der Lehmtyp ist Zisha von etwa 2005. Der Auslauf ist gut geformt und erlaubt ein glattes, gleichmäßiges Ausschenken. Die Teekanne ist sehr einfach zu handhaben.

Nur der Auslauf und eine Seite (hin zum Teemeister) der Teekanne sind mit Kirschenblüten bemalt. Diese Asymmetrie ist reizvoll und attraktiv. 

Meines Erachtens eignet sich diese Teekanne sehr für Teesorten wie Hong Shui Oolong, mittelstark gerösteten Tie Guan Yin und Wu Yi. Einige befreundete Teeliebhaber haben gekochten Pu’er vorgeschlagen. Obwohl man eine Teekanne am besten nur für eine Teesorte einsetzt, sollte man sie im voraus mit mehreren Teesorten ausprobieren. 

Ab sofort in meinem Laden erhältlich.    

Article in English: Cherry blossom Zisha pot