Thursday, December 26, 2013

Flowers after the rain - Xin Zhu, Oriental Beauty 2013

Sweet at first then a savoury aftertaste with scents of flowers after the rain. Something about this oriental beauty (OB) tells me that it is quite unlike the OB (reserved for tourists) that overwhelms the nose but underwhelms our taste buds. I very much enjoyed its dry subtle scent and the overall balance that I experienced in the 1st infusion.

The dry leaves have a very light, transient and almost mysterious waft that encourages me to want to find out more. The presentation of the leaves is your typical 5-coloured appearance in OBs.

Instead of the usual floral fragrance of an OB, this tea exudes a unique twist. Its' sweet, honey scents are less direct, but very pleasant and leave you wanting for more. The colour of the brew is closer to amber than red. More floral fragrances were released in the 2nd infusion alongside a nutty taste. The tea remains flowery yet mild and contains of a hint of pineapple in the 3rd infusion and we can see that this is a tea made from very young buds and leaves that contribute to its overall sweetness.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Let the feasting begin

This morning I started off with a flowery Li Shan oolong tea alongside some decorative touches on my cha xi. The mood is infectious and soon there will be meat, sweets and lots of booze. As a healthier alternative, you could consider brewing a pot of your favourite raw pu'er that pairs nicely with those decadent foods. Raw pu'er infusions are generally quite intense on a floral note which seems to be very much in line with our festive theme ;-)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Exquisite oriental beauties

I have selected two oriental beauties from Xin Zhu, Taiwan. This coming week, I will be reviewing both teas that will be made available for purchase in 10 g sealed pouches.

Please watch this space.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Stoic week 2013 25 November - 2 December

As with the art of brewing tea, the central theme in stoicism values excellent mental state as the only thing that matters in bringing about well-being and happiness. In my opinion, a calm and focussed mind helps everything else fall into its rightful place, including one's cup of tea!

If you would like to explore Stoic philosophy and its roughly 2000 year-old wisdom, feel free to start here:

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Yunnan Red - curated tea #3

A mix of old and new porcelain
In the spring of 2012, I had my first sip of this powerful red tea from Yunnan on a cold drizzly night over dinner with friends. The weather was perfect for roasted or fully oxidised teas with strong Qi. This Yunnan Red tea was light, pure and refreshing, going down very well as all good teas should. The most surprising bit came few minutes into sipping my tea when I decided to stretch my neck discretly and with almost no effort, I could feel tension fading away and in its place a warm surge of Qi quickly moving upwards through my neck. I was slightly taken aback of course because I've only known Qi to be something mystical and probably a thing of the martial arts. In my case, it was recognised as Cha Qi, a form of good energy that radiates from your stomach bringing about overall warmth and comfort.

Of young buds and leaves from a Jinxuan oolong
The dry scent of this tea is 'friendly' without any artificial notes that could well irritate your senses. Being a spring tea, it boasts of refined yet subtle scents characteristic to this season of the year. My choice of brewing vessels are either a dedicated cinnabar clay teapot (aka Zhuni) or a thermos flask on the go. With a claypot, the leaves are allowed to brew at higher temperatures and shorter times. The porous structure of the clay further refines/ filters the tea. It is the ideal way to spend time with this tea, admiring its colour and fragrance.

These dainty yet practical Florentine espresso cups remind us of the aristocratic way of life and their tea drinking culture which is inextricably linked to red tea and perhaps sugar and milk ;-) The depth of these cups allows for a larger tea volume but its narrow opening helps reduce heat loss from the surface.

Supple leaves with greenish undertones
Seeing the spent leaves, I was reminded of the same jagged edges found in my greener unroasted high mountain oolongs. Being baby leaves, these are of course much smaller. A hint of green beneath the overall reddish oxidised appearance is perhaps what accounts for the surprisingly refreshing twist that this red tea has to offer. Just like how I like my steak medium-well so it retains some of the meat's juiciness/rareness on the inside to make up for the loss of moisture on the outside.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Just tea and what sticks

When it is simply about seeking solace and or enjoyment from a cup of tea, I let my senses guide me. Depending on what I am craving for, a laid back tea session gives rise to the most memorable tasting notes that I take away with me towards the last brew.

With the same Hong Shui Oolong, this afternoon's tea comforted me with its fleeting floral fruity scents, followed by a sugarcane sweetness that seems to go on forever like a true friend who is tirelessly there for you.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A visual comparison of two fully oxidised red teas - curated tea #2 Keemun Black tea (Silver tips)

Red teas evoke impressions of fruits, flowers and honey..
Keemun black tea has a relatively short history and was first produced in 1875. Prior to that, only green teas were made in Anhui Province. At the moment, I am trying out samples of Liu An Melon Seed tea, Huang Shan Maofeng, popular An Ji green teas.

Having sampled this black tea the night before, the overall impression was a tea rather similar to the Dian Hong Cha available in my shop. There were certainly some distinctive differences, so what better way to objectively let the these teas speak for themselves than a side by side comparison?

Left: Keemun black tea, Right: Dian Hong
Now, which tea is screaming for your attention? You will notice that the Keemun black tea has a higher ratio of golden orange tips, relatively speaking. It is also much furrier when I peeked into the tea bag.The dry smells are pleasant, but the Keemun black tea has a more distinct fragrance that is easily picked up by the nose. Honey, with a slightly pine-woody twist. Dian Hong on the other hand has a more subdued scent that only gives away its characteristics of freshness, subtlety and strength. Admittedly, I know this tea very well by now, more so than Keemun. 

Tea infusions - clarity check
I steeped both teas for 7 minutes. By examining both infusions, the Dian Hong tea to the right clearly outshines its close competitor in this case thanks to it higher clarity. In terms of appearance, we are inclined to view the Keemun black tea more favourably.

Keemun black tea
The degree of fermentation in both teas is roughly the same. Similar to the Dian Hong Cha, I could feel the characteristic sour note on the inside of my cheeks quickly fading away alongside a transient bitterness. The similarities end here. Not long after, bitterness evolves into a sweet yet slightly furry, tannin-like aftertaste that is not unpleasant or choking. However, it does explain for the lower price point of this tea compared to the Dian Hong cha that I offer.

The aroma of Keemun tea is defined by fruitiness, with hints of pine, according to some and confirmed here, as well as lightly skipping floral notes that do 'touch-and-gos'. Now you smell it, now you don't!

Where the Dian Hong consists of young buds and leaves, this Keemun black tea is almost exclusively young buds. You will be hard pressed to locate a leaf, if any. I have now listed this tea as Keemun Hao Ya, aka silver tips in my shop thanks to this feature of aesthetics. Because this tea is made only this year, I am planning to keep it in its original thick foil bag for the next few months to see how it will improve or mellow. Until then!

Keemun Hao Ya (Silver tips)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Curated tea #1 - Red Water 'Hong Shui' Oolong

Traditional ball-styled oolong look and feel very supple to touch.

This medium roasted oolong is representative of Taiwanese oolongs. With the name Hong Shui, meaning red water, it is thought to produce a very red brew after infusion. However, this isn't so. The main producing areas (but not all, as in this case) of red water oolong are located in Dong Ding, Nantou County. During the process of manufacturing, special attention is paid to the precise level of leaf fermentation - a highly-skilled technique!

For my customers, I have selected a red water oolong from the mountainous Shan Lin Xi area, located at roughly 1.5 km above sea level. My wish is to combine high mountain scents and  freshness with a gently roasted tea that not only tastes sweeter but can keep well. Roasting is such a process that reduces the overall tea's moisture content while concentrating the leaves' sugar content and improving the overall taste and aftertaste.  The joy of storing such roasted teas and enjoying them in years to come also deserves special mention! Unfortunately, the strong demand for light fragrant unroasted tea in the last 10 years at least has made it less appealing for tea producers to invest time, money and effort into the 'hong shui' process, resulting in fewer sourcing options. When choices are limited, consumers shortchange themselves by closing the doors to many pre-existing opportunities of tasting diversely processed teas. 

A glowing purple- red zisha pot after a hot douse of water

Opening this bag of oolong for the first time really lifted my mood that day. The leaves smelled pleasantly floral and deceptively light I would have thought that this is the unroasted version of Shan Lin Xi oolong.
Leaf appearance: Nice tightly rolled traditional ball style oolong, with yellow brown stems and relatively green leaves. The tightly rolled leaves also carry a particular sheen on their surface which makes it look particularly mouth-watering and secretly raised my expectations. 

Infusion: Autumn in my tea cup! The brew's green-ish yellow appearance seems to hint at freshness despite this being a roasted tea. For tea saucers, I picked old Japanese bronze pieces to add to the autumnal atmosphere and symbolise the roasted nutty undertone of this tea which is not at all obtrusive to the greener notes present. Also included is a gold kimono sash to impart a luxurious feel that reflects the taste of this tea.

Roasted yet almost green  and very tender leaves!
Taste profile: A medium, slow roasted tea that suprises the palates with its fresh high mountain characteristic accompanied by flavours of baked fruit layers - notes of plum, apricot, peach and honied hazel move from my throat to nose. These flavours develop at the tongue's root alongside a slight sappy but delicate ending. A tea of superb character & contrast!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Curating teas

Which teas do our bodies crave this season?

At the moment, I am in the midst of selecting, organising and presenting information of a few autumnal teas that will be made available online, where you can check back for updates.

Readers can look forward to some mug-hugging months ahead with premium red teas, exquisite oriental beauty, hong shui 'red water' oolong, and more, depending on where my tea hunts lead me.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

This morning's tea makes yesterday distant

Each time I sit myself down to prepare tea, many questions run through my mind. How do the leaves smell today? How do they differ after short periods of storage?

Then comes the preheating of vessel and cups, followed by the careful tossing of tea leaves into the warmed up pot. Every move is calculated to yield the tastiest cup of tea.

Colours, scents and flavours greet all my senses when the leaves open up sufficiently. This is when both consciously and subconsciously our minds collect the most information, which makes the last cup of tea I sipped seem distant when recollecting.

So, unless you have a photographic memory, visual references of the teas you drink alongside some scribbled down diary notes will go a longer way.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Bou-Tea-que review: Da Yu Ling & Li Shan Spring oolongs

No two reviews are ever identical, even when teas are brewed by the same person, in the same tea room, etc. Hence the coined Japanese term by tea master Sen Rikyu "Ichi-go, ichi-e", "一期一会“ comes to mind as every infusion differs from one occasion to another.

This spring, I started to select and make available great teas with enduring qualities on my blog, giving me one more compelling reason to take notes while taking in their indulging scents, appealing aftertastes and good energy. 

Here, I start with a side by side comparison of two high mountain oolongs from the popular peaks of Da Yu Ling and Li Shan. The standards of both teas are almost neck to neck, I dare say.

Appearance wise, it may look as if the Da Yu Ling Oolong consists of fatter oolong balls, but this is the case only because the Li Shan Oolong tea that I used today came from the bottom of the package. From the photo however, it is clear that the Da Yu Ling leaves are of a darker shade of green, while the Li Shan Oolong has a yellow-green hue.

Top: DYL Spring, Bottom: Li Shan Spring
For this test, I did not measure exact weights of my oolongs, but rather used the indentations found on my pewter saucers as a convenient guide. It also goes without saying that you should clean your utensils sufficiently because tea leaves are extremely sensitive to odours or scents in the environment or on surfaces that they come into contact with.

A few quick sniffs under both gaiwan lids gave the following. Partly fruity, partly floral concentrated and balanced scents with the Da Yu Ling. With the Li Shan Oolong, I obtained a predominantly intense floral note in comparison to the Da Yu Ling.

Having drawn preliminary conclusions from the tea scents, I decided to go for the lighter Da Yu Ling tea first. The first infusion coats the mouth with a buzzy sensation that concentrates mostly at the root of my tongue. This tea's flavour does not overwhelm you at first, but its energy very quickly extends to my stomach, producing a comforting warmth while leaving its high mountain freshness in the mouth cavity. Double enjoyment, double bliss. This makes me a very satisfied consumer.

Leaves wide open: Left, DYL, Right, Li Shan
The colours of both infusions are very similar (only Li Shan oolong is ever so slightly yellower), except their scents gave them away.  After two very satisfying sips of my Da Yu Ling, I tasted the Li Shan tea next. Powerful floral notes moved quickly from my throat to my nose as I exhaled. The complexity and stomach sensation left behind from the Da Yu Ling tea before did not feel any less after taking a sip of the Li Shan tea. This tells me how closely on par both teas are in terms of their standards.

When trying two teas in a row, it is good practice to go back to the first tea to be very sure that what you are tasting and blogging about is to the best of one's knowledge. This is why I have filled two cups of each tea, trying out one tea followed by the second tea in an alternate pattern.

As a little somehting extra up my sleeves, I only filled two cups from each tea in the first round of testing (light infusions). This means the most concentrated brew is kept at the bottom of  the gaiwan as the last cup to be poured out for each tea. After my initial sips of lightly infused DYL then a Li Shan, I moved on to a stronger infusion of Li Shan to experience the same but more intense bouquet of this tea.

To follow was a DYL (strong) and the most obviously felt sensation was a two/three-fold increment in complexity throughout the mouth cavity and on the insides of my cheeks.

My verdict for this spring's Da Yu ling is subtle in terms of scent, taste and flavour yet powerful because of the way it feels in the mouth, aftertaste and overall warmth.

Order of tasting for light infusions: 1st cup - DYL, 3rd cup - LS, 2nd - DYL, 4th - LS
Contrast this to the refine and floral Li Shan tea, such high mountain oolong experiments serve to teach us a thing or two about the most aromatic and powerful teas from Taiwan's tallest and cleanest mountain tops.

And as mentioned before, my experiences differ from yours and yours could differ from day to day. The rite of passage that marks a novice's transformation into a connoisseur  is to learn from well-selected tea samples supplied by trustworthy sources. 

Left: DYL, Right: Li Shan
Editorial note: These teas were left to steep overnight and the 5th infusions remained surprisingly full-bodied and most importantly fresh. The fact that teas stay this fresh after several hours of steeping easily correlates to their quality and high mountain energy. The Da Yu Ling leaves felt supple to touch, the leaves were much fatter in thickness. Li Shan tea on the other hand had tender and rather thin leaves. I am beginning to suspect that such differences influence the way these tea infusions can feel in your mouth and suppler leaves seem to indicate higher complexity in taste.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Learning is two-way

Mid autumn is a time of gathering with friends and families. This year, I shared my mooncake stash with tea newbies over some lively exchanges about each tea and their effects on our five senses. There was also some serious note-taking from my very enthusiastic friends.

Starting off with a fragrant Mingjian Four Seasons light oolong tea from Taiwan, the fruity scents from under the gaiwan's lid quickly gained popularity and it was delicious. Fresh, fruity and easy drinking.
Red tea and cheesecake bites

Next comes a Wacuo roasted oolong and white lotus paste mooncake pairing. We primed our mouth by taking one sip of this tea first, then bit off some of white lotus paste together with its pastry skin. Take one more sip of the same tea and this lotus paste slips down our throats like silk.

My rather gifted guest remarked that when drunk on its own, this roasted oolong tea smells like moist wood with a hint of bitterness that transforms quickly into a lingering sweet taste. Hearing this in itself came as a surprise for me because crossing paths with the right people who did not know they could like tea so much and in the process share about their personal experiences so openly with one another adds a rewarding dimension to the quality of our discussions.

 DH - Pekoe (or white fur) up-close.
Moving on to a red tea that is most familiar to me  an my readers by now, my Yunnan Dian Hong Cha. Out of fairness (as I have brewed all my teas in a porcelain vessel so far), I decided to also use the same gaiwan for this red tea (usually it's a Zhuni pot that I use). In a porcelain gaiwan, the tea tasted much lighter, but still rounded because porcelain does not distribute heat as well as clay. Nevertheless, the scents from this tea quickly reached our noses and comments like wild honey and dried fruit scents were scribbled down.
Cha Qi from a Lapsang Souchong tea

Conversations flowed from tea to all and sundry and back to tea again. This time I felt an obvious warmth on my cheeks despite an opened window with the chilli autumn rain outside. The Cha Qi of this Dian Hong Cha and all good teas is most felt in colder months because such teas boost our blood circulation so our bodies feel a steady buildup of warmth that counters the cold in our external environment.

If you haven't experienced Cha Qi or are unsure if it is indeed Cha Qi after drinking some teas, a few parallels can be drawn here to the sensation of warmth felt at your fingertips (at its lightest), or whole hand (at its strongest) not long after sipping good wine and/or tea, or that of gushed cheeks when you met the love of your life ;-)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The puzzling language of Pu'er

Pu'er gift from 2009
The Internet and google translate have transformed how we overcome language barriers and amass a huge 'wealth' of information about teas over time. Sifting through data and distilling knowledge from the right sources can prove to be a challenge. Finally with first hand experience accumulated over time, handling tea samples, brewing and tasting, we translate knowledge into tea wisdom, worth its weight in gold ;-)

Working my way through this cake since 2010

Based on Stephane's latest entry in French here, the language of pu'er is expressed in numbers XXXX. From the little bit I read the first two numbers represent the year of recipe creation, followed by leaf grade and finally manufacturer's code number. To add to the complexity of this pu'er conundrum at hand, no where on my packaging can I locate such a code, save for the year of manufacture being 2002 and expiry date that falls on March next year. The expiration date is of course just a food safety and health requirement which I believe is created to indemnify the distributor. 

From the little bit that I gathered, this is a cooked pu'er cake. The leaves seem to have undergone mould fermentation and have an orange appearance overall. Also, I believe the character for tea 茶 found on the paper packaging is coloured red in the case of cooked pu'er. The packaging said nothing about this cake being raw or cooked pu'er (not very helpful). All that is mentioned are health benefits, differences in astringency levels between a green (raw) and a dark (cooked) cake. There is also a standard piece of text advising consumers to store this piece of cake in a cool and dry place, away from humidity which makes no sense at all if the whole concept of aging pu'er thrives on humidity! How can one help for feeling disgruntled?

Peeling off whole leaves is effortless with this cake
Now moving on to taste, this is one of two pieces of cooked pu'er pieces I own. Both were gifted in elaborate packaging, something quite popular in this part of the world. My preference is for this one because of its initial complexity that is followed by a smooth and soothing texture that extends all the way into my stomach. Certainly this is not the best and be forewarned that the search for an excellent piece of cake, especially that of a cooked pu'er, can be expected to be the most expensive and arduous journey that a tea connoisseur embarks on.

Editorial note:  Before 2006 China National Native Produce (CNNP) cakes bear no such informative code. To be entirely sure of what you own is of the right origin and year, one must rely on a trusting relationship with the tea seller and have actual same year/batch samples at hand to verify the authenticity of newly bought cakes. Such is the dedication in the ultimate pursuit of pu'er knowledge.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Mid Autumn

Full moon festivities
Every year, tea club members (armed with their full gear: silky traditional tops, tea tables, kettles, gong fu teaware) will be headed to various community centres across the island to perform a traditional Chinese tea ceremony in the company of quality lotus paste pastry known as mooncakes.

A quick survey reveals a popular preference for roasted Tie Guan Yin tea because the strong roast balances the richness of the sweet lotus paste and the decadent duck egg yolks occasionally found in luxurious versions of moon cakes.

If you are enjoying a standard sized mooncake, it is recommended that you portion this into sixteen bite-sized pieces for the best mouth feel and maximum enjoyment with a (medium-) roasted tea while basking in full moonlight.

This year, midautumn festival falls on 19 September.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Flushing out the bad stuff

It has been a full week of Obama, cameronies and lies dominating some of the world's crappiest news channels forced upon us. Add to that a persistent flu that would not go away. The solution? Brewing some twig tea, otherwise known as kukicha, a blend of stems, stalks and twigs.

Kukicha is made from Sencha. When made from Gyokuro or Matcha production, it is termed Karigane. In my case, this is a matcha karigane tea that has been carefully roasted to bring out its nutty scent and creamy sweet taste.

You will notice that the colour of a karigane infusion shares the same jade green colour with regular Sencha, yet ever so slightly lighter. In terms of taste, twig teas as a result of their composition, tend to be sweeter and less astringent. It is widely thought that the greener varieties are best steeped for less than a minute to minimise unsavoury tastes and flavours.

This matcha karigane (less green, with an overall yellowish hue due to storage) that I brewed was sufficiently sweet despite the use of just boiled water, way hotter than the recommended 80 degrees Celsius. This is most likely attributed to a two year aging process in its original packaging prior to brewing.

Sweet tea to detox the body, mind and soul. Ahhhh... now I'm ready to take on the world yet again.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Origins of Chinese tea and wine

One of my all time favourite illustrated tea book by Fu Chunjiang. If you haven't not already read it, you ought to. This book is highly informative and entertaining. Readers can meanwhile brush up on their Chinese skills through familiarising themselves with some of the more commonly known Chinese tea names in history and terms related to the tea culture.

Along the way, I will be posting some relatively interesting content from this book on my blog.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Comfort food and tea pairings

This week, I had a reasonably good time over dinner sessions at an Indonesian restaurant run by a very welcoming Javanese couple. Deserts were quite a treat for me, starting with a homemade (not everything branded home, or handmade is necessarily a testament to quality) delicious durian ice cream paired with a Russian Earl Grey tea (very rounded and mellow as opposed to Earl Grey) and a beautifully decorated piece of kueh lapis to take with me. I savoured it, of course, with three generous helpings of Earl Grey tea of varying intensities and finally coffee, but found the lightly brewed version to be the best fit with this coconut based sweet pastry.

And as it happens, Indonesians celebrate their well-earned 68th independence anniversary today.
So one good reason to share my culinary experiences on this joyous occasion.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Same tea, different cups

Experimenting with different porcelain cups and a ceramic one. 1) Porcelain yunomi 2) artisanal ceramic yunomi 3) porcelain tea cup.

Few days ago, I received a beautifully glazed Japanese yunomi in the mail by mistake as I had originally set my mind on regular porcelain ware. It was a rustic work of art. I have very few handmade ceramic pieces in my collection and this was the perfect addition so I realised on hindsight.

Being unfamiliar with ceramic pieces, I decided to compare the influence of tea cup materials on brewed tea -  Bi luo chun green tea brewed open style in an old blue and white bowl. Doing so will allow the tea to cool down faster on a hot summer day.

Next, I spooned equal amounts of tea from the bowl into individual cups and went about tasting. Before the infusion was ready, I already did a pre trial on the cups using boiled water and yes, I did notice slight differences in the liquid texture on my palates. Water from the ceramic piece felt softer and gentler on my throat.

Now onto the infusion. Notice the difference in colour intensities? This could be a clue as to how the tea will taste. Through this experiment and also from earlier experiences, the handcrafted ceramic yunomi in the centre gave the mellowest tasting tea. The porcelain cups on the other hand, seem to highlight the tea's fragrances well.

A reader suggested that I could switch to glass - a neutral material that potentially does away with any performance irregularities. Personally, I enjoy the process of collecting intriguing data. This way, I may be able to choose to drink tea out of glazed ceramic when my craving calls for a balanced cup of tea or pick a porcelain yunomi on a Monday morning so the fragrances can provide for an invigorating wake up call. There is always room for discoveries and fine-tuning one's brewing techniques along the way.

What are your experiences so far? Do you have a preference for certain materials or a particular dislike for others?