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.