Tuesday, October 24, 2017

What is there to learn about tea?

Tea is not just a complex plant, camellia sinensis, that has hundreds of different cultivars and that can be processed into 6 ways (white, yellow, green, Oolong, red and black). Its taste will further vary with the season it is harvested, the way the leaves are picked, the soil the trees are grown on, how the plantations are managed... All this has an impact on the aromas of the leaves and the genius of Lu Yu  is that he already recognized most of this in his Book of Tea during the Tang dynasty (618-907). (Note: at his time only the green tea process had been invented).
 But the complexity of tea doesn't stop there. It's not just a product you need to study from a farmer's perspective. Equally important is to know how to store and prepare it yourself, because the leaves are a semi-finished product. The end product is the brew. And here we are adding again a lot of complexity with what is the right brewing vessel, the fitting cups, the water, the jar... After 1200 years of evolution since Lu Yu, new teas and new methods have been invented, some lost and a few preserved and reinvented. Different countries have added their contribution to how tea is made (India, Japan, England, North Africa...) so that tea has become a global drink prepared in countless ways.
In Taiwan, starting in the 1980s, the Cha Yi (tea art) movement has combined classic Qing dynasty Chaozhou gongfu cha with the elegance of Japanese (green) tea ceremonies (which have Chinese origins). Traditional gongfu cha was all about making the perfect cup of (roasted) Oolong while the Japanese ceremonies were pursuing more aesthetic and principled goals that are mostly remotely connected to tea . My understanding of this Taiwanese movement (according to my now 15 years of studies with Teaparker) is that making a Chaxi (a beautiful set up) is not about adding an additional layer of complexity to an already very complex product and process. The beauty we are trying to create should not be disconnected from the tea. It should go to the heart of the aromas we are trying to brew. It builds on the knowledge of the leaves, the knowledge of the brewing process and all this is integrated in the Chaxi with a touch of personal creativity and beauty. It is more about finding and restoring harmony between the leaves and the accessories than simply creating beauty per se.
In the above Chaxi, for instance, I brewed my 1980s Jingua Gongcha, a shu puerh from the Menghai Tea Factory. Gongcha means tea tribute, leaves that are offered to a higher authority. In the 1980s, this meant a higher quality grade of leaves than most cooked puerhs. Thanks to several decades of aging, this shu puerh has developed camphor and incense like fragrances that are similar to very old sheng puerh, but the taste is sweeter and smoother. The character of the tea is dark and has many layers. This is reflected in the dark quilt like Chabu I'm using. An Yixing jar is a fine storage accessory for shu puerh. Using a porcelain gaiwan helps me to have a very precise opinion about this tea's outstanding quality. (The gaiwan is from the same 80s era as the tea.) I find there are indeed many similarities in terms of scents with a real aged Tongqing Hao! The color of the brew becomes lighter after each brew. Ivory porcelain cups bring this color to shine brightly. And the copper chatuo shines like gold, just like this aged shu puerh could have passed as an even older sheng. (The reason we use copper instead of gold is the same: it's more affordable and looks pretty close!) 

I hope that this example clarifies what a Chaxi is all about. Everything is linked and the result will always depend on the strength of the weakest link. A bad tea, an accessory that doesn't fit the leaves, bad water, a messy setup... anything could mess up the beauty of taste, scent and sight of your Chaxi. And I haven't mentioned the brewing skills that require time and practice to pour well without making stains!

This is what I am aiming to achieve for myself. It's also what I'm trying to share, teach and inspire with this blog, my online tea boutique with its unique selection of outstanding teas and wares, my videos on Youtube and pictures on Instagram... With your orders, you're benefiting from my 15 years of tea experience and are helping me spread the complex Beauty of Tea around the world.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Sheng wild puerh of 1995

Sometimes a video is more useful than a long description. I've tried to show you how I've brewed this particular puerh today. Watching the video, I realize that I let it brew 2 minutes on this first brew. This may seem a long time for many of those who think that gongfucha = short brewing times (for the first brews). Or maybe you're wondering why I don't 'wash' or rinse my leaves (see my answers on this point here). Anyway, the result was excellent in terms of aromas, balance and sweetness.
The pictures show the tea several brews later. It has a beautiful color and excellent clarity. The open leaves fill almost half the volume of the gaiwan only. It's a typical instance where less is more.
This Chaxi was made with:
- this 1995 sheng puerh. It is also available in this gift set.
- this Chabu on top of the black side of a (bigger) classic chabu,
- this mini gaiwan,
- three small porcelain cups,
- this JianShui.
- an Anping jar, a tetsubin and a green plant.

Friday, October 13, 2017

La quête universelle de la beauté du thé

Exceptionnellement, j'ai mis cet article sur mon blog photo afin de vous montrer les superbes photos de Stéphane Bardery en grand.
Bonne lecture!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Echoes of autumn in music and tea

 A French reader invited me to concert of guqin in Taipei's Qin Hall, a Japanese era house that exudes a timeless, classic spirit. It's not concert hall, but rather a few big room with tatami where a dozen visitors can listen to guqin performers. The main guqin master was in China for some concerts. That's why several students of varying levels performed during this event. The player above, Bo Han, was clearly the most experienced and proficient in this art that evening. He played with his eyes closed and seemed in total control of the music and his instrument. The other players were not as skilled and kept looking at their hands.

At first, I felt a little bit disappointed to notice so much hesitation and lack of grace in the performance of the younger players. But this let me appreciate how hard it is to play this ancient instrument and I admire their courage.
The range of emotions that can be expressed with a guqin is very broad. This stringed instrument can be played from crazy like Jimmy Hendrix to totally relaxed with long pauses between each note. The beauty lies in finding the right tone, rhythm and letting the music resonate with both body and soul. The way each note resonates and lingers reminds me of how tea's aftertaste long echoes in the throat and mouth.
Drinking tea or listening to guqin implies a calm state of mind. That's another reason why they go so well together. With both tea and guqin, I enjoy the purity and power of single notes. Unblended leaves, coming from the same harvest, produce unique and pure aromas (when they are well produced and selected). And in the same way there are different quality levels in the playing of music on a guqin, the act of brewing itself also impacts the quality of the brew. You may have great tea (the score), a wonderful instrument (teapot and cups), but if you don't play (brew) well, the beauty of the notes will be lost. 
Spring 2016 Wenshan Baozhong (new plantation)
The best way to produce a relaxing and beautiful cup in autumn is to make fall part of your Chaxi. Here is how I brewed some of my teas at home this last week. I share them to inspire you to be creative. It starts with a spring 2016 Wenshan Baozhong, because fall is a mirror of spring and it's a good idea to see how a tea is evolving when it's starting to loose some of its freshness.
Top OB from 2000
An Oriental Beauty from Hsin Chu is also a nice match for fall thanks to its warm summer aromas, since fall is the season we mourn the end of summer. Or, with a more positive attitude, fall is the time we celebrate the remains of summer with the best things that season has produced!
OB and mooncake

The sweet power of high mountain Oolong is also a nice treat on a bright autumn day. And Da Yu Ling rarely disappoints. This tea is very refined and still very fresh. That's why I used a green chabu on top of a bamboo mat to add the element of dry wood that is associated with fall. And instead of using light celadon cups that would have colored the brew green, these ivory white cups turn the Oolong brew slightly golden. This sunny hue marks the early turning point from summer to fall.
When nature turns red and woody, puerh is also a great tea to echo the autumn season. Below, I brewed my 1995 raw wild brick on a new Chabu.
Raw puerh brick from 1995
I started this article with guqin and thought I'd finish with Chinese calligraphy. Like for tea or music, you don't have to be a Chinese scholar to appreciate the beauty, rhythm and harmony of calligraphy. It takes hard work, skill and practice to be made well, but the enjoyment is much easier. Mastery is when you make something difficult look easy! So, practice producing beautiful Chaxi, practice brewing tea the best you can, practice finding harmony between the season and the tea, practice concentration and you'll enjoy your teas even more!

Thursday, October 05, 2017

A la recherche de la pleine lune d'automne

 La beauté de la pleine lune d'automne fut, une fois de plus, éclipsée par d'épais nuages. Qu'à cela ne tienne, je ferai mon lever de pleine lune moi-même, sur mon Chaxi!

Et comme c'est la fête chinoise de la pleine lune, j'en profite pour représenter l'astre par un Baisha bing, un petit gateau traditionnel blanc et rond comme la lune. C'est une spécialité locale de Banciao d'un magasin ouvert depuis 1903! Sa pâte est feuilletée et contient une pâte de soja sucrée. C'est donc plutôt lourd, mais les arômes sont légers. C'est pourquoi je choisis mon excellent puerh cru de ce printemps pour accompagner ce 4 heures.
 Infusé dans ma théière dorée, je sers le puerh dans des anciennes coupes qinghua de la fin de la dynastie Qing. On obtient un effet 'time lapse' d'un lever de lune sur un paysage chinois de bambou et de pins dans le noir.
 La clarté de l'infusion est formidable. Et les odeurs sont d'une pureté et d'une clarté qui éclairent comme la lune dans la nuit!
Le bol noir de Michel François aux reflets de comète ou de lointaine galaxie ne saurait manqué à ce Chaxi lunaire...
Je vous souhaite une belle fête de pleine lune d'automne!
Célébrez cette saison avec de très bons thés comme ceux que vous trouvez dans ma sélection et profitez des nouvelles réductions de prix.

Ajout du lendemain. J'ai retrouvé la lune ce soir:

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

The 2 most common green tea brewing mistakes

Last week, I gave a new tea class to my Spanish student Antonio. The weather was so hot that temperatures reached 38.6 degrees Celcius in Taipei, a record high for this year. With such conditions, I didn't feel like doing a class about roasted Oolongs, but switched to green tea instead. Green tea is made of leaves that didn't oxidize before they were dried. We can distinguish 3 types of green tea: dried in a wok, dried in an oven, and steamed (mostly in Japan). What I write applies mostly to the the first 2 categories and to a lesser extent to Japanese greens.
Jasmine scented green tea (my brew)
Mistake number 1 is the temperature. Most people tend to agree that green teas have to be brewed at lower temperatures. This is incorrect. My best green tea experiences have happened with water that had just reached the boiling point!! Top quality green tea is made of tea buds, which are very small leaves that haven't opened up yet. A high water temperature is necessary to penetrate the buds and extract their finest aromas. However, such buds are so small and thin that they can be quite fragile. They don't need much energy in terms of water flow to open and they don't need much time to brew. That's why it's even possible to first fill the tea vessel by half with boiling water before adding the leaves and then the remaining water. 
Jasmin scented green tea (brewed by Antonio)
The quality of the green tea is always key to the quality of your brew. The reason why so many vendors recommend a low temperature is that:
- It's safe. There are fewer risks of over brewing.
- The quality of the tea leaves is low. Such green tea doesn't take the heat well.

Low quality green tea tends to become bitter and rougher in taste when it's brewed at a high temperature. We got this a little bit with the daily jasmine, but not with the imperial version. But the advantage of the jasmine scenting is that the tea's fragrances were not negatively impacted by the high temperature, even with the cheaper version.
Imperial Jasmine green tea
The second most common mistake is the amount of green tea leaves used. This is a mistake I often see on my Instagram feed! Even very experienced tea drinkers make this mistake, because they are too used to brewing Oolong or puerh. They use too many leaves!! Due to its unoxidized nature, green tea is supposed to be drunk much lighter than other teas. For instance, for a gaiwan, approximately 1 gram of jasmine tea is sufficient.
Spring 2017 San Hsia BiLuoChun
For an unscented green tea like Biluochun, the brew has to look even lighter.
The 2 mistakes, low water temperature and many leaves, are linked together. The lower water temperature means that fewer aromas come out from the leaves, which is why more are needed.
The better solution is to use better, fewer leaves and brew them with hotter water. This is especially true if you are brewing 'gongfu', with skills, and are paying attention. The result is then both light and intense, refreshing and easy on the stomach.
Learning tea means practicing it!

Friday, September 29, 2017

Jasmine tea's many secrets

Jasmine plantation in Huatan, Changhua county, Taiwan
Jasmine tea and flower scented teas in general have a long history in Taiwan dating back to the end of 19th century. In those time, while Taiwan exported mostly Oolong to Europe and America, flower scented teas were very popular in South East Asia. In these warm countries, teas with light oxidation, or none at all, have a very pleasant cooling effect for the body and a refreshing taste for the mouth. And while green tea leaves don't stay fresh very long, the scenting of the leaves with flowers gives the tea additional power and fragrances that won't fade away easily. In a sense, scenting the green tea (or light Oolong) with flowers is a way to increase the longevity of this product like roasting for Oolong! This allowed tea to travel longer distances by sea.
The first secret of (good) jasmine tea is... real jasmine flowers! Today's chemical companies have come up with so many artificial flavors that most cheap teas are not 'scented' with real flowers but 'flavored' with all kinds of fragrances. But this cost reduction has always existed. In the past (and still today) one common way to reduce the cost of using jasmine flowers was to use bigger and more powerful flowers (like Yulan) instead of small jasmine flowers. This unbalanced competition between artificial flavors and real flowers has caused the closing of most jasmine producers in Taiwan... 
Jasmine flowers are harvested between June and September, when temperatures exceed 26/28 degrees Celcius (80 deg. Fahrenheit). They are closed during the day and become really fragrant during the night. They can be used for 7 days and are then thrown away.

Here is how the scenting happens:
The flowers are spread on and around the tea. The tea leaves are not spread thin, but grouped in the shape of a mount in order to reduce their interaction with air. And since we are on the subject of the tea leaves, here comes the second second secret of jasmine tea: the leaves that are used come from the second spring harvests (in June). The first spring harvests are much more expensive and don't require the addition of jasmine scents to sell. The second harvests happen at a time when the temperatures are higher and produce a stronger taste, but less refined scents. It's for those green teas or lightly oxidized Oolongs that the scenting with jasmine makes most sense.

Why are the leaves of jasmine tea cut small?

To answer this question, I have to reveal the third secret of jasmine tea: the flowers loose all their fragrance after 7 days. But their petals have a high moisture level and if you'd continue to keep them in contact with the tea, the leaves would oxidize and loose their freshness. That's why you have to separate the flowers from the tea after the scenting process (and the tea needs to be further dried). This separation happens on this machine that shakes the leaves and flowers. The smaller tea parts fall through the grid, while only the flowers remain at the end of the sorting machine. (See below)
While it's normal that small fragments of petals will also be present in the jasmine tea, actually most of the flowers are thrown away because they don't smell nice anymore. So, if you see lots of dry jasmine flowers in your jasmine tea, something's not right. It might be a trick to let you think that the tea was scented with real flowers...
Jasmine flowers land in the garbage bin!
Two factors impact the quality of jasmine tea:
1. the number of times that the tea leaves are scented with jasmine flowers. Usually, it's 3 times, but for top quality it's 6 times and for imperial quality it's 10 times.
2. the quality of the leaves also varies with quality. The sorting machine also sorts between thick and thin leaves. The imperial quality only uses the finest leaves, the top quality is a mix of both and normal jasmine tea uses thick leaves.

There are many ways of preparing jasmine tea. Here is one of the easiest and it comes with a little trick. Use roughly only 1 gram of tea for your gaiwan. After you've preheated your gaiwan, fill it half with boiling water. Then add the leaves to the water and pour water again slowly on these leaves. Doing so is gentler for the leaves. It's a way to slightly reduce the temperature of the water.
As they brew, the leaves will sink to the bottom and it's possible to drink directly from the gaiwan and use the lid as a filter. This is a very common way to drink jasmine tea in China. You continuously add boiling water when you almost finish your cup.
In order to avoid over-brewing the tea, it's best to use very few leaves and drink quickly while the tea is hot.
Jasmine scented tea isn't just a very nice casual tea, it's also a good tea pairing choice for Shanghai style cuisine. (The dumpling restaurant Ding Tai Fong is serving jasmine tea to its customers).
Three types of 2017 jasmine scented teas are now available in my selection. And, for a limited time, I am giving away 25 gr samples of this jasmine tea from 2016 for any purchase of 60 USD or more (excluding shipping) on my online tea boutique.

Friday, September 22, 2017

A spectacular tea pairing event at the Mandarin Oriental in Taipei

There's an iron rule in gongfu cha never to eat food while tasting tea. That's because tea has very light aromas that are easily obscured by food. So does that mean that food and tea never mix? This reminds of the joke with 2 priests who meet outside church while smoking a cigarette. The first one says: "Are you allowed to smoke in your monastery? In ours we can't." The second one says: "Sure, we can. How did you ask to be allowed to smoke?" The first priest says: "I asked if I may be able to smoke while I pray. They said no. How did you ask?" The second priest says: "I asked if I could pray while I smoke!"

So, the answer is that it's best not to have food while tasting tea, but you can have tea while eating! After all, tea and gastronomy are intimately related as I've recently shown.
Last Friday, the Chairman of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Taipei, M. Lin, organized a tea pairing dinner for a group of distinguished guests from Thailand. He asked M. Chi Zongxian (aka Teaparker, my tea master) to pair the Chinese dishes with tea. Teaparker then turned to me to brew these teas with the help of a few more persons. The goal wasn't merely to have tea with the dinner, but to match each dish with a tea in a harmonious and delicious way.

The first course consisted of several appetizers: roasted suckling pig, barbecued pork ribs with longyan (similar to lychee), jelly fish head in chilli sauce, black fungus with aged vinegar, pork knuckle in soy broth, dried tofu in soy broth. What all these dishes have in common is soy sauce and ginger. That's why an organic Concubine Oolong from Shan Lin Xi from 2016 is a great match: the honey scents are powerful enough and the sweet taste adds to the taste of the food. Besides, these appetizers are quite rich and could almost make one feel satisfied, but the tea opens up the appetite. I brewed this tea in my biggest Yixing zhuni teapot and served it in dragon and phoenix gaiwans from the 1970/80s. Thanks to the lid, the tea stayed hot longer in the air-conditioned room. To refill the cups, Teaparker let us use a Qing dynasty Yixing zisha water polished teapot that was made for export to Thailand. This gesture was very appreciated by the Thai guests.

The second course was a double-boiled codyceps in a black bone chicken soup. The paired tea was Wuyi Baijiguan from the Yu tea plantation brewed in a Duanni teapot and served in wine glasses at a cooled down temperature unlike other teas. This dish was also paired with a 1986 chateau Mouton Rothschild. Baijiguan has a moss and mushroom like fragrance with a delicate, sweet taste. The guests drink the tea after drinking half the soup. They notice that the aromas of the soup intensify as they drink the Baijiguan and that the tea echoes the wine in terms of refinement. Fittingly, we refill the cups with a Japanese silver teapot with a spout in the shape of a phoenix head! 

The third course was a braised sea cucumber with spring onion. It was paired with a clone of one of the Wuyi DaHongPao bushes, the Qidang, from this spring. I brewed it in my antique Dehua porcelain teapot. It smelled like a bouquet of roses with a deep taste of rocks.

The fourth course is braised goose feet with abalone in abalone sauce. The same Qidang Yancha is used here. The fine abalone taste complements well the elegant taste of the Qidang. We refill the cups with a big 19th century silver dragon teapot. 

The fifth course is star garoupa fish with spring onions. The sixth course is poached baby cabbage and bamboo pith in superior broth. These 2 dishes have light aromas and are paired with this wild raw spring 2017 puerh tea brewed in my silver dragon and phoenix silver teapot. The fresh spring buds add a fresh feeling to the fish and vegetables. The cups are refilled with a gold teapot and added to the luxury feeling in this 5 stars hotel!

After this dinner, M. Lin gave us his feedback about this tea pairing event. For him, wine is a natural companion for a dinner, because it gives a party feeling. Everybody feels 'high' and easy going thanks to the alcohol. Tea seems to have an opposite effect, making people quiet and zen, but it also provides with interesting new pairing possibilities.

For Teaparker, such a tea pairing event was the first of its kind in Asia. It was a small, but important step to show the pairing potential of tea. This will become a future trend in upscale restaurants and it's going to be an exciting field of exploration and innovation. 

As for me, I think that M. Lin is right to point out the opposite effects of tea and wine. But this doesn't mean that tea and wine should necessarily be opposed to each other. On the contrary, as my cheese, wine and tea pairing event showed, tea and wine can also be complementing each other. Tea helps to delay the point when you feel to inebriated, while wine adds a celebratory mood to the meal. And both can provide good matches for the food. This approach is also probably easier to promote to restaurants where wine is often a cash cow that nobody wants to see replaced.

(This article is based on free translation of Teaparker's recent articles with his kind permission).