Friday, August 05, 2016

The making of Bai Wen red tea

July 28th, 2016. From 3 PM to 5 PM.
18 women are brought to this tea plantation to pick these tea fresh leaves by hand.
We are close to Songboling, Taiwan's biggest tea village near Nantou in Central Taiwan. This is a plantation of Taiwan Tea Extension Station No. 14 tea, also known as Bai Wen.
The farmer instructs the pickers to focus their harvests on the freshest leaves (2 and a bud).
It's a hard job under the sun, but the ladies are well protected and there's a light breeze that makes the weather more bearable than in the city.
The farmer has invited me to see how this tea is made, from the beginning to the end. I use my time to take pictures and to check the leaves. I found evidence that this small plantation has a nature friendly management:
The leaf on the left has been bitten by an insect and on the right, we can see a few black insect eggs deposited underneath the leaf. "This cultivar isn't very often bitten by insects, because this type of leaf has a more bitter taste than others", the farmer explained. This leaf is an exception. The leaves with eggs were more common, and the farmer told me that they would drop off during the production process.
In order to get the full experience of making this tea, I started to pick leaves and focused on the freshest ones. I didn't have a basket, so I would put them in the baskets of the pickers. Since this increases their yield (and the money they receive), one of the ladies lent me her traditional hat for a souvenir picture:
It's 5 PM now and the weight of each bag is recorded.
The leaves are collected in a big white bag and a truck brings the ladies home.
At the farm, a few minutes later, I help putting the fresh leaves on round bamboo mats.
The leaves are spread evenly and the mats are then stacked on these shelves.
July 28, 5 PM 26
These shelves remain indoors, close to the door, in a place with some wind. This indoor withering (drying) will take place until the early afternoon of the next day.
July 29, 8 AM
The leaves have lost moisture during the night. From the picture above, we can see that they are now lying flat. Half past noon, the next step starts: twist rolling the leaves in this machine for 2 hours.
This machine bruises and rolls the leaves gently, without breaking them. This short video shows the circular movement of the machine.
Since the leaves tend to become intertwined together, halfway through the process the leaves are screened, untangled using this machine:
This screening is done a first time after 1 hour and repeated a second time at the end of the twist rolling process. From the picture of my hand, you can see that the juices have come out from the leaves by now! 
At 3:05 PM, the leaves are now placed on these bamboo mats in a thick and even fashion.
These 3 mats are then covered with another bamboo mat and this white piece of fabric. They are placed on the floor, the coolest place in the room (which doesn't have air conditioning). The ideal temperature for the oxidation of the leaves is 25 degrees Celcius. I think we are quite close to this temperature at that time.
This oxidation process should take 5 to 6 hours, but the farmer let it go for 6 hours and 50 minutes, because he judges the tea is ready with its color and scent. The reason for the delay was a late afternoon shower that had cooled down the air.

At 10 PM, it's time for the last step of the red tea process: drying. For this, the farmer uses his common electric roaster set at a low temperature, 85 degrees Celcius. The leaves are stacked on separate metal trays. That's where we put 70% of the leaves.
The remaining 30% of the leaves were dried in this new, infra-red roaster. Its infra red function is supposedly superior, because its heat is similar to the heat of traditional charcoal roasters.
At 4 AM, on July 30th, the leaves were sufficiently dry. The roasters were turned off and the leaves were left to cool down inside with the door half open.

At 8 AM, after some rest (for the leaves and ourselves), we tasted the tea and compared the leaves from the 2 different driers. The infra-red dried tea tasted sweeter and so I purchased all the leaves that were dried in it (2.5 kg approximately). It's available here.
That same day I returned home and brewed it on this Chaxi.
It has the sweet taste of Taiwan's summer in the countryside!

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Purity and Wucha feeling

The Wucha feeling is the ultimate pleasure for Teaparker and most of his students. Wu Cha literally means 'no tea'. That means that you are drinking a tea that is so fine, subtle and pure and that you barely notice, at first, that you are drinking tea. It's starts as a very easy to drink beverage that glides down the throat without any resistance, as if it were not tea, hence the Wucha feeling. It is a feeling of purity and smoothness that is remarkable only for its lack of taste and light scents.
What happens next feels incredible: a refined aftertaste emerges from this comfortable, smooth feeling. And it doesn't just last for a long time, but it evolves, changes and plays in your mouth and sometimes in your whole body.
I think that this type of tea experience is what makes many tea drinkers feel there's something spiritual about drinking tea. The whole Wucha experience starts with a miracle: the aftertaste appears out of (almost) nowhere. And then these flavors have very pure characteristics. This perfection, ephemeral lightness feels divine, like a choir of young boys singing baroque church music. (For instance: John Taverner's Tudor Church music with the Choir's of King College, Cambridge).
When I brew in silence and with a ray of sunshine in the morning, I get awfully close to such a mood. And when my fine white porcelain cup touches my lower lip, I almost feel the kiss of an angel. Especially when the tea is a Wuyi Baijiguan with a couple of years of age.

Monday, July 18, 2016


Le chaxi crée-t-il l'émotion ou bien ne fait-il que l'exprimer? Aujourd'hui, il pleut à verse dehors et c'est jour de deuil en mon pays. Une fois encore le malheur s'est abattu sur d'innocentes victimes. Pardonnez-moi de ne pas arriver à faire comme si de rien était.
 Encore une fois, je ressors ce Chabu dont les fleurs de chrysanthème ressemblent à des feu d'artifice.
 Pureté de la porcelaine blanche pour l'innocence bientôt teintée de sang (ici thé) rouge.
Et le vert sapin car c'est une odeur provençale et celle des cercueils. On peut y voir la couleur de l'espoir ou de l'islam.
 Une grande assiette en étain pour le monstre de métal.
 Des soucoupes en étain aux bords recourbés comme des haches tranchantes.
Le bec de la théière évoque le cygne, l'envol des âmes vers la paix céleste.

Friday, July 15, 2016

From bitter to sweet, 3 tea classes

Tea friend Mick came visiting Taiwan and asked me to organize some tea classes to deepen his knowledge and practice of tea. Aware of the importance of water, he was very interested in learning about kettles and their influence on water. So, on the first day, we brewed 3 different teas with these 4 kettles: a stainless steel, a black ceramic, an iron tetsubin and a silver kettle (above from left to right and below from right to left).

We started with a green tea made from Qingxin Dapang from this spring. This light and fine tea was the one where the quality of the water mattered the most and was most obvious. The silver felt pure and emphasized the scents and freshness. The stainless felt not as pure as silver and the ceramic has a light earthy taste, but these 2 were not too far apart from the silver. It's the tetsubin that produced the most different brew, very sweet, but lacking freshness and high notes. Not bad, but not so suited for green tea.
The second tea was a new plantation Wenshan Baozhong and here the tetsubin added depth and mellowness to the brew. The silver was second as it emphasized again the scents.
When we tasted the red Ruo Gui tea, the impact of the water was less obvious than with the other teas, because the flavors of the leaves were stronger. Nevertheless, the tetsubin's rounding effect was again appreciated with this tea.
We also tasted the waters without tea and here the metallic taste coming from the tetsubin wasn't very pleasant. It's only when this water is used to brew tea that it makes the tea more pleasant. The water from the silver has the most freshness, purity and sharpness. (What kettle is best for you also depends on what type of tea you're drinking most.)
On the second day, I took Mick and his wife to one of my favorite tea spot in the Wenshan mountains.
This lesson was dedicated to brewing his favorite type of tea: roasted Oolongs!
So, we started with a roasted Baozhong to connect with the surroundings.
This meant using a gaiwan in order to test the teas in an objective way (and using the silver kettle, since its water is also more 'objective' and pure than from a tetsubin).
The second tea was my spring 2016 Hung Shui Oolong from Shan Lin Xi, which felt very powerful and concentrated.
Mick is a quick learner and gets the opportunity to turn my advice into action.

2016 Dong Ding competition Oolong
For more finesse, the third Hung Shui Oolong is my Dong Ding competition Oolong from Tsui Feng from this spring. These finer aromas are due to the fact that the tea comes from a very high plantation (1700 m). It's also been well roasted, which is why it has won a good ranking in the competition.

The aftertaste lingers pleasantly and sweetly in the throat.

Since the roasting of these Oolongs is very recent, it's best to brew them very carefully and pour the water very slowly on the leaves for the first 2 or 3 brews.
2016 spring Dong Ding competition Oolong from Tsui Feng
The place and weather were so pleasant that we did a little extra comparison for this class: an Oriental Beauty Oolong from Wenshan (left) vs. my Oriental Beauty from Hsin Chu (right):
Wenshan vs. Hsin Chu
The most obvious difference is the lighter oxidation level for the OB from Wenshan. Its leaves are also slightly bigger. It had nice flavors, but the more oxidized OB from Hsin Chu just felt brighter, had a more powerful honey note and felt smoother.
For the third lesson, we're back testing the same tea with different wares. This time, we are testing which vessel does the best job brewing my shu Xiaguan melon puerh from 2001. We are starting with a porcelain gaiwan to get a neutral brew against which to compare the others.
The silver teapot makes all the characteristics stronger (and the brew hotter) than with the gaiwan.
The zhuni is similar to silver, but the taste is less rough. And with the Yixing zisha the wood scents came out very nicely and the taste was almost sweet. "Isn't shu puerh supposed to taste bitter?" asked Mick's wife in complete amazement about how a type of tea that she usually dislikes can taste so good! I explained that it's all about details. The water quality, the kettle, the brewing, the leaves the vessel... If you are able to make the most out of each of these details, then you're cup is much better than a cup brewed without knowledge and training.
That is often the difference between bitter and sweet tea!