Monday, September 29, 2008

Taiwan Oolong Factoids

1. Immigrants from Fujian province brought tea bushes and oolong making skills with them to Taiwan around two hundred years ago.

2. Taiwan oolongs are sometimes called "Formosa Oolongs" by some North American and European tea vendors. Formosa (meaning beautiful island) was the name used for Taiwan by Portuguese sailors in 1544.

3. Taiwan oolongs can take 24 to 48 hours to make from start to finish. Often times the tea master does not sleep until the batch is finished.

4. To be labeled High Mountain Tea (高山茶), a tea must be grown over 1000 meters in places like Alishan (阿里山), Lishan (Pear Mountain) (梨山), Yushan (Jade Mountain) (玉山), Chilaishan (奇萊山), etc… The Hui Gan (returning sweetness) (回甘) is one of the most valued characteristics of these teas.

5. Many different tea plant cultivars are used to make unique oolongs in Taiwan. While they are all the same plant, they do have slightly different leaf shapes and flavors. Also, some cultivars will grow better than others in certain areas. Some cultivars I am familiar with are: Qing Xin (Green Heart) (青心), Oolong (Black Dragon) (烏龍)*, Tie Guanyin (Iron Goddess descended from the Anxi bushes) (鐵觀音)*, Fo Shou (Buddha's hand) (佛手), Jin Xuan (golden lily) (金萱), and Si Ji Chun (Four Seasons Spring) (四季春).

*Don't be confused by the words: "Oolong" and "Tie Guanyin" because they are commonly used for tea names and tea style names as well as tea leaf varietal names!

6. Depending on the elevation, Taiwan's tropical climate will allow tea to grow in all four seasons. It is generally thought that Winter and Spring tea is the best, with Winter tea having more strength, fruit, and aftertaste and Spring tea having a more refreshing, flowery, light taste. (But of course that is not always the case.) Teas grown over 2000 meters such as most Lishan and Chilaishan teas can usually only be harvested twice a year in Winter and Spring.

7. On 12/6/05, Lee Shen-chi (the president of Ten Ren Tea) paid US $14,400 for one jin (600 grams) of oolong tea! The tea was crafted by Lin Mei-mei of Meishan Township (梅山鄉) in Chiayi County (嘉義縣) and it had just won the top rank in a national Taiwan tea competition!

Charlies giving me a "Tea Roasting" lesson:

(Mature) Fo Shou varietal tea leaves:

Shiuwen (from Seattle's fabulous Floating Leaves tea shop) and I in Pinglin:

Thursday, September 25, 2008

一天在阿里山 (A Day in Alishan)

My friend Darald and I arrive in the town of Shihzhuo (石桌), Taiwan. The sky is clear and the mountain air tastes sweet on my lips. A small downtown commercial district is situated along the main highway. Across the street I see a western style mini-mart packed with teenagers. They gossip and flirt while buying candy and soda. Right next door an old man sits beneath a speckled umbrella. He is selling homegrown cabbage and reading the newspaper. As we walk further down the road we can see a small police station, several tea shops and a few restaurants. Beyond the main road, a handful of dramatic mountain peaks form a loose cradle. They are shielding many rows of healthy tea bushes that cling to the hillside. The sight is breathtaking beyond words.

We are met by a local tea farmer with a comfortable room to rent. Tonight he will bring us to a workshop where high mountain tea is being crafted. In the mean time we are dropped of in the scenic old town of Fenchihu (奮起湖). Once a logging town in Japanese colonial times, Fenchihu is now a popular tourism stop for people eager to get away from the big cities and enjoy some good food and easy hiking in the mountains. We buy a tasty vegetarian lunch box, with rice, veggies and sweet spiced gluten, and sit down to enjoy the pleasant atmosphere. After lunch we hike a trail though dense bamboo. I was hoping to see a wild monkey, but sadly it was not to be. We come across a group of school girls posing for a few photos at a scenic vista. I ask in Mandarin if any of them could speak English, a few giggled before they reply, a little. I complement the beautiful forest and tell them we are visiting Americans. They giggle a little more as we say goodbye and continue along the trail. As the afternoon passed, a thick layer of mist could be seen gathering at the tops of the nearby mountains. In a few hours the mist had rolled down the hillsides, making for a cooler and more agreeable evening. This natural occurrence improves the flavor of the local tea by shielding it from the direct sun, forcing the leaves to grow more slowly.

After returning to Fenchihu, we enjoy a few fresh baked pies and a delicious bowl of Ai-Yu jelly (愛玉). This vegetarian treat comes from a plant that grows wild in the area and there are several small cafes devoted to its production. We have a couple of hours to kill before we are scheduled to meet our host, so we decide to find a tea merchant and drink a few cups of afternoon tea. The first shop we find is run by an old mountain man and his wife. He chain-smokes and has an unusual tuft of thick black hair erupting from a mole on his neck. I consider myself a tea connoisseur but I am not too proud or snobbish. Who knows, perhaps this man will be a very skilled tea brewer? Unfortunately he was not. His old clay pot is blackened with tea stains and the high mountain tea flowing from its spout is bitter and poor. We sip slowly while making pleasant small talk in elementary Mandarin. His shop is filled with many cool things, such as chipped and stained tea ware, weathered old furniture and faded posters. I looked at a shelf of dusty clay pots that the man had for sale. Before saying goodbye, I purchased a small teapot. I suspect that when it is cleaned up it will become a great brewing vessel.

Back in Shihzhuo, my friend and I are treated to an unforgettable evening. The sun had just set but the air is still warm and fresh. We travel with our host by car to an oolong workshop further down the highway. Two large tarps covered with raw green leaves lay withering in the open air. We continue downstairs where a team of five tea producers, dressed in solid white tea-shirts, jeans, and sandals are busy crafting tea. We are in oolong heaven, watching the complex process of making these special teas. They spread the leaves out on circular rattan baskets and stack them in tall metal racks. The tea makers take care to mix the baskets every thirty minutes so that the leaves will wither evenly. The whole room smells amazing, like a garden in full bloom. Our host shows us all the machines involved, and enthusiastically describes the process in good English. After oxidizing for many hours the leaves will be heated, shaped and roasted to produce fresh tea ready to be sold.

Before bed time, we are invited to take a walk with two young families who are also staying at our hosts homestay. The families have four small children who are very excited to see the fireflies that are blinking softly in the grass near the tea plants. It is my first time ever seeing fireflies and I am captivated by the stunning little sparks that keep popping up in the grass. As we all stand there looking at the dazzling lights the children sing a melodious nursery rhyme in Mandarin. Our host translates it to me as: little lightning bug, little lightning bug, flies to the east, flies to the west, now there is light everywhere, like a hundred little lanterns. It is the perfect finale to a truly magical day!

Shihzhuo Tea Vista:

Sunset over Shihzhuo:

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Chinese Tea Appreciation Festival 2007

On December 2, 2007 I hosted a Chinese Tea Festival in Seattle! The weather, which was cold and rainy, was perfect for the meditative afternoon spent tasting teas. The tea festival was held at ArtXchange, a downtown gallery showcasing inspiring art by artists from all over the world. The corresponding art exhibition was David Cole's "Unexpected Arrivals." It was amazing and really enhanced the tea drinking atmosphere. The highlight of the festival was the sublime music provided by guqin (古琴) expert Professor Wu Ziying (吳自英). He played a half-hour set of beautifully serene music on his 2000-year-old instrument. The tea festival was masterfully catered by my wife Alanna. The all-vegan spread included lychee-coconut cupcakes, basil-cucumber tea sandwiches, almond cookies and miscellaneous fruits and candies.

The 3 teas served were: 2007 Spring Jin Xuen Oolong, 1999 Aged Rougui Oolong, and 1986 Aged Xia Guan Factory Green Puerh Tuo-cha. Below you will find descriptions of these teas.

*2007 Spring Jin Xuen (2007 春金萱):
Jin Xuen, meaning golden lily, is a modern tea varietal developed in Taiwan in the early 1980's. The varietal is known to produce a very smooth, sweet, oolong tea with a buttery and flowery aroma. Also, Jin Xuen grows well and generally has a high output. Usually I do not get too excited about Jin Xuen oolong; while the aroma is consistently great, the broth can often lack character. That is certainly not the case with this stand-out tea. This tea was produced in Fujian, China by the great folks at the City and Country Fine Tea Company. It was imported and stored in Bellevue by a trusted tea mentor named Mr. Chen. Mr. Chen gave me two tips that have greatly improved my results while brewing this tea: Use water at only 180 degrees and leave the lid off of the gaiwan or pot between infusions. Obviously these unorthodox tips won't work for most oolongs, but you should try it with this Jin Xuen. Its warming, floral bouquet may make you forget about the cold winter weather!

**1999 Aged Rougui (1999 老肉桂):
Rougui, meaning cinnamon, is one of several famous oolong varietals from China's Wuyi mountains. This tea was made in 1999 and has long, dark, twisted leaves which are characteristic of most Wuyi oolongs. The tea soup is really smooth with a satisfyingly thick, clear broth. There is a subtle aged flavor that I'd describe as "ripe peach in a used bookstore." The careful aging on this tea pays off with an ambrosial flavor that seems to have a relaxing effect on the body.

***1986 Xia Guan Tuo-cha Pu-erh (1986 下关沱普洱):
While visiting the warehouse of the previously mentioned Mr. Chen, I was invited to see his special "pu-erh storage room." Wow! I was blown away by his collection of fragrant pu-erhs. In particular he had several stacks of beautiful Xia Guan tuo-cha. He told me that he has been personally storing these tuo-chas for 15 years and he believes that they were already 6 years old when he bought them. As I type this blog I am rembering this tea, brewed in a gaiwan with short, hot steeps. Each cup is amazing. I'd say it's one of the best tasting pu-erh teas I've ever had. The color is clear and reddish orange and the broth is sweet, brisk and complex. Flavor notes for me would include clove, cedar, and sherry.

Delicious Little Treats:

Serving tea for guests:

Prof. Wu plays the Guqin:

Monday, September 22, 2008

Tea Basics - Black Tea

Fully oxidized black tea is very popular in North America but rarely drunk in China. Hearty Assam tea (from India) and brisker Ceylon tea (from Sri Lanka) have been imported by the British and Dutch for a few hundred years. These are often blended to produce the cherished English or Irish Breakfast teas. One of my favorite black teas is Darjeeling (from northern India). It is often called the champagne of teas because of its bright and complex bouquet. Another favorite is Keemun (祁門) from China. It has a certain sherry-like sweetness, naturally spicy and unique. Look for the Keemun grade Hao Ya A to signify a particularly good batch. Other marvelous black teas include Yunnan, a rich and peppery brew from China, and Nilgiri, a sweeter brisker tea from southern India's Blue Mountains. One other Chinese tea of interest is the mystifying Lapsang Souchong (正山小種). This tea is cured over smoldering pine needles for an intensely smoky brew.

I think it is important to note that the Chinese call black tea hongcha (紅茶) which means red tea and sometimes the Chinese will call puer tea heicha (黑茶) which means black tea.

Golden Dianhong (滇紅) Black Tea from China:

Tea Basics - White Tea

About a thousand years ago in China, white tea was one of several highly prized tribute teas. Emperor Huizong is said to have written poems about this style of tea. Fortunately, most tea shops carry a few good ones these days! White tea is made up of carefully selected leaf buds that have yet to mature and develop chlorophyll. The window for plucking this delicate raw material is usually short and occurs in the early Spring. These buds are often not oxidized at all, they are simply dried though some white tea production does involves oxidation.

White tea produces a very smooth and thirst quenching cup of tea. The subtle and complex flavors of a good white tea will seem to dance on your tongue! White tea is quickly gaining popularity in the West. This is due to all the recent research showing a direct link between teas antioxidant properties and a healthy body. For a lovely cup of white tea, a few names to look out for are: White Peony (白牡丹), Yinzhen (silver needles) (銀針), and Drum Mountain White Cloud (鼓山白雲).


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Tea Basics - Puer Tea

Puer tea (普洱茶), from the Yunnan (雲南) province of China, comes in two forms, raw puer (sometimes called green puer or sheng cha) (生茶) and ripe puer (sometimes called black puer or shou cha)(茶). The complex flavors found in a cup of puer tea are the result of many variables, such as: where it was grown, the quality of the leaf, the manufacturing conditions, and the vintage. I have found that very high quality and very low quality puerh can be found in both loose leaf and compressed forms.

Raw puer is prepared from sun dried green tea leaves and are primarily hand made. The leaves are sometimes sourced from organic or wild grown tea bushes. Old trees, which can be over 100 years old, are sometimes used to make very fine teas. After the leaves are processed and sorted they will be compressed into cakes, bricks or other shapes by heavy concrete molds. Raw puer gets darker, richer and smoother if aged slowly in dry stable conditions. When a raw puer is approximately 1 to 5 years old it will probably still taste like a fresh herbaceous green tea with varying degrees of sweetness, smokiness, and complexity. At this point many puer tea professionals do not drink the tea for pleasure. Instead they drink it only to evaluate its aging potential.

Ripe puer can be purchased loose leaf, or compressed into cakes and bricks. Ripe puer differs from raw tea because it has a pile fermentation step included in its manufacture. This is a carefully controlled process that results in a dark and earthy brew. Young ripe puer (1 to 5 years old) are often not very smooth and may still have a harsh odor left over from that pile fermentation step in their production. Loose leaf ripe puer tends to taste fuller and smoother sooner, because it has more leaf surface exposed to air. Compressed teas, on the other hand, will mellow slower, depending on how tightly they were compressed and how thick they are.

Both styles of puer tea will get better with age if they are stored properly (ie. dry, dark and away from any odors). Ripe puers are made to be enjoyed sooner, and thus the vintage does not play as important of a roll as it does with raw puer. In fact, some puer experts have written that ripe puer's do not improve after reaching a certain point. This is in contrast to raw puer which seems to get better indefinitely!

Collecting and aging raw puer cakes is a very rewarding hobby of mine. I enjoy experiencing the tastes of a tea as it changes over time. I also like to keep a scrap book of the beautiful wrapping papers used to store the cakes. Puer tea has the wonderful ability to bring people together and help them to relax. It is the ideal brew for many unforgettable tea tastings.

Puer cake purchased in Taiwan last year:

Cupping two 生茶 puers at home last summer:

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Tea Basics - Green Tea

Green Tea is made from unoxidized leaves that are expertly steamed, shaped and fired. A good green tea will have a perfect balance of crisp vegetal notes but still be delicate and lightly sweet. Many wonderful green teas are produced in China, such as Long Jin (Dragon Well) (龍井), and Taiping Houkui (太平猴魁); both are sure bets for refreshing and stimulating green tea. Much of China's green tea is scented with jasmine flowers. For the best jasmine tea, look for hand rolled Phoenix Dragon Pearls. I also enjoy Japan's many great green teas such as Sencha, which is fresh and grassy (in a good way), and Genmaicha, a blend of green tea with roasted rice for a toasty, savory taste.

Green tea is best when brewed with cooler water. Depending on the type of tea I'll use 150 to 180 degree water. The steeping time for green tea is shorter too. I usually steep 1.5 to 2 minutes.

A tender young leaf and bud set:

Friday, September 19, 2008

Tea Basics - Oolong

The word oolong comes from the Chinese words: 烏 meaning black (or dark) and 龍 meaning dragon. It is typically produced in China and Taiwan. There are hundreds of exciting and delicious types of oolong teas to discover. I will use the most common market names and add the Chinese characters to improve understanding.

To make oolong tea, carefully selected leaves are gently withered and bruised to start the oxidization process, then at just the right moment, sometimes 12 to 16 hours later, they will be shaped and fired. Oolong tea is produced in small batches and the flavor profile depends on the length of oxidation and the degree of roasting. The tea makers will often stay up for 24 to 48 hours to see a batch of oolong tea through all of the production steps. Because of the many variables involved, no two oolongs will ever be exactly the same.

There are many varieties of tea produced on the island of Taiwan. Some are lightly oxidized, such as Wenshan Baozhong (文山包種), which has a natural floral note and an almost sparkling sweetness. High Mountain Tea (高山茶) from Taiwan is grown over 1000 meters high in places such as Lishan (棃山) and Alishan (阿里山). They have amazing complexity, brilliant liquor and a lingering sweet aftertaste due to the cool air and misty weather in the mountains. Another exceptional oolong from Taiwan is Formosa Bai Hao (白毫), a higher oxidized tea which usually has a warming "honey-peach" aroma. This style of tea is sometimes called Dong Fang Mei Ren (Eastern Beauty) (東方美人). Tung Ting (Frozen Summit) (凍頂) is a famous tea from central Taiwan's Nantou (南投) county. It traditionally has a medium roast and medium oxidation.

China is the birthplace of many wonderful oolongs such as Tie Guanyin (Iron Guanyin) (鐵觀音). Although Tie Guanyin is traditionally a darker oolong with a sublimely smooth and roasty aroma, the latest trends in Tie Guanyin production seems to be a much lighter tea with a sweeter, buttery flavor.

Shui Xian (Water Fairy)(水仙), Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe)(大紅袍) and Rougui (Cinnamon)(肉桂) are a few of the wonderful heirloom cultivars of oolong tea found in the Wuyi Mountains (武夷山) of China's Fujian Province (福建省). These teas are sometimes called Yancha (cliff tea) (岩茶) because of the Wuyi mountain's rocky terrain.

High Mountain Tea Pluckers in Shizhuo (石桌), Taiwan:

Basket withering:

Oxidation on rattan racks:

My friend 明忠 roasting some oolong in an electric basket:

Tea Basics - Part One

Tea is just water and leaves. It is that simple. It is that complicated.

To be a bit more specific... tea is the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, which have been skillfully picked and prepared using ancient methods. When these leaves are steeped in hot water the resulting brew is truly refreshing and incredibly flavorful. With teas great variety and health promoting properties, it is no mystery why tea is second only to water as the worlds most popular beverage.

My next five posts will contain some very basic information about green tea (綠茶), oolong tea (烏龍茶), black tea (which is known as red tea in China) (紅茶), white tea (白茶) and puer tea (普洱茶). I will build on this information as the blog evolves.

Happy Birthday Black Dragon Tea Bar Blog

Hi (你好).
My name is Brett. Here is a photo of me sharing a cup of tea with Luyu (陆羽) in Pinglin, Taiwan (坪林台灣).

I'm a student of Chinese tea culture living in Seattle (西雅圖). I have a beautiful wife and sweet baby girl.

Thank you (謝謝你) for checking out my blog! I plan to post mainly about tea but please be warned that I easily get sidetracked and may end up posting lots of other random stuff too. Also, all of the photos in this entire blog will have only been taken by me, my wife or a close friend.

To myself and many other people, tea represents an internationally conscious and harmonious lifestyle. Every time we drink tea we are doing something good for our physical body, but just as importantly tea creates peace and cultivates balance.

Here is one of my favorite tea quotes that will help illuminate my profound love of the leaf:

"Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves - slowly, evenly, without rushing towards the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life." -Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese monk, peace activist, and writer)