kyushi_on_sil

Preparing Japanese Tea

Green tea from Japan differs quite a lot from its Chinese cousin. The different cultivars, harvesting, and processing provides a distinct experience. It can also be challenging to steep. Many folks I’ve encountered have found their first experience with grassy bitter Japanese green tea to be their last. With this post I hope to provide those people and others with inspiration to give this amazing style of tea a second chance.

While the steps below may seem complicated, if you understand some of the principles of how tea steeps, it all makes sense. First of all, Japanese tea tends to be machine-harvested, which results in smaller and more broken leaves. Broken leaves mean that the tea will infuse much more quickly and can become bitter in much less time than a full leaf Chinese green.

Furthermore, unless passed through a fine mesh strainer, it’s likely that many of the leaves will end up in the cup when it’s done. These leaves will continue steeping the tea as it cools and may cause unwanted strength even if the timing is just right.

Finally, Japanese green teas are generally steamed to fix the leaf rather than pan-fired or baked as they are in other countries. This results in a tea liquor that’s much more “vegetal” in the same way that steamed vegetables tend to be “greener” tasting than those same vegetables when fried. If the infusion is too strong, the result can not only taste bitter, but grassy as well.

In essence, Japanese green teas are much more delicate and need a little more care when preparing them. Here’s my suggestions for most styles of Sencha, as well as Kabusecha and Gyokuro (Genmaicha, Hojicha, Kukicha, and Matcha are a different matter).

1. Use a mesh strainer

Because of the small and broken leaves we ideally need to use a mesh strainer. Japanese Kyushu pots usually have these built-in, but such pots can be hard to find on the Western market. Another option is the ceramic “teeth” on the lip of a Shiboridashi pot which are designed to catch the small leaves as the liquor pours over the rim. Lacking these tools, any wire mesh strainer will do the job, even a large kitchen strainer. If you don’t have any strainer on hand, just be aware that the tea will continue steeping in the cup and you may want to reduce the infusion time to compensate.

2. Use fairly cool water

tama_setupSince the broken leaves will steep much faster, we need either a very short infusion time (which can be challenging) or we need to slow down the infusion somehow. More of the compounds in a tea leaf will transfer to the water if the water is hot, so using cooler water will slow down the process to make it more manageable. I usually use about 55-70°C (131-158°F) water for Gyokuro or Sencha. Within that temperature range, a steep of about 1 minute should result in a delicious brew. If your water is hotter, decrease the time. With 80°C water, a 20-30 second infusion should work, but it might taste a little scorched. The amount of leaves in the pot also makes a difference. I tend to use more than I would for a Chinese green; for a 300ml pot, I usually use about 8g of leaf.

3. Use fresh leaves

tama_dryThis step may be out of your control, since many vendors don’t list the age of their tea, but green tea (Japanese or otherwise) should be consumed within 6 months to a year of its harvest date. It should also be stored in a sealed package with no air or light reaching the leaves. Older leaves tend to be dull and flat tasting giving the palette all the tannin but none of the sweetness. For this reason be wary of stores that keep their tea in clear plastic or glass containers (I’m looking at you, grocery stores).

tama_pouredFollowing these steps should result in a deep and rich cup of Japanese tea. The qualities to look for in a good cup are usually a bright energy with seaweed-like saltiness and a satisfying Umami taste on the tongue. The aroma of freshly-cut grass is a good sign, but a “grassy” or bitter taste is not usually desirable. As always, your taste may certainly be different from mine, so experiment to find your preferred brew. Even so, hopefully the above guidelines will give you a head-start.

tri-roast-wet

Tri Roasted Ali Shan

Not too long ago I had a chance to attend a tea class held by John at Stone Leaf Tea. The topic was Taiwanese tea, since he had just returned from travels on that venerable island. When we were there we tasted a tea that was stunning in both its creation as well as its flavors. I recently prepared a tasting at home to try and capture more information.

The tea is a Tri Roasted Ali Shan Oolong harvested last spring, and quite a treasure it is. Probably my favorite style of oolong in recent years is Hong Shui, and this tea reminded me of it instantly.

tri-roast-dry

The aroma permeates the senses. When I take a sip it feels like standing next to a cauldron of roasting nuts in a field of fragrant flowers. Even minutes after the cup is empty, I want to just sit and inhale the scent left behind.

Although this is undeniably a roasted oolong, I definitely wouldn’t call it a “dark roast”. There’s none of that intense charcoal flavor, nor is the roast similar to the autumn-leaf dryness of Yan Cha. There’s none of the fruitiness that accompanies a Phoenix or the honey of a Bai Hao. I can detect the High Mountain characteristics that I’d expect from a greener Ali Shan, but this has so much more character.

The taste reminds me of buttered pecans. Rich and aromatic in both the leaves and in the mouth, this tea has everything. It’s energy is very balanced, neither too bright nor too mellow. Leaves like these show a real skill in both processing and roasting.

This amazing leaf was roasted by Mr. Huang, the brother of Stone Leaf’s main Taiwan tea supplier Mr. Liao. His pretty unique “Tri-Roast” consists of a careful charcoal roasting (a rare skill these days) followed by an electric roast in bamboo baskets and lastly a small electric oven roast. Each of these steps requires a great deal of labor and talent as each roast must be tweaked and adjusted based on the results of the previous one. As Stone Leaf’s owner John wrote to me:

A big part of the skill with roasting is knowing what the tea will be like months AFTER it is finished. It changes so much in that time period…so to have 3 different methods triples the number of variables that are present to change the results.

My entire day noticeably improved after this tea session, and I can still sense the aroma in my mouth several hours later. And what a session it was! Eight infusions in, the liquor was still a buttery yellow-gold. The leaves were like a soup of collard greens, massive and heavy when they unfurled. Not too many full leaf sets were present, but plenty of full leaves that seem to glow like a cedar tree in winter.

Many thanks to Stone Leaf tea for finding and sharing this piece of craftsmanship. I hope every tea drinker can experience a cup like this at least once.

Hong Cha? No, I wanted Black Tea

Black tea. This can be a misleading term. During my recent visit to Tea Drunk in NYC I really enjoyed that they wrote this little gem on their menu:

RED TEA 紅茶: known as black tea by rest of the world for reasons we do not understand

When working at the teahouse, this was one of most frequent ways I found that people got confused. They would ask for a “red tea”, but not really have any idea what that was, or they would order a Chinese black tea and then ask for something else because it was too light a flavor.

Suffice to say that this topic needs a little clarification.

All of these are Black Tea

All of these are Black Tea

Let’s start with the basics. As you all probably know from reading these posts, the six categories of tea mainly differ by oxidation, but each category is so broad that it really does a disservice to group them all together. “Oolong”, for example. The kind of oolong you get in a Chinese restaurant is very different from a Yan Cha, which in turn is an extremely different experience from a High Mountain Dong Ding. It’s nearly impossible to pin down the general qualities of Hei Cha, and for people who like “green tea”, do you mean you like the bright salty energy of a Kabusecha or the sweet buttery notes of a Bi Lo Chun? Black tea is no different. And as Tea Drunk’s menu so clearly explains, this heavily oxidized category is actually called “Red Tea” (Hong Cha) in China.

The main difference you’ll find is between black tea made in China or Taiwan (let’s call this “Chinese” style), black tea made in Darjeeling or Nepal (I generally call this “Darjeeling”), and black tea made in Assam, Sri Lanka, Kenya, or basically anywhere else (let’s call this “Assam”).

chinese-black-teaAlthough all tea production began in China, their concept of black tea is quite a long way from what most westerners are used to. Skillfully made Hong Cha is rich and malty, sweet without any additives. Notes of caramel and chocolate can be found in the aromas of black tea made in Yunnan, Anhui, or the famous Sun Moon Lake region of Taiwan. The color of the liquor is usually a deep ruddy red with a bit of a golden hue and yet clear enough to see the bottom of your cup through the broth. That’s certainly nothing like what you get in a supermarket teabag. In fact, the leaves themselves are sometimes not black at all, but can be gold and silver. There’s many legends surrounding the separation within this category, but I tend to believe that distance and money were the major contributing factors to the development of “English-style tea”.

The English quickly became addicted to tea as it filtered in from their trade ships and mysterious Chinese ports. The terminology and categorization problems began right there since it was difficult for well-translated tea processing information to make its way to the tea merchants of London, not to mention the secrecy and tales of the Chinese tea producers. Many of these stories persist even today, like the legend of “monkey picked oolong” and the idea that Puer is some sort of foul health tonic.

assam-black-teaBy the time they managed to grow tea in the Indian colonies, the British were beginning to create their own tea culture: one based on the same leaves, but very different concepts around processing and steeping. Theirs was a culture that to prized the energizing quality of tea over nuance. Tea making involves a lot of manual labor and as time progressed Indian and British tea growers increased their production by sacrificing quality to make the highest quantity possible. This led to the popularization of BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe) and CTC (Crush Tear Curl) and, eventually, the humble tea bag. These teas were nothing like their forebears, infusing so quickly and with so little aroma that it was necessary to brew them quite strong and then add milk, sugar, or citrus to make them palatable. The comparison of a Hong Cha to these inky black infusions is not unlike the difference between artisan coffee and what you’ll find in a city diner.

Of course, not all black tea produced in Indian soil is low grade, just the huge quantities that made it to the English and Indian citizenry in the first hundred years of its production. Many gardens in Assam and Nilgiri (as well as later production in Sri Lanka) care deeply for their leaves and can make a delicious full-leaf SFTFGOP that is enjoyed by many world-wide. As labor prices have risen, the production of low-grade tea for bags has moved to Africa, but the product is nearly the same. In the lofty gardens of Darjeeling (and neighboring Nepal), however, a truly unique tea was being created.

darjeeling-black-teaDarjeeling tea has some of the characteristics of a red wine. In a well-made cup you can taste raisins and dates, plums and chocolate. If brewed well, there’s no hint of bitterness, and if freshly picked the energy is unparalleled. The first and second harvest (or “flush”) of Darjeelings command a high price indeed, from antiquity until modern day, and even today it’s common for companies to use the name just to make broken leaf tea bags sell better.

What all this should tell you is that when buying an unfamiliar “black tea”, be sure to do some research to know what you’re getting. And if you’re surprised by the taste, experiment with how you make it. Despite the size of the leaves or the pedigree, any tea can be a delicious experience if skillfully prepared, but it might not be what you’re expecting!

2011 Meng Song

Getting Tea Drunk at Tea Drunk

Last weekend I was in New York City to see a show and one of the things I always do in New York City is visit all my favorite vegan restaurants and cafes. This trip had an additional draw, though, being able to visit Tea Drunk, a gongfu teahouse that brings me right back to Taiwan. In fact, it’s really on-par with my favorite teahouses the world over. Small and cozy with a real expertise in Chinese tea and quite a selection, it was a perfect place to sit, sip, and chat. I even got to meet a few of the other guests, because it’s hard to avoid making friends over tea.

Nicole at Tea DrunkOur host was the imitable Nicole Martin, aka: Tea For Me Please. The owner of Tea Drunk wasn’t in that day, but Nicole was there to guide us through what probably amounted to 12 infusions of a nicely woody 2011 Sheng Da Meng Song (大勐宋), followed by maybe 15 gaiwans of a 2010 Shou Tuo Cha (of uncertain origin) that was even better than I expected. I was very energized by the time I left. The shop certainly lived up to its name!

The Sheng was crisp and comforting. The Shou was not too sweet, and had a blackberry quality to it which I really enjoyed. There are some really great young Puer cakes being produced these days, but a few years can make a big difference.

Photo Jul 12, 4 25 42 PMThe shop is small, but beautiful. It looks from the outside like its space is in part of an old church. A host of teaware adorns one wall, while the other is devoted mostly to a seven person bamboo gong-fu bar that I’ve always dreamed of having for myself. The rest of the space holds about six square tables, each with its own custom-made petrified bamboo tea table that are works of art in themselves. When we sat down, we were able to pick one of the cute tea pets from their collection to share our tea. You’ll notice our friendly tea-loving bulldog in the pictures.

One of the most exciting aspects of Tea Drunk for me is their events. They have started a weekly “Tuesday Tea-Off” where each participant (including the teahouse) brings a tea of the same category for a blind tasting to compare and contrast. If only I lived closer! Nevertheless, it’s inspiring and a great way to involve the tea community.

Normally I would have been sipping with one hand and taking notes with the other, but I was really enjoying the conversation with Nicole and I never got around to writing down my thoughts about these teas. At this point all my memory can tell me is that they were both delightful and that I will definitely be returning to Tea Drunk next time I’m in New York. Their tea is definitely priced for small groups to share, but is undeniably worth the expense. If you are alone, perhaps you can find a friend in the city who’s willing to share a cup or two.

 

Photo Jun 14, 4 08 34 PM

Short, Medium, and Long Jing

Recently I had the pleasure to receive a sample set of three 2014 Long Jing (Dragon Well) teas from Teavivre, so naturally I had to taste them all together.

My first impression is that the dry leaves look mostly the same. All have the typical Long Jing blade shape. A few white haired leaves appear in each pile, making all three look like very nice full leaf teas. Their dry aromas also were all very similar: toasty and green — exactly what I expected. I think I wouldn’t be able to tell these apart by dry leaf, which is another good reason to always taste a tea before buying if you can; appearances only go so far.

The first tea I tried was the Premium Grade Dragon Well. I used 80°C water for about 1 minute with my green gaiwan and cups (I used matching gaiwans and cups for each tea so you’ll be able to tell them apart in the photos). I tasted fresh Chinese greens and watercress. The liquor was vegetal, but not overwhelmingly so. There was a roasted taste, almost like popcorn kernels, but I detected no buttery qualities (which you’ll see appear in the next tea). It had a nice full mouthfeel which remained into the second infusion, but the roasted flavor basically vanished at that point; not unexpected for this style of tea. The wet leaves showed about half full leaf sets, half broken and are definitely a darker green than the pair of organic teas that come next.

The second tea of the set was the Organic Nonpareil Ming Qian Dragon Well brewed in my brown gaiwan and cups. The flavor was immediately buttery with less watercress than the previous Dragon Well but with a thicker mouthfeel. There was the same roasted quality, like popcorn, but it was also notably salty, especially in the aftertaste. The second infusion had a little roast remaining, but mostly lost the buttery quality. The wet leaves impressively showed almost entirely full leaf sets. They’re everywhere! The color is definitely a lighter green than the Premium. Perhaps that’s a quality of organic harvesting? More likely it was the amount of sun the tea plants were exposed to during the growing period.

For the third taste I had the Organic Superfine Dragon Well in my white gaiwan and cups. The liquor tasted of young green grass and fresh zucchini. Still quite a good experience, but it was notably more flat tasting with a very short aftertaste. It was not bitter, but there was not much energy to it. The wet leaves also showed very few full leaf sets compared to the other two. They were mostly broken apart, while similar in color to the Nonpareil.

Clearly the Nonpareil (as the name suggests) is the top of the line here. But it’s not fair to say that the other two teas were poor examples of Long Jing; they were actually very good, just not quite at the same level as the Nonpareil. Long Jing is a tea that’s so famous and has so much history that the variety in its production may be greater than any other single named tea out of China. Because of that it’s really nice to have a sample of three notably different — but all well-made — examples of this style.

 

globalteahut-june-wet-leaves

A One Garden Comparison

This month’s offering from Global Tea Hut is a pair of organic teas from Mr. Xie in Ming Jian, Nantou, Taiwan. One is processed as a green oolong, lightly roasted. The other is processed as Hóng Chá (红茶), or what we might call “black tea”. Both sets of leaves were made from the same garden and (I believe) around the same time, which makes this a very interesting comparison indeed.

 

I set up another tasting, much like my post on bi lo chun last week, with two small gaiwans and my small Totoro tea pet to assist us with his invaluable perspective. These two teas are quite different, despite their similar origins, and further demonstrate the profound effect of oxidation, rolling, and roast.

The warmed leaves have a delicious aroma. The oolong smells buttery and with an unmistakably light roast and the scent of chestnuts. The hong cha’s leaves give off a hint of candy sweetness, but mostly smell of dry bark in spring. When I say “warmed leaves”, I mean the leaves in the pot before they’ve been infused. It’s possible I’ve never mentioned this here, but if you warm your teapot before brewing, try putting the leaves into the empty pot just afterward and quickly shutting the lid to let them absorb some of the moist heat remaining. After a few seconds, lift the lid and inhale the aromas of the warmed leaves. This can produce an amazing effect, all before even adding water to your leaves!

Both of these teas have been allowed to grow without pesticides, which means that many of them have been nibbled by small insects before the harvest. This can be a very desirable event. The resulting tea, characterized by the iconic Bái Háo (白毫茶), tends to have a sweet rich flavor like honey. This tea magic is due to several factors including defensive compounds that the plant releases when it is attacked, as well as the beginning of oxidation while the leaves are still on the tree. I can taste the effects in both of Mr. Xie’s teas.

The oolong (infused with no rinse at around 2 minutes) produced a golden liquor. The flavor was buttery with quite a roasted and honeyed aroma in the mouth. The roasting of this tea was clearly done with a lot of skill! The finish was crisp and short, not lasting as long as I wished, but that only encouraged me to make a second cup!

The mouth feel was very pleasant, more light and silky than thick and creamy, but it paired well with the aromatics of this tea. The third infusion brought out something like the flavor of oranges, which perhaps was there before but hidden by the roast. Usually I would say “citrus” here, but in this case that word really didn’t fit; I was really getting the sense of oranges.

The Global Tea Hut article accompanying this tea reads,

The oolong tea is bug-bitten, plucked, withered outdoors, and then indoors, shaken and mixed in piles (jiao ban), withered more, pan fired (sa cheen) to arrest oxidation and kill green enzymes, rolled to break down the cells and further oxidation, as well as to shape the tea (ro nian), and then roasted twice — once to dry the tea and then for a longer time to add flavor and fragrance.

The Hóng Chá’s liquor was a delicate tan, as expected, and the wet leaves had the sweet smell of candy sugar. The taste, however, was very surprising. I was expecting something like either the minty quality of Sun Moon Lake or the chocolate notes of Feng Qing, but instead it reminded me of nothing else but maple syrup. Not that extremely sweet Grade-A stuff or the sugar paste that you find in restaurants, but thick, dark, Grade-B maple syrup fresh from the tree: still sweet, but more like caramel (if you were under the mistaken impression that Grade-A maple syrup means higher quality, you might be surprised to know it’s just a designation of color and season of production).

To quote Global Tea Hut,

The red tea is also bug-bitten, plucked, and then withered indoors, piled on bamboo mats for 12-24 hours. It is then rolled for up to ninety minutes before being roasted dry. … This results in a deeper, darker liquor than the oolong — though less refined.

I only made three infusions of these teas during this sitting, but I think that both could easily have made five to ten with their flavors intact. Neither has full leaf sets, and there were lots of broken leaves and stems (even with the rolled oolong), but this tea does not suffer from that. Based on the appearance of the leaf damage, I’d say the broken ones were in that condition on the plants, not because of poor handling. I also noticed that the cha qi was very energetic. I’ve felt this before with arbor tree sheng puer, where the tea seems to infuse a “wild” energy in the body, but I think this is the first time I’ve felt the same with an oolong and a black tea.

globalteahut-june-leaf-textureOrganic farming and hand processing mean that leaves may not look as immaculate as some other teas, but that does not mean that they are poor quality! The skill of the farmer is always present in your cup: the growing conditions, the picking, processing and roasting are all equally important. The proof is always in the taste.

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A tale of two Bi Lo Chun

As soon as I open the package I know this is going to be a special tea. The aroma of freshly harvested leaves is like clouds and mist floating through the air after a spring rain. I’ve had several opportunities to try 2014 Bi Lo Chun (碧螺春) in the last month and I’ve been really pleased each time. Here I’d like to compare a few that I have in my home: Teavivre and Stone Leaf Tea House.bi_lo_chun_teavivre_and_stone_leafTeavivre’s sample was delicate and beautiful. The silver-green leaves are loosely curled and covered in a glow of fuzz as is traditional for a “Green Snails in Spring” (the usual translation for this tea). This small-leaf style of green tea originates from a mountainous peninsula in Jiangsu province near Suzhou, and that is where this tea was harvested not too long ago. In recent years, Bi Lo Chun made in Taiwan has also become popular and, in my experience, is also very delicious! The key differences I’ve noticed (and I’m sure that there are exceptions) are that Taiwan Bi Lo Chun tends to have slightly larger leaves and the aromas tend more toward oceanic. This makes a kind of sense to me since Taiwan is surrounded by ocean and the original is harvested on a mountain surrounded by a lake (Tai Hu).

 

I infused about 4g of this tea for 1 minute at around 80°C, following my instincts, although the package suggests a similar brew. The result was a transparent jade liquor with a few leaf bits and a delicate aroma that lingers both in the mouth and in the mind. The taste is slightly dry and has an energizing cha qi which doesn’t appear until the liquor reaches the back of my tongue.

My first infusion of the Stone Leaf Bi Lo Chun was made with the same details for the sake of comparison. This tea is made in Taiwan, and as I mentioned above the leaves are larger and darker in appearance with fewer of the white hairs on their surface. The taste and aroma are deep and rich, bringing to mind a Japanese gyokuro, but not quite. Immediately it seemed that while the Teavivre Bi Lo Chun had a vegetal and bright energy quality, Stone Leaf’s was more floral and mellow. What an amazing variety!

bi_lo_chun_wet_teavivire_and_stone_leafTwo more infusions were made of these delicious teas, increasing the time and temperature a bit with each one. Both teas became more cloudy and drier on the tongue, and they maintained their separate qualities: vegetal energy in one cup and floral mellow in the other. I felt as though drinking the Teavivre Bi Lo Chun was walking through a spring field and the Stone Leaf Bi Lo Chun was swimming in a summer pond.

As the infusions progressed, the nuances of aroma began to fade. This isn’t a bad sign for a green tea; indeed it’s quite common for a green to give up its most potent flavors in the first two infusions. Still, the third infusion was just as pleasant, even as the fading aromas evoked a more full bodied mouthfeel. This is the life that tea shows us: dramatic and delicate, comforting and fleeting. We must be present with our cup to notice these things. Happy sipping!