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Cacao and Berries: A comparison of Yunnan Hong Cha

Ever since I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks wandering around Yúnnán Province in the South-West of China, I’ve been in love with that region’s unique black tea (or more specifically 红茶 – Hōng Chá). When I came back from that trip I brought with me several hundred grams of tea made in the Lincang region (specifically Fengqing) which sated my thirst for a good two years before the last leaves were spent. And then: such sadness!

yunnan2-bridgeIn the time since I’ve naturally been trying to replenish my supply, and fortunately during my last visit to Camellia Sinensis tea house in Montréal I picked up two examples of this lovely style. I was planning to only buy one, of course, but it was difficult to tell from the descriptions which one I would like more. What’s a tea lover to do in that situation? Get one of each and hold a tasting, of course!

So today I’m comparing the Jin Die Organic and the Yunnan Da Ye, both from Camellia Sinensis’s vast catalogue, and both harvested this year!

First off, I have to say that these teas are really very similar. If I had to try them blindfolded, I might not be able to tell them apart. Especially after the second steeping, the differences in flavor and mouthfeel nearly vanished. They are both excellent examples of a Yunnan Hong Cha.

yunnan2-cupsThat said, after four infusions, I think I have a slight preference for the Jin Die. Very slight. While both teas have the characteristic Yunnan woodiness and cacao sweetness, the Jin Die consistently had a thicker mouthfeel and a more milk-chocolate taste. The Da Ye, in comparison, was somewhat thinner and dry in the mouth with something of a blackberry sweetness.

The cacao and berry flavors are what really draw me to these teas. Compared to other Chinese black tea, those from Yunnan have a special characteristic of dry grass and earth that is usually very distinguisable. In many ways this makes sense, as the leaves used to produce these teas are from the same regions (and maybe even the same plants) as the world’s Puer supply. Drinking a young Sheng Puer from Menghai I notice the same sorts of flavors and textures. Even closer is the taste of Mao Cha, the raw leaf used to make Puer, so I think the character is just inherent in the leaves of that particular province.

While my preference for the Jin Die was pretty much by taste and not strength of infusion, it’s probably worth noting that its leaves were almost entirely whole and unbroken while those of the Da Ye included quite a few broken pieces. This made the Da Ye infuse ever so slightly stronger and faster than its competitor. Storage and transportation aside (the broken leaves could have easily been the result of the bag I stuffed them in), probably the main reason for the wholeness of the Jin Die is that the dry leaves are rolled into beautiful tight curls. I suspect this small detail protected the leaves from the more destructive parts of their journey from China to my tea table.

For the first two infusions I used 95°C water for 45 seconds and at the third I increased that to 1 minute for both teas. I easily managed four infusions this way and I suspect I could have continued for another three without losing the flavor. By the fourth infusion, however, the teas started to taste very much the same, and so the comparison became less important.

This may be the first time I’ve had a preference for a certified organic tea when tasted side-by-side with a non-certified cousin, which was pleasing in itself. Organic certification is an ongoing (and expensive) struggle for many small farmers in China and I believe that it’s only thanks to the support given by big Western importers that has enabled tea like this Jin Die to be produced and sold at a reasonable rate with that certification intact.

yunnan2-sunsetAltogether I can easily recommend both of these Hong Cha for the lover of Chinese tea. I know that I’ll be drinking them frequently and reminiscing of the beautiful Yunnan sunset with every cup.

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The Humble Tea Pet

I saw my first tea pet the first time that I saw someone brew gongfu tea. It was a smooth stone turtle, serenely resting on the bamboo brewing tray, the tea flowing gently off its back as the tea master doused it with a rolled oolong. “A gift for the tea gods”, he said, or something like that, and I could sense the beautiful humility of such a gesture. Since that day I have met many tea pets, from nosey water buffaloes to tiny stoic scholars, and they continue to be a small clay reminder that tea is meant to be shared.

If you have never encountered a tea pet, let me introduce you! Quite common in China and Taiwan, these little clay statues sit with the tea equipment and await a bath. They come in many shapes and sizes; often they take the form of a traditional good fortune animal like the pig, turtle, dragon, dog, or water buffalo, but sometimes one will find a lucky cabbage, a log, whimsical spider feet, or a tea master of old such as Lu Yu.

There’s even special versions of these unique items which are interactive. If the clay is carved just right, sometimes the water flowing over the mouth of the tea pet will form cute little bubbles. There are plastic-like tea pets that change color with hot water like the toys I used to get in cereal boxes. However, despite these fun mechanics, it’s important to understand that a tea pet is more than just decoration!

When preparing tea in the gongfu (essentially “with skill”) style, there’s usually a lot of water thrown about. Firstly the pot and cups must be warmed, then sometimes the leaves will be rinsed, and when the first infusion is steeping, some extra water is often poured over the pot to seal in its heat. At each of these stages, the used hot water or tea is poured out into a bowl or onto the table itself. Rather than simply waste that water, however, some can be poured on the head of a tea pet sitting nearby. Why would you do this? It’s certainly extraneous to the act of preparing the tea! Each tea devotee may have their own reasons, but in my experience this ritual serves the dual purpose of cultivating mindfulness and intention.

Firstly the action of allowing extra drops to fall on a specific target keeps the mind present on every act of making tea, including the rather mundane process of disposing of water down the drain which might otherwise be unconscious. And secondly, this gesture serves as a reminder of the intention of kindness toward others, even if only making tea for one’s self. “Sharing” some of the tea with the tea pet, perhaps even the last drops of each infusion, can give the practitioner of the leaf a sense of connection with all of the beings in the world.

With the extent of the Internet these days it’s much easier to find a Chinese-made tea pet than it once was, but I encourage everyone to find a tea pet that suits them from any source. A few of my favorite “tea pets” are just small artifacts made of clay, stone, crystal, and plastic that were never intended to be used in a tea service, and they perform the task quite admirably! Making a tea service your own is the highest form of tea art, in my opinion, and connecting with a tea pet is just one way to bring that experience to life. I hope you find a tiny friend to share your next pot!

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Sheng Puer Tasting

Last weekend I gathered some friends together to get to know a handful of my Shēng (生, raw) Puer. I confess that most of the time I drink Puer I go for my favorite Shóu (熟, ripe) cakes. The deep, earthy flavors are very comforting and they tend to pack less of a punch. Also, many of my Sheng cakes are either too young to be tasty yet or expensive enough that I often think I’m saving them for a special occasion. It was easier, therefore, to create a special occasion just for them!

After a lot of discussion we picked four teas that were different enough that we hoped would give us a good range of tastes. A 2007 Yiwu, a 2007 Yinzhu factory bing, a 2009 Nanuo Shan, and a 2013 Yibang rounded out the circle.

The Yiwu was the darkest infusion of the four (9g each, with one rinse and then a 30 second steep) and had the largest, darkest leaves. The first infusion ended up with a fruity, cherry-like taste and a very interesting aftertaste-feeling that we could only describe as “minty”.

The Yinzhu was something of a mystery tea because while I know where I bought it (Dàlǐ Old Town in Yúnnán), I don’t know where the leaves were grown. The first infusion of this interesting tea had the second darkest liquor with small, orange tippy leaves. The flavor was very surprisingly rich with a smoky, oak and peat aroma, very like some of my favorite scotch.

Nannuo is one of my favorite tea mountains, so I had high expectations for this 2009 bing. The leaves were wiry and long, and with a light gold infusion. The flavor was a little sweet like strawberries, with a woody, cedar aroma. Overall, it had almost the quintessential Sheng flavor.

The 2013 Yibang was the youngest of the lot and so it’s not surprising that it had the lightest liquor. Its medium size leaves were dark brown speckled with blond. Using the same steeping time was probably unfair for this tea, and it tasted a little under-infused with not much body and a light mineral bite.

For the second infusion I brewed each tea for 45 seconds, partially by accident, and partially to see how the flavors would develop if they were made really strong. (This is a good point to mention that if you have never made Puer yourself, 45 seconds for a second infusion is quite long.) The result? Bitter tea, of course. But the comparison was pretty fascinating as it emphasized the characteristics I found during the other infusions. The Yiwu was very herbal, the Yinzhu gave the impression of a charcoal baked potato. The Nannuo tasted like mushrooms, and the young Yibang was bright and acidic.

At the third infusion (10 seconds this time), I think each tea hit its stride. The Yiwu created a cooling, refreshingly minty feeling with a herb and cherry taste. The mysterious Yinzhu made us all think of cacao nibs, with a warm scotch peat aftertaste. Our Nannuo leaves had a woody, mouth-filling texture and a smooth, crisp Bartlett pear taste. FInally, the 2013 Yibang tasted a little like a woody green tea with a long, second sweetness in the throat.

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All in all most of the consensus was that the Yinzhu was the best of the bunch, but that’s just because most of us liked scotch. The dissenting opinion was in favor of the Yiwu, and indeed the unique mouth feel of that tea was both unexpected and fantastic. We all agreed that the Yibang was too young (although it definitely has promise) and that the Nannuo was a good sipping Sheng but didn’t stand out from the crowd.

I’m very happy to have had the opportunity to taste these teas side-by-side with friends and I think it’s setting me on a good path to get to know my Shengs. I have a whole lot more cakes, though, so next time promises to be just as exciting. If you have never tasted different teas together, I highly recommend it. If you drink a single tea one day and then another the next day, it’s very difficult to get a sense of what sets them apart. So grab those gaiwans (or tasting sets) and get brewing!

Photo May 20, 10 41 08 PM

Ales visits Burlington

Ales Jurina, one of the two founders of Dobrá Čajovna (“Good Tearoom”) in Czech visited Burlington this week. Of all the people that have taught me about the way of tea, I think that Ales has affected me the most. He is a kind soul and a true tea devotee. Along with his partner and fellow tea master Jirka Simsa, Ales brought tea culture out of Asia and into the Czech Republic. From there his spirit of travel and tea adventure has influenced hundreds of tea pilgrims, tea houses, and importers since 1992. There are over thirty Dobra teahouses across the US and eastern Europe and many others which have been influenced by Dobra’s Bohemian example. If you’d like to read more about the story of Dobra Tea, there’s a good summary on their main site.

I had the privilege of traveling in China with Ales and a group of other devoteas in 2012, when I was the manager of the Burlington tearoom. We spent five weeks traveling by plane, train, bus, boat, and car from the mountains of Fèngqìng in Yúnnán province across the Tea Belt to the lakes of Hángzhōu in Zhèjiāng. Although we all traveled together for most of the trip (in a very bohemian, tea pilgrim style), there were several points where we split up into small groups of two to three people and went exploring for many days entirely on our own. Often this involved arranging transportation to other towns and cities, finding lodging and meals, and looking for tea when our grasp of Mandarin was very poor. And yet, these excursions proved to be some of the most amazing parts of the journey, and Ales says that that is all part of the plan. I didn’t write down his exact words but he said something like, “When together as a group, you experience travel on the surface, but you don’t get to really know the culture until you travel by yourself.”

ales-at-dobraThis was Ales’s first visit to the Burlington tearoom (the first Dobra in the US) since it opened in 2003. In the intervening time there have been four owners, several renovations, and a large increase in tea knowledge in the West. With his typical calm and humble style, he shared tea with the group, answered questions about tea culture, and showed several videos from tea travels in Japan, China, and one of the annual tearoom gatherings in Prague.

One of the questions asked was, for me, a very important reminder of what tea culture can mean; Ales was asked what Tea meant to him. He explained that while some people in the tea world are primarily focused on possessing tea knowledge and being seen as Masters, he felt that was missing the point. When the first Dobra tearoom opened in Prague they were mainly trying to introduce quality tea to their changing country, but over the years the (now hundreds of) tearooms of the Czech Republic have evolved, becoming gathering places and a social touchstone of the culture. “For me,” Ales explained, “tea is about sharing.”

How to pour a teapot

What a ridiculous title for a post, eh? “Grab the handle and pour”, is the expected response. However, as anyone who’s tried to use a yixing pot for the first time can probably tell you, there’s a little more to it than that.

First of all, let’s clarify that I’m mostly talking about fairly small teapots, in the smaller-than-400ml range. Those big heavy twenty-cup teapots are pretty foolproof and you don’t need an article on this blog to tell you how to use them!

Often, teapots of this size are called Yixing (宜兴, pronounced roughly “ee-shing”), even if they are not from the Yixìng region of Jiāngsū province which is most famous for the style. Debating the authenticity, usefulness, and naming of these pots is far beyond the topic of this post, but suffice to say if you have a small teapot made of clay, ceramic, glass, or even silver, these principles will apply.

Before anything else, warm the teapot with some hot water before using it (then pour it out). While this may seem like a chore if you’re really looking to dig into that first cup of tea, you can turn it into a pleasurable experience all by itself. First, some clay pots will make delightful bubbling sounds when they start to absorb water, and hearing that symphony is a great prelude to get my senses focused on the task at hand. Second, the tea will likely turn out better, since the water temperature can drop significantly when pouring into a cold pot. But third, and the most fun in my opinion, is that a warm pot can produce an amazing fragrance from tea leaves. As soon as you are done warming the pot, toss in your dry tea leaf and shut the lid. Give the leaves just a few moments to heat and then carefully (lest you burn your nose hairs) lift the lid and inhale the aroma. A good quality tea will produce a fragrance to stop time. You can also sniff the inside of the lid which will protect your nose from the hot steam.

Once the tea has infused for an appropriate amount of time (which can vary considerably based on preference), it’s best to pour it all out. If making tea for more than one cup, either pour the infusion into a sharing pitcher or fill each cup about half-way once before returning and filling each cup the remainder. In this way the strength of the infusion is more-or-less constant between cups. Having a pitcher requires much less practice than knowing how full each cup should be and avoiding drips on the table.

vertical-pourAs the teapot is being poured, the angle will increase from horizontal to vertical (and sometimes beyond) which can cause the most disastrous and unfortunately common type of broken teaware that I’ve seen: the lid will fall off, sometimes even cracking the cup as it lands. I think everyone who’s owned a small pot has gone through this experience or has seen someone who has. There’s no shame to not remembering to hold the lid, but there’s a few different ways to go about it.

Probably the most simple is to use two hands, placing one hand on the lid and using the other to grasp the teapot handle. The second method is to use a free finger on the pouring hand to hold the lid in place; this technique can be done with either the index finger (more traditional) or the thumb, depending on the size of your hand and your grip on the teapot. It’s best to avoid touching the lid itself which is likely to be extremely hot, but every teapot should have a knob or handle with which it can be held safely.

The trick with any method is to avoid covering the small hole in the lid which prevents a vacuum from forming inside the teapot that would stop or slow the pour. (In fact, a well-made lid will fit on the teapot so well that covering the hole should stop the pour of liquid completely.) If using the one-handed technique, this is generally accomplished by putting a little bit of sideways pressure on the lid’s knob rather than covering it completely.

Even though I’d say that a Gaiwan is worth ten teapots for its flexibility and convenience, there’s a definite aesthetic about a Yixing or Jianshui teapot that can really be pleasant to use. And with practice and an appropriate pot it’s possible to create infusions that bring out hidden characteristics of the best and least of the tea world. Not every pot will work well for every tea, so if you have a pot, give it a try with different leaves and different times to find what suits it (and your taste) best. Just remember to keep the lid on top!

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Jalam Bada 2014 Sheng

“Bada bing!”

That’s what I crow every time I make some of this great Sheng Puer from Jalam Teas. Not just because it’s really fun to say (and it is!), but also because for a relatively young Sheng (Summer 2014) it’s got quite a lovely character. (The tea is harvested on Bada Mountain and “Bing”, or 饼, means “cake” and is more or less the standard form into which Puer leaves are pressed.)

badabing-cups2Compared to most Shengs of this age range (1-4 years), I taste surprisingly very little cedar and sulfur. Instead, notes of leather, wicker and straw are prevalent. Really, I like this tea almost more for its drinkability more than any sort of dramatic flavors or aroma. It’s so mellow and light bodied that I infused even the first three pots for almost a full minute, which for a lot of Sheng Puer is pretty rare if you don’t want a sharp bitter mess in your cup.

There’s a dried herb quality in the taste as well for which I had trouble coming up with a label, perhaps dry cilantro? Maybe that’s not too appetizing a term. Let’s just say there’s a fresh and interesting flavor somewhat reminiscent of an herb garden.

I steeped the fifth and sixth infusions longer just to see what would happen, but they still came out not as sharp or sour as I expected. The strength manifested instead as a tannic dryness and little else. Even brewed strong like this, the aromas remain mild and light.

Definitely this Bada bing is going to be a regular in my gaiwan, as long as the small 100g cake lasts!

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2015 Spring Tea Anticipation

So it’s Spring. And by “Spring”, I mean apparently Summer because within one week the temperature here in Vermont went from 40°F (4°C) to 80°F (26°C). But I’m not complaining, because Spring is Fresh Tea Time!

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My first hits this year have been from India. I’ve been drinking some great 2015 Darjeeling First Flush (Rohini estate from Stone Leaf Tea was the first, followed by Mimm estate from Dobra Tea). There’s really nothing like fresh First Flush. The malty, woody fragrances followed by a burst of energy that I think compares only to Matcha are an experience that can’t be beat. If you’ve never had some, I highly recommend it. But be sure to get it brewed by an experienced brewmaster or give yourself some time to experiment, because First Flush is the opposite of your average black tea. If you’re new to making First Flush the best advice I can give is to treat it more like a Chinese green tea or a light oolong.

I’ve also had the opportunity to sip some fantastic fresh Chinese Greens. And just like every year, I’m amazed at what fresh tea can be compared to even leaves that have been packed six months ago. I’ve been drinking what I have too fast, but I did manage to get some photos of a White Buddha Mao Feng from Stone Leaf.

The World Tea Expo is going on right now in California, and if I wasn’t doing a hundred other things right now I’d be right there shaking hands with the giant ginseng. In lieu of being present with such great people and leaves, I direct your attention to my fellow tea bloggers Oolong Owl, Tea For Me Please (nothing posted yet, but I assume we’ll see some coverage; and congrats!), Tea Moment, World of Tea, Steep Stories, or just follow WTE2015 on Twitter or wte15 on Instagram.

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In conclusion, welcome (foolishly hot) Spring, and may we all be sipping fresh hot tea (to cool down)!