Tag Archives: china

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.

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!

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.”

Bada Mountain Fermented Puer

I recently subscribed to Jalam Tea’s monthly deliveries, and since the current month’s bing was already sold out, I received a hoard of samples of previous puer selections. Last week I had a go at the Meng Song. Today I tried the 2012 Bada Mountain Fermented (it seems that Jalam refers to their Shou puer as “fermented” and their Sheng as “unfermented” or with no classifier).

Photo Mar 19, 4 56 37 PMFirst I love that Jalam has a whole page and several videos dedicated to each tea. It really makes learning about the tea and its origin a fun experience. Location and skill of the producer are really what sets different tea apart, especially with Puer, but it’s so difficult to learn about those things from even respected vendors, East or West. The best thing is to visit the producer yourself or taste a whole lot of tea to get to know a factory. What Jalam offers is a good compromise: inexpensive, decent amounts of tea from unique regions and a full page of info about where it came from. Stéphane at Teamasters offers a similar experience with tea from Taiwan (mostly oolong), although somewhat less formally. His packages always give the precise location and date of harvest, which is a rare treat.

This Puer really surprised me, which is not easy for a Shou. I did a double sniff-take when I smelled the damp leaves. The aroma was so unusual: really rich in a dark plum sort of way that reminds me more of a black assam than a Shou Puer. Certainly there’s the character of moss and peat that I hope for in such a tea, but this has something more intriguing.

Photo Mar 19, 4 58 43 PMAfter slightly bungling my last attempt with these packages, I resolved to make a more careful infusion. I used a gaiwan to ensure control and I used only 4 grams of leaf since the packaging of the samples caused a little more breakage than would have occurred in a cake. If I were making this from a bing, I would probably use my usual 6 grams and maybe infuse a little longer.

Photo Mar 19, 4 59 52 PMThe taste has some of the bite I associate with Assamica leaf, which makes sense since the cultivar used for Puer is a large-leaf relative of the tea grown in Northern India. But saying it tastes like a black tea is a inaccurate description; it’s not really astringency that I taste — which is what I imagined when I read about the “nice smooth bite” on the package — it’s more of a brightness or zing in the mouth. Even using that term is complicated, though. Usually when I speak of a bright assam black tea, there’s a kick of potency close behind, but there is no kick here. Like the label says, it’s smooth all the way.

After 6 infusions the flavors were still going strong. I could probably drink this tea all day. In fact, I picked it up several hours later and made about 4 more infusions before the taste began to plateau.

I’m not sure that I would head for this tea all the times that I’m feeling in the mood for a Shou Puer. It has fewer of the stomach-soothing properties than my other bings. I would probably enjoy it more as the package suggests, as a morning tea to wake up the mind and body without the potency of an Assam or Darjeeling. Altogether it has been quite a fascinating experience to taste yet another quality that Puer is capable of exhibiting. The world of tea is truly never completely mapped.

 

 

 

Cultivars and Places in Tea Names

Tea naming is an interesting art, and it’s easy for us Westerners to be confused by the plethora of naming conventions out there. I think a little primer might be helpful.

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Let’s take a tea name like Gao Shan Ali Shan Jin Xuan Milk Oolong. That’s a lot of words! But we can break it up pretty easily to learn more about our tea. Within we will find:

1. The height of the tea garden.

2. The place the tea was grown.

3. The cultivar used.

4. A common use-name.

In this case we’re going through a Chinese tea name because I think that can be the hardest to understand, but the same principles apply to tea from other countries. There may, however, be more information as well, such as the leaf size or grade.

“Gāo Shān” (高山) literally means “High Mountain”. It refers to tea grown in a garden above 1000 meters. Many of the oolong teas from Taiwan fall into this category. The theory goes that if a tea is grown at a higher elevation, it will tend toward lighter, sweeter flavors as the increased sunlight and decreased temperature affect the leaf. This is not universally true, of course, but Gao Shan oolongs usually do have those qualities.

tea_culitvarsMany teas include the place name for the mountain or region in which the tea was grown. This has led to some famous locations throughout the tea growing world, and plenty of counterfeits. Ālǐ Shān (阿里山) is one of the most popular tea mountains in Taiwan and so you can often find “Ali Shan” tea that was actually grown someplace else. Still, the place a tea is grown does not in itself tell you if a tea will be good or not, so it’s just another guideline.

A Cultivar (short for “cultivated variety”) is the particular version of Camellia Sinensis that was grown to make this tea. Often the cultivar isn’t mentioned in the tea’s name, but sometimes it is the entirety of the name. Jīn Xuān (金萱), for example, is the name of a particular tea cultivar that is grown in Taiwan and Fujian, China. A particular cultivar is usually processed in the same manner, even in different locations, so if you are familiar with the way a cultivar tastes, that can give you more of an idea of the experience you will have with a tea than anything else in the name.

“Milk Oolong” is the more common name for Jin Xuan tea in the West because the flavor of that cultivar, when gently roasted by the tea manufacturer, gives off a sweet aroma with a texture similar to cream. The common name of a tea is often a translation of the Chinese cultivar name or location, but not always. In this case, Jin Xuan literally means “Golden Day Lilly”, so “Milk Oolong” is not a translation.

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So finally, our “Gao Shan Ali Shan Jin Xuan Milk Oolong” is a tea that was grown about 1000 meters on Ali Shan mountain using the Jin Xuan cultivar. This is why you can’t have a Dong Ding Ali Shan (two place names) or a Jin Xuan Tie Guan Yin (two cultivars). As always, though, the only way to really learn about a tea is to give it a try (preferably several).

Shui Mi Xiang from Camellia Sinensis

This is a tea I haven’t had before. Shuǐ Mì Xiāng (水蜜香) means “Water Honey Aroma”, or perhaps more lyrically, “Honey-water scent” and it’s easy to see why. The dark twisted leaves give forth a dusty sweet aroma that gave away the family of this tea even before I knew what it was: Guandong oolong.

Photo Feb 11, 3 15 33 PM

This is the first tea I’ve had with this name, but I assume it falls into the category of Phoenix oolongs (凤凰茶 or Fèng Huáng Chá). This class of oolong is grown in the Phoenix mountains of Guǎngdōng Province (广东) in south-eastern China and has very specific characteristics. Dark, long, and twisted leaves which carry an unmistakable roast and the subtle aroma of sweet stone fruit are the hallmark of this style. Typically they produce a golden infusion with a honey and apricot flavor. I’ve tasted many different Phoenix oolongs, and there is a variation in flavor intensity, aroma, and body, but otherwise they all share the qualities mentioned above. It’s one of my favorite styles of oolong to share with new tea drinkers as I think it showcases the amazing flavors that can be brought out of the tea leaf with nothing added. I’ve even had someone call me before to ask if the tea they bought was scented!

As with any tea, consistent leaf sizes are desirable and this tea has them. They will allow the tea to infuse at a consistent rate without small or broken leaves confusing things. Many Phoenix oolongs I’ve had are of the Dān Cóng (单丛) harvest. Dān Cóng means something like “single bush”, and (from what I understand) refers to wild or arbor tea trees, that is, tea plants that have been allowed to grow without pruning so they reach three to five meters in height. Arbor tea leaves tend to have more complex flavors than those found in cultivated gardens. Perhaps this is a Dān Cóng and perhaps not, but it is definitely an exceptional tea. I smelled the aroma during a recent trip to Camellia Sinensis and immediately picked some up.

Xiāng (香) can also mean “spice”, which is really interesting because I definitely detect cinnamon notes in the taste and texture. My first few infusions reminded me of cinnamon sticks and the sweetness of cherries. The translucency of the liquor implies a lighter body, but it’s actually quite full in the mouth.

Photo Feb 11, 3 45 21 PMI easily made four good infusions of 4g of the same leaf, with no loss of flavor that I could detect. Another good sign. I don’t think this tea will last very long in my collection with the speed at which I’m drinking it, but if there’s one lesson I’ve learned over the years, it’s that tea is meant to be consumed. If you hoard tea without drinking it yourself, you’re missing the point, and even better is to share!

What is Puer?

I’ve been drinking a lot of Puer tea lately. Possibly more than any other style. Back in the old days I wrote a post on Dobra Tea’s blog about Puer to help with demystifying this wonderful beverage. Since then there has been a lot more accurate information published on the Internet regarding Puer and Hei Cha in general, but I felt I may as well update and republish my version. So without further ado:

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The six styles of tea would not be complete without the oft-misunderstood category called Puer (also Pu’er, Pu’erh, or Pu-er, but always 普洱). Just like White Tea, Green Tea, Black Tea, Oolong Tea, and Yellow Tea, there is also Puer Tea. Simply put, it is intentionally aged tea, but that description does it a disservice. The aging process has many nuances and cannot be used with just any leaf. It is a whole style of tea into itself and therefore, even though there are similarities, one can find quite a lot of variation between the tastes of one puer and another.

In China, Puer (普洱茶) is a regional appellation restricted (at least officially) to the region of southern Yunnan province near the border of Myanmar and Laos. If you get right down to it, It is actually a sub-category of the style of tea known as “dark tea” or Hei Cha (黑茶) which is any tea that has gone through a “post fermentation” process (a heavily misunderstood term on which I will elaborate below). Hei Cha is rarely discussed outside of China, however, as the popularity of Puer has far eclipsed the few other styles of Hei Cha that exist (Liu Bao, for example) just as the popularity of Champagne in the West has all but replaced discussion of “Sparkling Wine”, even though Champagne is only one region that produces that beverage.

“Post fermentation” is a difficult term to pin down. The real difference between Puer and its cousins is the aging process of the leaves. It is the only style of tea that gets better as it gets older (assuming ideal storage conditions). The processing of Puer is actually fairly simple compared to teas such as Taiwanese oolongs. First the leaves are sun-dried and withered, much like the beginning of a White tea. With the help of a short heating process, this “fixes” the leaf, stopping the oxidation process (note that the Chinese always translate tea oxidation as “fermentation”, even though this is an enzymatic reaction). The resulting silver-and-green leaves are called “Mao Cha” (毛茶) and are quite drinkable, infusing much like a Green tea.

Pressing Puer the old way.

Pressing Puer the old way.

Afterward, the Mao Cha is usually gently steamed, pressed into cakes or bricks, and then aged in dry or slightly humid conditions for a period of time determined by the tea master in that factory. During the aging process, microorganisms change the leaf and transform the cedar-like taste into the typical earthy flavors of a Puer tea, while reducing any sharpness that might be present. Over time (typically 10-30 years) the matured cake can produce a dark and comforting infusion with wonderful aromas. This kind of Puer is called Sheng Cha (生茶 — even if you don’t read Chinese you can see this on the label), meaning “raw tea”.

Before the 1970s, Sheng Cha was the only kind of Puer that existed. There was not much of an export market because of how long it took to produce a cake with an ideal flavor. Some young Shengs can be quite delicious, but it is generally thought that Puer should have a few years on it at least.

Both of these are actually Sheng! One is just much older.

Both of these are actually Sheng! One is just much older.

At some point, though, the tea masters of Kunming discovered a process being used in nearby Guangxi province that produced a rich and dark leaf within less than a year of aging. The secret was a damp pile-fermentation much like the process of composting, but very strictly controlled in temperature and humidity to prevent the tea leaves from rotting. The result was bricks of tea that were delicious nearly instantly after production. These teas were dubbed Shou Cha (or Shu Cha, 熟茶) meaning “ripe tea” and the process was quickly replicated in the factories of Yunnan province.

Shou Puer (sometimes mis-translated as “cooked tea”) still improves with age, but has different flavors that are more fresh soil-like than its Sheng counterparts. Theoretically, Shou Puer is just an accelerated aging version of the original Sheng style, so it’s possible to mistake an old Sheng for a new Shou. In my experience, however, there actually is a notable difference. Old Sheng (traditionally aged) Puer tends to be more smooth, more fragrant, and more gentle than its Shou counterparts. Of course, there’s plenty of poor tasting Sheng out there as well! The quality of the tea leaves originally used, the factory’s process, and perhaps especially the conditions of the Puer’s storage during its aging process all have significant effects on the final taste for either style.

Aside from the wonderful flavors of cedar and fruit that can pervade a well-aged tea cake (or 饼茶, bing cha), another advantage of the Puer leaf is that both types of this tea can be infused many more times than almost any other tea in existence. One chunk of good Shou Puer can make 15-20 infusions before losing its flavors.

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If you haven’t ever tried a Puer, they’re much easier to find than they used to be, but be aware that the mass-market loose Shou Puer you may find in a coffee shop or a grocery store is going to be a far cry from what you can find online. The internet has brought out many reputable dealers of fine Puer tea, and many of them will allow you to buy a sample of a cake before committing the whole thing. And if you find a good Puer, don’t worry about ordering too much; remember, it only gets better.