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Painter’s Roast Oolong

Of all the many, many (read: too many) teas I brought back from Taiwan, the most eloquent was a small unlabeled pouch of rolled oolong carefully hand-roasted by a man in Lùgǔ (鹿谷鄉). As I’ve just sipped the last of that fine vintage, I thought I might tell you the story of where I found it.

Perhaps I should first explain why I think this tea is so special. Certainly it has all the qualities of a first class tea, from its smooth mouth-feel to the blissful aroma of sweet roasted chestnut as the liquor engulfs my senses. Yet those mundane aspects are only one level of the intrigue at play here. What really draws me to this tea is a characteristic that is difficult to put into words. Some people call this Cha Qi (茶氣). It’s something like the energy of the tea.

Photo Feb 24, 2 54 41 PMSome tea tastes great or has a very interesting aroma, but after drinking it I feel unsettled. A tea which leaves me feeling at peace in mind and body is a tea which I consider to have good Cha Qi, and it is a rare thing indeed. This tea has Cha Qi in abundance, and I wonder what it must take to craft such magic from plants. If you’d like to read more about this elusive quality, Stéphane has a good discussion on his blog and TeaChat has one as well, but you’ll probably have to experience it for yourself.

These fine leaves originated in Nántóu (南投縣), the only land-locked county on the whole island. While Taiwan is generally an easy place to navigate with English, smaller regions like Nántóu can make life a little more interesting. As we got off the bus in front of the Lùgǔ 7-11 (they’re everywhere in Taiwan), there was some confusion about our bus tickets. In order to exit the bus, you had to hand your ticket to the driver to prove you had paid for that leg of the journey, but one member of our group had already misplaced his ticket. In the ensuing chaos, we met a very nice woman getting off at the same stop who helped us communicate to the bus driver and resolve the situation.

We only knew of one person in the town, a man who worked at the renowned Lùgǔ Farmer’s Association, but we weren’t sure where we might be able to stay. Fortunately the nice woman at the bus stop (whose English was excellent) led us to a sort of bed-and-breakfast she knew across the street. Apparently the building was also attached to some sort of school for children where she taught art classes. And of course, like many people in Lùgǔ, the owners of the house were involved with tea production. 

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A good place to stay if you’re ever in Lugu.

We immediately started exploring the small and friendly town and learning about its vibrant tea culture. In the last few decades that culture had been in decline until the Farmer’s Association was created to preserve the traditions of the growers, pickers, and craftsmen of the region. At one point we browsed a small tea exhibit at the town hall and the employees there took a keen interest in us. I think that having Americans touring their town was quite a rare thing. Since they didn’t speak much English and our Mandarin was non-existent, they called up someone they assured us could help. As good luck would have it, our friend from the Farmer’s Association walked in the door! He had a busy schedule but told us a little about the town and then promised that he could make more time to chat if we could wait until the following day. Not wanting to take advantage of his kindness, we agreed to spend the rest of the day wandering on our own.

 

Our tea friend and translator.

Our tea friend and translator.

After another hour had passed we found a very interesting shop on the far side of the town. Being able to tell the difference between a shop and someone’s home is often very difficult in Taiwan; they’re frequently one and the same. This place was run solely by a very kind man who clearly knew about tea (his home-made tea station was something to behold) but whose primary activity appeared to be brush painting. He spoke not a word of English, but we sat and enjoyed tea with him just the same, jovially munching on sunflower seeds and observing the varied paintings that surrounded us.

 

The painter himself.

The painter himself.

As we were preparing to leave, we wanted very much to purchase some of his really excellent tea but at that point our ability to communicate without words completely broke down, so the painter called someone up on the phone. We figured that he knew someone who spoke English and could translate for us. Imagine our surprise when our Farmer’s Association friend again walked in the door. Apparently he was the one to call if you needed to talk to foreigners, but we felt very guilty for disturbing his work twice in one day.

Photo Feb 25, 10 20 44 AM

It turns out that the painter did not actually produce any tea, but would purchase mostly-finished tea leaves from the farmers and then roast it himself in a large electrically-heated bamboo basket: quite an art in and of itself. It was very much an education on the amazing effect that a carefully executed roast can have on a tea leaf. Of course the base tea needs to be of a high quality as well, but by roasting the leaves just enough to engage their mouth-watering fragrance without burning anything, the master of roasting can transform a good tea into an outstanding tea. I have cherished my small bag of “Painter’s Roast” ever since and I hope someday to return to Lùgǔ to pay my respects to that master (and, of course, to get some more tea!).

Old Tea: Ali Shan Jin Xuan

This is the first set of teas I decided to test in my grand (old) tea tasting experiment of this summer.

My first foray into the stash of oolong I’ve been keeping around brought back fond memories of days spent in Taiwan. A 2011 Ali Shan Jin Xuan which I purchased at the top of Ali Shan mountain itself. (shan, 山, literally means mountain, so I’m repeating myself, but I’m willing to accept that today). It wasn’t an easy trip.

Photo Aug 27, 11 35 45 AM

My friend and I had planned to travel to the Chiayi area and spend several days visiting the gardens of this famous tea mountain, but as we sat in Lugu watching local TV we learned that a deadly train wreck had just occurred near the mountain and so, just to be on the safe side, we put it off.

Several days later, back in Taipei, we resolved to make a day trip of the journey. So early one morning, we packed up and headed out with only a short detour to find some breakfast and pick up food for the train ride. We knew roughly how long it would take to get to the base of the mountain, but we didn’t think about the extra time moving around always takes in a place where you don’t speak the language. So when we arrived in Chiayi and found a bus to the city, it was already mid-afternoon. Imagine our surprise when the people working there told us that the last bus up the mountain had left at 2pm!

We hadn’t realized that the bus ride up the winding mountain passes took a full three hours, and that in order to get up in time to do something and catch a return trip, we should have been there near daybreak.

With a tiny amount of Mandarin available to us and a firm resolve, we found a taxi driver willing to ferry us up to the top, and he promised it would be faster than a bus ride. He was right, but that little taxi swerving up the one-lane mountain road at high speed is still one of my least favorite memories.

Photo May 09, 6 25 46 PM

We made the trip in just over 2 hours, just as the sun was setting. We expected quite a view, but of course one of the reasons that Ali Shan is so well suited to tea growing is the clouds and mist that often cover its peak. In a last-ditch effort we found our way to a tea shop and became their last customers of the evening. After tasting several options, I bought this tea as my favorite, and equally as a trophy of our reaching the summit of this holy place.

I’ll spare you the part where we had to ask for help from a 7-11 clerk to get a taxi back down again.

Even though these leaves have been sealed in a foil bag within a tin, they are showing their age. The flavor of the infusions was very light with only a hint of the creamy floral aroma that the Jin Xuan cultivar is known for. I tried three infusions, attempting to pull out something to impress, but while I could certainly increase the strength of the tea, the flavor remained so light as to be almost indistinguishable.

This tea, alas, will be consigned to the bin.

2012 Ping Shui Ri Zhu from Shao Xing

Today’s tea was a gift from a tea factory I visited in Shao Xing (绍兴), Zhejiang province, somewhat near Hangzhou. We had traveled to the factory to learn more about the production of Zhu Cha (珠茶), more commonly known in the West as Gunpowder green tea. Zhu Cha is often considered a lower-quality style of Chinese tea, since its production is almost entirely by machine (a rarity in China), but one thing this visit taught me is that even such “low quality” tea has quite a pedigree.

Most tea in China is picked by hand, usually early in the morning at high elevations. Zhu Cha is picked by a machine that looks something like a lawn mower, but is held up in the air over a row of tea bushes with a handler on either side. The tea leaves are sheared off into a collection bag on the back. For this reason you can always identify machine-harvested tea gardens by their immaculate rows of bushes. It’s worth noting that this style of harvesting is the norm in Japan, but that’s quite another post.

The leaves are then processed through a series of machines. First they are heated in a drum drier to fix the leaf (this is what makes it a green tea).Then they are withered and rolled and heated in a series of steps to create the tiny pearls that give the tea its name.

After our tour of the factory and gardens, we learned that from these gardens, there’s still a range of grades. Ping Shui Ri Zhu (平水日铸 – Ping Shui is the region), the tea we received, is apparently the highest grade of tea produced in that area. Ri Zhu tea is made earlier in the season than Zhu Cha (before April 20) at the same time as the local Long Jing, but the leaves are smaller and the processing is more akin to Zhu Cha.

The leaves are dark green and rolled small, although not quite as small as Zhu Cha. The liquor is a pale gold and the taste is surprisingly sweet with a delicate vegetal quality. The aftertaste reminds me of a Sencha, actually, although its production is pretty far from that and there’s no corresponding aroma to make me think of Japan. In fact, there’s very little aroma at all.

Energizing and quick, this full-bodied tea doesn’t have a lot of nuance, but is delicious to drink, especially on this sunny spring morning.

2011 Da Hong Pao – Wuyi Star Tea

I originally wrote this post for Cha Xi Collective, but I’m recording it here as well for reference.

Dark twisted dry leaves that look like the leaves on the trees outside on this chilly fall day. The aroma is pure warmth, like sweet wood smoke.

The liquor is a beautiful autumn leaf blazing red that glows in the lamp light.

The first infusion was without a rinse, so I allowed it about 45 seconds (a fair number of leaves were in the pot). I detect a subtle sweetness on the tip of the tongue, but a whole lot of smoke and earth. There’s a walnut shell or raw cacao effect: dry and textured. It really tastes like the smell of a walk in the woods on Thanksgiving day.

For the second infusion I returned to a more standard 20-30 seconds. The effect is similar if a bit more drying. But the next one packed quite a sweet punch like a really good toasted almond. The body gets lighter, but that crispness on the tip of the tongue does not fade.

This tea was the only one I purchased at the Ningbo tea expo. I’ve written about our adventures in Ningbo previously. We had tasted many different teas from many different booths as we were guided around by our tea friends. There was pretty much everything represented there, including a whole section (in a separate building) for Taiwanese tea.

The booth that sold this tea was one of the last I passed. Much of the visual draw for me was the fantastic (but expensive) teaware that various potters had displayed. This booth had no pottery at all, but they clearly had spent some money on packaging and advertising their products. Little colored tubes set up on a table really spoke to my love for the exotic. Each tube contained a different tea, and as I remember there was quite a nice selection.

Even though my initial reaction was along the lines of, “how nice looking, but I doubt they really know their tea”, I was intrigued. The same must of been true of my friends, as before I knew it they had all purchased one tube or another. Now, even excited as I was to be at a tea expo in China, influenced by the purchases of my friends, and attracted to the appearance of this booth, I have a fairly strict rule of not buying tea that I haven’t had a chance to taste. It was the proverbial straw that broke my will when I learned that in buying one of these tea samples, the customer was given a free gaiwan and set of cups. I suppose I am more of a sucker for teaware than anything else.

By the time I decided to get something, we were already on our way out, so I hurriedly excused myself from the group, ran back to the booth, and grabbed a tea I thought would be a rare taste on our trip (since we were enable to visit Fujian or Guandong), reliable Da Hong Pao.

As it turns out, the free gaiwan was not very strongly built, nor well packed. By the time I made it to Shanghai, the fine porcelain was cracked and punished into a pile of silt. I did manage to save some of the cups, but the real treat of this experience was the tea itself. It turns out that Wuyi Star appears to match their quality with their style. Quite a number of infusions (upwards of 7) were my reward along with a rich, nicely textured flavor that blessedly was free of over-roasting (as is often the case with similar Wuyi Yan Cha).

I hope to attend more tea expos in the future.

2011 Rou Gui from Shanghai

I originally wrote this post for Cha Xi Collective, but I’m recording it here as well for posterity.

This tea came from Ming Qiu Cha Yuan, a shop in a Shanghai tea market. Pumpkin orange in the cup, there’s a lot of Autumn in this tea. A fairly strong roast to the leaves gives much of the Wuyi oolong character to this tea, although there’s a subtle sweetness and fruitiness that lies just under the surface. In fact, the more I think of pumpkins, the more similarities I can see. Mouth-filling and full with a starchy texture and a creamy sweetness behind the earthiness of a harvest field, this 肉桂茶 makes quite an impression on this rainy October afternoon.

The name of the tea means “cinnamon bark”, perhaps referring to the wonderful aromatic roast of this tea. When I arrived in China, however, I was only vaguely aware of this particular Wuyi oolong. The first character, Ròu, when used by itself can mean “meat”, and when I first encountered a shop selling this tea I was more than a little repulsed by the idea of a “meat tea”. Reassured by my friend that Ròuguì has no connection to dead animals, I was pleasantly surprised to find this mysterious tea which seems to lean back and forth between the depth of Da Hong Pao (大红袍) and the sweetness of Feng Huang Dan Cong (凤凰单丛).

The shop in which we found this tea was in one of the large tea markets of Shanghai. If you have visited a multiple story indoor mall, the setup is much the same except that all the shops have some sort of connection to tea or teaware. We visited similar markets in Kunming, but the Shanghai variety seem to be more urban in style, with fewer outdoor regions and a more modern appearance with, for example, escalators.

As this was the first tea market we visited on the east coast of China, we weren’t sure what to expect. Consequently, I sat and drank tea with the women who ran this shop several times over the course of a few hours, leaving frequently to explore the rest of the market. The selection of teaware on offer was remarkable, and upstairs from this particular shop I even discovered what appeared to be a tiny music school for my favorite instrument, the Guqin. Either that or it was a teaware and art store run by Guqin devotees.

The kind woman who served us tea was very patient with my comings and goings and allowed us to examine and taste several of the teas she had available, stored in large metal tins on the wall. One of the teas we picked, I think perhaps a Da Hong Pao, was a bit too expensive, so I settled on this unique selection, having never owned a Ròuguì before. Two seasons later I am very glad for my purchase!

I infused this tea in my wonderful new small Petr Novak teapot, gong-fu style. Attempting to follow the advice of Stéphane, I did not rinse the leaves first and instead increased the time of the first infusion to about one and a half minutes. The result was quite a roasted cup, which was probably more than I was attempting to invoke. For the second, shorter infusion and thereafter, the sweetness really shone through (starting with about 30 seconds and going up from there).

Xie Xie, Ming Qiu Cha Yuan.

2011 Pinglin Bao Zhong

This post was originally written for Cha Xi Collective. Just keeping a copy here.

Brewing this in Cha Xi for the early Autumn, sitting by the window with the pink and purple of the season’s last morning glories peeking in. Memories of distant sun-soaked Pinglin are coming out of the pot right along with the tea.

Knowing that the small town of Pinglin near the North-East coast of Taiwan was home to this iconic oolong, but little else, my friends and I muddled our way to the downtown bus that would take us there. When we arrived, we were surprised to find what looked more like a small village than the tourist-friendly tea town we had hoped for. There was even supposed to be a huge tea museum!

Not dissuaded, we did what we usually did in Taiwan: walked about until we saw some tea and headed toward it. Right next to our bus stop there was a small shop (or house, it was difficult to tell the difference on the streets of Taiwan) that was filled to bursting with big bags of green leaves. After pushing our way toward the back, we were met by a very friendly family. The parents didn’t speak any English, and we had no Chinese to offer them, but we managed to communicate that we were interested in tasting some local oolong. Luckily for us, one of their sons, probably around high-school age, spoke some English and we were able to taste a wide selection of what they had to offer.

It turns out there is quite a variety of taste, even among Bao Zhong (literally meaning “wrapped item”) teas produced by a single family. The oxidation level, date of harvest, the leaf size, and the level of roast all have a noticeable effect on the final product. Since this was the first tea shop in the entire town we visited, we bought a small amount of our favorites and then, emboldened by our success, headed out to see what other treasures we could find.

After several hours of wandering the streets and trying a few other shops (or living rooms?), it became clear that our first stop had been the best all along.

There was, in fact, a tea museum. It was completely empty of other humans and the only staff we saw were in the small gift shop near the entrance, but it was indeed a storehouse of tea information and examples. The advantage of the lack of people was that we were free to wander the halls all by ourselves with no ticket required. The down side was that it was a little rough around the edges. (It was also one of the many places in Asia where one is expected to bring one’s own toilet paper. Altogether a good life lesson.)

We eventually returned to the first tea shop we had found and purchased some more recently harvested leaves, including this light roast oolong and a Green Bao Zhong for its freshness. As I’ve come to expect from good quality oolongs, this tea has aged well in its simple foil package, possibly improving in the year since its harvest.

Sweet like green grass and honeydew. Gentle roast that joins “tea” to “melon” in my taste memory; it creates a texture and chewiness on the sides of the mouth. Golden-green color.

Second infusion is more rich and less sweet. Tending toward the sweetness of a good light ale.

I figured a bit longer in the pot would help to bring back the honeydew. The third infusion takes the sweetness and makes it into a bold statement rather than a gentle brush. Mouth-filling, it brings together the tastes of the previous two.

About 45 second to one minute infusions with a decent amount of leaves. Brewed in my Yixing pot from Maokong, Taiwan, reserved for light roast oolongs.

Gao Shan Lao Cong Shui Xian

This article was originally written for Cha Xi Collective. Just keeping a copy here.
Oolong Tea found at Si Hai Cha Zhuang in Ningbo

Roasted and crispy, as expected from a Wuyi Shui Xian. A woody aroma and a golden orange color. The first few infusions have very little real flavors on my tongue – more of a sense or feeling of charcoal. I then tried very hot water with a much longer infusion time (about 2 minutes) and was rewarded a very distinct aroma of steamed milk and a somewhat tannic coriander taste on the sides of the tongue.

I don’t have much experience with or knowledge of Gao Shan Lao Cong tea, but I can taste the signs of the title.

Gao Shan oolongs are usually highly praised for their well-defined aromas; this tea has more aroma than taste, although it is not flowery at all. They also tend towards a lighter body which this tea, despite its roast, does as well.

Lao (old) trees tend to be used for producing tea that packs a punch. This tea has just that effect; you can’t miss the charcoal dryness when it hits your tongue.

Not my favorite Wuyi oolong, but an interesting comparison to other Shui Xians I’ve had in the past.

We purchased this tea from tea friends we had met in Ningbo (宁波) at their shop. After discovering the amazing tearoom at the Tea Museum, we got to know a very kind gentleman there named Shihongwei. At first, this young tea master began brewing us a delicious pot of Da Hong Pao with what is likely the attitude of most tea experts in China toward foreigners, but when we told him we were employees of a teahouse in America, he was very impressed and became much more animated. It’s funny how the world of tea is so small.

Shihongwei asked us if we had been to the tea expo or if we were planning to attend. A tea expo? We didn’t even know that there was a tea house in Ningbo, let alone a whole exposition dedicated to this plant. It turned out that the expo was nearly at an end and that the next day was its close. We told our new friend that we would love to go but could he tell us how to get there? His excited response was to arrive at the teahouse the next morning at 10am and he would bring us there himself.

The expo was a wonderful experience. It was actually a little overwhelming and I could easily have spent a whole day there just wandering around, tasting tea, and examining teaware. Perhaps unfortunately, as we were guests of our friend, we felt obligated to stay with him and see what he thought most interesting. While there, we met Tang (汤) and Wang Jing (王璟 – we called her “hat girl”), young friends of Shihongwei, who invited us to the tea shop where they worked as soon as we were leaving.

Tang and Wang Jing worked at a small shop on the east side of the city and seemed to specialize in roasted oolongs. We thought this quite fortunate since our trip plans did not include Fujian or Guandong province where these fine teas are usually produced.

We drank many cups of tea with these folks as the afternoon wore on and learned about each others’ cultures. These conversations (aided heavily by various translation software) are probably my favorite part of these trips. Sharing life tales and cultural tidbits over cups of tea is an amazing experience. It’s also a hungry experience and we were doubly-fortunate to be treated to lunch by our hosts as well.

They had a room upstairs with the most polished and glowing carved wooden table I’ve ever seen. It was massive, and soon covered with takeout boxes full of rice and vegetables along with a few cans of Coca-cola. It felt like eating Chinese take-out with friends in high school on someone’s parent’s expensive dining-room table. You’re always a little worried about spilling something.

Needless to say we wanted to take home some tea from this shop, so we picked out one of the boxes of Wuyi oolongs from their shelves and divided it among ourselves. At the time I thought we were buying Da Hong Pao, but upon closer inspection of the packages, the tea turned out to be Lao Cong Shui Xian. I was pretty content with this mistake since this is a style of tea I have never tried.

If ever I am in Ningbo again I will definitely seek out Wang Jing and Tang and Shihongwei and hopefully give them a gift worthy of all the kindness they showed to me.