Tag Archives: taiwan

Master’s Collection Hsinchu Oriental Beauty from Adagio

As I mentioned last week, I recently was given a gift certificate to review some teas from Adagio. A long time ago I was a regular on their sleek website with all its tea information and community resources, but since then I’ve been more drawn to smaller specialty shops. To really see what they could offer, I decided to jump straight for the “Master’s Collection” teas. My second try was their “Hsinchu Oriental Beauty”.

I appreciate the naming of this offering, as even among specialty tea shops, it’s rare to see Hsinchu listed so explicitly. Hsinchu is a region in north-western Taiwan where Oriental Beauty (東方美人茶, Dōng Fāng Měi Rén Chá, or sometimes simply 白毫 – Bái Háo) is grown and processed. This remarkable oolong, which I’ve written about before, is gifted a very special technique around the harvest time. Before picking, the farmers encourage a species of leaf hopper insect to bite the leaves of the tea plant, triggering a chemical reaction that our taste buds find delicious.

masters-baihao-liquorBrewed for about 2 minutes at 95°C, the aroma of this tea was striking as soon as it came out of the gaiwan. Definitely Bai Hao. That roasted grain and honey sweetness is recognizable anywhere. In fact, the perfume it gave off was almost overly sweet, reminding me somewhat of a Dan Cong. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Bai Hao quite this dramatic before, and I’ve drank a lot of it. I would recommend keeping the infusions short for this tea or at least taking care how many leaves are used to avoid being overwhelmed!

That bold sweetness continued for another four infusions, so the life of the leaf is not in question. Sometimes Dong Fang Mei Ren Cha is called “honey oolong” and this sweetness is the reason. The liquor feels like a mouthful of amber honeycomb.

masters-baihao-wetIf Bao Zhong is a Dragon of Spring Dawning, Bai Hao is a Dragon of Autumn Twilight. It’s a warming tea ready to impart a touch of kindness to a rainy day or to glow in the shadows of a sunny afternoon.

Our days can be full of chaos and confusion, so please, take a moment to watch the swirl of leaves in your pot. I hope you can see within the all the hands (both human and insect in this case!) whose lives are intertwined with the tea. We’re all in this together.

Master’s Collection Formosa Pouchong from Adagio

Back when I first fell in love with loose leaf tea, I quickly discovered Adagio. Compared to my other favorite of the time, Upton Tea Imports, Adagio had a sleek website, a more curated selection, and excellent packaging. Their online communities provided a space for tea discussion long before Steepster. While their selection is great, their focus on mass-appeal teas and blends eventually led me to more specialty shops and I haven’t been back for years. Unexpectedly, last week I had the opportunity to get my hands on some of their newer offerings. Specifically I went right for the “Master’s Collection” that seemed to fit my interests. Fair warning: I received a gift certificate from Adagio that paid for most of the cost of these teas.

Having spent a wondrous adventure drinking tea in Pinglin, Taiwan, my first pick was what Adagio calls “Formosa Pouchong”. While exotic-sounding, this is an old way of referring to Bāo zhǒng oolong tea (包種茶). If you’ve never encountered these names, I’ll unwrap it a bit. “Formosa” is Portuguese for “beautiful” and it was a name used for the island of Taiwan from the 1500s through until the Japanese occupation in the late 1800s. A particular style of green oolong (light bodied, light roasted or un-roasted) is produced in the Wen Shan area in the north of Taiwan that is known as Bāo zhǒng or “wrapped item”. The name likely comes from some of the steps used in processing these gently twisted green leaves. Before the advent of modern Pinyin transliteration, “Bao zhong” was often rendered as “Pouchong” in the West, and here it sometimes remains.

If you’d like to read more about Bao zhong or Pinglin and my time there, I have several posts on the topic ranging from my original telling of the story, to some tasting notes, to a comparison of different leaves.

I brewed these dark green leaves at 90°C for 2 minutes. The dry leaf was dark and matte green. In my experience most Bao zhong is fairly bright. Unlike some rolled or more heavily roasted oolongs, I think Bao zhong is best consumed during the five month period after its harvest and a dull leaf can sometimes point to older tea. Once in the cup, however, a bright green liquor and delicate flavors told a different story. This tea brings to mind ancient moss-covered temples and glowing statues of Quan Yin.

Here’s what Adagio has to say about this tea, which I’d say accurately summarizes the color of the liquor and the texture on the tongue.

The liquor is a pale golden-green color with melting-butter texture, uplifting floral notes and mild, succulent flavor. The sweet floral nose lingers long after the last sip.

I managed a good four infusions, increasing the time of each, before this began to loose its flavors. Longevity like that in an oolong is a good sign of quality leaf. The aroma of toasted sunflower seeds and nuts was just as I was expecting, although it was considerably less pronounced than some Bao zhong I’ve had in the past. The body is excellent and buttery in the mouth, making for a good session tea. I’d recommend this for big cups and bold brews rather than sipping delicate gongfu infusions.

Wen Shan Bao zhong is always a treat for the senses, and can be a surprise for those who’ve never had such a lightly oxidized oolong before. Its flavors are almost overlapping with the character of a Liu’An Guapian or Long Jing – both quintessential Chinese green teas – and yet there’s also something more. A subtle air lives in this kind of tea that pervades the mind and brings a sense of calm, where green tea would raise the energy instead. Overall, I’m glad to see that Adagio can source some unexpected treasures and spread more good tea into the world.

 

A Calm Fragrance in Autumn

A lazy trail of incense drifting over the pot, the tea steeps in silence, peacefully abiding.

This month’s Global Tea Hut offering is a relatively unique creation, a Honey Scent Oolong (Mì Xiāng, 蜜香, also titled “Calm Fragrance”, Yǐ Xiāng Rù Dìng 以香入定). This leaf was crafted from the Four Seasons cultivar (Sì jì chūn, 四季春) which has been intentionally bitten by the leafhopper so highly prized for the creation of Eastern Beauty Oolong (Dōngfāng Měirén, 东方美人茶). The tea was then oxidized a fair amount before rolling and roasting, becoming a style known as Concubine Oolong (Guì Fēi, 貴妃茶), but with a deeper roast.

mixiang-leafThe result is a golden cup of sweet nectar whose aroma carries the mind across fields of blooming flowers. Even the aroma of the warmed leaves, devoid of any water, is indeed an incense into itself.

Sipping this tea brings me back to the days when I first discovered the joy of unscented loose leaf tea. The gentleness on the tongue, the incredible aroma, and more crucially the way in which it opens my senses to the world around me, outside of my thoughts.

outdoor-autumnAs I hold my cup, I hear the strumming of music on the speakers and the notes are more vibrant. I see the orange and yellow maple leaves outside my window and the blue-gray of the distant sky as though for the first time. The colors each seem to glow. Each sound – a drop of water, a clink of saucer, the softly breathing dog beside me – becomes somehow more vivid and real for this moment.

Although it is certainly a luxury, I highly recommend Global Tea Hut to anyone who can afford it and who wishes to explore and learn from the world of tea. Such experiences as this are meant to be shared.

I raise my cup to you, fellow tea lover. Experience this moment with me.

Tea in the Year of the Wood Sheep

This weekend morning I drank some lovely Lishan Winter Sprout (kindly sourced by Song Tea) as the chill wind shifted the piles of snow outside my window. It was a peaceful and delicious way to start the day. To bring a timely quality to this gathering, a small ceramic sheep (who followed me home from Montréal many years past) joined the Chaxi. He likes to celebrate special occasions, this sheep, and as the Chinese New Year resonates, our wooly friend was most pleased to be included. He refrained from drinking any tea, however.

The Lishan was sweet and bold, nearly glowing in the cup, with leaves that reached out to touch the winter air. A bit of the ice and the pines outside made their way through the aroma of the tea into our thoughts.

May your winter days be quiet and warm, with a cup of tea for everyone.

Alishan Oolong Black

This morning’s treat was to share some waffles and a pretty unique tea with my wife as we watched the snow gently fall outside. This is one of the teas I bought from a small shop in Taipei called DigniTea, which is a family-run artisan tea company that grows (as far as I know) all of their leaves on Alishan (a rather famous mountain outside of Chiayi). I have of course written about their lovely oolongs before. Unlike their other offerings, however, this one is an “oolong black”, which seems like an unlikely descriptor, yet there it is, right on the package.

alishan-oolong-black-package

 

Well, ok, the package also reads “大紅帖”, or Dàhóng tiē, which to the best of my ability to translate means “big red ribbon”. So perhaps the title in Chinese is just as mysterious and unexpected.
alishan-oolong-black-leaves-dryWhile I might expect a title like “oolong black” from a Western tea bag company, where precision in naming is less important than floral descriptions, DigniTea is hardly that type of company. Their Jin Xuan and Qing Xin products are some of the finest I’ve tasted, and their packaging specifies the cultivar, year, and season of harvest. This leads me to believe that the title is not mere embellishment. So, how can a tea be made as both an oolong and also a black tea? My only guess is that the style is processed in the rigorous rolling and drying system common to high mountain oolongs but allowed to oxidize longer than any other similar Dong Ding or Alishan. In fact, I’m surprised that I haven’t heard of such a creation before.

The dry leaves are dark and rolled into small balls, already giving a unique impression. It is as though one took the dark roasted leaves of a Wuyi oolong and rolled them like a tiny Dong Ding. Infused, they produce a beautiful amber liquor reminiscent of a Sun Moon Lake black tea.


The taste as well is similar, I think, to that famous Taiwanese black tea (Hong cha, really) known variously as Sun Moon Lake, Red Jade, or Number 18. Sweet and caramel-thick, but with a slight dryness and rough mouthfeel that reminds me of a charcoal roasted oolong, this tea has a gentle but unexpected character. Indeed, every time I drink some my palate is always a little confused. Is this oolong, or is it Hong cha? The DigniTea page designates it as the latter, but this may be one of those cases where the question is simply one of experience and not semantics.

The uniqueness of this tea has earned it a special spot on my shelf over the last few years, although there is precious little remaining. But that is a good thing! The way of tea is to remind us that the present moment is fleeting, and that change exists in all things. The seeds of a flavorless teabag exist in even the finest high mountain oolong, if it is not consumed. I am fortunate, and it speaks to the quality of this tea, that my Alishan oolong black has lasted so long while retaining its delightful character. It is time to drink it and move on, giving thanks for all the joy and mystery it has brought to my life.

May your tea be warm and delightful during the frigid winter snows. And may your mind find peace in the cup.

alishan-oolong-black-wet-leaves

 

San Lin Shi Winter Sprout 2014

What an interesting oolong that I discovered in a small package I brought back from my trip to California. I remembered good things from this tea, and today’s snowy conditions seemed like the perfect day to bring back some memories of sunlight.

sls-wintersprout-dryThe first thing that hit me upon opening the package was the scent. There’s an amazing dry-leaf aroma of pineapple that brings to mind nothing short of a creamy Pina Colada. It’s astounding how fruity the leaves smell, but without any of the acrid or overpowering notes that you’d get with an artificially scented tea (or any scented tea, for that matter). It’s pretty clear that this magic comes from the leaves themselves.

Even so, I worried that the liquor might be too strongly fruity to really taste the oolong flavor. Of course, I needn’t have worried. The scent is only part of the overall flavor, which has all the character of a deliciously light-roast San Lin Shi: a hint of pine over a bed of sweet artichokes and creamy spinach. The warm flaxen gold liquor is a perfect counterpoint to this blustery December day.

sls-wintersprout-liquorI’ve written before about Winter Sprout tea (不知春 or bù zhīchūn), but it’s still a fascinating topic, and this leaf hasn’t lost any potency for its one year of age. The tea is harvested in the coldest time of the year when most tea plants have yet to even give forth a single new leaf. And yet the humble Tea (Camellia Sinensis) is, after all, an evergreen plant. From what I understand, occasionally the right weather conditions manifest for a small harvest in the wintertime, and this magnificent oolong is the result. (Note that this is different from a typical “winter harvest oolong”, which is usually from late autumn, although those can certainly be some of the finest teas ever picked.)

sls-wintersprout-snowMy continued admiration to Peter Luong at Song Tea for his skill at sourcing this unique style. I can’t wait to have a tasting with the other Winter Sprout I brought back. For now, though, I’ll sit back and sip this gentle reminder that even in the depths of Winter there is a little bit of Spring waiting to emerge.

Baozhong observations

Baozhong (包種茶, literally “wrapped item”) is a very interesting tea to categorize. It balances on the border of being Green and Oolong. Very lightly oxidized, bright and floral, green and tan, it is one of the oldest styles of tea produced in Taiwan. When I think of Taiwanese oolongs, I usually imagine the sweet roasts of Dong Ding, or the high floral scents of Ali Shan. It’s easy to forget the humble twisted leaf grown in Taipei when confronted with all the miracles of the Taiwanese Tea Research Institute growing in Nantou and Chiyai.

Despite various spellings of the name (e.g.: “Pouchong”), Baozhong is pretty obvious when you see it. Most oolongs from Taiwan are of the rolled style, meaning that they are rolled during their lengthy processing into small balls which open up upon steeping to reveal three, four, or five leaves attached to a soft stem. Baozhong, however, is twisted into a sort of curl of one or possibly two leaves (the size of which varies based on the leaf) and you’ll rarely find more than the hint of a stem. The leaves are usually a bright green that immediately makes me think of a green tea, and indeed the oxidation level for Baozhong is only 5-15%, making it closer to green tea than any other oolong.

To the best of my knowledge, almost all modern Baozhong is grown in and around Pinglin, a region in the Wenshan mountains within the borders of Taipei. It’s a place which I’ve actually had the good fortune to visit. As with most tea growing areas, the people I encountered there were very friendly and welcoming, especially when they learned that I was visiting because of their tea!

Today I thought I would compare a few examples of 2013 Baozhong that I have in my cabinet. The first is from Red Blossom tea in San Francisco. It was purchased a year ago and has been resting in a double-lidded metal tin since. Even though the leaves have only been exposed to the air at the infrequent times I’ve opened the tin, I had it in my head that the leaves had lost a lot of their luster and energy. Many oolongs can retain their greatness for several years after harvest, but Baozhong is so close to Green tea that I feared its magic had been depleted by time. I was pretty pleased to discover that I was wrong about that. I infused 4 grams of leaf for about 1.5 minutes with 90°C water in a gaiwan and was greeted by a floral aroma and brightly energizing tea! A very impressive feat given its nearly 2 years of age.

baozhong-packagesThe second tea I tasted was actually the same tea from the same purchase, but had been stored differently. Following some advice from Stéphane Erler, four or five months ago I had moved a good amount of the tea from its metal tin to a ceramic jar to see what effect it would have. Today I opened the jar to a wonderous aroma and was excited to compare it to its near cousin. As you might expect, the tastes were very similar, but there were notable differences. First, the liquor of the tea from the ceramic jar was a shade darker (and remained so at every infusion) despite identical measures of weight, gaiwans, and water. I brewed these very close together to see if I could spot anything unique and to minimize any variations. Secondly, the ceramic jar Baozhong had a deeper, richer flavor than its metal-tinned version. The floral notes were much the same, but the mouth-feel was decidedly changed by its container. This is a fascinating experiment that I hope to repeat in the future!


The third tea I tasted was also a Baozhong from 2013 although just purchased recently from Teamasters. Its leaves were dramatically larger and darker than the Red Blossom tea and in fact barely fit in the gaiwan I was using. After the second infusion I removed one third of the leaves to allow the remainder to open and move about. I try not to get too far into “tea dogma”, but if my experiences are anything like yours let this be a lesson as you explore the tea world: if your gaiwan or pot is overflowing with leaves, it will dull the taste and make for a strong and blunt cup. Best to remove a few (or a lot!) of the leaves and until the remainder can swirl about efficiently. This Baozhong was dramatically more buttery and smooth than the others, making my mouth water at each sip. The buttery quality of tea is hard to describe unless you experience it, but this one was sweet and thick like cream. I’m very glad that I ordered it!

All three gaiwans gave me two good infusions and a third that was still tasty if faded. I might have been able to coax a few more from the leaves, but after drinking three infusions each of three teas I had consumed more than enough for one sitting! I bow deeply to the farmers in Pinglin for growing and crafting these unique leaves and to Red Blossom and Teamasters for giving me the chance to hold them in my cup.