Monthly Archives: November 2013

Teavivre 2013 Qing Xiang Dong Ding

…or, How it’s hard to judge an Oolong before the fourth infusion.

Photo Nov 26, 11 37 51 AM

This was a sample sent to me from the lovely folks at Teavivre. Dong Ding (sometimes Tung Ting or “Frozen Summit”) is a very beautiful tea mountain in Nantou county near the west coast of Taiwan. They produce a lot of rolled oolongs in the Taiwan/Fujian style. “Qing Xiang” (清香) means “Fragrant” or “Aromatic”.

The dry leaves lived up to their name with a very pleasant sweet aroma. As expected for a Dong Ding, the leaves are rolled into balls, but somewhat unexpectedly they are many different sizes. Some are quite a lot larger than my usual Dong Ding (indicating a lot of stems, which doesn’t mean anything in itself), while some balls were more like fine gunpowder green tea in size. The variation in leaf size had me on my guard, as such inconsistency can make infusing a tea difficult. The color was a mix of bright green mixed with gunpowder gray, like an evergreen forest in the spring.

For the first infusion, I began with an experimental 1 minute at 95C. The resulting liquor was a flaxen yellow color that told me that at least I hadn’t over-steeped it. The mouthfeel immediately had a tiny bit of sharpness, making me think that there was some contingent of broken leaves in there. The taste was bright with a fairly fresh Dong Ding aroma. I’d guess this is a spring harvest, although the sample had no harvest date listed. The aroma and taste reminded me of spinach or kiwi fruit. At this point I was already judging the tea as average and wondering how many worthwhile infusions I could make.

Photo Nov 26, 11 38 54 AMFor the second infusion, I tried to mellow the taste by using less time, only 30 seconds. This time I tasted more kiwi, less spinach; it was sweeter and the sharpness was somewhat hidden as though behind clouds. The texture was still uneven, though, and remained very fresh and spring-like with only a light aroma.

For a third infusion, I upped the time slightly and the water I was using began to cool in its kettle. I tried 45 seconds at 90C. This yielded a taste that was still quite bright with a bit of roughness around the edges. However, my thoughts about the number of infusions began to change as this one had plenty of color, flavor, and the original aroma remaining.

Photo Nov 26, 11 42 33 AMFeeling very curious now, I tried a fourth infusion for 1.5 minutes with the now 85C water. Delightful! A hint of saltiness crept into the flavor, which changed everything. There was still the bright spring quality, but it became subdued and gentle. The aroma was delicate but unmistakably that of the wonderful sweetness you will find in an oolong withering room. Somehow a bit of cream entered the texture, mellowing the sharpness of the previous infusions. The effect was still there but now it manifested as a dryness on the front of the tongue in the aftertaste, not marring the mouthfeel. My mind wandered away to a green mountainside in Lugu, looking across the lake at the tea fields of Dong Ding.

Could this continue? Fifth infusion, 2 minutes, 80C. Still mellow! I think the first infusions were needed to bleed off some of the freshness of this tea. I think perhaps a first rinse would be a good idea in the future. I finally felt like this tea was giving in the way that was intended. A medium body, nothing dramatic, with a delicate green aroma and a round mouthfeel.

A sixth infusion, then. I heated the water again to see what that would yield and steeped for 2.5 minutes at about 98C. Impressively, the flavor was mellow and perhaps even more rich than the last two infusions. The color and aroma remained about the same. The taste didn’t last as long as it did before, vanishing after only a few moments in the mouth, but they were a very pleasant few moments.

Photo Nov 26, 12 29 45 PMI now suspect there could be four more infusions still within these leaves, but I’ve had enough tea for one sitting. This tea definitely surprised me. My first impressions were quite turned around by the fourth infusion. It’s really a reminder that, particularly with a rolled oolong, there can be layers of flavor that lie hidden away behind the initial taste.

A hot rinse of the leaves at the start or possibly beginning with a cooler temperature water might have made for a different beginning entirely for this tasting. Tea is a living creation, and while I love to find a Dong Ding that really wows on the first sip, I very much enjoy a tea that makes me taste and experiment to find its beauty. I’m glad to have had this chance!

The little gold sample pack

Don’t write off the sample pack! This beautiful little golden pouch contains one of the most smooth examples of a black tea I’ve ever tasted. Mellow, round, and with some sweetness to the taste that reminds me of Qi Men hong cha or Bailin Gongfu.

This tea is a little bit of a mystery. Supposedly it is a Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong from the Wuyi Shan area, but I can’t be sure. The label reads (I think): 野生红茶, which is “Wild Red Tea”, but that could just be a generic description. Often the labels on sample packets are mass-produced for a tea manufacturer and aren’t indicative of what lies inside. Remember that “Red” tea in China is what we call “Black” tea in the West. The “Wild” part doesn’t say much. It could refer to tea harvested from old-growth tea trees or tea grown from seed rather than cuttings, but the taste is so clean that I wonder about that. Usually such teas have a roughness to their character. Also, in my experience it’s rare to find wild leaves used for hong cha (black tea). Oolong, puer, and white tea use wild leaves much more often, and this certainly isn’t Mao Cha.

If I had to guess and I was sure that the tea originated from the Wuyi area, I’d say that this is some hong cha unique to that region (Fujian / Guandong) that doesn’t have a very prestigious name outside its own province. Such gems exist all over tea growing countries. Whatever tea it is, though, I’m very happy to have had a chance to taste it!

I didn’t end up with a great many infusions (only 3) from the dark black twisted leaves, but they were a perfect gift on a long day spent under the looming specter of jet lag. I will thank the gods of tea for proving once again the mystery of this beautiful plant.

Update: It is indeed Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, from the wonderful Stone Leaf Teahouse.

A taste of Caffeine

Back in the old days I wrote a post on Dobra Tea’s blog about caffeine. This is an updated version of that post.

Photo Nov 24, 2 07 38 PM

The myth of green tea having less caffeine than black tea is rampant in our Western culture. This is even more surprising when contrasted with the attitude I found in Taiwan that drinking a fresh green tea late at night is much more likely to raise your energy level to the point of sleeplessness.

There is a very complex series of factors that go into the amount of caffeine in a cup. Soil, terroir, sunlight, leaf size, tippiness of a tea, age, roast, and infusion temperature all come in to play. Oxidation, though, is never really a factor. This means that all types of tea (green, white, yellow, oolong, black, and puer) have roughly the same amount of caffeine by weight.

That’s quite a bold statement when even the tea industry itself tends to print labels showing green tea as low in caffeine.

Photo Nov 24, 2 15 15 PM

So how do we know what makes a cup of tea with higher or lower caffeine, because surely there are differences? There’s a few easy answers, and some more complicated ones.

Certainly a longer infusion time means a stronger tea. I suspect that the “green tea has less caffeine than black tea” myth has appeared because people often steep green tea for less time. There’s some great research in Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties that shows the levels of caffeine in different styles of tea with the same steep time. It’s not surprising that they’re nearly all the same.

While infusing tea for a shorter time will decrease its caffeine levels, the quality of the leaf also matters greatly. A full-leaf, unbroken green tea is going to release its alkaloids much more slowly than a roughly-treated broken tea (such as you might find in a tea bag). There’s a lot more surface area on smaller leaf chunks in contact with water. As a result, broken leaves or even lower-quality “dust and fannings” will usually make a cup of tea that is blunt and bitter as well as much more caffeinated than its full-leaf brothers.

Finally (and I’m really just barely scratching the surface here), there are many other compounds within the tea leaf that contribute to how it affects the body. Tea leaves are one of the only sources of the amino acid Theanine which reduces stress on the body, making even many average 30mg-of-Caffeine cups of tea quite a different physical experience than the average 150mg-of-Caffeine cup of coffee. Looking at caffeine content alone is not sufficient to determine the physical effects of any beverage.

So the next time you’d like to decrease your caffeine intake, try a roasted oolong, an aged puer, or a tea with very few tips. Try to steep your favorite tea for much less time. Even better, as your body is unique, research and experiment with different teas and find what is true for you.

2011 Buddha’s Hand

Buddha’s Hand oolong, or Fóshǒu (佛手), is an oolong made from a very large leaf cultivar of Camellia Sinensis. The taste of the tea is a bit of a mystery, because to me it tastes very roasted, but very light at the same time. It’s like Yán chá (rock tea) White tea. I’d really love to know more about its production.


This tea was purchased in Taipei in a small shop that I stumbled into while looking around the city. It took me quite a while to understand what we were tasting, because the name in Chinese, “Fóshǒu”, sounded like “Fossil” in English. I and my friends kept calling this tea “fossil tea” until we ended up at this shop, where it was the only tea they sold. Finally we understood that this was something unique and delicious.

This is one of the teas I decided to test in my grand (old) tea tasting experiment. I’m a little behind.


For my first infusion, I used 4g for 1.5min at 90C. The specifics are not that crucial, but I’ve taken to using my scale more and I think it’s really improved my cupping. The liquor has a light tan color. The taste is, as I mentioned, a very light flavor and a dark roast at the same time. Even though it tastes quite dark, the roast is soothing and nowhere near the intensity of a Wuyi oolong, also lacking the sweetness of a Bai Hao.

Second infusion at 2min is slightly darker in color, but still only a translucent brown. The flavor remains the same. It’s a comforting tea, if lacking in aroma. It reminds me of Japanese Hojicha in a way.


If I remember correctly, there was only a little more flavor when I purchased it originally all those years ago. I can’t find any of my tasting notes from that trip at the moment, so I can’t say for certain, but I remember it being light and comforting even when it was fresh. If I’m right, it’s held up quite well. I’ll keep this one for now.

Mysterious Ku Fu Phoenix

Ming Tao Xuan in Montréal, where I purchased this tea in 2011 has labeled it as “Phoenix Ku Fu Cha (Chinese Red Tea)”, which is confusing in many ways. Its mystery, however, can still be unraveled with some careful tasting. And the process can be so rewarding.


My taste buds tell me that this is definitely an Oolong and not a Red tea (what we call Black tea in the West) although it definitely has a decent amount of oxidation, putting it near enough to Red tea territory. The fact that it’s a twisted leaf with a high oxidation and a plum-like sweetness puts it squarely in the Feng Huang (凤凰单丛) category.

Feng Huang, or Phoenix oolongs, are produced around the Wuyi shan region of Guandong province in southern China. Not as roasty as their Da Hong Pao and Shui Xian cousins, Feng Huang tea has dark twisted leaves but an amber infusion with a fruity aroma. The more of them I taste, the more I learn that the style has quite a range of flavor and strength (like all teas, really).


The kind that is most familiar to me is the Mi Lan Xiang or “honey orchid scent” style. It’s not uncommon to mistake a Phoenix for a tea with added flavors because of their strong fruity aroma (usually plum or apricot), and the Mi Lan style adds a sweet honey taste to that. After some experience you can tell the difference, though, because added scents are cloying and overflow the taste when it hits your palette. Real Phoenix is just sweet enough, but the underlying “rock tea” (another name for leaves grown in the Wuyi region) is still present.

In the cup, I’m getting the fruit aroma, but the taste isn’t filled with honey. I get sweetness, but it’s more of a candy sweet, like a subtle sugarcane. The roast gives it a decidedly Shui Xian leaning, making it less smooth in the aftertaste than I expect. I’m not certain what style of Phoenix to call this “Ku Fu” tea, because from what I can tell, “Ku Fu” doesn’t really mean anything. My best guess is that it’s supposed to be “Kung Fu”, a.k.a: Gong Fu Cha, a method of brewing but also a title given to tea of a particularly high quality (at least in the eyes of its seller).

So let’s rename this tea to “Feng Huang Gong Fu Cha (Chinese Dark Oolong Tea)”. I think that fits better. Surprisingly it is still delicious after more than a year in my tea cabinet. If you’re going to keep an oolong for more than a year, make sure that it’s darkly roasted like this one. The lighter styles can develop off flavors so easily, but more heavily toasted leaves tend, in my experience, to retain their taste longer.

As always, if you infuse an oolong like this for too long, you’ll get a real punch of the tannins when they hit your tongue. In this case I started with about 1.5 minutes and it was too much. The rule here is to experiment! After a shorter, perhaps 40 second infusion, I was very pleased with the taste. Don’t be afraid to try tea you think is past its prime, but remember to give it more than once chance and you may discover a treasure like this!