Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Learning to Understand Hong Cha

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Last month, Prof Ahn invited me to sit in on a tea class which happened to be on hong cha, "red tea".

I mentioned last summer that hong cha is my least favorite style of Chinese tea. On top of that, I also mentioned the frustrating time I had trying to brew it. For this, I was eager to taste Prof Ahn's brew and watch his technic.

Using Yixing "Gong Fu" Hong Cha, he scooped a fair amount of leaves into a glass pot. Barely giving the water enough time to cool from a boil, he filled the pot and let it steep for a relatively long time, nearly a minute. So far, he'd done everything I'd thought I'd done wrong and then some... Tasting it just confirmed my feeling, as it was strong and murky, though not bitter. Nothing of the sweet fragrance of the leaves was apparent. (Despite my lack of enthusiasm, hong cha leaves are actually one of my favorite smelling.) After the third cup, I began thinking that I just don't "get" hong cha. Then something marvelous happened; I burped!

It wasn't just any old burp. It was a magical burp filled with all the lovely "huigan" that had been building in my throat with each sip. All the lovely sweet floral fragrance of the leaves came out like a small explosion. I thought, "This is what hong cha is about!" (just to be clear, it was a silent burp, no heads were turned! ;) ).

"Huigan" is a difficult word to translate, but essentially it's a Chinese term for a sweet aftertaste and what most Chinese tea drinkers truly judge a fine tea by. It reminded me of the general difference in how Westerners and Far-Eastern approach tea. Westerners tend to prefer the initial, direct taste of the tea, whereas in China it's the subtle, lingering effect of tea that is desirable. I appreciate the elegance and sophistication of the Chinese approach, though I don't always remember to apply it.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Pots for Da Hong Pao & other Wuyi Cliff teas

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Over the last few weeks, I've shifted my focus away from blogging to start working out some book ideas that I've been conceptualizing for a long time now. I would, however, like to answer a question that was posted by a reader some time ago:
Out of curiosity, as somebody who likes to drink wu-yi teas, and especially da hong bao when affordable: could you ask Mrs Kim which type of tea pot she does recommend for wu yi teas, and da hong bao? It would be great if you could post her answer when convenient. 
All best! Vladimir
Apologies for the late reply, Vladimir, but here it is now!

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugI actually spoke to Prof Ahn about this a long time ago and he told me that Biao Zhun (standard) teapots are especially good for Wuyi yancha as well as Pheonix Dan Cong. He brought in this little 25ml Biao Zhun pot and recommended for me to use it with Da Hong Pao. The small size is appropriate for expensive teas, which you'd like to use with care.
People tend to doubt that I can even fit yancha leaves into it without breaking them, but with a little care, they fit perfectly well.

In Mrs Kim's opinion, the quality of the clay is more important than the shape. (As Prof Ahn once said to me, "Best tea, best teapot!", meaning the higher quality the leaves are, the higher quality of teapot they deserve.) Over the past few weeks, I've had the pleasure of tasting their incredible 1997 Da Hong Pao a few times, and each time was with a different style pot; a dragon egg, a "stone ladel", and, this morning, this antique pear teapot.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

revisions

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Boseong Tea Garden, on a misty summer's morn


At the risk of tarnishing my credibility, I would like to point out a couple of mistakes I've made in past posts. In both cases, it was a result of my lack of good Korean skills that lead to my misinterpretation of what I was told. Through further questions and conversations, I've cleared things up.

The first was with "Date Aroma Puer Tea". The taste was so convincing that I actually thought that it had been infused with dates. Actually, it's the recipe, special technique and skills of the workers that give it its special taste. Technically, it's a shu-puer, but the leaves are only left to ferment for two weeks, not the usual three months. Usually, a brick puer uses leaves 7-10, the largest leaves, but this puer uses a combination of all the leaves, 1-10. Though the only thing that changed was my understanding (it's still the same tea), knowing this made me appreciate it even more.

The second was in my description of "A Traditional Way to Brew Da Hong Pao". This was one of the first things Mrs Kim ever showed me, back in '07, and I never actually tried it at home until I wrote the post, so it's likely that my memory didn't serve me well. But trying it out for myself proved to be troublesome, and for a reason. The crushed leaves are meant to me mixed with whole leave at a 3-7 ratio. Using just the crushed leaves (and apparently I crushed them too small) ended up clogging the spout and took far too long to pour. Showing my post to Mrs Kim, she also mentioned that the pot I used wasn't appropriate for cliff tea. The next time I watched her make Da Hong Pao, after adding the leaves to the pot, she simply took the butt end of the wooden tea scoop and crushed the leaves a little before rinsing. It made a terrible crunching noise in the pot, but returns an extra strong flavour for the sacrifice of the beautiful, whole leaves.

So, that should clear things up... Apologies for the misinformation, and I'll do my best for it not to happen again, though I can't guarantee anything!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Korean Lotus Green Tea

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Popping in the tea house quickly to grab some Dragon Well on the way home from work one day, I noticed a large glass pitcher on the tea table with what appeared to be a soggy lotus flower inside. Peeking inside, it was a lotus flower and had large tea leaves layered throughout the pedals. The girl tending the shop asked if I'd like a taste, but knowing if I sat down, I wouldn't get up again, I thanked her for the offer and skedaddled.

The next time I was in for a more leisurely visit, I asked Mrs Kim about it, mostly just curious how it was prepared. She went into the fridge, removed a lotus bud wrapped in bubble wrap, and gave it to me. Her daughter explained, traditionally, it was made by taking a boat out on to a lotus pond, placing a silk pouch full of tea inside a lotus flower, and as the flower closes for the night, enveloping the pouch, the leaves would absorb the lotus' essence. At dawn, one would return to the pond and collect the pouch as the lotus opened to meet the sunrise. Nowadays, they cut the lotus bud, make a small opening at the top, are fill it with about 30-40 grams of "dae-jak cha", forth-flush "large-leaf tea". She added that her father prefers the traditional way, and I agree in that I at least prefer the concept.

They instructed me to keep it in the fridge for a full week, then shred the entire thing into small strips, the pedals, the seed pod, the stem, all, mix it up well then separate it into five small freezer bags and keep it frozen until use. When the week had passed, I did just that, with the help of my daughter, which was a bigger chore than I expected but a truly enjoyable one. The pedals had a soft, powdered texture and the gentle, sweet and lovely scent covered our fingers. The tea leaves had become moist, steeped in the spirit of the lotus.

For brewing, Mrs Kim suggested a glass pot and only 60°C for a mere 5 seconds for steeps 1~3, 70°C and 10 seconds for steeps 4~6, and 80°C for steeps 7~10. I felt my arm trying to revolt against the order to pour after just five seconds, it just seemed much too fast for a flower or a green tea, but faith in Mrs Kim prevailed and for good reason! I've had plenty of lotus leaf tea, some mix with a small amount of flower, but this was the first time I'd tried tea from only the flower. It was beyond expectation; full, sweet, soft, heavenly. The flavour was similar to something along the lines of bubblegum ice cream, but natural. There's little else that comes to mind to compare it with. After a few steeps, the sweet, floral flavour faded and the taste become more savoury. A friend compared it to eggplant, which coincided with my thought of roasted vegetable.

My expectations for this tea were for it to taste like green tea with a slight lotus flavour. But it really is lotus tea with a slight green tea flavour. A very lovely and beautiful tea.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Aged Old Bush, Wu Yi "Shui Xian"老歲水仙茶

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After being amazed so far by every tea I've tasted from cliffs of Wuyi Mounatin, and Da Hong Pao being the very tea that first got me interested in Chinese tea, I decided to order a small amount of aged "Shui Xian", harvested from 100-year-old trees to further my figurative exploration of the mountain.

Before we get into the tea itself, I'd like to delve into its name a bit. Shui Xian is actually the name of the cultivar that all Wuyi "yan chan" (cliff teas) are produced from. There are several translations for its name, including Narcissus, Sacred Lily, Water Fairy, or the name of a Taoist Immortal. According to the Chinese character for Xian (仙, person + mountain/person on a mountain), it has the connotation of a mountain hermit which is what the Taoist Immortals essential were. It also fits with the tendency of famous teas to have some mystical legend attached to them. Another theory claims that the Shui Xian cultivar originated not too far north of Wuyi mountain, in a cave called Zhu Xian and the local dialect lead to the confusion of "Zhu" with "Shui" (水, water). There is also speculation that Zhu was the local word for pray, which could mean it was a cave where an Immortal prayed and perhaps he found a tea bush which he cultivated and passed on to the local farmers or the farmers may have named their local cultivar in honor of him.

Alas, a tea by another name would still taste as sweet (or bitter), so let's get brewing...

Looking at the leaves, the first thing that caught my cognition was how dark they are. Certainly putting the "oo" in oolong, except for slight reddish-brown highlights, they are the blackest oolong leaves I've encountered. It would make sense if these were, in fact, the leaves that gave oolong its name.

The scent was rich, the heat of the high-fire roast apparent, quite similar to the aroma of dark-roast coffee beans. The leaves were so dark that even an instant rinse is darker than many puer teas I've drank. The first full infusion was even darker, as black as black could be (The photos below start from the third steep. I was so consumed, that I forgot to take a photo, twice...), fading to brown around the walls of the cup. The aroma of the tea soup was consistent with that of the leaves. Though it definitely tasted like tea, with a slight woodiness, and a strong presence of charcoal, it was very reminiscent of a strong cafe mocha or a shot of espresso (is that a thing? maybe it should be! or maybe I should just stick to making tea...). I found the residual taste of the firing quite strong but enjoyable. After all, it's part of what interested me about this tea. With trends pushing tea farmers more and more towards lightly fermented, barely roasted teas, a good traditional oolong like this is becoming rare. I'm also thinking perhaps this tea was recently re-roasted and just needs a few more months to soothe and mellow.

The leaves proved to be durable and consistent. Personally, I felt they lacked the "pow" of Da Hong Pao or the intricacy of Ruo Gui but since the price was comparably to an average grade Da Hong Pao and a quarter the price of a medium grade Ruo Gui, it stood its ground. Since Da Hong Pao, Ruo Gui, Tie Lo Han, and all the other Wuyi varieties, are essentially Shui Xian, and the variations are a result of the different growing conditions. My reasoning may be off a bit on this, but as they all do share a unique characteristic that makes them Wuyi Yan Cha, I consider this a good standard yan cha for comparison.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Xue Hao Snow Tips Yellow Tea • 雪毫黃茶

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Browsing The Chinese Tea Shop for something new, I was intrigued by Xue Hao Snow Tips Yellow Tea. I'd not come across Chinese yellow tea before and was curious how it compared with Korean yellow tea.

When the parcel arrived, it was the first one I opened. The first thing that was obvious was that it was not going to be anything like Korean yellow tea, at all... The leaves were tiny, coiled, and full of fine white hairs. It looked nearly identical to Bi Lo Chun, except for a lighter, slightly yellow colour.

From what I gathered, it's harvested and produced in much the same way, as well, using only the tiniest buds of early spring. The one element of difference between yellow and green tea is that after they are withered and quickly heated to stop the enzymes from further changing the leaves, the process known as "kill-green", yellow tea is gently wrapped in cloth and left to sit in its own warmth, drawing more aroma and flavour from the leaves and giving them their yellowish tint.

I always love the thrill of opening an unknown tea and getting the first, fresh scent of the leaves. This one was very interesting, fresh, sharp, with a distinct lemon zest and cocoa aroma.

Deciding it best to treat it as a green tea, I gave it a slightly longer infusion with not too hot water. The result was a pale, yet bright yellow brew, speckled with tea down. The taste was very clear and refreshing. Not surprisingly, it tasted much like a fine Bi Lo Chun, with a distinct nutty bitterness, but the lemon-cocoa aroma of the leaves came through very nicely to give it a unique complexity that, in my opinion, made it slightly more enticing.

The ultra fine quality of the buds required to make yellow tea results in a very small harvest each year, making this a rather difficult tea to find. It seems I may have got a hold of the last bit from The Chinese Tea Shop, as the site was sold out when I returned to read more about it. But, if you ever come across any, I highly recommend it. (Or, if you happen to be in Korea in the next little bit, come over and I'll share a pot with you! I just can't guarantee I'll be keeping it for long. ;) )







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