Thursday, December 27, 2012

Qian Liang Cha • 千兩茶

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Qian Liang Cha, One Thousand 'Liang' Cha • 千兩茶

Since moving to the southern part of Korea a bit over a year ago, I've only had a few chances to drop by Kkik Da Geo, in Seoul. A few weeks ago, we were able to and as soon as we came in, the owner took out a large pot and began preparing us a brew of 60 year old "Cheon Ryang Cha", in Korean, or "Thousand Liang Cha", also referred to as the King of Teas.

One 'liang' is the equivalent of 3.75 grams and the name of the tea refers to the method of packing the tea into large cylinders. They made for easier transportation when they were once carried by mules or horses through trade routes across the country. Since transportation is much easier now, this form of tea has mostly faded out, so it is becoming increasingly rare nowadays. If you do come across some, chances are that it's at least 50 years old.

The tea liquor is a dark reddish brown, yet noticeably translucent for a 60 year old 'dark tea' (Hei Cha, 黑茶). The aroma is warm and slightly metallic, ringing the insides of your nostrils. The flavour is very clean and nutty, like the sent of roasted walnut shells.

It wasn't long before the cha qi, 'tea energy', was rushing through my body, making me warm on one of the first really cold days of the season, and a little tea drunk, too... It was a nice welcome after a long absence.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Aged Traditional Tie Guan Yin • 炭焙 傳統觀音

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Aged Traditional Tie Guan Yin (Iron Buddha/Iron Goddess)
20 years old, charcoal roasted • 20 年陳 炭焙 傳統觀音

Long before Taiwan's high mountain oolongs invaded the tea scene, China had a long history of oolong tea. Though oolong these days is mostly thought of as fresh, bright green, balled tea, this is a result of the overwhelming  popularity of Taiwan's tea over the past couple of decades. China answered back with a fresh take on Tie Guan Yin, the best of which are considered among the best teas in the world, now, but the traditional Chinese oolongs are much darker, aged and often roasted.

Daniel, from The Chinese Tea Shop, generously sent a sample of one of his premium Tie Guan Yin teas, a twenty year old tea, roasted every three years to enhance its flavour. Being that high mountain Taiwanese oolong and fresh Tie Guan Yin are my favorite teas, I was unsure how much I would fall for an aged, roasted oolong, but I was eager to start brewing and find out.

The first thing I noticed was how small the beads of tea were, about a third or so the size of what I was accustomed to. The colour was also quite unusual, very dark brown with tinges of red, like dried up old cranberries.

I choose one of my best pots, a small, red clay Seo-shi, perfectly shaped for oolong, and began pouring. Perhaps the tea felt my uncertainty because I was rather unimpressed. I found the flavour watery and metallic, like a penny on my tongue. That said, I enjoyed it anyway, it's very rare that I don't, I just wasn't as impressed as I'd hoped.

A few days later, I felt the urge to reach over for the small sample packet again. This time, I chose a much smaller pot, easier to control, and approached the tea with an unbiased mind. Once again, the tea responded accordingly, as I was lifted from my senses by the full, rich, chocolaty flavour of the tea. The mouth feel was lively and full, especially as it slide down my throat. The colour was a deep yet bright reddish orange that lasted through several steeps before slowly fading to a golden hue. The flavour barely faded a bit until the sweetly bitter end.

The energy of the tea was acute but gentle. I felt awake but not shaky, even after several cups. A pleasant warmth emanated from my my full belly, leaving me with the urge to just sit contently admiring the spent leaves, still tightly tangled together.

Reading Daniel's description of this tea just now, I found it interesting that he also describes the taste as being like chocolate. He also mentioned that this tea was grown in Anxi, known for the best Tie Guan Yin farms. This tea was actually bought fromt he farmer's private stock, which, as Daniel describes, took several years of visits to convince the farmer that he was a worthy buyer. This truly is a rare tea and I recommend that anyone who enjoys tea should try it!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Tea Seasons

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The Far-East is very sensitive in its awareness of food "temperatures". Not the physical temperature of food, but the heating or cooling effect different foods have on our systems. I'm tempted to believe we were aware of this at least once upon a time in the West, with terms like "cool as a cucumber" still surviving and referring to spicy food as "hot". I don't know about anyone else, but I still break into a sweat when I eat spicy food, even after seven years in Korea.

Caffeine is generally hot, though somehow green tea is the only tea that is cool. Puerh tea is known for its ability to keep you warm, and oolong teas range in between. From this, its easy to figure about which teas are best at what times of year.

In early spring, my favourite tea is oolong, especially delicate high-mountain oolong from Taiwan, and in the evening, I'll rotate through my collection of darker traditional Chinese oolongs, such as Phoenix Oolong, our Da Hong Pao. When spring starts heating up, I find myself craving green tea, especially in the morning. This is also the time of year that green tea is harvested, which is nice, because green tea is best at its freshest. I try to use up all of my green tea by summer's end, before they begin to deteriorate. Also, by this time, Chinese oolongs from that spring, have begun to develop their flavours. When the crisp airs of autumn arrive, my craving for green tea disappears, and I start digging out my puerh cakes, which were mostly left untouched during the long, muggy summer months. Puerh is an excellent winter tea, especially if you're going to spend much time outside. At night, a nice aged puerh not only warms you up, but also has a mellow personality. The micro-organism in the tea also help keep you immune system strong through the harsh weather.

There isn't a time of year that I don't drink lots of oolong. Like green tea, high-mountain oolongs and Tie Kwan Yin (Iron Buddha/Iron Goddess of Mercy) tend to loose their fragrance quickly, so I drink them more often in the spring and summer. Traditional Chinese oolong and Taiwan's famous Oriental Beauty, or White Hair tea, depending on what farm it's from, taste better after at least six months. Fittingly, high-mountain oolong and Tie Kwan Yin are also some of the most lightly fermented teas and though they give me the most energy, I don't notice much lasting heat from them.

The only tea I don't drink with any regularity are English black teas. The plants that are cultivated in India and Sri Lanka are slightly different from Chinese ones. They have a higher level of caffeine and I find myself unsteady and with a bit of a headache after drinking them. If you do like them, these teas have quite a lot of heat and are also very good during chilly weather. In China, there are similar types of tea, known as red tea, but I've yet to try them.

A newer development in Korean tea is Balhyo Cha, fermented green tea, also called Hwang Cha, yellow tea. The first time I tried it, I had a similar feeling as black tea, but one day, I found myself craving to try it again and have become a big fan of it. It also has a fair amount of heat and I'll probably be drink a lot of it as the chilly nights creep further across the days.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Shui Pin & Biao Zhun teapots • 水平 & 標準壺

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The most important concept in the art of making teapots is 'Shui Pin', 水平. The original meaning is 'water level', as in the tool, but in teapot terms, it is the three point line connecting the tip of the spout, the rim of the teapot's opening, and the vertex of the handle. In terms of function, a pot with good Shui Pin is well balanced when held and pours comfortably. Because of shrinkage of the clay during firing, you can judge a potter's expertise by their ability to produce a nice Shui Pin.

For the first Yixing teapot I ever bought, the tea master at Kkikdageo chose a simple, standard looking pot, which he said was as a good teapot for a beginner. It turns out its Chinese name, 'Biao Zhun' 標準, translates directly as 'standard'. It's an old Early Republic of China Shui Pin design that the Yixing No 1 Factory literally standardized and produced in mass quantity during the 1960's. The highly functional design of the Biao Zhun Shui Pin pots has kept them the standard design. Though different specialized teapots have been designed for different teas, a Biao Zhun Shui Pin is suitable for any tea.

A quick way to check a pot's Shui Pin line is to remove the lid and set it upside down on a flat surface. If the spout, rim, and handle are all touching the surface, then you have a well crafted teapot. Another test is to set the lid so that it is balanced either between the rim and the spout or the rim and the handle. This can be useful when allowing the steam to escape, not to cook the tea, or when leaving the teapot open for drying. To demonstrate this, I've superimposed two photos, with the lid balance on each side.

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Friday, October 5, 2012

Dragon Well Tea (Long Jing Cha) • 龍井茶

West Lake Dragon Well green tea  ❦  西湖 龍井茶

Of the unofficial "Ten Famous Chinese Teas", Dragon Well is by far the most famous.

The name originates from the town it's produced in, where there is a "dragon well" in which a benevolent dragon once lived. The water in the well is very dense and when lighter rainwater flows into the well, it swirls on top, resembling a dragon. It is possible this natural phenomenon is the origin of the dragon that once lived here, but China also used to have giant, serpent like fish that were known as dragons. So, perhaps there really was a dragon! ^_^

The most recognizable characteristic of Dragon Well tea is the way it is carefully pressed along the inside vein during roasting. The flattened leaves, with long, jagged points are like the shed scales of the tea dragon. Opening a fresh package of Dragon Well fills the space with the sweet, grassy fragrance. The leaves have an olive green hue with yellowish patches on them.

I heat the teapot and drop a couple of heaping scoops in. The sent of the tea intensifies. Generally, a pot should be filled to about a third, but with Dragon Well, it's nice to add even more. Also, green tea usually requires much cooler water, about 70-80ºC, but Dragon Well can handle 90ºC water, provided the first five infusions are kept to five seconds each. Cooler water tends to produce a sweeter tea, but hot water brings out a more complex bitterness. It's the unique boldness of the sweet and intrigue of the bitter, like dew from the dragon's breath, that makes Dragon Well so good.

The tea liquor is yellower than usual for green tea, which usually has more of a jade colour. Looking closely at the surface of the tea, you can make out the little specks of tea hairs. This is good, it means the leaves were picked young and are of high quality.

A true "West Lake" Dragon Well tea, from the town of Hang Zhou, in Zhejiang Province, just South-West of Shanghai, has the best, most complex, long-lasting taste. Though it's much more subtle than an oolong or puerh tea, every once in a while, throughout the day, after drinking this tea, a pleasant reminder of its taste emerged in my mouth.

Like other high quality green teas, when you are finished brewing, the tender leaves can also be eaten

link to The Chinese Teashop: