Thursday, February 21, 2013

Da Hong Pao • 大红袍

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One of the most intriguing of oolong teas, in taste and legend, is Da Hong Pao, 大红袍 (Big Red Robe), the most sought after of the Wu Yi cliff teas, 武夷岩茶.

Though there are at least a few teas that are claimed to be the first oolong, Da Hong Pao has a bit of history to back it up. I'm not saying that it is the first, but there's a high possibility. In the late 14th Century, Hongwu Emperor, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, announced that only loose leaf tea would be acceptable as tribute, the Wu Yi tea market, know for its Dragon & Phoenix tea cakes, instantly crashed. This prompted the local farmers to create loose leaf oolong teas, the most famous of which eventually came to be known as Da Hong Pao.

The legend of its name (at least the way I've heard it) has two parts. It begins with a young scholar on his way to Beijing to take his examination. Famished, he collapsed along the way, not far from Wu Yi Mountain and was found by a monk. The monk attended to him, nourishing him with tea until his strength returned.

When he arrived in Beijing, the Emperor's mother was ill. He presented he with the tea that he had carried from Wu Yi Mountain, and she, too, regained her health. As thanks, the emperor sent a gift of red cloth to protect the tea trees during the winter months. Eventually, the trees began to be know as Big Red Robe.

A few hundred years later, six of these original trees still cling to the cliff, huddled together, and produce the most expensive tea in the world. the yield is so slight that it mostly goes straight to the president of China and what's left may be auctioned for thousands of dollars per gram.

Considering you'd have to have some pretty fantastic tea karma to ever even catch a sniff of the real Da Hong Pao, there's really no choice but to go for opportunity cost and relegate myself to the lower grades of Da Hong Pao. Surrounding the original trees, several gardens have been developed over the last few decades, grown from clippings of the Da Hong Pao trees. These gardens are graded according to their similarity to the originals. How they compare, I'll never know, but even a fourth grade Da Hong Pao is still among my favorite teas.

Speaking of opportunity cost, once my talent in tea brewing had become more efficient, I'd inquired at the tea shop about purchasing some third grade leaves. The Tea Master actually told me not to bother since there really was very little difference. I thought that was very honest of him, considering the price difference was $20/100g more for the higher grade.

I would, one day soon, like to purchase a sample of high grade leaf to do a proper comparison, but for now, I'll trust my mentor.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Gongfu Balled Oolong Cha • 工夫烏龍茶

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Intro to Gongfu balled Oolong Cha • 簡介工夫揉成團烏龍茶

The first step in any tea session, is deciding the appropriate pot for the tea to be prepared, or the other way around, if you have a particular pot you'd really like to use! For balled oolong, a high-profile pot, with a nice belly is preferable, since it gives the tea plenty of room to expand.

It can be difficult to judge the amount of tea leaves needed, as they tightly rolled beads appear deceptively small, but, in my opinion, it's better to add too few leaves than too many. Just enough to entirely cover the floor of the pot is usually enough, for my taste anyway. As they expand, they will eventually fill the pot.

Once the pot & cups are cleaned & heated, I rinse the leaves with just enough water to cover them & almost instantly pour it out into the cups. This not only washes the leaves of dust & stuff, but also wets the leaves, awakening them for the first steep. During the first steep, I pour the rinse water back over the pot, flushing the pot of any bits of leaf clinging to the pot & using every bit of tea oil possible to patina the pot. It's also a good idea to pour some water straight from the kettle over the pot to maintain an even temperature throughout the pot, which is important for an even steep.

For high mountain oolong, 90-95ºC (~194ºF) is best because that's the temperature at which the polyphenols & other related antioxidants dissolve. Not only are they what makes oolong tea so healthy, they're also responsible for it's lovely flavour. I find cooler water results in a rather flat tasting tea, lacking the high, floral notes that high mountain oolong is known for.

The next important step is steep times. The standard for any oolong is 15 seconds for the first steep, 10 seconds for the second, back up to 15 for the third, then a continued increase of 10 seconds for the next few steeps. According to personally taste & specific type of oolong, these times can be adjusted. Even as short as five seconds can be enough. Following this method, you should be able to produce at least eight fine tasting steeps, though if you're just beginning to develop your skills, don't be disappointed if you have difficulty getting more than four.

A part of gongfu cha appreciation is to admire the colour of the tea in the cup. At a single glance, I can tell if the leaves have been steeped well, or not. For non-roasted oolong, I prefer a translucent, pale jade tint, finding that the yellower the liquor, the more astringent & less soft the tast & mouth feel are. Actually, another name for oolong tea in Chinese is "qing cha" 青茶, which translates as "teal tea".

Some of the most highly respected high mountain, balled oolongs include, Tie Guan Yin, 鐵觀音 (Iron Goddess of Mercy/Iron Buddha), Lishan 梨山 (Pear Mountain), & Dong Ding 凍頂 (Frozen Peak). Alishan 阿里山,  is another popular high mountain oolong (featured in these photos), though I find it slightly less remarkable.

Though this style of oolong tea originated in mainland China, tradition Chinese oolong are aged & roasted. Around 1990, Taiwan began producing fresh, green oolong teas, which took the tea world by storm. China responded with its fresh, green version of Tie Guan Yin & though I love Taiwan's high mountain oolong, there's a remarkable, unsurpassed quality to the color, scent, & taste of the best Tie Guan Yin leaves.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

End of the Black Dragon Year

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As we spend the last few days of the 4710th year of the Chinese lunar calendar, we bring to a close the Year of the Water Dragon, also known as the Black Dragon, or 'Oo Long', as it's called in Chinese, exactly the same as the characters for oolong tea.

So, in contemplation of the moment between year that was and the year that's too be, and lets sit and enjoy a fine pot of Black Dragon tea...