Sunday, September 29, 2013
Saturday, September 28, 2013
Rou Gui Wuyi Yancha • 肉桂武夷岩茶
On my last visit to Kkik Da Geo, I asked if they had any Wuyi yancha (cliff teas) in stock other than Da Hong Pao. Mrs Kim went into the back room and returned with a package of Rou Gui cha, Cassia Bark tea, named for it's cinnamon-like character. I hadn't been introduced to Rou Gui before but it's a Qing Dynasty tea that has recently joined the ranks of Wuyi's "Four Famous Tea Bushes (四大名欉, Sì dàmíng cóng), raising the number to five.
She spared no detail in preparing it, lining up a row of special cups, specific for high-end Wuyi teas, small even by gongfu standards, with beautiful red floral images raised from the sides of the cups. Loading a zhuni biao zhun pot with dark, twisted, heavily-roasted leaves, she proceeded to rinse them and a sweet but deep floral fragrance drifted about the table.
As she served each of us, I held the tiny cup to my nose and savoured a slow deep breath. The first sip revealed a flavour not unlike Da Hong Pao, but much softer and very floral. The whole shop went silent, as everything paused to appreciate this tea. The silence was only broken by our hums of delight. After a few cups, a strong "huigan" (回甘), a sweet aftertaste, literally a "returning sweetness", had built up. Da Hong Pao is known for it's unique flavour arising form the throat, but this tea's flavour gathered even deeper in the throat, in a place I'd never experienced flavour before. The tip of my tongue tingled with a bitter-sweet (mostly sweet) sensation. Its chaqi was very strong and a high-frequency buzz warmed me.
This tea continued to haunt me as I awoke in the middle of the night with the huigan still strong on my breath. The next night, it was even in my dreams, as I dreamt I was back at Kkik Da Geo's table, loading the back of a turtle with bundles of this tea. I think I will soon be returning with next month's tea budget for a package of this tea.
Saturday, September 14, 2013
Dongting Mountain Biluochun Tea ● 洞庭山碧螺春茶
Bilochun is another from China's varying list of Ten Famous Teas, Bilochun is usually ranked second, after Dragon Well. It grows beside Dongting Mountain in Jiangsu Province.
Bi Luo Chun (Green Snail Spring, 碧螺春), was originally named "Scary Fragrance" (Xia Sha Ren Xiang, 嚇煞人香). Legend tells of a girl who discovered the tree and after she'd filled her basket with leaves she resorted to stuffing her breast with them. When her body heated the leaves, the emitted a strong scent that surprised her. When the Emperor visited the area in 1699, he thought it deserved a more elegant title and renamed the tea Biluochun since the tiny green leaves are coiled like a snail and they are harvested very early in spring.
Though Dragon Well is listed as the most famous, Biluochun has long been considered the superior of the two. When I first inquired at the teashop about high quality Chinese green tea, Biluochun is what Mr Ahn sold me. However, the next spring, when I asked for more he said the quality of Biluochun had dropped but the price had risen. Lately, when I asked about Biluochun, Mr Ahn would point to the box of Taiping Houkui (太平猴魁) and said if I want good Chinese green tea, I should buy that! Part of the reason is that with the increase of income in China, many of the great teas aren't leaving the country anymore. Great for China, unfortunate for the rest of us!
A couple of months ago, I found a box of Biluochun on the shelf among some other specialty Chinese teas. The box contained rows of 3.5 gram packets for individual sale. Per gram, they were still extremely expensive, but for a small sample, it wasn't an issue (and they gave me a second one for free!).
The packets were nicely designed with a beautiful (yet pixelated) image of Kwan Yin holding a tea leaf in her outstretched arm. Emptying out the leaves, I was pleased to see a great amount of "tea down", tiny hairs that bundle together like dust bunnies during the processing. It's a key feature of Biluochun and the amount of hair is a good signifier of the quality of the tea.
The scent of the leaves was pleasant but faint. With most teas, there is some familiar comparison to be made, peach, honey, rose, citrus, but with green tea I often find myself grasping. Perhaps the scent of a dry summer's breeze on a hot day as it brushes over a flowery meadow, surrounded by Chestnut trees? I don't know... Something's still missing. Sort of like Mr Ahn says there's something missing compared to the Biluochun of a few years ago.
Pouring the first cup, the tea is almost chalky from the down. It adds a thick texture to an otherwise soft, gentle tea. The taste is nice but in a tea that is already known for its subtlety, losing any flavour leaves little to appreciate. The second and third steep were similar, delicious but thin and little remaining in the leaf after. In a second session, I used a smaller pot and was able to stretch out a few more cups but, for the value there are better teas to spend your money on. That said, I won't mind enjoying a sample now and then.
Sunday, September 8, 2013
Lotus leaf tea (연잎차, yeon ip cha) has been popular tradition in Korea for a long time. There are several different mixtures of the different parts of the lotus plant. The most common is just lotus leaf, then there's a slightly more expensive lotus leaf and flower mixture, a very expensive lotus flower tea (연꽃차, yeon kkoht cha), a newer lotus root tea (연근차, yeon geun cha) and and a lotus tea combining all three. All of these teas are usually very expensive, even as much per gram as the best Korean green teas.
During our year and a half of living in the Korean countryside, there was a lotus pond near our house, and I cut a couple of lotus leaves at the end of the summer. They made for perfect umbrellas when walking home a sudden but quick summer downpour passed over. In the house, I hung them from the ceiling for three days until they were completely dried. Commercial lotus leaf tea appears to be machine shredded but I cut them with kitchen shears into small strips, then bit by bit into smaller fragments.
I was excited to brew my first pot and see how it turned out. The smell was much greener than other lotus teas I've had, as was the bright colour of the infusion. It had the expected grassy but very sweat taste balanced by a deep, murky undertone. Lotuses are famous for emerging unsullied from the mud, but their humble, muddy origin is betrayed in the finishing taste. The more leaves used, the stronger the murkiness but but a good scoopful made a deliciously fresh brew.
Lotus tea is cleansing, and is known in Korea for its ability to flush alcohol and nicotine from your blood, which certainly explains its popularity! Aside from being a tonic, it has also gained much popularity as a slimming tea for its alleged fat burning ability. In other circles, it's also appreciated for its ability to calm mind and body, making it a great meditation tea.
(I know it looks bad, but I was pushing the stroller! (◕‿-) Just ran ahead a bit to take this shot!)
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Zhenghe Bai Mudan Cha (White Peony Tea) • 政和 白牡丹茶
Zhènghé Bái mǔdān chá
Bai Mudan, White Peony Tea, is a famous white tea originating from Fujian province during the 1870's, and where the highest quality continues to be produced. It was the first tea of it's kind.
Named after the White Peony flower, China's national flower, more likely as a charming name than for any resemblance, but the scent is said to be similar, as the tea is known for its floral character. There are two types of Bai Mudan, Zhenghe and Fuding. Zhenghe is fermented a little longer and produces a fuller, stronger tasting tea, compared with brighter and greener Fuding leaves.
Bai Mudan is considered the second highest grade white tea, after Bai Hao Yin Zhen (Silver Needle, 白毫銀針). Where Silver Needle is produced entirely of buds, White Peony includes the first leaf. The added leaves result in a much fuller flavour, while still maintaining a gentle, soft, sweetness. Its second grade status does not mean it's not of equal quality, but subtlety rules in Chinese tea and Silver Needle is the more subtle of the two. That said, many prefer the stronger flavour of White Peony.
A high-quality Bai Mudan has a large proportion of long, furry buds, like those of Silver Needle, dispersed with small, withered leaves, some bright-green, others lightly or deeply fermented brown. It can be steeped with a range of temperatures. Many recommend very hot but I prefer 80ºC, where its sweetness is more pronounced. The tight buds need more time to open than other teas, so I steep them more than twice as long as I usually would with green or oolong teas. I've also had great results stepping it quite hot then letting it cool before drinking.
Though it's called "white" tea, the liquor is a bright, clear ocher. It's quality is proven by the large amount of hairs floating in the cup. Though I feel like I'm betraying my zisha pots, lately, I've taken to using a glass gongfu pot for my white and green teas so that I can watch the leaves dance and the tea hairs sparkle in the sunlight. The glass also transmits an unaltered flavour, which is ideal for white and green teas.
Like Silver Needle, there is a sweet, hay-like taste, but after letting your tongue soak for a few seconds, surprisingly strong floral and fruit taste emerges. It's for this that many prefer White Peony to Silver Needle, it has more taste.
Traditional Chinese knowledge defines white tea as having a cooling effect on the body. It makes it useful for balancing body heat during the summer. It is also antibacterial, making it a good body cleansing tea. Because of white tea's simple processing technique, the best are withered and dried in the sun then lightly oxidized, nothing more, it retains even more of its beneficial compounds than other types of tea.