Friday, September 19, 2014

The Tea Masters guide to brewing Oolong tea

After 12 years of learning with Teaparker, 10 years of blogging over 1600 posts, I have written a short guide of 16 pages (5000 words) to help you brew Oolong tea. My goal was to summarize my gongfu cha technique and tricks in one document. Some of the content has appeared here or there on the blog before, but there are also new insights that should interest both beginners and advanced brewers.

So far, it's available as an e-book in pdf format. Its price is 3 USD, but I will give it for FREE for any order of tea over 60 USD made on my online tea-masters boutique, starting today.

Note: J'ai commencé à traduire ce guide en français!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Wenshan Baozhong de nouvelle plantation

Shiding, thousand islands lake

Le Wenshan Baozhong trouve ses origines dans les montagnes de Nangang, à la fin du 19ème siècle. Cette région à l'est de Taipei a fini par être rattrapée par la métropole Taiwanaise. Aussi, les plantations de Baozhongs se sont-elles progressivement éloignées de Taipei, vers Shiding et Pinglin.

Là, les fermiers ont retrouvé des conditions naturelles bien préservées. Les terrains en pente le long de ce fleuve conviennent particulièrement bien à la culture des théiers. Si ces arbres ont besoin d'humidité, ils n'aiment pas que l'eau stagne autour de leur base.

Sur ces quelques photos, vous remarquerez aussi que les habitations sont rares. La construction de nouveaux bâtiments y est interdite. Le but est de minimiser la pollution, car ce fleuve alimente Taipei en eau courante. Et malgré la beauté de l'endroit, rien n'est fait pour développer le tourisme dans cette région. La raison est la même: préserver la propreté de l'eau du fleuve.
La qualité de l'eau joue un rôle primordial dans la préparation du thé. Il n'est donc pas étonnant qu'elle soit aussi essentiel en amont, pour la culture des théiers.
Tandis que la température extérieure à Taipei continue de flirter les 35 degrés Celcius, j'ai une grande envie de fraicheur!

Tout en pensant à cette eau turquoise dans le Wenshan, je choisis un Wenshan Baozhong issu d'une plantation nouvelle de 4 ans:

Cultivar: qingxin (ruanzhi) Oolong
Récolté à la main le 29 avril 2014 (English review)
Elévation: 400 mètres
Process: Oxydation légère et bon séchage.
 Pour l'infuser, je choisis une théière Duo Qio en zhuni moderne aux parois fines. On la dirait entourée d'eau dans son bateau à thé... Et je le verse directement dans mes coupes chantantes qingbai.
Les effluves de l'infusion me font penser à des fleurs de lys, des marguerites et à une fraicheur très printanière.
Le goût est doux et fin, mais il a aussi un petit côté 'zest' et vivace qu'ont les thés issus de nouvelles plantations.
 Son caractère est très différent des Oolongs de haute montagne, bien qu'il s'agisse du même cultivar et d'un degré d'oxydation et de séchage similaire. On ressent plus la forêt épaisse et luxuriante.
 Les feuilles s'épanouissent dans la théière.
Ce bol à eaux usées de style 'Ge', craquelé, se marie bien avec le bateau et l'atmosphère nature du Chaxi. L'un, fermé et sombre, cache (les eaux impures du préchauffage). L'autre, ouvert et clair, montre (la théière). Zones d'ombres et de lumières...
Cet excellent Wenshan Baozhong est disponible ici.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Sharing a tea experience


This week, one of my tea highlights was brewing this 1979 Hung Shui Oolong from Dong Ding (available here). Tasting an aged Oolong is always a special moment, but it's also a challenge to brew it well. Hungshui Oolongs need more attention and practice than other teas.

Oolong leaves that have patiently waited for 35 years have a lot to tell. I feel they are meant for a beautiful Chaxi. Without checking how I prepared them last time, I opted for the same old duanni teapot!
I am very pleased with the pictures I obtained. They reflect very well the clarity and shine of the tea. The first brew is very dark and full of flavors, but at the same time it manages to stay very smooth with a typical Wuyi suan (acidity) that turns into sweetness.
A perfect cup of tea requires an alignment of all the elements that go into a tea. There's always a weak link somewhere. For some, it may be the quality of the leaves. Or it's the tea ware that is not a good fit. Or water that is too heavy... Very often, though, the problem is the brewing itself. That's why tea drinkers will find that they obtain different results with the same tea and everything else the same. (If you're in a tea class, this is one of the most interesting finding: when everybody brews the same tea, it tastes differently!)
For this article, I made an experience, brewing these leaves with my silver teapot. In theory, an Oolong with a strong roast shouldn't be brewed with a silver teapot, because the fiery taste won't be mellowed down by the silver. On the contrary, the high heat conductivity will magnify this taste. So, in order to avoid this defect I used fewer leaves than with the duanni and I poured the boiling water very slowly in the teapot. These changes helped to make the brew well balanced. It wasn't perfect, but it's still very, very enjoyable.
My point is not that I am a perfect brewer. If I continue to take classes, it's because I feel there's still much for me to learn and improve. What's fun is to be able to feel the progress!
 Pure, sweet, lively. The characteristics of a good cup are easy to summarize and so hard to obtain! But sometimes you do...
 Remember what you did right. And enjoy the tea!
(PS: For this fall season, I am discounting some of my Hung Shui Oolongs until mid October. Check the promotions page for all current bargains.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Tea connections

Japanese style garden in Taipei (Tatung University)
Recent readers of my blog may be surprised to see me preparing Oolong at an event in the Tatung university in Taipei. This picturesque place is better known as a background for wedding pictures! And how do I get access to such an old landmark of Taipei to make tea?

Teaparker, the tea master with whom I learn about tea, is my connection to this event. As a consultant for the Taipei Story House, every month, he gives a speech about tea open to the public (it used to be easy to get in, but now you need to register 2 weeks in advance!) To make these monthly events more lively and self-explanatory, Teaparker always asks one or several of his students to perform a Chaxi. Once a week, he also gives a more formal tea class at the Taipei Story House.

Teaparker thoughtful before the event
Teaparker is a former journalist who has now written about 40 books on the subject of tea. I am fortunate that I attended the very first tea class he taught, 12 years ago! And I have continued to attend his classes every week ever since. The tea world is very large and there's so much to explore. Teaparker doesn't pretend to know everything about tea, but he continues to learn and is passionate about sharing the joys he finds in tea.
Thanks to his tea classes, I have also the chance to connect with other wonderful tea persons who have become great friends.

Tea can be somewhat a lonely experience if nobody around you appreciates it. In Taiwan, this is rarely the case, because so many people like the taste of good Oolong, even if they don't put as much effort as we do in their Chaxi.

Sharing many delicious cups with people who also love tea creates a common bond of happiness. I have found this experience so amazing that I even wanted to share it with other tea lovers overseas and started this blog 10 years ago. And thanks to this blog, I have connected with Baroque musicians, artists, potters, writers, doctors, web designers, university professors, poets, physicists, movie and wine makers...all very talented and very interesting people. Exchanging pleasure and happiness in a meaningful and refined way is so gratifying... (Thanks again, dear tea friends).
We live in a more and more connected world and it's not always easy to disconnect! Too many connections may also lead to lost time, so it's important to nurture the good and the right ones.

There is one more connection I wish to mention in the relationship with tea: oneself. Preparing tea is actually never lonely if you use this moment to connect to oneself. Be here now. Every detail has its importance when you prepare tea. This motivates you to focus on what you are doing. Tea opens a road to meditation.

There's a inner dialogue with oneself during tea. The drinker judges if the brewer has prepared the tea as one wished it to be brewed. So, you learn to know how you like your tea, what taste gives you most pleasure, what smell reminds of which memory... Learn to listen to your inner voice!

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Raffinement et bonification du Hungshui Oolong

Dimanche, Teaparker a fait son discours-événement mensuel dans cette ancienne demeure Japonaise du fondateur de l'entreprise d'électro-ménager Taiwanaise Tatung. Elle est située dans l'enceinte de l'université Tatung, au nord de la rue Zhong Shan, à Taipei. Vous vous rappelez peut-être qu'en juin j'y avais participé avec un Chaxi consacré au Oolong de haute montagne de Shan Lin Xi.
En ce weekend de la fête de la pleine lune d'automne, Teaparker a consacré son intervention à des thés plus chaleureux qui correspondent mieux à cette saison. C'est l'un après l'autre que nous, ses élèves, avons présenté notre Chaxi et préparé un thé pour 4 spectateurs à la fois.
Gloria a ouvert le bal avec son Chaxi de lapins roses dans la lune sur fond de nuit étoilée (elle a cousu de vrais cristaux sur son Chabu!) Elle y a infusé un Hungshui Oolong de Dong Ding de 2013, qui va bien avec sa théière ancienne en zisha. Un tel Oolong torréfié et jeune a une certaine force directe et complexité qui plait à un grand nombre de buveurs réguliers. Il brille non pas par sa fraicheur, comme un Gao Shan Oolong, mais par ses saveurs sombres et fruitées. Un peu comme la pleine lune d'automne!
En second, nous passons à mon Chaxi dont le Chabu est la création de ma mère, utilisant des tissus japonais. C'est un Chabu que j'aime utiliser avec mes Oolongs torréfiés, car je trouve qu'ils vont bien avec le thème clair/obscur de ce quilt. Ces thés ont des notes torréfiées sombres et profondes, mais on retrouve aussi des senteurs très fines et fraiches. C'est aussi pourquoi je rajoute des accessoires plus brillants (comme mes Chatuo et ma bouilloire en argent) sur mon Chabu aux couleurs mates, afin de symboliser cette clarté des senteurs (et de la lune d'automne!)
Pour cette occasion, j'infusai mon excellent Concubine Oolong de Yong Lung de 2001. Après le Hungshui neuf de Gloria, Teaparker veut (dé)montrer tout le raffinement et l'amélioration qui accompagne la conservation d'un Oolong torréfié de Dong Ding qui n'a pas subi de nouvelle torréfaction. Teaparker rappelle aux spectateurs que les feuilles sèches d'Oolong âgé auront tendance à s'ouvrir peu à peu avec le temps. Quant au goût, il reste profond, mais il devient si fin qu'on le remarque moins au départ que durant l'aftertaste.
Les deux prochains Chaxi utilisent le même thé: un Oolong de haute montagne d'Alishan de 1992. Conservé dans une jarre en porcelaine pleine par Teaparker lui-même, c'est un thé qui n'a eu qu'une torréfaction très légère au départ et qui n'a pas été retorréfié depuis! Ce n'est donc pas un Hungshui Oolong, car sa torréfaction fut bien plus légère. Cependant, ce type de conservation n'est pas possible avec tous les Oolongs de haute montagne, car nombreux sont ceux qui sont trop légers et n'ont pas eu cette petite torréfaction. Mais si ce thé peut se conserver sans retorréfaction, alors, a fortiori, les Hungshui Oolongs aussi peuvent se conserver ainsi.
Mademoiselle Li dit qu'en ces jours de cannicule elle a imaginé son Chaxi comme un endroit de fraicheur, au milieu des bois. C'est là qu'elle aimerait faire infuser son thé! Cela ne fait que 3 mois qu'elle suit des cours et on peut voir qu'elle n'a pas perdu de temps! Sa théière est une zhuni, afin de mieux faire ressortir les arômes les plus fins de ce thé.
Le prochain Chaxi utilise deux tissus japonais aux tonalités raffinées et chaleureureuses. Son idée est de faire simple et beau. L'impression de fraicheur vient de son arrangement floral et fait un joli contraste avec le reste.
Evon utilise une bouilloire en argent et une théière en zhuni pour obtenir une température d'infusion élevée et obtenir un maximum de saveurs de ces vieilles feuilles.
La réaction du public dégustateur est ravie! "Ce thé ne me donne pas l'impression d'être vieux! Mais il a des arômes différents et fins que je n'ai jamais goûtés auparavant". "Ce thé a une telle fraicheur encore!" Pour l'avoir dégusté lors de la répétition, je confirme cette impression de finesse et de légerté. Ses arômes anciens sont très subtils et ne viennent pas se substituer au caractère de haute montagne. D'un point de vue du goût, un Hungshui Oolong âgé sera plus puissant et profond, alors que celui-ci est plus fin.
Ces 4 Chaxi ont bien mis en perspective le potentiel de bonification du Oolong et son attrait pour la saison automnale.
P.S.: Pour cette rentrée sous le signe du Hong Shui Oolong, je vous signale que j'ai baissé le prix de certains de ces thés jusqu'à la mi octobre. Profitez de ces bonnes affaires tant qu'elles sont disponibles en stock!

Monday, September 08, 2014

++++ NEWS ALERT : Tea merchants mix Chinese Oolong with Taiwan Oolong ++++

I interrupt my normal blogging to give you the latest news. Here is one article in English about this matter.
Are you as shocked as I am?

 
This comes just days after another scandal involving 'gutter oil' here in Taiwan. What's really newsworthy this time in both cases is that these scandals don't just involve small companies selling in night markets where you expect low prices and low quality. Even big corporations and 100 years old tea shops are taking part in this kind of deception. And these are not isolated cases. It is taking huge proportions. For tea, the report mentions 1200 tons of illegally imported Chinese tea. And this is just the tip of the iceberg: how many more tons haven't been discovered?

The problem in both cases, in my opinion, is not that these products should be banned altogether, but that they are not labelled properly. Even recycled oil can still have good uses (for fuel, detergents...). It just shouldn't be used in the food industry anymore. As for Chinese Oolongs, the law in Taiwan restricts the importation of such tea to protect the local growers. But if these teas are safe for consumption and are labelled as coming from China, there is no reason (except politics) why consumers shouldn't be able to choose these teas.

The incentive for these scandals is lower costs. This translates into lower prices and more market share for these firms. How do competitors react? They have to find ways to stay competitive. If deception isn't punished by consumers, then most of the industry resorts to one type or another of deception. So, be demanding when it comes to quality and learn to taste the difference!

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Hung Shui Oolong innovation: High Mountain

Hung Shui Oolong is traditionally associated with Dong Ding Oolong and lower elevation Oolongs from Mingjian. In the 1990s, when High Mountain Oolong became more and more popular, these teas would distinguish themselves from Dong Ding Oolongs by having very light oxidation and no roasting. Roasted Oolongs were for the old (lao ren cha, old people tea) and high mountain Oolong for a younger and urban crowd. 2 very different styles.

What innovation brought these 2 worlds together? Competition breeds innovation and this one came from the Dong Ding Oolong competition! Each spring and winter, over 5000 teas (1 farmer = 1 batch) participate in the Lugu Farmer's Association competition for the best roasted 'Dong Ding Oolong'. In August 2007, I already reported that insider news: the Oolongs who win at this competition come mostly from high altitude plantations. Here's an example:

Cultivar: Qingxin (ruanzhi) Oolong
Origin: Tsui Feng mountain
Elevation: 1700 meters
Harvested by hand in Spring 2014
Processed as a competition Dong Ding Oolong (Hung Shui and no stems). It's from the same batch as a prize winner, but it's a 'left over', because only 18 kg are allowed per batch at the competition.
After a careful 'hōngbèi', the High Mountain Oolong preserves its particular mountain freshness and elegance, but it acquires warmer and fruitier flavors. It's like adding a bass drum to a high pitched sound. It adds depth and body to the taste while you still feel a lot of crystal clear freshness. The taste is also sweeter and less sour than with Dong Ding Oolong. The aftertaste is powerful and full of energy. But it's not one dimensional: there's a wonderful balance between the sweet honey/fruity flavors and the mountain cool. It jumps, dances and whirls in the mouth!
High Mountain Hung Shui Oolongs are made with Oolong leaves that have been sufficiently oxidized to receive a slow and deep roast while preserving their mountain characteristics: freshness, lightness and elegance. Like for the best Wuyi Yan Cha, the roast is lightest and skillfully done when the underlying quality of the leaves is the highest! The leaves open up very well and turn green quickly again.
If you like to combine the pleasure of tea with out of this world music, I can recommend listening to La Cité des Dames (by Capella de Ministrers), music from the Middle Ages. The high pitched sound of the song and the deep drums are a wonderful echo to this Gao Shan Hung Shui Oolong! This sacred music sung by a woman in Latin conveys a feeling of calm joy and deep faith. It brings you to the top of the world!
From the top of Hehuan Shan, near Tsui Feng