Monday, March 18, 2019

La différence entre les Song et les Ming en 2 peintures

Empereur Song Zhezong (1077-1100)
La représentation picturale de l'empereur est un acte politique comme la photo officielle du président à l'Elysée. Tout est symbole. Ces 2 portraits d'empereur s'opposent en presque tout.

1. L'empereur Song est vu de 3/4 et cela nous permet de voir que s'il est assis, le dos droit sans  toucher le dossier de sa chaise. Sa position n'est pas confortable et nécessite un effort d'équilibre. Cette notion est renforcée par son chapeau avec ses branches horizontales parallèles au sol. Cela évoque le caractère Yi (un), le trait horizontal, celui qui trace la séparation du ciel et de la terre. Or, l'empereur est justement celui qui incarne l'harmonie, l'unicité sous les cieux. On constate aussi l'austérité de la décoration. Le tissu de la chaise est luxueux, mais est guère visible si on est en face de l'empereur. La beauté de cette étoffe n'est pas mise en avant, mais presque cachée. Sa robe rouge est sobre et magnifique à la fois, grâce, notamment, à ces 2 fines lignes blanches qui remontent jusqu'aux mains. 
Emperor Tianqi (1605-1627)
2. Ce portrait de Tianqi est ce qu'il y a de plus surchargé. Les symboles foisonnent avec des dragons un peu partout pour suggérer la force de cet animal surnaturel qui vole entre ciel et terre. C'est la même idée que pour les Song, mais avec une symbolique bling-bling si vous voulez bien me passer cet anachronisme! La sobriété des Song a fait place à l'ostentation. Tous les objets sont très finement sculptés ou peints, laqués et suggèrent le plus grand luxe, la richesse de l'empereur. Avec un tel état d'esprit, on comprend mieux pourquoi la décoration sur les céramiques prit de l'importance durant les Ming, puis les Qing. Or, comme de nos jours, trop de beauté tue la beauté. Et même l'empereur finit par apparaitre petit et avachi au milieu de tant de splendeurs.
L'empereur Song, lui, a les traits purs et le regard droit, déterminé. Neuf cents ans plus tard, on le sent incroyablement vivant tout en êtant d'un calme olympique, presque méditatif. Regardez ses yeux et vous serez quasiment hypnotisé par son regard!

Voici, en 2 portraits, l'explication de la nostalgie des Chinois pour les Song. Ce n'est pas tant parce qu'ils furent puissants. Au contraire, les Song virent le royaume s'amenuiser et se perdre complètement face aux Mongoles. Non, ce qui rend les Song si admirables, c'est qu'ils mirent les vertus filiales, le respect des maitres, la bienveillance, l'harmonie, la culture et les arts au-dessus du paraitre. Tout avait une signification profonde, simple et pure. Et ce sont ces valeurs qu'on retrouve encore dans le chado japonais ou dans ce thé préparé à la manière des Song!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Can Taiwan Oolongs compete?

 Taiwan is an advanced economy where the living standards are quite high and similar to many European countries. It's not a country with very low wages and labor intensive industries have long migrated to China and South-East Asia. That's why it's quite normal that Taiwan Oolongs face competition from Asian countries where similar teas can be made at lower costs. Price remains a very important factor when consumers purchase their tea. This tea class aims to find out if Taiwan's Oolongs can compete against their foreign copies. 

1. Oriental Beauties
 From left to right:
- Overseas OB from 2018 (reviewed here before),
- 10 years old top grade OB from Hsin Chu,
- OB tradtion from Hsin Chu.
 1. The overseas OB doesn't exhibit much character. It seems like watered down compared to the other 2. Its brew has the lightest hue.
2. This aged OB wasn't roasted (unlike my OB tradition), but the leaves contain lots of buds and exhibit a very thorough oxidation. Its scents are amazing, like perfume. The taste, though, is a little sour.
3. This OB tradtion differs from the other 2, because it has been well roasted. That's the reason why, despite bigger leaves and a lower oxidation, it has a very deep and sweet taste that was very enjoyable.
I should also mention that we did all our comparisons with 3 grams of tea brewed for 6 minutes with boiling water. We pushed the leaves to their limits with these Dong Ding Oolong competition parameters. It's possible to get better tasting tea from these leaves, but our purpose was to find their weaknesses in order to evaluate their quality.

2. High mountain Oolong
 From left to right:
- Spring 2018 Alishan Qingxin Oolong,
- Overseas Qingxin Oolong (reviewed here before),
- Spring 2018 Alishan Jinxuan Oolong.
- The Alishan Qingxin has the smallest and greenest leaves. The shine of its brew is the best, but the hue difference with the other 2 teas isn't that big. The fragrances are flowery, delicate and powerful. The taste is smooth, coating and lacking bitterness.
- The overseas Qingxin has the largest leaves. The brew doesn't have have much of a fresh or spring like scent. The taste is rather coarse, not bad, still drinkable, but not particularly good.
- The Alishan Jinxuan is just slightly more expensive than the overseas Qingxin, but my student Antonio and I both felt that it tasted much better, more refined and with a fresher high mountain character.
It was interesting to conduct these 2 comparisons in the company of my Spanish tea student. I didn't tell him which tea was which, and he was able to spot the overseas teas in both instances. Having a second, less biased opinion than mine, was helpful to evaluate the quality of these 6 teas. Taiwanese Oolongs may not always be able to compete on price, but in terms of quality they are indeed superior and worth it, in our opinion.
Antonio suggested that one reason was that I had done a good selection of my Taiwanese Oolongs! Maybe this comparison is a little bit biased, because the overseas teas didn't go through my selection process and I chose what was easily available?... I believe it' always possible to find better teas overseas, but these 2 are still relevant, because they should be quite typical of what you get when you're aiming for a low price instead of quality.

The verdict is that these overseas Oolongs are not horrible to drink and require some experience or such a comparison to figure out that they are not Taiwanese. Especially the dry leaves are very similar and easy to fool us. However, (well selected!) Taiwanese Oolongs provide superior aromas and a much more enjoyable tasting experience. And Jinxuan Oolong from Alishan is a very good alternative for those who want a high mountain Oolong at a very attractive price level!

3. 3 tea moutains comparison
 From left to right:
Da Yu Ling 90K, Spring 2017,
- Alishan Changshuhu, Spring 2018,
- Long Feng Xia (Shan Lin Xi), Spring 2017
We concluded the class with this comparison of 3 high mountain Oolongs. The Da Yu Ling was naturally the best and most powerful, but the Alishan was surprisingly close and similar. Excellent value! The most delicate, however, was the Shan Lin Xi. In the previous comparison, the Alishan was the most delicate, while now it tasted energetic and strong. This reminds us that the attributes of a tea are relative and depend to what you compare it to! Comparisons help to broaden your horizon and find the light in the dark!
Reminder: in order to give you the opportunity to make similar comparisons,
1. I offer a 5 gr sample of overseas OB for any order including at least 30 USD of OB or aged OB. (1 sample per order as long as my inventory lasts).
2. I offer a 5 gr sample of overseas Qingxin Oolong for any order including at least 30 USD of high mountain Oolong. (1 sample per order as long as my inventory lasts).

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

California zen

 Meet Cami, my latest tea student. Rarely have I seen someone so kind, so sensitive, so enthusiast and grateful. She will bring peace and joy to any tea event she will attend or organize, so welcome her with open arms if she knocks on the door of your tea room or tea house! Usually I teach tea at a table, but through the e-mails we exchanged, I felt that she'd enjoy more to practice the tea the way I do it usually, sitting on the ground. And indeed, Cami's posture is so good that I should learn from her!!
We started with this spring 2017 Da Yu Ling and I showed her how to brew it well in a porcelain gaiwan, the ideal tool for a beginner. I explained the connection between the tea and the color of the cups. I also explained that the main purpose of a Chaxi is to produce a great cup of tea with style and harmony.
Our second tea is this winter 2017 Hung Shui Oolong from Dong Ding. Like with the Da Yu Ling, I'm brewing the most typical tea of this other major Taiwanese tea category. But this time, I'm brewing it in an Yixing teapot, Chaozhou style. Cami is very interested by the step by step process of a tea brewing. Showing her how tea is brewed in a traditional gongfucha way, she could see that it's quite different from using a gaiwan.
Cami performed the second and third brews. Naturally, she made several mistakes when she poured the tea for the first time with this teapot. The good thing is that she could taste how her mistakes impacted the taste of the tea. And for the next brew, with my advice, she was able to correct the problems and achieve a very nice taste! A good teapot may help to get a better cup (than a gaiwan), but it's no guarantee. It still takes skill and practice to reach a good harmony between the roasted notes and the fresh tea aromas.
 To enjoy, understand and learn tea, one should be focused and sensitive to the little details. Cami has all these qualities and this made teaching her very enjoyable. She even reminded me of my Californian cousin, so that I felt she was family! We even found out that we shared another connection: we both read the book The Artist's Way that is about finding one's creative self!
For the third and last tea, I wanted again to show how varied the brewing method of tea can be. This time, I brewed this spring 2018 Biluochun in a black glazed bowl by Michel François. Historically, these bowls were invented during the Song dynasty, a millennium ago. They were used to whisk green tea powder. That's why it makes sense to brew (whole leaf) green tea in such a bowl.
Cami's smile reminds us of my Chinese logo, Cha zhi Le: Happiness in tea!

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

La clarté des sombres Oolongs

L'oxymore du titre de cet article reflète la complexité et le paradoxe des Oolongs torréfiés: la coexistence d'arômes sombres et de fraicheur. Ce fut aussi le troisième cours de thé de Régis, un de mes lecteurs français.
 On commence par le prototype le plus typique des Hung Shui Oolongs de Taiwan: ceux de Dong Ding!
Hung Shui Oolong d'hiver 2017 de Feng Huang, Dong Ding.
 Sa torréfaction est la plus légère comme le montrent son infusion claire et ses feuilles les plus vertes. Mais il a ces saveurs complexes parfois difficiles à saisir. Ainsi, sur la fin, les feuilles avaient des odeurs de papaye!
Le second thé est un crescendo en élévation et en torréfaction. Il s'agit de ce Hong Shui Oolong d'Alishan. Ses arômes sont plus sombres avec des notes de sucre roux, de molasse et de bois.
Hung Shui Oolong d'Alishan
Après avoir montré comment infuser ce type d'Oolong, Régis a rapidement appris et s'est très bien débrouillé. Pourtant, ce n'est pas un type de thé facile à infuser. Le but est justement d'arriver à trouver une bonne harmonie entre les arômes issus de la torréfaction et ceux de la feuille brute. Et comme ces Oolongs sont puissants, je recommande de ne pas utiliser trop de feuilles, juste de quoi tapisser le fond du gaiwan (ou de la théière).
 Comment on verse l'eau sur les feuilles a une grande importance et varie à chaque infusion. (Voyez mon guide de l'infusion de Oolong pour cela).
Notre troisième Oolong a des feuilles sèches encore plus foncées. Il s'agit du Zhuo Yan Oolong de Shan Lin Xi de cet hiver. Son infusion est plus rougeâtre et indique une oxydation un peu plus forte.
Zhuo Yan Oolong de SLX
Comme c'est le plus récent aussi, sa torréfaction se fait le plus sentir et apporte une note un peu amère qui donne de la structure et de la longueur à ce thé. Du coup, il des notes de chocolat noir! Intensité et plaisir!
Pour finir, nous avons dégusté un Hung Shui Oolong d'hiver 2007 que j'ai conservé dans une jarre en porcelaine depuis le 22 février 2008. C'est l'occasion de voir, de sentir et de goûter comment les Hung Shui s'affinent avec le temps. Extraordinaire! La torréfaction semble avoir disparu et des senteurs très différentes ont apparu. Le goût est soyeux et semble se fondre et ne faire qu'un avec les arômes. Le temps a forgé cette harmonie dans le thé si bien qu'il se prépare presque comme un Oolong frais de haute montagne!
Ci-dessous, l'infusion est celle de ce Lishan de 2007, mais les feuilles sont celles des 4 Oolongs de notre cours.
1. En haut à droite: le Lishan.
2. En bas à droite: le Alishan.
3. En haut à gauche: le Shan Lin Xi.
4. En bas à gauch: le Dong Ding.

Ces Oolongs torréfiés sont relativement sombres, mais cela ne les empêche pas de mettre nos papilles en fête!

Friday, March 08, 2019

High mountain Qingxin Oolong NOT from Taiwan

From a look at the dry leaves, it's very difficult to know if a Qingxin Oolong comes from Taiwan or not. That's one of the reason so many sellers choose to sell Oolongs grown overseas. The other reason is that they cost less than half the price of a Qingxin Oolong from Alishan! Could you tell which one is from Taiwan and which is not? I have left the captions blank in order to give you an opportunity to train your observation skills.
From the sight of the brew, these 3 Oolongs also look very similar. They are all processed in a fresh high mountain Oolong style. Are you ready for the results?
Left and middle are from overseas and the one on the right is from Alishan, Taiwan
The open leaves of the Oolongs on the left and in the middle are very large and have a yellowish hue. They are imported from another country, which I prefer not to name, because my point is not to say that Oolongs from that particular county are bad. But they are different from the smaller, finer and greener leaves that were harvested last spring in Shizhuo, Alishan.

The difference of origin is actually most noticeable in the brew's scents and taste. The spring Alishan has all the finesse, lightness and freshness of spring. The 2 imported feel much more like summer or fall Oolongs. Their aromas are not as fresh and their taste feels more astringent and bitter. Apparently, they didn't grow in the same cool conditions as in Taiwan's high mountains!

There's a difference, but how significant it is depends on how sensitive and experienced you are. So, like for overseas OB, I have purchased enough of these overseas high mountain Oolongs to give away 5 gr samples for those purchasing at least 30 USD worth of high mountain Oolong from my boutique (1 sample per order as long as my inventory lasts).
TianChi qingxin Oolong from winter 2018
And speaking of finesse, these are some pictures of my brewing of Oolong from Tian Chi at a Taiwanese tea house last weekend.
This Oolong was shining brightly in the celadon cups on this turquoise Chabu! A 3 stars tasting it was.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Ce que le thé a de plus choquant

Dans le monde du thé chinois, on aime bien mettre en avant les vertus du thé selon les 3 doctrines que sont:
1. Le Confucianisme: l'apprentissage, le respect des maîtres à thé, des traditions...
2. Le Bouddhisme: la méditation et le calme zen,
3. Le Taoïsme: la recherche de l'harmonie (avec la nature) et du souffle créatif.

Mais si l'on invoque le thé pour ces grandes vertus, c'est souvent parce que celles des hommes et des femmes laissent à désirer. Or, dans Chine de la fin de la dynastie Qing et du début de la République, la maison de thé était souvent un endroit mal famé où les hommes riches venaient déguster quelques coupes en compagnie de femmes de petite vertu!

Voici l'anecdote qui choqua le plus mes deux étudiants à qui j'avais donné rendez-vous dans une maison de thé proche de chez moi! En effet, il est quand même étonnant que les seules maisons de thé à Taiwan durant les premiers temps de la dictature nationalistes furent des maisons closes! Les maisons de thé que nous connaissons de nos jours datent des années 1980, lorsque la société commença à se libéraliser. Avant cela, le gouvernement de Chiang Kai-Shek ne voulait pas que les citoyens puissent se retrouver, discuter et se liguer contre son pouvoir dans des endroits publics. Seules les maisons closes étaient tolérées, car elles étaient contrôlées par des mafias dangereuses, même pour la dictature.

C'est donc grâce à la démocratie et à la liberté de se rassembler en public que le thé a pu retrouver son innocence et ses vertus!

Ce cours commença par ce Jinxuan Oolong d'Alishan, puis ce Qingxin Oolong de Tian Chi pour montrer le meilleur de ces 2 cultivars en version pure et fraiche de haute montagne. On s'est amusé à les infuser en porcelaine. Moi avec un gaiwan et versant directement dans les coupes et mes étudiants en petite théière versant dans une petite cruche.
En effet, le gaiwan était trop chaud et ils n'arrivaient pas à le manipuler. Une leçon risquait d'être trop courte pour leur apprendre le coup de main. Et il y avait déjà de quoi apprendre avec le versement de la théière! Ce n'est pas aussi évident que cela en a l'air d'obtenir un geste d'harmonie et de constance sans en mettre partout! Et cela nous donna le temps d'infuser un troisième Oolong d'un autre genre: un Hung Shui de Dong Ding. C'est un de mes préférés, car sa torréfaction lui donne un caractère puissant et immarcescible. Et, visiblement, je ne suis pas le seul à l'aimer!
En soi, le thé n'a pas de vertu ; c'est l'usage qu'on en fait qui la détermine! Par contre, on a pu voir que mieux on maitrisait la préparation des feuilles, meilleur est le thé qu'on obtient. Voilà de quoi motiver ces jeunes et brillants amateurs de thé!

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Why are there trenches in this tea plantation?

I've posted this picture and asked this question on my FB page yesterday. The exact answer is very difficult, but several readers came quite close.

Here's the answer: The first thing you notice is that the tea trees on this plantation in Mingjian are very small. They will take 2 to 3 years before they'll start producing a significant amount of tea leaves. That means that this plot of land would not produce any income for all this time! On the other hand, the trees are so small that there's a lot of space between them... That's why the farmer is going to grow something else between the rows of tea trees. In this case, the deep trench indicates that he has chosen to cultivate ginger this year!

The best answer I received was pineapple or cabbage, which are 2 popular plants for the same purpose. But they would not have necessitated such a deep hole. In a 2008 article, I also posted an article where flowers were grown in a field of Ruby/Hong Yu tea. Growing another plant is mostly done to compensate the lack of revenue at the start of a new plantation. However, growing a different plant also benefits the soil, because it's not a monoculture.

Monday, March 04, 2019

China's 3 doctrines and tea

It took me over 20 years to come to a comprehensive understanding of Chinese thought. One of the reasons for the complexity of Chinese thought is that there is not just one, but at least 3 doctrines. And they have each contributed some ideas to each other! I'm not going to give you a detailed lesson, but a very general overview of each doctrine and how it is linked to tea!
Song dynasty style tea
1. The (Neo)Confucian doctrine finds its origins in the teachings of Confucius (551-479 BC). This doctrine teaches children to be respectful of elders (parents and teachers). It emphasizes learning from masters, through copying, imitation (in Chinese, the character 學 means to learn and to copy). Exams determined the best students and who would get the best positions in the State. One of the key value is gratitude and showing this thankfulness through many rituals whereby the ancestors, the master or the superiors in the hierarchy were honored.

This doctrine of social order is still very much alive in Taiwan and China. See the tough education system and how getting into the best universities is so important and difficult, for instance. However, the pinnacle for Neo Confucian rule in China was during the Song dynasty (960-1279). That's when the literati, the scholars, had the most power and influence. This doctrine emphasizes rationality, learning and respect, which is why it was so modern back then. One didn't show off with his material possessions, but with knowledge and good taste. That's why the beauty of Song dynasty tea is so understated, almost austere.
An other occurrence of Confucian doctrine in tea is the ritual offering of tea to the emperor or the head of State. It's an honor and good publicity, because customers like to copy the elites in what they drink and how they drink it. 

To summarize, happiness is: learn well from your master(s) and be content with what you have.

Add caption
2. The Buddhist doctrine comes from India and became more and more popular among the common Chinese people during the Tang dynasty. The main characteristic of Chan Buddhism in China (which became known as zen Buddhism in Japan) is meditation. Meditation is the path to enlightenment.

Buddhism has this strange legend of how tea was invented: Bodhidharma was falling asleep during a long mediation and tore off his eye lids in order to stay awake. His eye lids magically turned into a tea tree when they reached the ground and Bodhidharma chew on its (tea) leaves and stayed awake after that! This tale shows that tea became popular with Buddhist monks, because it helped them to meditate without dozing off. And by favoring tea as a drink, this helped turn people away from wine, which had a bad reputation for those aiming for purity.
The link between tea and meditation also goes the other way round: tea helps to meditate, but meditation also helps to be more focused on enjoying and preparing the tea. Meditation is helpful to be aware of the very fine aromas of tea.

Happiness is: drink tea while or before you meditate and have no desires.

The character Qi, energy
3. The Daoist (or Taoist) doctrine refers to the Dao (Tao), which means 'the way'. It is the earliest Chinese philosophy and was founded by Laozi (601-531 BC) who wrote the Dao De Jing. In Chapter 42, we can read this fundamental text:

"The Way produces one, one produces two.
The two produce the three and the three produce all things.
All things submit to yin and embrace yang.
They soften their energy to achieve harmony."

One way to interpret this text is that the Tao is the original void. It produces one, which is Qi, energy. This energy produces 2, which are Yin and Yang. And through the interaction of Yin and Yang all life is created. And harmony is finding the right balance between Yin and Yang. This thought is very abstract, metaphysical and difficult to grasp. The important concepts are void or emptiness, Qi or energy, the tension between Yin (a soft, receptive force, darkness) and Yang (an active force, light) and Harmony.

The importance of the void in tea can be found in teapots, jars or cups. It's not so much there shape that matters, but the void inside them that let them be filled with water and/or tea!
And the tea froth on top of a bowl of Song dynasty tea is so delicious thanks to the many small tea bubbles. These are filled with air, almost nothing!

We also find Qi in Chaqi, the energy one feels after drinking good teas that can be felt in the body beyond their mere scent and taste. This is the ultimate tea tasting experience! In my experience, the most common and easy to grasp Qi is a powerful aftertaste. Because that's when you still feel the tea even though the brew has already disappeared in your mouth. The palate is empty, but the tea's presence can still be felt. And sometimes you can feel the warmth of tea circulating in your belly, shoulders, arms, hands and even feet!

The interaction of Yin and Yang can also be found in the interaction of water (Yin) and tea leaves (Yang). Through their interaction, we create tea. Daoism focuses on the interactions to find harmony: what is the right proportion of water and leaves, the right amount of force in pouring the boiling water, the right amount of time in the steep... What are the colors that complement best each other on a Chaxi? How do the shapes of our tea ware interact with the energy of the tea? What kind of energy does my body, my mind or this moment require?

Happiness is when your tea unleashes your creative energy and you strive for Harmony.