Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tea and the financial crisis

Chinese history is a succession of dynasties. Each new dynasty marks a time of crisis when power was grabbed by another clan or ethnic group. And during weaker dynasties, the fighting never really stopped. The Sung dynasty (960-1279) comes to mind as having been very troubled. And yet, this was also a great time when it came to tea. Sung style tea (matcha) was so important and popular that it has been adopted by the Japanese and has been elevated to a tea ceremony. Properly whisking the fresh grinded green tea takes a lot of concentration. Your mind needs to be focused on making the tea and then on enjoying the fine nuances. So, tea was a kind of escape from the troubled times. But it wasn't an escape in artificiality (like opium, wine), but a refuge in aesthetics (the beauty of the bowls), fine and healthy food.

Most important, the drinkers were able to connect to nature and achieved a certain inner peace and harmony. They learned to live each moment in the present mode. When drinking tea, tea was all that mattered. Worrying about the past or the future was pointless. Then, calmed down by their tea, having a different perspective, maybe they were a little wiser as they faced their world in crisis.

Throughout history, it used to be that banks were blamed for NOT lending enough to low income groups or that interest rates were too high. During the agricultural age, loans were extremely rare: a tea farmer knew he can only drink the tea after the harvest. (A loan is what lets you enjoy something before having earned the money to pay for it.) Then, loans slowly became common during the industrial age, as workers would be paid only at the end of the month and their income was more predictable than a harvest. Still, the image of Scrooge (Dickens, a Christmas Carol), a cold-hearted banker who is not interested in lending, except to the wealthy, is the familiar cliché. The fact that this crisis came from the opposite excess (too easy credit) is the result of much progress. It also shows, I think, that the world has vast amounts of excess capital looking for sound and safe investments. For instance, the US government seems to have no problem finding 700 billion dollars...

What will change for us with this financial crisis? Rates might increase. And it will be more difficult to qualify for credit cards, loans... Home mortages, especially, will require substantial downpayments again.

Here is some advice I would like to propose/share with my readers:
1. No need to panick, have a cup of tea and think:
2. Do you feel that your financials are sound, that you have control over them or that they control you? Do you feel comfortable with the amount of debt you have? How will you be impacted by tightened credit?
3. If you feel fine, then continue drinking tea. I'm glad for you that you have learned to live within your means and find happiness in simple things like a cup of tea.
4. If you don't feel comfortable, if you can't enjoy this cup because of the financial situation you're in, then I suggest that you take action today. It's better to reduce you debts when you decide so than when you're forced to. This means spending less and/or making more money.
Some practical ideas for those who choose to reduce their tea budget without compromising tea quality:
- Freeze your spending on tea accessories. You don't need to be a collector of pots or cups to enjoy tea.
- Before your next order, finish all open packs of fresh teas (green tea, unroasted Oolongs...). Drink them when they taste best.
- Learn from the Chaoshan tea culture: Enjoying high quality tea and quenching thirst are separate. Use a smaller vessel to reduce your leaf mileage! (And drink plenty of water!)
- Or select cheaper teas when you drink mainly to quench your thirst. Keep the more expensive leaves for special moments.

Enjoying tea has helped many in times of crisis. And so I hope it will also help you to relax and find your way to happiness.
At the end of this road is a plantation of Oriental Beauty!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Qizhong Oolong - Medium roast Wenshan Baozhong

Tea tree kind: luanze (qingxin) Oolong
Harvest: Spring 2006
Origin: Wenshan, Northern Taiwan
Roasting: Spring 2008, medium strength

Semi-oxidized tea in the Wenshan area looks like Fujian's WuYi YanCha. The dry leaves are open, slightly bent. But while WuYi teas are still mostly roasted, Baozhong has followed the taste of Taiwan Gao Shan Oolong and is essentially sold unroasted (or just quickly dried). This explains why roasting skills are better in WuYi than in Wenshan.

Last winter, I gave a sample of excellent, roasted WuYi Rou Guei YanCha to my Baozhong supplier. He wanted to know how such tea should taste like. He loved that tea. Usually he's rather cool and doesn't show his emotions. But his face lightened up when he talked how good that tea was, how the strength of the fire was well balanced with the taste. He told me he was so impressed, that he changed the way he roasts his Baozhongs after this. Before, he would push the roasting higher and higher as the leaves got used to the high temperature. This time, he said he reduced the temperature at the end of the roast.
He must have done something right, because it does taste much calmer and sweeter than the previous Qizhong Oolong I had.

The color of the brew is a clear, light yellow gold. This Oolong is very interesting also, because it starts with roasted, sweet, nutty notes and finishes with a green fresh taste. This finish is very tannic. My mouth wants to salivate, but feels a little dry. This feeling lasts quite long. Then it slowly recedes and I reach for more. After several brews, the finish is almost like a raw vegetable. It still has a little bitterness (ku). Brewing this tea is like peeling the roasting away. The tea seems to rejuvenate after each infusion. (It reminds me a little bit of Ai Jiao Oolong.)
I have tasted this tea competition style, in a gaiwan and in a flat, small Yixing zisha teapot (see below). I liked every cup. The gaiwan made it lighter, more fruity and green, while the teapot made it rounder, deeper.

Each vessel underlines a different character of this tea. The way you brew the leaves can also contribute to highlight this:

- To bring out its 'fruity' side in the gaiwan, you can brew it lighter (a little less leaves and much shorter brewing times). The water needs to be very close to boiling (because porcelain cools down faster) and pouring of the tea needs to be fast (adjust the lid so that you get a big enough opening). Try to find extra thin cups.
- To bring out its 'mellow and rich' side in the Yixing teapot, you can brew it stronger. The water must have boiled and show sign of steam, but it doesn't have to be as hot. Pour the tea slowly after a longer brew. You can use cups that are a little thicker.

A flat type Yixing zisha teapot is a good fit for Baozhong and all Oolongs that are not rolled. The one I used weighs 93 grams for 10 cl and has a ball shaped inside filter. (When the leaves are big and whole -like for this Qizhong Oolong- an inside filter is not necessary.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Petits conseils pour débuter

Vous êtes nombreux à m'écrire que la lecture de mon blog vous aide à mieux préparer et apprécier le thé. Merci pour vos feedbacks positifs. Pour des conseils assez techniques, j'ai récemment remis ma page de leçons à jour. Pour passer ensuite de la théorie à la pratique, de nombreux débutants sont un peu perdus devant le choix presque infini de thés et d'accessoires. Voici quelques conseils pour vous guider dans vos premiers choix.

L'accessoire le plus polyvalent est le gaibei (zhong ou gaiwan), cette tasse avec couvercle, dessous et sans anse. En porcelaine, il restitue fidèlement le thé tel qu'il est. Apparu durant la dynastie Ming, sa grande ouverture permet de bien voir les feuilles. Son emploi est plus difficile qu'une bonne théière. La porcelaine refroidit plus vite et il faut donc bien faire son préchauffage. Mais cette difficulté permet d'apprendre plus vite, car les erreurs sont plus évidentes. Une fois qu'on sait bien utiliser le gaibei, la théière devient un jeu d'enfant. En plus, le gaibei est très bon marché.

Les thés les plus légers, les moins oxydés, sont aussi les plus simples à apprécier. C'est par eux que l'on commence, en général. Le mieux est aussi de débuter avec des appelations classiques. En terme de qualité, je recommande de ne pas viser trop haut. Si votre technique n'est pas encore au point, mieux vaut s'entrainer avec des thés de prix moyen. Cela vous donnera plus de liberté pour faire des erreurs et apprendre de ces erreurs.

Quelques exemples de thés fleuris et légers dans ma sélection:

- les Baozhongs 'fleur de lys' (léger, moderne) et 'forêt subtropicale' (un peu plus oxydé et plus classique).
- Le Oolongs Tsui Yu (jade), un thé de plaine,
- le Luanze Oolong 'verger de montagne' de Feng Huang, près de Dong Ding,
- le Tie Guan Yin de Shi Ping (Chine),
- le Luanze Oolong de Shan Lin Shi, un Oolong de haute montagne. (La comparaison des versions printemps et été est très intéressante.)

Facile à apprécier des débutants qui connaissent surtout les thés noirs (ou rouges, pour les Chinois), il y a l'une des stars des Oolongs de Taiwan: l'Oriental Beauty de Hsin Chu. Cet Oolong est fortement oxydé, mais il ne donne pas d'impression de lourdeur. Au contraire, il est fin et parfumé.

Je conseille d'attendre encore un peu pour découvrir les puerhs, crus ou cuits. Ces thés sont une classe à part, très concentrés. On les trouve souvent trop forts et aux odeurs atypiques lorsqu'on les goûte pour la première fois.

Après les thés frais et fleuris, mieux vaut d'abord passé par les Oolongs torréfiés. Ceux-ci sont plus complexes, et ont aussi le potentiel de se bonifier avec l'âge (comme les puerhs). Mais en même temps, ils sont encore proches des Oolongs frais.

Le plus célère est celui de Dong Ding. Je l'appelle Oolong 'classique' de Dong Ding.

Un autre exemple d'Oolong à mi-chemin entre le frais et le très torréfié est le Qizhong Oolong, un Baozhong torréfié à 30%.
Le thé chinois demande aussi un certain état d'esprit et de la pratique. L'idéal, c'est d'arriver à une certaine communion, une harmonie avec le thé, de le comprendre à l'aide de tous ses sens. On veut se sentir complètement serein et relax en buvant un thé. C'est pourquoi, je déconseille fortement thermomètre et chronomètre (sauf pour les tests). Utiliser des instruments nous éloigne du thé et nous empêche de ressentir par nous-même quand l'infusion est bonne.

L'esprit du thé, c'est la beauté en action, donner libre cours à sa créativité (voyez, par exemple, mon concours de cet été). Chaque session est comme un tableau vivant. L'eau coule, la bouilloire fume, la théière danse au-dessus des tasses, et celles-ci vont et viennent jusqu'à nos lèvres. C'est de l'art au bout de nos doigts, un art qui nourrit autant le corps que l'esprit.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Plastic tea bags and storage

Reminder: fresh teas are best stored in a dry and cool place, without smells, little air and away from sun light.
The above blurry picture was taken from the inside of a silver tea bag like the one on the left hand picture. It shows that this kind of plastic tea bag lets some light through. This may harm very fresh and tender leaves like green tea or light Oolong. (For roasted teas, I don't think a little light won't matter much after all the heat they got through the roasting.)

Is it better to transfer the leaves to a tea box or tea jar then?

Fresh teas are meant to be drunk at a quick pace, within a season or 2. That means that the volume of tea will diminish over time. You would have to constantly transfer the remaining tea in smaller and smaller containers to minimize the air inside your tea box/jar.
Plastic bags offer a more practical way to minimize the contact of tea leaves with air: just fold the bag tightly and clip it tightly closed. And then, in a second step, put this plastic tea bag in a box to block the light.

Note: Not all plastic bags let light through. This dark green and gold tea bag, for instance, is thicker and blocks all light.

By the way, I've bought this new, professional vacuum sealer this week. It will give me more flexibility to make tea samples.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Tea colors versus grey typhoon

Typhoon Sinlaku battered Taiwan during the Mid Autum Full Moon Festival this weekend. The grey weather and non-stop rain prevented any outdoor activity. So, I chose a colorful and warm roasted Oolong and my mother's tea quilt to lift our spirits. And it worked! Tea can have such an influence on your mood!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Puerh '8892' d'Yiwu

Cette galette de puerh cru 8892 (88 pour 1988, 9 pour le grade de ses feuilles et 2 pour le producteur Menghai) a un emballage caractéristique complètement rouge. C'est pourquoi on a aussi donné le nom de Hong (rouge) Yin (impression) aux galettes ayant cet emballage. Ce design existe depuis les années 1950 au moins et fait parti des plus recherchés (mais aussi des plus copiés!). Cette galette '8892' a été faite pour s'inspirer de la renommée des galettes Hong Yin passées. Des feuilles d'Yiwu et de bonne qualité ont été employées. J'aime bien aussi le pressage de la galette. Les feuilles sont faciles à décortiquer sans se morceller entre les doigts.

Mais comme de nombreux puerhs anciens commerciaux, cette galette exagère un peu sur son âge: elle n'est pas de 1988, mais a quelques années de moins (impossible de le dire quand avec exactitude). Le numéro '88' se prononce comme papa (baba) en chinois et apporte un plus marketing en Chine. C'est d'ailleurs pour la même raison que les JO ont commencé officiellement le 8 août (8e mois de l'année) à 8 heures 8 minutes (de l'année 2008 en plus!) Pour lui donner un goût un peu plus ancien qu'elle n'est, elle a passé un certain temps en stockage humide. Mais comme cela fait plus de 10 ans qu'elle en est sortie, elle a eu le temps de se reposer et de s'affiner.
Comme pour tous les thés, l'important n'est pas son emballage, son âge ou sa renommée, c'est le plaisir qu'on en retire. Et avec l'automne qui pointe son nez, j'ai de nouveau envie de puerh bien mûri!
Pour mon Cha Xi, j'utilise un plateau en céramique sur ce Cha Bu avec feuilles, une Nanfang Xiaopin et des petites coupes Qing. La théière en glaise donne plus de profondeur et de chaleur à ce puerh. La différence avec le gaibei analytique est flagrante. Sa conservation humide est surtout perceptible avec le gaiwan.

En théière, les autres caractéristiques de puerh ancien (forêt d'automne, bois, champignon, camphre...) dominent. Il coule rondement bien en bouche. Il a de la finesse, du moelleux et de la concentration. La force du cru est bien là et s'exprime par des picotements sur la langue et une sensation fraichement mentholée dans la bouche. Il est intense tout en restant équilibré dans ses fragrances et saveurs.

Plus vont les infusions, plus le thé se calme et devient moelleux. Les feuilles humides sont ouvertes et sentent le bois ancien et le camphre.

Au final, je suis positivement surpris par ce puerh. (J'avais eu l'occasion de le goûter il y a quelques années sans le trouver si bon). Je rajoute donc cette galette à ma sélection. Elle sera notamment disponible en taille d'échantillon (20 grammes) afin de vous donner l'occasion de découvrir un exemplaire réussi de puerh mûri.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Keep the tea pleasure pure

There are 2 subjects that can spoil a tasty family meal: illnesses and politics (unless everybody votes for the same party). Several members of my family are in the medical field, so I often get to listen to graphic description of patients' conditions while eating. And some diseases don't even need a description to cut my appetite.

To enjoy food or tea, the state of mind is very important. That's probably why I prefer to look beyond the health benefits of tea. It's just not relaxing to think of all those diseases tea is supposed to protect us against. Tea won't make us immortal, but a perfect cup of tea can taste divine.

But there is an even more disturbing thought: tea could be unhealthy. In this regard, the most recurring fear is that of lead in tea accessories. And this is not something that can simply be thought away. To find my peace of mind, I tested various ceramics 2 years ago. On the Teachat forum, others have also obtained negative results.

I think we can put this concern about lead to a complete rest for most tea ware. Most earth ware (like Yixing pots) and porcelain are fired at temperatures above 1200 degrees Celsius to succeed. Even potteries made at low temperatures still exceed 800 degrees Celcius. Lead, however, melts at 327.5 degrees Celsius. Fired at a temperature above 327.5 degrees, lead would melt and flow to the bottom of the piece (easy to spot by eye). So, the only way there could be substantive amount of lead is if it were added after the firing, as part of a decoration. A plain earth ware teapot would loose its shape if it contained melted lead. The main risk I see, therefore, are accessories with fragile (color) ornaments that look like having been added after firing. These decorations may (or may not) contain lead.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Cha Bei, de Chih Jung Sien (Teaparker)

Summary: 'Tea cups', Teaparker's latest tea book!

C'est le 20è livre de Teaparker et le 3è de sa nouvelle collection. (Les 2 autres sont Cha Xi et Cha Hu). Le titre complet est Cha Bei, Mei de kai shi, et cela signifie: Coupe de thé, le début de la beauté. Ce livre en chinois est donc entièrement consacré aux coupes et bols de thé dans la culture chinoise. Comme les 2 précédents, de nombreuses photos en couleur illustrent le propos de mon maitre de thé.

Table des matières:
I. Caractère et expression
1. Le début de la beauté
2. Le rebord de la coupe: doux comme de la peau
3. La forme de la coupe
4. La matière dont est faite la coupe
5. L'émaille
6. La cuisson
II. Coupe: goûter et comprendre
7. Thé vert: coupe de couleur claire
8. Thé blanc: coupe Qinghua
9. Thé jaune: coupe céladon
10. Thé bleu-vert: coupe fine
11. Thé rouge: coupe avec anse
12. Thé noir: coupe en céramique (sans émaille)

191 pages (500 gr) et le même prix que pour les 2 autres livres.

On trouve aussi de nombreuses photos de superbes bols en glaise noire de Jianyang de la période Sung (avec ou sans thé vert fouété comme sur couverture arrière du livre ci-dessus). Pour Teaparker, chaque coupe de thé a son histoire et nous ouvre une porte sur la culture chinoise du thé. L'amour du thé nous donne envie de mieux connaitre sa culture, et plus nous la comprenons mieilleur sera le thé. C'est un cercle vertueux où le plaisir stimule l'envie d'apprendre!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Thés rouges de la Côte Est de Taiwan

La compétition de thé rouge n'aura pas lieu cette année. Cela signifie que mon fermier peut enfin commencer à écouler ses meilleures récoltes. Celles-ci avaient été mises de côté pour la compétition. Mais il m'en avait fait parvenir divers échantillons cet été. Un grand nombre d'échantillons même. Ces 2 photos montrent une de mes nombreuses séances de dégustation pour sélectionner un des meilleurs crus de cet année.

Je vous présenterai le résultat de mes recherches un autre jour. Aujourd'hui, je veux tirer votre attention sur le fait que ces thés rouges taiwanais gardent une certaine proximité avec les Oolongs. En effet, le fermier avait l'habitude de faire surtout du Baozhong et de l'Oriental Beauty auparavant. Parmi les feuilles entières de ces thés rouges de meilleur qualité on trouve aussi de nombreux bourgeons, comme pour l'Oriental Beauty encore. Ainsi, comme le Oolong, il est possible et même recommandé de les infuser de nombreuses fois. A la fin des infusions, l'on remarque aussi que de nombreuses feuilles ont retrouvé une couleur vert foncé: l'oxydation est 'à point'.
On pourrait presque plutôt les décrire comme des Oolongs rouges!

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Feng Huang Tuo Cha of 2002 & 1991

Maker: Dali Nan Jian Tea Factory
Origin: Wuliang Mountain
Spring 2002: 100 gr Te Ji (special grade) raw puerh Tuo Cha (below left)
Spring 1991: 100 gr raw puerh Tuo Cha(below right)

This 2002 Feng Huang (Phoenix) Tuo Cha is hard but 'flakable' by hand. This allows careful separation of the leaves. Preserving their integrity, not breaking them, reduces bitterness and astringency in the brew.

This raw puerh has benefited from 6 years of storage in the hot and humid climate of Guangzhou before being recently shipped to Taiwan. There, it has evolved faster without loosing its raw character. Some typical storage smell is still noticeable in the dry leaves. The brewed leaves, on the other hand, display smoky smells that transform into mushroom and forest smells as the brews progress.
My brewing advice for this raw Tuo Cha is to first rinse the leaves and start with shorter brews in the beginning. You will see quickly realize that its taste and cha qi is quite powerful. (I had it one evening and couldn't sleep afterwards!) This initial strength will decrease after a few brews and bring a pure mellow and sweet tastes. The aftertaste is very long: it starts with a cool feeling in the mouth, a salivation and a numb tongue. And with fragrances (tobacco, camphor, nuts, chocolate...) that keep changing brew after brew, this tea is quite entertaining!

For less than 10 USD, I find this Tuo Cha is a good bargain to experience an already adolescent puerh. After 6 years, it still has the strength and some cool freshness of a young raw puerh, but it has also started to clearly turn mellow with fruitier, darker fragrances.

A comparison of both Tuo Cha: 2002 above and 1991 below.: And with the Spring 1991 Feng Huang Tuo Cha, it is interesting to see how an earlier Tuo Cha from the same tea factory has evolved. The color of the raw pressed leaves is darker. Especially the buds have turned darker. Their color is often a good reference point to estimate the age of a raw puerh.

The color of the brew is much darker, but transparent and shiny. The major difference comes from the old wood and camphor smells. And they are even longer lasting. But the mouth doesn't feel heavy. There's still a feeling of freshness on the tongue. Like the 2002 version, this is a slow starter. The first brews are better kept short and most sweetness comes out later.
It's been several weeks now since I've started to taste these 2 teas and test them with various brewing parameters and vessels. Most of the time, I have used porcelain (competiton set or gaiwan) to minimize the impact of a good clay and drink them without outside 'enhancers'! And as I have learned about these leaves and their potential and their limits, I have learned to brew them better and better. The fun of tea is also to feel how each tea is different and what is the best way to brew it. But I also tested this 1991 Tuo Cha with my Shantou teapot in parallel with a gaiwan: the taste was so different, so much deeper, full of body and mellow.

Due to its age, the 1991 Feng Huang Tuo Cha is more expensive. This is why I will also propose it as a 20 gr sample so that more of you can have an opportunity to compare it with the 2002 Tuo Cha.
Voyez aussi le blog Comme dans un livre pour une description du Tuo Cha de 2002 en français.