Friday, November 02, 2012

Oolong Tea Alchemy - 2 Qinghua jars

Turning tea into gold is the dream, the goal of most tea collectors. Sometimes, it can become reality. What are the secrets to this tea alchemy? How can we transform today's leaves into treasures that taste so incredibly fine and smell like out of this world? Especially, since very few of us are willing or even able to spend a fortune on tea, how can we obtain such tea without breaking our tea budget?

3 ingredients are all you need.
First, you need time. To properly age a tea, there are no shortcuts. This doesn't mean you need to wait 20 years before noticing an improvement. The tea will taste better and better, year after year. And it's actually a good thing to check on the tea regularly, at least once a year. (Yesterday, a young Wenshan farmer showed me a gift he had received from another Wenshan family: a jar of 80 years old Baozhong. He was quite excited, but I immediately pointed out to him that some of the leaves had rotten (!) close to the cover. It smelled moldy).

Second, you need high quality leaves. Since I'm limiting my subject to Oolongs, I can further add that it should be well roasted, in a way that preserves the freshness and energy of the tea. (This is the easy part: just choose any of my best Hung Shui Oolongs or roasted concubines or oriental beauties from my selection).

Third, you need a good porcelain jar to store the tea. Some of you may remember that I have performed several Oolong storage tests in the past. These tests caused me to drop the industrial porcelain jars from my selection. Contemporary potters can provide a better alternative, if they employ good materials, firing and designs. However, they can not rival antique Chinese qinghua jars. After almost 2 years of searching, I have stumbled upon a batch of such medium sized jars. After several weeks of testing, I am glad to add them to my selection:
2 designs: Flowers or Phoenix

The style of the qinghua paintings is similar to Ming dynasty (1368-1644) designs (Using 2 lines of blue, for instance). But it could also be a later reproduction. The exact date of origin is less important than the fact that these jars were made handmade with traditional techniques and natural materials. The outside rim around the mouth is not glazed and lets us peak at the rough, greyish kaolin clay that was used. The inside of the jar is glazed.
2 designs for the covers

Both sides of the cover and the bottom of the jar are glazed as well. This helps protect the dry leaves and prevents the clay to absorb the tea's fragrances.

Before using an old jar, there are some steps to take:
1. In case it is not clean, wash it well without hurting it. (Fill it with water for a day. Then use my magic sponge, for instance. Water and the sponge are enough to get rid of very strong stains). I have washed them already, but it's better to wash them twice, I think.
2. Dry them, preferably under the sun.
3. To remove bad smells, you can place a few grams of fresh Oolong in the jar and then shake it for 30 seconds. Dry tea is good at absorbing smells from its environment.

There are 3 ways of using this porcelain jar. (13 cm high, 7.5 cm diameter at the base and +/- 500 grams. It fits approximately 300 grams of rolled Oolong.):

1. Fill it to the top with leaves. Store it in a dry, clean and cool place (no direct sunlight). It's not necessary to seal the cover. But you could wrap it in a fabric for extra protection. Then, check the content once a year by brewing a few grams.

2. Empty the bag of your favorite and most often brewed roasted Oolong in the jar. Then, each time you want to drink this tea, take some leaves from the jar. Since you'll finish it off quickly, you don't have to worry that the jar isn't full. (This is how I'm currently using my jar with winter concubine Oolong.)

3. Do the 'magic trick' with this jar. Use it like a decanter, a day, an hour or just a few minutes before drinking a particular tea. Fill it with what you plan to brew and enjoy the short term change. The jar helps cleanse the leaves from the plastic foil scent and refines the fragrances.

Beyond storage, these jars are wonderful objects for a Cha Xi. Smelling the leaves inside the jar is a pleasure by itself! With time, the tea scents transform into perfume, and I already feel like the Warren Buffett of Oolong storage!


happyturtle75 said...

Could you elaborate on what you would look for in jars created by a contemporary potter in terms of materials, firing, and design? Thanks.

Stephane said...

This could be the subject of a long article.
Materials: natural
Firing: traditional, with wood preferably
Design: roundish shape. (See traditional Chinese jars). Glazed inside and outside.

And then also test the result.

Mr.Parapluie said...

Bonjour Stephane,

Je t'avais poser une question il y a de ca 2 semaine et tu m'avais très bien répondu sur l'entreposage de mon Liu Bao 1970. Cet article est un petit plus sur l'apprentissage de l'entreposage du thé qui est un art en sois. Je vais tenter d'expérimenter une jarre avec du Hualien 87 et je vais la sceller pour 1 ans. J'ai bien hâte de te donner mes impressions sur ce premier entreposage à long terme !

Merci encore Stephane !