Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Learning tea like a walk in the park (of the Lin Mansion)

Chinese tea is hard to understand and appreciate without some guidance. It's like sightseeing a monument without a guide or any reading material. All we can see is the superficial beauty. This is even more true with tea, because it's not just about contemplating it with our eyes. A tea drinker first has to be a tea brewer: we are closely involved in the making process of our beverage.

I experienced this first hand. When I arrived in Taiwan, 17 years ago, I soon found myself making Oolong tea. But I kept feeling disappointed by the result. Expensive high mountain Oolongs didn't taste much better than low elevation teas. They all tasted bitter and kind of bland. It's only after taking some classes with Teaparker that I started to get a real understanding about Chinese tea. My technique improved and the teas started to taste better and, very important, each one started to have its distinctive character and taste. This sparked my interest and led to this blog 10 years and 6 days ago!
Last month, I had the pleasure of teaching some students from the Tea Institute at Penn State about tea after a pleasant walk in the gardens of the Lin Mansion in Banciao (New Taipei City). Teaching is like giving keys or opening a door. It's making it easier for students to walk in the right direction.
Even then, there's still a lot of work for a tea student. Here, in these ancient gardens, we experience very classic Chinese beauty. The beauty of nature played a part in the enjoyment of life in this Mansion.
The wood carvings are exquisite and full of symbols. On the ceiling of the theater building, we find bats like this one. Bat: 蝙蝠,Biānfú, is a symbol for happiness, because the second character has the same pronunciation as happiness in Chinese. The wings are open and it flies upside down in a very lively way. That's because the character for 'upside-down' has the same pronunciation as dào, meaning 'to have arrived'. So, this picture means that 'happiness has arrived'!

The shape of the wings is very similar to real bats. But we can see lots of curved patterns at the end of the wings. They look like symbols of clouds. Close to the body, these curved lines take the shape of 2 ruyi (scepters). 如意, Rúyì, means 'as you wish'. It's a symbol of good wishes and prosperity. 
Beautiful pictures with lots of (good) meaning hidden inside!
Like with tea, we need to learn the many details in order to appreciate all aspects of this beverage.

We move now to a traditional tea house nearby and start our study of Hungshui Oolongs. In order to gain a very precise understanding of this category, I have chosen 3 roasted Oolongs from the same location, Yong Lung in the famous Dong Ding area.
We start with the 2013 winter strong roast. First, I show them how to brew this Oolong and later I let them practice by themselves. We're using a gaiwan for more accurate results. The color of this brew is very clear and bright golden/orange. The taste is characterized by a typical 'Dong Ding' sour note with fresh tannins that carries, prolongs the taste of this tea and ends in sweetness and salivation. The aftertaste includes a deep green freshness and taste of raw fruits.
The complex character of this tea makes it challenging to brew. On the other hand, because this tea has several facets, it also allows the brewer to play and emphasize different tastes. Pouring water very slowly will bring more smooth and balanced taste. Using fewer leaves will help not to overbrew the tea as you learn about it. But once you get more experienced, you may want to try with more leaves and a pour that combines power to open the rolled leaves and good control, calm at the end of the pour, in order to keep the taste well balanced.
Then, inside just one cup, you will find so many beautiful flavors and meaning as in a Chinese painting!

The second tea we studied is this 2003 spring Hung Shui Oolong from Yong Lung (Dong Ding) as well. This is a great way to observe first hand the impact of 10 years of aging on a roasted Oolong. This comparison is very helpful to differentiate old and new and to understand how Hungshui Oolong evolves with time.

The dry leaves are not as tightly rolled anymore. They open up slowly.
The taste is much more mellow. A lot of tannins from the roasting have disappeared. The sour note is much more refined and integrated with the sweet tastes. And new, I mean old, woody fragrances are emerging now.
Every time it's brewed, the tea tastes somewhat differently. The brewer needs to adjust to how the leaves have opened up in the gaiwan and their exhaustion level.
As roasted Oolong tea ages (without being re-roasted again and again), it mellows down and gain both in purity and thickness. But this only happens if the Oolong is from one and the same batch.
Such old tea is difficult to find, because what is sold as old tea in most tea stores is a mix of their unsold teas, which are roasted together again to give them a stronger mouthfeel. At the end, all you can taste is the sweet charcoal roast and there is no underlying freshness anymore. 

As a conclusion to their visit, I prepared one more old tea from Yong Lung: this 2001 spring Concubine Oolong.The leaves are more oxidized and they have been bitten by the same tea jassids as Oriental Beauty.

But for this last tea, I use an Yixing dicaoqing teapot. After the serious gaiwan study, let's enjoy also the harmony and refinement of Yixing ware! This is a rare and special tea that deserves being brewed to the best of its possibilities.
Like classic music played on a cello, this aged tea resonates with its deep and slowly unfolding tastes. We can still find a connection in the structure of the taste with the previous 2 teas. That's the important lesson to learn from this comparison.
The tea shines with purity and clean flavors! The fruitiness points not to a high mountain, but to the rich soils of Dong Ding.
These 3 high quality roasted Oolongs are a great material to learn the taste of traditional Dong Ding Oolong. The leaves themselves are 'tea masters' that teach us what they have in them. What we need to bring is focus and practice. Mixing theory and hands on practice makes learning tea like a walk in the park! 
Thanks for your Taiwan visit!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks Stephane!

The Lin Mansion was truly beautiful. It is definitely on my "must see" list when I go back to Taiwan!

The comparative study of hung shui oolongs from Yong Lung was a great learning and tasting experience. The 2001 spring concubine oolong was exceptional. I think that it one of the best teas you have in your selection.

Congratulations and good luck with your new web boutique!