Friday, June 15, 2018

De la hi-fi pour mon Gao Shan Oolong

Oolong de Tian Chi du printemps 2018
Le rayon de soleil qui illumine le Chaxi met la pureté du thé et des accessoires à nu. Cette lumière resplendissante des premières heures de la journée exerce une fascination raisonnée et apaisante. Le cerveau cherche l'éveil, la clarté. Il est loin de vouloir s'enivrer, divaguer à la lueur tamisée d'une faible lumière artificielle avant de trouver le sommeil. Au contraire, le soleil des matins de juin éveille nos sens en les affutant, en les rendant sensibles aux couleurs vives et intenses. Dans l'ombre, tout est plus ou moins gris, indistinct ; cela fait appel à notre imagination pour compléter les informations qui nous manquent. La lumière révelle la vérité avec la plus haute fidélité! Elle est aux couleurs ce qu'un bon système audio est à la musique.
La pureté des Oolongs de haute montagne se marie parfaitement avec cet atmosphère ensoleillée. Leurs saveurs fraiches, limpides et pleines d'énergie correspondent si bien à ces rayons envoyés par l'astre céleste comme promesse de l'aube!
Cet Oolong de haute montagne provient justement de Tian Chi, lac du ciel, situé non loin de Fushou Shan, à 2260 m d'altitude. Chaque lever de soleil y est une symphonie pastorale où perce l'hymne à la joie! La beauté de ce Gao Shan Cha, nourri de rayons de soleil matudinaux, est qu'il restitue ce chant de montagne avec haute fidélité.
La porcelaine claire permet d'exprimer ces saveurs sans filtre. Et ce thé n'en a pas besoin, car sa première qualité est sa pureté éblouissante!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Brewing outdoors in Norway and elsewhere

Hakon from Norway sent me this picture and wrote the following note:
"Dear Stéphane,

Earlier today I sat outside reading your well-written newsletter for Spring 2018 and it inspired me to brew one of the teas I've bought from you earlier. It became an incredible tea moment and it felt almost magical when the rain started pouring down, which it hasn't for many weeks now. I thought I would like to share this with you and thank you for your inspiration. I included a picture to better share the moment.
Your teas have been greatly enjoyed. I'm also really happy with the classic teacups I got from you." 
Thanks a lot for sharing your positive experience with me and my readers via my blog. Brewing tea outdoors is something that I enjoy a lot and I am glad to see that I'm inspiring other tea lovers to give it a try. Here, a balcony is a first good step, since it means you're still reasonably close to a source of boiling water in your home! In your garden, you could use an electrical extension cord to boil water in an electric kettle.
When you're in a remote location, you can use the most traditional water boiling accessory in gongfucha: the Nilu. Or you can use a gas stove for camping.

A small kettle then makes a lot of sense with a gongfucha set: the water heats up quickly in a small kettle. (I remember one of my first outdoor Chaxi in a public park in Paris in 2009: the water in a big kettle was heated by an alcohol lamp and it took forever to come to a boil!)
Drinking tea outdoors is fun because it changes the way the tea is experienced and even how it tastes! Outside, the mind receives a lot more stimuli than in a room. There's more to see, the sounds of nature are much louder, there might be some wind, the temperature can vary greatly and there are plenty of scents emanating from the surroundings. If you brew your tea lightly, it is likely to feel subdued, because you can't notice its intricacies. Brewing tea outdoors, therefore, often means to brew your tea rather strong. 
 It's always a challenge and a balancing act to find the strength fitting your circumstances and the tea you're brewing. Some teas will feel more in harmony with your surroundings than others. I've shared my experiences with you in the past, but the best is that you find out by yourself which teas resonate most for you in a particular spot.
 Summer is quickly approaching, so I post these sunset Chaxi pictures from the beach in Kenting. They show that it's even possible to brew tea on a white sand beach. Bring extra cups, because tea isn't only connecting you to nature but will also help you make new tea friends!

Thursday, June 07, 2018

The good morning Oolong

When you have a large selection of teas in your collection, it's always a challenge to decide which tea to brew. This week, I had a top mountain Oolong every morning and it made so much sense! The month of May/June is called the 'Plum rain' season in Taiwan. Strong afternoon showers are quite frequent, even though, this year, these rains came rather late in the season. These rains have an impact on tea harvests. Since the mornings are sunny and the afternoons rainy, the pickers start their work early in the high mountains. That's why high mountain Oolongs are mostly picked in the morning under a clear blue sky!
A sunny spring morning on Lishan is a spectacular event. The colors are vivid, the air is crisp and nature seems to glow with pleasure under the first rays of sunshine. And it's that same feeling I get at 6:30 AM on my Chaxi this week.
On Monday, my bliss came from this spring's Lishan Oolong, harvested on May 15th 2018! Its elegant sweetness and thick aftertaste are so pure...

Tuesday morning, the sun was slightly veiled by high altitude clouds. That's when I chose to brew this spring's president tea (next to the white house on the picture!) It's the tea from Fushou Shan, the plantation with KMT connections and supplied to Taiwan's presidency. Its reputation crosses party lines in Taiwan and if the current president Tsai wants to gift some tea to an important emissary, there are good chances that it would come from plantation!
This Chabu lets the mind travel to a high Chinese mountain surrounded by water. The blue colors fit well with the pure feeling I wish to recreate. It's as if there were 3 suns, one in each cup!
This spring's Fushou shan has produced another impressive high mountain Oolong!

On Wednesday morning, my daily dose of tea came from DaYuLing 93K. Méav's beautiful and pure voice accompanied this moment thanks to her first Celtic album. To emphasize the purity and lightness of this tea, I was brewing it with my silver dragon and phoenix teapot. The first 2 brews were almost magical.

These 3 Oolongs come from elevations above 2000 meters. They share a lot of similarities, since they were harvested mid May, just a couple of days apart. Their aftertaste is particularly thick and their energy powerful. This is this year's attribute for this type of top altitude Oolongs.
But no matter if you use an Yixing zhuni, a porcelain gaiwan or a silver teapot, it's possible to enjoy their fine aromas! What doesn't change is the necessity for a preheating the tea vessel well, because the the large rolled Oolong leaves need energy and heat to unfurl, especially on the first brew.
It's a wave of freshness that comes from Da Yu Ling! (The Fuji mountain on this Chabu is also a little reminder that Taiwan used to be Japanese from 1895 to 1945.)
Majestic cedar and pine trees are growing around the Da Yu Ling tea plantations. Their long shade reach down to my high mountain Oolong Chaxi!
When a cup is a trip to a sunny morning peak...

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Magnifying the beauty of tea

2011 Dian Hong from old arbor trees
One of the biggest challenge of our time is to see through appearances, because they can often be misleading. Marketing asks designers to create very enticing and beautiful packagings to suggest that the tea is of very high quality. This often reminds me of those YouTube videos with extreme makeup transformations! What you see at the end is miles away from reality. So far, the best teas I had came in very common bags, while leaves in great looking packages were almost always disappointing.
Thus, in the tea world, consumers must remain very rational and sensible when approaching a new tea. This also applies to professional buyers who travel to the production sites. It's easy to get emotional and carried away by the surroundings, the expert tea master who brews the tea... One of the best way to stay unbiased is to brew the tea in a standardized fashion to evaluate it (and compare it to others). In Taiwan's Dong Ding competition, the standard is 3 grams for 6 minutes in a porcelain tasting set. Glazed porcelain doesn't impact the taste of tea and the long brew makes sure that all defects in the leaves come out in the brew. If the tea tastes OK like this, it can only taste better when brewed with skill and care.
Bowl by Michel François
That's why, when you select Oolong, puerh or red tea on my online tea boutique, you see the same things a tea professional does when he's tasting tea:
1. 3 grams of dry tea leaves
2. The sight of the 6 minutes brew of these leaves without filtering.
3. The sight of the open leaves, after the brew.
4. This year, I've also started to make pictures of 1 or 2 open leaves only to better see their details.

These pictures go to the heart of the quality of the leaves. For scents and taste, you can read my description. And if you're still not sure, it's always possible to order sample sizes of the tea to taste it by yourself before committing to a bigger quantity. (Note: for this 2011 wild Dian Hong featured in this article and a few more teas, I haven't taken these detailed pictures in my boutique, because I always forget to do so! Sorry!)
Once the rough diamond is found, it's the brewer's task to prepare it to perfection! This step 2 comes after the selection, after the commercial transaction. This is what I am doing in this Chaxi, using a silver teapot to extract a maximum of aromas from these golden buds. And I'm using thin white ivory porcelain cups to emphasize the finesse and lightness of the taste. This is magnifying the beauty and the character of this red tea. The aesthetics of these pictures are not simply an appearance. They reflect the truth and beauty of this tea. The key to brew it well is to understand that buds are baby leaves: they are very concentrated with flavors and so small that these flavors are quickly extracted. That's why it's best to use few, especially with a silver teapot, and brew rather quickly.
To sum up, even the most elegant packaging will end up in the trash. Disregard it.
True tea beauty comes from within the leaves.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

My tips to enjoy the best teas of the world on a budget

A few days ago, I had tea at the Lin Gardens with a tea enthusiast who has purchased 6 aged '7542' puerh cakes from the late 1980s for roughly 70,000 USD! This high price reflects a new reality in the tea market: exclusive teas are getting more and more expensive. Affluent Chinese buyers bid up the prices of tea as they seek the same prestige and complex flavors of top quality wine.
If you've been following the wine market a little, you'll know that a bottle of top wine are reaching astronomical heights. The most expensive wines comes from Burgundy with its tiny estates: a bottle of Domaine Romanée Conti (6000 bottles per year) will easily take you back more than 10,000 USD. In 2001, I purchased 6 bottles of Chateau Margaux 1999, a premier grand cru classé from Bordeaux, at 120 USD per bottle and now each costs 600 USD! In the US, the current bottle, from 2014, of Opus One from Napa valley is priced at 385 USD... (Both wineries produce roughly 150,000 bottles per year of those wines). Tasting famous wines has become a very expensive luxury, while famous teas are still extremely affordable, especially if you follow my tips!
1. Great teas are like great wine: they are scarce, taste fantastic and are not meant to be drunk on a daily basis!
The most famous tea in China is the Da Hong Pao, a yan cha from Fujian province, comes from just 4 tea bushes on a rocky cliff in the Wuyi mountains! The Longjing plantation that was supplying emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) with green tea was slightly bigger with 18 trees! These 2 examples show that the scarcity of famous teas is actually even more acute than wine. Therefore, don't expect that you'll be able to purchase famous and exceptional teas on the cheap. In Taiwan, the best lot from the Dong Ding Oolong competition sells for 5000 USD for 300 grams (12 kg total production). And the high mountain Oolong from FuShou shan, also dubbed the president's tea, retails at 155 USD for 150 gr on my online boutique. This plantation is one of the highest in Taiwan at 2500 meters elevation and is the unofficial supplier of the presidential palace in Taipei.
2. Group tastings are a good way to reduce the cost of expensive tea.
The wine world also uses this tool to let many drinkers share the cost of their education. We live in a world where ideas and general knowledge tends to become free thanks to the Internet. However, when it comes to wine or tea tasting, no words, pictures or videos can substitute for the actual tasting experience. The goal of this tea education is simple and essential: learning how great tea tastes helps you identify which teas are exceptionally delicious and which are not. It boils down to the same characteristics as great wines: an elegant and long lasting aftertaste. Great wines and teas have a presence that stays with you for several minutes. A few sips from a wine glass or from a tea cup are enough to make this experience. You don't need to drink the whole bottle or 8 brews of tea to experience the drink's quality. Actually, the law of diminishing marginal utility suggests that there's most pleasure in the first cup. Sharing great teas in a group is therefore an excellent strategy to lower their cost.
3. Purchase and brew top teas in tiny quantities.
This is where tea is different from wine, which is constrained by the format of the 750 ml bottle (or the half bottle). Loose tea can be sold and packaged in very small quantities, sometimes even down to the gram! This makes a lot of sense with top teas, because they are produced in very small amounts. Instead of selling it all to one very rich person, it's more satisfying to let a great number of people enjoy the tea, especially if they are going to share it in a group! This trend to smaller quantities is obvious in the puerh world. Pressed cakes are getting smaller and lighter as prices of leaves of old trees have skyrocketed in recent years.
Except for lowering the price of your purchase, there are another 3 reasons why it makes sense to brew top teas with fewer leaves. First, it's because this how you can best judge a tea. The standard brew at the Dong Ding Oolong competition, the biggest tea competition in the world, is 3 grams brewed for 6 minutes in a 120 ml porcelain standard cup. While average teas will not taste good under such conditions, the best Dong Ding Oolongs will still taste delicious, because the long brewing time emphasizes their amazing aftertaste. This doesn't mean that top teas should be brewed in this standardized manner. -Ideally, the brewing should be adapted to the character of each tea.- However, top teas shine most when pushed to their limits. The second reason for brewing top teas with fewer leaves than other teas is because the longer brews will compensate for the fact that you're using fewer leaves. Otherwise, with the same amount of leaves and longer brews you'd get a too strong concentration of flavors in your cup. Third, the most amazing tea miracle happens when you feel a lot of pleasure from a brew that seems light at first, but contains a lot of things that slowly unfold. Teaparker calls it the Wu Cha feeling, when the tea feels so pure that it doesn't feel like tea at first. Only an exceptional tea will taste satisfying and rich when brewed lightly. What is considered light will vary from one type of tea to another, of course. Loose green teas are meant to be brewed lighter than Oolongs.
During that afternoon at the Lin Gardens, I used only a handful of leaves from this spring 2017 old arbor sheng puerh (2 or 3 grams) in a rather big Yixing teapot. My visitor was amazed by the fantastic taste and energy of the three long brews we made! The open leaves barely covered the bottom of the teapot.

Conclusion: The world of fine teas is getting more expensive and quality or pleasure isn't always guaranteed by a high price. This is another good reason to purchase expensive teas in small quantities.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Baozhongs nouveaux et lecteur ancien sont là!

Baozhong 'forêt subtropicale' du printemps 2018
Environ 6 mois après le lancement de mon blog, en 2005, j'ai installé un compteur de visiteurs sur mon site. Vous n'êtiez alors que 10 à 20 à venir me lire chaque jour. C'était l'époque où chacun se connaissait dans le monde du gongfucha en ligne!

Parmi les tous premiers à me contacter il y a Emmanuel! Et, 12 ans plus tard, nous avons enfin l'occasion de déguster du thé ensemble à Taiwan, l'ile aux trésors qu'il visite pour la première fois!

Aussi, je mets les bouchées doubles pour l'accueillir dans les meilleures conditions dans un de mes lieux favori, les montagne de Wenshan. Cela tombe bien, car les nouveaux Baozhongs de ma sélection sont enfin disponibles!
Emmanuel est donc le premier à pouvoir déguster mon Baozhong 'forêt subtropicale' de ce printemps en exclusivité mondiale! C'est un thé qu'Emmanuel connait bien, car je le propose pratiquement depuis le début de mon activité commerciale.
Dans les coupes en céladon, il conserve une coloration jaune clair qui indique un niveau d'oxydation plus traditionnel que les Baozhongs ultra verts modernes.

Baozhong semi-sauvage du printemps 2018
Emmanuel m'avait demandé de boire un thé en accord avec notre lieu de préparation. C'est pourquoi aussi j'ai choisi du Baozhong issu de ce même massif forestier. Et comme Emmanuel est végétarien et très sensible aux arômes artificiels, j'ai aussi eu envie de lui faire goûter ce Baozhong semi-sauvage issu d'une plantation de thé abandonnée. Il a remarqué que les odeurs de ce Baozhong sont plus intenses.
J'ai aussi permis à Emmanuel de s'exercer à la préparation du Baozhong. Le fait qu'on s'alterne lui a permis de prendre conscience des différences entre ses infusions et les miennes. Ainsi, j'ai pu le guider pour améliorer sa technique.
L'important est d'arriver à bien ouvrir les feuilles pour qu'elles occupent bien toute la place dans le gaiwan (ou la théière).
La transparence du premier Baozhong n'avait rien à envier à ce deuxième!La qualité et la concentration des arômes sont bien au rendez-vous dans ce cru du printemps 2018. La sensation de bien-être est intense, même si le Baozhong n'est habituellement pas son thé de prédilection, me dit Emmanuel.
Dans 'Comtesse de Charny' Dumas qualifie l'odorat du "plus subtil et plus aristocratique de nos sens"! Nous n'avons pas encore envie de retrouver le commun des mortels. Nous n'allons donc pas en rester là. Notre Chaxi "Baozhongs dans la nature en fleur" se termine et laisse place à un nouveau Chaxi: "voguons sur la mer des infusions en or"!
Hung Shui Oolong de Dong Ding d'hiver 2017

Hung Shui Oolong de ShenMu torréfié par infra rouge 
Après quelques infusion de mon Hung Shui Oolong de Dong Ding en théière Duanni d'Yixing, nous passons à un thé nouveau, le Hung Shui Oolong à haute oxydation et haute torréfaction par infra rouge de Shen Mu de l'hiver 2017.

Ses odeurs de torréfaction sont si bien maitrisées que nous l'infusons en gaiwan en porcelaine!
Le silence des gestes lors de l'infusion en dit plus long que tout un discours sur la concentration et la passion du thé.
 Avec un inconnu, ce silence pourrait s'avérer gênant, mais ce n'est pas le cas quand on il s'agit d'un lecteur qui vous lit depuis 12 ans...
Les oiseaux sifflent et chantent au-dessus de nous. Les infusions plus douces et subtiles les unes que les autres nous permettent de ressentir leur libre insouciance.
 Ce furent des moments en or...