Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Tea postcards 2019

This year's 2 tea postcard gifts are now available. I thank all of you who voted and helped me select these 2 pictures. You have made an excellent choice. Each picture is full of action and tells a story. Above, water is poured from the kettle into the Yixing teapot. That's when the fragrances of the leaves intensify and tickle our nose. It's a moment of silence and concentration. Taken in black and white, this picture has a classic and jazzy feel. It's a timeless moment full of expectation as a new brew is starting.

The second picture shows 2 tea pickers harvesting Oolong in a tea garden in Changshu Hu (Alishan). They work quickly, by hand, to gather the tender spring tea leaves and buds. Their colorful cloths and hats bring a joyful touch to this scene. A ray of sunshine underlines the absolute freshness of these jade green leaves. A steep slope in the back indicates we are on a high mountain where Taiwan's finest Oolongs grow!
The postcards are not my only gifts. For orders above 60 USD, you receive a sample of Jinxuan and my Oolong Brewing Guide. Above 100 USD, you get free airmail shipping and receive my review of Chinese Tea Ceramics at the British Museum. And for orders of 200 USD and more, you get a sample of Tsui Feng Oolong, free EMS shipping and my review of the ultimate tea ware collection of Chinese emperors at the National Palace Museum

I will be processing your orders until January 31st. Then, the Chinese New Year holiday will last until February 11th. Enjoy my selection of top quality teas everywhere in the world!

Monday, January 21, 2019

2016 OB impériale et la température du thé

Cet Oolong Beauté Orientale de qualité impériale de Hsin Chu de l'été 2016 est le dernier venu de ma sélection. Il remplace la version 2018 de ce thé. Bizarre, non? D'habitude on remplace l'ancien par le neuf. Comment se fait-il que je passe du 2018 au 2016? La raison est bien simple: en comparant ces 2 OB, on remarque que la version de 2016 a eu le temps d'arriver doucement à maturité. Ses tannins sont moins tranchants, ses arômes sont plus ouverts, plus expressifs. Et comme ces 2 thés sont encore disponibles au même prix chez le fermier, le choix est vite fait!
(Petite parenthèse: tous les OB ne sont pas produits avec le même degré de torréfaction. La mode récente conduit même de nombreux producteurs à sauter cette étape afin d'avoir des OB buvables plus rapidement et moins chers à produire. Mais sans cette torréfaction, ces thés ne se gardent pas bien longtemps et ne sont pas aussi digestes).
 Pour ce thé pur comme la porcelaine et précieux comme de l'or, j'ai composé un Chaxi original et chaleureux. Profitant d'une belle journée, j'ai sorti l'un de mes Chabu qui s'accorde le mieux avec la couleur dorée de l'infusion.
 Ma plante symbole du contact avec la nature dans ce Chaxi est le coton pour la pureté de sa couleur. Au départ, j'avais couché ma branche sur le Chabu, mais cette horizontalité manquait de vie et d'énergie. L'inconvénient d'un vase est que cela éloigne le coton du thé. C'est pourquoi j'ai eu l'idée de suspendre ma branche de coton au-dessus du Chaxi!
 Ainsi, le coton semble voler comme des nuages ou bien de la fumée! Le regard monte et l'on passe à une verticalité qui donne plus de volume et de hauteur de vue à ce thé! C'est aussi cela l'essence du Chaxi: transcender le terre à terre du quotidien par la beauté d'un moment de raffinement et de créativité.
En buvant ce thé de nombreuses fois pour le tester, le photographier, le décrire dans ma boutique et dans cet article, j'ai remarqué combien ses arômes changent avec sa température de consommation. (Pour l'infusion, on reste sur de l'eau juste bouillante, naturellement).
En cela, le thé est très similaire au vin. La température idéale de consommation va varier d'un vin ou d'un thé à un autre. Ainsi, j'ai longtemps bu mes vins rouges à température ambiante, ce qui est trop chaud à Taiwan. Je fus stupéfait par leur finesse lorsque j'appris à les boire un peu refroidis!
 J'ai eu une expérience similaire avec cet OB. En général, j'ai tendance à boire mes thés assez chaud. Je ne leur laisse que rarement le temps de se refroidir. Or, la caractéristique d'un (très) bon thé c'est qu'il reste délicieux et aromatique à froid. C'est quelque chose que j'ai pu ressentir avec cet OB. Il gagne beaucoup en finesse et en complexité en se refroidissant. De nouveaux arômes apparaissent même! C'est pourquoi en chinois on a le concept de "leng xiang", senteur froide pour analyser les odeurs d'un thé et différencier celles qu'il a quand il est chaud de quand il est froid.
Les bourgeons de cet OB de très haute qualité apportent beaucoup de finesse et expliquent la concentration des arômes. Et comme ces feuilles sont très petites, il n'est pas nécessaire d'infuser longtemps pour en extraire l'essentiel.
Et parmi toutes ses odeurs de parfum les plus féminines et raffinées les unes que les autres, il m'arrive parfois de sentir l'odeur froide d'une bière très douce et fruitée! Et, bien que je ne boive pas de bière, cette odeur improbable ne me dérange pas. Elle doit être issue de l'oxydation et des odeurs de malt qu'on trouve dans les Oolongs d'été.
L'histoire de reine Victoria ou Elisabeth qui aurait donné le nom d'Oriental Beauty à ce thé s'est avérée être trop belle pour être vraie. Néanmoins, ce thé créé durant la période Japonaise à Taiwan est un chef d'oeuvre de beau thé! Déguster un breuvage si délicat et riche est luxe et volupté... 
OB impérial de 2016

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Aged tea myth: Top Oriental Beauty from 2010

Fall 2010 top OB from Hsin Chu
Tea gardens are mostly asleep during winter. So, January is when tea farmers have the most time to spare taste tea with their customers. And since there are no fresh teas in January (except Dong Pian in Nantou), this is also a good time to explore their aged teas.

Before I introduce the nice fall 2010 top OB I've found in Hsin Chu county, let me give some warning about aged teas. A few weeks ago, a Taiwanese vendor was caught selling fake old tea by a Chinese customer. How did the customer find out? He used a detector of fluorescent chemicals and found some in the paper wrapping the tea. The paper was supposed to be as old as the tea, but these chemicals are much more recent. Apparently, this detector is quite cheap, but it's not something that most of us carry around in our pocket. Luckily, there are other ways to spot fakes. 
First brew
The most important tool is common sense. Does the story make sense or is it too good to be true? The first common sense observation is that time is money. Storing and keeping tea has a cost. An aged tea that costs less or about as much as new tea should be suspicious. The older the tea, the more suspicious. In the case of an old tea that costs about as much as a new tea, there are 2 possible explanations: 1. the tea is a fake, a new tea that has been processed to look and taste old (heavily roasted Oolong or wodui/cooked puerh). 2. the tea is old, but not very good, because it's a leftover from the past that has not aged well. (For instance, when Dong Ding Oolong became popular in the late 1970s, a lot of Wenshan Baozhong didn't sell anymore. Unfortunately, most of these Baozhongs were kept in cheap transparent plastic bags that didn't protect the leaves well.)

If the price of the tea is much more expensive than new tea, then you have to be even more careful! Again, some common sense:
- Packaging is easier to fake than tea. If you know what good aged tea looks and smells like, you should disregard the packaging and focus on the tea.
- Otherwise, ask yourself if the packaging is really as old as it claims to be. Try to research the company and see if they were really in business for this type of tea at the time claimed by the seller. Are there any mistakes or inconsistencies on the wrapper? I remember a fake where the telephone number indicated on the package had too many digits. Were teas packaged in such a manner in the past? Let's remember that before the second world war, tea was still a very luxurious product that had artfully decorated packaging. 
- High quality and expensive aged tea leaves should be clean and in excellent condition. With time, the scent is getting fainter. A strong scent is not normal for a very old tea.
In this case, 8 years isn't very old when it comes to an Oriental Beauty from a farmer in Hsin Chu who processes and roasts his OBs the traditional way. It's enough to compare the aged with the new to taste the difference and the improvement. The tea was wrapped in thick plastic foils that don't let sunshine in. And they were stored in a dry and clean place in his warehouse. Besides, there wasn't much left over in his inventory: about 3 kg only. This also makes sense, because farmers don't age big quantities of good tea on purpose.
Second brew
This aged Oriental Beauty Oolong has a very rich taste that stays strong, especially at the back of the throat. In the front of the mouth, it feels very smooth and oily. And it has a wonderful sweet candy fragrance! The roast flavors have mostly faded away, but I reckon that this OB still has many years of improvement ahead. Its taste hasn't reached its peak, yet. But it's already very pleasant to taste now or it could be a good choice if you wish to remember the year 2010 with a top OB.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Puerh nostalgique du début des années 1970


 Voici mon Chaxi de ce samedi, à six mille lieues des manifestations en France. Mais bizarrement, et malgré la chance que j'ai de résider à Taiwan, je ne peux m'empêcher de me sentir triste et préoccupé par la mauvaise passe que traverse mon pays. Même marié à une Taiwanaise et résident local depuis 22 ans avec mes enfants scolarisés dans le système chinois et ma passion pour le thé et la culture chinoise, je continue de me sentir pleinement français.

Le thé et l'histoire de la Chine contiennent de nombreuses leçons pour la crise en France, mais ce blog n'a pas pour vocation d'être politique et clivant. Au contraire, j'aimerais pouvoir créer du consensus et du plaisir partagé avec mes expériences et le plaisir de mes Chaxi. L'idée de celui-ci est de retourner au début des années 1970, avant la première crise économique qui mit fin à la croissance des 30 glorieuses. C'est pourquoi, je choisis ce puerh cru en vrac. Et pour l'infuser, ma théière zisha décoré d'un lion. Car c'était l'époque où de grands hommes (de Gaulle, Pompidou) présidaient au pays. Ils servaient la nation avec la férocité du roi de la jungle. Sans déficits, sans dette, sans chômage.
 Qu'il est doux et puissant, pur et riche ce puerh et le souvenir de cette époque! Il a des odeurs de vieux bois noble, une douceur qui approche celle d'un miel de forêt sauvage foncé ou de mélasse, de sucre brun. Au goût, c'est le paradoxe d'une sensation d'extrême pureté et d'une énergie sous-jacente qui s'étend à travers tout le corps. Grand bien-être!
Vision d'un beau coucher de soleil sur une montagne (un pays?) lointaine. Je fais un voeu que la nuit qui vient sera de courte durée et que nous assisterons bientôt à un magnifique lever de soleil! Et si j'ai l'occasion de débattre et de donner des idées de ce qui marche à Taiwan, je le ferai.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Spring and winter in TianChi

We've explored one of Taiwan's most exclusive, most beautiful and highest tea plantation: the TianChi gardens which are part of the FuShou Shan farm. Let's revisit them twice in the comfort of our Chaxi.

Let's start with the spring version harvested on May 19th.

Since I want this tea session to be educational, I have (exceptionally) weighed my dry leaves: 3 grams only. But instead of using a standard competition set, I choose to brew in a (neutral) porcelain gaiwan. I preheat it well, but I don't time my brew. I just make sure that the leaves open up well after the first brew.
Direct pour in the cups: it requires practice and skill. That's also why it's called gongfu cha!
Cristal clear brew, amazing jade color, fragrances of spring flowers and a sweet energetic taste. This is High Mountain Oolong perfection.
Spring is light, sunny and refined.

Let's turn our attention to the winter harvest. This is going to be very interesting, because these leaves come from the very same tea garden as the spring leaves above. They were harvested on October 26th, 2018. Hey! Why is a tea from end of October labeled 'winter'? For 2 reasons:
1. the Chinese lunar calendar has a different date for the seasons as the western calendar. Each season starts earlier for the Chinese. For instance, spring starts with the Chinese New Year (early February this year).
2. the growth period for tea in very high elevations is very short. The first leaves of the year are called spring and the last are called winter.
3 grams is just the right amount to cover the bottom of the gaiwan. With such an Oolong, you don't need more to enjoy its unique aromas.
The color of the open leaves is already very different. They have a yellow hue instead of a dark green one.
The color of the brew is also a little bit more yellow, but the concentration level depends also on the length of the brew.
In terms of aromas and taste, the differences with spring are very subtle. Both seasons are outstanding and share the energy of this high altitude above 2200 meters.
This winter brew is a little bit less fragrant, but has a deeper aftertaste. Maybe you'll find more nuances when brewing these 2 Oolongs.
The most obvious difference is in the spent leaves. The brews, however, can be very similar if you pay attention to the brewing. Even the last and longest brew remains clear and light.
Spring vs winter
An outstanding tea garden for spring and winter!

Friday, January 04, 2019

Dong Ding Dong Ding Dong Ding

Have you heard the bell ring? Christmas vacation is over and we're back in tea class! Sarah and Rattana are back in Taiwan and have asked me to teach them about Dong Ding Oolong. So, I chose several teas to explain what Dong Ding tea is all about.
We started with this Hung Shui Oolong from Feng Huang, winter 2017. This is an excellent example of what a Dong Ding Oolong is and should taste like. The cultivar is Qingxin Oolong and it's grown in Feng Huang, one of the villages that are part of the rather small Dong Ding area. The winter season and the spring season both see the Dong Ding Oolong take place. It was created in 1976 by the director of the Taiwan Research and Extension Station (TRES, Taiwan's tea research institute) to raise quality by using a standard taste close to that of WuYi Oolongs (which were not available in Taiwan at the time, due to the ongoing conflict between China and Taiwan.) The reason for choosing this Hung Shui Oolong is that it comes closest, in my opinion, to the ideal Dong Ding Oolong: the roasting hasn't burned the leaves and they still unfold very nicely. The aromas have been positively impacted by the roasting. There are scents of walnuts, chestnuts, but also fresh fruity smells. And the taste is both long and sweet. This batch is less roasted than typical competition Dong Ding Oolongs.
 The next tea on our list was the spring 2016 Hung Shui Oolong from Alishan. The purpose of this tea is to understand that Dong Ding Oolong has become so famous in the 1980s, that such teas were (and still are) produced all over Taiwan. That's why the name Hung Shui Oolong has come up to describe an Oolong that has been produced with a typical Dong Ding Oolong process. This one comes from Alishan, from a higher elevation than the Dong Ding area. It's also made from Qingxin Oolong leaves. Using high mountain leaves is a strategy used to make finer and more powerful Hung Shui Oolong. That's why most teas that win the Dong Ding Oolong competition don't come from Dong Ding, but from Shan Lin Xi or even Lishan! What's also interesting is that this Alishan Hung Shui Oolong has a stronger roast, which adds even more dark aromas to the brew.
The varying roasting level is what makes Oolong so complex and so fascinating. Other teas are not roasted, but simply dried. Thanks to the roast, new flavors appear. The brew become malty and reminds us of a brandy! This also has a big impact on how the leaves are best brewed. That's what Sarah and Rattana could learn and practice with me. (I explain the brewing in my TeaMasters guide to Brewing Oolong tea, which I offer for any order of 60 USD or more.)
It's SO good!
Then we tasted a very similar tea: this summer 2018 zhuo yan Oolong from Yong Lung in Dong Ding. Zhuo yan means jassid bitten. The difference with the first Hung Shui Oolong is not the roasting (this one also has a light to medium roast), but the season: summer. Because it's produced when the temperatures are higher, the oxidation level is slightly higher. The fragrances are much fruitier and sweet than in the spring or in winter. This is also a Dong Ding Oolong: it comes from Dong Ding and is processed like a Dong Ding Oolong, but the summer season has a tremendous impact on the brew.
2010 fall OB
We then proceeded to taste this 2010 fall Oriental Beauty Oolong from Hsin Chu. With this tea, I wanted to show the similarities and differences to the previous summer zhuo yan Oolong. There are 3 main differences: 1. the cultivar, qingxin dapang instead of qingxin Oolong, 2. the higher oxidation for Oriental Beauty and the shape and size of the dry leaves.

The zhuo yan Oolong from Yong Lung is like a bridge between Hung Shui Oolong and Oriental Beauty Oolong. So, tasting an Oriental Beauty just after the zhuo yan Oolong (or a concubine Oolong, which is not the same) helps to clarify the characteristics of each type of Oolong.

This was really a class, because we only used this ivory white porcelain gaiwan. An Yixing teapot could have given us a deeper and smoother taste, but the porcelain gaiwan brings more clarity and truth to the aromas.

Before I mention the next Oolong we brewed to conclude this lesson, I want to point out that these 2 and the following pictures were taken by Rattana with my Nikon D750. He's an accomplished professional photographer and I'm very grateful for the art he has created and his permission to share his photos here.
The most liked picture of 2018 is a black and white picture and these look stunning! The white porcelain enhances the purity of this tea experience!
It also makes sense to use black and white now, because we tasted this aged 1999 Hung Shui Oolong from Yong Lung (Dong Ding) as our last tea.
It takes us back 20 years ago. We notice that the leaves are mostly single, ie not attached to one another on a stem like nowadays. The look of dry leaves is already more refined!
Their aged aromas are very different from a newly roasted Hung Shui Oolong. It's difficult to describe. In wine, they are called tertiary aromas, scents that are not the result of a specific process, but of time. The taste is smoother, less powerful also.
But the character of Dong Ding remains the same.
Brew after brew and cup after cup.
I hope you all had a great start in 2019! I couldn't have dreamed a better one myself. Thank you Rattana for capturing the beauty of this dark dragon!