Monday, June 14, 2021

Gaiwan, Gaibei, zhong

Joyeux festival des Bateaux Dragon! C'est le jour où la tradition chinoise veut qu'on puisse faire tenir un oeuf debout autour de midi! C'est aussi le meilleur jour pour puiser son eau pour le thé! Et c'est aussi un jour où l'on boit beaucoup de thé pour aider la digestion des zhongzi, cette spécialité basée sur du riz qui colle bien!

Comme j'avais mon livre du National Palace Museum sur le thé sous la main, j'en ai profité pour faire quelques photos en complément de mon cours sur le 'gaiwan, gaibei et zhong'.

Vous pouvez voir ci-dessous que pour des accessoires similaires, le nom varie sans raison apparente. Cela montre qu'il n'y a pas de différence entre wan (bol) et zhong. Bei (coupe) est généralement un peu plus petit, mais quand c'est un gaibei ou un gaiwan, on peut utiliser l'un ou l'autre nom indifféremment. Par contre, dans mon cours de ce weekend, je vous apprends que le mot zhong avait une utilisation un peu différente durant la dynastie Qing. D'ailleurs, on voit qu'autrefois cela pouvait qualifier même un bol ou une coupe sans couvercle.

Voici quelques pièces et leur nom officiel au National Palace Museum. J'ai traduit le mot clé souligné:





 Tous ces noms officiels proviennent des inventaires des empereurs de Chine. 

Et pour finir, voici ma photo d'un des plus beaux gaiwan du musée. Il est en porcelaine turquoise du règne de DaoGuang (1821-1850):

Friday, June 11, 2021

Absolute Beginners

This weekend, my live video tea classes on FB will be about gaiwan, gaibei and zhong! It's the Absolute Beginner's tea vessel! As we are approaching my blog's 17th anniversary next week, I thought it would be fitting to mark the occasion by learning more about this fantastic tea vessel. It's the brewing vessel for beginners and experts alike. It's a reminder that despite the years of learning, we remain Absolute Beginners in front of tea. And that's how we can keep this passion fresh and alive, and keep on tea blogging!

If you miss the class, don't worry, I'll post it on my YouTube channel

Honestly, I had no idea that tea blogging would turn into such a long undertaking and a new career for me. It has allowed me to be a 'stay at home dad' and take care of my kids (with my wife) every day for the last 17 years. I'll be forever grateful for interacting with so many kind, knowledgeable and passionate tea friends over the years. 

During all this time, I have never purchased a single ad on Google, Facebook, Instagram... All my promotional activity is dedicated to teaching tea and spreading the beauty of tea through my social media accounts. And instead of paying advertisers, I have always preferred to give gift samples, tea books... to my customers! Satisfying you is the best way to achieve a sustained reputation. So, to celebrate this anniversary, I have just reduced my prices on over 40 products for a limited time only to say THANK YOU!

And here is one of my favorite songs (and movie) from (with) David Bowie:


Thursday, June 10, 2021

Stealth Naked Kombucha is the best kombucha

As a kid, I always loved Coca-Cola. I had the right to drink a can for the Sunday lunch (while my parents were enjoying a bottle of wine)! During the summer vacation by the sea, I would have a can every day. So, naturally, 29 years ago, when I was a student at a university near Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, I always had a big bottle of Coca-Cola in the fridge. This seemed the American thing to do as a French student adapting to life in the USA!

I've written before that tea saved my life by helping me stop my addiction to Coke. I've stopped drinking soft drinks, but I still enjoy drinking sparkling water, and sometimes I like to add some apple juice to my sparkling water. In the summer, this is a very refreshing mix.

But I have found an even better alternative: Stealth Naked Kombucha! It's made in Rhode Islands by Ron Chapdelaine, with teas from Taiwan selected by me! Ron was vey kind to send me several bottles of kombucha made from my traditional Oriental Beauty from Hsin Chu, high mountain Oolong and a mix of Hong Yu and red tea from the East Coast.

At first, when I tasted the kombucha, I thought this is amazingly similar in aroma to my mix of apple juice and sparkling water or cider. The fruity aromas feel completely natural and they linger nicely in the aftertaste. It feels clean, pure, full of sparkling energy and freshness. However, one thing bothered me. It tasted very sweet, not acidic or funky as one expects it from kombucha. So, I gave Ron my feedback and his answer amazed me even more.

 "The sweetness you experienced is not candy like sweetness found in soft drinks (there is only 2g of sugar in that kombucha which is nothing) but sweetness solely from the bacteria derived by the transformation (fermentation). You see, Beneficial bacteria is difficult because there are hundreds of different kinds of bacteria. Some bacteria like acetic acid (main ingredient in vinegar) is a weak acid with a very insulting foul taste but the more difficult bacteria to get have wonderful natural world class sweetness without ever the negative effects of candy like sugar found in soft drinks (sucrose).  These difficult bacteria that have a natural sweet flavor are also stronger acids which means they have the better ability to bind to the toxic metals in our bodies and transport them out through the liver.

The sweetness you referred to is natural sweetness from the bacteria not table sugar sweetness. If you concentrate where the sweetness falls on the palate you will notice it kicks you in the back of the tongue while your taste buds for table sugar is at the very tip of the tongue. Forget about kombucha, a good tea in of itself should be sweet and this also shows up after the transformation but doesn't mean the tea sweetness is bad for reason you know and reasons I just I mentioned.

Making good kombucha is all about a perfect balance and this balance that very few get is very rare. 99% of kombucha is not properly balanced and this is why they all add flavorings - to make up for and disguise their mistakes and negligence.

Believe it or not, I'm the only person in the world doing a true naked kombucha."

Ron adds the following that makes complete sense: 

"Kombucha is only as good as the tea and water you use because both provide the kombucha culture the nutrients it desperately needs to grow, reproduce and eliminate (in the for of co2). The bubbles you noticed is all natural carbonation which is another byproduct of fermentation. An imbalanced kombucha has no natural bubbles because the transformation never really evolved. Most kombucha have artificially injected carbonation - shake that stuff and it is like a hand grenade. One thing is certain, it would never survive a rough trip around the whole world. You may notice my kombucha had natural bubbles but they were under complete control. Again, the balance...

The sediment on the bottom should be released by a light swirl as the sediment includes many beneficial nutrients. The kombucha I sent you would have been even better if let to settle three weeks giving everything the time to all come together as one again but it was fine to consume it now. The elixir would have also cleared up nicely. My kombucha ages like a fine wine or fine tea and this is why I age it after bottling (curing days found in the documentation to the right on the label). I like to cure/age for 3 months but usually 1-2 is fine. The OB kombucha would have been more well-rounded if cured at room temperature a few more weeks  but that batch of OB kombucha is all I had and I wanted to get it out to you."

My bottles arrived at the end of January 2021. They were so delicious that I tasted/drank them quite quickly, but I kept one bottle half empty in my fridge until today. It has aged 4 months after being opened and half emptied. This is not the aging that Ron recommends. He says that it's best to finish a bottle within a few days. However, thanks to the sediments, I thought that it would regenerate itself. And it did!! After 4 months, the kombucha was still sparkling, sweet and maybe even more fruity! Actually, it also reminds me of apple cider, especially the kombucha made from high mountain Oolong!

This experiment of aging half a bottle for 4 months is the kind of tough test that I apply to select my teas. If the leaves still produce a nice cup of tea when they over brew, then they will taste even better when my customers brew them with attention. This test has confirmed the extreme high quality of the Stealth Naked Kombucha! I'm glad that my teas helped Ron improve his kombucha even further! 

So, if you live in the US and enjoy a fresh sparkling drink in the summer, I really recommend you try this amazing Kombucha made by a passionate guy who's insisting on the same outstanding quality as me! 

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Video: Tea happiness starts with the preheating step

This video is the start to a shorter tea clas format. I think it's better suited to the second half of 2021, now that the Covid lockdowns are progressively lifted all around the world. We should all spend less time behind our screens! According to the number of views, the comments and the likes, most of you seem to agree! Please watch if you haven't done so, yet!
The weekly lessons continue at the same time on my Facebook page. That's 10 PM Eastern US on Friday evening. The advantage of the live class is that you get to ask questions and receive my answer. But in order to keep the video short and easy to watch, I won't post these live interactions unless I find them necessary to clarify my class. 

These classes are free and open to everyone, but it's easier to learn with me if we brew the same teas (from my selection) with the same accessories. You can also see these videos on my YouTube channel. And you can support my efforts for spreading tea culture in English, French and German by liking the videos and sharing them with your tea friends!

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Thé noir, pas tout à fait noir, il reste l'espoir

Le titre de cet article est inspiré d'une chanson de Johnny Hallyday "Noir c'est noir", l'adaptation française de "Black is Black" du groupe espagnol Los Bravos. Quand la chanson de Johnny sort en 1966, la plupart de ses fans sont des ados, comme ce puerh! Les paroles résonnent avec la vie personnelle du chanteur. En effet, il vient d'apprendre que sa femme, Sylvie Vartan, demande le divorce.

"Noir c'est noir
Il n'y a plus d'espoir
Oui gris c'est gris
Et c'est fini, oh, oh, oh, oh
Ça me rend fou
J'ai cru à ton amour
Et je perds tout"

Cette chanson de rupture plonge son interprête dans le désespoir. 

"Je suis dans le noir
J'ai du mal à croire
Au gris de l'ennui
Et je te crie, oh, oh, oh, oh
Je ferai tout
Pour sauver notre amour
Tout jusqu'au bout"

A la seconde strophe, Johnny est encore dans le noir, mais il décelle une lueur d'espoir avec le gris. Ce texte français de Georges Aber est plus subtil que l'original anglais où la couleur 'grey' sert surtout de rime à 'went away' et pour amener une autre couleur qui est intraduisible "feeling blue".

"Si un mot peut tout changer
Je le trouverai
Il ne faut plus en douter
Il faut essayer"

Dans la première semaine de semaine, juste avant la rupture officielle, Johnny enregistre des chansons pour son prochain album à Londres. Il veut bien faire un essai pour cette chanson particulière, mais ce qu'il ne sait pas, c'est que le réalisateur du disque fait un enregistrement de cet essai. Et c'est cette unique prise de son, effectuée dans les conditions du direct, qui sortira en disque!

"Noir c'est noir
Il n'est jamais trop tard
Pour moi du gris
J'n'en veux plus dans ma vie, oh, oh
Ça me rend fou
De perdre ton amour
Je te l'avoue"

Et c'est vrai que dans la vraie vie il devient fou. En effet, le 10 septembre 1966, le jour où il apprend la rupture de Sylvie par voie de presse, Johnny avale des barbiturique et se taillade les veines. Heureusement, son secrétaire Ticky Holgado le découvre et l'amène à temps aux urgences. 

"Maintenant pour le sauver à tout je suis prêt
A l'instant de la vérité pourquoi en douter ?
Noir c'est noir
Il me reste l'espoir
Oui gris c'est gris je n'veux plus d'ennuis, oh, oh
Ça vaut le coup de sauver notre amour
Rien que pour nous
De sauver notre amour
Rien que pour nous."

Et cette chanson aura un succès immédiat et phénoménal. Elle sera No1 pendant 4 semaines et on vendra 200,000 exemplaires. Elle permettra aussi à Johnny de se réconcilier avec Sylvie Vartan. Ils feront un triomphe ensemble au printemps 1967 à l'Olympia de Paris! Tout n'était donc pas noir et il fallait bien toujours garder espoir! (Ce n'est que le 5 novembre 1980 que le couple finira par rompre définitivement.)

Mon puerh cru des 50s illustre ces paroles, car il ce thé de la famille noire n'est pas entièrement noir comme le serait un thé fermenté manuellement. Cela se voit à ses couleurs variées à sec, la belle couleur ocre foncée de l'infusion et les teintes brunes de ses feuilles ouvertes. Mais surtout, c'est un thé qui reste vivant, plein d'énergie et d'une immense douceur! Et c'est un peu de ce doux plaisir qu'on ressent en entendant ces vieilles,belles chansons d'il y a plus d'un demi-siècle. Ce plaisir est encore plus intense si l'on a la chance d'être sensible aux arômes du thé qui nous transporte au temps du yéyé!

Saturday, May 29, 2021

2020 Spring Concubine Oolong from Hsin Chu county

In Taiwan, a Concubine Oolong is usually a summer Oolong from Central Taiwan that has been insect bitten and has a high oxidation level. Instead of being harvested early (buds and small leaves) and processed into a twisted shape, like Oriental Beauty, a Concubine Oolong is a harvest of rather mature leaves that are then rolled. Basically, these are the 2 main differences between an Oriental Beauty (OB) and a Concubine Oolong. An other difference is that OB usually comes, historically, from an area that stretches from Taoyuan to Miaoli, while Concubine Oolongs were invented in Dong Ding in Nantou, Central Taiwan.

So, this tea made in Hsin Chu, during the spring season, doesn't really fit the usual profile of a Concubine Oolong. It's not from the Central region and it's not from summer. But, in this case, these 2 discrepancies are actually improvements! 

First, because this Concubine comes from trees that produce OB in summer, fall and winter, the plantation is pesticide free all year long. The farmer relies on jassid bites to produce high quality OB and tries to welcome these insects as much as possible. And, in 2020, we have the case where the leaves have the typical honey scents due to these bites! (In previous years, this was much less the case). 

Second, spring is a season with lower temperatures than summer and this produces teas that have a lighter oxidation level and finer aromas. Besides, spring teas are also more potent and full of energy, because the trees had the longest rest since their previous harvest. The trend to make Concubine Oolong in summer appeared to help farmers achieve better prices for their leaves during that season. In summer, the strong sunshine and continuous heat even during the night explain why leaves mature quickly and tend to become bitter and more oxidized. In spring, the temperatures are still cool during the night and this helps to preserve more freshness and lighter aromas than in summer.  
These 2 reasons help explain why I have selected this spring 2020 Concubine Oolong from Hsin Chu. Let's also point out that this tea is traditionally roasted. It's already wonderful to taste now, but it is also suitable for aging. And if you wish to have an idea of how it will age, you can try the 2011 version of this tea from the same farmer! The sweet honey aromas become even more intense and smooth.

I have also selected the top version of this 2020 spring Hsin Chu Concubine. The scents and taste are very similar, just even more elegant! (Comparing the 2 versions can be a good exercise to understand what characteristics make a tea rise above its peers.)

 I love how this Oolong has so many complex notes of honey, chocolate, flowers, fruit, sweetness, wood, malt, lightness... and how it all blends so nicely into one refined fragrance and one yummy taste!


Thursday, May 20, 2021

The ultimate Oriental Beauty Oolong

Fresh teas like green tea or most high mountain Oolongs are transformed and ready to be sold within 48 hours after their harvests. For more traditional Oolongs, though, the production process can take several weeks or months. Oriental Beauty Oolong from Beipu in HsinChu county provides a good example. In early April, the farmer had just finished roasting the 17 batches of his winter production (October/November 2020) . Thanks to my close partnership with him, he invited me to attend his final tasting and grading of his teas.

With so many teas to taste, he conducted his tasting in 2 rounds. First, 10 batches from plantations with high yield/high production. Then 7 small batches. You can see those below. The small batches are in front and the large ones behind.
The way this tasting is done is similar to what happens in a tea competition. The same amount of leaves is weighed for each cup (3 grams). Then they are all brewed for 6 minutes with boiling water and emptied in the large white cup. Since the tea is too hot right after it's poured, the farmer starts by simply smelling the leaves. After a couple of minutes, when the tea isn't too hot anymore, he uses a tea spoon to pour some tea in his own cup and quickly tastes one tea after another.
What comes next is quite interesting. Look at the table and notice the red line. After tasting each tea, the farmer changes the place of the brewing cup according to the quality of the tea. A cup close to the edge of the table means a low grade. A cup that reaches or exceeds the red line means that it's outstanding.

This visual grading of quality serves 2 purposes. First, it helps the farmer to price his teas fairly (top quality is priced higher than average quality tea). Second, it can also help him to blend batches of similar quality, so that he doesn't have 17 different teas, but just 4 or 5 levels.

Of course, if he gave me the privilege to taste all his winter Oriental Beauties, the farmer also hopes that I will purchase some. Especially since he knows that I prefer to purchase single batches instead of blended teas. For me, this was learning experience that you don't get every day. And, despite the tough brewing standards aimed at highlighting the teas' defects, I was blown away with the outstanding quality of some of his teas. These exceptional teas will cost a fortune in Taiwan tea houses and usually you don't get to try them! (For reference, the price for the winner of the Oriental Beauty Oolong competition in HsinChu has reached a new record of 1 million NTD, 35K USD, for 600 gr 2 years ago).

But let's go back to the teas. What struck me was how impossible it was to tell the quality from the appearance of the leaves. Even the size and the amount of buds wasn't such a good quality factor. And actually it makes sense. The number 1 driver of quality for Oriental Beauty is the concentration of these particular flavors that only develop with lots of jassid bites (xiao lu ye tsong). You can't see these bites on dry leaves! And you can barely smell them when the leaves have been recently roasted.
But boy, oh boy, it makes such a difference when the leaves have this scent compared when they barely have it! The tea is at another level, in another dimension. So, as you can see, I did purchase one of the small batches from that second group of OBs. This batch weighs only 3 kg. It was harvested on October 27th 2020 and I've called it the ultimate Oriental Beauty! Its concentration is even stronger than the 'perfect OB' I found in 2007!
Such a rare tea isn't for everyday. It's not meant to be brewed in a haste while doing something else. But it's one these dream teas that all tea lovers wishes to have had at least once in his life to know just how magical tea can be! I think it's the perfect tea for a wedding anniversary or to celebrate a feminine birthday.
It's a perfume of honey that tastes like liquid gold! 

A beauty!

Monday, May 17, 2021

En thé, fais ce qu'il te plait

Alishan, printemps 2021

C'est quoi la bonne méthode pour infuser son Oolong de haute montagne? Est-ce en set de compétition comme à gauche? en gaiwan? directement dans un bol? dans une grande théière en verre? dans un thermos? Ou bien dans une petite théière d'Yixing en Zhuni, comme ci-dessous? 

A mes débuts dans le thé à Taiwan, je ne savais pas. Puis, après des cours auprès de Teaparker, non seulement j'appris la théorie de ce genre de question, mais j'en faisais aussi l'expérience et arrivais à des certitudes. Il existe bien un matériau idéal pour chaque type de thé. Un peu comme un nouveau converti qui veut être plus catholique que le pape, peut-être ai-je été trop catégorique et inflexible dans certaines de mes affirmations passées. C'est une étape naturelle dans l'évolution de tout amateur de thé. C'est le moment le plus dangereux. C'est le moment où l'on pense savoir alors qu'on n'a encore qu'une connaissance partielle des choses. C'est un moment plus dangereux que lorsqu'on savait qu'on ne savait pas! 
Le Chaxi ci-dessus avec coupes fines en céladon et théière en Zhuni est-il vraiment meilleur que les autres méthodes? En théorie, je dirai encore oui, mais en pratique j'apporterais une série de bémols. D'abord, si le but de la dégustation est de sélectionner un thé, je recommanderais plutôt le set de porcelaine pour compétition de thé. Les arômes seront moins raffinés, mais il sera plus facile de reconnaitre les mauvais lots de thé (et donc de ne pas se tromper). 

Si l'on ne dispose que de 10 minutes et qu'on veut déguster son thé tout en travaillant à son ordinateur, la méthode directe dans le bol (ou la tasse), parfois appelée celle du grand-père, sera la plus pratique.

Et si l'on débute et qu'on ne sait pas encore bien manipuler les petites théières d'Yixing, il est possible qu'on trouve l'utilisation d'une grande théière plus simple et familière.  

De plus, comme tout outil, une théière n'est bonne que si on sait bien s'en servir. Ainsi, en classe, je continue de voir des amateurs avec d'excellentes théières qui ratent leur infusion, alors que Teaparker les réussit avec un simple gaiwan!
Bref, entre la théorie et la pratique, il y a quantité d'exceptions et de conditions. Einstein disait que tout est relatif! Ce n'est pas parce qu'un thé, qu'un accessoire ou qu'une technique marche pour nous que cela convient pour tout le monde. Avec l'expérience, on finit par mettre un peu d'eau dans son thé! (Attention, c'est une image!!) 

Je continue de vous montrer ce qui marche chez moi, mais je n'en fais plus un totem intouchable. Après tout, en thé, fais ce qu'il te plait!

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Come fly with me to Shan Lin Xi

"Let's fly! Let's fly away!

If you can sip,

Drink tea, it's hip!

There's a Chaxi on the way.

Come fly with me!

Let's fly! Let's fly away!" 

I listened to this Sinatra song on my way to Shan Lin Xi. Pure serendipity! With these pictures of the Shan Lin Xi mountains in the clouds, it looks as if we have an eagle eye. It's as if we were flying in the air. Blue sky and white clouds mingle with the green mountain and produce ever changing landscapes!
Let me take you to the plantation now. It's twenty to noon and the team of tea pickers is still busy on the upper side of the plantation. 
With this bamboo shoot growing among the tea bushes, maybe you recognize this plantation. I've visited it last spring and that's where I've been sourcing both my spring 2020 and winter 2020 SLX Oolongs. 
This hike in the plantation is not just an opportunity to take nice pictures for promotional purposes. The goal of trips like this is to better understand the situation on the ground. This year, we want to know the impact of the dramatic drought in Central Taiwan on the high mountain plantations. So, I would also like to share the next 2 pictures to show how some parts of the plantation were impacted. Below, we can see that half the leaves turned yellow or even brown. "These bushes almost died", said the farmer. Luckily, there was some rain recently and they will survive. 
Below, on the right hand side, the dark green bushes have also suffered from the drought. The impact is that they didn't produce any leaves at all. And the leaves that were produced on the light green bushes were a little bit smaller than usual last week, during the first 2 harvest days (on May 1st and 2nd). That's why there's a third harvest on May 7th (the days of these pictures).
It's noon now! After feeling very warm under the direct sunshine, clouds are now invading the plantation and are bringing a much cooler air. It's as if the A/C had suddenly been turned on! This natural moisture is also what has helped contain the damage due to the drought in high mountain plantations. And while lower yields mean more concentration in aromas in general, the quality of the Oolong tea still varies a lot from one batch to another this spring.
The workers are eating their lunch box between the tea plantation and a bamboo forest. I'm also about to eat the same lunch box as them, a kind attention of the farmer who knew I was coming.
The clouds don't lift after lunch. I feel a little bit cold and thirsty. Can you guess what I did next? 
A Chaxi! 

And can you guess what tea I brewed?

Qingxin Oolong from this very plantation, from spring 2020! 

At that moment, I had not yet received the spring 2021 samples. But since this tea is from the same season and same plantation, the aromas felt in complete harmony!
Brewing tea outdoors is always exhilarating. Brewing tea in a tea plantation brings more challenges. Here I had to gather 3 wood planks to 'build' a table for my Chaxi. And it wasn't so easy to find a spot with such a close proximity to the bushes. I almost had to pinch myself! What a dream come true!
I'm brewing tea with style, with an Yixing zhuni teapot, celadon cups, cha tuo, a Chabu and a Jian Shui, a jar, Qing dynasty qinghua plates. This Chaxi is a celebration of this unique event and opportunity!
For me, this Chaxi is also a way to show my skills to the farmer and let him see that I'm committed to making tea in a very refined way. And it only makes sense to make such efforts with top quality leaves.
What also helps to find such leaves is to be present during the harvest time and taste the samples as soon as the harvested leaves are transformed. This year, I selected the May 2nd batch from the Shan Lin Xi plantation. It's the most similar to the wonderful 2 spring batches of last spring. 
I'm also glad to announce that it's again possible to ship Airmail and EMS to Canada. And while shipping costs to North America have increased recently, Airmail shipping is still FREE above 100 USD and EMS shipping is still FREE above 200 USD (and you receive a free sample starting at 60 USD, plus a FREE postcard...).
Come fly with to Shan Lin Xi
Thanks a lot for your company.
'Where the air is rarefied
We'll just glide
Once I get you up there
I'll be holding you so near
You may hear
Angels cheer

Let's fly! Let's fly away!'