Friday, January 27, 2006

Bonne Année du chien! Happy New Year!

I'll be back in Taipei on February 5 the latest. Wishing you a wonderful Chinese New Year!
Blog en vacance la semaine prochaine!

A Shou La Pei teapot and lots of cups.

3 classic ways of making teapots:

1. La pei is the traditional pottery technique where you put the clay on a revolving plate and then as the plate turns you can create an even round form (like demonstrated in the famous scene of the movie 'Ghost' with Demi Moore). Works best for bigger teapots. An example here.

2. Shou la pei, like in the picture above, is doing the same thing with your clay, but without the revolving plate. We use mostly the thumb to make a hole in the ball
of clay and then progressively make the walls thinner and thinner. (More in the July 2004 Archive).

3. Small Yixing teapots: the clay is spread (cut or pressed like pizza paste) evenly and thinly. This layer is then cut and the ends of both sides are joined together to make a cylinder. That's why there are junctions (more or less visible) with this method, as you mentioned.
I just found a better explanation here:

"The teapots are built by the hands of a single potter artisan, who beats a lump of prepared and aged clay into a flat sheet. The walls, bottom and lid of the teapot are all cut from the clay sheet, sometimes with the aid of templates. The pieces are assembled on a simple, hand-turned wheel, stuck together with a mixture of clay and water, the joints strengthened with a spatula. Round pots are beaten into shape, and smoothed out and polished with tools made of wood and buffalo horn.. "

None of the 3 techniques involves any machine in the modern sense, just basic tools. You can all call them hand-made, but the 'shou-la-pei' method (how about 'hand shaped' as a translation) is the one most deserving this name. Of course, primitive look doesn't always mean hand-made. But with the shou-la-pei technique I mentioned, this is the result you're most likely to get.

Nowadays, most (cheap) teapots are mass produced using molds...

Thursday, January 26, 2006

A few good laughs to celebrate the end of the year of the rooster

- The Republic of Tea misspells Pu-erh in Chinese! (The site is devoted to tracking Chinese characters misspellings in the Western world.)

- An excellent video (and sound!) from Korea (not related to tea, but guys will find it funny!)

- Everything Sencha lovers need to know about Japan.

- Where the fuck is Diane with my Fair-Trade Coffee? from the Onion.

- A Japanese commercial making fun of geishas.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

TMC goute mes thés

Puisque je parle du Jiang Cheng sauvage de 1990, je vous signale aussi cette dégustation faite par le TMC.

Plus récemment, le TMC a aussi goûté à mon Baozhong de bonne qualité des années 1960s.

Jiang Cheng 1990 analysis

As promised long time ago, I did yesterday a more detailed tasting of my wild, raw 1990 Jiang Cheng pu-er. This brick is already sold out, but there are still some bricks of the 1989 harvest available (which should be even better).

Teaware: a thin, white gaibei of 120 ml,
Water: Yes Mineral water from Yi-Lan, Taiwan
Quantity: 2-3 grams

A. View
Dry leaves: Quite dark, a little red, big and strong leaves. They are quite easy to flake.
Color of the brew: Brown with orange/red tones.
Clarity of the brew: Clear and shiny. Normal residue level (since I don't use a metal filter that would alter the taste).
Open leaves: Very interesting. We can find different colors: light, medium and dark brown. Some of the darker leaves seem to be burned (like cooked pu-er) which led some people who tasted little samples of this tea to believe that this is a mix raw-cooked puerh. However, as you can see on the first picture, the darker leaf can also be opened. A cooked leaf would break if you tried to do this. And on the second picture, have a look at the leaf on the upper right side: it's part brown, part black and open. This shows that the darker color of some leaves is not due to cooking, but to happened naturally as some leaves age faster than others.

B. Smell
Dry leaves: Light and fresh
Wet leaves: Forest with wet leaves and mushrooms. Old wood furniture.

C. Taste: light and fresh
Sweetness: Good.
Lingering sweetness: Long
Bitter/acid: No. Very light astringency on the middle of the tongue (will fade with further aging).
Feeling in the throat: Mellow.
Lingering dry feeling: Light.

Brew 1: 1 minute. very smooth, a little wet autumn forest smell, refreshing
Brew 2: 1 minute. Darker color, stronger. The camphor smells are coming out. Lingers longer. Very mellow.
Brew 3: 40 seconds. Shorter, less body. Gives a polished feel to my teeth and makes me salivate. I start to sweat and feel warm.
Brew 4: 1 minute 15. Smooth and fresh. Lighter brew.
Brew 5: 2 minutes 30. Oversteeped a little. The light freshness is muted, but little other defects that I notice. I feel even warmer now.
Brew 6: 3 hours later: 5 minutes. The light aromas are starting to fade, but the brew is still incredibly mellow and dark. Nice lingering.
Brew 7: 15 minutes. The brew is now lighter in color and I will stop here. But this weaker brew still beats water or low quality pu-er by a far margin. I'd hate to waste it by not drinking it just because it's not as good as the previous brews.

Remarks: It's quite fun to play with this pu-er. I over and understeeped some of the brews on purpose. It's very forgiving as it never resulted in disaster, but in more or less body. It's a lighter taste pu-er that is more likely to please people less familiar with this kind of tea. A real hard core puerh fan (in France) reported that he enjoys it best when made with 5 grams for 10 cl. He then also gets more brews out of it. Well, that's a question of taste and experience for everybody to try by himself.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Un producteur/vendeur de thé vert

Je vous présente le fils d'un producteur de thés verts (Bi Luo Chun, Lung Jin..) de San Hsia, au sud de Taipei. Il vient tous les dimanche matin au marché traditionnel Huang Hun, près de chez moi où je fais mes courses. Il vend les thés de l'exploitation familiale et aussi des oolongs du centre de Taiwan. C'est chez lui que j'avais pris du jinxuan d'été d'Ali Shan et un peu de son Bi Luo Chun. Je lui ai aussi acheté de l'huile de thé pour assaisoner mes salades.

Ses thés verts ne sont pas aussi fins que les oolongs que je bois d'habitude en gongfu cha, mais ils ont toutes les qualités pour des thés de tous les jours: ils sont frais (actuellement il vend la récolte d'hiver), pas trafiqués (sur ce genre de marché, beaucoup vendent des thés importés qu'ils font passer pour des Oolongs taiwanais), et peu chers (moins de 15 euros les 300 gr).

En plus, il est sympa et m'offre du thé chaque dimanche quand je passe devant son stand!

Green tea and health benefits

Michael, the Chinese medicine student who recently gave us insights in cha qi wrote to me:

"Despite recent Western research touting the health benefits of green tea, reliable Chinese medical sources (whom I trust completely) have suggested that because of certain properties (cooling, draining, etc.) green tea may not be beneficial for regular use for people over 35-40 years of age. My understanding is that it cools off the digestion, and can potentially clear too much heat from the body, damaging the yang energy—but this is only my understanding and I make no claims regarding accuracy/interpretation.

Anyway, for this reason, I only drink green or white (unoxidized) teas on rare occasion, and usually only when climatically appropriate (very hot days, of which we have relatively few in the Bay Area).

I’m emailing you about this because I’m curious re: whether this is something Teaparker has discussed. I’m assuming, of course, that he teaches about the seasonality of teas (Summer, Winter, etc.), but has he taught anything to your recollection regarding appropriate tea for different ages/periods of life?

Your photos of Mr. Wang, his age, and his affinity for highly roasted teas made me wonder about this. Mr. Wang’s longevity is certainly consistent with the information I have regarding the idea that more highly oxidized teas are more tonifying.

Any thoughts?"

My observation of tea drinkers in Taiwan confirms Michael's information about green tea: the older the person, the less green he likes his tea. Young tea drinkers are full of life and energy and can take some cooling, but older people who are more afraid of the cold prefer shou cha. My wife's grandfather (who died recently at 90 years of age) liked old roasted baozhong the best in his final years.

Teaparker told us that research has identified over 450 different chemical compounds in tea. The most important ones are the polyphenolic compounds. Green tea has twice as many polyphenols as Dong Ding oolong (250 ppm -parts per million- vs 137 ppm for the tea 'liquid'). Fermentation and baking/roasting are reducing the amount and changing the nature/effect of these compounds that are linked to the main health benefits. With so many compounds that are absorbed in small quantities, this is a very complex field that may be difficult to prove scientifically.

Teaparker didn't say anything about age, but he often mentions that the weather (and temperature) will have a big impact on which tea he chooses to drink: greener teas in summer and shou cha during cold winter days.

In its dry state, green tea has up to 30% polyphenols, the article said. They are benefitial is theory, but their cooling effect on the stomach may be detrimental. Roasted oolong should have only 10-15% polyphenols and therefore carry less benefits, but are easy on the stomach and warm your body. The best would be to have a tea with high polyphenols that is 'ripe' (shou) like roasted oolong. Do you know a tea that is first almost green and then transforms naturally into a ripe tea?

Aged raw pu erh is the correct answer! Pu er is associated with lots of health benefits and there must be a reason for it! I have seen recent results of chemical testings made by the tea research laboratory of the Yunnan Province on the 1990 wild raw Jiang Cheng brick: they show 35% to 39,98% tea polyphenols! This is even more than for green tea! There are several reasons for this high concentration of polyphenols:
- Pu er, in general, is a stronger tea that can be brewed twice as much as oolong,
- Slow aging is not transforming the chemical structure of pu er as strongly as for cooked pu erh.
- This brick is made of wild, first grade leaves that grow in nature and absorb more strength from their natural environment than plantation puer.

In conclusion, I agree with Michael that you have to weigh in the 'cool' nature of green tea (or light oxidized oolong) when you assess it's benefits on your health. It may actually do more harm then good if you feel 'cold' already. The very best in terms of health benefits (and in terms of taste) is wild aged pu-er: it's quite unique in that it combines a high concentration of tea polyphenols with ripe, warm tea characteristics.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Nouvel An Chinois

Samedi prochain, dans 8 jours, sera le dernier jour de l'année du coq (avant que ne débute l'année du chien). Ce soir-là est l'équivalent du 24 décembre en Occident. Il est passé en famille, de même que les jours suivants. Les fêtes durent toute une semaine. J'irai, comme presque chaque année, me régaler à Taichung dans la famille de ma femme.

La semaine qui s'annonce risque d'être assez chargée en préparations pour le Nouvel An. Ne vous étonnez donc pas de voir ce blog en vacances pendant quelque temps. Aussi, si vous comptiez me passer une commande, me poser des questions, faites-le rapidement ou bien attendez le 6 février.

La rue Di Hua dans le vieux Taipei est le centre commercial pour les produits les plus traditionnels qu'on achète en cette période de l'année. Je vous en ai ramené ces quelques clichés:
La foule, un soir en semaine (le weekend, c'est pire!)
Humm... les bonnes saucisses.
Des montagnes de poulpe séché comme snack,
et du Oolong Taiwanais pour faire passer le tout.
Petite trouvaille: Ce petit panier pour les dumplings cuits à la vapeur fera aussi l'affaire pour torréfier le thé soi-même: on le place au-dessus d'une source de chaleur sèche et pas trop forte comme un cuiseur de riz électrique traditionnel et on place le thé dans le panier pendant quelques heures. De tels paniers se trouvent aussi en France dans les magasins asiatiques. Vous pouvez essayer de faire une torréfaction légère si vous trouvez vos thés défraichis!

Tea Masters Blog seen on the Net

Oolong Fetish is an interesting and innovating tea blog. This blogger is posting his own detailed tea reviews. The innovation comes from a clever scoring and pictures of open leaves over measurement paper. He is the first I have seen doing this on the Internet. Here, for instance, his score for the Shui Xian I sent him:
Out of 5.
Overall - 4
Primary Flavors - 3 1/2
Secondary Flavors - 4
Aroma - 4 1/2
Finish - 3 1/2
Temperament - 4
(I recommend visiting his site to read the explanation).

I'm quite happy to see that this tea achieved the highest score, so far, on his blog. Especially since it's also one of the cheapest in my selection! (Less than 15 USD for 150 gr).

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Buddha's hand

Great name for a tea: Fo Shou or Buddha's hand. It sounds poetic and spiritual, very fitting for an Oriental tea ceremony. It even comes from Yung Chun, Eternal Spring, a town North of Xia Men in Fujian (opposite Taiwan). This sample is a gift from a reader (you're all welcome to send me excellent tea samples by the way! Half kidding!) Thanks! I had never found this tea in Taiwan and I guess there is a simple explanation for that (besides politics and lack of direct cross-straight links): this Buddha's hand is a semi-oxidized tea belonging to the oolong family. This sample is made of high grade leaves producing a very floral/green vegetable and yet mellow aroma. For me, it is very close to Taiwan's Wen Shan baozhong. Baozhong would just be even 'greener', less oxidized and/or roasted. This tea has a more honey and round feel, but both are quite close (as the appearance already suggests). This sample is indeed of very high quality, because this 'green' feel didn't come with sour or acid taste. Just a tiny little.

Buddha's hand has a great name that will make you want to try it one day. However, be careful with fancy tea names in general. Best is to research beforehand what tea that is. If the name is just the invention of a particular merchant, then be twice as careful.

Update: This picture is an answer to Lionel. Yes, this is a big leaf and that's where the name comes from. However, it didn't strike me until Nadim mentioned it. Why? Because I recently drank from even bigger tea leaves: big Mengku pu-erh. According to Teaparker (from whom I got the leaves) these are the biggest leaves in the tea world.
Update2: Another reason for the name is Fo Shou Gan, a citrus species also called Buddha's hand. This tea apparently has a similar citrus/bergamot flavor as this fruit, hence the name. But I think that size also played a role (as so many junk e-mails keep reminding me: "size matters"! Haha!)

Master Wang has heat resistant hands

This one for David (because of his comment in the last post): See what you can do with lots of practice (and almost numb fingers). You can hold a gaiwan any way you want to pour your tea.

That's maybe also why they are called tea masters. They are not the least afraid of hot tea or hot gaiwans.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Mr Wang, the King of Hong Pei

I've visited Mr. Wang last night to buy more roasted the Tie Guan Yin and Shui Xian I've been telling you about this week. They are his babies! You can see him in full action, brewing a gaiwan of very strong Tie Guan Yin for me. That's how he likes his favorite tea. No day goes by without at least 10 brews.

He's past 80 years, but still enjoying every drop of tea and every day under the sun!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Quelle théière choisir pour son thé

Le premier choix est entre la théière et le gaiwan (zhong). Ce dernier est préférable pour:
- boire les thés fragiles et frais que sont les thés blancs, jaunes et verts,
- préparer un thé vite et bien car ils sont si faciles à nettoyer,
- apprendre le gongfu cha car il n'influe que très peu sur son goût. Toutes les compétitions et tous les professionels sérieux utilisent des gaiwan en porcelaine pour tester leur thé.

Cela êtant dit, et notamment pour les oolongs (bleu-vert) et les pu-ers (thés noirs), comment sélectionner la théière qui va le mieux?

1. La forme doit être en harmonie avec celle des feuilles. Exemples:
- Les feuilles plates (comme le Shui Xian de Wu Yi) auront un meilleur contact avec l'eau dans des théières plates,
- Les feuilles enroulées (comme les oolongs de Taiwan) s'ouvrent dans toutes les directions et des théières bien rondes leur conviennent mieux.

2. La qualité de la glaise
- La meilleure glaise vient d'Yixing, pas trop loin de Shanghai. Il en existe de plusieurs couleurs: rouge, jaune, vert, noire et bien sûr pourpre (zisha), la plus célèbre.
- Le mieux est que le potier ait employé une glaise pure, d'une même roche qu'on aurait réduit en poudre.
- Les glaises souples, très poreuses comme la Duan Ni jaune se marient bien avec les thés torréfiés.
- Les glaises plus dures et moins poreuses, comme la zhuni rouge, vont bien avec les thés aux aromes intenses et floraux comme les oolongs de haute montagne ou les jeunes pu-ers, voire même les puers crus agés.

3. La température de cuisson
- Plus elle est haute, plus le son du couvercle est aigü. Une théière devrait avoir été cuite dans un fourneau à au moins 1150 degrés de manière à réduire l'eau de sa glaise à moins de 2%.
- Les théières cuites à très hautes températures conviennent bien aux thés très aromatiques,
- Les théières cuites à des températures plus basses conviennent mieux aux thés torréfiés.

4. L'épaisseur des parois
- Des parois épaissent donnent du corps au thé et conviennent mieux aux thé fermentés,
- Des parois fines permettent aux thés peu fermentés de ne pas infuser trop longtemps (bon pour le Baozhong par exemple).

5. La taille de la théière
L'idéal est de boire le thé chaud. Un moyen est de se passer de cruche intermédiaire et de verser directement le thé dans les tasses. La taille de la théière sera donc optimisée pour qu'une infusion permettent de remplir les tasses de tous les participants.

6. Tester sa théière
Une fois votre choix fait en fonction de ces conseils, le mieux est de faire un test comparatif. Prenez le même thé et faites-le avec votre théière et avec un gaiwan. Remarquez-vous que le thé est plus moelleux et plus tendre? Arrivez-vous à en tirer plus qu'avec le gaiwan?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Shou Cha - Teas with fire

The most common way to classify between teas is by their color (white, yellow, green, green-blue, red and black). Oolong, the green-blue tea, can be further broken down in 3 categories according to the amount of 'Fire' it received. The tea is then called:
- Raw (Sheng) if the oxidation and roasting were light (High altitude Oolongs or Jinxuan fall in this category, like my Da Yu Ling),
- Half done (Ban shou) if the oxidation and the roasting were medium (like the traditional Dong Ding Oolong),
- Done (Shou) if the roasting and/or the oxidation were strong. My old baozhong is an example of light oxidation and repeated roasting that resulted in a tea that is full of fire. Young roasted Tie Guan Yin or Shui Xian, like I will show below, are strongly oxidized and strongly roasted.

I call such teas 'done' instead of cooked or roasted or baked, since cooked refers more to manually fermented puer, and because it's about both the degree of oxidation and roasting. But maybe there is a better word for it...

Such teas are more traditional and, in Taiwan, appeal more to the older tea drinkers. The young market leans towards more and more fragrant and raw teas. Such raw teas also display more beautiful leaves when they open up. However, as this German blog explains, raw teas come with some drawbacks: they are harvested at an earlier stage, are more fragile and thus don't spend as much time under the sun as traditional teas. Since they also spend less time oxidizing and roasting, the humidity level of such leaves is much higher. Raw tea is more aggressive on your stomach and the contact with air during storage will make the leaves become sour and age quite fast.

Tradtional teas can be drunk on an empty stomach and will not loose much taste over time. The best season to drink these teas is in winter, as all the 'fire' in them will warm you up from within. They are enjoyed more with the throat and mouth (and stomach) than with the nose.

1. Wu Yi Shan Shui Xian

I drink this very cheap oolong almost daily in the morning. It comes from the famous Wu Yi rock mountain in Fujian. But the roasting is done in Taiwan by a 80+ years old tea merchant Teaparker introduced me to. He has a skill to take these common Shui Xian (translated 'Water Fairy') leaves and roast them to the edge, without burning and destroying them (what is so often the case by people with less experience). The tea is nicely orange-brown (depending on how strong you brew it). The aromas are classic: forest, warm wood, fallen leaves. The taste is round, soothing and quite long lasting. The smell of the wet, hot leaves shows strong aromas of charcoal and smoke, but the magic is that such smells stay in the teapot! It will give at least 4-5 brews. I recommend to start with this tea if you're interested in exploring the world of roasted teas.

2. Nanyan Tie Guan Yin from Fujian

Actually, I alternate this tea with the Shui Xian. When the unglazed jar gets empty I refill it with this Tie Guan Yin. The same old merchant is roasting this tea with the same skill. Tie Guan Yin is very well suited for roasting. It's floral fragrance (when raw) transforms into ripe mellon and warm fruit aromas that make the tea complete: a beautiful nose and a fullbodied taste. The warm fruit fragrance adds to the mellow, dry taste of the roasting. The tea almost feels 'oily', so rich it is. The leaves can be brewed 5-7 times until the leaves open up completely. If you drink it very concentrated (like the old merchant) you may mistake it for a strong and tasty coffee!

The top grade Tie Guan Yin I have also added to my selection is made of the best leaves of this tea. Since the leaves are bigger and better, its fragrance even stronger, richer. It will hold 7-9 brews.

Like for the previous 2 teas, the best is to store this heavy roasted tie kuan yin in unglazed jars, so that it can breath a little bit and release some of its edges, excessive dryness from the roasting.

With these teas, you'll experience how the dry taste transforms into sweet in your throat and mouth, thereby producing a long finish. It's a very different experience compared with raw oolong and may need some time to adjust to. It's not because they are out of fashion that they are not as enjoyable (on the contrary!). It just takes more time for them to show their beauty.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Zhuni clay is extinct!

This news came as a shock to me! It means that all modern zhuni teapots are fake, doesn't it? Even my 2 round zhuni teapots? I have made a thorough investigation in the last 36 hours and here are my results.

1. Date of 'relative' extinction.

A first (very lengthy, interesting, but sometimes incorrect article) dates the extinction in the 1970s. A more precise date of 1973 is confirmed here (in Chinese). That's the year when the main mine for zhuni clay got extinct. I write main, because zhuni clay can still be found, albeit in very small quantity, in other Yixing red clay mines. Besides, the extinction is only relative for several reasons:
- like for most natural resources, it's impossible to tell for sure how much and where there is some left in the ground. With luck, or funds for wide scale exploration, a new zhuni mine may be discovered one day. So far, with other clays available and cheap, there is not enough financial incentive to invest in digging for new zhuni mines.
- some potters still have inventories of zhuni clay dating back to before 1973, when zhuni was mined in big quantities.

2. Buyers beware

This means that over 90% of modern zhuni teapots currently on the market are fake. Such teapots are made with a mix of red clay, zisha clay and/or other hard stones. Some unscrupulous business people even add chemicals to the clay. This practice, unfortunately, is not limited to the copying of zhuni but of any kind of yixing teapot.

3. How to distinguish a zhuni from a red clay teapot?

Teaparker showed us the characteristics of a zhuni: under the surface, it's like there is some sand. It becomes even more apparent when the teapot is warm. This explanation also fits the name zhu-ni, which means red-sand. Let's notice that the name is not zhu-sha (like in zisha, purple sand). Ni refers to bigger sand like in Nitu (cement), while sha refers to smaller sand like baisha (in white sand beach).

4. Are my teapots of real, pure zhuni?

Yes, they are. My Taiwanese potter had been cooperating with the former State owned Yixing factory for some time, and 15 years ago approximately he bought a big inventory of zhuni clay from that factory. So far, he has used up half this original clay. He guarantees they are real and would compensate 10 times the value of one teapot if he were proven wrong, he told me as I was asking the tough questions.

If, like me, you don't want to take his word but want a second opinion from a reliable expert, let's turn to Teaparker. From his website, you can see that he is not very much into selling tea or teaware. Almost all his focus is on writing books about the world of Chinese gongfu cha. I'm his student and probably a little bit biased in his favor, but it's a fact that he enjoys a high standing in Taiwan's tea world. Just last Saturday, Ma Ying Jeou, the popular mayor of Taipei, Chairman of the KMT party, took part in a tasting of wild pu-erh with Teaparker.

With all his knowledge and experience, Teaparker confirms that these teapots are made of pure zhuni clay. He even goes as far as putting the logo of his website, which is the name of the non profit tea association he chairs ("Cha Jen Ya Hsin") on one of the teapots (see picture). Hereby, Teaparker is committing what is most valuable to him: his reputation. If this were a fake and he couldn't tell, his reputation would be trashed. However, since his usage of this teapot shows him that he gets the same results as with his old zhuni, he is able to endorse a rare modern zhuni teapot that makes very fragrant tea and is still affordable.

5. Is the teapot created by a renowned Master?

No. Otherwise, the price would easily be 10 times higher. This potter has decided to apply his brand name under the teapot. The chop of the skilled and experienced craftsman who made the pot is placed under the cover. His philosophy is to make good teapots that are simply aimed at brewing tea as well as possible.

6. Why didn't he tell they how rare zhuni clay is?

Teaparker often warns us when a tea or some teaware comes with a story. This is usually just sales talk aimed at increasing the price. Since the extinction is not widely known among consumers, the potter doesn't want to use the rarity of zhuni to promote these teapots. More important than the 'story' is the function of his zhuni teapots: they make very fragrant oolong and puerh because zhuni is harder and less porous than zisha.

7. Why do I tell you then?

The principle of my blog is transparency and advanced gongfu cha knowledge. I write down and share what I learn and discover in the Chinese tea world. Some of you may have heard about it elsewhere, so it was important to clarify this issue.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Le charbon actif de bambou est magique!

Déjà deux lecteurs et professionels du thé et de phyto-aromatérapie, Sophie et Yoann, qui me signalent ici que le charbon actif de bambou 'chinoise' leur eau française et améliore leur gongfu cha de manière significative. Je crois qu'on peut avoir confiance en leur nez, avec les professions qu'ils ont. Néanmoins, je me demande ce qu'en pensent les autres qui ont reçu mon échantillon gratuit? (Veuillez continuer les commentaires sous l'article en question, merci.)

Un petit truc de Tea Masters

Certaines théières chinoises n'ont pas de filtre interne, mais un grand trou qui a tendance à se boucher avec les feuilles de thé. Que faire? Un filtre interne en métal qu'on rajout est à proscrire (le métal altèrerait le goût du thé). Munissez-vous simplement d'un cure-dent en bois. Si des feuilles bouchent l'embout et empêchent le thé de s'écouler normalement, enfoncez le cure-dent dans l'embout et ressortez-le. Si le problème persiste, laissez le cure-dent enfoncé.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

2005 a record year for Chinese Antiques

On the paper copy of the Asian WSJ of January 5, 2006 page 31, I read that Christie's business was up 30% over 2004 and for the first time over 3 billion USD. Last fall, they set a record for Chinese and Asian art with a Yuan Dynasty jar from the mid-14th Century, which sold for 27,7 million USD! The reason for the intergalactic price is fact that it's one of the oldest blue and white wares still around (they only become mainstream in the 16th to late 19th Century).

With China producing new millionaires every day, their currency under pressure to increase in value and global interest in arts and high end auctions, it's quite natural that Asian antiques have become particularly sought after. Some commentators see this as a sign the bubble is about to burst. For my part, I think the interest in Chinese antiques will continue to strengthen with China's rise. The good news for us (average consumers) is that it's the very unique Guan Yao (imperial/high society ware) that will increase most in value. Call it the Jordan or Zidane effect on antiques. Only the very best see their value increase exponentially. The average stuff doesn't participate in the craze. At least not if you're a smart buyer and do enough research on sites like Gotherborg.

Regular readers of the blog will have noticed that I have started to acquire Chinese antiques related to tea in the last 6 months. Let's do a quick summary of what I've got.

For instance, here is my late Qing dynasty blue and white jar:

Much later but also much cheaper than the record setting blue and white jar!

It actually all started (below) with this Yuan Dynasty plate with a beautiful tree:

Maybe was it because I cleaned it myself, but I really got attached to this plate and am not thinking of selling it.

And of course, there are the old blue and white tea cups:

Oolong tea and old puer look very nice in it. It really brings great style to my brews and the price is reasonable too.

These 2 are a little bit less old (150-80 years) and of finer execution, but the glazing is by far not as smooth as the previous ones:

Then comes this Tianmu shan (Tianmu Mountain or Tenmoku in Japanese) bowl. This style was invented during the Song dynasty (and is still used in Japan for green tea), but this is Qing dynasty piece actually (still over 100 years old!) I use it to brew cooked or old pu erh in it directly. The color of the tea is great and the thick glazed walls keep the heat very well.

This Sung dynasty (960-1279) ever was used to pour the hot water in tianmu bowls. I may attempt to use it one day, even though my friend the potter/collector advised against it because of its age.

Below is my last purchase: a larger and finer black tea plate. For this object, the exact origin and time are unknown. "Old" is all I could get as an answer.

I needed a bigger plate for my bigger red teapots. The black and the red clay of my 7 years old yixing teapot go very well together.

I once spent a whole afternoon in Taipei's Chinese antique flea market looking for old tea cups. So many cups looked bad, overpriced or fake! I ended up buying nothing at all! So, I am glad also to have found this trustable and knowledgeable source of Chinese antiques at reasonable prices. To know that a piece is antique is often sufficient (to me). If the seller starts to tell you a long story he usually just tries to catch you with that. For me (us?) it's not about collecting antiques. It's about finding teaware that match best with my feelings when I do a gongfu cha.

Some people may ask for an authentification certificate, but for pieces that cost below 300 USD, I don't think it's necessarily a good idea. Certificates can be faked even more easily than pottery, and the cost of having an independent expert look at the piece may add too much cost to its intrinsic value. It's like with small diamonds: they should shine and be true, but you don't need absolute certainty about their color, clarity... To know they come from a reliable person is good enough (if the price is right).

Using antique teaware can significantly increase the beauty and harmony of gongfu cha. Tea cups and bowls are made differently nowadays and there is a different feeling and even taste (!) when you use antiques. My advice is to buy items that you will use often, not just put on display.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Duan Ni Yixing Teapot

Ma théière en Duan Ni
Contenance: 90 ml environ
Cuite à 1200 degrés Celcius
Parois assez fines.
Finalement, j'ai opté pour le Tie Guan Yin torréfié pour cette théière. Les parois fines font bien ressortir les aromes. Les vieux oolongs ont surtout de la longueur en bouche et dans la gorge. Pour eux, des parois un peu plus épaisses conviennent mieux. Mais à la rigueur on peut en débattre. C'est aussi une question de goût.

Ce qui est intéressant, c'est que j'ai aussi fait mon Gung Ding Cha Zhuan (Pu Er cuit de 1988) dans cette théière et trouvai qu'elle l'adoucit bien. Je vais probablement me chercher une autre théière en duan ni, un peu moins ronde, chez mon potier pour mes pu ers cuits!

(Si quelqu'un est intéressé par cette théière - elle coûte 15 euros de plus que la zisha vieille de 7 ans- j'en possède une seconde neuve de cette série).

Saturday, January 07, 2006

What teapot or gaiwan for what tea

Teaparker has an article about this question. He gives these 3 rules to choose a teapot for a particular tea:
1. For teas that have flat dry leaves (like WuYi Mountain Shui Xian oolong), a rather flat teapot fits best so that tea and water are close together,
2. For teas that are knitted like small round balls (like Taiwan oolong), a round teapot is best to let the leaves open up,
3. For heavy roasted teas, the teapot should be made of softer clay (like zisha or duan ni), fired at a little bit lower temperature. (My picture, for example, shows a small round duan ni teapot that would be best with old Taiwan oolong or with roasted Tie Guan Yin).

A reader also asked me to write about this subject. So let's add the other 'rules' to help you make the best pairing of tea and teapot.

You will choose a gaiwan instead of a teapot to drink:
- (white, yellow and) green teas, or any tea with light and fine fragrance,
- any tea that you want to test, evaluate, compare, (for instance before you purchase it),
- and start learning gongfu cha. It lets you better see and smell the tea while you're doing it.
- tea in a hurry and have little time to clean the teapot.

Other principles to guide your choice of a teapot:
- Thick walls will retain temperature longer and are better fit for teas with long aftertaste, like roasted teas,
- Thin walls fit very fresh and fragrant teas.
- The yixing clay employed should be pure, or even come from a stone that has been grinded into powder so that it contains natural minerals and pores,
- The temperature at which the teapot is fired should be over 1150 degrees in order to reduce the water content of the clay below 2%. Such teapots have a high pitched sound when you open the top. This ensures that the zisha pot fulfills all its functions. Zisha clay will filter the tea: reduce its astringent and sour taste, and make it more round and mellow. It will also keep the tea and the leaves warm and it woun't burn your hands.

In conclusion, to know which tea will be best brewed in which of your teapots you should test it yourself. With a good teapot your tea will have a better fragrance as well as a better yun (finish) than with a gaiwan.

Friday, January 06, 2006

J'ai goûté au paradis

Hummm... Je me sens bien! Ce 6 janvier 2006, j'ai fait coucou aux anges par-dessus les nuages qui nous ont amené la pluie sur Taipei. Voyez mon arrangement ci-dessus. J'ai fait:
- mon meilleur thé, le tuo cha cru sauvage de 1985
- avec ma meilleure eau (l'eau de source puisée mi-juin),
- portée à ébullition dans ma tetsubin japonaise,
- dans ma théière en zisha d'Yixing,
- posée sur un cha chuan antique d'une grande finesse,
- puis versé dans ma vielle coupe bleu-blanche de la dynastie Qing,
- posée sur un autre petit cha chuan de la dynastie Yuan,
- et le tout posé sur le joli patchwork fait main avec des tissus japonais anciens
- et bu en écoutant un CD d'erhu classique.

Je sais que j'avais promis, il y a 6 mois déjà, de faire une description analytique de ce thé. Désolé! C'est encore raté! Je n'arrive pas à me concentrer sur mes impressions. Chaque fois je plane.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The puer teas striptease

My latest puers bare it all. I bought them 2 days ago with my Christmas cash gifts. But this time, instead of choosing very expensive or very teas, I chose more affordable and ready to drink puers of very reputed makers and good quality. They all come from the China National Native Produce & Animal By-products Import & Export Company Yunnan Tea Branch (CNNP Yunnan Tea Branch), the State company and one is even made by the famous Menghai factory.

1. 1990 raw Fang Zhuan (square brick) from the Menghai region (not the factory). This brick contains leaves of all grades.
Here is the view in the bamboo leaves wrapping 3 bricks together:
It reminded me very much the smell of tree leaves in the fall, when they are still moist and dry on the ground in misty, foggy woods. It has some fresh taste as well and a strong qi. The mix of grades creates a tea that feels very broad and difficult to grasp. That's why I say there is fog in the forest.

2. This small Gong Ding Cha Zhuan is a lightly cooked pu er of 1988. It's made with tea buds of first grade leaves. That's why it's called Gong Ding, imperial gift. The aromas and the brew are of very high clarity and finesse. After 18 years, the fermentation smells have greatly diminished. The brick is very hard, but once you're able to break the first piece the rest comes off more easily.

3. This is a cooked tuo cha of 1990. I bought it before Christmas, but didn't have an opportunity to introduce it yet. It is quite special because it's not only made of first grade leaves, but these leaves were harvested from wild trees. This one smells like a very old raw pu er. After 16 years, the bad smells from man-made fermentation have disappeared and it tastes very round and calm. For me, it's the best cooked puer I was given to taste, even better than the Menghai factory cooked puer from the same time.

4. This Yunnan Pu Er Cha Zhuan was made in the year 2000. It contains cooked pu er leaves of grade 5. After 5 years of rest, it starts to be drinkable, says my pu er importer. We tasted it together on the very same day and I found it still has a very strong camphor taste (but without the freshness). The taste of fermentation is still very much there, which I don't find very pleasant. But the astringency is completely gone. It is very round and becomes mellow. I guess it will improve as it ages further, but can also already be drunk now in a large teapot. The low price makes it also quite attractive to start with cooked puer.

It wasn't the first time that my merchant told me that cooked puer also need to 'age', so I asked Teaparker about it. He told me that cooked puer's purpose is to make puer that be drunk quickly (as opposed to raw puer that ages slowly). The 'problem' is that nowadays the factories use more water than before for this process. This increases humidity and mold in young cooked puer. That's why it's best to wait 4/5 years. Another trick from my vendor is to wash the leaves with tea a first time and even a second time. This pu er can last many infusions anyway!

5. This is the famous '7542' raw qizi bing cha from the Menghai factory. This one from the year 1999. The dry smell amazingly already displays nice aging, but it could probably age longer. I haven't tried it yet. It's also the most expensive tea on this post.
Here's a view of the top:

And one of its bottom:

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Mes cadeaux puer

Dans mes cadeaux de Noël s'étaient glissé quelques petites enveloppes rouges remplies de milliers de dollars ... taiwanais! (1000 dollars Taiwanais = 26 euros seulement!). C'est donc avec ces étrennes que je suis allé voir mon marchand/grossiste de pu er, hier. Mais au lieu de me contenter du meilleur (du pu-er sauvage de plus en plus hors de prix), j'ai décidé d'opter pour des pu-ers de plantation réputés, buvables maintenant, mais point trop chers. La plupart de ces thés sont faits par la China National Native Produce & Animal By-producrs Import & Export Company Yunnan Tea Branch (abréviée CNNP Yunnan Tea Branch), la grande firme agricole d'Etat, l'ancien monopole du régime communiste. Cela est une garantie de sérieux et de qualité. Les voici:

De gauche à droite:
1. Enveloppé dans des feuilles de bambou indocalamus, trois Pu Er cru en Fang Zhuan (brique carrée) de la région de Menghai de 1990. Il est fabriqué par la CNNP de Yunnan Tea Branch). Ses feuilles de toutes catégories (de 1 à 10). Les briques sont emballées par trois dans des feuilles de bambou, sans papier.

Je l'ai déjà goûté 2 fois. Il a un cha chi très puissant qui vous clarifie rapidement la tête. Attention à ne pas en faire trop, sinon c'est la nuit blanche au thé noir! Son arome est celui des feuilles qui tombent en automne. On perçoit justement aussi un peu la fraicheur de cette saison qui prélude à l'hiver. Comme c'est un mélange de feuilles de différents grades, le goût n'est pas tranché clair et net: il est un peu flou, insaisissable, un peu comme une forêt envelppé d'un léger brouillard. Contrairement à la brique de Jiang Cheng sauvage (qui a encore beaucoup de potentiel de garde), celui-ci est déjà bon à boire maintenant.

2. Un petit Pu-Er cuit légèrement en Gong Ding Cha Zhuan de 100 gr de 1988. Ses feuilles de 1ère qualité car Gong Ding signifie cadeau impérial. Du coup -je viens d'en boire 3 infusions- le thé a plus de clarté et de finesse. Son arome garde encore un peu le goût de la fermentation, mais pas trop. Les aromes sont plus amples, avec des traces de camphre. Tout comme le précédent, il semble assez costaud pour durer encore de nombreuses infusions.

3. La qizi bing '7542’ de la firme Menghai de 1999. C'est une des plus célèbres galettes crues de la firme vedette du pu-er (notamment pour les pu ers cuits). Je ne l'ai pas encore goûté, mais son odeur à sec semble prometteuse, même si elle est encore un peu jeune. Faut dire que j'ai fait une petite entorse à mon budget: son prix est bien plus élevé que pour les autres pu-ers.

4. Le Tuo Cha est un pu er sauvage (!) cuit, fait avec des feuilles de 1ère qualité en 1990. Lui aussi est fait par la CNNP de Yunnan. Celui-là, je l'ai acheté avant les fêtes et n'avais pas encore eu l'occasion de le présenter. Il a encore plus de finesse et un goût de vieux pu er plus prononcé que le Gong Ding, car son odeur de fermentation a déjà disparu.

Il n'est pas donné, mais pour ceux qui préfèrent le calme des très vieux puers, c'est ce qui se fait de mieux en puer cuit pour les approcher.

5. La brique cuite d'Yunnan Pu Er Cha Zhuan de 250 gr a été fabriquée en 2000 par la CNNP d'Yunnan Tea Branch. Les feuilles sont toutes de grade 5. Après 5 années de repos, elle est enfin bonne à boire.

C'est d'ailleurs une question que j'ai posée à Teaparker récemment: le pu er cuit est-il buvable immédiatement ou bien s'améliore-t-il avec l'âge? La fermentation 'artificielle' a pour but de rendre le pu er buvable rapidement (car beaucoup trouvent le pu er cru trop astringent et pas assez digeste). Cependant, les méthodes actuelles de fermentation empoloient plus d'eau que par le passé. Cela a pour conséquence d'augmenter les odeurs de moisi. Le mieux est d'attendre quelques années que ces odeurs disparaissent progressivement. Mon grossiste conseille d'attendre 4 à 5 ans. Cela explique donc que le pu er cuit s'améliore aussi avec l'âge. Mais pas de la même manière et pas aussi dramatiquement que le pu er cru.

J'ai bu de cette brique hier et la trouvai d'un goût prononcé de camphre et de terre, mais sans vraie impression de frais. Plutôt, on a encore le goût de la fermentation durant les premières infusions. (Un truc de mon marchand: il jetta les 2 premières infusions pour laver ces mauvaises odeurs. De tout de façon vous en tirerez encore beaucoup. Il a encore clairement du potentiel pour s'améliorer. Il ne deviendra jamais aussi bon qu'un vieux pu er cru, mais à ce prix-là, c'est un thé qu'on peut boire sans souci en grandes quantités ou pour commencer le pu er cuit.

J'ai plus le temps aujourd'hui. Je vous parlerai de ma petite théière en Duan Ni et de cette vieille assiette à thé un autre jour. Admirez!