Friday, August 21, 2015

Prag. Day 2. Tea house owners workshop

This is the third and last workshop I performed in Europe this summer. It was also the most difficult one, because the participants were all tea professionals: tea house owners with a staff or partner! For them, tea is more than just pleasure, it's also a business. And it's very tough, because they are facing a broad range of consumers: people who know next to nothing or only cheap, scented tea bags, people who come for the special atmosphere of the tea house, the health benefits obsessed, those who want to learn more about tea... They need to have a tea for each guest and it must be cheap enough to let them earn a living. It's really a challenging job, because their tea drinking population extends much beyond the audience of a specialized tea blog like mine. Everybody might take a break in a tea house one day.

The market for premium teas is so small that it would be easy to overlook it. Most tea houses (and stores) in Europe and America actually prefer not to take the risk of purchasing leaves that cost more than 10 cents per gram according to my experience. But even if there's only a small demand for a high mountain Oolong or a high grade concubine, I feel that it's important for a tea house to have them on its menu. It shows a certain level of understanding and tea passion that can set it apart from other houses. It's like for a restaurant to have fine grands crus classés Bordeaux on their wine list. It shows they are serious and committed to excellence.
With tea, though, it's not enough to have good teas on your list, you also must know know how to prepare them properly. That's why I gave these tea house owners/managers a very similar training than to the tea aficionado in the other 2 workshops. There are lots of principles and techniques that also apply to lower grade teas. Using good (filtered) water, for example.
I taught them to pour with a gaiwan without spilling water around the cups (without a pitcher). I also showed that with great tea, you don't need to use so many leaves. A layer on the bottom of the gaiwan is sufficient. This is how a tea house can make premium tea more affordable for its customers. And the skilled pour also demonstrates the fact that tea brewing takes skill and calm.
We had some burned fingers, but also lots of happy faces and many questions. One of the recurring question is why I don't rinse my Oolong leaves. The fast answer is that I love my teas so much that I don't want to waste a drop, especially not the very first flavors that come out, since these are also the lightest!
Rinsing Oolong is done for of different reasons. Let's examine these reasons one by one and see why none stands.

1. "To clean the dry leaves like you would clean a vegetable or fruit before consumption."

The difference is that dry Oolong tea isn't a raw product, because it has been subject to a very high temperature (around 180 degrees Celcius or 350 degrees Fahrenheit) during the kill green process for 8-10 minutes. A lower heat is also later applied to dry (or even roast) the leaves thorougly. This is why most teas, even the most humble tea bag is free of germs and bacterias (and nobody rinses a tea bag, because you'd loose the best flavors after 2 seconds in hot water!)

And for the same reason, nobody is rinsing Japanese green tea. Because the first flavors are the nicest. And why should Taiwan Oolong be less clean than Japanese (or Chinese) green tea?

And how about those Oolongs that have been treated with lots of pesticides and fertilizers? Isn't it better to rinse them? For such leaves, the problems are not limited to the surface of the leaves. The best solution is probably not to drink them at all!
2. "Rinsing is done to prepare the leaves to open up. The quickly rinsed leaves are easier to brew."

The answer is to do a thorough preheating of the tea vessel. A gaiwan or teapot that is preheated with boiling water will enable the proper opening of the Oolong leaves during the first brew. (It's because many people use the rinse to preheat the vessel that they feel it's necessary).
The other problem with the quick rinse is that it pushes all the leaves to the side from which you make the pour. This puts the leaves in a skewed position. Since our goal is to let the leaves open up and fill the gaiwan evenly, it's easier to do so if we start with leaves that lie evenly at the bottom the gaiwan or the teapot. You may shake your teapot or gaiwan to move the leaves back in the middle, after a rinse. But this movement feels unnatural and not harmonious compared with the alternative of starting to brew with the leaves the way you let them glide into the vessel.

I demonstrated that it's possible to open even rolled Oolong leaves with just one brew. (This seems a good place to remind you of my Oolong Brewing guide, which summarizes all aspects of my technique. By the way, you get this guide for free with a free 25 gr sample of SiJiChun Oolong if you place a tea order of 60 USD or more on the boutique! )
I feel a distance, a suspicion between us and the tea if we discard the first brew. There need not be any distance with something so extraordinary as good Oolong!
Thanks to all of you to help your customers gain a first access to the world of real teas! I was happy to share my point of view, my technique and my passion for tea with you!
And we enjoyed very nice teas during this workshop:

1. Spring 2015 Alishan Jinxuan, the most affordable high mountain Oolong
2. Spring 2013 Da Yu Ling Oolong, the highest plantation shows it still feels fresh and powerful.
3. Winter 2013 Yong Lung Hung Shui Oolong, the standard Dong Ding Oolong. Balance of roast and freshness.
4. Spring 2013 Concubine Oolong from Feng Huang, high oxidation with an organic method. Sweetness.
5. Spring 1999 Hung Shui Oolong from Yong Lung, the beauty and refinement of aged Oolong.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Flow arts and the skill of pouring tea

1995 raw puerh - Yiwu
There are 3 elements that have an impact on tea: the weather, the soil and the person who turns the leaves into tea. Likewise, there are 3 benefits to my tea blog: tasting great tea, visiting beautiful plantations and meeting interesting people. On Tuesday, I had this 1995 raw old arbor brick from Yiwu with 2 puerh lovers. 

Nicky Evers practices "flow art", a circus-inspired art form combining dance, awareness and the manipulation of an object. This includes mostly juggling, but also spinning, some dances and martial arts. Through such physical activity and the concentration it requires, a person enters a mental state of 'flow' that is both source of energy and happiness.

Achieving flow isn't just limited to flow arts. You can achieve it while driving, working... when performing any activity that you do well and that requires all your attention. When done properly, brewing tea should also be conducive to flow. There's a particular step that involves focus, skill and grace: the pouring of the tea from the gaiwan (or teapot) to the cups without spilling. Managing to do so while paying attention to an even tea concentration and volume in the cups feels great!

See how Nicky manages to keep a very straight position and focuses his attention on his pour:
He obtained a very good result for a first try! Bravo! His 6 years of flow art practice have undoubtedly helped him. The rest comes from practice, practice and focus. And as for all types of learning, it's important not to be afraid of making mistakes.

In this regard, even after 13 years of practice, I still feel that tea is very humbling (and not pretentious at all!) because it's so difficult to have a really flawless execution and a perfect cup. Here is Gian getting his hands-on tea training:
Finding the right time to pour and stop the brewing is easier done when brewing fewer good leaves, because there's less risk of overbrewing. Using fewer leaves is also a strategy to afford better tea quality. Besides, the law of diminishing marginal returns applies to everything we consume: the first 200 ml always tastes better than the last, even if the tea were to remain exactly the same. That's why it often makes more sense to have 4 or 5 excellent brews than 20 (for the same amount of money). Unless you have a whole afternoon or evening to dedicate to one tea, I also find it heightens the attention to know that a brewing will be limited to 4 or 5 brews during a 30-40 minutes break from my other activities. It's easier to grant oneself short breaks often than a big pause...
Nicky found it interesting to see different people brew tea differently in Taiwan. There are no dogma, just experiences. We learn what makes most sense to us and what gives us the greatest satisfaction. It's not necessarily going with the flow of what 'everybody' does, but finding your own flow!

Tea note: despite using a simple porcelain gaiwan and very few leaves, my 1995 raw old arbor Yiwu puerh tasted very smooth, powerful and had a sweet lingering aftertaste. Amazingly pure puerh that I recommend wholeheartedly!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Is tea pairing pretentious?

I ask the question because I was surprised to see this remark pop up again and again in the comments to this article: 'Tea Sommeliers are the hot new thing in food pairing'. Wine and food pairing doesn't seem to raise eyebrows anymore, so why should tea? So, here are a few thoughts on the subject.

It's exactly 10 years that I wrote a first article (in French) on the subject of tea sommeliers. So, this concept is not new for me, but I still find it interesting and not sufficiently explored. In Europe and America, there are very few tea friendly restaurants. This is despite the fact that wine consumption is going down. Sometimes it's due to the need of staying sober to drive, or because of religious beliefs, or because it's less socially accepted to drink during lunch break when you're working. So, tea is a potential alternative for all those who don't want wine with their food, but would like a drink that underlines the taste of the meal.

Wine for a cheese pairing
I find it odd to criticize tea and food pairing, because we all do food pairing! When you choose not to mix mustard with strawberry jam on your bread, you are doing food pairing! You know that there are some combinations that go well and others that don't. The same principle applies to tea and food pairing. Don't consider tea just as a beverage to quench your thirst or to clear your mouth. Now, you consider the tea like a sauce for the food, or like the sip of wine you take while you're still chewing on your food. Your goal is not simply to add two wonderful aromas but to combine them and obtain a perfect mix where 1 + 1 = 3 or more!

This summer, I had the opportunity to eat at one of Strasbourg's best restaurant, the Buerehiesel. So, I brought my Yong Lung Hung Shui Oolong along, because I had to drive 20 miles after the dinner and couldn't drink wine. The discovery menu was exquisite and I particularly liked these frog legs with chervil. The reduced gravy had hints of caviar! And the roasted notes of the Hung Shui gave depth and length to the taste in my mouth. This felt glorious.

"Pretentious: attempting to impress by affecting greater importance than it actually possesses."

Most people in Europe or America, when they think of tea, it's tea bags that come to mind first. And I have to agree that it IS very pretentious to attempt to pair CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl) tea bags with haute cuisine! Tea bags are worthy of fast food and have nothing to do with fine dining.

Top quality tea leaves, on the other hand, are made with the same care, skill and devotion as butter poached Nova Scotia lobster or braised asparagus with black truffle!

It's a rightful choice to pair top food with great quality tea. And there's nothing pretentious in aiming to well prepare, serve and pair aged Menghai puerh or a finely roasted Dong Ding Oolong in a top restaurant. And the fact that so few restaurants do it should be viewed as a wonderful opportunity to innovate!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Dong Ding de compétition 2015, 2 vidéos

J'ai eu envie de préparer le même Oolong de compétition de Dong Ding que dans l'article précédent, mais avec une autre théière et un nouveau Chaxi. Chaque lieu de préparation a ses particularités. Dans un jardin, sur une montagne ou à la plage, on est en contact direct avec la nature. En voyage, on a l'occasion de faire des rencontres. L'avantage d'être chez soi, c'est de contrôler son environnement sonore, le grand choix de ses accessoires et de se sentir complètement à l'aise. J'adore faire mon thé ainsi! Je passe sur le préchauffage de la théière et des coupes et vous montre comment je réalise la première infusion:
A force de dire peu de feuilles et une longue première infusion pour ouvrir les feuilles roulées, il est peut-être plus simple de voir une vidéo!
J'utilise ma main (propre) pour délicatement faire glisser les feuilles dans la théière. C'est une des premières particularités de cette méthode.
Voici maintenant la seconde infusion, prise d'un autre point de vue, plus proche.
 L'infusion est plus courte. Comme c'est l'été et qu'il fait chaud, je ne préchauffe pas les coupes une nouvelle fois. L'autre raison est que sachant l'infusion courte, je n'aurais pas le temps pour vider chaque coupe tranquillement. Or, il est important de verser l'eau très lentement et harmonieusement dans la théière pour cette seconde infusion.
Ce thé est savoureux pour tous les sens! Douce harmonie soulignée par la musique de Doulce Mémoire. Il s'agit d'un requiem de la Renaissance, deux termes dont l'antinomie apparente est similaire au Hung Shui Oolong. Sa torréfaction lui donne un aspect terne et des notes sèches de torréfaction, plus mort que vif, mais l'infusion le révèle comme êtant particulièrement vigoureux, puissant et savoureux. Cette force, la Renaissance la puise dans un retour au classicisme latin et grec, et la foi en Dieu ; la saveur du Dong Ding Oolong provient de la tradition de la torréfaction sur charbon de bois, inventée dans les monts de WuYi durant la dynastie Qing (1644-1911).
Et à la fin de ma cinquième infusion, je constate aussi la renaissance de mes feuilles!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

2015 Spring Competition Oolong from Dong Ding

Cultivar: Qingxin Oolong
Origin: Dong Ding area, central Taiwan
Harvested by hand on April 16th, 2015
Process: Low to medium oxidation, rolled leaves, rather strong roasting. Few stems.

This tea comes from a surplus of Dong Ding competition Oolong from this spring. That's why it has few stems and a high roasting level, which typical for this competition. I've used it during my workshops this July to show the taste of a recent, powerful and well done roast. It was interesting to compare it with the 2014 competition Oolong and taste fewer roasting flavors.
 It's so concentrated and powerful that I use very few leaves. The bottom of the teapot isn't fully covered with leaves. And I pour my boiling water very slowly in the preheated teapot. But I wait several more than a minute for the leaves to open up.
 The brew's color in the cup is deep and concentrated with sweet flavors.
"This feels so good!" It's thick, rich and sweet, but still completely smooth and pure. The malty and smoky scents combine beautifully with the tea and the aftertaste in the mouth is stunning. And while the ancient zisha teapot adds to the smoothness, I was surprised by how good it also came out in a simple, white porcelain competition set, provided I pour my water very slowly.
During my 3 workshops, some people liked high mountain, other concubine Oolong or Oriental Beauty better, but there was also a big portion of people who preferred Hung Shui Oolong. Everybody's taste is different and it's not my subject to say which one is best. (Disclosure: I love all Oolong types, as long as the quality is high!). But there's something that makes Hung Shui stand out from other teas: the added complexity due to the roasting.
And Dong Ding Oolong is one of the most suitable Oolong for roasting! It's one of the gold standards of tea. Fruity, malty, sweet, rich, smooth, long aftertaste...
I enjoyed this home Chaxi immensely. It's so nice to be back and be able to choose from all my Chabu and teaware what would be the most suitable for this Hung Shui Oolong. This Chatuo looks really refined with the flower cup!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Théière Yixing: investir, posséder et s'en servir

Lors de notre dernière classe avec Teaparker, il nous raconta comment il a récemment eu l'occasion d'admirer une thèière de Gu Jinzhou (1915-1996), le plus célèbre potier d'Yixing du vingtième siècle. Un collectionneur de théière Taiwanais, très ami avec ce maitre potier, avait invité Teaparker à lui rendre visite pour lui montrer ce joyau de sa collection. La prise de rendez-vous était indispensable, car ce collectionneur devait aussi arranger la sortie de ladite théière de son coffre à la banque! Estimée à un million d'Euros, ce collectionneur redoute les cambriolages...

D'un point de vue financier, les théières de Gu Jinzhou ont pris beaucoup de valeur. Il y a une trentaine d'années, on pouvait en trouver à 20,000 USD environ. La plus-value est donc substantielle, mais vu l'attachement sentimental de ce collectionneur à cette théière, faite expressément pour lui, il semble peu probable qu'il la vende.
Teaparker est admiratif devant la minutie de chaque détail de la théière. Elle comporte des calligraphies gravées sur le corps de la théière par maitre Gu lui-même. Teaparker avait amené des bonnes feuilles de Wu Yi et proposa au collectionneur de les infuser. Ce dernier eut l'air un peu désemparé par une telle demande, et pria Teaparker de préparer son thé avec cette théière. Teaparker comprit que, comme elle est entreposée à la banque, c'est une théière qui ne sert jamais! Et c'est même pire encore: ce collectionneur n'avait pas la moindre bouilloire, mais juste un dispenseur électrique d'eau bouillante! Au lieu d'un Chabu, il n'y avait qu'un simple petit plateau en bambou! Et ne parlons pas des coupes...

Cette histoire montre le gouffre qui peut exister entre la collection, la possession et l'usage d'une théière. Cette personne cultivée et amoureuse des théières Yixing sait comment distinguer le vrai du faux. (Dans sa collection, il a également de très bonnes fausses théières de Gu Jinzhou!). Il a certainement beaucoup de plaisir, de fierté, et un peu de peur, à savoir qu'il possède une des théières les plus convoitées au monde. C'est un accomplissement d'avoir pu en faire l'acquisition tout en devenant intime avec un des plus grands artistes chinois de sa génération. Il a su faire preuve de goût et de discernement dans ses choix.

Cependant, pour un amateur de thé, la collection de théières ne saurait être un but en soi, mais un moyen pour aller plus loin dans le plaisir de la préparation et de la dégustation du thé. Ne jamais utiliser une théière, c'est comme ne pas la posséder! C'est comme avoir une Porsche au garage et ne jamais la rouler. Ou bien avoir du très bon thé dans sa collection et ne jamais en boire car il y a toujours un thé qui risque de s'éventer si on ne le finit pas rapidement! (La vie est trop courte et fragile pour se contenter de médiocrité)
En cette période de plaisir estival, apprenons de ce collectionneur: utilisons nos meilleures théières et infusons nos feuilles préférées! Car le vrai propriétaire d'un bien est celui qui en a la jouissance!

Remarque: les photos sont des Yixing de ma collection personnelle.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

The importance of good water

Elisabeth from Canada shares this summer story and the first 2 pictures of this article:

"As I packed for my two weeks in nearby mountains, I made up a selection of teas to try with friends and these included your top Da Yu Ling, 2015 Concubine Oolong and 7542 sheng puerh 1999.
All of these teas had been pleasant enough to try in Montreal, but none came across with the expected wonderful qualities, whether in a gaiwan or teapot, Brita filtered water, double filtered, etc. In fact, I was wondering if it was worth the expense of reordering these special teas.

To my amazement, each of the three, brewed in water from my vacation area, was a complete revelation. The pure, freshness of Da Yu Ling, deep, sweet, tingling quality of the puerh and  roasted, honey-like richness of the Concubine Oolong; miraculous flavours came through with such ringing clarity, no fussing with temperature or filtering of water. I had one simple 250 ml red clay Yixing pot with a broken lid, left behind last summer and it served for all three. The clean air and pine scents probably contributed, but the water was softer than city water, fresh and cold.

Although I haven't been able to recreate the experience at home, It remains in my mind as a high note and reference for all my tea brewing throughout the year. Luckily, the filtered ‘hard’ water at home does bring out nice flavours in a few other teas, leading me to think that there may be a good water-tea match to be made in almost any circumstance if one experiments.

I would like to know your thoughts when time allows."

Thank you very much, Elisabeth, for sharing this interesting story connecting tea and travel. I recently made similar experiences with the teas I brought to Europe. All the changes have an impact on the tea, but I think that you have correctly identified the factor which has the highest impact: WATER.

That's why I started my 3 European tea workshops with water tastings and why the first chapter of the "Tea Masters guide to brewing Oolong Tea" starts as follows:

"A. Water: mother of tea

A cup of tea is 99% of water! Before we focus on the 1%, we have to get the 99% right! Too many teas are ruined by waters that are heavy with Chlorine or minerals. Tang dynasty writer Lu Yu (733-804) wrote the first book (Cha Jing) about tea. He insisted on water quality as he found out that “the best water comes from mountain sources. Next is river water in valleys, where the river is neither too quick nor too slow. And worst are most underground waters from wells. Water at the bottom of a cascade is also very bad, because it is too agitated, sour."

But it’s not just heavy waters that make tea taste bad. Distilled and reverse osmosis waters also don’t make good tea, because they are so pure that they lack the energy and life that comes from natural water."
2000 years old Roman cistern in Aptera, Crete
The first step to solve the water problem is to realize that you have a problem!

Then, it's a matter of testing your teas with different waters and/or experimenting with additives (like bamboo charcoal, which you can find here). An under counter water filter system usually performs better than a simple Brita filter. At home, I'm using a 2 step filter system with a 5 micron pre filter and a Pentair/Everpure water filter. This gives me good results, very close to my favorite local mineral water. What filter(s) to use will depend on the profile of your tap water, how heavy it is.

For mineral water, I recommend to try those with fewer than 200 mg of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS). This information is always on the label.

Summer travels can be a great opportunity to rediscover your teas and taste how sensitive they are to changes in water, mood, tea ware... I'm glad that you could get the most of these 3 great teas thanks to a switch to fresh water!
Water is the mother of tea

Thursday, August 06, 2015

The hunt for teaware in Cesky Krumlov

Cesky Krumlov is a UNESCO World Heritage site 2 good hours south of Prag, Czech Republic. The refreshing Vltava river runs through this lovely Renaissance town.

The colored castle tower is the highest point and symbol of this town. From there, the view is absolutely stunning.

This tower also houses the castle's museum. The Rosenberg, Eggenberg and Schwarzenberg families have ruled in this castle from 1302 to the 20th century. The tour of the museum shows us what it was like to live a life of luxury in the past. La vie de chateau. The dining room has a large collection of various porcelains from Europe, China and Japan. It's not always easy to tell the early European porcelain apart from the Chinese, because we used to imitate the Chinese styles and paintings!

This visit reminded me of my blog post about the Favorite Palace 4 years ago. Well preserved European castles are excellent places to find genuine ancient Chinese porcelain and teaware. They show that the tea link between China and the West has been strong for several centuries. And it also shows that today's gongfu cha drinkers are enjoying the same pleasures as those of a castle lifestyle!
View from the castle tower
Let's imagine it's 'Night at the Museum' in Krumlov! It's not the statues that would come alive, but the teaware! How about using this Yixing zisha teapot shaped as a flower?
Early 20th century Yixing zisha teapot with qinghua enamel decoration.
I would also like to open this cabinet and closely admire the many Dehua wares and figurines:
We'd have plenty of choice for our porcelain cups:
These tiny gaiwans are so cute! I promise I won't break them! Their paintings are so delicate and detailed.
In a museum, it's not always easy to relate to ancient paintings or items on display. But with teaware it's so easy to imagine using them! And while most old artefacts have been continuously improved with time, it's pretty obvious to realize that this hasn't been the case with teaware. This is another reason to become interested in ancient teaware. 
Krumlov's Renaissance garden
We learn to appreciate beauty with the classics. Krumlov is another good example that European museums offer great opportunities to explore and hunt for (pictures of) marvelous pieces of porcelain and Yixing ware. And it also has an old town and superb Renaissance garden waiting to be discovered!