Tuesday, October 30, 2018

A puerh class with 6 delicious teas

2018/2017 sheng gushu puerh
Many tea fans consider puerh a very rough tea that benefits a lot from being brewed in an unglazed clay teapot. With most puerhs this is certainly true, but puerh can also be one of the finest and most delicious tea if you select top quality leaves. And I proved it today with this class of 6 puerh we brewed in plain white porcelain competition sets! (Porcelain is neutral for the taste. It's used by professional tasters. It lets you see the color of the brew well.) In terms of methodology, I didn't use the Oolong standard of 3 grams and 6 minutes of brewing time. Since gushu puerh is made very powerful leaves, we used few leaves (see the plates). The brewing time was long, several minutes, but not measured with a stopwatch in order to keep things relaxed.
2018 gushu puerh
We started with 2 very young sheng gushu puerhs coming from the same 500 years old trees:
2. the spring 2017 cake
It was interesting to feel the energy of these teas and how the 2017 already feels much more tamed and mellow than the 2018. My student also found these teas amazing by the little quantity of leaves we used and the powerful brew they made. We used 2 ivory porcelain cups: the large ivory singing cup makes the brew look lighter than the flower shaped cup!
2006 (top). 2003 (below)
Next, we traveled 12-15 years back in time to taste 2 puerhs I have aged in my apartment since they were released:
3. the spring 2006 raw wild Lincang puerh,
4. the spring 2003 raw wild Yiwu puerh.
2003 wild raw puerh from Yiwu
The 2003 wild Yiwu is the tea that started my puerh education 15 years ago! It's nice to see and taste the evolution. There was an awkward time when the tea was 6 to 13 years old, not young, but not aged yet. Right now it's really gaining these aged wood and raw clay (?!) earthy aromas, while keeping most of its energy. The brew also  looks beautiful in the cups.
2003 wild raw puerh from Yiwu
 Since these teas come compressed, it's important to flake the leaves well and use strength with the first pour.
Antonio brewing
 The 2006 Lincang is 3 years younger. This explains the slightly more greenish color of the brew:
 The aromas of these 2 teas are also quite different because they come from 2 different regions in Yunnan.
2006 raw puerh from Lincang
 The next 2 teas transport us a little further in time:
5. The spring 1999 raw '7542' cake from Menghai Tea Factory,
6. The 2001 Xiaguan cooked melon puerh. (I used a little more leaves than the 7542, because cooked leaves loose a lot of their energy).
1999 '7542' raw puerh vs 2001 Xiaguan cooked puerh
 The 1999 spent most of its time in a puerh warehouse in Taiwan. Unlike my home, there's no air conditioning during summer in these warehouses. That and 4 more years of age explain why its brew is much darker than my 2003 Yiwu. 
1999 '7542' raw puerh vs 2001 Xiaguan cooked puerh
 The 2001 Xiaguan is even darker because it's a cooked puerh. But one can still see some transparency and brown shine, especially in the large cup:
2001 Xiaguan cooked puerh
 And the colors of both teas almost look the same if you pour the shu puerh in the large cup and the 1999 sheng puerh in the flower cup! (This shows that cup shape and glaze have a big impact on the color.)
2001 Xiaguan cooked puerh vs 1999 '7542' raw puerh
 Drinking these 2 puerhs side by side showed the similarities and differences in aged shu and sheng puerh. Both taste very tasty, but sheng has more energy and aftertaste. This shu puerh, though, is extremely smooth and soothing. The difference is also in the spent leaves: sheng leaves open up and turn brown, while shu leaves remain shriveled up and very dark.
 2001 Xiaguan cooked puerh vs 1999 '7542' raw puerh
On this cool day of October, these 6 amazing puerhs all felt very welcome and in harmony with the season. This class was a good reminder that if you want to learn tea well, it all starts with good leaves.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Peace, comfort, sanity, relaxation, refinement, taste

We call it "tea with benefits"! It's not just having tea, but enjoying a moment of peace, comfort after, during or before a rough day. Read the headline news about the world and you quickly long for something to relax and feel sane again. And in a world of food chains and micro-waved industrial dishes, tea is a way to claim back a sense of refinement and good taste. And maybe even health! 
Add caption

Top OB from 2000
I find these added benefits very real when the tea is really so natural and good that it tastes amazing and gives much more pleasure than normal food. While I know how much enjoy the teas I've selected, I also appreciate to receive feedback from my customers.

I'm very thankful for Andrew's message from the UK. He wrote: "A few friends have asked me to make some tea samples for them so they can try quality teas. I plan to share some of your quality oolongs with them and hope they can learn to appreciate quality tea like we do. I have been sampling around quite a few oolongs this season from various sources, but honestly what I have tried, none compare to the oolongs you are offering. Thank you for doing what you are doing."

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Un dimanche d'automne

Dimanche fut un rayon de soleil dans un automne pourri car inhabituellement pluvieux, même pour Taiwan. Je pris la direction de la maison Lin, à trois coups de pédales de chez moi, à Banciao. Le ciel bleu m'appelai à déguster du thé en plein air. Et je résiste à tout, sauf à la tentation de boire un bon thé!
Je choisis ma boule de puerh cru sauvage du printemps 2018. Elle provient de feuilles d'arbres cinq fois centenaires. C'est le genre d'affirmation qu'il faut prendre avec des pincettes et un paire de gants après avoir revêtu d'une combinaison Hazmat! Comment savoir si c'est du pipeau ou non? A la vue, ce n'est pas évident.
Le test le plus simple est une infusion longue avec très peu de feuilles. Sur la photo ci-dessus, on peut voir que j'ai à peine entamé ma petite boule. 2 grammes tout au plus. Et j'ai infusé ces quelques feuilles dans ma grande théière zisha d'Yixing. Le résultat fut intense. La longueur en bouche est phénoménale. Le palais est comme tapissé par ce nectar soyeux. Les dernières coupes de la première infusion (celles où l'infusion fut la plus longues) furent si concentrées que je les coupai avec l'infusion suivante. (Le gongfu cha, c'est aussi savoir s'adapter!) Et quelle pureté dans les arômes!
Après deux longues infusions, la troisième perdit (naturellement) beaucoup de sa force, mais resta très agréable. Je sentais encore la force derrière cette fine légerté. C'est la force d'un terroir rocailleux où ces arbres de thé sauvages poussent encore complètement en harmonie avec leur environnement. Or, il leur faut beaucoup de force pour survivre si vieux sans la protection d'un fermier. C'est pourquoi leur feuilles sont de tels concentrés d'arômes qu'un ou deux grammes suffisent déjà pour les apprécier.
L'odeur des feuilles sèches est si persistantes que je la sens encore dans ma jarre (vidée, mais pas nettoyée). Quelques poussières de thé continuent d'émettre des odeurs de folie!

Et magie de la prise de vue ou de la céramique: les courbes de la jarre semblent épouser celles du bec de ma théière antique!
J'avais amené de quoi lire, mais les plaisirs du thé et la beauté de ce jardin chinois de la fin de la dynastie Qing me distrayèrent amplement. Je passe déjà trop de temps sur mon portable ou devant l'ordinateur. Cette reconnexion avec la nature me fit le plus grand bien.

Friday, October 19, 2018

A quiz and paradigm shifts in tea

Puerh A
Let's train our observation skills on 2 puerhs from my selection I've brewed recently. Can you recognize which one is the oldest? Are they sheng or shu? Can you maybe even recognize which ones they are?
Puerh B
This kind of exercise is interesting, because it teaches you to find answers about a puerh you might want to buy from the leaves themselves instead from the wrapper or the story told by the vendor. Learn to read the tea leaves! (The answer to this quiz is at the end of the article).
The second subject of my article is paradigm shifts in tea.

To explain what's a paradigm shift, I like the picture on the left: it shows a young lady or a very old one depending on how your brain processes the image. The shift occurs when you start to see the second person instead of seeing the first. It's kind of destabilizing, because it challenges your beliefs and perceptions of reality. 

Looking back on the last 15 years since my first tea class this fall, I realize I have gone through many paradigm shifts about tea. Here is an incomplete list:
1. Before: Straight and parallel lines of tea bushes, like in the picture on the left, look beautiful.
Now: Such plantations are shaped to be machine harvested. They mass produce tea that is mostly of lower quality. Tea trees that grow differently, with more space are naturally beautiful.

2. Before: Teas from Mainland China are cheap, low quality and suspicious, while teas from Taiwan are expensive, high quality and healthy.
Now: Teas from Mainland China vary a lot. The best Chinese teas (gushu puerh, Yan Cha...) are much more expensive than top Taiwanese teas. 
3. Before: Taiwanese tea farmers go to China to lower their production costs.
Now: Taiwanese farmers go to China to sell their teas to affluent customers.

4. Before: Big wooden tea tables are cool.
Now: Big wooden tea tables are ugly.
5. Before: I trust labels on tea packaging.
Now: I don't trust tea labels (except when I write them for tea-masters!)

6. Before: I'm taking a few classes with Teaparker and will soon learn everything there is to know about tea.
Now (15 years later): I'm still going to the weekly class. The learning never stops. The world of tea is boundless.
Here's the solution to the quiz:
- Puerh A is the 2003 wild raw puerh from Yiwu.
- Puerh B is older, because it's the early 1990s Luyin raw puerh cake from the Menghai Tea Factory.

Please also check my latest Fall 2018 specials.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Celadon Tea Jar by Michel François

1999 Hung Shui Oolong
The tea jar is the most overlooked tea ware in our modern times. Teapots, cups and (most) kettles have not been replaced with plastic and we, rightly, pay attention to the quality of the material they are made of. For storage containers, plastic foils are dominating the field because they are very cheap, light to transport and can be easily vacuum closed. They provide a very cost efficient protection against air and outside scents. (Not all are fully opaque, though. But the foils I use for my samples do also provide a protection against light).

Their drawback is that plastic isn't as natural a material as porcelain. My tests in 2010 have shown that porcelain jars better preserve and refine roasted Oolong leaves than plastic foils.
But all porcelain jars are not created equal! This test in 2011 showed that industrial porcelain didn't preserve the leaves much better than plastic foils! That's why I have tried to find ancient porcelain jars or have cooperated with modern ceramists (Petr Novak, David Louveau) to create jars made from high quality and natural porcelain.

And now, for the second time, Michel François has created some celadon tea jars for us. (See the first time here).
The jars find all their 'raison d'être' on a Chaxi! Their round shape protects the leaves in a very feminine way. The jar contains the leaves, which are like seeds of our pleasures to come! It's not just a bright protection against air, moisture, light and heat (porcelain is cool), but it's also a place where the leaves can slowly evolve in a natural environment. It's clean from all those micro particles that plastic slowly releases as it decomposes. That's one reason why there's this 'decanter effect' with Oolong placed in a jar even for a little while: it breathes freely and becomes smoother.
For this effect, Michel François is using the best kaolin from New Zealand and volcanic feldspar from England. His glaze contains some animal bone ash that adds a special pearl like glow.
And finally, this tea jar adds beauty and elegance to the Chaxi. Since it's hand made, each jar has its own personality. But with this plain glaze, I like the restraint it shows. This makes it easier to fit the jar on a variety of Chaxi. (Wood fired ware often displays too much personality and can be more difficult to pair).   
Spring 2017 Qilai shan Oolong
I have tested this jar with various Oolongs and found that it works very well with Hung Shui Oolongs, jassid bitten Oolongs and even with high mountain Oolong! It reduces and smooths roasted aromas. It sweetens high oxidized Oolongs. It keeps the freshness of the high mountain even as the tea evolves faster than in a vacuum sealed foil.
What has amazed me most is that even very little amounts of tea are well preserved over several weeks/months in these jars. And since the inside is glazed, it's possible to reuse a jar with different teas (provided you've cleaned it and aired it well).
Michel François also makes wonderful tea bowls and cups, but jars are his real passion. That's why he named his blog Tea Jar! Michel François is in South Korea right now to continue to learn jar making with a local ceramist. With his talent, there's a risk (for us) and chance (for him) that he'll become so famous that his prices will soar in a few years. 
Without a tea jar, no Chaxi is complete!

Friday, October 12, 2018

Washington and tea (part 2)

This article continues to look at Washington's biography from a tea point of view. (See the first article here). This time, I'm illustrating it with a special Chaxi on an old American flag. I call it, 'Crossing the Delaware', which is how General Washington turned the tide against the British army at the end of 1776. The wooden trays are symbols for the barges that were used to cross the river. I'm using 13 cups, one for each State in the Union at that time. Washington is symbolized with an old Dehua white teapot, his preferred color for his horse. The tea is Lapsang Souchong, the first red tea in history and one that has gone through smoke, for Washington was the first president and went through fire in battle! The dark bowl is a symbol for the black slavery in the US, the major stain in Washington's legacy. (He freed his own slaves in his will and hoped to set an example.)
- Page 257: "I told my messmates that I could not carry our kettle any further. (...) Of what use was it? They had nothing to cook."
Hunger was another problem that plagued the American forces in their fight against the British.

- Page 331: "Tea and coffee replaced more potent beverages."
During periods of mourning the death of family members, alcohol wasn't consumed. 
- Page 451: "Suddenly an avid consumer again, he went shopping for teapots, coffee urns, and other silverware for entertaining guests at Mount Vernon."
Having won the war, Washington turned to teapots! He's my hero!

- Page 466: "Washington showed up in the room of a sick guest, proffering a hot cup of tea."
The retired general remained a kind and decent host.
- Page 467: "Drank tea there in a very large circle of ladies. (...) met Powel alone for teas, and corresponded with her."
Washington was married, but liked the company of ladies. Did he have more than tea with them?

- Page 534: "While the convention dragged on, Washington drank enormous quantities of tea at the City Tavern and the Indian Queen"
In those days one would drink tea and socialize!
- Page 578: "He and Martha (the first lady) decided that she would entertain female visitors every Friday evening from seven to ten, serving tea, coffee, ice cream and lemonade."
This is how guests were entertained by the first president of the United States.

- Page 579: "Another observer noted that Washington seemed less austere at his wife's teas."
Tea made him feel more relaxed.

- Page 583: "Far from shunting off decorating on his wife or subordinates, he trusted his detailed knowledge of the decorative arts. To create a tea service, he melted down some old silver and had the finished products engraved with his griffin crest. (...) Washington oversaw the purchase of many objets d'art, including porcelain figures, silver spoons, and a china set embellished with the eagle of the Society of the Cincinnati."
An interest in art and elegance is what makes Washington complete. He knew that what you have shows to others who you are.

- Page 617: "Eager to augment presidential dignity, he bought more than tree hundred pieces of gilt-edged porcelain for dinner parties."
In those days, porcelain was also known as "white gold" and a sign of affluence.
- Page 645: "She kept up her Friday-evening receptions, which came to be ridiculed as the Republican Court, even though Martha, the most unaffected of first ladies, frequently prepared tea and coffee for visitors herself."
Even the modest wife of the hero of the USA was criticized by some! This is the lot of the powerful in a democracy. No matter what you do, you'll always have critics. 
- Page 653: "In Georgetown, South Carolina, fifty ladies hosted him at a tea party."
Washington didn't like to attend official ceremonies in all the towns he visited, but he did enjoy such tea parties with many ladies! He would sometimes skip town early to avoid the ceremonial goodbyes. On the other hand, he would enter towns on his white horse, even though he traveled in a coach between towns, because he knew this is the image the people wanted to see.
- Page 684: "On December 13, 1792, Washington conversed with Jefferson about buying porcelain in Germany to dress the presidential table. He had inquired whether Samuel Shaw, the US consul at Canton, could acquire china there, but Shaw told him that it would take at least 2 years to arrive."
Thanks to modern progress, 2 weeks would be sufficient to order porcelain from China nowadays!
- Page 790: "While in Philadelphia, Washington delighted in joining Elizabeth Willing Powel for a number of teas and breakfasts that he conspicuously failed to enter into his diaries."
He was human after all...
- Page 807: "He (Dr. Craik) also had Washington inhale steam from a teapot filled with vinegar and hot water. When Washington tilted back his head to gargle sage tea mixed with vinegar, he nearly suffocated."
Neither sage tea nor teapot could save Washington who died on December 14, 1799 at age 67.
For this second Chaxi, I used a high mountain Oolong from a more recent tea mountain, Qilai. I chose it for its vigor and energy, characteristics that have become those of the United States.
My thanks Ron Chernow for this well documented biography. Looking at the past helps to understand the present. It's fascinating to see that human intrigues about power haven't changed that much since Washington!