Friday, November 30, 2018

The gift from Taiwan's high mountains

Qingxin Oolong from Tsui Feng, Lishan, spring 2017
 One of the most baffling and annoying thing about tea is the labeling. When farmers produce their tea, they use very big, standard plastic bags. A low elevation farmer can purchase a big bag where it's written 'high mountain Oolong'. Farmers in China and Vietnam can purchase bags where it's written 'Taiwan Oolong'. Farmers in Alishan can purchase bags with the name 'Da Yu Ling'. Everything is permitted and (almost) nobody is controlling. And these bags don't come with any mention of production year, season or date. Some farmers write this information on the bag, while others just write a batch number. When a tea farmer sells tea to a wholesaler, a tea shop or directly to a tea drinker, there is no way to tell from the packaging what tea you are buying.
 Once in a while, there's a public scandal in Taiwan when investigators find that companies selling Taiwan Oolong have been importing tons of (cheap) Oolongs from other countries... But the practice continues, because it's simply part of the modern history of tea. Let me develop this point. Until the mid 19th century, tea was mostly a beverage for the upper class around the world. These few customers insisted on top quality and were ready to pay for it. With the industrial revolution, however, a new middle class emerged. This new market had limited funds, but its potential demand was huge if the price was affordable. So, tea became one of the first product that became outsourced. Instead of only producing Oolong in the original Wuyi mountains, Chinese tea farmers planted tea in the surrounding regions. The conditions were less ideal. There were fewer rocky hills, but they could harvest more in the plains, at a lower cost. Some Fujian emigrants to Taiwan planted tea on this island, because export taxes were lower than on the Mainland! Western trading companies like Jardine Matheson or Tait had offices in several coastal towns in China and Taiwan and would look for the best prices.
 Scottish botanist Robert Fortune also traveled to Wuyi shan in the mid 19th century in an operation of agricultural spying. He brought tea plants to British controlled India so that China would loose its monopoly on the production of tea. This competition led to lower prices and innovations (CTC process, tea bags) that again led to lower (but still acceptable) quality and prices. This trend continued after the second world war: fertilizer and pesticides helped produce even more tea cheaper. And if the tea had a weak smell, cheap artificial scents replaced real flowers.
In terms of marketing and tea names, there were 2 cases:

1. a tea was imitated in a new region and the original name was kept, because this name is very famous and popular. The best example for this is Da Hong Pao. The original 5 bushes are now protected and can't be harvested anymore. But the name is in the public domain and all tea vendors in Fujian sell some of their leaves under the name Da Hong Pao.
For almost any famous tea, you can find hundreds (thousands) of copies of varying quality, price and origin. Sometimes the same tea is made 10 km away, or 100 km or 1000 km. Or it's made in a cheaper season. Or it's made with a different cultivar, or with a less skilled technique...

2. Some new teas and new origins become famous on their own merit. This became the case of 'Formosa Oolong Tea', a brand promoted by the Japanese during the first part of the twentieth century. Or Darjeeling in India, promoted by the British. In more recent times, in Taiwan, we have Dong Ding Oolong, Alishan and Lishan. These names are much more famous than Yong Lung, Shizhuo or Tsui Feng respectively. (Yong Lung is part of the Dong Ding area. Shizhuo is a village at the center of the Alishan area. Tsui Feng is next to Lishan, which is why it's considered part of the greater Lishan area). 
The pictures illustrating this article show a brew of my 2017 spring Tsui Feng qingxin Oolong. Like yesterday's Jinxuan from 2017, it is vacuum sealed and still tastes totally fresh. I had these similar high mountain teas back to back. The brews look very similar. One could say that the Alishan Jinxuan is a cost down version of the qingxin Tsui Feng. Or you could say that the qingxin Oolong from Tsui Feng is a cost down version of a qingxin Oolong from Lishan! Of course, since it's made of qingxin Oolong and comes from an elevation of 1800 meters, and a location that is very close to Lishan, most of the vendors in Taiwan would simply sell it as Lishan Oolong.

At the end of the day, the only thing that prevents a tea farmer (or seller) from exaggerating (lying) about the origin and quality of his tea is the knowledge of the buyer. If you can't tell the difference between a Jinxuan or a Qingxin Oolong, between a roasted Baozhong and a Yan Cha, an Assam and a Hong Yu, a spring and a summer harvest... you run the risk of purchasing a cost down version of the tea you had in mind. That's why it's so important to educate your palate and test similar teas from different sources and learn to judge their quality. 
This Tsui Feng Oolong does a great job in terms of bright flowery fragrances, sweetness and freshness. And it's very nicely priced compared to a Lishan Oolong. And from now on, a 25 gram sample is my new gift for orders above 200 USD! (Plus free EMS, my 3 free eBooks and a free tea post card!)

Votre cadeau Jinxuan

Jinxuan d'Alishan du printemps 2017
 Ma sélection de thés rassemble les meilleures feuilles que je puisse trouver à Taiwan. Un prix élevé, autour d'un Euro par gramme ne m'effraie pas si ce thé est de grande qualité et que 3 ou 4 grammes suffisent pour enchanter mes papilles! Certes, il n'y a pas grand monde qui me passe commande de ces sommets d'exception que sont Da Yu Ling, Lishan, Fushou shan, Qilai... mais le feedback que je reçois de ces amateurs avertis me conforte dans ma persévérance.
Ce niveau de qualité est pratiquement introuvable ailleurs. (Cela s'explique en grande partie par le coût élevé de ces feuilles, un coût prohibitif pour des boutiques qui doivent générer de gros volumes pour être rentables).  Et même si on n'en boit pas tous les jours, c'est sympa de déguster ces Oolongs exceptionnels le weekend quand on a le temps, ou bien lors de grandes occasions (Noël approche...)
Et puis cette connaissance de l'excellence aide aussi à trouver des Oolongs similaires, mais à des prix plus abordables. En Oolong de haute montagne, le meilleur rapport qualité/prix, pour moi, c'est clairement le Jinxuan d'Alishan! Je viens de regoûter à la récolte du 16 avril 2017. Sous vide, ces feuilles n'ont pratiquement rien perdu de leur fraicheur. L'infusion reste respendissante, balançant entre le jaune citron et le vert clair dans mes coupes céladon!
En bouche, c'est énergique avec très peu d'astringence et beaucoup de finesse. La pureté de l'infusion reflète celle du goût. Et les feuilles ouvertes sont impressionnantes par leur taille.  C'est d'ailleurs à cela qu'on reconnait le Jinxuan, surtout quand il provient de haute montagne!
Or, cet Oolong est non seulement en promotion à -20%, mais je vous en offre 25 grammes pour toute commande de 60 à 199 USD (sans le transport)! C'est aussi le Oolong que je recommande comme cadeau à des débutants. Bon marché, facile à infuser, aux feuilles entières, avec les caractéristiques de la haute montagne, la douceur de Taiwan et sans arômes artificiels. Avec un tel thé, on franchit une étape essentielle vers les sommets des Oolongs!
Jinxuan Oolong d'Alishan du printemps 2017

Thursday, November 22, 2018

A tea trick, a true story and my gratitude

I've been looking forward writing this article for quite some time. But before I start with the gratitude part, let me share a little brewing trick with an Yixing teapot. Finding the right brewing time can be tricky. There are several methods that one can use.
1. Habit. Using the roughly same amount of tea for each session, you brew roughly the same amount of time, because you were satisfied with the results in the past.
2. Lots of leaves and short brewing times. If you're using lots of tea leaves, the question of how long to brew answers itself: short. Because otherwise you'll get a brew that is too strong. It's only when you feel that the tea weakens that you'll increase your brewing time.
 3. Observing the water level at the mouth of the spout. I've used this method today for a little amount of raw wild puerh leaves from Yiwu (spring 2003). After a while, when you've filled the teapot to the top, there comes a moment when the water level suddenly drops. That's when the dry leaves absorb some of the hot water and release their flavors in return. This is a sign that the tea is ready to pour!
In 1993, 25 years ago, I spent Thanksgiving as guest in an American family near the small college town of Indiana in Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh). The reason for their invitation is an amazing coincidence. While I was studying in the US, their daughter was studying in France, in Alsace. Her university or her church had arranged for American students to spend a day with a local family and she ended up meeting my parents! Imagine her surprise when she found out that her hosts had their son studying in the very same town were she came from! So, she contacted her parents and that's how I got invited to share their most precious family meal of the year.
 In 1993, one of my most common meal during my studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania was a self made turkey sandwich. But that Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to eat a real chunk of the beast with mashed potatoes and cranberry gravy... And I felt at home with this family I had never seen before! I hope they felt it, too!
This Thanksgiving 2018, I feel it's more and more important to express my gratitude to you and to the world for the many blessings in my life and in the world. Living in Taiwan, away from my parents and my family, I am glad that they live in very good health (drinking my teas every day!) I'm also thankful for a meaningful life teaching, inspiring, writing, photographing Chinese tea culture. And I thank you, my readers and customers, for the growing success of my tea-masters eBoutique.
And I want to thank you with a big BLACK FRIDAY SALE on lots of teas, teapots and Chabu!
I also give my 3 eBooks away for FREE if you order:
- more than 60 USD and you get the TeaMasters guide to brewing Oolong tea,
- more than 100 USD and you also get TeaMastersBlog at the British Museum and free airmail shipping,
- more than 200 USD and you also get the utlimate tea ware collection of Chinese emperors and free EMS shipping
See how few puerh leaves I use!
 The nicest gift is tea, of course! That's why I also give you a free sample of spring 2017 Jinxuan Oolong from Alishan if your order exceeds 60 USD. And I upgrade this gift to the spring 2017 Qingxin Oolong from Tsui Feng (Lishan) if your order exceeds 200 USD.

And you also receive at least 1 of my exclusive tea post cards when you make a physical order!
Happy Thanksgiving 2018!

Monday, November 19, 2018

Wojciech Bońkowski, Polish wine taster

Wojciech Bońkowski is a professional wine taster from Poland who has a strong interest for tea. We've been in contact for a decade before we finally met last week!

For our first meeting, we went to a traditional tea house and tasted the most complex type of teas: roasted Oolongs. Oolong tea involves the most skill, because its oxidation level and its roasting level both vary. (For green and red teas, the oxidation is either nil or 100%, and the roasting is mostly light). The other complexity of tea vs wine comes from the fact that tea must be brewed, while wine just needs to be cooled to the proper temperature and served in suitable glasses (and sometimes it also must be decanted). To do a professional and meaningful tasting, I used a porcelain gaiwan most of the time, but I also brought a zhuni teapot to show the impact of the Yixing clay on the taste of the tea.
 After tasting a Wuyi Yan Cha, the ancestor of Oolong, we explored its Taiwanese cousin: Hung Shui Oolong from Dong Ding. We had the winter 2017 version and then the spring 1999 version in order to discover the impact of aging on Dong Ding Oolong. The aromas were very much transformed. They had much more fruit and less roasting scents. However, the structure of the taste, of the mouthfeel remained very similar.
Next, we had my summer 2018 imperial Oriental Beauty from Hsin Chu. It's a great tea on its own, but it was too different from the previous Hung Shui to teach us much. In retrospect, I should have brewed the summer 2018 zhuo yan Oolong from Dong Ding. This would have shown how jassid bites in summer impact the aromas of a roasted Dong Ding Oolong. We would have stayed much closer to our subject and would have explored the Dong Ding terroir from another interesting angle.
Tea plantation in Wenshan
 The next day we were very lucky: it was the nicest day of the week and I showed Wojciech the most scenic spots around Pinglin.
Tea plantation in Wenshan
 He was pleasantly surprised by the small size of the tea plantations and the fact that the forest covers most of these hills. There's no intensive agriculture in the Wenshan area, because the river behind us is the source of one of Taipei's water reservoirs.
 We move aside to give you a look at one of the best photographic spot:
 There's a saying in Taiwan: good water from the mountain makes good tea.
Wenshan Baozhong doesn't grow at a high altitude, but the plantations can have steep slopes nonetheless!
Wojciech is enjoying the view.
  Let's also notice that there are barely any fall colors in Taiwan. Mid November, the forests are still completely green.
 In the tea bushes, however, we notice a great amount of tea flowers.
 Their petals don't stay fresh very long.
 Despite the magnificent weather, we couldn't see any harvesting or tea processing. So, we turned to plan B, a tasting of some of the best teas from my selection surrounded by tea!
 We started with the excellent semi-wild Wenshan Baozhong in order to connect the tea with our surroundings.
 We brewed mostly with this ivory white porcelain gaiwan.
 This was a good opportunity for Wojciech to experience my brewing method. But I also let him practice and saw that he has a very sure hand!
 Next, we went straight to the top, to my preferred high mountain Oolong, from Tian Chi.
 It has very delicate and fresh aromas. The taste is sweet and elegant. The brew is light gold and wonderfully transparent.
 How can you unpack even more qi from tea leaves after that?
 The answer is these few leaves of my 2017 gushu puerh, brewed in a silver teapot!
 The brew's color, clarity and shine says it all:
 It has an amazing sweet taste with very little bitterness or astringency. So much purity and power is so rare in a puerh.
 A great tea that is shared with a connoisseur who can appreciate it on such a day. Can you imagine how much bliss we felt?!
 The beauty of the silver teapot and kettle finds an echo in nature.
 We go back to the gaiwan for the happy end.
 The early 1990s Luyin puerh.
 Again, the color is wonderful again. The hue is much darker, but not black!
 It lightens up for the third brew.
 The impact of so many good teas on the mood is summarized by this photo!
 We finished our long day with this bottle of Alsace Riesling from Domaine Ostertag. After showing Wojciech around in the world of Chinese teas, he gave me a taste of my home region.
With tea and wine, our taste buds traveled around the world! Merci!