Thursday, June 20, 2019

Spring 2019 Dong Ding Oolong competition

I spent my Dragon Boat festival in Lugu, at the spring 2019 ceremony of the Dong Ding Oolong competition. It's the biggest tea competition in Taiwan and the world! 6701 different teas competed for the top spot this spring! And 49% of the lots were kicked out for failing to pass their standard!

Here is a little reminder of how this competition works. The first round of tasting is performed by the farmers of the association who are trained as judges. Of course, the lots are anonymous and no judge knows whose tea he's tasting. These local judges are in charge of rejecting the teas that are not good or typical enough (for all kinds of reasons). And the teas they accept are classified in 3 categories: 2 plums (the lowest prize level, 20.4% of the lots), 3 plums (the second prize level, 15% of  the lots) and the best (15% of the teas).

In the second round of the competition, the best teas are sent to TRES (the Tea Research and Extension Station) where scientists taste the teas and give them the following ranks: The best tea, 10 follow-up, first prize (2%), second prize (5%) and third prize (8%).
The major benefit of going to this ceremony to purchase Dong Ding competition Oolong is that you get to taste the 11 best teas of the competition (if you purchase 5 jins = 3 kg of tea)! The teas are brewed in the same manner as for the competition: 3 grams with boiling water for 6 minutes in porcelain (see below) and then the brew rests 6 minutes so that the tasting temperature reaches approx. 42 degrees Celsius. First you smell all the teas and then you are allowed to taste a little sip of each.
Below is the competition winner. This year, the winner comes from Shan Lin Xi and the next 2 runners-up are from Alishan according to my information. There were no Oolongs from Lishan, because the harvests there were too late to take part in the competition. And, like last time, I patiently waited for all the visitors to leave the tasting and put the spent leaves in the small plastic bag. This way, I was able to brew the best Oolongs of the competition again later that evening!
The main takeaway from tasting these 11 best competition Oolongs is that they have very different flavor profiles. They are also a little bit lighter in roast than lower grade Dong Ding Oolongs. If you want to have a quick overview of 3 different styles of Dong Ding competition Oolong, I recommend you try this set of 3 prized Oolongs I have selected that day. One comes from Feng Huang (in the Dong Ding area), one from Shan Lin Xi and one from Alishan.
Cilin lake, Dong Ding
The Dong Ding competition dates back to 1976 and is the invention of Dr. Wu Zhen Duo (director of the TRES). It made Lugu, near Dong Ding, the new center of Taiwan's Oolong teas. I met old farmers whose eyes shone when I mentioned his name. "I'm one of his student! I was there for the first competition" said one 60 something old farmer (the maker of lot 913). His legacy is still thriving, and for a good reason: if you open a Dong Ding competition Oolong from over 10 years ago, you're very likely to enjoy an excellent tea that has aged with grace. These teas have powerful roast that give the Oolong a particular flavor and long aftertaste right now, and these teas can age so beautifully with time that it's sometimes good to forget it for many years...!
Cilin lake, Dong Ding

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Tian Chi 2019 et le nouveau site tea-masters.com

Jardin de Tian Chi
Qingxin Oolong de Tian Chi
Chers amis francophones, mon site tea-masters.com/ est de nouveau disponible en version française! C'est un site amélioré, avec notamment des photos plus grandes qui vous montrent les thé et les accessoires tels qu'ils sont. J'espère que vous ne serez pas trop déroutés par l'affichage des produits. Autrefois on avait les plus récents d'abord, maintenant le site affiche les plus anciens en premier.

Pour mieux vous montrer les thés, avec les dernières sélections, j'ai commencé par ajouter une photo de 3 feuilles sèches en gros plan, ainsi qu'une feuille ouverte. Mais ce qui ne change pas, c'est la photo de 3 grammes de feuilles et de son infusion de 6 minutes dans un set de compétition en porcelaine blanche et les feuilles infusées. L'infusion est montrée sans filtrage d'impuretés. Je veux que vous voyez le thé de manière brute et clinique et vous donner tous les éléments visuels pour choisir votre thé en connaissance de cause.
Cela fait depuis juillet 2005 que je vends du thé de qualité de Taiwan par correspondance. Durant les premières années, la vente fut une activité annexe à ce blog (et à mon activité de père au foyer avec 2 adorables enfants en bas âge). Maintenant, c'est le blog qui est annexe à mes activités de vente, d'enseignement du thé, de photographie (et mes enfants sont devenus des ados qui ont moins besoin de moi)!
Dans mon travail de sélection de thés, ce qui donne le plus de satisfaction, c'est d'arriver à trouver de nouveaux thés exceptionnels! Longtemps, les meilleurs Oolongs de haute montagne venaient de Da Yu Ling, mais depuis le printemps dernier, c'est la plantation de Tian Chi qui m'impressionne le plus! Ce jardin fait parti de la ferme de FuShou Shan, celle avec les ventilateurs! Mais il n'y a pas de ventilateurs sur cette plantation, bien qu'elle soit située un peu plus haut que les autres plantations de cette ferme.
L'orientation de Tian Chi est aussi différente de celle des autres jardins de Fushou shan. C'est pourquoi ce fut une bonne idée de parcelliser Tian Chi et de lui donner un nom propre et de ne plus vendre cet Oolong sous l'appelation Fushou shan. Or, Fushou Shan est déjà appelé 'thé du président', car cette ferme de la région de Lishan est dirigée par d'anciens du KMT, le parti nationaliste de Chiang Kai Shek. L'ancien président leur avait permis d'acquérir le meilleur terrain de Lishan et FuShou Shan devint le fournisseur inofficiel en Oolong du palais présidentiel de République de Chine. Tian Chi est donc à Fushou Shan ce que le la parcelle Romanée-Conti est à l'appelation Vosne-Romanée! 
Rien de tel qu'une très bonne Yixing zhuni pour extraire toute la finesse et la force de ses arômes printaniers! La clarté et la pureté de l'infusion sont impeccables. Et quelles senteurs!! C'est bluffant d'élégance et de notes légères...
Et les feuilles ouvertes de Tian Chi sont impressionnantes de force et de fraicheur elles aussi!

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

New puerh auction record

10 years ago, I wrote this puerh auction article that gained lots of views. Before I state the latest records, let's quickly summarize the market for 'Hao' type puerh from the 1920-30s 10 years ago. (In those times, all the famous puerh brands had their name finish with 'Hao') So, in December 2008, a tong of puerh from the 1920s would cost 160,000 USD or 73 USD per gram.

These were the good old times when aged puerh was (almost) cheap! On May 27, 2019, the price of a Fu Yan Chang Hao tong was set at 3,3 million USD at this auction (including fees)! That's roughly 1300 USD per gram and 18 times more expensive than 10 and a half years ago! This is a new record for a puerh from this period. By contrast, a 1950s red mark puerh was sold at about 100,000 USD per cake or 275 USD per gram.

This price evolution shows how aged puerh has gained in fame in the last 10 years. It also shows that the pretty serious (= rich) puerh collectors are in China. And this also helps explain why the prices for fresh gushu puerh are continuously rising: because experts agree that the 1920s puerh companies pressed gushu leaves. This means that your gushu cake could be worth a fortune in a 100 years! You won't be there to enjoy it, but you could do what I did 15 years ago: purchase a tong for your newborn baby!

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Un comparatif de coupes de thé

Durant la seconde partie de ce cours, j'ai permis à mon élève de tester un grand nombre de coupes de thé avec un de ses thés préférés, le Oolong de haute mountagne. Ci-dessus, on peut voir 4 céladons et 2 porcelaines blanches fines comme une coquille d'oeuf. Le céladon donne une couleur verte au thé, tandis que la porcelaine blanche le rend jaune clair. Mais on remarque aussi que chaque céladon est un peu différent et plus ou moins foncé. Aussi, je trouve que la coupe chantante (au centre) est un bon compromis de finesse, couleur et de forme agréable.
Dans cette seconde série, il a pu comparer mes anciennes coupes. A gauche, la Dehua de la fin de la dynastie Ming est la plus ancienne. Les 4 autres sont de la dynastie Qing (1644-1911). C'est l'occasion de constater que ce n'est pas parce qu'une coupe a plus de 100 ans qu'elle est formidable. La qualité de la porcelaine, sa forme... ont toujours leur importance.
Quelques coupes variées pour finir, et notamment une coupe noire qui fonctionne si bien avec le matcha. Par contre, pour un Oolong, ce noir nous empêche de voir la belle couleur de l'infusion. Comme pour le vin, certaines coupes iront mieux avec certains thés, mais pas avec d'autres. La finesse est souvent un plus, mais quand les parois deviennent super fines le résultat peut être décevant.
Goûter le même thé dans différentes coupes est un bon exercice pour apprendre à observer comment de petits détails impactent les saveurs du thé. 

Friday, May 24, 2019

Roasted Rougui Baozhong from spring 2018

This roasted Rougui Baozhong was made from these fresh leaves. So, this new roasted Rougui Baozhong offers lots of interesting comparisons.
1. You can compare it to its unroasted version to see how the roast impacted the flavors.
2. You can compare it to a roasted Baozhong made from Qingxin Oolong to experience how the cultivar impacts the taste.
3. You can also compare it to a Rougui from Fujian to taste how Wenshan terroir changes the flavors.
But I did yet another experience when tasting it recently. I brewed it in different vessels.
Here, I used a small zhuni Yixing (and rather a lot of leaves). But it felt a little bit too powerful and harsh. One of the reason is that the roast has been done this month, so the leaves haven't really had much rest.

So, I also brewed it in a zisha dicaoqing teapot (see first picture) and used the same amount of leaves (for a teapot that's 30% bigger approx). This change made all the difference! The scents were well balanced between the spice, the fruity and the roasting notes. And the taste had a nice prolonged sweetness.

This is a good reminder that too many leaves can sometimes spoil a good tea!

And look at these wet leaves and how well they open up and turn green despite a strong roast!

Monday, May 20, 2019

Un cours de thé chinois dans l'esprit de la dynastie Song

Ceci n'est pas du Chanoyu!
Cela ressemble à la cérémonie de thé appelée aussi Chado au Japon, mais ce n'est pas une cérémonie et sa pratique est plus ancienne encore. En effet, elle remonte à la dynastie Song (960-1279) et c'est cette préparation chinoise du thé qui inspira la cérémonie de thé japonaise.
Préchauffage du bol
Contrairement au Chanoyu qui continue d'être enseigné à travers plusieurs écoles (Urasenke et Omotesenke...) au Japon et dans le monde entier, la pratique du thé des Song s'est éteinte en Chine et ce n'est que depuis une bonne dizaine d'années que des amateurs de thé (tels Teaparker) s'y remettent.
Ajout de matcha dans le bol préchauffé
Ayant eu le privilège de retourner aux sources de ce thé, j'eus envie de transmettre ce rare savoir à mon étudiant lors d'un cours particulier.
Les puristes m'objecteront peut-être que cette façon de préparer n'est pas exactement celle des Song. En effet, j'utilise ici un modèle de fouet en bambou japonais, différent de ce qui se faisait durant les Song. Cette tetsubin japonaise n'est pas très traditionnelle non plus! A l'époque, on utilisait plutôt des aiguières en céramique. Cela permettait de fouetter tout en versant l'eau, ce qui n'est pas le cas dans le Chanoyu.
L'emploi du fouet japonais est justifié par l'évolution de ce fouet durant la dynastie Song. Sa forme n'était pas figée et changea, mais sa fonction restait la même: obtenir le meilleur thé possible. Or, comme ce fouet moderne a une ergonomie qui nous donne une bonne mousse, son emploi est conforme à l'esprit de départ. C'est pareil pour l'utilisation de la tetsubin. L'important est d'arriver à verser l'eau bouillante tout en fouettant. Par contre, ma petite jarre en céladon est d'époque et permet de voir que très peu de poudre de thé suffisait pour un bol. Et ce bol à glaise noire est provient de Jianyang, comme ceux des Song, même si c'est une reproduction moderne.
L'avantage de cette approche, c'est qu'en l'espace d'une heure, mon étudiant a pu me voir préparer un bol, puis a bien réussi son tout premier bol lui-même, en suivant mes instructions. Il avait eu l'occasion de déguster un matcha dans un magasin de thé au Japon, mais c'est celui préparé à la chinoise qu'il a préféré! (J'explique cela par le fait que le goût du thé est primordial dans la méthode des Song, alors que le côté formel de la cérémonie importe plus pour les Japonais. Mais c'est sûrement aussi une question d'habitude et de goût personnel!)
Pour partager le thé, nous le versons dans des coupes plus petites. Celles au premier plan sont des coupes de Jianyang, et celle en arrière plan est en céladon. Cela nous permet de vérifier que la couleur noire donne le meilleur contraste à ce thé.
Mais pour bien déguster, rien ne vaut la sensation de prendre son bol à 2 mains!

Friday, May 17, 2019

Spring 2019 Wenshan Baozhong - Semi Wild

We have 3 good news for Baozhong lovers: 3 new spring 2019 Baozhongs have joined our selection! The most affordable is a Jinlan Baozhong (only 3.5 USD per 25 gr or 17.5 USD for 150 gr). Jinlan is the name of its cultivar and the first time we encounter it! It means golden orchid and is based on SiJiChun, which is why it has such a flowery name! The second is the very traditional 'Subtropical Forest' Baozhong, which I've reviewed here in French. This year's quality is outstanding and it even has some insect bites! I heartily recommend it.
In this article, I would like to give you a short account of the Semi Wild Baozhong. It was harvested on May 8th, less than 10 days ago! The quality of its Qingxin Oolong leaves is simply amazing. You can feel it in your hands. Dry, they have a kind of strength and elasticity, because they have grown nicely and almost must be squeezed to fit in the zhuni Shipiao teapot!
And open, the leaves are very thick, well nourished from a naturally rich and healthy soil. Apart from the red oxidation marks, it's as if they had just been picked! (See below).

And the taste is so soft and pure! It's really coming close to perfection of how a fresh Baozhong should be.

There's something else that's remarkable: the price. We live in an era when rich Chinese buyers are driving up the prices of the best teas of most areas. Shifeng Longjing, Wuyi Yan Cha, Lao Banzhang puerh, aged sheng puerh, Da Yu Ling Oolong... these famous teas have seen their prices increase dramatically in the last 10 years. Luckily for us, Wenshan Baozhong teas have not (yet!) become the target of Chinese buyers. This is why the premium for the such great quality leaves remains very reasonable.
The shape of the dry leaves of Wenshan Baozhongs is what sets them apart from other Oolongs in Taiwan. Single leaves often look like snakes or dragons. They stimulate your poetic imagination! With this Semi Wild Baozhong, some of the leaves come with 2 leaves and a bud. For me, this looks like a dancer!

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Baozhong forêt subtropicale du printemps 2019


Baozhong 'forêt subtropicale'
Le Baozhong est un thé partiellement oxydé, originaire du nord de Taiwan. Sa forme torsadée nous rappelle celle des Yan Cha de Wuyi, le berceau de tous le Oolongs. Ce n'est pas une coincidence, mais le fruit de l'histoire: au milieu du XIXème siècle, un grand nombre de Chinois du Fujian (région productrice de thé où on trouve Wuyi et Anxi) vinrent s'installer à Taiwan. Comme les Yan Cha, le Baozhong peut être fait à partir de nombreux cultivars. Il tire son nom de la façon dont on l'emballait autrefois: au milieu d'une feuille de papier pliée en forme de cube rectangulaire.

Cette année, j'ai sélectionné 3 Wenshan Baozhongs frais très typés et représentatifs de ce terroir taiwanais. Il y a un Jinlan Baozhong très bon marché qui nous rappelle que le Baozhong est un thé populaire consommé tous les jours par un grand nombre de Taiwanais. A l'autre extrême, j'ai aussi pu mettre la main sur quelques kgs d'un Baozhong semi sauvage, issu de plantations abandonnée. Je vous en parlerai dans un prochain article, mais on est presque hors catégorie tant la qualité de ce Baozhong est exceptionnelle. 
Aujourd'hui, je veux vous présenter ce Baozhong 'forêt subtropicale' comme un juste milieu de ce qui fait un bon Wenshan Baozhong. Récolté à la main le 6 mai, il est fait à partir du cultivar le plus usité en haute montagne et à Dong Ding: le qingxin Oolong. Ce cultivar a des rendements un peu moindres, mais concentre plus de saveurs dans ses longues feuilles étroites. C'est le cultivar privilégié pour obtenir plus de longueur en bouche et donc un plaisir prolongé (si l'on équilibre bien son infusion). D'après moi, c'est le cultivar qui exprime le mieux les senteurs des forêts qu'on trouve autour des plantations de thé du Wenshan. Et cette année, nous avons de la chance, car ce batch fut un peu mordu par des insectes! Cela a deux conséquences favorables: une oxydation un peu plus forte qui donne plus de saveurs, et la paix de l'esprit concernant un emploi éventuel de pesticides (impossible à exclure entièrement, mais au moins leur emploi serait très raisonné). C'est un Baozhong que je sélectionne chaque année et qui connait toujours un grand succès, et ce printemps il est particulièrement réussi!

Friday, May 10, 2019

Spaciba to my Russian friends and aged tea!

Russians and citizens of former Soviet republics have a special love for tea. Despite writing only in English and French, my blog stats often show that Russians are among the top readers of my blog. (And they are also regular buyers on my online boutique!) Several years ago, in 2012, Vladimir, one of my Russian readers, even gifted me this box of aged red tea made in Georgia in July 1960! After the Aged Tea event at Penn State, I wished to revisit this tea again and see what we can learn from it.

1. The packaging
The first risk with aged tea is to purchase a fake aged tea. To avoid this risk, we can look at the packaging to see if it fits its supposed historic context. The fact that this is a gift and that I didn't pay anything for this tea means I have zero financial risk, but maybe the person who gave me this tea got fooled by a seller, who knows? Even if it's a gift, you still must be careful and not take everything at face value. A PSU professor came to one of the events with a box of tea he had received from a colleague who returned from China. He had no idea what it was. After examination of the leaves, it turned out that it was an artificially scented red tea (from Fujian). The person who made the gift probably also didn't know what he was buying...
With this metallic box, we can clearly see how time has impacted the paper and the metal. This is what you'd expect from a 50-60 years old box. Second, the shape of the tea box is the same as that of Chinese tea boxes in Wuyi, before 2000, and in which they'd keep samples of all the Yan Cha produced by the State company. (Teaparker showed pictures of similar boxes in Wuyi). And, indeed, this box serves the same purpose in Georgia: keeping samples of the teas produced then.
While there are a lot of fake teas in the famous tea regions of China, there are fewer risks that someone would fake the relatively unknown red tea from Georgia. The fact that the person who got this for me is Russian also makes sense, because Georgian teas are mostly sold in Russia (and not China or England).
 2. The tea leaves
Now that we have established that the packaging is genuine, let's examine the leaves and see their appearance. The leaves are small and black. There are some stems, but no buds. These leaves are mostly broken. Their scent is light, sweetly astringent with notes of wood and clean. There are no signs or scents of dirt or mold.
3. The brew
This tea is an excellent example of what quality aged tea should look like: excellent transparency and shine! (And I didn't rinse the leaves!) It almost looks like a new red tea! However, the fragrances are different and confirm that the tea is indeed aged. Nevertheless, the fact that the brew looks so similar is also a sign that fully oxidized teas don't evolve as much as Oolongs or puerhs. Even after almost 60 years, this tea feels like a red that has only aged a bit. Compared to an Oolong, it feels only 20 years of age. Maybe the cool and dry Russian climate also helped preserve the freshness of these leaves longer.
The last time I brewed this tea (on the blog) was for Christmas 2012. Then, I used more leaves. Now, I am much more aware of how precious an aged tea of 60 years is. I used my Ming dynasty Dehua porcelain teapot to brew it! This added another dimension to the experience.
Again, spaciba to Vladimir and all my Russian tea friends!

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

The aged tea event at PSU

A tea box from Hong Kong from the 1930s
2 weeks ago, Teaparker and I returned a 6th time to Penn State in order to teach tea to a student organization created by Jason Cohen in 2010. After Oolong, Puerh, Chaozhou gongfu cha, Yixing teapots, Porcelain, this year's theme was Aged Teas.

The concept of 'aged tea' is actually rather new. For a long time, tea was considered best young and fresh. In the 1980s, very few people appreciated aged puerh or aged Oolong. Then, Teaparker recalls paying 40 USD for a red mark cake of puerh from the 1950s, which now costs well over 100,000 USD! This was just a little bit more expensive than good Taiwanese Dong Ding Oolong, but it was already much more than a new cake (1 or 2 USD at the time). This shows that the rare merchants and lovers of aged puerh already recognized the value these teas 40 years ago.
In recent years, tea auctions in Hong Kong and Shanghai have helped popularize aged puerh. Record prices make for great headlines and have grabbed the imagination of tea collectors all around Asia. A Song Pin Hao tong (= 7 cakes) from the 1920s set a record of 13.3 million HKD or 1.7 million USD! That's over 700 USD per gram (vs 41 USD for gold)!
A Qing dynasty pewter caddy for Da Hong Pao from Tian Xin
The craze for aged teas doesn't stop at puerh anymore. Oolongs, white teas, even green teas can age well under the right circumstances, as Teaparker demonstrated with a 40 years old Shi Feng Longjing green tea from his collection.
But not everything that is old is gold! The wine market is a good example: only very fine wines see the price of their past vintages increase consistently. Common, every day wines don't see their value or their price increase.
The main thing to understand is the value, the quality of the tea. What is the difference between a tea that is aged and valuable, and one that is old, past its prime?
This was probably the major benefit of attending this 4 days event: the tea students at PSU got the opportunity to smell and taste some marvelous aged teas. A 1950s red mark puerh, a scented Baozhong from the 1960s, a 1975 7542, a Wuyi Yan Cha from the 1980s, a Dong Ding Oolong from spring 1982, a TGY from 1990...
What are the common traits of all these well aged teas? They are very clean in terms of scents and appearance. The brew is shiny, not foggy. The dry scents are light.
The taste is pure, smooth and has a long aftertaste. It doesn't feel old, but exhales an energy that can be felt in your body.
This kind of aged tea is very different from an old, tired, flawed tea. It's a little bit like the difference when a professional pianist plays these versions of 'Twinkle, twinkle little star' and when a young child (that is not yours!) plays the same first notes. On the one hand you have art, perfection, beauty and on the other you have something very rough and uncomfortable for your ears!
For music, it's usually quite easy to tell which is art and which is beginner's level. For tea, this can be much more tricky, especially if the environment is beautiful, the people nice, the story well told... And if you have never had a great cup of aged tea! That's why it was important to let them experience good aged teas.
This education is extremely valuable for at least 2 reasons. First, it will prevent these students from making simple purchasing mistakes. The very high prices of aged tea have created lots of incentives to sellers to offer expensive teas that are fake or simply old and bad, or that exaggerate their age.
Second, it gives these tea drinkers a glimpse into the world of the most refined teas. I didn't see anybody not liking these teas. But, of course, how much one likes (and values) these teas is very personal and varies from one person to another. This is a good motivator to start your tea collection early, so that you don't have to your house in order to enjoy a 90 years old Song Pin Hao!
There are several strategies to build your own tea collection:
1. start small and experiment with different teas, jars to get a feel how different teas evolve with time.
2. choose young teas that have a good reputation and a good potential to age well. The best candidates are sheng gushu puerh and medium roasted Oolongs. When it comes to aging, quality is more important than quantity. 1 kg of roasted SiJiChun won't age as nicely as 100 gr of Hung Shui Oolong from Dong Ding or Alishan. Better age 1 excellent puerh cake than 1 tong of plantation puerh.
3. If, like me, you are much closer to 50 than 20 or 30, then you may also consider teas that are 10 to 20 years old and that show the right aging potential and reasonable prices. This 1999 7542 or this 1998 Hung Shui Oolong from Lishan would give you a good head start at a reasonable premium.
My own conclusion from this aged tea event is that aged teas don't taste old, but elegant and extremely smooth. They linger on the palate and their pleasure is both long lasting and very unique. The lesson is that their beauty has less to do with their age than with their intrinsic qualities. These teas don't become excellent by miracle, but because they had this potential in their leaves from the very beginning. Appreciating aged teas also helps us better define what is a good young tea.
Remember the perfection of these aged masterpieces and share your tea happiness!
Note: Looking again at these pictures, I get to see the concentration, interest and passion of these students. Even with more than 20 students at a time, they'd manage to focus all their attention on the subject of tea. This made teaching and learning so easy! Thanks to all who attended the classes.