Tuesday, January 21, 2020

PSU Gongfucha Tea Club - Tea Sommelier training

The 9 students from Penn State who came to Taiwan around the New Year received a very broad and diverse range of tea classes. I already wrote about the Chaxi and Oolong, Outdoor brewing, puerh time machine classes below. They also had a glimpse into Teaparker's newest Tea Sommelier courses.

It started with a 3 hours class at the Landis Hotel and was followed by a dinner at the hotel's Chinese Jiangzi restaurant, Tian Xiang Lo. During the dinner, they practiced the theory of tea and food pairing.

 Here is what Borb wrote about this experience: "The jassid-bitten oolong that was served first was characteristically sweet, almost like syrup, and had a muted but round dark flavor similar to roasted walnuts. It felt thin like ink and coated the entire mouth. These attributes caused it to pair best, in my opinion, with the eel, fried chicken, and the fried noodle dish we were served last. The honey notes mixed well with the dryness that the food left in the mouth and what spices there were on the food (or sauces in the case of the desert) were not overpowering. I was left with a sensation of clarity and cleanliness in the mouth as well as the echo of the tea’s sweetness. It reminded me of the way after a bell was rung the tone lingers longer than you can properly hear it. This tea also paired well with the vegetable meal because of the sweetness of the oil. It was washed out in the same way as the above fried foods."

We also paired other dishes with a roasted Oolong and with a young gushu puerh. Not all the pairings worked well. But when they worked there was a broad agreement among the students that the tea added something to the food and that the food also added something to the tea! This showed that tea pairing is not a concept that is subjective and personal, but that there's a logic of why a certain tea would go well with certain type of food.
This is what I have been learning with Teaparker in December and early January. The PSU students could come and witness the final exam of the International Tea Sommelier Training on January 7th, 2000. Two outside food and tea experts came to judge our food and tea pairings.
I chose the Stir Fried Pearl Peas with Chicken from the Michelin star restaurant Tian Xiang Lo and paired it with my spring 2019 Da Yu Ling high mountain Oolong. The idea for this combination was to serve one of Taiwan's best Oolong, coming from one of its highest plantations, and pair it with a dish prepared by one of Taipei's landmark restaurant. The pairing should go well, because Da Yu Ling has light spring flavors that resonate with the light flavors of chicken and the spring, green feeling of peas.
Apparently, my focused attitude while brewing and the tea combined with the dish must have convinced the jurors. At the end of the exam, I received a good feedback of the professional food critique (in white): she felt impressed by the finesse and delicate taste of this pairing. And, in the meantime, Teaparker has informed me that I have obtained the highest total score of all the students in this Tea Sommelier training (where the final exam had a 50% weight)! I had always been a 'good' student with high marks during all my school life, but it's the first time I actually finish No. 1, top of my class! At 48, it was a long wait, but it feels even more sweet. But I'm not going to rest on my laurels. There's so much more to learn with tea... It just feels good to be able to share this added experience with others who are interested to learn!
Tomorrow, the Chinese New Year vacation will start. I will still process the orders received before 8 PM US Eastern time today. Otherwise, the next deliveries will start on January 30th again. Below are the new postcards that I have made following your votes for my best pictures of 2019! (All physical orders always include 1 or 2 exclusive tea postcards!)

Sunday, January 19, 2020

PSU Gongfucha Tea Club - Time Machine

Lunch at a tea house after the Lin Mansion visit and before the 'time machine' puerh tasting. Notice that we all had a roasted Oolong to accompany our meal! (More on that subject in my next post).
So, after lunch, we first tasted the 1999 '7542' and then the early 1990s LuYin.
The 1999 puerh already has nice aged flavors and it's one of the most affordable way to enjoy/collect the famous Menghai 7542 from the CNNP era. The early 1990s luyin leaves look quite similar to the 1999, but the taste is more refined and the scents have more brightness. The difference in quality (and price) was pretty obvious to everyone!
We then continued with the mid 80s loose puerh from the Menghai Tea Factory. It was greatly enjoyed for its energy. We had had it in the Lin Garden, but this time it was interesting to compare it to the pressed cakes from the 1990s and see the advantage of having much fewer broken leaves.
Two lucky and happy tea guests from Italy joined us for this tasting. I think they really paid attention to the puerhs how we brewed them.
The large Yixing zisha was a great fit for this large group and these aged puerh leaves. The 'skin' of the teapot is particulary soft, just like the skin of a baby (or one's skin after spring showers!)
We don't throw the first brew away, because the taste of that first brew is often as good, if not better, as the next!
And it takes a great concentration and a skilled hand to pour directly in so many cups. It would be so much easier to use a gongdao bei that one would lower his attention level. And being fully aware is the best way to taste the little differences in taste between 2 teas and 2 brews! This also allows you to control the speed at which you pour the tea out, which determines the concentration of the tea. And, beside reducing the number of wares, this direct pour also ensures a higher temperature in the cup.
I finished the 'time machine' puerh tasting with a puerh cake even older than myself: this 1960s Hong Tai Chang puerh cake! It has been very well aged, first in Hong Kong and then in Taiwan. The neifei informs us that this company was originally founded in Yiwu (in 1888) at the time of the 'Hao' era. It could survive during communist China, because a Thai affiliate had been created in Bangkok in 1930. This firm continued to make puerh cakes with a peculiar pressing (like a disc) during the CNNP era. The origin of the leaves is a little bit of a mystery. Did they still come from Yunnan or from regions bordering Yunnan? Actually, this doesn't really matter as long as the gushu leaves are from the same kind of tree. (Also, the borders of Yunnan have moved in history: why should a tree be considered one thing or another depending on a political border?)
What matters the most are the taste and the scents! And they were fantastic, adding even more depth and finesse to what we had experienced with the previous aged puerhs. There seems to be a threshold of character and quality every 20 years. A puerh from the 1960s (or 1970s) has undergone a significant transformation compared to one from the 1980s (or 1990s).

A puerh of such age is naturally very expensive, but I think that it provided a very valuable lesson about the evolution of puerh with time. As Teaparker noted in the title of one of his books, 'aging tea is turning it into gold'!
Tasting aged puerh is so relaxing...

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

PSU Gongfucha Tea Club - Outdoor brewing

 After a full day of tea class indoors on a cold and grey December day, I took the PSU students to Wulai for hot springs and Oolong brewing, and a hike to a waterfall. The weather was sunny, but not too hot. We enjoyed the mountain and river view from our hot springs resort while brewing different Oolongs. The most suitable leaves were those from the high mountains. They brought energy and freshness to our soaked and relaxed bodies! And they sharpened the mind and our senses at the same time!
2 days later, we took again advantage of a wonderful weather to go to the Lin Mansion Gardens in Banciao and brew outdoors.
Since we had already explored Oolongs twice, I dedicated this day to puerh. We started with my spring 2017 sheng Gushu puerh. I brewed it in a large, log shaped Yixing zisha with enamel decoration (end of Qing dynasty) and served it in my celadon singing cups.
Very few leaves were enough to make an elegant, sweet, flowery and long lasting brew.
The idea of brewing tea in such an elegant setting is to learn from the past and connect to its spirit. The rich Lin family that built these gardens must have enjoyed very fine teas on their property. And if they had the good taste to design and decorate this place so beautifully, them must have known how to appreciate the fine pleasures of Chinese life.
It may seem strange, out of place, to use old tea ware in Europe or in the US, especially when you live in a new house or apartment with a modern decoration. But here, these wares are in total harmony with their surroundings. The colorful decoration of the teapot is so similar to the wood painting!
Modern life has improved in many aspects in the last 150 years (when the Lin Mansion was built). But when it comes to tea and creating a poetic place for tea and music, we can see that this was a priority in those times! This is a wonderful source of inspiration for any tea lover...
In order to emphasize the concept of time to these young students, I then brewed my mid 1980s loose puerh with the same teapot, but with a different set of cups. These large, thick and tall rice grain cups with duocai decoration are a better fit for aged sheng puerh. They were made roughly at the same time as the tea!
It's a little bit a challenge to brew for a large group of people, but when all of them are passionate about tea, there's a lot of positive energy flowing back when they enjoy their cup. And when I see their reactions, I also remember how it was when I had my first aged puerh experience. A good tea drinker should have a good tea memory of what he's had, but he should also enjoy each new tea on its own merits and just compare it to teas that are comparable. (Don't look down on an Alishan because it doesn't measure up to a Da Yu Ling, or a 15 years old puerh, because it's not 30 years of age...)
Pictures of tea without people look more harmonious and calm, but if they were a painting, we would call them 'nature morte' (dead nature)! Luckily, outdoors, this garden is still very much alive!
And that's also the case with this 35 years old tea. Despite its age, its dark scents, its aftertaste was still very energetic and fresh. Classics don't become old, they add layers (of meaning/taste) and improve!

Thursday, January 09, 2020

PSU Gongfucha Tea Club - Chaxi lesson

Happy New Year 2020! I apologize for the long pause on the blog, but I was quite busy with 9 tea students from the Penn State Gongfucha club who came to Taiwan for a 10 days trip. We had several very interesting classes and now that they are back in the US, I wish to share several accounts of the tea activities I organized for them.
Let's start with this Chaxi lesson with a Taiwan Oolong focus. The task for every student was the same. Choose a tea from this list: 2017 spring Tsui Luan High Mountain Oolong, 2019 spring semi-wild Wenshan Baozhong, 2018 Summer imperial Oriental Beauty from Hsin Chu, 2019 fall Zhuo Yan Oolong from Shan Lin Xi, 2016 spring Hung Shui Oolong from Alishan and the 2019 spring high infrared roasted Hung Shui Oolong from Alishan.
The students could choose from a large range of teaware and new Chabu from my selection and collection to set up their Chaxi. At first, the combinations seem endless and the task daunting. But if you start with the tea then the choice of the teaware follows quite easily: you choose the teaware that will harmonize with the character of the tea. Phil (above) led the way with the high mountain Oolong. The celadon singing cups underline the freshness of the color and the blue Chabu brings us closer to the high mountain sky!
Tom chose the imperial OB. He could have chosen a Chabu with warm colors to match the color of the brew, but instead he chose this blue flowers and birds Chabu. I had no objection to this. The choice of the Chabu is very personal and there are many ways to express your teas creatively. Here, this creates a very refined contrast with the brew. And it matches the silver (which I recommended for this tea).
The silver teapot emphasizes the finesse and lightness of the fragrance of the OB, rather than the taste. So it does make sense to give the Chaxi a lighter touch!
Notice that the tea is poured in the cup first and then placed on the Chatuo. This way, there are no tea drops on the Chatuo!
Teddy chose the Semi-wild Wenshan Baozhong. This lightly oxidized Qingxin Oolong has a similar color as high mountain Oolong and therefore celadon cups are the best choice.
I also like to use a green Chabu for this tea, because the Wenshan area is covered with subtropical forest that remain green all year long! 
Matt chose the Hung Shui Oolong and a porcelain teapot. This may seem like a unusual choice when there were several Yixing zisha at hand. But Matt is still early in his tea studies and using a porcelain teapot is similar to using a porcelain gaiwan: it doesn't hide defects and make the tea more mellow. It's also more of a challenge for the brewer. He chose cute, colorful cups for his Chaxi. On a cold day, this shape of cup better keeps the brew warm, because there's less surface in contact with the air than with a widely open cup.
Everybody paid attention to how their fellows brew their tea. And I gave also advice on the brewing technique of every person.
The nice thing about such a tea lesson is that we got to drink very enjoyable teas that morning!
In the afternoon, Lisa also brewed the imperial OB, but she chose a zhuni teapot. This made for an interesting comparison with the same tea brewed in silver.
Lisa had a very creative idea of using the black side of the Chabu and fold just a corner to uncover the small flowers! (Behind Phil, you can see 2 tables full of tea ware and Chabu.)
Xavian opted for the infrared roasted Hung Shui Oolong and a combination of 2 Chabu (the long brown one is actually an Obi, a Japanese kimono belt). Earth and sky! The zisha teapot rounded the tea even more than it already is! Delicious!
With the Alishan Hung Shui, Grace also chose to pair it with an Yixing zisha. Holding the teapot wasn't so easy for her and I showed the best way to hold it with style!
Her tall cups are well suited for winter and their thick porcelain goes well with tea that has a thick taste!
Lillian selected the jassid bitten Shan Lin Xi Oolong and paired it with a zisha shuiping for more aftertaste. At first, she had twice as many dry leaves on her celadon plate. I cut that amount, because this tea is very concentrated.
Ball shaped Oolong can expand considerably and it's not always easy to judge the right amount for a teapot.
The brew looked particular bright and colorful in these small, thin qinghua cups and on this dark Chabu.
Borb was the last to perform. He brewed the fresh high mountain in silver and used the smaller cups, because he had to brew for 9!
He went for the black side of a large Chabu and a black plate in order to have all the focus on the contrast with white porcelain cups.
The handle gets so hot that it's necessary to use a fabric to hold it!
And while Borb was brewing, Xavian found inspiration to draw his Chaxi!
To conclude the tea class, I set up a Chaxi for my 1980 spring Dong Ding Oolong! A 1930s Duanni Yixing teapot on a late Qing qinghua plate. The leaves are stored in the small pewter caddy. The cups are the small white ivory cups.
I brew this tea the why I enjoy tea most of the time: directly on the floor. There's nothing wrong or right about sitting on the floor or on a chair, but it does feel different. On a practical matter, there's less risk for the teaware to fall and break if it's already on the floor! But in the end it's a matter of habit and feeling relaxed and at ease while brewing...
It takes practice and focus to empty the content of a teapot directly into 10 cups with the same amount and concentration!
After tasting various recent Oolongs, this 40 years old Oolong was the happy ending that heightened everybody's attention. It's twice the age of most of these students: Jimmy Carter was still POTUS when it was made!!
In spring, at the aged tea event at PSU, most of them had had the opportunity to taste a 1979 Dong Ding Oolong (not available anymore). The main difference is that the 1979 had been roasted several times, while the 1980 Dong Ding had only been roasted once (in 1980) and then had been well stored in a porcelain jar and then this caddy. So, while they found common flavors, they felt that the 1980 was so much more refined and pure than the 1979 (which they had already found excellent)!
And the most amazing is that it doesn't 'feel' old. It just has old scents and a little Wuyi suan, but the aftertaste is still very much alive and causing salivation at the back of the mouth. So much class and perfection in a cup of tea!...
This class happened on December 31st 2019 and this felt like a beautiful way to end the decade!
Ten days later, I can still easily remember all the Chaxi without taking notes, because each one was so distinct. A Chaxi is meant never to be exactly the same. There's always a little something that can be adjusted or improved with a little creativity. It's a way to express oneself and to create a harmonious set up where each element is both useful and beautiful and in harmony with the other wares. This is the theory. Above were 10 examples! Now it's your turn!