Category Archives: Tea Tasting

Making tea in time of work


(IMAGE: Rather than distract from work, tea can be used to fortify one’s focus. How to do that is the challenge.)

Dear beloved blog readers,

I will admit, making tea isn’t always convenient. Sometimes bringing out the yixing teapot or gaiwan or ceramic chawan (茶碗, “tea bowl”) just isn’t practical when I’m in work “crunch mode”.

Lately I’ve been working on a variety of projects and , well, sometimes tea can get pushed to the bottom of my “to do” list. However, like anything in life, there is a gong fu to approaching tea in the time of work. In this entry, I’m going to share some of my insights into this, and, as always, I hope to hear some of yours as well.

Become part of the 99%

Tea people love their tea and love their teaware. Speaking from personal experience, when given the chance I will almost always use a teapot. The act of making tea in this manner is centering and can change my mental attitude. Studies have even shown that meditative acts like this can even alter one’s neurological state. That said, setting up the tea equipage can take time and has the potential of shifting focus away from a particular priority.

The “work around” for this tea in time for work is to make tea like most of the world (certainly most of Asia) makes their tea: the jar.

Taking just a handful of tea leaves and placing them into a jar and pouring hot-warm water over them can do wonders. The glass walls of a jar will quickly dissipate any excess heat, and the added transparency offers a view into the “progress” of the steep. Filtering the tea leaves is simple: your teeth and gravity is all that’s needed. For this point, I generally brew larger leaf teas for jar tea like Tai Ping Hou Kui 太平猴魁, Taiwanese high mountain oolongs 高山烏龍茶, and da ye (大葉, “big leaf”) puer.


(IMAGE: Making semi-wild Tai Ping Hou Kui 太平猴魁 green tea using the jar tea method produces a gorgeous liqueur and balanced flavor.)

When the tea becomes too strong, I add more water. From what I’ve observed, more robust and balanced steeping a come from this method rather than drinking all of the tea and then refilling the empty jar. Likewise, I find that as the tea cools after a long steeping the flavors become more pronounced and complex. Maybe this is why jar tea is so popular!

Mizuya cha: “kitchen matcha”

Another quick tea alternative is to go the matcha route sans the ceremony. In Japan this is called mizuya cha (水屋茶, みずやちゃ), or “water room tea”, referring to the small preparation room that is often attached to a Japanese tearoom/teahouse (茶室, chashitsu). In traditional tea ceremonies where there are often large numbers of guest, only one (or sometimes just a few) tea bowls of matcha are ceremoniously prepared. The remainder are prepared “off stage” and are offered to guests pre-made.

In modern day practice, mizuya cha typically translates to “kitchen tea”, or tea simply made in the comfort of one’s own kitchen, devoid of the “ceremony”. Making tea this way, with a bowl (either traditional chawan or even a basic rice bowl), a whisk, and hot water can be done within a matter of minutes and can offer a quick respite from work without breaking “the flow”.

(IMAGE: An antique Japanese Hagi chawan used for today’s mizuya cha has its historical origins in Korean rice bowls, which were treasured by the likes of 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu for their functionality and informal nature.)

What’s great here too is that making tea in this manner is still very much part of the “tea mind” cultivated in Chanoyu (茶の湯, lit. “hot water for tea”, the practice of Japanese tea ceremony), stressing lack of formality and a humble manner of “just making tea”. So long as your mind and heart are still in it, this way of making tea can still be a meditative act.

(IMAGE: An antique Japanese Hagi chawan is paired with a contemporary negoro-nuri black-and-red lacquer chashaku teascoop balance the informality of making tea in the kitchen.)

Drinking from the teapot

My last “pro tip” for today is maybe my favorite guilty pleasure.

Again, I love teaware (especially yixing teapots), and when there is any excuse to use a finely-crafted piece I will. That said, having the whole “gong fu cha kit” at my desk or work table (or park bench) can quickly clutter the work space and mind. To avoid this, I pare everything down to their most elemental: just the teapot.

With just a teapot, one is left with really just one option: to drink directly from the teapot. While this might seem a bit ungainly (and for those opposed to public breastfeeding, a bit reminiscent and disturbing… for the record, I’m all for public breastfeeding, it’s natural, let people be free damn it!), it is very effective and has historical precedent.

While I am currently unable to cite historical documentation to back this up, I have had countless tea farmers, merchants, and masters tell me that they do this and that their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents have done this. Some have even gone so far as to say that this was the particular habit of the young, well-heeled scholarly/playboy brats of the late Qing/early Republic era. I, too, have done this on numerous occasions, sauntering down streets in San Francisco sipping from my small teapot and wandering into local establishments to get a “top-off” of warm water. (I have yet to do this in New York City, but hope to soon)

The results of brewing this way is quite remarkable, offering a level of control and intimacy with the tea not available through more “orthodox” means. Like brewing with a jar, one should use warm water, obviously so as not to scald one’s hand while holding the teapot, but also to achieve a smooth and balanced brew.


(IMAGE: For drinking directly from the teapot, I favor my 1980s duan ni Xi Shi hu (鍛泥西施壺). The shape of the pot feels good in the hand and the spout is easy to drink from.)

Also, by cradling the teapot in your hand and using your thumb to press and release the top hole of the teapot lid as a carburetor, you can adjust the flow of the tea from teapot to mouth. Speaking again from experience, I typically find more success drinking directly from the spout, rather than pouring the liquid into my mouth (however, this is completely up to you, though the aforementioned approach can get messy).

What works for you while working?

For sure this is a very basic “list” of approaches to making tea in time of work. As always, the environment is going to dictate what works best for you (and for the tea). This is where we as tea people can be creative.

So, what works for you? How do you make tea while working…and how do you strike that balance between quality of work and brew? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Oolong, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting

Enjoying traditionally-crafted Tieguanyin: from historical trends to teapot tips

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(IMAGE: Today’s set up for brewing a traditionally-crafted Tieguanyin oolong.)

Dear beloved blog readers,

It’s been a long time coming. The urge to drink some real Tieguanyin (铁观音, “Iron Goddess of Mercy”) finally took hold and today I broke-out the “good stuff”.

The tea is a high-roasted Tieguanyin, gifted to me by two of my favorite tea friends who are now far-flung across the globe in search of tea (one in Bohemia, the other trekking throughout East Asia). The two recently sent me a care package with a variety of teas (of which I will most certainly review in later posts), the first of which is this splendid tea.

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(IMAGE: Fresh from the tea caddy, the gifted Tieguanyin.)

Before I reveal any more about this particular tea, I should go over the basic history of Tieguanyin, one of China’s famous teas (中国十大名茶, “Ten Famous Teas of China”… of which there always seems to be an ever-expanding roster). As with other oolongs that I’ve discussed in this blog, Tieguanyin most likely has its origins within the oolongs that were first developed during the Song dynasty in what is now Fujian province. During this time, oolongs were pressed into tea cakes, which were later ground up and whipped into a concoction similar to modern day matcha. Famously consumed as part of the diancha (点茶) whisked tea preparation, these teas later evolved into several well-established classes of oolong tea. By the Ming period, oolong was being consumed in its whole-leaf form, and by the Qing dynasty, a recognizable form of today’s Tieguanyin emerged.

Outside of the various “mytho-histories” that surround Tieguanyin (some involve the Qianlong Emperor, others telling the tale of a farmer who dreamed of Guanyin), the tea itself comes from a style of tea that is less-oxidized that the yancha oolongs of the Wuyi mountains. Earlier and more “traditional forms” usually receive around 30% oxidation, lending to a reddish-green hue to their leaves. The leaves undergo a processing that involves a series of tossing, drying, rolling, and roasting, resulting in leaves that are curled into small pellets, as opposed to their Wuyi yancha counterparts. These pellets, depending on the maker, can sometimes consist of one leaf or two leaves and a sprout. The latter form eventually made its way to Taiwan (by way of Fujian, but that’s a whole other story). Tieguanyin is now a very popular tea (again, a noted “famous tea”), and is a staple tea for populations inside Anxi county (where it is produced), but also within outside regions such as Chaozhou county (where it is celebrated in the Chaozhou gong fu cha tea preparation), as well as in southeast Asia and in Chinese populations outside of Asia.

Traditionally-crafted Teiguanyin is its own beast. Unlike the very green and vegetal Tieguanyin oolongs that have become quite popular today (often categorized as a “Jade Tieguanyin”), traditional Tieguanyin tends to be more highly and evenly-roasted (although not as highly-roasted as a dark-roasted Tieguanyin, which are often very charcoal-forward in flavor). The objective here is to balance the higher oxidation with a mild roastiness. The end result creates a flavor profile that tightly ranges from burnt sugar to caramel, floral notes of gardenia, rose, and marigold, and fruit notes of dried apricot and red date. The layers of oxidation and roasting removes any of the grassiness present in Jade Tieguanyin oolongs, instead, replacing them with notes of dark greens akin to still-green sheng pu-erh or beet greens.

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(IMAGE: A close-up look at the traditionally-crafted Tieguanyin oolong. Note the balance between the “red and green” of the tea leaf, and tightly-coiled leaves.)

Finding a tea like this nowadays (this makes me sound old…ugh) is becoming more difficult. Part of this is due to the amount of steps involved in making this tea, part of this is due to the depth of knowledge and experience required to execute this processing.

From what I’ve been told by tea farmers and tea masters (those who “finish” the tea), this is a style of tea that is disappearing in China. Part of this story is linked to the modern history of China, from the fear and chaos seen within traditional arts during the Cultural Revolution to the recent economic boom-bust tension felt in rural v. urban areas in China. Additionally, due to the “trendiness” of some teas versus others, the demand for traditionally-crafted Tieguanyin has dipped in recent years, shifting to pu-erh and other “big name” teas. Overall, the capricious nature of the Chinese tea market has created interesting innovations, often with “interesting” results (for additional background into this dynamic, I highly recommend the great book by Jinghong Zhang Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic, 2013). In response to this, there have been some die-hard traditionalists who continue to produce this tea in China, as well as tea masters in Taiwan who have begun to develop their own take on traditional Tieguanyin oolongs (of which there are great examples!).

Today, as I sit down to appreciate this Tieguanyin, I find great comfort in this tea. Almost a decade ago, as I was beginning to dive deeper into my pursuit of tea knowledge, Tieguanyin was the ONE tea I studied the most. Guided by my tea teacher in the Chaozhou-style of gong fu cha, we easily brewed-through pounds of this tea (which he and famed tea person Roy Fong) had acquired through the years. Throughout this, I used JUST ONE teapot: my trusted pear-shaped “teacher pot”.

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(IMAGE: A top-down look at the “teacher pot”. Note the deep “lip” of the lid. This is common within older-style teapots. This pot is one of a five-part series commissioned by famed tea person Roy Fong during the early 1990s.)

The micro-history of the “teacher pot” began in the late 2000s as I was a much-suffering graduate student at UC Berkeley. Having acquired several yixing teapots prior to the “teacher pot”, I had a good understanding of the dynamic a teapot played in brewing tea (from its shape, firing, thickness, etc). When I was presented this teapot by my then tea teacher (thus the name “teacher pot”), I was told it would be just for brewing traditional Tieguanyin. The reason: the teapot’s shape, bulbous in nature, high-fired, and medium thickness in construction, was perfect for this type of tea. Brewing Tieguanyin in this teapot for close to a decade now has not only told me much about the tea, but it has also informed me to how a teapot should work.

Beginning to brew the tea, I pre-heat the pot. Carefully placing a healthy amount of leaves into the center of the bottom of the pot, I pour just a bit of boiling water into the pot to pre-wash the tea leaves and close the pot. This water is immediately poured out into a cup (to be poured-over the teapot during the first steeping). Next I nearly fill the teapot with boiling water and close the pot, pouring additional boiling water and the “rinse” over the pot.

As the teapot brews the tea, there is very little information as to how the tea is brewing. The skill of brewing tea in a yixing teapot is to be able to know exactly what is going on inside the pot. For this, one must be able to “read” the teapot.

For the “teacher pot”, to do this, I am given several “clues”. First, the water poured over the teapot will evaporate. If I wanted a “light” brew of this tea, I would simply pour out the tea at this point and enjoy. However, for brewing in the Chaozhou-style, I will bravely press on!

The next “clue” present will be the meniscus at the spout of the teapot. Upon first pouring the boiling water into the pot, the meniscus will puff-out of the teapot’s spout in a convex, dome shape. As the tea begins to expand and unravel, air pockets will open and the tea will begin to absorb the hot water. This will slightly reduce the liquid volume of the water, resulting in the tiny meniscus dome to contract and pull down into the spout. This “clue” is crucial to brewing tea! If I wanted a “medium-steeped” Tieguanyin, I will pour out the tea upon this moment (if it was a highly-roasted Tieguanyin, I might pour out the tea right before this moment… this takes practice).

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(IMAGE: The first stage of the meniscus, dome-like in shape, indicative of the early-stage of brewing.)

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(IMAGE: The meniscus begins to crawl-down the spout of the teapot as the tea leaves begin to expand and uncurl, absorbing the hot water.)

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(IMAGE: After several seconds pass, the meniscus has completely crept-down the spout of the teapot, noting the progress of the tea steeping.)

The final “clue” requires a greater knowledge of the individual teapot. For this “clue”, one will need to pay very close attention to the color of the teapot, as a high-quality teapot will ever-so-slightly change color. In the case of this zhuni (朱泥, “cinnabar clay”) teapot, it will darken in color. Once this happens I quickly and intently pour out the tea from the teapot.

The result is fantastic. The color of the tea is a dark gold/amber. The aroma is unavoidable, filling the room in my apartment with a sweet toasted sugar scent, swirling with floral and incense notes. The flavor is punchy, though not bitter. Instead, the flavor is incredibly balanced, full, and complex. In the style of Chaozhou gong fu cha, every flavor is extracted to the point it is almost too much to handle (as my teacher would say “It’s like you’re running up to a cliff, only to stop right when your toes are hanging-off the edge.”). As with any great traditionally-crafted Tieguanyin, this tea is both deep and exciting, with flavors of burnt sugar, marigolds, toast (yes toast), and a lingering apricot and incense finish. The mouthfeel is almost as big and complex as the initial flavor and one cup can easily coat the palette for hours. Subsequent steepings (of which I was able to achieve seven) are equally interesting, remaining full for three and trailing-off towards the fourth, fifth, and sixth, becoming wonderfully light and sweet by the last.

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(IMAGE: Deep color, bold flavors. The results of a Chaozhou-style brewed tea.)

Brewing tea in this style is not easy but very much worth the effort. Honing one’s tea practice is not just about getting to know the tea but also the value of teaware and its usefulness as a tool towards this end. As always, I encourage you, my beloved blog readers, to share your experiences with this. Also, if you have a tea that you just love, show it that love, and share your stories! Until then, I sign-out to enjoy the final steeping of this epic little oolong!

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, History, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting

Making tea on a boat: the gong fu of making a tea set

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(IMAGE: Taking tea outside is a true joy. Taking tea on a boat is a new challenge!)

Dear beloved blog readers,

Over this past Labor Day weekend, I and a few of my close friends were invited to set sail upon the wonderful waters surrounding New York City (technically Brooklyn). Being a tea person, I took this as an opportunity to bring tea along with me and treat my friends and the boat’s captain to tea. The challenge here would be how to pack for the tea outing, especially given the nature of being on a boat. The answer would test my gong fu cha skills. In today’s post, I offer my approach to this, as well as tips to those looking to take tea outside!

Keep it simple

Making tea is always a matter of pairing-down life to its most basic. The tea, the water, the vessel; little more is needed to produce remarkable results. Even in the confines of one’s home, office, or elsewhere, the “luxury” of tea really is less about living luxuriously and more about just finding the means to re-connect with a more straightforward way of living, thinking, and doing. As the 20th century Zen Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki said, meditation and even enlightenment was “nothing special” in that it was already apparent to us in the acts of everyday life.

This “less is more” mentality is especially important in making tea outside. Packing just a small collection of teas with an all-purpose vessel works wonders. In the case of the boat outing, I packed a glass gaiwan (which I rarely use, but seem to love more when used in situations like these) and a few single-servings of stellar teas (an aged Fuding baicha, a collection of various oolongs, and two tuo cha (沱茶): a sheng pu-erh from Yiwu and a 1985 sheng from Menghai). Additionally, I made sure to pack enough small cups for everyone.

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(IMAGE: Keeping it simple: A glass gaiwan is well-suited to brew every tea type.)

Hot water is life

Being an avid outdoor tea drinker (as well as a seasoned backpacker), I am well aware of how much water is the “limiting factor” to the tea equation. Throughout the history of tea, locating and boiling water has always been the starting point to making great tea. Nowhere is this more true than in the first known monograph on tea, Lu Yu’s Cha Jing (茶經, The Classic of Tea), where much of his writing is dedicated to outlining various grades of water, how to boil water, and how to store water. Later tea scholars would continue to develop upon this subject given the importance water plays in making tea.

In regards to my own solution, I’ve chosen to use filtered water and bring it along through the employment of a rather ingenious (and lucky find) of a vintage twin thermos picnic set. In total, the thermoses pack 2 quarts, which is a perfect amount for several tea brewing sessions.

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(IMAGE: Two vintage Stanley thermoses, perfect for tea.)

Making a set

Creating tea sets is a bit like jazz: putting together the necessary components is a matter of improvisation, in how it plays with the key players (in this case, to the tea, tea vessel, water containers, and tea cups), to the audience, and to the environment its presented. To make a truly great tea set, it should speak to the moment, to form following function, and to the notion most treasured by 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu of ichi-go ichi-e (一期一会, “one time, one meeting”). In this regard, the tea set should reflect the situation and the intent on making the best out of just a little.

In the case of the tea set that I assembled for the sailing trip, I was again lucky with the vintage thermos set. As an original 1970s Stanley thermos picnic set, not only did it come with two thermoses, but also a leather carrying case and tin “lunch box”. As a re-purposed tea set, this “lunch box” worked perfectly: its construction was compact and sturdy, and the lid had the added benefit of doubling as a tea tray during brewing and serving. The lip of the lid would also help to keep the gaiwan and teacups from tipping over on a rocky boat.

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(IMAGE: A top-down view of tea brewing in action. Note the lid of the thermos picnic set’s “lunch box” serving as a tea tray.)

Keeping items safe for the journey ahead

Putting everything together, from the gaiwan to the teas to the teacups, was in itself a mindful act. Using Japanese furoshiki and wrapping each fragile item separately ensured they would not have the chance to easily break on the voyage. For the loose teas, I used small containers I had made from emptied matcha canisters (which I had wrapped in washi paper for aesthetic purposes). As for the compressed teas, I kept the Fuding baicha cake and mini pu-erh tuo cha safely nestled amongst the wrapped items.

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(IMAGE: Items packed safely inside the tin box with gaiwan and teacups wrapped in furoshiki.)

Setting sail

As our day of sailing winded down, the moment for tea came. Quenching the thirst we had acquired from our arduous task (sailing can be quite a work out!) and pairing nicely with the clams we had dug-up and steamed, the tea worked perfectly to act as a closing to a wonderful day. Just as planned, there was more than enough water and certainly enough tea. There was even enough tea to get “creative”, blending the 1985 Menghai with the fresh Yiwu sheng to produce a beautifully-balanced effect.

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(IMAGE: Casual and creative: Brewing a blend of 1985 Menghai and 2015 Yiwu sheng pu-erh. The flavor was balanced and incredibly complex.)

More to come

As I am often going out to enjoy tea, I’m certain that this will be just the beginning of posts focusing on “building tea sets”. Stay tuned for more to come. Until then, I’m curious how you meet the challenge of making tea outside. What sort of sets have you created and how might you bring boiled water? Tea always provides opportunities to hone one’s skills.

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Filed under Education, Tea Tasting, Travel

Deciphering a mystery tea: a beginner’s guide to reading tea leaves

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(IMAGE: The set-up for today’s tasting of a “mystery tea”)

Dear beloved blog readers,

We all have those moments: A friend knows you love tea and out of the goodness of their heart they offer you some tea as a gift. More often than not, when this happens, the tea comes in either a ubiquitous tea canister or Mylar pouch that says “茶” (“cha”, tea) or something slightly more specific. Sometimes it comes as a bunch of leaves in a plastic bag. Regardless, you have just been gifted a “mystery tea”.

Mystery teas are always an interesting case. Their quality can range wildly, from the ordinary to sometimes rare and exquisite. Given their indistinct nature, a bit of detective work usually needs to be done to determine what type of tea it is. Like anything within the scope of gong fu cha, this is a great time to practice one’s skills and figure out how to brew the mystery tea to the best of your ability.

Just the other day I was gifted one such mystery tea. In today’s blog post, I will take you through the deciphering process, offering to you my insight into how I went about determining what type of tea it was. Perhaps this will help you in your journeys.

Read the leaves, not the package

Having worked in the tea industry (and in marketing), I’ve learned not to read packaging. Instead, all you need to know is written on the leaves. Their shape, size, color, texture: everything that you would ever want to know outside of how it actually tastes is already right there in front of you. Given the nature of how Chinese tea is processed, there is a fairly distinct “spectrum” that most teas fall into, based on their processing and oxidation, starting from green teas on one end and ending in pu-erh and hei-cha (“black tea”) on the other. In between are all manner of tea types of which a mystery will fall within. Below is (hopefully) a useful image to help you to find the category of tea that your mystery tea belongs to.

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(IMAGE: Examples of tea leaves from every major Chinese tea category going from left to right: green (semi-wild Tai Ping Hou Kui), green oolong (Tiawanese Lishan high mountain oolong), Feng Huang Dan Cong oolong, Wuyi yancha, semi-wild hong cha (“red tea”, or black tea in the west), pu-erh.

In the case of the gifted mystery tea, the leaves were quite revealing. Their long, twisted leaves were like that of a Taiwanese baozhong or Wuyi yancha. However, unlike a vibrant and verdant baozhong, these leaves were dark. Unlike a yancha, these leaves were still quite green. From this I could deduce that these leaves must belong to the Feng Huang Dan Cong (鳳凰単叢,  “Phoenix Single Grove”) oolong category. However, knowing what particular Feng Huang Dan Cong this was would be quite the daunting task.

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(IMAGE: The “mystery tea” leaves in all their glory.)

Link the leaves to the history

The history and cultivation of Feng Huang Dan Cong is quite unique. The particular style of growing and producing tea of this nature probably originated in the Song dynasty as the development and cultivating of oolong tea began to take root in Fujian province (of which I go into more detail in this post). Adjacent to Fujian and part of a mosaic of politically (and culturally) autonomous regions along the east coast of China, from Fujian to the southern tip of Guangzhou, was the mountainous territory of Chaozhou. To this day, the tea culture of Chaozhou is markedly different from the areas around it, from their brewing practices to the teas they grow and process.

In Chaozhou, the best teas are grown in a manner that is distinctly more “wild” than the more closely cultivated domestic bushes of the Wuyi mountains or Anxi county in Fujian. Rather than keeping the tea plants pruned, resulting in smaller bushes and smaller leaves, Chaozhou tea plants are allowed to grow to the point where they become large trees. Some of these trees can be as old as 500 to 800 years old and grow to to the point where they begin to resemble a large, wiry oak tree. Each tree is treated as if it were its own varietal, and subsequent bushes that grow from it come to be regarded as part of a specific “grove” (“単叢”). Depending on the soil content, climate, and altitude (some of the best teas in Chaozhou come from the highest points on Wu Dong mountain), the quality and flavor of the tea will be affected.

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(IMAGE: The famed Song Zhong tree of Wu Dong Shan, approximately 600-800 years old and more than 20 feet tall.)

As a result of the diversity of these factors present in the tea-growing mountains of Chaozhou, there is an equally diverse range Feng Huang Dan Cong oolong teas. Knowing which one is which depends on knowing the distinctive flavor profile of each tea, of which there are literally hundreds.

Brew the tea the way it wants to be brewed

When brewing this mystery Dan Cong oolong, I chose to do so in the manner that is practiced in Chaozhou, using a small zhu ni (朱泥, “cinnabar clay”) yixing teapot and a relatively large proportion of leaves so as to produce an intense flavor and residual mouthfeel. I arrange the leaves in the teapot so as to allow them to expand to their full potential. The teapot is a fang-gu (“仿古”, “ancient shaped”) teapot, well-suited for these large, twisted leaves. For brewing the tea, I use water that has immediately come off of a boil, quickly pouring the water over the leaves, closing the pot, and pouring water over the vessel so as to super-heat the contents within. Steeping is a quick process: Once the water poured over the teapot evaporates I begin to pour the tea out (for a stronger, more astringent brew, I wait for the meniscus on the teapot’s spout to go from convex to concave, an indication that the leaves have begun to unravel and absorb the water).

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(IMAGE: A top-down view of the fang-gu teapot.)

Appreciate the color of the liqueur

Pouring out every last drop, the tea reveals itself in a bright, light green liqueur. Unlike many Dan Cong oolong, which produce a bright orange or even pinkish-hued brew, only a few teas from Chaozhou will have this color. Already my mind has begun to narrow-down the possibilities.

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(IMAGE: The light green liqueur of the “mystery tea” against the pale celadon cup.)

Savor the aroma and decipher the flavor

Lifting-up the small Taiwanese-produced Ru Yao (窑窯, Ru Kiln) celadon cup, the aroma is sharp and floral, slightly grassy and slightly sugary. Upon the first sip an intense sugar cane note is present, the texture of the liqueur is juicy, and the mouthfeel is slightly astringent, lingering long after I have finished the small portion in the cup.

Trying to decipher what tea type this is amongst the panoply of Dan Cong oolong is difficult. Each tea has its own distinct flavor profile, ranging from orange peel, bitter almond, pomelo, or the scent of ginger flower (just to name a select few). In this case, I was lucky to have been gifted a wonderful and odd tea: Ya Shi (, “Duck Shit”). Unlike what the name might imply, this tea is renown for its pleasant sugar cane flavor with distinctive subdued astringency. The name, as local legend states, came from a tea farmer who was so in love with his tea that he didn’t want to sell it and so gave it the not-so-savory name of Duck Shit. Needless to say, the tea is now quite popular and, evidenced during today’s brewing, quite delicious.

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(IMAGE: A view of the “mystery tea” revealed! Note the length of the leaves, the low oxidation (absence of red on the leaves), and the serrated edges of the leaves (typical of semi-wild teas).)

Continue the exploration

One of the joys of drinking tea is not always knowing what you will experience. Have you ever had a “mystery tea”? If so, I am curious to know more. What did it look like and, more importantly, what did it taste like? The good, the bad, the ugly… Share it all. It’s all part of the journey!

 

 

 

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Filed under Education, Oolong, Tea Tasting

Brewing pu-erh in a relaxed style

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(IMAGE: The leathery leaves of a late 90s shou pu-erh, ready to be brewed in a relaxed style on a late summer’s day.)

Dear beloved blog readers,

As the last hot days of summer begin to shed themselves, the heat gives way to light breezes. In classical Japanese, the saying 天地始粛 (“てんちはじめてさむし”,”tenchi hajimete samushi”), literally “Earth and Sky begin to cool”, was often invoked to describe this natural phenomenon and is often met with a sense of relief. During these days, as the summer heat wanes, my tea brewing sessions tend to become more relaxed. No more is this more evident than in my approach to brewing pu-erh.

Brewing pu-erh (for most folks I’ve met in my travels) tends to be a pretty relaxed practice. Pu-erh is one of the most commonly consumed teas within China and has even become popular in Korea and, more recently, in the United States. In China, this is the tea that I will see people casually drink, paring it either with a meal (the whole act of eating dim sum in Guangdong evolved around drinking this type of tea, the meal is referred to as “yum cha” or “drink tea” in Cantonese), conversation, or just hanging out. As a result, the way I find most people drinking pu-erh tends to be quite laid back.

Today I find myself brewing a pot of pu-erh in this casual manner. For this, I’ve selected a basic “house pu-erh” that I had helped to bring in from China years ago. It is a very straight-forward medium-sized leaf shou pu-erh, picked and processed in the late 90s. The color of the dry leaves are typical of this type of tea: dark and leathery with bright orange-tan tea buds here and there, as well as the occasional stem (which helps to lend a sweet, “woody” flavor to the tea). Given its age, the tea should be very smooth.

I’ve paired the tea with a “Pearl of China” teapot, a classic shape for a yixing teapot. The spherical shape is perfect for this type of tea, allow the leaves to spin freely within the pot. Once the leaves settle, they should have enough room to open up.

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(IMAGE: A “Pearl of China” zisha yixing teapot for brewing shou pu-erh. This teapot has been brewing shou pu-erh in it for the past 5-6 years.)

The key to brewing pu-erh in a relaxed manner is to keep it simple: I will use just one kettle, one teapot, and one cup. Nothing else. The kettle will come to a boil and I will brew the tea. I will not be concerned with the time it takes to brew the tea nor the temperature it is brewed at. The teapot, which has relatively thick walls, will keep the tea at a pretty even temperature. The first steeping will be short, as long as it takes for water to evaporate off of the teapot, after which I will pour only a fraction out into my teacup. The remaining tea in the teapot will remain until I top-off the teapot for a second cup. As I continue to brew, the water from the kettle will naturally become cooler and, as such, I may lengthen the time of subsequent steepings.

The result of brewing in this fashion produces a liqueur that varies in intensity. The first steeping will tend to be quite light, expressing the woody notes of the tea. As the tea continues to brew, the flavors will deepen and the dark berry, earth, and loam notes will emerge. By the fifth or sixth steeping, this tea becomes quite dark, almost as dark as ink or black coffee. In some way, there is even a heartiness to this tea that surpasses coffee, both in its complexity and punch it delivers. By the twelfth steeping, the pu-erh begins to sweeten and brighten in color, shifting from a dark ebony to a light rose. The remaining flavors are almost sugary, akin to a yellow tea.

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(IMAGE: The first steeping of many of a late 90s shou pu-erh. The color of the liqueur is considerably lighter than subsequent steepings, offering notes of dry wood and fruit.)

On a late summer’s day, brewing tea in this manner just seems natural. As always, I am curious how you brew your pu-erh. Is it closely tended to? Or, is it like how I have done so today, casually steeped and enjoyed with the passing of one season into the next?

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Filed under Pu-erh, Tea Tasting, Travel

Drinking aged Shui Xian oolong: flavors developed over decades

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(IMAGE: Brewing +30 years old aged Shui Xian oolong)

Dear beloved blog readers,

There are teas that age and teas that don’t age. Teas that don’t age lose their flavor, become stale, and fail to inspire. On the other hand, teas that age turn into something transcendent, their flavors transform, and they gain a quality that can inform you of the years they have seen.

While many tea people know about aging tea through their experiences with pu-erh tea, fewer know about aging oolong tea. From the processing to the final results, aging oolong tea can be tricky and “success” often lies in the hands of a skillful tea master (the person who processes, oxidizes, and roasts the tea).

Much like the processing of oolong from fresh leaf to finished product (ready to be brewed), the aging process is often one that involves both “breathing” periods and “finishing” roasts. In the initial crafting of an oolong tea, whether it’s a dark Wuyi yancha (“rock tea”), a vibrant green Taiwanese high mountain oolong, or russet Feng Huang Dan Cong (“Phoenix Single Grove”), producing an oolong tea requires a series of roasting and re-roasting, between which there are several breathing periods. These breathing periods allow for the tea to naturally cool-down from the roasting and air-out any off or undesired flavors. Here, the aim of the tea master is to halt oxidation and preserve (or even highlight) flavors that occur naturally within the tea. When well done,the results can range from being undetectable (preserving the green or floral notes without any additional “roastiness”) to being extremely well-balanced (creating a harmony between the flavor of the tea and the toasted notes produced during the roasting process). Ageing an oolong is, in a sense, an extending of this process through time.

The practice of aging oolong is almost as old as the history of tea, most likely having its origins in the Song dynasty with the advent of oolong production in Fujian. During this time, tea was still being pressed into cakes, later to be ground up and turned into a frothy concoction reminiscent of modern-day matcha. Much like pu-erh today, the famous Longfeng Tuancha 龍鳳團茶 (“Dragon Phoenix tea cakes) of Fujian enabled the tea to retain its flavor over time by reducing the overall surface area of the tea. When it came time to drink the tea, the tea person would break off a section of the cake, steam it, and administer a slight re-roasting to the tea before grinding it for the final brew. The re-roasting, as it was noted at the time, helped to wake the tea up, re-activating its flavors through applied heat.

龙凤团茶 Dragon Phoenix Tea Cake Image

(IMAGE: Various Song dynasty period Longfeng Tuancha 龍鳳團茶 (“Dragon Phoenix tea cakes))

Being one of the oldest oolong cultivars, Shui Xian developed during this time period and made its way into this form of production (even today, one can still find Shui Xian pressed into tea cakes, enabling a style of aging akin to that of the Song period). With later cultivars and varietals of oolong tea being developed from the Song dynasty onwards, new methods of producing, processing, and aging oolong emerged.

During the Ming dynasty, with an imperial edict that demanded that tribute tea be sent in its loose leaf form, the process of making and aging oolong changed. A style of this is preserved and still practiced in Chaozhou, where oolong tea is often given a quick re-roast to reawaken dormant flavors in the leaf. The tea is then brewed, often very strong, to reveal all of the flavors present in the tea. As with the Song dynasty tea preparation, Chaozhou-style tea brewing, with the final re-roasting, enables tea to age and then “wake” prior to brewing.

Similarly, there is the practice of re-roasting oolong tea to preserve its flavor, not for immediate brewing, but explicitly for aging. Again, probably arising from the practice of roasting oolong tea during the initial processing and recognizing that this and any subsequent re-roasting could help to “lock in” the tea’s flavors, tea masters will often give aging teas additional roasts. There is an art and science to applying these roasts: The tea master will need to gauge whether the tea has longevity to express flavors after years of aging. The tea master will also need to determine the right time to roast the tea as it ages. Finally, the tea master will need to know how to roast the tea, whether to lightly roast it to preserve existing flavors, or to perform a higher roast balance the flavor. The tea master can also use aromatic woods for charcoal (such a longan wood) to produce a more complex flavor profile.

Subsequent roasts to an aging tea can produce a subtle “layered” effect. Usually occurring every five to fifteen years (although this can differ depending on the tea master), these roastings not only help to extend the life of a fine tea but also act as a kind of dialogue between the tea master and tea. If an oolong is passed-down to other tea masters, they may choose to apply additional re-roastings during the time they have the tea. As such, the tea becomes a documentation of this history and interaction.

Finally, there is another way to age oolong tea by simply keeping the tea well-sealed and away from excessive heat, moisture, light, and oxygen (as well as any other odd scents). Oolongs aged this way tend to become quieter with age, smoothing-out any of the “rough edges” that they may have had during their early years. If one is lucky, a good tea can become a great tea, mellowing over time and gaining a depth it may have lacked originally.

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(IMAGE: Aged Shui Xian oolong tea leaves kept in an antique Japanese wooden natsume (tea caddy) prior to brewing. Only enough tea is brought out to ensure the remaining tea leaves do not go stale)

As an avid tea drinker, I have had several opportunities to drink such teas, from a fantastic Feng Huang Dan Cong that had been hidden in a rice bale during the Cultural Revolution to a 120 year-old blended oolong one of my tea teachers’ grandmothers who had enjoyed it when she was a young girl. Needless to say, each tea spoke volumes of the time that passed and of the people that crafted them.

Today, I am sitting down to drink one such “transcendent” tea: an aged Shui Xian 水仙 (“Water Narcissus” or “Water Sprite”) Wuyi yancha. The tea came to me by way of a dear friend who had gifted quite a large quantity of it to me more than five years ago. When he acquired it from a renowned tea person, the tea was already close to thirty years old and had received several re-roastings over the course of these three decades.

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(IMAGE: A close-up view of the aged Shui Xian oolong leaves.)

The leaves are huge, befitting the style and cultivar, as well as the standards of quality that were upheld more than thirty years ago. The tea is, in a sense, a history lesson, showing the attention and care the original farmers and tea master had paid to crafting this tea. Unlike many modern interpretations of aged Shui Xian, the subsequent roasting on this tea was lightly done, the resulting hue of the leaves is leathery rather than black.

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(IMAGE: The stone weight-shaped zhima duan ni (sesame seed-colored clay) yixing teapot specifically for the brewing of aged Shui Xian oolong)

I chose to brew this tea in a slightly larger teapot, one I have dedicated specifically for this tea. The shape of the pot is poetically referred to as a stone weight or metal ingot, given its resemblance to these daily items of the Ming and Qing periods. The bottom of the teapot is flat, allowing for these leaves to sit low in the pot. Unlike new teas or even aged pu-erh, aged oolong leaves tend not to entirely open up upon steeping. For this reason, having a pot that allows for them to retain their shape is ideal.

When brewing the aged Shui Xian, I opt for boiling water. Given that these tea leaves haven’t received many subsequent re-roastings and are now going through a “resting” period, the high heat of the water will help to draw out the desired flavors. For the first steeping, I choose to let it brew for only a few seconds, only enough time to allow for the water poured over the teapot to evaporate.

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(IMAGE: The final result: The beautiful copper color of the aged Shui Xian oolong)

The flavors of the steeped aged Shui Xian are exquisite. The scent alone of the liqueur fills the air of the northwest-facing room of my apartment. The color is copper with a hint of purple. Finally, upon sipping the tea, I become audience to an unfolding of flavors quite unlike any other tea. First there is aged dried plum, followed by waves of cedar and camphor, ending in a long-fading finish of dark honey. The mouthfeel is clean with a slight minerality (which is often present in many Wuyi yancha).

Brewing this tea one steeping after another, peeling-back the layers of flavor, and revealing its stories has me enjoying this tea for hours. A fitting end to these leaves first picked more than 30 years ago, enjoyed today and shared with you.

 

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, History, Oolong, Pu-erh, Tea Tasting

Brewing to the best of my abilities: Arranging Da Hong Pao tea leaves and the results

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(IMAGE: Each leaf of Da Hong Pao arranged by size to maximize their potential when fastidiously placed into the teapot)

Dear beloved blog readers,

We tea drinkers learn about tea from various sources. Now-a-days, one doesn’t need to spend much time to find an over abundance of information on tea. From tea blogs to tea shop websites to Youtube videos and all sorts of click-bait health claims that seem to engulf tea knowledge; for the tea drinker, the challenge today seems to be “what information” is valuable as they comb through the deluge of truths, half-truths, and skillfully-crafted marketing material.

As a tea drinker who began his journey before the Internet Age, I have tended to trust the guidance of a teacher and am a natural skeptic of that which I find online (I thank those who read this blog, but, seriously, find an actual person to talk about tea with… You’ll find it infinitely more engaging). As a result, my approach to tea has been shaped by my teachers; people who have dedicated their lives to the study and unwavering exploration of tea.

In around 2009 I began to learn about tea (specifically Chaozhou gong fu cha) from the San Francisco-based tea scholar (and excellent guqin master) David Wong at his then nascent Tranquil Resonance Studio. Working with a tea shop just down the hill in Chinatown and trying to survive the rigors of an attempted Masters/PhD in East Asian History at UC Berkeley, I entered David’s tutelage already “well-steeped” in tea. However, David’s approach to tea (and the path he would take me down) forced me to re-evaluate everything that I knew about the subject, redirecting me towards the historical source of gong fu cha and relying on knowledge of practices that had been handed-down from teacher-to-teacher, often absent from or only hinted at through the canonical texts in tea scholarship.

Along with making me recognize the irrelevance of time an temperature to tea (a topic I will most certainly write about), David exposed me to the importance the arrangement of tea leaves played on producing the perfect brew. Literally going though pounds of tea at his studio in order to get the right flavor, he showed me how the simple act of putting tea leaves into a teapot can have a lasting effect on the end result. From how the leaves are arranged to how the water hits the leaves to how the leaves expand and tumble in the teapot will all determine the flavors of the final brew. Part art and part science, to recognize this was and is the core to understanding the concept of “gong fu cha”.

So why arrange tea leaves? Who has time for that?

In what is probably the earliest mention of tea in a written text, the “Tong Yue (童约)”, written by Wang Bao in 59 BCE during the Western Han dynasty, the author mentions a contract with a servant in which said servant (who was specifically to come from the Bashu area, Sichuan province today, then one of the most prominent centers for tea) was to both procure and brew tea. Probably before this time, but certainly from this time onward, in China, for the well-heeled classes, brewing of tea was almost always done by a servant.

Tea Grinding, by Liu Songnian

(IMAGE: Grinding Tea Leaves by Southern Song dynasty artist Liu Songnain (1155-1218), National Palace Museum, Taipei)

Evidence of the role of the servant (whether a slave, an apprentice, or acolyte) can be seen in many painted depictions of tea gatherings. Tea, although consumed by figures central to these paintings, is brewed often off to the side. In this preparation space, one usually sees a kettle brewing (the look and function of which changes throughout the centuries) and brewing implements, from ewers to tea bowls, grinding stones to eventually teapots. It was in this side register, in a space often out-of-view from those drinking the tea, that the art of gong fu cha was diligently practiced.

Tasting Tea by Wen Zhengming

(IMAGE: Tasting Tea by Ming dynasty artist Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), National Palace Museum, Taipei)

Given the amount of time and attention paid to the preparation, the leaves would have definitely been dealt with a great deal of care (as evidenced through the volumes of texts dedicated to them and their brewing). As tea brewing practices shifted from grinding tea bricks and whipping the powder into a foamy brew (still done in Japanese tea ceremony with matcha or enjoyed in Korea via malcha) to brewing the actual full leaves from the Ming dynasty onward, how one arranged one’s tea leaves in the brewing vessel became more important. Concurrent to this was the explosion of different varieties of tea that were becoming popular, ranging from the various twisted Wuyi yancha (that had become popular by the Song dynasty) to the rolled Tiekuanyin oolong, flattened Longjing green tea, and diverse forms of pu-erh teas (many of which would only become widely popular towards the late Ming and Qing dynasties). With each tea form came a new challenge as each tea leaf would unravel and expand in its own way. Thus came a need to address how one would arrange the leaves to produce the very best brew.

Brewing the “BEST” Da Hong Pao

As a tea drinker, I began to enjoy really fine Wuyi yancha when I was in college. By this point I was already a drinker of many teas, including pu-erh, hongcha (“red tea”, the Chinese name for what is known as black tea in the West), and all sorts of green teas. I even had a dedicated yixing teapot for my favorite tea at that time: Lishan high mountain oolong. Happening upon the Wuyi rock teas (“yancha”) introduced me to new flavors and a new challenge.

With a yancha, the leaves are twisted (an older style of crafting a tea leaf). Because of this, the vessel required to brew them should be flatter since leaves like this will want to expand outward (think of a spring uncurling horizontally). For this reason, yancha can be brewed best in squatter-shaped teapots and gaiwan. When it came time for me to decide upon a teapot for Wuyi yancha, I first chose a low-draft, pear-shaped pot. When I eventually began to specialize in more particular teas in this category, I chose a fang-gu (“仿古”, “ancient shaped”) teapot for the famed Da Hong Pao (“大红袍”, “Big Red Robe”).

As noted, the shape of this teapot is well-suited for this tea: its squat, wide, and the mouth of the teapot (the opening where both the tea leaves and water enter) is wide enough to accommodate the often large tea leaves of the famous tea. Likewise, in the case of this teapot, the clay is thick enough to keep the temperature relatively high (as Da Hong Pao tends to want a higher heat sustained for a longer time).

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(IMAGE: Delicately arranging each leaf of Da Hong Pao with a pair of chopsticks)

When arranging these leaves it is important to keep them horizontal, so as to take advantage of the shape of the pot. In the case of today’s brewing, I tediously sorted every leaf used, arranging them on a cloth from largest to smallest (choosing not to use some of the very smallest of leaves… sorry small leaves… I promise I’ll use you later). After this, I used a pair of pointed chopsticks to arrange the leaves in the teapot (I had pre-warmed the teapot for those who are curious to know).

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(IMAGE: The “pattern” produced by each leaf carefully arranged one on top on another)

The arranging of the tea leaves was an incredibly mindful act. Each leaf was stacked in a way to ensure they opened to create a weave-like network, allowing each their own space and making sure not to create points where leaves above would limit the expansion of those below. The resulting “pattern” was similar to something like a game of Jenga, with layers of leaves above placed perpendicular to those below (with slight variation at times given the natural irregularity of the leaves).

To be specific, the tea was a purported Qi Dan Da Hong Pao (奇丹大紅袍), a Da Hong Pao that is certified to have come from the original location of cultivation within the Wuyi natural preserve in Fujian Provence. The water used was a filtered and boiled New York City-available tap (being very honest here). The result was exquisite.

The flavor was what I wanted in a Da Hong Pao. Only slightly roasty, no hint of charcoal like most modern interpretations of this tea. Spicy but also floral, with notes of sandalwood, carob, and something akin to rose water. What stood out most of all was how thick the mouth feel on this tea was. The finish lasted for hours!

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(IMAGE: The final result: a beautiful brew of Da Hong Pao enjoyed in a Meiji-period blue-and-white teacup)

Having had this tea under less-fastidious means, I could easily note the marked difference that the leaf arranging had on the brewing. Looking into the teapot revealed the truth behind this: the leaves were evenly unfurled, curling and untwisting at the same rate. In taste, this meant no sour or bitter notes, just a clean and direct flavor that was both complex and distinct. Prepared this way, with no corners cut, resulted in what I can easily say was a tea brewed to the best of my abilities.

 

 

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Filed under Ceramics, Oolong, Tea Tasting