Tag Archives: Chaozhou

EXCLUSIVE: All About Wulong

IMG_3195Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

As we huddle closer to the warmth of the boiling kettle, we cannot help but to be drawn to tea, especially those we like to brew hotter and stronger. As part of my regular “circuit” of tea-focused lectures, I recently led a tea talk and interactive workshop at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side that concentrated on one such tea type. Titled “All About Wulong”, it was a deep dive and exploration into one of the world’s most diverse categories of tea.

As with most of my tea talks (of which you can find many of them linked within this blog either in posts or under the “Education” tab), I began “All About Wulong” with a brief but detailed discussion on the meaning of wulong (note I am using the Chinese written form “wulong”, which in Pinyin is wūlóng, in Wade-Giles it is “oolong”, and in tradition Chinese script it is 烏龍). Next I outlined the historical origins and context of wulong tea production, consumption, and brewing methods. Following this, we spent the rest of the evening tasting a variety of select wulong teas, reflecting varieties that originated in (or were influenced by) Taiwan, Anxi, Chaozhou, and Wuyishan. Teas ranged from freshly-harvested to aged. In this, we examined they myriad of different processing styles and how to approach them from both a brewing method and from the many aspects of connoisseurship.

As part of an ongoing series that examines the diversity of China’s tea culture and tea production, “All About Wulong” was a fully-immersive workshop and tea talk, which not only sought to educate minds and palates, but to also encourage inquiry and help to hone participants’ tea appreciation and brewing skills (i.e. their 功夫茶 gōngfūchá skills). As part of this continuing effort, I offer you, my beloved readers, the video and notes to this event, for you to enjoy and learn from it.

“All About Wulong”

Link to video

All about Wulong Presentation Grid ImageTo aid in the watching of this 3 hour-long recording, I offer you a brief table of contents. The first third of the tea talk is a presentation of over 30 slides (a fraction of which is pictured above), followed by a break-out discussion and tea brewing session.

Presentation Contents:

  • Defining Wulong Tea
  • Locating Wulong Tea
  • Origins of Wulong Tea
    • During the Song Period
    • During the Ming Period
  • Wulong Tea’s Constant Evolution
    • During the Ming Period
    • During the Qing Period
    • During the Late Qing to Modern Period
  • Brewing Wulong Tea
    • “Mind & Materiality of Wulong Tea”
    • The Skill & Challenge of Wulong Tea
  • Final Thoughts

Break-Out Discussion: Teas Tasted:

  • 阿里山高山烏龍茶 Ālǐshān gāoshān wūlóngchá (Alishan High Mountain wulong), Spring 2018 from Alishan, Taiwan (elevation 1300m). Sourced from Tillerman Tea, Napa, California.
  • 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiěguānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Bodhisattva” wulong tea), Winter 2017 from Muzha, Taiwan (elevation 600m). Sourced from Tillerman Tea, Napa, California.
  • 老柚花香鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Lǎo yòu huāxiāng fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (“Old Pomelo Flower Fragrance” Phoenix single bush wulong tea) from 350 year-old bushes, Chaozhou, Guangdong province, China. Sourced from Floating Mountain Tea House, New York, New York.
  • 鐵羅漢武夷山岩茶 Tiě luóhàn Wǔyíshān yánchá (“Iron Arhat” Wuyi Mountain “rock/cliff tea”), Wuyishan, Fujian province, China. Sourced from Floating Mountain Tea House, New York, New York.
  • 1980年 凍頂烏龍茶 Dòng Dǐng wūlóngchá (1980 “Frozen Summit” wulong tea), Nantou county, Taiwan. Personally sourced.

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Look out for more tea talks and workshops soon to be added to this blog. I regularly present and moderate at museums, universities, tea houses, cultural centers, etc. For speaking inquiries, feel free to reach out to scotttea888 (at) gmail.com.

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

Tea for a Broken World

With October at its halfway point, Autumn’s grip on the world seems at once soft but typified by a growing chill. Cold winds whip through the trees, pulling leaves from limbs and giving the world a distinctive weathered and worn appearance.

Sitting down for tea this afternoon, the sound of the wind outside my window, I cannot help but to be inspired.

Desiring something darker and stronger, as if to offer some sort of resistance to the weather outside, I select a 老欉水仙 lǎo cóng shuǐxiān (“Old Bush Water Immortal”) Wuyi oolong. To brew it, I choose an antique 思亭壶 Sī Tíng hú Yixing teapot, set within a broken Ming-period shallow celadon bowl.

With a kettle set to boil, I methodically warm each vessel; the teapot, the Korean sookwoo, the three small buncheong-jagi cups.

The light of the day shifts from bright to muted dark as clouds pass over the sun. The large, twisted leaves of the dark oolong tea offer up their aroma upon first wetting.

The frantic actions of the bending trees outside offer a stark contrast to the thoughtful, measured movements within the tearoom.

Small vignettes of water rising from the teapot’s spout, steam swirling from the kettle’s mouth, and the Yixing clay darkening as the tea fully steeps.

As the world outside my window tears itself apart in preparation for Winter’s still and ice-bound cadence, within the world of tea, life continues to change and evolve.

The tea is brewed and it’s liqueur seems to glow like copper in the tiny grey cups.

A moment is left to linger as the leaves drift upon a softening breeze.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Korea, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting

Autumn and the Year Begins to Decay

IMG_2061Autumn marks the steady decline of the year into the chill of Winter. Like a gourd fully ripening on the vine, Autumn always has the most tenuous existence. At once brilliant with its vibrant bursts of color, then falling, collapsing upon itself, broken and rotting.

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The evanescence of Fall is beautiful but bittersweet. In tea, this is celebrated with the joyful use of broken (and often repaired) tea items. In October, one finds the yabure-buro (敗風炉) iron tea kettle brought into the tearoom, distinguished by its broken and tattered iron flange. Often, too, are pieces of lacquer repaired teaware employed, their incomplete and fused-together profiles seem to fit perfectly amidst the contemplation of Autumn leaves and the growing chill of the season.

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On this early October morning, I opt to bring out a small antique porcelain hōhin (宝瓶, handleless teapot). While it gleams a pure white glow in the soft morning light, the broken and repaired edge of its circumference seems right at home in the season, adding character to the otherwise plain piece and giving a glimpse into the story of this little vessel.

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To accompany the small hōhin is a collection of Chinese monochrome porcelain teacups, the size and shape of each being slightly different from the other. Their irregularity seems fitting alongside the other imperfections Autumn brings.

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Repaired with gold lacquer (金継ぎ; kintsugi), the coldness of the white porcelain hōhin is softened by the warmth of the mottled gold mend. How evidence of an injury can humble an individual, so too does the presence of this repair evoke a sense of humility. How Autumn, too, can remind us of how weak we are against the biting cold of Winter, and how all eventually decays with time.

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Yet in Autumn we are also reminded of how the year progressed.

Pulled from a tightly-sealed tea canister where they had remained packed away since Spring are the uneven twists and coils of a roasted 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (Phoenix single bush oolong tea).  Revealed for a second time since when the weather was warmer and the world was shining in green and glimmering leaves, the tea seems to infer this season; a “second Spring” amidst the chill of an October day.

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As the kettle comes to a full boil, the tiny world of the tearoom seems to warm and glow.

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The tiny hōhin , initially rinsed and warmed with boiled water, is now filled with the leaves of the oolong tea. Almost instantly, the residual heat of the water within the vessel wakes the tea and its intense floral aroma begins to drift upwards into the air.

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Mere seconds pass and the tea is decanted. With finger tips and thumb holding the tiny vessel, I mindfully and methodically move from one cup to the next and back again.

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As the tea continues to steep, and cup after cup is enjoyed, its color deepens, changes, and fades. As Spring turned to Summer and now to Fall, the world around us, too, transforms. Perhaps we’ve become wiser, maybe a bit jaded. The chill in the air, maybe, feels a bit colder for this reason too. But, in some small way, tea brings us back to center.

What a subtle gesture it is, to enjoy a broken and mended tea vessel during this time of year. To be reminded of our faults and our mistakes, and to still be able to smile. Its not folly but wisdom to break something and repair it again. To patch up the fissures with lacquer and gold. Repaired in such a way, a tea object becomes stronger. Repaired in such a way, we choose not to forget but to celebrate our imperfections.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Japan, Meditation, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

EXCLUSIVE: All About Yixing & Chaozhou Teapots

All About Yixing & Chaozhou Tea

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

I have been on the road (and in the air) for much of August. Now back on terra firma I final have a brief moment to catch my breath and add more delicious video content from a Summer’s worth of tea talks and interactive workshops. So, without further ado, I present to you “All About Yixing & Chaozhou Teapots”.

As with previous tea talks (uploaded to this blog and those still pending), “All About Yixing & Chaozhou Teapots” delves deep into the singular and diverse topic of China’s most famous ceramic ware for the brewing of tea. Prized since the Ming period, Yixing teaware became the hallmark of quality and refinement for any 茶人 (chá rén, “tea person”) from the Ming up to this very day. Conversely, Chaozhou teapots have remained relatively unknown outside of the region of Chaozhou until relatively recently. In this event and live broadcast, we explore the historical and creative interplay of the two as they developed over time in conjunction with the history of tea and tea culture in China. Additionally, we went deep into the qualities that define teapot construction and functionality, and offered insights into sourcing, selecting, seasoning, and brewing with both unique teapot styles.

As part of an ongoing series that examines the diversity of China’s tea culture, “All About Yixing & Chaozhou Teapots” was  a fully-immersive workshop and tea talk, featuring tea tasting, discussions and education on art history, and offered hands-on opportunities to brew tea and hone teapot brewing skills. Participants were encouraged to ask questions, taste tea, and bring their own teapots to use and share.

“All About Yixing & Chaozhou Teapots”

Link to video

Yixing & Chaozhou Presentation Thumbnail

To aid in the watching of this almost 3 hour-long recording, I offer you a brief table of contents. The first half of the tea talk and interactive workshop is a presentation of over 30 slides (a fraction of which is pictured above), followed by a break-out discussion and tea brewing session.

Presentation Contents:

  • Locating Yixing and Chaozhou
    • Clays, Quarries, Kilns, and Tea
  • Origins and Evolution of Yixing & Chaozhou Teapots
    • Precursors to Popularlization
    • Historical Forms
    • Place in Tea Culture
  • Qualities of Yixing & Chaozhou Teapots
    • Clay
    • Firing
    • Pot Construction
    • Pot Form & Function
  • Brewing with a Yixing & Chaozhou Teapot
    • How to Pour, Brew, Hold & Other Considerations

Break-Out Discussion: Teapots Used and Teas Tasted:

  • 1970s-1980s 綠泥 lǜ ní (“green clay”) 西施壺 Xīshīhú (“Lady Shi of the West Teapot”) brewing 大禹嶺 Dà Yǔ Lǐng from Taichung County, Taiwan (elevation 2650 meters)
  • Late 19th-20th century 朱泥 Zhū ní (“cinnabar clay”) 思亭壺 Sī tíng hú (“Master Si Ting Teapot”) brewing a traditionally oxidized and roasted 鐵觀音 Tiě Guān Yīn “Iron Goddess of Mercy” from Anxi County, Fujian, China
  • Late 1990s 朱泥 Zhū ní (“cinnabar clay”) 肉扁 Ròu biǎn (“Lump of Meat”) teapot, commissioned by Roy K. Fong of Imperial Tea Court, brewing 大烏葉 Dà Wū Yè (“Big Black Leaf”) 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (Phoenix single bush oolong tea) from Chaozhou County, Guangdong, China
  • Late 1980s-early 1990s 黃泥 Huáng ní (“yellow clay”) Chaozhou high-fired 羅漢 Luóhàn-shaped teapot brewing a 大赤甘 Dà Chì Gān (“Large Red Sweetness”) from Wuyishan, Fujian, China

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Look out for more tea talks and workshops soon to be added to this blog. I regularly present and moderate at museums, universities, tea houses, cultural centers, etc. For speaking inquiries, feel free to reach out to scotttea888 (at) gmail.com.

 

 

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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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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

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.

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(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