Recently in brewing tea Category

In Part Two of our interview with Bret Hinsch, author of The Ultimate Guide to Chinese Tea, we learn more about tea by observing and smelling the leaves. Listen and enjoy:

letting tea settle

| 1 Comment | No TrackBacks
LettingTeaSettle.jpg
It is the natural inclination to act on your excitement when receiving tea in the mail by opening the package immediately and sitting down to steep it.  If you happen to feel mildly surprised or disappointed that the tea is not "performing" as you had hoped, try letting it rest for a few weeks or more, then steeping it again.  You will likely be rewarded.

Just as people can often feel a little out of sorts after moving homes or travelling long distances, tea can take some time to re-orient and settle after being jostled over miles of ground travel or pressurized at 30,000 feet during air transport. 

I noticed this strongly with my recent shipment of Asian Beauty, which after five weeks of settling in my storage, now offers a rich, smooth, round body and soft mouth feel that were, shall we say, "struggling" when I first received it.

People whose passion is the study of tea will tell you that tea requires careful handling and rest when being moved from one storage space to another, even within the same town or village. Plants are extremely sensitive to change, and just as a person can suffer jet lag or mild disorientation when traveling or moving homes, tea can experience "shock" when being transported or changing venues, and is best left alone for a while to find its equilibrium.

I have experienced this with several teas, and noticed that some teas can take a few months   of "regrouping" to reach their fullest potential, particularly when the tea has traveled from one country to another.

If you are willing to be patient and let your tea get over its jet lag, you will often be repaid with a bright, smooth tea that provides the resilience it has developed, as well as the rest and comfort as it has been given.

professional tea cupping

| No Comments | No TrackBacks
JudgingTea1824.jpg

There is a common protocol used by tea professionals to judge teas which is called "cupping". When visiting a tea farmer or wholesaler, the tea buyer might see several white porcelain cups and several plates of tea which are set up by the tea seller. The seller will then weigh four to five grams of tea, and put it into each of the cups. S/he will then pour near boiling water at the same temperature into each of the cups, which contain the same amount of tea. A timer will be set for five minutes, and when the five minutes is up, the buyer then begins sampling the teas, using a white porcelain spoon to dip into the cups, smell the aroma, and also serve him/herself some tea into the sampling cup.

By using the same weight, water temperature and steeping duration, all of the teas are treated exactly alike. While teas are naturally grossly over-steeped with near boiling water, (which is counter intuitive to making a great cup of tea), this method of employing extremes brings out the characteristics of the teas to the highest degree, allowing the tea professional to quickly assess both the strengths and weaknesses of the tea.

Generally the buyer will be sampling one kind of tea and therefore judging many different options of the same tea. For example, (s)he will be tasting five or six different Lishan teas or Asian Beauty teas (if in Taiwan). From time to time, a seller will also include a sample that is a different kind of tea to the others.

heating elements for tea

| 2 Comments | No TrackBacks
 
TeapotOverWoodFire.jpg
Many variables play a role in the making of a great cup of tea: water quality, water temperature, and amount as well as the  type, quality and quantity of tea leaves, and of course, steeping time. What few consider, however, is the impact of the heating element on the tea.

Some tea people are mindful of this, and go out of their way to find or create just the right  heating element.  Possible sources for heat include charcoal fire, wood fire, electric coil (stove), gas range, and ceramic heat, among others including electric plug-in appliances.

In earlier times, and still now in some parts of the world, people had no choice but to heat water over a wood or charcoal fire. From experience, I can say this does enhance the pleasure of a tea event, but how does it influence the tea itself? Does it matter if you boil tea over a hot flame or stove or more slowly at a medium high temperature?

According to Lu Yu, author of The Classic of Tea (Cha Ching) in eighth century China, "The ancients placed a great store in tea's flavor when it was brewed with firewood that had been cured for a long time." If using charcoal, he said, be sure to use new charcoal so that it does not "give off a musty, rank and greasy smell".  He also advised against using "oily wood or worn-out or discarded utensils as fuel."

It is hard to know what he would have thought of a gas or electric range or a Zojirushi, but my guess is that he would think electricity to be too excitable for the best in tea.

Urasenke_Charcoal.jpg
In American society, we tend to like the quick fix - the electric kettle or Zojirushi. Some among us still revert to wood fire, but usually when camping, and not on a regular basis. Others use ceramic hotplates, which heat the tea at an even rate, and have high marks among tea connoisseurs for its impact on the tea.

Urasenke-Charcoal 310.jpg
Japanese tea ceremony relies on the ritual making of a charcoal fire in a pit as well as the cleaning of same. There are even special procedures for placing and removing particular pieces of charcoal as part of the ceremony.  For the making of the fire to be a part of such an important tea ceremony, the quality of the fire must have impact on the quality of the tea and the tea experience.

Some people think electricity disturbs the energy of the tea water and that a wood or charcoal fire lends a natural element which cannot be duplicated by nuclear generated power.  Whether these enhance the tea itself is up for speculation.  Any comments?

morning tea

| 1 Comment | No TrackBacks

Settle-026-3.jpg
Settle-065.jpg
Settle-157b.jpg
I have found no better way to spend the early hours. JLS

While traditional Chinese and Taiwanese tea ceremony normally involves a yixing teapot, a gaiwan or "covered bowl", can also be used, as in the video below.  In this video Chen Shao Lan from the famed Geow Yung Tea Hong in Taipei demonstrates the use of a gaiwan in gong fu cha.



the imperfect cup

| No Comments | No TrackBacks
imperfectcup2.jpg
"Wabi" is a Japanese term that describes "perfection through imperfection," and sometimes refers to imperfections in ceramics and other material things. It is imperfection that gives a thing its true value and perfection, according to those who ascribe to the wabi ethic. 

Now to tea and the imperfect cup...

Not every cup has to be perfection. When the tea turns out to have bitter tones because it has been over-steeped or, on the other hand, too watery because it has been under-steeped, one might be inclined to self criticism.

imperfectcup3.jpg
Be patient! The imperfectly steeped cup is your teacher, as it guides and helps you to  understand tea in a deeper way.

The imperfect cup will lead you to experiment with water types and temperature, different kinds of teaware, and varying steeping times. When taken in combination, the variables to achieving the "perfect cup" will keep you busy, amused, creative, and alert.

Buddhists say that "enemies" ultimately do more to benefit us than do our adoring, accepting friends. The enemy gives us challenges, which when overcome, bring us to a higher level of self-mastery and awareness, and therefore closer to "enlightenment" or spiritual completeness.  So it is with the imperfect cup.

Sip, engage, explore.....and appreciate every sip of your  "imperfect" tea!

how to use a tea aroma cup

| No Comments | No TrackBacks
  YuanSyuYuanTeahouse_MG_8632 copy.jpg




Mmmmm.....the first time you use an aroma cup (also called a fragrance cup), you will understand why some tea people become addicts.  The euphoria one feels when breathing in the fragrant florals of a Taiwnese oolong cannot be measured, and like all undefined things, leaves one searching for words to describe a sensation that defies even the mighty metaphor. But since articles rely on words, I shall do my best to introduce to you one of the most special elements of a tea ritual with Taiwanese oolongs.

CreamTeaCup+AromaCupSet-greenhanko-1339 copy.jpg
 
 
 
The aroma cup is distinguished by its cylindrical shape which enhances the fragrance of the tea. The use of fragrance cups originated in the 1970s in Taiwan, when oolong production increased dramatically and a connoisseur market for these delicate floral teas developed. The aroma cup became a part of the Taiwanese tea ritual for many years, but since the late 19080s or early '90s, has fallen out of favor, and many people now just smell the lid of the gaiwan when the tea is brewing.

I still favor the aroma cup, and believe that it greatly enhances the overall experience of the tea in a way that smelling the lid of the gaiwan cannot.

Aroma cups are typically used only on the first steeping and only on Taiwanese oolongs. You will rarely if ever see aroma cups used in China or Japan.  (I, however, use my aroma cup on all teas, regardless of tea type, but only on the first steeping).

This is how you use an aroma (fragrance) cup:
1) Heat the aroma cup, tasting cup and tea vessel with hot water, and pour off
2) Steep tea properly
3) Pour tea into the aroma cup
4) Cover the aroma cup with the tasting cup by inverting the tasting cup so that the pair resemble a mushroom.
5) Hold the pair together with thumb and middle finger
6) Flip the aroma cup and tasting cup pair, so that the aroma cup is facing downward, into the tasting cup.
7) Lift the aroma cup vertically, out of the tasting cup, leaving the tea in the tasting cup.
8) Waft the aroma cup to give it some air
9) Sink your nose into the aroma cup and enjoy the fragrance.
10) Smell it every 10-15 seconds to smell the changes of the aroma as it mixes with the air. It will become sweeter and more fragrant for the first 60-90 seconds before falling off.

how experts judge teas

| No Comments | No TrackBacks
cupping6b.jpg
How do experts judge teas? By "cupping".  That's what it is called when experts line up a series of white porcelain cups, drop a standardized amount of tea (usually 3 grams) into each of them, then pour boiling hot water over the tea and let it sit for exactly five minutes.
 
Yes, five minutes each--whether a green, black, oolong or white tea. For most teas, this standardized infusion will render the leaves steeped to or beyond their full potential, drawing out both the strengths and the weaknesses of the teas.

cupping3.jpg
Following this, the tea buyer will submerge a white porcelain spoon into an infused tea, then sniff the spoon to take in the aroma of the tea. After that, the spoon is used to allocate a small amount of tea into his or her personal tea cup for tasting.  The spoon is then rinsed in hot water before sampling the next tea in line to ensure that no residue of the previously tested tea will influence the taste of the next.
 
This process can and usually does take hours of sipping, discussing, waiting, laughing, and weighing (both teas and opinions).  It's all quite fun, until one realizes that the tea is stronger than the tea drinker.  Buyers might even return the next day to try final-selection teas with a fresh palate to be sure of the purchase.

On a recent trip to Taiwan, I found it at first quite difficult to judge teas this way.  They all tasted terrible to me when steeped for five minutes in boiling water.  But watching expert tea buyers cupping teas and asking them many questions helped me to understand what they were looking for in the sample brews.

As in other areas of life, one generally must make compromises when selecting teas.  One infusion might have a floral aroma to knock your socks off, but a bit of a harsh bite to the taste buds. Another might have a very full-bodied flavor but not have as great an aroma. Still others have their strengths and weaknesses. It must be very rare indeed that a tea expert has that "ah ha!" sentiment when finding the "perfect" tea. 

cupping2.jpg
What many tea buyers look for in a tea is balance. The various notes of the tea harmonize with eachother, without any particular aspect of the tea overpowering the others.  They might also be looking for the archetypal qualities of certain tea varietals to be present.  It might be a great tasting Phoenix oolong, but does it have that honey finish for which it is famous?  Does the Lishan have that buttery, light mouth feel that is so sought after by connoisseurs of tea? Does the Ti Kuan Yin offer that "whoosh" that comes off one's face with the delicate, almost ethereal finish?
 
cupping4c.jpg
Judges often cup more than a dozen teas at one time, and each person has his or her own way of marking which ones should be pursued further. Some people move the actual cups forward or backward, others make mental notes, others make notes on paper.  When the contest has narrowed to only two or three teas, the tea buyer might ask the seller to steep the teas in a gaiwan, and as a person would do for himself at home.  This way the tea buyer gets a sense of what customers will actually taste.

What you finally receive in your cup as a customer is a bit of the palate of the tea buyer, the gifts of the tea farmer and craftspeople, and ultimately, the character of the tea.
David Lee Hoffman is known as one of the great tea experts in the United States. His thirty-five-year history of collecting teas in Asia has given Hoffman a rare and deep understanding of tea collecting and tea brewing. Here, Hoffman shows us how to open up the stalk of the Bamboo Fragrance Puerh and also how to steep it. Each sip of this smokey, exotic tea makes you feel as though you were sitting by a wood fire in a small tribal village with the people who made this tea. A tea no connoisseur would want to miss, and offered at a price accessible to both the novice and the collector.  Enjoy this video:

tea picnic season

| No Comments | No TrackBacks
 
Rita&Arnas-falls copy.jpg Rita & Arnas sipping a winter baozhong together by Cascade Falls

In Tang dynasty China as well as in Victorian England, taking tea outside was de rigeur, as well as a marvelous way to share some ebullient times and fine teas with great friends and colleagues.  Japanese tea ceremony also celebrates the natural world, but even the most austere and engaging tea room is no match for Mother Nature.

Arnas1.jpgWe have all seen images of those romantic days when folks joined together to sing, laugh, recite poetry, make music, and share philosophies by soft flowing streams and blue mirror lakes, all the while sipping tea.

 


Spring called up these images, and conspired with memories of last October's Wuwo tea ceremony to get excited about creating an outdoor tea. So on a sunny Saturday afternoon, friends Rita Stanikunaite and Arnas Palaima joined me for the first tea picnic of the season in my hometown in N. California, where streams, waterfalls and redwoods converge to create the ideal tea picnic site. The natural tapestry of wild flowers, towering trees, flashing streams, and rich flowing waterfalls spurred by spring rains made the perfect backdrop to an amazing tea gathering.

 
 
Here are some tips for you to consider in creating your own tea picnic or outdoor tea gathering:
  • Bring a thermos of filtered, water which is boiled just before leaving for your hike or picnic.  Use a large thermos--you'll need it to rinse cups & heat teaware besides just brewing tea.. (Sometimes more IS more.)
  • Bring a tea that requires cooler brewing temperatures--often green, white and delicate oolongs work best.  For our picnic, we chose a winter bao zhong, and it was spectacular!  Now that spring teas are newly arrived, you may want to celebrate the event by choosing new spring teas.
  • PicnicTeaware2.jpgBring teaware:  gaiwan or yixing teapot, cups for each person, serving vessel, and cup coasters. It is fun to bring special tea ware reserved for special occasions.  Pack it carefully or use a tea travel set.
  • Bring a nice mat, blanket, or pretty piece of fabric to sit on and create the space.
  • Find a place that inspires you with its beauty, and light, and which is not heavily visited. It is especially inspiring to have tea by a body of water--stream, waterfall, pond, lake, etc.
  • Bring some delicately flavored snacks. ( I brought a lightly sweetened polenta honey cake and fresh organic anjou pears for color and delicate taste.
  • Bring friends, a date, a colleague, or your family.  Or just head out on the trail on your own.  It's all good!
We can slow down and enjoy the seasons and its teas.

Teancemarch19063 copy.jpg
A number of tea masters and merchants recommend brewing techniques as guidelines, and in the same breath say, "But these are just signposts. You have to know the tea."

By learning the nuances of one tea, you pick up the secrets of others. This is the art of the tea connoisseur.

For example,  J-Tea's Mi Xiang oolong, smells a little bitter after the rinse, and when brewed for 60 seconds, the tea exhibits a harsh edge and an almost dry mouth feel. When brewed for 20 seconds, however, it's a really fine, smooth tea with complexity, character, and even a wry sweetness.  Where did the bitterness go? It seems to have been swallowed by the black hole created by the absent 40 seconds.

The same goes for the Bamboo Fragrance Puerh from The Phoenix Collection and a number of other teas that I now recognize as a category when I smell them....the sharp, bitter smell, mingled with other notes like sweetness and smokiness signal a tea that requires a short brewing time.  Brew it for only 10-20 seconds and you might not taste any bitterness at all.

This works for Phoenix oolongs, green puerhs, and other teas like J-Tea's Mi Xiang. So in getting to know the Mi Xiang by spending real time with it, I learned something about a certain quality in tea and what it's telling me about its brewing requirements.

From there, brewing variables increase: you can experiment with different tea ware or water, leaf quantity, and higher or lower water temperature. Each tea will sing more sweetly or wail a little louder with each slight change.

What are you learning from tea? Let me hear about your tea adventures....

rethinking the steep

| 1 Comment | No TrackBacks
This morning I did a sampling of the 2006 Rice Pollen Puerh from Pure Puer Tea. Using very hot water for the first couple of infusions for a minute or more produced a very bitter, almost undrinkable tea. But the lovely, smokey aroma wafting off the lid of the gaiwan suggested that I had erred, and there was something good to be found in this tea.

According to Roy Fong in his book, The Great Teas of China, "Younger, less fermented puerh can easily become bitter, so try about 2 tsp in medium-hot water with a 1-3 minute steep time." I've noticed that Roy likes his tea "thick" (heavily infused), so even the 1-3 minute steep time might still be too long for some teas for another palate.

So I started completely over with a new serving of leaves, and this time brewed only one teaspoon in 185-190ºF water for only 5-10 seconds (similar to brewing specs at Pure Puer Tea). Nice!

I had a very similar experience with David Hoffman's Bamboo Fragrance Puerh, which when steeped for 90 seconds was undrinkable.  Taking it down several notches made the magic happen. Brewed in 195ºF water for about 15 seconds created a really fine and unique brew, offering a kind of smokey, exotic taste that made me feel as if I were sitting by an open fire with the tribe that had picked and processed the tea.

So, the next time you find an "undrinkable" tea, try steeping it very differently.  Hotter or cooler water, more or less leaf, different tea ware, or a change in steeping duration (or a combination of some of these variables) can make all the difference.

Then again, some teas ARE undrinkable.  In such a case, toss it in the garden, and find a new tea.

polls

What do you think about organic teas?