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Discovering white teas

30 September 2011

at 12:27 by john

white tea leaves

Bai Hao Yin Zhen, composed entirely of buds (top) and
Bai Mu Dan composed of buds and the first leaves (bottom).

Long ago in China, white tea was considered so precious it was reserved exclusively for the Emperor. It’s easy to see why. With the small scale production of the time, and such fine plucking of just the silvery down bud of each shoot during a very short period in spring (legend has it, by young virgin women with silver scissors!). This tea was worth its weight in gold! … Today, there is a much larger scale of production to match the growing demand for this type of tea.

White teas are now available in varying grades and qualities (some at prices far more accessible than the days when the imperial courtesans quenched their thirst with small sips of this nectar!). And though white tea was unique to China for hundreds of years, tea gardens of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and various African countries, among others, are now experimenting with white teas with some very interesting and varied results.

Of all styles of tea, White tea undergoes the least manipulation during its transformation. Using the greatest care after harvesting, the buds (and first leaves in some grades) will undergo only a single withering before a final drying. This avoids the step of rolling, which would break the tender silver tips and release the aromatic compounds. Thus the leaves do not undergo oxidation on their surface, thus retaining more of their delicate herbaceous and floral aromas.

white tea buds during the withering stage

Buds during the withering stage.

Near the city of Fuding in the province Fujian (legend has it that it is the birthplace of white tea in China), on the well exposed slopes of Tai Mu Mountain, at an altitude of 400-680 meters, Mr. Zhang has produced White teas for us for the past eight years. A kind, lively and passionate spirit, he is also one of our most loyal artisans. ‘Fuding Da Bai’ is the cultivar used to produce Bai Hao Yin Zhen and Bai Mu Dan Wang (in late March and early April, respectively). China’s national certification organization OTRDC (Organic Tea Research and Development Center) has certified these teas are cultivated without the use of chemicals or soluble fertilizers. Mr. Zhang also produces several other teas from our catalogue.

Mr. Zhang during a visit to one of his gardens

Mr. Zhang during a visit to one of his gardens

The character of White tea is usually delicate and fragrant. Clover honey, edible flowers, fresh walnuts, freshly cut prairie grass, are some of the aromas evoked in the sweet nuances and velvety smooth texture of the liquor. Traditionally consumed in summer by the Chinese for its refreshing aspect, it can be enjoyed at any time of the day in any season. A tea to enjoy peacefully, without food, so as to focus on its finer subtleties and its soothing effect.

The Emperor’s sacred Jade

21 September 2011

at 11:43 by François Alexis Roy

Lin Ceramics Celadon Teapot

Qing Dynasty Celadon (青瓷, literally “green porcelain”) is a type of Chinese and Korean ceramic. It was invented in the 2nd century in the Yue region (越 国, in southern China), but nevertheless draws its origins from expertise developed back in 1250 BC. This is the pottery which made both Chinese and Korean potters famous in the Imperial court. The technique was honed over time and by the 8th century, learned men of high society were being charmed by this sophisticated jade coloured teaware that enhanced the nuances of their favourite drink. Jade also has immense symbolic significance in China and is the sacred stone of the Emperor, the symbol of absolute power.

The blue-green shades are obtained by adding a small amount of iron oxide to the glaze during firing a process called “reduction”. This reduces the oxygen in the furnace, giving the desired effects to the glaze. This difficult technique requires great expertise, more time and more fuel. In fact, firing a Celadon requires a temperature of at least 1200°C to vitrify the porcelain. The ingenious Chinese potters developed kilns that could do this, known as dragon kilns or ‘Longyau‘ (龙窑).

Lin’s Ceramics Studio of Taiwan has created a superb collection of Celadon and we have some examples of cups and teapots to be admired in the shop. Combining simplistic traditional forms with the pure soothing colour of this unusual glaze. Note the texture and warmth. With good thermal conductivity the Lin Celadon teapots are perfectly suited to green teas and less oxidized wulongs.

Bon thé!

Photography: François Alexis Roy
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Tokoname: Queen City of Kyusu

14 September 2011

at 14:14 by François Alexis Roy

kyusu teapots (decorated with algae before firing)

Located on the west coast of the Chita Peninsula in Japan, the city of Tokoname is the hideout of an amazing number of renowned potters, and has been for more than ten centuries. Though considered some of the oldest artisanal kilns, the origins of artisanal ceramics in this city are quite different to the current practice of creating these delicate and unique Kyusu teapots. In fact, for many centuries, Tokoname specialized in the manufacture of tiles and vases. Despite these early days barely related to the production of fine tea ware, the potters of the region, taking great care in the manufacture of their clay and their products, gradually redefined their style (and the size) of their pieces until around the Edo period (1603-1867). It was then that various efforts were made to produce ceramics for the presentation of flowers, for use with sake and, of course, for the appreciation of tea. Thanks to the friendship between a potter and a fan of Chinese Yixing teapots – the two men who brought to light the curious similarity of mineral components of the clay of Yixing and that of Tokoname. This discovery delighted tea lovers, and even more so, potters, who flocked to the region to utilise the virtues of this natural treasure which they had previously ignored.

Having become a haven for many artisans, a host of more and more impressive techniques appeared. One of them in particular, the ‘Mogake’ technique is impressive for its reddish motifs forming a spider web over the teapots. Shortly after the drying of the freshly molded piece, the potter attaches strips of algae to the walls of the teapot which will react with minerals in the clay during firing, leaving very unusual patterns. Other technical achievements, such as the ‘Yohen’ method, (which involves placing the piece on a bed of ashes in the kiln, giving the piece a particular look due to the random movement of the ash during firing), that continues to delight the eyes of lovers of both art and of tea.

These teapots are also distinguished by a double colouration which contrasts charcoal black and red-orange Tokoname clays. For centuries innumerable styles and shapes of teapots have come from these Tokoname kilns. Even today, the potters use their ingenuity competitively to provide a multitude of functional objects that have, above all, a unique and aesthetic design. If you would just like to cast an eye over some of these treasured works of art, they can be admired in our stores.

Manuel Legault Roy

Photography: François Alexis Roy
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To rinse or not to rinse?

12 September 2011

at 15:05 by john

rinsing tea

When buying tea online or in one of our stores, you may have noticed on certain bags a pen mark next to the word “rinse”. This mark is to indicate a tea that will benefit from few seconds under a small amount of hot water (at the same temperature recommended for the infusion) … there are several reasons for rinsing.

IT HELPS THE LEAVES TO “WAKE UP”:
Teas made of large leaves, sometimes rolled (such as wulong, especially when cooked and aged) or compressed (such as Pu Er), can benefit from rinsing to help them unfold before brewing.
The leaves being heated and partially open easily release their aromatic compounds and chemicals in the infusion. It is, therefore, important to refrain from prolonged rinsing (more than ten seconds) since that would cause leaching of the delicate and precious aromas.

WASH AWAY BROKEN PARTICLES, PLANT DEBRIS OR DUST:
Whether for debris, leaf dust or residue due to ageing of some teas (mostly true for Pu Er), it is preferable to “wash” teas of debris. Smaller tea particles among the larger leaves can make the tea bitter and thick.
Pu Er teas are routinely rinsed before infusion: sometimes having matured in ‘rustic’ cellars where there is often dust, moisture and bacteria we want to clean up (once or even twice) the leaves that are about to be brewed.

DRAINING BITTERNESS :
Some Chinese green teas (and all young sheng Pu Er) undeniably improve by rinsing before brewing. This is the case for the famous Gunpowder tea that has a particularly unpleasant bitterness if not rinsed.
Some other quality Chinese greens, such as Yong Xi Huo Qing and Xin Yang Mao Jian and even higher grades, will ideally be rinsed to free them of their typical bitterness.

In summary, rinse:

  • almost all wulong (except perhaps for the Bai Hao, which is not rolled tight and is composed of smaller buds and leaves),
  • Pu Er, Chinese green teas in small leaf or rolled,
  • tea with lots of particles (due to age or reach the bottom of a bag),

 

Use water at same temperature as recommended for the first infusion, for just a few seconds.

After pouring water over the tea, dispose of the rinse water keeping the leaves in the apparatus, be it an infuser, teapot or gaiwan. The leaves are now ready to infuse.

Bonne dégustation!

Aged wulong

10 September 2011

at 13:53 by john

pots vieillissement wulong Taiwan
Jars of ageing wulong

Aged wulong tea is one of the most obscure styles to those new to tea. Having discovered “fresh” wulong many people may feel somewhat fearful of choosing “an old tea” especially with so many fresh new arrivals in our catalogue … But this is a very different department.

Increasingly rare on the market, stored like priceless jewels (that will eventually be lost ), old vintages are inherited one generation to the next, from a producer to his son. As the demand for fresh wulong continues to grow (the latest trend is to drink “the youngest”possible tea in Taiwan), fans of these fascinating aged teas are becoming concerned that this tradition of preserving and extending the life of wulong teas may be sadly lost.

Traditional charcoal roasting, Taiwan
Traditional charcoal roasting, Taiwan

Probably born of the necessity of saving unsold teas as they loose their flavour and aromas to the local humidity and ambient heat, roasting wulong both converts and revives leaves that may otherwise be lost. These successive roastings will give the leaves a sweeter character with smooth and often a slightly rustic notes, improving them gradually, year after year, according to the producer’s roasting experience. People sensitive to the “greenness” of some fresh wulongs (children, elderly and convalescents),will find these teas softer and easier to digest, the roasting having softened that vegetal bite.

Aged wulong is also produced from the Chinese roasted black wulongs from the Wuyi mountains that we call “Rock Teas” (e.g. Shui Xian, Da Hong Pao) and the Dan Cong style teas (e.g. Mi Lan Xiang) as well as more oxidized Taiwanese tea (e.g. Bai Hao), it may also be made from less oxidized green wulong such as Bao Zhong, Dong Ding or other Gao Shan Cha (“high mountain tea”). Members of this last group, depending on the length of ageing, may have retained, to some degree, some of their young spring floral aromas while other, older ones, will become woody and darker.

Comparison of two Pinglin Bao Zhong teas
Comparison of Fresh Spring Pinglin Bao Zhong 2011 (left)
and Aged Pinglin Bao Zhong 1981 (right)

The range of aromas of fresh wulong is already complex and so diverse. With aged wulong, we find a richer and more sophisticated world, multiplied by the different factors of time and the work of artisans practising their ancestral knowledge of tea production.

This whole new world of old tea is yours to explore…….

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The competition wulongs

6 September 2011

at 10:04 by François Alexis Roy

Juges at the Luku wulong competition, Taiwan

In Taiwan, in most growing areas, there are tea competitions every year. The most renowned region is definitely Luku, for the famous Dong Ding (Tung Ting). Every year, for over 35 years, thousands of teas are analyzed by a team of experienced tasters, all producers of tea.

For the spring 2011 competition, which took place in June, more than 5,000 teas were presented. The purpose of this competition is to preserve the style of “Dong Ding”, which is a wulong oxidized between 20% and 30% and subjected a final roasting which has become the signature of these producers. (see article Dong Ding (Cooked): traditional regional flavour)

How is the winner selected? There are numerous steps, here are a few: Initially the producer submits 22 Taiwanese pounds (22x600g) to the Luku Farmers Association. Some is used for the competition and 20 pounds are set aside to be packaged by the association with a seal of protection to ensure the authenticity of the product.

I have attended and participated in tastings at the contest several times over the years. Each time, I was amazed by the hard work of the judges at the centre. The assessment is made according to several criteria. Five groups of five judges will review the tea gradually to classify and determine a winner. They will analyze both the appearance (10% of score), colour (10%), flavors (30%), taste (40%) and infused leaves (10%).

After several tests by the judges, the winner will be selected. Only one lot will be designated Top Grade the price of which will exceed several thousand dollars a kilogram (always 600g!). An honorable mention is also given for the next 10 best lots, from a First Class 1 to First Class 10. Then come First Class (only 2% of the lots), Second Class (5%) and Third Class (9%). There is also a designation 3 Plum blossom given to 20% of the lots and 2 Plum blossom to other lots (34%). Over 30% of the teas will also be eliminated by the judges and returned to producers.

unnamed

Who buys these teas? Is the quality worth the price? The first lots are often bought by Taiwanese companies that want to treat or impress their important clients. These precious teas are vacuum packed in 5g amounts and offered as gifts. This year, we bought a first class lot (part top 2%  of lots), as well as a lot from the honorable mentions (the 9th one). These tea leaves have gone through over 5 analysis by experts at the centre So how good is it?

This is a great opportunity for lovers of wulong to improve their tasting proficiency. We have a limited amount of the Competition Dong Ding vacuum packed in 10g. I invite you to taste it alongside the Dong Ding M. Yu Nen cooked, which, every year, offers a very good Dong Ding, roasted with both passion and expertise.

Enjoy your tastings!

 
 

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