Beyond the Leaf
Great outcomes in tea-making are not a given. Sometimes it goes according to plan, but often times tea-makers are presented with circumstances that may not reflect what they were hoping for and it’s time to make tough decisions. They can simply follow a written procedure regardless (and many of them do), but each situation brings change, change brings challenge, and challenge brings charm – if you can adapt. The 2022 spring season Tieguanyin project certainly brought challenge.Tea fields in Dehua County, Fujian Province
Challenge #1 was to choose new fields with access to better equipment (the factory has to be nearby) and better leaf material.
These fields are at a lower altitude than last year (meaning higher temperatures) and quite wild, though the grower informed Daniel that light trimming and weeding are occasionally applied and the quality of the leaf appeared good. These plants date back to 2003 and when not growing in their wild habitat, too little maintenance can produce poor quality leaf material to work with.
The wet leaf on the plant waiting to dry out for picking
Challenge #2 was persistent rain and we worried that it may rain through our target harvest date and foil our plans entirely.
Luckily, there was a long enough pause for the leaf to dry out prior to picking (which was done by hand this time instead of machine), but the moisture content was still much higher than anticipated. High moisture content will inhibit the ability to bring out high-quality aromatics or that “fruit” character we keep chasing.Insect damage to contend with
Challenge #3 was insects.
These fields have been pesticide free for the last ten years, which presents its own series of trade-offs. The green leaf hopper is a small cicada commonly found in tea fields and its presence is desirable (or more accurately – necessary) in traditional Taiwanese oolong teas like Oriental Beauty and Gui Fei. However, there was a little more presence than desirable here and though it didn’t ruin the leaf, it definitely changed the circumstances upon which decisions are made.Tea-maker Daniel Hong assessing the withering progressThe traditional route for making tieguanyin is sun withering > shaking > kill-green > rolling > drying > final roast. But after the kill-green step the moisture content was still too high. To compensate for this, another 100°C roast was applied after rolling and the tea was piled and wrapped for 4 hours (similar to yellow tea craft) to improve moisture flow, raise the temperature, and kickstart fermentation again. Using these techniques allowed Daniel to get a clean aroma and preserve the body of tea. The mao cha (mao cha = finished, base material tea) was completed and allowed to rest for a month before roasting.Kill-green step to arrest enzymes that allow oxidation
By this time the project had already veered far from its original course so Daniel presented us with four options – the original mao cha and three increasing levels of roasting. To us, the heaviest roast was the most cohesive product - a pleasantly aggressive toasty aroma and a comfortable feeling in the stomach. When the leaves had cooled after steeping the aroma was fruity rather than toasty or fire. Talent!Steeped leaf and liquor
Challenge #4 was roasting all the mao cha to match what we had chosen.
He planned to use the electric roasting oven since this produces the most consistent results, but Mr. Soup (his real name is Tang Shuang Jiang – check out his excellent teas here) had stunk it up by roasting puer tea (which means our tea would absorb the puer aroma – not good). Rather than wait for the smell to dissipate and delay the project further, Daniel chose to use an electric roaster with a bamboo basket, which combines traditional and modern technology. Though it is more difficult to get consistent results from batch to batch roasting this way, it gives more control to the roaster to accomplish specific goals. Because of the difficulties presented at the outset, the “Qi” of this tea was not clear and required thoughtful handling to recover its more desirable qualities (“Qi” roughly translates as “energy” and as a concept that relates to tea we’re not going to go into that here). This included several roasts with slowly increasing temperatures with periods of rest in between. The resting is important as the tea can only tolerate so much roast at one time and cannot be pushed beyond its limits without bad things happening.
With the roasting and blending completed, we have the only 15kg of this tea that will ever exist. Was it perfection - no. But did we still get a good product at a good price – yes! Maybe some of these details are less than romantic, but such is tea-making in real life. The challenge is the charm and victory is sweet. Thanks to Daniel Hong for all his hard work on this. After everything that happened, this one is clearly a win.
Forget What You Know About White Tea
White tea is difficult to describe objectively. It is minimally processed, yet can have widely varying outcomes. All white tea goes through an unusually long withering process which gives it that pervasive light sweetness at its core. For a more thorough description, click here, but it’s primarily a long time withering and a short time drying. There are some producers who break rules and incorporate oolong techniques like shaking and rolling their white tea. You could make an argument that that isn’t white tea, but to quote the great Kris Kristofferson, “If it sounds like country music, man, that’s what it is...”Withering white tea leaves
Not Your Grandfather’s Tea
White tea is still little understood or consumed in America, but its popularity is growing in China. Young people there often view white tea as healthy and hip – not the tea their grandfather’s drink. Traditionally, making white tea is a “hands-off” process. This means the leaves will retain more of their natural shape, making it bulky and voluminous when compared with other tea. But white tea is now commonly pressed into cakes (similar to puer), which makes it convenient for storing, aging, and the compressed leaf is much easier to handle in western steeping gear (and cool looking). Whether loose leaf or pressed, one isn’t necessarily better than the other, it depends on what kind of tea it is, and more importantly, what you’re looking for.White tea has a wide variation of leaf styles
White Tea is Not Delicate
Though others may say otherwise, steep white tea however you see fit. You can boil it, steep it too long, and swear at it. Well-made white tea will still have a light sweetness and usually lack astringency. If you want to turn the temperature down, go for it. If you want to crank everything up to “11”, try it out. If you want more specific recommendations, we’re happy to help. It’s worth stating the obvious that white tea is often not white in appearance. The process typically turns the leaves into a varying mix of silver/gray and greens. But since there is no kill-green step, sometimes incidental oxidation/fermentation can occur, which will turn the leaves darker through that long withering process. The more the leaf is handled during withering, the more oxidation is likely to happen. The aging process will darken the leaves as well. At five years white tea can go through quite a bit of transformation, which is much quicker than most puer.Steeped white tea cup colors
Review: What is Red Dawn?Mr. Lin on harvest day for 2022 Red Dawn
We’ve written about Red Dawn before, but here’s a quick overview. Red Dawn is a black tea from Anxi county in the Fujian province of China. Anxi county is famous for its traditional style of oolong (not black tea). This tea is a combined effort of Daniel Hong (who came up with the idea for Red Dawn during the initial outbreak of coronavirus in 2020) and Mr. Lin Rui Fu (who owns the fields, factories, and skills to pull it off). Red Dawn is combination of unique elements:
- It’s a black tea made from a tea cultivar used almost exclusively for oolong production (Huang Jin Gui).
- It’s a black tea that combines oolong tea production techniques.
- It’s oxidized in 15kg portioned cloth wraps (this is not common in any way).
- It is exclusive to TeaSource.
Why does TeaSource now label Red Dawn by year?
- Because each year is very different. Each year brings its own set of circumstances and therefore decisions to make. Each set of decisions carried out (and the circumstances that underlie them) bring about different results. It’s the art of tea making. Even though much of the process stays the same each year, we brand each lot of Red Dawn with the year it was made because these are in fact different products.
- Red Dawn holds up well over time and therefore we will often be carrying two different lots at the same time. We’re giving you the choice to buy the specific lot you are interested in.
What is Jasmine Tea?
“Jasmine Tea” is tea (Camellia sinensis) scented with jasmine blossoms (Jasminum sambac). The base tea typically used for scenting is green tea, though it is possible to use other types of tea. A tea is “scented” by repeating a series of steps in which the tea absorbs the fragrance directly from the jasmine blossoms. It is possible to use flowers other than jasmine for scenting, but jasmine is by far the most popular.
How is Jasmine Tea Made?
Jasmine teas are typically “scented” for 1-4 rounds. There are jasmine teas scented five or more rounds, but these teas are rare and become very expensive. A round of scenting (or “Yin” in Chinese) consists of the following steps:
Scenting tea leaves for Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearls
- Mixing and piling the jasmine flowers with the tea. The tea must completely cover the jasmine blossoms in order to prevent the fragrance from escaping. This is referred to as “covering.”
- Opening the pile when temperature rises to desired temperature (approx. 118°f). This is to allow air flow, the release of heat and moisture, and the distribution of fragrance. This mixing, cover, and opening is repeated several times until the blossoms have finished releasing their fragrance.
- Remove the jasmine blossoms.
- Roast the tea to remove moisture (approx. 185°f for 3 hours) and allow to cool.
This entire process is one round of scenting and takes approximately 3-4 days. Higher quality jasmine teas may skip the roast step during the last round of scenting to highlight that aromatic freshness. The practice is referred to as “Ti” in Chinese or “Fly” in English.
It’s worth mentioning that the word “roast” is a short-hand term for a low-heat drying process. It doesn’t mean “roast” as applicable to coffee beans, but gently removes unwanted moisture and makes subtle chemical changes. “Roast” is the English word commonly used by Chinese tea makers to refer many applications where heat is applied during processing. Not all “roasts” are the same. The details of a roast depend on what tea you’re making and what your goal is.
Like any other tea, there are quality and economic trade-offs to consider. Each round of scenting adds to the cost and without the proper skills, additional rounds of scenting may not produce a better product. Also, the removal of the jasmine blossoms at the end is important since these flowers have already released their fragrance and will not add to the cup character – and may detract from it. The sight of jasmine blossoms in your tea is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s better to have less than more. However, more time spent removing jasmine blossoms means higher costs.Field of jasmine flowers
The timing of the picking of the jasmine blossoms is crucial. The jasmine blossoms are picked during the day - after 10am to avoid morning dew and before 5pm so they are delivered to the factory in time for scenting at night. Flowers picked around 2pm are usually considered to deliver optimal fragrance. When picking, jasmine buds are chosen for those that will bloom that night.
How to Steep Jasmine Tea?
The steeping instructions for jasmine tea aren’t fundamentally different from any other tea. The best guide for how to steep it would be determined by the base tea used. Green tea is by far the most commonly used for making jasmine tea, because it is considered to absorb the fragrance best. If your jasmine tea is a green tea, we recommend steeping it like a green tea. However, any base tea properly prepared for the purpose of scenting can be made into jasmine (see our Black Jasmine and Jasmine Silver Needles) and we recommend you approach those as the base tea would suggest. Even though the tea is scented, the quality of the base tea is still of equal importance to the quality of the jasmine scenting. If the base tea is not good, the final product will not be good. But there are trade-offs – the better the base tea, the higher the price.
A TeaSource Exclusive! Only 8 kilograms made each for this one-time experiment!The Tieguanyin Project, Fall 2021 edition
Click here to buy! You will receive the following:
The fall edition of this project is a dual path – two teas from the same material, but two different tea makers doing it two different ways.Queen Bee Mountain
- One 2oz bag of Tieguanyin Project, Fall 2021 made by Daniel Hong
- One 2oz bag of Tieguanyin Project, Fall 2021 made by Ming
- One sample of November Tieguanyin, also made by Ming (not related to this project, but a good point of reference)
Both teas were produced on October 9th, 2021 from the exact same material at the exact same time – one batch by Daniel Hong and one by Mr. Wang Xiang Ming (known as “Ming”). The material was harvested from the garden of Mr. Wang Chang Jin (Ming's brother) on the south-facing side of “Queen Bee” mountain in Lutian Village, Anxi County, Fujian. As the name states, it’s made from the Tieguanyin cultivar, 1 bud and 3 leaves pluck, growing at approximately 2,200 feet.
What is Tieguanyin?Tieguanyin cultivar
The exact translation for Tieguanyin is “Iron Goddess of Mercy” and the loose pronunciation is “tee-uh-gwon-yin.” By definition, these teas are made from the Tieguanyin cultivar. Anxi County is its home. It gets its name from Guanyin, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, an important figure in both Chinese Buddhism and folk religion. The farmer and scholar Wang Si Nang gets credit for identifying and propagating this cultivar, which is famously difficult to work with, but possesses great potential. It’s been said that if you can successfully make Tieguanyin, you can make anything.
What is the The Tieguanyin Project?Daniel withering the tea leaves
Daniel Hong is not satisfied with the Tieguanyin teas he’s been finding lately and decided to create one himself. He’s looking to capture what he refers to as “Guanyin Charm” - which can be loosely described as having a fruit/flower aroma with heavy body – almost like you could eat it. This is a continuous experiment that started in spring 2021 with the next round scheduled for spring 2022.
The 2021 Covid-19 situation in China forced a temporary change from the original intent of the Tieguanyin Project. To make the best of it, Daniel (with the help of Ming) took the opportunity to make a more popular “green” Tieguanyin style, and offer the fall edition of the project as a dual path – two teas from the same material, but two different tea makers doing it two different ways. This greener style is common in China and America today and focuses more on a sweet/floral character.
A few notes on this teaLutian Village, Fujian
Because of a Covid-19 outbreak in August/September in Fujian, we’re lucky this happened at all. The lockdown was lifted with enough time to make tea in Lutian village. This is the same village as the first edition of the Tieguanyin Project, Spring 2021, but from a different mountain, different garden, and different season.
The steps for producing common “green” Tieguanyin involve withering > shaking > kill-green > shaping > drying. There is no piling, rolling, or roasting like traditional Tieguanyin. Both Daniel and Ming started off with 33kg of the same raw material and produced it on the same equipment, same day.Kids playing while the tea leaves withered
Because many of the local schools were still on lockdown, the kids were hanging around at home and some helped out making the tea. The day started out perfect and they laid out the tea for sun withering, but nature changed course and it started raining. The kids helped the adults quickly move the tea inside. But as fast as the rain came, away it went, and the kids helped the adults haul the tea back outside. The kids then started playing games the adults didn’t understand and the tea withered in the sun. All natural.Ming shaking the tea leaves
In tea production, timing is everything (we think this could be said about tea in every aspect). Since they both worked with the same material in the same factory, here’s two significant ways in how these teas were processed differently:
Ming (left), Mr. Wang (middle), Daniel (right)
- After sun withering, Ming applied the “shaking” technique four times, each with an approximate 60 to 90-minute rest in between. The duration of each shaking was 2 minutes, 3 min., 4 min., and 7 min. Daniel approached it the same but with durations for each shaking at 2 min., 5 min., 7 min., and 12 min. Shaking “bruises” the leaf to facilitate slow oxidation (seen as red edges on the leaf) and moves moisture from the stem to the leaf – an essential step for the development of aroma and mouthfeel. How many times the tea is “shaken” and for what duration is completely up to the tea maker.
- Ming conducted kill-green for his leaves at 4am the following morning. Daniel conducted kill-green at 6am. It’s all about timing.
Ming’s brother, Mr. Wang, also made tea from the same material alongside them (though we do not have any of that available). They started out with a 100kg of raw material and split it three ways. Later that day the neighbors gathered to see the results thus far. As Daniel said, the tea doesn’t lie.
To be clear - these teas are remarkably similar, but they are the not the same. The decisions made by the tea makers matter and what we want to highlight here is the art behind the science.
Charismatic honey flower aromatics. The bright and floral cup is softened by an intense lingering sweetness. These are the standards for this popular style. There are slight differences between these teas. See if you can tell the difference.
The locals refer to the Huang Jin Gui cultivar as Huang Dan (translation “yellow morning/dawn”). Red Dawn is a black tea by any reasonable definition, but what we call “black tea”, the Chinese call “red tea (hong cha)”. So this tea got the name “Hong Dan (红旦) = Red Dawn".2021 Red Dawn leaves
The younger leaf of the 2021 lot makes for a stronger, bolder cup without sacrificing too much of that peach/floral aroma of the 2020 lot. It was harvested on March 16, 2021 (six days earlier in the calendar year than 2020) and finished production on March 20, 2021. The material comes from the tea fields of Mr. Lin Rui Fu in Anxi County, Fujian Province. For those who like tea stats (and we do), it’s a 1 bud, 3 leaf plucking standard from the Huang Jin Gui cultivar growing at 2,400 feet.Wrapped 15kg bundles of Red Dawn during processing
The idea for Red Dawn came from our friend Daniel Hong in 2020 during Covid lockdown and is now a continuous experiment we plan to purchase in years to come. His signature move in the creation of Red Dawn is portioning the rolled tea leaves into 15kg bundles, wrapping them in wet cloth, and putting them in the sun for approximately four hours to oxidize. This little micro-climate softens all rough edges (there is zero astringency) and improves the aroma.
2021 Red Dawn steeping suggestions:
Western Steeping: 5 grams per 10-12 ounce mug, use boiling water, steep 5 minutes (or longer).
Traditional Steeping (adjust to your tastes):
Using a 150ml gaiwan or teapot, boiling water, and 8 grams of tea
- (optional) 10 second rinse - discard
- 1st Steep – 25 sec.
- 2nd Steep – 20 sec.
- 3rd Steep – 30 sec.
- 4th Steep – 60 sec.
- 5th Steep – 3 minutes
- 6th Steep – 8 minutes