Beyond the Leaf
Why Taiwan tea? If you had to ask the question, you haven’t tried them. Taiwan has tens of thousands of small tea growers, many of them family operations, and the industry is almost synonymous with oolong.Michael rolling tea incorrectly
Making Taiwanese oolongs is a long process and requires a lot of experience to get it right. After witnessing how oolong is made on a trip to Taiwan in 2011, I realized I am a very lazy and impatient person. I also realized I’m really bad at tea producing skills such as “rolling” and “withering” (which involves staring at the leaves for about 14 hours – it takes forever). Though few of my instructors spoke English, they knew how to yell “No” just like my father, and show me again how to do it right. To know when the leaves are done withering, they simply pick them up and smell them – and I couldn’t tell the difference at 6 hours, 10 hours, or 14 hours – which is when they said it was ready.Michael withering tea incorrectly
But I did learn a couple things while I was there. The first thing I learned was an immense respect for the wisdom and discipline to master what is essentially an art form. I also learned that when I was not ruining their tea leaves, the Taiwanese are otherwise very nice and welcoming people. I was amazed at their patience with my lack of Chinese speaking skills and their inclusiveness of total strangers. I also learned a little bit about the basic styles of Taiwanese teas, and what to look for.
Here are a couple of my notes:
Pouchong or Bao Zhong (translation: scented variety) – loosely defined as a lightly oxidized oolong with long, twisted, emerald green leaves, typically from Wenshan in northern Taiwan. The Chin Shin cultivar is commonly used to highlight the very fragrant nature of this tea. Look for a spectrum of sweet, strong-floral tones on top and bright, but subtle vegetal flavors underneath. The complexities of pouchongs will fade quickly once exposed to air so buy vacuum sealed if possible and store airtight. (Try: Pouchong Extra Fancy)
Tung Ting or Dong Ding (translation: frozen peaks) – Though Mount Tung Ting is covered with tea plants, modern usage of “Tung Ting” often refers to a style of tea grown in Nantou county by which the leaves are rolled and compressed into “semi-ball” or “bead” style rather than the long twisted leaves of pouchong. These teas are often distinguished by what mountain they were grown on, which cultivar was used, and what degree of baking they went through (note that not all teas of this style will be referred to as Tung Ting – yes, it’s confusing to me too).
Tung Ting styles that are lightly oxidized are often referred to as “Jade Oolongs” for the bright green color. Other times the tea may be “baked” at the end of the process to deepen the character. The flavor profiles of these teas will vary widely depending on any of the above mentioned factors, ranging from soft and floral to deep and toasty. (Try: Tung Ting Light Roast)
Oriental Beauty, also know as Bai Hao Oolong or Silvertip Oolong, is one of Taiwan’s most famous (and expensive) teas. The tea is made only in mid-summer when the “Green Leaf Hopper” arrives to feed on the new growth tea leaves, which are then immediately harvested. This “feeding” causes a chemical reaction in the plant meant to drive the insect away, but it is also responsible for the sweet honey notes of a great Oriental Beauty.
When buying an Oriental Beauty I look for teas with sparkling, floral, apricot notes on top; and honey-woodsy-spicy notes in the bass. The leaves should have a stunning contrast of bright silver tips over twisted bronze leaves. It is called Oriental Beauty for good reason. (Try: Oriental Beauty Supreme)
I could go on forever (I already have). This only scratches the surface. All I’ve learned so far is that I have a lot to learn, and besides the tea itself, that’s the best part.
Spring is a special time for many cultures. In America we write songs about spring: -Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year -Springtime for Hitler and Germany -Spring Fever -It Might as Well Be Spring In the tea world they make special teas in spring… or do they? [caption id="attachment_216" align="aligncenter" width="604"] The tea bushes from which our 2013 Tai Ping Hou Kui was made. Photo taken April, 2013, Huang Shan Mountain region, Anhui Province, China[/caption] You always hear ‘spring picked teas are the best.’ Like most generalities there is some truth to this, but there are also a lot of exceptions. Why the heck would spring teas be the best anyway? I have spoken to tea botanists about this and their answer makes perfect sense: in most tea growing regions tea plants are dormant during the winter. This means that during those quiet months the plants are recovering from the previous year’s harvest. During that dormant period, and into the very early spring the plants are replenishing those chemicals which in the tea leaves produce those amazing aromas, tactile sensations, and flavors. The leaves will literally have greater amounts of sugars (glucose et al), and various flavor compounds (eg. theaflavins) for that first plucking. If you are a gardener, it is very similar to the fact that the first of the sweet peas or corn or the zucchini or whatever tends to be sweeter, more tender, has increased taste—it’s often bursting with flavor. The same with tea. Spring teas, especially green and white teas can be amazing and truly special. [caption id="attachment_217" align="alignright" width="357"] Tea fields undergoing drought conditions[/caption] But this only happens if a particular region is having an overall good year for tea. If they are having a drought, too much rain, too cold or too hot the spring teas may not be so great—in fact they can be inferior to the same tea made later in the year. Like always, it comes down to the individual tea. But, make no mistake a great spring tea can make your eyes roll back in your head and your toes curl. [caption id="attachment_218" align="alignleft" width="220"] Fresh plucked, plumb, leaves that will be made into Huang Shan Mao Feng[/caption] When I am considering buying/importing a spring tea from a grower, I always check the spring weather conditions for that region. I very closely examine the dry leaf; I look for tremendous color (specifics can vary depending on the type of tea). I often look for plumpness/thickness in the leaf- I am kind of looking for a Marilyn Monroe type of leaf, not a Kate Moss type. But these are just clues- ultimately everything depends on the steeped cup. Some of the names you will see associated with spring teas are: -88th Night Shincha- a Japanese first flush green tea, plucked on the 88th day of spring -Before the Rain Teas; picking of these Chinese teas begins in late March just before the Qing Ming Festival (around April 5th) and up to around April 20th. -Green Snail Spring: aka Pi Lo Chun, this Chinese green tea may be made throughout the tea season, but traditionally the very best is made in early spring. [caption id="attachment_219" align="aligncenter" width="604"] TeaSource 88th Night Shincha, 2013[/caption] For most Japanese and Chinese white, green, and oolong teas it is assumed that the spring teas of any particular type of tea will be superior, more aromatic, sweeter, and more flavorful (and more expensive) than a tea from later in the season. And this is often the case. But, you have to taste the tea, you can’t assume a “Spring tea” is going to be better. That is a major part of our job at TeaSource, tasting and evaluating - making sure any “Spring tea” we carry, is worthy of the name. What about black teas? Well, the term often used to describe spring black teas is “first flush” which literally means the first picking of leaves. And this term is most commonly used with Darjeeling teas. Great Darjeeling first flush teas can be amazing. They are usually made in March/April. They can be light, very bright, astringent, somewhat fruity, aromatic, and enlivening. In an interesting marketing twist, black tea growers are starting to use the “flush” terminology to market other black teas, besides Darjeeling. I’ve started to see first and second flush Assams, and even China “first flush” black tea. First flush black teas, while very aromatic and tasty, usually do not have the body or weight of the same tea plucked later in the year. For instance, first flush Assams often are very bright, even crisp, but they tend to be thinner (they don’t have as many bass notes), but second flush Assams are those more traditional Assams with heavy, thick colory, liquors, though they may lack the delicacy and complexity of a spring black tea. It can be a trade-off. But, there are some black teas, particularly from China, that are in their glory as spring harvest teas. For instance, Jin Jun Mei, one of our new spring teas. This black tea is harvested around the Qing Ming Festival and has a truly amazing flavor. [caption id="attachment_220" align="aligncenter" width="604"] The bushes from which our Jin Jun Mei was made, photo taken March, 2013, Wuyi County, Fujian Province, China[/caption] [caption id="attachment_222" align="aligncenter" width="604"] The golden leaves and golden liquor of Jin Jun Mei in a Chinese traditional gaiwan.[/caption] If spring teas are so great, why is TeaSource featuring them in the fall? Even though it is the 21st century, it still can take 1-4 months to get teas from origin to Minnesota. Some spring teas we air-ship and get them within a few weeks of harvest, and we make them available immediately. Other spring teas, for various reasons, we have to ship by sea and this can easily take 2-4 months. Chinese teas have been particularly challenging the last few years, as the Chinese government has tremendously increased the inspections on any export food item, like tea. This means Chinese teas are some of the safest in the world, but it really increases the amount of time it takes to get them to Minnesota. So, all September, we are featuring most of our 2013 spring teas. Remember we’ve already weeded out the ones that weren’t Marilyn Monroe-ish. All that is left are those spring teas that stop you in your tracks, take your breath away, and leave you struggling to find words. Enjoy.
Who would think tea professionals would ever get into disagreements that escalate into shouting matches? Certainly not I. But I’ve seen that when tea industry folks talk about white tea. I’ve even seen this at trade fairs and tea discussion panels at conventions. Thank goodness no punches were thrown—although with tea geeks like me, it probably would have been limited to ineffectual slaps? For the whole month of August TeaSource will be shining a spotlight on white teas, so this seemed the perfect time to talk about a fundamental tea difference of opinion.
Freshly plucked leaf for white tea
The first question is: what is white tea? In terms of production: white tea goes through the simplest of production processes. It begins with a unique gentle solar withering step, which can extend many hours, even into days, where they are using sunlight to help wither the leaves. Second, very limited oxidation occurs with white tea. This step is typically eliminated in the production process. But a minimal amount of oxidation occurs naturally over the course of manufacture. And thirdly, white teas typically, have no physical manipulation of the leave itself during manufacture: no rolling, twisting, panning, shaking, jiggling, caressing, tickling, etc. So stated very simplistically the production process of white is: a very long sun-wither, followed by drying. In terms of history: white tea traditionally is made in and around three small locales in Fujian province of China, the counties of Fuding, Jianyang, and Zhenghe. And naturally it would only be made from tea plants native to those locales. Some people say only tea made from those locales and those plants can be called white tea.
And this is where the fight begins. Is white tea defined by production process? Or is it defined by geography? This is very similar to the argument over Champagne. Does it have to be from the Champagne region of France? Or is a sparkling wine, made with the same production process the same grapes, and tasting roughly the same, but made in regions outside of France, still Champagne? I tend to not to take these kind of arguments too seriously, but to be fair this is a very legitimate question; especially for those small tea farmers in Fujian who have been making white tea for generations. All of a sudden white tea has grabbed worldwide attention and consumer interest. After more than a century of hand-making a wonderful little tea, mostly for their own local consumption, finally there is a larger demand for their product. This is their chance to get ahead. Is it right for folks who have only been making white tea for the last 5-10 years, to cash in on this sudden interest in white tea? But on the other hand these newbie white tea producers are typically using the exact same Fujian production processes, often using the Fujian tea plant cultivars, and not infrequently bringing in Fujian tea growers and manufacturers themselves to new regions to make these teas. In many cases this new white tea production has added a much needed spark to local tea industries outside of Fujian. And their white teas may look and taste as close to a Fuding white tea, as Fuding white tea tastes compared to a Zhenghe white tea. As I said, we are now in the realm of tea geeks.
TeaSource Bai Hao Silver Needles, from Fuding, Fujian, China on left, and Silver Peony White tea, from Yunan Province on right
But nonetheless this is an important question, and you should consider it as you buy white teas. You should know where you tea vendor stands on this issue, and exactly where their white teas are from. I believe the “process” defines white tea, not the geography. So TeaSource may carry white teas from many different regions. But we will always identify them when that is the case. In the past if we didn’t say otherwise we assumed people knew it was from the traditional regions of Fujian. In the future we will always try to be more specific, even about teas from the traditional areas. We hold this position (of white tea being defined by the process) because we believe the world of tea is constantly changing and evolving. And we think this is a very good thing. There are many teas that didn’t exist a few years ago. For example, Ruby 18 from Taiwan didn’t exist five years ago. White tea from Ceylon didn’t exist about 15 years ago. Shou puer didn’t exist 40 years ago. Tea from India didn’t exist 175 years ago. This kind of change and evolution is part of what makes the world of specialty tea exciting and vibrant. As with any change there are some who like it and some who are dismayed. We feel this kind of change is part of the natural processes in the world of tea. So who the heck else is making white tea? Many other China provinces, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Japan, Malawi… I had the privilege to purchase the very first white tea ever produced in Sri Lanka, almost 15 years ago. I was visiting the Lumbini Estate in southern Sri Lanka (one of our favorite estates and favorite tea growing families), when Chaminda, the son of the Lumbini founder and now manager of the garden, showed me something special he had been working on, a small batch of Bai Hao Silver Needles. Needless to say his dad was very skeptical of his son’s ‘far-out” tea-making efforts. The tea was FANTASTIC. I bought all of it on the spot, about 40 kgs. When I got back into Colombo, on the way to the airport I had to stop and buy two gigantic duffle bags (think hockey equipment bags) to stuff this tea into and bring onto the plane as additional luggage. This was pre-9/11 when you could get away with this kind of thing. Although getting through Customs in Mpls, took some explaining. Unfortunately this Bai Hao Silver Needles from the Lumbini Estate has become so popular in Japan that the price has gotten out of the range of TeaSource.
Before long I think this fight about what constitutes white tea will start to fade away. For better or worse I think this horse has left the barn. The good news is that then when everyone stops talking about the definition of white tea, we will focus more on the tea itself. For white tea is a unique gift to the world of tea. The dry leaf is stunning, a botanical work of art. And the steeped cup is soft, shimmering, sweet, creamy, and evokes calm, peace, and grace. All through August we will have white teas on sale and tons of info and sampling available. And expect some additional posts about white tea.
I’ve been doing tea a long time, but I just recently learned a delicious secret about Japanese teas. Here it is... [caption id="attachment_203" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Ponzu sauce. This stuff is great. I recommend getting the Kikkoman brand.[/caption] I think this may only work on certain Japanese teas. But it works amazingly well on our brand new Kabusecha green tea. Kabusecha may be a less well-known Japanese green teas, but our new lot is getting rave reviews. Some people call Kabusecha ‘Gyokuro’s Little Sister’—which is a pretty good description, assuming you know what gyokuro is. Our new Kabusecha is INCREDIBLY fresh-tasting with sweet notes. We recommend steeping it like a gyokuro; use a little more tea than normal, around 170 degrees, steep for no more than a minute. And you will be able to re-steep these leaves for multiple wonderful infusions. [caption id="attachment_195" align="aligncenter" width="300"] When steeped, the Kabusecha liquor is a deep, almost brilliant, green.[/caption] It’s worth noting that this type of Japanese green tea is one the few teas in the world that is not supposed to be clear. Most Japanese teas come out somewhat cloudy in appearance. This is a result of how the Japanese blend the different grades (and sizes) of tea leaves to make the finished tea. [caption id="attachment_197" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Freshly steeped Kabusecha leaves[/caption] When you are done steeping tea pour a few drops of Ponzu sauce over the leaves and chow down for an absolutely delectable treat. As a reference for westerners, it is similar to eating “greens” (turnip, collard, kale) with a lemon zest. There is no bitterness or edge, and the sweet, fresh notes come bursting out. Deeeeelicious! [caption id="attachment_196" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Kabusecha leaves with a touch of Ponzu[/caption] This idea came from Eri, who is the backbone of our wholesale staff. [caption id="attachment_194" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Eri packing a wholesale order for shipping[/caption] The world of tea is amazing because it can take you to such unexpected places. -Bill
This is a very short, primer on puer; so in coming blog posts as I describe my recent travels in Puer and Yunnan, everyone will have some context when I talk about visiting a puer factory and seeing puer cakes made, walking amongst ancient puer trees, making my own puer cake. There are six categories of tea: black, oolong, yellow, green, white and dark tea. Puer (pronounced “Poo-argh” with a little pirate roll of the “argh”) is a sub-category of dark tea. There are two things that make a dark tea a dark tea. First, it goes through some degree of aging/storage as part of its manufacturing process. This can range from a few months to more than a century.
Dark tea "logs" aging outdoors.
Second, during that aging/storage process of dark tea, active micro-organisms come into the stored leaf. These micro-organisms trigger a natural bacterial fermentation process in the leaf, thus changing the chemistry, the taste, the very nature of the leaf and the steeped tea. Oooohhhh… micro-organisms… bacteria… bugs… Despite my daughter’s initial reaction at learning this (“Yuck, that is totally disgusting”), we eat lots of foods with active micro-organisms: yogurt, cheese, pickles, some breads, beer, olives and many others. So there really is nothing weird or yucky about it. The most well-known dark tea is puer. What makes a puer tea a puer is the fact that it comes from Yunnan province of China, which has a unique ecosystem, environment, and terrior. Also the micro-organism in puer, Aspergillus niger, is different than those in other dark teas. In addition, the manufacturing and aging/storage processes in Yunnan are unique to puer. They also use a different cultivar to make puer.
That’s a huge honking tea leaf. Despite being native to SW China, this is from the botanical branch Camellia sinensis assamica (as in Assam, India); not from Camellia sinensis sinensis which is the cultivar native throughout most of China. I told you this was going to get geeky. There are two main types of puer: sheng puer and shou puer. Sheng puer (pronounced “shung” rhymes with “young”) is traditional puer, made in the same manner for hundreds of years, even though there are many regional, family, or company variations. The aging/storage process of sheng puer is typically a long process over years or often decades. The bacterial fermentation process is a very slow gradual process. So the longer a good sheng puer ages, in theory the better and more complex the flavor gets. But that means people have to wait a long time to get their tea. And people are not patient (again I refer back to my daughter). Sheng puers are also called raw puer, green puer, or uncooked puer. At TeaSource we call them sheng or uncooked puer. Sheng puers when well-made and aged numerous years can be medium to full-bodied with very thick, rich, complex flavors. But a good sheng puer can also be delicious when it is new (or “young”). The steeped cup is lighter, some sweet and possibly some bright notes, usually no earthiness. It might be mistaken for a green tea.
As evidenced in the photos above, the dry leaf of sheng puer can have some light and dark green color, maybe some light brown, maybe some downy looking leaves. In the top photo it sort of looks like a dark green leafy salad squished down into a solid shape. Imagine leaves that have fallen to the ground, in your garden 4-9 days ago. The steeped leaves can look like green tea leaves. Starting probably in the mid-twentieth century, puer manufacturers tried to make a puer that did not take years or decades to be good to drink. So they came up with shou puer. Shou puer (pronounced “show” like a TV “show”) became available in the early 1970’s. They can make finished shou puer in a matter of months, rather than years or decades. They do this through very deliberate and controlled manipulation of the leaf and the environment. Manufacturers try to simulate what happens over a matter of years/decades with sheng puer, so that similar chemical changes occur over a matter of months. And the tea is ready to sell relatively quickly. Shou puers tend to be darker, richer, thicker, and red to deep red, sometimes almost black in color. Some people describe the flavor as earthy or peaty. Shou puer is sometimes called ripe puer, dark puer, or cooked puer. At TeaSource we call them shou, or cooked puer. Shou puer usually has very dark brown leaves of varying shades. Imagine leaves that have been in your compost pile for 3 months.
A couple of additional puer observations
Many tea “purists” think of shou puer as a lesser tea, sort of a poo
r man’s version of sheng puer. They look down their long pointy noses at folks who drink shou puer. It addition to being full of themselves, these folks are full of “it.” It’s a mistake to think of shou puer as a short-cut tea or a lesser version of sheng puer. I prefer to think of them as two separate teas. There are some wonderful shou puers and some wonderful sheng puers. It is true to that sheng puers, because of their very nature and their aging process can go to places shou puer can’t. But it’s definitely a mistake to think of shou puer as Pabst Blue Ribbon and sheng puer as Sam Adams Lager. Be very wary of buying a puer that claims to be more than 8 years old, make sure you are buying from someone you trust. There was a puer bubble a few years back. It was just like buying Florida swampland in the 1920’s or dotcom stock in the 1990's. And an incredible amount of counterfeit and dishonestly labeled puer was made and sold, and is still out there floating around. Most of this stuff is mediocre at best and really funky at its worst. So buyers beware: buy from folks you trust. Puer comes in many styles: loose leaf, bricks, cakes, mushroom shapes, etc. A Beeng Cha is probably the most common shape of puer (pronounce “Beeng” like the search engine, Bing). It is a cake around 8” in diameter. Its shape is like 3-4 pancakes stacked on top of each other and then smushed into one unit with a hollow spot punched into the bottom. Typically they are 357 grams, about 12.6 oz. That makes about 130, eight oz. cups of tea. And that is only on the first steep. All puers yield numerous steepings from the same leaves.
After nearly six weeks of travel, I am back in Minnesota. In addition to the piles of mail on my desk, there are many packages of tea from all over the world, waiting to be evaluated. Last week, we laid out 19 different Darjeeling 2nd flush samples to cup and evaluate. Everyone always thinks this is one of the coolest things about my job, tasting teas, and sometimes it is. Yesterday, however, was not one of those days. Nineteen Darjeeling teas in a row and out of all of them there were only two remote possibilities. And even those two weren’t that great, they were only OK. That’s 90 minutes of my life I wish I had back, and boy did I have cotton-mouth. But that is a major part of my job; tasting mediocre teas, so our customers don’t have to. And it just means I have to work a little harder to find some great 2nd flushes, and I’m confident we will. We’ll keep you informed. -Bill