My Life as A Tea Leaf

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Tea Expo 2006, Serdang, Malaysia

It has been a while since I've written, sorry guys! ...

Between 17 and 26 Nov was the Tea & Coffee Expo in Serdang, Malaysia, with a bookfair thrown. This was held in Mines, a resort region in peninsular Malaysia.
Had a difficult time getting there, despite directions given by friends and relatives, but I was glad to have finally located it! The Tea & Coffee (what coffee?! There were less than 3 coffee selling stalls there!) Expo was held - if my observation was right - at the LOBBY to the expo hall, where the bookfair was; but it has drawn to it some powerhouse players in the field of pu'er, and interested pu'er drinkers from afar.
The stalls were arranged along the rectangular lobby, and although it was a Tea & [Coffee] Expo, in reality, I would guess that 95% of the stalls there were offering pu'ers in all shapes, sizes, and factories.
The moment I walked into the expo, I was pulled into a stall by a friend and introduced to a Mr Huang Chaunfang (黄傳芳) who is a master tea roaster. Had a good time discussing roasting and effects on food, and along the way made other new friends, a Phoenix cable station executive, another media executive from Shanghai, and an artist who wrote me one of the tenets of the philosophy of tea.

天蘊茶, 人製茶, 地育茶
The highlight of this year's Tea Expo is perhaps the launch of the first english book on pu'er by Chan Kam Pong, an avid pu'er drinking and collector from Hongkong. This is undoubtedly a good news for the non-chinese speaking pu'er lovers.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Yellow Tea - Two Tastings of Mengding Huangya

One of this tea is not like the other
One of this tea just doesn't belong
Can you tell which tea is not like the other
By the time I finish my song?

Did you guess which tea was not like the other?
Did you guess which tea just doesn't belong?
If you guessed this tea is not like the other,
Then you're absolutely...wrong!


Thursday, August 03, 2006

Yellow Tea - Junshan Yinzhen

Junshan Yinzhen is listed as one of the 10 most famous tea from China. It is a yellow tea from the Junshan island in Dongting lake located in Hunan. In the recent years however, Junshan Yinzhen is being sold as a green tea - the knowledgeable vendor will tell the customer so, but the less knowledgeable vendor might continue to sell it as a yellow tea, and rake in more profit.

Unlike the green tea version, a true Junshan Yinzhen would be buds and shoots covered in yellowish down; this yellowish tinge in the leaves are caused by short post-fermentation. Each shoot is a voluptuous little lady covered in a yellow mink coat. ..

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Simple Things in Life...

One of the best things in life is the Hakka's Lei Cha Fan 擂茶飯. Literally, it is pounded tea with rice. What they do is to grind dry tea leaves into a paste while adding water. Sometimes other herbs and spices are added to the leaves to make a more tasting, if not healthier, paste. In the past, each Hakka household was said to have their own secret recipe to the making of this tea paste.

Julienes of tuofu, beans and other vegetables are fried and added to the rice, and served with the tea paste in a separate bowl, filled with hot water.

To eat, you can either add the tea soup spoon by spoon to the rice mixture, or like the way I like it, stir the entire contents into the rice, and have a soup meal...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Ineffable, Effable, Effanineffable...

Hui Gan 回甘, Hui Tian 回甜, Sheng Jin 生津, & Hui Yun 回韻…In literally term, Hui Gan, sometimes referred to as Hui Wei, is to reflect sweetly on a past event.Borrowing from the term 'to reflect', Hui Gan in tea is, simply put, a reflection on the sweetness of the tea - when one drink the tea, when the tea slides through the cavity of the mouth into the throat, there comes, after a short while, a sweetness that rises up from the throat. This sweetness is sometimes accompanied with a fragrance. Do not keep the upper and lower mouth pressed together when sipping tea, but create a cavity instead by lowering the jaw. Let the tea wash over the entire inside of the mouth, and then direct the tea to slide from the sides of the jaw into the throat. While holding the empty cavity, breathe out instead of in after you swallow the tea, there is warmth in the breath accompanied by a fragrance, and the same fragrance that rises up from the throat. This is Hui Gan. Depending on the quality of the tea, Hui Gan can be a lasting or short one.Sometimes, on tea that is medium oxidized and/or fermented, there is a lingering sweetness in the mouth that is not apparent at first, but noticeable after a while. Sometimes it comes first before Hui Gan, sometimes together. Most people considered this as part of Hui Gan - which it is - Hui Gan after all, is to reflect on the sweetness...technically, this is a breaking of the complex sugars in the tea by enzymes into simple sugar. This sweetness establishes itself in the mouth and doesn't come from the back of the throat; people who separate the two term this Hui Tian.Before we can get Hui Tian, we need the enzymes to break down the sugars in the tea. When the tea washes over the mouth, some chemicals in it excite the saliva glands on the two sides under the tongue to produce saliva. The welling of saliva under the tongue is called Sheng Jin.Hui Yun is an even more elusive term, it is more of a feeling that a tangible feel in the mouth: it is a combination of the above and the experience of drinking the tea. One will have to drink the tea in order to experience this…it is the inexpressible, as T.S. Eliot writes in The Dry Salvages:

We had the experience but missed the meaning
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness
The past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations
Not forgetting something that is probably quite ineffable

The ineffable and the effable, in a cup of tea.

Back to Basics

To build a family, as a Chinese saying goes, one needs seven items: wood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea. These are the basic daily necessities to the agricultural-based Chinese – wood to set the fire, rice to fill the hunger, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar to enrich the flavours of simple food, and tea, more than just a thirst quencher, is also a preventive medicine for the common folks who could not afford the doctors.

In the course of cultural development, tea, which is the last on the list, rose to become a preferred taste of the aristocrats; scholars gushed over it, with odes and eulogies; emperors demanded ridiculous annual tributes of tea, turning fodder crop cultivating lands into tea gardens; prices rose, and tea was beyond the reach of the common people. Several hundred years later, history repeated itself: people would pay exorbitant prices for a fresh young Dragonwell, pay out wads of bills for an Wuyi Da Hong Pao, pawn jewellery for an aged Puer.

Some call it Green Gold. We have forgotten that it is a drink. A simple and uncomplicated, un-stylized, cup of beverage.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

When A Picture Tells a Million Words...

Da Xue Shan (Snowy Mountain) in MengKu region; a teapicker plucking leaves off a wild tea shrub; the famous MengKu Large Leaf varietal; Rong-shi factory workers hard at work in the kill-green process; Sundrying process - during the peak period, every inch of the factory outdoor grounds are covered with maocha getting a great tan.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Blake's Wuyi Oolong Tasting 2006

This evening before dinner we managed to work through the samples of Wuyi oolong that Blake has shared with us generously. Thank you Blake, for giving us this opportunity to sample a wide range of oolongs. I have to apologise here that my digital camera is flat on the battery, and my son has gallantly offered to take the pictures – as long as he didn’t have to taste the tea – with his Nokia n80, a new toy we recently bought for him and which we realized now that we have a narcissistic photographer at home. The pictures I’m afraid, are not well taken too.
I sampled B through F and then went on to A, for the reason that I don’t consider it to be a Wuyi oolong. At the end of the tasting, I felt that there are more teas that are not Wuyi oolong, and here is what I personally think of these samples.

Sample A. Fragrance of the leaves in a warmed vessel: fruity, like ripe fruit, not characteristically Wuyi oolong. The leaves are rolled into balls, which Wuyi oolong isn’t. Brewed liquor: tannic and pucky, the fruitiness is gone, replaced with a slightly astringent flavour like burnt rubber. There’s no Hui Gan, no flavours that roll back into the mouth, just a dry feeling at the back of the throat. The leaves: This is not Wuyi leaves, but Taiwan soft-stem oolong, machine cut, heavily rolled in the Anxi style, and not processed thoroughly, leaving some water still in the leaves.

Sample B. Fragrance of the leaves in a warmed vessel: Toasty and fruity. Pleasant. When it is brewed, there is a toast and fruity fragrance that are carried throughout the room. There’s a bite in this tea, with the saliva flowing and a strong Hui Gan. But it isn’t Wuyi oolong either, the leaves are Anxi oolong type, the tea is what I was accustomed as a kid – the old heavily roasted oolong. It is a good thirst-quenching tea which I kind of enjoyed, this is the type of oolong (in can form) available in Japanese grocery stores.

Sample C. This is not a Wuyi oolong as well, but another familiar tea – a Dancong, specifically I think, the Mi Lan Xiang Dancong, or the Guo Bin Dancong. The tea – I suspect - has been left out for a while, and then re-roasted to give off that fragrance of roast, but the base is unmistakably a Dancong. If you let the brewed leaves cool off and then sniff in deeply, you will get the fragrance of the Dancong clearly. I had 2 cups of this tea…

Sample D. Of all the samples, I personally feel this to be the poorest. The fragrance of the warmed dry leaves has an acetone (?), over-toasty smell that’s pungent to the nose. The tea itself, other than the intrusive fragrance, has no taste; the tea is drying as it dries out my entire mouth. I checked out the leaves, and they tear and broke easily without any resistance. I suspect this tea has been left out for too long, lost its flavours, and re-roast and done poorly. The tea-scum that gathers around the edge of the cup seemed to confirm my suspicion.

Sample E. This tea resembles the new age Wuyi oolong. I call it new age because in the need to win over a younger generation of tea-drinkers, tea makers are abandoning the older methods of tea making and creating new highly floral fragrant teas. This seems to be one of them. The oxidation is light, and the roasting is also not too heavily done. It is a Shuixian varietal, well suited for the job. The taste is light, with a floral fragrance that fills the cavity of the mouth, not overpowering; but the downside of this tea is that, like a light toilette water, it doesn’t last. The hui gan is weak and short. Suitable for beginner, but the seasoned drinker would want more character in the brew.

Sample F. This is similar to sample E, with a heavier roast note, though not that well done. Under the light floral note is a burnt flavour that dries the throat slightly, and no hui gan; after the liquor, the floral note and burnt flavour, nothing.

The brewing parameters for the above teas are simple: 2 minutes brew in the tasting cup, with Volvic water fresh off the boil. Thank you for reading; my apologies once again, if you find it boring…I can’t wait to read the more interesting accounts! Rgrds.

It is good to be back home! One can only stomach so many "saya tak tahu"s in a land where most people speak a splatter of broken English, mandarin, Chinese dialects and mostly will greatly improve the country's economy if English is the operating language...enough said. The most fulfilling outcome from this trip, other than business, is the trips to the teashops. Among the great finds I uncovered are two teas:
One is the Mizhuan cha (Red Tea Brick) from Hubei Zhao-Li Qiao factory. It is compressed using broken red tea leaves, fannings and tea dust, with a small amount of floral tea. The compressed slab itself is a work of art. From what I know there are 3 designs, one that is shown, one with a train engine, and one with a phoenix and Twinning logo head (difficult to find these days).

The second is a small 250g bingcha from 2004 pressed by a then unknown factory, using singular wild grown plantation leaves from Lincang region. The tea was exquisite, its flavour quite awesome to cover the other teas which I tried following this tea. It was quite interesting to note how the Menghai tea factory's offerings (4 different Banzhang singular plantation leaves) paled against this one.