Thursday, February 08, 2018

Chinese New Year vacation starting now

 A quick post to inform you that I've started my Chinese New Year vacation. The online tea boutique is still open, but I won't be able to make any delivery before February 21st.
Stay warm and cheerful with great tea!

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Tea postcards 2018

What is itt?
Every year, I select my 12 best pictures and then let you vote for the best ones on Facebook. This helps me select the pictures I turn into postcards. Here you see all the postcards that are currently available and that I add to your tea orders as little gifts (2 at a time usually). Below, on top, you can see this year's latest 2 postcards: another Chaxi on the beach and a sunset on Qilin lake at the slope of Dong Ding's Oolong plantations.
Vive la tour Eiffel!
In exactly a week, I will start my Chinese New Year vacation. This means I won't ship any order between February 8th and 20th. And, like every winter, I'll head to south Taiwan to enjoy tea on a white sand beach near Kenting. Expect some more pictures like this year's most liked photograph:

I also plan a visit to the southern branch of the National Palace Museum in Chiayi. It has a permanent exhibition about the art and culture of tea in Asia called 'The far-reaching fragrance of Tea'.
Emperor Qianlong's Yixing teapot

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Winter 2017 Oriental Beauty from Hsin Chu county

The cradle of Oriental Beauty Oolong is located in the small adjacent towns of Beipu and Emei in Hsin Chu county. That's where I visited one of my farmer's beautiful plantations of Qingxin Dapang tea trees last week. Not only is the plantation located on the slopes of a nearby hill (which helps drain excess water from the field), but it's also grown in organic fashion. We can see that the trees are sparse and surrounded by other plants.
While many tea trees see their flowers wilt within days of their bloom, the Qingxin Dapang flowers can last 1 month. I wonder how honey made from tea flowers tastes like?! Would it have some tea scent?
There are also a few banana trees next to this plantation! It's a joy to see tea trees so well integrated in this diverse flora.
Since natural farming means that you let sick and old trees die (instead of treating them with various chemicals), you also need to plant new trees to replace the old. This is what the farmer has recently done on this plantation. He has cut twigs from healthy trees and planted them in the soil so that they would produce roots and grow into identical trees. 2 examples below:
This method requires more effort from the farmer and assumes that the cut branch is healthy. He had to dig holes and bring lots of water to water the planted branches. But this method is sustainable and ensures that what he plants is suited for this place.
It's an important point to grow the cultivar most suitable to your terroir (the natural environment that is formed by the soil and the climate). In fall 2012, I tasted over 10 different OBs made from different cultivars and concluded that Qingxin Dapang is, indeed, the best cultivar for this type of Oolong. That's the reason why this cultivar is most used in Hsin Chu county where farmers specialize in this process.

Winter 2017 Oriental Beauty
As I visited the farmer who produced my 2016 summer Oriental Beauty tradition, I tasted several of his teas and was most thrilled with this winter Oriental Beauty:

It was harvested by hand in Guanxi (near HsinChu, Taiwan) on October 26th and had just been lightly roasted. This production batch came in a bag of 2.5 kg (only!) The nice thing about it is that it's not blended. That's why its taste feels so pure and the aromas are so clear and clean!
I also liked the fact that you could taste the winter character in this OB. Since the weather is cooler, less sunny, the oxidation level of the leaves is lower than in summer. The fragrances have higher notes and are more perfume like. I used barely 2 grams in my silver teapot. Since it's made of buds and recently roasted, I didn't let the tea brew long. That's why the first brew looks rather pale. But its fragrance is magnificent!
It's also a beauty, but a different beauty. It is more pure, refined and elevated. The taste is sweet and clean, but still a little bit dry due to the roasting. Like the 2016 summer OB tradition, this is also an Oolong that is going to improve with time.
The next brews had more richness and sweetness, but still with this wonderful purity and clarity that is visible in the brew! That's why I chose a branch of raw cotton on my Chaxi as a symbol for this natural purity.
My brewing advice for this winter OB is to use fewer leaves, a slow pour and rather short brewing times in order to emphasize the lightness and refinement of its character. It's also a very good tea for aging.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Hiver, le froid entoure la nature


2017 top puerh cru sauvage de vieux théiers
Inspiration d'hiver.

Le chabu vert et le bambou sont le printemps qui commencent à poindre. Ce sont 3 jours  ensoleillés (comme les coupes) qui suivent des jours frais et sombres (le long tissu bleu et noir).

Des bourgeons blancs (comme neige) de thé puerh sauvage sont les enfants du dernier renouveau saisonnier (au printemps 2017). Je les infuse dans une théière zhuni rouge de couleur festive et chaleureuse sur une assiette qinghua bleu et blanche comme glace.
Le thé chaud nous fait du bien, mais il s'apprécie d'autant plus qu'il fait froid! Les choses qui s'opposent ont besoin l'une de l'autre pour exister et se mettre en valeur.

Ainsi sans froid il n'y aurait pas de bonnes feuilles: le froid de l'hiver oblige les théiers au repos, réduit la prolifération d'insectes nuisibles, la fraicheur de la nuit dans les plantations préserve les arômes les plus fins, et le froid matinal condense la rosée qui nourrit les feuilles en l'absence de pluie. Et finalement, le froid préserve la fraicheur des feuilles de thé qu'on conserve chez soi.
Finalement, un bon thé chaud nous donne le souffle frais! C'est le cas ici tellement le palais est clean et pur après une coupe de ce puerh. Le plaisir du thé est aussi affaire de contrastes!
Le fin mot de ce Chaxi, comme dirait Raphaël Enthoven sur Europe1: L'harmonie n'est pas monotone!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

2018 Dong Pian

The first Oolong of 2018 is here already thanks to a warm January in central Taiwan!

Cultivar: Si Ji Chun

Origin: Mingjian in Nantou county

Harvested by machine on January 11th, 2018

Process: lightly oxidized Oolong, rolled, dried but not roasted.

Here, I brew 5 grams in a mini gaiwan and drink it in Michel François's celadon cup. The idea behind this choice of ware is that this is a light, everyday Oolong that can be drunk in a big cup without the complexity of having several small cups. I also prefer this setup to using a chahai (pitcher) and a cup, since having a big cup means only 1 transfer (gaiwan to cup) instead of 2 (gaiwan to chahai to cup) and this means less heat loss.
Besides, the celadon color for the gaiwan and the cup enhances and clarifies the fresh hue of the brew. This is a good fit for a freshly harvested and lightly oxidized Oolong. The green chabu with plum flowers is a symbol for the resilient plants that grow during winter and give their finest scents. The late winter, Dong Pian harvest produces the sweetest and lightest aromas of Si Ji Chun of the year! (The reason is simple: the winter weather conditions in Mingjian are similar to spring in the high mountains: sunshine during the day and cool temperatures at night).
And, in the picture above, we can see that the leaves have some red edges: the oxidation level isn't too green and this also explains the sweetness of the brew. 
Si Ji Chun sums up well the weather in Taiwan: it's always spring, green and full of life!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Question Mark Chaxi

For this week's tea class, Ms. Zhang came up with this Chaxi for a high mountain Oolong from Qilai. Since she doesn't have a dedicated Chabu, she thought of using her grey 'meditation blanket' and a purple fabric on top. The material and color of these 2 fabrics is very suitable for a cold winter day. Ms. Zhang said she often puts this blanket on her knees to keep her warm at her desk when it's particularly cold. This adds a personal, intimate touch to her Chaxi. It's very much in the 'Mitate spirit' I spoke about 2 days ago to divert an object from its original purpose and find a new use for it in our Chaxi.

Usually, we like to have some flowers or plant on the Chaxi to link the tea experience to the fleeting beauty of nature. Ms. Zhang did without on her Chaxi. Except the wares, the only decoration on her Chabu is this framed question mark in the right corner of her meditation fabric:
This question mark is a symbol to remind her that a Chaxi is also a good moment to check on yourself and ask if you're satisfied with your life, your job, your friendships... A fresh high mountain Oolong clarifies the mind as well as the palate! It's also likely to provide a warm, benevolent feeling that can help you answer your questions with a compassionate attitude. Making tea for oneself (and others) should be a very relaxing and pleasing experience. It's in such a state of mind that we are most likely to find positive answers to our questions. And a calm mind produces a steady hand and a steady pour in the teapot which in turn produces a sweeter and more harmonious cup of tea. That's a very basic and practical reason why a zen spirit and tea go hand in hand.
The question mark is also a good symbol for not taking anything for granted and question everything in your Chaxi:
- How well did I brew my leaves?
- In case I'm not pleased, is the bad taste due to the leaves, to my brewing, to my (faulty) accessories, to the quality of the water?
- How can I improve my tea experience?
- What's the taste of a great tea?
- What does a Chaxi add to my tea experience?
- Is this Chaxi a reflection of my personality, my creativity?
- Should I have fixed parameters for the weight of the leaves, the water temperature, the brewing time or should I adapt these parameters to each new tea and situation?
- (Insert your question here!) ...
Now, here are pictures of the Chaxi I told you lately, where I used too many leaves of this wonderful top Hung Shui Oolong from Dong Ding from this winter. When I realized that my first brews were too intense, I was partially able to salvage the later brews by drastically cutting the brewing time. This led me to recognize again this simple truth that 'less is more' is often true in tea. And that quality supersedes quantity.
In this blog, among others, I try to show and tell how I'm answering some of the questions I've listed above. There are many ways to brew tea and very few are wrong, because if they were the brewers would realize and change. But many methods come with trade offs to make it easy (by using a Chahai), quick, casual... because time is limited, because you're brewing in the office or on the road... The Chaxi I find worthwhile sharing, on the other hand, are my attempts to make the most of my tea moments and provide a complete experience for the senses and the creative mind. How great can this moment become if I put all my passion? How can I create a Chaxi that answers the question: where would I rather be now? with "here!"
There should be no better place to brew tea than at home!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Une leçon de Hung Shui Oolongs

Comment apprendre le thé? Comme pour le vin, c'est en le dégustant et en sachant exactement ce que l'on déguste. Si l'on est débutant, on commencera par goûter à des thés de familles différentes (blanc, vert, Oolong, rouge, puerh par exemple). Mais pour progresser, on concentrera sa leçon sur des thés plus précis, plus proches les uns des autres afin d'apprécier ces petits détails qui changent avec des feuilles différentes bien que similaires.
Pour cette leçon focalisée sur les Hung Shui Oolongs de Taiwan, j'ai préparé 2 Chaxi. Celui ci-dessus est pour mon élève (il a un plateau qinghua en porcelaine sous les tasses afin de ne pas tacher le Chabu). Mon Chaxi ci-dessous n'a pas de plateau. Mon challenge sera donc de ne pas renverser de thé sur le tissu brun pendant mes infusions.
 Nous commençons par le top Hung Shui Jinxuan de Dong Ding de cet hiver. Je montre comment une verse douce et lente (lors des 2 premières infusions) permet de donner de la profondeur et de la pureté à un Oolong récemment torréfié. On aurait pu simplement appelé ce thé un Dong Ding Oolong, puisqu'il vient de Dong Ding et qu'il est torréfié comme ils le sont traditionnellement. Si je préfère le nom "Hung Shui" (eau rouge), c'est car c'est le nom technique des Oolongs torréfiés à la façon de Dong Ding. C'est un nom plus exact, car il y a 2 phénomènes qui brouillent la signification du nom Dong Ding Oolong:
1. avec la popularité des Oolongs frais, non torréfiés, on produit aussi des Oolongs non torréfiés dans la région de Dong Ding. (Celui-ci est un bon exemple d'Oolong bien oxydé, mais pas torréfié),
2. le concours de Dong Ding est ouvert à tous les fermiers de l'ile pourvu que le thé soit produit selon le mode Hung Shui, si bien que les gagnants de ce concours 'Dong Ding' proviennent souvent des hautes montagnes de Shan Lin Xi ou de Lishan.
Ensuite, nous avons infusé le top Hung Shui de Dong Ding de cet hiver également. Sa torréfaction était un peu plus légère, ses feuilles plus vertes et surtout plus petites. Cette taille réduite est due au cultivar qingxin Oolong et au fait que les feuilles furent cueillies relativement tôt. En haute montagne, par contre, on remarqua que les feuilles de qingxin Oolong de ce Hung Shui Oolong de compétition de Shan Lin Xi sont plus matures et longues. Nous remarquons aussi que le style 'compétition' est plus fortement torréfiées que mon batch de Dong Ding d'hiver 2017 dont la fraicheur est particulièrement bien préservée.
 La famille des Hung Shui Oolongs recouvre un large spectre de torréfactions et d'oxydations. Avec ces deux variables, il est possible de produire des thés avec des arômes très différents: un mélange de fruits mûrs, de miel et de mélasse, ou bien de céréales grillées comme le malt ou le riz soufflé, parfois si intenses qu'on dirait du whisky (sans l'alcool!) Parfois, il y a encore une certaine fraicheur sous-jacente quand la torréfaction est bien faite.
 L'autre particularité des Hung Shui, c'est que leurs feuilles se conservent bien dans le temps. C'est pourquoi il est intéressant de goûter à 2 styles de Hung Shui bonifiés:
Hung Shui Oolong de 2003 et 1979
1. (A gauche) Un Hung Shui Oolong de Dong Ding de 2003. Celui-ci n'a pas été retorréfié depuis 2003, et c'est pourquoi ses feuilles apparaissent plus vertes que celles du
2. Hung Shui Oolong de Dong Ding de 1979 qui a un degré de torréfaction plus important et dont les feuilles sèches ont eu le temps de s'ouvrir.
Bien que ces 2 thés âgés aient perdu leur odeurs torréfiées, il vaut mieux les infuser tout doucement afin d'accentuer la longueur en bouche. On voit clairement que les feuilles de 2003 s'ouvrent très bien et que l'infusion couleur or démontre un très bel équilibre. Au nez, ce Hung Shui Oolong d'une quinzaine d'année a complètement perdu ses senteurs torréfiées. A la place, on a des senteurs qui font penser à ces magasins de parfum Duty Free dans les aéroports! L'odeur dominante est l'osmanthus. Le goût est dansant et pur. C'est un Oolong qui ne laisse pas voir son âge, juste sa qualité!
Pour celui de 1979, la première infusion est très surprenante. Elle a une bonne dose d'acidité (Wuyi suan est le terme technique chinois), qui, heureusement finit par des notes plus sucrées. On dirait un vin de prunes autant au niveau de l'acidité que des arômes. Les prochaines infusions sont plus douces, moins acides, mais les notes restent puissantes. On sent plus le bois noble et ancien maintenant. Par contre, les notes de torréfaction ont aussi disparues.
En parallèle à cela, j'ai réussi mon challenge: je n'ai pas taché mon Chabu malgré le grand nombre d'infusions de ces 5 Hung Shui Oolongs!

Monday, January 15, 2018

Dong Ding finesse

Winter 2017 Top Hung Shui Oolong from Dong Ding 
It's difficult to brew tea perfectly. I confess that it doesn't happen as often as I'd like. It's a constant challenge and I'm the first to notice when I merely brewed a good rather than a great cup of tea. But that's also what makes tea so interesting. And that's what I try to show to people who come to have tea with me, that when we are brewing the same tea we get different results. If my cup is better, it's because I have been spent a lot of time to improve my brewing technique. I even wrote a  guide to share what I've learned!

When I notice in the blog that my cup is better, my point is not to show off but to make my readers realize that the brewing is essential. This is something that is difficult to experience when you brew alone, but it's something that I'm tasting at every tea class: a tea can go from flat, average to deep and excellent just through the proper way of pouring water inside the teapot!
But sometimes the problem lies somewhere else. Usually, for gongfucha, tea prepared in a small teapot, the more (roasted Oolong or puerh) leaves, the better, because the tea will taste more concentrated and intense. In that spirit, I brewed this top Hung Shui Oolong from Dong Ding with a fair amount of leaves last week. I found the result quite disappointing (too rough and to strong), even when brewing the leaves for a very short time with this same Duanni teapot.
 This time, I drastically reduced the amount of leaves for my brews. (See above). Instead of weighing the leaves, I use a very small antique qinghua plate to display the leaves I was about to brew. Usually, the rule is to roughly cover the bottom of the teapot with dry leaves. This time it was just half covered.
While pouring water in the teapot, this small qinghua plate can also be used to place the lid on it. This small plate must have had a different purpose when it was made some 100 years ago. Using it to display/measure the leaves and for the lid is what the Japanese would call a Mitate (見立て) whereby the tea master finds a new, tea related purpose in a Chaxi for an ordinary object.
With fewer leaves and slow brews, this Dong Ding Oolong was able to express all its finesse, sweetness combined with its underlying freshness. Now it's close to perfection, I thought! The roasting aromas and the tea aromas are in harmony and not overshadowing each other. And the tea feels alive, dancing on the palate, sweet in the throat and slowly melting away.
I also had a very beautiful Chaxi for my failed brews last week. But I was glad that this one is even nicer and that it includes the latest tea postcard that you helped me choose on Facebook as my newest gift for purchases on www.tea-masters.com
On this postcard we can see Qilin lake and Oolong plantations that are part of the Dong Ding village where Dong Ding Oolong started!

Addendum: the open leaves after the brews. They are quite small and therefore well concentrated.