This is the official Blog of www.JAS-eTea.com.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Dancong Gardenia Fragrance - All Natural, No Petals Required

Forget about layering flower petals in with the tea leaves to impart their fragrance. Forget about tea flavoring oils that mimic the fragrance of some flower or other. And forget about teas where flower petals (the big thing these days is cornflower petals) have been sprinkled in amongst the tea leaves to make the tea seem better than it is. Get a truly fabulous floral experience that is all natural and is the result of the high quality of the tea leaves and the skill of the tea master processing them. In this case, the floral is gardenia. And the tea is Dancong Song cultivar Huang Zhi Xiang Mt. Wudong Phoenix oolong. The name is a true mouthful and so is the tea. Three versions, actually: Imperial, Premium, and Nonpareil.

Left – Nonpareil, Middle – Imperial, Right – Premium

These are all made from a Song cultivar that was propagated from a live tea tree carbon dated back to the southern Song Dynasty (13th century). This one is Huang Zhi Xiang and translates as “kumquat fragrance” per a local Chinese dialect. The teas are processed to three different grades, each drawing out the elements in the leaves that mimic the gardenia fragrance, described as tropical, fruity, and thick but quite pleasant. The leaves are mostly intact, not crumbled or ground to fannings and dust. Each one will hold its flavors through as many as 15 infusions using a gaiwan or similar vessel. A far cry from those artificially flavored teas and even those with actual petals sprinkled in where the floral flavors and aromas are good for one or two infusions, maybe three if you’re lucky.

Nonpareil Mt. Wudong Huang Zhi Xiang (Gardenia) Phoenix Dan Cong Oolong – the most floral aroma of the three and free of any distractions, such as any roastiness, bakeyness, etc. “Nonpareil” means “a person or thing that is unsurpassed or unmatched; a peerless example.”

Imperial Mt. Wudong Huang Zhi Xiang (Gardenia) Phoenix Dan Cong Oolong – the floral is clearly evident and is accompanied by some planty/nutty aromas in the dry leaves. “Imperial” often means something that was used as a tribute tea (handed over by royal mandate to the Emperor).

Premium Mt. Wudong Huang Zhi Xiang (Gardenia) Phoenix Dan Cong Oolong – this has the strongest floral aroma but is accompanied by a nutty/fruity quality in the dry leaves. “Premium” means the best. Although Nonpareil is the most highly regarded, some of our customers said they liked this one best. All tastebuds are different, and you may agree or disagree with their assessment.

Mt. Wudong (Wudongshan) is a tall mountain kissed by mists that is located in the greater Phoenix Mountain area in the northeast corner of Guangdong Province, China. It is said to be the home of the best Dancong oolongs. For one thing, the tea trees are allowed to grow to a natural height and develop into true trees, often with quite thick trunks. They also have roots that go deep in the soil and pull up nutrients and aroma compounds that help create the gardenia fragrance.

As for those gardenias, save them for your lapel or a vase. These teas need no flavor enhancement!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Some Classic Yixing Teapot Shapes

A fun design that is similar to Xi Shi: Ben Shan
Green Clay Dragon Egg Yixing teapot – the
stubby spout and ovoid shape are rather amusing.
Awhile back I came across an image listing some classic shapes for Yixing teapots. Quite fascinating, but it spurred me to look further and learn more about these and other shapes, as well as finding examples of some from the ones we carry on our store site. The journey was a fascinating one, with the results shown below.

Some classics include the most popular design Shui Ping (水平) per a recent online poll, the second most popular design Xi Shi (西施) per that same poll, the third most popular Fang Gu (仿古), and these: Li Xing, Shi Piao (石瓢), Tai Jian, De Zhong (德钟), Duo Qiu (掇球), Han Bian, Liu Fang, Qing Quan (秦权), Rou Bian, Xu Bian (虚扁), Rong Tian, Tseng Lan, Wen Dan, Pan Hu (潘壶), Xiao Ying (笑樱), Mei Ren Jian (美人臂), Han Wa (汉瓦), Duo Zhi (掇只), Jing Lan (井栏), Pao Zhun (匏尊), Qie Duan (茄段), Jin Wen (筋纹), Hua Huo (花货), and Fang Huo (方货).

Da Hong Pao Clay Gu Shi Shui Ping
Yixing teapot - 130ml

Most popular: Shui Ping - 水平

A popular teapot design for oolongs, but you can also get good results steeping pu-erhs and black teas. You will get an extra softness to the tea flavors than with a porcelain gaiwan according to some aficionados. The teapot walls are often more thin than usual but with careful handling will steep well for years.

Second most popular: Xi Shi - 西施

This is a true classic. Xi Shi was a woman of great beauty, so much so that, like Helen of Troy, she brought down an entire kingdom (in a successful effort to bring honor and pride back to her people) but not by starting a war. Actually, she was more of a Mata Hari, trained to be pleasing yet be a spy at the same time. Teapots having this shape have a simplicity that is also quietly beautiful. They are elegant with a fluency in the lines of their design. The round shape is meant to be the full round face of a beautiful woman, the spout is like her mouth, the pearl shape lid handle is a sign of nobility, and the handle is like an elegant hair style.

Ben Shan Green Clay Fang Gu
Yixing teapot 120ml

Third most popular: Fang Gu - 仿古

A truly classical design. Some designs include 4 small “feet” on the bottom. This style started in the Qing Dynasty and is still a favorite of Yixing craftsmen (the Chinese characters actually translate to “making the teapot in an antique style”). Like all Yixing designs, having a tight-fitting lid is very important. It’s great for pu-erhs, black teas, and oolongs.

Traditional Shi Piao Yixing pot -
220cc from Xu Yanping
The Shi Piao - 石瓢

Another classic and popular design with elegance and fluency in its lines. It also mimics the beautiful full round face of a young woman and has a spout like a short gun barrel but that is also rather spiritual in its general air. This is a great shape for green teas, oolongs, black teas, and pu-erhs.

The Xu Bian - 虚扁

A more oblate shape that sits low with a simple elegance and sophistication. There is usually landscape scenery carved into the sides. Mountainous scenes are usual. You can pour calmly, gaze at the mountains as you sip, and let the cares of the world vanish.

The Pan Hu - 潘壶

“Pan” means “renegade, traitor, or rebel”. Considered one of the most practical designs. It dates from the late Qing Dynasty, when people came to Yixing to order teapots as presents for social communication. The design was a favorite of a family named Pan who were dedicated tea drinkers.

The Hua Huo - 花货

These are often decorated with leaves, vines, fruits, flowers, and even small animals such as squirrels. Try steeping an Anxi or Taiwanese oolong, or green teas, or even a yellow tea in this one.

The artisans in China who specialize in these and other classic designs are also known to vary them in subtle and creative ways. The clays will vary, too, being mined from different areas. Regardless of the design and the clay type, you will find these teapots quite an experience when steeping your premium teas.

Some symbols used in their designs:
  • bamboo (nobility, growth)
  • bunny (family unity, gentleness, fertility)
  • butterfly (everlasting love, romance)
  • cat (good luck)
  • cherry blossom (beauty, wealth)
  • coin (prosperity, good fortune)
  • chrysanthemum (rich, beautiful, filled with hope)
  • dragon and phoenix (yin/yang, man/woman, power/beauty, balance, renewal)
  • fish (prosperity, affluence),
  • frog (good luck)
  • laughing Buddha (tranquility, generosity)
  • lizard (living strong), lotus (purity, enlightenment)
  • lotus root (uninterrupted, unconditional love)
  • magnolia (feminine sweetness and beauty)
  • monkey (quick witted, full of energy)
  • mother and baby dragon (the coming of power and good fortune)
  • owl (alertness, blessed with great vision)
  • peach (longevity), peony (wealth, distinction)
  • pig (wealth, prosperity)
  • pine (longevity, steadfastness)
  • plum blossom (beauty, strength, will power)
  • pumpkin (harvest, festivity, celebration)
  • rooster (high energy, full of warrior’s spirits)
  • swan (elegance, beauty)
  • tiger (courage, bravery, ward off demons, powerful protector)
  • turtle (longevity)

See also:
So You Bought a Yixing Teapot — Now What?
Seasoning Your Yixing Teapots
Should You Season Your New Yixing Teapot?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Are Your Tea Photos “Sexy”?

“Sexy” in tea photos is becoming a trend. I must confess that as a photographer (which I'm not), my ability to put that sexy quality in my tea photos doesn't always succeed. From color shifts making the tea look too green to the ones that are so dark you can distinguish the tea leaves or so overexposed that most things are a blur of white, I’ve done it all. But some of the photos I’ve been seeing online that photos people have posted of their tea purchases and have to say “Oooooooh… sexy!” The big question is, “What qualities of these photos makes them have that sexy quality?”

A sample “sexy” tea photo:

Being in focus sure helps, at least partially. Having some purposeful fuzziness in the background is fine, though. The key is having it look like you meant it. Playing with your light sources and deciding whether or not to use the camera flash will help you improve on those other issues, seeing the detail and getting the colors closer to reality. But this is the technical side. “Sexy” goes beyond the technical, though. You can take such great in focus and otherwise correct photos that will, if you’ll excuse the expression, bore the pants off of all who seen them. Not good.

Achieving “sexy” in your tea photos means being a bit different, getting up close and personal with the tea, and projecting into those photos your own love of that tea – a conviction that it’s one of the best things out there in this whole wide world. Softer (but not dim) lighting can help, as can some reflectivity such as in the liquid you’ve just steeped. A great cup for the liquid, the perfect teapot, a setup of these and other items in a great arrangement, a flower or bit of greenery – these enhance the way the right outfit does.

Get those cameras clicking and see how “sexy” your tea photos can be!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Are You Feeling That Qingming Tingle?

The sight of the photo below from a Chinese news source recently signaled that Qing Ming time was here. And that means the pre-Qingming teas were ready and the post-Qingming teas were in process. That process, of course, starts with the harvest. And the very thought can set some tea aficionados to tingling with anticipation!

4 Key Harvest Times for Chinese Spring Teas

Qing Ming is a Chinese festival. It is also the first of four key dates indicating important separations of Spring (April-May) tea harvesting and production. The first key harvest time is called “pre-Qingming” and goes from around mid-March to Qing Ming (around April 5th or 6th). The second key harvest time is called Yu Qian (“Before the Rains” or “Great Rain”) and starts after Qing Ming, going for about two weeks to April 19th or 20th. The third key harvest time is for Gu Yu (the true Spring teas), starting the last week of April and going until about May 6th. The fourth and last key harvest time is called Li Xia (Late Spring) and goes from May 6th to May 21st.

What Is Harvested Where

Unlike many teas from other tea growing countries where there are 3 or 4 flushes per year (periods of growth and then harvesting), Chinese teas are harvested multiple times and vary depending on the location and topography. April is certainly the busiest time for harvesting premium green teas from several of the eastern provinces of China.

Fuding produces the best Bai Hao Yinzhen (Silver Needle) with the top quality being harvested pre-Qingming (fat, strong buds with a silvery white tone and downy hairs versus those picked later in the tea season which are flatter with a grayish color).

Anhui produces Huang Shan Mao Feng (one of the 10 famous teas of China – see our blog article about these) and the best version is said to be the pre-Qingming one; they also produce Tai Ping Hou Kui, Lu An Gua Pian, Keemun black tea, and a host of other premium quality teas. (The leaves for Keemun black tea are harvested from Qing Ming to Gu Yu and consist of the buds only or a bud and two leaves; they all go through a lengthy and rigorous process. This tea is typically used in many English breakfast style teas, adding its distinct flavor profile to less pricey teas.)

Jiangxi produces Lu Shan and Ming Mei. Sichaun produces Gan Lu.

Zhejiang is the source for the best Longjing (Dragonwell), Long Ding, and more; in fact, the best Longjing grade is said to be the certified pre-Qingming version from the West Lake Region of the province and is made from the most tender first shoots after dormancy.

Guizhou is the source of a special tea called Leigongshan Silver Ball, grown on Thunder Mountain, a nature reserve with a moist climate and fertile soil; it uses leaves harvested pre-Qingming and that are only a bud with a maximum length of 2.0 centimeters.

Some other teas of high reputation produced during this time: Fenghuang Dancong is produced in early to mid-April. Other black teas are produced during this time period, too, such as Golden Monkey, and Yixing Congou. Pluckings for some pu-erhs are also done in Yunnan Province starting in April and continuing through July. A special version called “Yunnan Spring Buds” is quite prized by those who can get it.

Getting the Best

One thing is for sure: the pre-Qingming teas go fast, often being ordered before the plants have even awakened from dormancy. The coming of Qing Ming, though, does not signal the beginning of the end but rather the beginning of the next harvest round.

If you haven’t pre-ordered from us, it’s not too late. The harvest looks to be a good one and should produce some teas of exceptional quality.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Should You Season Your New Yixing Teapot?

Dozens of web sites advise the same thing: season your new Yixing teapot. But should you really do this? Recently, some folks who are diehard Yixing teapot users said, “No.” I, however, am not so sure. So, that means a bit of closer examination of the pros and cons of seasoning are in order.

Do you really want to put your teapot through this?
(Photo used with permission, all rights reserved)

How to Season (brief summary)

After cleaning the pot with hot water, steep some of the tea type selected for that pot in it. You can either drink the tea or discard it. Some recommend steeping the teapot in a larger cooking pot full of the selected tea for as long as 24 hours. Since the clay used to make these teapots is not glazed or sealed in any way, they remain porous and thus soak up the tea. Again, this is a very condensed version of the seasoning process. (See a more detailed description in our article on this blog: So You Bought a Yixing Teapot — Now What?)

Some Pros and Cons of Seasoning

One con that has come up several times in discussions is that using the seasoning method where you immerse the entire teapot in a stock pot or other large cooking pot full of some of the hot tea could dull the exterior finish of the pot over time. A pro is that your tea will have less of a clay aspect (something I’ve experienced with the pot I haven’t seasoned). A con is that this clay aspect is not a big deal and not worth the effort to some people of going through the seasoning process – nor the wasted tea. Your pot will absorb a little of the tea you steep in it which will alter the tea’s flavor over time, usually making it a bit stronger, with the flavor profiles becoming more pronounced. This is a pro unless you don’t like this change and want your tea to taste pretty much the same with each infusion session.

It’s ultimately up to you whether you want to go through the seasoning process or not.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Tips for How to Store and Age Your Pu-erh Purchases

Pu-erhs are, generally speaking, teas that improve if you let them sit and age for anywhere from 5 to 20 years. Some, though, age better than others. And some must be aged before you dare try them unless you want bitter, astringent tea. Sheng pu-erh, where the leaves have not been “cooked” to age them artificially as Shu pu-erhs are, is that class where fresh is not best. The longer they age, the better they get as a rule, assuming that you start with good young tea. So, how do you age these pu-erh purchases.

Preliminary Considerations

Before you embark on your purchase of pu-erhs with the idea of storing them for aging, there are some considerations: your space availability and if you can provide the right storage conditions, your degree of patience (can you really wait years for those teas to improve their flavors?), and your desired level of taste improvement.

Your storage environment should be a clean and not brightly lit (no direct sunlight). You will want a way to keep the area free of strong or distasteful odors but yet have good air flow with fresh air circulating regularly. An area that is kept at about 68–86°F (20-30°C) and at a fairly high humidity level is also good (the microbes in the leaves need that humidity and steady warmth). Some experts also say the more the merrier, that is, a bunch of pu-erh cakes will be better for blocking out those foreign odors. In fact, an entire tong (qizi bing) can be a good idea, where the cakes stay in their original bamboo wrapper. (See Buying Pu-erh by the Tong.)

As for time, you have two options: buy a young tea and be very, very patient; or buy an older tea, paying a higher price for it, and continue to store it a few years more. The first option is supposed to be the riskiest since you may not know how the tea will age. The second option means you need to buy from someone reputable and that you know has stored the tea properly. If you go that young pu-erh route, take care to buy pu-erhs that start with high quality leaves. If you start with an older pu-erh or go for a shu (cooked) pu-erh, the leaf quality won’t be as critical.

Pu-erh Leaves Characteristics to Look For

Since those tea leaves are the key here, you need to know a few things about the ones you’re buying: how they were dried, the ratio of white tips, and if they are wild (that is, from untended trees) or cultivated.

The leaves can be dried in an oven, giving the pu-erh a more smoky quality to its aroma but interfering with the aging process so that the tea will have an initial attractive smell but will go downhill from there (a sign of such leaves is a more reddish color to the liquid). A better option is frying the leaves in a big wok so the leaves, while still having a smoky aroma, will age better. Best yet is the traditional method of drying the leaves in the sun, thus avoiding any smokiness or destruction of aging properties. The tea master has to be careful that some of the microbes (micro-organisms) in the leaves remain so they can act on those leaves during the aging stage. The tea cakes won’t age properly otherwise.

As for those white tips, the trend right now is to have a fairly high ratio in the cake. This makes it more fragrant in the marketplace, but these tips have too much moisture in them and will cause the tea to develop more acidity during storage. Still, the increasing demand for pu-erh as this style of tea gets better known has prompted many producers who get their leaves from larger gardens to include more white tips and even include pu-erh flowers on top of the cakes for a more attractive appearance, catering to those who don’t really know what to look for.

Another big trend is for what are called “wild” teas, that is, the trees aren’t kept cut short for easier harvesting and are usually not tended. They are cultivated in the sense that when people climb them to pluck the leaves, the trees’ growth pattern is affected. There are usually still some white tips in one of these pu-erh cakes but not a majority. These cakes have the reputation for aging best.

Some More Things to Consider

A good young sheng pu-erh will infuse a “thick” but not necessarily bitter liquid (it will give a full mouthfeel). The good teas will have huigan (a recurring minty bitterness that becomes slightly sweet and produces a cool feeling), and this is a key quality for an age-able pu-erh to have. If you really want to do this, compare young shengs from the same year and if possible from the same mountain. Bad teas that have a more straight bitterness will not lose it after aging. A 70-year-old Ding Xing Hao was reported by some pu-erh lovers to still be bitter, as were a 90-year-old Tian Xing Hao and a Big Shui Lan Yin.

Before buying the tea, ask if it was in “wet storage” (in a fairly high humidity environment such as Hong Kong where a lot of pu-erh storage warehouses are located) or in “dry storage” (somewhere less humid – Alberta, Canada, is one such place). An expert can tell by examining the tea leaves and infusing some of them. Speed up aging by breaking your cakes into smaller pieces (sized to fit in your teapot) so that surface area exposed to oxygen is maximized and encourages microbe action and store in a paper bag, cardboard box, or thick unglazed Yixing clay jars (avoid plastic containers). You will shorten the time you can store the tea, though. Also, don’t store Sheng and Shu pu-erhs together, but do group any Shengs together regardless of age and source and group Shus. They will help each other age through this close proximity to each other.

Final Note

Pu-erhs properly bought and stored and aged will give you many great-tasting and exciting infusions and be the investment of a lifetime.

Friday, March 28, 2014

An Introduction to Those Special Dancong Teas

Making sense of Chinese teas can be rather tricky. How things are translated is one issue. Multiple names being used is another. And the cultural inclination to be poetic about those names comes in to play. The category of oolongs known as “Dancong” or “Dan Cong” is a great example. But hang in there – these teas are special enough to justify you making that effort to work your way through the maze of information about them. This article will get you started. I have attempted to give you a basic outline, with future articles giving you more details. Let’s start with what Dancong means and the basic types of Dancong oolongs.

What Is Dancong?

“Dancong” in Chinese symbols is 单丛 and is often translated as “single trunk/bush” (depends on the translator). The word “Dancong” is the spelling in our alphabet of roughly how the word is pronounced in either Mandarin or Cantonese (the symbols are usually the same but the pronunciations are different). When they say “single,” they mean a single variety, which is Shui Xian, with the growers carefully selecting specific trees/bushes and tending them to produce certain traits in the finished product. This makes them different from Wuyi Shui Xian, Zhang Ping Shui Xian, and the number of others. Some of the ones used for Dancong are over 100 years old, according to several online sites. They have been able to expand on the number of these trees and bushes through grafting, creating a “family” of trees. The total output is pretty small and is one of the reasons the tea price is considerable. Another is that their reputation is growing, and therefore so is demand (and fakery). The best kind is “Phoenix Dancong,” so time to check that out.

There is a mountain range in the Northeast part of Guangdong province in China. (The province is on the south coast of China.) This range, which is where this tea comes from, is called “Phoenix Mountains” so often these teas include “Phoenix” in their name. The other name for this range is “Fenghuang Shan” (or “Fenghuangshan”) so you’ll see the teas offered under the name “Fenghuang oolong” sometimes. Below is the Google map showing the mountain range’s basic location (that little “A” marker) and a good chunk of the province, including Guangzhou (the capital of the province) and Hong Kong that had been under British control until 30 June 1997 when they were officially handed over to Chinese rule. The mountain is not that accessible, which is another factor in this tea’s pricing and availability.

The Basic Types of Phoenix Dancong Oolongs

The 100+ different types of Dancong oolongs listed in the Chaozhou Chronicles are in these sub-categories that are based on their unique fragrance:

# - Name - Chinese symbols - Description
1a   Huang Zhi Xiang 黄枝香 Gardenia Fragrance (aka Yellow Sprig Fragrance)
1b   Huang Zhi Xiang (similar sounding but different root word) 黄栀香 Gardenia Fragrance
2a   Zhi Zi Hua Xiang 栀子花香 Gardenia Fragrance
2b   Zhi Lan Xiang 芝兰香 Orchid Fragrance (aka Iris Fragrance)
3     Mi Lan Xiang 蜜兰香 Honey Orchid Fragrance
4a Gui Hua Xiang 桂花香 Osmanthus Fragrance
4b   You Hua Xiang (on some lists in place of Gui Hua Xiang) 柚花香 Pomelo Flower Fragrance
5     Yu Lan Xiang 玉兰香 Magnolia Fragrance
6a   Jiang Hua Xiang 姜花香 Ginger Flower Fragrance
6b   Tong Tian Xiang (alt name for Jiang Hua Xiang above) 通天香 Heavenly Fragrance
7     Ye Lai Xiang 夜来香 Tuberose Fragrance
8     Mo Li Xiang 茉莉香 Jasmine Fragrance
9     Xing Ren Xiang 杏仁香 Almond Fragrance
10   Rou Gui Xiang 肉桂香 Cassia Fragrance

And let’s not forget “Duck Dung Fragrance Dancong.” Never heard of it? No surprise since it is usually sold under the name “Black Leaf Dancong” or “Da Wu Ye.” When the tea was first cultivated and produced, it was quite popular, so the maker gave it an unappetizing name, hoping to deter imitators. No such luck. Graftings were soon being grown all over the area and the name changed to the one we know today – “Black Leaf” after the dark color of the processed leaves.

Harvesting conditions are critical with these teas (and others). The leaves also must be picked according to three specific conditions: 1) not in early morning (they should not have dew on them), 2) not on a rainy day (the leaves harvested during the rain fetch less than half of what they would if harvested on a sunny day, rather challenging since the harvest is usually during the rainy season where it’s raining about 80% of the time), and 3) not when the sun is shining too hot. Processing begins immediately after harvesting.

Dancongs are made outside of the Phoenix Mountains area, but these are not considered as good as the true Phoenix versions. So, look for “Phoenix” in the name and be sure to buy from a reputable vendor, since imitations abound.

Watch for more articles spotlighting some of these teas on an individual basis. We already wrote about 3 of these earlier on this blog:
More to come, covering the full range we are now offering in our very special sampler set.

In the meantime, happy sipping!