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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Keep the Lid on Your Gaiwan!

Awhile ago, we wrote about some tricks for using a gaiwan. One of the things we didn’t include, because quite frankly it seemed too obvious, was keeping the lid on the gaiwan during steeping. Amazingly, though, some folks are surprised at the need to do this. What is causing this confusion? The plethora of photos online showing gaiwans with the lids off and tea leaves supposedly steeping. The assumption is that this is how it’s done. Not quite. Time to clarify.


There are actually two good reasons to keep that gaiwan lid on: 1) to keep some of the heat in; and 2) to keep some of that great aroma in until it’s time to enjoy it. The lid is also great for keeping those tea leaves in the bowl when you pour – well, most of them anyway.

Keeping in the Heat

Many of you are probably thinking: “How much heat can be lost during those brief steep times?” Good point. Sometimes the steeps are 10, 15, 20 seconds. Not a lot of heat lost there – right? Sure. But longer steeps will incur some heat loss. Some think this is good and avoids “cooking” the leaves. Others think that a drop in temperature will fail to get the flavors out of the leaves. From personal experience, we can say that keeping the heat in is best and can shorten the steeping time a bit.

Hoarding that Aroma

Yes, hoarding. Keep that aroma under the gaiwan lid until it’s ready to be enjoyed. The lid is a dome and holds air in place over the liquid and leaves. The steam will rise off the water into that air space. Minute drops will attach to the underside of the lid. When you lift that lid at the end of the steeping time, take a whiff to get that aroma burst. Then, put the lid back on the gaiwan bowl to strain the leaves when pouring.

Get the most from your fine teas. Gaiwans are a great way to do that, if used properly. One caution: they can get hot to the touch, so handle carefully.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Chinese Hyson Green Tea vs. Other Hysons

When a tea term gets used for teas that vary widely in their aspects, the term becomes rather meaningless. “Hyson” is one of those terms, now being applied to green teas from Anhui province in China all the way to Sri Lanka. There is even a tea company in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) that uses “hyson” in its name. And a Ceylonian version of Hyson is popping up in the market. The Chinese version is also known as “Lucky Dragon.”


Many sites online give definitions of “hyson” that say, almost without exception, it is a green tea from China. Some say it has two grades: young hyson from the early crop and hyson skin made of inferior leaves. Others say it has three grades: Mi Si, Cheng Si, and Fu Si. The term is based on hei-ch'un (Cantonese) which means “bright spring” or “flourishing spring.” The main location where this tea is grown and processed is Anhui province, but it also comes from other locations in China, including Zhejiang province. Not one of them says that the green tea from Sri Lanka is part of this category. It seems to be a term that the Sri Lankan tea industry just glommed onto to promote their green tea. Nothing wrong with that as long as you keep in mind the difference.

Some descriptions of the Chinese versions:
  • Anhui version: Grayish green color. Large, loosely twisted tea similar to FOP of Orthodox Manufacture, but could contain a few stems.
  • Eastern China version: Uses young leaves from high altitudes picked before the spring rains. The leaves are wok fired to prevent oxidation and during the second wok firing are hand-rolled and tightly twisted. The resulting tea brews golden-yellow with a slight sweetness from the young leaves and a robust flavor uncharacteristic of most green teas. This was one of the tea types thrown overboard in the Boston Tea Party.
  • A medium-quality tea from many provinces, an early-harvested tea.
  • A classic green tea from Putuo Island, off the coast of Zhejiang province. The leaves are curly and pan-fired and brews a light amber-green cup with surprising strength and body for a green tea.
  • A green tea made with twisted leaves that unfurl during steeping. This tea has forgiving steeping conditions and makes for a soft grassy flavor, very amenable to novice green tea drinkers.
  • Generally, hyson tea is thought of as a low-grade or mediocre quality tea. However, young hyson is considered high quality, is harvested earlier (before the rains), and has a full-bodied, pungent taste, and golden color. Young hyson tea is subdivided into Chun Mee (a hard, small, twisted leaf), Foong Mee (a long, large, curly leaf), Saw Mee (a small, non-hard, twisted leaf), and Siftings.
  • A wonderful Chinese green tea that comes from the Anhui and Zhejiang provinces in China. It distinguishes itself from other green teas by the way the leaves are twisted and shaped.
The version from Sri Lanka is made of tougher, darker colored leaves, and in the dry form is shaped more like wads than fine brows. The flavor, though, is known to be quite pleasant but different from the Chinese versions. It can have a seafood quality to it, according to some tea reviewers.

Whichever kind you try, steep it gently in water no hotter than 175°F for 1 to 3 minutes.

Friday, August 8, 2014

5 Things to Look for When Shopping for Professional Tea Tasting Sets

If you go online to sites like Facebook, you’ve seen photos of rows of those professional tea tasting sets – this one by Rajiv Lochan, owner of Doke Tea Garden where our Doke Black Fusion tea is from. They were once found only in tea factories (shown here is the Jungpana Tea Factory, one of the Darjeeling tea gardens). More and more tea aficionados are purchasing these sets to have at home. They can be handy and give a quick series of infusions of your teas. Shopping for these professional tea tasting sets is pretty straightforward, too, but you should keep a few things in mind.

1 – Get a set with all the needed components

Mostly, these sets are comprised of the infusing cup with lid and a sipping bowl. Simple. But others come with extras, such as a saucer for the sipping bowl or a tasting spoon for that professional style slurping experience.


2 – Watch the notch

The lidded cup for infusing the tea will have one or more notches on the side opposite the handle. They seem to come in two different styles: a single larger notch and a sawtooth notch arrangement. The larger notch can let smaller leaf pieces come through while the sawtooth style will catch them better. Which you use is up to your personal preference. If you infuse teas with larger pieces, the single notch will be fine.


3 – Bowl shapes vary

The bowls will vary from more straight sided (left) to more curved (right). The big issue is how well the infuser cup will sit inside this bowl.


4 – The ability to sit in the bowl

If you are shopping in person, take a moment, if possible, to see how the infusing cup sits in the bowl. It should be steady. It helps with balance if the handle points straight up, as shown in the photo. Keep the leaves in the cup until you are done with the infusions (many fine teas can be infused 5 or more times). When the last infusion is done, spoon out the leaves onto the lid (upside down) and set it on the cup just for show (great for when you have guests in for a tea tasting event).

5 – Infuser cup capacity

There is not much variation in size here 4 to 6 ounces seems to be the range. For multiple infusions, this amount should be just about right and close to what most gaiwans (lidded steeping bowls) hold.

One last tip

You will note that I didn’t mention price. The sets seem to range from $11 to around $26. More expensive is not necessarily better. And if you get a deal on buying more than on set and can afford it, go ahead. It’s a great way to compare teas, something that is fun and enlightening.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What’s Your Tolerance for Tea Leaf Pieces in the Cup?

Awhile back on this blog we wrote about eating tea leaves, which some folks have since responded they do regularly. However, others have said that they can’t abide any bits of tea leaf in the liquid, that it distorts the flavors. Which brings up the question: What’s your tolerance for tea leaf pieces in the cup? But first, a look at why they would be there in the first place.


Steeping it loose

A bit of a play on the expression “keeping it loose.” Here we mean the tea leaves are steeped loose in the pot, gaiwan, steeping glass, or other vessel of your choice. Just put in the desired amount of pu-erh pried off that cake (or one of those mini-tuochas), or measure out some oolong, green, white, or black tea. Add the water heated to the appropriate temperature, set the timer, and then pour into your chahai (pitcher for tea) or directly into cups. Some teapots will have little holes over the spout end attached to the body of the teapot to help keep big pieces out, but smaller ones will make it through. If you’re using a gaiwan, pieces may slip around the edges of the lid as you pour. And steeping glasses may have no strainer at all. Voilà! Tea leaf bits in your tea!

The good and bad aspects

First on the good side: you avoid using a strainer that can thin out the mouthfeel of some teas; you get a bit of extra benefit from the leaf pieces you swallow.

Now on the bad side: yes, the tea flavor may be altered in a negative way, usually by some bitterness entering the liquid, but this will depend on how long the liquid sits around and will only be an issue for those who dawdle over their teacups. I do like to let the liquid cool slightly so my tongue isn’t scorched by searing hot liquid and so my taste is dulled, but it’s not long enough for tea leaf bits to affect anything.

You will, of course, need to determine your own level of tolerance and may find yourself liking those bits more and more as time goes on…or maybe not. Only time will tell. Give it a try and let us know how it goes.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How to Time Your Tea Infusion When You Don’t Have a Timer

Tea is a beverage that is enjoyed in a variety of locations: your home, at work, in cafés and restaurants, etc. That’s great, since tea is a beverage for anytime, anywhere. But timing that tea is important. And sometimes it is even crucial, where seconds can make the difference between delight and horror. You could lug around a timer in your pocket, purse, briefcase, or backpack. Or you could employ some of the following ways to time your tea infusion when you don’t have a timer.


http://www.teaapp.com
iPhone app good sub
for having no timer.
First, let’s review this general guide to steep times:
  • White teas — 4 to 8 minutes
  • Green teas — 1 to 3 minutes
  • Oolongs — 1 to 8 minutes
  • Black teas — 3 to 5 minutes
  • Pu-erhs — wide range, anywhere from 5 seconds to 10 minutes
  • Herbals (tisanes) — 5 to 8 minutes
Technology to the Rescue
  • Use an app for your iPhone such as Tea (an app for your iPhone), developed by Sam Iglesias, an iPhone Developer and tea drinker, and Mac Tyler, a User Interface (UI) Designer. They combined forces to create this special application (“app”) for iPhones that was released on April 7, 2011. It does a good job of combining both something useful with something that a growing segment of the U.S. population has a passion about: Tea! As with all applications, it started out with the basics with room to add on. Who knows? Someday it might steep your tea for you and compost the leaves. Well, maybe not.
  • Have a wrist or pocket watch that can time things (which is technically having a timer available but not the usually kind you find in kitchens). Lots to choose from. Some tend to be rather bulky and the batteries die at the most inopportune moments. But they are still a good option.

The Lo-Tech Approach

Just count it out. Yep, simple. But you have to do it right. Count too fast or too slow, and you are no better off then if you just guessed. So how you count matters. There are several alternatives here:
  • One-hippopotamus-two-hippopotamus-three-hippopotamus… until the desired time is reached.
  • One-elephant-two-elephant-three-elephant… until the desired time is reached.
  • One-eeee-and-uh-two-eeee-and-uh-three-eeee-and-uh… until the desired time is reached.
We want you to enjoy your fine teas at their utmost and sure hope this helps! Then, go ahead and enjoy that tea in a park or wherever you happen to be.

Friday, July 25, 2014

What to Do When You Screw Up the Brew (of Your Tea)

Panic can set in when you “screw up the brew” of your tea. You have no idea what to do. We’re here to help. First, don’t panic. It happens to us all. Then, take a breath, step back, and read on…


You get a new tea. Maybe it’s a sample from a vendor like us. Maybe it’s a pretty rare and special tea. You are drooling in anticipation. Like an athlete prepping for the Olympics, the World Cup of Soccer, or the Tour de France, you have honed your tea steeping/infusing skills and are ready for this challenge. You steep the tea and take that first sip…things seem okay…more than okay…wow! a great tea, you think…another sip…still good. You finish off the first infusion and get the next one going. This time you take a sip and…WHAM-O! Right away you know that something has gone horribly wrong. Your first clue: your face screws up into a tight ball as if you’d just bit into a whole lemon. Your second clue: you have the sudden urge to run as far away from that tea as possible, crying “What happened? What did I do wrong?”

How to Make It All Right Again

If this is one of those trashy teas that are fairly commonly available, my best advice is to toss the leaves, rinse everything, and start over. But for those rare and premium teas, the thought of wasting those leaves is too much to bear. So, here’s an alternative solution to make it all right again:
  • Drain all liquid off the leaves as thoroughly as possible.
  • Put them back in your gaiwan or other steeping vessel.
  • Heat water to the proper temperature – this is actually the number one reason that steepings go awry, i.e., the water is too hot or not hot enough. However, even if you overheat the water, you can shorten the steep time (pretty tough to do when the time is only a few seconds).
  • Do a quick tea leaves rinse – pour some water over the leaves, swish a little, and pour out the water. Hopefully, any chemicals making the tea taste bad will be washed away (but no guarantees).
  • Use a timer and have it preset (some of these steep times are quite short, so you won’t have time to set it once you pour in the water), or you can count out “One-hippopotamus, two-hippopotamus…” as an easier method. If you’re not sure how long to steep, consult the vendor’s instructions (either on the package or their Web site). Shorten the time if you think the water is too hot.
  • Steep no longer than the time needed and then strain thoroughly (some teas, especially sheng pu-erhs, do better if you leave some of the liquid in the steeping vessel) into the sipping cups.
We all have a bad tea experience now and then, but one of the great things about loose leaf teas is the ability to give them another try. No way can you do that with the dust-in-a-bag. Hope this works out for you.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Can You Map the Tea Mountains of China?

Tea guy Thomas Kasper commented a short while ago that trying to map all the mountains in China where tea was grown would be a formidable and daunting task. I agree. The number of mountains in China is substantial, and the ones with tea growing on them is a pretty good-sized chunk. Some are more well-known outside of China than others. The Wuyi Mountains are the first to come to mind, as seen here in this photo from One Piece Travel:


These mountains are in the northern part of the Fujian province of China. The Wuyi Mountains extend from Wuyishan City, Nanping prefecture, Fujian province, and Wuyishan Town, at Shangrao city in Jiangxi province. Teas from there include the famous Wuyi Rock Oolongs.

Then there are the Huangshan (literally "Yellow Mountain") near Huangshan City. The range is in southern Anhui province in eastern China. A superb tea called Huangshan Maofeng comes from here.


The province of Yunnan in China is very mountainous. Large-leaf varietal tea plants, for the most part, are grown in many locations and are made into primarily pu-erh teas. But mapping all the locations would be a lifetime commitment. I’ll just enjoy the teas. Some of their main peaks are: Daxue Mountain, Haba Xueshan, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Mount Jizu, Kawagarbo, Laojun Mountain, Mianzimu, Phu Si Lung, and Shiceng Dashan. Not all are planted with tea, being too inaccessible or of the wrong terrain.


The Xinjiang province in northwest China also has a large amount of mountain peaks in it. A number of tisanes come from there, featuring dried lavender, barley, safflower, chrysanthemum, and spearmint. They don’t seem to produce much tea, though. The province is in a bit of turmoil due to ethnic conflicts.

In the Jiangxi province in southeast China, a special Xinjiang Yu Rong green tea is produced in Huaguo Mountain. The moist climate (misty, abundant rainfall) of this region combines with fertile soil and so is very suitable for growing tea. This tea undergoes the various production processes (sunning, fixing, rolling drying, etc.). The leaf shape is thin and white like duck down, with a bright green color. They infuse a clear and bright liquid that has a long-lasting chestnut aroma. Key peaks: Mount Longhu, Mount Lu, and Mount Sanqing.

 
Some peaks of note (listed by province) where tea may or may not be grown:
  • Anhui – Mount Jiuhua, Mount Langya, Mount Qiyun, Mount Tianzhu, and Tiantangzhai (also partly in Hubei province).
  • Fujian – Mount Huangbo, Zimao Mountain
  • Guangdong – Baiyun Mountain, Mount Danxia, Dinghu Mountain, Mount Luofu, Shenguang Mountain, Wutong Mountain, and Mount Xiqiao
  • Henan – Mount Du, Shennong Mountain, Shiren Mountain, Mount Song, Tianzhong Mountain, Mount Wangwu, Xiao Mountain, and Yuntai Mountain (Henan)
  • Hunan – Mount Heng (Hunan), Tianmen Mountain, Tianzi Mountain, Wugai Mountain, Yuelu Mountain, and Yun Mountain
  • Jiangsu – Jiangjun Mountain, Mount Lingyan, Purple Mountain, Qixia Mountain, and Yunlong Mountain
  • Liaoning – Bijia Mountain, Dahei Mountain, Wunü Mountain, and Yiwulü Mountain
  • Sichuan –Mount Emei, Mount Erlang, Mount Genyen, Mount Gongga, Mount Pomiu, Mount Qingcheng, Mount Tangjia, Tuoshan, Mount Siguniang, and Mount Xuebaoding
  • Zhejiang – Huangyajian Peak, Mount Jianglang, Mount Mogan, Mount Putu,o, Tianmu Mountain, Mount Tiantai, and Zhaobao Mountain
Yes, mapping the tea mountains of China would be quite a task. But enjoying the teas from there is easier than ever. Just point, click, and shop!