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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!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Some Lesser Known Teas of China

There are a number of lesser known and rare teas from China. They are generally ones that are not widely marketed and/or are only available in small quantities. One reason is that a few decades ago farmers in the area chopped down a lot of the older tea trees to plant better cash crops such as rice. These older trees are now rather few and far between and sought out by various tea “hunters.” There is also the perception, justified or not, that these teas are, by virtue of their obscurity and/or rarity, of high quality. Some are, but others are just rare.

http://www.jas-etea.com/anxi-tie-guan-yin-oolong-tea-premium-10-years-old-50g/
A 10-years-old Tie Guan Yin, rare and rewarding!
Some of these special Chinese teas:
  • Wild Tie Guan Yin — A more rare version of a tea becoming more popular with tea aficionados. This version is considered wild since it is not commercially cultivated. The trees are in the Fujian Province on rocky, mist-shrouded hillsides (4,500+ feet elevation) around the Xi Ping village. The environment is subtropical. The tea is only picked once a year in the Spring. The aroma of the leaves has a green quality but also floral, fruity, and honey notes, and the liquid has a fabulous body, flavor, and finish after only a one-minute steep in boiled water will fully unfurl the leaves and produce a superb infusion.
  • Green Tea from Anhui Province — This rare, competition-grade tea comes from high in the mountains of Anhui Province. Orchids surround the gardens and infuse their scent into the leaves during the night.
  • Monkey Ditch, Tai Ping Hou Kwei, and Monkey Hill — This is actually 3 grades of tea made from a large, flat style of tea leaves that are almost two inches long and grown in the Yellow Mountain area of Anhui Province. After harvest, they are wrapped in gauze, which presses its pattern into the leaves and is considered a sign of the tea’s quality. Tai Ping Hou Kwei has a red coloring to the leaves; it is enjoyed with meals and has a slightly grassy character. Monkey Ditch has a red vein in the leaf; it steeps up a very fresh, sweet hay aroma and a grassy, green taste.
  • Curled Dragon Silver Tip — The leaves are thick and downy with a green and white coloring; they steep up a liquid that is complex, mildly sweet, and has a somewhat floral character but remains smooth with no astringency. A must for green tea lovers!
  • Snow Monkey — Named quite possibly for its silvery, downy leaves that infuse a light colored, medium-bodied liquid with a clean, fresh taste.
  • Tie Luo Han Oolong (Iron Warrior Monk, Wu Yi Tie Luo Han) — The leaves are dark and slightly curled. This is one of the Famous Five Wuyi Rock teas and supposedly dates from the Song Dynasty, making it the earliest Wuyi tea. The liquid has a flavor that is rich, full-bodied, and quite strong, steeped up from. According to legend, this tea was created by a powerful warrior monk with golden-bronze skin who found a tea bush in a cave (Gui Dong or Ghost Cave) in Hui Yuan Yan, one of the 99 cliffs of Mount Wu Yi.
  • Pi Lo Chun — This tea is from trees growing in the Tung Ting mountains, near peach and apricot trees which gives the leaves a subtle peachy aroma and delicate infusion. Those leaves are also downy and resemble tiny snails.
Finding teas that are truly rare, special, lesser known, etc., can be tricky. As with anything of increasing value, imitations abound. A trustworthy vendor is, therefore, a must in your quest.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Spotlight Tea: Jinggu 2011 Spring Purple Bud Raw Pu-erh Tea

Have gaiwan, will steep! And that’s just what happened recently with some Summit brand Jinggu 2011 Spring Purple Bud (紫芽) Raw Pu-erh Tea I had on hand. When it’s a great tea like this, my gaiwan can’t resist! Time to tell you a bit more about the history of this tea, though, and then on with infusing that tea.


This tea is a “single mountain” tea, meaning that the leaves come from the tea trees on one particular mountain. In this case, it is from tea trees (a rare variety of the Yunnan large-leaf tea trees, famous for high health benefits, high percentage of anthocyanidins, and amino acids, particularly tea polyphenols) around Wenshan village (文山) in Jinggu (景谷) county, Yunnan province, China. The altitude is over 2,000 meters above sea level, and at this time there is no drivable road and the Summit tea team walks 3 hours or so to the village. These old-arbor, big-tree pu-erh teas originating from a single mountain are rare, and there are lots of false claims out there where the teas are actually blends (a small amount of the old leaves in with a lot of other leaves) using the Zijuan (紫娟) or Zicha (紫茶 purple tea) máochá. One reason is that the spring yield of these teas is tea is extremely low, (purple bud is around 50 kgs), and not all of it is suitable. The other reason is to keep the cost of the tea down to a reasonable level. This tea is processed as máochá by the tea farmers and then pressed by the Summit team using traditional stone for better future storage and quicker aging. These teas will vary from year to year due to differences in growing conditions. But they will all present you with an excellent appreciation of some of the finest, true big-arbor pu-erh tea available and the flavor profile in general presented by the Jinggu tea mountain where the tea originates.

Approximate location of Wenshan Village:


Get a look at that scenery! This is in Jinggu county and shows how rugged the terrain is. Remember that these teas grow in mountainous areas for the most part and are subjected to some rather tempestuous weather that can lead to roads getting washed out and even mudslides occurring. A tough existence for the locals but a very traditional one.


The difference between true purple bud pu-erh and the fake Zijuan and Zicha teas lies in the shape, fragrance, taste. Start by taking a close look at the particular tea leaf shape. Purple-bud tea has no tea hair or tea leaf saw on both sides of the leaf; the Zijuan and Zicha do not share these leaf characteristics. Also, this is a three-color tea; this means the fresh buds on the tea trees are purple, the dried tea is shiny dark, and the infused tea leaves are green for the first one or two years. This tea is an outstanding candidate for long-term storage. If the tea is aged for about 5 years, it will start to demonstrate an aged aroma with an even more sweet and thick taste. This one isn’t quite that age yet.


You can use either a glass cup or a gaiwan for best infusion of this tea. I used a bit more than the recommended 5-7 grams, but that’s fine since tea is a very personal experience. You can adjust things to suit you. Water temperature can be anywhere from 175° to 190°F. The higher the water temperature, the shorter the steeping time should be (30 seconds for the lower temperature, 10 seconds for the higher temperature, in this case). That’s for the first infusion of the leaves. After that, add about 15-20 seconds to the time. Tip: pour the water around the edge of the gaiwan, not on the tea leaves directly, to avoid burning the tender tea buds. Infusion times in a glass cup should be longer (1 minutes for the first, 3-4 minutes for the next ones) with a smaller amount (2-3 grams) of tea leaves used.


Even as a young tea, this purple bud demonstrates a wonderful flavor profile. There is a very full mouthfeel that lingers. The astringency is mild and very balanced and quickly disappears leaving a sweet aftertaste. I have never experienced this maturity in a raw pu-erh that is this young. This "early maturity" seems to be a general characteristic of the Summit brand teas.

Considering the rarity of this tea, I wanted to treasure every drop!

Monday, July 7, 2014

The China Jats of Darjeeling

Tea growing in the area of West Bengal in northern India started with folks like Robert Fortune, a Scotsman who is credited with smuggling (some say stealing) tea plants and people who knew how to cultivate them and process the leaves, about 167 years ago. Some of these original China “jats” (the local term for the cultivars) still survive. Time to learn a bit more about them.

Singbulli White Jade

Fortune traveled to China as part of the Treaty of Nanjing so you could say that he was welcomed into the country. Being a Scotsman and a rather bold one, apparently, he did not confine himself to the things they wanted to show him. One thing was for sure: he was determined to find a way to get some of those Chinese tea plants. At the time, China was maintaining a stranglehold on tea production, and people were not aware of the sister plant Camellia sinensis var. assamica growing already in the Assam area of northern India. Fortune succeeded in his quest and then began to search for the right place to plant them. At some point in all this (I’ve seen different versions posted online of the exact process here) he ended up in the area near the town of Darjeeling in the foothills of the Himalayas. Success for Fortune meant success for tea drinkers everywhere, especially since the teas now knows as “Darjeeling” and bearing their special logo are of such a high standard that they are called the “champagne of teas” (and also due to the Muscat grape nature of their flavors).

Tea planting began small in 1847 and grew over the years in the small district known as Darjeeling. [Note: some sites say it was earlier in 1835 and credit a Dr. Campbell, the first British superintendent of the district.] In 2004 they obtained a special protection under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act of 1999. [Source] Only teas grown by a garden in a certain geographical region can label their teas as “Darjeeling” and apply the seal of authenticity. So much tea from Darjeeling was being used to sell inferior teas that the name was in danger of becoming a joke. A ton of inferior tea would have a fraction of that amount of Darjeeling tea added to it so it could be labeled as “Darjeeling” and command a higher price.

The old jats are another issue. Management of the gardens is spotty. Some do very well and others are not so good. Some have garnered a reputation through marketing efforts alone while others are actually focused on presenting a quality product. We stay in touch with people involved in the efforts over there and so can choose the best of the batch. These gardens also struggle with tending plants that may be worn out from over-harvesting. One manager discovered that the older plants in his garden were damaged by moss stem borers and had been poorly pruned over the years. He also realized that some of the plants had been uprooted and replaced with clonal plants and would not grow leaves producing the same Muscatel flavor profile. He dug down around the roots of some older plants, discovered the roots were alive and fairly healthy, but that there were tumors growing on the part of the trunk that was below soil level. The solution: pull back the soil and cut away the tumors, a method that was cheaper than uprooting and replanting.

A further issue is that there is quite a variety of these jats (and even some that are Assam jats, growing in the lower elevations mostly). Over the years various methods of propagation have been employed, including cloning, until there are now hundreds of them. This is a good thing in one way, since the old plants are at the end of their useful life. However, the challenge is maintaining that distinct flavor profile. The relatively low yield from these bushes is also one of the reasons prompting the protection of the name “Darjeeling.” A bush yields an average of 3-4 ounces of processed tea annually, meaning that it takes 4 or 6 bushes to make a pound of Darjeeling tea. That pound contains about 9,000 hand-plucked leaf-and-bud sets.

While the terroir of the Darjeeling area helps create this unique flavor profile from the leaves of those China jats, we can taste the similarity with other teas from China. It’s like seeing a family resemblance in siblings or even cousins.

Time to get better acquainted!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Pu-erh Bing Cake Mold Sizes and Types

The Bing (also Beeng or Disc) is one of the most common pu-erh cake shapes available. “Bing” is loosely translated as “round.” The shape is described as round, flat, discus, or hockey puck shaped. They are preferred by many pu-erh devotees for their superior aging. The tradition of pressing this tea into cakes is said to have come about as a way to transport the tea more easily over long distances to market. A commonly used term for bing pu-erh is Qīzí bǐngchá (七子餅茶, which literally means “Seven units cake tea”) because seven bings are packaged together in a tong for sale or transport.

2005 Hai Lang Hao Lincang Impression
Raw Pu-erh Hand-pressed Bing
Sizes and Shapes

The most common bing sizes/weights (in grams):

500, 400, 357, 250, and 200.

Some vendors make ones as small as 100 grams and as large as 5 kilograms or even larger. The edge can be rounded or perpendicular, determined by the pressing method.

Pressing

A quantity of dry Máochá is weighed out in accord with the desired final weight of the bing. The leaves are steamed in perforated cans so they will soften and become a bit more tacky, thus holding together better during compression. Then colorful ribbons or a nei fei (a ticket with info on it about the tea but usually in Chinese) are put on top of the leaves in the can. The can is then turned upside down over a cloth bag, which is gathered tight and wrung into a sphere shape and any extra cloth is tied or coiled around itself. The end of the bag is twisted into a tight ball and pressed into the leaves, forming the characteristic indentation on one side of the cake. (The cloth bags are used and reused, becoming tea-stained and slightly altering the tea flavor.) The whole thing goes into the press. They are then set in a shady area to dry, releasing the moisture from the steaming. When dry, the cakes are removed from the bags and dried more in the sun. They are then wrapped in a paper wrapper that has been printed with various information for the buyer.

There are several compression levels. “T” on the label indicates an especially tight compression which is also quickest. Medium is another level. Loose and slow is at the other end of the spectrum. The tightly compressed cakes are meant to be aged for a number of years slowly and evenly. The looser cakes have more air in them and age a bit more rapidly.

How cakes are pressed varies these days from what it did in the early days of bing making. Many smaller tea factories still use stone presses. Other use iron presses, and the bings are called tei bing (“iron cake or puck”) because of their high level of density and hardness. The stone presses can be stood on to increase the pressure and density. (Tea urchin claims there’s a rumor that a pretty girl standing on the stone press makes the tea sweeter and worth more. I haven’t done any tests to see if this is true or not.)

Depending on the desired product and speed, from quickest and tightest to slowest and loosest, pressing can either be done by:
• Stone press – The old-time tried and true method using a large heavy stone, carved into the shape of a short cylinder with a handle. Put the stone on the bag filled with steamed máochá. The bag and stone combine effects to produce a nicely rounded bing, but the edge may often but a bit non-uniform. Lots of manual labor involved here, so it is more often used for artisanal bings. You will see “hand pressed” or “stone-pressed” in the description.
• Lever press – A step up from the stone press. A lever helps the operator achieve tight pressings. This type of press is rarely used these days due to the hydraulic press.
• Hydraulic press – The press forces the máochá into a metal form (sometimes decorated with a sunken-relief design) and can create cakes of various shapes, bagged or not. The cakes made without using the cloth bag are the iron cakes mentioned above.
See our article on this blog about loosening the cake to more easily break off pieces for infusing.