Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Yu Lan Hua - Magnolia flower

Botanical name: Michelia alba DC.
Common names: Champacany-puti,White michelia,White champaka
Family: Magnoliaceae

Yu Lan Hua is a humble looking flower which can release powerful fragrance. Yu Lan tree thrives in sub-tropical climates, common in Guang Dong, Yunnan and parts of India. When I was a little kid, I often saw ladies/girls selling Yu Lan flowers in a little basket at street corners after dark, they often had a couple flowers slipped behind their ears or clipped among hairs. Cultural revolution abolished anything luxury, perfume was definitely a no no. Yu lan flower became a substitute of perfume, its fragrance is attractive and refreshing. Politic can dampen human spirit, but spirit will survive and revive then thrive!

Some times I wonder if technology was invented to complicate human life in some aspects. It's natural, organic and easy to put a couple of Yu Lan flowers in hair as it's decorative and smells attractive. Instead we go through a massive process to extract essential oils from tons flowers to produce small amount of perfume, tons money to package, then cost even more to market the product, test with animals, excessive insurance coverage to cover unnecessarily law suits, medical bills for allergy, etc.. I wonder.... I just wonder... It must be financial driven, job creation, blah blah blah.

Yu Lan trees can be as tall as 6 to 8 meters. Pictured is a young tree.

How to brew Feng Huang Dan Cong - Phoenix Single Bush Oolong Teas

Dan Cong is delicate and some what difficult to brew. Ok it might be the most difficult to brew. I had trouble when I first encounter DC. Either the aroma was not as pronounced or the tea became bitter fast for most of the commercial grade Phoenix Dan Congs Oolong Teas.

Like any tea, water, temperature and timing are crucial in maximizing the potential of the leaves.

DC prefers slightly higher PH water (7.25-7.5). Here in Southern California, tap water can be used after boiled with bamboo charcoal. For better result, filter tap water with Brita then boil water with bamboo charcoal, after water is boiled, simmer for 10 minutes with just enough fire to keep it hot but not bubbling. Well filtered water such as reverse osmosis filtered water can not bring out the aroma and the honey taste as well as the above method. Tea would have a soapy slippery texture without the honey and fragrance. When water is right, tea would have a buttery honey water taste.

1st boil = shrimp eye, lots little bubbles forming at bottom of pot, rising slowly, sounds like bamboo leaves swaying in strong wind
2nd boil = crab eye, medium size bubbles travel up fast, loud popping noise
3rd boil = boiling, fountain like water surface, no more bubble, constant humming noise

For new teas (under 5 yrs): use 3rd boil water for first infusion. Pour boiling water from low to high and make sure leaves tumble around. Force plus temperature will open up the leaves from aroma to taste. Use 2nd boil water for the next 3 infusions, 1st boil water when leaves open up entirely.

For old teas (5 yrs and older): 3rd boil for first infusion. Pour water from low for every infusion. 1 boil for the next 2 infusions, 2nd boil for subsequent brews.

For very old teas (20 yrs and older): 3rd boil for immediate in and out rinse, drain and shake all the water out, even just a few drops, leave lid open and wait till temp drop to room temperature, then brew as above method.

Old bush will not turn bitter or too astringent if left in water for too long.
Recommended time: 15, 10, 10, 13, 13, 15, 15, +5 to +10
# of infusions: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.....

Phoenix teas are closer to wild varietals compare to other domesticated varietals, it can be bitter when the tree is young, especially summer/fall productions. In situations like that, steep for shorter time (minus 5 seconds from above) for the first 3 infusions. Leave of this quality can last about 7 or 8 infusions. Old bushes can last 15 - 35 infusions.

Quantity (for old bush DC only):
3 to 5 g for old bushes, unless you like it strong like the chao zhou style then use 7 to 9 g when using a gaiwan or a clay pot no larger than 120 ml.

When not using kung fu style method, use 1 g in 120 ml gaiwan, steep for 2 minutes in boiling water.

Use gaiwan to enhance aroma. Use THIN wall small clay pot to enhance taste and texture, small chao zhou or zhuni pot would be good choices.

Ideal utensils:
Chao zhou stove, clay water kettle, olive pit charcoal, chao zhou red clay pot, do NOT use cha hai (pitcher) and aroma cups.

A little trick to taste/smell your tea. Use 2 fingers to close your nostrils, take a sip of tea, swirl it around your mouth to feel the texture. Then let go of your fingers, the flavor and aroma will purge through your nose, you can clearly smell the flavor with intense sensitivity. It's kinda like separating the taste and smell from the same sip of tea. You can experiment with other food too.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Chinese New Year 2008

Invitation to Chinese New Year party!

LATA members, local tea nerds and out of town tea nerds who happen to be in town, you are all invited to come to my party! New Year holds the most significant meaning to me and my family. It's time for celebration, family gathering and drink tons of tea to wash down the large amount of food.

Click on second picture for details.

Tea Habitat
21B Peninsula Center
Rolling Hills Estates
CA 90274
(Across from TJmaxx)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

How much caffeine is in tea?

How appropriate of the timing to talk about caffeine at this hour?! I am wide awake at the moment from 5 teas I had earlier today. I am tired but can't fall asleep.

So how much caffeine is there in tea? I have seen lots articles comparing coffee and tea. Many of my customers told me they can't drink black tea because it keeps them up, so they want to switch to green tea. The usual question starts: how much caffeine is in tea? Tea has less caffeine than coffee right? Does black tea have more caffeine than green? Does white tea have the most caffeine?

Any of the comparing pairs are like apple to orange, kiwi to bok choi, bamboo to aloe vera, just pick any 2 strange things you can think of.

The caffeine level in any tea has little to do with the type of tea. As a tea leaf from a tea tree, the caffeine level is determined by the varietal and the soil it is in. For example, a TGY bush grows in Anxi might have different caffeine content from a same TGY varietal grows in Wuyi. A Huang Zhi Xiang varietal has more caffeine than Yu Lan Xiang varietal on the same hill. An old bush has more caffeine than its young clone. Lao Ban Zhang has more caffeine than a Yiwu. The difference is by varietals, not by type. Not all green teas have more caffeine than black, not all oolongs have less caffeine than white.

Caffeine level can vary from 2.5% to 6.5% before processing. This holds true across the board from white to black. From a leaf on a tree to consumption ready, caffeine level will change by processing and storage. Unless scientists take lab samples of every single varietal on earth for research, and farmer/sellers post that information on a label, we can not say how much caffeine does one tea contain. Even if that's done, chemicals of the trees will change as they grow. It's irresponsible to say green tea has so and so much caffeine as a whole category as seen in a million article online and in magazines. There is no definite formula for tea, it's not science like pharmaceutical drugs.

Impact of caffeine can vary from person to person also. While one person will stay up till dawn, the same tea will put an other person to deep sleep. I have heard caffeine will make people with ADD tired and sleepy. Drinking tons of low caffeine level teas will keep you up more than drinking a little bit of the high caffeine level tea. 20 tea bags to make one pot of tea will send me through the roof for sure.

I advice my clients to take small amount at the beginning and recommend teas according to their previous tea experience.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Blending tea

I want to talk about blending tea briefly. Here we are not talking about herbs/flowers/spices blended teas like the western herbal blends. I am talking about blended oolong tea, black tea and pu-erh tea. Many tea drinkers are at constant quest of single estate teas, believe the pure breeds are the best. While this may be true for some, but not all.

Number of reasons to blend teas together:
1, to keep the flavor consistent
2, to create new receipes to enhance flavor and hide flaws
3, combine small batches to make one big enough batch

First reason is a common commercial practice, similar to wine/spirit making. Ingredients are different in taste for each year, grapes can be sour this year and sweet the next. Using the same method to make wine will result in different taste each year, however consumers had it last year and liked it would like to buy something just like what they had last year, hence wine makers blend different batches to match the flavor. Same reason for blended whiskey, it tastes very similar no mater when it's made. However single malt whiskeys have wide range of flavors. That's the difference in consumers preference, burger king burgers vs home made burgers. Burger king's won't be outstanding, but it's not bad. Home made burgers can be excellent but may not be the same every time. Teas are blended to meet market needs year after year with some what consistent flavors. Earl Grey drinkers will not like their earl grey taste like Lapseng Souchong the next time they order a tea bag.

2nd reason for blending tea is to create new flavors. Pu-erh teas are blended mostly, using leaves from different mountains and regions, leaves from different seasons, or any combinations of leaves. One region gives smooth texture, an other region gives more bite, one can be too astringent, an other can be too bitter, by combining all the leaves, the finished product will be more complex with multiple layers of flavor. Wuyi tea farmers also blend leaves frequently. Da Hong Pao commercial products are mostly blended, and China agriculture department approved of such marketing scheme. Commercial Dan Congs can be blended as well. Other than the top 10 fragrance DCs, there are many varietals do not have a signature fragrance, hence mixing them with other aromatic DCs will give the new blend a whole new life. The strength of one can make up the weakness of another. An ever lasting Chinese philosophy.

3rd reason for blending tea is use what you have on hand sufficiently. This type of practice can be seen with old bushes of Dan Cong. Due to small productions of averaging only 3 lbs per tree, for those produces only a lb or less, farmers combine a few trees of similar flavor into one batch. If age of the combined trees vary by far, the older tree will contribute an old bush YUN, while the younger tree will contribute higher note of fragrance.

Blending is an art can be refined only with experience.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Who drinks more tea?

Annual tea consumption per person:
Irish: 3230 g
British: 2460 g
Japanese: 1080 g
Chinese: 350 g
Korean: 32 g

Monday, January 14, 2008

Physical & spiritual

US is a society of speed, fast cars, fast high ways, fast Internet, fast service from food to drive through wedding, how can tea be omitted from the fast lane?! No one has the patience to sit down and wait a couple minutes for tea to brew, hot tea does not cool fast enough for instant drinking so the invention of iced tea. My customers ask me for ice cubes. Machines are made to brew hot and iced teas with preset time and temperature.

#4 in the world, US consumption of tea is more than I thought it would be. One must think there is a tea culture here. Well, if there was one, it must be tea bag and iced tea culture. It's the physical presence of tea without the spirit.

I am stressed out just thinking of waiting in line for a cup of hot tea at Starbucks.

My mind is bubbling with thoughts today.... and still bubbling

Cha Yun4 茶韵

The term Cha Yun4 has troubled me for a few years, especially when I was in the stage of trying many teas I had not had or heard of before, not that I know all teas now, but I had enough to find a love of my life, which needless to say, Dan Cong.

Through years of drinking, I heard many people refer a tea's characteristics as cha yun. Each tea has its yun, each location, region, mountain all have their yun reflected upon tea. How do we determine the term? From my understanding out of my experience, 2 things might be mixed when we speak of cha yun. First is varietal flavor, Tie Guan Yin is distinctive from Dan Cong, Dan Cong is distinctive from Taiwan oolong. Roughly speaking, these are varietal flavors, not Cha Yun. Chicken will taste like chicken whether its free range or caged although one taste like good chicken and the other taste just like chicken. Second is the indescribable yun. What makes up cha Yun is the subtle characteristics which remind you of the place, the people and the happenings where you had the tea?!

Yun is an up in the air term. Literally it means Rhyme, the ending of 2 phrases rhyme with each other. The music tones rhyme. It's a term to describe sound.

When yun is used to describe human, it takes on a totally different meaning. Women have lady yun which girls don't. In this context, it means aura, character, charisma, personality.

How can we describe cha yun? To me, it's how a tea makes you feel, the energy created in your body that reminds you of something consistently when drinking similar teas.

When I drink Long Jing, the lightness, greenness, and the shapes of floating young leaves make me think of the infamous beautiful ladies of Su Zhou and Hang Zhou, the silkiness associates with real silk also a famous product of Su Hang. ladies of Su Hang are famous for being thin, soft spoken and fair skin with a fragile look. Long Jing is a shadow of all those above. I don't drink much green tea including LJ. Not for the lady like reason, or is it?! :p

Aged pu-erh gives me a nourishing feel, grounded and protected. It's the aging effect I suppose. Like a father caring for his child. I associate pu-erh with a masculine energy, Wuyi rock tea also give me the male masculine energy.

Dan Cong, reminds me of an out side world unlike any metropolis or even a country site. 世 外 桃 园 a peach garden out side of this world. The floral aroma will lighten your feet, lift your spirit off the ground, the honey taste is warm to the soul, leaving you worry free.

Each person perceive things differently, and each tea effects every one differently as well. That's why cha yun will vary for each person.

Bragging about Ginger Mom Fragrance 姜母香

Ok, I lost sleep for 2 nights in a row after I found out I'll have the privilege to taste the $6000 / 500 g Dan Cong in June 2008, I can't contain my happiness and feel the need to brag a little. This makes me gitty just thinking about it. #1 bush on Wu Dong mountain, Jiang Mu Xiang - Ginger Mom Fragrance 姜母香.

I know this sounds silly and juvenile. :P

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Little tea facts

  1. The earliest discovery of tea: China is the birth place of tea more than 5000 years ago.
  2. The biggest tea tree: MengHai county of Yunnan Province, 32 meters tall, 3 meters in circumference, 1700 years of age.
  3. The oldest tea tree: LinChang, Feng Qing county of Yunnan Province, 11 meters tall, 6 meters in circumference - takes 4 men to hug this tree, 3200 years of age.
  4. The first book of tea: Tea Classic by Lu Yu.
  5. The first country to adopt tea: Japan, 803 AD; Europe (India and Ceylon) in 17th century; Africa in 19th century.
  6. The most complete educational institutes of tea: 9 universities in China offer majors in Tea agriculture with the most number of students world wide; 2 China national tea research institutes study existing varietals and develop new varietals.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Get to know Phoenix Dan Cong (3) - Naming

Names of Phoenix Dan Cong are as complicated and unsystematic as it can be. Only in the last 50+ years, the communist party put some order to it, however it's intended to organize and expand the commercial market. Names of old trees remained lack of system. Top 10 fragrance DCs were registered then, namely:

Yu Lan Xiang - magnolia flower fragrance 玉蘭香
Huang Zhi Xiang - orange flower fragrance 黄枝香
Xing Ren Xiang - Almond flavor 杏仁香
Zhi Lan Xiang - Orchid fragrance 芝蘭香
Mi4 Lan Xiang - Honey Orchid fragrance 蜜蘭香
Gui Hua Xiang - Osmanthus fragrance 桂花香
You Hua Xiang - Pomelo/grapefruit flower fragrance 柚花香
Jiang Hua Xiang - Ginger flower fragrance 姜花香
Rou Gui Xiang - Cinnamon flavor (not the same as Wuyi Rou Gui) 肉桂香
Mi3 Lan Xiang - Milan flower fragrance 蘭香 - tinny grain size yellow flowering plant from the southern provinces of China)

These are signature well known fragrance types of Phoenix teas, also used as commercial product names for clones. For old trees, although they have the same fragrance, most of them are named individually. Many trees have similar fragrance but not entirely the same. Clones of such trees are group together under the same fragrance type tea.

Zhi Lan Xiang for example, there are 2 mother trees, 2 out the top 4 mother trees on WU Dong Mountain. Late Ching dynasty, a tea farmer cloned some branches from the 2 trees, planted them around Phoenix mountain, 8 of the cloned survived and still living today, the 8 locations simulate 8 deities crossing the sea, hence these cloned trees are now called Ba Xian Guo Hai (short for Ba Xian).

There are 40+ varietals that can produce the flavor of Huang Zhi Xiang, Ao Fu Hou is one of the mother trees out of the 40. Each village named their own HZX or any varietal for that mater after their village names or mountain name. ie Wu Dong HZX, Shi Tou HZX. There are Qing Xiang - light fragrance varietals, also Nong Xiang - intense fragrance varietals. Huang Zhi Xiang is the largest production of the top 10 fragrance.

Names of Phoenix tea can be roughly separated into 3 concepts, commercial products, old tree names, and finishing product names of old trees.

Names of old bushes can be anything you can imagine. These names do not change much. Thief Shit, Duck Shit, Old Duck, Big Dark Leaf, Song Zhong, Song Zhong Jai (Next generation Song Zhong), Jiang Mu Xiang (Ginger Mom), Red Lady Umbrella, Dong Fang Hong (Same as Song Zhong, changed to DFH for Chairman Mao), etc.. just to name a few out of many many old trees. It can be named by shape of leaves, color of leaves, location of tree, shape of tree, mythes, historic events, etc. Just about anything you want to name it after, not logical, not scientific, not systematic.

The term Song Zhong is still confusing to me. I know an old bush is named Song Zhong, its descendants are also named beginning with Song Zhong, such as Song Zhong Jai, or Song Zhong Jiang Hua Xiang. Also it can be used as an over all varietal for Phoenix tea because it was discovered in Song dynasty. Some people say only trees still alive from Song is considered as Song Zhong.

Finished teas from old trees are name differently base on quality. When fresh leaves from the same tree were divided into 2 productions, one might be better in quality than the other, therefore there will be 2 names for the batches from the same tree. For example, Po Tou and Po Tou Hao, they are both from the same trees in separate batches, Po Tou Hao is better in quality than Po Tou, if you don't already know what Hao means in Chinese, Hao means good. Not too scientific but does the job in distinguishing the 2 batches. The reason for different productions (all spring harvest) is early and later harvest, separated only by days.

Many of the names are local Chao Zhou dialects and slangs which makes it hard to understand even for Chinese of other parts of China. This is a disadvantage for Phoenix Dan Cong. Small production, intense labor, confusing names made marketing DC difficult. True Dan Congs are hidden gems by all means, both in Chinese market and across seas.

Quality of finishing DC tea is a god willing decision. No man can control the out come, not even the best tea masters! It takes good trees, good weather and good skills to make good tea. Only 2/3 of the old trees were made well each year, mainly due to rainy weather. And not one tree can make excellent tea every year. Same tree can sell for two even three times more in different years base on the quality of that year.

In order to know Phoenix tea well, it's a lengthy challenge. The locals say it takes 3 years to learn how to drink DC as a consumer. First to learn is the seasonal flavor, then the mountain flavor, then elevation, then fragrance, then old trees, then as many old trees as you can, eventually the best production of the best tree of the year which is probably not obtainable even if you had money. The highest price DC of 2007 is $6000+ per 500 g, mao cha only - straight from the farmer. Yes, it's USD.

As a tea merchant, there are so much more to learn than how to drink a Dan Cong tea. Identifying a tea by dry leaves, color of tea, wet leaves, what gives floral aroma, what gives honey flavor, what season is it, blended or not, how well is the fermentation, etc etc... It's over whelming but extremely interesting.

World of Pu-erh class

It's my honor to have Jason teach "The world of Pu-erh" class at my store on Saturday afternoon. Not only Jason well prepared the material, he also shared some of his finest collection of pu-erh teas, including 70's Guang Yun Gong, and 50's loose pu-erh. They were the high light of the post class drinking marathon. Needless to say, the class was eventually end up as a drinking spree, it's the magic of tea. Jason of course is a perfect teacoholic drinking buddy, 1 he has the passion and knowledge, 2 he has GOOD tea, and 3 he can drink and drink and drink more tea than any one I know of. It was a wonderful event ended with the right amount of tea drunk! A couple of times I was over drunk.

We went through many many teas, due to my lack of expressive description capability, I will skip the tasting notes.

Here are some pictures of the class. We did video taped the speech, Jason will make that available to the public soon.

Jason - speaker of the class.

Attendees studying various types/shapes of pu-erh teas.

Mushroom green pu and orange rind shu pu provided by Jason.

70's Guang Yun Gong! This tea makes me salivate just thinking about it.

Wet leaves of 70's Guang Yun Gong (left) and 50's loose pu (right).

Wet leaves of 2006 green (left) and late 90's green, see color difference for reference of aging.

Drinking with Camellia

I can finally sit down and drink some tea quietly after the holiday chaos. Camellia blooming season is here, it's as close to drinking next to a tea tree as possible here in the US. :)

Tiny hong ni shui ping pot (30-40 ml) makes one perfect cup of tea. When drinking alone, I like using a small pot, so I get to finish every infusion before turning cold . Ah, if I didn't have to run a shop, this would be a pretty darn good and easy life.

I am working on the long over due "Get to know Dan Cong 3", should have it ready in a day or so.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Is Dan Cong Related to Wuyi?

Lew asked me a couple of weeks ago about the relationship between Wuyi and Dan Cong. As I mentioned in the last Dan Cong article , Phoenix Shui Xian and Wuyi Shui Xian are not related, not even the same concept. Phoenix Shui Xian is an over all group name of all local tea varietals on Phoenix Mountain range. Wuyi Shui Xian on the other hand is a single varietal among hundreds Wuyi rock teas.

The question remained is Phoenix tea related to Wuyi rock tea? The answer is no as in direct relation, however as we all know all teas are descendants of pu-erh tea in Yunnan Province. So all teas are related, depending on how closely related they are.

Yunnan large leaf arbor tea tree is mother of all Camellia Sinensis trees existing in the entire world. There is no doubt about that. Tea trees spreading out side of Yunnan like any plants are carried out by 3 carriers: humans, animals, and water/soil flow. Humans take plants with them when migrating, birds and animals consumed seeds from one place and dropped off at another, water and soil flows seeds and plants out of the region naturally. By any of the 3 means, tea plants travel closer to the original area would be closer related. Distance, climate change, local soils and condition all play major roles in how tea trees are transformed genetically. Yunnan large leaf arbor trees are closely related to arbor trees in Si Chuan, Guang Xi, and Guang Dong (phoenix teas). These are some of the oldest original tea trees on the planet.

Chao Zhou being closed to Northern Fu Jian geographically, one must wonder if they come from the same mother trees. A few thousand years ago, this might be true, however after such long period time of mutation, they are now distinctive from each other. Phoenix teas are large leaf arbor trees. Wuyi rock teas are small to mid size shrubs. Out of all teas, Wuyi and Phoenix are the most alike by processing method and shape. Wuyi method was adopted by Chao Zhou locals in the last couple hundred years. Hence they are similar in shape, but not in flavor. Oolong method is a relatively new player in Chinese tea history.

One of the oldest tea varietals grown wildly in Phoenix mountains is Hong Yin 红茵, believed to be the ancestor of Phoenix Shui Xian. Hong Yin are still wildly grown among the area, locals collect the leaves to age, aged Hong Yin is drinkable and mainly used for medicinal purpose. That's in line with the initial usage of tea a few thousand years ago. Articles from Tang's dynasty mentioned about tea in Chao Zhou region, hence it's fair to say Phoenix mountain has been producing tea for more than 1000 years.

The mutation of tea trees takes upwards of hundreds years. A single varietal can mutate into many different flavor teas over time when propagate with seeds. Tea trees on Phoenix mountain are grown in natural habitats, among other trees and shrubs. Inter-pollination changes genetics of tea trees, over time, tea trees takes on aromas of natural flowers. The location, long term mutation and local climate made Phoenix tea unique as one varietal family, different from any other regions, including Wuyi Rock tea.

Whether Hong Yin is mother of both Phoenix teas and Wuyi rock teas or they are just cousins, no one can verify at this time. Comparing old trees of similar age from both regions, I would think they are cousins. It takes lengthier time to transform an arbor tree into a shrub than where as phoenix teas stay as arbor trees. If they were from the same mother tree, both of them should either be arbor trees or both be shrubs.