22 January 2011

Great New Tea book by a Local Expert – Highly Recommended

English-language tea books tend to be either about the experience of tea or they give a cursory and broad introduction into the different types of teas.  Few Chinese-speaking tea experts have written English-language books; fewer still have ones that I think are worth reading.

Jason Chen of Luyu/CC Tea has just published one that is excellent.  A Washington State-based tea merchant, he’s been in the business for about 15 years.  His latest book, published with both Chinese and English content, is titled: A Tea Lover's Travel Diary: Phoenix Single-Tree Oolong Tea Tie Kuan Yin Oolong Tea.  Obviously, this book is about both of these teas and provides in-depth accounts of his experiences learning about and buying them directly from the farmers (he also met many tea folk that were helpful with the completion of this book).  The book is rich with unique insight and is accompanied by a trove of pictures that detail his experiences over the years.  Even better, the pictures are his own, taken on the same camera that his father gave him decades ago.

Many bilingual or translated tea books can be disappointing because the English is simple and lacks depth.  That is not the case with this book, which makes it such an excellent read.  In fact, it can be argued that many of the Chinese explanations are cursory and the English accounts are detailed and explanatory.  Although there are relatively few actual “diary” entries, the explanations that accompany his many pictures themselves serve as pictorial journal entries. 

This 232-page color, picture-filled book is a great buy ($17.56 on Amazon).  Truly an impressive book to add to one’s tea library. 

I am still waiting for a tea master to come out with something like this book, but for Dong Ding teas.  Zhou Yu of Wistaria is well-qualified for the task; let’s keep encouraging him to do so in the near future.

15 January 2011

The Beautiful Hue of an Old Oolong – Aged Teas III

Old oolongs take on a beautiful brownish-caramel color as they age.  Old Baozhongs which were once bright and green take on this mature hue as well.  Outside of high-oxidized and/or high-roast oolongs, very few modern oolongs have a color that is similar to aged ones.  This is one sign that the tea has some age.

old nantou tea finalAn old tea from the Nantou-area; loose rolling. Over 20 years old

It’s also why I am wary of old teas that have been over-roasted or were “very recently” roasted again with high fire and end up looking black, glossy and/or charred.  The purpose of a re-roast should be to reinforce the body of the tea and to moderate the moisture.  Not only is a gradual temperature change in the roast necessary to correctly remove that moisture content (for taste, storage and aging reasons), but it also prevents the tea from burning and losing flavor.  However, it’s that burning taste and aroma that many tea drinkers identify with traditional, older oolongs.  Most tea drinkers may not know what an aged tea’s color should be, what characteristic tastes should be present, or what an oolong ball’s shape may mean, but they are likely to know that more traditional oolongs were both higher oxidized and had higher levels of roast. 

old tgy finalAn aged Anxi Tieguanyin, about 20 years old

An over-roasted oolong that has been allowed to sit for a bit has a full taste that may also be described as nutty and is reminiscent of traditional oolongs. It’s not wrong for tea drinkers to think of this taste or to look for these characteristics when they search for old teas.  In fact, less-than-honest retailers know this, which is one reason they create fake aged oolongs with such a flavor profile.  It’s aromatic but not necessarily fruity or floral.  It’s not to say that no old oolongs are ever over-roasted, as that would be untrue.  Over-roasting makes it difficult to taste the tea’s base or to study the leaves, but I believe that no exceptional aged oolong is over-roasted. 

Over time, even a charred oolong will change in color.  It’s true!  Take an oolong that has been so over-roasted that it’s charred black, put it into a clay jar that is not air-tight and leave it for years.  Not only will the fire recede and the taste soften, but the color will soften as well.  Whether or not that tea will ever turn out “good” is a different story!

Color is one useful indicator of the age of an oolong.  Aside from using a subjective, relative assessment of taste to judge age, there is no objective method that I am aware of to accurately gauge the age of an oolong tea.  But all of this is an exercise in personal tea education, as my fundamental belief continues to be that if it tastes good to you, then it’s good.  At least to you. 

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

03 January 2011

Backyard Teahouse

There are many things that I like about Taiwan, but if I had to name just two, I would say I love Taiwan tea and its hot springs the most.  Interestingly, both of these have been deeply inspired by Japanese culture (which some would point out were in turn inspired by Chinese culture).  Taiwan underwent some major transformations when it was occupied by the Japanese military.  Hot spring culture flourished under Japanese rule and the Beitou hot springs area was developed by the Japanese as an important R&R destination.  The Japanese also encouraged the development of several domestic oolong cultivars, such as Qingxin and Qingxin Damou/Dapa; a Taiwan government site gives a bit more information here.  The famous (and pricey) black tea produced in south-central Taiwan is a hybrid cultivar developed from Indian black tea that the Japanese imported into Taiwan and spent many years working with.  It is now known as Taiwan tea #18, Hongyu.

I’ve been looking for a new house to move to for about 6 months now and high on my list of wants is a hot tub.  I went to view a house this evening with a nice hot tub and as I stood there admiring it, I realized that I probably wouldn’t love sitting in the middle of my backyard in full view of my neighbors and completely exposed to the environment.  I wished that it was inside of the adjacent shed instead; Seattle is both rainy and chilly.  That in turn got me thinking:  what if I could have an outbuilding with a tub inside of it (preferably at ground level) and a tearoom as well?

I spent the last few hours surfing online for ideas.  I did a quick web search for “Japanese Tea House” and looked through the amazing images of them for great ideas.  Given enough time and a big enough budget, I’m sure that I could design and build (or have built) a pretty sweet little outdoor sanctuary.  I found a site for a local guy that did just that and now offers the plans to do the same for $250.  His teahouse looks like this:


(credit: Ron Konzak, http://www.japanesehomeandbath.com)

A very nice and simple structure that I could definitely personalize for my uses.  Ron has also been working on plans for a Japanese bath and I’m sure there’s a way to integrate both into a very pleasant design.

A teahouse with my very own tea area and bath – very nice!