Wednesday, 5 October 2011

A First Attempt At Pottery

I admit I haven't got much here to share, but as the results of my "bisque firing" (read: drying in a 400F toaster oven) of this little coil pot are in and much better than expected, I'm a bit excited by what right now seem like nearly endless possibilities for future exploration. This little jar no more than ten centimeters tall is made of local clay I dug out of a wet, marshy area near my neighborhood a couple of weeks ago. Given that I have no real knowledge of pottery, let alone experience of any kind, I'm quite enthused to have produced something from this field mud that will stand up on its own. Currently it's still very rough, but my plan is to put a clay slip on it to smooth out the surface and fill in some small cracks before firing it (a bit more) properly. The end goal for this pot is to use it as a short-term storage jar for tea, using its unglazed walls perhaps to tone-down the fire of over-roasted oolongs, or mellow out musty pu'erh. Just how different teas will really react to it as a storage environment, however, remains to be seen, and that I will eventually find out relies heavily on the assumption that the clay will stand up to further processing, something I can hardly be sure of. Needless to say, there will have to be more trial and plenty of error, but this small success has left me feeling encouraged and optimistic towards finding out what can be done with basic, backyard pottery methods.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Aged Hualien Oolong - 1987 from Camellia Sinensis

Origin: Hualien, Taiwan
Year: 1987

Today I tasted a sample of one of Camellia Sinensis' aged oolongs generously provided to me by Director's Cut from a selection of teas he picked up on a recent trip to Montreal. Knowing that my brewing is generally better during solitary sessions when I don't have to worry about guests, he offered some of his aged oolong for me to try on my own. Today being one of those cool fall days that doesn't quite merit turning the heat on, I opted to treat myself to a session with something special (this is a sample I've been holding onto for a little while to do it justice) that would also serve the purpose of warming me up.

Thicker and juicier, thanks to just what I do not know.

Even in the cold autumn air the dry leaf exhibits an abundance of sweet perfume which only intensifies as it's tipped from my wooden tea-scoop onto the warm clay of a preheated yixing teapot dedicated to aged oolongs such as this. Steaming water soon follows, the gurgling of water jostling the leaves a gentle prelude to its transformation into tea. The infusion is poured out and the aroma spills over the rim of the faircup and makes its way to my nose. The concentrated aroma flowing up from the porcelain of my sniffing cup is immediately of sweet caramel, eventually acquiring a more floral character which, as the cup cools and becomes more refined, gives the impression of what candied flowers might be like.

The liquor is thick and syrupy with no astringency and little dryness in the first few infusions. Interestingly, this tea doesn't have any clear roasty characteristics in smell or in taste, but rather a remarkable clarity and balance. I can't seem to find any sore thumbs with this tea, even the aftertaste emerges gradually and smoothly, leaving a clean mineral feeling on my tongue.

The infusions pass with seamless and gradual gradations from one to the next; the tea's character slowly becomes subtler, thinner, and more homogeneous, though some of the tea's original complexity can always be recovered with an extra-long steep. As the aroma fades into imperceptibility and I become more familiar with the tea's characteristics, I begin switching out my set of porcelain cups for Petr's wood-fired teacup, finding that the latter lends an extra hearty roundness to the liquor. I've found that this is something this cup will do for any tea I've tried it with so far, proving to me the great effect the composition of even relatively non-porous teaware can have on tea. 

Throughout the session the tea's warming chaqi from years of re-roasting builds in my centre, comforting me and making me comfortable on this cool fall day.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Finished Tea Table

Behold: the finished and also completed table.

Following beta testing, I found that making tea using a surface elevated to exactly slightly over a foot above the ground wasn't as bad as I'd thought it would be. As it turns out, it's actually quite comfortable, and should I ever feel the need to occupy a slightly more lofty perspective over my teaware, I'll use a cushion.

The finishing process for this table was pretty basic: some sanding to smooth surfaces and round corners, one coat of stain (I like the relatively light and dark areas this gives me), and varying amounts of varnish. My primary concerns in building this table were practical, and for that reason there are three coats of satin-finish varnish on the table's most utilitarian surface to protect it from spills without making it look glossy. In contrast, the wax finish on my floor dissolves every time a droplet of water touches it, and as a result much of my floor has an interesting grey-speckled pattern thanks to a previous hobby involving misting a lot of plants.

Some of the rougher sanding has left criss-cross patterns in the stain on the table's surface, an effect I personally enjoy. This is a table I anticipate keeping for quite some time, and I look forward to the accumulation of dings, scratches, and other inevitable detrital markers left by the passing of time and tea over its surface. Much in the same way as I cultivate a patina rich in stains and drip lines on my teapots with simple and loving use, I look forward to the appearance of wear on this table in all its wabi-sabi forms simply as a result of, and as a reference to, its use.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Tea Table in Beta Testing

For the past couple months I've been meaning to start and just not getting around to making a small tea table for myself to have tea at during the winter months. Over the summer the overwhelming majority of my tea sessions have been outside on my back porch, but when the mercury drops a layer of screen doesn't provide much insulation against your average -25C winter day. I usually solve this problem by having tea at the kitchen counter, but I've been in the process of developing a more quiet space to dedicate to tea, and now I've finally got around to building a simple table to facilitate making tea there.

Today following a trip to Home Depot I built the basic structure for the table, which is what you see here in beta testing. The table's surface is now at just over a foot off the ground, and after making a few rounds of TGY on it I'm considering lowering it by about an inch. I cut the longest legs the four foot piece of lumber I bought permitted (I'll let you do the math on that one), figuring I could shorten them if needed.

In its present state the table is entirely unfinished and a bit rough around the edges, a few rounds of sanding, staining, and varnishing are in its near future. Stay tuned for the finished product (no pun intended) in a few days time.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Wood-Fired Teaware by Petr Novák

A package from the Czech Republic arrived at my door recently containing the wares I had ordered but a week previously from Petr Novák, a potter and tea enthusiast who has combined the two interests to create beautiful wood-fired teaware out of his kiln in, you guessed it, the Czech Republic.

Having recently started exploring tea away from the tea board (or tea sink, tea tray, tea boat, or any number of other terms) and enjoying the increased flexibility this affords me, I picked up this bowl and vase as well as a cup to add to my modest collection of tea wares.

The ribs which circle the outside of the vase are slightly unevenly spaced, betraying its handmade origins and adding interest to the piece (while the cup and bowl are by Petr, the vase is by Mirka and has the stamp "MR" on its underside). The texture is very rough, especially between the ribs, but the base is well made and the vase doesn't wobble. While the inside is glazed to avoid leaks, the clay on the outside appears bare. I'm not sure whether this piece was charcoal glazed or not to achieve its dark colour, but in any case the way the dark colour anchors the gaze and provides a stable and interesting root without drawing too much attention away from the flowers it's meant to display pleases me.

The bowl is similarly well made, with an even shape that highlights its finish. The glaze is off-white, thick, and bumpy on one side, gradually thinning and letting a carroty orange come through on the other side. Crackling in the glaze is most obvious where it's thinnest and will eventually accumulate seasoning as it's used, increasing contrast and slowly transforming the piece.

The cup comfortably holds a full infusion from the teapot pictured in this post (about 90ml) which cools to a drinkable temperature at a similarly comfortable speed thanks to its thin walls. The glaze covers the inside and extends to just over the rim, allowing its holder to feel and admire the clay from which it was made while providing a smooth surface from which to drink. The colour of the inside glaze is an off-white with a slight olive tint, attractively showing off the colour of darker oolongs such as the charcoal roasted Anxi tieguanyin I drank from it today. Intricate swirls of various translucent shades trickle down into the bottom of the cup from the rim; a treat for the inquisitive observer.  The wood firing has caused the bare clay to become a significantly darker shade of orange-brown than the other, obscuring the small stones dotted throughout the clay.

A beautiful and functional set of wares, you can bet these will be featuring in future posts.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Some Fresh Yixing

This is my new teapot. I like it very much.

Director's Cut recently made a weekend trip to Montreal and picked up this little gem (along with a bunch of tea, of course) from Camellia Sinensis. A couple of weeks and a dozen or so sessions later, he decided 90ml steeps aren't really his preference, so, figuring I could get better use out of it, he sold it to me. The clay is porous enough that it had already accumulated some cosmetic outside seasoning in its short stint with DC, so I figured it wouldn't suffer much of a setback if I got rid of said seasoning and gave it a fresh start.

Conventional wisdom says to never use detergent or a cleaning agent of any kind on a clay teapot, lest it should become impregnated in the clay and ruin it forever, but because MarshalN has been routinely bleaching his teapots now with no adverse effects that I can gather and because I've learned not to trust conventional wisdom when it comes to yixing (conventional wisdom often being profit-motivated and sometimes arbitrary from what I can gather), I bleached it. The pot and lid soaked in a dilute Javex bath for a little over an hour before being pulled out and rinsed again and again. After being rinsed in a half dozen baths of boiling water and subsequently soaked overnight in a bowl of hot water with some tea thrown in, the smell of bleach was gone. The first couple of post-bleach sessions with this teapot had a bit of roughness in the aftertaste usually characteristic of pesticides, but at the time of writing the pot bears no indications of having been bleached.

In order to better equip myself to decide which teas to make in this pot, I poured some 85C water through it just to see what the clay on its own will do. DC told me that this teapot is made of some great clay, and I'm inclined to agree with him. It has great energy and lends the water a very deep and full feeling in the mouth. The most notable characteristic seems to be a mineral aftertaste I normally associate with yancha, making this seem the most intuitive pairing. In practice, for whatever reason the way this pot renders yancha is unbalanced, and is actually much better suited to traditionally processed TGY. Surprisingly, despite the porosity of the clay, this pot is high-fired enough to produce an aromatic but also round and full baozhong.

So far, this teapot seems very versatile, but the degree to which the clay accumulates seasoning leads me to believe that I'll have to eventually settle on a genre. In the meantime, my plan is to continue experimenting and searching for that ideal balance between a tea that pairs well and a tea that will ensure the pot gets used.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Whoops: Competition Muzha TGY

As it turns out, my assertion that the level of roast applied to the particular competition Muzha TGY mentioned in this post was unusually high was a bit misguided. In fact, the amount of roasting on this tea is more or less typical for an awarded example, it's just that roasted teas in general are not awarded quite so often. I've changed a couple of lines in the original article and added an addendum for the sake of accuracy.

If you're not too interested in the relative popularity of tea genres or associated bias in a competition environment, then I apologise for having wasted your time. Please accept this picture of a leaf in some water as compensation:

Friday, 26 August 2011

Competition Muzha TGY

Tea: A high-roast awarded Muzha tieguanyin from Elliot Knapp
Origin: Muzha, Taiwan

Many thanks to Elliot for generously providing me with this a sample of competition TGY from his stash purchased from Houde. Elliot talks about the tea on his own blog here.

This tea is a rather special one in several ways, the first and most obvious one being that it's competition grade and will be my first taste of awarded tea. Likewise, I have yet to find out the effects of the Taiwanese terroir on tieguanyin oolong, a variety best known for its roots in mainland China. Probably the most interesting and particular characteristic, however, is the level of roast used on these leaves during processing. To paraphrase Elliot, though not a traditionally processed TGY (traditional processing being very high levels of roasting and oxidation, more or less the opposite of most TGY sold in shops nowadays), the amount of roasting this tea was subjected to is unusually high as compared to the kinds of teas which are usually awarded in competitions (judges with modern tastes are developing more and more bias towards greener oolongs).

What with all the unfamiliar territory, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this tea bears many similarities to an aged oolong. Upon bringing the aroma cup up to my nose my first impression was of caramel sweetness, doubtless a product of the roasting applied to the leaves. This scent then evolved into the domain of fruits and flowers (with a clear note of lilacs in the second infusion; something I associate with the very few examples of green TGY I've actually liked), and finally something resembling roasted coffee. The caramel and roast remain fairly constant throughout the first four or five infusions, though the scents gradually open later and later before disappearing altogether.

The taste of this tea is tough to describe, I think because it didn't seem to have any particular flavours which stuck out and thus were easy to identify. All aspects of the flavour profile fitted into each other so seamlessly that I didn't really notice any particular notes of dark fruit or roast that would be expected of a traditionally processed TGY (though the processing on this one is not quite traditional, it's my closest frame of reference). The overwhelming impression is of the mouthfeel, which was impeccably smooth. No roughness, no astringency, no sourness. No wonder it stood up in competition.

In his review, Elliot remarks that the tea doesn't show as much endurance as some of the other oolongs he's partial to, and though I eventually got a good number of flavourful brews out of it, the character of the tea went through a turning point around the fifth infusion and changes dramatically. Whereas in earlier infusions, the brew was incredibly well balanced with no flavours out of place, a distinct vegetal note first emerged in the aftertaste and then grew to fill the whole cup. Brewed a bit cooler and with longer infusions, I found this cool, green, and slightly sour taste refreshing, though perhaps that's because I'm used to finding it in an aged oolong that's on its way out.

On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring this unfamiliar territory and learning a bit about what makes a competition tea, albeit one which is less than standard fare. Variety is the spice of life, as they say, and I hope to see more not-so-green teas recognised in the future.

Edit and Addendum on September 2, 2011: As it turns out, my assertion that the level of roast applied to this particular competition Muzha TGY was unusually high was a bit misguided. In fact, the amount of roasting on this tea is more or less typical for an awarded example, it's just that roasted teas in general are not awarded quite so often. For the record, the roasting was electric.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Redressing the Balance

The past few weeks for me have been quite hectic and, as far as tea goes, unusually characterised by a lack of meaningful experiences (hence a similar lack of posts). I've been seemingly chronically out of form and as a result the tea I've been drinking has generally not been as good (plagued by astringency, fragrances that never open up, and vegetal notes that used to and should be subtle sticking out like a sore thumb); a real shame as I've been sharing tea with friends old and new more than ever recently. Whereas a solitary, meditative half-hour (or hour when I could find one in which I'd be left undisturbed) by my kettle used to be a daily routine, since the end of July I've had only a handful of these sessions.

I've always found the tea that I brew for myself to be better than the tea prepared for a group tasting. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised or embarrassed by this; navigating the ever-changing subtleties of any social situation is a perennially downplayed and undervalued skill, add to that trying to feel your way through making a good cup of tea and all the variables associated with it without any instruments while always staying on top of the conversation, and you've got yourself a sizable challenge. The real world, as it turns out, is a rather messy place, and having been jolted out of the moment during private tea sessions by everything from the family dog barking at the mailman to an unexpected visit from my grandparents, achieving an atmosphere of quietude with the mixed gatherings I've been hosting in the past little while is a tall order.

Having tea alone has always been de-facto "me time", and not having it recently has left me feeling unbalanced. When I drink tea by myself I try not to do anything but enjoy the tea I'm drinking. I strive to appreciate the finer qualities of a tea as well as the ones I'm not so fond of. Rough or smooth, fragrant or muted, tea is what it is, and I try to do nothing more than experience the moment I'm in as fully as I can without passing judgement. Admittedly, I'm not great at it, but even in just making a stab at fully appreciating a tea, everything else gets put aside. The result is that for a little while I don't worry about school deadlines, work stress, social conflicts, or any of the other stresses of everyday life.

Out of all of this I take a lesson in the value of taking time for yourself, but especially in the value of spare and simple experiences in general, experiences which don't bombard you with so much information that has to be sorted and prioritized before the task of processing any part of what's been presented can be addressed, and instead feed only what can be processed in real time. In short, the value of being fully in the present moment. I've always enjoyed my solitary sessions, but thanks to the contrast a few weeks of switching them out for group tastings, I'll have a greater appreciation both for the tea brewed and the time to think.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Da Fo Longjing - Spring 2011 from World Of Tea

Tea: Da Fo Long Jing from World Of Tea
Origin: Zhejiang, China
Harvest: Spring 2011

First off, I should point out that long jing (and, in fact, greens in general) is a genre of tea I know little about. When it was sold to me a couple of months ago by a seriously jet lagged Jean (one of the small shop's co-owners) just back from this year's Asiatic trek to buy a fresh supply of teas, I was told that this particular long jing was pretty good, but not the best. Never having tried a long jing before, this suited me just fine. What with this genre's reputation for being tricky to brew gongfu-style, I thought I'd give it a few practice sessions before posting some tasting notes and in the meantime keep it as fresh as I could by not opening it too often and storing it in the fridge.

As I sit down to start the session that will form the basis of this post I crack open the airtight seal on the bag of leaves and inhale deeply as is my custom. Because the leaves still cold from their refrigerated storage I can't smell much at first, but as the leaves warm up a little and especially with the aid of the heat from my gaiwan a thick, oily, leguminous scent is released; it's the kind of thick scent that reaches into the back of your mouth and tickles your salivary glands. I don't often feel like drinking greens, but when I do and I open up this package the need becomes strong.

I prepare the first infusion and the first thing that's apparent is the colour of the liquor: light translucent green. A top quality long jing should be more or less clear; this one isn't, but then it isn't a top quality long jing. To my unpracticed eyes, however, it still looks as though it's hardly been steeped.

Rolling the liquor around in my mouth, the initial pan-fried oily smoothness rapidly gives way to a semi-floral, semi-leguminous sweet character. The aftertaste is cooling and fresh.

I push the second infusion a bit farther, and in tasting it the results are obvious. A new sharp bitter note immediately surfaces and subsides just as quickly into a pleasant coolness. This tea feels great on a warm summer day, the cooling feeling in the mouth leads up to cooling chaqi flowing throughout the body and I notice that the air pushed over me by the ceiling fan on my back porch now feels a perfectly pleasant temperature. At the same time the yang qi trapped within the arrested growth of the buds blossoms inside of me, leaving me feeling fresh and awake.

This tea doesn't have the same endurance as the oolongs with which I am more familiar, taking a dive after about the fourth infusion, but considering that this is a green tea and not an oolong, I'm quite happy with its stamina and move on to inspecting the spent leaves. They're a little bit broken and there's the odd leaf floating around on its own, but in general this tea is made up of downy sets of two leaves and bud. Every time I scoop the tea out of its bag, the scoop comes back covered in thousands of tiny trichomes. That, to me, is a good sign.

In the end, I am most taken with this tea's vivacity. From the moment I open the bag to the last cup washing down my throat its qi is apparent. Though it lacks the subtlety or gentle qualities of other teas in this regard, I always end my sessions with this tea feeling calm, energized, and ready to start my day.


Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Oriental Beauty - Summer 2010 from World Of Tea

Tea: Oriental Beauty (Bai Hao Oolong, Dong Fang Mei Ren, etc.) from World Of Tea
Origin: Northern Taiwan
Harvest: Summer 2010

For those of you who haven't already heard of Oriental Beauty, it's high time you did. Known by many different names, Oriental Beauty is often touted as Taiwan's most famous tea, and certainly ranks among its most special. Summer harvest oolongs are generally low quality, not being very fresh or floral by nature, but this tea somehow escapes the mediocrity it seems fated to. There are many different versions of just how Oriental Beauty acquires its unique set of characteristics, but I believe the most accurate (and certainly the most plausible) is that the leaves are repeatedly bitten by swarms of insects which resemble a small grasshopper. The tiny chunks taken out of the leaves stimulate the plant to send more tasty juices that way in order to heal. Because insect bites are an intrinsic part of making Oriental Beauty, the plantations that produce this tea are organic as a matter of course. These traits, along with the unusually high level of oxidation involved in post-harvest processing (putting it right on the upper limit of oxidation while still being considered an oolong rather than a red tea), are what give Oriental Beauty its unique character.

Oriental Beauty captures the warmth of the season in which it is produced, and as such is a highly satisfying warming tea with a good caffeine punch. Intuitively, this is a great tea for a cold, damp winter day, but it also works quite well in the sweltering heat my region has suffered from recently. This principle applies to warming teas in general; cooling teas should be drunk when it's warm, warming teas should be drunk when it's hot. The following exerpt from a recent entry on  五行雲 offers a great explanation of this principle:
Why take a hot herb at the most yang time of year I hear you say? Because in summer, all your yang is at the surface of the body, so logically it is not at your centre. You may feel warm (British summers withstanding) because your warmth is exactly where you can perceive it but inside you are stone cold.
I took advantage of temperatures in the thirties (nineties, if you use Fahrenheit) in the shade of my back porch to test this out for myself recently; what follows is from my notes on that session which took place on the seventeenth.

I scrape out some tea from the bottom of what was originally a 50g bag some months ago, and since there's hardly any left and I'm in the mood for strong tea I use a bit more than I normally would. Being from the bottom of the bag, the leaves are a bit more broken up than the ones I remember from a few months ago, but on the whole they're whole (pardon the pun). A good Oriental Beauty should have plenty of downy white buds, and this one does. While heating up the leaves in my gaiwan the ripe fruit smells characteristic of an oxidised oolong are evident but not alone in the complex aroma; dried apricots and faint citrus notes are also present.

After the first infusion passes, my nose detects a sweet floral aroma under the lid of the gaiwan. This sweetness intensifies and becomes almost like caramel in the aroma cup, a characteristic not entirely absent from the liquor. The tea itself is smooth both in taste and texture. In the following infusions I push the tea, and it maintains its sweetness as well as a pleasant roundness and full body while developing a slight cooling bitterness. At this point the tea is largely devoid of unpleasant qualities, with only a little bit of astringency marring the liquid.

Usually when I describe a tea as "silky smooth", I use silky as a descriptor to loosely qualify the extent of the smoothness, drawing more on the fabric's reputation for high quality rather than any particular characteristics of the actual product. In the case of this Oriental Beauty, I will again use the descriptor "silky smooth", but in a rather different way, distinguishing type of smoothness and not degree.

I can best liken the smoothness of a long jing or a really green baozhong to a kind of oily feeling. Thick, smooth, and pleasant, but still wet lubricant. To continue this metaphor, Oriental Beauty, being on the other end of the scale, is drier and thinner, yet somehow no less full, pleasant, and (you guessed it) smooth: Teflon. An odd comparison this may be, but it's the best I've got.

As it turns out my trial was a success. Though the warming energy of this summer oolong was obvious, it left me feeling far more comfortable in the sweltering heat outside, and with a substantial caffeine buzz to boot.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Fondue Fuel vs. Paint Stripper: A Tip For The Frugal

If you use an alcohol burner to heat your water or keep it warm and find the price of fondue fuel a bit too heavily marked up, use paint stripper. The alcohol in the fondue fuel used for alcohol burners is generally methyl alcohol (also called methanol or methyl hydrate), and is highly flammable, highly toxic, and an excellent solvent. Because it's so good at dissolving all sorts of things, methyl alcohol is also commonly sold in big jugs as paint stripper or a heavy-duty cleaning agent at a much lower price (the other difference being that fondue fuel is sometimes dyed blue; the reason why is beyond me given that the stuff burns with a blue flame anyways). The trick here is first off to make sure your burner runs on methyl alcohol, and secondly to only buy paint stripper that is labelled as pure methanol/methyl hydrate/methyl alcohol. If it isn't methanol, or has anything in it other than methanol, don't use it.

Although burning paint stripper indoors to heat a kettle full of water to be used to make tea sounds a bit sketchy in terms of safety, remember that so long as you use paint stripper with methanol as its sole ingredient what you're doing is no different than if fondue fuel were to be used, the only differences being price and supermarket aisle. Methanol is actually quite safe as fuel sources go because it burns with a relatively cool flame and undergoes complete combustion which, if we remember our high school chemistry, means that the only things produced when it burns are water vapour and carbon dioxide. No smoke, no odour; just heat and a bit of CO2.

Methanol sold as paint stripper is generally sold in much greater quantities than fondue fuel, which means the initial investment will be higher (I paid a whopping $11 for about four liters), but it pays for itself quite quickly. Big jugs are also tricky to pour from without spilling, so I keep an old fondue fuel bottle topped up for day to day use.

Methanol, much like schoolteachers and
strong cheese, deserves your respect.

Obligatory warning and disclaimer: Methanol, fire, fondue fuel, and paint strippers in general are all dangerous. Methanol itself is highly toxic, and unlike its hillbilly cousin ethanol (found in red-faced men at bars), has a tendency to cause permanent blindness at very low doses and similarly permanent death at slightly higher doses. Don't put the liquid in your mouth, don't sniff the fumes. Fire is also dangerous for the usual reasons: burns, death, wholesale destruction and general nastiness, etc. All of the above should be treated with the appropriate caution and respect, so please don't do anything stupid. I take no responsibility for any loss of vision, unexpected departures from this mortal coil, sudden evaporation of water from living cells causing said cells to not be living anymore, wholesale destruction, general nastiness, tears, etc. which may ensue as a result of this post.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Jinxuan Oolong - Spring 2011 from Teamasters

Tea: Jinxuan Oolong from Teamasters
Origin: Zhu Shan, Taiwan
Harvest: March 7, 2011

This tea was a sample generously thrown in by Stéphane as part of my last order, and today I took the opportunity to polish off a second (and final) helping from the small gold packet. In upending the bag over my gaiwan I ended up using a bit more leaf than is my custom, and some of the little green balls really were quite small (read: broken up), but nonetheless this tea performed well.

Opening the bag releases a smooth, fresh, floral fragrance which is joined by a waft of roast on being heated in my gaiwan. The stream from my kettle pushes the leaves in concentric circles and as they slow I pour out the first infusion. The aroma cup gives up hints of lighter floral notes which never really open up in this initial infusion. The green tinted liquor feels thick in the mouth like a dilute starchy broth.

On the second infusion the aroma becomes slightly more developed as a slight leguminous character emerges in the tea. The mouthfeel is thick but not oily, a testament to its oxidation and roast. It takes a third infusion before the tea's aroma really opens, likely a result of short steeps taking more time to open the leaves and expose the buds to the water of the infusion. When pushed the tea's aroma becomes sweetly floral while the liquor becomes at once more beany and fruity.

Not much is present in terms of lasting aftertaste, though a slight minty coolness is initially noticeable, but it easy outlasted by the aforementioned mouthfeel.

It's the little things...

From about the fifth infusion some astringency develops, though it's worth noting that the leaf fragments that are part and parcel with bottom-of-the-bag tea are a significant factor in this. Following the emergence of dryness in taste, the leaves begin to lose their vivacity. For the first few infusions the tea had a noticeable green tint, but as the session progresses this quality is lost, leaving behind only a golden colour. This in itself is not a problem, but it provides an illustration of the ebb of the tea's energy, a quality which transcends taste and smell. On the whole, this tea has good endurance, though certainly not that of a high-level gaoshan oolong.

Stéphane's notes describe this tea as a good tea for the beginner or the daily cuppa, a statement I fully agree with. A pleasant fresh taste and aroma make this tea thoroughly enjoyable, though it may lack the essential vivacity, the enduring chaqi that makes extended gongfu sessions dedicated to fully experiencing a tea so worthwhile (for me at least). To put things in perspective, this jinxuan is less than half the price of its gaoshan cousin grown at an altitude 1400m on Ali Shan. On grounds of both price and, well, ground it hardly seems fair to hold up this jinxuan against one from Ali Shan, and for that reason I am quite content today sipping this good, simple, Taiwanese oolong.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Pu'erh Tuo Cha - 1995 from Cloudwalker Teas

Tea: Some sort of shengpu pressed into 95g tuos from Cloudwalker Teas
Origin: Unknown
Year: 1995

A friend who is relatively new to tea and is, like me, developing an interest in pu'erh paid me a visit recently and I took the opportunity to share a tea I hadn't yet tried: Cloudwalker Teas' 1995 Tuo Cha Pu'erh. Much like my aged oolong from the same company, I don't know a whole lot about this tea's origins, but also much like my aged oolong, I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing this set of leaves.

Due to the loose compression, a large portion of my sample is now in looseleaf form.

A typically shengpu woodsy smell of earth spills out of my teapot, filling my nasal cavities. I can feel the heavily yin nature of this tea's energy already just from the smell. This effect continues from the sniffing cup after the tea is subjected to a (remarkably clear) rinse followed by the first infusion. The aroma from the liquor takes on a slightly spicy character which leaves my face tingling pleasantly from the airborne chaqi.

As the first infusion is drunk the spices that were already evident in the tea's aroma reveal themselves to be the "slightly biting [character] due to it's relative youth" of which the description on this pu'erh's page on the Cloudwalker Teas website speaks. The overall impression is of a smooth roundness due to the broad, woodsy undertones punctuated by sharp upper notes which add complexity without detracting from the aforementioned smoothness of the tea.

It takes me a while to sort out a basic characteristic of this tea due to the interesting dichotomy between how it feels in the mouth and in the throat; I can't seem to determine whether the tea is warming or cooling in nature. Initially in the aftertaste, the mouth is subjected to a pleasant cooling feeling, but then the throat begins to exhibit a warmth which then spreads down and throughout my chest. In later infusions the source of the cooling sensation reveals itself to be a subtle bitterness, which, while thoroughly enjoyable, lacks the endurance of the warming chaqi, giving away this tea's character.

The session continues in much the same way, with yin characteristics becoming more and more prominent until waiting half an hour for a steep becomes merely a pleasant pause for thoughtful conversation.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Tea In The Out Of Doors

With a roofed, screened in, and carpeted back porch I've been making tea "outside" on a fairly regular basis recently, since the weather is more or less always permitting there.What I've been doing less often is making tea properly outside, unsheltered from the elements in the wilds of my back yard. Sometime soon I aspire to make tea in a more natural environment, far from the conveniences of electricity and running water (a trip to the Gatineau Hills may be in order), but for now my back yard provides a perfectly sufficient break in the routine.

When making tea outside, a whole host of practical considerations seemingly spring into existence such as: How will I heat the water? Where do I put my wares and how can I arrange them so as to be comfortable? Where will all the excess water go? Finally, where do I sit? None of these concerns are really new, they simply require unfamiliar solutions when adjusting to any new environment.

Today was warm and sunny outside with a little bit of a breeze, so I chose a fresh and slightly cooling tea to go with it: this April's Semi-Wild Baozhong from Teamasters. Because my new ceramic kettle retains heat quite well, and this particular tea has shown itself to be amenable to a gradual lowering of temperature in the later infusions, the problem of heating the water and keeping it warm was relegated to heating it up on my kitchen stove as I usually do and mostly letting it cool on its own by my side.

I opted to arrange my main tools of the trade in a line in front of me, with the kettle off to one side near my right (dominant) hand and the cups offset to the left. I chose this arrangement because of practical considerations, but upon examination it also seems a logical choice based on the principles of yinyang and the flow of qi. 

The kettle sits in a yang position on the right with the spout directing its energy towards the gaiwan where the tea is brewed. The faircup, which sits between the gaiwan (yang) and the teacups (yin), provides a place for the tea to rest in balance before being drunk. In this way the energy flows right to left and yang to yin in a graceful spiral towards the drinker where it is consumed. The positioning and orientation of the wooden tea scoop reflects the direction of the flow of energy and imbues it with the vivacity of the shrub from which it was made. The excess water and tea flow into the lawn where they return their energy to the surrounding environment.

Stepping from one set of esoteric considerations to another, making tea outside is, for me, an exercise in maintaining focus. As much as it feels great to be outside and immersed in life as I brew and make an attempt at entering into some level of harmony with my surroundings greater than quieting the mind in the quiet of my own home, there are a plethora of distractions between me and my journey of tea. From where I sit I notice how well the potted oxalis across from me has bloomed this year; an ant begins crawling up my leg and I stop to brush it off; I listen to hits from the seventies blaring from a radio a few houses away. A wide variety of factors come together to set the stage for what seems to be the perfect place to focus on anything and everything, which is hardly what I'm trying for.

This place could be regarded as a barrier, but I prefer to see it as an opportunity for growth. The real world is rife with disharmony, and the only way to find a niche of peace within it is to create one for yourself. Making tea on a flat rock in my back yard is a microcosm for any real-world situation. The goal is always to strive for the best; in this case the most peaceful and harmonious cup of tea. However, to actually experience pure peace and harmony in the real world is an impossibility, which is why the goal is simply to strive for it. Life is a journey, and a messy one at that, so all we can do is grow and learn as much as we can from our experiences, peaceful and harmonious or uncomfortable and scattered while always discovering how much more there is to learn. Sound familiar?

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Slurp Your Tea!

Slurping is a simple mechanism by which the drinker aerates the tea, a practice also common to wine tasting. The main difference here is that whereas in wine tasting the liquor is simply sloshed about inside the mouth, in tea tasting the liquor is slurped. Admittedly, some people do find the noise associated with the tea version bit unpleasant, but there is a purpose to it so bear with me.

Because slurping cools down the tea, it can be served and drunk hotter and faster. To me, however, experiencing the tea as fully as possible is always the primary consideration, and slurping works towards that as well. When tea is slurped, the aromatic oils it contains are sprayed all over the inside of the mouth, and while this may not provide a more fragrant cup per se, it noticeably alters the character of the liquor by emphasizing some characteristics and playing down others, sometimes dramatically enough to make what seem to be entirely new tastes emerge (depending on how much you choose to slurp). As an added benefit, I have found that slurping often mitigates the appearance of excessive bitterness or roughness in the aftertaste of many teas; useful for rendering an overbrewed cup more palatable.

These differences may seem fairly minor, but then to slurp or not to slurp was not the existential question posed by Hamlet. The tea experience is rich in subtle nuances, so slurp to explore (and once the tea has been swallowed, exhale deeply through the nose for a few more)!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Gu Zao Wei - Spring 2010 from World Of Tea

Tea: Gu Zao Wei oolong from World Of Tea
Origin: Taiwan
Harvest: Spring 2010

I've often read about the profound effect the nature of the water used to brew tea has on the final beverage, and today I have a prime example. Gu Zao Wei is a tea that I used to think of as a pretty good example of a mid-roast, mid-oxidation oolong. A good all rounder to drink on a day-to-day basis, but nothing really special. This afternoon's was my first session with this tea using my new ceramic kettle, and it was a wholly new experience. The water coming out of the unglazed ceramic spout of my kettle made the tea come alive in a way I had never experienced with this tea before! This may be incentive to revisit some teas from The Before Time...

On to today's tea. The smells trapped by the airtight seal on the bag in which the leaves are stored are abundantly smooth and fruity-floral without too much evidence of roast; that particular character makes itself evident once the leaves are heated up.

The first short infusion doesn't release much in the way of aroma from this tea, but what little there is is pleasant. This may seem a strange thing to say, but the tea feels wet in the mouth. It's not the oily thickness of a very green oolong, but just a refreshing feeling which coats the palate. This makes for a very interesting overall textural profile as this tea has a tendency towards being very mildly astringent. When I say very mildly astringent, I mean that it isn't quite enough to actually register as astringency unless you're really looking for a word to describe that nice, slightly cooling feeling on the tongue and across the rest of the mouth.

To me, this is an all-weather tea: slightly cooling on the days which are a bit too hot, and slightly warming on the days which are a bit too cold. The roasted character starts to emerge on its own as an undertone in the second infusion but never really comes to the forefront, leaving flavours of ripe fruit to occupy the limelight. On some level this tea is slightly sweet, a characteristic which comes out more in the aroma from the liquor itsself and even more so from the aroma cup. Whereas this set of leaves is mostly all about fruit, the aroma cup gives up notes which are distinctively floral as it cools.

 Brewing with water kept hot only by the residual heat in the kettle walls this tea has good endurance, with a more herbaceous flavour only starting to creep in as I approach the tenth infusion. This seems a little surprising as the liquor seems to have a fairly green tint right from the get go, albeit as a shade of bright yellow. Perhaps it's just my eyes.

Inspecting the leaves after my session there are few examples of stems at all, let alone stems with leaves attached. The leaves vary in size but are of a uniform dark green, and are fairly stiff and wrinkled in texture.

All in all, this is a good tea I've enjoyed for quite some time given new life by new water. If I'm honest, it's not a tea I'm passionnate about, but its vivacity made my day (which was mostly filled by two final exams) a better one, and surely that's why we all drink so much tea.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Dian Hong - Cloudwalker Teas

Tea: Dian Hong (sheng pu'erh) from Cloudwalker Teas
Origin: China
Year: Unknown; its page on the company's website says it's three years old, but I'm not sure how recently the page was updated so it could be 2007 or 2008.

I've had a few samples of variously aged shengpu on hand from Cloudwalker Teas for about a month now, and this is one I somehow hadn't got round to trying until today during a visit from Director's Cut. According to the description on the company's website, this is supposed to be a good introductory pu'erh "processed similar to that of a black tea"; great for me as pu'erh isn't a genre I've had much chance to explore thus far. On the whole then, I don't really know a whole lot about this tea, but as far as I'm concerned a rose by any other name would smell as sweet so here goes.

The dry leaf in my preheated yixing teapot gives off a fairly typical aged pu'erh smell: wet wood. I quickly rinse the leaves, but the liquor looks too inviting to pass up so DC and I drink it anyway. For the first few infusions I normally use an aroma cup for pu'erh as I do with my oolongs, and the immediate impression with this tea is one of spice. There are undertones of smoother scents of mushrooms and wood, but they very much take a back seat for the moment. The liquid component of the tea washes over the inside of the mouth and down the throat, thoroughly coating my insides. An interesting contrast is created between the tea's warming action in my throat and the chaqi which leaves my mouth tingling.

Over the subsequent infusions the aroma evolves with a note DC likened to beeswax becoming more prominent while the spice which was initially so strong fades into a position parallel with the woody character, giving me the impression of a well loved and well seasoned kitchen countertop. Much to my delight, the beeswax note continued to sweeten, eventually acquiring a subtle floral quality much like the oolongs with which I am most familiar before subsiding alongside the rest of the aromas.

The tea feels thick and full of life, a characteristic which remains constant throughout the session as flavours come and go. The initial infusions are only slightly earthy, and over the course of the session this far from unpleasant quality eventually gives way to straw, grain, and abundant mouthfeel. In the middle infusions a wonderfully smooth cooling bitterness emerges, tickling the middle of my tongue before dissolving away.

The energy is noticeably relaxing, but not lethargic. A pleasant calmness envelops both DC and I as we drink.

The chaqi presses lightly on my glands and temples.

The spent leaves have a few twigs mixed in, but the leaves aren't very broken up and about half of them have acquired a definite green hue.

After eight or so infusions a very small amount of roughness started to appear at the back of the throat, but when I looked up this tea after the session and found out how young it is, I was astonished that there was so little in the way of unpleasant edges. This tea is wise well beyond its years.