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?