Thursday, 19 January 2012

Dong Ding Cuisson Traditionelle - 2011 from Cha Yi

Tea: Traditionally roasted Dong Ding oolong from Cha Yi (English), a well roasted green oolong with surprising vivacity for its relatively low-altitude origins (roundabout 700m, if I remember correctly).

A review on this tea is long overdue, but first a few words about the teashop from which I bought it. I'm a big believer in supporting good local sources of tea for the simple reason that there's no better way to learn about what you're drinking than by buying your teas in person from someone who really knows their product. This Gatineau teashop located just across the river from Canada's national capital has been open for a little over a year now, and by the looks of it will be around for a little while yet. The service is friendly and the staff knowledgeable (Daniel, one half of the couple who currently run the shop, worked for Camellia Sinensis for five years, and through this association now offers some of their teas in the Ottawa area). Though I've limited my sampling to their selection of oolongs, I've been entirely satisfied with all my purchases so far, and the lower priced teas don't seem to suffer the plunge in quality common in some other local teashops.

Short version of the above: If you're in the National Capital Region, stop by 61 rue Eddy in Gatineau. It's nice.

I'm a big fan of roasted Taiwanese oolongs of all stripes, but I also have frequent cravings for the creamy vegetal freshness of gaoshan oolongs. This tea satisfies both needs, but without the hefty price tag that frequently accompanies hung shui type oolongs. Though certainly not a substitute for this highly acclaimed genre, this tea carries a level of roasting and freshness not commonly found together in 'lower range' teas.

Having by now enjoyed this tea on more than one occasion, I know this tea performs best with a bit less leaf than other teas. If made more concentrated, the roasting characteristics overwhelm the others in the first few infusions and render the brew excessively dry. I pour the requisite amount of small, tightly rolled green balls into the bottom of my teapot and lift it up to my nose for a sniff. Straight away the dry, roasted character of this tea kept subdued by its refrigerated storage wakes up and fills my sinuses.

I pour hot water quickly from high up to help open the leaves and decant the infusion directly into two of my porcelain singing cups. The hot liquor is deeply satisfying and slightly warming; the chaqi goes straight to my head in a pleasant head-rush type sensation. The roasting has left the liquor feeling slightly dry, but the tea is still fresh enough that it sloshes around and coats my mouth in the manner of any good green oolong. The roasting also dominates the taste at this point, with a dry caramel sweetness accompanied by fruity floral undertones. It's in the aftertaste that the green-ness of this tea is most apparent, with an oily and slightly vegetal finish; a subdued version of what I expect from gaoshan. The empty cup bears similar notes, but with a refreshing lightness, rendering the whole experience heady but not overpowering.

In subsequent infusions the balance shifts away from roasting and more towards the light vegetal notes, obviating the thick and slightly oily mouthfeel for a time before a dryness begins to creep onto the tongue. When I was sold this tea, Daniel told me one of the things he likes about this tea is the way this roasting gradually diminishes and gives way to other, equally pleasant characteristics. Unlike many low quality teas, this tea evolves from infusion to infusion rather than simply peaking then tapering off, and it's this sort of endurance and complexity that led me to believe that this tea was from a much higher elevation than it is.

The finished leaves are dark green, tender, and very springy. Fresh, roasted, and all around very nice.

Teapot also from Cha Yi, bowl by Petr Novak featured here
When the leaves finally do start to give up the ghost, make one last long cool infusion and use it to deglaze a pan of sautéed onions for quiche. Chop of a couple of the more tender leaves and mix them into the filling as well. The tea seems to lighten and freshen up the dish a little bit, while adding a touch more savouriness. A delicious way to squeeze those last bits of goodness out of an already delicious tea. (Apologies for the lack of a picture, in all the excitement I got distracted and forgot. I'll be sure to post one the next time I make this dish, perhaps the subject of its own blog post.)

Monday, 16 January 2012

Music and Tea

The pairing of music with the preparation and consumption of tea seems to be fairly commonplace, but not too often  discussed among drinkers of tea. I think this is perhaps simply because of variation in individual musical tastes, but surely these tastes merit as much discussion as preferences for styles of teaware or genres of tea? Background music seems to be everywhere nowadays, whether it's coming from a myriad of speakers in a department store, or from two tiny ones nestled in your ears during your morning run; this omnipresence suggests to me that any music accompanying tea (or the necessarily deliberate lack thereof) becomes a de-facto mood-setter for the session. Today I'm breaking the silence about music and giving it the pride of place it deserves as part of my experience with tea!

The choice of a beautiful set of antique teacups or the clean, simple lines of an unadorned and expertly crafted yixing teapot are something any tea-drunkard like me will have some level of appreciation for, but unless you happen to have heaps of money to acquire a range of them (which I don't), it's difficult to use such elements to incorporate much-needed variety into your tea drinking routine. A good friend of mine known to some as Biblical Jon is a master of the art of using small details to ensure that no two sessions are quite alike, even if they involve the same tea made in the same teapot and poured into the same cups. He also happens to have fantastic taste in music. Whenever he hosts tea, he reliably pulls out his phone and starts playing whatever strikes his fancy, instantly setting the tone and creating a calm atmosphere as he goes about the process making tea.


As much as I feel music is an integral part of a tea session and not to be ignored, I also don't think it should be taken too seriously. I don't concern myself with sticking to music with shared origins to my tea, though from time to time I do find myself wanting to listen to Krishna Das alongside a cup of tea (it's the right sub-continent, at least). So long as the music enhances the overall experience, it's done its job in my book, whether it may be Alexi Murdoch, Mogwai, traditional Nankuan music, or Nine Inch Nails. Sometimes you just have to throw things at the wall and see what sticks, and that, for me, is what tea is all about.

With that in mind, I'd like to hear from anyone reading this blog about what you listen to when you drink tea, or if indeed you listen to anything at all. What do you think the choice of auditory ambience brings to the experience? Is it something you find worth paying attention to, or is music just a distraction from the tea itself? Please comment and let me know.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Da Yeh Oolong - Summer 2011 from Teamasters

Tea: Da Yeh Oolong. Another sample courtesy of Stéphane. His notes on this tea can be viewed here.
Origin: Taiwan's east coast
Harvest: June 26, 2011

An intriguing tea to say the least, courtesy of its complex origins: an oolong cultivar grown on the Pacific coast of Taiwan with its leaves bitten by insects (in the manner of Oriental Beauty), then fully oxidized and roasted. The result is a red tea which is tricky to place in terms of characteristics, but all the more enjoyable for it.

The warmed leaves in my gaiwan release an aroma more or less typical of a red tea, somewhere along the lines of ripe fruit. However, much like in the dry leaf, sweet roast undertones and, perplexingly, fresh, almost creamy notes are barely detectable to my nose. Unsure of just how to go about brewing a tea labelled "Red - Da Yeh Oolong", I opt for a hybrid of my standard methods, incorporating very hot water and a high pour without too much force to help the leaves open up while emphasizing their finer characteristics. The brew darkens quickly and in no time at all I'm inhaling deeply from my fragrance cup. The aroma is thick and sweet with a caramel note that endures in the bottom cup for as long as I'm willing to take another whiff. It's clear that the aroma has just begun to open, and expecting a similar impression from the tea itself, I take my first sip. Wow! The liquor gives an impression of fullness far beyond what I'd expect from a first brew during which the twisted leaves have barely started to uncurl.

In qingbai (left) and white porcelain (right)
In the second infusion the aroma becomes even more powerful, with a strongly acidic citrus note dominating the complex mix of smells. Trying to make sense of it all leaves me pleasantly lightheaded. The drink embodies the fullness of a red tea combined with a degree of complexity I normally associate with oolongs, perhaps because of this tea's unconventional processing. Typical red tea flavours combine with a dry sweetness and citrus notes, with particular tastes receding and being replaced by an aftertaste which is both sweet and fresh. Though this tea is 100% oxidized, it has somehow managed to retain a subdued, but still distinctly present, feeling of green-ness in the aftertaste. Perhaps this results from the fading of a combination of the sweetness and citrus fruit characteristics noted earlier, but no matter the source it presents a pleasant surprise as I finish the infusion.

I've made a habit of not bothering with fully oxidized teas because I generally find them to be one-noted and possessed of some unpleasant measure of astringency and a healthy dose of bitterness when brewed strongly (or when not brewed very lightly after the first couple of infusions). In my book, a good tea, regardless of genre, ought to be full of texture without having to be brewed to the point of the liquor being sullied by unwanted roughness. From long-jing to pu'erh, the best teas I've tasted have always been pleasantly tactile, but when it comes to red teas I haven't quite been able to strike the right balance, at least not beyond a couple of infusions. Until now.

Even as I write this post I continue to sip this delicious tea with only traces of a not unpleasant dryness. Its endurance and enduring balance have made this tea something quite special, and something I thought was worth sharing.

Much to my regret, this blog has been on an unplanned and unwanted hiatus for the past few months. I've carried on drinking tea (though, with my class schedule, admittedly not as much as I'd like), but have been finding it difficult to muster the motivation to dedicate a full session to the note-taking and photographing followed by the couple of hours of writing and formatting that all go into producing a post for this blog. Producing quality content for this blog is something I take pride in, and for that reason I won't force myself to write or take pictures if I'm just feeling uninspired. My intention has always been to post when I have something I can feel good about publishing, when I feel that by adding my voice to the tea blogosphere I can make a positive contribution. I can't promise new content with the kind of clockwork rhythm of other bloggers, but I promise to publish only content that is true to the spirit of what I'm trying to achieve, so check back; I've got a few things up my sleeve yet.