Monday 23 July 2012

Tetsubin Adventures - Part II: Dissolved Solids

The first thing I notice when I take a sip of hot water poured from my freshly boiled tetsubin is the texture. It's thick and coats the mouth in way different from any tea; something approaching mineral water, but that comparison, much like declaring a dried apricot to be similar to a fresh cherry, doesn't really do it justice. However, just as cherries and apricots are related in spite of their differences, so are mineral and tetsubin water: both owe what makes them special to dissolved ions (mainly iron, in the case of the tetsubin).

Ions, being charged particles, dissolve quite readily in water and interact with it more closely than do oils, such as may be found in tea. It's for that reason that the change in texture produced by the kettle is different from one that tea could produce (less gloopy, more viscous), but for other reasons that are beyond me, the particular changes my tetsubin produces work together with certain teas to create a greater seamless whole.

The second thing I notice is a metallic, sweet taste. It's faint and fleeting, but it's there. After swallowing the water, the initial texture remains, but distilled. There's no longer a solution of ions swishing over my tongue, but the particles that happened upon my palette and stayed there continue to create a feeling of substance. I'm tempted to describe the water as having a slightly earthy and lengthy aftertaste, but the use of these qualifiers would be inaccurate as there is, in fact, no taste.

In all, the result is much more like a liquified canvas than any stone fruit or mineral water. With a thick textured and tight weave, the water has substance without conveying any particular artistic intent or message. Not entirely impartial, robust paints and thick brush strokes as well as careful but strong detailing will be lent added impact, while pale watercolours will all be muted as they soak into the fabric. An often overlooked part of any painting, without its texture a reproduction will never have the same depth of character as the original. With the right tea and a skillful brewer, this kettle can truly create a work of art.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Hong Cha For Hot Weather

Today, a few days short of a year after it was harvested on Taiwan's east coast, I finished off the last of my pack of red tea I ordered after thoroughly enjoying the sample Stéphane was kind enough to provide. A da yeh oolong from Teamasters, this tea is made from oolong leaves that were fully oxidized to make a red tea rather than an oolong. Unconventional, to be sure, but as I mentioned in my first post on this tea, this is the only hong cha I've tried that I've really enjoyed. It's complexity and aromas that border on floral belie its oolong origins and make this tea all the better for it.

As we rapidly approach the solstice, temperatures have been ramping up and have been in the thirties (forties with the humidex) for a few days now. During the summer I try to drink outside as much as possible, both to enjoy the ambiance as well as to try to keep the heat out of the house what with electricity costing so much these days. Green tea, however, has got nothing on this heat, much less the low oxidation oolongs that are my preference. It's for that reason that I decided to go whole ho(n)g in the opposite direction.

The first quick infusion is light and complex; full of flavour but not yet hearty and warming. I savour the light fruits over candy sweetness and sniff the hints of flowers in the bottom of my cup as the next infusion steeps a little longer. As I pour it, I worry a little that I might've overdone it a bit and made the tea bitter; one thing I've learned is that once a tea's been drastically overstepped, there's often no way back. The much darker red liquor wafts a thick aroma that's always reminded me of very ripe tomatoes, although the two scents don't actually bear any striking resemblance. As that peculiarity dances across my synapses I take my first sip: it's so thick and flavorful! Far from being oversteeped, this tea has simply become more potent. I can feel the heat cascade down into my stomach and spread out as I finish drinking.

The veins on my arms start to pop up and I start to cool off as the perceived temperature differential decreases. Funny how drinking a something so warming on such a hot day can be so cooling...

The tea goes on, gradually returning to the lightness of the first steep, over a few more infusions. I stop bothering to reheat the water in my glass kettle (which seems better suited to this tea than my tetsubin) and pour in enough water for one last steep to be enjoyed tomorrow.

Monday 18 June 2012

Guei Fei Oolong - Summer 2012 from Cha Yi

A quick note to share what I'm drinking today: a true dong ding guei fei oolong from the Gatineau tea shop I've been frequenting lately. I bought a small sample of this tea back when it first arrived with the spring oolongs and was warned that brewing this tea properly can be quite tricky. Happily, roasted oolongs seem to be my forte, so I've never experienced any great problems with this one.

Unlike Stéphane's concubine oolongs, this guei fei was harvested at the usual time between late spring and early summer (if memory serves, it may be more distinctly early summer). Summer being a season known for bitterness and astringency, this tea has a greater propensity to dry the mouth and rough up the throat than many. However, if brewed using hot water and short infusions using plenty of leaf, I've found these undesirable traits can be successfully manages most of the time, bringing clean, thick, and powerful sweet ripe fruit to the forefront.

The aromas and tastes are broadly characteristic of the genre, with a clean sugar sweetness in the bottom of the cup changing to apple cider as the stoneware cools. Being closer to a spring harvest, the emphasis is more on the finer and lighter aromas and flavours than the fall and winter harvested teas with the same processing technique I've tried.

To me, a wild (or semi-wild) tea with a tendency to be bitter or astringent is rarely a thing to be feared. These elements seem to often signal a more powerful or robust tea than one that simply isn't good. These teas are as far from insipid as it gets, no matter how they're prepared, and when they're brewed well, they can be among the most rewarding. The process of tasting them cannot be boring, and if nothing else, it's a canary in the coal mine of brewing technique. This is called gong fu cha, after all...

A bit of housekeeping: Thanks to my recent acquisition of a lovely little bit of increasingly ubiquitous technology designed by Apple, I'm now able to write posts pretty much anywhere. The tradeoff comes in the form of photos and formatting, options for the former being few and nonexistent for the latter. Nevertheless, my hope is that this will allow me to post shorter bits of content more regularly in addition to more infrequent lengthy posts. 

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Tetsubin Adventures - Part I: The Beginning

Today a bit of tea-kit I've been eyeing for quite some time came in the mail: a bona-fide tetsubin. According to the asian antiques dealer I bought it from (online for a very reasonable sum), this bronze-lidded lump of cast iron dates back to pre-1930. Also according to the seller, the inscriptions on either side of the kettle are a poem and a pine tree, respectively. The inside of the lid is inscribed with the make and what are reportedly congratulations for reaching old age.

While unboxing it I gave the kettle a thorough once-over to check for any rusted out or weakened areas (the seller guaranteed that it would hold water for 24 hours without leaking, but was reticent to say whether it could actually be used as a kettle, and I didn't want it dumping hot water all over my kitchen during a preliminary field trial, as it were) and, in addition to finding no weak spots, discovered a few interesting things. For instance, the little brass knob on the lid, while bent, still spins and can in this manner be cooled when boiling water. A seam all the way down the inside of the wrought iron handle as well as a suspicious lightness seem to indicate that the handle might be hollow as well for extra pouring comfort.

By far the most intriguing part of the tetsubin, however, is the rusty lump that can be seen in the bottom left of the photograph opposite. From the photos on the online item listing, I assumed it was the somewhat misshapen inside portion of the kettle's bellybutton, but in person this seems unlikely. The bellybutton is only about a centimeter wide on the outside of the kettle, but the inside lump is over an inch in diameter. In boiling and reboiling the tetsubin to clean it out and make it ready to drink from (as well as a bit of chipping at flaking surface rust), four radial seams became visible with a hollow area underneath. The odd structure and lack of any leaks so far, as well as the odd and surprisingly loud noises this pot makes as it boils lead me to believe this kettle may be fitted with a singer!

I first stumbled across singers in this article in issue eight of The Leaf and, if memory serves, haven't since. Whether or not that's what this lump actually is remains to be seen, in the meantime I'll keep poking away at it to see if I can deduce anything. In any case, the most important test is yet to come: taste. Having been unable to resist trying some of the plain water, I'll let on that it is indeed delicious, but more detailed notes will have to wait until it's subjected to the acid test of brewing a cup of tea. Until we meet again in Part II, dear reader.