Thursday, April 6, 2017

Chaozhou Style Brewing

The topic of real Chaozhou style brewing has been debated ruthlessly over tea tables across this great nation. What is true Chaozhou style? Do you crunch the leaves? How full should the pot be? To flash steep or not to flash steep?

I don't claim to have the answers, but I had my own most interesting purportedly Chaozhou style session to date. I'd like to share it with you wonderful people!

Background: Chaozhou is supposedly the birth place of gongfu style tea. It is not a fancy or affected way of drinking tea, it is merely a method that oolong drinkers with clay pots began using to make strong tea. Maybe you could think of it as gongfu esspresso. The basic principle is that the pot is small, the cups are small and the pot is absolutely stuffed with leaf.

The session the other day which prompted me to write about Chaozhou brewing was this: a generous and wonderful tea buddy came into the shop. We wanted to drink Tie Guanyin, as we often do, and he prodded me, "Hey, let's really do this like Chaozhou people." So I looked at him and began to fill the pot with little Anxi Tie Guanyin nuggets. I got maybe a third of the way towards the top and looked into his eyes for confirmation that it was plenty. "More!" A few more nuggets I dropped in, and he still showed no sign that we were getting close. In the end, the pot was more than halfway full of dry oolong nuggets. So I began to brew.

First, I rinsed the tea and heated our cups. I used a sharing pitcher because that's how I brew. He had no qualms. The smell of roasted, aged, fermented oolong leaves puffed into a little cloud over our tea table. It was strong, invigorating to the nostrils. And the smell was like wood, dried fruit, maybe a little boozy. I then proceeded to quickly brew a first infusion, as I thought the pot was so full it needed a speedy pour.

"No, wait!" He then told me to brew it longer. Around three minutes. I thought he was pulling my leg, but he told me that he knows this tea and it can handle long brewing. He told me his parents drank tea like this when he was growing up, and that they would just set and forget the pot while the talked to each other, leaving it maybe fifteen minutes. If the tea was good, they said, it was no problem. So I set the water in the pot and left it.

When I poured it out it was thick, almost black. Not opaque the way espresso is, but very close in darkness. There was a thick 'cloud' swirling on the surface of the liquor. "Oh... Yeah...." He was obviously pretty excited. I poured each of us a cup and tasted it. Wow! It was soooo strong, but not the clawing bitterness I expected. It was bitter the way a well pulled shot of espresso is bitter. It certainly doesn't go down without a fight, but it left us with the most wonderful and strong aftertaste which lasted all night. And I felt just amped up after drinking that stuff. My belly was humming and buzzing with warm oolong vibrations.

We had a wonderful session with that tea. He told me this was what he thinks of as Chaozhou style brewing. I don't know how to qualify what exactly that style entails, but I do know that the tea could handle brewing like that. It was so wonderful! I actually drink that tea quite often and quite enjoy it when I do, but never had I enjoyed it like that. That's the beauty of a true, well-done, 'shou' style oolong. Mmmmmmhmmmm....


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Bowl Style

In Taiwan when you buy tea, the merchant will usually set out little white bowls with ceramic spoons, a bit of leaf and some hot water. Like making tea soup. It's the instant ramen of tea. And they proceed to let it sit in the bowl for 15 minutes and often longer. It allows the leaves to completely steep out into the water.

They do this to test tea. When you do such a long brew it is not necessarily delicious to drink, but it makes the tea totally naked in the little white bowl. You can't hide anything in a 30 minute steep. This is when a bad tea will show its colors and a good tea will truly impress. Although the broth of any tea will be intensely bitter and astringent this way, a good tea can 'huigan' or turn around into a sweet feeling finish.

I bring it up because I was talking to a couple fellas in the shop who visited Taiwan last week. Chatting about their tea experiences, they said the bowl style brewing really made an impression. It kind of re-invigorated my interest in spreading this kind of tea drinking to my fellow drinkers. I think I will use this more frequently in the shop because it is such a valuable learning tool.

In the States, it seems we've adopted gaiwan brewing as a way to test tea. This makes sense, as people who've never tried good tea would likely be totally turned off by a cold bowl of half hour infused oolong. But the gaiwan does allow the brewer to manipulate a tea. It's impossible for us not to. That's what the tool is for, being able to control brewing parameters precisely. And when you've gotten good at it, you can help a sub-par tea to taste pretty alright. I don't think this will change any time soon, as our community is still very young and not ready for bowl style as the standard. But it is a tool that maybe some new drinkers would find useful.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

My Relationship with Oriental Beauty

This week, as I sit down to write a post I'm drinking on an old, reliable tea: Oriental Beauty. I've had and continue to have a very casual relationship with this sweet, oxidized Taiwanese oolong. It's never my go-to tea when I want to get enveloped in my brewing or tasting, and it's not usually something I bring out to leave an impression on tea friends. But I do like to keep it around, because this tea is so soft and sweet and easygoing.

It's a nice way to wake up, like eating a silky congee to coax your system from sleep to wakefulness. I always brew this tea grandpa style. The leaves sit amiably in a bath of hot water, producing a leafy, fragrant broth.

Last season when Shiuwen was in Taiwan she tasted an Oriental Beauty that is a grade higher than the shop's usual fare. It was a special crop, with a nicely pronounced honey sweetness and a lightness of body that makes it unique among OBs. So that is the tea I'm drinking on now, and I do like to drink it, too!

For the uninitiated, I will write a quick OB spiel that you would hear in any tea shop that sells the stuff. It is a bug-bitten tea, which means the plant is left in the summertime with no pesticides so that a specific bug, called a tea jassid, will come and bite the leaf. The wound from the bug bite produces a reaction in the plant which humans, when we steep it and drink it, perceive as a special kind of sweetness. Then the tea is processed as an oolong and oxidized fairly dark to round out that unique sweet note. I've heard the jassid bite is not sought after in other teas, and may negatively affect the taste of the tea if it were a green tea, for example.

I have noticed in other organic teas from the same area (for example, a very tasty organic Hong Shui I've been drinking on) that there is sometimes an OB-like sweetness that shows up. It reminds me a bit of the sweet smell that rising bread gives off as the yeast is doing its job. This is probably because the tea was bitten due to the lack of pesticide application and then oxidized (Hong Shui is a dark oxidized oolong). I believe that if you smell an OB type of honey smell in your oolong, and especially if the leaves look bug bitten when they open up, then the tea was probably grown with little to no pesticides. What differentiates OB from other bug bitten teas is that it is grown with the Qingxin Dapa varietal (also known as Braggard's Tea in Taiwanese) and that it is only harvested once a year, in the summer.

So there you go! It's a sweet, smoochy kind of tea. I love Oriental Beauty like an old friend who is easy to talk to. It is never exciting but still an integral part of my stash.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Drinking with Wine People

Yesterday was a very busy day at the shop. I sat down with around 10 customers to drink tea. All were very interesting people and fun to drink with. There was a couple in particular that stood out to me as I spent this morning recalling those customers. They are a wine couple. They love wine and work in the wine industry. As belabored a topic it is, the comparison of wine and tea culture, I think it is fascinating to simply recall an experience of the two coming into contact. I've realized it is helpful to remember that we are all plant people, just preferring to work with different plants. Also, in America, none of us are working with a plant native to our land, nor is the culture completely homegrown.

Let me return our attention to this lovely wine couple. Because of their hip Seattelite relatives, they been drinking our teas on special occasions for a few years now. But this was the first time they visited Floating Leaves in person. We sat down and introduced ourselves. They shied away from puer because the wife is pregnant, so I settled in with a green oolong, baozhong style. This tea stands out this season in our shop, and I think of it as a good starting point when talking about Taiwan teas.

What was interesting was their reaction while tasting the tea, apparently formed by their long and intimate involvement with wine. They imagined the baozhong as earthy and seaweed tasting which, although a totally valid experience of the tea, aren't descriptors that come to my mind when I drink green Taiwanese baozhong. The key terms I usually bring up are direct, straightforward in the broth and floral, fruity or maybe grassy in the nose. Sometimes the tea is thick and juicy, sometimes bright and stimulating. Then we moved on to a roasted high mountain oolong, roasted to re-enliven a tea from a previous season which did not completely sell out. To me, this tea is warm, buzzy. It is a little throaty and the fragrance has a dark, stimulating ripe-fruitiness to it. The husband, when he drank, noticed a rhubarb note. The wife added that it was like warm rhubarb pie.

Drinking with wine lovers, one of them a trained sommelier, planted deeper into my mind this idea: the way we learn to experience these plants has a whole lot to do with our perceptions of them. And the cultures surrounding the consumption of these plants vary just as much as the plants do themselves, if not more. It is exciting that we live in a time that all these cultures can come into contact with each other and share and learn from each other.

Thinking about this topic, I think of the culture vs language chicken-and-egg conundrum that linguists call the "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis". In language, this plays out as follows. Does the language a people speak shape their shared culture, or does their shared culture shape their language? Following this logic, is the plant we are consuming shaping our culture surrounding itself, or is our culture shaping the way we perceive it? I think in both cases, as has become standard through most of linguistics, that it is bi-directional. However, I am in America where none of these plants or cultures are native. I would be very curious to make a study of wine culture in its native places. And hopefully to share a pot of tea and a bottle of wine with the people that carry the culture in their minds and bodies.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Nodding off of No Tea

Greetings! I've been out for the last couple of weeks visiting family, but I'm back in Seattle now and am getting back to work on this little blog.

It tends to be the case that I notice things about my tea habit when I'm on the road. This is because, on the road, I regularly find myself without hot water to brew my tea.

This week, I decided to record my experience of sleep WITHOUT tea. What I mean by this is the nodding-off type of dazed, messy sleep that sets in around 24 hours without having imbibed my favorite plant. And as soon as I drink a few infusions of a good, strong oolong it loosens its grip on my eyelids and mind. Following is a dramatization of my experience without tea a couple days ago.


Dividing my return flights I had a massive layover in Denver. I decided against paper cup brewing with S***bucks machine water because I didn't bring along any teas that I thought deserved such treatment. That was my first mistake. And I also made the silly decision to avoid coffee, so as not to disrupt my sleep cycle any worst than I already would be, seeing as my flight was a red-eye. This was my second mistake.

On the last leg of my journey I started to nod. The world dimmed. A tunnel of abstraction laid itself down between my field of vision and my retinas. The most marvelous plant let on to me that it too has an ugly side, and I slipped into a half-dreamlike state of mind. But it wasn't that I had dreamed, it was the opposite. The sleep was a heavy darkness that I would fight against if I wanted to open my eyes, and when they were open it felt like a dream. I was altogether discombobulated.

Once I made it through the flight and collected my luggage through a haze of tea-lessness, I headed home on the bus. The surreal nature of the tealess feeling was probably amplified by the fact I had brought only light cotton shorts, a short-sleeve shirt and flip-flops to protect me from Seattle's most recent snow. This was my third (and honestly, the glaringly stupidest) blunder during my trip home.

When I walked in my front door I immediately ran to the kettle and feverishly grabbed a gaiwan and some strong Tie Guanyin. As soon as the water boiled, on the leaves it went. I didn't even bother to rinse them! As the leaves sat there, infusing in the bowl, the clouds above me cleared and the tea-gods began to forgive me. Their blessings lifted me out of a dark funk with the first sip, and I felt I was on solid ground after the third infusion was drained into my fairness vessel. Leaf be praised!

Thanks for reading, and I take full responsibility for the dingus behavior, complaining and snobbery that set me up for a tealess hell. It was actually quite fun, especially to look back on! I hope that you darling teafolk can avoid such mistakes in your own lives. May your gaiwan brew for a thousand years!!!


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Drink the 'Original Taste'

Some tea terms can be confusing, and this week I'd like to focus my writing attention on a particularly confusing tea related phrase, 'he yuanwei' (喝原味) or 'drink the original flavor'. I've been very curious what this means, and I'd like to start to get towards the bottom of it.

To start off, I've heard this expression used to delineate drinking fresh, green oolongs. It is logical to assume the 'original taste' of a tea plant would come through more clearly in a greener, and therefore less processed, tea. In contrast, there are more processed teas (i.e. darker, more oxidized, more rolled, more whithered etc) which I presume were originally so treated to preserve the tea for the long road between farm and market. These techniques were also used to coax out other textures or sensations that the plant is capable of producing. In this first interpretation of the term in question, the latter style of tea is presumably further from the original taste, because it has undergone more processing.

My argument against this interpretation is as follows: why are we not all drinking green tea, or white tea for that matter, or maybe puer, if minimal processing is the sole ingredient that original flavor is contingent upon. Or perhaps fresh tea leaves should be eaten straight off the bush?

I'm being a little cheeky about it, but my point is that I believe this first interpretation does not hold up under scrutiny. Tea is processed to bring out characteristics inherent in the leaf and make use of what the plant is able to offer us as drinkers. I think that in this sense, yuan wei has more to do with drinking tea that was processed with care, and crafted to align with the innate abilities of the plant itself. This is counter to relying on technique to force a tea into some preconceived or coveted taste. This kind of over-processing is apparent when one tastes a roasted oolong which is roasted beyond the capacity of the original material. When a tea tastes like only charcoal and no longer tastes like tea, then the roaster has overly relied on his/her ability to manipulate the flavor. This just ain't yuan wei.

In my humble opinion, an example of a well processed tea which achieve its yuan wei is a good Tie Guanyin. Good, traditional TGY is heavily oxidized, toilsomely rolled, and fired maybe four times over the course of a year. But this type of tea maintains its namesake which a light green TGY will not have. It tastes like iron! That's why it's called 'tie' 鐵- iron - guan yin, because it can give one an iron-like texture at the back of one's tongue. The peculiar sensation that you would get from sucking on a piece of metal. Although the cultivar is the same, this sensation is not available to the drinker when we drink TGY's less processed counterpart. It is innate in this cultivar of tea, but requires special coaxing on the part of the farmer to make it available to us drinkers. 

So my conclusion after writing it out plainly in front of me is that 'he yuanwei' must originally have to do with the second interpretation. It may have been co-opted to sell green oolongs as the market has changed, which is fine. That's what tea does; it changes. But I feel good about my second meaning, which is to drink tea which has been treated with respect -- a respect, attentiveness and care for the plant as it is. That is what this phrase means to me.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Staying Tea Drunk Overnight

I've had the experience of waking up tea drunk a handful of times now, and it's an incredible feeling!

I work a second job to support myself while I help out at Floating Leaves. It's a barista gig, and that means I have to get up much earlier than the 'crack of dawn' to open the shop and start pulling espresso. And on certain mornings I have to do that after a long tea session at the tea shop. A generous tea friend comes in to share really excellent tea, usually one night a week, and I always jump on the opportunity, even when my day will start at 4 AM the next morning.

This has lead me to many very sluggish espresso mornings. But occasionally I will vibe just so with the tea we are drinking, and it will not keep me awake to long and still have me feeling wonderful, floaty and flexible the next morning. Last time this happened, we drank a really extravagant 30 year Dong Ding from Wisteria Teahouse in Taipei. Man, is that tea spectacular! The mouthfeel has this slow-burn of a development. It lasts so long! And it's very intricate in the mouth. The tea still has a lot to teach me, but every time it is an education. And the way it gets me feeling, it's just so calm and so grounding. Like I said, I can sleep (even though it's only for a few hours) through the night and wake up still feeling the tea in my body and head. Also, the dreams are often fantastical ;)

As you might imagine I've drunk a lot of tea, and I've gone to sleep many times. It seems that, for me, older teas are more likely to give me this feeling. Young teas tend to keep me up. And if I can manage to sleep on them, I won't wake up still feeling tea drunk. The kinds of teas that I'm talking about are hard to find and very expensive. But if you're lucky an excellent tea friend will share with you. Gotta appreciate those tea friends! I hope that someday I'll be that tea friend to somebody. It's just one more reason to always be on the search for the next better tea!