High Mountain Oolongs Part 3 of 3

The central part of the island of Taiwan, Nantou and Chiayi counties, is where high mountain teas are grown, on the following mountain ranges: Hehuanshan, Alishan, Lushan, which is where our black and green teas come from, Wu She, and Lishan, Shan Li Xi and Da Yu Ling, the last three all on the same mountain range. Lishan oolong is grown at around 2,200m above sea level (7217ft), and produced the most expensive tea in the 2000s at around $200 per 600g. 600g or 1 jin (斤) in Taiwan is a traditional unit of measurement for weight.  Each mountain has its own flavour from differences in the terroir, which includes things such as soil, drainage, weather and mist that relate to the location. When I was first learning about teas and heard the names of these mountains I thought that they each stood on their own, but actually they are more like interconnecting mountain ranges, as we could drive from one to another without going down to sea level. A few years ago on ground level in the town of Puli, I remember that I was surprised to see signs pointing to these different mountain ranges. When we actually got there, the mountains looked very similar to each other with narrow roads, and the same almost jungle-like vegetation coating the sides of the mountain ranges, as well as stunning views over valleys to high, distant blue-green peaks in the distance and white rocks on river beds, with small villages and farms at the bottom.

There are two main harvests for high mountain tea, are winter and spring. Winter teas have a lower yield as they are harvested in November and December during the middle of domancy and are rich, full-bodied and balanced. Spring teas are harvested between March and May and have a larger yield. They taste more aromatic and floral after the dormancy period. However, the nature of the teas seem to be increasingly decided by factors that occur during each individual growing season, rather than simply defined by whether the tea was harvested in winter or spring. However, Spring teas seem to be more naturally popular for their fragrance and flavour whereas Winter teas are more expensive due to smaller yield but in demand in Taiwan for Chinese New Year gifts.

High Mountain Oolongs Part 2 of 3

High mountain tea gardens tend to be small as tea farms go, at under 5 acres (217,800 square feet, around 2 hectares, or 20,234.3 square metres). As a result of a high altitude and small farms with a selective picking style, which is 2 or 3 leaves on the stem, there is a low yield of high mountain tea each year, and so they tend to be expensive.

The processing of high mountains teas is characterised by their being shaken on trays much less than for traditional oolongs, the heating step to stop oxidation (kill-green) is completed sooner and they have little to no roasting. High mountains teas are still hand-picked however, with three or four leaves and the stem. Some people think that any stem found in tea is a bad sign and will lead to bitterness, but for an oolong, it is important to include the stem so that the water can escape. It also allows you to see the picking style when the leaves expand on being brewed.

The tea farms are grown on the side of the mountain, and so tend to include steep paths on either side of the levels of rows of tea bushes, which grow on their own flat strip, so the effect is a little like a staircase. I was surprised when we first sourced tea that the farms were so steep as I had thought that all tea farms were flat, or on gently undulating ground. At a high altitude in Taiwan the reality is that the farms are very steep. You need a bit of a head for heights and occasionally for climbing too, as there don’t tend to be stairs and occasionally not much of a path between levels . Stairs have been built at Alishan but I suspect that those were built for the benefit of tourists.

Image: Copyright © 2018 Chessers Tea

High Mountain Oolongs Part 1 of 3

One of the most famous teas in Taiwan is gao shan cha 高山茶 (káu.ʂán tsǎ), literally high mountain tea. High mountain teas refer to oolongs that are grown at a high altitude, at over 1000m (around 3280ft) above sea level, shaped into a ball, lightly oxidised. Although they are very well known, they only became popular in the 1980s. Farmers growing tea at high altitudes produce their teas in this style as it takes less time and skill to make. However, if they are made well, the high altitude produces very good teas.

In the case of Taiwanese high mountain tea, the tea farm will be on a mountainside at over 1000m (approximately 3280ft) above sea level. A high altitude in Taiwan is conducive to many factors that go towards a good tasting tea: high humidity; high precipitation; a lot of mist; thin, clear air; cooler temperatures and a big temperature difference between daytime and the evening. Mist aids tea as it helps to dapple the sunlight, thin air encourages the tea bushes to grow slowly, which produces a better flavour, and the big temperature difference in a day produces complexity.

High mountain teas can be described as having a crisp, fresh, clean, complex, floral and slightly sweet flavour, that lingers in the mouth, a sweet and fresh aroma, and a creamy texture. To tell that the tea is of fine quality, look for a fresh and fine taste that lasts a long time after drinking, and for the creamy texture. These indicate mineral content in the leaves and well-processed tea respectively.

Image: Copyright © 2018 Chessers Tea

Gongfu Cha Tea Brewing

I wrote an article a long time ago on how to do Gongfu Cha Tea Brewing but I have decided to write another updated version.

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This setup includes a clay teapot, glass serving jug with metal sieve and two teacups. Not shown is the bowl for discarding waste water. You can use anything that will work.

Basic principles:

  • small brewing vessels (teapot) – 75ml (2.5oz) is about the right size for one person, 150ml (5oz) for two etc.
  • correspondingly small teacups
  • high leaf to water ratio
  • short brewing times
  • repeated infusions using the same tea leaves

If the teapot is too big, each person will drink more than one cup per infusion, too small and they will drink less than a cup per infusion. Gongfu cha works best if you have one or two cups per infusion.

In effect, it is drinking many small cups of tea, and tasting how the infusions develop over time. Drinking in this method, you will also drink a larger quantity of the tea liquor or tea soup as it is sometimes called, than if you were to drink the tea in a mug. It shows you how the leaves release their flavours gradually rather than all at once.

The minimum equipment that you will need:

  • high quality loose leaf tea
  • hot water
  • small tea brewing vessel: teapot, gaiwan – Chinese lidded cup with a saucer, something that is small, heatproof and that preferably has a lid.
  • small teacups: Chinese teacups, espresso cups
  • a bowl to dispose waste water into
  • a serving jug, called a chahai in Chinese
  • optional: sieve if the teapot does not have a filter. This is placed onto the chahai.

Gongfu cha can be done in many different ways, and made quite elaborate, decorative, and precise, by adding more equipment, decorations and steps. I am presenting here what I consider to be basic brewing technique, using minimal teaware.

 

Step 1: Preheat all the teaware. Pour hot water into the teapot, then from the teapot to the chahai, then into the cups, and finally dispose of it into the bowl.

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Step 2: Put the tea into the preheated teapot. The quantity of tea that you use will depend on the category of tea and how strong you like your tea. I used about 1/6 of the capacity of the teapot, you can use more or less if you wish. A smaller teapot will allow you to drink stronger tea using less leaf. As this point, you can give it a shake and smell the aroma. I used our Roasted Honey Black Tea, and the aroma was dark chocolate and baking spices.

Step 3 (Optional): Rinse the tea. I did not rinse this tea because it is organic but if you wish to rinse your tea: pour hot water into the teapot and immediately discard into the bowl. You can use this to preheat the chahai and cups again if you wish, before discarding.

Step 4: Brew the tea: put fresh water into the teapot, and brew the tea. The temperature of the water and the time to wait for will again depend on the category of tea. In this case, a relatively long brewing time is recommended, around a minute or so for the first brew.

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Step 5: Pour out and enjoy your first cup. Pour the tea out into the chahai, and then into the cups, and enjoy your tea. A sieve will catch any small fragments of tea leaves. The taste of this tea is toasty at first with the flavour of the roast, which then is replaced by a complex and fruity tastes as the infusions progress.

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Step 6: Repeat steps 4 and 5 as many times as you wish, adding 30 seconds to a minute to the brewing time. If you find the tea too strong, you can reduce brewing time for the next infusion, and likewise if you find it too weak, you can increase brewing time, or even add more leaf.

 

 

 

 

Gongfucha: How The Chinese Tea Ceremony became ceremonial

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A teapot, serving jug, aroma cup and drinking cup for gongfu cha.

The Chinese Tea Ceremony, or gongfu cha is often thought of as being an ancient ceremony, performed throughout China and then passed on to the West relatively recently. The truth is that it originated in the Chinese south-eastern province, Chaozhou, and it was relatively unknown outside this area even in the 1950s.

Gongfu cha was the most elaborate method of tea brewing in China, using more utensils and smaller utensils than tea brewing in other parts of China.

What made gongfu cha better known was its popularisation in Taiwanese tea houses during the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, Wistaria Tea House and the Lu Yu Tea Culture Institute both made important contributions to the popularisation of gongfu cha, as well as with standardising it and making it more elaborate. Zhou Yu, the founder of Wistaria Tea House is credited with having done research into historic tea brewing and contributed to gongfu cha combining Japanese, Korean and British traditions with the Chaozhounese brewing technique.

Taiwanese tea houses formed the Chinese Tea Art Friendship Association of Tea Houses in the late 1970s. In 1982, the Republic of China Tea Art Association was formed by the government in Taiwan, with the aim of promoting Chinese tea culture in Taiwan and abroad, and to educate about Chinese Tea Arts. There was a sense of responsibility in Taiwan to safeguard Chinese culture in the face of the Cultural Revolution.

As the tea bushes that began commercial tea cultivation in Taiwan came from Fujian province in south-eastern China, gongfu cha was also adopted as it came from the same sort of area, Chaozhou bordering Fujian.

All of these factors combined as well as the tea market beginning to sell domestically enabled gongfu cha to be widely practised in Taiwan, and certain additions were made: an aroma cup, to pour the tea into and smell the aromas from before drinking the tea from a second cup and a serving jug, to pour the tea from the teapot into, and from which the tea is poured into the cups. This jug ensures that the tea is of equal strength throughout the cups.

As well as a desire to preserve Chinese culture, tea houses wished to have a ceremony equal to that of Japan’s chanoyu matcha tea ceremony. Chanoyu has aesthetic elegance, Buddhist and philosophical ideas behind it and there is a strict set of rules that differ from one school to another in how each movement is performed and what role each person has to play in the ceremony. It is used to brew matcha, a powdered green tea. However it was another tea ceremony in Japan, called senchado that more directly influenced gongfu cha. Senchado is used to brew sencha, a loose leaf green tea. The teaware in senchado is Ming Chinese in origin, while Japanese aesthetics and philosophy underpin it. One impact of senchado on gongfu cha was the chaxi, an elegant and composed arrangement of teaware and decorations. As steps were added, some were for philosophical or aesthetic purposes, some for practical purposes, producing a ceremony more similar to senchado in its aims. An example of the former would be drinking the tea in three sips to represent heaven, man and earth. An example of the latter would be smelling the tea leaves and handing them around for observation. Although it is not necessary to do this, it does give some information on the tea to the person brewing and anyone drinking with them.

Tea brewing methods and ideas have been passed amongst Mainland China, Taiwan and Japan, adding to their history and making each ceremony or way of brewing more interesting along the way.

 

Sources: A Foreign Infusion: The Forgotten Legacy of Japanese Chadō on Modern Chinese Tea Arts by Lawrence Zhang (Marshaln), Gastronomica, Spring, 2016.
A Quintessential Invention: Genesis of a Cultural Orthodoxy in East Asian Tea Appreciation by Loretta Kim and Lawrence Zhang (Marshaln), China Heritage Quarterly, No. 29, March, 2012.

Tea Tasting with a Wine Vocabulary

I have written before the similarities between wine and tea, but it is surprising how many words that we use to describe tea are borrowed from wine tasting, such as “softness” – low tannins in the case of wine, and no unwanted bitterness in tea.

Although this can be pretentious, this kind of terminology makes it easier to learn about indicators of quality and to learn to develop the palate to recognise different characteristics of wine and tea respectively and enjoy them more.

Tea tastings are quite similar to wine tastings, in that the aim is to observe the appearance, taste, aroma and finish.

The “finish” is the sensation that comes after swallowing. A good tea will make you salivate, returning a sweet flavour to the mouth, and will feel smooth on swallowing. I prefer teas that do not leave a sense of dryness when you drink them, although some people are not averse to that. “Complexity”, or exhibiting many different flavours is also desirable in both wines and teas. “Viscous” teas are often pleasant to drink and some teas have greater viscosity than others. This quality differs from tea to tea however, so a tea lacking viscosity is not necessarily bad.

In ageing tea as in wine, people will talk about particular years that produced good teas, and the characteristics of particular harvests, caused by the weather conditions of that season. Again, in a similar way to wine, you will hear people talking about how tea’s flavour and colour is affected by ageing. Tea gains complexity but also becomes more mellow.

A lot of individual flavour descriptors can also be the same such as “vegetal”: having flavours that resemble vegetables. “Floral” and “fruity” are terms that can be used in contrast.

Similarly, flavour wheels can be used with both wines and teas to try to describe flavours more precisely, from saying that a tea tastes floral, to saying that it tastes like jasmine.

This detailed way of describing teas derived from wine tasting does not seem to be so prevalent in East Asia, although our tea farmers will also describe teas as being too “rough”.

These terms can be fun to use, and useful in identifying flavours, if a little bit pompous. Ultimately, taste is quite subjective at the same time, so I would suggest not holding too tightly to flavour descriptors as being definitive.

Water for Tea

The photo shows the same tea brewed with different waters. The cup on the left was brewed with tap water, and on the right with bottled water. Although I shall probably do a similar experiment in future to make sure, in this instance the bottled water performed slightly better than the tap water. The buttery and nutty aroma and taste of the tea was more pronounced whereas the tap water actually presented a subtle but unpleasant aftertaste. However, this did show that the water that you choose to brew tea with makes a difference.

The area where water comes from changes its taste. There are people who claim that all water tastes the same, or that all water is tasteless, but I find that when I go to different places, my tea tastes different, and as I brew it in the same way, the difference must come from the water. Some areas have harder and others softer water, and this affects the taste of tea. Surprisingly, soft water is actually not as preferable when it comes to tea. When I was in Vienna, I noticed that the water is very soft, which actually didn’t bring out the flavour of tea as well as water with a higher mineral content. However drinking the water on its own does taste very nice.

Some people recommend filtered water for tea. Filtered water tends to produce sharp tasting tea. I’ve come across the recommendation to blend together mineral water and filtered water, that while mineral water will give good flavour, the additional filtered water will keep the mineral sediment from affecting the kettle too much.

In Lu Yu’s Tea Classic, the oldest and most famous work on tea, written in the 1st century, it says that the best water for tea comes from a spring, and ideally flowing over stone, while the worst comes from a well, though a more frequently used well is better. River water meanwhile should come from the less used part of the river.

I recommend that while travelling, you take with you some tea that you know well, and see whether it tastes different, or alternatively, you could do a bit of an experiment with bottled waters as I did above.