Buying tea by the jin (斤)

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When buying tea in Taiwan, we had to use the traditional unit of measurement, the jin (斤) translated catty, which corresponds to 600g, instead of metric measurements which are widely used in Taiwan as well.

We may have used traditional units of measurement because we were in a rural area, dealing with an industry that was established before the introduction of the metric system, and has continued to be run on its own terms as most tea in Taiwan is sold domestically.

Apparently in town vegetable markets, traditional measurements are also used as well, which again suggests that where an industry is not international, the metric system is not used.

Incidentally, the quantity of 1斤 is different in different places, at around 605g in Hong Kong and 500g in Mainland China. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, it is 16两 (liang) to a 斤, but in Mainland China it is 10两 to a 斤. If you happen to buy directly from these three areas, please bear in mind that the weights are different.

Image: By Naval History & Heritage Command from Washington, DC, USA (2013.114.022 Scale, Pharmacy) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Tea Harvesting

Tea in Taiwan is harvested virtually all year round but the timing of an harvest has an effect on its flavour. Each season produces its own character, and Spring and Winter harvests are generally considered the best. For example, in oolongs, spring teas are considered the sweetest, most flavourful and floral, and winter teas the most aromatic and crisp; summer teas are the bitterest, and autumn teas the most astringent. Some tea drinkers will prefer winter teas, and some spring teas (though spring teas seem perennially  most popular).

The notable exception in Taiwan to this is bai hao, Oriental Beauty oolong, which is harvested during the summer and has a unique beautiful aroma and taste similar to black tea. It is characterised by high oxidation, white tips and having undergone the process of being bitten by tea jassids, which are small crickets.

It only takes a few days for a bud to appear, open and turn into a large leaf, and the flavour will change during this time, as will the chemical composition. This means that there is only a short window in each harvest season to pick tea leaves at the point that they grow to the point required by the tea. Some teas are made using only the buds, other teas with a bud and two leaves, or a bud and three leaves, some teas using only leaves. Teas require leaves that are similar in size, of a good texture, and in good condition. Farmers also want to pick as many leaves as possible during the time window to harvest to make a large enough batch of tea overall.

The time that harvest takes place is not completely fixed, although farmers have a good idea every year from the traditional harvest times, which are related to the Chinese lunarsolar calendar. In Spring, the best green teas are those which are picked before the Qing Ming festival on 4th or 5th April. However, farmers also observe their tea bushes, as changes in the microclimate of the tea farm can cause the leaves to be ready to be harvested at a different time than expected. Although a delay may seem like a bad thing, drought or cold weather can actually improve the taste of the final tea. There are many mechanised processes in tea making but at the end of the day, nothing can really replace the dedication and experience of farmers in using their senses and observation to make a fine tea.

 

7 interesting things about Taiwan

Happy New Year!

Here is a slight diversion from tea, but I am currently editing a video of tea-making that will come soon. Meanwhile, here are a list of 7 interesting things in Taiwan.

  • So Many Mopeds

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People in Taiwan travel around on mopeds a lot. It seems that car ownership is increasing and there are also moves to encourage people to use public transport. Personally though, I really enjoy riding on the back of a motorcycle. It is common to see people carrying copious shopping and one or even two (if small) passengers.

  • Temples

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There are many temples in Taiwan, and they are spectacular buildings. Once, we even saw an illegal film being filmed from a projector at a temple. I also noticed a large number of Churches in my most recent visit.

  • Temple Processions

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From time to time, you can see temple processions as in the image above. They sometimes also set off ground level fireworks, so it’s advisable to keep your distance a little.

  • Burning Money

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Part of worshiping practises in Taiwan includes the burning of money. People don’t use real money, but joss paper, that can be bought very cheaply for this purpose.

  • Karaoke

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A common form of evening entertainment in Taiwan is karaoke, often over a meal, or at least over drinks and snacks. Passion is more important and fun than talent (the microphones usually have an adjustable echo, which will flatter your voice and you can usually change the musical key as well if it’s too low or too high for you).

  • More Independent Businesses

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Huge chain stores are not as common as elsewhere, and there are many independent businesses and smaller chain stores. This is one of the things I really love about Taiwan, and I hope it will be protected.

  • Convenience Stores

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As well as buying food, there are many things you can do at convenience stores in Taiwan such as paying bills, sending deliveries, and buying tickets for public transport, films and concerts!

Image sources:
Picture of GuanDu temple-Taipei-Taiwan-P1010106.JPG: By No machine-readable author provided. Ellery assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.                                           File url:https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0a/GuanDu_temple-Taipei-Taiwan-P1010106.JPG
Picture of Burning fake money.JPG: By Clemensmarabu (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons                                                          File url:https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/90/Burning_fake_money.JPG
Picture of Hitokara at Karaoke-Box.jpg: By Orataw (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons                                                             File url: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/79/Hitokara_at_Karaoke-Box.jpg
Picture of Taipei City Nanyang Street 20130127.jpg: By Solomon203 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons                                                              File url:  https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0c/Taipei_City_Nanyang_Street_20130127.jpg
Picture of Taipei Bridge Station 7-ELEVEN.jpg: By Mike8411251995 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons                                                              File url: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6d/Taipei_Bridge_Station_7-ELEVEN.jpg

 

Tea and Wine

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The tea on the left appears to be Japanese sencha green tea judging by the size of the cups and the dark green colour of the tea.

To introduce people to the world of fine teas, I have found it useful to show that there are parallels with fine wines.

For example, to describe tea, terms are borrowed from wine production such as terroir.

Terroir

Terroir is the idea that the place in which something is grown will affect the flavour, alongside factors such as rainfall, sunshine, humidity, altitude, soil, drainage, fog or mist etc.

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The farm where our black tea is grown. A lot of mist and dew at over 2000m above sea level.

 

Different tea growing regions specialise in particular kinds of tea, and the terroir has a strong effect on producing distinctive teas. The Wuyi mountains in China’s eastern Fujian province produce oolongs that have a “rock taste”, and are called rock teas, yan cha, because the tea farms in Wuyi are close to many large natural rock formations that result in a mineral-tasting tea. In Taiwan, mountains over 1000m that range to around 2700m above sea level are home to the world-famous high mountain oolong, gao shan cha. The distinctively fresh, and fragrant taste comes partly from the terroir: fog, a high elevation, rich soil, and plentiful sunshine and rain in Taiwan’s tea farms.

Like wine, tea is often aged. This is to improve or mellow flavours, and fine aged teas can achieve a high price by virtue of their ageing.

During tasting, tea is slurped over the tongue to open all flavours, rather as is done in wine tasting. With years of experience, people develop their palates to discern more and more flavours and complexity in tea. This is usually accompanied by a desire for a more concentrated and intense brew.

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A cup of pu’erh, which is Chinese fermented tea. The flavour was very earthy.

As with wine, tasting tea is very often done with great care. Each stage of a sip is important and tea drinkers pay attention to aroma (sometimes using a separate cup to smell from), and the viscosity and taste: whether the tea is more vegetal or earthy, more mineral or sweet, and this can become more detailed for some people who describe which vegetables, and which nuts a tea may be similar to. Traditionally the aftertaste is sometimes more important, to notice for example whether a tea will return a sweet flavour to the mouth after it is swallowed. Unlike wine drinkers, some tea drinkers are also interested in the experience of qi, which when referring to tea is basically a pleasant sensation of energy in the body after drinking tea. Qi is a concept that comes Taoism and Chinese traditional medicine, and refers to the belief in an essential energy in all things in the universe, but that can be experienced and used.

If you are looking for a non-alcoholic alternative, that is delicious and is very interesting, I encourage you to explore premium teas.

Smalltalk Over Tea

Tea in Taiwan is often referred to as drinking “old man’s tea” (老人茶) because a few retired friends or family gathered together after a relaxing lunch will spend the entire afternoon drinking tea, chatting and snacking in the old days. Hence “old man’s tea”. The reason that we use Taiwan as an example is that the best quality oolong tea is grown there, and prepared under the skilful hands of well-experienced hosts.

In the modern day, “old man’s tea” is more often than not an affair of a few men sitting on a low table surrounding a pot of tea for hours of conversation but “old man’s tea” is no longer the privilege of the older man. You may see all ages of men and women drinking tea together inside their lounges or in special tea salons although children are given a very mild and diluted spring green tea but mainly snack on the goodies that go with tea.

If you ever have the chance to go to Taiwan, do please take up and enjoy the invitation to sit back with some cups of tea whenever you are invited (which is more likely than not), and you will be surprised by how many selections of tea snacks will be produced seemingly from nowhere, in packages or prepared by ever friendly hosts. It is also surprising how many (small) cups of tea can be poured over the course of an afternoon and we hope that with new or old friends, you will take part in keeping an old tradition, and enjoy lengthy conversation and good companionship.

Yixing teapot with two cups
Traditionally, a cup of tea is very tiny as seen in the picture, which is why people are able to keep drinking indefinitely, more or less.