Dok cha

I got a piece of tea in the mail a few weeks ago

It came from Matt of Mattcha’s blog. The tea was wrapped in some nice handmade (I think) paper, and has a sticker on it from the teashop — a shop named Nok Ya Won (Green Field Garden?), in Daegu. They sell traditional tea, apparently, and I think this tea, given what Matt had to say about it, seems pretty traditional.

I sat on it for so long because I was trying to make up my mind as to how to make it. I knew this is more or less green tea, from the way it looked and smelled. I ended up deciding to make it in my young puerh pot. I figured that if anything goes wrong, the pot will fix the problems for me.

And luckily, I was mostly right. The tea came out very clean and mellow, and was very tenacious — it kept going long after I thought I might die. Green teas don’t last quite as long, usually, but this one had something for me every infusion. I gave up before it did, probably 10+ infusions in. It was not a powerful tea, but a subtle one. The taste, look, and feel of the tea is definitely that of a green, but more of a maojian than a longjing.

The leaves are tippy, but not too tippy. I wonder — how would this taste when left alone for a while?

Drinking matcha

I find that among all teas, matcha gives the highest caffeine rush. Yes, I sound like a true addict, but I’m being serious here — most of the time, when I drink a tea I don’t notice the caffeine, not immediately anyway. With matcha, however, I KNOW I just had some caffeine injected into my system — it shows up right away in more measure than one. Yesterday I had some matcha, partly because I only had half an hour to my next appointment, which meant that it was impossible to drink a full sitting of tea, but partly because I wanted to play with my new toy and matcha seems the most appropriate

And I noticed, after drinking one bowl of that stuff, that my heart started pumping a little faster, my mind got a little clearer, and I was having a bit of a caffeine buzz. Of course, it probably was more obvious than usual because it was late in the day for my first dose of the stuff (5pm) so it might have accentuated the effects, but regardless, it made me wonder if that’s why so many people like drinking matcha. A friend recently told me that although she is a die-hard coca-cola drinker, she recently took a liking to a new kind of Pepsi. She couldn’t figure out why, until she noticed that Pepsi Max includes, among other things, a double dose of caffeine compared to regular Pepsi. Small wonder that she likes it more.

So, if in need of a caffeine kick, drink lots of matcha.

Drinking matcha

Last time I had matcha, it was in Uji about five years ago. There’s a tea culture center in Uji, behind the magnificent Byodo-in. There, you can have the cheapest proper tea ceremony done for you in Japan — I think it was 500 yen per person. The tea room is a bit on the big side, as I’m sure they have to accomodate a large number of people sometimes, tour groups and all. I don’t remember much of the tea — it wasn’t something to really write home about. I just remember my legs almost giving out by trying to sit properly with my knees in front of me. I think I lasted 15 minutes before giving up.

So here I am, trying to make this drink again. I’ve trying playing with matcha before, but only briefly.

Chawan, chasen, chashaku… and you’re in business. Pretty simple, really.

The matcha I used is some stuff I got with the chasen and the chashaku.

Made by a store that is, supposedly, continuously in existence for 450 years in Uji. I believe them. Walking down the street from the train station to Byodo-in really makes you feel like you’re back in an Edo period town. The stores are all obviously old and, thankfully, escaped damage from the war.

I tried

Interesting, because in the mouth, the tea isn’t particularly strong. I made it lightly, in case I did something horribly wrong. I used hottish water — water that was boiled and then let cooled for a bit. I don’t know how hot, or how much exactly, I used. I just eyeballed it as best I can. After drinking it though, I can feel a nice, sweet aftertaste. It also gave me a feeling that is akin to cha qi. A little later, I can feel a jolt, probably from the caffeine.

Interesting. When cooled, it can be a nice summery drink. I don’t see myself drinking this stuff too often — I went to an aged baozhong right after. However, I do feel a sort of obligation, at the very least, to be experimenting a little more in this area.

Now I sound like a drug addict….

Live from Japan

Here I am, sitting in Narita waiting for my connection to Taiwan. After having sat through a 13 ride from Chicago (itself a good hour from Columbus, plus transfer), I now have another hour before my flight leaves and I can have the pleasure of sitting through another 4 hours to get to Taipei. Fun.

We did actually see a little scenery on the way today, contrary to most such trips which can be just… boring

After getting here in Narita, the first order of business was to get a little ramen, which was nice enough. Nothing like a little warm soup plus some noodles to fix your belly. Then I decided to get some tea… some bottled Japanese green.

Made by, guess what, Coca Cola company.

No, it’s not sweetened. It’s 100% Japanese tea, as it advertises, with no natural or artificial flavours either. Just tea and water (and vitamin C — they always add a little of that). It also advertises that it uses some specially farmed tea, although it is really more just like “uses balanced soil and healthy inputs…” kind of advertisement. Besides, there’s only 10% of the leaves that uses this method. The other stuff… is probably just junk green tea.

Most of these bottled green teas taste quite nutty and I honestly can’t tell between one or the other, unless it’s got “flavourings” in them, in which case they taste odd and is noticeable right away. I suppose the fact that they advertise they use 100% Japanese green tea means that when a bottle doesn’t say so, it uses green tea from other places, most likely China. Even something form Shizuoka is probably too nice for such bottled tea. I can’t imagine it using other than the lowest grade possible, brewed in such a way as to avoid bitterness and getting as muc hof its natural sweetness and flavour as possible. I always wonder how such places look like — do they brew them in big vats? How hot is the water? How long? What happens in these factories?

The sweetened stuff is positively nasty, and unfortunately, in the States that’s pretty much the only ones available. Once in a while you’ll find the Itoen teas that are not sweetened, but only in major cities and usually in some expensive markets. This bottle is 150 yen — about $1.25. Not too bad for a quick fix.

Onward to Taiwan…

Changshu

Turns out my hotel room has internet access! I was surprised, to say the least, but I can’t complain really.

I went to the museum today to find what I needed, and then after it closed, I walked around the city a little.

Changshu was a county seat, which means that it was a city with a wall, like every other county seat in China at the time. Unfortunately, also like most cities, the wall is now gone. All that’s left is the moat.

And even here… you can see sure signs of development

I ended up at the “Square Pagoda” park, where there is, indeed, a Square Pagoda.

Construction for this thing began in 1130, and it was finished by the mid 13th century. It was a “Feng Shui” pagoda in the sense that it was primarily built for Feng Shui purposes. Changshu apparently had a Feng Shui problem, and so to fix it, one needed to build a tall pagoda to remedy it. They did, and it’s still here.

By the time I got there, the park was closed, but in the summer, the afterhours is open for tea drinkers who want to go and relax in the park (until something like 9:30pm). I figured… why not, so I went in, paying 20 RMB for a local green tea.

This is the ubiquitous setup when you drink tea in parks

The tea brews slightly cloudily, with a lot of hair. The leaves are tender, but not that uniform — some larger, some smaller. The taste is sweet. I think it’s partly because of local water (which I’ve tried now). There’s a slight minty taste in the end, and the tea never got too astringent, which is very nice given the rather large amount of leaves I got in the cup.

I was way early, and the only person in the park aside from the two old men who take care of the tea station. I wandered around, taking quite a few pictures while carrying my glass, going back to the hot water to fill it up as necessary.

Then the sun was setting, and I was getting hungry… tomorrow will be a long day, so it was time to get some dinner, and head back to my hotel room with pink sheets. Changshu is not quite what I remembered last time… somehow everytime I come it seems more crowded, but at least for an hour in the park, it was really tranquil and peaceful.

An outdoor tea party

Today was a very nice day, and I invited two friends to come to have tea with me.  Since it was a warm but not too warm day, I thought it best to sit outside, next to the blooming roses…

We started off with one of the Douji Maocha samples that I got from the tea expo. To refresh your memory, it’s one of these:

Since I’m a fan of Yiwu… we drank the Yiwu.

The amount of maocha was just right for the gaiwan… not too little and not too much.  One of my friends is a tea novice, so I thought other mountains might be a little too bitter.

The Yiwu turned out to be quite fragrant, thick, smooth, and generally very pleasant to drink.  It lacked a bit of a “throat feel” that I hoped for, and huigan is mild, not as strong as can be.  The tea is obviously spring tea, although I’m not sure if it’s actually 07 spring tea.  I’d imagine it might be, but it could also be an 06.  It’s hard to tell and I personally am not sure.

The wet leaves are quite beautiful

I think I liked this tea quite a bit.  Now I wonder how the other mountains taste.

We then went on to a qingxiang tieguanyin given to me by Toki.  I brewed it using the pot I got yesterday

It worked pretty well.  It’s a little bigger than the amount of tea was good for, but at the same time, we were looking for something a little less strong.  It brought out the fragrance of the tea quite well, although I always find the newer qingxiang tieguanyin these days to be a bit grassy for my taste.  I haven’t had a qingxiang tieguanyin for so long!  Thanks Toki 🙂

This is what’s left of it at the end

We then drank the cheap Yunnan green, or rather, tested the cheap Yunnan green I bought.  I wanted to contrast it with the maocha just to see what’s in the tea…

I think it’s pretty safe to say that if this were pressed into a cake, nobody can tell for sure if it’s puerh or not without being able to smell it and try it.  It can look quite like the real deal.

The taste, however, is distinctively beany.  Many green teas have a “bean” taste, and this tea, I think, has a classic “bean” taste that can go into a tea textbook.  If I ever want anybody to know what a “bean” tasting green tea is like… this is it.  This is also something that a puerh shouldn’t taste like, lest it will not age well in a few years….

The wet leaves are rather green too.

By this time it was getting a little late, and we finished up with the Qimen Haoya B that I bought a few weeks ago here in Shanghai.

I didn’t use too much leaves as I didn’t want to overdose my guests.  It yielded a nice cup of tea, quite nice to drink to finish off this session.  I always like to drink something warming/mellow to finish a tea session to keep everybody on a happy note.  Something too high-strung can really make one feel jittery or uncomfortable after many teas.  The hongcha did the trick, I think, and we proceeded to dinner after the tea.  Not before I take a shot of the wet leaves though…

By this time the sky was turning dark.  The camera was doing funny things to compensate for the lack of light, so the gaiwan is showing up in interesting colours.  I played with the colour balance to try to approximate the colour of the wet leaves, but this is still a little off.  Oh well.

It was fun, and I think I should definitely do this again.  Drinking tea outside has its charms, and so long as it’s not the mosquito season… it’s a very pleasant thing to do.

A local find

Today on my way to the library, I noticed this little shop that is literally right next door.  It’s a 30 seconds walk from my house to this place, but since I haven’t been in Shanghai that long, and since I just usually walk right past it… I never paid attention.

This is the kind of store through which most of the t eas in China are sold.  He posts the prices of the main attractions on the board to the left of his store.  On it it reads:

Yuqian (Before rain) Fried Green — 14 yuan/jin (500g)
Jasmine — 15 yuan/jin
New Longjing — 30 yuan/jin
Oolong tea — 42 yuan/jin
Huangshan Fried Green — 7 yuan/jin
Huangshan Maofeng — 38 yuan/jin
Huangshan Silver Hooks — 18 yuan/jin
Yunnan Maofeng — 25 yuan/jin
New Maofeng — 18 yuan/jin

As should be obvious… the prices are very pedestrian.  This is apparently last year’s prices, with this year’s being slightly higher.  Nevertheless, it’s… cheap.

I went up to the counter (you can’t really walk in — too small) and looked at the teas on display.  It’s typical of stores that sell green tea to have them on little white dishes with a price tag next to the tea.  You can see for yourself what they all look like, and the different looks that go with the different prices can be quite instructive.  Somehow in Beijing they don’t do this.

I picked out a Yunnan green to try.  I bought 50g of it for 5 kuai.  I think I overpaid, and if I had gotten the same thing at a tea market, it’ll probably be 2 kuai or some such.  But heck…

The Yunnan green actually smells and looks a lot like some of the maocha I’ve had recently, but the leaves here are a bit smaller.  I will really need to try it out to see exactly what this Yunnan green is made of… and to try to age it and see what turns out from this green.  It will be interesting.

Tea everywhere

Let’s see, how many teas have I had today?

I had my first tea after lunch. It was one of the samples that Mr. Lochan sent me, one of the Darjeeling oolongs. I don’t want to say much about it yet, as I think I brewed it under sub-optimal condition, and also because it’s the first time I’m trying it. It’s a new genre, I’d say, so I think I need to try it a few times before I know how to brew it properly and form a concrete opinion on it. It’s strong in some places, and weak in others.

Then, I went out to see a movie. After that… it was dinner with my cousin, where we ate at a very old Hong Kong restaurant (since 1860) serving HK style western food (they’re famous for their Swiss chicken wings). They pour you regular “tea” for drink (think of the role of iced water in Western restaurants, but substitute it with hot tea). The tea is a watered down version of the traditional Hong Kong milk tea (but without the milk). Then, to finish off dinner, we both had a cup of milk tea, but neither of us added milk. It was strong, bitter, sour, full bodied, but VERY smooth. This is stuff that is boiled in stockings. From what I know, it is a mix of a blend of Indian tea plus some puerh to give it a sweet edge. It’s a very unique taste that is not replicated anywhere else other than Hong Kong style restaurants everywhere in the world. This particular blend tasted a bit coffee-ish, given its harshness. Best with milk, but I was bad today :p

Then…. I picked up my mom from her dinner with her friends, and there, I had some watered down biluochun. I think it was biluochun anyway. It was pretty watered down and I could only get a hint of the taste.

Tea everywhere, as you can see. Caffeine intake here is quite high in the course of a normal day, so I really need to watch myself when drinking tea at teahouses, because otherwise…..

Late night tea drinking

I got some tea in the mail today, which would’ve made this blog entry, but then, I got called out by ZH to go tea drinking at around 7:30, so off I went.

By the time I got there it was already 8:30pm, but that didn’t stop us from drinking lots of tea. It was quite a nice little teahouse, actually. I really liked it, and regret not bringing my camera. Nice service, allows us to brew tea freely for a nominal charge, and really just a decent place all around. If only China has less smokers….

Anyway. First tea was a fired tieguanyin, supposedly with some years of age. It was difficult to tell, because, apparently, it was very recently re-fired, as they do from time to time to keep moisture out of the tea. That, however, means that it was harder to taste the subtle aged taste of a tieguanyin, and a lot of the roasted aroma instead. Not bad, quite mellow, and pleasant. Obviously aged. It’s just a matter of how much.

Then…. we had two Yiwus, side by side. One is ZH’s stuff, supposedly something like 8 or 9 years, I can’t remember now. It’s been in Beijing for about 4-5 years, and it shows. The tea, i thought, was only 3-5 years of age, because it looked young. When tasted, it had an odd aroma… something I’ve never encountered in a Yiwu before. It has a hint of what I know as the Yiwu flavour, somewhat aged, but it’s different in that the aroma of one particular aspect (sort of a spice… not sure what) is quite distinct. I think what it is is that because aging is slower here, it takes longer for the tea to pass through each stage of aging, and therefore what might be sped by in Hong Kong storage is instead accentuated here. Different flavour, for sure. It’s a little bitter and a little astringent. I think in some ways I prefer the Hong Kong taste.

The other Yiwu is this — something I received very recently as a sample

The coin is there mainly for comparison, it’s about the size of a nickle. This is a 2006 fall Yiwu small arbor tree, made with tea that is about 20 years old, supposedly. This is stuff that many vendors try to pass off as “old tree”, “ancient arbor tree”, and stuff like that. I specifically asked for this so I could use it as a basis for comparison. Of course, if a tea tastes like this it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a small arbor tree, but what it does mean is that it is small arbor tree quality tea, so it should command a similar price…

Anyway, the tea is nice, sweet, very very mellow, and very Yiwu. It is slightly on the thin side, compared with better, old arbor tree teas from Yiwu. It’s less aromatic as well. All in all though, not a bad tea. I might even consider getting a few just to see how they taste when aged, especially in comparison with all the other Yiwu I have right now.

After we went through some rounds of the Yiwu, we moved on to a cooked brick from the 80s in ZH’s possession. Oddly enough, it tastes somewhat like the Guangyun Gong I’ve had recently, with the exception that the GYG had a lot more yun, or aftertaste, than this one. This one is sweet like the GYG, but is not as “long” as the GYG. It also doesn’t last quite as long, and by about the 10-12th infusion, it was going downhill, losing the sweetness. It will be good for some more infusions if one were to boil it. Nice tea though, and very enjoyable.

Next was the “30 years loose puerh” from Best Tea House. I am now of the opinion that this tea is probably more like 15-20 years. Not 30, but then, it doesn’t really matter. It’s quite enjoyable, and quite nice, especially for a loose raw puerh that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. As ZH mentioned, he feels indulgent when drinking stuff like his brick and this kind of tea. It’s old, and at the end of the day, the market price for this stuff is not low.

Meanwhile, we talked about teas in general, plans for Zhongcha this year, etc. The conversation is better than the tea, and that’s what really makes these gatherings.

Just when we were about done (I was all tea-ed out), we were thinking “is there anything more to drink?”. I was going through his bags of samples that he has (he has lots), and found an interesting item… Lochan Darjeeling. Hmmm, didn’t expect to see it here.

He got some through his work. Since I told him I have been chatting with the owner of the firm on the internet, he said “why not?”, and off we brewed. We didn’t use much leaves. It was a first flush taste — very light, green, almost white tea like. An unmistakable Darjeeling flavour profile. ZH comments how Indian teas in general can be so consistent, whereas Chinese teas are less so, usually. The aromas are quite pleasant, and quite strong. The liquor is light in colour. The tea is a bit on the thin side of things, and with one quite noticeable flaw — the tea, when drunk, is VERY rough. You know how some teas leave your tongue roughed up? Well, this is one of them, and quite seriously so. Part of this is a water issue, and playing with the water can help fix it. Part of it, though, I suspect is just the tea itself. This is extra apparent, probably, because we’ve been drinking a lot of very smooth teas today, so the roughness stood out.

Then again, this is not a tea that was produced for gongfu brewing, I think. Instead, it’s made for a different style of drinking, where such roughness would be much, much less apparent and tolerated. Priorities are different as well. This in some ways exemplifies very well the different preferences of Western versus Chinese tea drinking. Western tastes are very aroma focused, with typical descriptions of a tea surrounding a particular tea’s taste — it’s about how a tea literally TASTES and SMELLS. Chinese drinkers, however, don’t only go for the aroma and the taste, but also how it FEELS in one’s mouth, on one’s tongue, and down one’s throat (or even after it’s been swalloed). These are equally, if not more, important to a tea’s overall quality and appraisal. For example, in Hong Kong when drinking tea with Tiffany & Co., if a tea is rough on the tongue, no matter the aroma, they will rate it as a bad tea. That is not to say it is really that terrible, necessarily, but to them, that’s enough of a sin to make it not worthwhile to drink. The same tea, given to another group of people with entirely different tastes, will receive very different reactions.

Tea production

I’m in green tea land.  Everybody drinks green tea here, pretty much.  Longjing is taken quite seriously, with last night’s dinner discussion partially centered around the differences of Meijiawu and Longwu longjing.  I feel ashamed that I don’t know that much about this drink anymore.  Although I can tell a good one from a bad one, I can’t tell the production locales, much less the finer distinctions in gradations.

It is, in many ways, the most versatile of teas.  Different greens do taste quite drastically different.  Using the same leaves, if you press on the pan instead of rolling the leaves on the pan, the taste will come out different.  While puerh “kill-green” is a pretty simple and unscientific process, longjing kill-green is an art form.  Everything from the temperature to the pressure is quite systematic and carefully done, because any variation can cause a detectable change in taste.  Puerh, from picking to production, is all done in such a carefree way — no specific time, no specific way of killing green, no control of temperature, etc.  Green tea is so exact.  I always wondered what will happen to puerh if somebody bothered to control all these variables and try to make it more of an exact science.  Will it produce better teas?