News from Beijing

Behind the Great Firewall of China, there’s not much you can do, blogging wise, unless you happen to use Sina.net as your platform or you find a proxy.  So now, jet lagged and hovering somewhere (time wise) in the middle of the Pacific, I am writing this of my two day trip to Beijing, a week after the fact.

All my friends in Beijing seem to be better off now than they were last time I was there in 2007, which is heartening.  I don’t mean that only in terms of material wealth or some such, but also in terms of their tea philosophy, if I may use such a term.  Everyone seems to have found their own preferences and tastes, and are pursuing them actively with more involvement on the production end of things.  People who used to be mere merchants are now makers, or at least closer to a maker now than they were a few years ago.  It’s always nice to talk to folks who are passionate about what they’re doing.

Which brings me to the tea that I’ve had — too much tea in the span of a few days to really discuss in detail, but a few things jumped out as interesting.  One of my friends is now a part owner of a teahouse, and he also goes to Fujian every year to source stuff on his own farm for his shop.  Among the things he’s doing is making white tea.  It’s not just any ordinary white tea though — he roasts them ever so slightly, and then ages them.  Here’s a comparison of a 2006 yinzhen vs a 2010 one.  You can figure out which is which.

The aging gives the tea a bit more sweetness and mellows out the flavours, although it also means the tea loses some of the fragrance, as is normally the case with aged teas.  Four years is not a long time, and I’d imagine the tea can change a little more.  White teas are always ageable, but it’s nice to see that he’s producing them specifically for the purpose of aging (thus the roasting).

I also tried some puerh while there.  Beijing stored puerh really isn’t ideal, but if done carefully with a lot of water containers boosting the humidity of the storage unit, it is possible to produce nice, round tasting tea that doesn’t have that typical dryness one might associate with overly-dry storage conditions.  I think that’s actually quite important, as dry tea makes for bad tasting tea.  My friend L is now storing tea in bags, all within a big cooler (think camping) and slightly moistened.  He found a guy in Kunming who goes up to the mountains all the time and spends a lot of time thinking about how to make good tea, and the results show — soft, supple tea that tastes good.  I wonder how they’ll age in a decade, but so far it’s promising.

On the other hand, I visited Maliandao again and it seems like things have normalized a little there.  While two more tea malls have opened up since I was there, for the most part business seems to be down.  Granted, I was there on a rainy day, which most definitely put a damper on traffic, but I think a lot of stores aren’t doing as much business as they used to.  Xiaomei’s store is still there, but now the clientele is mostly of a wholesale nature, with very little retail sales going on.  As I predicted long ago, everyone who wanted to build a tea collection has one already, so there’s very little impetus to buy more.  I certainly felt that way — walking around the shops, I had very little interest in trying or buying tea.  I’m sure there are hidden gems here and there, but I don’t have the time to go through them one by one and try them all out.

The best part of the trip was simply seeing everyone again, and having tea with them.  Tea is ultimately a social drink — while it can be great alone, it’s better with friends.  Too bad that part of tea drinking is often what’s missing in the Western experience.

Taiwan miscellany

I’m quite jet-lagged, so I’ll keep this one simple.

In the 48 hours since I got here, Taiwan has had two typhoons pass through it. This morning when I was brewing the Meghma oolong again after reading Mary R’s notes on it, using lower temperature, I felt the earth shake a little. No, it wasn’t the tea. It’s a reminder for somebody like me, whose last experience with tectonic plates moving was more than a decade ago, that I live in an area where this sort of thing happens.

Unfortunately, lowering the temperature of the water did not significantly change the tea. It did lower the bitterness, but I still feel it’s mostly Yunnan gold like taste to me. Maybe it wasn’t low enough? But I already left the water out for a good bit and the cup certainly wasn’t blisteringly hot.

I have a feeling that until I get my teaware back from Hong Kong, I’ll be stuck with drinking random things in a cup for the next few days…

T Ching samples revisited

I brewed the T Ching samples I drank a few days ago again. The oolong I brewed on the plane. The white tea I brewed here at home. Both were made in the “grandpa” style.

The oolong tastes, again, remarkably similar to a Yunnan black tea. Undertones of darjeeling-esque taste still there, but really, I can get something very similar by drinking a Yunnan tea, and perhaps a little less bitter when overbrewed (as this was, by accident). When brewed in a cup like this the initial sweetness is less obvious. On the other hand, the aftertaste is more present.

The white tea tastes more like a white this time with a little more oxidation note, which is a good thing for me. The tea is still a bit rough on the tongue though, for reasons unknown (I find buds to be generally less rough) since I used cooler water this time. There’s also a bit of bitterness that’s just slightly too much, and this one I didn’t overbrew. I wonder if this is a varietal issue — and what can be done to reduce the level of bitterness in these tea. Higher oxidation? But then you quickly leave the white tea territory that way.

I think these are probably good examples of these teas as they are made in the Indian subcontinent. However, I’m not sure if given a choice I’ll prefer either of these over selections from China. The price of the white tea is also a factor in this case, as it’s on the pricey side of things. The oolong is more reasonable, and its high oxidation is interesting — curiously, more interesting in a gongfu setting. I can’t complain about that :)

Kashanganj snow bud

Today’s tea is also another sample from T Ching, just as yesterday’s. This one is a white tea, rather than an oolong. The leaves looks somewhat similar to some yinzhen one might find.

I asked Mr. Lochan yesterday how I should make this tea — whether I should use hotter or colder water to make it. He said hotter, so hotter it is. The water used was off boil, probably somewhere in the 90-95 degrees vicinity, rather than a cooler temperature. The tea yields a yellowish green liquor

The taste is not too different from some of the other white teas I’ve had that look similar to this one, I must say. There’s a decent amount of qi in this one, although perhaps because of the higher temperature, it was a little rough on the tongue. There’s a bit more lingering aftertaste here, but not a whole lot more than yesterday. I think personally I prefer white teas that are a little redder with a little more oxidation — a baimudan suits my taste better. This one is a touch green, although I think, by sniffing the lid of the gaiwan, it was processed at a relatively low temperature. It is sweet, and in the undertones one can detect the Darjeeling region origins of this tea.

Wet leaves of a tea like this, as one would expect, doesn’t look very different from the dried leaves

It’s a fine tea, and I should probably experiment with it a little more as I was a little distracted today. After all, I’m flying out tomorrow morning to Taiwan for the next leg of my research, so today’s been spent (and still spending…) on packing.

Aged white tea…

Yes… aged white tea.

My girlfriend asked for white tea a few days ago, so I dug into my containers of tea looking for something. I found it… a canister of tea that has been sitting around since 2005. Conventional wisdom has it that white tea doesn’t hold up, is it true?

Granted, the container I used is a pretty good one. It’s got a pretty tight seal so air transfers was probably minimal. I used the gaiwan and filled it up with some leaves. Having water at off-boil and then cooled somewhat, I brewed the tea… which came our surprisingly good. I was expecting either something truly nasty (i.e. bitter and stale) or simply bland — having lost much of the flavours. Instead, I got a tea that still retained most of its aroma. It was never really good white tea to start with — only middle of the road stuff from the Best Tea House. It was meant for easy drinking. It is, still, easy drinking. It did lose some of the freshness, I think, but it has also made it easier on my body. I don’t think I take white tea so well these days for some reason, and perhaps having opened it since 2005…. it mellowed out a little?

Having it with an authentic Amish apple pie (purchased from an Amish lady who came by our town to sell) they went together quite well. White tea and Amish pie in the middle of Ohio… not your typical afternoon tea, I suppose.

It does seem to me that most tea genres will age. How they age, of course, is a big question. Some do it well, some do it poorly. I still have some 2005 Longjing that I can perhaps try to see if it’s still any good. The leaves are very yellow — having lost all the freshness by now, I think. Yet… perhaps removing the prejudice of “fresh must be better”, there are things to be discovered there as well.

Black and white

Yesterday I had a black and a white tea, which made for an interesting contrast, I suppose, although really, they are all just shades of brown.

The black is an assam given to me by Mr. Lochan of Lochantea. It brews great in a cup, with nice caramel aromas and soft body. It gets a bit tannic after sitting in the cup for some time, but for the first few minutes the tea is quite drinkable, and great for a cold, snowy day, as we just had recently.

The white is a silver needles from Adagio. It’s being served in a cafe in our undergrad library’s cafe, and it’s the only non-adulterated tea in their offerings. They gave me probably what amounted to 1.5g of tea in a pretty big cup, which brewed a fairly flavourless cup of tea. On the bright side, it’s really not too bad, and serves up a good cup of sweet, flavoured water…. but not much of a tea. I needed more leaves.

I’m flying back tomorrow to Beijing, so not much is happening, tea wise, as I rush to do last minute things. There are only very few things I miss from Beijing, Maliandao being one of them.

I’ll report back once I get on the ground again :)