Monday, August 27, 2007

Tea Lore and Legends

I am currently reading "The Chinese Art of Tea" by John Blofeld, and thought I would share some excerpts on the ancient lore that surrounds our beloved plant.

On Tie Kuan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) tea:
"Its name points to its having first been grown in the vicinity of a temple dedicated to Kuan-Yin. It is said that a Mr. Wei, a tea grower resident in Sand County, used to pass this temple on his way home from work and was shocked by its dilapidated condition. He could not afford the cost of repairing it, but used to go in to burn incense on the first and fifteenth of each lunar month, sweep the halls thoroughly and clean the statues. One night Kuan-Yin appeared to him in a dream and said: 'In a cave behind this temple is a treasure that will last you for generations, but be sure to share it generously with your neighbours.'

Next day, though he diligently searched for the treasure, all he found was a tiny tea shoot. Disappointed, he nevertheless planted it in his garden and tended it well so that within two years it had become a shrub which yielded a catty (1 1/3 lb) of tea. Brewing some in a lidded bowl, he noticed that an unusual fragrance filled the room and that the flavour remained pure and strong after several additions of water. With mounting enthusiasm he took great pains, and within a few years the original tree had fathered two hundred trees and shrubs.

When the merchants who bought the first crop asked the name of the tea, he said: 'We must call it Kuan-Yin tea.' 'On account of the iron statue of Kuan-Yin in that old temple?' they asked. 'Just so,' he replied. As the name is a good one, it has never been changed. Growing more prosperous, Wei repaired the temple and images, and willingly gave away tea seed to his neighbours so all of them became well-to-do."

On Long Jing (Dragon's Well) tea:
"Around the year AD 250, so runs the story, a Taoist affirmed that there must be a dragon lurking in a certain spring not far from Hangchow. Having made this discovery at a time when the farmers had long been praying for rain, he implored the well dragon to come to their rescue. Instantly, clouds came rushing in from every side and poured forth timely rain. On this account the name of an old temple adjoining the spring is known as Dragon's Well Monastery, and the tea derives its name from the same legend.

Another source relates that a poor widow living in that particular vicinity owned a few tea trees and used their produce to brew tea for peasants harvesting tea nearby. One day a rich merchant, hearing of her kindness, remarked, 'A good-hearted woman like you deserves to be wealthy.' 'I am lucky not to starve,' she answered, smiling. Glancing round, he noticed a large stone mortar which happened to be full of leaves deposited by neighbouring tea trees over the years. 'Want to sell that old mortar?' he asked. 'If so, I'll come back and cart it off tomorrow.' She took the money offered, so the next morning he came back with some workmen to cart it away. To his surprise, the shabby old mortar had been swept and scoured. 'You can see I've made it nice for you,' smiled the old woman. 'All those leaves came in handy to manure my tea trees.' Heaven had clearly rewarded her charitableness by endowing the leaf mould with miraculous properties, for not long afterwards her eighteen tea trees put forth jade-green leaves the like of which had never before been seen. Such, according to this alternative account, was the origin of Dragon's Well tea. It is said that the old woman prospered greatly.

Those well acquainted with the kind of tea affirm that it achieved the utmost perfection when prepared with clear water from Tiger-Run Spring, which 'miraculously' appeared close to a temple not far from the tea garden. During the reign of the T'ang Emperor Yuan Ho (806-821) there was another terrible drought, and once again the people of Hangchow prayed vainly to the gods for rain. One day Abbot Hsing K'ung saw two tigers rush out from the nearby forest and start running to and fro in the temple grounds. Suddenly water began bubbling up from the ground trodden by their feet. From that day to this the spring has never run dry. Its water is marvellously clear, and when used to brew Dragon's Well tea the infusion looks like liquid jade besides giving forth a delicious fragrance the lingers on the palate. As a Ming visitor remarked centuries later: 'I'd love to be a monk living here always with such tea and such water for companions!'"

And finally, a lesson drawn from Korean tea history:
"According to the Venerable Popchong Sunim:
To determine whether a tea is good or not, one should examine the colour, scent and taste of the infusion. The perfect colour is that of the first leaves in spring; the scent is like that of a young baby. The taste cannot be described but can be appreciated with experience. Tea is drunk to quench the thirst, savour the taste, or simply to spend a quiet hour appreciating the pottery and the general atmosphere that accompanies tea drinking. There is no need to have a special attitude while drinking it, except one of thankfulness. The nature of the tea itself is that of no-mind. It does not discriminate or make differences. It just is."

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Tea Gum?

When I was in the grocery store today, I saw Tearrow's sugarless tea gum for sale, with "Natural Tea Flavor" and all. Five sticks of gum for 99 cents, heck you can't get anything for 99 cents anymore, so I bought 'em--and at about the same price as a cup of home brewed tea.

I'm chewing on the Oolong Tea flavor, and it still has a surprising amount of tea flavor after chewing for 10 minutes or so. It is sweet, and the tea taste is quite pleasant and actually tastes like tea. I would wager it's a Dong Ding oolong, tasting like what I've had served at Chinese restaurants here in the states. Floral and not at all bitter. Yum!

I'm curious to try the Black Tea flavor... let me give it a go. Hmm, the stick of gum is green, just like the oolong flavor, maybe a tad darker. Wow, this is sweet! Much more of a honey taste. Although, I can't really taste any tea at all.

Here are the ingredients of both gums, if you're curious: sorbitol, gum base, mannitol, tea powder, xylitol, natural flavorings. The various "tol's" are the sugarless sweeteners--that stuff they make out of sugar, but complexify it chemically so that the body can't break it down. That means no calories, and while Splenda and other calorie-free sugar substitutes claim that they simply pass undigested through the body, the headaches they have given me make me suspect that they aren't at all good for me.

Not that I pretend to resolve the sugar substitute debate here, but its synthetic nature alone is enough to go against Tearrow's own claim to why their gum is so healthy: "It's a bit cliche but the fact is 'we are what we eat'. We are the sum total of the good that we do (or fail to do) for ourselves. All of our body systems, our vital organs and the entire miracle of the healing process are entirely dependent on the living, bio-chemical integration between ourselves and nature."

This gum was tasty, and satisfies my sweet tooth, but on most days... I think I'll stick with drinking tea!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Phoenix Bird Oolong

Today I bought some Phoenix Bird Oolong tea from Silk Road Teas.

In Chinese, this tea is called "Feng Huang Dan Cong", or 凤凰单 丛 in Simplified Chinese, and fèng huáng dān cóng in Pinyin. fèng huáng means legendary phoenix, a mythological bird that is not related to the Egyptian myth. According to wikipedia, the bird symbolizes high virtue and peace, as well as the union between yin and yang. Interestingly, fèng by itself means male phoenix, and huáng means female phoenix, giving us both yin and yang. In the case of the tea, it refers more literally to the fenghuang mountains of the Guangdong province where this tea is produced. The dān cóng part of the name means "lone bush," referring to the fact that the leaves are harvested from old trees, purportedly more than 400 years of age.

The dry leaves are twisted lengthwise, and are quite dark, indicating high oxidation. It smells almost black, with a light floral hint. After 6 brewings, the leaves had still not totally unfolded, and were long and very narrow even when I unfolded them myself, being the narrowest tea leaves I've encountered. The grade of this tea is high, with almost entirely whole leaves, and few stems.

I pour a good 2 tsp into my teapot, and do several briefly steeped infusions with a modest 2-3 oz of boiling hot water each time.

First, a 5 second rinse

First brewing, 15 seconds
The liquor is a light honey color. Sweet at first, with a snappy bite to finish. The bite is brief and pleasant. The taste is woody, like toasted walnuts.

Second infusion, 15 seconds
"Hello!" the tea demands that its presence be harkened. The flavor has definitely opened up, and its freshness is vivid. Slightly floral--not like delicate orchid oolongs--but rather in a dark way, presumably due to higher oxidation. Every sip tastes different and has me probing to ascertain its complexities... or contrive them anyhow. :)

Third brew with fresh water in boiler, 15 second infusion
The snappy bitter bite is still there, is this the beak of the phoenix? I try sucking air to cool the tea in my mouth (even though I can't stand when folks make this obnoxious gurgling sound at tea tastings), and a whole bunch of flavors wash over my tongue as I swallow. Sweet, hearty, bitter, and a satisfying enough combination to cause a spontaneous "mmmm."

Fourth brew, 17 seconds
The bitterness dominates, becoming unpleasant. Is my water too hot?

Fifth brew at slightly lower temperature, 25 seconds
Less bitter, I think this helped.

Number six, even lower temp., 30 seconds
Less bitter, floral notes enhanced, but the tea is falling flat.

Seventh attempt, water not even steaming hot, 60 second
Eww, still very bitter. The phoenix has expired in flames.

Overall impression: 7/10. A quality tea, and another unexpected experience. This is the first time I have used such short brew times and small volumes of water. It definitely allowed me to see the tea evolve, and brought out so many characteristics that most of them fell off of the map of my palate, which was a welcome push into uncharted territory. I wonder why this got so bitter, though... is it because of the age of the tree? I don't think it was because of my brewing technique, however I do think the tea has far more potential that I was unable to unearth.

Will the phoenix rise again from its own ashes? ( subliminal plea for a thoughtful response :) )

Monday, August 13, 2007

Tea blogging tools

I thought I would share some websites that I have found useful when blogging about my passion for tea.

The Chinese Tea Term Translator is great at doing what it promises--translating most all tea terms used in Chinese into everyday English.

A good Chinese Dictionary is a must for a better understanding of Chinese as a language. This is important as Chinese culture is the culture that tea grew up in, and in order to understand a culture one must (at least attempt to) understand the language. This dictionary will translate English, Pinyin, traditional and simplified characters all in one place.

A Pinyin Keyboard is helpful when you want something better than Windows' Character Map when writing Pinyin.

A list of colors will help you better describe your tea without resorting to boring primary colors.

The Vino! Wine Dictionary has a lot of good wine tasting terms that apply perfectly to tea tasting as well. The Wine Lovers' Lexicon is also good. Here's a Silly Tasting Note Generator that goes overboard, but is fun nonetheless.

If anyone has other exceptionally useful sites, please share them with us in the comments!

Sunday, August 5, 2007

An Experiment Investigating Tea Grading

The larger the tea leaf the better? Well, if I have the choice between leaves from the bottom or the top of the barrel, I am going to buy the large, whole leaves that float to the top, not the "dust" at the bottom. The larger leaf grades of any given tea generally sell at higher prices than the broken bits do.

So, I go to my local tea store and buy a nice Ceylon bulk tea, with big, 2" leaves. These are nothing like the fannings I am used to seeing in black tea bags, although the bags are often composed of Ceylon black tea as well. So... I measure out about 2 grams, the same amount found in a standard tea bag. I brew it with boiling hot water, for about 4 minutes, just as I would a teabag, without the spatial constraint of the bag. The big leaves float around, uncurl nicely, and release their sweet tea goodness. But lo, the leaves produce a weak, insipid tea. I like my tea strong, that's why I went to buy the best grade Ceylon I could find!

With my usual morning tea needs not in the least bit satiated, I decide to take my frustration out on my new tea and commit the ultimate act of tea aficionado sacrilege. I take about 2 grams of the glorious leaves, that spread their wings wider than any tea exported from Ceylon, and I crush them into smithereens. And what do I get? Nothing less than expected--a potently dark cup of cha. YES!

So why is it that we like to pay lots more for big leaves, and then brew them so ineffectively? Hasn't it ever occurred to us to learn from our coffee-drinking rivals, and grind our high grade tea down for better extraction? Sure, big leaves look pretty, but they just don't do the trick unless a huge amount is brewed, or unless their big-headed megalomaniacal egos are properly put in their place and pummeled into the low ranks of the tea profiling hierarchy.


Thursday, August 2, 2007

Kishanganj Snow Bud White

Doke Organic Farm Kishanganj Snow Bud White

This is the second part of T Ching's current only tea tasting event.

The Doke farm from which this tea comes lies about 100 miles south of the Darjeeling region of India, close to the Ganges river in the state of West Bengal. This is a plain that lies below the Himalayan footlands, just a couple hundred feet above sea level. (Gotta love Google Earth!)

The dry tea is pristine, and looks like a high grade white tea with plenty of little hairs. Is this where they got the name "snow bud"? The leaves smell very fresh--sweet and not grassy.

I will follow T Ching's guidelines to brew this: "We recommend using 175 F / 80 C hot water or slightly lower. Use about 1.5 heaped teaspoons (about 6 grams) per 8 fluid oz of water for 3 minutes."

After a quick rinse, the aroma of the leaves reminds me of a sandy beach or the mild odor of a seafood restaurant. The pleasant smell of mild fish with lemon squeezed on it.

The resulting drink is peach in color. It tastes slightly sweet and fruity, like apricots. It is a mild taste, light and ephemeral. The chaqi is strong however, I feel a slight head rush and euphoric mellowness. It packs a mild bitter bite, which is not sour/astringent.

The second infusion, made with slightly hotter, steaming-hot water and brewed for 2 1/2 minutes, yields an even darker color liquor. But it produces a quite bland, flat taste, with a more viscous mouthfeel.

I have quite an energetic tea high!

I liked this, for a white tea. But white teas are not exactly my cup, since their flavor nuances are so subtle. Perhaps this is more suited for a gaiwan, with a higher leaf/water ratio, to make a stronger brew. Has anyone tried it this way?

The verdict: 6.5/10. Pretty good stuff! If not for the subtle flavor, for the strong theine buzz!