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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tips on how to savor a cup of tea

When tea is served in a tiny Chinese tea cup, the size of the tea cup and the amount of tea might make you feel it is barely enough for a mouthful, to be drunk in one gulp. Please don't do that.

The processing of tea is an art, the preparation of tea is an art, and drinking tea is as well. If you don't believe me, please just try the method I am going to introduce; you will find tea is much more delicious and beautiful.

When a small cup of tea is served, first admire the color of the liquor. Not only is the color a visual pleasure, but from the appearance of the liquor you can have a general idea of the amount of oxidization and the quality of the tea - all without ever having seen the tea leaves.

Second, enjoy the aroma of the liquor. The lovely fragrance fills the room to create an atmosphere connecting both the inner world of the human heart and the outer world of nature. The fresh scent of tea is filled with natural beauty, with smells of mountaintops, forests, flower gardens or the feeling just after the rain. Moreover, this is another way to recognize the variety and quality of tea.

Finally, taste the tea. Sip a little from your small cup. Take three times to finish the whole cup. Oh, one more moment please - while tasting, hold the liquor in your mouth and turn your tongue while inhaling to appreciate the full flavor of the tea. Finally, slowly swallow the tea. "Three" might be a magic number but coincidentally the Chinese character for "taste" is "品," a combination of three "口" mouths.

When and where should we drink such wonderful tea?

You should drink it when you have the time to fully appreciate it, not when you are busy or in a rush.

You should drink it when you are in a pleasant quiet room, in a little backyard shaded with apple or plum trees, in the shelter of a cool pavilion surrounded by lotus flowers, in a forest or among high and straight bamboos, in a little boat floating on a peaceful lake. It is better to avoid a public place with many children playing and crying, or chaotic and crowded situations in general because loud voices will strip tea drinking of its elegant charm and vitality.

That's why tea culture has long been associated with Qin (called guqin - the oldest instrument in China, and one of the oldest in the world), Qi (a Chinese strategy game called go in English), Shu (calligraphy), and Hua (painting). The peaceful and relaxing atmosphere is suitable for listening to refined music and inspires people to deepen their wisdom, improve their self-cultivation and create a spiritual state. In Chinese tradition, tea has long been the best accompaniment for poetry, especially group composition of linked couplets.

Again, savoring a tea is like savoring wine, or even life. We don't drink wine the way we drink water. We enjoy every sip slowly. We normally prefer to appreciate a fine wine with the right people in the right place with the right mood. We experience the pure taste of wine instead of adding milk or sweeteners.

Well, the same is true for tea.

If you feel you need to add something to your tea because the quality of the tea is not good enough, you are simply adding another flavor to cover the unpleasant taste of the tea.

For the Chinese people, their neighbors (Koreans, Japanese & Vietnamese) and others who developed a taste for tea, it is far more than just a drink. The taste and spirit of tea are deeply engraved in the national character of the Chinese people.

Let's sip a little culture, literature and beauty together!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

How to prepare oolong tea

I tend to enjoy and appreciate oolong tea more than other teas, not only because it helps to relive thirst, to digest, to stay awake and healthy but is also a sensuous and spiritual pleasure. The refined ceremonies that have developed over time for oolong tea require that one must be very particular about water, teaware, occasion, time and the people one shares with. That's why the preparation of oolong tea is also called gongfu (aka "kungfu") tea.

In china, gongfu has two meanings, one specific and one general: the specific meaning refers to certain martial arts, whereas the general meaning indicates something done with a high degree of skill - something that can only be learned with great dedication, i.e. lots of work.

Currently, there are three major styles of brewing oolong tea: Taiwan style, Fujian style, and Chaozhou/Shantou style. No matter which style, every little detail or step has a specific reason and needs to be done with care and precision. In addition, the special tea sets and the art of preparation are both enchanting and beautiful.

There is an old Chinese saying: Water is the mother of tea, teaware the father of tea. When you have a high quality loose tea, you'd better have good water and appropriate teaware in order to let the tea fully express itself - to exhibit its fragrance, flavor and character.

There are many different reasons to drink tea and different methods of preparation. If you are not ready to undertake the traditional art of oolong described below, you can always simplify.

Here are the fundamentals for both simple preparation and sophisticated gongfu tea style:

Water: Natural spring water is the best; pure water, mineral water or filtered water are also good. (Note: never use water that has been previously boiled and leave it to sit. Water as it boils looses oxygen, so allowing it to cool and reboil will affect the flavor of the tea leaves.)

Loose tea leaf quantity: Of course, this can be done according to taste, but the typical quantity of an oolong rolled into a ball (e.g. Tieguanyin, Dongding) is 1/3 to 1/4 of the teapot. If the tea leaves are long, twisted, light and loose (e.g. Wuyi cliff tea, Eastern Beauty), the quantity is half of the teapot.

Water temperature: Water should be at a medium boil, 203-212°F (95-100°C), which is called a "fish eyes" boil in Chinese. This is a higher temperature than that used for green tea, since oolongs are oxidized and more heat is needed for them to release their character.

Steeping time: This depends on the character of a particular oolong. Generally speaking, a ball-shaped oolong (e.g. Tieguanyin or Dongding) should be infused about 30-45 seconds for the first brew, and 45-60 seconds for the second - this time should be slightly extended for each subsequent brew. Wuyi cliff tea from northern Fujian and Phoenix Dancong from eastern Guangdong should only be steeped 15 seconds for the first infusion.

Number of infusions: For a properly brewed, good-quality tea, each pot can be infused more than 7 times and the third & fourth infusions (some people say second & third) typically have the best taste because the tea has fully opened and the flavor is well balanced.

Necessary tea implements for simple preparation:

* A pot or kettle (to boil the water)

* A teapot (Yixing clay teapots are best, a porcelain gaiwan or pot is also acceptable)

* Teacups (tiny Chinese teacups are best, especially when you use a clay teapot or gaiwan - the size, shape and material are designed to maximize one's appreciation of the tea's attributes)

* Strainer or tea infuser (some teapots come equipped with one)

Gongfu teaware accessories:

* All of the accessories listed above

* A tea tray

* Tea tools (1. a holder to keep the tools together, 2. a scoop for scooping loose tea, 3. a poker/pick to clean out the spout of teapots, 4. a scraper for scraping tea from the inside of teapots or to loosen tea cakes, 5. a funnel to help pour loose tea into little teapots without spilling, and 6. a pair of tongs for picking up hot teacups during the rinsing process.

* A pitcher (to balance the color, aroma and flavor of the tea, so the infusion poured into each teacup is consistent)

* Scent-smelling cups (to enjoy the aroma of the tea before the first sip)

Simple brewing method: This is similar to preparing a teabag tea, but it's important to maintain the fundamentals mentioned above and remember to separate the leaves from the water at the end of each infusion by lifting out the infuser or by straining the tea liquor from the teapot.

Steps for Kungfu tea:

1. Boil the water in the kettle.

2. Rinse and warm the tea set (teapot, pitcher, teacups and scent cups).

3. Add tea leaves to the teapot or gaiwan.

4. Rinse the tea leaves by quickly filling and emptying the teapot with boiling water (called "foot water" in Chinese) in order to remove dust specks and impurities. Another major purpose of this brief infusion (the "foot water") is to help open the tea more - the taste of this initial rinsewater is weak and unbalanced, and isn't worth drinking anyway. (Note: please only rinse the leaves for no more than three seconds - otherwise, you will begin to leach the nutrition and flavor from the tea.)

5. Refill the teapot with boiling water.

6. Remove any floating froth (the dust from the tea leaves) with the lid, then replace it.

7. Pour boiling water over the outside of the pot (to raise the pot's temperature and help to wake up the tea and release its fragrance more quickly).

8. Place the strainer on top of the pitcher and pour the tea into the pitcher.

9. Pour the tea from the pitcher into the scent cups.

10. Cover the scent cups with the teacups, then turn upside-down, so that the tea now sits in the tea cups, and each scent cup sits mouth-down inside a teacup.

11. Gently lift the scent cup from the teacup and smell the aroma.

12. Lift the teacup and taste the tea.

Since this is my blog, I'd like to mention that in my opinion, milk and artificial sweeteners should not be used with oolong! Adding milk or sweeteners is ok for black tea but not for oolong. An oolong is like a champagne or fine wine. One doesn't add milk to wine, does one?

Next, I'll write more tips about how to savor a cup of tea.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Teabag or loose tea?

Would you prefer to eat some quick, easy fast food, or enjoy a meal in a quiet, fancy restaurant? Well, it depends on your schedule, your financial situation and your mood. I suppose you can actually do both if you want.

First at all, please allow me to speak frankly. I would characterize the teabag as fast food and loose tea as real food. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Many people here prefer teabags because they are easy, convenient to handle, straightforward to use and disposable. However, the contents of some teabags can be extremely disappointing: the harsh, bitter, astringent taste of the tea discourages you from drinking (unless you believe all the health benefits of tea are worth the experience), or perhaps the tea doesn't have much aroma or taste at all. Moreover, the material of the teabag affects the smell and taste of the tea.

In general, teabag teas tend to be made of the fannings and/or dust from inferior quality leaves. Even if whole leaves are used - which is more common now - tea in a teabag is like a bird in a cage, unable to express itself fully, because there is not enough room for the leaves to release their full flavor into the water. In addition, a teabag can only contain a limited amount of tea leaves, so that even quality leaves could not be used for more than one or two infusions for an individual serving. Finally, teabags do not offer the wide selection of world teas that are avaliable as loose tea.

The true depth and beauty of tea as an art can only be found in loose tea. This is where one can explore the full range and subtlety of tea's fragrance, color, mouthfeel, taste and aftertaste. With experience, one can easily identify the quality of a tea from its aroma and the appearance of either the liquor or infused leaves, without having to taste. In fact, with a little experience, it becomes easy to identify inferior teas simply by viewing the dried leaves.

For both experts and novices, the most important part of steeping and drinking whole-leaf loose teas is to appreciate the process. This is the way of tea: a ceremony, cerebration, meditation, inspiration, social gathering, and a space to create beauty, harmony and peace. Even the ritual of measuring out the leaves into the teapot is something joyful. The performance of tea preparation is a tea-drinker's sophisticated hobby, in which the floating aroma relaxes nerves and purifies the mind, while the rich but subtle flavors and aftertaste of the tea satisfy your physical desire.

Yes, the tricky thing is how to brew a decent cup of tea. In addition to the importance of water quality, you have to learn to use appropriate tea ware for different types of tea, and to control the water temperature and infusion time. Tea changes with each season, and a perfect infusion requires the kind of sensitivity and precision one develops only through experience.

Of course, if you prefer loose tea but want to simplify the brewing process, this is perfectly fine. Suit yourself - not every cup of tea you drink needs to be part of an elaborate ritual. Just take a big cup and make the tea to your taste - add more tea leaves and steep them briefly or fewer leaves and steep them for a longer period. Everybody has different habits, and there are many ways to enjoy life. In general, I personally prefer simplicity. That said, some kinds of simplification can limit one's understanding.

For me, the way of tea is a never-ending education that helps me learn about culture, history, nature, my health and myself, to expand my strengths and find more color and joy in my life. I hope you have something or things that do the same for you. If not, you could always begin with tea. No one else can feel the rain for you on your skin, so why not try? :)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A brief introduction to Oolong tea

One day, when I put my oolong clay teapot back on the shelf, my hand and a part of me felt empty. The cozy feeling of touching and belonging coming from the silent teapot beckoned me to hold my teapot again until my heart calmed down. This feeling of connectedness has been becoming stronger and stronger and this is because of the magic of the tea. The beauty of the tea art brings more meaning and color into my life and the taste of nature satisfies my desire.

Oolong is one of the teas that I most appreciate. I would like to say that she is like a young, attractive, elegant lady. She graduated from university and has some life experience and charming maturity. The character of oolong tea is between green tea and black tea: it not only contains the fresh, brisk and sweet aftertaste of green tea, but also has the dense, thick and mellow taste of black tea, and additionally the delicate floral fragrance of flower tea.

Oolong tea was created at the end of the Ming Dynasty about 400 years ago and is produced mainly in Fujian, Guangdong and Taiwan. Oolong tea leaves typically are processed in two different forms. Oolong tea from southern Fujian is rolled into a shape like a ball or dragonfly head; in northern Fujian and Guangdong oolong teas are long and twisted. Taiwan produces both forms of tea. In recent years, Sichuan, Hunan and a few other provinces have also begun a small amount of production.

Oolong consists of several dozens of kinds of leaves that have different flavors and aromas due to differences in the leaves, location, and harvest time. The process of oolong tea is a combination of green tea (non-fermentation) and black tea (full fermentation). which means it is a semi-fermented tea. It ranges from 10% to 70% oxidation. The favor of a lightly oxidized oolong (e.g. Tie Guanyin) is closer to green tea, whereas a heavy oxidized oolong (e.g. the Wuyi Cliff Tea Dahongpao) is closer to black tea.

Famous oolong teas are Fujian's Tie Guanyin, Taiwanese teas (Dongding, Alishan, Li Shan, Dayuling, Wenshan Baozhong, Oriental (Eastern) Beauty, etc.), Fujian's Wuyi Cliff teas (Dahongpao, Tieluohan, Baijiguan, Rougui, etc.) and Guangdong's Phoenix Dancong.

Yes, I've tried all these teas, and each has its own beauty. There's a lot that can be said about oolong teas, about their production, preparation, history, etc. but I can't write everything in one post. I'm too busy drinking tea :P

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Preparation of Green Tea

Some people who have tried Chinese or other green teas have expressed to me that they found green tea bitter, rough and astringent. Well, green tea is not supposed to taste like that. The right taste should be fresh, clean and delicate with a sweet aftertaste.

Green tea needs more care and cautiousness to prepare than other teas. Why? A good quality loose green tea must be picked by hand in early spring. The tea leaves are very young, tender and consist of either one baby bud or one bud and one or two baby leaves. This means that green tea is a delicate, fresh product, and that proper preparation is essential to savor the tea.

Here are the details regarding preparation:

1. Tea implements:

Glassware (glass cup, glass pot) for high-quality, young, tiny and tender loose tea. The transparency of glass also invites you to enjoy the graceful tea dancing. A porcelain cup with a lid (gaiwan) is also suitable.

TIP: After filling the cup, pot or gaiwan with hot water, do not cover it - let the tea breathe. Otherwise, too much heat will overcook the tea.

2. Water temperature:

175-185°F for loose green tea (even cooler [140-150°F] for a powdered tea like matcha).
If the water temperature is too high, the tea will be overcooked, which means it will be bitter, heavy and astringent. This will also affect any subsequent brews, so the flavor of the tea has been effectively ruined. Conversely, if the water temperature is too low, the taste will be too thin and light.

3. Quantity of tea leaves:

A generous amount would be 2 full teaspoons per cup. However, this is also based on individual taste. If too much tea is added, the taste is likely to be bitter, heavy and a waste of tea leaves. If too little tea is added, the flavor will be too light and thin. Either way, the full taste of natural green tea has been lost. As you can imagine, a little practice is necessary before you can brew a perfect cup of any given variety of green tea - or any other tea, for that matter.

4. Steeping time:

In general, a single cup of tea should be brewed for about one minute; the time for a gaiwan is about 30 seconds for the first brew, extended by 5 to 10 seconds for each subsequent infusion.

TIP: if you brew green tea in a drinking glass, do not let the tea sit in the water too long, otherwise it will become bitter. This problem can be easily addressed through the use of a strainer or filter to remove the tea leaves. However, the taste of metal or plastic can leach into the tea, so be careful!

5. How to add water for multiple steepings:

As green tea is typically composed of young leaves, they can be steeped only 3-4 times. The second infusion generally has the best taste.
When brewing tea in a glass, some water should be left in the bottom so the tea is never left entirely dry; this water is allowed to cool down, and helps protect the tea from the heat of subsequent infusions. However, when brewing with a gaiwan, the tea water should be poured off completely with each infusion.

One more TIP: spring water is the best for infusion, don't boil the same water over and over.

In summary, the key to prepare a tasty green tea is to control the water temperature and not to steep the tea too long.

Hope that was helpful. Next I'll write something about oolong tea.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

How to choose a good green tea

When we consider another person, we might base our assessment either on the person’s outer qualities or inner qualities, or perhaps both – which is what one does to identify the quality of tea: consider both appearance and character.

Let’s start with appearance first.

The most basic requirement is that the tea leaf must be a whole leaf. The appearance of a given kind of tea should have a standard pattern. No matter what its particular shape, size and color happen to be, they should all be consistent. The maturity of tea leaves should be even. The color should be vivid. If the general appearance is bright, the size, thickness and length are even, it means it is a superior fresh green tea; if the tea leaf is dry, dull and dark, its appearance is not uniform, uneven and perhaps even has been mixed together with tea stems or tea seeds, this is a poor quality tea.
Typically, a tiny, tight, wiry shape with many baby buds indicates that a tea is young and tender. Coarse, loose, broken and/or old leaves (no tea buds or baby tea leaves) show that the tea is too mature (太平猴魁 Taiping Houkui and 六安瓜片 Liuan Guapian are notable exceptions).

To appreciate a tea's inner qualities, you have to brew the tea, smell the aroma, observe the liquor color, inspect the infused leaves, and of course to taste the tea.

Aroma: A floral, delicate aroma is best, with a young, fresh, clean fragrance; nutty and/or fruity notes also indicate excellence; an aroma that is weak, stale, dull, flat, heavy or harsh indicates poor quality; a burnt, musty or otherwise unpleasant odor clearly indicates that a tea has either been improperly processed, stored, or both.

Liquor (or, if you prefer, infusion): The color should be light green or light yellow green, clear and bright; color that is too yellow, deep, dull or turbid indicates a poor quality tea.

Taste: A green tea should have a fresh, mellow, sweet taste, and a superior tea will also have a similar aftertaste; a thin, bitter, rough, astringent taste or aftertaste indicates either an inferior tea, or perhaps improper preparation, in some cases.

Infused leaf: A green tea should have tender leaves with many buds, which should be thick, soft, even and neat; leaves that are rough to the touch, visibly uneven, old, hard and/or thin show that both the raw material and processing are mediocre.

Some people have asked me whether the fresher green tea is means the better it is. The answer is that it depends on time of the year. The best green tea is plucked in early spring and the worst is harvested in summer (I use the word "harvested" instead of "plucked" because summer teas are typically harvested with machines rather than by hand, as the locals won't drink them; they're used for cheap tea sold overseas). There is an old Chinese saying: "Tea around Qingming (清明, on 04 April) is treasure, tea after Guyu (谷雨, on 20 April) is grass." This is absolutely right. Basically, if green tea is picked and processed after Guyu, close to Lixia (立夏, 05 May) or the beginning of summer is the poorest quality tea.

Of course, even if you have a superior green tea, you won't appreciate its inner beauty if you don't know how to prepare it properly. I'll write something simple about that in my next post.

Hope this was interesting. If there's anything in particular you'd like to know about, please let me know!

Monday, December 7, 2009

What is Green Tea?

Green tea also called unfermented tea. It originates from China and is not only the earliest tea in Chinese history but has also become associated with many cultures in Asia from Japan to the Middle East. 70% of all tea produced in China is Green tea. There are tea gardens in more than 1000 cities and towns. Green tea makes up about 23% of the world tea market and more than 70% of all green tea produced internationally comes from China.

There are many different varieties of green tea. Different tea cultivars, environments (terroir) and different production processes create different types of green tea. It is estimated that there are currently more than 900 kinds of green tea in China.

Green tea is the type of tea closest to nature. After the tea leaves are picked, they are processed with only three steps: 1) a brief exposure to heat in order to keep the leaf green by preventing oxidation, then 2) rolling or twisting the leaf to break its cell walls and provide shape and finally 3) drying to remove most - but not all - of the moisture and determine a given tea's distinctive aroma. A process with only three steps might seem simple, but the result depends on the details.

After this process is complete, a tea with a particular personality emerges, just like you and me. Some leaves are long and some are short; some are flat and some are twisted; some are shaped to look like a sparrow's tongue, others to look like an orchid. The basic taste of green tea is clear, fresh and brisk, like the feeling after the rain. A well-made green tea isn't bitter, rough or astringent. Some are nutty, some are flowery and all have a slightly sweet aftertaste.

In my next post, I'll write a little about how to select a high-quality green tea. I know these first few posts are too simple for some of you who already know about tea, but I think it's good to start with the basics; then we can have a more detailed conversation.

Enjoy your tea!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

One step closer to tea

Tea has been in my life since I was born, but we didn't become really close friends until I met the man who would become my husband. Since then, I have tried to open a window of my heart to understand more about tea. The more I learn about her, the more beauty I discover and more desire I have; the more space I give her, the bigger my world becomes and the more joy fills my life. I can't resist the beauty of tea any more. Everything about her has entirely convinced me to be close and connected.

Tea is not only a drink: her qualities are so bright and illuminate my life. She is an intimate part of a number of rich cultures; she contributes to both physical and mental health, enriches art, music and literature; she connects me to a peaceful, beautiful world and its many wonderful people.

It's important to have the right relationship with tea. When treated properly, she dances with serene grace; when treated poorly, she withholds her many benefits. As I build a relationship with her, the more she can read my mind and the more her natural beauty embraces me. I am so attracted by her. Her appearance is so distinctive, her aroma so fragrant, her touch so warm, her dance so graceful, her pose so elegant, her smile so sweet, her energy so vibrant and her vitality so unique and powerful. Her beauty extends beyond my vision or feeling: the beauty in every drop, the pleasure in every scent, in every sip. Her spirit inspires me to expand my strengths. Every gift I receive from her adds more color and meaning in my life.

About Me

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Seattle, WA, United States
I grew up with tea, and it continues to fill my life with so much beauty and discovery, pleasure, peace and friends. It is always leading me toward a greater understanding of culture, nature, myself and others. It is my hope to use this space to share the joy of tea and tea culture with you.