Monday, July 25, 2016

Discovering White Tea

A specialty of China's Fujian Province, white tea is the most minimally processed of all the tea types. White teas were once reserved exclusively as imperial tribute teas and are divided into two types: 1) those made entirely from leaf buds that are covered with whitish hairs such as Silver Needle and 2) those made from a mixture of both buds and leaves such as White Peony.
White tea is made usually from a particular type of tea plant known as the Da Bai Hao tea bush and is picked in early spring. Unlike green tea which is heated at high temperatures after picking, white tea is air-dried, either in the sun or at low temperatures indoors. This helps to preserve the tea polyphenols. The natural drying process also causes the tea to oxidize very slightly. After natural drying, the leaves are sorted so that only the whole buds and leaves are preserved. The result of this processing is a tea with a delicate aroma, natural sweetness and refreshing, savory taste. 

White Tea - 3 Different Styles

Silver Needle

The origin of Silver Needle dates from the late 18th Century. It was produced exclusively as a tribute paid to the Qing Dynasty emperor. This highly prized white tea, entirely hand-picked during the early spring,  is made only from tender new buds that are covered in silver-white hairs. When infused, Silver Needle tea produces a clear, straw colored liquor with an aroma of fresh-cut hay and flowers. The taste is both vegetal and sweet with a note of fresh summer corn. Its long finish is soothing to the palate.

White Peony 

Our White Peony is picked in the early spring and carefully crafted from a mix of light and dark green leaves and lots of silvery buds. White Peony has a fresh bamboo aroma, a full-bodied mouth feel and a lightly sweet flavor with notes of melon and grape. Refreshing and cooling, White Peony pairs well with most foods and is especially good with sweets.

Darjeeling Silver Tips

This white tea from the award-winning Makaibari Estate in Darjeeling is a rare treat for tea lovers. Hand-picked from special bushes, Silver Tips tea is made only from young buds and tender leaves. Careful processing by the tea maker results in an excellent tea with a delicate floral bouquet and notes of vanilla and honey

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Discovering Green Tea

Green teas are the least processed of all the types of tea and are often referred to as “unfermented” or “non-oxidized” teas. The intent is to preserve the natural "green" characteristics of the tea plant.

In the traditional producing countries of China and Japan, the finest green teas are picked during the spring season when the delicate, young leaves and leaf buds contain their highest concentration of aromatic oils.

As soon as the tea leaves are picked, a natural process called oxidation begins. Oxidation occurs when the enzymes in the leaf react with oxygen in the air, causing the leaves to change in color from green to yellow, to amber and red, and finally to brown. The level of oxidation is what distinguishes the various tea types - green, white, oolong and black.

To produce green tea, the oxidation process must be interrupted early and this is achieved through the application of heat, in a step known as "firing".  In China, teas are fired using a variety of dry heat methods such as pan roasting, oven baking and sun curing. These methods result in teas with an aromatic quality reminiscent of grilled or toasted nuts. By contrast, in Japan, the fresh picked leaves are steamed for a short period of time. This method fixes the bright green color and imparts umami-rich notes of seaweed and spinach.

After firing, the leaves are shaped into various styles - twisted, curly, balled and needle - each with its own character, flavor and aroma.

Green Tea - 3 Different Styles

Grown on a remote farm in Fujian Province, Snow Dragon is a rare green tea that delivers a very rounded, sweet flavor with notes reminiscent of toasted sweet rice.  It is made from a white tea varietal – the same one from which traditional Silver Needles is crafted – and is processed in the manner of a green tea. Snow Dragon consists entirely of young leaf buds, which lend a crisp sweetness to the tea. It is carefully pan-roasted by hand in a wok to develop the flat leaf shape and the warm, toasty aroma and flavor.

A lively and fresh spring-picked green tea with a distinctive vegetal flavor and a smooth, sweet finish. This famous tea originates from Putuo Mountain, considered one of China's 4 famous Buddhist retreats. Known as Putuo Fuocha, it grows on the slopes surrounding the Huiji temple. As a result, locals call it "Buddhist tea".

Grown organically in the mountains of Kumamoto prefecture, this 100% organic, medium-steamed green tea (chumushi-cha) brews a light green-yellow cup with an aroma of fresh grass. It has a refreshing, clean flavor and delivers a mild and pleasing astringency on the palate. It is rich in Vitamin C and pairs well with light meals, especially seafood.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Tea Tasting Basics

Today we explore the basics of tasting tea. While “cupping” tea is an essential tool used by tea professionals to evaluate the relative merits of specific teas, it can also be an enjoyable activity for the casual or serious tea drinker. Here is a simple ritual that you can use anytime to enhance your sensory appreciation of tea. It is important to keep in mind that tasting tea isn’t solely about taste; it involves all the senses: sight, smell, taste and touch.

Setting Up

Choose the tea. If you taste a group of teas, we recommend that you sample no more than 3 teas at a time to avoid overloading the palate. Feel free to choose similar teas (i.e. all green teas) or teas of different types. If you choose the latter, it’s a good idea to taste the teas in order of intensity (i.e. white, green, oolong, black).

Set up your tools. You will need a small ceramic teapot (we recommend a Chinese Gaiwan) that holds about 6-8 ounces, a tasting cup and a small bowl to contain the dry leaf. Place a couple tablespoons of loose tea in the bowl.

Prepare the tea. Place approximately 3 grams of leaf (about 1 teaspoon for small dense leaves and 1 tablespoon for large bulkier leaves) into the teapot and pour in water of the appropriate temperature. Steep for the desired time and then strain the liquor into the tasting cup. Retain the infused leaves in the teapot.

Tea Appreciation

Here are several areas to evaluate:

Dry Leaf Appearance.  Examine the dry leaf. High-quality tea will have a leaf shape that is relatively uniform in size and shape. Notice the style of the leaf: flat, needle-shaped, flower-like, tightly twisted, curly, tightly rolled, etc. Notice the color of the leaf. It should be glossy, not dull. Examine the presence of tips, or leaf buds, in the tea. High quality Chinese teas will have leaves as well as buds. Excessive stalk and stem, as well as incomplete leaves, are not as desirable.  

Cup Aroma. Smell the aroma by inhaling it deeply two or three times. A good-quality tea should have a full, clean aroma without any stale or rancid smell. Note the aroma characteristics – is it floral, fruity, woodsy, earthy, fresh? Generally, oolong and black teas will have more aroma than green teas, due to their longer oxidation.

Cup Color. The color of the brewed tea will vary depending on the type of tea, but it should be clear and bright.

Flavor. To experience the full taste of the tea, you will want to slurp it loudly. This ensures that the tea is sprayed over the entire tongue and into the back of the mouth. Having slurped the tea, swish it around in your mouth. Swallow and take note of the taste and the texture. Good tea should have a smooth, fresh taste that lingers on the palate. Desirable flavors will depend on the type of tea being tasted. You may note the marine and fresh grass taste of Japanese Sencha, the honey and ripe peach flavor of Bai Hao Oolong, or roasted vegetable notes of Chinese Dragon Well

Wet Leaf Appearance. Pick up some of the infused leaves from the teapot and put them on a clean plate. Note the size, color and texture of the leaves. An examination of the wet leaf can tell a lot about how and when the leaf was picked, as well as how carefully it was processed.  Taking oolong tea as an example, a complete, whole leaf indicates a handpicked tea while a shredded or torn leaf may indicate a machine-picked leaf.

So, that’s it! Try to keep a written record of all your tasting experiences. Our Origami Tea Journal is a lovely way to capture your tea impressions . And remember that the more teas you taste and the more you focus all your senses on the tasting experience, the better you will become at appreciating all that a tea can offer.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Taiwan’s Shan Lin Xi Oolong

We visited the Shan Lin Xi tea producing area in Taiwan in early June. Shan Lin Xi is located at an elevation of 1,600 meters. It is close to the Dong Ding mountain area, known for classic Dong Ding oolong tea. Shan Lin Xi oolong is considered a high mountain tea (“gao shan cha”) and is grown in a pristine forest reserve amidst cedar and bamboo trees.

High mountain teas are particularly prized in Taiwan for their aroma and flavor. The environmental conditions are ideal for growing high-quality tea. The cool climate and abundant fog allow the tea plants to grow more slowly, producing a tea with a distinctive aroma and sweetness.

We met with the Lin family of Phoenix Village and spent a few enjoyable hours tasting their Shan Lin Xi teas. The Lins own their own tea farm, use organic farming methods to cultivate their tea plants, hand pick the leaves and process them in the traditional style. Here Mrs. Lin prepares Shan Lin Xi oolong tea in the gong-fu style:

After much sampling, we selected a batch of Shan Lin Xi tea with a light aroma of flowers and bamboo. The flavor is crisp and sweet with a slight astringency that is refreshing and palate cleansing. The Lins kindly took time to escort us on a short tour of their tea farm. Here are some pictures from our tea farm visit:

Visiting Kawane Tea Gardens

The day after our cupping session in Tokyo, we traveled with Mr. Kaburagi and his son via bullet train to Shizuoka to visit the tea gardens of Kawane. The Kawane area is famous throughout Japan for the quality of its sencha. Kawane is an ideal place for cultivating tea because of its adequate rainfall and thick fog in the higher mountain elevation. The first harvest (“first flush”) occurs from about April 25 to May 10. This early spring sencha is considered to be the best tea and is highly anticipated amongst Japanese sencha connoisseurs. The second flush is picked from around June 20 to July 5. Later harvests occur at the end of July and early to mid-October.

Cupping Sencha in Tokyo

We arrived in Japan in mid-May and met with the Kaburagi family, the producer of our Japanese steamed teas (“sencha”) at their small shop located in the northwest area of Tokyo. The elder Mr. Kaburagi is a respected Tea Master who is a fountain of information on all aspects of Japanese tea from garden to cup. We enjoyed some delicious and refreshing Gyokuro along with a selection of seasonal handmade red bean cakes that are served during the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. After this refreshing interlude we spent a few hours in their tasting room learning more about professional tea cupping: the process by which sencha teas are compared and judged for quality. Japan’s tea professionals use 4 characteristics to evaluate Japanese teas: appearance, aroma, color and taste.

Appearance is evaluated by placing approximately 150g of each tea into a flat bowl and visually inspecting the dry leaves for uniform shape and glossiness.

Aroma of the dry leaf is judged by placing 3g of tea into small white tasting bowls and scooping the tea close to the nose. The aroma of good sencha is refreshing and combines a balance of floral and vegetal notes, reminiscent of fresh leaves.

Taste is evaluated by pouring approximately 6 oz. of heated water over the leaves, steeping for about 1 minute, and using a large spoon to slurp the tea over the tongue. Various taste characteristics are judged such as sweetness, astringency, bitterness and thickness in the mouth. The best sencha exhibit a taste profile that harmonizes both sweetness and astringency, that pleasantly dry sensation at the back of the throat due to the presence of tea tannins

Sencha Production in Shizuoka

In addition to viewing the tea gardens, we had the opportunity to take a tour of a local tea production facility in Shizuoka. The majority of the tea produced here is sencha and so we were able to learn more about how it’s made.

There are two phases in the production of sencha tea: “aracha” (crude tea) and “shiagecha” (refined tea).

The “aracha” phase of production usually occurs close to where the tea is harvested.

The spring harvest of the tea plants in Shizuoka usually starts at the end of April and continues through the end of May. After the tea plant is picked, the fresh leaves must be quickly heated via steaming in order to stop any further oxidation, reduce the grassy aroma and maintain the fresh green color of the leaf. Steaming is a very important component as it largely determines the taste, aroma and color in the cup. The amount of steaming depends on the thickness of the leaf: a thinner leaf from the higher mountain areas does not need as much steaming as a thicker leaf from a lower elevation. Sencha tea can be classified according to its’ level of steaming: wakamushi (light), chumushi (medium) and fukamushi (heavy).

After steaming, the tea is cooled down quickly to room temperature in order to preserve the fresh aroma and color. This is usually done in a cooling machine.

The leaves are then pressure rolled and twisted using dry, hot air to reduce the moisture content. This step further enhances the aroma and color of the tea. Then the tea is rolled and dried at least two more times to reduce the moisture to 5% and give the leaves their long, thin shape.

Aracha is then delivered to the factory. It can be consumed as is though it is usually processed to a more refined tea. Here is a photo of aracha:

In “shiagecha” production, the crude tea is processed further in order to balance the flavors, create a more uniform leaf shape and remove powder, sticks and stems. This is done by sorting the leaves and then firing them according to leaf size. The remaining sticks and stems are sorted and used for kukicha, also known as “twig tea”. The powder is used in konacha, a type of very hearty green tea that is often served in sushi restaurants.