Thursday, November 23, 2017

Discovering Pu-erh

Pu-erh Tuo Cha (Bird's Nest Nugget)

China's Yunnan province is considered to be the birthplace of tea and the origin of Pu-erh. Wild tea trees, some of them hundreds of years old, can be found in the tropical forests of Xishuangbanna. This region offers ideal conditions for the cultivation of tea: a temperate, moist climate and a rich soil with an abundance of organic materials.

Yunnan Tea Forest
The prized tea of Yunnan Province is Pu-erh, made from tea plants native to its forests and jungles. The tea was named after the town of Pu-erh, an important trading center and the beginning of the ancient Tea Road which connected China's southwest to Tibet and onward to Nepal and India. Pu-erh tea is one of the oldest types of tea and traces its history to the Tang dynasty (618 - 907). During that time, tea was compressed into cakes of various sizes, then boiled in salt water with added flavorings such as ginger, onion and orange zest to create a tea "soup". Tea was also shaped into bricks to make it easier to transport on horseback for the long and arduous journey to Tibet.

Pu-erh is a fermented tea. The fermentation occurs through a process of microbial activity, similar broadly to the production of wine, vinegar, yogurt and soy sauce. Pu-erh tea can be divided in two types: raw (“sheng”) and ripe (“shu”). Both types of Pu-erh are processed similarly in the beginning – leaves are picked, withered outdoors for several hours, fired at low temperature and then sun dried. The result is "maocha" or unfinished tea. After the maocha stage, the processing methods diverge.

Sheng Pu-erh leaves are left alone to age naturally over time. In the humidity of China, naturally occurring microbes in the leaf break down to new substances, resulting in changes to the flavor of the tea.

Shu Pu-erh tea is made by accelerating the fermentation the "maocha" in a controlled process using  added heat and humidity, similar to composting. The unfinished leaves are gathered into piles where the heat generated kills off undesirable microbes and promotes the growth of beneficial microbes. The result of this fermentation process is a tea like no other - known for its earthy, mellow flavors and sweet lingering aftertaste.  

Pu-erh Cake

Both Sheng and Shu Pu-erh teas can be kept in a loose form or compressed into various shapes such as cakes, bricks and nuggets.

Pu-erh tea is recognized for its digestive properties. Due to its microbial aging process, Pu-erh naturally helps to break down fats and grease in the stomach.

How to Prepare Pu-erh Tea

Pu-erh tea is best prepared in the gongfu style using either a small clay teapot or porcelain gaiwan, This method allows for multiple infusions, bringing different flavors with each steeping.

For loose-leaf Pu-erh, add about 1 tablespoon to the pot. If using a tuo cha (nugget), add one piece to the pot. Heat water to boiling. First, rinse the leaves for about 5 seconds and discard the rinse water. Add more hot water and let the tea steep 1 minute for the first infusion. Steep 30 seconds for the second infusion and 45 seconds for the third infusion. Steep subsequent infusions about 2 minutes. Most Pu-erh teas can be re-steeped 5-6 times in this manner.

Shop Pu-erh Teas at The Fragrant Leaf

Monday, November 6, 2017

Matcha: Japan's Ceremonial Tea

Matcha is the finely ground powder of shade-grown and hand-picked Japanese green tea leaves. It has been celebrated in the artistic and Zen-inspired Japanese tea ceremony for hundreds of years and is considered the highest quality of tea available in Japan.
Introduced in the 12th century by Buddhist monks returning from China, Matcha was the first type of tea consumed in Japan. The Uji region of Kyoto Prefecture is considered the birthplace of Matcha, as the first tea plants brought back from China were transplanted to this area. Today, Uji is renowned for producing the best-quality Matcha in Japan.
Matcha's distinctive rich flavor and bright green color is a result of its unique processing method.  The young spring tea leaves are shaded with special reed and straw screens for more than 20 days prior to harvest to reduce exposure to the sun. Shading stimulates the tea leaves to produce more chlorophyll, giving Matcha its vibrant green color. Shading also changes the taste and aroma of Matcha. It enhances the production of L-theanine and other amino acids which contribute to Matcha's umami sweetness with little to no bitterness and its invigorating energy. Studies have shown that L-theanine helps improve cognitive function, increase focus, and relieve stress. Due to the high levels of L-theanine, the caffeine in Matcha is moderated to provide a state of relaxed alertness.

After picking, the leaves are steamed and dried and then the stalks and veins are removed so that the tea can be easily ground to a fine powder. This produces Tencha, which is then stone-ground into Matcha.

Preparing Matcha (single serving)

What you'll need:
High-quality matcha (organic)
Hot water
Chawan (small bowl), about 3" high and 4.5" in diameter
Chashaku (bamboo scoop), or 1 tsp. measuring spoon
Chasen (bamboo whisk)
Furui (matcha sifter), or fine mesh strainer

Place two bamboo scoops, or about 1 tsp. (1 1/2 to 2 grams), of the matcha powder in the sifter over the bowl.

Sift the matcha into the bowl. The sifting of the matcha makes the froth smoother and prevents the formation of lumps.

Add 2 - 3 oz. of water, just under boiling (167 - 175° F or 75° C).

Hold the bamboo whisk vertically just above the bottom of the bowl. Whisk vigorously in a zig‐zag motion for about 30 seconds until the tea is frothy. 

Gently break up any large bubbles on the surface with the whisk. If the tea is too strong, you can add more hot water to taste.

Shop Matcha at The Fragrant Leaf

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. 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.