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.