Friday, October 21, 2011

Firing up the clay stove

Clay stove going strong with hardwood charcoal and olive pit charcoal
Before you leave our blog, please participate in our survey about which measurement of weight you prefer when you buy tea. The survey in on top of the right column, available until Dec. 31, 2011. Thank you.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tea Storage, Part I

When it comes to tea storage, there isn't a single universal way that works for all teas. Some teas are meant to be stored and aged while others should be enjoyed fresh. Tea merchants' storage requirements are different from those for storing tea at home. Also, there is the difference between long term storage and just putting your tea away until tomorrow morning. So when speaking about tea storage, everyone may have a different purpose in mind. This post is not meant to be an all-purpose solution. If you have any questions after reading this blog, please post them as comments and I'll do my best to tackle each question.

The tea stoage environment has two components - the packaging of the tea, and the place where the package is kept. I'll divide this post into 2 parts. In part I, I'll discuss short term storage. Part II will talk about longer term storage and tea specific requirements.

First of all, let's tackle the easy one - a good place to put your tea away until tomorrow morning. In this case the packaging is the most important. The key is air tightness to keep foreign scent/odor and moisture out. Tea is a super odor/scent absorbant. Without an air tight container, you must pay attention to the general environment in which you keep your tea. If you always purchase small amount of tea which you can consume within a month, then you can just keep them in the tin can or reclosable foil bag they come in. These containers are reasonably air tight. If you believe metal containers are bad for storing tea, then transfer the tea into a glass or porcelain container. (I personally have no problem storing tea in tin cans). When using glass container, make sure it's air-tight and place it out of direct sunlight. When using porcelain containers, make sure they are air-tight. Pay attention to the rubber seal commonly found on many porcelain container nowadays. These rubber seal often has a plastic odor to it. Plastic containers are not preferable because they usually have an plastic odor. Reclosable sandwish bags and ziplock bags are okay but need a few layers in order to lock in the natural aroma. Scented tea like jasmine or other flavored tea would be fine with just 1 layer of ziplock. You won't notice anything even when these teas have absorbed other scent. As long as you keep your tea in an air tight container, you can place your tea anywhere that's away from heat source.

When choosing a can or jar, make sure the container itself is odor/scent free. For an container that's previously closed for at least 2 days, you can test it by opening it and immediately smell the inside. If you can smell something, then wash and dry it thoroughly and test again. For a previously open container, close it tightly and let it sit for at least 2 day and test it the same way.

Lastly, it's a good idea to  keep only a 2-3 week supply of tea handy, and keep the rest seperate for longer term storage.

If you can't find any good container and the bag you have is not reclosable, you can seal the bag like this:

Fold the bag all the way to remove most air.

Fold the bag this way, all the way down.

Completely folded all the way.

Use a rubber band or a clip to secure.

End of part I.

Before you leave our blog, please participate in our survey about which measurement of weight you prefer when you buy tea. The survey in on top of the right column, available until Dec. 31, 2011. Thank you.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Jin(斤) and liang(两)

Edit: Thanks to David from Asha Tea House who reminded me that Taiwan and Hong Kong use different jin and liang system, I am adding the Taiwanese units and Hong Kong units as well. Thank you David.


When we buy tea we usually refer to the amount/weight using grams, ounces, or pound. Today let me introduce two more units of weight to you, jin and liang.

In China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, as well as some other south eastern Asian countries,  weight is usually measured in jin (斤) or liang (两). The tea trade also uses these units. However, a jin in China is different from a jin in Taiwan. A jin in Taiwan is slightly different from a jin in Hong Kong. These differences are the result of the complicated history of these three places. Prices for tea are usually shown as $$ per jin in these places. Let me explain how these units relate to grams, ounces, and pound.

In China,
1 jin = 10 liang = 500 grams = 1.10 pound

1 liang = 50 grams = 1.76 ounce

1 kg = 2 jin

In Taiwan,

1 jin = 16 liang = 600 grams = 1.32 pound

1 liang = 37.5 grams = 1.32 ounce

1 kg = 1.66666666....... jin

In Hong Kong,

1 jin = 1/100 of a picul ( )

1 jin = 16 liang = ~605 grams = ~1.33 pound

1 liang = ~37.81 grams = ~1.33 ounce

1 kg = ~1.653467 jin

When you visit these places, they all just call their unit the jin. But you need to be aware that each jin is different. This will be useful if you plan to visit a tea shop in these places. And before you leave the our blog, please participate in our survey about which measurement of weight you prefer when you buy tea. The survey in on top of the right column, available until Dec. 31, 2011. Thank you.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My Handmade Tea Tray

Made this baby all by myself. Just finished putting the last coat of waterproof finish on it. Hopefully it dries completely by the end of the day so I get to try it out tonight.

Edit:  Testing it later in the afternoon.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tea Seed

Tea seeds from our partner dancong tea farm. Picture taken in August, 2011

Tea seeds from the tea oil tree (camellia oleifera)
 Tea plants, just like other plants, bloom and produce seeds. Most people I know who have been drinking tea for a long time has not seen a tea seed before. So I want to write a post to briefly touch on tea seeds.

There are two type of tea seeds, those that grow on tea bushes (camellia sinensis) from which we pick our tealeaves and those that grow on tea oil trees (camellia oleifera) grown just for the seeds to press for oil. Both types of tea seeds can be used for pressing oil. However, the seeds from the tea oil trees produces much more oil than those from the camellia sinensis. According to research, tea oil is just as good as olive oil in terms for health benefits to us.

The leftover from the oil press is still useful. They are gathered, processed, and pressed into cakes that look like puerh bing (picture below). They are called (茶籽餅, in mandarin chá zí bǐng, tea seed cake). The Teochewese people call them 茶籽圈, te5 ji2 ko1, meaning tea seed rounds. The tea seed rounds have quite a few applications. The two applications I remember from childhood are as fertilizer and as hair soap. I remember my grandma always bought tea seed rounds to wash her hair with. Back then they were easily found in any street markets. Ladies from my grandma's generation wouldn't use shampoo to wash their hair because they said shampoo made their hair too dry. (Back then there were no hair conditioner and the shampoo I believe was just some regular liquid soap). My grandma always said tea seed soap was the best for washing hair because they made her hair soft and silky smooth.

A typical tea seed round.

Tea seed oil

Friday, October 7, 2011

Touching on Chinese Clay Teapots - Neglected Teapot

A few days ago I started a discussion about the following teapot on Steepster's discussion board. I invited people interested in Chinese teapots to look at the picture and say what they think is wrong with this teapot and what causes it. I got quite a few responses. Before I write further, let me first sincerely thank those who participate in the discussion. You guys are great.

I appoligize for the picture being a bit dark. This is my dad Teochew Hong Ni (Red Clay) teapot. It is the teapot he leaves on the tea table for our relatives to use. Teochew Hong Ni teapot is similar to Yixing zisha teapot. Their main similarity is the clays used to make each type of teapots are slightly air and liquid permeable. This permeable property is what makes Teochew Hong Ni teapot and Yixing zisha teapot so good for steeping tea.

Knowing the Hong Ni clay is slightly permeable lays the ground for the answer to the original question. The original question has two parts, what and why. Quite a few people were quick to point out the lid and the body have different texture. That's the right answer to the first part of the question. But why? What caused the difference in texture?

Two reasons. The permeable property of the clay and how the teapot is "nurtured".

Let's first look at the the permeable property of the clay. Because the clay is slightly permeable, a trace amount of the tea liquor is absorbed into the clay every time the teapot is used. (The cycle of heating, when very hot water is poured into the teapot, and cooling that occurs inbetween steeps helps the liquor absorption). Over a long period of time of regular use, something from the tea liquor accumulates in the clay. It, along with proper nurturing technique from the owner, give the teapot a subtle glow. (I say "something" because I don't know what exactly is accumulated in the clay. I have heard many things, like tea oil, tanin compound, tea scum, and many more. Anyone knows?). This subtle glow will appear as long as the teapot is used regularly. But in order for the glow to be nice and even, a lot of patience and dedication from the owner is a must. Since this teapot is used by many people and nobody cares to nurture it, it gradually acquires an uneven glow. In other words, it's the lack of nurturing that cause the uneven glow. Among all the abuses done to this teapot, I think the biggest factor that contribute to this uneven glow is leaving tea steeping in the teapot overnight. This leaves the pot in contact with tea much much longer than the lid, causing the pot to acquire the glow much faster than the lid.

(Nurturing the pot, some people say seasoning the pot, is a translation of 养壶 in Chinese. 养(Yǎng, to raise, care for, help to develop) 壶(Hú, pot). YǎngHú is a slow process that require patience and the right technique. It is just like raising a child. A good Yǎng-ed teapot looks and feels better. Most importantly, it enhances the tea it steeps. It is the general concensus in the Chinese clay teapot community that a well nurtured teapot is more valuable than when it was new.  I'll write more about that in the future)

Below is an example of comparison between new version and nurtured version of the same teapot.

Link to original Steepster discussion:

Monday, October 3, 2011

A question on Steepster that I think it's worth sharing here

I just saw the following question on Steepster's discussion board. I shared my anwser to the question and I think it's worth while to share it here on the blog too.

From Steepster:
" Sakura said about 11 hours ago

Is this normal - long jing?

I recently purchased a long jing tea and I noticed that if I leave the cup overnight with tea in it, there’s an oily film that forms on top?
I was just wondering if this was normal?
I stumbled upon this:
but I’m still a bit unsure. I guess it’s from the oils they use when they pan fire the tea though. "

Link to Steepster:

And my answer:

This is normal if you see the oily film appear overnight. It is not normal if you see any oily stuff floating on your tea you just steeped/brewed.

The oily substance on your overnighted tea is oxidized tannin compound. Tea naturally contains tannin. It is what gives tea its astringency taste. Tannin from tea is perfectly safe to consume. But when tea sits for a period of time (sometimes as little as an hour), the tannin in the tea liquor reacts with oxygen from the air to form the oily stuff you see. These oxidized tannin compound is bad for you. They interrupt with nutrient absorption and irritates your stomach.

This is a perfect example of why we gongfucha drinkers always advocate other tea drinkers to enjoy their tea while it’s still hot. Some people drink tea for its health benefits. Some drink tea for pleasure. But nobody wants the tea they drink to cause harm to their health. Right?

For the same reason mentioned above, I also recommend AGAINST keeping steeped tealeaves overnight to be steeped again the next day . It’s bad for you. Gongfucha drinkers don’t let their tealeaves cool too much inbetween steeps, and we usually don’t re-steep wet tealeaves that’s already cold. These are all traditions taught to us from our elders. In the past tea wasn’t analyzed with science like we do now so the elders couldn’t tell us why. They just learn from experience and drilled these traditions into our head. Now with modern science we know these thousand-year-old wisdoms are no joke.

By the way, Iced tea should be cooled quickly in sealed container to minimize oxidation of the tea liquor. And for those who drinks bottled tea……umm……you figure.

Now, if your see oily substance floating on hot tea that’s just steeped, that could be anything. What says on their website about tea oil used in pan firing is true. But the amount of oil used is very very little, so little that if you were to wipe the pan with a paper towel after the oil is applied you would not see a trace of oil on the paper towel. I have never seen oil floating on any just-steeped pan-fired tea, or any tea before. Safe to drink or not aside, it is not normal.

We always recommend rinsing your tea before you actually steep it, no matter what type of tea and how good/fresh/expensive it is. Even with tealeaves from our well-known partner tea farm that were picked and processed in our presence so we know they are clean and high quality, we still rinse them. It’s another gongfucha tradition. (Maybe i’ll write a blog post to explain this when I have time).

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Touching on Gongfucha 工夫茶 - What it is NOT

Gongfucha (or Gong Fu tea, Kung Fu tea) is becoming an increasingly well-know term amount tea communities worldwide. Lots of people have heard about this Chinese tea preparation but few have a good concept of what it truly is. When speaking with people in the tea community, even those in China, I find that different people have different impression for gongfucha. Some people say it is the same as Cha Dao 茶道. Some say it is the Chinese tea ceremony. Some even say it is a way to make very strong tea. And the worst I have seen: Wikipedia defines gongfucha as "a commercialized show basing on the tea preparation approach."

As a member of the tea community who grew up with and know gongfucha, I feel that I have the responsibility to promote gongfucha and share with the tea community what gongfucha really is.

First of all, gongfucha is not a commercialized show. Gongfucha has a very elaborate approach to making a good cup of tea. The amount of care and efforts dedicated to making that small cup of tea can easily impress those who are new to gongfucha. To tea retailers, this makes gongfucha especially useful in adding value to the tea they sell during tea tasting. Therefore, it is now very common to see tea retailer using gongfucha in tea tastings, many even exaggerated the process to the point that it looks more like a show than a practical way to make good tea. I think that is why some people mistaken gongfucha as a commercialized show.

Cha Dao 茶道 is another term often mistakenly used to describe gongfucha. It is sometimes used interchangably with the term Chinese tea ceremony. Out of these two terms, the first I want to clarify is that there is not such thing as Chinese tea ceremony. I did not research to find out where this term originated. But I have seen people refer to tea making performance as Chinese tea ceremony. Tea making performances are those involving a young Chinese lady dressed in traditional Chinese custume and making tea with elegant moves. These shows are commonly found in tea houses in China nowadays. They are just performances to entertain and attract patrons.

The difference between Cha Dao and Gongfucha is more interesting and involves the history of Taiwan. Taiwan is geographically very close to the Minnan and ChaoShan region of mainland China where gongfucha is widely popular. Therefore it used to share the same tea culture with these regions. However, from 1895 to 1945, Taiwan became a colony of Japan and had its culture greatly influenced by Japan. 茶道, originally a japanese term, although they are Chinese characters, beame a widely used term for the Taiwanese local tea culture. Furthermore, the local tea culture also developed its own characteristics under influence from Japan. So the term Cha Dao is often used by the Taiwanese people for their way of making gongfucha.

Even though Taiwan is located not far from mainland China, it has been an independent state with limited exchanges with China due to political hostility. Only within the past 20 years, and with the gradual easing of the tension between China and Taiwan, trade and cultural exchanges have been established and Cha Dao made its presence in China. So the term Cha Dao obviously cannot be used in place for Gongfucha.

Hopefully this adds some clarification to the differences between the terms.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Tea Sinks During My Recent Trip

A tea tray, also refered to by some people, myself included, as a tea sink, is an indispensable part of the gongfucha teawear set. It can be made of clay, wood, bamboo, porcelain, or stone. I prefer to call them tea sinks over tea tray because they primarily serve the purpose of a sink - collecting liquid runoff, and that some of them are made like a large shallow bowl. Below are a few pictures of tea sinks I took during this recent trip. I thought some people may be interested to see them, so here they are:

This is the old fashion gongfucha tea sink made of porcelain.

A porcelain lotus leaf tea sink, with matching gaiwan and tea cups.

A flat bamboo tea sink with Qing Hua Porcelain gaiwan and teacups.

Another bamboo tea sink with White Jade porcelain teaware. (White Jade is not
real jade. It's juat a name to describe the nice finishing on this type of
white porcelain.

A HEAVY Zisha (Purple Clay) tea sink with lotus engraving. This tea
sink weights in at over 50 lbs.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Back From China

After a month in the hot and humid weather of FuJian and GuangDong province in China, I am finally back to the States. While I am adjusting for the jetlag, let me jumpstart this blog with a video from one of my trips deep into the tea country in the Phoenix Mountain. In this video I visited the tea farm of my longtime friend and tea farmer, Mr Wu. He tooked me to different parts of his farm to show me the many different varieties of Phoenis DanCong tea plants, some of which grown organically.

This is not the harvast season so there are only a dozen
or so tea pickers on the mountain - many on the other
side of the slope and can't be seen. During harvest
seasons throughout the year, everyone from the village
would be in the tea farms picking tea.

Mr. Wu showing me his experimental organic plants.

Picking some samples to compare with the regular plants.

Examining the hardly known Duck Sh!t variety. Yes, it's the name of this
variety of DanCong tea.

The Magnolia variety. Rubing the fresh leaves a few times with your palms
produces a light pleasant floral smell.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Gongfucha video from YouTube

Finally I found a video on YouTube that shows real gongfucha without the young lady, the elegant moves, and pointy little fingers, but with the right tools and steps. This is how gongfucha is prepared and served, right from the ChaoShan area. 

Video from YouTube's UCBerkeleyTCA channel.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tea Etiquette to UNwelcome your guest

Tea etiquette is a frequently discussed subject among tea drinkers. These discussions are usually about what should be done and how one should behave; and almost always these rules/routines/etiquette/whatever you call them are centered around politeness and other good intends. So far I have yet to find any detailed discussions about tea etiquette of bad intends, at least in gongfucha. So while I will share the other gongfucha etiquette I know with all of you here on this blog in the future, I am going to start off with an example of gongfucha drinker behaving badly.

Gongfucha has been around for a bit over a thousand years. Gongfucha drinkers have been using it as a platform to make new friends and establish business connections all this time. But of course, once in a while we meet people that we want nothing to do with. So gongfucha drinkers have invented ways to signal to their peer that it's time to wrap things up, using gongfucha.

Two overfilled teacups. This is an unwelcoming
gesture in gongftcha.

One good example of tea etiquette with bad intend is to fill the teacup up to the brim, aka overfilling the teacup. This tells your fellow guest or fellow drinker that he/she is not welcomed to have tea here. The logic behind it is that gongfucha is usually prepared with boiling/close to boiling water. Overfilling the teacup makes the cup very difficult if not impossible to hold. In other words, you don't want your guest to pick up the cup, which is translated into you don't want your guest to have tea - an unwelcoming gesture.

So fellows, don't overfill the teacup when pouring tea for your teamates, unless you want them away from the table or out of your house.

Edit: Just to follow up with more detail. It's okay to overfill the cup when you are rinsing it. Just don't overfill when the tea is meant for your guest to drink.

Friday, July 22, 2011

White Peony - Not A Flower Tea

Last night my friend J came over to have tea at our house. He brought over some White Peony (白牡丹 - Bai Mu Dan) bought during his recent trip to Nanjing, China. He said he likes the tea a lot for its rosy fragrant and lasting aftertaste. So we tried the tea. I took a look at the dry leaves before putting them into the teapot and they look like some sort of oolong tea. The appearance was good for an oolong. But it smelled exactly like a flower tea (花茶 - tea with added floral aroma). A lot of red flags here.

So it turned out the tea wasn't bad, just like J described, with a floral fragrant and decent aftertaste. The leaves used to make this tea was of good quality and the tea was crafted well for an oolong - no obvious bitterness and quite smooth with good body. I think the tea would be better if the floral fragrant weren't added because the floral taste totally overwhelmed the tea's own taste. Traditionally dried flower is used in tea making to cover unwanted (read unpleasant) flavor or to add flavor to flavorless tea. Ironically nowadays flower tea is actually amount the best selling tea. So tea makers just add floral fragrant to all kinds of tea, even decent ones like this oolong J bought. Please note that flower tea must be distinguished from other tea that naturally carries a floral or fruity aroma.

Getting back to the "White Peony" we had last night. We steeped the tea a few times before I told J that what we were drinking was just flower tea, not White Peony. He looked at me like "What?" I then explained to him what a White Peony really is and I want to share what I told him with my readers here.

Different grades of White Peony dry leaves

First of all, White Peony is a white tea, not an oolong. A white tea is not oxidized during the tea making process, whereas the oolong is oxidized partially.

Secondly, White Peony gets its name from what it looks like when steeped, not what it taste like. It gets its raw leaves from the same type of tea bush with the Silver Needle. So common sense can tell that if the Silver Needle doesn't carry a floral aroma, then the White Peony shouldn't either. The name White Peony is a direct translation from its name in Chinese 白牡丹 (白= white, 牡丹= peony). The "white" part of its name is descriptive of the white hair that covers bud and the back of the one or two attached leaves used to make this tea. The "peony" part of the name comes from the look of the bud and leaves when steeped. The hairy bud on top of the green leaves makes it look like a flower on a stem. As to why peony was chosen, instead of the many other famous flowers, there are many explanations out there. I personally err on the side that believe peony was chosen because Chinese people traditionally call it the king of flower and its long presence in Chinese history.

I hope this clarify the misunderstanding that White Peony should have a floral aroma. I have tasted different White Peonys that taste quite different, but none of it with a floral aroma. The different taste, of course, is the result of different tea bush characteristic and tea maker's craftsmanship.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Packaged or Loose? Which is better?

I remember when I was little my grandpa always took me with him when he went out to buy tea. This was almost 30 years ago in my hometown of Shantou China. Back then tea was rarely pre-packaged. The shops all had large barrel-like storage container to store their tea for sale. I can't remember what the containers were made of. But I remember grandpa always bought 1 kilo of his favorite 黃金桂 (Golden Osmanthus? Can somebody help with the translation?) each time, and the shop would wrap the tea in paper. That was the standard packaging for tea in the 1980's.

Loose tea wrapped in paper. This was, and in many places
still is, the standard packaging for tea.

Fast forward 30 years, with today's new technology and different lifestyles, tea storage and packaging has changed dramatically. Now there are tin cans, glass jars, foil bags, and even bio-degradable bags. You can even have your package vacuum sealed for longer shelf life. All of these inventions are great. But there is one drawback, a somewhat important one, that you no longer get to hold the tea in your hand to see and smell it before buying it. So how do you know what you are buying?

Packaged tea comes in all kinds
of fancy packaging

I was in China this June for some business. On one of the weekends I joined some old schoolmates in visiting a well-respected teacher of ours from elementary school. Of course I must not show up empty-handed. So I walked into a tea shop on my way to the meet-up place. Then guess what? I ran into a dilemma, one that many people run into I believe. Packaged or loose tea?

As a long time tea drinker and an insider, I knew I would be able to pick a very good tea at a decent price from the many loose tea in the shop. But as a gift, I knew loose tea wasn't very appropriate since Chinese people put great value on the gift's appearance. After all I was buying for a respected elder who also knows a lot about tea. So it had to look nice but at the same time be of excellent quality, two thing that don't always go hand-in-hand.

I ended up buying a packaged tea. But I asked the shop owner for recommendation. He was an honest guy. I was told that evern he didn't know the quality of every single packaged tea he had. But he would recommend a few he personally tried before. I picked a TieGuanYin with a nice large box - opened the package on the pot and had the owner steep a few rounds of gungfu tea to me. It turned out good, very good actually. and I bought another box for the actual gift.

Packaged tea? No. These are loose
tea when bought and later packed
and vacuum sealed. Typical packaged
tea look much fancier, like the ones
in the picture above.

So going back to the original question. Which is better? Well I think bynow we all can agree that it depends on why are you buying the tea. If you are buying for gift, then for whom? For you best buddy who you can share underwear with, then packaging doesn't mean much so go for the loose tea. For your future in-laws, you go straight to the packaged tea. On the other hand if you are buying for yourself, buy loose.

For those of you who buy tea on the internet, you don't have the option to hold the tea in your hand. So just buy small samples of loose tea like you have been doing already. Nowadays every online tea retailer offer samples. Buy a few samples and try them out. If you like it, buy more. Easy!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Pouring Away..... Just A Little

First time starting a post with a video. Nothing fancy here, just a 1 minute video of me pouring tea. The purpose of the video is to demonstrate what I am about to talk about in the post - pouring away a little bit of liquor before pouring into the teacup. By the way, I tried to make the video as short as possible so some steps are omitted here, like warming the cup, pouring hot water over the teapot, etc. There are enough video on YouTube to show you all those.

The key point here is I pour away a bit of the liquor before pouring into the cup. Note that I didn't pour into a pitcher first. In traditional gongfu tea, we DON'T use a pitcher. Okay, some people do now. But it's really unnecessary (my personal opinion). In gongfu tea, it is very important to keep the tea hot throughout the process. So pouring too many times will cool down the tea and also let too much aroma "evaporate". Sorry I am getting off topic. I wanted to say this for so long I can't help it.

Let me explain why we don't pour straight into the teacup with the following sketch. Please excuse my handicapped drawing skill and my chicken scratch.

The water in the pouring mouth of the teapot is not in contact with any tea leaves. So the water (I purposely avoided the word liquor here) in the pouring mouth is tasteless. Having this water in the teacup only dilutes the real liquor that follows. So please pour away..................a bit.

Edit: Pleast note all of the above does not apply when using a gaiwan.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Just Received Our 2011 Spring Phoenix Dancong Sample

Packing a little for myself and family. Yes, all of
these. They don't last long in our house.

Great! My long awaited 2011 Spring Phoenix Dancong (鳳凰單叢 Feng Huang Dan Cong) has arrived from my hometown in China. Fresh and so aromatic. 5 Kilos of them. Happy!!!

This is the Mi Lan Xiang (蜜蘭香,Honey Orchard Aroma) selection, the one I love the most. I am not a good writer so I can't adequately describe the wonderful aroma and taste with words. I'll just use three words, actually two, I know how to use to decribe the tea for now: REALLY REALLY GOOD!

If you like to sample this tea, I should know if I have extra from this sample by Tuesday July 12th. I'll update this post by then.

2011 Spring Golden Phoenix Dancong

2011 Spring Golden Phoenix Dancong

Edit: 07/12/2011

Okay so after fulfilling all our pre-orders, I still have a little left. If you are interested in buying a little to try it out, you can order it here on this website using either Google Checkout or PayPal. Our online store is still work in progress. Free shipping to anywhere within the United States. Canadian order please email me first (Email link is in my profile page).

1 oz  $12.00
2 oz  $22.00

Use the "Buy Now" botton on the right column to order.

The Golden Phoenix Dancong is temporarily sold out. Our next shipment will arrive in about 2 weeks.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"What Teapot....?" Part 3

This is the last of this series of posts. I just want to cover one more aspect of choosing the right teapot - the shape.

A zisha teapot with round belly

To a serious tea drinker, the shape of a teapot is important because it directly affects the quality of the liquor produced. In a zisha or porcelain teapots, flatter teapots generally work better than rounder teapots. 

Flat teapots have wider bottom which work well for spreading the dry tea leaves out and preventing "soaping" of tea leaves inbetween steeps. Having a wide bottom to spread out dry tea leaves allows the leaves to expand evenly during steeping. Better expanded tea leaves release more flavor, producing better liquor. 

A flat zisha teapot with wide bottom

The second benefit of a flat teapots is that the wide bottom spreads out the leftover liquor in the teapot inbetween steeps. Although we usually pour all the liquor out with each steep, there is always a little bit of liquor left in the teapot. If we let this leftover liquor soap the tea leaves on the bottom, the next steep may have an unwanted bitter taste. So by using a flat teapot with wide bottom, the leftover liquor is effective spreaded out, minimizing soaping. Another good thing about flat teapots is that they usually have wider mouths, making it easier to put larger dry tea leaves into the teapot.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Original Gongfu Tea Stove for Boiling Water

In the age of electric kettles, it's interesting to look back at how water was boiled for gongfu tea in the old days. This is what the pot and stove used to be.

In fact, some older folks in the ChaoShan area in China still boil water with a setup like this. What's really interesting is the fuel they use for the stove. The tweets you see in the above picture is just there to help start the fire. The real fuel is this:

If you don't recognize them, they are charcoal made from the pit of olives found in south eastern part of China. Because these pits have nuts inside, which carry oil substance, they give out an unique light aroma when burned. Through the air permissible bottom of the clay pot, the aroma finds its way into the water, giving the water the abiilty to enhance the Hui Gan (回甘= Return of sweetness) of the tea. These olive charcoal also burn very slowly.

Photos are taken by my friend who is also the artist still making stoves like this.

Remember to participate in our pole about how you steep your tea. The poll is on the blog homepage. Click on our banner on top.

Friday, July 1, 2011

"What Teapot Should I Get?" Part 2

I talked about choosing the right size teapot in part 1. In part 2, let's look into the types of teapots to choose. Using the right type of teapot is crucial to brewing a good cup of tea.

In brewing Chinese tea, the commonly used teapot now are: zisha teapot (紫砂壺), gaiwan (蓋碗)(To me when gaiwans are used in gongfu tea, they are just a teapot), large pocelain teapots (瓷壺), and glass teapots (玻璃壺).

A zisha teapot with Chinese
calligraphy carved on it
ZiSha teapot, or purple clay teapot, is the traditional gongfu teapot. It is THE teapot I recommend for brewing most tea. Here's why: The clay used to make ZiSha teapot is very unique. It's slower in conducting heat and has good permissibility. A good zisha teapot is capable of concentrating the heat from the hot water into steeping/brewing the tea leaves. It is also very durable because its good permissibility prevents it from cracking. A zisha teapot that is used everyday doesn't need to be washed/scrubbed. All it takes is a quick rinse with boiling water before use and it's ready for action. Zisha teapot lets you bring the best out of your tea. But a good one now demands quite a premium.

Me having tea at LaoShe Tea House
in Beijing in May 2011. In northern
China, tea is served in a gaiwan and
you drink straight from it.

Gaiwan is sometimes used in gongfu tea as a teapot. Although it was originally meant to be drank straight from, it somehow made its way into gongfu tea. As to how that happened, I have no idea. If you know about how the gaiwan became part of the gongfu teaset, please post a comment. I would greatly appreciate you sharing with me and the readers. Gaiwan is made with porcelain. Porcelain conducts heat relatively faster, making a gaiwan very hot to touch when preparing gongfu tea. I personally don't use gaiwan for gongfu tea that much (I used to, and still sometimes do just to refresh the skill). Gaiwans are good for tea that expands a lot when steeped because of it's slight funnel shape. Sometimes I also use it to steep small amounts of Pu'erh tea leaves and drink right out of it. A warning here for those who never use a gaiwan gongfu style, practice with cold water and spent tea in it before trying with hot water. I have seen too many people break their gaiwan before. I used to joke that "Caution! Extremely hot!" really should belong to the gaiwan instead of that plastic lid.

Large porcelain teapots are not commonly used by people who care about their tea. The only exception I say is in steeping Pu'erh with small amount of tea leaves. But this requires it to be placed over a gentle heat source like a candle. They are commonly used in Chinese restaurants because they are BIG, holds a lot of water, and can take some abuse. I never have much luck with large porcelain teapots. If you are a porcelain teapot master, please give me some tips on how to brew better tea with it.

Glass teapots are good for flowering tea,
allowing you to see the beauty of the tea
as it steeps.

Finally the glass teapots. They look nice and let you see your leaves and tea color. They are especially good when steeping flowering tea (I am not talking about flower tea like jasmine tea here) because it lets you see how your flowering tea opens up. There are good glass teapots made with heat resistant glass on the market now. Make sure you buy the ones made with heat resistant glass because regular glass can shatter when suddenly exposed to hot water.

So what's my recommendation? Obviously I recommend zisha teapots over the other ones if you can only pick one teapot to have. Zisha hold heat well which works perfectly in gongfu tea's quick steep and pour cycle. Even when you steep you tea for minutes before pouring, a zisha teapot still outperforms a porcelain or glass teapot. On the other hand, if Pu'erh or green tea is what you drink often, then a good solid gaiwan will work just fine for you and you can drink straight from it. Also a gaiwan is good for enjoying tea at work. I always keep a thermos and a gaiwan in my office. Filling up the thermos with hot water and a little bit of pu'erh or longjing in the gaiwan let you enjoy great tea at your desk. Lastly if you have flowering tea to steep, then a glass teapot is definitely in order.

I will go into detail about choosing a good zisha teapot or gaiwan in future post.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"What teapot should I get?" Part 1

My friend T called me this afternoon to tell me he broke his only zisha (紫砂) teapot and wants to get a replacement. He wants a small teapot but is unsure exactly which is right for him. So he asked me what kind of teapot he should buy.

"What teapot should I get?" is one of the FAQs I come across often. It is a question with many answers. To find the right teapot, a few key factors should be considered, such as: How you prepare your tea? What tea do you drink? or How many people you have tea with? etc. In this post I am just offering what I know about teapots and my way of choosing the right teapot. If you have other opinions about this subject, please post your comments to share your thoughts with me and the readers.

The typical large teapot used
in most Chinese restaurants.
Before I write further, let me just say that most seasoned tea drinkers have at least 3 or 4 teapots of different shapes and sizes. I am not saying you need a few teapots to be a serious tea drinker. It's just that in order to make the best out of your tea leaves in different settings, you need to use different teapots.

My 1-cup teapot. Great for testing
Getting back to the topic, let's first talk about size. Teapots come in sizes/volume from 1 gongfu teacup to about 1 liter. The ones used to make Chinese tea typically aren't bigger than 500mL, like the ones used in Chinese restaurants. Big teapots of this size usually cannot make very good tea. (There are exceptions when steeping aged fermented tea like Pu'er). In gongfu tea, the right teapot size depends on the number of cups of tea to make in each steep. The teapot should be just big enough to make the number of cups needed. The reason here is that a teapot too small will not produce enough tea in one steep. A teapot too big will produce more tea than you need, which results in waste if you pour the excess away or you "destroy" your tea leaves by oversteeping if you leave the excess in the teapot. (In traditional gongfu tea we pour straight from the teapot to the cup, so there is no other pot to collect the tea from the teapot).

In Minnan and ChaoShan
Area, people traditionally
pour tea straight to the
teacup, without using the pot
shown on the lower left of
this picture. This pot made
its presence in gongfu
teasets less than ten years
Another aspect here is that most tea expand when steeped and take up space, reducing the available water volume. How much the tea expands depends on the type of tea and the amount of tea leaves you use. Tea like Gunpowder and Tie Guan Yin expand more, while dragon well and Pu'erh don't expand much. If you like to make strong tea, you also need a slightly larger teapot because the more tea you use, the less room there is for water in the teapot.

Okay I need some tea now. I'll be back for Part 2.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Martial Art Tea

What does martial art have to do with tea? For those of you who really know why gong fu tea got its name and understands written Chinese well, you probably already know where I am heading with this post.

Okay, to answer the initial question, let me BRIEFLY cover how gong fu tea got its name as well as give you a short lecture in Chinese 101. So gong fu tea or kung fu tea, whichever you prefer, got its name from the Teochew dialect commonly spoken in the Teohew area (aka ChaoShan area) in Guangdong Province of China. This map shows you where the ChaoShan area is:

****ChaoShan area includes Chaozhou and Shantou, hance the name ChaoShan.

Gong fu tea, correctly written in Chinese as 工夫茶 is pronounced Gun Who Theh in Teochew dialect. Gōng fū chá is the Mandarin pronounciation of  工夫茶. In Cantonese it's Gōng fū Chǎ. So we got the term gong gu tea from Mandarin and Cantonese. Worth noting here is that the term Gun Who (工夫) is unique to the ChaoShan area and has an unique meaning of doing things the proper way, following every step. Let me emphasize: the written term 工夫 is not commonly used in written Chinese.
When the ChaoShan people introduce their Gun Who Theh (工夫茶) to the rest of China, they communicate in Mandarin, the official dialect of the country, and introduce 工夫茶 as Gōng fū chá. Remember I said the term 工夫 is not used outside of the ChaoShan area? So when the Mandarin or Cantonese speakers hear gōng fū chá they natually think of the commonly used written term of gōng fū - 功夫. 功夫 has two broad meanings: 1. martial art, or, 2. skills. So when 工夫茶 is mass marketed to the general Chinese consumers and to the rest of the world by people who don't understand the Teochew dialect, it becomes 功夫茶, or martial art tea! Interesting right? Another classic example of lost in translation.
So when I see tea label like this, I always joke that drinking it would make you a black belt. Really, it's what the label suggests.