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.