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I have added 22 video documentaries about the TEA industry and Master Yixing teapot artists - please look for them on the Tea Photos page - or click here. Because there are so many videos, I have added them to the bottom of the Photos Page. Barbara and I have done a lot of research to locate these videos. Enjoy.
Emended 6/23/2018 - new Pu-erh info (below) + caffeine research (@ end of this page) + new videos (Photos + Videos page) + Chouzhou Gong Fu style of tea utilizing crushed tea leaves.
Barbara and I have become hopelessly enthralled with Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese teas over the last 20 years. I share experiences and include background information on tea and hopefully these pages will convey our tea enjoyment to others.
All true teas as we know them (in contrast to flower and herbal infusions) are from the leaves of a Magnolia-related evergreen tree – Camellia sinensis. Chinese and Japanese teas use Camellia sinensis var. sinensis while Indian teas use Camellia sinensis var. assamica. The tea trees are grown in tropical and sub-tropical areas, but the best leaves are from trees grown in higher elevations up to 9,000 feet (2,740 meters) where the leaves will grow more slowly and produce a richer flavor. The many different styles and tastes of tea – white, green, oolong, black, and the pu-erhs – are the direct result of the regional variety of tea bush or tree, the local environment and substrate in which the plants are grown, how and when the leaves are picked, and how the tea is processed.
A few notes on preparing tea – water quality is critical. We suggest using Volvic (French), Crystal Geyser, Rocky Mountain, Alaskan Glacier Gold Water, or Poland Springs (all US brands), or Aquator, Bourassa Canadian, Naya (Canadian) bottled water, or good quality RO water (Reverse Osmosis) - this is what Barbara & I use, or . The most important properties for good water for brewing superior tea is no hard chlorination, neutral pH (7.0), and a preferred TDS of 30 – 50 ppm. Barbara and I use our Reverse Osmosis machine which pre-treats our well water to remove the heavy calcium levels plus ozonation and gives us a TDS of 9 – 20 ppm
When you are all done brewing your tea in your Yixing tea pot, simply rinse out the tea pot– never use any soap, just cold water. Lay the tea pot upside down to drain and air dry on a plastic drain board to prevent any chipping.
"What is The One ultimate and the most important rule of using Yixing teapot?
~ Sterilize the teapot with boiling water before use.
~ At the end of the tea session, immediately remove all the tea leaves and flush with boiling water.
~ Dry the interior of the pot with a clean and dry cloth.
~ Ensure that the pot is totally dry before storing.
~ NEVER STEEP THE TEA LEAVES IN THE POT OVERNIGHT.
~ Sun the pot. The UV will sterilized the pot further.
Always remember : Hygiene, hygiene, hygiene all the time. Never ever compromise." -- from teaism99 blog.
The Chinese name for tea is "cha" and defines tea's relationship to man. The top portion of the calligraphy, "chao" indicates that tea is a plant; the middle section, "ren" is man; and the bottom radical is "mu" or tree. Originally, the indigenous people in China in the tea growing region used the symbol "tu" and called it bitter tea "ku tu." Later on a stroke was dropped, changing the pronunciation to "cha". In Fujian Province tea is still pronounced "te."
The Chinese tea service is called Cha Yi - tea craft. To gain an understanding (the spiritual and philophical concept) of making the tea is called Dao. Cha Dao - the philosophy and reason behind cha yi - is learned by studing cha yi and then, over time, you come to understand Cha Dao.
I would like to thank Winnie Yu (deceased - Teance Teas in Berkley, CA - http://www.teance.com/) for her kind permission in paraphrasing her recent article on the interesting subject of naming teas. Tea has enjoyed thousands of years of culture throughout Asia and the naming of teas gives us a glimpse into the past.
Lu Shan Clouds and Mist "Lu Shan Yun Wu" green tea - Lu Shan, a most revered mountain, is named after the hot water cauldron of Lao Tzu, the author of the renowned Tea Classics. Poets and historians traveled far and wide to enjoy the mountain views. Tthe poet Su Dong Po once lamented, "Regretfully, I was never able to see the real face of Lu Shan" because while he lived on the mountain for 3 months, there was not one clear day. Lu Shan was known to be blindingly foggy for 260 days of the year, and the teas that grow there have tiny little curls of leaves that fight hard for sunlight. The resulting tea is very rich and dark green, named Lu Shan Yun Wu by the locals - yun meaning cloud, and wu meaning fog or mist.
White Peony Longevity Brows white tea - mythology plays a big part in the naming of teas. Almost every notable tea has a myth attached to it, some invented after the names were given, others named along with their myths. Many myths were similar, involving a supernatural Taoist or Buddhist deity, such as Guanyin, who pointed the way.
Once upon a time, an honest government official fled from his post with his elderly mother because corruption was rampant in the government and he resigned in disgust. On their journey, they came upon a lush green mountain with a fragrance that floated gently out to greet them. They asked an old man with snow-white hair and long white eyebrows where the fragrance came from. He pointed to a cluster of 18 white peony flowers growing along the lotus pond. Thoroughly enchanted, they settled in a dilapidated temple there and tended to the flowers.
One day the elderly woman fell gravely ill, and the official didn't know where to find medicine. Falling asleep from exhaustion, he dreamt that he saw the white-haired old man again, who told him to "make sure you make medicine out of carp and new tea buds." He woke up and was shocked to learn his mother had had the same dream. He immediately caught some carp, but where would he find new tea buds in the middle of winter? Suddenly, he heard a crackling sound: All 18 peony flowers had turned into tea bushes covered in silver-white buds with a fragrance quite reminiscent of peonies. His mother was immediately cured. The official carefully propagated these plants and shared them with the locals. To commemorate these extraordinary bushes, the locals thereafter called the tea White Peony Longevity Brows, because the buds resembled the arched white eyebrows of the immortal who first pointed out the white peony bushes.
Tikuanyin oolong tea - it has been said, "the taste of Zen and tea are one," and so Buddhism and tea are inextricably linked. The most commonly known story is that of Tikuanyin, or "Iron Bodhisattva of Compassion," an oolong tea from Anxi province in China.
Long ago a poor farmer prayed fervently for help from the goddess of compassion, Guan Yin, to raise enough money to revive the abandoned Buddhist monastery that once served their village. One night the farmer dreamt that she appeared and led him to a steep part of the mountain, and pointed to a tea plant growing there. The next day the farmer sought out that part of the mountain and indeed found the tea bush.
After making tea with it and carefully propagating, he found the tea extremely high quality and very fragrant. Consequently, he named the tea after his patron, Bodhisattva. Noting that the leaves were fleshier and heavier than those of other teas, reminiscent of the weight of metal pellets in his hands, he named the tea "Iron," or Tie Guan Yin. Of course, this tea proved to be extremely successful, generating enough money to revive the monastery. Tikuanyin also has another more Confucian legend attached to it, and many call this story true. A scholar named Wang from Anxi was studying hard for his magistrate's exam in the 1700s when his eyes wandered to a bush with shiny, dark green leaves. Filled with curiosity, he picked some leaves and processed them that night like he would any other tea, for he suspected that these bushes were very similar to other tea bushes nearby.
The resulting tea was extremely fragrant and intoxicatingly complex and fruity. Quite impressed, he took some of this tea with him the next day to his exam at the capitol. The story varies here, with some accounts suggesting that not having done so well in his exam, Wang presented some of this tea as a bribe to the examiner. The examiner knew that the then-Emperor Qian Long loved tea, so he re-routed the gift. Sure enough, the emperor was astonished at its quality and uniqueness, and subsequently named it "Beautiful like the Guanyin herself, the leaves weighty in the hands like metal," or Tieguanyin. A shrine remains where Wang's house once was, next to his original tea bushes.
Tung Ting oolong tea - Qian Long's grandfather, the Emperor Kang Xi, was visiting Dong Ting, a renowned picturesque lake in northeastern Hunan Province, China. He witnessed the way that the locals harvested their tea by very carefully placing the young leaves on their chests under their clothes - their body heat causing the fragrance of the leaves to float gently up and down the mountain. They presented the emperor with tea made from these tiny spirals of leaves. Thoroughly pleased, the emperor asked what this excellent tea was called. The locals replied, Xia Sha Ren Xiang, or "So fragrant it stuns a person to death." The emperor thought that was a coarse and uneducated name, and decided to rename the tea Bi Luo Chun, "bi" meaning jade green, after the color of the leaves; "luo" meaning little snails, after their shape; and "chun" meaning spring time, as it was harvested in the spring only. Bi Luo Chun remains one of the most renowned green teas.
Terry's note - we have watched pre-Qing Ming Bi Luo Chun being processed by our friend Dong dong and his father -- the fragrance of the lightly roasted hand pressed leaves was absolutely astounding --- "So fragrant it stuns a person to death."
Big Red Robe "Da Hong Pao" oolong tea - there was once a magistrate whose mother fell ill. Desperate to seek a remedy, he sought help far and wide. He heard that at Wuyi Shan in Fujian there were miraculous medicinal plants that could cure many ills. The locals there pointed him to some bushes that grew on the cliffs and rocks at the summit of the mountain. His mother was miraculously cured using this tea. Immensely moved by what a powerful plant this was, the magistrate hiked up to the top of Mount Wuyi, removed his red robe, lit incense, set up an altar for ceremony, and placed his robe at the foot of the tea bush. The red robe was a symbol of the highest position in the government next to the emperor himself, and offering it as a gift was the highest honor, befitting the most important Confucian relationship of all, that of parent and child. Thereafter tea growing on those cliffs was called Da Hong Pao or "Big Red Robe."
Yellow Gold "Huang Jin Gui" osmanthus oolong tea - most names, even without such profound legends attached, are reflective of the thought processes of the tea growers. For example, Yellow Gold Osmanthus oolong, Huang Jin Gui, a notable Oolong from Fujian, is so named because at one time this tea was so sought after that demand far exceeded supply. Customers lamented that the tea was like yellow gold (huang jin), the most expensive kind. Gui refers to its fragrance that resembled osmanthus flowers, as many teas were in fact named for their fragrances.
Phoenix Single Grove oolong teas - the most representative of this naming method are the Feng Huang Dan Chong teas - single-grove teas grown on Phoenix Mountain (Feng Huang) in Quangdong Province; each tea bearing a different fragrance. There is Honey Fragrance (Mi Xiang), the very common Orchid Fragrance (Zi Lan Xiang), and more esoteric teas like Ginger Flower Fragrance (Jiang Hua Xiang) and the rare Pommelo Fragrance Phoenix Single Grove. The most perplexing tea is the Eight Immortals (Ba Xian), because most of us do not have a reference to what Taoist immortals smell like! At one politically correct time, one of the oldest, rarest 400-year-old Dan Chong trees was re-named The East is Red (Dong Fang Hong) when Chairman Mao declared it his favorite of all the Phoenix Mountain oolongs. Shortly after Mao died that tree's name reverted to its original name - Song Dynasty Offspring (Song Zhong), which signifies its age: The original Song Dynasty tree is more than 1000 years old.
Bamboo Leaf "Zhu Ye Qing" green tea - tea farmers will name their teas after their natural environments. Bamboo Leaf green tea, or Zhu Ye Qing, is named after the stout, dense, dark green bamboo groves and leaves that cohabitate with the tea bushes grown at E Mei Shan. The tea tips themselves rather resemble pointy bamboo leaves, and is reminisant of the fragrance of bamboo. One can even go as far as to say that the leaves drop to the bottom of a tea cup much like the bamboo leaves float gently to the ground in the wind.
Taiwan Beauty oolong tea - when East meets West, the value systems of each quickly become apparent. The Queen of England was supposedly presented with an expensive tea that she enjoyed so much that she named it Taiwan Beauty, as it was as beautiful as the people of Taiwan. The citizens of Taiwan however do not call their tea that; instead calling it the more-inclusive Eastern Beauty (Dong Fang Mei Ren).
There are other variations such as White Downy oolong (Bai Hao) and Five Colour oolong (Wu Se referring to the red, brown, green, white, and yellow leaves) describing how the tea leaves appear. Some foreign merchants even went on to call this particular tea Champagne Oolong, decidedly not in keeping with the traditional Chinese naming. As for the growers in Taiwan, they call this Peng Feng, which means exaggeration, or "downright baloney." There you have the perceived value of a tea by foreigners versus the growers who knew better.
Click on image to bring up the larger Tea Brewing Guide for comparison of average tea leaf quantities, brewing water temperatures, brewing times, and number of steeping for Chinese Gong Fu style of brewing compared to Western style of brewing. My special thanks to China Life in England for this easy to reference guide.
The Chinese tea ceremony is not an elaborate formal regimented ritual like the Japanese Cha-no-yu (“The Way of Tea” perfected by Sen Rikyu in the 16th century).
The Gongfu (meaning "to do things well") method of tea became popular in China during the Ming dynasty (1250-1600). For the first time, tea was prepared in the whole leaf style and the kilns in Yixing became famous for the purple clay pots and the artist masters they produced. The Gongfu method was originally intended for brewing oolongs; today the centuries-old ritual now is used for virtually all other tea varieties. Highly developed in the Guondong area in the early Qing Dynasty (1600s), Gong Fu style was basically invented in South China because the people were not rich and they wanted to maximize the tea experience, so they shrunk down the tea ware and at the same time kept the amount of tea leaves the same. The steepings used a large leaf to water ratio steeped for very short times compared to what was used at the time and would become the Western style using a much higher higher water to lead ratio steeped for long periods. Gong Fu preparation and serving tea was possibly refined in the middle of the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) in the town of Chaozhou in eastern Guangdong Province, close to Fujian, and almost due west of Tainan, Taiwan.
Gongfu Tea takes its name from the same term kung-fu used in the martial arts. The use of the term with tea implies similar types of concentration, practice, and spiritual benefit.
Gongfu Cha can be performed in the following manner:
Heat water to a temperature appropriate for the style of tea you are preparing.
A tea sink is used to hold the tea pot, the tea cups, the tea implements such as bamboo tweezers and picks to clean out the tea pot, and the tea presentation vessel. The sink may be simple decorated metal or bamboo or an elaborately carved piece of clay or stone, but in all cases waste water is either drained to a reservoir below the surface or to a pipe that has a drainage tube that goes into an external bucket or container.
Pour the hot water into the teapot, which is placed on the tea sink or tea boat used for the ritual. This pre-heats the tea pot.
Pour the water from the tea pot into the sharing vessel and tea cups to warm them.
Take the tea leaves from the container and place in a tea pot using a scoop. You may want to show off the dried leaves first to your guests so place the dried leaves into a display cup which is usually glazed white inside to display the leaves. Pass the display vessel around to your guests so that they can admire and smell the leaves while they are still dry. The tea scoops may be highly decorative and carved from bamboo roots. Bamboo is used because it will not impart any flavor or smell to the leaves.
Pour the hot water over the leaves in the tea pot filling the tea pot about half way; pour out this first rinsing infusion into the tea sink and again pour hot water into the tea pot to slightly overflow the pot when the top is put on. I have also seen the first rinse poured into the sharing vessel and from there into the tea cups to keep them warm. In any case, this first rinse is generally not for drinking.
Pour hot water over the exterior of the teapot to prevent the leaves from cooling.
Empty the water from the warmed tea cups into the tea sink while the tea steeps.
CHAOZHOU GONG FU STYLE -- for aged white tea and oolongs - crush 5% - 10% of your leaves with a mix of buds & leaves into small pieces - use about 3 grams for a gaiwan & put the broken leaves in first & then cover with rest of leaves to act as a filter or if using a teapot, put the broken leaves in first and shake to the back of the teapot - pour water around the edge of the gaiwan or onto the whole leaves in the teapot avoiding the broken bits - increases the dryness and astringency to round up the full flavors of oolong or white teas by allowing some of the dissolved solids inside the leaves to be exposed to the steepings. Especially useful if you think your tea is too soft or lacks body but you like the high terpene aromatics in your tea. Do not use an initial wake-up rinse. What you may find is more mineralogy and woodsiness/earthyness - more full bodied - while still maintaining all of the top note terpenes. DO NOT crush too much of the leaves - may become very astringent. The finish may be more quenching.
There are several ways to pour the tea into the cups. I prefer pouring the contents of the tea pot into a warmed sharing vessel through a fine filter that will catch any small particles. This sharing vessel will insure that all your guests receive the same quality. You can also pour the contents of the tea pot into the cups a little at a time going back and forth to obtain the uniformity, but all the tea should be poured from the tea pot to prevent over steeping. The host may pass the emptied tea pot around to the guests so that they can appreciate the fragrance of the hot wet leaves. This can be taken to one more step by using fragrance cups. In competition, these small cylindrical cups are filled with tea and the saucer is placed on top of the cup and inverted. The cup is raised to empty the tea into the saucer and the fragrance of the tea is smelled in the cup. This, in my opinion, is getting a little extravagant, but kind of interesting to do on occasion??
Making tea is a delicate art in finding the appropriate taste of each particular batch of leaves by balancing the quantity of dried leaves placed into the particular tea pot, the volume of the water used, the temperature of the water, and the amount of time used for each steeping. Time and experience refines this art – if the tea is too strong, too astringent, or too dilute, you adjust the preparation factors and learn from each and every tea preparation.
Tea is served by the host and is poured into the guests’ cups in a counter-clockwise direction (bringing the circle toward your heart) to indicate that the host wants his or her guests to stay and enjoy. If the guests notice the tea being served in a clock-wise direction, I guess it is time to go.
Tea can be steeped several times – generally two times for greens, maybe 3 or 4 times for oolongs, and upwards of 7 or 10 times for exceptional aged pu-erh. Several types of tea can be enjoyed if the visit is long and the conversation flows. I generally like to progress from the lighter teas into the heavier more robust pu-erhs. New and different style tea pots and cups are used for the different teas, but keep in mind the porous zisha clay pots retain flavors and you should reserve specific tea pots for specific teas.
An experiment was conducted on how to properly store steeped leaves overnight if the leaves had only been steeped a few times and you wanted to save the leaves for more steeping the next day. It seems that the best way would be to remove the leaves from your teapot or gaiwan and lay them out on paper towels at room temperature in an odorless area at room temparature to air dry. This method compared very favorably to re-steeping teas within an hour of the first steep. The 2nd best storage was in a sealed container in your refigerator; the worst method was storing the used leaves in a sealed container at room temperatures.
JUDGING GREEN TEAS LEAVES BY SIGHT –
LUNG CHING “Dragon Well Green” (brew @ 85° C) – Chinese from around Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. High grade indications - look for uniform small flat leaves with a mix of yellowish color (roasted) plus darker green which will give you a more complex rounded flavor in the steepings than dry leaves with a more uniform yellow color indicating more roasting which will produce steepings with more of a one-note flavor. Early spring or pre-Ching Ming harvest may have some yellowish white fluff. Beware of much larger flat leaves with a wild assortment of leaf shapes / sizes which indicates low grade.
LU’AN GUA PIAN “Melon Seed Green” (brew @ 90° C) – Chinese from Lu’An City in Anhui Province. Oolong style pickings with uniform medium-sized leaves. A little flat & oval in shape resembling melon seeds. Look for a mix of darkish vibrant kelp green and lighter green color.
BI LUO CHUN “Green Snail Spring Green” (brew @ 75° C) – drink short steepings unfiltered) – Chinese from the Dongting mountain region near Lake Tai, Jiangsu. Look for nice bi-color mix of fluffy white and dark green in the fine and delicate leaves with lots of buds indicating high grade early spring or pre-Ching Ming harvest. Will produce steepings with a nice balance of flavors.
SENCHA (brew @ 70° C to 77° C) – best from Uji, Japan. Look for nice dark green color but not excessively deep dark green which may indicate a very deep steaming which will make the leaves more brittle and fragile causing breakage and a lot of dust. Too dark of a color may also indicate the tea was grown in high sun levels. Look for glossy rich dark green color with larger whole unbroken leaves with no dust.
- Teas Information page for lessons.
- Tea article Fairchild Tropical Gardens "The Tropical Garden - 3/2010 - several articles written about Chinese and Taiwanes teas by Jeff Wasielewski after he interviewed Barbara and me before the Chocolate, Tea, and Coffee Festival last January.
Chinese white teas are principally picked from the northern portions of Fujian Province or from Hunan and Guangxi in south central China just as the tea bushes are starting to grow and develop their first flush of growth in early spring. The highest quality would be pre-Qing Ming just before the first leaves are unfolding from the developing bud. The developing bud is pulled or snapped off and air dried with minimal or no oxidation occurring, thus preserving the greenest of growth covered with tiny silken hairs. The leaves are not rolled during the drying heat and that stops any further oxidation. Some of the more famous of these would be Fuding White Peony (2 young leaves + the emerging sprout), Gushan Baiyun (Drum Mountain White Cloud), Fuding Gong Mei, Yinzhen Bai Hao (Silver Needle), and Fuding Shou Mei made from the left over leaves from the superior Bai Hou tea. Steep about 3 grams of leaves in 6 ounces of water in water about 170º – 185º F (76º – 85º C) using a fair amount of leaves since the tea will be light and allow to steep for maybe 4 – 5 minutes. Use a glass or a glass gaiwan to enjoy the opening of the dried leaves. I’ve found the flavors will be grassy, green, and a little “vegetably” – what I would envision pure untouched tea leaves to taste like. White tea can generally be steeped twice and possibly three times with 15 to 30 seconds or so of increased steeping times. Store White Tea in a screw top glass container to protect it from air – we also store ours in the freezer to make it last longer.
Jun Shan Yin Zhen (“Silver Needles from Jun Mountain”) is one of China’s tem most famous teas. Jun Shan is in Hunan Province and was a favorite tea of Chairman Moa Ze Dong. There are only a few of the old producing trees left near the authentic production area which is Hunan’s Dongting Lake. The production techniques are a little different resulting in the yellowish coloration of the hairy leaves. The unopened emerging leaf buds are plucked and quickly de-enzymed using heat and then wrapped in paper. Oxidation is stopped but there is still a change in the taste resulting in a slightly sweet smokey taste that is stronger than green tea.
The best way to enjoy this tea is in a tall glass so that you can watch the garden of green needles float and sink during the infusions.
I’ve always thought that China has the highest quality green teas. Japan also produces very high quality green tea, but it is processed a bit differently, and their flavors are different. The highest quality Chinese green tea is picked pre-Qing Ming just as the bushes begin their growth. Outside of Souzhou, Barbara and I have visited Xishan, the largest island in Lake Tai Hu. The village of Piao Miao had a snow fall one week earlier. We were climbing the short mountain and stepping all over the broken Qing and Ming Dynasty pottery shards to watch our friend, Zhou Guo-Dong (Dong dong), pick and process Bi Luo Chun tea. His five family members would pick the smallest of emerging branch tips from 6 in the morning until noon – picking maybe 500 grams of leaves that day. It takes about 120,000 young sprouts to make one kilo of finished tea (and that may be the Chinese / Taiwanese way of measuring tea weight where 1 kilo = 600 grams). The leaves would be hand sorted to pick only the best leaves that would not be broken or bruised. The daily batch would then be dried and pressed by his father in a wok heated with a small wood fire stoked by his uncle. Later crops of leaves would, of course, produce much higher quantities of tea leaves as the bushes actively started to grow but the taste changes. The 2006 pre-Qing Ming Bi Luo Chun is being picked from Dong dong’s tea bushes on top of the highest point on Piao Miao which faces East and is being dried and pressed in a large steel wok by his Father and Uncle at their home on the southern base of the mountain right now – 3/28/2006.
There are many types of Chinese green teas – we have been enjoying pre-Qing Ming plucked Bi Luo Chun, pre-Qing Ming picked Lung Jing Xiwu (West Lake) Dragon Well from around Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province (the best quality comes from Xifeng) – it takes 70,000 – 80,000 young leaves to make 1 kilo of this tea (leaves from Xifeng are amber green in color while leaves from the more mass produced areas of Hangzhou are emerald green in color), Mao Jian, Mao Feng grown in Huangshan Yellow Mountain, Anhui Province – the smallest, rarest, and most tender of which is named Sparrow’s Tongue, Pingshu Gun Powder (small tightly rolled balls), Lu Shan Yun Wu - there are just so many and they all have different tastes and feelings. There is also a very large difference in quality between the hand-picked competition grade tea that the farmers produce in much smaller quantities to enter into tasting competitions each spring (smallest quantity = highest price) and the same farmer’s high quality and standard quality (may be machine pruned) production teas. Tasting is the determining factor. In general for Lung Jing (Dragonwell) green tea - pre-Qing Ming produces about 25% of the yearly harvest demaning the highest prices (maybe $200/100 g retail) - the taste of this will be a bit lighter / the remaining 75% harvests the will be done as the plants grow faster up to the end of April and the prices will drop to maybe $45/100 grams - do not trust any Lung Jing Dragonwell labeled as produced after the end of April nad is less than $45/100g from Xihu; the tea plant cultivar will depend upon taste (Qun Ti Zhong is the original variety in the Xihu area having a slight reddish tinge to the foliage which has more roasted bean flavor / Long Jin 43 and the smaller leaf cultivar (Shou Yeh?) developed around 1960 to potentially garner higher market pricing and would be harvested about 2 - 3 weeks earlier & has a nice fresh balanced flavor / and Wu Niu Zao which is extremely early harvested & has a very very green flavor); as for origin of the particular tea farms (elevation is not that important for Lung Ching and is generally around 250 meters but there are higher locations which will produce crops at a slightly later date because of the elevation) - Xihu is very consistant for high quality but is expensive - other locations in the Provence also produce quality; the pickings consist of one bud plus one or two young leaves; most production today utilizes machines to do the initial enzyme killing roasting done in 250 gram lots after the fresh leaves have been slightly wilted followed by hand firing on a wok starting @ 150 C (302 F) and increasing every 2 minutes up to 200 C (390 F) to get the final moisture content to less than 7%. It may be difficult to obtain Lung Jing that has been hand roasted twice (less than 0.01% produced in the world) but if you can it will be slightly more yellow & green in color (compared to the machine initial roasting which will be a more uniform green color) - the more yellow, the more nutty flavor - also the totally hand roasted would be slighty darker and overall finer in finish and the flavors are more roasty nutty. Quality should focus mostly on taste and not principally on looks. Look for consistency (skill) and smaller shorter leaves indicating younger pickings. Definately stay away from any Lung Jing which is all leaves and no buds.
Most Japanese green teas are first steamed for about 30 seconds, sorted, and then dried over various amounts of heat.
The year’s first flush of tea leaves in Japan is called Ichiban Cha and is harvested throughout May in Uji in the Kyoto region. Kyoto is considered the birth place of Japanese tea. A Buddhist monk, Eisai, popularized the idea of drinking tea in 1191. Kyoto is also considered the finest tea growing area in Japan because in 1738 Sohen Nagatani developed the Japanese tea processing methods that are still used 270 later. Kyoto, which was Japan’s capital for over one thousand years, is hilly with hot sunny Summer days and cool misty nights. Uji harvests their Ichibancha a few weeks later than the rest of Japan (such as the Shizuoka and Kagoshima regions) because of the climate.
To prepare for the first harvest of tea leaves, the bushes are pruned in March. Tea bushes are harvested from two to five times from Spring to Fall – the first and finest picking is called Ichibancha (which is the highest quality) followed by the second picking called Nibancha sometime during June or July. The third picking called Sanbancha is mid to late Summer and if there is a Fall picking it is called Yonbancha. Nibancha, Sanbancha, and Yonbancha are sold as lower grade teas.
Gyokuro (“Jade Dew”) is the highest grade of tea made in Japan and is always picked by hand. It is now produced in Uji which is southeast of Kyoto and fairly recently Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu which probably produces the finest Gyokuro in the last 20 years. Think of Uji is for Japanese tea as Bordeau is for wine.The first flush of leaves from plants grown under shade cloth (Kanreisha) for 20 to 30 days, which reduces the bitter tannins (catechin) in the leaves. The shade also increases the production of the amino acid theanin resulting in a sweet and mild tea flavor. The highest grade of Gyokuro is grown under Tana cloth suspended well above the tea bushes which are like the shade structures down here in south Florida. Kanreisha that is just draped over the tea bushes is called Jikagise. Sencha is grown in full sun resulting in a more bitter flavor with a refreshing aroma in contrast to Gyokuro and Matcha which are acclimatized under shade cloth.
In Japan, the best stage to pick tea leaves is when the growth has produced from 3 to 5 leaves, so the growth is not too small or too large and mature – a two or three day miscalculation can result in the quality of the tea being compromised. Hand picking in contrast to machine mower trimming is used in the highest quality more mellow Gyokuro, Sencha, and Matcha teas. Most Japanese teas are harvested by machine mowing which makes the highest quality hand-picked teas very precious.
Leaves are picked and processed the same day. A highly skilled tea harvester can hand pick about 6 – 8 kilograms of fresh leaves in a day. The fresh leaves are first steamed (requiring the most skill and experience even though steaming only takes 30 to 60 seconds since the steaming time and temperature used depends upon many factors such as thickness of the leaves and how soft the tissues are), then drying and crumpling, and finally shaping. The total weight of the finished leaves is only about 18% of the weight of the freshly picked leaves.
Gyokuro may be aged for 3 months to allow the leaves to mellow. Netto Gyokuro is one form in which the leaves are broken into small bits allowing this tea more latitude in brewing temperatures. Kanro Gyokuro is more delicate and consists of unbroken leaves – the brewing temperature is much lower for these delicately twisted highest quality tea leaves. It has a very light and delicate flavor, so brew Gyokuro for about 45 seconds – 3 minutes with water at 120º – 140º F (50º – 60º C) – use about 4 grams (1 tsp) of the tea per 120 ml (4 ounces) water, depending upon your taste. A good grade of Gyokuro brewed in this method of relatively high amounts of tea to low amounts of low temperature water should result in three or four infusions. Hojicha and Genmaicha are brewed with water closer to boiling temperature for only about 1 minute.
Kuradashi Gyokuro (aged Gyokuro) is celebrated as the Shincha of Gyokuro. It is also known as enriched Gyokuro. It is becoming more and more difficult to find real enriched Kuradashi Gyokuro, even in Japan, because the1.5 year aging process must be closely monitored or the tea will deteriorate. Only specific types of Gyokuro can be considered for aging - the breed of the tea, how the sunlight is diffused, the management of the fertilizer and nutrients, the picking and processing of the leaves are only a few of the determining factors. Very limited and rare Pinnacle Kuradashi Gyokuro is grown under Honzu structures made out of reeds and straw. This practice is only performed by about 10 farmers in all of Japan todsay. Many of the wholesalers and retailers are not willing to accept the risks involved in producing enriched Gyokuro. The actual aging of Kuradashi Gyokuro has to follow certian stndards - the tea must be of the highest quality; it must be smooth tasting; it must be grown under Tana; at harvest, the tea cannot be steamed heavily like regular Gyokuro; and the tea must be grown in the Uji region. To age the tea, it is put into mylar bags that are not sealed and then placed in special wooden boxes, which are then placed in special refigerators that circulate the sir so that oxygen circulates around the laeves. Kuradashi Gurokuro has a sweetened, deeper, more mellow, full but not strong, richer and more subtle flavor which echos in your mouth for a while. We have been enjoying Pinnacle Kuradashi Gyokuro tea by preparing 4.0 grams of tea leaves in 150 ml water @ 140º F to 158º F (60º C to 70º C) steeped for 1.5 to 2 minutes. I have found that it will steep well 2 times and the 3rd time is rather weak. It is almost impossible to over-steep Kuradashi because of the aging process, so there will never be an astringency to the steepings.
Shincha is the Japanese version of the Chinese “pre-Qing Ming” picked green tea in that it is the first picking of spring and is only steamed very lightly to give it a light aromatic taste – it is considered the best of the tea crop for the year. There are 5 grades of Shincha - Kiwami Shincha is the highest grade made from the finest hand-picked leaves followed by Shun no Kaori Shincha. Shincha is normally harvested in May depending upon weather. It often rains in Kyoto during this season, which will affect the flavor and aroma of the tea leaves. Tea leaves harvested the day after a rain will often have a deeper flavor and aroma, but if the leaves are picked with rain on the leaves, this will result in a much lower quality tea known as Tsuyu-me (“sprouts with rain drops”). Prices can vary widely depending upon rain fall – if it rains early in the harvest, prices increase because the quality will be high followed very quickly by the leaves growing so quickly that they are too large for harvesting.
Sencha is initially steamed, then air dried, and finally heated in a pan for the final preparation. Most Japanese tea is graded as Sencha and varies in flavor and uniformity – the later pickings being more bitter and less aromatic. Sencha is brewed at about 176º F (80º C) for about 1 to 2 minutes.
Kamairi Cha is pan-fried tea prepared in the Chinese method and its rich flavors are similar to the green Chinese teas. Two southern regions in Japan considered particularly good for this tea are Sechibaru and Ureshino.
Mecha (bud tea) is made from the rolled buds plus the tip leaves during spring growth. It is a little astringent and bitter and is sharp in flavor.
Other types of Sencha teas are Hukamushi (heavily steamed non-uniform leaves resulting in a milder tea with less green aroma), Kukicha (made from the stalks of the Gyokuro and Sencha after the bud and three leaves had been removed – light flavor and fresh green aroma), Bancha (common tea made from the later season or second flush coarser leaves and some twigs with full flavor that goes well with food), Houjicha (pan-fried at higher temperatures using Kukicha and Bancha to produce reddish leaves with a clean deeply roasted flavor which is good with oily or heavier foods), and Genmaicha (roasted rice tea) which is a blend of Bancha and roasted rice.
Matcha (also spelled Maccha) is powdered tea made from hand-picked early season high grade shaded leaves similar to Gyokuro which is steamed, not roasted; the leaf’s veins and stems are then removed, and the leaves are stone ground (it takes one hour to grind 40 grams of Tencha to produce the fine powder). Uji city in Kyoto prefecture and Nishio city in Aichi prefecture produces the finest matcha (with flavors of creamy grassiness and light flowers) but matcha is now also produced recently in Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu (a higher temperature results in toasted hazelnut and cacao flavors). Matcha from Nishio are produced for mass markets and are much less complex and lack aromatics generally. Matcha from Shizuoka where the largest volume production of Japanese green tea is produced is not considered good matcha.
Most commercial matchas (Food Grade as compared to Ceremonial Grade) are a blend of many varietals but higher grade matchas contain very few varietals and come from pedigreed tea plants. What is the difference? Taste - higher quality grades have a smoother taste, a better mouth feel, and generally are less bitter. Currently, Matcha is the fastest growing segment of the global tea market. Japan is producing more and more tea each year (during the first half of 2018, according to The Nikkei Asian Review, Japan exported 1,978 tons of green tea - a 4% increase from 2017 - the largest total quantity since 1988). Much of this is due to mechanized picking resulting in poorer quality. So, before you purchase and prepare Matcha for the first time, find the finest quality of the tea that you can. Here are 5 things to look for according to "The Daily Tea" - 1) ORIGIN - again, look for Matcha from Uji or Nishio which are considered to be the top producing areas; 2) PRICE - you get what you pay for - generally, depending upon source, a 30 grm package will run around $26.00 to $32.00; 3) COLOR - look for very vibrant green - the greener, the better - because the best Matcha is produced under shade, the tea bushes produce more chlorophyll, making the tea greener - never the yellowish or brownish color of leaves that had not been properly shaded, or leaves that are too old, or simplky having been harvested from lower down on the branches; 4) TASTE - the nose is supposed to be sweet and vegetal - this comes from the amino acid L-theanine which gives the shade grown Matcha a nice, clean drinking, green taste - low-quality Matcha will have a strong bitter / astringent flavor; and finally 5) FEEL - a true high quality Matcha will have a fine and silky baby powder feel because of the small 5 - 10 micron particle size - a lower quality grade Matcha has larger grittier particles when you rub it between your fingers. So - bottom line - not all Matchas are created equal.
When you drink Matcha, you are actually drinking the tea leaves themselves. It is the tea used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony (Chano-yu) – sift the bright green powder through a very fine screen called a Matcha Sifter to get rid of the lumps and produce a mellower flavor. Nishiocha from the Matcha producing region in Aichi is considered the most famous. Only the highest quality Matcha can be used to make the thick strong Koicha (leaves picked exclusively from tea bushes that are at least 30 years old). The thinner weaker style Matcha is called Usucha (the tea bushes have to be less than 30 years old). Brew Matcha at 185º F to 210º F (85º C– 99º C). Use about 4 grams (1 tsp) per 120 - 150 ml water (depending upon personal tastes) for a strong brew that is used in Chano-yu or about 2 grams (0.5 tsp) in 120 ml hot water for everyday Matcha. Place the talc-like powdered tea in the Matcha cup, pour in the hot water, and use a Matcha bamboo whisk vigorously to froth up the tea.
Green tea can generally be steeped twice and possibly three times with 15 to 30 seconds or so of increased steeping times. In general store, steep, and enjoy the Green Teas the same as White Teas.
Store Japanese green tea at 32º F (0º C) – 37º F (5º C to preserve the freshness of the delicate teas.
Alternate brewing methods for Japanese teas to enhance the brewing experience - 1) You can slow-brew at a lower temperature for a little longer time for a softer more mellow flavor (Gyokura is usually brewed @ 140 F - 158 F / 60 C - 70 C for 1.5 - 2 minutes - try brewing @ 131º F / 55º C for 2 - 2.5 minutes // Sencha is usually brewed @ 176 F / 80 C for 1 minute - try brewing @ 167º F = 75º C for 1.5 minutes // Matcha which is usually brewed @ 176 F / 80 C - try brewing @ 158º F = 70º C). 2) To intensify the depth of flavor, try increasing the quantity of leaves leaves or Matcha - add an additional 25% - 30% and use the slow-brew temperatures and times. You can also get an additional steeping from the tea leaves this way.
Health benefits result from various flavonoids including antioxidant polyphenols, notably a catechin ECGC (epigallocatechin-3-gallate), which is especially abundant in the green teas. Catechins have been found to be more efficient free radical scavengers than Vitamins C and E and promote a wide spectrum of neuroprotective cellular mechanisms such as iron chelation and regulation of mitochondrial function. Most of the research has been based on the 3 cups of green tea per day the Asians typically drink providing about 240 – 320 mg polyphenols which includes 60 – 105 mg ECGC. Green tea seems to be beneficial to reduce the risk of coronary artery disease, cancer, stroke, and gum diseases. Green tea also lowers LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, fibrinogen, and promotes weight loss. The green tea catechins also have been found to significantly lessen brain cell damage from a wide range of neurodegenerative disorders including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Diseases by chelating iron and preventing it from producing free radicals. Health related information and references from http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=146
Interesting new medical benefits for green tea reported by Forbes.com on 4/30/2007 – research at the University of Michigan by Salah-uddin Ahmed and the medical College of Georgia by Stephen Hsu is indicating that besides its cardiovascular and anti-cancer benefits, green tea may also ease the inflammation and pain of auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Lupus, and Sjogren’s Syndrome. The research indicates that EGCG may help block the damage caused by the damaging proteins and enzymes caused by rheumatoid arthritis.
The European Union (EU) has a standard of testing foods (Concentration Standard of Residual Agricultural Chemicals) and green teas are generally not exported to the EU. Green teas produced in Uji and Kyoto have now met these standards of excellence.
Japanese compared to Chinese Green Tea comparison table - please click on image above.
Wenshan Bao Zhong oolong is produced in Pinglin in the Wen Shan area about 40 km southeast of Taipei. The village has a population of about 6,000 – 4,800 of whom are tea farmers and not only has the largest tea museum in Asia (the Pinglin Tea Industry Museum) but also produces one of the Two Sister Teas (Jie Mei Cha) of Taiwan. Bao Zhong is an extraordinary light oolong. The flavor is lighter than other oolongs because the processing calls for only about 15% oxidation compared to upwards of 60% for other oolongs. Barbara and I were looking for “big leaf” Bao Zhong and no one at the tea museum knew what we were asking until a gardener (who was also a tea farmer) there overheard us. He knew of a tea maker who was making the competition “big leaf.” A friend of Barbara’s who is in the tea importing business had once given her what looked like an entire branch of large leaves that had been lightly oxidized and dried and entered for competition. It was entirely unique – you actually had to gently crush the leaves to get them into the gaiwan so that you could steep the tea. We had never seen anything quite like that again. The competition grade Bao Zhong which was only available in very limited quantities had the same flavor as the whole branch that we had enjoyed in Homestead.
The other sister tea is Dong Ding from Wuyi Shan in the village of Luku which has an oxidation of about 35%. It is rich and medium roasted like Bao Zhong. Barbara and I found some 20 year old aged Dong Ding which has a balance of a beautifully roasted oolong and a flavor reminiscent of a light pu-erh.
In recent years, the most expensive and highest quality oolongs were from the Alishan and Dong Ding areas mentioned above, but recently some very high quality richly roasted oolongs are from Lishan (“Pear Mountain”) where the tea is grown up to 9.000 feet (2,740 meters).
Tiekuanyin (Iron Buddha) oolong used to be exclusively from Nanyan in Fujian Province China but is now produced in Taiwan and China. It is known for its larger leaves and its ability to go through many steepings and still have the slightly sweet roasty flavorings.
We discovered a unique oolong from Nantou in Taiwan. The tea farmer takes her finest grade oolong after it has been processed and puts it through a second roasting to produce “Red Water” oolong. This tea fills the entire house up with it’s fragrance when we brew it (hot and strong) and the smoky, woodsy, sweet, and nutty flavor lasts through many steepings.
Oriental Beauty oolong (Dong Fang Mei Ren or sometimes called Bai Hao = “white hair” or Wu Se Cha = “tea with five colors” referring to the coloration of the dried leaves) dates from the end of the 19th Century. I do not particularly like this oolong because it is 70% + oxidized and tastes to me a little like black tea. The tea is harvested as young leaves in summer right after the leaves have been bitten by a small cricket which starts the oxidation process. It is a very popular tea and recent imitations are coming from India and China, but those teas tend to have a bitter taste. The best Oriental Beauty comes from Pinglin in the Wenshan area near Taipei. Typical Wenshan Oriental Beauty relies heavily on fragrance and should be brewed quickly to prevent astringency.
Barb and I recently received a 2.85 gram sample of a white Oriental Beauty 2006 from Nantou. This tea was from Stephane Erler’s private collection – very rare also because it only produced 2 yin (1,000 grams). This tea totally surprised Barbara and I because it was so totally light, delicate, and subtlety floral – an absolutely superb tea produced by a true tea master.
Aged oolongs from Taiwan are really unique and different than aged pu-erh from Yunnan, China. The teas (such as Dong Ding or Bao Zhong) are roasted to remove moisture and store in clay containers. They are inspected over the next 3 years for moisture content as the tea starts to lose it’s “fresh” taste and turns more mellow and full. From 5 to 10 years the color of the leaves turn more brown and the tea takes on a reddish tone when brewed. The aged oolong is pretty much mature at 15 years, but will continue to mature and mellow. Our closest friend in Taiwan cannot drink green or oolong teas anymore because of a “sensitive stomach”, but he can drink red water and aged oolongs all day. I have read that aged oolongs are probably more “organic” pesticide and chemical-free and are usually made from higher elevation leaves that are thicker than lower elevation teas.
PU-ERH TEA (my favorite)
Pu-erh dates back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220 AD) & possibly as early as the Shang Dynasty (1700 – 1027 BC). This early, members of local national minorities would just throw tea leaves from the scattered wild tea trees into boiling water and add pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and other spices. It was not until the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) that the practice of pouring hot water over tea leaves and rolling leaves into little balls became popular. By this period, specially shaped tea cakes (375 gram and larger) were shipped to the Imperial Court as tribute and the Emperor would present smaller bricks (250 gram) as rewards to his officials.
In 1570, Dao Ying-meng, an Imperial representative, divided his jurisdiction into 12 “bannas” (a Dai language word meaning government regions for Imperial tax gathering), the most famous for Pu-erh being the Six Tea Mountains of Xishuangbanna and Simao. It is written in the book "Chronicle of the Town of Puerh" written during the reign of Emperor Daoguang of the Qing Dynasty "In distant times the Marquis Wu (Zhuge Liang) travelled criss-cross fashion through the region of the Six Tea Mountains, leaving a copper gong in Youl, a copper snake in Mangzhi, a brick of iron in Manzhuan, a wooden beater in Yibangm a yoke harness in Gedeng and a seed bag for sowing in Mansi. These places were named after all these objects. In Mangzhi and Gedeng there are tea trees planted according to legend by the Marquis Wu himself, whom the local national minorities revere to this day, and they are much bushier and higher than in the other Tea Mountains." The original Six Tea Mountains (Youle = Copper Gong, Manzhuan = Iron Brick, Mansa = Seed Sowing Bag, Mangzhi = Copper Boa, Yibang = Wooden Clapper, and Gedeng = Leather Stirrup) region of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan where a lot of wild tea trees grew was probably the legendary place where tea cultivation started in the entire world. In 1962, the “new” Famous Six Tea Mountains were founded - Yiwu, Jingmai, Menghai, Nannuo, Bulang, and Youle, because over time, the original set of mountains had been destroyed by fire, neglect, and over-picking. This set of Six Mountains are Jiang Bei (north of Mekong River). There is also a set of Famous Six Tea Mountains that include some of the “original” mountains that are Jiang Nan (south of Mekong River) – they are Mengsong, Nannuo, Menghai, Bada, Nanqiao, and Jingmai. The town of Pu-erh was simply the administrative center of the Six Tea Mountains banna. All the tea that was produced in this region, except for the Black teas, were known as pu-erh, even though they didn’t taste like what we know as Pu-erh. The twice-fermented tea was probably an accidental discovery when tea was being transported by horse or oxen and may have gotten damp (rain and sweat?) and oxidized. The customers who purchased this tea along the caravan trail became accustomed to the particular taste of the tea.
By the 1700s, the tea was so highly taxed that it was difficult for the tea farmers and merchants to make a living, so production and supply dropped. By the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), there was a devastating fire that destroyed about half of the tea growing areas in the Six Tea Mountains and disease and neglect ruined the remaining areas.
The PRC was established in 1949, and there was a renewed interest in pu-erh tea production resulting in new factories being built, tea research facilities being established, and new tea growing areas being planted.
So - how did the word Pu-erh originate? The word pu-er or pu-erh is the word for pu te, which predates Pu-erh Prefecture by 100 years. The Pu-erh area (in southern Yunnan between Xishuangbanna and Lincang) was originally known as Buri during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907). Then in the Dali State (937 - 1253), the area was called Burijian (Buri Prefecture). During Emperor Wanli's reign in the Ming Dynasty (1573 - 1620), everyone from scolars to peasants drank pu tea. During the Song, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties the area was known as Buribu (Buri Region), and then during the Ming Dynasty it was known as Bu'er (er is without the water radical). During the Qing Dynasty (also know as the Manchu Dynasty - 1644 - 1911), Bu became Pu and the "er" gained the water radical. In 1729, the Qing administration established Pu-er Prefecture. In 1945, the Tibetan cavalry invaded Yunnan for one purpose - capture all the pu-erh tea. The Japanese during the Japanese Aggression War broke the supply lines from Yunnan to Tibet. After the War, Tibetans rushed down to Yunnan to purchase all the tea they could. It is interesting to note that the 7 necessities to any Chinese household are - tea, firewood, rice, cooking oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar.
All pu-erh starts out as Mao Cha or rough tea. The unbruised tea laves are plucked by hand and put into woven baskets to be carried back to the village to be laid out on bamboo mats to cool. After a few hours to cook down, the leaves are laid out in woven bamboo mats to start to wilt slightly before the Sha Qing firing, which kills off the enzymes.Generally the wilting process will lose about 25% of their moisture content. As the firing progresses, the leaves are tossed using varying degrees of heat underneath the large iron woks to produce a uniform bruising and withering, without cooking or roasting the leaves. The purpose is to break downsome of the enzymes in the green leaves but not cooked so much that the leaves lose their green color. The leaves will lose another 30% or so of the moisture at this stage. If the heat is too high in the wok during Sha Qing, the result will be more like steamed Japanese green teas and the poorly produced pu-erh will not age well. Inspect your pu-erh after steeping - if all the stems are reddish in color, the withering and the Sha Qing were not done well and the tea will have problems aging well. A hotter fire and quicker Sha Qing will produce a green pu-erh which is more floral (orchid) flavor, more bitterness, and more astringency. On the other hand, a cooler fire and longer Sha Qing cooking will produce a more fruity (honey) taste and better cha qi. Pu-erh tea does not destroy all the enzymes because the tea will continue to oxidize over the years. Most of the enzyme activity is stopped because of the drying of the leaves. The dried leaves can then sorted for quality removing the green leaves which do not taste good and either processed by hand or sent to the factories for further processing. After the cooked leaves are dried on mats the next day, they will have lost about 75% of their mositure from the Mao Cha stage. Most Yunnan pu-erh is processed at night to allow some oxidation to occur.
Green Sheng Pu-erh is made from the Mao Cha using the big leaf Yunnan leaves that have little or no oxidation before being processed into the various compressed shapes. The taste of a processed tea is directly related to the soil composition, the variety of tea plant, the climate, season of picking, the altitude that the plants are growing, the quality of the tea leaves and how they were picked and handled after picking, and then the way the leaves are processed. The tea leaves are picked by hand often from very old trees, sorted to get rid of broken or over-oxidized leaves, wilted on a concrete floor under cover, and roughly raked around to batter up the leaves somewhat. After wilting for several hours (sometimes overnight), the leaves are moved outdoors exposing them to direct sunlight. They are moved around by foot until dried and turned a reddish brown color. 90% of their original moisture content has been lost. The unsorted leaves (Mao Cha) are packed up into sacks to be taken to the factories where the leaves are steamed in a machine to re-hydrate the leaves and laid out in 40 – 50 cm thick beds covered by heavy cloths to ferment for 7 – 9 days and sometimes up to a month. Care must be taken during the re-hydration to ensure the quality of the water used and to make sure the leaves do not get exposed to the smoke of the fire. This is the most important period for determining quality and price. The longer the fermentation, the finer the taste will be. The leaves are then dried and sorted into 10 different grades. They are then steamed again and compressed into different shapes – cakes (Beeng Cha), bricks (Zhang Cha), cups or mushrooms or mounds (Tuo Cha), melon shaped (Jingua Cha), logs, etc. These compressed shapes are then put into dry storage to slowly oxidize with age, but not allowed to ever dry out completely because the oxidation process is on going. If you brew the young tea it will be very astringent, especially if the leaves are from old wild arbor-type tea trees.
Pu-erh that is processed in the traditional Green method is a living tea in that various fungi are active, either in the short time or over a long extended time to give it it’s characteristic earthy, forest floor, organic characteristics. Storing the tea in the proper way is very important for aging – you want relatively low humidity odor-free air. Keep the tea in a breathable package – never in plastic and most importantly away from any strong smells. We keep our Pu-erh in their original paper wraps inside large terra cotta pots with a large terra cotta saucer as a lid. As extra security to preserve the paper wrapping if you are storing for a long time, I wrap the original cake and wrapping paper inside an outer wrapping of artist's acid-free rice paper with a printed label of the tea's name, date of purchase, purchase price, and purchase contact info. All my teas data also goes into an Excel spreadsheet I created with the various types of teas. This is important especially if you plan on aging the teas. To store pu-erh, I seperate the cooked from the raw pu-erhs and place them into new large 14" to 21" terra cotta pots that have been thoroughly washed to eliminate any clay smells and cover the pots with a large enough saucer to act as a lid.
There are basically two general types of Pu-erh – Green / raw / uncooked / Sheng or Black / cooked or fermented / Shou using the Wuo Dui (“scientifically aged using wet stacked”) style. According to He Shihua, Honary Director of The Tea Association of Yunnan Province, all tea before 1972 was purchased and sold by the Governmant. The pu-erh tea that was being produced at the Jin-Gu Tea Factory in Yunnan ran out of warehouse space so tea was stored at the Kunming factory where they quickly ran out of warehouse space. The overflow tea was stored outside on the basketball court covered by tarps which soon started to rot with finger-sized holes. When it rained, water soaked in. Two to three months later when the tarps were removed, the tea had changed from the expected raw yellowish color to a dark red and the taste was better than raw tea that had been properly aged for 10 years. The tea under the leaky tarps was reminiscent of the story of premature aging of pu-erh during the ancient horse caravan road.
It was very difficult to exactly replicate the "mistake's process" - how much water is needed, what proportions, what temperature, etc. Guangdong first replicated this process of artificail fermentation or manipulation which they patented. Three technicians from Menghai Tea Factory and one technician from Kunming Tea Factory went to Guangdong to learn and in 1973 Yunnan patented their own version.
The Black Pu-erh is made with the same leaves as the Green Pu-erh (Mao Cha), so the tea is processed using the same initial steps as the Green Pu-erh through drying. Starting with good quality leaves will definitely improve both Green and Black Pu-erh. Fermentation is speeded up with an extra step called Wuo Duei which involves wetting down the leaves in a warm environment (sometimes outside in the sun with the tea being turned every few hours for several days to a month, depending upon the tea maker’s preferences) to encourage further oxidation in an auto-thermal process. The heat generated in the Wuo Duei indicates the “cooked” nomenclature. This process is tightly controlled so that the tea does not excessively oxidize. Loose leaf Pu-erh is now stored in cloth bags and the leaves that are to be shaped are steamed and compressed. This type of Pu-erh is ready for brewing immediately producing a rich deep mellow flavor, but many of the subtleties of good aged Green Pu-erh are lost. Black Pu-erh will age for approximately 15 years and will not improve in flavor past this time. Store loose leaf Black Shou Pu-erh in a glass container.
Please Note – there is an artificial pu-erh called “Wet Storage” and I have heard it called “Hong Kong Style” where the loose or compressed new Sheng or Shou pu-erh is stored in a wet, moldy, humid room to give it a strong moldy flavor. It is not safe to drink. This counterfeit tea is being produced because of the demand for real pu-erh.
NOTE -- An interesting way to tell the difference between Black Shou and Green Sheng leaves is that after brewing Green leaves can be unrolled and Black leaves will shatter.
ANOTHER NOTE -- on age of tea bushes & trees. PLANTATION CHA - young 40 to 50 year old bushes generally grown in cultivated rows. BU LANG SHAN HUANG SHAN - 50 to 80 year old bushes or trees that have been allowed to grow naturally - usually on the edges of the Plantation Cha rows. OLD ARBOR TREES - 80 to 200 year old trees. And lastly, ANCIENT GU SHU - these are the true Gu Shu trees - obviously very few. If you read that a large factory has many bings of this extremely rare type of tree, it is probably a blend of a little Gu Shu with the majority of the leaves Plantation OR it is fake. Gu Shu pu-erh has much thicker twigs & petioles and the large leaves are thicker. The taste is quite a bit different. Most Plantation to Bu Lang pu-erh starts out with the steepings mild, increasing fairly quickly, and then after 6 or 7 steepings, the flavors drop off quickly. The leaves will turn an almost translucent yellow/green. True Gu Shu pu-erh will start out fairly mild, build up slowly, and then even off for many steepings into a more or less even plateau and the leaves will turn almost olive green in color (thicker texture). The Gu Shu teas will also have a rounder more complex flavor because the ancient trees have developed a very extensive root system sucking up a lot more nutrients and micro-elements than younger trees. Gu Shu trees also cannot be picked as intensly as younger trees.
8/2016 - I recently ordered a little bit of aged yabao pu-erh. I've read that this is quite different in that it uses old-forest trees (upwards of 1,200 years old) of Camellia crassicolumna from Qianjiazhai and Mt. Ailao Forest Preserve, Yunnan - a threatened species. The leaves are only picked in late Winter and early Spring from very old trees. The emerging bud along with a leaf or two that are held withing bracts that may be barely cracking open are plucked - less than 50% of the new growth is picked to preserve the strength of the old trees. What makes this tea so unusual is the parts that are picked are actually emerging branches. The trees are not stripped like on terraced tea bushes. It is a well known fact that the older the forest tree, the more intense the flavors and the higher the quality. It is almost impossible to over-steep yabao tea. Yabao is so rare (along with the fact that 50 years ago in Mao's time, farmers cut down the old tea forests so they could grow crops like corn) that a very few cooperatives have taken cuttings from some of the old forest trees to try to propagate the species. Some scientists claim that what we are drinking as pu-erh is Camellia sinensis var. assamica - who knows? Yabao is a fairly wide spread term - most of which is picked from the new branch-forming growths of Camellia sinensis var. assamica. The tea I ordered is from Qianjiazhai, Yunnan and is produced from Camellia crassicolumna. While silver bud yabao (sinensis var. assamica) tastes crisp, light, and clean, the Qianjiazhai yabao is thick and hefty with juniper, cedar tones turning to candied citrus peel, rosemary, and lemongrass. The aftertaste (what Barb & I call echo) lasts "all day." A possible reason? Camellia crassicolumnadoes not produce any caffeine or theobromine and probably has more anti-oxidants and polyphenols than sinensis. About 50% of the Qianjiazhai yabao is pressed into sheng bings and the rest are made into black pu-erh.
5 QUICK FACTORS TO DETERMINE TEA QUALITY
Makes no diffeence if you are in a tea shop or at a Convention featuring over a thousand tea vendors or if you are in a wholesale tea market, at some point you may want some suggestions on judging the quality of the teas you are being shown and not take all day judging just one tea over another. The vendor may want you to spend hours tasting his/her teas, but you have others to judge.
1) APPEARANCE OF THE LEAVES - looking for:
A) WHOLE leaves vs BROKEN leaves +
B) Consistant shape in the leaves +
C) Constant color in the leaves.
2) WET LEAF SMELL - do NOT smell the dry leaves - this is not a good metric to judge the quality of a tea. After the initial rinse, first smell the top of the gaiwan, then smell the wet leaves themselves. Looking for:
A) Depth & complexity +
B) Balance +
C) Long lasting aroma in the wet leaves after cooling - do the wet leaves hold onto their aroma through several steepings?
3) TASTE & AROMA OF LIQUOR - looking for:
A) Clear clean taste +
B) Good balance of flavor - not just one note +
C) is the taste personally enjoyable.
4) MOUTH FEEL, BODY, & TEXTURE OF THE TEA - one of the most important judgement factors. Looking for:
A) Texture needs to be thicker than water +
B) Enjoyable balanced astringency +
C) Lingering mouth feel which possibly will go all the way back into your throat.
5) LENGTH & FINISH OF THE BREW - you will need several infusions. Looking for what Barb & I call "ECHO." Here's a trick - smell the empty gong dou bei (sharing vessel) - especially after the first steeping. This is the other most important judgement factors. Looking for:
A) Lingering aroma & taste +
B) Transforming aroma & taste after swallowing +
C) Only a fleeting bitterness - not persistant.
Chinese teas are best prepared in Yixing teapots made from the special zisha (“purple sand”) clay found in Yixing, China. This fine clay, which is becoming very limited in quantity any longer, contains mica, iron, and quartz. The porous unglazed tea pots absorbs over time the delicate flavors of the teas becoming seasoned, therefore, when preparing the various teas, you should dedicate a tea pot to a certain type of tea. For example, you would not want to prepare a fine Biluochun green tea in a pot that has been used for preparing pu-erh or an aged roasted oolong. Yixing teapots date back to the Sung Dynasty (960 – 1279) when the purple clay was mined around the Lake Taihu area. Before that time, the Chinese preferred to prepare a powdered tea whisked in a teabowl. We like to use glass tea pots for green teas so that we can see the leaves unfold and raise and fall as they steep. It is also easy to watch the color of the green tea to determine when to decant into a sharing vessel so that does not over steep and become bitter. Some teas like Green Azure, a slightly bitter lightly medicinal tea that looks like it was picked from coppiced bushes that makes a little forest of standing bright green leaves when brewed, literally explode with activity and put on a visual display when you add water to them. This can only be enjoyed in glass.
Yixing teapots are generally 100 – 300 ml which may seem to be fairly small. The teapots are this size so that all the tea can be decanted after each infusion. When purchasing Yixing tea pots, look at the clay’s color uniformity; look at the clarity, mineral content, and refined substance of the clay itself; the thinness of the tea pot; how tightly the top fits the body of the tea pot; listen for a bright clear tone when the top is removed from the body of the teapot which indicated high firing temperatures; the clarity of the chop on the bottom of the tea pot (and possibly inside the top and maybe on the handle); look to see if the spout and the handle are centered and line up straight; and lay the tea pot body upside down on a flat surface and see if the tip of the spout, the top of the pot, and the top of the handle all line up (Shui Ping Hui style). The highest artist quality tea pots made from the masters will be quite evident. Yixing teapots are hand made and want to be handled – to appreciate, look at and feel the pot with all your senses. Caution – collecting tea pots and tea cups can be just as addictive as collecting all the different wonderful teas.
Here is an idea of the standardized method of taste testing teas used in competition –
- 2.25 grams of tea leaves + 150 ml ( 5 oz) H2O are steeped for 5 minutes.
- Check the aroma.
- Check the tea for brightness, luster, and richness of color.
- When tasting the tea, look for its strength, smoothness, and natural sweetness along with all the underlying tastes and after tastes.
- Look at the leaves – freshness and tenderness.
- Look at the dried leaves for uniformity, quality, and luster.
"Zen and Japanese Culture" by Daisetz T. Suzuki describes drinking tea in a tea room - "Who would then deny that when I am sipping tea in my tearoom I am swallowing the whole universe with it and that this very moment of my lifting the bowl to my lips is eternity itself transcending time and space? The art of tea really teaches us far more than the harmony of things, or keeping them free from contamination, or just sinking down into a state of contemplative tranquility."
To view additional photos of tea, tea pots, gaiwans, and tea cups, please click on the Photos link.
Latest studies from Journal of Nutrition & Health, Journal of Food Science, Pharmacology Biochemistry & Behavior, Food Research International, Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute.
Caffeine is by far the most widely consumed psycho-active drug in the world, principally in coffee and tea. It occurs naturally in over 60 plants. Caffeine is a methylxanthine stimulant compound which attaches to receptors in your brain reserved to adenosine. As you burn energy, one of the by-products is adenosine. As the levels of adenosine build up during the day from exercise, they attach to the receptors in your brain causing sleepiness. Caffeine mimics the shape of adenosine and can attach to the receptors in place of adenosine therefore relieving the feeling of sleepiness. So, the positive benefits of moderate amounts of caffeine is increased cognitive abilities, fatigue relief, increased performance, and increased endurance. The negative effects of too much caffeine are the jitters, increased anxiety, increased blood pressure, and it can stiffen blood vessels.
Moderate intake of caffeine can have a moderate protective effect against certain diseases such as coronary heart disease, Parkinson’s, and some cancers.
How much caffeine is too much? Everyone metabolizes caffeine differently and you can build up a tolerance to caffeine. General guidelines are approximately 500 mg per day for adults. Females who are pregnant are usually 150 – 200 mg daily. In adults, over 1,000 mg daily is possibly dangerous and at 10,000 mg daily caffeine can be lethal.
Caffeine is a mild diuretic but the amount of water in coffee or tea offsets that effect. So, tea and coffee are good hydrators.
Caffeine content of coffee – an expresso shot is about 70 - 80 mg; an average cup of coffee is about 120 mg.
Caffeine content of tea is much more complicated because of the varieties of types, the harvest season, the processing methods, and the way it is brewed. An average cup of tea is probably between 10 – 60 mg caffeine. Caffeine effect on your body are different between coffee and tea because of theanine content in tea. It is a very powerful psycho-active amino acid almost exclusively found in tea that crosses the blood / brain barrier affecting your mood – increasing your feeling of relaxation, increases alpha brain wave activity which leads to meditation, and synergistically increases the positive effects of caffeine by enhancing cognitive awareness and performance while reducing the negative effects like anxiety and jitteriness. In addition to this synergetic property, the ECGC and polyphenols in tea can modulate the effects of caffeine possibly by slowing down the uptake of caffeine in the body resulting in a kind of time-release stimulant effect compared to the fast onset and letdown with coffee.
About 1% to 5% of the dry weight of tea leaves is caffeine. Camellia produces caffeine because it is toxic to insects, therefore tea leaves harvested during summer are higher in caffeine to offset increased insect pressures. Caffeine is produced in the buds and very young leaves – older mature leaves contain less caffeine. The species of tea makes a difference also – assamica (pu-erh) generally has higher caffeine content. Also shade-grown teas such as Sencha and Gyokuro have more caffeine. Processing the harvested tea leaves may affect the caffeine content – more withering may increase caffeine content slightly; oxidizing the leaves longer may decrease the caffeine content slightly; roasting the leaves longer may also decrease the caffeine content slightly. Oolong teas tend to be in the lower end of caffeine content. Roasting of the coffee beans does not seem to affect caffeine content. This research is tentative.
The one sure fact is stay away from decaffeinated teas because of the solvents used to eliminate caffeine – which also removes beneficials for flavors and health benefits.
The methods and processes for brewing tea leaves (stay away from tea-bagged tea) gives you much more control on caffeine content than brewing ground up coffee beans. Water type (hard water vs reverse osmosis water); the amount of tea leaves used; water temperature (green teas are traditionally thought of as lower caffeine teas because of the lower temperature steeps); steeping duration; the number of steepings – all will affect the caffeine content of the tea. Matcha is ground up tea leaves, so you are consuming all the caffeine in the leaves – no control, so one bowl of matcha is about 17 mg of caffeine.
Finally – the initial 10 – 15 second rinse of the leaves in Gong Fu style tea only removes less than 10% of the caffeine. If this rinse were increased to 30 seconds, a tiny bit more caffeine might be removed – about 10%. To remove about 90% of the caffeine requires at least a 15-minute rinse – which would remove most of the flavor and benefits of the tea.