Thursday, May 18, 2006

Tea Culture?

Simon made his way to Taipei for an exclusive tea exhibition. It was so exclusive; it turns out, that he could not get in. Having made the trip, he decided to spend his time sipping the day away in one of Taiwan’s most ornate tea houses. Dang Fong “Block the wind”, the winner of the 1990 Taiwan’s National Tea Brewing Competition, opened a tea shop just off of Taipei city’s Da An Street in one of Taipei’s more upscale areas. He runs the tea house out of the first floor of his four story house. This tea shop differs from most because it does not sell tea by the glass nor does it sell food. As far as selling tea leaves, it also does this in a different way than most tea shops. Upon entering the large wooden doors that lead into the garden courtyard one is overcome with a feeling of calm, a great contrast to the thriving hustle bustle of Taipei’s nonstop hectic pulse.
Upon glancing at a book in the tea house of his younger brother, San Fong “Dodge the wind” could not help but laugh. "Tea Culture," he smirked referring to the books title, "Who would dare be so bold?" He said while picking up the book for further inspection. "Oh, Puer Tea Culture, that is more like it." He continued on, rattling off a monologue for the better part of an hour. San Fong was not a lonely man in the physical sense. There were always people around him that loved to listen to what he had to say.
With relatively little encouragement San Fong has been known to head into a monologue for the better part of an afternoon. So on this day, as he began, nobody dared to interrupt him, “What it is that I am interested in is promoting the sale of Taiwan’s tea culture. This is much more profitable than the sale of some arbitrary amount of tea leaves. By just selling the leaves we are left with profit of course, but it is such a small amount of money that it is hardly worth mentioning. When we sell tea culture, the profit is greater and the economy of Taiwan will benefit on a larger scale. People that come to Taiwan with the intention of experiencing tea culture will purchase an airplane ticket, a hotel room, transportation around the island, tea leaves, tea ware, books, tea shop fees and more. In this way all of the people involved with tea culture will benefit.”
What Simon learned from San Fong’s monologue is that the culture of tea is simply too big to put in just one category. There are so many different schools of tea drinking even within Taiwan alone, that by making such a broad and overriding statement such as defining “tea culture” one is really saying nothing. Simon observed tea culture in Taiwan to be very broad. In fact, it permeates all levels of society and all aspects of life from what Simon called “everyday tea” to those individuals who see themselves as the representatives of tea culture itself; i.e. the tea teachers, the tea artists (including the potters) and the tea culture promoters to name a few. Everyday tea is an expression that Simon used to describe the way tea is used by most people in Taiwan. It is the old men brewing and drinking tea in the park, it is the dirty tea sets that have been stained through day after day use. These sets seem to be free from owner, and at the end of an afternoon of tea making, they are replaced into a cart, made for this purpose and pushed over to the side, against a wall, beside a bench, out of the way. No particular value is given to these sets, other than their function. Those that belong to the everyday tea cultural segment don’t necessarily live their life for tea, but they sure would find it difficult to keep on living without it.
San Fong, Dang Fong and Lunar to name a few, are examples of people who live there life for tea. It has surpassed the importance of an everyday activity and passed into the realm of a lifetime obsession. They dedicate their lives to researching, understanding and appreciating tea. The individuals mentioned above have a combined knowledge of 118 years of tea experience.

Friday, May 12, 2006

 Posted by Picasa

Black and white kung fu

This picture was taken by Simon at Dang Fong's Tea House. I love the simplicity and the contrast of this set. Posted by Picasa

The shelf life of Oolong

Green or Black? Now there is white. What about Oolong? What’s the point? Well black tea is called black tea in Mandarin, so I often find myself explaining just what it is westerners are doing by calling red tea black. “Black tea” sounds so bad when stated in Mandarin. It gives one an impression of immanent badness. So they call it “red” instead. There is some very remarkable red tea in Taiwan called Number 18, and it is grown near Sun Moon Lake
Green Tea is referring to tea that has not been allowed to oxidize. Oolong is semi-oxidized and black tea is fully oxidized. Typically, the greener the tea, the shorter the shelf life. In tea processing, the point at which oxidation is called to a halt, is the point that determines just how red your black tea will be. In Taiwan, they have taken the process of tea processing past the normal standard of transforming a tea leaf into a consumable product to an art form.
Green Tea is best is consumed within 3 months of production. This time can be extended if refrigeration is used. Green tea should be consumed within the year of its production regardless.
Oolong, the partially oxidized tea comes in a wide range of flavors and shades of green and red. The range and quality of oolongs produced in Taiwan is startling. From Wen Shan Bao Zhong, to Formosa oolong, from Dong ding roasted oolong to the Shan lin xi greens. And never should we leave of the favorite green of all, the li shan green.
Li Shan is an area that is very well known for its agriculture. In Fact, Li Shan means Pear Mountain. In order to give the newly retired soldiers something to do, the KMT allocated land in the Li Shan area. The result was great produce. Not only did the area produce tremendous fruits and vegetables, it also grew some pretty outstanding tea.
Oolongs production resembles an art more than a science. There is no “best way” that will work in all situations. Many adjustments must be made depending on the tea at the moment of picking. Just as a great chef starts with raw ingredients, tea artisans in Taiwan start with a waxy, shiny, thick stem robust camellia sinensis leaf. Through the oolong making process, step by step, moisture is removed from the tea leaf. The steps of production include; 1) picking, 2) sun drying, 3) indoor drying / withering / tossing and bruising, 4) oven drying (sha qing / killing the green), 5) rolling, 6) baking and 7) packaging.
Oxidation happens in step three. Nowadays letting the tea oxidize is less common than in the old days. There are a few reasons for this. One is the improvement of packaging equipment such as aluminum coated bags and vacuum seal machines. These devices add to the shelf life of a greener oolong, making oxidation less essential than before. In the absence of these devices, oolong, the finished product, was often wrapped in paper. There was no air tight seal added to preserve the tea, so tea artisans had to depend on oxidation if they hoped to create an oolong that would be able to hold its flavor long enough to reach the end user and be consumed. Another reason that nicely oxidized teas are harder to find is that consumers are buying lightly oxidized oolongs at top dollar. This is a trend that started in Taiwan. Letting a tea oxidize is a risky and time consuming process that requires a good amount of experience and very keen senses. It is risky because if all conditions are not right, the entire batch of tea will be less than desirable and thus difficult to sell. Since consumers are happy to pay top dollar for tea that has only been lightly oxidized, many tea producers are choosing to minimize this step in the process.
Baking is a very important step in an oolongs production and is also one that increases an oolongs shelf life. Oolong can be lightly baked or heavily baked. Usually very high elevation green teas that are produced in optimal conditions will be baked very lightly. This tea is often best when oxidized and baked just enough to seal the flavors in. Often, teas that are harvested at non optimal times, such as fall harvest are given a heavier bake. When done well, baking can immensely improve an oolongs flavor. Baking covers up some of a tea’s less desirable characteristics by bring out some flavors that are buried deeper inside the tea. These flavors are citric in nature. Often I notice that my favorite oolongs leave a nice dusty coat of flavor particles in my mouth that lead my sense of taste on a wild adventure, trying to keep up with its constant evolution.
A heavy bake extracts more moisture from the tea. With less moisture in the tea, the tea is less likely to change. Therefore, a heavy bake will ensure the stability of a teas flavor for a greater time span.
In review, there are three steps in the oolong production process that ensure stability of flavor over time. These include oxidation, baking, and packaging. In addition to these three steps, there is also the issue of storage. Tea, properly stored will last much longer than tea that is not. Proper storage means, no exposure to sunlight, minimal changes in humidity and temperature, and relatively low temperatures.
When referring to an oolongs shelf life, there are many factors to consider. There is a certain amount of moisture still in the tea leaf, more with lightly oxidized lightly baked oolongs and less for the opposite. This moisture content will cause the tea to change over time. Teas that have been given a finish that will extend the natural shelf life should develop more slowly into an old tea. Regardless, a tea changes over time. The only way to know is take it out and drink it, now it might not be the right time, but it will continue to change. Constantly changing ever so slowly, we may take a tea out every five years and give it a try. It will certainly be different, but will it be ready? There is always the chance that the tea will change in a bad way. If this happens, there is no choice but to wait another 3 to 5 years to try the tea again, with the hope that it has taken a change for the better. Thus, when we find a appropriate flavor, it is best to drink it up rather than waiting for it to become even older.