A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from February 2006

Monday February 27, 2006

February 27, 2006 · Leave a Comment

So what is Kung Fu tea?

There are two answers to this. The first is the actual kind of tea that is usually called Kung Fu tea, and the second is the style of making tea that generally gets referred to as Kung Fu style.

1) The Tea. Kung Fu tea, from what I know, is specifically tea that they drink in Chaozhou area that is near the border between the Guangdong province and Fujian province. It is a heavy fire oolong, often not of the highest grade of leaf, but brews a fairly bitter and strong liquor. More or less like what I had yesterday (I ought to take more pictures)

2) The style. Kung Fu style tea making is what I normally do, and is usually the way people who care about tea use to brew their own drinks. I believe this is adopted from the Chaozhou area, thus its synonymous name as the tea itself. It does also mean “skill tea” in this sense of the word.

The key steps to this kind of tea making is the following:

i) you use a small vessel, just big enough to serve the number of people who are drinking. So no big pots for one person — if it’s one person drinking, your vessel should serve at most 3-4 small cups of tea. The cups are about the size of your usual sake cups. So, a pot like this should be under 100ml in volume.

ii) you use a relatively high amount of tea leaves for the vessel. Instead of the British way of “one spoonful for each person and one for the pot”, you put in the proper amount of tea leaves in proportion to the volume of the vessel. The actual amount of tea leaves needed depends on the type of tea. Generally speaking, for green tea that is about 1/10 of the vessel, for a light oolong or tieguanyin, about 1/4 to 1/5, and for a heavier oolong/tieguanyin, anything up to 2/3 or so. For Puerh, I’d say 1/4, although tastes varies. Whatever floats your boat, really. This is the other reason why you want a small vessel for smaller parties, because if you have an overly big pot you end up either drinking LOTS of caffeine, or you are wasting the tea because you can’t drink all the infusions (or you can get very sick trying).

iii) you wash your leaves. This is done by pouring hot water over the leaves like you would normally brew it, but quickly pour it out again, leaving no liquid behind. When I say quickly, I mean under 5 seconds. This is especially important for oolong and puerh. For oolong, it opens up the leaves — if it’s tightly rolled into a ball, the first brew is going to be very light because the tea is still dry and needs time to open up and brew properly. For Puerh, it’s mostly because the stuff is dirty — if it’s old Puerh, it can have 20 years worth of dust on top of it. You don’t want to drink that. That, incidentally, is also why people sometimes say Puerh tastes like mud.

iv) you then pour water into it and brew for real. The amount of time you need for the tea varies by type. A green tea might take a minute or so for the first brew, a Puerh 10 seconds. It really depends, and is again subject to taste. When time’s up, you pour it out again into the serving vessel and serve (or if you’re drinking by yourself, you can just dump it into a large cup and drink away). The important thing here, as with the washing, is that NO WATER SHOULD BE LEFT BEHIND. This is mainly to avoid “stewing” the tea. Now, with a British tea, which is mostly crappy red tea, it is fairly ok to stew the stuff and it will still taste all right. With a lot of this stuff, however, especially the oolong and the green teas, overbrewing will produce a nasty, bitter, sour liquor that can be totally different from the divine, heavenly, fragrant taste. Ok, I digress.

v) you brew the tea leaves repeatedly. So, the tea leaves are not done after the first brew. Instead, once you’re done with the first brew (which shouldn’t take more than a few sips if you used a properly small pot) you pour hot water in again (reheated if it cooled a bit) and brew the tea again. As the number of brewing increase, the time you need for the infusion also increases. This is done mostly by experience, and again, by taste. Some people like it strong, some people like it light. It’s up to you, really. Once ready, you pour it out again, serve, and drink. Repeat. Properly done, you should notice that the taste of the tea actually varies a bit over the different brewings. This is more pronounced in teas like oolongs and Puerh, which are heavier in flavour and endure more infusions. Green teas last maybe 3-4 times, oolongs about 7, and Puerh…. depends on the type of Puerh. But you should notice change.

vi) this is somewhat optional, but when you are done drinking one infusion, smell the fragrance left in the dry cup you’re holding in your hand. Stick the cup up to your nose and inhale — you should smell something very fragrant, something that doesn’t seem possible coming out of tea, especially non-flower tea, but often it is a fairly floral and pleasant smell. Taiwanese make this a formal step in their tea-making process, but I tend to skip their step and leave it till after drinking, since to me (and I think most tea drinkers from Hong Kong) taste is more important than smell. Regardless, it should be done, and the smell should pleasantly surprise you.

Those are about it for the steps. The real point of this all, of course, is to make good tasting tea. This is not a ceremony like the Japanese one — the Japanese ceremony is very formalistic, and having sat through one, I feel like the actual tea itself is only a minor consideration. The Chinese tea-making method is more about the taste. Minor details can be overlooked, adjusted, and substituted as one sees fit. This is simply a way to make better tasting tea, and to be able to differentiate the different kinds of teas that are out there.

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Monday February 27, 2006

February 27, 2006 · Leave a Comment

Today I tried what the Best Tea House calls “Supreme Ku Fu Oolong (Heavy)”. I think they meant Kung Fu, since in Chinese it is 重火功夫茶王 (zhonghuo gongfu chawang). What it is … is a very heavily fired oolong, brewing a very dark, strong, somewhat bitter cup of tea. The folks at the tea house recommend a 70% tea leaves brew, meaning that 70% of the vessel should be filled with dried tea leaves. I tend to think that’s a little heavy, and go with something along the lines of about 50-60%. It makes a nice, fragrant, and yet not overpowering brew. Sometimes the folks at the tea house crush the leaves at the bottom before adding the tea leaves on the top. It makes for an even stronger cup, rivaling that of espresso, but it gives a bit too much of a caffeine boost. Even though I did enjoy it I try to limit my caffeine intake to something a little more reasonable.

Speaking of which, I should perhaps say a word about Kung Fu brewing… but maybe I’ll leave that for tomorrow. It’s going to be long and it’s getting late 🙂

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Sunday February 26, 2006

February 26, 2006 · Leave a Comment

I had some white tea today. Nowadays it is almost a fad — “white tea is great for you!”. People all talk about it and how it has all these antioxidants, and how it is even better than green tea, blah blah… well, it is indeed rather nice and warm, but it lacks variety.

So what exactly is white tea? From what I know, it is basically unprocessed tea leaves, dried. It is not fired like green tea is, but instead dried either in a dry room or under the sun or through some other means. A lot of times you can see how the tea is basically withered leaves, keeping more or less its original shape. It does, however, often have MORE fermentation than green tea. I suppose that’s because whereas green tea is quickly dried over heat and thus formed into shape immediately and thus fixed, white tea is allowed to dry over slightly longer period of time, and between the time it was picked and the time it actually is fixed, the tea ferments a bit. That’s why if you brew white tea the liquor is actually a little darker than the brew from green tea.

The one I got is from my usual supplier in Hong Kong, called “The Best Tea House” (yes, terrible name!). They have a good supply of different kinds of tea, and are very generous in letting you sample the stuff, which is a must. They also have a nice sales staff that is rather friendly, and more importantly, does not discriminate young people, as a lot of places tend to do. This white tea is one of their better ones, although by no means the best. Although white teas don’t taste that different from good to bad quality — they are all similar in taste.

I’ve been told that when going to a Chinese restaurant that lets you pick your own tea (as a place should) you should always order white teas, which is usually Shou Mei. The reason for that is because white teas need to be kept well or they become tasteless very quickly — because of the way the tea is processed (or lack thereof) you have to seal it well for the flavour to be preserved. That means that a big restaurant needs to keep it in some container and not leave it out. On the other hand, Puerh is often just left out in some dirty storage, and will taste ok anyway. You can have rat droppings on it and you won’t know the difference.

Like green tea, white tea needs to be brewed at a lower temperature too, since the leaves are tender, although in my experience they actually take a little more abuse than green tea can. Anyway, it is a nice, warm tea that isn’t too heavy for the days when you are tired of drinking the more strongly flavoured stuff, like today :).

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Friday February 24, 2006

February 24, 2006 · Leave a Comment

Well, I am trying the tea that I bought from Athélier. Yes, that “Monkey Picked Oolong”. I tried it out there in a paper cup, but as you probably know, what it tastes like in paper cup is nothing like what it actually comes out as when you brew the tea properly.

The tea is a medium-fire oolong, so it is somewhere between qingxiang (or literally, clear fragrance) and nongxiang (dense fragrance). Qingxiang leaves are generally very green, and the liquor will come out a nice greenish yellow. The tea itself has flowery taste (but should NOT have flowers) and is somewhat light and crisp. Nongxiang, on the other hand, is heavy, the brew will be a darker brown, the tea may be slightly bitter, and if it’s not very good, a little sour. Really good nongxiang or qingxiang are both hard to get. The problem is that oftentimes they are somewhere in between. This is probably mostly because the general public like something that’s in between — not too heavy, not too light. There are merits to that too, and sometimes it is very nice. It’s just not all the time, and when you want to search out for a truly exception qingxiang tieguanyin, for example, it is extremely difficult.

Hopefully, with my upcoming trip to Beijing, I can do that and find some nice tea to bring back with me. Ahhhh…

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Monday February 20, 2006

February 20, 2006 · 1 Comment

Green tea is hard to brew. When you go out and buy tea, the better places always tell you to make it with water that’s at about 180F. That’s true, but it’s hard to get water to 180F. How do you do it? You can boil it then reduce, but it’s always a guessing game unless you have a thermometer. As much of a tea nerd as I am, I don’t have one with me when I brew green tea. Thus, it becomes a bit of a hit or miss when making green tea, and adds a lot of guesswork to the process.

The reason you have to keep the water lukewarm (after the initial washing) is that if water is too hot they bruise the leaves. What you end up is a tea that looks great (colour of the liquor is quite nice) but is virtually tasteless or has strange tastes in it. The results vary, but in general, when water’s too hot bad things happen to good green tea.

Today I had a Dragonwell (Longjing/Lungching). It’s probably one of those China teas that most people have at least heard of, if not tried. It is the quintessential green tea, in some ways, and well respected everywhere for its fragrance and flavour (unlike gunpowder, which nobody drinks and actually tastes rather nasty).

A problem with Dragonwell though is that the number of grades of tea leaves is endless. You have the superior grade, you have first grade, second grade, special grade, pre-qingming pick, pre-rain pick, Lion Mountain Dragonwell, etc etc etc. The list is endless. Worse, the grades that whoever is selling you the tea uses is not necessarily the same as what they’re supposed to be. How do you pick?

I used to drink a lot of Dragonwell, so I can say that the first thing you should do is just look at the leaves. If the leaves are light green, they’re almost always better than the ones that are dark green. In fact, the darker the leaves are, chances are the worse it is. Smell is not a particularly good indicator, as even low quality Dragonwell can smell pretty nice, especially in their dried form. When taste-testing, the better quality leaves tend to brew a lighter brew… with mild bean like taste, rather than really astringent/heavy taste. That, of course, is dependent on the drinker, and people can prefer the lower grades because of their more pronounced flavour.

The prices of this tea also varies a great deal. You can pay $10 USD a pound, or you can pay $10 USD for 10 grams. Whether it is worth it or not is up to you, but when brewed properly (and I mess up often) it is one of the most exquisite teas.

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Saturday February 18, 2006

February 18, 2006 · Leave a Comment

Haven’t had proper tea for a few days. It’s been mostly rushed and more of the same — nothing interesting to write about.

But, that is not true today. Along with the oolong form Taiwan, my girlfriend also got me some Puerh. These are some rather funny looking Puerh by normal standards — they are probably broken from a cake, and the leaves are very big.

To give you some scale, the round container is about 2 inches wide, so the leaves are considerably larger than most leaves you tend to see for Puerh (often in small broken pieces). This tea has a slight medicinal smell. There wasn’t enough to brew a full pot using my Puerh pot, so I had to reduce the amount of water I use in the pot in order to make it so that it’s not too watery.

Warmed the pot, washed the leaves, and the brewed the first brew… hmmm interesting. The leaves are fairly brown in colour, but when brewed, they came out rather black, which often means they are “cooked” Puerh. The taste is also closer to a “cooked” Puerh, although unlike usual “cooked” Puerh, it does have some complexity in its taste. Most of the time “cooked” Puerh just taste mildly sweet and generally uninspiring, but this one is a bit different. It has a depth that normal “cooked” Puerh doesn’t have, but I think it is still largely consisted of those leaves since the smell, the looks, and the taste generally conform to “cooked” leaves.

This is not to say it’s bad — it’s probably one of the best “cooked” type Puerh I’ve had. I think one key to learning how to drink tea is to just try all sorts of different things — without that, one never learns.

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Tuesday February 14, 2006

February 14, 2006 · Leave a Comment

A trip to New York and a few days without proper tea. It’s rather brutal, but what can you do. I saw a friend whom I haven’t seen in a while, and we ate at a restaurant in Soho. Afterwards, while walking around, I found this place called Athélier that sells some reasonable teas. They are located inside the DKNY boutique. While they have some ok tea, they do, however, mislabel Biluochun as a white tea, and have the ever-annoying “Monkey Picked Oolong”, perpetuating the myth that it somehow is picked by monkey in their description. I ended up buying some, just for the hell of it and because I want some variety, but my place is really overflowing with tea and I ought to stop. Their specialty seems to be maté, as they have lots of variety of it, although that stuff is never fragrant like tea is.

We came back on Sunday when it was snowing like crazy. We were lucky we booked train tickets to come up, and so it worked out perfectly since we didn’t have to try to scramble for one last minute (as most flights and buses were cancelled). It’s a shame though that in the whole of Penn station the only place that sells teabags that is slightly better than Lipton is a café that’s attached to the LIRR station, selling Seattle’s Best coffee and Tazo teabags. Now, while Tazo is not exactly Earth shattering stuff, it’s way better than Lipton, which is positively nasty. I had a cup of their Awake (aka black tea blend that can be made at the cheapest cost while tasting generically black). It served its caffeine pumping purpose.

Monday was a busy day with a full schedule, and I didn’t get a chance to drink anything until I got home at 6, at which point I promptly made the Tieguanyin I got from Sunsing. It’s a semi-heavy fire Tieguanyin, but not so heavy as to make it only strong and bitter. In fact, it’s quite nice and does a good job of balancing the fragrance and the flavour. It’s not a qingxiang like a light, green Tieguanyin, but it is not so strong either. I really like it the more I drink it, and I should’ve bought a lot more — like triple what I got. It’s too bad. Incidentally, they also call it a “Monkey Picked” tea, but the thing is, they at least won’t tell you it’s actually (or even was once upon a time) picked by monkeys.

Today is another long day…. but ended with nice tea. It’s a Taiwan oolong, one that my girlfriend got from me from a place in Taipei called Wisteria House (where they filmed a scene for Eat Drink Man Woman). I think this is aged oolong, because you can’t smell anything and it tastes more mature than a fresh, “usual” Taiwanese oolong. It is still thin like they always are, and have no real aftertaste, but it is rather interesting. The tea leaves are darker than your usual Taiwanese oolong as well, reflecting the aged character of the tea. It’s fun to try new things 🙂

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Wednesday February 8, 2006

February 8, 2006 · Leave a Comment

Another day of take-out tea, great. Today’s tea is from Toscanini, which gets its tea supply from this company called Mem Tea. They are basically a wholesaler/supplier and doesn’t have their own storefront. Instead, they supply a wide array of teas to local cafes and also sell some packaged teas to other stores, like Cardullo’s. It’s nice in that they offer a wide variety of teas, and enables a lot of local shops that will otherwise sell you teabags from Twinnings or Stash much better, loose leaf teas. For that, I have to say that they do a good job.

I had the Puerh from Mem tea today, and their Puerh is very typical of ones you get in the States — earthy, mellow, slightly sweet, and virtually tasteless despite its very strong colour. There’s only the very slightest hint of Puerh taste. In general, these are “cooked” teas that have had their fermentation process accelerated through storage in “wet warehouses” or, basically, very damp environments.

In the old days, Puerh are all made “raw” and left to ferment (yes, like wine in this sense) for years before they are ready for consumption. In order to speed up the process, however, instead of waiting for 30 years before selling the tea, they have generally tried to mix in “cooked” tea with “raw” tea. It does make the thing more drinkable, but “cooked” tea loses all the potential changes that you get from the fermentation process.

Are they the same kind of fermentation? No, not really. Coooked tea have fermentation that comes out mellow, sweet, and relatively tasteless. It’s not a complex flavour, just an acceptable, mellow tea. Raw tea, on the other hand, when properly aged, has a strong bite (that will mellow out over time) but also very, very, very complex. You have all sorts of varieties, with teas ranging from tasting very spicy, to very fragrant, to… well, just about everything. That’s why people pay the big bucks for quality raw tea, and that’s why people prefer it. I know some who will never ever drink cooked tea.

How do you tell the difference? I am by no means able to tell it with 100% accuracy, but generally speaking, proper raw tea, when brewed, should have brown leaves. The colours vary considerably depending on how long the tea’s been in storage, but it should be some shade of brown. Cooked tea, on the other hand, comes out pitch black, basically. The colour of the liquor brewed is the same — usually some shade of brown for raw tea, and black for cooked tea. The taste is as I already described. Sometimes poorly stored raw tea will taste like cooked tea, for obvious reasons, and sometimes a really “good” cooked tea can also taste quite nice. That’s, however, hard to distinguish. For the most part, these are just useful rule-of-thumbs and certainly not a strict guide.

The most important thing is to be able to taste the tea. A tea can look and smell great, but it can taste like shit. It’s very difficult to tell, for example, what grade a Dragonwell is just by looking at it, but as soon as you brew it and taste it, everything comes out and you can tell right away (if you know what to look for). That’s why I never buy tea from a place that refuses to let me try it out, and if I really want to and they wouldn’t let me taste test, I buy the smallest possible portion. Sometimes they come out awful (as it turned out with a Tieguanyin I got in NYC) but sometimes they can be great. Taste, in Chinese tea drinking anyway, is everything.

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Tuesday February 7, 2006

February 7, 2006 · Leave a Comment

Tea can be sour.

Yes, some teas turn out sour. They are usually the heavily fired kind, in this case, a tieguanyin from Taiwan.

As I’ve said a few days ago, teas from Taiwan tend to be thin. Tieguanyin made in Taiwan also tend to be heavily fired. My suspicion is that they simply can’t get it to taste nearly as good as the Fujian tieguanyin when they do it qingxiang (which literally means “clear fragrance”) so instead they fire it heavily, making the tea leaves exhibit a reddish brown colour, and the tea will come out tasting very strong, often a bit bitter, and in some cases, sour.

It’s not really supposed to be sour. Generally speaking, a sour tea is not a good tea. This somewhat sour tea that I drank today really ought to be brewed with less leaves, but it was the leftover bits (the last batch) which means that it’s not enough for two sittings, but too much for one. I’d rather have too much for one than not enough (i.e. weak tea) for two. And it came out sour.

A tea fanatic I’ve met at a teashop in Hong Kong has told me that one reason why the Taiwan teas are sour when they are heavily fired is that because Taiwan teas, unlike mainland ones, are rolled more tightly. When they are rolled tightly, and fired, the uneveness of the firing and the difficulty to penetrate the center of the leaves makes it sour because of the temperature differences. I’m not sure if she’s right, but she does know her tea really well and is very generous with sharing. I suppose I wouldn’t find out if it’s true or not easily, if ever, but I tend to trust her on these things. Of course, it helps that she’s let me tried some of her awesome Puerh that are now something along the lines of $1,000+ per cake (330g a cake, you do the math).

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Monday February 6, 2006

February 6, 2006 · Leave a Comment

Yum, the mediocrity of Tealuxe tea (Puttabong 1st flush Darjeeling).

Tealuxe used to be a great joint, providing a fabulous array of teas for your consumption. At a time when you can barely find a place that serves anything other than Twinings teabags, it was a real blessing. I remember the first time I went in, I was rather impressed. They had many varieties of teas available, including some stuff that you’ll never find in the States. I remember they had a Biluochun. Not necessarily the best Biluochun, but a good one nontheless. Their loose-leaf tea was always a bit pricey, and I mainly just bought their to-go tea when I needed a fix on the go. It serves its purpose.

Alas, those days are gone.

At one point they had quite a few branches, even one in NYC near Columbia. I think they probably overexpanded and their cost structure was out of whack with the revenue they were pulling in. Since then they have obviously tried to cut cost by slashing the varieties of tea that they sell, as well as the branches they have. No more free cups of tea when you’ve bought ten, and no more lots-of-variety either. It is also obvious that for the teas that they do sell, quality has gone down a little. I remember their 165 (Competition Tieguanyin) used to be ok, but now it’s, well, neither here nor there. The price is still the sakme, but the stuff you get isn’t as good.

I still go, mostly because of caffeine need more than anything else. Despite my tag line, I am also addicted to caffeine. Having to be away from tea for a whole day means a nasty headache at 3am. I’m not gona subject myself to that again, ugh.

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