Hand-carried Tea from Tea Farms in Taiwan

How much tea can two suitcases hold ? Not as much as what you see Mary Lou surrounded by in this picture, but enough to return home with two new winter oolongs that were made just two weeks ago and announce their arrival. Now that is service and that is FRESH!

Yes….Mary Lou has just returned from a tea buying trip to Taiwan to select our 2013 winter oolongs. She visited several tea producing regions and went high into the mountains to visit each of the tea farms that make our oolong teas. She carried back our high mountain ( gao shan) Shan Lin Xi and Tung Ting oolong – more tea is on the way but it is being shipped.

Winter teas are our favorite oolongs – they are rich, creamy, and seductively aromatic. Spring tea brings the gaiety of youth and the flush of a new season to its flavor while winter tea is confident and more assured. After their summer resting period, these tea bushes, coddled by constant daily moisture from the weather phenomenon known as clouds and mist that develops in the afternoon, produce large, juicy, leaves that experienced hands turn into the deepest and fullest tasting teas of the year. The tea bushes will soon be ready to enter their winter dormant period, but for now they still have vigor and good energy for this last seasonal production.

Winter oolongs are plucked and processed from late October to mid-November. The winter harvest and the spring harvest are the two most important harvests of the year – the summer and fall harvests do not yield premium oolong tea, although the summer is the time for a small quantity of excellent black teas to be made.

The mountains of central Taiwan are tall and steep, and home to an assortment of birds and wildlife, lush forests and several temperature zones. During the winter harvest ( late October to mid November ) the temperature can be warm during the day but bring crisp, cold nights. Tea covers much of the land in certain areas of these mountainous regions. During the day moist blankets of clouds and mist rise up from the valley floor and roll and tumble over the tea gardens bringing a layer of nourishing moisture. Because of this, the leaves on the tea bushes grow thick and juicy, and mature slowly.

The terroir of these mountain tea gardens and the weather create tea that is fragrant and sweet and thickly textured in the cup. Our tea farmers/producers are humble men who are proud of the quality of their tea. These are small family tea businesses – third, fourth and fifth generation tea makers who are intimately involved with the cultivation and manufacture of their tea.

We treasure opportunities to meet the people who make our tea as we believe that it is essential to form and maintain these relationships, and we think that it is important to the tea makers, too. For they know that we will promote their tea to our customers, and that we will share with our customers an appreciation for the hard work that it is required of small tea farmers/producers. In essence, we scratch each others backs – we get the opportunity to select the tea we want for our store from their best batches and they in turn are happy knowing we can deliver increasing sales to enthusiastic tea drinkers.

No matter how often we have watched tea being made, every experience gives us new insights into fully understanding the processes and techniques that are unique to each style of tea making.  The four Taiwanese tea farmer/producers who supply our gao shan and other oolong teas are very hands-on tea makers. They are fully invested in their tea – their pride is evident in their conscientious work and in the taste of their tea.

While they have others working alongside them in the tea factory, it is their hands-on involvement with the crucial oxidation portion of the process that will ensure a successful batch of finished tea. Taiwan semiball-rolled style oolong production is a 2 day process, and the fresh leaf undergoes many processing steps. Each step builds on the previous one to reach a successful end product.

Initially, the fresh leaf undergoes both outdoor and indoor leaf withering ( 6 -10 hours, weather depending ). Then the fresh leaf is put into a bamboo cylinder tumbler/dryer multiple times, and rested in-between each tumbling. As the fresh leaf loses moisture and begins to wilt, the tea farmers spend much time turning and shuffling the leaf by hand and watching its progress. From experience, they are able to tell by feel and smell how well/quickly/slowly the oxidation is proceeding and when it is time to stop it with initial drying.

We truly believe that the tastiest and most well-made teas come from small tea farmers/producers who maintain the health of their tea gardens and care about he end result – the tea. Simply put, there is no substitution for the hands-on supervision of experienced tea makers. In essence these men are the tea, and without their skills something unique would be lost in the world of tea making. So we applaud the craft of these artisan tea makers, and encourage our customers to experience these stunning and delicious oolongs – each is a wonderful expression of the terroir of their mountain locales and the craft of experienced Taiwanese tea making.

In addition to the Tung Ting and the Shan lin Xi, look for the arrival of our Alishan and Jin Xuan in the next few weeks.

Oh, yes….Mary Lou also purchased a few other special and less well known Taiwan teas that we eagerly look forward to introducing to our customers. More on those teas later…..

Cheers!

Bob

Drink Your Tea Like a Local

We are often asked what is the best way to enjoy green, oolong, Pu-erh (and other Hei Cha), and white teas. Many tea drinkers wish to expand their range of tea drinking, and the usual questions are milk or not? and sweetener or not?

0394_tea_pilesWe are thrilled that many are beginning to understand that there is a preferred way to drink most tea. In truth, some teas are manufactured with the intention that milk /sugar will be added while other teas are meant to be drunk plain. It is good to learn to discriminate between the milk-teas and the non-milk teas. Habitually adding milk/sugar to any and every tea because that is what you are used to doing will be sure to disappoint.

0187_korean_pour_1But this is not how many go about preparing a cup of tea (neither is it for a cup of coffee). In all of our years selling tea we have heard just about every variation on how people like to drink their tea. Sometimes the reasoning is not clear to us behind why they do what they do, and we wonder if it is not the variety of add-in options that is confusing the issue. Remember the scene in the movie LA Story where the Steve Martin character orders a particularly confusing cup of coffee: I”ll have a half-double decaffeinated half-caff with a twist of lemon?” Huh?

For instance, we have been told:
” I drink black tea plain but I add almond milk to green tea.”
” I add honey to green tea and sugar to black tea.”
” I add non-dairy creamer to black tea and 2% milk to green tea.”
” It depends on my mood.”
” If I have left it in the teapot too long I add milk.”

And so it goes. We always wonder why so many add so much to their tea, and why some teas are given different add-in’s than others. For in truth, premium tea such as we sell is a far cry from the sharp, astringent blends one finds in packages of supermarket tea. It really only needs simple preparation to be truly delicious.

  • Do these add-in’s really give some tea a better taste or is a dash of this and a bit of that added by habit and from the taste of ‘familiarity’ that these products add to the core beverage?
  • Or do these add-ins help to cover up the taste of tea that was carelessly steeped?
  • Or is it simply because most Western tea drinkers drink black tea and adding milk and sugar is how we grew up thinking it should be done. Because, of course, any good Brit will tell you emphatically that yes, that is how it should be done.

For example, I recently happened to catch a few minutes of the 1943 movie “Lassie Come Home” that features child-star Roddy McDowell and a 10-year-old Elizabeth Taylor. In the story, Lassie treks from Scotland back home to England to be with her young owner. Along the way she rests for a bit in the care of an elderly Scottish couple. As the kindly woman gives Lassie the last of the milk in the house, her husband points out to her that she will have no milk for her morning tea. The woman says: “Well, I hear tell that in America now they drink their tea without milk.” He chuckles and replies: “That’s just because they don’t know any better.”

Was this movie referring to a trend towards green tea drinking that had caught on in a small way in America in the 1930’s and 1940’s or was it just dialogue? One may never know, but it does underscore the absoluteness of adding milk to black tea for that gentleman.

0121_Indian_ClaySetIt is true that Westerners are historically black tea drinkers. Chinese black tea and dark oolong (most likely these teas were not quite as we know them today) were the types of tea that first filled the larders of European households from the 17th century onward. And to properly drink this exotic beverage, handled tea cups, large tea pots and the numerous other tea wares and tea tools were devised to suit the Western sense of table-wares and decorum. This in turn gave Americans and Europeans a way to fuel their ever-growing desire to drink more tea in fancier and nicer ways.

photo courtesy of the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, Toronto, Canada

photo courtesy of the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, Toronto, Canada

The use of black tea consumed with milk/sugar (which was the European way with all temperance beverages and which fulfilled their voracious sweet tooth, as well) continued in America and Europe – and still continues today. Which means that most of us grew up drinking black tea steeped in a large pot (or from a teabag ) served with milk/sugar.

So, this familiar way of drinking tea leads some to suspect that the answer to how to drink certain other teas can be broken down simply as: “yes on milk /sugar for black tea and hold on both for all the others.”  While this approach might work some of the time it is a bit simplistic.

Since we always like our customers to look at the large picture, this is how we look at the answer to the milk/sugar question.

0284_puerh_teasFirst, think about which tea producing country made the tea in question. The methods of tea manufacture are different in every tea producing country, and the types of tea that each country produces is based historically on one of two purposes.

  • is the tea produced:1. as a product for local consumption and 2. as an export commodity?
  • or is the tea produced: 1. as an export commodity and 2. as a product for local consumption?

1.  China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan have the longest histories of tea production. Historically, tea production was begun and perfected in each of these countries with the intention of pleasing their local populations of tea drinkers. Over time, these countries exported their tea to other places, but the tea that was exported (with a few exceptions such as border tea and trade-route tea, and teas drunk by forest-dwelling ethnic groups in southwest China) was essentially the same tea that was being drunk in these countries. The important thing to think about here is that all of the tea made in Asia (which includes all of the six classes of tea: green, yellow, white, oolong, black and dark tea or Hei Cha) is manufactured to be drunk plain. These teas were and still are manufactured to please the local tea drinking preferences first, and as an export product second.

0222_matcha

2. India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and the collective countries of Africa, Indonesia and South America are all relatively new tea producing countries. The commercial tea industries in all of these countries were begun by foreigners, primarily the English and Scottish, in the 19th century to fill their home markets with strong, dark style black tea that was to their liking. Which means that these teas are manufactured to be drunk with the addition of milk and sugar, and so were made to stand up to this dilution without losing flavor or character.

With the exception of 1st Flush Darjeeling and some Nepal black teas which are light, fruity and tastier when drunk black, teas from the above mentioned tea producing countries will be most delicious with the addition of milk/sugar and less agreeable when drunk plain. English-style black teas are usually small in size, even when whole leaf, and tend to be quick steeping and astringent.

0273_tinsIn contrast, Chinese black teas are smooth, and complex and elegantly perfect to drink plain. These teas are whole-leaf teas of varying sizes that yield very little astringency in the cup. Their subtle flavors and aromas are masked by the addition of milk/sugar.

0382_gaiwan_potSo in a nutshell, if you know where a tea was made you will know how it is meant to be drunk.You may still prefer to drink your tea with a bit of this and a splash of that, but before you begin adding milk/sugar as always, taste the tea first. When in doubt as to what to do, remember that any tea will taste best when you ‘drink your tea like a local.’

0246_russian_set

2012 spring competition-grade Taiwan high mountain oolong

We have just received three luscious 2012 spring high mountain gao shans from Taiwan. For lovers of these very hard-to-find teas, we have distinguished selections from Alishan, and Shan Lin Xi tea districts. And, for the first time, we have a super-delicious, authentic, pure and natural Milk Oolong  from the Jin Xuan cultivar. (Read more about milk oolong on our website www.teatrekker.com).

Our Alishan and the Jin Xuan are grown and processed on a tea farm owned by a third generation tea grower and a tea master. The farm was awarded very high honors at the Alishan Village Farmer’s Association tea championship in May. This is one of three prestigious competitions that are conducted by the National Agriculture Council and sponsored by the Taiwan government in various tea growing regions.

This is how their tea placed:

  • 2nd Place for 2012 spring Alishan tea
  • 1st Place for 2012 spring Jin Xuan tea

To be clear, our teas are not from the competition winning batches of tea, but are from competition-grade batches tea processed in the same manner by the same tea farm for the spring competition. (Competition-grade teas are made with the utmost care and with more  attention to detail over the usual production methods because they will be entered into the competition). So these teas are in the top tier of deliciousness, so lucky us, lucky you!

Why not just sell the winning teas? Because the winners of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place awards sell the remainder of the batch of award winning tea to collectors and wealthy tea fanatics for very, very high prices. And those who understand the market in Taiwan for high quality gao shan know that this can mean many hundreds of dollars….spent in an instant by wealthy tea collectors, businessmen, and corporations.

However, all of the tea from the award winning tea farms is highly desirable in that year and in future years to come, so we are THRILLED to have these extraordinary teas from this farm for the pleasure of our gao shan customers.

How the competition works.

To enter the competition, tea is submitted in batches of 12 kilos per for judging. As many batches as desired may be entered.

Several thousand entries vie for placement in these competitions, which are conducted for the spring harvest and again for the winter harvest. This particular competition is for semiball-rolled teas produced exclusively in the Alishan tea district. The fresh leaf must be plucked from tea bushes that are grown on local tea farms, and the leaf must be processed by local tea makers.

Each competing tea farm and tea factory will make tea many batches of tea over the course of several days prior to the start of the competition. The methodology will be the same for each batch of tea they produce, but each batch will be slightly different one to another, as the tea made each day can never be exactly the same as the tea made the day before or after.

Businessmen and customers, as well as the tea makers themselves, can select their favorite batch of tea and enter it into the competition. Most tea farms will have several batches of tea entered on their behalf.

The Agriculture Council forms a panel of knowledgeable tea specialists to evaluate all of the tea that has been entered. Judges scrutinize the tea to see how it conforms to the norm for its regional type in both appearance and flavor. This means evaluating:

  • the size of each ball of tea
  • the shape and the tightness of the roll
  • the color of dry leaf
  • the aroma of the dry leaf
  • the color and clarity of the tea liquor
  • the aroma of the liquor
  • the initial taste and returning flavor of the liquor
  • the appearance of the tea leaves after steeping

For the teas that make it through the preliminary stages (more than 50% of the tea entered does not make it beyond this point) each tea is judged thusly:

  • 20% is based on the appearance of the dry leaf
  • 20% is based on the appearance of the tea liquor
  • 20% is based on the aroma of the tea and the wet leaf
  • 30% is based on taste
  • 10% is based on the appearance of the wet leaf after steeping

( FYI…this criteria is the same that we here at Tea Trekker use to evaluate each and every tea we are considering purchasing. We learned to conduct comparative tasting from our colleagues in China years ago. We always learn so when we taste and compare a series of similar teas from the same region).

First, second and third places  awards will have only one winner. Fourth place and up (upwards to seventh place ) will be awarded to multiple winners.

The top three teas will each be packed in special container and sealed with a stamp signifying the award and the win. The winning tea are sold at auction where there will be high and fast demand to purchase these teas as well as all of the remaining tea from that producer in that season.

For those who wish to have their own comparison gao shan tasting, we have some remaining stock of 2011 winter gao shans from Alishan and Shan Lin Xi. With only two plucks a year – winter and spring – each season brings its own qualities to the tea and there is much debate about which is more flavorful and more aromatic. All tea lovers look for and appreciate different characteristics in the cup, so compare and discover which you prefer!

For more details, please visit our Taiwan gao shan oolong page or Taiwan oolong page at www.teatrekker.com

It’s Hairy Crab Season

It’s the end of October and the fall oolong harvest for tea such as Hairy Crab  ( Mao Xie ) is underway in Fujian Province, China. Hairy Crab is a semiball-rolled, modern-style, greenish oolong made in the villages around Anxi in southern Fujian. It is plucked from its namesake tea bush cultivar, and  is similar  to several in flavor and aroma other oolongs made in this region from their specific tea bush cultivars –Ben Shan, Huang Jin Gui, Tieguanyin and Tou Tian Xiang.

But ask a shopper at a city wet market such as in Shanghai or Hong Kong about the seasonal Hairy Crab and they are likely to point to baskets of fresh crabs that have  begun arriving at the market.  The season  for this  seafood delicacy – Eriocher sinensis or mitten crab, known as ‘ Duaza ha’ in the local Shanghai dialect – has just begun, and availability continues until early February. Fall is when the crabs are fattest and the meat is sweetest. Unlike the Hairy crab oolong which is produced in one specific region of small villages, most of these namesake crabs are the product of freshwater aquaculture ( as are many frogs, turtles and eels in China ) in several locations along the Yangtze river in eastern China. Cooking preparations vary, but many believe that simply steaming the crabs and dipping the meat in ginger, vinegar and soy sauce is the best way to enjoy the sweet white flesh. Hairy Crabs are expensive – as much as $26.00 per crab, depending on where they were raised, so tasting the goodness of the crab meat is of paramount importance.

I can only make and educated guess as to why the tea and the crabs share a common name. Pictorially – and in a highly- imaginative kind of way, these army- grey-green, wrinkly little crabs with their oddly constructed bodies, pointy angles and jutting out arms and legs – do bear conceptional similarity to the irregular shape and color of the Hairy Crab tea leaves.

Hairy Crab oolong

As expected, the fall season is filling the markets with a new infusion of both tea and crabs. Our Hairy Crab oolong is from the 2011 spring season, and is fantastically  aromatic and rich in the cup. The fall version of this tea is more full-bodied and less sweet tasting, perhaps a more well-balanced counterpoint to the taste of the cooked crab. Coincidentally, both of these Chinese specialties carry the word ‘sinensis’ ( meaning from China or of China ) in their taxonomic name.

Change of Season: Time for Oolongs

For many tea drinkers the arrival of a new season means a change in daily tea drinking preferences. As fall advances, seasonal changes bring a moody metamorphosis to our New England weather – it can be sunny and golden one minute, then grey and slightly sinister in feeling the next. Bright fall colors are beginning to give way to more somber tomes of light and dark  grey, and a walk in the woodlands revel exposed rock walls, tree roots and fairy houses where summer foliage once thrived.


As the earth turns away from the sun seasonal changes affect all living things – plants, animals and humans, too. As creatures of our environment we respond to the shortened hours of daylight and increasingly cold days by craving different foods and beverages. If we listen to the wisdom of bodies and our inner self, we will find the right balance of sustenance and nurture to keep us in good health and in good spirits during the dark days ahead.

For me, the fresh-tasting, buttery or minerally-crisp green and white teas which gave me so much pleasure during the summer months appeal to me only for morning tea now. In the afternoon and evening, I crave bolder flavors and teas with richer mouth-feel, stronger flavors and more substance in the cup. So I reach for green-style oolongs in the early afternoon and dark oolongs later, when the afternoon light begins to fade and the winds bring a brisk chill to the air. The charcoal-roasted taste of traditional dark oolongs is so satisfying then; it provides a wonderful boost to sagging energy levels. When fall slips into winter, I will leave behind the green-style oolongs behind and settle-in for a rotation of dark oolongs and add some of my favorite Pu-erhs for evening drinking.

The pace of life seems to quicken as the days bring us deeper into fall, and I like to imagine that everyone is, like the squirrels, busy ‘gathering their nuts’ for the shortened days and long nights ahead. Certainly our store has become quite active as regular tea customers are joined by seasonal tea drinkers ready to replenish their cupboards with fresh tea and new tastes.

Fall is the perfect time for tea enthusiasts to replenish supplies of oolongs, or to consider a purchase of oolong this these remain uncharted territory for you. Our shipments of green-style oolongs,  yan cha and dang congs have all arrived in the last 10 days weeks, so our inventory is plentiful in choice and quantity. New selections of Pu-erh will be arriving in early November.

Click on the pictoral links below to view all of the delicious teas that we have for you!

Shui Jin Gui oolongFenghuang Dan Cong Mi Lan Xiang Pu-erh Black River Mountain