The Real Milk Oolong

 

ool-jin_xuanThere is quite a bit of misunderstanding about what milk oolongs are, and sadly there are many low-quality examples of this fine tea dogging about, too. Milk oolong is really a buyer-beware situation, and as premium tea retailers we usually avoid walking right into the eye of the storm when it comes to tea controversy and confusion. (Perhaps the popularization of bubble tea, a Taiwanese milk and tea  drink that features the addition of colorful and sometimes flavored balls of tapioca may somehow be adding to the confusion).

But real milk oolongs are so good that we wanted to shed some light on what milk oolong is and what it isn’t and introduce the real-deal to our customers.

Simply put, milk oolongs are lovely, sweet, lightly-roasted semiball-rolled style oolongs produced in different regions of Taiwan from a particular tea bush cultivar – Jin Xuan (Tai Cha #12 ). This cultivar is sometimes referred to as Golden Lily.


All of Taiwan’s great oolongs begin with specific tea bush cultivars that, in conjunction with the unique terroir of each location, influence the flavor of the tea. Although Jin Xuan is a relatively new cultivar (developed in the 1980’s) it is now one of Taiwan’s four main tea cultivars (dozens of cultivars and varietals are grown throughout Taiwan) and the cultivar behind the marketing of milk oolong tea.

It is the flavor of the fresh leaves from these tea bushes that is transformed into the soft, creamy, ‘milky’ flavor which makes this tea so desirable. Try our milk oolong and you will see that it has very little astringency and an abundance of natural sweetness. This tea has been given a very light roasting, which enhances the milk fragrance – nai xiang – of the tea. It is from the same tea garden as our 2012 spring Alishan gao shan, and we highly recommend it to anyone looking to taste a delicious, easy-to-love Taiwan high mountain oolong.)

Real milk oolong tea is very appealing and delicious, and very popular in Taiwan and abroad. However, it is important to understand that absolutely no milk is involved in the production of real Taiwan ‘milk’ tea.

Spend 30 minutes searching the internet for a definition of this tea and you will end up with many rather silly explanations of what it is, such as:

  • tea that is plucked from tea bushes that have been irrigated with milk before being harvested
  • tea made from tea leaves have been soaked in milk
  • tea made from tea leaves have been steamed with milk in the manufacturing process
  • tea made from tea leaves have been dried with milk
  • tea leaves that were hung over a steaming milk bath before drying

Really? Milk….really? Milk is not abundant in Taiwan (or any parts of Asia, in fact), so how does this make sense?

Anyway, our customers can rest assured that our milk oolong is the real milk oolong, and should not be confused with Chinese imitations of milk oolongs or low-quality teas that have been artificially flavored with a so-called ‘milk’ flavor. Real milk oolong is a natural Taiwan original, and has never seen the white-soul of the inside of a bottle of milk.

This tea farm was awarded 1st Place for their 2012 Spring Jin Xuan tea 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. Our Jin Xuan Oolong has been certified by the Agriculture Council and the County of Chia-Yi to be true to its origin and also to be free of pesticides. Each package features a certifying stamp to verify this.

Please visit: www.teatrekker.com for more information

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

2012 New Harvest Tea versus ‘New’ Tea

It’s the time of year when fresh tea from the new harvest in China and India begins to show up in the US. It is also the time when some tea vendors add new teas that are not from the new harvest. So it is important for tea enthusiasts to pay attention to harvest dates and know what they are purchasing. Some of you may know this information, many of you will not, so it is worth repeating.

It is helpful to know in what part of spring certain Chinese teas are made: some teas are made from the end of March into early April; many teas are made in mid-April; and others are made from the end of April into early May before the spring tea season comes to an end.

Tea production times follow the same pattern each year, so this information tells us that it is not possible to have certain teas ahead of their usual production dates.

The only 2012 China spring teas available now in the US are a handful of Pre-Qing Ming ( Ming Qian ) green and black teas ( tea plucked before April 5th ) that have been air-shipped over to a few eager tea vendors like Tea Trekker.  Teas from the 2nd seasonal plucking time (April 6th to April 20th) such as white teas, yellow tea, some black and early oolongs will be here soon.

2012 green teas from Japan and Korea have not yet been made – the tea harvest in these countries begins in late spring. These teas (with the exception of Japanese Shincha) are still 4+ weeks away from being harvested (depending on the region and location of the tea gardens).

Right now many tea vendors are introducing ‘new’ teas to their store and websites, and tea wholesalers are looking to move out last years tea at reduced prices. The important thing to realize about that is this – simply because a tea is ‘new’ to a store or website does not mean that it is new tea from the 2012 harvest, and tea enthusiasts should not fall into the trap of thinking that it is.

If the tea is not dated, it may be last year’s tea ( or tea from anytime, really ) that is simply ‘new’ to that merchant or tea vendor. Which does not mean that last year’s teas should be avoided – that is not the point.  Some of last year’s teas are still tasty. My point is two-fold:

  1. one should be an informed consumer and not assume that a ‘new’ tea is fresh, new harvest tea unless that tea is clearly identified as such
  2. do not  stock up heavily on last year’s green, white or yellow tea unless that is what you mean to do. Some of these teas will keep quite nicely for several more months or even a year if the weather in that place of production had all of the right elements going for it. But in general, one does not want to purchase large quantities of green, white or yellow tea when the new harvest teas are so close to being available.

Tea vendors who bring new harvest spring teas over in early April send this tea by air so that the tea arrives when it is just days old and super-fresh.  (Shipments of these same teas sent via sea cargo arrive at the historic ‘normal’ time in late July and August). Any tea lover who has had a chance to drink tea this fresh knows what a thrill it is!

So plan your tea purchasing accordingly and make sure that you understand what you are purchasing regarding the dates of harvest.

At Tea Trekker we have begun to list the season and year of the harvest on our green, white, yellow, and oolongs, and some black and Pu-erhs, too. We believe that when dating matters, it matters alot, and that tea enthusiasts who know what these differences mean are better able to make the right choices when purchasing premium tea.

Meeting the Dragons in Japan

On our last visit to Japan in 2010 we arrived the week of spring school break. The weather was glorious but our carefully devised plan to visit the top temples in Kyoto was thwarted by hoards of happy ( albeit sometimes bored ) school children engulfing each place. Parking lots were jammed with buses, and viewing (and moving about the temple gardens in general) was difficult due to the crowds.

Since Kyoto has hundreds of temples and shrines to visit, we quickly shifted gears  and headed off to visit a temple that has a significant history  involving tea and the development of tea drinking in Japan. As compelling as this fact is to us, this temple is NOT prominently featured in the tourist circuit, so we looked forward to a more serene visit.

A few bus rides and a short walk later we arrived at Kennin-ji Temple 建仁寺. This is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, and we were delighted to see only a handful of people wandering around.

We learned that Kennin-ji was established in 1202 upon the request of Emperor Tsuchimikado 土御門 (r. 1198–1210) and with the Japanese monk Myoan Yosai (Eisai) 明菴榮西 (1141–1215) serving as the founding abbot. Eisai made the voyage to China twice during his lifetime, visiting Mount Tiantai to learn  more fully about Zen Buddhism. He eventually received recognition of his Zen enlightenment, and as  a result, he introduced Rinzai Zen Buddhism to Japan. He also introduced the tradition of drinking tea to Japan. He is recognized as the founder of the tea ceremony because of his efforts to encourage the cultivation and consumption of tea.

http://zen.rinnou.net/head_temples/12kennin.html

There is much about Kennin-ji that impresses,  but for me the unexpected joy of the  ‘road-less-traveled’  moment came when we entered Nenge-dô, the Dharma Hall. Inside of this grand space, a portion of the ceiling features a bold black ink and wash drawing ( suibokuga) titled – Twin Dragons – painted in 2002 by the contemporary artist Junsaku Koizumi. The drawing was commissioned to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the temple’s founding. Usually, dragons depicted on the ceilings of dharma halls are painted within a circle. But this exuberant ink drawing of two dragons roiling about in the cosmos covers a very large amount of un-bordered space in the center of the ceiling.

The striking image features two dragons who appear to be chasing a pearl. One dragon clasps the pearl in its talons; the other looks longingly at it. It is unclear if they are playing with the pearl or engaging in a battle of wills to possess it. The sheer size, boldness and technical expertise of this colossal drawing is mesmerizing. The fluidity of the scene underscores the grace and ease of movement that dragons possess.  It is easy to imagine these creatures swiftly disappearing from sight back into the cloud-filled cosmos with just a powerful gyration of their bodies.

We craned our necks until they hurt and we got slightly dizzy from gazing upwards. But nevertheless it was difficult to leave and re-enter the world of daylight. I was thrilled to be in the hall, and to experience the humbling feeling of being small and vulnerable beneath this colossal drawing. Perhaps that was just the response intended by the artist. I began to imagine what feelings an image like this would have invoked in people who perhaps believed that the cosmos was indeed filled with such magnificent and powerful beings centuries ago.

This drawing measures 11.4m by 15.7m, the size of 108 tatami mats. (In contrast, a classic Japanese tearoom where Chanoyu is conducted is the width of 8 tatami mats). The image is drawn with the finest quality ink on thick traditional Japanese washi paper.  The artist created it on the floor of a gymnasium in an elementary school in Hokkaido and took him just under two years to complete.

For those who visit, Kennin-ji also houses another wonderful piece of dragon art. Un-ryu 雲 龍, a dragon flying in clouds” is an ink painting on four fusumas (sliding partitions). The image was originally painted in the 16th century by Kaihō Yūshō(海北友松 1533-1615 ).

POSTSCRIPT

As I was writing this post, I discovered that Junsaku Koizumi passed away on January 9th of this year. Perhaps that was why I began to think about him again. This is his obituary as recorded in the Japan Times.

Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012

Todaiji painter Koizumi dies at 87

Yokohama — Artist Junsaku Koizumi, who painted 40 paper screens of Todaiji, the renowned Buddhist temple in Nara Prefecture, died Monday his family said. He was 87.

Koizumi studied under the famed Kyujin Yamamoto (1900-1986) while attending Tokyo School of Fine Arts, which later became Tokyo University of the Arts.

He won his first award at a 1954 exhibition of new paintings. After he turned 40, he tended to stay away from painters’ circles and was sometimes described as a noble loner. He produced many ink paintings of magnificent and serene landscapes.

Koizumi’s representative works include ceiling paintings at Kenchoji Temple in his native Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, and at Kenninji Temple in Kyoto Prefecture. In 2010, he completed the 40 paper screens at Todaiji, a World Heritage site.

He also created calligraphy work and pottery.


Protected Origin Status Granted to Darjeeling Tea

In October 2011 Darjeeling tea was granted Protected Origin Status by the European Commission on behalf of the Tea Board of India, the Darjeeling Tea Association and all of the tea growers in Darjeeling, India.

Due to the unique and complex combination of agroclimatic conditions (terroir) Darjeeling tea has a distinctive and naturally-occurring quality and flavor which is recognized by tea lovers around the world. The combination of factors give Darjeeling teas qualities that simply cannot be replicated elsewhere.

Essentially, and briefly, this protection, which will ease in over a period of five years, will, when fully in effect, once and finally protect Darjeeling tea producers and their tea from the labeling abuses of others. This is great news for all involved in the business of producing Darjeeling tea, and it is great news for consumers, too.

(In order to be absolutely certain about the origin of our Darjeeling teas, we purchase these teas directly from respected sources in Darjeeling. Our teas are air-shipped directly to our shop with no other parties involved in-between).

Abuses by unscrupulous companies marketing non- Darjeeling tea ( tea grown in other parts of India or in other tea producing countries )  as authentic Darjeeling, or touting tea blends containing a below-minimal percentage of Darjeeling tea in the mix as authentic Darjeeling tea are well-known.

These shady practices have gone on for years with little recourse by the Tea Board of India to stop it. But the Tea Board has been moving up the ladder, one step at a time, over the past dozen or so years, ticking off a list of the requirements and paperwork necessary to build their case for protected status for Darjeeling tea. While I am sure that the amount of time that it took for this achievement to be fulfilled must have been daunting, and at times produced moments of great uncertainty and near loss of faith, the triumphant result has made it all worthwhile.

This is what the group Property Rights Alliance said about the necessity of such legal protections:  “An adequate legal protection is necessary for the protection of legitimate right holders of Darjeeling tea from the dishonest  business practices of various commercial entities. For instance, tea produced in countries like Kenya, Sri Lanka or even Nepal has often been passed off around the world as ‘Darjeeling tea’.

Appropriate legal protection of this GI can go a long way in preventing  such misuse. Without adequate GI protection both in the domestic and international arena it would be difficult to prevent the misuse of Darjeeling Tea’s reputation, wherein tea produced elsewhere would also be sold under the Darjeeling brand, causing damage to consumers and denying the premium price to Darjeeling tea industry. The industry is now waking up to the fact that unless Darjeeling Tea is properly marketed and branded, the survival of the industry may be at stake and GI protection along with stringent enforcement can go a long way in helping the industry to improve its financial situation.”

The European Commission (DG AGRI) has operated three registrations for  agricultural product and foodstuffs worldwide since 1992:

Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)
Open to products produced, processed and prepared within a specific geographical area, and with features and characteristics attributable to that area.
Protected Geographical Indication (PGI or GI)
Open to products produced or processed or prepared within a specific geographical area, and with features or qualities attributable to that area. The difference between PDO and PGI products is that the latter can receive that characterization as long as a certain stage of the production process takes place in the pre-determined region (whereas for PDO products, the entire production process must take place within the pre-determined region).
Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG)
Open to products that are traditional or have customary names, and have features that distinguish them from other similar products. These features need not be attributable to the geographical area the product is produced in, nor entirely based on technical advances in the method of production.

When a food product is granted protection under one of these schemes, the producer is allowed to place a colorful logo on its product to  announces this distinction.

Hundreds of well-known and loved European products have received these protections. So when I shop for French Champagne, or French Roquefort Cheese, Italian Parma Ham or Basmati Rice from India, or many other products, I always support the products bearing one of the EC’s logos.

EU agricultural product quality policy
Quality is an issue for every farmer and consumer/buyer, whether dealing with commodities produced to basic standards or with the high-end quality products. EU farmers must build on high quality reputation to sustain competitiveness and profitability. EU law lays down stringent requirements guaranteeing the standards of all European or EU protected products. In addition, EU quality schemes identify products and foodstuffs farmed and produced to exacting specifications. Better product protection will ultimately result in better prices for the tea, better economic health of the industry, sustainable educational and health systems resulting in a better quality of life for the tea workers.

Protected product status for noteworthy tea is much more than a mere badge of vanity, or the trumpeting of self-promotion. Here are a few examples of what product protection offers both producer and consumer.

  • First: The certifying mark on packages of these teas is a value-added incentive recognized in the marketplace, that, along with other certifications such as organic, fair trade, etc, allow producers to obtain a fair price for their products and maintain a healthy share of market. These products provide support to a larger piece of their agricultural economy by casting a spotlight on that local industry, and this in turn protects the livelihood of local producers and workers.
  • Second: Value-added incentives have a great deal of customer appeal too, as these certificates offer reassurance to consumers that the product they are purchasing is the real deal, and that cheap ingredients or raw materials have not been used.  And, that the product has been made in a manner that is in accordance with the tradition of a specified place.
  • Third: Protected status is essential in combating counterfeit or copycat teas, as well as intentional or accidental  mis-labeling of tea on the wholesale or retail level.  As more and more tea producing countries move outside of their usual tea manufacturing methodologies and produce their versions of another country’s famous teas, the true origins of certain teas (white tea is a good example) will become confusing and murky for consumers to discern.

Darjeeling has been granted a PGI or GI, which is wonderful news for these growers. In fact, it is good news for the future of all producers of authentic, unique, terroir-specfic, teas who will, I hope, feel empowered by this judgement and follow the long road and apply for protected status for their teas, too.

China’s prized Longjing tea is the only other tea to receive a Protected Origin Status, and they were granted a PDO.

Darjeeling tea is the first PGI status product for the entire country of India. Italy, on the other hand, has dozens upon dozens of protected status food products in all categories from wine to olive oil to bread to legumes, etc. For example, Italy has:

  • 42 PDO’s and PGI’s for cheese alone, with 6 more pending
  • 43 PDO’s and 1 PGI for extra virgin olive oil from different geographic regions, with 4 more pending.

Products grown outside of the borders of the European Union have only recently been  able to qualify for this protection, so tea is new to this scheme. But I believe that it is crucial that tea boards and government agencies take the threat of copy-cat tea and mis-labeling abuses seriously.

I hope that the tea industry will learn from the Darjeeling example, and realize that their is something that can be done to protect unique tea. Just imagine how wonderful it will be someday to see a listing of teas protected with PDO and PGI status, and to know as a consumer that you are purchasing the real deal and indeed  supporting the workers whose livelihood you think you are supporting.