Saturday, April 21, 2018

The process of Wenshan Baozhong tea

Wenshan Baozhong (aka pouchong) is a kind of Oolong that is made in the Wenshan area in northern Taiwan. The very first plantation was in the mountains of Nangang, east of Taipei in the late 19th century. But as the city grew, the tea fields have been pushed farther away to Shiding and Pinglin.
What few people don't know is that Baozhong isn't the name of a cultivar, but a way of wrapping the tea in a piece of paper. Baozhong can be made with most tea cultivars that are suitable for Oolong. That's because Wenshan Baozhong is a partially oxidized tea and therefore belongs to the Oolong tea category.
The production process starts with the harvest of the leaves. Here, we see a machine harvest, because it's more and more difficult to find pickers for this tea.
The leaves are packed in big bags made of white fabric and are brought to the tea factory for processing.
The withering of the leaves can happen outside, usually in the shade, or in such an indoors installation equipped with fans and gas heaters. The advantage of this indoor solution is that it can be used even when it rains, which can be quite useful in northern Taiwan, where short (or long) showers happen frequently.
The leaves are then placed on these bamboo mats on these racks and rest for the night. There's little tossing in this Baozhong process (which is why its oxidation is rather light).
The next day, the leaves are  weighed so that each batch would have the same weight.
These 2 machines are going to be used first. A tumbling oven on the right and then a rolling and  pressing machine.
Notice the broom on the right. The floor is carefully cleaned before the work starts.
The tumbling oven is heated below 300 degrees Celcius and the leaves are tossed inside when it's very hot.
This high temperature kill green process lasts between 6 and 7 minutes approximately. The maker feels the leaves to know when they are ready.
The oven is pivoted downwards and empties the hot leaves on a flexible bamboo mat.
The leaves are then quickly placed on this machine that rolls and bruises the leaves in order to release their juice.
This process also lasts several minutes.
The leaves become very wet and compact as a result.
They are loosened up by hand
until they are evenly distributed on a mat. Then, the rack is left to rest while the other leaves are similarly processed.
These are the next 2 machines that will be used. A drying machine on the left and a roaster on the right.
After all the leaves have been heated and rolled/bruised, they now need to be dried. It starts with this machine where you place the leaves on top.
My job here was to distribute the leaves evenly on the rolling carpet. A revolving steel fork makes sure that the stacks of leaves are not too thick.
After a couple of minutes, the leaves come out and a rolled by hand in a white cloth.
This drying process is repeated two more times, but now the leaves land on a bamboo mat directly (instead of the white cloth).
The leaves are evenly distributed on the mat and placed back on the racks.
When all the leaves have been processed comes the drying in the roaster.
I transfer the leaves from the bamboo mat to the metallic roasting plate. The thickness on each plate must be the same so that the leaves dry in an even fashion.
The temperature was set slightly above 70 degrees Celcius and the time at 3 hours. This temperature won't roast the leaves, but simply dry them thoroughly. There's just one more step that needs to be done: taking away the stems on the leaves by hand. This step is usually made by different workers and for this maker it rarely happens on the same day as the process. That's why it can last several days to get a finished Baozhong tea.
While these leaves are drying, a new batch of freshly harvested leaves have arrived and the whole process starts anew for the tea maker! I didn't want to wait for the leaves to dry and went to drink this subtropical forest Baozhong from spring 2017! I'll show you how my brewing went next time... This picture shows the typical shape of twisted leaves of Wenshan Baozhong
Subtropical forest 2 Wenshan Baozhong from Spring 2017

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The many faces of spring

The cycle of the seasons is a recurring theme in Chinese culture and paintings. Celebrating spring (east), summer (south), fall (west) and winter (north) is so universal and almost common that it can feel boring. Are you still with me or are you already bored by the subject?! Let's turn to Kuo Hsi (1000-1090) a famous Sung dynasty landscape painter to make spring more interesting. He reminds us that there are infinite numbers of distinctions within the spring season: morning or evening, early spring or late spring, sunny, cloudy or rainy, cold cool or warm, snow in spring, misty after rain... The change from one state to another can happen dramatically, within moments.

Take these 2 pictures from the San Hsia tea plantation where my BiLuoChun comes from, for instance. They were taken just 13 minutes apart! Sunshine and clouds change the colors, the warmth of the picture, which then conveys a different feeling. With these observations, we also come closer to the meaning of Northern Sung landscape paintings. It's the creation of mental images that express ideas and emotions. 
New tea bush in San Hsia, northern Taiwan
The main idea behind most shan shui (mountain and water) paintings is the vastness of an orderly Universe in which man is almost insignificant, but lives an harmonious life with nature. (See this example: 'Early Spring' by Kuo Hsi and this video for more explanations). There are some recurring symbols that are important to know to understand landscape paintings, but the most important remains the state of mind, the feeling:
- the tallest mountain, often in the center, is a symbol for the State, the emperor. It dominates all other mountains,
- rocky mountains are like the bones of the earth. They are kernels of energy,
- smaller than the mountains, trees represent the enduring life. Pine trees are often symbols for the virtuous man in the wilderness,
- man is depicted smaller than trees and looks almost insignificant. He's sometimes on a path toward a temple in the mountain, which means a spiritual journey.
Today was cloudy, rainy and not a suitable day for harvesting tea. That's why I stayed home and felt like brewing a different kind of spring tea. Can you guess which tea I've chosen here above?

It's a spring 2005 BiLuoChun from Jiangsu! It's the highest quality there is: single buds harvested right before QingMing festival! (For green tea, the hand harvest is the most important cost factor: picking just 1 bud takes twice as much effort than picking 1 bud and 1 leaf at a time. And the earlier the tea is harvested in the season, the smaller are the buds and buds, which means the yield of a picker will be smallest for the same amount of work.
This Chaxi turns into a living landscape painting! It's just like what Kuo Hsi observed: "How delightful to enjoy a landscape painting rendered by a skillful hand! Without leaving one's home, to be transported to streams and ravines in faraway places, the cries of monkeys and birds faintly reaching one's ears, light dappling the hills, glittering reflections on the water dazzling the eye." Drinking tea is also a journey to where it came from.
The tea's taste adds another dimension that a painting doesn't have! In this case, the tea's light orange color is a good fit with the cloudy weather. The taste starts warmer and sweeter than a young green tea. But it has retained the same finesse and aftertaste. And what's amazing is that the freshness is still there, underneath or beyond the current dark flavors.
This cool river freshness comes from the brown open leaves, which is the theme of this Chabu! And like a northern Sung painting, my Chaxi tries to go beyond symbols. It reaches outward to recreate an harmonious nature. This then helps me, the brewer, to reach inward to master the mind and then satisfy my thirst!
When tea meets shan shui painting.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Printemps 2018

Plantation de San Hsia
 Le BiLuoChun de SanHsia est disponible en 2 versions cette année! La version de compétition est la plus haute gamme, la plus fine. L'autre est presque aussi bonne, mais bien meilleur marché. Quand il s'agit de thé vert, les différences de saveurs sont souvent minimes, car ce thé se déguste léger. Et pour peu que l'on utilise une eau qui ne bout pas, l'infusion est encore plus légère! 
Qingxin ganzhong à San Hsia
Sur la photo ci-dessus, on voit que pour détruire les mauvaises herbes, le fermier n'utilise pas de produits chimiques, mais retourne la terre autour des théiers. Cela fait plusieurs années déjà qu'il a transitionné sa production vers le bio.
Qingxin ganzhong à San Hsia
J'ai remarqué un grand nombre d'araignées dans la plantation et ai félicité le fermier d'avoir tant de mangeurs d'insectes naturels. Il n'avait pas l'air tellement content, et je lui demandai pourquoi. "Pour le thé vert, c'est bien qu'ils soient là, mais d'ici 10 jours, quand je vais commencer à produire du thé rouge, il faudra que je les enlève afin que les petits insectes verts viennent mordre les feuilles!" En effet, les températures montent vite vers les 30 degrés Celsius à Taiwan. Il fait alors trop chaud pour produire du thé vert de qualité.
Qingxin ganzhong à San Hsia
Ce n'est pas simple de garder un bon équilibre entre thé, plantes et insectes. Mais cette biodiversité fait du plaisir à voir et à boire!
Un peu plus tôt dans la journée, je donnai un cours sur les Oolongs de haute montagne. En effet, avec les beaux jours qui reviennent à Taiwan, l'envie de fraicheur et d'énergie printanière se fait de plus en plus vive.
Set en porcelaine pour tester le thé
Ce cours fut l'occasion de regoûter de nombreux Oolongs du printemps 2017 et de remarquer que, contrairement au thé vert, la fraicheur des Oolongs de haute montagne n'est pas altérée. En effet, chaque année présente le dilemne suivant: d'ici à ce que les Oolongs de Lishan et de Da Yu Ling soient récoltés et disponibles, il est presque mi mai, et les 2 tiers du printemps sont déjà écoulés! Aussi, la meilleure façon de déguster des Oolongs printaniers au printemps, c'est de boire ceux de l'an passé!
Pour bien goûter l'impact du cultivar, nous avons goûté ce Jinxuan d'Alishan et ce Qingxin Oolong d'Alishan.
Comparaison Jinxuan (devant) et Qingxin Oolong (derrière)
Pour, pour comprendre l'impact de la saison sur le thé, nous avons regoûté ce Qingxin Oolong de printemps et celui d'hiver d'Alishan.
Comparaison d'Oolong d'Alishan de printemps et d'hiver
Puis, nous avons exploré d'autres pics: la douceur de Shan Lin Xi et la finesse de Lishan.

Et, pour la fin du cours, j'avais envie de finir en beauté avec du Da Yu Ling. Mon idée fut de le préparer en parallèle dans le set de compétition de porcelaine (3gr et 6 minutes comme les autres Oolongs) et dans une théière en zhuni en infusion libre. Antonio utilisa la porcelaine et moi la théière Yixing. Il y eut encore assez d'eau pour le préchauffage et l'infusion en porcelaine, mais je remarquai qu'il n'y en aurait pas assez pour ma théière. J'en utilisai moins pour le préchauffage, mais même ainsi je ne pus la remplir qu'aux trois quarts pour l'infusion. Le résultat est que les feuilles ne s'ouvrirent pas aussi bien qu'avec la porcelaine!

Le Da Yu Ling infusé dans le set de compétition était bien meilleur avec plus de finesse et de longueurs et d'arômes subtils que les autres Oolongs!Mais mon infusion ratée en théière zhuni nous donna plusieurs bonnes leçons:
- l'instrument importe moins que la façon dont on s'en sert,
- une infusion de 6 minutes si délicieuse et parfaite est la marque d'un thé exceptionnel. La réputation de Da Yu Ling est bien méritée,
- l'infusion d'un Oolong de haute montagne ne réussit que si les feuilles s'ouvrent lors de la première infusion. Pour cela le préchauffage est essentiel.
Bourgeons de thé de San Hsia

Friday, March 30, 2018

A really Good Friday with aged Oolong

The musical mood: Office des ténèbres, Cristobal de Morales, performed by Doulce Mémoire (available on Spotify or as CD).

The tea: Spring 1980 Hung Shui Oolong from Dong Ding.

The kettle: a Japanese tetsubin with silver decoration on the handle

The cups: Dehua porcelain cups. 3 modern and 2 early Qing dynasty.

The teapot: an Yixing Tiliang teapot with carved poem and decoration from the 1930s.

The teaboat: a Sung dynasty porcelain plate with incisions.

The tea presentation plate: a late Qing dynasty celadon porcelain plate.

The waste water recipient: a Japanese copper Jian Shui.

The tea container: a small cylindrical Japanese pewter tea caddy.
With this Chaxi, I remember Jesus who died today for my (and all our) sins. Should I keep this tea ceremony to myself? Is this article going to hurt somebody who doesn't share this faith? Am I showing off with this list of rare, old and expensive tea and wares? Is it wrong to mention my products in an article about Good Friday?
I could say that this is just what I do, that I like to celebrate every day with a themed Chaxi. I try to make the most of each occasion and, for a special day like today, I don't hesitate to use my best tea and wares. I'd further say that I don't do any advertising in the sense that nothing is faked, that every feeling is real.
But today let me just confess that there is vanity in my pursuit of tea and that I am too often mishandling the conflicts of interest my tea business has created. And worst of all, I am often not even conscious of where I do wrong, because of my very big pride. I just know some of my words and actions have displeased many readers and customers over the years. 
It would be painful to list all my failings, my sins, all the things where I come up short. Maybe tea is the one thing that let's me enjoy moments of harmony and unmitigated pleasure! And so, I thank Jesus for forgiving my (and all our) sins on the cross.
And you, dear reader, please forgive the dark mood of this article. Actually, the tea tasted divine. It added life and reality to the account of the events of Good Friday!