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Journal
Tea farm at the base of Alishan Mountain

Next in our series on Taiwanese winter oolongs at Miro Tea, we are going to introduce you to the man  behind the teas, my good friend Drew.  It is Drew who helps me locate the best oolongs of each season and makes sure we are always well-stocked with the highest quality Taiwanese oolongs that are most representative of each category.  I met Drew on my first day in college and to this day, he’s the friend who doesn’t let me live down certain events in my life that he had the fortune/misfortune to witness.  We should all be so lucky to have such a good friend.  In my first post, I had mentioned how a good friend was responsible for introducing me to what great tea was all about.  Well, that good friend was Drew.  He had already been studying and learning about teas long before I even met him and by the time we met, he demonstrated to me the variety of teas that existed outside of my limited knowledge of tea, at time, and introduced to me the concept of artisan teas, direct farmer sourcing and gung fu tea preparation. In my mind, the idea of Miro Tea was born the moment he served me that first cup of gorgeous delicious tea.

Since our college days, Drew left Seattle for warmer climates and settled down in Taiwan with his lovely wife Joyce, where they’ve established an envious life of teaching, exploring, and writing, as well as lots and lots of biking across the Taiwanese countryside.

I never considered how conducive the terrain and landscape of Taiwan was for cycling until I learned of Drew’s cycling endeavors and from reading his blog, Taiwan in Cycles.  There, he chronicles all his excursions and the very rich cycling culture in Taiwan,  all the while taking lots of photos of the people, locales, bikes and of course, tea!  Some of the tea related rides that he’s written about are his Nantou trip, Ali Mountain, and my favorite piece on the Lugu tea district and it’s prestigious bi-annual tea competition.

And so it is during these bike rides that Drew ventures out to the Taiwanese mountainsides and discovers some of the obscure but talented tea growers whose teas we enjoy at Miro Tea.  We’re so lucky to have him as our exclusive liason to help us insure that our customers have access to some of the most exceptional teas that Taiwan has to offer.  He’s been generous by allowing us to access his long developed relationships with the tea farmers and has become our “feet on the street” or in this case, “wheels on the mountain” for premium quality, yet reasonably priced Taiwanese Oolongs. With his friendly disposition, sense of curiosity, and utmost respect for the farmers, he’s been able to establish great relationships with many of the local tea growers from each of the major tea growing regions.

Handmade Tea Baskets

One thing that people often misunderstand is the process of gaining access to teas grown by small tea farmers. It’s not as simple as picking up a phone or knocking on a door.  Cultural rules dictate and respect for the farmers must be acknowledged.  Relationships based on personal interactions and trust are established over time.  Thankfully, Drew is the person that we trust to develop that special relationship for us in Taiwan.

Teas in Taiwan are usually hand plucked by the family members who own and cultivate the tea farms

When selecting teas, Drew knows the characteristics of a truly premium oolong and starts by looking for only hand-made, organically-grown Oolongs that are typically cultivated at a high elevation.  This ensures that care was taken in making the tea and it further increases the chances that the cultivated oolong tea will be delicious. Also, Drew and I share a very similar palate for oolong teas, which allows me to put my full trust in his selections, enabling us to get premium oolong teas to our store and customers in very short order.

Fresh tea leaves being spread out to wilt in the sun before the bruising and rolling process.
The photos shown on this post were all taken by Drew this winter on Ali and Dong Ding Mountain.  We’ll be sure to post more photos of the tea farms as we get them from Drew.  Be sure to check our blog again for the final three oolong tasting posts, which will be posted in the coming weeks.  Cheers! 

Although we’re featuring botanicals this month, I can’t help but feature a couple of new arrivals to our tea menu–two Wuyi Yen Cha. I discussed this oolong type in a previous article, back when we had a serviceable but not outstanding example to provide our customers. Now, we’ve got two outstanding Wuyi oolongs and each deserves its own tasting notes.

As I noted in the introductory article, Wuyi is a mountain and nature reserve in Northern Fujian Province, China. “Yen Cha” means “rock,” “crag,” or “cliff” “tea,” since the area is known for its precipitous mountain cliffs and many of the most famous tea bushes were first discovered clinging to the edges of the rocks. This first tea I’ll be writing up is known as Da Hong Pao, or “Big Red Robe.” If there is one flagship Wuyi Yen Cha, it’s got to be Da Hong Pao–this tea is one of the Chinese 10 Famous Teas and certainly has the most worldwide recognition of all the Yen Cha. Because of its reputation, Da Hong Pao is often subject to falsification. Tea wholesalers will often sell low-grade, extremely high-roast Yen Cha under the name “Da Hong Pao” just to capitalize on the tea’s reputation. This sort of practice can ruin the beginning tea enthusiast’s experience with Yen Cha–a lot of tea drinkers think all Yen Cha taste the same (extremely roasted) and aren’t worthy of attention as a serious tea. The fact is, Da Hong Pao has a characteristic flavor and mouthfeel, so long as the producer is skilled enough at making the tea. This is mostly because “Da Hong Pao” is not only a specific tea (as in beverage), it’s also a genetically unique cultivar of tea bush that is reproduced asexually by planting cuttings from a parent plant. The same is true of Rou Gui (known at Miro Tea as “Wuyi Cassia”), our second new Yen Cha. Rou Gui is a less famous Yen Cha, but it is very popular in China as a solid Yen Cha choice. Rou Gui is so-named because of its cinnamon-like cassia aroma and flavor, which are more pronounced in higher grades.

Sitting down to taste our two new Yen Cha was a real pleasure, since they both exhibit the classic characteristics of high-quality Yen Cha but definitely taste distinct from one another. In addition to offering tasting impressions for these two teas, I hope these posts will serve as aids for brewing Yen Cha gong fu style; they can be tempermental, especially when used for multiple steepings, but a couple steps will greatly improve your drinking experience. The first step is to “stuff the pot.” As you can see in this picture, my tiny (90 ml) gaiwan is about 3/4 full of leaf (over 5 grams worth!). This is a crucial step; for one thing, Yen Cha leaves are not especially tightly-rolled, so they look bigger than, say, a pellet rolled oolong, when in actuality the weight is lower. Secondly, packing the leaf in will make the tea last many more infusions. The second big step is using very short infusions. When I prepare Yen Cha, the first 4 infusions are generally instantaneous–as soon as the water has filled the pot or gaiwan and the lid is on, I begin pouring. Because there is so much leaf, there’s a danger of oversteeping. If you keep the first few infusions short, you’ll be able to really appreciate the changing character of the tea from steep to steep. After the first four infusions, I’ll generally increase the infusion time by about 10 seconds per go, up to about 45 seconds, then by 15 seconds for two more, and a couple extra long infusions to see if the tea has any juice left. The third tip is to use a pot or gaiwan that retains heat very well–this porcelain gaiwan is a good device for accurately conveying the flavor of this yen cha, but a nice thick, high-fired Yixing clay pot will keep the temperature high, allowing the water (as close to boiling as possible) to extract as much flavor as possible, which is key during later infusions. Following these three principles (which differ quite a bit from more standard gong fu practices) has really helped me get more mileage and enjoyment out of my Yen Cha, and goodness knows I drink a lot of Yen Cha.

The flavor you should expect from a good Yen Cha brewed in this fashion should present a balance between the tea’s roasting level (which varies from tea to tea) and the flavors of the tea leaves themselves, which also varies from cultivar to cultivar, but ranges from fruity to flowery to creamy to spicy, depending on the Yen Cha. Mouthfeel is usually pretty thick and a bit of mouth-watering astringency (due to the teas’ roasting) generally starts to mount in later infusions, and many Yen Cha possess a pleasant and active acidity that tends to sparkle on the tongue. Really good Yen Cha will also exhibit what the Chinese call “hui gan,” which is literally untranslatable, but roughly means something like “returning aftertaste.” That is, the tea’s flavor remains in your mouth after drinking, and is often enhanced with your breathing.

I’ll be back soon with my impressions on our new Da Hong Pao and Rou Gui!

Elliot

As I mentioned in the last entry, in the world of Chinese white tea, there are really two primary types of white tea: Bai Hao Yin Zhen and Bai Mu Dan. Since the processing methods (extended withering) are very similar, the main difference between these two teas is which leaves are selected during plucking.

Bai Hao Yin Zhen means “White Hair Silver Needle.” The name describes the soft, white down that covers the buds of the tea plant. Many tea drinkers are familiar with Silver Needle tea, which is the classic white tea–it’s produced from large, fat tea buds only, which makes it the more expensive of the two white teas. Of course, there are variations in quality between grades of Silver Needle–generally, the larger the buds the better, and the bud should appear green underneath the down as a sign of freshness. Silver Needle has an extremely delicate flavor–like some of our premium Chinese green teas, its flavor will blossom in your mouth a few seconds after sipping, and the aftertaste will continue long after the tea has been swallowed. The flavor is naturally sweet (thanks to the extended withering process), and good Silver Needle tastes to me of fresh hay and honeysuckle–if it’s fresh, it also has delicate beany notes. If a Silver Needle tastes smoky, overly nutty, or fishy, it’s likely old and has been re-roasted or it had flaws in the initial production. Like most bud-based teas, the best Silver Needle harvests occur in the spring, when the plants put on the most buds.


Bai Mu Dan means “White Peony.” Unlike Silver Needle, White Peony is produced from leaf selections that include the bud and the first two leaves. Although the finished leaves tend to be a bit brittle, you can still usually find a few complete leaf sets. The leaves are a pleasure to look at–the leaves are bright green on one side and brown on the other, and the buds, though not as large as those in Silver Needle, are nice and plump. Because fewer buds are used, White Peony is cheaper and often considered an everyday white tea. The inclusion of leaves makes the body quite a bit more robust (and the liquor darker) than the Silver Needles’, and the flavor is bolder as well. I think White Peony tastes earthy but sweet, and it’s easy to draw a connection between its flavor and Silver Needles’. If it’s a nice fresh grade, you’ll also notice a nice bean- or pea-like sweetness that lingers especially along the aftertaste.


You may come across a large number of white teas with different names, but they’re generally lower grade than these classic teas and less widely-known. We’ve seen our fair share of “other” white teas at Miro Tea; they generally exhibit some of the flaws I mentioned earlier, and though their names may differ, if you look closely, they’re usually of the same appearance as Silver Needle or White Peony, or a combination thereof, which only serves to reinforce the assertion that there are two primary Chinese white tea types!

Elliot

The goal of this article is to broadly define “White Tea.” From a processing perspective, it’s easily identified–White tea is produced from either tea buds only or tea buds and the first two leaves, which are withered in a humidity-, temperature-, and airflow-controlled environment for a long period of time (up to three days). In the processing of green tea, oolong tea, and black tea, withering is a step that lasts only a few hours at most. Withering reduces moisture content prior to oxidation or firing (which, in the case of green and oolong tea, prevents oxidation from continuing). For white tea, though, withering is the process by which oxidation is arrested–eventually the low heat and airflow will deactivate the leaves’ enzymes. For this reason, white tea is technically considered slightly-oxidized. This slight oxidation makes white tea different than green tea, which is fired as early as possible and considered un-oxidized. White tea is called “white” because of the white down that covers the tender buds of the tea plant.

White tea originated in the late 1800’s in China’s South-Eastern Fujian province (the same province where Anxi and Wuyi oolongs come from). Although tea producers had been sun-withering tea leaves for hundreds of years, the white teas that are recognizable today were made possible by tea farmers in Fuding County (circled on the enlargable map of Fujian province) who developed a special cultivar (a genetically unique variety of the tea plant propogated using cuttings) with large, plump buds–the most important component of white tea. From the new cultivars the tea producers developed the two primary white tea types that are around today–Bai Hao Yin Zhen and Bai Mu Dan, which will be covered in the next entry.

Today, tea producers in Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, and even Africa have begun producing their own white teas, developing processing that relies on extended withering. More than for any other tea type, though, the market’s taste is for Chinese white teas. That is to say, if a tea drinker is told a tea is “White,” they’ll generally expect it to taste similarly to a Chinese white like Yin Zhen or Bai Mu Dan. This is rarely the case, though, since the other countries I mentioned have their own specific growing conditions and often use other cultivars to produce their white teas. So, the main challenge facing these other tea producers is produce a white tea with distinct and desirable enough characteristics that tea drinkers will recognize that white tea–like black and green teas–can be “done” successfully (if differently) by a number of different countries. I’ve tried a number of non-Chinese white teas, including a Darjeeling white and whites from Malawi and Rwanda, and I don’t think we’re there yet–the teas I’ve tried aren’t going to make anyone forget about China’s famous white teas. These tea gardens are always experimenting and honing their craft, though, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the day came in the next few years when white teas of singular quality start emerging from multiple countries across the globe.

Elliot

The fourth of our new Chinese greens to be written up is this lovely Dragonwell (long jing). Dragonwell is undisputed as the most famous green tea in China, and it always figures highly in China’s “10 Famous Tea” lists. With Dragonwell’s fame–which is worldwide at this point–come the usual issues that plague regional teas that gain more and more renown. At this point, many Westerners have heard and tried Dragonwell, but they may still know little of this tea’s historical origins or what separates an expensive, premium Dragonwell from a middling one.

Dragonwell gets its name from a specific well in the city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province. The original Dragonwell tea hails from the West Lake (Xi Hu) region of Hangzhou. The scenic lake is surrounded with foothills and mountains that support the most prized modern Dragonwell gardens, which produce the highest-quality and most expensive Dragonwell that can be found. Over several centuries, Xi Hu Longjing has become so famous that tea producers in Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan provinces have begun producing teas in the same style and attempting to pass them off as Xi Hu Dragonwell. Unfortunately, that means that Dragonwell aficionados in the West and elsewhere often have no idea where the tea they’re drinking came from, and they may also have never gotten a chance to taste truly high quality Dragonwell. These days, true Xi Hu Dragonwell is often accompanied by government-issued “Anti-Fake” labels designed to prove authenticity. As always, though, there’s no substitute for experience and the measured judgment of seasoned taste buds. What does this all mean for you, the average tea drinker?

The best Dragonwell in the world still comes from the 168 square kilometers of protected area in the vicinity of Xi Hu. You can find numerous vendors willing to sell tea with a “Xi Hu” or “West Lake” appellation, but far fewer of them will be willing to provide an anti-fake label or go into great detail about how they managed to provide you with such high quality Dragonwell at a reasonable price. The vendors who provide anti-fake labels and go into the furthest depths describing the origins of the tea are almost always the ones who have nothing to hide. If you are interested in tracking down the real thing, my advice is to try a number of so-called Xi Hu Dragonwells from multiple different vendors who meet the above criteria. By educating your palate, you can learn to base your decisions on sensory experience and taste–the most important criterion! Even if you shell out an arm and a leg for the highest-quality, rarest Xi Hu Dragonwell, if you don’t enjoy drinking it and if it tastes like it has flaws, its authenticity means nothing! Once you’ve tried a few different examples, you’ll probably get a good idea of the flavor profile of great Dragonwell–light, active, sweet, with a lingering subtle hint of chestnut-like roundness, and above all, it has to taste fresh! I’ve had more than a few roasty, dull Dragonwells that were passed off as “West Lake.” Today, I consider these experiences “tuition payments” for my Dragonwell education!

In attempting to discover just what Xi Hu Dragonwell really tastes like, I’ve also discovered something else–not all high-quality Dragonwell necessarily comes from Xi Hu! In reality, it’s not really surprising–just like not all high-quality sparkling white wines are produced in the Champagne region of France, there are plenty of amazing Dragonwells produced outside the protected Xi Hu region. I’ve had a few quite impressive examples, such as “Bai” Long Jing (made from a white tea varietal) and a mouth-watering “Anji” Long Jing, made from the same leaves as Anji Bai Cha, another famous green tea. Neither of these teas was as expensive as Xi Hu Long Jing, but both offered comparable drinking pleasure. Almost as importantly, the vendors selling them made it clear that they weren’t Xi Hu varieties!

It’s with this general introduction to the frustrating but ultimately delicious phenomenon of Chinese Dragonwell tea that I’d like to introduce our new High Mt. Dragonwell. At this time, we haven’t found a good enough supplier of representative, reasonably-priced Xi Hu Dragonwell, but we have managed to do the next best thing–we’ve sourced a lovely, fresh, delicious, and affordable grade of organic, mountain-grown Dragonwell from South of Hangzhou. This introduction has turned into such a rant that I’m going to call it an introductory article and post the tasting notes for our High Mt. Dragonwell separately. Fortunately, Dragonwell is so famous that you can find a great deal of in-depth info about it on the internet without searching too far, simply by using Wikipedia or searching Google. The more you know, the better you’ll be able to find yourself some tea you’ll never forget. Consider the forthcoming High Mt. Dragonwell a lengthy step in the right direction!

Elliot

Oolong teas from the Wuyi mountain region of Northern Fujian province, China, are generally known as “Yen Cha” or “Yan Cha,” which means “rock” or “crag” tea, in reference to the famous mountains, crags, and rock cliffs where the tea plants traditionally grow. They are renowned for their unique characters, rarity, and accessibility. In fact, the most famous Wuyi Rock Tea–Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe)–is currently one of two oolong teas on the China Ten Famous Tea list. In fact, the Wuyi region has such a rich tea production history that it has its own “famous tea” list, the Si Da Ming Cong, which refers to the four most famous Wuyi teas (as both cultivars and finished teas). They are Da Hong Pao, Shui Jin Gui (Golden Marine Turtle), Tieluohan (Iron Warrior Monk), and Bai Ji Guan (White Rooster’s Crest). Two of the other most well-known Wuyi Rock Teas are Shui Xian (Water Sprite) and Rou Gui (Cassia Bark). Oolong production in the Wuyi mountain region is so dominant that it makes up about 80% of the region’s output. Black teas (like the famous Lapsang Souchang) make up 14% and the rare but sometimes high-quality green Wuyi teas make up only 6%.

As with most famous teas, the highest quality Wuyi teas place equal importance on the cultivars that the leaves come from and the processing methods used to produce them (for a very interesting two-part article about the history of the Da Hong Pao cultivar, read Guang Lee’s excellent two part article on the Hou De blog: Part 1, Part 2). In reference to my introductory oolong entry, Wuyi oolongs are typified by their oxidation and roasting; in general they are highly-oxidized and roasted with medium- to high-fire for long periods of time, giving them a characteristic roasted, warming flavor. Premium Wuyi oolongs offer a balance between this roasting character and delicate floral, herbal, fruity, and other aromas and flavors that unfold with each steeping. Lower-grade Wuyi oolongs tend to be dominated by the roasted character due to low quality leaves or unskilled roasting abilities, so it may be difficult to tell the difference between different types. If you’ve tried a few Wuyi oolongs and are of the opinion that they all taste the same, rest assured that this is not the case and there are Wuyis out there that can really blow your expectations away and justify their reputation!

To offer an example of a Wuyi oolong, I’ve shared pictures of a nice mid-grade Da Hong Pao that we sell at Miro Tea. In this first picture (click to enlarge), you can see that the leaves have been rolled into long, curly shapes. This is called “stripe rolling,” and is typical of most (if not all) Wuyi oolongs. Another thing to notice is the color–because of their high oxidation and roasting, Wuyi oolongs often exhibit much darker coloration than other oolongs. At a quick glance, the color appears black, but if you look closer, you can see dark green, brown, and reddish colors as well, especially depending on the lighting conditions. High-grade oolongs usually consist of quite large leaves, so this oolong’s mix of medium-large and a few broken leaves is a good indication of its medium-grade.

After infusion, some of this Da Hong Pao’s trademark characteristics are revealed. The tea’s liquor is a dark amber, which is again typical of Wuyi oolongs in general. The leaves have slightly unfurled to reveal their original size, as well as the variation of color that can often take place in one leaf. Wuyi teas are often so tightly stripe-rolled that they remain so even after several infusions. If you’re brewing a Wuyi in a small pot or gaiwan gong fu style, make sure to leave enough room for the leaves to unfurl as much as they can; if they’re too cramped, they won’t expand and release all of their flavors evenly (or at all).

Wuyi oolongs are such a unique treat that it’s worthwhile to seek out excellent examples of the teas you’re interested in. At Miro this spring (after Wuyi harvests come in), we’ll be offering a high-grade Da Hong Pao and a more affordable mid-grade selection to represent this diverse and famous region.

Every once in a while, a customer will come into Miro, approach the counter where we offer samples of four different teas each day, look at an oolong we’ve selected, and say “Oolong. Is that a black tea?” The answer to the question is a definite “No.” Oolong and black tea are not interchangeable terms, and although there may exist some surface similarities between the two tea types, oolong’s processing and source varietals are very distinct from those of most black teas. Despite the fact that oolong and black teas are very different, there is a surprising amount of variation in the processing, look, and flavor of different types of oolongs (probably more so than any other tea type), which can account for a lot of the confusion that people feel regarding this elusive tea genre. This entry will offer a brief synopsis of characteristic oolong production techniques and types and will hopefully take away some of the mystery that surrounds this hallowed tea in the West and provide a tempting introduction to the exotic flavors and aromas that oolongs can offer.

Overview:
Oolong (also transliterated from Mandarin as “wulong”) literally means black (“oo/wu”) dragon (“long”). Its origins are Chinese, and generally placed somewhere before the 16th century, which is relatively recently in the history of tea. Since then, oolong tea has been introduced to Taiwan (1800’s) and much more recently to India and Nepal, among other minor tea-producing regions. Broadly speaking, oolong occupies the hazy gray area between green teas and black teas, mostly because of its oxidation levels–whereas green teas are virtually un-oxidized and black teas are “fullly” oxidized (100%), oolong’s oxidation can range anywhere between 5% and 70% oxidation, which accounts for the broad variation in oolong flavors and characters.

Processing:
The first step in oolong processing is, of course, plucking the leaves. While green, white, and black teas tend to prize the unopened buds and young leaves of the tea plant, oolong can be more described as a “mature leaf” tea, since plucking often includes some very large leaves, which would usually make pretty low-quality green tea (or even lower-quality white tea!). Hand-harvested oolongs (pictured on the left, click to enlarge) are always prized higher than machine-harvested ones (pictured on the right, notice the much more frayed leaf edges), since hand-harvesting results in a more pure leaf profile and the leaves that are picked are usually in better condition. However, machine-harvested tea is cheaper and is sometimes very high-quality in flavor and in appearance.

After plucking, the leaves are withered in open air to reduce moisture content. Next, they are bruised, which is usually accomplished by shaking and hand-pressing them in bamboo baskets. The bruising process breaks down the cell walls in the leaves, releasing the juices and flavors to be exposed to air. The oxidation of the tea leaves primarily occurs during the bruising and withering stages, and depending on how long the tea-maker spends performing each step, a very different type of oolong can be produced. Obviously, these steps involve great skill, from the motions required to bruise the leaves to the practical knowledge of how long each step should be performed, taking into account the weather and temperature as well! By the end of bruising, the leaves become much suppler than they were after withering, and much of their aroma and flavor has been fixed.

When the leaves have reached the desired oxidation, they’re fired to kill the enzymes and stop the oxidation process–just like with green and pu-erh teas, but after a much longer oxidation time period. After this short firing, the leaves are rolled. Each oolong type has a special rolling profile (more on this later), and these are achieved by rolling the leaves and heating them repeatedly. During rolling, more of the juices are released and affected by the heat, which also contributes to the flavor of the end result.

Finally, the rolled leaves are roasted. This is another factor that varies considerably among oolong types. The tea-maker will roast the leaves twice; the first roast is short with high-heat, designed to fix both the chemicals of the tea as well as the shape. The second roasting process is usually lower heat for varying longer amounts of time. This slow-roasting period improves the flavor and color of the tea, and also gives oolong the advantage of lasting for a large number of infusions. Back when I was first learning about tea, oolong was mysterious–“it’s the only tea that you can steep more than once” was what I heard. While that’s not the complete story (most high-quality green, white, yellow and pu-erh teas are capable of a few or many delicious steepings), it’s true that oolong is well above the average in this department. Really, its only competition is aged sheng pu-erh, which increases in steep-ability as the years roll by. After rolling, the oolong is allowed to cool, then is graded and packaged for sale.

Internationally, oolong has developed a reputation as something of a “connoisseur’s” tea. There are a lot of oolong fans out there and there are plenty of internet forums and websites dedicated to the art and enjoyment of Chinese and Taiwanese oolongs. Oolong possesses a complexity of flavor and character that changes throughout multiple infusions and based on different brewing parameters, which lends itself very well to connoisseurship. Despite these excellent characteristics, oolong isn’t necessarily “better” than green tea, white tea, pu-erh, or any other tea type–oolong is very accessible because its aroma is generally very pronounced and it often tastes like flowers or fruit, with which people are familiar. Green and pu-erh teas tend more toward the “acquired taste” end of the spectrum, but high quality examples of either one are just as deserving of praise as premium oolongs. Luckily, we get to enjoy all of them. My next few entries will focus on the four most famous oolong-producing regions and the typical flavors and appearances associated with each, featuring examples of each. They are:

The Wuyi Mountain region of Northern Fujian province
Anxi county of Southern Fujian province
Feng Huang county of Guangdong province
The high mountains of Taiwan

Elliot

This article is intended to act as a somewhat brief (though it’s still pretty long) introduction to one of the most mysterious, ancient, complex and collectible tea genres–Pu-erh, the compressed tea cakes or bricks that have potential to improve with age. Although it is gradually becoming known in the West, this enigmatic tea genre is still subject to a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation. Hopefully, this entry will clear up some potential questions about pu-erh and provide you with enough general knowledge and tools to begin exploring pu-erh from an informed perspective.

History:
In terms of processing, pu-erh (pronounced “poo-air,” or “poo-er”) is a living fossil–the practice of compressing teas into bricks or cakes was widespread and industry-standard hundreds of years ago, but today, in terms of popularity, it has been replaced by tea in loose form. Pu-erh tea is named for a county in the Yunnan province of China; Yunnan is generally regarded as the primary source for best pu-erh tea leaves because the province’s high mountains receive more sunlight than most areas of China, making for ideal strong, large leaves. The “traditional” pu-erh processing methods that today’s production emulates were threatened during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960’s and 1970’s–during this time, much of the country’s stock of antique pu-erh was destroyed. Since then, pu-erh from the 50’s and 60’s has become especially rare (and extremely expensive), and the techniques used to produce it have been pursued by modern pu-erh producers who hope to recapture the tea’s past glory. Today, pu-erh production is split between teas produced by plantations and teas sourced from semi-wild, old-growth, overgrown ancient tea plantations on difficult-to-access mountains. Since the late 20th century, pu-erh has seen an explosive increase in interest both in China and abroad, resulting in rapid price inflation of aged pu-erh, new pu-erh, and the highest quality tea leaves used to produce pu-erh.

Processing:
What separates pu-erh from the other tea types is its processing–it’s not important which tea plant cultivar produces the leaves. Depending on how the teas are processed, the result will either produce sheng (or raw, uncooked, or green) pu-erh, or shu (ripened, cooked or black) pu-erh. Regardless of the end result, the first ingredient is mao cha–“rough tea”–the loose leaves that will eventually be compressed into sheng or shu pu-erh.

Mao Cha (pictured left, click to enlarge; thanks to Guang at http://www.houdeasianart.com for these pictures) consists of buds, tender leaves, stems, and whole semi-mature leaves. In general, a good mix of these elements produces good pu-erh (i.e. not ALL buds or ALL mature leaves). The processing is outwardly simple, but the finer points of making mao cha are touchy and require fine skills and experience. After plucking, the tea leaves are briefly wilted on bamboo mats to slightly reduce moisture content. Next, the leaves go through the “killing green” process, during which the leaves are pan-fired, de-enzyming the leaves and preventing any oxidization or fermentation. The killing green process is extremely important–the liquor of pu-erh teas that have not undergone correct or complete killing green is often cloudy or murky, and it denotes low quality craftsmanship. After killing green, the leaves are carefully bruised to release flavor without breaking leaves or buds, then dried in the open air or by the sun to the ideal low-moisture (bud not brittle) content. From this point, the mao cha is transported to either large or small factories to become sheng or shu pu-erh. We’ll start with shu.

Shu Pu-erh:
Shu, or ripened pu-erh (pictured right), was invented mid-20th century in an effort to approximate the flavors and character of aged sheng pu-erh, without the years of aging and usual high price commanded by aged sheng pu-erh. This effect is achieved through a rigorously-controlled process involving moisture and heat. The loose mao cha is moistened with water and stacked into piles. In these conditions (similar to skilled compost production), the wet leaves increase in temperature by themselves (autothermally), which quickly increases the rate of post-fermentation (since the leaves are being fermented after the initial killing green process), simulating the process of aging. Of course, the process is delicate and the piles must be turned and monitored to ensure that the leaves don’t get too hot and that moisture and oxidation levels are equivalent. Since this precisely-controlled process includes increased temperature, shu pu-erh is often referred to as “cooked,” but this term is inaccurate because no cooking actually takes place. Finally, the post-fermented leaves are compressed into different shapes–usually disc-shaped cakes (called “bing cha” or “beeng cha”), but also often large and small bird’s nest-shaped forms (tuo cha). Shu pu-erh processing recipes differ from factory to factory, so it is likely that flavor and quality standards will be well-controlled or recognizable for a particular factory.

Like any tea, there are premium grades of shu pu-erh and there are types that are extremely low-grade. For many Westerners, “pu-erh” refers to very low-grade shu pu-erh (often served at dim sum restaurants) that tastes extremely earthy–often to the point of tasting like dirt. In reality, high quality shu pu-erh can make for a very refined tea experience–it’s usually incredibly smooth, rich, and abounding in flavors that can range between earthy, spicy, woody, mushroomy and chocolaty. Like sheng pu-erh, shu pu-erh’s flavor can be improved with aging, but to a lesser extent (see below for aging-related information). Regardless of its quality, though, shu pu-erh is generally regarded as subordinate in quality to aged premium sheng pu-erh, which is unparalleled for its complexity and reputation. Aged sheng pu-erh is rare, expensive, and sometimes difficult to verify as authentic, though, and shu pu-erh potentially offers a similar high-quality experience at a fraction of the cost and time commitment.

Sheng Pu-erh:
The undisputed king of the pu-erh world, sheng pu-erh’s processing is less mysterious but no less delicate than that of shu pu-erh. For sheng pu-erh (pictured left), the finished mao cha is weighed and re-hydrated using steam. This step often separates high-quality sheng pu-erh from mid-grade; if the source of the steam isn’t pure, the tea leaves will acquire a smoky flavor and character. Although smokiness doesn’t mean a pu-erh is inferior (light smokiness will diminish with a few years of aging), the absence of smokiness in young sheng pu-erh is a hallmark of quality production and attention to detail. After rehydration, the more moisturized mao cha is placed in a cotton bag and gently formed into a ball. The ball/bag is then compressed using either a large, cylindrical stone (traditional) or via a special press (modern). Both methods produce top-grade pu-erh, though stone molding generally compresses the tea slightly less, which is better for aging. The mao cha can also be pressed into other shapes, including rectangular or square bricks, birds nest (tuo cha, pictured right top), mushroom (jing cha, pictured right bottom), or even giant melons. After compression, the cakes are sun-dried, wrapped in paper, and sun dried again before being packaged for sale. Bing cha are traditionally sold by the tong, a bamboo or banana leaf-wrapped stack of 7 cakes. Bing cha usually weigh between 350 grams and 400 grams, with 357 grams being an industry standard. When packaged, each pu-erh cake will have a Nei Fei (an embedded inner ticket) and a Nei Piao (an inner ticket) which provide more information about the tea cake’s production, the factory, and the quality of the product. The dimensions and appearance of these items are especially important in aged pu-erh, since forgery is common and careful inspection of the tickets can verify a pu-erh’s authenticity.

The flavor of recently-produced sheng pu-erh can vary widely–depending on how the leaves were steamed during re-hydration, and especially on they type of mao cha used to produce the pu-erh, the flavor can vary widely to encompass floral notes, fruitiness, woodiness, flavors similar to green tea, honey-like sweetness, and many other elements. Most young pu-erhs possess a distinct bitterness; some people find pu-erh’s bitterness to be too strong, or overpowering, but it should be noted that it’s not the same type of bitterness as, say, an oversteeped green tea. Bitterness in high quality young pu-erh should transform during swallowing or in the aftertaste, taking on sweeter and more complex notes. As the pu-erh ages, its bitterness will decrease, and bitterness in young pu-erh is by no means a sign of inferiority.

Factories:
Be they produced by large, state-run companies or private producers, all pu-erhs are produced in some sort of factory. Menghai (also the name of a county in Yunnan) is by far the most popular pu-erh factory in China; it is unmatched in its brand name recognition and standard of quality. Factories like Menghai often produce teas every year based on a specific “recipe.” In Menghai’s case, each recipe has a number–for example, Menghai’s 7542 recipe is an industry standard for quality and age-ability–the first two digits in the recipe stand for the year that the recipe was created (1975) and the second two digits (usually tougher to decode) refer to the types of leaves and quality used in the blend. In essence, a recipe is the percentage of each cake that comes from a given leaf type–buds, large leaves, small leaves, stems, and quality of each type are all factors. Therefore, a given recipe can be reproduced year after year with similar results (although, of course, harvest quality and climate conditions can affect a given year’s harvest). In recent years, a number of pu-erh factories (such as San Ho Tang, whose Xi-Zhi Hao [Double Happiness] line has set the standard for premium pu-erh) have begun producing boutique-quality pu-erhs based on leaves picked from specific mountain old-growth plantations in Yunnan. These unblended productions often feature the highest quality, largest, and most beautiful pu-erh leaves available, and produce flavor that puts many plantation-sourced cakes to shame. However, blended and unblended single-region pu-erhs both have their merits; blends tend to have a larger breadth of flavors, while unblended pu-erhs tend to be more subtle and possess a more distinct character.

Brewing:
Pu-erh does have somewhat of an “acquired taste” for many people, but brewing it correctly can aid in enjoyment. First, you’ve got to get some leaves–using a knife or pick, break some leaves off of the cake as gently as possible, preferably from the side. The fewer broken leaves, the better the tea will taste. Traditional Chinese Gong Fu (to be described in a future post) preparation is ideal for pu-erh, since it brings the tea’s flavor out little by little in a less overpowering way. For this method, you’ll want to get your gaiwan or clay teapot about 1/3 full with leaves, rinse with boiling water for about 20 seconds, and discard the water. For future infusions, steep the tea for a short amount of time (20 sec or even less) with boiling water, gradually increasing the steeping time as the flavor decreases.

Brewing Western style, it’s a good idea to use roughly 1 tsp of leaves per 8 oz cup, pouring slightly cooler than boiling water for sheng pu-erh (since you’ll be brewing fewer leaves in a larger amount of water), and steep the leaves for 2-5 minutes the first time, depending on your taste. Like any tea, it’s all a matter of taste, and you should experiment to find out how you like it best.

Aging Pu-erh:
Pu-erh’s ability to improve with age is probably the quality that has made it especially popular with wine-drinking Westerners in the recent past. Both sheng and shu pu-erhs can improve in flavor with a few years of aging: sheng pu-erh improves the most dramatically and can be aged for over 50 years(!) with continuing flavor improvement, while the usefulness of aging shu pu-erh usually peaks at around 15 years. Within 10 years of aging (different pu-erhs age at different rates), the flavor of sheng pu-erh will mellow considerably–bitterness and smokiness will subside (if not disappear completely), the mouth feel will become smooth, the liquor will darken, and the tea will last for more infusions. The leaves of the cake will also change in appearance (compare the leaves in the picture on left of a 1980’s with the young sheng pu-erh cake pictured above, then compare it with the shu pu-erh). For shu pu-erh, aging generally results in the reduction of “off” flavors, like slight dirtiness or mustiness, but it’s never as dramatic as the flavor transformation seen in sheng pu-erh. It’s also important to note that aging an inferior quality pu-erh won’t turn it into a superior one! Although it will mellow out, inferior sheng pu-erh is likely to produce somewhat bland or shallow aged pu-erh. Not necessarily bad, but also not magical transmutation. What’s the best way to know if a pu-erh is age-able? Taste it! Complexity and delicious flavors in young sheng pu-erh is a good measure of aging potential, and it’s a great idea to taste your aging pu-erh as time progresses to see if your decision was a good one. There’s no substitute for experience, though, so it’s a great idea to experiment and try both un-aged and aged pu-erhs–you’ll start to recognize flavors from young pu-erhs in old pu-erhs, and it will all start to click!

If you plan to age pu-erh yourself, here are a few basic guidelines: pu-erh should be stored in a relatively cool, dark, dry (very important) place with exposure to airflow (airtight conditions will eventually kill the microorganisms responsible for the pu-erh’s aging) and an absence of strong odors, particularly food odors, since the pu-erh leaves will absorb strong smells. In general, if it’s comfortable climate for a person, the pu-erh should be okay. A good closet or cupboard usually does the trick.

In Asia, pu-erh is sometimes stored in very humid environments. This type of storage is sometimes referred to as “wet” storage or more euphemistically as “traditional” or “Hong Kong” storage. The reasons for wet storage are multiple: unscrupulous vendors may be attempting to artificially “age” sheng pu-erh via a moist environment, or they just may not have access to a humidity-controlled warehouse. In any case, approach these pu-erhs with caution–although this type of storage can speed the aging of pu-erh, it can also result in unsafe growth of mold and other non-ideal “life” on your pu-erh.

Generally, I recommend sampling a pu-erh before buying an entire cake whenever possible–this way, you’ll get tasting experience and you’ll know firsthand if you like the pu-erh or not. Most high-quality vendors offer samples, and I’d only recommend buying a cake without sampling if you’ve already dealt with the vendor and trust their quality control. Also, rather than shelling out big money for a lot of aged pu-erh, I recommend buying either premium young or premium mid-aged pu-erh; you’ll save a load of money, and if you buy high-quality, you’ll be enjoying your tea more within a few years or even when it’s young than if you bought mediocre aged pu-erh (or worse–faked aged pu-erh!) at an expensive price.

At Miro, we’re committed to offering a broad range of pu-erh; our selection includes both sheng and shu pu-erhs in loose and cake forms, and we carry a range of ages from recently-produced to around 10 years old. We offer premium pu-erh as well as great value-for-price pu-erhs, and we’re happy to let you sample the pu-erh before you buy! If you made it through this entire article, thanks for bearing with me–I hope you feel more familiar with pu-erh and educated to make smart buying decisions. Questions are always welcome, and stay tuned for in-depth tasting notes for some of Miro’s recently-acquired premium pu-erhs!

Elliot

Many people I speak with about green tea seem not to like it very much: “I don’t like green tea–it’s too bitter, too harsh.” Hopefully this entry will dispel some of the misunderstandings and provide some basic but important info about green tea. Green tea first awakened my interest to explore the world of tea, and to this day still one of my top favorite tea types–there’s really nothing like the fresh sweetness of a recently-harvested spring green.

Like all true teas, green tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. Green tea originated in China, but has also become increasingly popular (almost to the point of exclusivity) in Japan, and it is also grown in other major tea-producing areas like India, Sri Lanka, and South America, although the level of craftsmanship is often greatly reduced. What makes green tea differ from oolong, black, white, pu-erh, etc., is the method by which it’s processed. In general, green tea is plucked then withered, steamed, and/or fired to stop the oxidization/fermentation process that would result in oolong or black tea. The different temperatures and processes the tea goes through when it’s being fired or steamed, in conjunction with the tea plant varietal and the profile of the leaves selected, largely determine the flavor and character of the tea.

For Chinese green tea, the earlier the tea leaves are harvested (from as early as February through the beginning of April, depending on weather conditions), the higher-quality and more expensive they are; these teas usually consist primarily of the buds and maybe a few of the first leaves. Of course, there are exceptions to these rules–two of the most famous green teas in China–Taiping Hou Kui and Liu An Gua Pian–are produced using larger, whole leaves and no buds. In Japan, the harvesting situation is similar, with the highest prices attributed to earlier harvests. A big difference, though, is that the highest-quality Japanese teas are shade grown, and generally don’t have whole-leaf appearance after processing.

To illustrate the many faces green tea can take on based on its processing and leaf profile, I’ve assembled several examples (click for a larger picture):

From left to right, Huang Shan Mao Feng (Yellow Mt. Fur Peak), Xin Yang Mao Jian (Xin Yang Fur Tip), Long Jing (Dragon Well), Gunpowder, Super Monkey, Gyokuro Supreme (Japanese), and Matcha (also Japanese). The porcelain cup is a Chinese tea brewing utensil called a gaiwan–more on that in a later blog entry.

For the Huang Shan Mao Feng, you can clearly see the buds of the tea plant–this tea’s processing more or less retains the original appearance of the tea bud. The Xin Yang Mao Jian and the Long Jing are also both based on the tea plant’s buds, but differing processing methods render the buds furry and flat, respectively. For Gunpowder, mature leaves are rolled tightly into balls–the dark, glossy surface indicates that the tea is still very fresh and still contains a great deal of the juices that make its flavor strong. The white, downy hairs on the Super Monkey are present on all tea buds–they’re a good indication that the tea was harvested early. The Japanese Gyokuro is the highest quality green tea in Japan–its leaves are small, thin and very dark green from the shade-grown conditions. Matcha is a powdered Japanese tea, produced from stone-ground gyokuro and whisked to a froth for drinking. These are just a few examples–especially with Chinese green tea, the finished leaves can take on numerous shapes, sizes and textures.

To return to the original impetus for this posting (why people say they don’t like green tea), it’s important to remember that green tea needs to be brewed correctly to maximize its quality characteristics. Black tea and oolong drinkers are used to pouring boiling water on their tea leaves and steeping them for 4 or 5 minutes. These brewing parameters won’t produce a very good cup of green tea–the tender, fresh leaves need a lower temperature (about 170º for Chinese greens and even less–around 160º for Japanese greens), and shorter steeping times will yield a much more enjoyable flavor–1-2 minutes for the first infusion of a Chinese green tea, and closer to 1 minute for Japanese teas. The bad characteristics that people sometimes associate with green tea–bitterness, astringency (that “mouth-drying” effect), and overly-strong flavor–can be avoided by gentler brewing. It’s worthwhile to experiment with your brewing temperature and time to find the flavor that best suits your tastes–great green tea flavor ranges from vegetal (pea-like, bean-like, or asparagus-like, for example) to fruity to nutty to grassy (especially Japanese green tea). Often, there is as much variety to be found within the green tea genre as there is between entire tea genres, so have fun exploring!

Elliot