Friday, December 25, 2009

Tea Break in Kuching Part 2







Kuching is known worldwide for its rare varieties of fauna and flora.  We were unfortunate not to see the biggest flower in the world, the Rafflesia, as it was not in bloom that week.  My family visited a pitcher plant and wild orchid garden in Kuching and we were awed by the various pitcher plants on display.  Pitcher plants are carnivorous plants whose prey-trapping mechanism features a deep cavity filled with liquid known as pitfall trap.  Insects are attracted to these plants either for nectar or water found in the pitches.  Once in the pitches, the insects are trapped as the walls are slippery, and the insects die and dissolve in the pitcher.  There were many types of pitcher plants there; on the ground, different colors and sizes.  The pix shows a beautiful 8 inch (height) pitcher plant.

Sarawak in also known for its pottery.  This industry is very established and the pottery is exported worldwide.  I managed to hand-carry a huge pot/vase (2 feet high) home as well.  It costs me US$20.

Eating is one of the highlights of visiting Kuching.  The various and inexpensive varieties of food will definitely put any visitor on a weight diet program when he gets back home.  The seafood dinner we had at the famous open air seafood centre (top spot seafood) costs my family of 6 about us$50.  We also had numerous bowls of the local favorite sarawak kolo mee (chinese noodles) and laksa (curried noodles), which are found in the chinese coffee shops and shopping malls in Kuching.  For drinks, we had the famous teh-c peng  (see pix for a poster ad I took at a coffee shop).  Teh-c peng is a combination of brown sugar syrup, milk and tea.  This give rise to 3 different densities so you get 3 colors in your drink.  Ice is added to complete the drink.  When you are served with this drink, stir the drink with a straw and enjoy the delicious sweetened iced milk tea beverage.  Cost about us$0.5 a glass.

Lastly, I bought 2 more pieces of pu erh in Kuching.  The langhe ripe was found in a chinese grocery shop (Kwang Yan Trading) along main bazaar. The yellow mark ripe CNNP , my most expensive tea purchase in Kuching was bought from a chinese tea shop; Zhen Chi health food trading co.  Located in pandugan street, this co. has a couple of outlets in Kuching selling traditional chinese herbs and medicine.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Tea Break in Kuching Part 1







My family went for a  vacation in Kuching, East Malaysia last week.  Kuching (nicknamed the cat city) is the city of Sarawak.   Kuching has a population about 600,000, one third chinese, one third malays and the rest ibans and other ethnic groups.  Main religions are Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism and Islam.  The city is considered one of the cleanest cities in Malaysia and was voted as one of the world's healthiest cities, recognised and awarded by UN and WHO.

It was my family's 1st visit to Kuching and I am really impressed with the level of cleanliness and design of the city.  It has an eclectic mix of old and new architecture with excellent outdoor adventures like hiking, longhouse visits and river rafting all easily available when you make Kuching your base.  The "faerie cave" in pix 3 (click for larger view) was one of my cave visits one afternoon.  It is breathtaking and beautiful.  Shopping is another must do in Kuching.  You can literally spend all your money in the many new malls and outdoor bazaars (I recommend Main Bazaar).  I got myself a few traditional fishing cages (which I intend to make into  decorative lamps) and also some wooden carvings and local textiles as souvenirs.  

Whenever I am overseas, I will now try to locate and buy chinese tea.  I found only one eating place that serve chinese tea.  This was Life Cafe off Ewe Hai Street.  Located in a renovated prewar shophouse, this cafe provided a nice stop for lunch.  They had some pu erh for sale and I bought a 2005  raw Menghai Dayi 7542 cake for US$18. 


Monday, December 7, 2009

Rabbit Hair Tea Bowl






I have bought myself a tea bowl.  This is a rabbit hair teabowl.  Measuring about 9cm (3.5 inches) in diameter, this teabowl is commonly known as Jian ware.  The Japanese version of such pottery is known as Temmoko.

Encyclopedia Britannica aptly describe this pottery as “The clay used for Jian ware was of a very hard, coarse grain. The inside and about two-thirds of the outside of the ware were covered with a thick, very dark glaze (coloured with iron oxide). This glaze usually stopped short of the outer base in a thick welt; it also tended to pool thickly on the inside of the vessel. Within a limited palette dominated by a purplish or bluish black or reddish brown, Jian ware had a range of variations. The most prized glazes resembled the streaking of a hare’s fur, the mottling of partridge markings, or the silvery splattering of oil spots."

The Chinese tea culture online museum explained "In the Song Dynasty the tea competition was a popular game. The drinkers liked to use dark colors to emphasize the white tea soup. Rabbit-hair bowl was one of the favorite equipment.  The most famous producer of the rabbit-hair bowl was the Jian Kiln located in Jianyang, Fujian Province.  The Jian Kiln was famous for its black glaze porcelains. Ferric oxide was the element responsible for the black color of the glaze. Under the high temperature, some of the iron was released into the glaze and tiny bubbles were generated in the glaze around the iron atoms. When the temperature was as high as 1300oC, the iron atoms flew in the glaze in straight lines. When it was cold there was hair like crystals inside the glaze, looked like the hair of a rabbit. This was called the rabbit-hair glaze. "

“The Jian ware temmoku tea bowls of Fujian Province have long been appreciated in Japan; indeed, the term temmoku itself is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese Tianmu Shan, a mountain where, according to tradition, Japanese Buddhist priests visited a Buddhist temple and acquired some of these bowls to take back to Japan. The Jian tea bowls are fairly uniform in potting, with dark, coarse-grained stoneware bodies and lustrous bluish black or brownish black glazes that generally are shot through with brownish streaks likened to "hare's fur." Occasionally, as in this fine bowl, the glaze exhibits a multicolor surface iridescence as light plays across it.” (quoted from cultural-china.com)

This tea bowl I had purchased is a new bowl, not an antique.  You can see from the pix (please click pix for enlarged views) that the glaze that was applied on the bowl is very thick.  I was fascinated with this bowl as there was a “drip” like effect as seen from the bowl, in that the a bit of the glaze is flowing down and was solidified.  Taking pictures of this bowl was very challenging.  I has to use artificial lighting and power on the flash to capture the fine “rabbit hair” lines on the bowl.  As a result the tea bowl appears "orangey" than dark.  The bowl reflects light very well.  Another highlight of this bowl is that once the bowl is “warmed up”, it keeps the tea warm for a longer time compared to other types of tea bowls/cups.  Perhaps tea drinkers there like such Jian ware as it kept their tea warm during the cold weather.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Jasmine Tea




Jasmine tea (known as mo li hua cha) is a green or oolong tea that is scented with the fragrance of jasmine flowers.  I was told that the process of making jasmine tea involves spreading newly harvested jasmine flowers over the tea leaves (done in the evenings when the flowers bloom at night).  A good quality jasmine tea is usually determined by the quality of the leaves as well as the scenting process.  Good grade jasmine teas are tea that have been scented by the jasmine flowers about 5-7 times before the tea is ready for sale.  The pearl jasmine tea has the tea hand rolled into a mini balls.   Prices for good grade jasmine tea costs from  US$25 for 100g (4oz). 

You will notice that some of the jasmine tea, that are packed for sale, have the jasmine petals mixed with the tea.  This is merely for visual appeal as the flowers had mainly lost their aroma to the tea. (see pix). 

The taste of jasmine tea, to me, is a light and delicate flavor.  The taste of the green tea comes with a fresh floral scent with a nice sweet finish.  I could get 2-3 good infusions of good tea from a single brew.  In Hong Kong chinese restaurants, jasmine tea is one of the tea choices been offered to the diners besides pu erh, chrysanthemum and tie guan yin. Just ask for “heong pin”, that’s in Cantonese for jasmine tea and in a few moments you will be served with a hot pot of wonderful tea.  Many new chinese tea drinkers take to jasmine tea well.  Its sweet floral scent and delicate taste of this tea makes it a favorite among many tea drinkers around the world.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

2005 Hong Tai Chang Ripe Pu erh





This is a 2005 Hong Tai Chang ripe pu erh 400g.  You will noticed that this cake is wrapped in a brown paper wrapper.  I was told that it was a signature wrapper used by the tea company.

I had found that this ripe pu provided a myriad of taste sensations when I had brewed a pot of this tea.  The earthly taste in very deep and strong.  The aftertaste seem to remind me of an aged raw pu instead of ripe.  It is a delightful drink as the tea aroma has very mild hints of cereal, herbs and mint. I tend to drink my ripe a little stronger (10-12g) in a 200ml pot and can easily drink through 8-10 brews.  This tea did not disappoint me throughout the entire brewing session.  I had started on this tea in Oct ‘09 and have already brewed through 1/3 of the cake. 

This tea cost me about US $20 and I got it locally at my regular tea shop in Singapore.  The tea cake is compressed tightly, so you have to have your tea tools for prying open the tea cake.  This is one of the best ripe pu erh I have tasted this year.    I had noticed the shop has not many pieces left and I just might…..


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Da Hong Pao







Da Hong Pao (big red robe) tea is the popular oolong tea produced in Wuyi in Fujian province.  According to the book “Chinese Tea” by Liu Tong, the author explains that Da Hong Pao, “whose production is highly delicate, especially the technique of ‘shaking green’.  After the fresh leaves are picked, they have to be sunned and slightly adjusted.  Then they are thinly spread out on a dustpan and shaken with hands.  The edges of the leaves rub with each other, and are oxidized by air after the edges break, so they will turn red.”

Da Hong Pao (DHP) tea, translated as big red robe tea has a story behind its name.  Supposedly, a high ranking official was sick in Wuyi and was cured after drinking this tea.  The official then placed his royal red robe on the tea tree as a grateful gesture…..thus red robe tea.

Unlike tie guan yin or Taiwan oolong whose leaves are curled and twisted into a small ball, DHP leaves are relatively straight.  The aroma is floral and sweet smelling.  The one I purchased is labeled “guo xiang” (translates as floral fruity fragrance), a sub-category of DHP.  It is a mid price range  DHP tea that cost me US$28 for 100gms.  The scent of the tea is really pleasant and seems to linger on for a long time in the teacup even when emptied. The taste is very pleasant, refreshing and very drinkable.  A brew can give you about 5-6 good infusions. Brewing hints -  The tea dealer that introduced this tea to me had used a 100ml teapot and filled 3/4 of the teapot with DHP before brewing.  The best storage method is to keep the DHP in an airtight odourless container and refrigerate it if possible.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My Introduction to Japanese Tea






A Japanese neighbour introduced me to a Japanese tea ceremony.  Yes, I had this tea in restaurants prior to this introduction, but this is totally different.  Japanese tea drinking is very much not only tea drinking but the proper brewing of Japanese tea, called the tea ceremony, together makes the tea drinking experience, to me, a truly humbling exercise (I call it a romanticism of tea) for the tea drinker.

 Let me explain.  If you have seen videos of Japanese tea ceremony (do a internet search); the elaborate movements, the immense attention to details and the various tea utensils used enhances and bring the aesthetics of tea drinking to a new level.

I went to a store that specializes in Japanese tea and got myself a tin of tea (20gms), a tea whisk and a whisk holder.  Honestly, it was the tea whisk that fascinated me.  These 3 items costs me about US$60.  The tea bowl and tea tray in the pix was an inexpensive addition to complete the set.  The whisk holder is to hold the tea whisk to dry to keep the whisk’s shape.

The book “The way of Tea” by Lam Kam Chuen mentioned the history of Japanese Tea as “At the beginning of the ninth century, Japanese visitors to China took home the fashion of tea.  On in particular, the Buddhist monk Dengyo Daishi, studied in China until AD 705 and then took back some seeds to his monastery when he returned to Japan.  Initially, tea was consumed by Buddhist monks to keep themselves awake during long periods of meditation, although by the 13th century, tea had grown popular outside the monasteries.  The Japanese began their own research on tea and evolved their own ceremony, which is very different from the Chinese way of tea.  In China, the focus is on enjoying the flavor and taste of the drink itself, whereas in Japan the focus is predominantly on the ceremony.”

Here are some Japanese terminology.  “Matcha” refers to the powdered tea leaves.  The process to make matcha is steaming, then drying the tea leaves and finally grinding the dried leaves by stone mill into powder.  “Chawan” refers to the teabowl.  Any bowl, according to my neighbour would do, but ideally a flat base bowl is good to prevent the tea from spilling during whisking.  The whisk known as “chasen” is made from a single piece of bamboo.  The tea prongs, ranges from 80 to 120, are used to whisk the tea powder when hot water is poured. 

An extremely simplified of making Japanese tea is to use and place a small spoon of tea to the chawan, add hot water (about 50ml), stir well with whisk until it foams then move whisk slowly to make the foam fine.  Tea is ready to drink.

It would be a privilege if any of my Japanese readers can share more information on Japanese tea or if possible link me to a Japanese tea farm/store where I can learn more about Japanese tea. It would be a beautiful excuse to visit the Land of the Rising Sun.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

2000 Ripe Tea Brick






I had ordered this 250g ripe pu erh brick from Awazon from the internet.  Awazon's proprietor describes the tea as " This Pu-erh brick tea is product of the year 2000, carefully preserved through Dry Storage Method (a traditional way of producing fine Pu-erh tea). It is produced with Qiaomu (arbor) tea from high mountain hundred years old tea tree in Yunnan province.  It brews transparent brown liquor, and gives smooth & great aftertaste with pure Pu-erh aroma."  It costs me about US$17, freight inclusive.

Breaking this particular brick up gave me a surprise.  The cake was compact and I had to use a knife for assistance.  The surprise was the difference in appearance of the tea leaves on the outside of the cake compared to the inside.  The tea leaves seems to be of lower quality on the inside of the brick - meaning the tea leaves looked so broken and crumbly.  I have never drank this tea before and I was concerned with this findings (see pix 3/4).  In addition upon brewing the tea, I found the 1st infusion slightly cloudy due to the fine tea dust.

I contacted Awazon to let him know of my findings; that maybe the distributer that sold this brick to Awazon may have shortchanged him on the sale.  I received a reply from the proprietor; "This 2000 aged Pu-erh brick was made by Yunnan Tea Import and Export Company. Traditionally they have higher grade loose Pu-erh tea outside and lower grade Pu-erh tea leaves inside. This sort of production for Pu-erh tea cakes you may see in traditional ripe Pu-erh tea cakes, such as 7572#,7552# produced by Menghai Tea Factory and 7578# and 7598# made by Haiwan Tea factory.  I broke a brick and checked this brick, here in Kunming the inside part is also loose (as produced many years ago),  but dry (not damp, maybe Kunming has a dry climate....... It's normal sometimes you have cloudy infusion when brewing ripe Pu-erh tea...This tea is safe."

The implication of the reply seem to indicate that some production of pu erh before the tea companies were privatized, may have been compromised, in a sense, that some tea cakes and bricks have better leaves on the outside and lower quality leaves are used on the inside.  I had heard of this rumour during my visit to Kunming earlier this year, where a couple of tea dealers there had mentioned this practice to me, even though I had not encountered any pu erh tea cake/ brick that were compromised in terms of quality until now.  

The taste of the tea was pleasant and smooth.  It has a nice light floral aroma.  My local tea friend, whom I gave a sample of this tea, commented "this tea remind me of red dates....nice and fully acceptable".  Over in this part of the world, when we refer to red dates,  this meant the dried version of the chinese red date.  These red dates are usually added to soups or tonics to sweeten the taste and as well as to give a floral aroma.  My tea friend had concluded that the taste of this ripe tea brick was pleasant.  I agreed with his findings.

Do I recommend this tea? Price-wise ok and taste ok as well.  I would say that for about us$17 for a 10 yr old nice tasting ripe brick, I would recommend a purchase.  I have to admit that I cannot assess this tea properly as I do not have much exposure to ripe pu erh tea that is about 10 years old.  I have a couple of these bricks left and I have no regrets having them in my collection.




Saturday, November 7, 2009

Fake Pu erh Wrapper





The 1st pix shows an imitation (fake) pu erh wrapper.  This means that there is no such CNNP wrapper being used and sold as raw pu erh in the 1990s.

It was inevitable that I will be “caught” one day with a purchase of pu erh that was not the real thing.  Let me explain.  My friend had purchased this teacake from a teashop and gave me a sample of the cake.  He informed me that it’s a wet stored pu erh from the late 90s.  I tried the sample and found the taste of the pu erh tea to be a pleasant aged one.  The tea leaves appeared normal and  I went to this shop and got myself a cake.

I took this cake to my regular teashop for a “bragging” session (to show off my latest “wow” purchase).  A pot of this tea was brewed and a tea drinker there found the tea good.  However, the tea manager there, upon tasting, immediately commented, that this is a raw pu erh that had gone through accelerated high humidity aging, and that this wrapper was not an authentic wrapper, only made to wrapped this quick aged pu cake and to sell to unsuspecting buyers as aged CNNP raw pu.  Accelerated aging of pu erh meant that the pu erh is exposed to a high humidity environment for the purpose of quick fermentation.  This process sometimes known as “wet stored” pu erh, helps raw pu erh ferment quickly so the tea will have a aged sensation taste.   The manager also remarked that this taste of accelerated pu used to be very popular with Hong Kong drinkers some years ago.  

My Penang teamaster friend (Eric) upon receiving my pictures of this pu provided these astute comments : “It's an imitation wrapper. I also noticed that the character is larger than the rest……. Also take a look at the character on the wrapper and the character on the inner ticket of your Pu. Both are different! I've attached a picture of the CNNP Simplified "Yuen" from the mid 90s for you to compare. Both versions of the “yun” has to be the same. The paper used as the wrapper also doesn't resemble any from the 90s that were from CNNP. The printed characters appear to be bold and dark. This printing method is found only from 2000 onwards. All pre 2000 prints are thin and sharp. Finally, the character should be in a proper square, not rectangle.

Well, I conclude from these findings that this is a fake CNNP wrapper, which also strongly indicates that this pu erh is not from CNNP either.  The pu erh tea is real though.  Taste is not unpleasant…an aged sensation taste.  The aroma of the brewed tea is also good but it may be that the pu erh tea was exposed to certain scents during the fermentation process to achieve this final scent.  The question here is whether the tea was in a safe and hygienic environment while it is aging and whether there was any physical tempering to the cake.  I disposed the pu erh cake in the garbage after posting this blog. 

It is very important to know your tea and buy your tea from reliable sources to minimize the chances of a bad purchase.  Pu erh fakes are usually found and sold as old raw aged pu erh.  There are hardly, in fact no fakes for the newer cakes (after 2007) as the prices are quite low.  (post blog comment - there was now news that Menghai Dayi newer cakes in 2008 have fakes, please examine the security sticker and feel out the embossed threads before buying)


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Tea Economics 101



This is a well written article from the Financial Times (15 Sept 2009) written by Tom Millar.  He explores the economics of tea and tries to explain the weak economics of Chinese Tea.  Here is the very interesting and thought provoking article entitled  "Why foreigners are beating China’s tea-makers on their home turf":

"China is rightly proud of being the home of tea, the world’s most popular drink. Celebratory cups of cha were sipped when China recently regained from India its historical position as the world’s pre-eminent tea producer and consumer after a 100-year hiatus.

But the country’s failure to produce a single internationally recognised tea brand is a source of frustration for cheerleaders of the native Camellia sinensis leaf.

Both at home and abroad, Chinese tea brands struggle to compete with foreign competitors. In China, Unilever’s Lipton brand has a market-leading share three times that of its closest local rival.

“Why is Lipton more powerful than 70,000 Chinese tea companies?” lamented a recent article in a Beijing newspaper.

The challenges facing China’s tea industry are the same as those facing a host of Chinese industries: product quality issues; excessive competition in the domestic market; low prices and meagre earnings abroad; and weak branding.

The root cause of these weaknesses is simple: extreme market fragmentation.

The problem begins on the tea plantations. Around 8m farmers work on plantations across the tea-growing areas of central, southern and western China, mostly tending tiny household plots. Consolidation of the land into larger plantations is constrained by China’s land laws, which prevent farmers from owning – and therefore selling – their land.

The result is that China’s tea industry is far less industrialised than in less economically developed countries such as Kenya or India. In Zhejiang, one of China’s largest tea-growing and richest provinces, there are over 1m smallholdings, each averaging less than 0.2 hectares.

Monitoring quality across millions of scattered tea gardens is an impossible task, and Chinese tea exporters have consistently had trouble meeting foreign safety standards. Chinese tea sells for an average of just US$2 per kg on international markets, compared with US$2.70 for Indian tea or US$3.40 for highly regarded Sri Lankan leaves.

Chinese exporters will not get consistently good prices for their tea in international markets until quality controls are improved across the board, which first requires far greater consolidation of plantations and tea processing factories.

At home, fierce competition among thousands of producers and brands translates into puny market shares and slim profits. Chinese teas are traditionally sold by type and place of origin, rather than by brand, and every region has its own local favourite.

Leading brands like Lipton, on the other hand, understand that creating mass value depends on nationwide marketing and an efficient, integrated distribution network. Lipton sources cheap tea from independent producers, packages it into teabags, and markets its distinctly average “Yellow Label” brew at an outrageous mark-up.

It’s not great tea, but it is great business.

In China’s highly fragmented retail market, no national brand has emerged to knock Lipton off its perch. Instead, premium players selling organic teas are attempting to carve out lucrative niches, both at home and abroad.

Take, for example, the tea grown by the Hunan Tea Company on White Cloud Mountain in the southern province of Hunan, where the warm, wet climate and the deep red-brown soil is perfect for cultivating quality tea leaves.

Behind a copse of dark green conifers, bees buzz lazily over neat rows of shiny tea bushes soaking up the summer sun. A list of rules pinned to a board instructs tea-pickers not to keep long fingernails or to powder their faces; smoking is banned. Instead of pesticides, bug-zappers protect the crop from leafhoppers and other tea-loving pests.

When these virgin leaves are picked next spring, one batch will be shipped to Japan and sold as high-grade organic tea under the exclusive Kaito Brothers label; another will be packaged for the domestic market under the award-winning Guanyuan brand, priced at a hefty US$100 for two small 10g boxes.

Wealthy Japanese and Chinese tea drinkers will happily spend hundreds of dollars on the best spring-picked leaves, much as Western oenophiles splash out on a good bottle of wine.

But speciality teas will not bring China the international brand recognition it craves. For that to happen, widespread industrial consolidation and far more sophisticated marketing are needed.

Despite having the oldest tea producer in the world, China has only begun to create a modern tea industry. It has a long way to go before local tea companies reach the economies of scale and branding expertise needed to capture the full value of their product.

In the meantime, the big revenues will be scooped up by strong foreign brands selling convenience and lifestyle. Anyone for a cup of Yellow Label?  "

My thoughts on this article are the government of China did not place tea export / production on top of their economic agenda in the past 40 years and correctly focussed its effort to transform China into a modern economic superpower.  I would like to point out that during the past 40 years , there was no major economic issues with chinese tea; in that there were no major excessive production of tea or drastic fluctuations in tea prices.  In fact, I felt that the demand for Chinese tea had risen through local and high foreign demand and prices are rising steadily.  Even Lipton is carrying a range of Chinese tea from pu erh , jasmine and Tie Guan Yin.  My solution -  The Chinese authorities can easily boost the Chinese tea market by acquiring these foreign tea brands.  This not only gives a greater market share of the tea market and it also allows easy immediate access to the tea drinker distribution network in Europe and Americas.  I believe that such a theoretical acquisition (makes a lot of economic sense actually) would work out well for the chinese tea market as the acquired tea farms, technology and research, and infrastructure (India, Sri Lanka and Africa), from this purchase, will solve most of the "chinese tea" problems listed by the author in the above article.  

Storm in a teacup? Tempest in a teapot?  Think about it when you sipped your chinese tea.