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En Jie's Blog

Chinese tea fermentation in an image

The level of fermentation is THE element used to categorise teas. For example, green teas are unfermented, Oolong teas are semi-fermented and black teas are fully fermented. The level of fermentation of teas is high associated with its appearance and taste: Green teas are light in colour, more ‘grassy green’ and refreshing in aroma and taste; Black teas are more smooth in texture and often dark yellow and red in tea brew colour.

Chinese Oolong teaA way of illustrating this is through Oolong tea, classified as semi-fermented. Different Oolong teas have various fermentation levels, which is carefully controlled and crucial to the nature of the final product. During Oolong tea’s processing, one of the important steps is to ‘bruise’ the edges of the tea leaves by putting the leaves in a bamboo cylinder and toss around (Yao Qing - 摇青). This process triggers the enzymes to be released from the cells and start a chain of chemical reactions within the tea leaves to facilitate the later fermentation. Once the tea leaves are fermented to the desired level, a process called Chao Qing (炒青) is applied, where the tea leaves are heated (NOT dired!), often in a wok, with highly skilful temperature control to stop the fermentation to progress further.

semi-fermented Oolong teaThe image below is from a semi-fermented Oolong (Zhang Ping Shui Xian). As seen on image, the edges of the tea leaves are red in comparison to the rest of the green ( called ‘green leaf of golden edge’ - 金边绿叶 in Chinese). The red part is where the leaves are fermented and border between the red and the green is where the fermentation stopped.

All teas are categorised around their levels of fermentChinese Oolong teaation, and maybe some additional elements if relevant.

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White tea cake and Pu-erh white tea

Pu-erh white tea cakeDuring recent years, the white tea manufacturers have been using exact pu-erh tea’s compressing technics to produce white tea cakes, while pu-erh tea producers have also produced their ‘version’ of white tea cakes, eg Moon Light White (月光白) Silver Needle (大白毫). I have spoken to a pu-erh tea manufacturer, he said he had consulted a tea expert in China and they could not clearly define the difference.

There is an obvious difference here: white tea leaves are of 'small leaf species' of Camellia sinensis while Pu-erh bud leaves belong to the 'big leaf species'. They are different biologically and therefore have rather different nature and path during the aging process.

Over and above this apparent difference, there is also an economic interest behind this overlap.

White teas, being one of the 'small leaf species' of Camellia sinensis, have predominantly been produced and consumed fresh. Similar to their green tea cousins, the bud leaves are considered of the highest quality and their quality hierarchy is ranked based on the quantity of bud leaves contained.

There has been an aged white tea culture in the local tradition (Fu-Ding area of the Fu Jian Province), but mainly for their medicinal properties. White teas have been described as: first year a tea, third year a medicine and after five years they become a (medicinal) treasure. Aged white teas are believed to have profound anti-inflammatory effects and was once used for high temperature relief caused by measles infections before the contemporary medicine.

Pu-erh teas on the other hand, being the 'big leaf species' of Camellia sinensis, are only suitable for consumption after certain level of aging (softening), two years minimum after their harvest for the raw (Sheng) teas. To facilitate the aging process, they have been conventionally compressed into cakes, bricks or Tuo, and normally contain young and mature leaves with some twigs. The most valuable crops are those from the ancient tea tress (most over a few hundred years old), bud leaves, opened leaves and even some young twigs. The focus here is certainly not just the bud leaves.

The traditional Pu-erh tea producers then saw an opportunity: the bud leaves of certain Pu-erh tea trees are not nearly as sought after as the top grade bud only white tea Silver Needle, for example, the cost of the Moon Light White (月光白) bud leaves is only the fraction of the cost of the Silver Needle white tea, but once compressed and aged, is expected to have very similar taste and functionalities as aged white tea if not superior. This somehow marked the birth of the pu-erh tea cakes.

Pu-erh white tea cake is a relatively new product and in my opinion could be a product that is of value for money. This however remains to be judged by time and consumers.

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Kung Fu tea vs English breakfast tea

Chinese tea setWe have been occasionally asked by surprised customers as why the Chinese teapots and accessories are much smaller in size in comparison to the traditional English teapots.

Tea in China is like wine in the west. The Chinese have had a love affair with their teas for more than two thousand years. After their discovery of this unique beverage, they invented all sorts tea ware and ways to explore and enjoy every aspect of it with all senses, to see, smell and taste.

A famous tea master from the Tang Dynasty, Lu Yi once put down this thumb of rule for tea brewing: Water – natural spring is the best; Fire – charcoal fire has the magic; Tea vessels – small ones are ideal.
Using a small Gong Fu tea set has the following benefits:

  1. Communal. A tea tasting section is often shared by a group, family or friends – great opportunity to chat, discuss or have a laughter. It is on opportunity to deliberately slow down (among the fast pace modern lifestyle) and appreciate some humanity like our ancestors did daily.
  2. Bring the best out of good teas. The Chinese believe the best teas are the ones freshly brewed and freshly served. A small teapot with frequent topping ups and serving minimises the chance of a tea being soaked and over steeped, where a bitter taste and rough texture is often introduced.
  3. Laying out the different layers and aspects of a tea. Premium teas have layers and angles that tea drinkers appreciate and enjoy. We often refer to them as tea tasting than tea drinking, for examples: shape, aroma and colour of dry leaves; aroma, colour, flavour, texture and aftertaste of a tea brew; the characteristics of the wet leaves after their brewing etc.
  4. Over and above, there is one distinctive character of a premium tea that is not talked a lot about, that is different infusions of a same tea have rather different natures in colour, taste and aftertaste. Only using a small teapot with frequent topping ups will allow these to be separated and appreciated individually.

A Gong Fu tea set therefore, apart from its authentic look and ceremonial significance, has also got its functional implications.

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