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How to make a puer tea cake

Have you ever tried to eat a tea cake? This may seem a hard task at first. Until you learn how to cook it. This is not a description of puer production process! If you feel puzzled, here is the answer: we simply use tea to make what I call a true puer cake.

Tea cake detail
For this particular cake I used Imperial Blend, but any puer you fancy would do.

What are the health benefits of puer tea?

Since long ago puer tea was famous for its medicinal properties. Being recognized as the most consumed tea worldwide, for hundreds of years puer has had a place in the practice of traditional Chinese medicine. The healing powers of this tea have always been praised by TCM practitioners. Since both foods and medicines come from natural plants, there is no definite difference between them. Thus in traditional Chinese herbalism, puer tea is considered to open the meridians and be beneficial to ‘blood cleansing’ and digestion. Puer has also been used to treat a number of other conditions.

One of the most fascinating teas in the world, puer represents a perfect combination of vitamins and essential minerals. It is also believed to be a source of vital energy. As a part of a healthy diet, drinking pu-erh on a daily basis brings immediate benefits. It is widely acknowledged that pu-erh may lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and increase metabolism. In recent years, studies investigating health benefits of puer tea have also shown healing effects on oxidative stress, blood sugar and the bacterial flora of the intestines. Drinking puer reduces the risk of cancer. The fact that this tea has an effect on body weight remains a disputable topic. Though there are researches who believe drinking pu-erh may cause a certain weight loss by helping to increase the speed of digestion.

Why use puer tea for cooking?

If you consider yourself a tea aficionado and want every moment of your life to be a part of unique tea experience, there is a solution. The fact that tea itself may be used for cooking considerably expands the area of its usage. Having learned a couple of useful “tea recipes”, you can not only nourish your passion for tea, but satisfy hunger in a less poetic way. To all the questions which may ever give you trouble the prompt and single answer still seems to be: “Go have some tea”. Though it is not specified whether you should drink it or not.

Cooking a puer tea cake

A Chinese proverb says: “Better to be deprived of food for three days, than tea for one.” What if we combine the notions of tea and food and put it on a dinner plate? Or in a baking pan, to be more exact?

The basic ingredients:

  • 500g flour
  • 150g sugar
  • 1 cup puer tea
  • 3 tablespoons jam
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • Dried fruits/nuts/whatever you like – unlimited

As you may see the list contains no products of animal origin. Therefore a tea cake seems to be a perfect solution for those who keep to a vegan or vegetarian diet.

The cooking process itself is so simple you can do it with closed eyes. All you have to do is to mix all the ingredients. I mixed all the dry ingredients first, adding tea, blueberry jam and vegetable oil afterwards. In fact you can use any other type of tea, though puer remains the best choice, which is proved by my own experience. It is better to use a sourish jam and add a little of sugar, or honey instead of jam – in this case you add no sugar at all. If everything is done right, the dough has a consistency of Greek yoghurt. Dried fruits and nuts which are additional ingredients will help you to make the cake the healthiest meal of a day. I sliced up some dates, dried apricots and prunes. About 2/3 was mixed with dough, and the rest I used to decorate the cake after it was done.

After the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Butter the base of a round cake pan. Then pour the mixture into prepared pan and bake for 30-45 minutes. Well done! What you need to do next is to take a glass of fresh carrot juice – this is exactly what I did – and enjoy your puer tea cake.

A few photo’s from my culinary experience

This post was writen by Alesia – Daoli Russia Project Manager. Among her recent discoveries – handmade Puer&Honey soap. Stay tuned!

What I wish I knew about puer ten years ago

There are two kinds of puer tea: shu (ripe, cooked, heavily fermented) and sheng (raw, slightly fermented).

The main difference between the two types is that shu puers undergo an extensive (several months to a year) fermentation process, whereas sheng puers are fermented slightly, for a much shorter period of time.

Shu puer - chatou and cakes

Puer tea @ Kunming tea market: neatly pressed cakes, loose sheng, and lumpy chatou of shupu

Puer production process

Shu and sheng puers are both derived from maocha (毛茶), which essentially, refers to sun-dried tea leaves. The dried leaves can be stored as raw material or used immediately for production. To make sheng puer, maocha is steamed and pressed into cakes, bricks, nests, and other shapes. Some people sell it in loose form too. Maocha can also be soaked in water for about a week in order to kickstart the natural fermentation. Sheng puer buds and leaves keep their distinctive greenish color. This tea is ready for immediate consumption or aging.

The process of making shu puer is quite different. Large tea leaves and buds are heaped together in a large room or container. Once a certain amount of water is added to the pile, the room temperature is increased and changed accordingly to adjust the fermentation process. The thermophile (i.e. heat-loving) microorganisms then begin to work their magic on tea by changing its color, texture, and chemical composition.

Grades of puer

Once the fermentation process is over, tea is sent through special sieves that separate the freshly fermented mass into tea of various categories: gongting, extra, 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th grades. Traditionally, there are no 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades to make differentiation easier. What determines the class of tea? In the case of shu puer it is primarily the size and shape of tea buds and leaves. Gongting, for instance, is supposed to be buds only with each bud averaging 1-1.5 cm (half an inch) in length. Extra class is 50-60% buds and 40-50% leaves. First grade puer is approximately 30% buds and 70% leaves. Third grade has leaves that are larger in size and the bud content is accidental. Fifth and seventh grades are entirely made up of leaves, the main difference being in size, thickness, and texture of tea material used.

When I heard about the puer making process, my first question was why different grades of puer are not fermented separately. First of all, that would make the price of tea much higher, since leaves would have to be separated manually prior to fermentation, which is possible physically, but unviable economically. The second reason is that buds fermented separately from large leaves may not obtain the desired taste and aromatic qualities. In other words, the chemistry involved in the fermentation process requires the enzymes contained in both buds and leaves to produce good quality tea.

Why press puer tea

Both sheng and shu types of puer can be sold in loose form, but it has become common practice to press puer into cakes and nuggets of various shapes and sizes. Cakes are much easier to store and transport than crates or bags of dry leaves. Pressed teas also keep their taste and fragrance for much longer periods of time. However, during the pressing process, a lot of leaves get damaged. This is particularly true for smaller nuggets that have a relatively high proportion of fragmented and virtually no undamaged leaves. However, these changes are purely cosmetic in nature, i.e. having zero effect on the taste and quality of pressed puer.

Chinese law requires tea manufacturers to mark their cakes with the year in which the tea was pressed, rather than when it was processed. The tea inside a cake that was pressed, say, two years ago could actually be older than that. Tea traders may or may not want to share this information with you, but they usually do if you ask specifically. Whether or not their answer reflects the reality is a mixture of luck and guanxi (Chinese word for rapport).

To age or not to age

In fact, one of the most common questions asked about puers is how old they are. There is a common belief that the older puer is, the better its taste, aroma, and health benefits. To make the long story short, this assumption is generally true, but only if the tea is stored properly.

Sometimes puer is made with the focus on quality and not the taste. For instance, a tea manufacturer may wish to create an unblended, spring-harvest, buds-only cake of gongting shu puer. Sounds amazing, right? Not necessarily. If consumed within a year or two after production, this tea may not have some of the taste, aroma, and brewability qualities that a tea connoisseur might expect to observe. However, let it age properly for a few years, and you are very likely to get a cake of excellent-tasting puer that can be brewed up to ten times.

Conversely, the very same tea manufacturer may decide to create a blended, half leaves and half buds, moderately rough-looking cake of shupu (shu puer). Some people might say that the manufacturer is trying to save money. Others would complement his desire to make tea that tastes reasonably well the year it is pressed. Who is in the right here is a rhetorical question, so I’m going to leave it unanswered.

Some personal thoughts

Let’s not forget that tea is made for drinking, not for storage or aging. I like to think about it this way: would I buy a car that I need to work on at home for a while before I can drive it safely and comfortably? Probably not, unless it’s a bargain or something. The same rationale applies to tea. Why buy tea that I don’t like the moment I am sampling it at the shop or market? I just buy the tea that I like and feel happy that it has an insanely long shelf life.

While it is certainly true that properly aged puer tea is likely to reveal some hidden properties, it is important to remember that a great deal of the tea-aging paradigm is the result of the puer investment bubble that captivated China about a decade ago. That bubble burst in 2007, leaving scores of thousands of Yunnan farmers and tea brokers poor, but its ripple effects in form of multiple myths and legends regarding scientifically confirmed and imaginary properties of puer are still affecting the way people think about this tea in the whole world.

In fact, tea aficionados like myself are partly responsible for perpetuation of such myths. Whenever I go to a shop that sells puer tea, I often ask about the age of cakes that take my fancy. I know that it’s silly, but I simply can’t help it. It’s a great conversation starter, especially when dealing with people who speak a dialect of Chinese that I’m not familiar with. I’m fully aware that by asking this question, I reveal the level at which my choices can be manipulated. Fortunately, I’ve been exposed to tea culture long enough to rely on my palate, and not eyes or ears.

Chinese Teas – Facts about Tea Processing

Last week my good friends from DataOwls messaged me to let me know about a new company that they’ve launched. They visualize data to foster comprehension and highlight trends by creating unique, eye-catching infographics.

One thing led to another, and here’s some great stuff these guys produced in just a couple of days.

Chinese teas infographics

Indulging your chemoreceptors

A couple of weeks ago, Daoli, NjamiSushi, and Flaviar joined their forces and organized a sampling event that included excellent sushi, amazing tea, and selected alcoholic beverages. It was a lot of fun, and we all learned something new about tasting food&drinks. During tasting sessions like that, it is particularly important to use the nose, the tongue, and the brain. Below we list a few facts that can come in handy when sampling tea and other beverages.

Daoli tea set detailsDaoli tea gear showcase

The smell is a matter of nose and …

Specific smells occur when particles of different substances are scattered in the air. The perception of smell is a combination of physical and psychological interpretations. First, smell is detected by chemoreceptors or olfactory nerves in the nostrils. The gathered information is then interpreted by the brain. This makes smell a very individual experience, so it is safe to say that it is impossible to describe smells objectively. Our perception of smells is determined by a wide range of factors: experience, health, sex, and age to name a few.

The natural smell of tea leaves is derived from the essential oils that they contain. As fresh leaves undergo various stages of processing (drying, chilling, steaming, roasting, etc.), the smell of resulting tea can change dramatically, not only in its intensity, but also in its nature (the so-called bouquet). For example, the smell of green tea may be reminiscent of freshly mown grass; some wulongs smell of chestnuts; in black teas one can often detect a hint of chocolate or dried fruit… There’s even tea that smells like smoked salmon. It’s called lapsang, and its aroma is attributed to the tradition of drying the tea over smoldering fishing nets or firewood.

Ideally, that is if you are buying tea in a proper tea shop, you should be able to taste the tea that you are interested in. While this is common practice in China and other tea-producing countries, not many shops in the West are willing to do that. However, you can usually take a good look at your tea and, more importantly, smell it! To get a better understanding of the tea’s potential try smelling it in the following way: bring your nose close to it, exhale through the nostrils, and inhale right away. The hot air containing some moisture will enter the leaves and make them release some of their fragrance. Naturally, you should not do that with teas that will scatter in the air like dust, e.g. matcha, mate, or powdery nuomixiang.

Telling others what your cuppa tastes like

When people make judgement about the taste of their food, they first appraise it through smell. Then the food stimulates the receptors of the tongue, the palate, and finally the pharynx. The taste is also influenced by the texture and temperature of our food and drinks. All of that data is collected and shipped off to the brain for processing. The result is our overall impression about the food’s palatability and nutritious value. The main types of taste are: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, with hundreds of shades in between.

Not only the smell, but also the taste of tea greatly depends on how the leaves are processed. In any given language, thousands of words can be used to describe the complex flavor overlays that are characteristic of many different kinds of tea. Chinese green teas have delicate semi-sweet flavors reminiscent of anything from pine kernels and flowers to bamboo leaves and freshly cut grass. Wulongs are known for complex flavors and sometimes have notes of fruit, honey, milk, or caramel in the background. Black teas have more pronounced flavors, ranging from the toffee and prune of dianhongs to the oily, bittersweet taste of keemuns. As for puer, there are great many variations too. The shu (cooked) puers can taste like earth and scratch your throat or leave a pleasant aftertaste of walnuts – it all depends on their quality and the mastery of the people who made them. The taste variations of sheng (raw) puers are even more difficult to describe, since these teas are famous for their hougan – the Chinese term used to describe the taste that develops gradually in the mouth, minutes after you took your last sip.

To make the most of your tea, i.e. to fully uncover its flavor and fragrance, it is important to understand the basics of tea preparation. The rules and methods of tea making vary from country to country. For the purpose of convenience, we are describing the traditional Chinese way. Here are a few useful hints before you begin: feel free to experiment with tea quantity, water temperature, and steeping time; if your tea tastes bitter, just use less leaves and/or shorten the steeping time; do not keep the leaves soaking in water between brews; if you have any wulong that seems to have lost its taste, just roast it in a pan quickly to release its hidden goodness. Don’t forget that tea sampling can be a great social experience, so bring a few friends. If you are lucky, you might catch the moment of tea-induced resonance – the state of unanimous appreciation of one or several effects that tea can produce on people who can keep an open mind and like to observe how cha qi (the qi of tea) affects their body and mind.

Tea tasting in a few steps

Make you sure that you have enough time and find some place quiet and peaceful. It’s best to abstain from savory foods during the tea tasting process in order to keep the taste and smell of tea unaffected. If you are planning to sample several teas in a row, it is a good idea to start with greens, then move to wulongs, and finish with black tea and shu puers.

  1. Observe the dry tea (color, shape, structure).
  2. Smell dry tea leaves (in different words describe the perceived aroma and share your description with others. What do your friends think? Remember, perceptions are subjective).
  3. Pour hot water over the leaves.
  4. Note how the tea leaves open (compare the speed and the extent of leaf opening to similar teas from other suppliers).
  5. Observe the color of the tea liquor (compare it with the color gradients of similar teas that you’ve brewed before).
  6. Smell the gaiwan’s lid first – it’s a good way to appreciate the smell of tea if the leaves are still too hot to be smelled directly (with different words describe the perceived aroma and share your thoughts with friends).
  7. Take a sip and and let the tea linger in your mouth for a few seconds (in different words describe the perceived sensations in the mouth, taste and aftertaste; share your thoughts with friends).
  8. Observe the effects that tea has on the body (heat, heart rate, reassurance, increased vigor, etc).

Flaviar guys say that tasting is believing and they are right!

Photos

Gregor Harih was with us and he took some great photos.


This post was written by Miha. Translated into English and supplemented by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Vonj in okus – razvajanje kemoreceptorjev). Did you like this? You should follow us on twitter.


Why I use tea for endurance workouts

During summer, I do at least several hours of cross country biking every week, but now that winter is coming, I’m gradually shifting to jogging. For me, both types of workout are actually very similar, since I mostly move uphill to increase intensity. But no matter what exercise I do, one of the key questions for me is whether or not tea is a good source of hydration during and after training.

Tea is a great choice for your workout hydrationBi Luo Chun green tea & my running gear.

How much fluid do I need?

In daily life, the rule of thumb is ‘drink when thirsty’. But when it comes to intensive training, it is wise to ensure an adequate supply of fluid. Insufficient hydration can have a negative effect on quality of training and recovery. Prolonged failure to replenish lost fluids can lead to serious complications. A poorly hydrated organism loses ability to cool down, which raises body temperature, which in turn takes a toll on the cardiovascular system.

There are many ways to calculate how much fluid one needs to replace. The easiest way is to record body weight before and after the workout. The difference in weight is the direct indicator of how much fluid was lost. For two hours of intensive biking, I try to drink half a liter before, half a liter during, and a liter of fluid right after the workout. If I don’t drink enough, I might get a headache within an hour. After a few months of training, I figured it out and don’t get those headaches anymore. Taking a leak can be a very helpful tool – clear urine means that I’m on the right path. :-)

What kind of fluid do I need?

Like many other recreational runners and riders, I like to read articles about hydration and nutrition in professional sports: electrolytes, carbohydrates, proteins, osmosis, gels, special drinks, whens&whats of intake, etc. The field is saturated with numerous research findings from all sorts of studies. Many popular sports magazines are pushing all kinds of energy drinks. Some even claim that these drinks are absolutely essential to a successful workout. Personally I don’t like this approach – when it comes to food and beverages, I always look for natural solutions. So, I found a natural alternative to performance drinks too.

For a typical training I need about two liters of fluid. What do I drink? Tea. I usually go for soft white, green, or lightly oxidized teas. My current favorites are tieguanyin and raw puer. It is easy to get bored drinking the same tea all the time, so I alternate teas often.

Green tea is an ideal base for sport drinks. Properly made tea contains an unrivaled combination of water, caffeine, and antioxidants. Tea contains flavonoids, such as epigallocatechingelate. These compounds have powerful antioxidant, restorative, and anti-inflammatory properties. When combined with antioxidants, caffeine can boost the process of fat oxidation, allowing athletes to tap into the energy stored in fat tissue. This is especially important during extended training sessions, since most of the readily available glycogen gets used up after about 45 minutes of strenuous exercise.

The other benefit of having caffeine in bloodstream while training is that it can substantially improve perception and help you fight off fatigue. Basically, if you use tea, the workout will feel easier and you will feel less exhaustion.

Some scientists refer to tea as ‘superdrink’ because it is a unique source of naturally combined L-theanine and caffeine. L-theanine is an amino acid that promotes mental sharpness. Caffeine by itself, e.g. from a can of cola, can only produce a fraction of the invigorating effect that occurs when caffeine is enhanced by L-theanine.

How to turn tea into a sports drink

Depending on how much time I have, I either cold-brew my tea or simply use hot water. Cold-brewing starts the night before training: I put tea leaves in cold water and leave them steeping in the fridge all night. To make tea the classical way, I brew about 6 grams of tea leaves at ~85ºC for 60-90 seconds. I usually don’t use any filters – just throw tea in water and let the leaves flow freely. When I have two liters of such tea, I add some ice cubes to cool it quickly and only then pour the drink into my sports bottle.

Normally, I go for cold-brewing, but sometimes I forget to prepare the tea in advance and have to resort to the faster method. With the classical hot brewing approach, it is very important not to soak leaves too long; otherwise, tea will turn bitter. With cold brewing this is not a problem. Because I use good quality tea, I might keep the leaves to brew them again later during the day. That doesn’t apply to regular tea bags, which I haven’t used in ages anyways. Why? Because the tea inside most bags is shreds and dust that travel from one warehouse to another with little concern for optimal storage. As a result, tea loses most of its healthy qualities and becomes little more than something that tinges hot water and gives it some kind of flavor. So make sure you always buy green tea fresh and drink it in the same season that it was harvested.

Some Myths and Facts about tea used for sports drinks

  1. Moderate tea consumption has no laxative effect. Verified first-hand.
  2. Moderate tea consumption does not cause dehydration; on the contrary, it’s a good way to replenish depleted fluid. Verified first-hand.
  3. Tea should be carefully selected and prepared. Strong and bitter varieties are not suitable for training purposes. Delicate green and wulong teas are the best.
  4. If it feels right, you can enhance your tea sports drink with honey and a teaspoon of salt (to receive some quick of energy and replace the lost electrolytes).

By way of conclusion

I am a serious recreational cyclist and runner. Every week I have at least three intensive workouts that last more than an hour. I’m not a pro, so I’m not obsessed with timing and coached training. I stay away from lab-created endurance drinks, gels, or powders. I also avoid all kinds of processed food and chemical beverages. I like the taste and texture of real food. Before, during, and after training, I drink tea or water to enhance my performance.

I think that tea is an ideal choice for recreational athletes and weekend warriors. It is an inexpensive natural source of hydration, and, if prepared properly, it can have multiple health benefits. But don’t forget that all people are different. Metabolism, dietary requirements, and suitable daily tea intake vary from person to person. Try to feel how your body responds to differences in strength, volume, and the kinds of tea that you choose, and soon enough you’ll know what works for you.


This post was written by Miha and translated into English by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Čaj: doma narejen, zdrav, poceni in učinkovit športni napitek). For more posts on tea please visit daoli.eu.

Some random thoughts on some random teas

The other day I was walking around the tea market with eyes peeled for perspective additions to Daoli. There’s a shop located right in the middle between the two tea houses that I visit very often. Whenever I pass by that place I notice a neat layout of about a dozen different types of black tea and make a mental note that I should check it out someday. But I never did… not until last Sunday.

Heisonglu ater ten steepings

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I was with a couple of friends who came along to stock up on some tea and ware for gifts and personal use. The lady who owned the shop ushered us inside cheerfully and asked what tea we’d like to drink. The shop’s wicker chairs felt very comfortable and so did the massive carved table – the kind of furniture that makes you want to stay and drink until you burst. My friends sat down, but I lingered, taking a better look at the teas in the boxes stacked here and there.

Getting a bunch of samples

As my buddies sipped on their first cups, I called up the shop assistant and asked him to give me about 30-50 grams of each one of those black teas. The lady quickly told the boy to get me some yangpin (free samples in Chinese). I said that I needed a lot and wanted to pay, but she insisted. It turned out that many of those teas were actually very similar, so I only picked seven or eight kinds, which still amounted to at least half a kilo.

As I joined my friends, I noticed that there was a freshly brewed cup of black tea waiting for me. The tea was good, probably one of those that I’d just picked for sampling. After a brief exchange of a few polite words of introduction and general observations about Kunming weather, I asked the owner my standard question: “What special teas do you have?” She smiled and asked her assistant to fetch some tea from the two nearby boxes. One, she said, was the Yunnan variety of dahongpao, and the other was heisonglu, an upscale kind of black.

Red robes and pine trees

She made both and we started tasting. By that time I’d already had at least 10 cups of puer at a previous place, so I had to make every cup count. Fortunately, both teas had some very distinctive features that I was able to pick right away. Just as its name suggested, the Yunnan version of the Big Red Robe did taste and smell somewhat like its average counterparts from Fujian and Taiwan. Its greatest advantage was definitely the price tag: it cost 4-5 times less than the cheapest drinkable “authentic” red robes.

Heisonglu was interesting because even though its leaves were mostly pitch black, it produced a rather light infusion. I asked the owner to write down the name of the tea in Chinese, and it turned out that it’s made up of characters “black”, “pine tree”, and “dew”. Indeed, it was very good black tea with a hue of fresh resin far in the background. The price was quite high for a dianhong, but I bought a couple hundred grams anyway. It was a good call too. When I brewed it again at home, the taste seemed even better, and a standard portion of about 5 grams yielded ten 350 ml cups. I looked up the word heisonglu in my dictionary and found out that it means “truffle”, but there was no way I could connect it with what I had in my cup, so I decided to stick with the “dew from a black pine tree” idea.

The other samples I brought home that day made a good impression too. The two black teas with a base of dark green leaves and golden buds were quite nice. They even had a “smoky” touch to them – something that I usually only see in puers that get a lot of exposure to smoke when dried by fire.

What’s your favourite shape of tea?

Finally, there were four teas that I picked solely for their unconventional looks: Dong Fang Mei Ren tightly pressed into eight-gram rectangles and two black teas shaped like flowers and cones.

That Dong Fang Mei Ren is one of my long-time favourites. I know that the name of this tea can be translated as “eastern beauty”, but, to this day, I can’t say with any degree of certainty what kind of tea it is. So far, I’ve heard four different versions: wulong, yellow, black (aka red), and puer. I guess it depends on each particular tea, since production process can vary quite a bit.

The funnily shaped black teas are a good example of the ever present tendency of tea traders to think of new ways of marketing their products. I’ve seen puer tea pressed into chocolate bars,  dianhong shaped into spirals that imitate biluochun green teas, and high-quality tieguanyin stuffed into the paper filter on the bottom of disposable paper cups.

I’m not complaining; it’s actually kind of cute. If anything, I’m the last person who should voice concerns about the inconsistencies in Chinese tea industry. And yet, with all humility in the world, I have to admit that treating black tea like gongyicha (artistic tea in Chinese) is kind of silly. The whole purpose of sewing a bunch of tea leaves and flowers together is to see them open up and admire the resulting bouquet through nearly transparent white tea. Using dianhong as a base tea for blooms poses at least two problems. First of all, soaking black tea for an extended period of time can render it undrinkable. Second, it’s very hard to see anything through the ever-darkening liquid. But then again, who am I to judge…

Photos


This post was written by Roman. For more posts on tea please visit daoli.eu.


Tibetan days and making of butter tea

Last week Tenzin Gyatso (14th Dalai Lama) visited Slovenia. He came together with a group of monks from Dharamsala, India who dedicated a few hours of each day of the visit to the construction of a sand mandala at Maribor’s central square. The visit was highlighted by several lectures and workshops, some of them given by Dalai Lama himself. After two such events, I hosted a tea gig, making a lot of Chinese tea and talking about it.

Tibetan monks spent several days creating this mandala from sand

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From a political perspective the situation was a bit ironic because Chinese and Tibetans don’t get along too well. The roots of the conflict go back to the late 1950-s when the newly established Communist regime forcefully “reclaimed” Tibet. And yet, there I was: with a mandala and Dalai Lama’s portrait right behind me, talking about the intricacies of making and enjoying Chinese teas. The monks that were putting the mandala together were from India, a country which has its own tea culture and tradition, albeit smuggled in secrecy from China back in the 19th century. To avoid potential awkwardness, I gave a brief review of the relevant history of the regions and emphasized that we were there to have fun and enjoy tea, so everything went rather smoothly. Unfortunately, I had no camera on me, so I could only take a few photos with my phone.

The tea and the tea party

Whenever I combine tea ceremony with lectures, I try not to do both at the same time. This is especially true if I have a large audience. Traditionally, tea ceremony is performed in an intimate atmosphere, which means not more than five-six participants. Hosting more than ten people is still manageable, but not as enjoyable since I barely have enough time to make new tea and refill the cups. So, whenever I host a tea gig with a lot of people present, here’s what I do to make the most of it.

  • Short lecture on the history and culture of tea drinking, including a few images and reviews of some of the literature.
  • Presentation on harvesting and processing of tea leaves in China. I also try to address some of the common misconceptions, such as the belief that black teas are grown on some “black tea bush” while green teas come from some completely different “green bush”.
  • Next, I show my guests the different teas that I’ve prepared, underlining the differences in texture, shape, and smell of teas like wulong, black, pu’er, and some flower infusions.

The second part of a typical tea gig is more practical in nature:

  • First, I present the so-called gongfu tools: tea table, gaiwan, bowls, clay charcoal brazer along with some other more modern tea gadgets.
  • Then I talk about the steps and highlights of the traditional Chinese tea ceremony.
  • At the end, everybody gets to make a cup of tea using gaiwan. This is where people get a chance to put in practice what they learned about choosing and heating water, preparing tea leaves, steeping and pouring techniques, etc.

The last stage can develop into a highly enjoyable social event, which is exactly what happened during the last week’s gig in Maribor. If the number of participants is around ten or lower, I can get into brewing right away. There is less handwork to do, so I can talk about tea without losing focus.

Tibetan butter tea

Since this gig was hosted under the auspices of the Tibetan Days, we also talked about Tibetan tea (po cha). I visited Tibet in 2007 and that’s where I had my first shot of po cha (tea mixed up with butter and salt).

The smell and taste of this beverage are so specific that those with sensitive stomachs run the risk of vomiting after the first sip. But po cha can actually grow on you, provided, of course, that you give it another chance. If you travel through Tibet, you will quickly understand why Tibetans drink butter tea before, during, and after work. At high altitudes, this drink is an excellent source of calories. it is prepared in special wooden containers called churns in which extensively brewed black or puer tea gets mixed up with yak butter and salt. Tibetans drink it as it is or with tsampa, a special Tibetan snack, made ​​from roasted barley flour.

Because it’s impossible to buy yak butter in Slovenia I had to substitute it with cow butter. You can make tibetan tea at home by soaking black tea (e.g. dianhong) for several hours until it reaches the consistency of “tea soup”. You should then pour it into a thermos bottle, add a bit of butter, some whole fat milk, and a pinch of Himalayan salt. Then you should shake the thermos well for about a minute. Serve the tea while it’s hot and foamy; it doesn’t taste that well if it’s cold and unshaken.

Photos


This post was written by Miha and translated into English by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Tibetanski dnevi v Mariboru in masleni čaj). For more posts on tea please visit daoli.eu.


Teaware & tea making or How I drink my tea

I stopped drinking tea in bags pretty much as soon as I moved to China a few years ago. At first, it was more of a necessity, since the only places where I could get bagged tea were huge super markets where I don’t go unless I really have to.

Teaware showcase. It's springtime!

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Farewell to bags

My very first tea bag alternative was an extremely convenient plastic cup with a built-in metal filter. I was a freshman at the Yunnan TCM Institute at that time, and I saw many of my classmates bring teas and home-made potions in plastic cups like that. So I got one too and ended up using it for all kinds of stuff: chrysanthemum, tieguanyin, black, etc. The fact that plastic retained some smell from previous brews didn’t bother me at first, but as I was learning to appreciate tea, I eventually realised that it was time to move on and find something more reasonable.

I looked around and realised that for most Chinese that I knew personally (teachers from the institute and medical workers of the affiliated hospital) the next most popular choice would be a simple glass jar with a common screw-on metal lid, like those used for packing jam or pickled cucumbers. People just throw tea in it and add hot water every now and then. Despite its seeming authenticity, this method just didn’t feel right, so I decided to keep looking and soon got myself a few ceramic three-piece mugs.

Teaware: Going ceramic

Those mugs are great! The mugs themselves are big enough to yield a decent amount of tea in one go. They have filters that are easy to handle and lids that allow some basic temperature control. They are made of clay, so I don’t burn my lips and can enjoy the natural feel of the cup’s texture. The downside is, of course, the fragility and the fact that the filters usually have fairly big holes, so a lot of small leaf fragments get into the tea and somewhat ruin the experience. I knew all about gaiwans and the gongfu tea tools, but at that time I still preferred the feeling of a big cup of tea in my hands. So, for another couple of years, I chose convenience over perfection.

Teaware: Moving on to metal

The next phase in the evolution of my tea making skills started in summer of 2011. I went back to St. Petersburg for several weeks. I hadn’t been home for three years and had a lot catching up to do. Naturally, I brought a lot of tea with me for gifts and personal use. I went to see my best friend first and laid out some tea on the kitchen table. He gave me a benign and somewhat conspiratorial smile and asked me to look inside one of the kitchen drawers. I saw a bunch of teas there, neatly packed in air tight containers and bags. Apparently, I wasn’t the only tea addict in the neighborhood. My friend then produced a small bamboo tea table with some cups and… a thermos flask! It was a small stainless steel thermos made primarily for outdoor use. I felt skeptical at first, but then I saw my friend put some of his own tieguanyin in it, and I got a feeling that he knew what he was doing.

That tieguanyin was pretty good. It was expensive as hell, but it was good! And, honestly, sometimes that’s all that matters. It was a pleasant surprise to see tea culture gaining popularity back home. I loved that thermos right away. It was very sturdy and totally capable of producing good tea. It came with a lid that had two grooves in it, so when I poured the tea it came out very smoothly. The threading kept leaves and most of the smaller fragments inside, so we didn’t even have to use a filter. I bought a thermos like that very soon and served me well for a few months. I still keep it on a shelf in my kitchen with the rest of the teaware, although I almost never use it. The smooth surface inside eventually got covered by a thin layer of tea, so now I should either wash it very well and very often or use it for one kind of tea only. Also, sometimes the leaves inside can block up the small groove and the tea can take ages to pour out. It’s a waste of time and, more importantly, a lot of teas (such as dianhong, my personal favorite) require precise timing and don’t taste that well if they are overdone.

The whole nine yards

That is why I decided to buy a proper tea table with a full set of gongfu tools. I got a fine solid wood table with a metal tray for water disposal. I also acquired some fairly expensive cups and gaiwans to match the beautifully carved table, but soon broke them all and switched to simpler but just as workable teaware. I never bought expensive ware again because I soon realized that it is really the tea that should be the center of my attention and that cups and the gaiwan are nothing but tools. Some people attach equal importance to both, ware and tea. Perhaps one day, I’ll feel that way too… but not just yet.

The advantages of using a full tea set are obvious. First of all, I can make a lot of people very happy, and all I need is some hot water and tea that’s not too bad. Secondly, I can really let my tea shine and appreciate the development of its flavor brew by brew. The only downside is that if I’m hosting a few guests, my hands are busy all the time. But there is a solution. If at a certain point, I want to take some time off, I just ask one of my guests to take over. It’s fun to watch them make and pour tea for the first time. And, in my experience, most people feel very grateful, especially if I guide them through it.

Finding balance in glass

Naturally, I don’t use the full tea set all the time. If I’m alone or having tea with a friend or two, I always use the glass mugs now. Structurally, these mugs are very similar to the ceramic three-piece sets that I described earlier. They also come with glass lids and filters. The filters have very fine slits on the bottom that perform almost as well as the stand-alone filters from the gongfu tool sets. The transparency of the mug somehow makes the tea all the more enjoyable. The obvious disadvantage of using glass ware is that it has to be handled with great care. The mug itself is made of thick glass that can tolerate some minor falls and occasional bumps. The filter, however, is a bit thinner, and I have to take extra care when I let it rest in the lid. It took some time, but I eventually developed a reflex that slows down my hand movement the fraction of a second before I place the filter in the lid.

That’s all, so far. I’ll keep my eyes open. I wonder how I’ll be drinking my tea five years from now ;-)

It’s springtime teaware photoshoot


This post was written by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Kako pripravim čaj in kakšen pribor pri tem uporabim?). For more posts on tea please visit daoli.eu.


Running a tea business: getting things done in China

When Miha and I were setting up the tea business we knew that it wouldn’t be a smooth road. However, I was sure that knowing Chinese and understanding how people think here, I should be able to avoid most of the trouble. In reality, however, there have been problems with every single teaware supplier almost every step of the way.

Quite a few sets were broken

It’s much easier to buy tea than tea ware. I meet the farmer or trader, try the tea, ask about the price, negotiate if necessary, and just buy it right away. To buy teaware, I have to make dozens of phone calls, order samples, pay in advance, and then hope that I get exactly what I asked for and that I won’t have to send anything back.

I have to admit that I was lucky in the sense that no one simply took our money and disappeared. Most problems that I’ve had to deal with when getting things done in China were due to carelessness.

Glass mugs with logo

A typical example is our glass mug with filter. I’ve spoken to a lot of manufacturers and ordered quite a few samples in order to pick the right mug. Finally, I chose a factory that sent me some very nice samples and was willing to do a fair amount of customization. Once we agreed on the specs and the logo position (bottom of the cup), I wired them the 30% deposit and gave the green light. The cups were being made by hand one at a time, and I wanted several cups to be delivered to me ahead of the remaining 200. I like using them myself and wanted to give a few to my friends. The factory said OK and sent me four cups with express mail. When I got the package, I was so happy that I took a few pics and sent them to Miha. Later that day, he made a comment that the logo was upside down. I took another look at the mug and then it hit me: for the logo to read correctly the cup had to be held in the left hand…

The factory liaison acknowledged the blunder and promised to take care of the problem. It was bad news anyway because Chinese New Year was coming and I knew that we’d have to wait for another month until at least some of the workers get back to the factory. Because of low priority that the factory assigned to redoing the cups, it actually took two months, and the work was completed just a few days ago. The mugs should get to Kunming in a day or two.

Gaiwan outsourcing gone terribly wrong

At roughly the same time, Miha and I were looking for someone who could make some nice gaiwans for us. There are thousands of factories that make ceramics, but only a few would agree to make fifty customized pieces. Eventually, we found a manufacturer who said that he was up to the task. The price wasn’t low but still reasonable. The guy insisted on getting all the money in advance, to which I was soft enough to agree. About one week later I got an email from him saying that the cups were ready and that they were already sent to my address in Kunming. However, he added that instead of red gaiwan I’d be getting them in white, because the factory to which he’d outsourced the work said that it was easier to use white colour. I sent them the red logo, but instead of tweaking it a bit, they changed the color of the whole set.

My first reaction was WTF?! I called the guy and he explained that the factory to which he outsourced the task made the change without telling him first, and so it wasn’t his responsibility. I told him very politely that it was unacceptable and that I expected a full refund. I wrote him a follow-up email repeating my concerns. I think he blacklisted me on his phone because I wouldn’t even get to the waiting tone. There was no response. Fortunately, his website was hosted on the servers of a larger organisation and I was able to use appeal to their support team. A few days later the goods arrived and I filed an official complaint. He called me the same day, saying that all that time he was in the countryside and that the signal was very bad. He said that he’d give me a refund after I sent back the goods. The lady from the support centre said that that was the way to go, so I sent back the parcel. Two days later, the express delivery service called me saying that the guy refused to receive the goods because he didn’t want to pay for shipment.

The complaint supervisor called him again and tried to talk some sense into him, but, apparently, the man got hysterical and said he didn’t mind if his account was deleted all together. So I paid for the shipment. A few more days passed and the support team called me saying that he wanted to only give me half of the money back, because many gaiwans got damaged. The following day, the mail people called me up with some questions. Apparently, the man had told them that only five (out of 50) gaiwans were broken. I told the support team about this, and they were able to get him to give me back 80% of the money. They also promised to flash a warning message on his account page.

Portable tea sets

About a year ago, I came across a very nice portable tea set in a Kunming tea market. I knew right away that it would be perfect for the Daoli selection. I asked if the shop owner could put me in touch with the manufacturer. Of course, the answer was a polite no. There was a logo in Chinese on the tea set holder, so I searched for it online and found their webpage. I called a few numbers asking for prices, MOQ (minimum order quantity), etc. and was redirected to someone else. The man who spoke to me next realised that I was a foreigner and gave me another phone number. I thought I’d be talking to his English-speaking colleague. However, it turned that he gave away the number of their original supplier. In other words, he generously helped my bypass two middlemen, himself included!

This new manufacturer proved to be very flexible and forthcoming. The fact that I was finally able to use video chat for negotiations was particularly helpful and encouraging. I told them that I just needed the daoli logo on the bottom of every single piece and some extra padding between the water bowl and the lid. They said no problem and asked for 30% deposit. To make the long story short, the 200 tea sets arrived in seven boxes a few weeks later. The extra padding that they promised to include proved to be a double piece of very thin fabric that was just useless. Needless to say, quite a few sets were broken. It was the Chinese New Year time, so I had to wait for a few weeks before I was able to get a hold of the right people. I sent them some pics showing the damage and asked them “Where’s my padding?!” The answer was something like “This is how we always send it around China. Talk to the boss if you have any questions. Here’s the number bla-bla-bla”. The boss turned out to be a reasonable lady. She got somewhat upset at first but later just told me to give her the final count of the damaged items so that she could send me some of the money back. That’s it! No one cares if, in the end, I’m getting 150 sets instead of 200.

Tea set packaging

This one is a true classic. I have a friend in Kunming who runs a small print shop. He’s already printed stickers and flyers for us, so I knew that I could trust him with bigger things too. I showed him the tea set and explained that we needed a nice, strong, and well-padded box for it. It took about a week to agree on the design and materials. By that time, I had decided that I’d never OK production without seeing a complete sample first. Qiao (my friend’s name) said that it would cost a lot to make just one box, but I explained that it was the only way to avoid problems and he seemed to agree. Knowing that he is very busy, I decided to call him every two days. This way I could check on the progress and get a chance to remind him about the need to make the sample first.

A few days later, Qiao informed me that the first box was ready and that he would show it to me the next day. As soon as I opened the door and saw an awkward smile on his face, I knew that something went wrong. Structurally, the box was everything I wanted it to be. The quality of the print was very good too. However, the original plan was to have the logo printed in a continuous tape-like fashion on all four sides of the box. His employee messed up the placement, so now, when the box is closed, the logo is only visible on two sides. Where did the other two go? Well, they ended up on the inside of the box :-)

Who’s the boss?

We then sat down in my living room and I made two big mugs of strong shu pu’er for us. I told him that it wasn’t a big deal, since it was only a sample. He sipped some tea, sighed deeply, and said that he had 250 of these boxes ready. Then it was my turn to sip some tea and sigh deeply. I was just about to ask why he didn’t make one sample first, but he anticipated my question saying that the sample would cost 60 euros and he’d rather drive down the final cost for me.

I realised that we’d never actually had tea together. Whenever Qiao comes to my place, it’s always quick and businesslike. But that day was different. I talked about the problems that I’ve had to deal with since we started the tea business. And Qiao talked about his early years in Kunming, when he and his brother came here from a village in North-Eastern China. They only had 2000 RMB (approx. 300 euros) and spent all that money very soon. There was a period of time when they could only afford to have one meal per day. Now they are both running their own print shop. They did well for themselves, despite the unprivileged background. Most of his employees come from similar backgrounds so he understands them quite well. In this particular case, he told, it would do absolutely no good to fine or otherwise penalize the person responsible for the mistake. In China, people often quit their jobs in situations like that, in which case companies can lose even more money because there’s no one to do the work. He brought up an interesting Chinese expression that is sometimes used to describe situations like that: 工人是爷爷, 老总是孙子. It literally means the employee is the grandfather, the boss is the grandson.

On that note, we agreed that he would try to take care of the blank sides of the boxes and that we would meet again several days later. Hopefully, things are going to work out next time.

A couple of on-the-go photos



This post was written by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Čajni posel: kako stvari tečejo na Kitajskem). For more posts on tea please visit daoli.eu.


Culture of tea drinking: impressions from hosting tea parties

Tea party can be quite an adventure, and in February I hosted quite a few: in Maribor, Ljubljana, Koper, and Škofja Loka (all being Slovenian cities). I’ve had the chance to share my passion for tea with almost sixty people – from complete beginners to dedicated aficionados.

Leaves of green tea fully opened

Teaware I use

I bought the teaware that I’m using now at a tea market in Kunming a couple of years ago. We looked at a few shops that Roman had dealt with before. I was searching for something functional and aesthetically attractive. The table had to be big enough to ensure a comfortable tea party experience for at least six people. It had to be dark in color and light on carvings. It had to have an easy-to-handle tray for water disposal. I never liked the hose-and-bucket approach. It took some time but I found it. I told the owner that I also needed the full tea set including gaiwan, cups, pitchers, filters, and tongs, and so I was able to get everything for a very reasonable price. When I got back home, I just added a small kettle for hot water and a cup for used leaves. Voilà: my teaware is ready!

Tea selection

I’m quite flexible in terms of which teas I can bring, but I usually try to cover a wide range including green, wulong, black, pu’er, and some herbs. Besides the five flavors from the current Daoli selection, I bring some new teas that we are hoping to introduce in a few months: liuan guapian, dahongpao, dongfangmeiren, and shuixian. In the end, I put together a selection of about ten flavors. That’s usually enough tea to keep people happy for several hours. When we hand-pick our tea in China, we always make sure that there are no aritficial flavorings. Golden Trip is the only scented tea that we have. Its strong and distinct combination of ginseng and licorice provides a good starting point for beginners who are used to teas flavored artificially with vanilla, cherry, black currant, etc. Golden Trip can provide a smooth transition to the authentic taste of pure tea leaves. I usually get positive feedback, especially from people who want to know more about the culture of tea drinking.

Tea trolling

Interestingly, most beginners assume that black and green tea come from different plants. I’ve had a few heated debates on this subject. I do my best to convince them, but sometimes people get a bit stubborn and it’s easier to let it slide. Another kind of trolling occurs when someome begins to preach about the benefits of adding milk or simply using flavored teas. It can become a hassle. Some value speed and convenience while others search for wisdom in traditions. Preparation of good Chinese tea with a proper toolset is a highly enjoyable process. Gather your friends and colleagues around a tea table and the conversation will surely continue into the night. One doesn’t need to know every single detail about a certain tea to enjoy it. In fact, I’ve realized a while ago that I’ve got a lot to learn myself, and I’m more than happy to listen to others sharing their ideas about different teas and the culture of tea drinking in general.

About tea leaves and water

I always use gaiwan to make tea and it is very interesting to observe the guests who are used to tea bags and paper filters. Handy as they might seem, tea bags are a poor choice when it comes to high-quality teas. One of the key factors in making a good cup of tea is to ensure that tea leaves are fully immersed and “bathe” freely in water. This can only be achieved if there is enough space for the leaves to open up. With every consecutive brew, tea leaves free up more of their essence. For many good teas it is common to yield between ten and twenty brews. This process can be quite engaging  and dedicated tea drinkers eventually develop the ability to distinguish the finest nuances of various flavors and brews.

Dianhong and timing

I was surprised when I saw that a couple of experienced tea drinkers were making dianhong (black tea from Yunnan) in a wrong way. There is one simple rule: steeping should last seconds, not minutes. After several minutes of brewing even the best black tea can turn into a bitter mess. Dianhong really shouldn’t be strong like coffee. I brew dianhong for half a minute and serve it right away. When I see my friends’ faces lighting up, I know I made a decent cup of tea. A properly brewed dianhong has spectacular fragrance and has a subtle flavor of dried fruit. My favorite brews are second and third. Later steepings can last up to one minute. Towards the fifth brew, the taste of dried fruit fades away, and that’s when I like to add some chocolate to the equation.

Tea and snacks

If you are only trying out a couple of samples then there’s no need to bring food to the table. However, after a couple of hours of brewing and chatting it is common to start feeling hungry. It isn’t easy to find the right snack for wulong and green teas. Anything too salty or sweet can overwhelm the taste of tea. More oxidized wulongs combine well with neutral snacks like almonds or cashews. As for black tea, I usually serve it at the very end. It goes very well with cookies and other sweets. My personal favorite is chocolate. Actually, I think it’s a perfect match for Yunnan black tea.

Tea Party as a lesson

Sometimes I feel like making a cup of tea all by myself, without any distractions around. Making tea can even become a form of meditation. The true master, however, understands the benefit of sharing tea with others. I like the spark of excitement in the beginners’ eyes when they pour hot water into gaiwan for the first time. I love sharing brewing strategies and impressions about different teas with like-minded drinkers. Hosting a tea party is no longer a routine but a vivid interaction that gives birth to new ideas and friendships. The most valued experience, however, comes from making tea for true experts. The praise is always welcome, of course, but it is the criticism that inspires me to learn more and further work on my tea gongfu.

Tea Party photos


This post was written by Miha and translated into English by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Kultura pitja čaja: nekaj vtisov iz čajank). For more posts on tea please visit daoli.eu.