Tag Archives: tea

Drinking tea the new Russian way

I’ve spent most of the recent eight years in China, paying occasional and rather brief visits to Russia. Sometime around last Christmas I felt an urgent need to go home soon and live there properly, so I can meet up with my friends and family, rekindle old relationships, do some BJJ, and drink loads of good tea with as many people as possible.

Tea setup

Photo: My current tea setup in Saint Petersburg

So here I am in Saint Petersburg – the city where I went to college and spent the most formative years of my conscious life. SPb has gone through a lot of positive changes: the infrastructure has received a substantial boost, ethnic diversity has hit a new level, and tea shops have started to slowly carve their own niche in the city’s vast catering milieu.

NB: Don’t worry about our teaspotting.com‘s tea supply though. While I’m away, our online tea shop is fully functional. Chenxi, a Chinese friend of mine, lives in Kunming and visits tea markets on a weekly basis in order to fulfill your orders.

A bit of history

Long story short, Russians have been drinking tea for centuries: ever since Russia and China established proper trade and diplomatic ties in the mid-17th century. In the late 1950-s, after the relationships deteriorated for stupid political reasons, Sino-Soviet trade died out and Russians switched entirely to staple black tea from India and Sri Lanka. That tea was not as great, but it came in wholesome leaves and was often fresh and non-blended.

The post-perestroika Russia was swarmed with bagged teas that promised convenience and vast flavor variety. People quickly got used to steeping pulverized crap in large mugs and cared little, if at all, that cheaper and much better Indian tea was still for sale. In recent years, thanks to the zeal and grateful creativity of several Russian rappers as well as a growing interest in all things Oriental, high quality Chinese tea has started to gain a solid foothold in cafes and households throughout the country.

Drink tea to get high – what?!

Sounds weird, right? Tea and getting high – what do those two have in common? The correct answer is nothing! Yet, in the minds of numerous Russian youths resides the myth that certain types of Chinese tea, especially puer (both sheng and shu) can induce curious mental effects and even hallucinogenic experiences.

The roots of this disconnect can be traced to the content of a growing number of rap songs (e.g. by Basta & Guf) that mention tea and narcotics within the same context. In reality, what happened was that several rappers addicted to drugs were able to quit their vicious habits thanks to tea. They did not use tea as a substitute but rather were able discover the multiple planes of aesthetic, cultural, aromatic, invigorating, and other kinds of healthy enjoyment that the rich world of Chinese tea culture can provide to any open-minded tea drinker.

Naturally, these rappers wanted to share their experience with the rest of the world in hope to help others get off drugs. For some reason, they thought a good way to promote tea culture among the troubled youth would be to compare different teas to certain drugs and present those as worthy yet healthy alternatives.

Curiously enough, the trend did not go unnoticed by the police, and, at a certain point, a lot of officers developed a suspicion toward all teas that looked weird, i.e. didn’t come in bags. After a series of lab tests, though, it became quite clear that tea doesn’t actually present any danger, and that all that nonsense about getting high from a cuppa is nothing but a fad caused by the massive brewing of overly imaginative young minds. Alas, many initiates and even some experienced tea drinkers still play up to the unfounded hype.

Tea states

The other big aspect of drinking Chinese tea in Russia is the search for so-called ‘tea states’, i.e. a special state of mind induced by drinking high-quality tea.

Russians are stereotypically portrayed as a thoughtful, introverted, soul-searching people. A lot of classical Russian literature is just about that – digging deep into the roots of one’s soul, contemplating on the purpose of life, and brooding on questions of outright cosmic proportions. Needless to say, a lot of this mindful contemplating is often accompanied by consumption of large quantities of tea. While one is pondering a serious question and drinking tea at the same time, it is natural to take a break from the former by channeling attention to the latter. As a result, people start to notice the different effects that different kinds of tea have on their mental activity, mood, energy levels, etc. Soon enough, people start sharing their experiences, and others join in the “state hunt”.

The problem is that such states are highly individual experiences that vary greatly in scale and nature from person to person. Nonetheless, one often comes across tea drinkers who ask specifically for a puer that can ‘blow their mind’ or a wulong that can send them ‘tripping high and far’. Needless to say, many tea merchants play along and promise rather attractive effects and experiences to potential customers.

As a result, people who buy tea for such reasons are likely to completely miss the point and often go back to tea bags… for good.

What I think about tea states

Of course good tea is not just about taste and flavor. I’m pretty sure that on several occasions I have experienced clear changes in my state of mind, but these experiences have always been so fleeting, subtle, and unobtrusive that I would never tell anybody that they will have even a remotely comparable experience.

Instead, I just tell people to focus on flavor and enjoy whatever else happens as an added bonus. Most people I deal with are reasonable, so they just smile and follow my advice. Some, however, are persistent in their inquiry, and I have to tell them about the roots of their expectations and the pitfalls they might come across. Such talks take time, but they’re worth it. People listen and approach the subject with an open mind.

In all my years of buying tea from Chinese merchants, I haven’t come across a single teashop where somebody would try to sell me a tea that induces a sense of peace, opens a third eye, or even helps look at things from a different angle (these are some of the typical tea properties that Russian tea drinkers look for). When I go to a typical Chinese teashop, the conversation usually revolves around origin, age, grade, fragrance, flavor, durability, and sometimes ‘warm vs cold’ (in Traditional Chinese Medicine terms) – that’s it!

In my experience, in China only TCM doctors, martial artists, and qigong practitioners regularly rely on tea for some sort of metaphysical sustenance, but they just say that good tea helps with practice. If I ask them to elaborate they just to just sniff on the bottom of an empty teacup and give me ambiguous smiles.

Roman in Russia

Photo: While in Saint Petersburg, I spend quite a lot of time in the woods, drinking tea with my friends

The Russian spin

In Russia, contrastingly, people get quite verbal and descriptive. The terms I’ve heard during tea drinking sessions range from ‘corporal plasticity’ to ‘heightened awareness’ to ‘falling out’ (from a conversation, for instance). Some people claim to have developed an ability to ‘resonate’ with fellow tea drinkers and either share their own states with others or ‘plug in’ to whatever their neighbor is feeling and later ask if they felt the tea in the same way.

None of this is bad or good. It’s just a curious trend that I’d heard about while I lived in China and that I’ve witnessed and experienced first-hand in the several weeks I’ve been in Saint Petersburg. It’s not that pervasive either, just sizable enough to write and inform about. So if you travel in Russia and share a cup of tea with someone, don’t be surprised if you get into a conversation about which type of puer is the trippiest. Just enjoy your cuppa in good company and see where it gets you.

Tea macrophotography

During the last few weeks, I did quite a bit of macro photography. I trained my camera lens on some of the most interesting teas in the Daoli collection, and the results exceeded my boldest expectations. I’ve been drinking the stuff for years, and still I was surprised how visually appealing and somewhat strange the close-ups of my favorite teas are. How about you? Could you ever imagine that tea leaves can be soooo hairy? :-)

Spring water for great tea

Recently my colleague Grega from Njamisushi drove me to Ruše, a small town near Slovenia’s Pohorje mountain range. The road is narrow but manageable. We parked right by the spring, which was great, since we had a trunk full of glass flasks for hundreds of liters of spring water. And by spring water I mean the real fresh stuff that flows naturally from an underground source.

Natural spring

I took this picture during summer time.

Choosing the right water

Why is it important? Because over 99% of the content of your cup of tea is dihydrogen monoxide (H2O, aka water). That’s why choosing good water is actually more important than buying top-grade tealeaves, using wonderful ware, or honing tea gongfu skills to perfection.

Here in Slovenia tap water is not so bad, especially where i live, because it isn’t chlorinated at all. However, local water is very hard. Of course I hate the fact that scale builds up so fast on tea accessories, but I also realize that most cities around the world would be very happy to have our kind of water running through their pipework. In fact, in most big cities the water is simply not suitable for daily intake, let alone making good tea.

Bottled water and Chinese tradition

More and more tea traders recommend using bottled water for tea. I don’t think that this is a good idea. Why? Because bottled water is not fresh. Storage conditions vary drastically: water may be exposed to sunlight or cold, or it may be trapped in tanks or bottles for long periods of time. Either way, a traditionalist would probably argue that water that is not allowed to ‘breathe’ lacks ‘qi’ – a big factor in traditional tea culture.

Lu Yu, the author of the first comprehensive book on tea, says that ‘the best water comes from mountain springs, while the worst is found in wells’. This rationale is still relevant. Due to prolonged contact with the rocky inlay of wells, water becomes acidic and sometimes even tastes salty. Well water is also stagnant, and where there’s no movement, there’s no life or energy. I guess it’s fine to use well water if nothing else is available, but if I have better options, I’ll do what I can to make my tea taste great and feel vibrant.

Zhang Xin You, a scholar of ancient tea culture, believes that it is best to use water from a spring near the place where the tea is grown.

Another teaist, Zhang Yuan takes a poetically philosophical stance, suggesting that ‘the essence of tea is water, while water is a substance of tea’. Good tea and spring water are in a synergistic relationship: vibrancy of good tea can only be uncovered through the living substance of natural water.

Water that is too pure is poor water

Water quality if one of today’s most discussed environmental concerns. Even sophisticated home filtering systems have been found problematic, since they tend to acidify water. For instance, my friend Grega tells me that his Brita filter produces water with a pH value of 5.5. The other issue with filters is that they remove mineral substances and other “good” elements that are crucial for perfect brewing.

Water is a natural solvent, which means that the spring water dissolves small values ​​of polar and ionic substances contained in the underground medium through which it flows. That is good. In fact, that’s what makes water natural. No drinking water should be 100% pure.

Preparation

I always free my kettle of scale before boiling a new batch of spring water. By scale I mean the sediment and lime that form both inside and outside the kettle after I use hard tap water. I watch the heating process closely and press the power-off button shortly after small bubbles start forming. Then I pour the water into a cast iron pot, let it cool down to suit the needs of whatever tea I’m making, and pour the hot water over the tealeaves that are sitting tight in a closely placed gaiwan.

There is no one best way to measure the readiness of hot water. Obviously, today one can accomplish such task with built-in or portable thermometers. However, I find pleasure in traditional ways and base my judgment on the size and shape of water bubbles. So far, I’ve heard about two classification systems: the method dating back to the Tang Dynasty that categorizes water bubbles as ‘fisheyes, joined pearls, and surging waves’, and a more complex Ming Era classification that describes bubbles as ‘shrimp eye, crab eye, fisheye, joined pearls, and surging waves’.

During and before the Ming Dynasty, Chinese only drank green tea, so it was quite important to keep the temperature low. It was later, during the Qing era, that black, wulong, and other teas requiring higher brewing temperatures started to gain popularity.

Experiment

Everything I’ve written so far describes my own experience and preferences. I strongly recommend that you experiment with various ways of choosing and preparing water before and after marking down any particular approach as your favorite. Namely, with the same amount of tea, type of ware, and other conditions try to use the following types of water:

  • Tap water
  • Bottled water (cheap and pricey, from several manufacturers)
  • Spring water
  • Distilled water

Use all four and compare the resulting brews as you go through the water types one by one.

Having done a bit of experimenting myself, I have arrived at the following conclusions:

  • Distilled water yields by far the worst results. The tea is notably qi-less and deflavored beyond recognition.
  • Good spring water works best.
  • Some bottled water is not bad at all, although it isn’t significantly better than my regular tap water. But again, aquasystems differ immensely, so in your city tap water might give you the worst results.

Here is the bottom line: if you have already purchased some decent tea and want to make the most of it, you need to have good water to make it happen. Find a local source, preferably a natural spring, and try it out!

This article was written by Miha Jesenšek and translated into English by Roman Kaplunov.

 

Mugs, pots, mugs, and pots again… What’s next?

Last summer marked my fifth year in China. A lot has changed in my life since I first arrived in Kunming, and my relationship with tea is no exception. For example, five years ago I could hardly imagine spending a day without several cups of dianhong or some other black tea. I also used to drink a fair volume of ginseng-scented wulongs and other savory, strong-tasting blends. These days, I only get to drink these teas while at a tea market or a friend’s place and someone is making tea for me. I still think highly of black tea, but ever since I learnt to select and appreciate sheng puer, I’ve found it difficult, if not troublesome, to drink anything else.

Balancing magic

But it is the way I make my tea that has changed the most. I came to Kunming in 2008 to study Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). By that time, the Yunnan TCM University had already moved most of its premises to Chengong – a township about 40 km away from Kunming, and that’s how far away the nearest decent tea market was from our campus. So I’d go there about once a month and stock up on two or three of my favorite teas.

Plastic: I had to start somewhere…

I didn’t have many subjects the first year, but they were all in Chinese, so there wasn’t much time to play around. ‘Efficiency in everything’ was my mantra, and that meant using Tupperware mugs with clasp lids and built-in metal filters. From the convenience standpoint such mugs are superb. In fact, I used to have so much respect for them that I’d sent a few to my friends and relatives. As you can imagine, they were very, very happy.

Clay: I maybe onto something!

As I was drinking more and more tea, I started to notice the thin coating that it was leaving on the surface of the cup and the filter and how good plastic is at retaining fragrance. I was still hooked on convenience, so I opted for a structurally similar solution – a ceramic pot with a slide-in filter and a matching lid. The lid wasn’t tight and the filter holes were large enough to let through even large fragments, but the overall feeling of making tea in a clay pot was so great that I never used plastic again.

After my first clay mug broke, I bought its porcelain equivalent and used both types for a year or so. Apart from the large holes in the filter, such mugs have a number of other design flaws. First of all, there is a lot of banging, and ceramics cracks easy. Second, once the brew is done, you have to take out the filter and place it in the turned up lid, which means that some tea will drip on the table. Finally, such mugs are usually quite large, thick, and clumsy, which limits significantly the range tea brewing options.

Cast iron: I maybe onto something!

I’d seen cast iron teapots before, but somehow they never took my fancy. One day however, as I was browsing a tea market for new ware, I came a cross a display of various cast iron pots that seemed very well designed and were quite affordable. The decision was made quickly, and that same evening I gave my new teapot its first run.

What can I say? Nothing beats metal. Literally. Just handling that dozer of a teapot and rubbing the fingers against the ochre-tinted patterns of its exterior instills in me a sense of undeterred optimism. ‘You got some tea for me?’ ‘Bring it on!’ ‘Let’s brew the qi out of this sheng!’, and so on and so forth. Even though I later acquired a very nice tea tray, various gaiwans, and tea sets, for the next couple of years I made most of my tea in that very first cast iron teapot.

The key to using iron pots is padding. Since I spend so much time in front of my laptop, I need to keep the teapot right by my side. You could buy a special tea towel, but a densely knit serviette is perhaps an even better choice. Due to its rough texture and low pliability, a serviette can double as a mouse pad. Provided that it’s big enough of course.

So, what are the benefits of using cast iron teapots? First of all, they are durable. If you drop it, you usually don’t worry about the pot, but what it might destroy under its weight. Second, the enamel lining the inside of such pots is almost as good at repelling fragrance as porcelain. Third, the stainless steel strainer is fine and functional. Finally, iron pots make great gifts and can outlive even the healthiest of recipients. Bear in mind, though, that metal plays tricks with temperature, so it’s a good idea to rinse the pot with hot water shortly before brewing tea in it. Unless it’s midday in the tropics or something.

Glass: fragile excellence

The next important stage in my teavelopment was glass. Despite it’s fragility, glass is an extremely pleasant material to use for tea drinking. A simple glass teacup, for instance, might feel better in your hands and on your lips than a fancy porcelain masterpiece with an insane price tag. I spent many a day looking for a suitable glass teapot, but had to give up eventually. Most glass pots are made for herbal infusions, not tea, so they are usually quite big and have lousy filtering systems. The other downside is that glass heats up very fast, which is OK for cups, but not so for a teapot, since you often have to pick it up seconds after the hot water is poured.

The solution came in form of a set of glass mug, lid, and filter. Its design was identical to that of the ceramic mugs I used at the very beginning of my tea career with one major exception: instead of gigantic holes, the filter had four sets of very thin slits cut neatly at 90° degrees through the bottom and the side of the filter. Such a setup is great for keeping out all but the tiniest leaf fragments. I loved the concept and ordered a few hundred such mugs for Daoli. The Daoli glass mug is thicker than usual and has a body curved inward, which makes pouring from it much easier.

The greatest advantage of using a glass mug is perhaps the ability to observe every change in the tea leaf shape, texture, and color. Some tea are so beautifully crafted that watching them transform be just as fun as drinking the beverage that they yield. That’s when glassware comes in handy.

Clay pots: BINGO!

Recently, however, I’ve been making most of my tea in ceramic teapots. It all started about four months ago when I bought a cheap second-hand pot from a street junkman. The man had a few pots for sale, but the one I liked had a bird nest filter and an upbeat hippy appearance. I brought it home, cleaned it up with soda, and started using it for sheng puer. I was only impressed with it for a little while, right up until the moment when I poured myself the first cup of tea. It was a disaster: the lid came off and hit the teacup and some tea spilled on the table. I tried again and, although I managed to keep the lid in place with my thumb, the tea was still leaking through. So, it was only for use with a tea tray.

Despite its sheer design flaws, the pot was making pretty good tea. I knew there had to be more to teapots and decided to procure a better-quality pot soon. A few days later, I went to my favorite market to search for the right item. I’ve touched, sniffed, and tested dozens of teapots that day and finally decided to buy a stout designer teapot that twice exceeded the price that I’d been hoping not to go over. It was absolutely worth it!

My new teapot was amazing in great many ways. It didn’t leak at all! The lid fit so well that I didn’t have to hold it even when the pot was tilted at 90-110º. The nose was shaped in such a way that the last drop almost always stayed in it. Very good clay was used to make the pot, so handling it was a treat all by itself. The bird nest bulb performed so well that I never used a separate filter. Perhaps most amazingly, I could just let that teapot hang off my index finger and let it pour the tea steadily with the lid staying in place simply by virtue of good design.

There’s more to be said about that teapot, but as you can infer from my use of past tense in the previous paragraph, it is no longer with me. I’ll never know what caused that crack in its nose. All I know is that one day I saw that part of the nose was missing. I tried to file it down to smoothen the edges but ended up causing more damage and eventually had to give up.

The teapot is dead! Long live the new teapot!

In a matter of days, I was at the market again, looking for a worthy replacement. I had the tea tray, gaiwans, and other ware at home, but I really wanted to make my daily brews in a nice teapot. This time I got myself a shipiao (石瓢) – a sturdy pot with a wide base and a straight short nose that shoots up from the oblique body at about 45º. The pot doesn’t have a bird nest filter and contains a bit less tea, but it surely has a thick mean nose, more of a pit bull snout, actually. Its lid fits just as well, so I can still impress my guests and my self with the index-finger trick.

As I’m writing these final lines, my tank-shaped clay buddy is waiting patiently just a few inches away from my right hand. He and I know that finishing a post this long requires a celebratory brew. And I think that he and I agree that it should be sheng puer again.

Photogallery

 This post was written by Roman.

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

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.


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.


Hunting for the right jasmine tea

A few days ago I went to see an old friend of mine. We were sitting and talking politics when his wife brought us some tea, like she always does. This time, however, instead of the regular jasmine-scented green tea, she brought something else. I couldn’t figure it out at first. It was a mixture of strong jasmine and something vaguely familiar. Then it hit me – it must be that Green Trip I’d given them a while ago, mixed with molihua! I opened the pot and there it was – bright green tieguanyin leaves on top of paler jasmine green tea. The lady only added half a dozen small pellets, but it made a huge difference.

Jasmine overkill

For quite some time now, I’ve been looking for a jasmine tea that would look good in the Daoli selection. Despite the massive choice – nearly every other tea shop in Kunming has some sort of jasmine tea – the task has proved to be quite difficult. The problem is that the jasmine flavour is usually so strong that it is simply impossible to appreciate whatever overtones the base tea leaves could be contributing to the final bouquet.

When jasmine tea (茉莉花茶, molihua cha) is made, tea leaves are mixed with freshly plucked jasmine blossoms. The flowers can be replaced several times until the desired level of fragrance is reached. Sometimes, however, tea makers just overdo it. It makes sense if the base tea leaves are of so-so quality, but this often happens to high-grade buds as well. Nice as it might be, the base tea often loses a lot of its potential to the overwhelming taste of jasmine.

So, when I tried that “accidentally enhanced” jasmine tea at my friend’s place, I realized that there was still hope after all. If one pinch of pure tieguanyin made such a positive contribution to the flavour, it was logical to assume that there should be a tea out there that was made with some sense of balance in mind. I went to the market the next day.

The search begins

It was Monday, February 6th – the day when the Chinese New Year is officially over. I heard some fireworks at 8 a.m. I thought someone was acting crazy, but as I remembered what day it was I realized that it only the first of the many more to come. Indeed, last night the fireworks just as loud and numerous as they had been two weeks ago, when the Dragon was superseding the Rabbit.

I decided to first visit Huang, a good friend of mine and one of the most honest tea traders I’ve ever met. His family mainly sells pu’er and black, but I was sure they had some jasmine tea too. Huang pointed to a huge bag of small nuggets on a nearby shelf. The nugget shape is mainly used for pu’er tea, I immediately started thinking about what an interesting base the bittersweet flavour of sheng pu’er would make. However, when I steeped the nugget and took the first sip, I couldn’t taste any “sheng” in it. What I had was simply decent jasmine green tea. The flavoring process involves the temperatures that simply turn all tea into green tea. The taste was OK, but the leaves were all broken up and edgy, which is a common problem for all pressed teas and nuggets in particular. Convenience does come at a price… So, I kept looking.

The jasmine conundrum

My next destination was a small shop that had a bit of everything. Upon hearing my request, the owner went up to a row of boxes lined up in between baskets and crates filled with dozens of herbs and blossoms. I said that I needed a tea that could last at least 6-8 brews, and the owner put together a selection of four different teas. There were two kinds that I’d tried a while ago and didn’t find interesting. So, I decided to test the other two that were both shaped into neatly curled pellets (often referred to as gunpowder in the west).

The pellets differed in size a bit – the smaller costing 50% more. I brewed them both at the same time, and the strong jasmine fragrance soon filled the entire shop. Both teas opened up mere seconds after the water was added. The smaller pellets developed into very fine and wholesome buds. The bigger ones showed both, bud and small leaf content. I tried them both and realised that, had I been blindfolded, I’d never think I was drinking two different teas, let alone tell which one was better or more expensive. A strange thought occurred to me: what guns do to make people equal, jasmine does to teas. No matter how fancy or average any given tea is, put enough jasmine in it, and differences become irrelevant. With these thoughts in mind, I bade farewell to the owners and left to pursue my luck elsewhere.

He who seeks, finds

There was another shop at the northern part of the market that had an even larger selection of teas and herbs. I used to go there often until I discovered that although they usually had decent stuff, it was relatively pricy. When I got there, the assistant took me to the boxes that were all too similar to the ones I’d seen minutes earlier. The tea inside was much the same too. I told the owner that I’d already tried all that and was looking for something more “balanced”. She thought about it for a moment and pulled another box out of a small storage area. I stuck my nose in it and – voilà! It was the first jasmine tea that didn’t assault me with its intrusive flavour but rather gave me a hearty welcome. The owner saw the smile on my face and brewed some for me right away. The taste and fragrance met my expectations. I could finally make out overtones of the base green tea. I tried a couple more brews. They were just as good. I thanked the owner and bought a small bag for further testing.

I decided to give it another go the next day. It yielded seven excellent brews, which isn’t bad at all, considering that I was using my favorite 300 ml cup with lid and filter. Indeed, he who seeks, finds…

Photos from today’s trip to the market



This post was written by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Iskanje pravega jasmina). For more posts on tea please visit daoli.eu.


2012: First cup of tea

January 23rd, the first day of the year of the dragon. At 1 pm the streets were still empty. The janitors did a great job, and most of the mess caused by fireworks was already gone.

First sight of the market

I went to the northern tea market, which is only 20 minutes away by bike. I was hoping to talk to some traders about tea and what they do for the Chinese New Year.

Out of maybe 300-400 shops only half a dozen were open. The part of the market that I like the most was simply fenced off. I could see a few people sitting outside playing cards in the sunny weather, but I decided not to bother them.

Instead, I ventured to the western part of the market. The main gate was open, and I saw a few cars parked in the courtyard. I spotted one open shop, but then I looked at the car that was parked outside, and noticed that it was a drug police vehicle. It was so huge that it was blocking most of the shop’s front. Inside there were people sitting at a huge solid-wood tea table – probably relatives or friends catching up and celebrating.

Finally – the right place

I got back on my bike and soon found another place. It was a small tea shop with only a couple of people inside. I asked how come they were open, and the lady said that they live very close and would rather spend the day at the shop, drinking tea and enjoying the awesome weather. Inside, they had a nice selection of shu and sheng pu’er teas of different shapes and ages.

I asked what kind of sheng pu’er they liked themselves, and the man showed me a decent-looking cake. It looked and smelled just fine, so I asked them to brew some of it for me. I also noticed that they had a small collection of organic teas and asked to make some of that too, just to compare the taste and fragrance.

While the lady was preparing the water and the teaware, I found out that they were one of the six shops in Kunming that exclusively sell tea from a big tea factory in south of Yunnan. The tea was soon ready and I gave it a try. The leaves of the organic tea looked greener and nicer than the leaves of the regular pu’er, but they tasted more or less the same. I thought it was odd, considering the huge difference in price.

Organic vs. non-organic

I asked about the requirements for organic teas. It turns out that their organic pu’er grows on the slopes of a series of hills washed by a small river. It is true that they don’t use any nasty chemicals, but it is also true that non-organic teas could be growing in similar conditions. So what really raises the price for organic tea is its limited availability and higher production costs associated with its special treatment and mandatory certification.

When I asked why the organic tea looked greener and had a nicer texture, I was told that it has nothing to with being organic or not. The teas simply came from different trees and locations.

Both organic and non-organic teas shared the same flaw, though – their leaves were not wholesome. I wondered why they weren’t selling any tea in loose form. The lady replied that loose tea loses its taste and fragrance within 6-18 months. Pressed pu’er, however, is able to retain its taste for decades. She showed me pictures of their factory where people were filling large cylindrical bowls with tea and placing them over holes in metal tables that had water boiling underneath. The leaves were steamed much like Chinese dumplings (jiaozi). Because the cakes become so dense, they require a special pu’er knife or a thin sharp object to be broken. It causes some inconvenience in handling and makes the leaves look broken and edgy. But for Chinese, quality of tea is valued higher than its appearance.

I really liked talking to the owner and asked her a few more questions. There were some huge cakes of pu’er lined up on the shelves. That was collectable tea pressed into 1kg flat cakes. All that tea came from very old trees (some are hundreds of years old). Depending on the weather and water availability, a tree like that can yield 100-200 kilos of dried tea per year. Because it’s limited edition, this tea is expensive from the beginning, and in ten years its price can go up 10-20 times.

Smoked tea but not lapsang souchong

I have a cake of sheng pu’er at home. It was a gift from a Chinese friend. It tastes strong and slightly bitter, and it smells of smoked salmon. I asked my friend how old it was, and he said he had no idea. Had a bunch of them at home and just drank them. I noticed some tea at their shop that had the same markings on the wrapping. I opened it and recognized the smell right away. My clothes smell like that if I spend too much time by the campfire.

Not surprisingly, the owner also had an explanation for that. It is common for sheng pu’er to smell like that if it’s harvested in autumn. It has something to do with the lack of water, which changes the internal chemistry of the plant, yielding generally stronger tea with that characteristic smell of burnt wood.

Photos from today’s trip to the market



This post was written by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Prva skodelica čaja v kitajskem novem letu). For more posts on tea please visit daoli.eu.