Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Brothers in tea

Antonio and Anton come from 2 very different countries: Spain and Finland! Today, these 2 young tea enthusiasts have met thanks to a little tea event I organized for them. Serious loose leaf brewing is done by very few people in their 2 countries, both told me. They rarely meet fellow tea lovers back home, but it's a very different story in Taiwan! And I'm glad that my blog has helped me and them to connect with so many other tea fellows in sharing the appreciation of everything tea!
I took these 2 brothers in tea to one of my favorite spot in Tucheng, near Taipei. On this day of Assumption, I tried my best to give them a glimpse of Heaven! We started with a light, refreshing green tea harvested less than 10 km away from this place: SanHsia Biluochun. I brewed it very simply in this black glazed porcelain bowl by Michel François. The thick and dark glaze retains the heat well and is well suited to brew loose green in this relaxed way. And, with the other teas, I used it as a beautiful waste water bowl (Jianshui).
Today's heat was so high that Taipei experienced power shortages! So, next, we used a high mountain Oolong to freshen our body and mind. 
I let Anton brew the second and third brews with my silver kettle and a round Yixing zhuni teapot.
He was a little bit nervous and his pour in the teapot wasn't that smooth. However, he did a good job pouring from the teapot in the cups. 
What impressed me most was that he could taste the tiny differences between my brew and his. He could taste that my brew's taste was more clear, pure than his. This made him realize that the difference didn't come from the tea, the water or the kettle. It had to come from the pouring skill. I told him what to improve and to practice often!
These pictures show him in his Nordic cool, but at other times he showed us a face of complete and utter satisfaction. What a fantastic place so near to the city!
Our third tea was more oxidized: this spring 2017 unroasted Hung Shui Oolong from Dong Ding.
For this fruitier and warmer tea, I asked Antonio to brew it with spanish gusto!
For this second session with me, Antonio has been learning quickly. He also shows what a machine will never be able to reproduce: a happy smile during the brewing!
The higher oxidation level combined with the Dong Ding terroir produces very different aromas than the high mountain Oolong. The feeling was warmer and more summer like.
Despite no to very little roasting, the brew's color is close to gold with a bright shine under the sun! The taste also felt long and clean.
We finished our Taiwan Oolong tasting with this top Alishan Hung Shui Oolong. Comparing it the previous one, we could taste what the charcoal roast had added in flavors to the tea.
For the tasting's happy end, I chose my top wild puerh from wild old arbor trees from this spring. The dry leaves smell so sweet on a sunny day! 
I brewed it in my silver teapot with my silver kettle with boiling water! This means the leaves were pushed to the max in terms of heat. Antonio doesn't know puerh well as he drinks mostly Oolong, but he liked this one and could feel its chaqi!
Anton, a regular puerh drinker, was impressed with the purity and power of the aftertaste. He hasn't met many puerhs that can be enjoyed young, but this is definitely one that is excellent right now already, he said!
Top quality tea never ceases to amaze and inspire me. This puerh tastes so flawless that it's a lesson in perfection. The doors of heaven have opened: Hallelujah!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Summer tea classes

I'm not sure I've skipped a full month of blogging before, but it happened this July! If you follow me on Instagram or FB, you have seen that I wasn't totally absent from the web. It was a month of vacation, but, at the same time, I was also busy teaching tea. I did 3 classes in Alsace and 2 in London. That were 2 in German, 2 in English and 1 in French!

With Teddy, here, I tried to summarize the 4 days of Porcelain Exhibition event at the Tea Institute in Penn State within 4 hours! (That's because Teddy was attending university overseas and couldn't come to the April event).

Time wouldn't stand still, though, and the afternoon flew away very quickly!
We finished the class with this impressive spring 2017 raw wild puerh, brewed rather lightly in my silver teapot. It felt so pure, so good!

For my class in French, I asked one of my student to bring the best gushu puerh he had purchased this year. We felt it was nice, but my cake tasted even better. It seemed light at first, but the power of the tea's aftertaste slowly increased to everyone's amazement and delight.

We also did an interesting comparison. We started by brewing this tea in a porcelain gaiwan, then in my silver teapot and also in an Yixing zhuni teapot. The silver made the tea particularly clean, pure and hot. The porcelain was more muted. And the Yixing didn't have the same high, clear note of silver, but its taste was thicker, longer. One preferred the zhuni and 2 the silver teapot.
This class lasted a full day. We spent most of it indoors, because that's were you are less distracted. But we enjoyed also enjoyed some English tea time in the garden at 4! This was a good opportunity to remind my students of the principles of brewing in a large teapot.
I'm back in Taiwan now, but the classes continue! The temperatures are 10 degrees Celcius higher than Europe (or more). So, I chose 2 blue chabu to give us a cooling mood!

Today, my student is Antonio, from Spain. This is his first tea class, so we start with the most popular and basic Taiwan Oolong: Si Ji Chun! In this case, it's a Dong Pian version, harvested in January of 2017 when the weather in the low elevations of Mingjian most resembles that of high mountains (warm day and cool nights). This is when this tea is at its best.
We brewed the same tea together, with the same tea ware, same water... I went first and Antonio tried to imitate me. His leaves didn't open up as well my mine, though. This requires more practice on his part. But he learned an important lesson by comparing his brew with mine: the difference between the 2 is telling and much more obvious then he would have imagined.
He'll pay much more attention to how he pours his boiling water in the gaiwan from now on! Then we brewed the same leaves of SiJiChun Dong, but roasted this time. The comparison of these 2 teas allowed Antonio to better understand the impact of the roasting on Oolong.
We finished the class with this Hongxin Baozhong to contast the cultivar and process and cultivar with the SiJiChun. This cultivar is much more refined in aroma and longer in aftertaste.
Here again, we saw that proper brewing is what opens up the leaves the most so that the aromas can be well released. Otherwise, you only get a fraction of what the tea can offer.
Thanks to all of you who could attend these classes this summer! I'm looking forward to my next event this Tuesday!

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Un rêve de puerh devient réalité

Bourgeons de puerh d'arbre multi centenaire
De nos jours, ce serait quoi un jeune puerh de rêve? Essayons un instant de faire une liste de ce à quoi un tel puerh idéal pourrait ressembler:

- Il proviendrait de grands théiers sauvages anciens, plusieurs fois centenaires,
- Ces théiers pousseraient dans une forêt reculée du Yunnan,
- Les sols de cette forêt seraient rocailleux comme Lu Yu le préconise dans Cha Jing,
- Les feuilles seraient récoltées au printemps, lorsque leurs arômes sont les plus fins,
- Pas de mélange de feuilles d'origines diverses afin d'obtenir un goût très pur,
- Et pour plus de pureté encore, ces arbres anciens n'auraient encore jamais été récoltés de mêmoire d'homme!
- La production serait confiée à un expert de puerh local motivé autant, voire plus, par l'excellence du produit bien fait que par le gain matériel.

Arbre sauvage de puerh de plus de 500 ans
"Stéphane, tu es tombé sur la tête?! As-tu un peu trop forcé sur le vin d'Alsace lors de ton séjour en France? Cela fait plus de 10 ans que tu ne sélectionnes plus de jeune puerh du Yunnan, mais proposes des puerhs d'un certain âge, admirablement conservés à Taiwan et pour des prix tout à fait décents comparés à ce qui se pratique en Chine continentale! C'est quoi ce rêve fou de licorne du thé?"

C'est vrai qu'au début des années 2000, le Yunnan était l'eldorado pour les marchands Taiwanais. Ceux-ci y allaient trouver des fermiers tout juste libérés du monopole de la CNNP et y pressaient leurs propres galettes avec les meilleures feuilles qu'on puisse trouver. A cette époque, j'avais pu sélectionné des galettes de puerh sauvage d'Yiwu en 2003 et de Lincang en 2006. Mais les prix de chaque nouvelle récolte augmentaient chaque année, sous l'impulsion des nouveaux riches Chinois de Shanghai et Pékin. Et, tandis que les prix montaient, la qualité des puerhs anciens avait plutôt tendance à baisser: les arbres anciens, gu shu, sont surexploités. A cause des fréquentes récoltes on en vient même à les nourrir d'engrais, et à les entourer de clôtures pour les protéger. Bref, ils sont de moins en moins sauvages, malheureusement.

Mais la hausse du prix du puerh a pour conséquence heureuse (pour les buveurs et les populations locales) qu'il est dorénavant possible de développer économiquement l'exploitation de zones plus reculées, autrefois trop lointaines. Le bémol à cette évolution, c'est que les jolies histoires sont nombreuses et qu'il faut savoir raison garder.
"Alors, ce jeune puerh cru, il est comment? Rêve ou réalité?"

La meilleure façon de tester un thé, c'est l'infusion standard de compétition (3 grammes, 6 minutes) en porcelaine. Voyez vous-même mon compte-rendu de ce thé dans ma sélection. On peut pousser les feuilles plus encore en utilisant une théière en argent. Elle conduit et conserve au mieux la chaleur sans lisser le goût car l'argent n'a pas de pores.

J'ai pu déguster ce puerh à de nombreuses reprises en France et en Grande-Bretagne en juillet. Les mots qui revenaient le plus souvent furent: impressionnant, pureté, clarté, puissance, beauté... 
Ce rêve fou est donc une réalité aussi improbable qu'un arc-en-ciel dans un ciel bleu. Mon seul mérite est d'avoir saisi cette chance quand elle a fini par se présenter après plus de 10 ans d'espérance.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Alsace traditions and tea

I've now lived 21 years in Taiwan and every time I go back to Alsace, I better appreciate its culture and traditions. I've become more and more a tourist in my own home region and it's interesting to see the same things with my new Taiwan perspective.
These local crafts look as kitsch and colorful as the most modern designs! During my youth the colors of these pots would have looked much duller. It's good that tradition doesn't mean that things are frozen and can't adapt to today's fashion a little bit. But in a time when mobile phones don't last more than 2 or 3 years, it's a relief to see traditions with a longer sense of continuity between past, present and future. 
Traditions are basically a way to protect the past and transmit it to the next generation. The town of Seebach, for instance, hosts a yearly event of an Alsatian peasant wedding (called the Streisselhochzeit). The whole town transforms into a big wedding party and showcases traditional crafts, music and food from the 18th-19th century! 
Seebach traditional dresses
It's a unique opportunity to see that the Alsatian dresses would differ from town to town and that they evolved during the last 200 years. Nowadays, white wedding gowns have become international, erasing ancient wedding traditions in most big cities of the world... 
The wedded couple
The village of Seebach has been doing this showcase of traditions since 1982 and I'm glad that I finally got to see it in 2017! In previous years, this event was a mock, a fake wedding performed by actors. But this year, this couple wished to get married for real according to the ancient Seebach traditions! They received the applause and cheers of tens of thousands of guests and visitors! What a revival!
To preserve something you like, it can be useful to turn it into a habit and then the habit into a tradition. If people like what you're doing, they're going to imitate you and spread this habit/tradition.
Summer in Europe is the perfect time to enjoy tea outdoors, under the shade of a big tree. I've brewed many high mountain Oolongs on a Chaxi like this last month. 
That's my way of staying true and dedicated to the tea passion that I have developed in Taiwan. This is the most enjoyable way to taste tea, for me.
The Alsace wedding event shows that some traditions could be limited to just a couple of villages. So, it's perfectly OK to use your own ideas and creativity to achieve a unique setting/Chaxi.
This Yixing zhuni teapot brewed my fresh Oolongs with strength and grace.  If I had time, I would usually start with an Alishan Jinxuan, then a Lishan Qingxin Oolong before finishing with a Hung Shui Oolong or a Zhuo Yan Oolong.
A Chaxi is like a little wedding: It's turning what could have been an ordinary day in a something special, filled with love, pleasure and beauty!
Beer and wine are the Alsatian drinks that bring joy at local parties! But there's always a risk in their excess... There's much less problem with tea in this regard! 
Another benefit of a strong tradition is that it gives you a feeling of belonging somewhere, almost a purpose. With my Chaxi, I create a place where I feel well and at home. It doesn't matter if I create on in my Taipei apartment, in my parents' garden or in a tea mountain. Once I'm at my Chaxi, that's the center of my universe and the place I wish to be.
Of course, good things are never easy to obtain. Like for any tradition, it takes time and some money to rehearse the skills and purchase the right equipment/dresses. But this has the potential to make your life more special and meaningful than following the latest globalized trend.
Lishan Oolong
There's something else that Alsace's culinary and China's tea traditions have in common. They are both made of real local food coming directly from the farm or the vineyard! No artificial flavors where added to those genuine, big tea leaves! It's all grown by peasants, but this doesn't mean a lack of beauty or refinement. Century old Alsace and Fujian tea traditions shows that countryside people always had a keen sense for beauty and enjoying life!
Summer sunset in my village in Alsace