Sunday, May 28, 2017

Making tea in Wuyishan; sharing pictures and video from Cindy Chen

My online friend Cindy Chen sometimes sends pictures and video of making tea, or tea areas, and I'll share some of those.

That term "online friend" is strange, isn't it?  How could someone be a friend if you've not actually met them?  Using "acquaintance" usually fits better.  No need to drag that part out but she just seems like a friend.  This post isn't about how nice Cindy is anyway, or a summary of how tea is made, just some pictures and videos.

Her family makes and sells nice tea (Wuyi Yancha oolong, Fujian black teas, and Dan Cong), lots of which I've reviewed, and they have a sales website related to that.  I won't even mention here which of her teas I like best, although it's strange leaving that out.  Some of these are older pictures, ones I've shared over the past two years.  Or some are favorites from her Facebook page, that tell parts of the processing story or show something interesting.

The plants and growing areas

The story of tea starts with some incredible natural areas and very unique plants.

An old picture, from the Dan Cong harvest last year, one of my favorites.  She does a lot with the sales and relations side of the business, and raises a family, but she does plant and pick tea and contributes to making it.  Cindy's husband is from that region instead of Wuyishan originally, so they help produce teas from both places.

Wuyishan, and tea plants.  Someday I'll visit there, but for now have to settle for drinking some of the teas, and envying people that do visit.  Since I'm from a rural area myself I envy people living a simpler life closer to nature but they really do hard work as a part of that.

Most of this is bamboo, not even tea, probably on the way to a remote place where tea grows.

More "wild" tea plant area

2017 "wild" lapsang harvest

Cindy!  Another from last year; more like what one would expect of tea gardens

Carrying a giant bag of leaves

Processing: the next step

An older picture, helping roast the tea.

Rou Gui processing step

Rou Gui processing step

Checking on status; the smell indicates where the tea is in a lot of the steps

Hand processing

Maocha, unfinished tea, still being processed

Sorting tea, with a small set of hands helping out

A family business

Cindy and her uncle in the roasting area.

Another favorite I've shared before; that family background means that her daughter gets lots of exposure to tea.  Cindy said she likes to snack on the fresh leaves, and of course she can already prepare tea, and probably knows more about the subject than I do.

Cindy's husband and father in law examine tea plants

Her father-in-law checking out plants

Cindy's husband inspecting results

Industrial safety review in the baking area.  Just kidding; I've experienced from my own kids that toddlers tend to get a little banged up once in awhile.

Rou Gui!  One version of the finished product.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Visiting Bangkok Chinatown on staycation, reviewing Ya Bao (tea buds)

I live in Bangkok, so it's normal that I would visit the local Chinatown and buy tea there.  I've written about the Jip Eu shop there (in a search query here), and about the one tea cafe there, Double Dogs.  Odd there is just one cafe in Chinatown, or maybe I'm just missing the others, and they're Google-proof.  Of course I'm searching in English; I can use Google translate to switch back and forth to do a Thai language based search but it's not simple.

I'll say a little about the Bangkok Chinatown, what it's like, and that shop, and describe a tea I bought.  In a sense it's not ordinary tea, Ya Bao, it's a different form of tea buds made into something like white tea, sold as white pu'er.  That could almost be three different subjects and three different posts, especially the review part, and I am using just that part as a TChing post (which appeared here).

Back-story:  a staycation

in Bali with a cousin

My wife went on a vacation to Bali without me this week with our kids.  We get out a good bit compared to the vacation time I have to spend on that, using it all, and I had an important meeting, and her cousin and his wife were signed on for that trip, so I didn't join.  No problem.  We visited Java and Bali (Indonesia) a year and a half ago, and Bali is nice but it's a lot like any other tropical island, with a few extra ancient temples around.  The beaches are not nearly as nice as those in Hawaii, where my wife and I both went to grad school, so that helped soften the blow a little related to passing on a vacation.

Technically this wasn't a "staycation" because I worked the whole week, but I did explore some.  For entertainment I walked around Chinatown two nights, not so far from where I work, and checked out a backpacker theme tourist area another, Kao San Road.  I typically never get out, besides  running errands and doing what kids do, so it made for a nice change of pace.  I'll skip mentioning Kao San Road but I will go into what the Bangkok Chinatown is like.

Chinatowns comparison

Our Chinatown is a little rough, to be honest.  I feel safe there, whether that's justified or not.  I really did just test that safety issue by walking several kilometers along vacant streets and alleys, seeing what's there and looking for one place in particular.  Once you get just a bit further West of Chinatown walking by homeless people setting up camp on sidewalks happens, something that would be a sure sign you really shouldn't be there in a US city.  For whatever reason Thailand doesn't have much of the kinds of crime that tie in with that.  Maybe because they're Buddhist?  Some people do very non-Buddhist things, clearly dropping the five precepts, but few enough take up mugging other people, stealing their money in that way.  So much for the superiority complex associated with developed world privilege, thinking that it's all that much closer to a utopia in "the West."

a side street dining area off Yaowarat, in Bangkok Chinatown (photo credit)

So by "rough" I mean that there are restaurants, which look like Chinese restaurants anywhere, in a US city or in China, but per appearances most food is sold and consumed in street-stall informal cafe settings.  In the Singapore Chinatown that's a wonderfully well organized, clean, structured setting, although I suppose pricing goes up a little for tidying up the environment.  Here the "kitchens" are food carts, not like food trucks, like a steel cabinet on wheels with a gas-fired wok set-up attached.  They're even cooler when the whole thing is welded to a motorcycle, Mad Max style, but that configuration is mostly used for fruit vending or something such.

I speak some Thai, maybe a few hundred words, so I can muddle through ordering, but that setting still doesn't feel familiar.  Part of that relates to crowding; some food carts have only two or three small associated tables, and more popular places maybe a dozen or more, but they'd typically be full.  Anyway this is supposed to circle back to tea, not just about dining issues.

I've already said that Singapore's Chinatown is well-organized, maybe a bit too much so.  The dining is better--unless someone loves street food, maybe--but lots of the main areas turn into tourist souvenir shops.  That's great for buying a magnet with a merlion on it, or a knock-off watch that will probably stop in a month, but somehow not as authentic an experience.  Bangkok's Chinatown retains the wholesale vendor theme, it's what drives their local economy, but then if you visit after six PM that means most of it is closed.

NYC Chinatown (One World Trade Center in the background)

We just visited the NYC Chinatown in January so I can compare it to both.  It looks like NYC, to me, maybe no surprise there.  I'd be more careful about wandering quiet alleys in the evenings there but it seemed friendly.  Nowhere in the US, outside slums, is as rough-edged as lots of Bangkok looks so it seemed modern in comparison.  I like that about Bangkok, by the way, but it does take some getting used to.  Maybe especially the smells, which I don't really notice now (funny, now that I think of it).  At any rate the NYC Chinatown is a good place to get tea (maybe better for ordinary grade versions), or a bowl of noodles, or some Asian food dry goods, back to that wholesale theme.  I wasn't looking for counterfeit brand-name goods so I'm not sure about that.

a nice gate at the Yokohama Chinatown

We visited the Yokohama Chinatown, a good bit outside Tokyo, two years back--the time just flies--and it was nice, more like Sinagpore's, but maybe a little more genuine.  Japan is so clean and well organized that nowhere there is likely to look like an average part of Bangkok.  Drifting off topic, but you can find tea from different countries in Japan, more true of there than here; odd it works out that way.  But if you go to a Japanese Chinatown looking for Japanese tea that won't work; funny I hadn't thought that through before visiting there.

What about Chinese cities, not really Chinatowns, but definitely Chinese?  I've only been to Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen (and Hong Kong, sort of a different thing).  They're awesome, maybe a little more modern and "normal" compared to "the West" than one might expect, but the different levels of unusual options would not disappoint.

Chinese people are great, I think.  Some do spit a lot, related to that one stereotype.  And for whatever reason our friend and local guide, my son's former schoolmate's mother, did end up shouting a lot at vendors when she showed us around Shanghai, but to me that was just local color.  The people were warm and friendly, and very genuine, especially as urban environments go.  Again I felt safer there than in a US city.  And tea is EVERYWHERE!  Turning up the best of local shops takes some doing but finding tea is a matter of just looking around anywhere you happen to be.  I should get back on track here though, about that tea, and about finding it.

Ya Bao from a Bankok Chinatown shop

I had been walking around aimlessly for about two hours.  Not finding a street-stall "restaurant" that had an empty seat, or that looked agreeable, I went to a familiar restaurant.  I'd been in one shop that had tea, including generic pu'er, but that theme was going nowhere, and the lychee I walked by seemed overpriced.  It's funny how I'm conditioned to value $5-7 here as if that's a substantial amount of money; I tend to live like a local in some ways.  I was considering stopping for a beer but that's not what Chinatown is about, and I only passed a jazz bar that wasn't of interest (not a dive at all, or I wouldn't have hesitated).  I had just about had it, and just then I found this shop, Sen Xing Fa, at the far end of a side-street.

one owner-family member, with pu'er

It's not the 90+ year old old-school Chinatown shop that Jip-Eu is; it's an ordinary tea shop.  It seemed odd that they sell commercial pu'er, some pressed white teas (a little), Thai commercial teas, and lots of bulk-stored teas, a good mix (ok, that bulk storage isn't exactly ideal).  At a guess this isn't the kind of place you'd find an upper-level range of Chinese teas, good Wuyi Yancha or Dan Cong, but I didn't try theirs to check on that.  It's probably mostly fine, I'm just getting a bit spoiled.  And I was looking for teas that are new to me.

I drifted towards an unusual looking white tea cake, and then after tasting that bought 50 grams of the loose version instead (this tea), since I didn't love that version.  You have to go with your intuition.  I also bought a pressed white tea cake, in the candy-bar block style, and a pu'er I have no idea what to make of (aged sheng, or at least it was sold as that).  Since this runs long maybe it's better to get back about those later.

The Ya Bao looks like tea buds, but not like silver tips / silver needle, as if from a different plant.  Per talking to one Yunnan producer they are from a different plant, and another vendor mentioned the look is different because they're picked in the winter instead.  Both could be true; I'll see what turns up about that.

The tea doesn't taste like tea at all, like a tisane instead.  This version's flavor is bright and sweet, with a distinctive pine aspect, pretty close to how brewing rosemary works out.  I did brew a lot of rosemary, by the way.  I bought a large size container of both that and thyme on sale in a grocery store and then, realizing that I don't cook much with rosemary, spent months drinking it prepared as an infused tisane (or as herb tea, if you're loose with how you use that word).  It's nice.

This is probably shifted a little from rosemary towards actual pine (which I reviewed here, and went into potential medicinal or nutritional uses here), which to me is a good thing since I like brewed pine needles.  I could even go back and review that post to confirm which tree's needles it is most similar to, but based on memory this is like White Pine, on the light, sweet, fresh, and delicate side as those go.  It just doesn't taste anything like tea.

a bit like this atypical tisane

I think this tea would be good or bad depending on how much someone expected and wanted it to taste like tea.  From there flavor preference would come into play, but I think anyone ok with using rosemary as a tisane would love it, and anyone that would hate that wouldn't.  It seems a little one-dimensional, but it would probably vary some based on shifting around brewing parameters, so I'm likely not getting the best out of it just yet.  I guess you could blend with it too, mix it with something else, but I wouldn't.

As far as this being "white pu'er" I'm not seeing that, either of those descriptions fitting.  It's nothing like Moonlight White teas I've tried, in a similar general range. The processing method for making this from the picked buds is simple, per my understanding from discussing that with a couple people, more or less just letting the buds dry, so maybe closest to making white tea.

other tea

Ya Bao; what is it?

Per a Yunnan tea maker contact it's grown in Dehong Prefecture, but he didn't know the specific plant type, just referring to it as "wild," not made from a variation of the two main tea plant varieties.  Most sources seem to describe it as just being tea, presumably the Assamica variety.  Yunnan Sourcing has a different take, seconding what that other producer told me:

These little white buds come from wild-growing Camellia Assamica Dehongensis varietal.  It is a sub-varietal of camellia that grows in the tropical area of Dehong and Lincang in southwestern Yunnan.  The buds are picked in early February and then sun-dried.  The flavor is fresh and a little fruity somewhat similar to a good white tea but more complex flavors.  The brewed liquor is whitish and clear, and there is a hint of fresh pine needles in the aroma!

a black tea version from the same plant type (photo credit Yunnan Sourcing)

The version of Ya Bao I tried didn't seem at all complex.  I read some other reviews of versions--for some reason a wave of product descriptions and blog posts published in 2014; funny how that works out--and those were a lot more positive than my two experiences, counting trying a pressed version in that shop.  Another tea vendor in the US completely echoed my take on the experience of only one version; it tastes sweet and a little like pine, but doesn't have a lot going on.

He and another Chinese tea producer and vendor expressed one other interesting idea (or concern, depending on your take), that unlike picking a silver needle / silver tip bud later in the spring harvesting this from the tip of a branch will prevent that branch from producing any new leaves at all.  This is surely tied to why it looks like a set of leaves early in development, not just a bud.  If it's not really a Camellia Sinensis plant--odd that other citation used "Camellia Assamica" right; that's not how that naming convention works--then this might not relate to later "tea" harvest potential anyway, unless there is a different leaf-based version to be had from this plant type as well.  The product in that last picture (with link mentioned there) seems to clearly be exactly that.

I'm sure adjusting brewing could turn up a couple more trace flavor aspects, but based only on this experience of this version I could take or leave it.  It's interesting and pleasant, worth trying out, and I'm glad I have most of 50 grams left for that, but it probably won't become a favorite.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Hatvala jasmine black tea from Vietnam (Ha Giang / Ha Noi)

I first tried jasmine black tea in Indonesia, a common commercial tea alternative there (with a little about one version here).  I was surprised by how much I liked it.  Among other flavored teas I'll drink Earl Grey and that's about it (although I did like a coconut flavored version of black tea; I guess there's room for exceptions).  This version should be much better than that grocery store tea in Indonesia, given the quality of other Hatvala teas I've tried in the past (including this Earl Grey).

jasmine teas from Indonesia (Indonesian blog photo credit)

I'll say a little about Hatvala first (site link), but I've introduced them before in other reviews (like this one, about an oolong and black tea).  They seek out and sell interesting, better versions of Vietnamese tea.  On a trip to Hanoi and out in the country I found some interesting teas but did a little better through Hatvala (by mail) after hearing about them online.  As "Western" vendors go What-Cha carries their teas (link to one of my favorites, a Red Buffalo roasted oolong).  Hatvala also sells teas directly, but using that Western source might be a good way to try a couple.

You can go to Vietnam and all but miss that they drink anything but green tea, with most coming from the Thai Nguyen region (per my understanding; I'm no authority on Vietnamese teas).  Decent black tea is around, and oolong also isn't incredibly rare, but you might miss it.  As with anywhere turning up better quality versions is also an issue.  Their ordinary versions of green tea are fine, a bit heavy on mineral aspects, but prepared properly they can balance nicely.

It's odd that in Vietnam they tend to drink green tea prepared with boiling point water, served in a pot so that brewing time isn't controlled.  They seem to like the high level of astringency that results from both of those brewing choices.  Other better Vietnamese teas are a completely different thing, but I'll get back to this flavored version.

Vietnamese tea isn't as simple a subject as you might think (credit Hatvala)


On first taste this already seemed like one of the best flavored teas I've ever tried.  It's floral, of course, but maybe almost as fruity.  At any rate there's a lot of complexity in flavors experience, even if I am completely wrong about that fruit part.

One of the main flavors would have to be jasmine, wouldn't it?  It comes across completely differently than in green tea, which is why those inexpensive, commercial jasmine black teas in Indonesia worked so well for me.  Jasmine green tea can be nice, in a sense (with everything depending on preference), for that sweet floral nature being so intense.  I find that intensity to even be independent of flavor level that's present, to some degree, as just how the aspect characters mix, merging with the fresh, brighter flavors in green tea.  But it is easy for the flavors intensity to become a bit much in green versions.  Combining it with black tea strikes a completely different balance.

To some extent this does just taste like black tea mixed with that particular flower, but the sum is also somehow greater than the parts, so description will be a challenge.  It comes across as more complex than that.  Getting the level of jasmine right would be a critical factor, and this really works for jasmine being moderate.  It combines naturally with the black tea flavors, not seeming to override them, not as sweet and powerful as can be typical is in green tea versions (although of course those would vary in style).  The Hatvala owner said a little about what the tea is and how it's made as follows:

For the black jasmine tea we are currently using a wild black tea produced in a small factory in Fin Ho, Ha Giang province.  All of the jasmine teas are scented in the West Lake area of Hanoi using locally, naturally grown jasmine blossoms.  Blending is done by an old lady (she is approaching 80 years old) and her family.  They have been blending jasmine and lotus teas in this area for many years.  The jasmine season in the north of Vietnam is May to September and it has a stronger fragrance than the year round jasmine available in the south,

Blending is by layering freshly picked jasmine blossoms during the afternoon, layering it with the tea and leaving overnight as the blossoms open.  For the black tea this is repeated a total of four times (normally three for green tea).  Rule of thumb estimate is that by the end of the process approximately 2 kg of jasmine flowers are used for each kg of tea.

Lets try more flavors-list separation on the second infusion.  I'm brewing this tea Gongfu style even though it's not the most natural choice, it's just what I'm used to these days.  It's really a variation of those two main approaches, with the proportion a bit light and times drawn out a little as Gongfu brewing goes, so as much in between.  I had used Western style adjusted towards Gongfu style a lot in the past and I suppose I've ended up not far from that, just using the other equipment, a gaiwan in this case.  These aren't supposed to be objectively better versions of technique I'm describing, not necessarily a progressive learning curve, just the page I'm on.  This tea would be fine brewed Western style, and it worked out similarly using that approach the second time I tried it.

brewing in a gaiwan

The tea balances being earthy and sweet very well.  The flavor is not subdued but well-matched.  I could swear I'm picking up fruit, beyond the floral tone and earthiness of a black tea, surely from the tea.  It's not easy to identify.  It's not so far from roasted sweet potato but not exactly that, a little towards dark cherry but maybe not exactly that either.  The easier description is to just include them all as a list, to say the tea tastes like earthiness from black tea, a soft version of malt--it's not astringent, a typical pairing of one flavor range of malt and one feel element--and maybe including dark wood tones, then also jasmine, just a softer and balanced version of that, roasted sweet potato, and dark cherry.

in Seoul (mentioned here)

Part of the sweetness and complexity also reminds me a little of a bark or root spice, not one I'm familiar with.  This is back to that idea that when you walk through a traditional spice market lots of unfamiliar smells mix, many sweet, earthy and complex in ways you could hardly imagine.  It doesn't come up for me so often but it's the kind of experience that leaves a lasting impression on you.  Old style markets here tend to smell like fish sitting out on ice on an open table, and for good reason.  To put a name to that spice aspect it's along the lines of sassafras.

The tea is perhaps fading a little on the third infusion, or since I'm not paying close attention to times it could just be that.  I think either way it will probably go a couple more good infusions by stepping up times more.  I'm probably drinking this on the light side related to how lots of people might take black tea, but then I'd expect that to work as a generality about preference shifts, that people might tend to prefer tea brewed lighter across all types after gaining more exposure.  That's just me speculating, of course.  At any rate the balance is still great.  To me this works really well brewed lightly because it still has a nice feel to it, not as full and rich as some other types, but it's definitely not thin, and the flavors work well.

brewed leaves

I'm going to try and explain the part that can't be explained; good luck to me in pulling that off.  There was synergy between the jasmine flavor and black tea even in the much lower quality Indonesian commercial versions.  They weren't doing so bad with balance but they weren't on this level for success in that.  This is a bit of an aside but a friend living there said he experienced health issues related to drinking a lot of that tea, which may well have been processed with a chemical that didn't agree with him.  Due to talking with the Hatvala owner I am completely convinced this tea is natural, untouched by chemicals, and probably sourced to be relatively safely grown.  But that's my personal belief; guarantees about that sort of thing are difficult to assess, and here in Thailand that eve relates to accepting organic certifications.

In good Earl Grey the orange flavor (bergamot essence) and black tea combine well; the flavors compliment each other.  Per my current preference this works better.  Novelty might be part of that.  If you'd only ever tried so-so tea-bag versions of Earl Grey and then ran across a much better example it could seem like a different experience, and I think I'm there now with this tea.  Bergamot is a natural companion to black tea, with sweetness and complexity combining into one profile range with it, and depending on preference this is just as good or better.  With Earl Grey it seems the two fit more naturally into a black tea/base bergamot/high tone pairing, and does something similar, but with jasmine on the lighter side those black tea flavors just blend with floral.

jasmine garland in a local grocery store complex

A bit of an aside:  the smell of actual jasmine flowers can be on the intense side.  People use jasmine to make a garland here in Thailand, like a small version of a lei.  Basic versions are inexpensive, costing 10 baht (35 cents, give or take), and the larger version in the photo cost about a dollar instead.  They're even sold by people walking around at traffic stop lights.  The garlands are used for religious purposes, as a symbolic offering to a Buddha statue, or just as an air freshener.  If you put one of those in a bus it can add a nice background scent but in a taxi it's way too strong.

Around the sixth infusion this thins a lot.  The balance is still ok, with the jasmine fading at the same rate as the tea.  For a light oolong this would brew more times but it held up well for what it is.  It's a sign of good quality if the character stays positive throughout the cycle and this tea did.

General impression:  I loved the tea.  It's not as sophisticated and aspect-layered as some other versions of plain black teas, lacking some structure and complexity compared to better Dian Hong.  But that's splitting hairs, comparing it to some of the best black teas made.  Even for being more straightforward on those levels to me this might have eclipsed Earl Grey in expressing the highest potential of flavored black tea.