The Beauty of Yixing

“The old teapot is dif­fer­ent from the newer teapot because… the crafts­man­ship is very obvious.”

“It’s abil­ity… when it’s per­fect, but not mechanic. When it’s mechanic — it’s like you are print­ing a straight line with a com­puter, using a printer. But if you draw a per­fect line with your bare hand, that’s the beauty of art.”

Kingston teaches us about a pair of late Qing dynasty Shui Ping style Yix­ing teapots — made of Duan Ni clay — for King Rama V of Thailand.

After­wards, lead­ing lady Dae took some great pho­tos of the pots.

Green Puerh Q&A

The Green Puerh class hosted by Tim­o­thy and Michael pro­vides an oppor­tu­nity for some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent from our usual fare.

Michael began with a young, unblended sin­gle estate tea, 2008 Bing Dou. Tim­o­thy con­trasted this with a semi-fermented, clas­sic Meng­hai recipe, 2002 7352.

The duo did their best to explain the dif­fer­ences between the small batch and fac­tory teas, but hav­ing a full house of new and old tea lovers alike, a num­ber of insight­ful ques­tions arose.

Why is one cake looser than another?

Fac­tory stan­dards are most often pro­duced with hydraulic com­pres­sion, which usu­ally results in a fairly dense tea cake. The tea busi­nesser who com­mis­sions a spe­cial pro­duc­tion may request that the cake be com­pressed in the old style — the bag of tea leaves to be pressed is placed between two parts of a stone mold, and a worker stands on top of the mold. Com­pared to the mech­a­nized approach, this yields a loose cake, where one can eas­ily flake off a piece by hand.

Why not loose tea?
One guest noted that we often enjoy puerh tea in loose form as we do with oolong. So why do we see most puerh end up in com­pressed shapes?

The rea­son, as most read­ers have already guessed, is ease of trans­port. A dense tea brick takes up much less space than the same weight of loose “mao cha” and made a more effi­cient use of carts trav­el­ing on the Tea Horse Road.

Much fur­ther along on our tem­po­ral Tea Road, we have dis­cov­ered that blend­ing and com­pres­sion (now favor­ing cakes over bricks) results in a more com­plex aged tea when com­pared to loose puerh.

OK, I get the dif­fer­ent ‘blends,’ but what does this Recipe Num­ber mean?

At first sight, we often have noth­ing but an opaque num­ber and our own senses to go by when judg­ing a fac­tory tea.

I decided the best way to break down the code is in a graphic — I hope this will not offend the design­ers in the audi­ence too greatly.

The first por­tion needs lit­tle explain­ing — this 7352 blend was first used in 1973.

The “aver­age” grade of leaves I believe to be some­what sub­jec­tive. Puerh leaf is graded by size, 0–8, with 8 being the largest leaves. This is sim­ply a mea­sure­ment and not qual­i­ta­tive — that is, there is no ‘bet­ter’ end of the scale.

A cake is a blend of sev­eral grades, and the mid­dle digit rep­re­sents a rough esti­ma­tion of the mean leaf size.

Please elab­o­rate in the com­ments if you can do better!

The final digit rep­re­sents the tea fac­tory who processed the cake. Under social­ist con­trol, there were 3 fac­to­ries of note.

  1. Kun­ming
  2. Meng­hai
  3. Xiaguan

All three fac­to­ries are oper­ated pri­vately today under the same num­bers, but many other num­bers have been added. Cat­a­loging them is left as an exer­cise to the reader.

Say, what’s that other num­ber?
OK, nobody asked this, but any­one still read­ing obvi­ously has a strange fix­a­tion with num­bers, ala Lennon.

Today, a sec­ond impor­tant num­ber is printed on the face of a Dayi wrap­per. It indi­cates the year and batch of pro­duc­tion. Ex. 801 rep­re­sents the first batch of 2008, while 809 rep­re­sents the 9th batch of the same year. Some col­lec­tors seek out the 1st batch each year, while oth­ers con­tend that the qual­ity of each batch is indis­tin­guish­able from another. Quite often, the first batch is sold at a small premium.

This batch label­ing began in 2004, but the astute reader will notice that this short hand only accounts for a 10 year span, and the planet recently turned a decade older. 2010 pro­duc­tions, 2nd batch begin again as 002.

Usu­ally, the year in long form will be printed on the back of the wrap­per, so no need to worry about the sorry lives of tea anthro­pol­o­gists in the dis­tant future (after all humans are killed by poi­so­nous robo-gasses).

When did Meng­hai become pri­vate?
Meng­hai Tea Fac­tory started pro­duc­ing com­mer­cial prod­ucts in 1989 under their own Dayi brand. By 1996, all of the prod­ucts were of the pri­vate brand. Dur­ing the tran­si­tion period, for­eign tea orders (includ­ing Hong Kong) were made only via the government’s CNNP, until reforms finally allowed the orig­i­nal tea fac­to­ries to fill orders directly.

But…
Many of these details are less impor­tant than the expe­ri­enced gained by drink­ing the tea itself. The way the tea tastes, lingers in your mouth and throat, and the way that it makes you feel are the most impor­tant parts of judg­ing the tea. But the curi­ous among us sim­ply can­not resist dig­ging deep into the prove­nance and his­tory of tea.

Per­haps this short primer will inspire some­one to take a closer look at some facet of tea they have yet to uncover.

That Tea Place in New York that Brandon Likes

Tea Gallery Yixing Teapots


There have been wild accu­sa­tions around the ‘net of me being one to spill the beans. To live up to this unsa­vory rep­u­ta­tion, I offer you all a tour of the as-yet unnamed col­lab­o­ra­tion between The Tea Gallery and The Mandarin’s Tea Room.

Some­where along the way, we noticed that the phrase “The Tea Gallery slash Mandarin’s Tea Room” is a “mouthful.”



Tetsubin and HibachiShui Xian and Cups

There are still moun­tains of boxes to be unpacked, but I was invited to visit the new tea room on the twenty-sixth anniver­sary of my birth.

 

I like to keep Tim hon­est — and edu­cate myself — by con­stantly eval­u­at­ing his selec­tions. The chal­lenger this time was First Grade Tie Guan Yin ’10 from the most recent TeaChat Tast­ing Event. It com­pared favor­ably to Tim’s Selected Grade Tie Guan Yin, but we found it to be a slightly dif­fer­ent style.

Tim tells us that his esteemed Anxi men­tor keeps up a menu of no less than 20 unique TGY teas each year.

Gaiwan 3 Stamp Shui Xian

Pouring 3 Stamp Shui XianThe gang are cur­rently eval­u­at­ing a slate of even more Shui Xian teas for their new menu.

Many read­ers know that I can’t get enough of this tea, and at one point counted 15 unique styles on hand in my per­sonal tea room.

This was another high fired style, but was quite dis­tinct from the 3 Stamp already offered by The Tea Gallery. A sweet, cherry syrup added to the already rich fla­vors this tea is known for.

This might have passed as the per­fect tea for my birth­day cel­e­bra­tion, but Michael is not one to leave “good enough” alone.

1950s Shui Xian

He shocked even Tim by brew­ing 20g of his 1950’s Shui Xian in a pot of roughly 180ml. A fit­ting gift to some­one who can’t make tea too strong.


It seems cer­tain that with two dri­ven tea lovers like Michael and Tim chal­leng­ing one another, we will all ben­e­fit from a higher level of tea.

But wait, what are Win­nie and Dae up to?
Check back soon!

NYC Tea Meetup — One Year Reunion

One year after our first meet­ing, inau­gural mem­bers of the NYC Tea Club gath­ered once again at The Tea Gallery.

When all the guests finally arrived, Win­nie sug­gested a matcha to lift everyone’s spir­its. She prefers to use a new tin of matcha fairly quickly to enjoy its fresh­ness, and fear­lessly ladled sev­eral large scoops of bright pow­der into her chawan.

The ini­tial result was some of the strongest Usucha style matcha I have experienced.

Not one to be out­done, Michael stepped up to pre­pare a sec­ond round of matcha, this one even thicker than the first. The tex­ture of his tea was no less than a mousse. The qual­ity of the tea shined through here, reveal­ing no bit­ter­ness even at this concentration.

Michael brewed two rounds of green puerh to con­trast their unique char­ac­ter. The Man­darin and I goofed off for the camera.

The Man­darin got seri­ous with a 1960’s baozhong.

His source tells us that this was pre­pared in an ear­lier style for baozhong than the fresh spring greens we enjoy today.

The dry leaf smelled of honey suckle, and the tea pro­duced a strong feel­ing in the throat. Per­haps his blog will soon edu­cate us on baozhongs now and then.


I had a chance to brew next, serv­ing two aged Liu An. The first was a bit of a mys­tery, and although smooth to taste, it gave some guests a slightly uncom­fort­able feeling.

The sec­ond had a stronger earthy aroma but was already show­ing signs of sweet­ness and a com­fort­ing feel. Win­nie plans to con­tinue aging this tea, hop­ing to recre­ate the sooth­ing feel­ing of her favorite aged Liu An.

Start­ing to feel hunger pangs from all the old tea, we agreed to end with Michael’s spe­cial­ity, a Wuyi rock tea. He selected one eas­ily, but reminded us to taste first, ask ques­tions sec­ond. It was revealed to be a 2004 Tie Luo Han.

Every­one enjoyed the aged aroma of the tea, but we had to rush out to sat­isfy our crav­ings for spicy and greasy food at a Sichuan restaurant.

The group parted from there, ready to embark on our sec­ond year of tea discovery.

Best Friends

Today we had a chance to exam­ine a beau­ti­ful pair of pewter teapots from the Qing Dyanasty. They are owned respec­tively by a pair of real life tea pals.

The han­dle of the smaller pot was expertly repaired with sil­ver “nails.” The repair is indica­tive of work­man­ship from long past.

The tall pot had its orig­i­nal spout carved from stone.

So it goes in the case of these two col­lec­tors, and many oth­ers among us, that your favorite tea buds are also friendly rivals.

The mod­ern inher­i­tor of Chi­nese tea cul­ture is striv­ing to demon­strate the finest tea, teaware, and hos­pi­tal­ity to his friends, and often will come into com­pe­ti­tion for the same rare items. When admir­ing a piece that we lost out on to a good friend, our say­ing goes like this — “I loved it first!”

The ear­li­est story I have heard of such friendship/rivalries dates back to the Han Dynasty, where the Impe­r­ial Court and the Emperor him­self trav­eled to hold for­mal tea com­pe­ti­tions in Wuyi, demon­strat­ing their taste and skill. Gath­er­ings of tea pals are pop­u­lar in the area to this day, and it was only a mat­ter of time for this tra­di­tion to find its way to the New Continent.

Brewing Rock Tea


Step One: Enlist some tea lov­ing friends.


Step Two: Add 7g of leaf to a 100 ml gai­wan (pre­heated). Replace lid. Allow your guests to appre­ci­ate the fra­grance of the dry leaves in the hot gai­wan by smelling the edge of the lid, then replac­ing the lid and pass­ing to the next guest.


Step Three: Pour boil­ing water to the top of the gai­wan. Use the lid to remove the bub­bles that form on the sur­face of the tea in a sin­gle, hor­i­zon­tal scrap­ing motion.


Step Four: Quickly, but with­out break­ing any­thing valu­able, use your ket­tle to pour a stream of water onto the lid wash­ing away the bub­bles into your waste water bowl or tea tray.


Step Five: Replace the lid and decant the tea into your fair­cup. If you have two pitch­ers or a large cup, use one to save this rinse for later. Oth­er­wise, dis­card it and move on to the first infusion.


Step Six: Refill the gai­wan with water just off a boil, decant after 10 to 20 sec­onds accord­ing to taste. Serve your guests this first brew, and also allow them to smell the wet leaf aroma in the gai­wan. This is quite dis­tinct from the dry leaf smell in Step Two.


Step Seven: Con­tinue infus­ing, adding 5 to 10 sec­onds to the steep­ing time each round for as long as you are enjoy­ing the tea. Good Wuyi tea will give five or more infu­sions with a rich body, and taper off — still, pro­vid­ing a chance at many more flo­ral steepings.


If you saved the rinse, it can be enjoyed along­side the last infu­sion. Your tea pals may be sur­prised when con­trast­ing the two points along your Wuyi journey.

Long Jing — “Double Brew” Method

Using room tem­per­a­ture water in the inner tea bowl, boiled water in the outer bowl, slowly brings up the tem­per­a­ture of the leaves.
Adjust the time from 30–60 sec­onds depend­ing on the thick­ness of your gai­wan (thicker walls, more time.) This will give your greens a much dif­fer­ent character.

Long Jing from Bran­don on Vimeo.

Steps:

  1. Pre­heat gaiwan
  2. Add room tem­per­a­ture water to faircup
  3. Add leaves to gaiwan
  4. Fill gai­wan with water from faircup
  5. Steep for 30 sec­onds to 1 minute, depend­ing on thickness.
  6. Decant into (empty!) faircup
  7. Serve

Look out for the bloop­ers reel, in which I step in front of the cam­era and an exas­per­ated Yum­cha cuts off my arm and hand­ily turns it into a deli­cious home cooked meal.

Sharing

Shar­ing tea is one of the great­est joys I have found. Quite often, peo­ple are gen­er­ous enough to share with me as well.

After enjoy­ing the con­trast of two grades of Shan Lin Shi, fresh from Tai­wan, our friend Ben­ito offered another spe­cial treat.

This mini-beeng is made of very high qual­ity leaves. It isn’t punchy in its youth, but rather sweet and buttery.

If you are only drink­ing alone, you are miss­ing half of the expe­ri­ence. But don’t take my word for it… share some tea.

Royal Orchid Tea Museum

We made our sec­ond trip to the Royal Orchid Tea Museum, cur­rently under a seri­ous pro­gram of improvements.

The event car­ried a water theme — an exhi­bi­tion of Shui Pin Yix­ing teapots from Ming to mod­ern, and, a sam­pling of sev­eral Shui Xian teas.

I offered two pots of my own — 1970s hong ni and 1930s zi ni. Kai sug­gested my elder pot was orig­i­nally made for export to Japan.

To break up sev­eral rounds of Shui Xian, we also enjoyed a spe­cial puerh from old trees. The bun­dle of leaves was so large that we had to cut it in half to fit in the widest gai­wan we could find.

I was allowed to exper­i­ment with a Japan­ese sil­ver ket­tle — one of the most stun­ning pieces of teaware in the col­lec­tion. The freshly boiled water really punched up some 90s puerh I was brew­ing, but did lit­tle for my pot of Shui Xian, already gone flat after many brews.

A Visit to Yumcha — The Cha

I usu­ally pride myself in being able to rat­tle off the 8 to 10 teas we drink dur­ing the course of a meetup. How­ever, in the com­pany of Dae and David I finally met my match. Dae says she hasn’t drank this much tea since her trip to Tai­wan — I am indeed strug­gling to remem­ber every tea. I’ve done my best to recall them in no par­tic­u­lar order.

1996 Huang Yin — Sun Sing
1997 Meng­hai 8582
1980s Xiaguan Tra­di­tional Char­ac­ters
2004 Sil­ver Tip Puerh — The Tea Gallery

1950s “Raisin Bread Aroma” Shui Xian
Wuyi Baozhong

Sun Moon Lake Assam
Win­ter 09 Shan Lin Shi Jade vs. Shan Lin Shi Medium Roast

2010 Shin­cha — Ippodo

A tea or two may have been for­got­ten, but an amaz­ing Memo­r­ial Day week­end with friends will be remem­bered for a long time.