Monday, June 28, 2010

Photos from Guangxi

Photos from Guangxi:

A feast with the tea factory gang

Remains of the feast

Jasmine tea ready for cupping





New Idea to Take an Old Favorite to the Next Level

I went to the jasmine tea factory early this morning and called a staff meeting. Everyone showed up at 8 AM sharp. The office girls served tea and we got down to business by cupping all the teas on order for this year. Due to the continuous rain in southern China, scenting has to be stopped as flowers are losing aromatics and opening before being picked. Today is the first day the sun has come out and it is already hot and steamy!

The cupping consisted of teas that were scented to various different stages. After cupping every single one I started to address the group. Everyone expected my usual lecture and complaint about sorting, flavor, color and aromatics, but I surprised them all by starting with work safety and cleanliness. I was armed to the teeth with regulations and specifications, due to fact that I am planning a new factory in our upcoming tea farm in Shaanxi. I launched into food/tea handling and the importance of moisture and temperature controls, explained about why non-porous services and reflective paints are important, and related some more general food safety issues. Although the factory is certified by the government, there is a lot they can learn.

When I felt that I really had their attention, I revealed the real reason I wanted them to listen to all this information: I want to change our usual jasmine making method. As mentioned in my book, a final process called ti hua mixes fresh flowers and tea together for a short time to add external fragrance. This process adds floral aromatics but also introduces a bit more moisture, which can cause the tea to lose its scent a bit faster. I want to skip ti hua but do more scenting and make each scenting time shorter, so we can go to 6-7 scentings with fewer flowers and slightly less time. Usually, too much scenting can cause the tea to darken or turn red and, in severe cases, ruin it, but with less time, fewer flowers, but more scenting, I hope to saturate the tea to such a degree that it won't need the final ti hua and will still keep its usual color and flavor.

Everyone dropped their jaws and said, this is going to cost more money! My thoughts are exactly the same, but to me, this is an opportunity! If everyone is cutting short on quality due to prices, we need to do an extra-good job to show our customers that we are going to be here no matter what the circumstances, and maybe a few who weren’t our customers will see the light and move towards us.

I've always thought that men learn to be more tricky after they get to 50 and lose many of their physical abilities (at least in my case). Now that I am 54, maybe I'll learn to be a bit smarter as well...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Imperial Gyokuro, Imperial Green Oolong Now Available Online

If you've been wanting to try our 2010 Spring Harvest Imperial Gyokuro or Imperial Green Oolong but haven't been able to drop by one of our teahouses, your opportunity is here! Both of these fine and distinctive teas are now available in our online store:
Order Imperial Gyokuro
Order Imperial Spring Harvest Green Oolong

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bad Weather in Guangxi

We are bogged down by rain here in Guangxi. I may not be able to work with the factory on actual production, because there are no flowers due to the rain. We are having a staff meeting today to discuss production techniques. I am considering some new production ideas and want to run it by the folks here who actually do the work.

Roy's in Guangxi: Time for Jasmine Tea

After stops in Taiwan to check out this spring's green oolong harvest and Beijing to visit his ailing friend Mr. Yang, Roy is now in Guangxi, overseeing production of our 2010 edition jasmine teas. The production of fine jasmine tea is a painstaking process. In case you missed it earlier, here's an excerpt from Roy's book, Great Teas of China, describing how it works. Next month he's heading to Shaanxi to finalize paperwork on his Chinese tea farm.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Takada San Explains Gyokuro's History, Technique

My friend Takada san explains the history and technique of gyokuro:

The old-style gardens are shaded with only bamboo and rice straw. First, they put many bamboo poles in the garden in early spring. Then, depending on the weather, they start building bamboo shelves. On the shelves they place rice straw something like 10-15cm deep to keep it dark inside. They have several gardens, so 20-30 picking ladies start the first garden. It takes 3-4 days to pick, so another garden should be ready for picking by the time they finish.

Nowadays, farmers prefer a simpler method, using black netting.

We have a big problem finding enough ladies to pick the tea at the same time. We book them at the beginning of the year, before the season we give them a small gift, and at last, before the first picking day, we prepare some picking clothes for them. Anyway, the farmer takes very good care of his tea ladies. He will pay JPY7,000 for one day’s work, from 7:00-17:00. For the high-grade leaves it’s possible for one lady to pick 5 kg in a day, which dries to 1 kg. So 1 kg of gyokuro includes JPY7,000 just for the picking cost.

It is necessary to keep finished gyokuro for 4-5 months in a dark, cool place so it can “sleep.” This gives a milder, sweeter taste. We have a special ceremony in autumn, "Pot-Opening Ceremony," when we finally open the containers. October is the best season to enjoy the deep gyokuro taste.

For brewing gyokuro, specially high-grade, you must use 50-55C water. For 3 cups, use 8g of leaves, 100ml of water, and steep 2 minutes. Five or six drops of tea per cup is enough. For the second infusion, use 150ml of water and 60C water. Steep 2 minutes. For the third, 200ml of water at 70C for 2 minutes. For the fourth, 300ml at 80C for 1 minute. This is one way, but you can find your own way to enjoy gyokuro.

Uji is the oldest tea town in Japan. Our tea history was started 800 years ago by the monk who went abroad to China. He started the history, then the samurai continued it with their tea gambling (tea competition to get the correct answer). Later, during the Edo period, samurai cultivated their skill at the tea ceremony. At the same time, Shogun enjoyed gyokuro, which was reserved for their use: at the beginning of gyokuro history, nobody could drink this tea except the Shogun family. Therefore, our Uji tea gardens were protected as the Shogun garden for many years. About 250 years ago, one of the farmers who lived in my tea town invented another style of gyokuro, called sencha. It’s steamed and full of green color. So, for historical reasons, gyokuro means the king’s tea. Uji is the high grade of tea and Uji tea has 5-star taste. This is the history of gyokuro.

When the monk first brought tea to Kyoto from China, he planted the seeds in the valley to the north of the mountain in Kyoto. The valley is very narrow, so late sunrise and early sunset make the tea taste very rich. On the other hand, Uji has a wide river that provides rich soil, but the mountains aren’t as high. People realized they needed to shade the tea to make it make it taste like Kyoto tea. The shaded garden was a smart idea to grow rich tasting tea in Uji for the Shogun. We are very proud of this historical tradition.

Scenes from Uji, Japan, Home of Our 2010 Imperial Gyokuro







Photos of our gyokuro tea farm in Uji, Japan.

From top:
  • Close-up view of traditional straw mats used for shading

  • Under the rice straw mats shading a traditional gyokuro garden

  • A gyokuro tea garden shaded with traditional bamboo mats

  • Finishing the gyokuro

  • Freshly picked gyokuro leaves

  • Tea ladies who pick gyokuro are highly skilled and well paid. An experienced tea lady can pick about 5kg of top-grade leaves in a 10-hour shift

  • An Uji tea farm with some of the gyokuro shaded the traditional way, with bamboo and rice straw, and other areas covered with the convenient, modern version: black nylon netting
  • Sunday, June 20, 2010

    Roy Brews 2010 Imperial Green Oolong and Imperial Gyokuro, Then Heads to China

    Roy stopped by briefly Friday afternoon to brew the new Imperial Green Oolong and our first ever offering of the legendary Japanese tea, Imperial Gyokuro, then he was off on his latest jaunt to Asia. First, a stop in Taiwan to check on the green oolong harvest, then it's on to Guangxi Province for jasmine tea and Shaanxi Province to finalize paperwork on his new Chinese tea farm. If there's time he may also drop by Yunnan to check out this year's puerh crop. As always, Roy will be blogging about his tea journeys, so stay tuned here for his latest posts.

    Our 2010 Spring Harvest Imperial Green Oolong is a special treat for anyone who loves the oolongs of Taiwan. For the first time, we've sourced our top grade of green oolong from Fu Shou Shan, Taiwan's highest-elevation tea region at 2,500 meters. The tea served at official Taiwanese presidential events comes from Fu Shou Shan, so it's also known as "President's Tea." Our tea features potent florals that never overwhelm, but work in harmony with the fresh green flavor and hint of firing that make it uncommonly smooth and balanced. You know it will be a special experience as soon as you see the bright, almost egg-yellow liquor and get a whiff of the exquisite, multidimensional aroma. Rich with a mouth-filling texture and pleasantly floral finish, this tea is packed with flavor and delivers many satisfying infusions.

    With so many of China's early spring green teas compromised by bad weather this year, Roy turned to Japan to diversify our 2010 green tea lineup. For the first time, we're pleased to offer Imperial Gyokuro, a top grade of this legendary green tea that spends the last 20 days on the bush shaded, in order to retard growth and allow the tea to develop more nutrients and flavor. The result is small, deep green, needle-like leaves that deliver the thick - almost meaty - texture and intense burst of grassy green flavor for which gyokuro is famed. Grown in cold, northerly Japan, gyokuro is fundamentally different from Chinese green teas. Instead of presenting a complex matrix of flavors and drinking experiences, gyokuro is laser-focused on providing an extreme - and extremely delicious - zap of jade-green color (gyo is Japanese for jade), potent fresh aroma, mouth-filling texture, and concentrated, sweet chlorophyll taste.

    For best results with gyokuro, use a bit more leaf than with Chinese teas and lukewarm water, around 100 degrees F. Infuse a minute or two in a gaiwan, until the brew develops rich color and aroma, then savor this Japanese classic.