Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Tea Flavour Wheel

Unfortunately, this week is quite busy as well and a detailed post about the next tea sibling will take a bit more time than I have. This is not to say that it has not been started, simply that it will take a bit more time and I would not want to keep my teanions waiting.

In a tea siblings place, I present to you the tea flavour wheel

Despite my love for tea, I admit that I have difficulties properly expressing and narrowing down what I am tasting (this inability expands to more than just tea...).  This is where the tea flavour wheel comes in.

This wheel is divided first into the main base flavours and slowly splits itself down into the more subtle and specific undertones. This really helps me narrow down and classify the many flavours and aromas I encounter when drinking tea. I wish the wheel had a bit more progression and linking between the categories but I must confess that it is a great resource. I still feel slightly confused when trying to distinguish some of the outermost ring, but it is a great starting point.

As you can tell, it is not strictly reserved for teas as there seems to be some serious tisane flavours included as well...unless someone knows of a tea that has pineapple undertones?

I truly wish I knew where it came from but it is an image I saved long ago for a post just like this. If anyone knows, please let me know so that I can give the proper credit.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The 5 Tea Siblings: Oolong (Wulong) Tea

First off, apologies for taking a week hiatus; I was swamped (to say the least) with work. Nevertheless, I thought of my next article and here it is!

If you are looking to showoff to your friends about your knowledge of tea, then look no further; oolong tea is the way to do it, and luckily for you, it is today's topic. So bust out your leaves, put the water on the stove, and get ready to learn about one of the most revered & sophisticated teas in the world.

(Just did a fair bit of reading and wow, I am in for a heck of a post! There is SO much to say about oolong. Only one way to get through it all!)

Oolong is a tea produced solely in China and Taiwan and, unlike Pu-Er teas that are specific to one region, are produced in a wide range of conditions and climates and with a wide range of picking and preparation techniques. This is precisely where the magic in oolong lies. The lack of standardization allows oolongs to be incredibly diverse and cover a very wide range of flavours, aromas, colours, and tastings experiences. They can be closely related to green teas (0% oxidation) with as little as 12 percent oxidation, or can be shoulder to shoulder with black teas reaching as high as 80 percent oxidation (ok, black tea is 100% oxidation, but they can almost be shoulder to shoulder!). This wide range of oxidation (combined with picking & preparation techniques) makes it so oolong spans the entire range of the tea family and contains hints belonging to other types of tea. Although Pu-Er tea holds the "most complicated tea to study" award, a well rounded knowledge of oolong tea is incredibly respectable and even holds a certain level of class and prestige among tea experts.

One intriguing aspect of oolong lies in the appearance of it's leaves. Upon first glance, they look unremarkable and may even look slightly worn compared to green tea leaves, upon second glance, they can look just as unappealing. A third glance will not chance that, nor will a forth or fifth or even a sixth.  Remember that oolong is caught in it's own world lying between green tea and black tea. This means that it's leaves can greatly range in appearance; from a fresher looking green to the older heavily fired look of black tea. Beauty pageants aside, oolong tea leaves really show their hidden qualities when they are allowed to release their aromas and flavours in right temperature of water; this is it's greatest source of pride.

Oolongs are incredibly layered, meaning their flavour changes and evolves with each subsequent steeping. Each steeping peels back a flavour layer and reveals an ever enriching & changing aroma. They are known to be earthy (though less so than Pu-Ers & Black teas), aromatic, smooth, and sometimes, sweet teas.

1/4 pictures showing the diversity of oolong tea. Image courtesy of  here

As if they were not complicated enough, oolong exists in three basic categories: strip-style, open leaf-style, and semiball-rolled style.

Strip-style tends to be more oxidized (between 50-80%) and are heavily roasted. As their name implies, the leaves are long, complete, large, and gifted with a slight curl or twist. They tend to have stronger flavours (earthy, almost fruity, with lingering aftertastes) and occupy a small range of colours (deep earthy brown to a ashy-flint like grey). This type of Oolong is specific to China and not produce elsewhere, unlike the next type which is produced solely in Taiwan.
2/4 pictures showing the diversity of oolong tea. Image courtesy of here

Open leaf-style are characterized by their open, slightly wrinkled leaves ranging from medium to large. The leaves are more presentable as they are not involved in roasting at all. This gives way to sweeter, crisper, and gentler aromas. Unlike strip-style, they have a wider range of oxidation (can be from 12-18% or from 65-75%)

The last general type of oolong bridges the gap between china and taiwan and is produced by both countries. This is the most recognizable type of oolong as it is a leaf rolled into a ball with the stem still attached. From here, it gets a bit more complicated as they can branch off into two categories: the older, more traditional style of oxidation, or the more recent modern style of oxidation. The former often has ranges of 35-65% oxidation and is slightly roasted which imbues the tea with a honey like quality. It's colour range starts from a light brown, progresses through a shade of amber, and finishes with a reddish, woody brown. Though the modern style has some similar appearances, it differs slightly, both in oxidation levels and in overall aroma. It's oxidation levels range from 25-40% and it is only slightly roasted to preserve the floral and light undertones. It's colour is quite different (due to both the lack of roasting, and oxidation) as it is on the green side of things; ranging from a gold-green to a deep jade-like shade.
3/4 pictures showing the diversity of oolong tea (I know right, creative with the captions today!).. Generously provided by these fine people

As was the case with Pu-Er, I could go on and on for another few pages. Sadly, I think this would defeat the point of a general introduction so I will expand on oolongs (what to look for when buying, preparation methods, and more facts) at a later date. I will simply end with how to make the perfect cup of oolong so that you may start enjoying steep after steep between now and then.

So pretty! 
Oolong is much less forgiving than Pu-Er (and even then some experts would have me lined up and shot for saying Pu-Er is forgiving). To make a good, relaxing cup of oolong, you have to use a generous amount of leaves (2-3 tablespoons per 180ml of water (6 ounces))....(those should really be measured in teaspoons in my opinion...). If this seems like a lot, feel free to play with what is right for you, however I beg you not to worry, running out of tea simply means it is time to explore and try a new variety. The water temperature starts at around 82C (180 F) and can go up to 93C (200F) with slowly increasing temperatures. It is recommended to do a first wash of the leaves (quickly pour the hot water over the leaves and pour it out immediately to quickly replace with new water to start your first steep). Depending on the type of oolong, steeping time should range from 10-60 seconds for the first infusion, 15-65 seconds for the second, and 20-70 for the third. It can be steeped up to 8 times though the steeping time should be greatly increased for the final few steepings (add 30 seconds or more) and the water temperature should be brought to its maximum of 93C.

There will be a follow up post to Oolongs, but I would first like to make my way through the rest of the tea family.

Happy Steepings teanions!

Edit: Quick jump!

Monday, January 7, 2013

The 5 Tea Siblings: Pu-Er Tea

First of all, Happy New Year and apologies for overall lack of posting over the break; I was surprisingly busy. That being said, it was not a complete waste of two tea-weeks as I had some great tea experiences that I am saving for future posts. For the moment, I will be continuing with the Tea Family and it's eldest son: Pu-Er.

Pu-Er is a very special type of tea as it breaks away from the typical idea of tea. Unlike other tea varieties, Pu-Er is solely produced in China (south-west of the Yunnan Province to be exact). Though it only comes from one region, do not assume that Pu-Er is a limited-variety type of Tea as you would be completea wrong. One could spend a lifetime exploring and discovering the world of Pu-Er teas and still find new flavours and types among the collections of Old (Vintage) Pu-Ers, Young (New) Pu-Ers, Shou Pu-Ers (artificial fermentation), and Sheng Pu-Ers (natural fermentation). Though Pu-Er has a very wide range of varieties, it's appearance does not vary much. People new to tea are surprised to discover that Pu-Er tea is often sold in compressed disks; a very unothordox way to present tea (shown below). Though it is not uncommon to have loose leaf Pu-Er, the compressed disk is the most common shape and presentation. To mix things up a bit, other shapes such as domes, rectangles, and little coins are used as well.

Compressed Disks of Pu Er Tea
Why the disk (or equivalent compressed shape)? Pu-Er tea is often stored for long periods of time and the compressed shape allows large quantities of tea to be stored, and transported, very easily (though it can be very heavy). When it is time to be steeped, it is very easy to chip of a chunk of tea with a knife.

Storage of Pu-Er Tea courtesy of this very informative page on Pu-Ers 
Just like yogurt, cheese, and bread, Pu-Er tea exists thanks to a collection of bacteria, fungi, and molds found in it's native region. Do not be so quick to scrunch your face in disgust and put down your cup of tea, the bacteria simply help the tea leaves to ferment and give the tea it's aged earth undertones.

When one thinks of Pu-Er, 'earthy' is a common descriptor for the aroma and feelings one gets from a warm cup. Depending on it's age, method of storage, and whether or not it's a disk or loose tea, Pu-Er tea can inherit the following qualities along with 'earthy':

  • Woody
  • Musty
  • Smooth
  • Copper-Like
  • Full Bodied

 How does one unlock the many hidden qualities of Pu-Er tea? With the perfect steep. Though I mentioned that Pu-Er tea is the most forgiving type of tea when it comes to water temperature and steeping time, this is not to say that we can do whatever we want with it, it simply means that it is quite difficult to 'burn' the tea leaves, or over-steep the leaves to a bitter end. Should we wish to experience the full character that is Pu-Er, we should still pay close attention to the conditions that bring out it's full potential and many sides.

Pu-Er requires the hottest water among it's tea siblings as the water used should be just off the boil. Infusion time depends on what steep you are about to enjoy. Generally, the very first infusion is a quick rinse of the Pu-Er tea (pour water over the leaves and immediately pour the water out). As Pu-Er tea is well aged, this helps to get rid of any dust or impurities that might be present during storage. A particularly old Pu-Er tea should be rinsed twice. After the first (or second) wash, the steeping times range from 25 seconds (from the first real steep) to 60 seconds (for the eighth steep) in 5 second increments. Believe it or not, a ninth steep is possible if the tea is left to sit for 90 seconds. As you can see, Pu-Er tea has quite some milage. For those who find numbers a bit confusing, the table of times is below.
1st real infusion (After wash) - 25 Seconds
2nd infusion - 30 Seconds
3rd infusion - 35 seconds
4th infusion - 40 seconds
5th infusion - 45 seconds
6th infusion - 50 seconds
7th infusion - 55 seconds
8th infusion - 60 seconds
9th (and most likely final) infusion - 90 seconds

I am starting to realize that a single post of Pu-Er could go on for pages and pages and as such, I will stick to a basic introduction today, saving the more detailed information and anecdotes for a later expansive post. One last thing to add for tonight's post is about Pu-Er grading and quality. Like all it's siblings, Pu-Er's quality is heavily influenced by the age of the leaf.

The largest and eldest of leaves (picked late in the season) yield grades of around 9 or 10 and are the most common when buying a disked shaped Pu-Er. As the leaves get smaller and younger, the grade (and quality) rises higher and higher (as does the price). Averaged sized leaves (and not too old) will offer a grade of 5 or 6, while the early spring buds (and shoots) will give the highest grade of 1 and 2. I hope to be able to appreciate (as in taste) such a quality tea one day.

Though I could go on and on about Pu-Er, I would like to save that for a later date and first finish the basic introductions of the Tea Family. Having a basic understanding of each type of tea will give a greater appreciation of the wonderful and unique details later on. To hold you off on your Pu-Er fix till then, I recommend that you go out and buy a basic Pu-Er and try it out! A disk should cost around $35 which is not too expensive considering the large amount of tea you are getting. Be sure to only break off a small chunk at a time and enjoy!

Edit: Did you miss the other siblings? If so, check them out here

Here is a quick link to each of their pages