Sunday 27 November 2016

So pure…so puerh

Puerh tea is pure in origin and pure in taste. It is named after a town called Puerh in central Yunnan at the furthest south western part of China and comes in a myriad of forms, loose tea, round cakes, rectangular bricks, the inverted birds nest mini tuocha and is even pressed into lengths of bamboo!

The method of producing raw puerh today differs very little from centuries ago. The tea was pressed into cakes or bricks and then wrapped in bamboo leaves in a set or seven, ( seven is considered a lucky number and it was the wish for fathers to have seven sons), for ease of transportation in the olden days along the ancient tea horse routes.

There are two types of puerh tea, raw (sheng) and ripe (shu). Many people think that ripe puerh has hundreds of years of history, but this is not so! Puerh made before the 1970s was made from green tea and aged naturally. Centuries ago, sometime during the Tang dynasty (AD 618 -907) merchants began to trade the tea. Because of the time it took to reach its destination, Tibet, India or Beijing, it had changed. It changed colour from green to brown and became richer and smoother in taste. During the months of travel, the long distances and the difficult terrain, the tea underwent a fermentation process, whereby microbes acted on the tea causing biological and enzymatic changes. The resulting tea became know to the Chinese as aged puerh and was highly sought after by royalty, high officials and tea connoisseurs. In the mid 1970s a process to accelerate the ageing process was invented in the Kunming factory by tea master, Wu Qijing. This saw the start of the popularity of ripe puerh at first in China and then around the world.

The highest quality Puerh tea cakes come from the high mountains in Yunnan. The one bud and two whole large leaves are handpicked from ancient wild arbour trees at high altitudes where the rich organic soil, climate and cool nights produce a tea of exceptional quality.  The leaves are picked during the middle of the day when the morning dew has evaporated and some sun has been on the leaves. After picking, the leaves are carried in a bamboo basket (to allow ventilation) and sorted, are then pan roasted for 5-10 minutes and then rolled for 15-20 minutes. After rolling the leaves are sun dried for half a day, less in summer, and are then ready to be pressed. Before pressing in stone moulds the leaves are weighed then steamed to prevent them from breaking in the moulds. Nowadays, the cakes are pressed manually (by feet) and the bricks use a machine press. The steamed leaves are placed in a square of muslin and pressed. After pressing they are placed on racks and air dried. It normally takes one day to dry the raw cakes and up to three days for the ripe cakes.

As there is no harvest between November and March, the farmers use this time to prune and weed  around the trees. They climb the trees to cut off surplus branches which are then piled around the trees to provide a natural fertiliser when rotted. These ancient trees, some are 1000 years old, produce a tea that is pure in origin and taste. In general the tea from 300 plus year old trees produce a tea which is mild, sweet and rich in aroma, the younger the tree the fresher the taste.

Puerh teas improve with age like wine. The puerh tea taste gets better with each year, developing more mellow complex flavours. The main difference between raw and ripe puerh is the post fermentation. Raw puerh ferments naturally and does not go through the post fermentation process. Ripe puerh is subjected to controlled levels of humidity and heat to hasten the maturation of the tea.

As well as being pure in taste, Puerh teas have a lot of medical lore attached to them. In China, they are considered to help to lower cholesterol, fight hangovers, induce sleep and aid digestion, which is why they are frequently drunk during mealtimes.

High quality puerh is in short supply as it is hoarded by tea connoisseurs in China and Asia. It is a secret, pure pleasure yet to be discovered by countries outside Asia. Why not try some today????

Monday 31 October 2016

Anyone for afternoon tea, Gongfu style?

For tea lovers and connoisseurs, a gong fu tea ceremony is a must! Gong fu is not a type of tea or a martial art, but an exact brewing process, a method of preparing tea that creates the ideal tea experience. 
Drinking tea is a tradition thats been around for centuries. It is also one of the healthiest drinks, packed full of vitamins and anti-oxidants, and is the perfect drink to share with friends at home. Creating a tea party is the perfect occasion to enjoy the company of others and share conversation about common interests. But, be careful. Tea contains L-theanine, which releases endorphins that make people feel good and creates a talkative atmosphere, so your tea party could last for hours and hours! So make sure you allow for plenty of time so that everyone can appreciate the company of each other! 
The art of gong fu lies in a combination of the right amount of tea leaves, the correct water temperature, the brewing time and the use of special tea utensils.
To prepare tea gong fu style you will need a bamboo water tray, a gong fu tea set in glass or china, comprising of a teapot, a server (jug), a matching set of cups for the guests, a filter strainer, a set of bamboo tea tools, tea scoop, tea tongs, a tea pick, and a clay tea pet, which is a traditional part of the ceremony and is said to bring good luck to those drinking the tea.
You can select whichever tea is your preference, jasmine sliver needle (white tea), dragon well long jing (green tea), jasmine pearl, oolong, black or puerh tea.
For a gong fu tea ceremony the guests are seated around the tea table, with the server, the person preparing the tea, at the head of the table.  By the way, gong fu literally means pouring tea with skill

So once you've for your equipment ready and your guests seated you're ready to start.

Firstly warm the cups and teapot by pouring hot water over them. Pour the water away after a few seconds.Then add the appropriate amount of premium loose leaf tea, using the tea scoop, into the teapot.  Pour over water, preferably spring water, at the appropriate temperature. Water temperatures of between 80-90 degrees C are fine for white, green and oolong teas. Boiling water may be used for black or puerh teas. Replace the lid on the teapot and continue to pour the hot water over the small hole in the lid, this will ensure that the pot is full and retains the right temperature.After the optimum infusion time, 5 seconds or longer, according to taste, pour a little of the brewed liquid into each cup. Never pour a full cup of tea!  Like wine tasting in western cultures, drinking tea, gong fu style is more about the sense and taste rather than the quantity. It is even considered impolite in China to completely fill your tea cup. You have been warned! Once all cups contain the correct amount of tea, pour the remaining brewed liquid into a server or jug. Always make sure that all the liquid is emptied from the teapot to prevent remaining infusions from tasting bitter. If you are serving oolong, or compressed puerh tea cakes you may which to rinse the tea leaves with hot water before brewing as this allows the tea leaves to unfurl a little and provide a better taste.
And, if you wish, have to hand some small cakes and biscuits for your guests to eat in between brews. It also helps to cleanse the palate in between tasting various different teas. Chocolate cake goes particularly well with jasmine teas!
The gong fu method of preparing tea is simple and creates the ideal tea experience that may be enjoyed by all tea drinkers alike. In todays hectic lifestyle a gong fu tea party is an ideal social gathering, to get together with friends, to slow down the pace of life, to chat, to enjoy tea and the company of others.

Thursday 29 September 2016

To steep or not to steep? That is the question………

Are you someone who expresses shock and disbelief at the thought of using the same tea leaves to brew a second cup of tea? Please don't be. If you are using premium quality loose leaf tea, many teas may be re- steeped several times.

So dont throw away your tea leaves after the first brewing. Tea leaves retain their flavour after steeping and in fact, in China, quite often the first infusion is disregarded in favour of the subsequent steepings. (This is called washing the tea).

Teas that steep well are whole leaf teas with large leaves or buds which have a large surface area. So you do need good quality loose leaf teas. You will not be able to re-steep cheap teas or tea bags as these tend to be made of chopped leaves and fannings which lose their flavour early on in the steeping process.

Which teas can be re-steeped?

Chinese Pu erh and Oolongs are the best steepers, followed by Green and White tea from China. Black teas hold up less well to multiple infusions, perhaps because they have been more oxidised, but large leaf China black teas, like Yunnan Golden Buds, will re-steep well.

Pu erh teas are fermented for years like a fine wine to produce their distinctive flavour. Generally, the older the tea, the more times it can be re-steeped. Once you have learnt to appreciate the taste of Pu erh, you may find you can brew 10 cups from one serving of tea.

Oolong teas re-steep well. They have a range of complex flavours which change from steep to steep. You should be able to get between 4 - 6 steepings if not more, from a good quality Oolong like Iron Goddess of Mercy.

Most loose leaf Green teas will steep up to 3-4 times, and some a lot more. As with the Oolongs each cup may have a slightly different flavour.

White teas have a simple, smooth, spring like, clean flavour, that will give 2-3 steepings.

Some better quality Chinese black teas will steep 3-6 times depending upon how strong you like your infusions. Even though the better quality teas cost more, they may be less expensive when you consider that you are re-using the leaves.

In general, you may continue to re-steep your tea until the leaves are exhausted of flavour. But make sure you drain the liquid from the tea leaves completely between steepings otherwise you may end up with a bitter tasting tea.

The best way to enjoy the range of flavours when re-steeping is to use a small teapot, gaiwan or  tea vessel that has a maximum capacity of 4-6 ounces. Place the tea leaves in the pot, fill the vessel to capacity with hot water and steep for 20-45 seconds or more, according to your preference, and pour all the brewed tea into the cups. Each successive steeping of tea should taste full and rich until the leaves are exhausted of flavour.

To be fair, there are no hard and fast rules for re-steeping. Try it and see what you think.

And don't throw away the leaves after they've lost their flavour, they make an excellent compost for the garden!