A small and pleasant journey into some Visual Tea culture

In the rise of visual social media such as Twitter and Instagram, visual culture can have significant influence on behaviours and attitudes.

I take a very small glance at the visual culture of tea from as far back as the 1700s and compare it to modern tea culture portrayed in visual media.

Social networking sites are important platforms for visual self-presentation online (Baker & Walsh 2018). Equally the commissioning of portraiture in the 18th Century was an equivalent way of promoting self and ideas of social status. The rise of romanticism in western art put emphasis on emotion and individualism, such that visual culture turned itself towards the person and promoting ideals.

In this 1720 painting, by Dutch artist Matthijs Naiveu, we see some familiar artefacts of Chinese tea drinking. There is an iron kettle, clay teapot and ceramic celadon teaware.

Both tea and Chinese ceramics were conspicuous components in the emergence of consumer societies in Europe during the eighteenth century. The painting therefore exhibits an exuberance of individual status much like celebrity consumer branding on social media today.

Here tea culture is reflected to display material culture and opulence demonstrating the role tea played in reflecting European empire building in the mid 18th century.

In contrast, what I find on Instagram and Twitter is that there are far more “posed” photos of tea and far less images of tea drinking.

Images of “posed” tea stations or tables are absent of human interaction, presenting an empty and zen like image which is peaceful and aesthetic. Similar to 18th Century paintings of tea culture in Europe, they reflect a form of idealism and individualism, you could almost say these are a new form of romanticism. They too are displays of materialism, but unlike 18th century European depictions of tea culture, modern social media images demonstrate something more existential. Something I would describe as “spiritual materialism”, where the opulence is translated more through experiences and ideals rather than accumulated artefacts or items.

In contrast the actual experience of tea sessions in the Spring in Menghai city is nothing like these “posed” zen-like sessions and looks more like Las Vegas than some type of ancient tea temple often portrayed on social media platforms.

Equally lush green country scenes of individuals picking tea or next to old arbor trees present a rural ideal or “back to nature” imagery, a romanticized branding of human and environmental harmony. We don’t however otherwise appreciate the long back breaking and subsistence existence many small farmers undergo in the production of tea. Additionally, images of “old tea gardens” are often shown as manicured and neat islands of lush green, where in my experience are often roamed by pigs and overgrown with other plant species.

What slowly becomes clear it that the visual culture of tea on social media platforms are staged and appear like a glossy edition of the latest Elle Decoration, manipulated to solicit appeal and interest. Almost a form of individual and personal branding of ideas and ideals.

Instagram has the ability to transform images into visually appealing content through the use of ‘filters’ so even with the most representative images of tea culture it can be generously sprinkled with visual appeal. This is literally “tea pornography

In slight contrast, Youtube videos tend to represent something less staged and more representative of current tea culture. In the video image there is less ease of manipulation to some ideal or intention. This perhaps leads it to being the platform of visual culture where you will find more representations of consumption of tea and more representations of the production of tea.

I also think on platforms such a Vimeo and Youtube, as consumers of visual culture, we become more focused on the foreground of the image, whats going on rather than where it is happening. This is possibly because our eyes and mind have less time processing the image to make up the story behind it and instead more passively absorb the visual culture.

The promotion and propaganda of romanticised depictions and ideals of tea culture is perhaps less so in the moving image and more so in a static image.

This hasn’t always been the case, the BFI (British Film Institute) as part of the “Tea Revives You” campaign produced a propaganda film on how to store and prepare tea as part of promoting tea as way of boosting homeland morale during the war years, drawing on symbols ad language around national identity and social cohesion.

Tea Making Tips (1941)

This film demonstrates how tea imagery can be filtered through visual culture to influence behaviours and attitudes way before social media platforms.

Context and background are decisive parts of influencing and motivating consumer behaviour through Instagram images (Eriksson & Frohm 2018) hence on Instagram and Twitter images of tea culture are more manipulated to serve a particular aim. In this respect Instagram and Twitter are more similar to our elaborate 18th century paintings of tea culture, motivating a form of consumerism and celebration of material culture, albeit existential and experiential.

In contrast, during the 18th century in China, although individualist painters included Bada Shanren (1626–1705) and Shitao (1641–1707) drew more upon revolutionary ideas of transcending tradition to achieve original individualistic styles, depictions of tea culture were less about an ideal and more about reaffirming ideas of no boundary between internal self and external world (Zito & Barlow 1994). It is less about portraying the individual or ideals but portraying a distinct reality that people and self were not separate from the wider world or nature.

the-qianlong-emperor-in-his-study-painting-by-giuseppe-castiglione-18th-century1

The famous painting of the Qianlong Emperor, although not displaying artifacts of tea culture depicts this style of 18th Century Chinese art, where unlike visual culture on social media platforms or in European 18th Century art, the artifacts and person are almost arranged like some pseudo-anatomical poster representing the whole person. Similarly styled depictions of tea culture in 18th century Chinese art are about depicting a fundamental Chinese ontological concept. This being that the human self and nature are non-separate.

Context is also important when we try to analyse or dissect visual culture.

There can be a world of difference between posting images of tea being consumed, shown in images of broken open bings or leaves spilling from a Puerh wrapper and an image of the latest Menghai factory production or for example a Mengku “Wild Arbor King” strategically placed next to an earthenware tea bowl.

Whatever the reason behind the visual image, tea has been propelled and extolled through visual culture.

I just hope we enjoy the consumption with our mouths as much as our eyes and allow the tea to tell its own story, not a story where tea is a mere vehicle.

Baker SA, Walsh MJ. ‘Good Morning Fitfam’: Top posts, hashtags and gender display on Instagram. New Media & Society. 2018 Dec;20(12):4553-70
Eriksson T, Frohm P. More than what meets the eye: an exploratory study of what image attributes influence consumer behaviour on Instagram.2018
Zito A, Barlow TE, editors. Body, subject, and power in China. University of Chicago Press; 1994 May 16.
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White tea

Having recently enjoyed some Jasmine Silver Needle tea from Fujian and having some great discussions with white tea ambassador Liu Meng Yun (@white_tea_88 on Instagram), I am inspired to give some attention to white tea.

I remember first encountering white tea in the early 1990’s when it was introduced to me due to its great health benefits. It almost faded in popularity in the West as soon as I had experienced it, yet it was perhaps the first type of tea to have come to Europe and perhaps the first way in which tea was produced, being the least processed of any type of tea.

White tea as such does not have any general accepted definition internationally. Traditionally, in China, white tea is defined by it’s sub-species and manufactured from Camellia sin\nensis var. khenghe bai hao and Camellia sinensis var. fudin bai hao found only in Fujian province and with minimal processing, following traditional guide-lines. Yet white tea also is recognised in being grown in other tea producing areas such as Yunnan.

In Yunnan, Chang Ye Bai Hao varietal sinensis produces a variety of white teas as well. Pure assamica leaf materiel, typically reserved for Puerh, also produces a variety of white tea due to the way it is plucked and processed. Popular types of tea, such a Jasmine Silver Needle, originating from Fujian, are now produced in the hills of Simao. Yunnan tea materiel that is plucked in the Spring and processed in similar ways to Fujian Bai Mu Dan provides for similar experiences to Fujian origin tea. There are even white teas made in Yunnan from Camellia Taliensis varietal!!

Other producing countries, outside China, define white tea by plucking standard i.e. only the bud or first leaves that are plucked and dried with minimal processing (Hilal & Engelhardt 2007). It is this that perhaps has allowed the loss of characteristics of white tea that perhaps were previously extolled in its traditional Fujian origins.

Additionally green tea is a richer source of phenolics than white tea (Rusak et al 2008) which may have led to the fact that green tea has had more of a international profile due to health promotion than white tea.

Despite this, I would like to think there is a renaissance of white tea as popularity and health benefits of tea continue to be explored and researched and as more opportunity to experience Fujian origin white tea emerges.

Also despite white tea being less studied for its health properties, it’s flavour is more approachable and pleasant. Its manufacturing process is minimal compared to production processes used for other types of tea and as such is perhaps more refreshing than other tea. When treated right it is less astringent than greener teas and calmer on the stomach and spleen.

Green tea and white tea show similar inhibitions of several microorganisms as well as anti-oxidant activity (Almajano et al 2008). So similarly white tea has been shown to be as effective in counteracting free radicals produced in cell metabolism.

These free radicals have potential damaging effects on DNA, structural proteins and cell walls, Oxidative damage caused by free radicals has been linked to the development of several human diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes mellitus, chronic inflammation, neuro-degenerative disorders and certain types of cancer. Several clinical trials with white tea have demonstrated that a single dose improves plasma antioxidant capacity of healthy adults within 30 to 60 minutes after ingestion (Dias 2013)

Compared to green tea, ingestion of white tea has been shown to increase the antioxidant capacity of heart cells (Koutelidakis et al 2009) and whilst this should not be our sole reason to enjoy a cup of the delicately flavoured brew we can appreciate the famous Chinese phrase that relates to white tea;

一年茶、三年药、七年宝 –

First Year it’s Tea, In the Third Year it’s Medicine, after Seven Years it’s Treasure!

In my store I have some old white tea cakes as well as younger leaf material that I hope to roll out and share the experience with you all soon.

I am particularly enjoying at the moment an aged Jasmine Silver Needle tea which I will no doubt talk more about soon.

There is more to white tea than I can expand on in this post, both in experience, history and culture, however it is nice to touch upon its virtues and hopeful inspire others to explore it too.

Almajano MP, Carbo R, Jim énez JA, Gordon MH. Antioxidant and antimicrobial activities of tea infusions. Food chemistry. 2008 May 1;108(1):55-63.
Dias TR. White Tea (Camellia sinensis (L.)): An-tioxidant Properties and beneficial Health Effects. International Journal of Food Science and Nutritional Diet. 2013 Feb 26;2(2):19-26.
Y, Engelhardt U. Characterisation of white tea–Comparison to green and black tea. Journal für Verbraucherschutz und Lebensmittelsicherheit. 2007 Nov 1;2(4):414-21.
Koutelidakis AE, Argiri K, Serafini M, Proestos C, Komaitis M, Pecorari M, Kapsokefalou M. Green tea, white tea, and Pelargonium purpureum increase the antioxidant capacity of plasma and some organs in mice. Nutrition. 2009 Apr 1;25(4):453-8.
Rusak G, Komes D, Likić S, Horžić D, Kovač M. Phenolic content and antioxidative capacity of green and white tea extracts depending on extraction conditions and the solvent used. Food Chemistry. 2008 Oct 15;110(4):852-8.

Back in time for some more Menghai 7562

Following my review of the 2013 Menghai 7562 Da Yi classic I thought I would travel back further through the Shu store to experience a bamboo wrapped 2008 production of the 7562 recipe. This is not necessarily a Da Yi production but made following the classic recipe.

The tea has undergone traditional, but towards dry storage, fairly recently in Zhejiang, considered a more temperate than the wetter storage operated in Guangdong

I suspect also that whilst aesthetically pleasing the bamboo wrapping modifies somewhat its aging process compared to the 2013’s paper and card wrapper.

In comparison I found the 2008 aroma of the dry material was more subtle and subdued, like the scent of terrocotta pots, yet a faint sweet distinctive odor you get with other more recent 7562 productions was still detectable.

The dry storage has left this brick a touch flaky. On breaking into it, the material made it a bit tricky to get a clean steep for my default gaiwan brewing methods. I would in future perhaps opt for more tea in my canon yixing pot or use a sieve.

Two rinses were necessary due to its age despite its dryer storage.

Its brewed aroma appeared more typical of a Hunan fu brick, whether there had been some coincidental inoculation of golden flowers at some point during storage is uncertain.

The flavour was almost purely of Chinese medicine, a common occurrence in old Shu, but not overly pungent or bitter. In the background was a similar sourness that I adore in Liu bao but less of the cereal notes and uniquely quite minerally.

The huigan was quite tofu like, maybe even a hint at the broad bean taste you get in some older CNNP productions. I would not be surprised if this was actually a CNNP production of the 7562 recipe given some of its more familiar CNNP characters, and  I could not be certain that it came out the Da Yi factory as many productions have been styled in the 7562 recipe.

It goes to say that you may not be able to tell that it’s the same recipe as the previously tested 2013 brick. The two are quite different ends of the experience spectrum. I put this down to both the wrappings and the storage conditions and of course the age. Whilst also possibly a different factory fermentation.

For Shu Puerh 5 years can make quite a difference in taste!

This 2008 production of the 7562 recipe is definitely more challenging and would not be to everyone’s taste, whereas the 2013 still remains an easy drinker.

By steep number 3 the tea did round off into something more familiar but retained its existing profile.

Personally, I feel that a wetter stored version, whilst still challenging would have provided more balance to the strong medicine tastes. It would be interesting to try this out if I am able to source another wetter stored brick, as my own storage conditions are unlikely to produce anything like this.

I did not detect any wo dui flavour in its profile, suggesting its 10+ age had settled any fermentation out, but it certainly had a profile that reflected its age.

Often younger Shu have a more “cheerful” profile that make them great for daily drinking, if you like a bit of fermentation taste this isn’t a bad thing. Many suggest a 5 year mark for Shu allows enough of the wo dui to settle to start to experience the uniqueness of a tea, beyond this I suggest teas start to get into a territory where you should expect to be challenged. This is also not a bad thing and if you like the medicine taste profiles of aged Shu it’s worth investing in older Shu or making space to stash a few bings, only to be discovered and enjoyed in years to come.

T-shirts & Tea culture

In the post-modern world of both social media and online promotion we fail to recognize sometimes the culture around this and its context within the history of tea culture. Similar to how Japanese culture is often portrayed as something “Zen like” and minimal, devoid of the fact that many Japanese people live an existence of over-crowded urban space, we often portray modern tea culture as outside and ahistoric to some mythologized past.

We ignore the almost post-90’s pop-art culture of tea wrapper design as something genuine or important to tea, seeing as an almost inauthentic westernized development.

The truth is something different, however.

Take for example the Xiaguan 2013 Love Forever wrapper design:

IMG_3718_16ba2ed9-03b4-43e6-8523-6a55940a0bd0_2048x

Embedded in this is something less than traditional but screams of modern China, its attitudes to modern urban relationships and its playfulness with global imagery whilst retaining its own cultural integrity..

It is true that maybe there was some influence on modern tea culture by the growing Western market for tea in the late 1990’s, but it would be ahistoric to suggest that in places such as China there hasn’t been internal drivers towards modern reflections and developments. China whilst electively embracing many components of Western brand consumer culture has also successfully developed its own (Sethi 2019)

There is also the “value addition” argument where its suggested that branding and consumer product design has led to this modern aspect of tea culture, but equally arguable is the idea that Song dynasty poems upon tea are also a form of “value addition” and branding.

I love the fact that tea has become something that can now be seen on a t-shirt. Big vendors and small boutique sellers promoting themselves in such branded products. It is representative of a developing global tea culture that places brand at the heart of both consumer behavior and individual enjoyment.

I even had a go at designing one myself :

Tshirt

Whilst brand statements can reflect and communicate additional value through peripheral products such as t-shirts, bags and other items, these items equally remain reliant upon the central product and culture within tea.

The truth is that modern tea culture, extolled by branding reinforces and emphasises a wealth of symbolic resources from a whole history of tea. Equally it re-positions tea culture into a modern vernacular.

Brand marketing aims at experience-building, focusing on the creation of an experience whilst marketing concepts. We are therefore not just consuming tea through brand culture, we are consuming a story and ideas. Is this not the same as when we consume tea in some ritualized session? Hence branding could be seen as form of modern folklore that tells a story and re-imagines the consumer into a cultural dialogue and history of tea.

Whilst the tea orthodoxy may frown upon this as something distinct from tea culture and disingenuous we cannot deny that brand marketing is part of contemporary tea culture.

Tea horse road tourism has been a successful outcome of tea branding such that we cannot now extract the role of tourism and branding from the production of boutique and small farm teas. The market impetus generated from the branding of Yunnan tourism with tea and stories from the Tea horse road has in someway supported the investment and growth in small farm production (Bhutia 2019).

T-shirts and tea are likely to remain part of modern tea culture, creating a consumer dialogue around tea that revitalises a past tea history. At its best branding will protect tea culture from its own threats where through branding we have an opportunity to direct value and dialogue to positive aims such as promoting unique and boutique small farm productions or raising the awareness of the intimacy of tea culture with current climatic concerns.

I personally don’t see anything wrong with T-shirts and tea as an aspect of modern tea culture. With the current social media phenomena of hashtags the use of slogans that are in themselves a form of branding continues to be a way that the tea community engages or directs dialogue towards certain teas or certain aspects of tea culture e.g. #rawpuerh or #xiaguan. Like brand slogans (Tong 2018),  hashtags consist of short phrases  primarily use is to cue brand recall, recognition and engagement. Whether it is visual T-shirt designs, stunning artistic tea wrappers or social media posts if we understand that Tea is the brand we also accept that all this phenomena is tea culture.

NB: If you would like to inquire more about my T-shirt design just drop us a line
Bhutia KD, Holmes-Tagchungdarpa A. Tea as a fuel for connectivity in Himalayan Buddhist cultures. Objects and Frontiers in Modern Asia: Between the Mekong and the Indus. 2019 May 6.
Sethi,A. Branding in China. InChinese Consumers 2019 (pp. 149-163). Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.
Tong X, Su J. Exploring T-shirt Slogans by Content Analysis.2018

 

The Xiaguan 2012 “Te Ji” sheng Puerh

The Xiaguan factory is perhaps the most well known for producing bowl shaped compressed tea cakes, otherwise known as tuo. Said to have developed to ease transport on caravans and ease trade, these distinctive domes of tea typically weigh in at 100g although 250g cakes are also equally popular.

Also, although subject to opinion, teas from the Xiaguan factory have a notorious flavour and aroma signature of a slight smokiness.

I have a number of Xiaguan 2012 sheng productions in my storage, mostly the Jia Ji traditional tuo which is a classic recipe, but not this one. So it was great to receive this sample gifted from Scott at Yunnan Sourcing.

Similiar to all Xiaguan tuo productions it comes wrapped and tightly pressed. The compression level leading to slower aging but making it both a strong candidate for long term storage but also to develop good changes over time.

The dry leaf material appeared significantly dark, showing its age.

I know that Scott has had this tea in traditional dry storage so I expect it to have still retained some of its original character and boldness, much like a younger sheng.

The dry leaf aroma was typically Xiaguan tobacco and tanned leather with that slight hint of smoke.

The wet aroma is something else, yes the distinctive tobacco is there but something sweet emerges with it that is reminiscent of the smell of fresh picked blackcurrants.

I think if I was drinking this early on after production the sweetness would have been overpowered by the astringent aroma profile, however now, at almost 7 years old, it appears that things have worked themselves out a bit more.

Certainly the tea soup has started to take on that aged colour, moving from the greenish amber of a young sheng to hints of orange and red. I used a gaiwan and flash brewing without a sieve so some tea dust in the cup was inevitable.

On tasting the first steep that characteristic tobacco and smoke hit the back teeth but faded quickly into a developing creaminess. I could still taste the greenness, as you would expect from what is still deemed a young sheng by all accounts, but a sweet finish is rounded off by what can only be described as a “fruit scone” huigan with an emerging aroma of warm skin.

Incidentally, this alluring aroma of warm skin is something I often find familiar in aging sheng and is a sign that things are going well. It’s a sweet fragrance that is reassuring and tells you that everything is good, both the quality of the tea and the aging process.

Unlike the Xiaguan of a similiar age in my storage, the Te ji differs by its “creamy biscuitness”. Whilst the similiar Jia ji may not have been stored as dry as the Te ji, they still have less creamy notes and remain bolder in flavour.

What this tells me is that the Te ji is definitely something to put on my list as at around 7 years it’s already started to round off its aroma and flavour, less so for the more wetter stored Jia ji.

The 2012 production is also something I’d like to try again in maybe another 3 years time at the 10+ mark whereby I suspect its sweetness will hit a higher note and display more complexity.

Re-roasting Dan Cong

Following much conversation and suggestions around re-roasting oolongs I thought it might be worth seeing what happens if you re-roasted an aged oolong to see what it brings to the tea table.

Continuing from my previously published experience I felt it would be a good way to test this by utilising the aforementioned 2015 Ling Tou “Bai Ye” production.

There are many different techniques to re-roast oolongs, and to a certain extent there is an art and skill to it. You can buy a roaster to do this; either an electronic one such as those available from Taiwan Sourcing or a ceramic roaster that goes on a hob top that can be picked up easily from Alibaba.

I don’t have a big store of oolongs so I don’t so far have a need to invest in a specialist roaster, preferring to drink my oolongs as they come, even the aged ones. Additionally many vendors who sell significantly aged oolongs will probably have re-roasted the tea a few times during its storage life before offering it out to sale. In this way I’ve never felt the need to back myself up with some roasting technology.

Instead, for the few occasions I do re-roast, such as with my own aged oolong experiments. I utilise what I call “jiāyuán style roasting” (家园 lit. “home style”) that I picked up a few year involves utilising a steel culinary wok, ensuring its never had prior use for food. Tempering the heat with an “on and off” the stove action and moving the tea consistently with a stirring chopstick, being careful not to catch any of the leaves. I have heard that this is a common technique used in Chiang Rai in Thailand to prepare tea for drinking so it would be interesting to delve whether this technique developed independently or some cross-cultural exchange has occurred.

Granted, its a bit of a trial and error technique and I am no roast-master but it leads to satisfying results.

Now back to the re-roasted 2015 tea:

Unlike the previously documented experience, the dry aroma developed a more cannabis fragrance that when met with hot water on it’s first rinse became distinctively butterscotch. This is interesting as there are a few Dan Cong teas that have cannabis scents as a recognised aroma profile, such as Zhi Lan Xiang or Ju Duo Zai.

Interestingly, from re-roasting, it also appeared to be heading towards the experience of the 2018 batch of the same tea which was of caramel chocolate and away from its original “pre-re-roasted” fruitiness.

As regard to flavour and huigan the re-roasting established more creamy notes that were not in the non-roasted 2015 experience and a returning flavour of a cafe latte.

I suspect the re-roasting refreshed the aromatic compounds such that it came somewayvback towards the more recent and younger 2018 batch. However it was neither like the 2015 batch without roasting or the 2018 in flavour and huigan. There were similarities in its flavour signature, somewhere between the two, but the creamy coffee notes may have been an entirely new development from re-roasting.

I think, given that both a young quality oolong and aged version of the same tea gives delightful and different experiences there is probably little need to re-roast unless for two things, namely;

  • Something went terribly wrong with your oolong ageing and the aroma and flavours did not develop to your liking.
  • You have found a good oolong you like both aged and young and you want to tease something out of the tea for a new experience

These are just my opinions, but equally it’s valid to suggest re-roasting might be something you get into when you have fairly significant quantities (e.g. kilos!!) of tea that you want to continue to enjoy and experience over time as it certainly only adds to the tea rather than subtracts.

Equally sometimes oolong teas just get too stale to drink due to improper storage or exposure to dampness, unlike Puerh and hei cha they are intolerant to such conditions. Re-roasting then becomes a means to recover it and bring it back to life.

There is a lot of science and technique around the roasting process of different oolong varietals to produce different flavour profiles and distinct identity to the tea in the original production. Therefore, equally I suspect there is some science and technique related to how Re-roasting may accentuate certain aromas and flavours and dull others, such that you could achieve potentially different results from the same tea.

In reflection, there was perhaps no particular reason to re-roast the 2015 Ling Tou village tea, as it is an excellent tea as it is and has been stored well. Hence the re-roast did not necessarily revive it but more “sublimated” it, transforming elements of the tea to create a different experience. Re-roasting is definitely something to try out, especially if you are into your oolongs and Dan Congs, however if you have a good tea as it stands its not something I would personally recommend or suggest there is a need for.

Vertical Tasting: Ling Tou Village Dan Cong Oolong

The subject of age always comes up with oolong and it is something that is not always appreciated as much as in other teas such as Puerh or Liu Bao. Whilst I have discussed this previously with my own aged oolongs I have not particularly sought to crystallize any opinion on it.

I therefore thought it would be interesting to vertically taste and compare the same tea from the same producer between the years of 2015 and 2018.

I chose the“Bai Ye” Dan Cong grown in Ling Tou village in the north of Raoping County, Guangdong.  Bai Ye translates literally as “white leaf” which perhaps describes the light green colour of the buds and emerging leaves.

Just 15 kilograms in total is produced by one family each year in Ling Tou Village, which makes something special about the care that has been taken over it.

The 2015 Production.

The leaf material is well picked and of even length and texture. Its dry aroma is rich in  the scent of mango and peach.

On adding the hot water, following one initial wash to “waken” the leaf, a sweet candy scent emerged and on brewing there was the initial flavour of lychee that lingers long in the mouth.

Suprisingly for a Dan Cong oolong there was a distinct absence of any mineral taste that is common with other oolongs and attributable to the volcanic soils these teas grow upon,  the huigan being very floral and delicately the taste of palma violets.

Repeat flash brewing developed a more creamy vanilla edge to its fruitiness that took it more towards those typical oolong flavours and away from its initial Yunnan hong cha fruity sweetness.

The 2018 Production

There is very little difference in the quality and appearance of the leaf material which is a good sign of the skill of the processor. A trained and discerning eye will detect a slight richer and deeper colouration in the newer production which is to be expected.

The dry aroma however is distinctively more complex, still sweet but more chocolate caramel candy.

The brewed aroma was characteristically fruity but more melons than the scent of mango or peach

Initial steeps were classical Dan Cong oolong with a full mouth creamy minerally flavour and sweet finish.

Interestingly however the huigan  was more reminiscent of the 2015 production’s mango peach flavours rather than any floral violet.

The appraisal

If I had to decide between the two I would probably choose the 2018 production but this is highly subjective but not without reasons.

The 2018 attracts a higher price per gram and supports opinions around younger oolong being preferable. However it was more of the fullness and complexity in the mouth that decided it for me. Both teas exude quality and it is quite clear that the producer is highly skilled, able to retain such consistency, especially when you consider all the layers of variables that have to be managed from tree to cup in its growing and production between different batchs and years.

I would state that the 2015 shows development. Rather than it losing something it has gained a distinct character. The 2018 however is more complex and showcases those typical characteristics of quality found in all Dan Cong oolongs.

I would say aging of oolong perhaps therefore, and on this occasion, develops the individual character of a tea by removing the layers of complexity. This does not necessarily distract from its enjoyment, however for some might make the tea more challenging to individual preferences.

Interestingly, both teas were rich in saponin, bubbling up on pouring from the gaiwan to cup. Because this is directly due to the varietal of leaf and growing conditions it perhaps confirms and reassures that these two batchs were from the same tea garden. Saponins themselves are amphipathic glycosides grouped phenomenologically by the soap-like foam they produce when shaken in aqueous solutions, and thought to play a role in health benefits of specific plants (e.g. ginseng), not just in humans but in other animals too. It is not clear from current evidence how saponins are effective in this but studies show they may hold cytotoxic and antitumor activities in different human cell lines. Recent studies demonstrate that oolong tea is found to be the most effective in reducing body weight compared to other categories of tea (Sun et al 2019). Whether this is linked to saponin content is yet to be confirmed, however recent parallel studies show some links of plant saponin content impacting positively on obesity and weight gain (Singh & Manjappara 2019, Yadav et al 2019).

In summary age brings distinction to oolong and develops its individual character. Whilst the character is already there in newer productions it is complexly woven in with the richness that comes with its youth.

As for this tea as a whole, that I acquired from Yunnan Sourcing, its a really good example of how you can get such variety and value in Dan Cong oolong, such that it really helps to know where your Dan Cong has come from right down to the minute details, as although they all originate from the same region, namely the Phoenix Mountains in Guangdong, the catergory has many different types of oolong that range from lightly oxidized to heavily oxidized and also different degrees of roasting, aromas and flavours.

Singh GR, Manjappara UV. Impromptu Effects of Nt8U with Soyasaponins on Obesity-related Lipid Parameters in High Fat Fed C57BL/6 Mice. International Journal of Peptide Research and Therapeutics. 2019:1-7.
Sun L, Xu H, Ye J, Gaikwad NW. Comparative Effect of Black, Green, Oolong and White Tea Intake on Body Weight Gain and Bile Acid Metabolism. Nutrition. 2019 Mar 1.
Yadav M, Mohanta R, Yadav KS. Ethno pharmacological approach of anti-obesity medicinal plants: A review. Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry. 2019;8(1):1793-8.

The Menghai 7562

The “7562” is known as a classic in Da Yi Menghai Shu Puerh productions, the “75” denoting the year the recipe was first established, being just one of many developed in 1975.

The “6” denotes that the average leaf size being Grade 6, so far from “tippy” but typical of many Puerh pressings.

Like so many Da Yi Shu recipes it is a blend of different origins and showcases the skill of both the 45 day fermentation process as well as the blending and selection of tea.

With all this said I often wonder why it is not as popular as other Da Yi productions, and it is one of those recipes that not only stores and ages well but is also reasonable and stable in price.

Typically a 5 year old 7562 brick will cost about £0.10 per gram, compared to similar aged productions such as the 7632 which is a little bit more.

I feel both the popularity and stable price might be accounted for by the consumer preference for more “tippy” teas within the Chinese market, certainly Da Yi special productions such as the “Xin Hai Bai Nian” tend to be tippier. Preferences for Sheng and boutique Puerh has also perhaps pushed these classics to level of daily drinkers, even though their standard and quality remain consistently high.

This is the 2013 production, which is a good age to start enjoying Shu. Because this brick  has had some traditional basement storage it has so far retained some of its wet pile (wo dui 渥堆) characteristics.

Its aroma is sweet compared to similar productions from the Da Yi inventory and it is these details that make the recipes unique and characteristic.

I would generally describe the brewed aroma as sweet polished wood as there is almost that background scent of honey you get when wood has been treated with beeswax. Its very pleasant and draws you into the cup.

The mouth feel and brew is thick at the age of 5 years, as can be seen in the cup. You really do feel that you are drinking something that does you good as it caresses your mouth with soft velvety liquor.

I brewed this gongfu style with a gaiwan and was casual with weights and amounts, preferring to judge by eye and feel on this one.

First tastes were of a sweet wo dui , not too heavy though and leaning towards the flavours of cola. Certainly the huigan was reminiscent of bonfire toffee or black treacle, that familiar sweet toffee notes with some residing metallic feel.

I suspect another 5 years on this brick would lead to it developing that notorious “Chinese medicine” flavour, that some of us might seek in a good Shu (that is if there is any of this left before the year is out!!).

The compression is fairly high which led to consistent brews up to around the 8th steep point and as can be seen by leaves in the gaiwan at steep 4.

Whether you lean towards Sheng or boutique teas, these classics should not be overlooked, even if it is easy to do so now that the Puerh market has exploded. Certainly its one of those productions that is worth having in your Shu store as it consistently performs and spreads its enjoyment at every table.

If you lean towards Liu Bao in your tastes, like myself, these classic recipes provide an interesting account of the history of Shu Puerh development with their flavour profiles when lined up against some older Liu Bao productions.

It is always nice to have a different Shu Puerh to taste or explore with our tea friends, something that is unique and stands out or challenges us, equally its always nice to have our “go-to” daily drinkers. Somewhere in the middle of this sits these classics, such as the 7562 which will not only round out your tea collection and experience but will also always guarantee a smile on the faces of your tea friends.

“Teaghrelins” anybody?

“Teaghrelins” could easily be corrected by spell-check to Tea gremlins, which we all have experienced in someway; whether it is spilling over a full gaiwan, chipping our favourite cup or just misplacing that packet of Wu Yi oolong we had planned to hold a session on.

We have also all experienced teagrhrelins, albeit probably not being aware of it.

Teaghrelins are unique acylated flavonoid tetraglycosides originally identified in oolong tea, and proposed to be potential oral analogs of ghrelin.

Ghrelin is a hormone that is produced and released mainly by the stomach with small amounts also released by the small intestine, pancreas and brain. Besides regulating appetite, ghrelin also plays a significant role in regulating energy homeostasis.

Teaghrelins have also been shown to enhance the release of growth hormone from primary anterior pituitary gland (Li et al 2019).

It has been suggested that the production of a variety of teaghrelin compounds in the tea leaf is a mechanism by which tea trees protect themselves from UV radiation (Hsieh 2015), hence is likely to be higher in more sunlight exposed tea gardens.

As an oral analog of ghrelin, teaghrelins stimulate gastro-intestinal motility supporting commonly held cultural views that tea aids digestion and is perhaps the only drink to accompany food. Equally, parallel studies in ghrelin (Avau et al 2013) suggest that tea holds therapeutic potential in the treatment of gastro-intestinal motility disorders.

It is however interesting that there is little conversation about the “tea munchies”, which might be something we would expect given the potency of ghrelin like compounds in tea. Inversely, also,  lots of treats or eats that traditionally accompany tea in a more formal way are not consumed towards the end of a tea session, as would be expected if “tea munchies” was a real phenomenon. For example Wagashi 和菓子 are eaten before consuming tea and are more about satisfying a poetic existential need rather than physiological desire in that they are considered highly developed art forms.

There is however a whole history of tea as digestive tonic, and even in the development of Western attitudes of tea this has been a significant contributor to its rise in popularity in the 16th Century.

We can also recognise that perhaps part of traditional notions around experiencing a tea is directly linked to physiological changes that occur initially after consumption, including the stimulation of gastro-intestinal responses.

Much emphasis is placed upon Cha Qi , which comes up frequently in conversation and indeed in my posts. Whilst there are many that suggest Cha Qi is linked to active pharma such as caffeine and theobromine in tea, it can be without saying that perhaps teaghrelin has a contributory factor to the subjective experience of this phenomena in that movement and energy in the gut is perhaps initiated by this chemical.

As we dig deeper into the pharma of tea we become more and more awed by the medicine locked up in the leaf. The value of tea is immensely pharmaceutical but can not ignore the fact that some of our own tea culture and tea history may have been entirely driven by such chemicals in the leaf. It is this synergy and almost symbiotic relationship between human and plant that makes tea culture and history so rich.

Avau B, Carbone F, Tack J, Depoortere I. Ghrelin signaling in the gut, its physiological properties, and therapeutic potential. Neurogastroenterology & Motility. 2013 Sep;25(9):720-32.
SK, Lo YH, Wu CC, Chung TY, Tzen JT. Identification of biosynthetic intermediates of teaghrelins and teaghrelin-like compounds in oolong teas, and their molecular docking to the ghrelin receptor. journal of food and drug analysis. 2015 Dec 1;23(4):660-70.
Li YC, Wu CJ, Lin YC, Wu RH, Chen WY, Kuo PC, Tzen JT. Identification of two teaghrelins in Shy‐jih‐chuen oolong tea. Journal of Food Biochemistry. 2019:e12810.

Shade grown Tea

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A recent study by Cheng et al (2019) reported on possible mechanisms why “yellow” tea leaves had higher L-theanine contents than green tea leaves (normal).  Suggesting the metabolism of specific chemicals were lower in content in “yellow” leaves due to reduced chloroplast function leading to accumulation of L-theanine.

It started me thinking about shade grown tea, whereby the prevention of chloroplast function in the leaf and metabolism is controlled by reducing the access to sunlight.

It is suggested therefore that shade grown tea also has higher L-theanine level than tea grown in traditional sunlit gardens or groves.

Japanese teas such as Matcha and Gyokuro are both shade-grown and promoted as having their health benefits attributable directly to the way they are grown and processed.

A study by Dong et al (2019) involved dark treatment of tea plants to reduce chloroplast function in the leaf. They suggested dark treatment significantly increased the free amino acid content and decreased the soluble protein content in tea leaves. Chloroplast function was lower in dark-treated leaves and the soluble protein content in chloroplasts isolated from dark-treated leaves was lower compared with the control, suggesting that proteolysis of the chloroplast proteins contributed to amino acid accumulation in dark-treated leaves. Weak L-theanine catabolism was responsible for the higher L-theanine content in dark treated leaves compared with normal green leaves. However less beneficially, aroma compounds in dark treatment leaves were significantly reduced, suggesting a metabolic pathway reliant on chloroplasts for developing the unique and individual tea aromas we enjoy as drinkers.

But what does this all mean to us tea drinkers?

Well, as initially stated it would suggest that shade grown tea has less aromatic content and higher L-theanine content.

L-theanine is itself an interesting chemical. It is structurally similar to the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, and in accordance, binds to glutamate receptors, able to cross the blood-brain barrier easily. It has psycho-active properties and has been studied for its potential ability to reduce mental and physical stress, improve cognition,and boost mood and cognitive performance in a synergistic manner with caffeine. The combination of Theanine and caffeine has been shown to promote faster simple reaction time, faster numeric working memory reaction time and improved sentence verification accuracy (Owen et al 2008). Theanine has been reported to raise levels of brain serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, with possible improvement in specific memory and learning tasks (Nathan et al 2015).

Aromatic compounds significantly contribute to the flavour profile of tea and can determine the final quality of the tea product. This maybe why consumers often report that shade grown tea such as Japanese matcha does not have such a complex aroma, and simply smells vegetal or “of grass”. It may also suggest how the drinking habits of matcha are either complexly en-robed in ritual or, more so in the Western consumer, hidden in other habits such as smoothies and shakes. This might appear to be a controversial statement as the value placed on such shade grown tea is high both culturally and economically. Certainly, however the shade grown teas have less astringency and strong flavours that make them more palatable to some consumers and perhaps therefore less demanding on the drinker in regard to subjective opinion and preference.

In Japan it has been suggested that the shade-growing method was developed at the end of the Edo era around the mid 1800s. Such that shade growing appears to be a fairly recent development in tea culture, but perhaps one of the most important that remains popular in boosting tea medicine, especially so in the health food and fitness culture where shade grown tea extracts or powder remain significant ingredients to daily diets.

More recent developments in Taiwan Oolong production has led to the production of GABA oolong tea involving shade growing.

GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) has a principal role in reducing neuronal excitability throughout the nervous system. In humans, GABA is also directly responsible for the regulation of muscle tone and typically has effects in relaxing, reducing anxiety and as an anti-convulsive. GABA processing, which involves shade growing and then nitrogen sparging was developed by the Japanese and later perfected by the Taiwanese in their oolong production.

It is debatable whether the Taiwanese GABA oolongs have their attributable beneficial effect from a high GABA content or more so from the high L-theanine content realistically, as GABA is a chemical that does not cross the blood -brain barrier.

Cheng S, Fu X, Liao Y, Xu X, Zeng L, Tang J, Li J, Lai J, Yang Z. Differential accumulation of specialized metabolite l-theanine in green and albino-induced yellow tea (Camellia sinensis) leaves. Food chemistry. 2019 Mar 15;276:93-100.
Dong F, Zeng L, Yu Z, Li J, Tang J, Su X, Yang Z. Differential accumulation of aroma compounds in normal green and albino-induced yellow tea (Camellia sinensis) leaves. Molecules. 2018 Oct;23(10):2677.
Nathan, PJ; Lu, K; Gray, M; Oliver, C (2015). “The neuropharmacology of L-theanine(N-ethyl-L-glutamine): a possible neuroprotective and cognitive enhancing agent”. J Herb Pharmacother. 6 (2): 21–30
Owen, Gail N.; Parnell, Holly; De Bruin, Eveline A.; Rycroft, Jane A. (2008). “The combined effects of L-theanine and caffeine on cognitive performance and mood”. Nutritional Neuroscience. 11 (4): 193–8
Wang X, Zeng L, Liao Y, Zhou Y, Xu X, Dong F, Yang Z. An alternative pathway for the formation of aromatic aroma compounds derived from L-phenylalanine via phenylpyruvic acid in tea (Camellia sinensis (L.) O. Kuntze) leaves. Food chemistry. 2019 Jan 1;270:17-24.