Vietnam: Snow Shan Tea

Vietnam is a country long steeped in surprisingly ancient tea traditions, although it is often overshadowed by such industry giants as China, Japan, and India. But unknown to many Western tea drinkers, this small country has a lot to offer when it comes to tea varieties, one of the most impressive of which are the Snow Shan teas. Named for the fine white down that can be observed upon the plucked leaves, these teas are truly unique not only for their excellent flavors, but for the special cultural significance that they hold for the people of Vietnam.

Snow Shan teas are grown high in the mountains of northern Vietnam, where the country is bordered by the eastern edges of the Himalayas. Although this tea region crosses multiple provinces, the largest growth area of Snow Shan is in Ha Giang, Vietnam’s northernmost point. Throughout the country, differences in climate, geography, and terrain produce unique impacts on the tea’s terroir, which in turn leads to many variations in aroma and flavor. In Ha Giang, many of the wild tea trees from which Snow Shan is harvested are over a hundred years old (some are said to be nearly a thousand) with massive trunk sizes over a meter in diameter. A far cry from the small shrubs from which many industrially-produced teas are farmed! These ancient trees are carefully tended by the indigenous ethnic peoples of the regions in which they are grown, such as the H’mong or Dao, who carry with them many generations of Vietnamese tea tradition.

Snow Shan White Tea Buds

Among the subgroups of Snow Shan teas, one of the most interesting and outstanding offerings from Ha Giang are Snow Shan White Tea Buds, grown on the high mountain slopes of Mt. Chiêu Lầu Thi in the rural district of Hoàng Su Phì. Rather than plucked leaves, these woody small bundles (resembling pinecones) are actually harvested from unopened stem buds, taken from the main trunk and branches of the ancient tea trees. When infused, they release a light and delicate aroma in a pale golden liquor, with sweet floral and woody flavors leaving a lingering aftertaste of subtle spice. We are not exaggerating when we say that there is no tea anywhere in the world that can quite compare!

High Mountain Snow Shan Black

Another fantastic example of the best qualities of Vietnamese tea is the High Mountain Snow Shan, a black tea with large full leaves from mature trees grown at elevations around 1,400 feet high. The resulting tea is very smooth and mellow, but still rich with complex flavors and aromas.

While still a relative newcomer to the modern orthodox tea market, Vietnam has a lot to offer when it comes to truly unique tea experiences. If you have yet to try Vietnamese tea, Snow Shan varieties can be a wonderful place to start.

By: Jen Coate

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Aged Oolong Tea

2009 Aged Oolong Tea CakeBack in December, we wrote about aged white tea cakes, a recent innovation out of Fujian, China that has slowly been gaining popularity here in the United States. Like puerh, aging white tea can give it a whole new array of flavors and complexities. But puerhs and whites aren’t the only teas that can benefit from aging. Unknown to many Western tea drinkers, the tradition of aging oolongs in Taiwan and China is nearly as old as oolong tea itself.

Much like white tea (and in contrast to puerh), aged oolongs do not require fermentation to kick off their processing. Instead, they are traditionally baked or roasted over charcoal and carefully kept sealed from light and moisture. Too much moisture will produce a distinct tartness or sourness that can overpower the delicate complexities acquired in aging. Some producers of aged oolongs will re-roast their teas every few years to ensure a proper dryness. But this step is not always needed so long as the tea is stored properly and in the right environment.

Generally, an aged oolong is not considered ready for consumption until it is six to eight years old – although some connoisseurs argue that oolongs should wait until they are at least thirty to lose their “greenness”. Regardless, a well-stored oolong will continue to age and improve for many decades. The resulting flavor is both mellow and complex, and can contain notes of honey sweetness or cooling herbs. Superior aged oolongs have a soft and silky mouthfeel and a pronounced smoothness.

Like puerh and aged white teas, not every oolong is considered suitable for aging. The leaves must be of a high-enough quality, and the plucking and processing done with special care, so that the aging tea will be able to acquire the prized complexities and flavors and not merely taste stale. Traditionally, high-mountain Taiwanese oolongs, like Dark Roast Alishan, with a moderate to heavy roast are considered very suitable, as well as “rocky” teas from mountainous regions like Wuyi in the Chinese mainland. The flavors that are already naturally imparted through these high-elevation, mineral-rich terroirs are perfect for development through aging.

View inside an aged oolong tea cake and its brew.Although still a relative rarity in the U.S., aged oolongs are slowly coming into the western market, mostly through specialty tea houses. Some are sold loose, in their semi-balled form, while others are compressed into cakes of varying shapes and sizes. Here at Dominion Tea, we are excited to now be offering 2009 Aged Oolong Cakes, which are available for both online orders and in-store pickup. Whether you’re new to aged teas or a seasoned veteran, aged oolongs are a wonderful way to explore a corner of the tea world not often noticed in the West.

By: Jen Coate

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Compressed Tea

Compressed tea is tea formed into a solid shape, usually after it has been taken through the traditional steps of processing. Over history these shapes have taken various forms, from flat discs (also referred to as cakes) to bricks, birds’ nests, melons, mushrooms, and hearts. Such shapes also include decorative panels meant for display instead of drinking. While compressed tea is often made of puerh there is plenty of experimentation with other types of tea.

History of Compressed Tea

The origin of compressed tea is unclear. Written documentation mentioning the consumption of compressed tea dates back to the Jin Dynasty (266-420 CE) in China. The documentation points to the increased popularity of compressed tea at the royal court and in the wealthy merchant class. Up to this point, in northern China, tea was drunk as loose leaf lightly dried in the sun or over fire, similar to what we now call green tea. Southern China, however, was another story.

The Silk Road has been in operation since 65 CE as a tea trading route from the Yunnan province. It is believed that tea was compressed as bricks and discs for such trading purposes, as loose tea takes up too much room for transportation on horseback or by foot for long distances. And since this journey took many months in the heat and humidity a kind of natural fermentation occurred resulting in a new type of tea; puerh. Given the Silk Road began long before the Jin Dynasty, it is much more likely that compressed tea was in circulation a lot earlier than appears in written documentation.

How Tea Was Compressed

In the Yunnan province, home to puerh, tea was compressed by hand until the Ming Dynasty, when clay and pottery allowed for the making of standardized molds to evenly compress the tea. The melon and mushroom shapes came as creative tea merchants sought favor from their Emperors through tribute gifts.

Today, the tea is pressed and steamed in metal models to ensure no transfer of flavor or unwanted bacteria between batches of tea. However, you can still occasionally find the hand pressed cakes.

Modern Compressed Tea

Compressed tea has made a huge comeback in China due to the focus of the Communist Party on Chinese history and traditions, which are thought to bring strength to the country as it undergoes rapid change and modernization. This focus on history brought puerh and puerh tea cakes to the top of the tea market. Not to lose ground, manufacturers of white and oolong teas began producing their own aged cakes to compete  for the attention of the newly born middle class Chinese consumer. Using much the same technology as the puerh makers, these manufacturers are charting new territories in tea production, while still using the traditional methods.Follow Dominion Tea: Facebooktwitterpinterestrss

Five Tea Tips To Get You Through Social Distancing

Japanese Teapot and Green TeaIt’s amazing to see how fast coronavirus has changed everything. Across the country, Americans are settling into new social isolation routines, which can be difficult and frightening, especially for those of us who enjoy long conversations with friends and family over a pot of tea. But even though times are stressful, we at Dominion Tea want to remind you to take comfort in the little things that can make it all more bearable: a healthy walk outside, a phone conversation with a loved one, or – of course – a comforting cup of your favorite tea.

Here’s five ways that tea can help while we’re all stuck at home:

  1. Tea can give you a better energy boost than coffee. Struggling to get through endless rounds of virtual meetings? Try swapping out your coffee for a cup of tea instead. The particular combination of caffeine and L-theanine in tea may lead to a longer-lasting period of alertness, without the usual jolt-and-crash experience of coffee or energy drinks.
  2. Switching to loose-tea tea saves both money and the planet. Loose tea is both environmentally friendlier and more cost-efficient, as it uses far less packaging to produce. Many loose-leaf teas are also able to be steeped multiple times, which doubles their value! If you’re new to loose-leaf, check out our post on the essentials you need to get started.
  3. Buying local tea can save you a trip to grocery store. Many tea companies have products available online for either shipping or in-store pickup. You can get your tea while still social distancing and support small business at same time.
  4. Tea has numerous health benefits, including immune system boosters. For maximum benefit, try to drink 1-3 cups per day (an easy task for most tea lovers!). Some of our favorites include matcha-infused sencha, hundred-year tea, and ginseng oolong.
  5. You can recreate your favorite café brews without leaving home. Check out our recipe for hojicha lattes and how to make matcha. In the mood for something stronger? Try some of the tea cocktails we’ve come up with in the past.

By: Jen Coate

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Compressed Tea Cake Utensils

We’ll admit it: tea cakes can be daunting! Although compressed tea is a delightful way to explore unfamiliar traditions and flavors, we know that starting out may be intimidating. Maybe you’ve recently purchased a brick of your favorite puerh or aged white and aren’t certain how to use it. Maybe you’ve been given a handful of tuo cha by a well-intentioned friend. Or maybe you’re looking for a gift for the tea connoisseur in your life. Whatever the reason, we at Dominion Tea are here to help. Here’s a list of our favorite tea cake utensils, perfect for either the seasoned tea veteran or the novice just starting out.

    1. Tea Needle/Pick: These handy tools come in a variety of shapes and sizes designed to help break off sections of tea from your brick or cake without damaging its form. Picks and needles are used by sliding them horizontally between leaf layers in your tea cake, allowing you to gently pry free small measures at a time.
    2. Cha Ze Scoop: Traditionally made from bamboo or wood, Cha Ze scoops are an elegant way to measure out and present your tea after you have broken off the sections that you need. The high walls and long body of this tool make it perfectly shaped for transferring tea into your teapot for brewing.
    3. Cha Jia Tongs: Cha Jia serve a variety of purposes, especially if you are serving your tea traditionally. These bamboo tongs can be used to handle broken-up sections of compressed tea, pick out brewed leaves from a pot or pitcher, and

      Compressed Tea Cake Utensils

      Compressed Tea Cake Utensils

      handle hot cups during a Gong Fu ceremony.

    4. Breaking Tray: Also referred to as a Judging Tray when it is used for evaluation purposes, this small and shallow tray provides an ideal surface for breaking up compressed tea cakes. One bottom corner is always cut out, which allows you to easily pour your dry tea into your Cha Ze, gaiwan, or teapot.
    5. Tea Knife: Just like picks and needles, tea knives are specially designed to help you pry apart your tea cakes without causing excess damage to the leaves. Look for a small, flat, and very rigid blade that can easily slip between the dense layers in your tea cake. A good puerh knife can be a work of art in its own right, and many are designed to be beautiful as well as functional.

 

If you’re feeling intimated by the thought of a tea cake, why not pick up a few new utensils to try with it? (We carry them in our Purcellville, VA store.) Just like any other art, when it comes to tea preparation, having the right tools can make all the difference.

By: Jen CoateFollow Dominion Tea: Facebooktwitterpinterestrss