Four Imperial Teas

In a prior blog, we talked about the working-class origins of the British “builder’s tea”, favored by laborers to push through long hours of physical toil. This time, we thought we would take a look at how the other half lived and highlight a few of our favorite teas with royal reputations.

 

Bai Hao Silver Needle (白毫銀針)

Also Called: Baihao Yinzhen, White Hair Silver Needle

Bai Hao Silver Needle Tea Leaves

Bai Hao Silver Needle

This highly prized Chinese white tea is traditionally sourced from either Zhenghe or Fuding, northeast in the Fujian province. It is very lightly oxidized and features only the unopened buds of shoots plucked early in April during the plant’s first flush. These buds are covered in fine silver hairs, giving it its characteristic color. The flavor of this tea is smooth, lightly sweet, and delicately floral. This exquisite tea is said to have been first cultivated during the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), and for centuries was reserved exclusively for the Emperor.

 

Da Hong Pao (大红袍)

Also Called: Big Red Robe

Da Hong Pao Mother Trees in Wuyi

Da Hong Pao Mother Trees in Wuyi

This oolong is grown on the steep slopes of Mt. Wuyi in Fujian. The rocky cliffsides and unique mineral compounds making up the mountain’s slopes give this tea its rich, full, mineral flavor. Due to its rarity, expense, and reputation, Da Hong Pao remains a traditional “gift tea” in China reserved for honored guests or special occasions. According to legend, the mother of a Ming Dynasty emperor was cured of a deadly illness by drinking this tea; in gratitude, the emperor sent his own royal red robes to cover the four bushes that produced it. These bushes are still be producing tea to this day.

 

Dragon Well (龍井茶)

Also Called: Longjing

Dragon Well 1st Grade Pre Qing Ming

Dragon Well 1st Grade Pre Qing Ming

Dragon Well is one of the most famous teas to come out of China, and is certainly the most renowned of its green teas. Its long leaves are flattened by hand and pan-fried to stop oxidation, and boast a sweet and grassy flavor with light astringency. The highest-prized Dragon Well teas are sourced from Longjing Village in Zhejiang, and must be plucked from the first shoots that appear before the Qingming Festival in early April. Dragon Well tea was granted the status of Gong Cha, imperial tea, during the Qing Dynasty by the Kangxi Emperor (1661-1722).

 

Huo Shan Huang Ya (霍山黃芽)

Also Called: Huoshan Yellow

Yellow tea floating in gaiwan

Belonging to the rare category of yellow tea, this tea was produced in Anhui as an imperial tribute during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE). It is thought to have been developed specifically to have a yellow color, in honor of the imperial family, to both its dried leaf and its steeped liquor. The flavor is delicate and subtle, with both floral and buttery notes. Due to its intensive production process and niche position in the market, this tea can be difficult to find. But like all royal teas, its complex and unique flavors make it worth a try for any tea enthusiast.

By: Jen Coate

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History of Tea Caddies

Portrait of Queen Catherine of Braganza (1665)

In our current era of cardboard boxes and plastic packaging, caddies may seem like a peculiar and cumbersome way for anyone to store their tea. But don’t be fooled by their decorative exterior – tea caddies, while they may not look it, boast a surprisingly practical origin.

The first records of tea trade in Europe are found at the beginning of the 17th century. Catherine of Braganza is credited as having popularized tea-drinking in the British court with her marriage to Charles II in 1662. Until the middle of the 18th century, tea was a commodity rarely seen outside specialty shops and apothecaries, but its growing popularity gave rise to a robust black market that enabled its purchase by private homes. The cost was still prohibitively expensive to the lower class, which led to a desire among the wealthy to keep their tea properly stored and safe from theft.

Enter the tea caddy. The term caddy is thought to have derived from the Malay word “kati”, a unit of weight used throughout China and Southeast Asia. Early caddies closely resembled ginger jars, with a long bottle shape and pull-out stopper. These were made in a variety of materials, including glass, porcelain, and silver, and were always fitted with a keyhole. The caddy would be kept within the drawing room, and its key in the possession of the lady of the house. Whenever tea was to be served, hot water would be fetched from the kitchen, and the lady herself would take charge of its preparation.

Wooden Tea Caddy

Wooden Tea Caddy

Eventually, the canister shape fell out of popularity in favor of a box or chest design, which was the predominate form of tea caddy throughout the 19th century. These caddies were commonly constructed with two lined compartments on either side for tea storage, and a reserved space in the middle for sugar, which was also expensive. Like their bottle-shaped predecessors, chest-style caddies could be very elaborate, with mahogany and rosewood being popular materials for their construction, sometimes with ornate inlays such as brass or ivory.

As tea grew more commonplace as a household good (and subsequently less expensive), tea caddies gradually declined in production. Prepacked and bagged tea has since made the practical use of caddies obsolete, but the ones that remain are a fascinating and often beautiful window into the European tea culture of the past.

By Jen Coate

References

www.ascasonline.org/articoloMAGGI128.html

www.hamptonantiques.co.uk/index.pl?id=2251

colnestour.org/magazine_article/tea-tea-caddy-brief-study-early-history-tea-containers/

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The Four Types of Kyusu: Part II

Ceramic Atode no Kyusu

Atode no Kyusu with rear handle.

In Part I, we talked about two of the most common type of Japanese kyusu, or teapot. Kyusu have evolved over many centuries to best suit the needs of the diverse range of Japanese green teas. The two kyusu we introduced last week – yokode kyusu and houhin – trace their origins back to Chinese teapots adopted by the Japanese in the mid-Edo period. The other main types of kyusu, atode and uwade, are likewise the result of years of adaptation and evolution.

Atode no Kyusu

Just like the yokode kyusu, the word “atode” (後手の急須), meaning “on the back”, refers to this teapot’s structural design. Modeled to resemble western-style teapots, this teapot is especially suitable for Chinese and western-style black teas with a high water temperature and longer steep time.

Decorative Uwade Kyusu

Uwade Kysu or Dobin

Uwade Kyusu

“Uwade” (上手の急須), which translates to “on the top”, is also known as a dobin (土瓶) in Japanese tea ceremony terminology. Shaped like a western tea kettle with a long, curving handle over the top of the pot, uwade kyusu are larger than any other type of kyusu and intended for serving many guests at once. The placement of the handle is designed to accommodate the heavy main body of the pot, which would be difficult to pour with a side or back handle. When these teapots are made of cast iron and intended to be hung over the hearth, they are called tetsubin (鉄瓶).

Kyusu can be a fun way to experience Japanese culture and traditional tea preparation. If you are a fan of Japanese green teas, why not experiment with a kyusu of your own?

By: Jennifer Coate

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Alishan High Mountain Oolongs

View from Dabang Village Alishan Taiwan

Sunrise in Dabang Village, Alishan National Forest

Alishan Oolongs put Taiwan’s tea industry on the map in the 1960’s & 70’s as the country struggled to compete with China for tea consumers. These famous oolongs are produced in the south central region of Taiwan by the many aboriginal tribes of Taiwan living in the large conservation district of Taiwan called Alishan National Forest.

What sets these oolongs apart is their complex, clean flavors. This is credited to both the perfect growing conditions in the region as well as the laborious process of hand picking, properly balling the oolong, and a combination of roasting and aging after processing.

Growing Conditions
One of the largest spiders on the planet found in large parts of Asia

Giant Golden Orb Web Weaver or Giant Wood Spider

Up at 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level, the tea plants get plenty of morning fog that generally burns off by the afternoon. These warm misty conditions are what tea plants want. Given the ocean air, clouds can roll in and out all day long and small afternoon rain showers are normal during certain times of the year. Taiwan is bisected by the Tropic of Cancer, so it is close enough to the Equator to stay warm year round, but the high elevations do allow the plants to go dormant period during winter.

Beyond the weather, having tea grown without insecticide or fertilizer adds to the complexity of the flavor as the plants have to fight off bugs and pull nutrients naturally from the soil. The soil is amended with grasses and other plants to return nutrients to the soil each dormant period. The best Alishan oolongs are produced without insecticide leaving nature to do its job. In those fields that means a home to the giant golden orb weaver, one of the largest spiders in the world. Not poisonous, they are still an interesting obstacle to getting to the tea leaves for those who are not fans of arachnids. These spiders appear in abundance! However these amazing creatures ensure that the insects don’t get to eat all the leaves. So for the serious tea drinker, they are a welcome site on a tea field.

Processing

Getting plucking correct is actually one of the trickiest parts in Taiwan. With very few people willing to pluck, the experienced plucking teams are in high demand. So trying to time plucking is hard for the smaller growers. Ideally, the tea is plucked late in the day and into the evening after the fog has left and the leaves have dried off. Once plucked, the leaves need to whither at least 24 hours while the tea master determines what type of oolong to make. This is often done based off of how many leaves were plucked (bud and 2 to 4 leaves) and the length of the leaves. Generally, smaller leaves and bud are going to go a lighter oxidized oolong.

Tea fields growing up a mountainside.

One of many tea fields found throughout the high mountains of Alishan Taiwan.

The leaves will be agitated for the next 24 hours in tumblers and rolling machines as the tea master samples to find the right flavor. It is then roasted/dried to stop the oxidation at the desired flavor. The tea is then put into air tight storage. While it can be drunk, the tea master prefers that it sit and a final finishing roast be applied a few months later. It is said that this resting time is the key to getting the complex flavors in the tea. The applied roasting can add its own complexities with woody and smokey notes.

Drinking

There are many types of Alishan Oolongs to choose from, from a lightly oxidized and roasted Alishan High Mountain to a more heavily oxidized Alishan Red Oolong. For those who are fans of Lapsang Souchong, there is even a Dark Roasted Alishan that has a smokiness and sweetness to rival this well known tea.

Alishan Oolongs should be steeped at cooler temperatures, between 185-200° F for 3-5 minutes (western style steeping). Multiple steepings are a must for this tea as the flavor will change over the steepings.

The balled nature of this tea lends itself to the use of a gaiwan or yixing tea pot. As the tea unfolds, small particulate falls out adding to the creamy mouthfeel. Go grab your gaiwan or yixing and fill it 1/3 to 1/2 full and do your first steeping at 45 seconds and work up in 15-30 second increments. Smell those leaves as you go, the aroma is mind blowing.

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Japanese Tea Ceremony History and Meaning

Matcha with treats!

Appreciating tea comes in many forms and one of the oldest forms is the Japanese Tea Ceremony. This ceremony has a rich history that encompasses not only enjoying matcha but setting up an environment to connect with ones’ guests over tea. What is often interpreted as strict and formal by Western cultural standards is actually a much broader examination of how the environment you are in will effect your ability to appreciate the tea and connect with your guests.

History of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

As we mentioned in our blog post on the History of Matcha, tea made its way into Japan some 400 years before the creation of the tea ceremony via the Zen Buddhist Monks and their cultural exchange with China. The creation of the tea ceremony came during the period of the first samurai and shogun in Japan (1192-1333 C.E.). The Zen Buddhist Monks would prepare matcha for each other and themselves before sitting for long periods of meditation. This practice continued and would be shared with the royal court in Japan for many centuries before being adopted formally by the royal court under the reign of Toyotomi Hideyosi (1585-1598 C.E.).  It was also during this time that the ceremony and its steps where formally documented by the Zen Buddhist monk Sen Rikyu.

Japanese Tea Ceremony: Attention to Detail and Environment

The Buddhist Monks that developed the tea ceremony paid a lot of attention to the environment around them as they drank the tea and shared it with their colleagues and friends. The environment was to be pleasant but not over stimulating. So artwork was carefully chosen and only a few pieces hung.  A small but carefully chosen flower arrangement was often included on the table with the tea utensils. The bamboo mats and cushions for guests where to provide protection from the cold floor so they could concentrate more easily on each other and the tea. The tea bowl and utensils where also chosen to fit with the artwork. The goal was to have everything fit together to provide a peaceful environment that would allow everyone to enjoy each other and the tea. What is often lost to Western cultural is that after consuming the tea, the host and guests would often discuss the artwork, practice calligraphy together, and spend time discussion intellectual pursuits.

Japanese Tea Ceremony: Modern Day

The practice of the Japanese Tea Ceremony continues around the world. There are schools, in Washington, DC it is the Chado Urasenke Tankokai Association, that not only teach the preparation of the matcha but include how to do the ancient calligraphy, flower arrangements and play traditional Japanese instruments. So broaden your horizons by taking a class and learning more about this part of Japanese culture.

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