Flowering Teas – Artwork in a Tea Pot

Flowering teas in a teapot for two at Dominion Tea - Purcellville Tasting Room

Flower Burst enjoyed at our Purcellville Tasting Room in Loudoun County Virginia.

Flowering Teas are not only a good cup of tea but a beautiful piece of artwork. These relative new comers to the tea world require little work from the brewer and a clear glass teapot to truly enjoy.

History and the making of Flowering Teas

Flowering teas, or blooming teas, surfaced in the Chinese market in the 1980’s and started to make it into the US in noticeable volume in the 1990’s. These teas are a combination of tea leaves and flower petals that are sewn together in a pattern to create a flower when steeped in hot water. Always hand tied, these teas originated from the Yunnan province.

In choosing the flowers and tea leaves, the tea company focuses on the wow factor of the bloom opening and the color contrasts along with the flavor. Typically green tea is used as the base to create what will become the leaves of the flower. The tea may or may not be jasmine scented prior to being sewn together. The artists making these are working with wilted leaves that have not been baked yet, so there are a lot of possibilities on how they introduce flavor into the creation. Usually they are working with older leaves as they will hold up to the sewing and molding into shapes more than the younger.

Once the base is in place, using cotton yarn, they will stitch in the center flowers working from the outer flower petals into the center. Common flowers for this are jasmine, chrysanthemum, osmanthus, lily, hibiscus, and amaranth. These flowers impart their own scent and flavor to the tea. The creation is baked and slowly formed into the bud.

Brewing Flowering Teas

Flowering Burst tea balls and open in liquor.

Flower Burst tied flowering tea.

To enjoy a flowering tea, you really need a clear glass tea pot. Since you are working with a green tea and flower petals, you will need water in the 175-185 degree Fahrenheit range. Place the ball in the pot and then fill with water. The ball will float because of the air pockets formed in the ball while it was being stitched together. With time, the ball will absorb in enough water to start to sink. You can help it along using a spoon or chop stick to hold down the ball. Once you see air bubbles leaving the ball, you should be all set to allow the ball to sit and open. This can take anywhere from 5-10 minutes. Once the ball opens, feel free to pour yourself a cup of tea.

Using the Flowering Teas for Decoration

So once you have enjoyed that pot of tea, you can use the open flower as a decoration. Grab a glass vase or cup large enough to allow the flower to remain open in the bottom. Put the flower in the bottom and add enough cold water to allow the blossom to be fully covered. Add 2 tablespoons of white vinegar. The vinegar will slow the browning of the flower petals. You will need to change the water about every 3 days and the flower will stay for about 2 weeks before fading becomes very apparent. If may be less if kept in a spot with direct sunlight.

Add flowering teas to your tea collection and enjoy a beautiful center piece as well as a good cup of tea.

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Sheng Puerh Production

Puerh Tea Cake

Raw Sheng Puerh Cake from CNNP

We’ve looked at puerh twice now and the last time we spoke of the difference between raw and cooked pu’erh. In the spirit of ‘there no such thing as too much of a good thing’ this time we want to spend a bit more time on the manufacturing of raw ‘Sheng Cha’ puerh.

From Tea Tree to ‘Mao Cha’

While many Chinese teas are produced from a variety of c. sinensis var sinensis, the most desired puerh teas are typically from c. sinensis var assamica (see Camellia Sinensis). This is a much larger leaf version of the tea plant than var sinensis. Even more desired are the spring picked leaves of old growth wild tea trees rather than younger wild trees or cultivated tea bushes.

After picking the leaves undergo a process of heating to quickly ‘kill the green’. This process of heating the leaves effectively stops most oxidation, makes the leaves more flexible and pliable, and leads to the next step of rolling. Rolling, in turn step serves to break down the cellular structure inside the leaves allowing the juices inside the leaves to move about more freely and creates small tears in the leaf structure. This critical step enables extraction of flavor when the tea is infused in water many years in the future.

Once the leaves have been rolled they are left in the sun to dry out. The amount of time, like other steps in this process vary from factory to factory but can be up to a couple days. It’s at this point that we have ‘Mao Cha’ and the process diverges for raw ‘Sheng’ puerh vs cooked ‘Shu’ puerh.

‘Mao Cha’ to Raw ‘Sheng Cha’ Puerh

Sheng and Shu Puerh is pressed in various shapes for storage and shipping.

Various Shapes of Pressed Puerh – By 静葉 (Pu-erh tea allstars) [CC BY-SA 3.0

The real magic happens with Sheng Cha after the initial steps leading to Mao Cha. At this point the normal process is to process the Mao Cha into finished pressed tea cakes. The rough product is often stored for some amount of time before its ready to be pressed. When the manufacturer determines it is time the rough Mao Cha is sorted into grades and steamed to prepare it for pressing. This steaming ensures the leaves are pliable again and slightly sticky so the resulting form holds together.

Steamed and ready to go the tea is pressed into a desired shape. This is often a large round disc or cake but can take many other forms like bricks, coins, balls, or even a sort of mushroom shape. Traditionally this would be pressed into the shape by a heavy stone placed over the form though mechanical presses often do this in many factories. Pressed tea is much more dense and easier to handle. During the time of the tea-horse road this was essential to facilitate trade and today it still makes the tea much easier to handle and transport.

Pressed into the desired shape, Raw ‘Sheng’ Puerh is now stored for long term ripening, or fermentation. Unlike other forms of tea which are best used within about a year, raw puerh is best when aged. It mellows over years of aging and becomes more sought after the older it gets.

If you haven’t tried puerh its best to take some time and learn about it. Sheng and Shu puerh both provide very unique experiences. However, to fully enjoy them its best to also get a Yixing tea pot and learn how to quickly infuse this tea many times, exploring how the taste changes between infusions.

 

 

 

 

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Matcha Green Tea History

The history of matcha green tea, much like many teas, is affected by cultural and political shifts. Its popularity in Japan and virtual absence in China comes from an interesting intersection of political needs, cultures converging and influencing each other, and a side effect of isolationist policies.

Foundations of Matcha Green Tea and the Japanese Tea Ceremony

Matcha Green Tea from Japan

Cooking Grade Matcha Poweder

All things tea, regardless of current association, start in China. Starting in the Tang Dynasty, somewhere between 690-705C.E., tea became democratized in China at the same time as the golden age of Chinese culture hit its full height. During this period Buddhism thrived along side Daoism in China. Buddhist monasteries were everywhere and multiple religions were allowed to flourish side by side and acknowledged by the Emperors during this dynasty. During this period, tea was still packed into bricks for easier transport in trading. It was consumed by being broken off and pulverized into powder and then whisked into hot water. It was not called matcha by the Chinese, that name would come later in Japan.

Buddhist monks were heavy tea drinkers, as it assisted them in staying alert during long periods of meditation. So it was a natural evolution for the preparation of the tea for meditation become a ritual in-and-of itself. This ritual would be taught to the visiting Japanese monks several centuries later, in 1191 C.E., when the monk Eisai would introduce the Japanese Buddhists to the powdered preparation of tea. The term matcha is a combination of word ma, meaning powder, and cha, which means tea. At this point in Japanese history, Buddhism was making its way from the privileged classes to the common people of Japan. Recent military upheavals in Japan lead to a resurgence in spiritual practice and the establishment of Buddhist schools throughout the country. Eisai headed the Zen Buddhist school, which used meditation to bring forth the inner Buddha in each individual. It is at these schools that the Japanese Tea Ceremony was created and eventually formalized some four hundred years later.

Producing Matcha Green Tea

Matcha typically is made from the Saemidori cultivar of camellia sinensis. These tea plants are grown under shade, which adds additional complexity to flavor as well as to the plucking of the tea. The shade slows down growth, so fewer leaves are produced by the plant and those leaves that are produced got more of their nutrients from the ground than through photosynthesis. This gives the leaves a very complex taste. Tea leaves plucked for Matcha are sorted by size to help in the removal of stems from the leaves. Matcha green tea production is much more labor intensive than the other teas in Japan, which have been heavily automated in past forty years. The tea is plucked, sorted and then sent into steaming for anywhere between 40-80 seconds given the size of the leaves. The leaves are then laid flat to dry, which will cause the leaves to crumble and the stems to be more easily removed. The tea is fully dried and sorted again with the hopes of removing more veins and missed stems. It is then ground down between two large granite stones, much like an old fashion grain mill. The grinding process is heavily monitored and the consistency of the powder is measured. A finer powder, makes for a stronger and more complex tea generally. In the United States, generally there are two types of matcha green tea available, ceremonial and cooking grade. Ceremonial matcha is generally from the first picking and highest quality leaves. Cooking matcha comes from follow up picking and sometimes larger leaves. There is a difference in taste, but that is rarely distinguishable to those of us not growing up drinking it daily. Cooking matcha is generally more vegetal in taste while ceremonial matcha will have a more complex fruit/vegetable flavor. Neither is overly sweet, which is why it is generally served with sweet treats.

Matcha Green Tea Ice Cream

Matcha Ice Cream (With and Without Mint and Chocolate Chips)

Modern Day Matcha

Matcha green tea is still in high demand in Japan. It has grown in demand in the United States, since it does a great job coloring other foods, like cookies, ice cream, and even salad dressing, green. Matcha has not been embraced by the US as a tea because of its flavor profile and bright green color. What most Americans have not figured out is that they have been drinking matcha in their bottled green teas for some time now (it dissolves beautifully for bottled tea). There are Japanese gardens, museums and Buddhist monasteries where the general public can witness a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony and try some of the matcha in its traditional form. I encourage you to give it a try.

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Chinese Tea: Hubei Province

In our last post we focused on Anhui Province, its people, and some of its famous teas. In this post we shift next door to look at neighboring Hubei Province which has many similarities yet is home to distinct Chinese teas of its own.

Hubei Province – Land and People

Ancient tower in China

Yellow Crane Tower in Hubei Province China (by Flicr user Meraj Chhaya, CC BY-2.0)

At a macro level Hubei, like Anhui, has a large population especially by comparison to US States of similar size. Hubei has approximately 57 Million people in an area of 186,000 sq km (71,815 sq mi). This is roughly equivalent to the size of Washington State, which has a much smaller population at only 7 million people. Instead, consider that Hubei’s 57 million is the equivalent of the populations of California and New York combined, all within the land area of Washington State. The population is made up of a large number of minority ethnic groups in a province said to be the origin of the Chinese people.

From a geography perspective, Hubei is a land locked province located along about the same latitude as southern Texas, Louisiana, and Florida though its land features range from lowlands to highly mountainous. The province is also traversed by the well known Yangtze River, features the Enshi Grand Canyon (1/16th the size of ours but very lush), Three Gorges, Yellow Tower, and more.

Like its geography and its people Hubei province has a wide range industries and business activities ranging from agricultural to finance and high tech.

Hubei Province Tea

Statue of Lu Yu

Lu Yu – In Xi’an on the grounds of the Great Wild Goose Pagoda
Nat Krause
July 26, 2005, CC – 2.0

Home to the birthplace of Yu Lu, author of the Classic of Tea, Hubei boasts a number of great teas. Though its teas are perhaps overlooked due to teas like Dragon Well, Keemun, and many others from surrounding provinces, it is home to its own unique tea. The major tea producing region of Hubei is found in the southwest mountains of the province in the Enshi region. Its an extremely mountainous region with very rugged terrain,and not surprisingly is quite rural by comparison to other parts of the province. The land here is heavily forested and known for rich soils high in selenium. As a result of both history and the high selenium content of its soils, Hubei produces a number of unique teas. The most famous of its teas is actually Enshi Yu Lu, also known as Jade Dew. What makes this unique is its close similarity to another ‘Jade Dew’ tea, Gyokuro from Japan. The Enshi Yu Lu green tea, like that of its close relative from Japan, uses steaming to halt oxidation of the leaf, which is a production method generally not used in other parts of China. Like its Japanese counterpart, Enshi Yu Lu has long dark green leaves that look to be needle shaped and tends to have a very vegetal flavor.

Additional teas include Wujiatai Tribute Tea, Hefeng Tea, Mapo Tea, and increasingly teas focused on perceived health benefits of selenium like Enshi Selenium Enriched Tea. The high selenium content of the soils, in fact, has led a number of companies in the region to seek trademarks on many different health related names of teas (though selenium deficiency is considered rare in the United States). Given the rich history of tea production in the region, its unique processing methods, the role in culture, and its own particular terrior, this region like many others (starting with Champagne, France) is pursuing Geographic Identification status as a way to highlight and protect its tea products.

Sources
Geographical Indication Characteristics and Agricultural Intellectual Property Protection of the tea in Enshi Prefecture, Asian Agricultural Research 2015, http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/174939/2/24.PDF

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Smallholder Tea Farmers in Kenya

We recently stumbled across an interesting news article in Coastweek.com, a Kenyan based online newspaper. The article focused on a mobile network provider, Safricom, partnering with the Kenyan Tea Development Agency Ltd or KTDA, to change the way payments to smallholder tea farmers are handled. Specifically, the arrangement replaces all cash payments with M-PESA. If you haven’t heard of it, M-PESA is a branchless banking system developed by the global mobile network operator Vodaphone. In part, the your mobile network operator and retail outlets become your banking agents. The objective for KTDA is to improve security for employees at the factories who pay or delivered tea leaf as well as increase accountability and overall efficiency in payments and accounting. As it turns out this is but one step in helping support and increase profits for small tea farmers.

Smallholder Tea Plantations

UN Food and Agriculture Organization Logo

The UN FAO reviews the tea trade through its Inter-Governmental Group on Tea

Rather than write about M-PESA this article got us curious about the smallholder tea farmer system in Kenya and the relationship with KTDA. Smallholders, not large corporate plantations, as it turns out are a major source of tea produced in many countries. A 2012 review of smallholder tea farmer contributions by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization indicated that in countries like Sri Lanka, Kenya, China, and Vietnam smallholders produce the majority tea in these countries. This is opposed to countries like Indonesia and India where smallholders produce only about 20-25%.

Smallholder plantations, in theory provide a greater share of the profits to those at a local level, though the UN FAO Intergovernmental Group on Tea study suggests there are quite a number of opportunities for improvement. Smallholders typically have difficulties commanding top prices for a variety of reasons including the lack of knowledge or capability to implement environmental, pest management, or other best practices.

KTDA Ltd and Kenyan Smallholders

Map of Tea Production in Kenya

A Map of Tea Production Areas in Kenya By Philippe Rekacewicz assisted by Cecile Marin, Agnes Stienne, Guilio Frigieri, Riccardo Pravettoni, Laura Margueritte and Marion Lecoquierre CC BY SA-3.0

The Kenyan Tea Development Agency got its start back in 1964 as Kenya got its independence and it became legal for locals to produce tea themselves. At the time the KTDA was charged with helping develop the industry for smallholders vs the large multinational corporations who still own plantations and produce a large percentage of tea in the region (and globally).

More recently, in 2000, KTDA became KTDA Ltd, a private company which continues to develop the smallholder tea industry. This arrangement, is just one approach found globally to supporting smallholders. KTDA Ltd operates effectively as a management firm providing best practices for smallholders in many areas as well as providing services that help smallholders command a greater share of the income. These services include everything from guidance on plucking and fertilizing through operations of factories as well as financial, sales, and marketing support.

In effect, KTDA Ltd helps organize and unite all the smallholder members to be competitive with the large industry players by increasing the portion of revenue earned from higher levels in the value chain. This includes at the manufacture and global wholesale portion of the value chain. It does this by having over 50 subsidiary factory companies to which over 560,000 smallholders both sell raw leaf and own a share of the company and resulting profits after manufacture and sale at the Mombasa Tea Auction.

The Future for Smallholder Tea Farmers

The number of smallholders worldwide looks to continue to grow for some time to come. This happens for many reasons but often its due to large corporate plantation abandonment (and subsequent re-establishment in smallholder schemes) and the purposeful dismantling of large government owned tea plantations. As the smallholder population increases it will be interesting to see how various countries approach supporting farmers in the practices and ownership methods that can help them thrive.

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