Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Water, and the lesson learned

Water is an often discussed topic among the tea drinkers and every one who takes the tea drinking a bit seriously faces this issue sooner or later. I think it is important to find a good water (source) which suits for tea. 

I wanted to write about this issue for a while and some recent experiences made me to do so. In Italy I was quite lucky since I found a good bottled water named Guiza Alpe, with TDS around 100mg/L and with slightly basic pH. The water had a sweetish taste itself and suited well for most of the teas I drink, moreover the price was excellent, around 1 euro for 12 litters (6x2L). 

The situation back home was a bit more complicated. I struggled to find a good water for quite some time. The tap water is very hard and heavily chlorinated here, so I looked up what kind of bottled water are available. Most of them had higher mineral content and I was also discouraged by the relatively high prices (what is interesting since our country is rich on natural mineral waters). So I went for filtered water. I bought a simple brita pitcher with filters, what helped to reduce the lime from the tap water but the filter had to be changed every to week. The frequent filter change made me think and I figured out how to overcome this problem. First I boiled the tap water in a kettle, then let it to cool down.

During the cooling the limestone precipitates what can be filtered off using a Brita pitcher with a filter cartridge which is not active anymore, so the filtering is only mechanical not chemical, thus the cartridge doesn't have to be changed. After this step the water is still not very good for tea due to the salty taste what comes from the decomposition of chlorine. The "chlorine" used for disinfection is sodium perchlorate which decomposes to oxygen (O2) and sodium chloride (NaCl, kitchen salt). Therefore, the water after the first filtration was filtered again using a second pitcher but this time with an active cartridge. The resulting water was soft. But softness itself is not enough to get good tea.
I was developing this system of getting the right water every now and then when I came home for a couple of days but after I returned 3 weeks ago and I have had more time to test this water, I realised that something is not right with it. I was re-tasting shengs from my collection and many of them which I remember as excellent tasted strange. In general they missed the thickness and the taste was often sour, especially in the case of younger shengs, though for Japanese greens and lighter oolongs it worked relatively good.

There is one important thing about filters, namely that the result is not constant. Activated carbon need some time until the filtering power reaches its maximum. Then, after each filtration, the efficiency drops resulting in different water, and at the end, in tea with different taste. It is also not the same if the water is filtered right before it goes to the kettle or if it's left in the pitcher for a couple of hours during which the activated carbon has more time to absorb the minerals. And lets face it, going through the procedure I described in order to get the right water is ridiculous, especially if the results is not as good as it should be. So there left nothing else just buy some bottled water in the local supermarket and test them. I found one with lower mineral content (148mg/L) but the tea with this water wasn't good, it had a metallic taste plus a sour-acidic finish. So I started to add another water with higher mineral content (388mg/l, water meant for babies). At the ratio softer / hared = 1/2 the taste was surprisingly good. Another interesting thing is how the water influences the colour of the brew. I was steeping the same tea with softer and harder water and the colours were quite different (harder water results in darker brew).
1) The water used for the tea preparation is more important than I thought.
2) Soft water doesn't always gives better tea. If the water is too soft the tea becomes sour-acidic and flat, on the other hand, if the water is too hard the tea may be fuller but its character and taste is suppressed by the soapy-salty taste of minerals (that's especially true for fragrant teas). 
3) When there is scale developing in the kettle it doesn't necessarily mean that the water is bad.
4) The hardness of the water has a significant effect on the colour of the brew, therefore comparing the colours of certain teas makes sense only when the brewing parameters, including the water, are the same or similar. 
5) For shengs the mineral content around 300mg/L seems to work well. Basic pH (above 7) gives better result and also helps to buffer (or neutralise) the potential acidity of the tea.

Finally one important note. A couple of months ago MarshalN wrote on teachat that he uses harder water for darker, heavier teas. Tim wrote the same and I was surprised and also sceptical that such water can work. Now I know how right they are.

Friday, 17 August 2012

2005 Changtai - Quian Jia Feng

It’s summer, the weather is just about right, so lets take the tea corner from my room outside to the garden. Outdoor tea sessions are very pleasing for so many different reasons. We are lucky since our backyard is full of trees and neighbours with other gardens what makes it a kind of an isolated island with a high level if privacy. I also brought my laptop but the sunlight makes difficult to read the monitor so the attention is focused fully on the tea. 

Today I sampled another Changtai cake from 2005. Nearly 7g of tea goes into the pot; the dry leaves smell youngish with some nutty-woody elements but without any particular sweetness. 

After the first rinse the liquor is particularly clear. The wet leaves keep mainly the woody character but as they cool down the sweetness is more pronounced. Whereas the fragrances of the tea are not that intense (probably due to the fact that the garden is so full of other things which scent intensively in this period), the taste is definitely there. 

The tea is strong, nicely coats the throat creating a good mouthfeel. The kuwei induces salivation and turns to sweet with some delay, as a proper huigan does. Good stuff! The tea still has mainly young character but I notice the plummy taste which can be usually found in some dry stored (semi)aged shengs. The tea opens relatively slowly and the sweet-bitter characters peaks around 3-4th infusion with steeping time still around 3s. The leaves keep on giving flavor steep after steep and at the 8th infusion I am quite full so I decided to stop. The tea is left to steep overnight to season the pot. The tea has a fair amount of kuwei but I didn’t notice too much astringency, that’s very important for me.

There is a huge walnut tree in our garden

Now, let’s do the comparison with its sibling. First of all, the storage is different; while the Yi Bang has a wetter character, it seems that this one spent the last 7 years in a drier environment (though with enough humidity to provide some ageing). The Yi Bang is smooth and round with a noticeable aged character in its profile, its qi is relaxing but not particularly strong and I had no problem to fall a sleep after it. On the other hand the Qian Jia Feng still has the edges in both the taste and energy. The tea is active on the lips, induces sweating, and I finished the session with a strong urge to eat something (even though I ate just before I set to drink the tea). Its overall qi is strong. 

The conclusion is that the Yi Bang is nice tea to drink now and there is still room for further ageing, possibly in a bit drier environment which would eliminate the wet storage character.
Quian Jia Feng is also relatively nice to drink now but with less leaves. For those more sensitive tea drinkers the bitterness can be a bit disturbing. On the other hand I am fairly convinced that in proper conditions this cake can turn into something really nice. 


Ps:  The natural sunlight has a significant positive effect on the quality of the pictures.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

2005 Changtai - Yi Bang

After I defended my degree I decided to give myself a present, and what else could it be than half dozen of pueh beengs. This time I made the ordered form Red Lantern and I went for slightly older shengs, mainly form the 2005 vintage. After 3 weeks of waiting finally arrived …wait for it… the bill for the custom fee. This always rises my blood pressure since 20 % from the total price (including shipping) is not negligible. But I payed it, the package arrived and after the opening (which reminds me myself as 7 years old on Christmas eve) I did the usual fist contact ceremony: sniffing and smelling each cake a couple of times. This gives and idea about the storage. For instance I rarely buy Kunming stored puercha which is older than 2008-2007 since in that dry climate the teas age very little and makes no sense to pay the extra money. But this time the scenario was different. The 2005 cakes are dark with low and heavy fragrances, some of them with developing aged character. I picked the one which seemed to be the most aged. 

I never had tea from the Changtai brand before, but Hobbes usually writes positively about them, what can be promising. 7g of leaves goes into the zisha pot (100 ml) dedicated for those shengs which have already a bit of age. This session was done at the evening after a rather hectic day what can alter the overall impression, but nevertheless, here comes a brief review of the first trial. 
After the rinse the wet leaves show a sweet – crispy smell with a basement touch. The taste feels aged, sweet and smooth with some spiciness. The storage seems to be wetter which may be disturbing for somebody but certainly not for me. I personally prefer a bit wet than too dry. The tea also have a cooling effect on the early infusions what I usually take as a good sign. The fragrance from the aroma cup is intense on the sweet-woody side. My mother stops by and asks for a cup of tea. She also likes this sheng a lot what makes her to stay for a while to drink tea and chat with her son who happen to roam in Europe lately an such moments are becoming more and more rare.The leaves at the end of the sessions are fairly large and on the dark green - brown side. 
This sheng is a nice surprise with his full body and the developing aged character, but I miss some kuwei what would make it even more interesting. Its comfortable to drink it now and I am curious what will happen with it in the following years. Meanwhile, it goes to the drier part of the puerh cabinet.

Monday, 13 August 2012


Yep, that’s right. 

The last couple of months were pretty intense, but finally the thesis is done and the long expected period of relax and rest is here. Write down a book is not trivial. There have been so many data generated during the last three years and just to organize them can take several weeks, and once you have it the actual writing can start.
Writing is an interesting thing. The beginning was very difficult and as further I was with my thesis, as easier the writing seemed to be. Once the work is heading to the end, the situation becomes again complicated, since the structure of the work is often edited and re-organized. The day of printing is very relieving, but the day after usually brings some anger since errors and mistakes are found (but as others said, that’s how it goes). Meanwhile, I had to finish the projects, work on publications, solve the housing issues and figure out how to move all my stuff back home. 

I came back home two weeks ago and I think it is time to return to my blog. I drunk so many teas in the last months and plenty of samples are waiting to be tested. I will try to share the outcomes here.