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It's that time of year again. Winter is over and the tea trees of south Yunnan have waked up and put out tender young shoots 嫩芽 which are barely beginning to turn into leaves. These have the youth and vigor of a project in its earliest stages. As the year progresses, the tea will develop other attributes, but it will never have the same first-flush virgin freshness that it has right now. It's something special. Look for signs in the windows of tea shops that say 早春茶 early spring tea. It hit the shelves in Kunming last week. I tasted it at two of my favorite stores. Couldn't tell them apart, so I bought the one which cost less. Most of China's main tea growing areas produce a little bit of early spring tea, but it's a limited item. Better mail-order places will have some soon if they don't already. Let me show you how it brewed up and urge you to buy some wherever you are. It will be gone in about ten days, right after Qingming Festival 清明节。Early spring tea is another of those "seize the moment" China things. Mine comes from one of Xishuangbanna's 西双版纳傣族自治州 famous tea mountains, Youle Shan 优乐山。Here's a shot of the place it is grown and a look at the tea in a large bin at the store. -- Click the photos to enlarge them. I've laid a couple toothpicks onto my private supply to give you a sense of scale. These are delicate shoots with only one immature leaf. Next picture is of some this tea set out ready to be brewed, with the lilies beside it just for fun. This tea is usually brewed in a glass. You don't need a teapot 茶壶 or a gaiwan 盖碗。Put a generous pinch of dried tea leaves into a tall pre-warmed glass and add water that is a few degrees below boiling. One way to do this is to bring your water to a boil, then let it stand for a couple of seconds. You will often see tea people pouring the water for this brew in a high stream. That accomplishes the same thing. If you live in China, you probably have a water machine 饮水机。Hot water from it works fine for this purpose. Notice I have the glass several inches away from the spigot. It doesn't need to stand more than five or ten seconds before you pour it through a strainer into a small distribution pitcher 公道杯。These hair-like leaf elements release their flavor quickly and easily. From there it goes into the small drinking cups 品茗杯, served to yourself and your guests. The host will usually pass the glass of brewed leaves around to give interested guests a good whiff. I've covered the "how to" of brewing and serving green tea much more thoroughly elsewhere. Please have a look there for details: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/51305-springtime-in-a-glass-yunnan-maofeng-tea-云南毛峰茶/ You can add more hot water three or four times before the tea loses its flavor. This isn't one of those famous 耐泡 Pu'er teas that can last you all morning. Any tea fancier worth his salt will want to play with the leaves at the end of the session. Spread some out and take a close look. Easy to see how these delicate tips are not too easy to pick. It's an operation that can't be automated or rushed. Early spring tea is well worth seeking out. Buy some and enjoy it right now. If one were a poet, one could write about it capturing the impermanence of life, how it's a reminder not to put things off till tomorrow.
You can buy several flavors of milk tea 奶茶 at a stand around the corner for a dollar or two. I'm not against that, but sometimes I make it at home so as to be more careful about what is actually in it: no artificial coloring, flavoring, preservatives or sweeteners. Plus I can make it as strong or as light as I'd like. Drink it hot or cold. It's not much trouble. Let me show you how. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Start with some rich-bodied black tea 红茶, 5 or 6 grams. That's about one heaping tablespoon if you don't have a scale. I use a good grade of Fengqing Yunnan Red 凤庆滇红。About the same amount of dried rose buds. These are available in supermarkets or pharmacies in addition to tea stores. They come in several sizes, the small ones delivering a bit more flavor. Bring about 3 cups of water to a boil and add a generous spoon of rose flowers. Rinse them beforehand because they may have collected dust in the bin. Simmer 5 or 6 minutes. You can smell their distinctive floral "rose" aroma. Turn off the heat and add the tea leaves. Let the tea and rose buds steep together for 5 or 6 minutes, no need to stir it. Leave it a bit longer if you prefer your tea strong. These Dian Hong Yunnan red teas are quite aromatic all by themselves, so now your pot of tea smells really good all throughout the house. Pour in the milk, one container or package of 240 to 250 ml. Bring it back just barely to the simmer. When you see bubbles around the edge of the saucepan, turn off the fire. Don't boil it hard or it will form a "skin" on top. That isn't dangerous, but it's unattractive. Strain out the solids and then add a spoonful of honey. A teaspoon if you are feeling restrained; a tablespoon if you have a sweet tooth. I use an organic wild honey 野生蜂蜜 from Simao 思茅 where the bees feed on the flowers of Pu'er tea. It becomes crystalline pretty soon after I buy it. Sometimes I turn it back into a liquid by putting it into a hot water bath for a minute or two, but generally I just use it as it. (Don't microwave it.) This recipe makes two generous mugs of full-bodied honey rose milk tea. You can taste the rose and the honey and you can for sure taste the tea. The three flavors combine harmoniously and are perfectly balanced. Sometimes I make a double batch and save part in the fridge since it tastes just as good cold as it does hot. Hong Kong in particular has a huge crush on hot milk tea, albeit a different version, especially at breakfast and lunch. Not surprising that it's big anywhere Cantonese people have migrated over the years, from Southeast Asia to San Francisco's Chinatown. I hope you will try it and see what you think.
Here's a look at how this fresh tea brews up. (This article is a companion to one about shopping for spring tea. You can read that one here: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/58172-hello-spring-tea-2019-早春茶/?tab=comments#comment-451546 .) It's the biluochun 碧螺春茶 from Youleshan Mountain 攸乐山 in deep south Xishuangbanna 西双版欸州。A two hundred-gram bag of it cost me 25 Yuan and will probably last me until the end of the year. This is plenty beaucoup cups of good tea. It's even enough that I can give a little to a good friend or two as well so they can try it at home themselves. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Biluochun 碧螺春 is the one below left, rolled into tidy little pearls. It's the one we will be using today. An open leaf maofeng 毛峰 from last year is shown below right for comparison. If you want one insider tip before surfing away to take care of other more pressing matters, it's this: Use a glass to brew these light green spring teas 早春绿茶。You get to enjoy the visual treat of the process along with the aroma and taste. Using that heavy old crockery teapot you inherited from Aunt Martha, the one with the tacky flowers, would be a crime against nature. You could get away with a gaiwan 盖碗 but a plain, clear glass of 180 to 200 ml capacity is the choice of the pros. Try it at least once and you'll see what a difference it makes. Fill the glass about half full with boiling water. Let it stand half a minute or so to allow the glass to get hot. Pour out that water. Drop the tea leaves into the glass and shake them around well. Smell the aroma; let the aroma sink in. Drinking tea is about pleasing the eye and the nose as well as the mouth. How much tea should I use? People who do this all day just drop it in by eye. I generally use enough to loosely cover the bottom of the glass, as shown above right. If you have a small scale, start with 5 grams the first time. Depending on factors having to do with how your tea was produced, you might need to use 4 grams or 6. Adjust it to taste after that first time. Either pour in hot water in a high, thin stream or put it into a small pitcher as a first step before adding it to the dry tea leaves. This lets it cool off a little. Water which is too hot will "kill" this delicate green tea and demolish its flavor. If in doubt, err on the side of less hot instead of too hot. Don't fill the glass completely full; that makes it difficult to handle without burning your fingers. Leave the top quarter or third empty. If your tap water is funky or full of chemicals, use some from a bottle. The tea masters say that "the leaves are father of the finished cup of tea, but water is the mother." Let the tea leave steep undisturbed until most of them fall to the bottom of the glass and you can see them expand. That takes less than a minute. It won't really hurt if you want to swirl the glass gently while reciting a Tang Dynasty poem. Just don't stir it madly with a spoon. It's also not a big deal if you can't wait and drink it a little too soon. It won't be the end of the world. The second brewing and the third will probably be better than the first one. These leaves are good for maybe 4 or 5 steeps before they become weak and insipid. Discard them and start over if you and your guests are still in a tea drinking mood. Pour it through a strainer 落网 into a small pitcher or beaker 公道杯 gongdaobei。You have warmed this ahead of time with plain hot water. Decant it straight away into your small drinking cup 品茗杯 and that of your guests. I'm sure you have pre-wamed these as well. Do lots of sniffing along the way. Be sure to smell the glass after you have poured off the tea. Smell the gongdaobei once it is emptied. Pass them around. This is my setup, above. It's a simple one but fine for two, three or even four people. A larger tea tray 茶盘 would be better for more. Even this small one has a drain hole where you attach a rubber hose to lead the spilled liquids away into a plastic discard pail on the floor. It's time now to play with the leaves. You don't need to be psychic. Spread some out on a plate and have a close look. The pickers just snap off the last little bit of new growth on the tea plant, usually one bud 一芽 and one or two leaves 两叶。They work fast but carefully, often getting their start in early morning just after a quick breakfast of porridge 稀饭/粥 with a fried egg on top. The work is made tough because in these far south Yunnan tea hills, pickers must stand on an incline all day, working their way through the bushes and small tea trees, most of them a little bit over head high. These aren't flat, well-groomed plantation fields like you see in the postcards. Notice that some of the leaves are darker than others. This is an indication that this tea has been processed by hand instead of by some computerized machine. The leaves have been hand-fried in a large hot wok that is set over a wood fire. This "kills the green" 杀青 and keeps the tea leaves from .oxidizing and turning brown. They are then roughly rubbed and rolled against an irregular pan in such a way as to break up inner cellular partitions a bit, releasing flavors that would not come to the fore if the leaves were left completely intact. These and the other steps involved in making this tea require experience and good judgment. It's an art. This light spring Yunnan biluochun tea 碧螺春 and its cousins will keep its charm pretty well for a year if stored away from direct sunlight. Put it into a cupboard where it isn't too hot. It doesn't actually "go bad" after a year in terms of becoming unsafe to drink; it just looses it's zip and becomes boring. Don't put it in the fridge. That doesn't work because as the refrigerator cycles, the tea gets damp and becomes musty, develops off flavors. If you can store it in a crockery jar or one made of clay, that's perfect. Best not to keep in the the plastic bag that came from the store. You can enjoy this tea art if you get on the next plane to Yunnan. Well, actually ladies and gentlemen, you can order some from your favorite purveyor by mail. Might not be quite as fresh as mine, but I'll bet it will still be real good. Refreshing plus all sorts of outrageous health benefits. Everything from curing cancer to weight loss and stopping the ageing process dead in it's tracks. Try it and see what you think. Warning: It's hard not to like it.
I went to the annual Kunming Tea Industry Expo yesterday (2018 昆明国际茶产业博览会) for a look around. Snapped some photos so you could see what it was like. It was held at a large conference center 国贸 -- 昆明国际会展中心。If you know Kunming, it's not far from the old (now closed) Wujiaba Airport 巫家坝机场, off Chuncheng Road 春城路。No admission fee, but registration required. They give you a badge to wear around your neck and a program with a layout map of exhibitors and schedule of events. (You can click these photos to enlarge them.) This was mainly a conference and expo targeting people in the tea business, of which there are many in Yunnan. Kunming has evolved into a nationally-important tea hub. New tea factory equipment, processes and techniques were featured in most of one building (the expo was spread over several buildings.) Here are two mechanical "sorters" for processed tea leaves. Bright and shiny; ready to install. Lots of exhibitors, however, were showing hand-made, one-of-a-kind teaware, such as teapots 茶壶 and covered cups 盖碗。Prices were not low, but selection was very good. Much of it was from Jianshui 建水 in SE Yunnan, famous for its clay 紫陶 and for its craftsmen. Other booths showcased Yixing pottery 宜兴紫砂。 This exhibit (below) was family run, offering the pottery of a pleasant middle aged lady and her artist daughter. The husband was also there, sort of minding the store as the two ladies milled around, greeting potential customers. I talked with them a while. Many of these teapot shapes have traditional names. This one below right is one of my favorites because it looks graceful and is also nice to hold. Has tactile appeal as well as visual charm. It's called the 西施 shape (Xi Shi,) named after one of the four famous beauties of Chinese antiquity. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Beauties A lecture area had open seating, but ushers would take you in to minimize disturbance. Lectures and demonstrations, panel discussions, sometimes video presentations. I listened to one talk about the tea of a village that I'd never heard of before. They had a stand of ancient trees 古树 over a thousand years old. The rest flew over my head. And of course there was lots and lots of tea available. This time (I have visited this expo and others in prior years) I concentrated on getting to know more about some less popular teas. Spent a long time with a purveyor of Fujian white tea 白茶。He specialized in older white teas that had been compressed and carefully stored. Some were round cakes 饼茶 and others rectangular bricks 砖茶。He had some delicious tea from Fuding 福建福鼎, 2005 vintage for about ￥1,000 that I almost bought, but didn't. Restrained myself in time, but just barely. Explored a booth selling very strong Sichuan tea compressed into large shapes, mainly for export to Tibet 中茗藏茶。This is the kind of tea originally transported up the Tea/Horse Trail 茶马古道 on the backs of strong porters. Quality was not always high, and many of these are grouped together and called "border teas." But over time they have aged and become smoother, much in the way that good Pu'er tea can become great Pu'er tea 50 or 60 years down the road. As you see here, some were 90 years old. I drank several of them here, but didn't buy. "Rich, but not complex" would be my thumbnail summary. Here and there I saw tea purveyors that were featuring the tea of one or another of Yunnan's ethnic minorities. Lots of tea is grown in places with significant Yizu 彝族, Hanizu 哈尼族 and Baizu 白族 populations. (The list is actually quite a bit longer.) I was pleasantly surprised to find a large store selling aged tangerine peel 陈皮。This is a prized ingredient in Chinese Traditional Medicine TCM/中医疗法 as well as being something that can add a lot to some Chinese dishes. I invested in a small handful of this 2005 product, which is not easy to find. On request, the sales lady would brew some up as an infusion and let you taste it. The best of it is air dried, but not in full sun. That improves the flavor. Along those same lines, I stopped off at a booth selling different kinds of limited-production chrysanthemum flowers. I enjoy chrysanthemum tea, and wanted to get familiar with some of the lesser known varieties. Some flowers were large enough that one bloom alone filled a big wine glass. Each one had a subtly different taste. Did the same at another shop specializing in rose tea. They had buds sorted into degree of opening: completely closed 关的，partly opened 微开，and fully bloomed 全打开。Each had a different flavor and bouquet. Bought some of these difficult-to-find "herbals" for US friends. Broke for lunch. Vendors outside the doors had cafeteria-style plate lunches available on disposable plastic trays for ￥15 each. No selection. Just took what they had and ate it up, sitting on a metal bench. Not bad at all, but the meat was sub-prime, mostly fat. Got a chance to rest my feet, which was welcome. That's a fried egg 煎蛋 on top of the rice 米饭。Lotus root 藕片 and bitter greens 苦菜。Potato slivers 洋芋丝; pickled cabbage 泡菜 beneath the meat. Back inside, going to another building, found lots of hand-crafted Pu'er tea. Many varieties, many shapes and sizes, lots of them presented in an artistic way, not strictly utilitarian. These large Pu'er cakes, about the size of a large dinner plate (lower left), have lighter leaves arranged in such a way as to spell out a few old sayings 古话。 Lower right are two sizes of 七子饼 qizi bing. Pu'er tea is typically packaged in bamboo-wrapped stacks of seven 七 cakes 饼 each. They are often stored that way for long-term ageing, not separated until they are ready to be used. The usual size is 357 grams (those are on the right in this photo,) but smaller 200 gram cakes (on the left in this photo) are also sometimes available. A few vendors had things unrelated to tea, but I was pleased to see that they were very few. Smaller expos tend to get over-run with trinkets and knickknacks. These brightly glazed ceramic flower vases from Taiwan, and the bracelets carved from petrified wood were two exceptions to the "strictly tea and tea stuff" policy. Some of the tea for sale was so nicely packed as to nearly be undrinkable. Who could bear to tear into one of these and actually brew it up? Guess these would be good gifts for the boss. Would gain you lots of face 面子, maybe help you get promoted. These were smaller Pu'er cakes (200 grams) -- one each from every famous Yunnan tea mountain (there are 8 major ones and several minor ones that tea people here generally know.) They thus present kind of a "Yunnan Pu'er tea tour." Each tea cake wrapper had the place of origin marked on a Yunnan map and the display boxes were hinged in such a way that they could fold together. Very impressive to me. I didn't ask the price and it was high enough to not be openly displayed. I didn't think I could top that no matter how long I walked around. Furthermore, by now I was carrying several packages. Called it a day and took the #62 bus back home. Summary snapshot of my "loot." Christmas shopping just about done. Some herb tea and some bamboo boxes. A good day's work, interesting as well as fun.