TeaGuide: Reviews and Ramblings

December 11, 2014

Scents and scents-ability of tea

oolong tea leaves

Oolong tea leaves

The enjoyment of tea encourages us to engage all of our senses. Look at the shape and colour of the dry leaves, watch them unfurl and swirl in the hot water. Feel the cool smoothness of gyokuro leaves or the nubbly texture of a Buddha’s hand oolong leaf. Listen to the water boiling in the kettle, then as it’s poured from kettle to teapot to cup. Savour each sip, perceiving the range of tastes playing across your palate.

Our sense of smell may be the most important, and most varied, aspect of enjoying tea. Sniff the dry leaf in the sack or tin immediately after opening it to draw in the scent; again when you first pour hot water onto the leaves; and once more when bringing cup to lips. After the teapot is empty, lift the cover and take in the lingering bouquet graciously left by the tea on the interior of the pot.

To further enhance the olfactory appreciation of tea, in the mid-1900s the aroma cup was created in Taiwan. Also called a fragrance or smelling cup, this is a small cylindrical cup (wen xiang bei) paired with a small drinking cup (cha bei). Altho’ these were specifically designed to amplify the aromas of fragrant Taiwan oolongs, you can of course try it with other types of teas.

Three aroma cup sets from my own collection.

Three aroma cup sets from my own collection: Decorative china with flange, celadon porcelain in a bulb shape, and a traditional partially glazed red clay.

Fresh-made tea is first poured into the tall cup and allowed to rest for a few moments, then emptied into the drinking cup. If you’re nimble, you can add some drama to this procedure by inverting the drinking cup over the aroma cup that has been filled with tea, lift the cups together with thumb and middle finger of one hand, and quickly flip them over to transfer the tea into the drinking cup. Otherwise, simply pour the tea from the aroma cup into the drinking cup.

The aroma cup is then raised toward the nose to smell the lingering tea fragrance, which is intensified by the cylindrical shape. Sniff … and ahhhh! Aromas last for about a minute, during which time they subtly change as the cup cools, offering multiple nuances of scent. Alternate smelling and drinking the tea from the two cups to fully enjoy this ritual.

It’s been said that smell is the most evocative of all the senses, that a mere hint of a familiar scent can draw us immediately to another time and place. Certainly this is true of the fragrances of tea. If you don’t already use an aroma cup to enhance your tea enjoyment, I highly recommend that you give it a try.

(Here is one source for aroma cup sets, altho’ there are many other vendors who sell these as sets or individual cups.)

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July 19, 2013

Reviews: The best of the best oolongs

Filed under: food,oolong tea,tea review,Tea sites — by JanisB @ 3:51 pm
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What a miserable month it’s been! Just the right combination of rain and sun started everything to bloom. Which may be wonderful for many of you, but to those of us with spring fever it means constant stuffed-up noses and scratchy throats. Most days I could be drinking the best-quality tea in the world and wouldn’t know it, because smell is such an important part of taste. My dear husband kept telling me that everything I fixed was over-seasoned, but I couldn’t tell: Essentially everything I tasted — if I could even taste it — was like yuck.

Now that heavy rains (almost enough to build an ark this year!) have washed away early-summer allergies, I can again enjoy smelling and tasting my food and drink. DH is no longer afraid to put a fork to the dinner on his plate. And I’m blissfully back to sampling a bunch of absolutely wonderful teas.

Lishan-oolong-Taiwan Tea Crafts

A potful and cup of Taiwan Tea Crafts Lishan Cui Fong oolong, posed in front of my hand-tea-crafted tea-dyed Tea Shirt.

Lishan oolong is considered by many tea drinkers to be the crème de la crème of Taiwan oolongs. Grown high up — 5,000 to 8,000 feet — in the mountains of Taiwan, the combination of growing conditions in the Lishan tea area results in a smooth and lightly sweet cup that fairly bursts with all the flowers of a spring garden.

Here’s where I have to admit that I had no idea that there was more than one type of Lishan oolong. Never having seen more than one Lishan listed at any other vendor, it seemed that all the tea from this region was grown the same and exhibited the same qualities. I have since learned that the Lishan growing region encompasses plantings at different altitudes — and yes, the altitude clearly does make a difference. Depending on where the plant grows it may get more or less exposure to the sun, and this affects the intensity of the taste and aroma put forth by the leaf.

I sampled two of these green-style oolongs, or pouchongs, courtesy of Taiwan Tea Crafts: Lishan High Mountain Spirit Lot 230 and Lishan Cui Fong Lot 217. Both have beautiful aromatic tightly rolled leaves that open into a lovely bright green colour.

The first of these imparts a lovely flowery taste and aroma: flowers with just a hint of spice and nuts, as if you were eating a flower. I’m on my sixth infusion of this tea and it’s fading a bit, but its qualities still come through as clearly as when I first opened the package. It’s like enjoying a spring garden without any of the allergy worries!

Lishan-oolong-Taiwan Tea Crafts

I’m still on the second infusion of the Cui Fong, and it’s just as lovely as the Spirit. Grown at a slightly higher elevation where the plants enjoy more sunshine, the floral gardenia-type notes are more pronounced, with almost none of the flowery spice. I imagine that it will also last through at least six infusions.

Tea drinkers may disagree on which particular tea they like best, but there can be no disagreement when it comes to freshness: the fresher the tea, the more intense the aroma and the more exuberant the taste. These teas were plucked and processed in May, and reached me just weeks later, and both exhibit a headiness that simply isn’t there in teas that are less fresh.

For those who are interested, I steeped these teas in my duck-design clay teapot in what I call modified gongfu style; that is, I rinse the leaves, steep up the first potful, and transfer it to a larger vessel (in this case a two-cup Chatsford teapot). After each steeping, before I blend them together (two infusions at a time), I pour enough into my glass cup to better appreciate the evolving colour, aroma, and taste. To my mind there is tasting tea and drinking tea, and having a teapotful makes it easier to drink after tasting.

Two things I like about Taiwan Tea Crafts are that freshness of their teas and the details they provide about each one. You can buy oolongs from many vendors, but they don’t all identify the garden, the plucking date, how it was plucked (by hand or machine), garden elevation, even the cultivars that produced the particular lot (or invoice) of tea. A lot of vendors do not provide this kind of information, and it’s greatly appreciated by true tea-o-philes (otherwise known as tea nerds).

Taiwan Tea Crafts has recently revised their shipping policy, making their teas and tea ware much more affordable and accessible to those of us who live outside of Taiwan. And they now offer sample sizes of each of their teas. Definitely worth checking out.

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