Family, Friends, and Community: The Importance of the Chinese Lunar New Year and What it Means for You
Last week, the world came together and celebrated the Chinese Lunar New Year, a weeklong celebration that is the most important holiday of the year.
Drawing from China’s lengthy and rich tradition as an agricultural society spanning more than 5,000 years, the Lunar New Year has always been a time of festivity, celebration, community, and most importantly, rest. It is a tradition that, through the wonder of reenactment, unifies the present with the past; and similarly, as we dream collectively of better days yet to come, it unites us with the future.
The Lunar New Year is a time to strengthen relationships, to settle debts, to reflect on one’s shortcomings and failures, acknowledging them and making a commitment to change for the better. It is also a time to rebuild old friendships, repairing such strained relationships through acts of charity and heartfelt discussions, and it is a time to create new ones, getting to know those around you.
Every step is taken to ensure and promote nothing but a positive, exceptional experience with others. Discussions of grave and unhappy matters are shunned and avoided as unlucky, often portending a bad year ahead. Instead, games are played by families, gifts are exchanged with loved ones, and delicious foods and teas are shared with friends.
The Lunar New Year is, ultimately, a celebration of the best that life has to offer, a refocusing on what is truly most important.
This year’s holiday marked the beginning of the Year of the Pig, one of the twelve animals in the Chinese Zodiac—along with the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, and dog. According to legend, these are the first twelve animals who finished the race that the Jade Emperor had requested for his birthday.
The Year of the Pig is supposed to be a year full of joy, prosperity, luck, and good fortune, and although the Lunar New Year festivities are over, the Year of the Pig has just begun, inviting us to look for the good in our lives and experiences, to appreciate the talents and abilities of others, and to be thankful for everything that comes our way.
Given the season in which the Lunar New Year is celebrated, we think it is best and most auspicious to start your year with a dark or roasted tea. If you’re looking for something nice, consider indulging your company with the creamy Wuyi Golden Water Turtle rock oolong (Shui Jin Gui).
If, however, you’re unsure of what your company enjoys, then you may want to serve them a familiar, pleasant cup of Keemun Imperial black tea, a tea that is well-appreciated for its signature floral fragrance.
The Water Turtle is perfect for seasoned tea drinkers familiar with the world of oolongs while the Keemun speaks to every type of tea drinker, from the novice to the connoisseur. In any case, just be sure to listen to your guest and be grateful for what they have to say.
There is, after all, no better way to start a year than with good company.
Pu-erh is beloved by tea enthusiasts worldwide. The pressed cakes, often wrapped in eye-catching packaging, come in a medley of beautiful colors, and the range of exotic, complex flavors that each tea offers ensures that there is a pu-erh out there for every palate. It is not difficult to see why this tea belongs in a category of its own, and its especially long shelf life is a testament to this uniqueness, promising not just good tea over time, but better tea.
This same degree of flexibility, however, also leads to some confusion, and sometimes, pu-erh drinkers will accidentally ruin their tea, failing to entertain some important considerations from Storage 101, such as never storing their tea in an area with a strong scent or odor.
While those kinds of tips might seem like common sense, there’s still a chance to get it wrong, and these odds only increase if you are planning on any sort of long-term storage. To help prevent any unhappy outcomes, we’re going to share a few storage failsafe’s to ensure that you’re getting the most out of your pu-erh tea, guaranteeing a good cup before its too late.
We’ve mentioned it before, but this is so fundamental to pu-erh storage that it is worth emphasizing: your storage conditions matter.
There are certainly some similarities in basic storage etiquette between your regular teas and pu-erh—such as avoid sunlight or avoid moisture—but pu-erh storage also has a fair share of unique rules.
Unlike regular teas, for instance, you want there to be some air flow and you want there to be some humidity (60–85%), you want the temperature to be mild, and most importantly, you want these conditions to be relatively stable, especially over time. Without these guidelines in place, your prized pu-erh could end up at one extreme or another, astringent and bitter or, worse, moldy.
Remember, however, that these rules apply only when you’re deliberately trying to age your pu-erh. If and when it develops a flavor that you particularly enjoy, you’ll want to arrest the aging process by storing it in an airtight container and a cool, dry place.
Keep a Tasting Journal
A tasting journal is always a good idea for any tea drinker. It is a fun and creative way to train your palate, and it helps you remember which teas you’ve tasted and how much you enjoyed them. Rather than risk confusing your Wuyi Shui Xian oolong with your Wuyi Shi Ru Xiang, your journal can show you exactly which tea you tasted, when you tasted it, and how much you liked it.
But the tasting journal is not just a creative outlet.
There simply is no other way to keep track of whether your teas have changed in flavor and freshness without one. We have a tendency to rely on our memory, and while this can help to a degree, it is nowhere near as reliable as a journal that tracks the date the tea was sampled along with a few notes on the quality, colors, and flavors.
When it comes to pu-erh, the journal is indispensable in tracking its changes from the day it was purchased to the day it is brought out of storage, especially if you plan on aging your pu-erh for more than a year.
But knowing how your pu-erh tastes compared to day one when you bring it out of storage is one thing; knowing when to pull it out of storage is another.
Whether or not you decide to keep a tasting journal, there is only one way to know when your pu-erh is ready to be enjoyed: you have to taste it regularly. This is arguably one of the biggest mistakes that pu-erh enthusiasts will make, failing to taste their pu-erh as it is aging.
By tasting regularly, you can detect when your pu-erh is starting to taste “off,” giving you an opportunity to make adjustments to your storage conditions in order to salvage it. Some pu-erh drinkers, for instance, have noticed their tea just beginning to absorb an unpleasant odor, and by identifying it early, they were able to prevent this odor from hopelessly ruining their tea.
If you want to guarantee that your pu-erh is at peak flavor, you’ll want to break off a little of your pu-erh cake and infuse it every 6–12 months. By doing this, you ensure that your pu-erh is aging as expected, and you might even catch some storage problems before it is too late.
Our teas showcase a variety of sensory characteristics—shape, color, aroma, texture—that entice us, invite us to use and infuse, bringing us great pleasure and joy as we carefully walk through our tea ritual and sip from our cups.
While we might enjoy all of these characteristics throughout a tea session, it’s no secret that some teas captivate us by uniquely capturing the essence of just one characteristic, as if it were a paradigm, a representative against which all else is to be measured.
We can’t help but admire the wildflower aromatics of Anxi Tieguanyin, the caramelly smooth texture of Sichuan Imperial, and the gorgeous color encapsulated by the inimitable shape of artisanal hand-crafted Liu An Gua Pian. In each of these cases, the tea just is what it means to have a wildflower aromatic, a velvety texture, a splendorous color. So magnificent are these teas that our experience of them defines these features.
Now, though there is little question that Anxi Tieguanyin, for example, perfectly captures that wildflower essence in a way that no other tea can, it raises the question: are there any teas that embody aroma itself?
To meet this qualification, a tea would not only need to be highly fragrant, redolent of the land out of which it is grown, but it would need to go beyond this, to possess an outstanding complexity without overwhelming our olfactory sense, to be hypnotically ambrosial, completely enthralling us with every scent.
Is there such a tea?
The challenge of finding the perfectly aromatic tea would no doubt prove a difficult endeavor, perhaps even a fool’s errand, but there is a class of teas that, on average, stands out above all others when it comes to intoxicating perfumes: Wuyi Rock Oolongs.
Indeed, the Wuyi Yancha tea are the teas par excellence when it comes to heady aromatics. Each rock oolong hails from its own tea bush varietal, tested by the rugged, humid environment of Wuyi Mountain.
The combination of these two factors alone already serve to produce an extensive array of diverse, unique flavor profiles, but when you add the discerning eyes and disciplined hands of a tea master, the aromatic possibilities seem endless.
Consider, for instance, the famous Horse Head Rock Yancha, Rou Gui, a Wuyi rock oolong that treats the nose with herbaceous notes of true cinnamon sprinkled over baked stone fruits.
As alluring as this may sound, one would also do well to also pay heed to White Rooster Crest Yancha, Bai Ji Guan. Grown at Huiyuan Cave, this is a lighter-colored rock oolong that smells of freshly sliced pear garnished with almond slivers and infused with the essence of elderflower.
Or you might turn your attention and nose to Stone Milk Fragrance Yancha, Shi Ru Xiang. Cultivated from an especially rocky area known as Shui Lian Dong, this viscous tea, true to its name sake, pleases with a trace scent of milk poured atop a bowl of vanilla granola sweetened with sun-dried raisins.
To be sure, the entrancing aromas of Wuyi rock oolongs does not end with those three. Deserving a category of their own, these teas comprise a whole world unto themselves, begging to be explored by the curious adventurers and the discriminating connoisseurs alike.What’s your favorite Wuyi Rock Oolong?
In wine tasting, oenophiles, sommeliers, and other experts have long understood how the structure, shape, and material of a wine glass can influence the flavors and aromatics of the wine. Similarly, these same attributes in your teaware can enhance the flavors and aromatics of your tea.
It’s in the interest of getting the most out of your tea that we shared our blog last week on thinking regionally about pairing your tea and teaware, and today, we’re going to discuss some of the physical characteristics of teaware that can make your tea drinking experience that much better.
In general, there are three basic shapes to your various teacups.
The most common shape might be the shorter, wider teacup, sometimes known as a bowl or classic shape. Often when we think of teacups, we probably have one of these in mind, and they are sculpted with myriad variations. Some have taller, steeper sides while others feature thicker, shorter walls. What they all have in common though is a shape that maximizes the surface area of the tea.
Why would you want maximal surface area?
The answer is simple: the classic shape is designed with thought given to the texture or mouthfeel of the tea. By increasing the surface area of the liquid, these teacups increase the rate of flow as you tilt the cup towards your lips, enabling you to sip more tea than you would otherwise. In doing so, this creates an absolutely tantalizing experience when drinking any teas with rich, velvety textures, a feature common to black teas such as Sichuan Imperial Gong Fu or Yunnan Ye Sheng Gushu.
Often easily confused with the classic shape is the flared or “summer” teacup. What differentiates the flared teacup from the classic teacup is a lip or rim that gently curves outward. The importance of the flare cannot be understated, as it accomplishes quite a few functions.
In general, a teacup with a thin wall allows heat to transfer more quickly to your hands or fingertips, making it uncomfortable to handle freshly brewed tea. And yet, these same thin walls also cool down your teas much faster, which is commonly desired when drinking green or white teas. By introducing a flare to the rim, artists discovered a way to move part of the teacup further away from contact with the hot tea, creating a space where you can more comfortably handle your teacup.
Besides easy handling and quicker cooldowns, the flared teacup also gives you more fine-grained control over the amount of tea you sip. Whereas the classic shape directs all of the tea towards your lips as you tilt your cup, the flare acts as a barrier, allowing you to more carefully fine tune the rate of flow. These features are ideal for enjoying teas such as Dragonwell green tea or White Peony white tea.
Perhaps the least common shape for no good reason is the tall, cylindrical style, often referred to as a flute or tulip. Bearing a shape often associated with celebratory speeches and champagne glasses, the fluted teacup has not yet become familiar to much of the west, and this is unfortunate.
One of the key advantages of the tulip shape is that it concentrates the aromas of the tea into a smaller area before forcing them upward toward its narrow opening, delivering a wonderful bouquet of smells straight to your olfactory sense. This is an especially important attribute when tasting an aromatically potent tea, such as Wuyi’s Shui Xian rock oolong or Anxi’s floral Tieguanyin.
Hopefully this helps clear up some of the mystery behind all of these different shapes and sizes, revealing that there’s a functional reason underlying many of the choices that artists sometimes make.
Have you ever paid attention to the shapes of your teacups? What kind do you have? Do you have a favorite?
Share your thoughts with us below!
For some of us, selecting the teaware we plan to use on any given day is an emotional or aesthetic decision. We might feel good about a gaiwan one day and a teapot the next, or we might simply find that the Yixing teapot looks more attractive next to the stoneware teacups.
For others, teaware selection is a functional choice. When tea is infused at a lower temperature, for instance, these types will display a strong preference for thinner-walled gaiwans and teacups, and as the temperature requirement increases, they’ll try to make sure to choose teaware that is more insulated. After all, nobody wants to risk burning their fingers or ruining their favorite cup of tea.
But did you know there’s another way to pair your teaware with your tea (and it works quite well)? The short answer is this: think regionally. Who better understands what kind of teaware gets the most out of their tea than the locals who have been drinking this tea for centuries? There is a close relationship between indigenous artists, their ceramic tradition, and the native cultivars—they designed and sculpted their wares for their teas.
Artists in Jingdezhen, for instance, were most familiar with the more delicate green teas from Anhui and Fuliang. It is therefore no surprise to discover the explosion in popularity of paper thin, translucent porcelain. It added a heavenly quality to the already soft, delicate teas.
Meanwhile, far away to the southwest China of Yunnan, while tea masters were crafting black teas and pu erhs. Jian Shui tea wares afforded an appropriate level of insulation and heat retention, meeting the optimal brewing requirements for these darker teas. As a bonus, the porous clays of these wares absorbs the flavors of these teas, helping ensure they only taste more and more flavorful over time.
However, when you travel due south from Jingdezhen instead, you’ll find Fujian. Home to inimitable white teas and Wuyi rock oolongs, the tradition here has been to use celadon, Jian Zhan, and even Qing Ci teawares. To accommodate the very different types of local teas, the pottery had to become more flexible and diverse. When you apply a celadon glaze to stoneware, for instance, it is heavy enough to handle roasted oolong, but it is also smooth and light enough to work with green teas.
Finally, in Huangzhou, where the highly coveted dragonwell green tea is produced, the crackled, sky-blue glaze of ruware was the preferred choice during the Song Dynasty. Often unadorned and emphasizing form, these low-fired wares take on a life of their own with frequent use as the crackles deepen in color and create spectacular, three-dimensional patterns.
While this approach works most of the time, there are some limitations to it. Tea production methods and even tea cultivars are always evolving, and so some regions will experiment by crafting new, exotic teas that have not been part of that region’s tradition. If you plan on enjoying one of these teas, then you’ll need to be a little more judicious with your teaware choice.But for the most part, thinking regionally takes both the aesthetic and functional considerations out of the equation for us while leaving us with quite reliable choices. After all, it was a quite lengthy, trial-and-error history that dictated these choices as artists slowly learned what worked and what didn’t. By thinking along these lines, we too participate in that history, keeping it alive and well.
One side of the mountain gently slopes downward, an Iron Goddess of Mercy statue crowning the ridge, overlooking the valley down below. On this slope are rows upon rows of tea bushes, shimmering from morning dew, and peaking up between them are all manner of reds, whites, and yellows from the various indigenous wildflowers. A pleasant, cool mist blankets the area, retreating with the dawn, and as the nocturnal symphony of croaks and chirps reach their grand finale, the birds, seemingly in unison, usher in their own performance, inviting all who can hear to welcome the emergence of the day.
If it seems to be a place out of a fairy tale, rest assured, its majesty is very real. Located in Fujian Province, Anxi County has come to be known as the home to one of the most famous teas in all of the world: tieguanyin (or iron goddess of mercy).
It is precisely this fairytale landscape that lends itself to the distinctive character of tieguanyin. With the exception of deeper roasts, it is often renowned for its floral notes, and these aromatics are inherited from the wildflowers that grow nearby. The soil at these heights, a rich composition of sand and stone, imparts a subtle minerality to this oolong, enhancing the complexity of this lovely tea.
Both of these characteristics are hallmarks of a high-quality tieguanyin, for among the low-elevation plantations and farms, the native wildflowers are notably absent and the soil quality diminishes considerably, forcing farmers to resort to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to grow their teas. But as you ascend the mountains, leaving the urban areas far behind, nature is able to work her magic, creating the ideal conditions for tea bushes and trees to flourish on their own.
If only crafting Anxi tieguanyin were as simple as plucking tea leaves from these bushes.
We have sourced our tieguanyin from Master Zhou, who is adamant about crafting tea using traditional methods. The aim of crafting a tieguanyin is to produce a tea with a full, creamy body, and so this process begins with plucking the tea leaves by hand, a step known as cai qing (採青) in which the strictest of standards and a set of good eyes are used to select the right leaves.
From there, the leaves are then sun-withered and placed in bamboo baskets before gently tossing, rocking, and shaking them. This step, known as yao qing (搖青) is meant to breakdown the cellular structure of the tea leaves in order to produce the flavors we have come to associate with tieguanyin. It is crucial at this step to exercise the utmost care, trying to strike a balance between too much and too little leaf breakdown, both of which can have unhappy consequences for the final flavor, ruining the tea entirely.
When the leaves are ready, Master Zhou will begin bao rou (包揉), painstakingly twisting and rolling each of the leaves by hand. With easily around 200 tea leaves in a 50g pouch, you can imagine how long something like this must take when producing several pounds of tea. Along with the other steps involved in crafting this oolong, Master Zhou spends several long days (and sometimes nights) trying to get his tea just right, preparing it for the roasting process.Anxi Tieguanyin is a true labor of love, and the results speak for themselves. Between the unique terroir of this beautiful area and the tender hand administered by Master Zhou, this is an exceptional tea that we are lucky to be able to share with you.
As we discussed last week, there are a lot of reasons to love Jian Shui teapots, and while they can be the more economical option, Yixing still holds a very special place in our hearts. Here are five reasons we think you should consider adding a Yixing teapot to your collection as well.
- Piece of History
Yixing teapots hail from their namesake, a city located in Jiangsu province. Established during the Qin Dynasty in the 3rd century BC, the teapots didn’t begin making an appearance until some time during the Song Dynasty, almost 1,300 years later. It would be another 200 years, under Ming Dynasty rule, when the Yixing teapot would finally begin assuming the form we are all familiar with today.
- Porous Clay
Unglazed, Yixing teapots are famous for their strong, porous clay, making them suitable for a lifetime (and more) of use when properly cared for. What is especially advantageous about the porous clay is that it absorbs the oils from the tea used in the teapot, which means that over time, the flavor of your tea is continually enhanced. The obvious downside is that you should only use one type of tea in an unglazed teapot, but when you taste the difference this makes in your cup of tea, you’ll quickly understand why this is a good thing. Nothing compares to tea prepared in a well-seasoned Yixing teapot.
While it is becoming increasingly common to press clay into molds when crafting a teapot, there are still a number of artists dedicated to bringing to life a teapot using the traditional methods—entirely hand-crafted. It can be a humbling experience to hold in your hands a teapot that appears nearly perfectly symmetrical, knowing that an artist poured hours into meticulously and methodically shaping the clay by hand. Indeed, mastering these techniques can take years, and this partially accounts for the cost of some Yixing teapots. We are careful to ensure that each teapot in our collection was made using these traditional methods.
- Beauty in Simplicity
Occasionally, you might find something like an intricately carved Yixing teapot, double-walled with elaborate, ornate designs. To untrained Western eyes, these can look like pieces of art, but all too often, the exotic, busy appearance is designed to conceal imperfections and defects. This is why some of the most highly coveted Yixing teapots are rather plain. A plain teapot will quickly reveal its weaknesses—an abnormal spot, unwelcome change in color, unusually thick or thin part of the vessel. Only the most careful of artists have the skill and patience to endeavor upon bringing to life such a pure, perfect form, and it is this perfection that aids in brewing the ultimate cup of tea. When such artists are inspired to enhance their teapots, they do so without detracting from the form, putting the same care into etching subtle designs and phrases into the sides of the teapot rather than anything loud and distracting.There is no question that Jian Shui teapots are easy to admire and a lot of fun to use, but for the reasons above, Yixing will always be a favorite. Fortunately, like children, we can love them both, even if they’re a little bit different.