Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Review: Grand Tea, Huo Shan Huang Ya ('09 Spring)

Huo Shan Huang Yua is a yellow tea that at one time had been given to Chinese Emperors (Ming and Qing dynasties) in tribute. From Mount Huo, located in Anhui Province (home of the famous Qimen, or Keemun, tea, which tradionally forms the base for English Breakfast), this yellow tea is in appearance much like a white-- the leaves and buds have been left in the form they had when they were plucked from the bush-- but are oxidized a bit more by being allowed to yellow a bit before being heated to stop the fermentation process, thus placing them between white and green teas.

The Grand Tea Web site reads,

This rare high grade Huo Shan Huang Ya was made from leaves of high mountain tea trees. This wonderful tea has a sweet mellow taste, and long lasting refreshing aroma.

During the process of making yellow tea, the tea loses the vegetal, "grassy" aftertaste which is often associated with green tea. Many tea drinkers who don't like the taste of green tea often prefer the yellow teas, as the health benefits are the same, but the taste is subtler and sweeter.

Yellow tea is brewed in much the same way as white tea. This means that the water should not be hotter than about 180 degrees F, or 80 degrees C. Use one tablespoon of loose tea leaf (about two grams) for five ounces (150 ml) of water, and steep for a minute or two.

Mount Huo Yellow Sprout

Very aromatic: a dusty, tickles-the-nose kind of scent, with the aroma of a row-crop farm in summer. It reminds me of tall corn in the fields, horses, the State Fair, and the sweet hay that animals eat. These are two-leaves-and-a-bud, quite small leaves. This indicates they were plucked quite early in the Spring season. The buds are quite tiny, and these are a light olive color. After steeping, the leaves take on an even richer, mulchy aroma, again strongly reminiscent of a State Fair, with a rich, summertime smell.

Pale peach-gold color, and quite aromatic, but with a sharper tone than the leaves alone. The flavor is entirely consistent with the aroma. First sip, when the tea is at its hottest, it is sweet, smooth, and mulchy-- not earthy or vegetal-- and so strongly evokes standing in the hot sunshine at the State Fair, with these complex aromas coming from the horses and cows and sheep and hay and seed... The tea is evocative with a lively characteristic, but in no way overwhelming. The second cup of the tea remained largely the same, even as the tea cooled a bit. This means the oxidation within the pot after steeping had concluded did not perceptibly change this yellow tea. The tea is mildly astringent, with a huigan [sweet aftertaste] that rises from the back of the throat.

I'm not the kind of person who is drawn to white teas, because they are too subtle for my barbaric palate. But this yellow tea (a category I have not delved into deeply) has body and character enough to keep my attention. And I am very drawn to the summery flavor and aroma that so much makes me think of being outside among the cornstalks as harvest approaches.

Thank you, Grand Tea and TeaViews.com, for the opportunity to sample this Huo Shan Huang Ya.

Interestingly, the folks at TeaHub (Twitter: @TeaHub) commented thus:

TeaHub @39Steeps Interesting that you compared Huo Shan Huang Ya to white tea. Among all yellow teas, it perhaps the most similar to green tea.

This would probably account for my attraction to this tea: while it is in a class that hovers between white and green, if it were closer to a white, I would probably declare it too faint for my tastes. I'm relatively unfamiliar with yellow teas, and I'm very glad for TeaHub's input, helping me better understand this class of tea.

And @TeaHub followed with a link to their video of how this yellow tea is made:

In case anyone is interested, we have a short video on Huo Shan Huang Ya on our site at http://tinyurl.com/lcn8wq

(Warning: The video is narrated in Chinese.) Thanks, TeaHub, for the instant input on a post I only published a few minutes ago!

Friday, July 24, 2009

REVIEW: TeaHub Organic Spring WuYi Da Hong Pao (heavily roasted), 2008

TeaHub Organic Spring WuYi Da Hong Pao (heavily roasted), 2008

Created in my patented gong-faux style. Please do not try at home. Trust me.

Da Hong Pao is one of China's famous oolong teas, and is one of the world's greats. It's known in English as, "Big Red Robe," named when a Chinese emperor was so overwhelmed by the tea that he gave his robes of office to an underling and commanded that they be placed at the roots of the tree that produced this great thing he was tasting. It's been cultivated primarily in the WuYi mountains forever, and the volcanic rocky soil produces the tea's very unique flavor.

For the reader who is not as familiar with Chinese tea preparation, the gong-fu style of tea involves a large amount of tea leaf and a series of short steeps, rather than one long steep, as is common in British-style tea. When I drink Chinese tea, I have not been trained in Chinese gong-fu preparation, so it's obvious that my tea will not get the best results you would find with seasoned tea masters. Nevertheless, I try to be as careful as I can, paying close attention to the water, the pot, and such things as I an pick up by reading masters on the Internet. Thus, I am pretty certain I can make a pretty decent, if not mind-blowing, cup of tea.

Gong-fu tea is like reading a poem broken into multiple stanzas, or a book with a number of chapters, or a play in several acts. Or a multicourse French meal. Or some other metaphor divided into smaller, baby-sized submetaphors.

TeaHub's Organic Spring WuYi Da Hong Pao (heavily roasted), 2008, is a good example of how this can work to provide an interesting tea experience. You don't drink the tea to get a huge whallop of caffeine and go on with your day. Instead, you slow down just a bit and read the progression of the tea as it transforms slowly across the "Acts."


Introduction: 25-second infusion
In the play's introduction, you get to know a little bit about the characters, and what type of story this is. Is this a drama? Comedy? Are the characters strong, weak, conflicted?

Strong, roasty flavor is predominant, with a high note of sweet honey and something sharp but difficult to define, sort of a buzz, up among the clouds. Suzanne, my wife, says, "It had a weight to it, without being bitter or heavy." Very pleasing, full mouthfeel, which coats the mouth and throat.

Act 1: 20s
Now we get into the story itself. A plot arises. The conflict emerges.

I taste a bright, hard edge, with very complex roasty base. Mm, second infusion better than first. A bit of charcoal, slight drying in the mouth.

Act 2: 20s
By the second act, we would get to the sexy love scene and maybe a murder or two.

The tea is much sweeter now. Still, there's this tingling buzz in the mouth, which is likely my response to the particular combination of astringency and sweetness in this cup, which has an unusually complex manifestation. The drying compliments the richly smooth mouthfeel.

Act 3: 30s
Ah, to the meat of the play. The conflict naturally moves toward its climax.

Roasty, sharp, excellent, best yet. Beautiful, exciting flavor that is complex without being overbearing, light but strong.

Act 4: 40s
And the finale, the conclusion, the dessert course.

Flavor profile receding, probably could steep longer. More mineral taste developing.

Exeunt: 50s
At this point, the main action is over, and it's all about getting the bill, the after-dinner mint, and hitting the streets.

Now the tea is weak enough that the mouthfeel has subsided almost entirely, and we've entered the realm of new decisions. How long do I want to drink this tea, as its flavor slowly fades into a whisper? For this tea, it would be difficult to push this terribly far, but interesting enough, perhaps, to try it. I'll probably keep steeping this into the afternoon, just to see what happens and how far it can go, but it won't have the same punch as those early infusions.

UPDATE: Now includes link to to TeaHub Web site, above.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

EVENT: TeaGschwendner "Taste of the Himalaya" tea tasting

Tonight I attended TeaGschwendner's Algonquin store event, "Taste of the Himalaya," hosted by Sam Ritchey. I'll blog in detail about the event later.

But quickly, I would urge tea lovers in Scottsdale, Chicago, or the Western suburbs of Chicago to visit TeaGschwendner and taste their Darjeeling and Nepali teas. In the U.S., they have the best variety of this type of tea that I've ever seen.

Thanks, Sam, for such a great event.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

INTERVIEW: The 39 Steeps Radio, featuring Imen Shan of Tea Habitat

Today I will be interviewing Imen Shan, from TeaHabitat.com, who provided me with a package of wonderful dan cong oolongs recently. You can find the link here:


The program will be archived, and I'll post the permalink here once I figure out how all of this works.

I hope the interview will be interesting and a lot of fun!

10:00 CST, and the call in number is: (347) 857-2748

VIDEO: "Green Tea Leaves," by Jussi Rautaniemi

In the comments section of one of my blog posts, documentarian Jussi Rautaniemi posted a link to his video, "Green Tea Leaves," which is a short film about Dobra Tea. It's a Prague-based tea company with tea shops around the world, including two in the United States (in Burlington and Madison). I'm very intrigued by this company, because it's an enormous accomplishment to have grown a tea house into such a large chain.

They focus on Chinese and Japanese tea preparation styles, which they actually take the time to do within their tea shops. I find that to be quite amazing.

The video below is from the Vimeo Web site, and I hope it works for you. Thank you, Jussi, for sharing your video with us.

GREEN TEA LEAVES from Jussi Rautaniemi on Vimeo.

Monday, July 20, 2009

REVIEW: Thunderbolt Tea, Giddapahar China Wiry Tippy, 2009

Today I'm drinking Thunderbolt Tea's Darjeeling Giddapahar tea estate Darjeeling. It is the 2009 vintage, China varietal, and it is labeled, "Wiry Tippy."

Before you even read my review of this great tea, I urge you to read MattCha's blog, where he actually went to the Giddapahar Estate and met with Mr. Lochan himself. Great pictures and information about what the conditions are like where this tea is harvested and manufactured.

Matt points us to the Lochan Web site, which reads as follows:

Literally meaning the Eagles Craig, Giddapahar is situated on a jagged, rock-faced mountain just a short drive from Kurseong, a thriving little hill station situated at 4864 feet above sea level. The best way to get to Giddapahar tea gardens is to get to Kurseong on the toy train that runs regularly from the New Jalpaiguri station in the plains.

The tea from Giddapahar Estate is delicate owing to the lower temperatures and being covered by mist for much of the year forcing the bushes to grow slowly producing a fine bouquet with great aromatic quality and delicate floral nose.

These are lovely, olive green to dark green in color, with quite a lot of stem along with the rather full leaves. Steeped, they have a lovely aroma, which reminds me of pleasantly decomposed undergrowth in a forest, or perhaps the richness of a grape arbor in autumn.

A very nicely amber-gold, flawlessly transparent.

As Lochan described it, this tea is very delicate. And I agree: It's crisp, very clean, and not overwhelmingly aromatic. Really, to my mouth, this is a flawless cup of Darjeeling. The perfect balance of astringency and sweetness, without even a trace of bitterness. The flavor develops in my mouth as I drink, and the sensation moves from the tip of my tongue back into my throat and nose. I'd describe it as herbaceous, rather than floral-- like aromatic kitchen herbs, tarragon, or chervil, or bee balm. Sweet, light, and complex. I'm tempted to say it is slightly fruity, because of the depth of flavor, but that would mislead you to think it's overly sweet or tart, which it ceretainly is not. The Giddapahar Darjeeling is really quite sophisticated and delicate. I have read some characterize this as being nutty in flavor (with chestnut predominant), and I'm willing to take that description. It definitely has this richness to the flavor, in spite of its delicacy, and a mouthfeel at once slightly dry and yet smooth and creamy.

This is a tea I really have grown to love, and I'm very grateful for the opportunity (Thank you, Thunderbolt Tea and TeaViews) to have been able to sample it. Remind me to put in my order for next year's 2010 first flush when it becomes available.

At this writing (July 2009), Darjeeling region has been rocked by strikes by the tea farmers, because the Gorkha ethnic group want their own state within the nation of India, which they believe would help the farmers' living conditions. The Independent has the following article, by Andrew Buncombe,which I quote here:

At the Happy Valley estate, where large painted signs boast of providing organic tea to Harrods, it was unnaturally quiet. Usually at this time of year – midway through the second flush, or crop – these steep hillsides of densely planted bushes would be filled with women plucking the leaves and dropping them into woven baskets on their backs.

Instead, they sit inside their small, sheet-metal shacks, idling away the damp afternoon.

Across the Darjeeling hills, life has come to a standstill. An indefinite strike, or "bandh", called last week by activists demanding a separate state, has closed down schools, roads, businesses, hotels and – crucially – the tea estates. As a result, the day labourers who earn just 53 rupees (66p) a day picking tea to be sold to well-heeled customers in London's Knightsbridge, are currently getting nothing.

Buncombe goes on to describe how Gorkhas (a people group found in Nepal and northern India) are demanding a separate state, largely because, since independence, the West Bengal state government has ignored their needs.

Indeed, tourism in Darjeeling region has declined because of infrastructure decline. The article concludes, thus:

One evening last week, on the veranda outside the Planters' Club – another relic of the colonial era, where the pelts of leopards shot long ago still hang from the wall – members sat looking out across the valley.

There was no tea to be had, as the strike had shut down the restaurant and bar. The members recalled how Darjeeling was once famed for its sanatorium, and how the roads were washed so regularly that British "ladies" could walk in their gowns along the town's famous Mall without fear of dirtying their clothes. These days, the town's basic hospital struggles to manage, and many of the roads are filthy. "Darjeeling has been in decline since the 1960s. The area has been badly neglected," said Amargit Dhir, a retired estate manager. "There is no other option but to revolt. This is the start of revolution."

I sincerely hope this is resolved quickly, to the benefit of all the people involved. Darjeeling tea is not merely a commodity tea, which are designed to be mixed with teas from another region for teabag use. Each year's Darjeeling harvest is its own unique vintage, and each estate has its own terroir that cannot be reproduced elsewhere. If the strikes cause this or next year's Darjeeling harvest to be lost, those unique, vintage teas are lost forever and cannot be replaced.

Wonderful picture of the Darjeeling Toy Train provided by Old Mount Hermon Students' Association.

REVIEW: Maeda-en Sen-cha Select

Maeda-en Sen-cha Select

Heard This Morning
Seven-year-old boy: "That's good. Best one ever."
Wife: "That was good. What was it?"
Baby girl: ...

I'm quite happy with this cup of tea. Maeda-en is a Japanese company, and I've had the opportunity to enjoy a couple of their senchas recently. It is July, but here in the Chicago area, we've had one of the coolest summers on record. Quite often, a Japanese sencha is drunk cold in hot weather (and is often cold-brewed, which imparts an entirely different set of steeping parameters that create yet another taste experience for those so inclined). But because of the cold, I am drinking it hot.

Most people are familiar with matcha, the powdered Japanese tea that is prepared in a bowl with a whisk, and is used in Japanese tea ceremony. Sencha, on the other hand, are steamed (not pan-fried) teas that are not ground into powder.

1 tsp per 1 cup 70C filtered water, steeped for 2 minutes in Great-Grandma's 100-year-old Japanese porcelain pot.

I use Culligan reverse-osmosis water, which is a bit superior to the local tap water, even when I run the tap through a Brita filter. That being said, because reverse-osmosis water has had practically all of the particulate matter removed, the water can be just a bit flat. I have been shopping for Japanese bamboo charcoal, which when added to boiling water will purify it and add minerals to liven it up a bit. Several Twitter tea compatriots swear by this, and I will be placing the order soon. But for this tea experience, the cry will be heard by '50s-era housewives everywhere: "Hey, Culligan man!"

I am used to large-leaf Chinese oolongs and mid- or large-sized Darjeeling SFTGFOP1 leaves. But these are quite tiny, with quite a bit of particulate matter and stems. Once steeped, they appear very much like cooked, frozen spinach. I particularly like the aroma of the steamed leaves, which is a warm, quite complex combination of, really, cooked food smells: like a kitchen with interesting things happening within.

Lovely green-yellow liquor, with a very faint fogginess, which is quite what I would expect with a Japanese green tea. The tea is quite mild in flavor: lightly sweet, and ever-so-slightly bitter, and a focus on the low flavor notes, which I noticed in the throat and back of the tongue: slightly woodsy, a hint of bitter salt. I experienced a nicely roasty huigan (which is the sweet aftertaste), a bit like very clean charcoal from wood. There is a light bitterness that rises in the mouth as the initial sweetness of the huigan recedes. The huigan is really quite enjoyable, as it alternates between the greenly sweet grassiness, and the slight bitterness, and the green sweetness again. Well done.

Obviously, as you saw above, my family much liked this tea, and so did I. Very enjoyable, very relaxed, and nicely complex. Thank you, Maeda-en, for such an enjoyable tasting experience.

(This review is being posted and will appear eventually at TeaViews.com.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

MUST-READ: Polish Wine Guide, "Strawberries & Tea"

Here is your Tea Must-Read of the Morning:

Polish Wine Guide: Strawberries & tea

Nerval thoughtfully discussed tea and food pairings, specifically strawberries. I excerpt here:

Tea & food matching is a hugely underdeveloped research field. Given tea’s similarities to wine in terms of variety and terroir character, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t behave similarly to wine in the endless combinations with food. And unlike coffee or whisky, tea effectively refreshes your palate and quenches your thirst, so it can be served through even an extended meal in countless variations.

Yet it’s really rare to see a more systematic approach to tea as an accompaniment to food. (Read
here for one interesting article). It’s a cultural thing. When served with Asian cuisine, tea is subordinated instead of elevated, and is expected to give a discrete support instead of taking first stage. (At Chinese restaurants it’s often served free of charge, so what kind of quality can you expect?). Flavoured tea such as jasmine or Lapsang Souchong are classic mealtime teas. When that antique puer cake is called upon, it’s served between meals to be sipped in isolation.

Nerval (that's his apparently Garfield-inspired Blogger handle: his true name is the poly-consonantal Wojciech Bońkowski) systematically demonstrates how various teas can be paired, very specifically, with strawberries. I imagine and hope that pairings with other food groups will follow at some point. At any rate, Nerval compares strawberries with: 2009 Sencha Fukamushi Supreme from O-Cha (nope); 2008 Zhuyequing (okay-ish); 2008 Korean Matcha (uh-huh); and a few others. His favorite:

2008 Dancong Milan AAA
Brewed 45s @ 95C, resulting in a less bitter brew than expected. Showing very well. Something about that highly aromatic flowery bitterness is enormously attractive when matched with fresh fruits. Although if too tannic this is becoming a problem. A brilliant natural match and one of few to generate a sweet-lasting huigan. Perhaps my favourite.

Dan cong saves the day!

Nerval's descriptions are thorough and thoughtful, as you can see from this short excerpt.. If you haven't added PolishWineGuide.com to your daily tea read, you are missing out. As they say, Read. The. Rest.

Thanks, Wojciech, for yet another thoughtful and excellent post. At some point, I hope you'll write a bit about how you arrived at such an excellent understanding of both tea and wine.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

REVIEW: Earthbound Tea, White Mu Dan Peony

As I peruse my own writing on the subject, I find the oft-repeated thought that the white teas I drink typically are too light for my tastes and not complex enough to engage my interest. Well, that observation holds true yet again, this time with Earthbound Tea's White Mu Dan Peony.

For those new to the subject, a very quick overview: Bai Mu Dan is a grade of Chinese white tea. Now, every tea plant goes through the budding stage in early Spring (typically between March 15 and April 10), which makes marketing this type of tea very attractive to marketers, because white teas are experiencing something of a boom, with much interest in their health benefits. I won't examine health claims here, except to say it's probably good for you.

I prepared the tea according to Earthbound's directions: 75C, 5 min+, using Great-Great-Grandmother's Japanese porcelain teapot. It's a bit thicker-walled than is useful for this type of tea, so I did leave the top off the pot to help it cool a touch, even though I fear that it lost a small amount of its already minimal aroma.

The Earthbound Tea Web site reads:

White Mu Dan Peony or "White Peony" is a rare tea that comes from the Fujian province in China. Only the tips and the beginning of the first two leaves are plucked. When infused, this tea has a unique nutty flavor that is mild and sweet.

Unfortunately, the leaves were rather damaged in transit, smashed into smallish pieces. I expect this would have an effect on the end product.

Pale, pale aroma and flavor. Yes, the characteristic peony aroma is present in my mouth, and the huigan [sweet aftertaste] is pleasant enough. But there's not enough there, there. I do wonder if the tea hadn't suffered so much in the mail service, if it would have tasted better in the cup. That being said, because I want as much depth and complexity of flavor as I can find in a cup, this is simply not enough to command my attention. However, if you value a very light, clean, lightly floral, airy cup of tea, this might just do the trick for you.

White Peony image above, by Teresa Boston.

Uh-oh: "Why We Shouldn't Describe Tea"

"When you read descriptions of teas that you’re thinking of buying, or are told in a tea-tasting class that you should record your impressions in a tea journal, or read those blogs that are little more than a public tea journal in the guise of tea reviews, something vital is being lost: the experience of having tea." --Tea Geek

Bow before the Polish strawberry.

Bow, I say!

NEWS: "Darjeeling Protests Hit Tea and Tourism."


KOLKATA (Reuters) - New separatist protests by ethnic Nepalis in Darjeeling hills are hampering tourism and threatening to cut production of the area's eponymous tea by more than 20 percent, industry officials said on Tuesday.


The delayed monsoon has already hit early tea production in West Bengal and threatened agricultural output across India, although India's farm minister on Monday said rains will improve. Gurkha protests have hit Darjeeling, a picturesque Himalayan hill station known for its British colonial-era legacy and tea tourism industry, since 2008, but this year's round is targeting tea production during the harvest season.

The production of Darjeeling tea may fall 20-25 percent in 2009, industry officials said.

"The agitation will worsen the situation since the delayed monsoon has already affected the production of first flush during April-May," said Sanjay Bansal, chairman of the Darjeeling Tea Association.

The article tells about the Ghurka people's protests for their own nation-state, and that they are using the harvest season as leverage in their (sometimes violent) strikes. Further, this will damage the tourism industry in Darjeeling:

"Darjeeling is the only place in eastern India which witnesses high footfalls of foreign tourists. Now all that is going to end with frequent strikes," said Anil Punjabi, regional chairman of the Travel Agents' Federation of India.

"There is a drop of 50 percent in tourist inflow in the region owing to the protests," he said.

Go read the rest.

A friend of mine from Darjeeling remarked on how difficult it was for him to obtain decent Darjeeling teas this season. With the drought already impeding this year's tea harvest, strikes like this can only have the effect of raising prices on tea even higher, and during a down economic cycle as well.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Thanks, Tea on Tap

Very recently, Tea on Tap wrote about The 39 Steeps in a segment titled, "The Teasphere." Thank you for the pleasant mention! Here is the quote in full.

The 39 Steeps is a casual yet very intellectual blog that offers in-depth tea reviews and a quick wit. I'm quite enjoying reading through past reviews and the smattering of other topics featured.

I hope to keep things interesting, and thank you for your patronage!

Review: Earthbound Tea, Green Wink

Ah, the lazy days of Summer, when diligent little self-employed closed-captioner elves find themselves up to their eyeballs in work. Who knew I would ever feel too busy to write about tea? I have half a dozen partially written commentaries about my favorite brown leaf juice. Here is one of them!


Green Wink is variously called Zhen Mei, or Chunmee, in Chinese, which translates as, "Precious Eyebrows." This is because the dry leaves are small, irregularly shaped balls that do appear a bit like eyebrows, or winking eyes. Earthbound Tea's product name is a great translation, and conveys much more in English than "Precious Eyebrows" ever would. Or "Glorious Comma."

Zhen Mei was originally produced in Jiangxi, China, but is now also created in factories in Fujian, Anhui, Zhejiang, and others. This one happens to be created in Yunnan. This is quite often the case with these boutique teas. There is simply not enough room in the ancestral homes of these teas, so other regions will borrow the production style and recreate it somewhere else. Often with good results, as the teas change subtly to accommodate a new terroir.

I like how the Zentara Tea company describes the flavor and production of this tea:

Chunmee green tea has a unique flavor profile. Absent what is often called a "chestnut note" common in many other Chinese green teas, Chunmee is a smooth tasting green tea with a subtle lingering sweet/sour aftertaste which some tea drinkers compare to a plum flavor. Chunmee is a well-balanced tea that holds up well to many different foods when served with morning or evening meals.

To create the unique shape of the tea leaves for a Chunmee tea, the hand-plucked tea leaves are processed by withering and then steaming to stop the oxidation process and maintain a green leaf. The final step is pan-firing, and during this process the leaves are hand-rolled using controlled movements while monitoring the temperature and firing time. The creating of the eyebrow shape has been perfected for centuries, going back to the Ming Dynasty, and this artisan prepared tea is still one of the most popular green teas in China.

The Web site did not give very precise instructions on how to infuse this leaf, so I guessed, given the general parameters of green tea: 70C, 1 heaping tsp per cup, 3 minutes, antique Japanese porcelain pot. Then I tried a new pot at 72C, 2 teaspoons percup, 3 minutes.

Dark, dusty green balls, shaped like little winking eyes. When they are steeped, they open into full, lush, dark leaves, with a bit of stem here and there, only faintly aromatic. When they have been steeped, they open out into beautiful, dark-green, full leaves. It's a bit of a game with many high-end tea producers: Can they create an unusual dry shape that, when wet, will spring back exactly into the shape the leaves had before processing? Also, please recall that when tea leaves are balled up like this, the the surface area is reduced, so the amount of leaf that can react with the oxygen and moisture in the atmosphere is reduced, thus increasing the quality and shelf-life of the tea.

Steeped with 1 tsp/cup at 70C for 3 minutes, the liquor, or soup, of this tea is very pale, with the appearance of a white tea. It's perfectly transparent with a slightly golden hue. This is a very restrained, clean cup of tea without a hint of bitterness. Pleasant, and Suzanne declared it, "Very good." Honestly, I had a bit of trouble really picking out what this tea tastes like.

The tea is, to my taste, a bit too mild with the steeping parameters I initially chose. So I decided to infuse a new pot, but this time with 2 tsp/cup at maybe 72C for 3 min, to give the infusion more strength and to help me discern the taste more distinctly.

This time, the tea is a richer, but still pale and transparent, gold. The green taste is much more pronounced, with a strongly vegetal quality. The acidity of the cup is more pronounced as well, with a pleasant burn on the way down. It has that umami quality, which I very much enjoy in a green tea, with a taste like the seashore, and high notes of salt, and a floral aroma that reminds me of daisies on a hot day.

When I ask my friends to compare this tea with others I've had recently, they struggle because the two- or three-syllable Chinese names just blend in with one another and are forgotten. When we use English translations, which can often go in several directions, we may not know what we're talking about. Happily, Earthbound Tea gives a catchy English translation along with its Chinese equivalent.

Friday, July 10, 2009


I just thought I'd play with the "embed" feature on Pandora. It's one of my all-time favorite music-listening applications, and this widget shows you what I've been listening to.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Comfort Food: Phuguri Estate Darjeeling

In my parents' house, comfort food was (and remains) all-American fare like tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, or stuffed peppers, or Swedish meatballs-- in spite of the fact that none of us are Swedish. When I asked about that, Dad once told me they were made out of ground Swedes. As opposed to air Swedes, I suppose, which are far too difficult to catch. [Ba-dum-dum! Thank you. I'll be here all week.]

Last night's educational but unsatisfying tea-tasting adventure left me wanting something familiar, so this morning as I work, I have returned to my beloved 2008 Phuguri Estate 2nd-Flush Darjeeling FTGFOP1, which I bought from TeaGschwendner not long ago. To my shock, I discover I have not written a review of this tea yet! Rather quickly, because this is a workday, I will try to let you see what I love about this particular Darjeeling.

It's a funny thing, how tastes change over time. Lately, I've been very interested in exploring Chinese green teas and some dan cong oolongs, which I am less familiar with. But the Phuguri provides me the comfort of coming home again. Indeed, this is my go-to tea whenever I am in need, and when I can afford it. It's middlingly expensive, but I can go through it so quickly that it easily blows through my tea budget.

This tea is extraordinary. It's a second-flush Darjeeling, with all the complex notes that attract and keep my attention from the moment I smell the leaves, all the way through to the amazingly complex and long-lasting huigan [sweet aftertaste].

Phuguri Darjeeling is a black tea that appears to be darkly transparent amber. The power of the tea is locked in its flavor, not so much the aroma. The flavor reminds me of Spring honeysuckle, with both smoothness and not-quite-tart astringency at the same time.

The second-flush Phuguri estate Darjeeling never fails to make a completely satisfying cup. Delightful, subtle yet bold, dry yet smooth, with a restrained sweetness I find entirely captivating. It's one of those teas that I drink with my eyes closed, and which I need to return to over and over again. If TeaGschwendner ever stops selling it, I'll have to move to India.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Review: Simpson & Vail, Kenya Oolong 2008

Simpson & Vail. I rather like the cut of their jib. They are a fairly mainstream tea company who make the interesting choice to offer oolongs from unusual-- i.e., not Chinese-- sources, such as Vietnam, or in this case, Kenya.

Kenya is one of the biggest sources of tea worldwide. Most of the tea I see from them is commoditized-- it is sold to be blended into grocery-store brands, and the teas are not typically single-estate self-drinkers, intended to be unique vintages. Usually, the black teas from kenya are fairly robust. So when I see a Kenya Oolong, to be distributed by Simpson & Vail, I am intrigued. What in the world is this going to taste like?

Simpson & Vail has this to say on their Web site:

This delightful offering from Kenya features a new taste sensation in the world of Oolongs! The tippy, brown-black, medium sized leaves brew to a golden cup with an earthy aroma and a fresh, bold, slightly citral flavor. Brew tea at 195º - steep for 4-5 minutes
I tried two methods of preparation: First, I did a gong-fu preparation (really, gong-faux, because I don't have all the gaiwans and Yixing pots one would ordinarily use). Then I followed the directions on the Web site. You will see below my results.

This tea's leaf appears to be like a very typical, medium- to high-end black tea: smallish leaves, most certainly CTC (cut-tear-curl machine processed). The tea factory employed a machine to process the leaves, and they created a highly oxidized, nearly black, leaf.


1 10s, rinse

2 25s
This cup seems most like a malty black tea, and is quite unlike the Chinese and Taiwanese oolongs I've been tasting of late. It's fairly ascerbic, and seems to want a bit of milk and sugar to cut it. The tea is a bit on the acidic side for my stomach, which is complaining. Interestingly, there is quite a bit of tea oil floating on the darkish-brown liquor, making it quite shiny. There is a faint hint of oolong-ness, though. I'll keep up with the next steeping and see where this goes. So far, honestly, I am not really liking this very much, as it tastes quite like a typically harsh, grocery-store black tea to me.

3 20s
The second steeping, shows me the leaf a bit better, as it reconstitutes. The leaf appears now to be maybe 60% oxidized: green at the centers of some of the larger leaves, but the overall visual impression tends more to the reddish-brown. The leaves have a pretty nice aroma of

The liquor maintains the deep brown (but transparent) quality of the first steeping. There is just not much flavor here (maybe this means I should have steeped for the full 4 minutes, rather than trying gong-fu method for this tea). The tea is just... flat. The bitterness has abated somewhat on the second steeping, but the flavor has not picked up where it left off.

4 20s
The flavor remains as it has for the previous steepings, and doesn't seem to be abating at all. Still like a black tea that is not particularly inspired. I quit, because I am not liking these results at all and want to abandon this preparation style.

. . .

AS AN EXPERIMENT, and a bit dispirited by the failure of my multiple-steeping method, I am now drinking the tea per the Web site instructions. It is better than the gong-fu style. There is a woodiness about it that is pretty appealing (at least, compared to the tea flight I was just attempting). A little sweetness to the aftertaste, and I detect a bit of nuttiness. ("Oh, I'm detecting nuttiness, all right," says the rat from Ratatouille, whose voice lives in my head.)

Meh. This is not the tea for me, because though it is supposed to be an oolong, it seems more like an average "black tea," which you might find in a grocery store anywhere. I've tried to enjoy it by employing a couple of different preparation methods, but I just can't.

REVIEW: Thunderbolt Tea, Jungpana FTGFOP1 China 2009

This is the P-47 Thunderbolt. Apropos of the tea I'm reviewing, the handwriting on the side reads, "No guts, no glory!"

As always, I like the description provided by Thunderbolt Tea's Web site for the Jungpana Estate FTGFOP1 China '09:

Dry Leaves:
A mouth watering retreat for tea connoisseurs who are seeking for real First Flush orthodox Darjeeling character. The dry leaves comprise of 90% greenish tinge. It has a high floral aroma that is intoxicating to the mind. A quality tea with nutty (almonds) and floral (reminiscent of rhododendrons) infused leaves that are totally green in appearance and are of even size.

Infused Leaves:
The infused leaves have an overall greenish tinge reminiscent of First Flush tea - a trade mark. It has a astonishing buttery hints which also additionally turns to be sweet smelling, nutty and honey toned.

The cup is very light with excellent floral notes and nutty character. It has some astringency and that is why we call it the orthodox Darjeeling character. It leaves you with a sweet and buttery after taste.

Honestly, I do not know what rhododendrons smell like. But I do know that I'm enjoying this tea immensely.


These leaves are a lovely greenish tint, shaped as a typical high-end Darjeeling: smallish leaf size, fairly tightly twisted, and with no tea dust or twig that I could see in my sample. Beautiful aroma, floral, exciting. I know I will like this tea (especially after having a hiatus from Darjeeling in the past week or so, as I was drinking mostly Chinese oolongs).


In Great-great Grandma's Japanese porcelain teapot, a very simple and typical presentation: tea brought just up to a medium boil (what Chinese might think of as 2nd boil), and then poured over 1 slightly generous teaspoon of leaf per cup, allowed to steep for a full three minutes. (I would normally go for 2 minutes or so on a first-flush Darjeeling, but I rather want to plumb a bit more deeply into what this tea is saying today).


A rather pale amber (not yell0w) cup, with a lovely shine and a beautiful transparency. When the tea is drunk very hot, it is difficult to place any flavors, but he typical Darjeeling-style, orthodox, dry mouthfeel is still welcome. BUT once the tea cools just a bit, the complexity begins to make an appearance.

The tea tastes a bit buttery, with such a dry white wine-type mouthfeel. The high notes, in the mouth, don't really remind me overmuch of fruit or flowers, because the astringency seems to militate against that; instead, it's an herbal quality one associates with thyme, or oregano, or sage-- dry, sharp, complex. And then I find the nutty flavor, as mentioned in the Web site, which hides in the complex but not overly sweet aftertaste and is revealed in the throat.

The subsequent cups from the pot are likewise quite dry in mouthfeel, but now with an added rather soapy texture in the mouth. The nutty flavor is slowly growing; and the dry, oregano-like mouthfeel is quite developed. WHEN I SAY OREGANO, I realize I am being a bit misleading. I am not saying this tea tastes like oregano, exactly; but, rather, that it is reminiscent of the feeling you get when tasting a sprig of fresh oregano from the garden: arresting, not sweet, sharp, dry, and evocative.


When Benoy Thapa at Thunderbolt Tea writes that this Jungpana is for connoisseurs, I agree. This Jungpana first flush is perfect for tea aficianados who may not be as interested in overly sweet, floral, or fruity teas, but rather desire something complex and a bit harder to put a finger on. It's a great drink, and a welcome diversion from the more floral oolongs I've been drinking lately.

Benoy, great tea. And especially great, because the tea is so fresh!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Review: Simpson & Vail, Vietnam Imperial Oolong, 2008

Nope, not those Simpsons.

Simpson & Vail have been around awhile-- since 1904-- and have remained a small, family-oriented business all the while, as is evidenced by the History section of their Web site. While the history discussed their tea grinder, which they used to use to break down whole-leaf teas into particles usable in a teabag, bagged tea is now only a part of their overall catalog, with loose-leaf teas of various types available.

Vietnam Imperial Oolong is their most expensive, selling at $6.05/oz. at this time. Unfortunately, other than the generic nation name (we know the tea comes from Vietnam), the Web site is little help. I don't know precisely where the tea comes from, or what time of the year (or even what year, though I guess it is 2008) it was plucked; nor do I know details about how heavily it is fermented. The Web site says this, though:

Vietnam Imperial Oolong T0766
The tightly curled, deep olive-green leaves of this superior oolong unravel to produce a pale green cup with a refreshing sweet and smooth taste. The tea has outstanding notes of honey with a slight spice aftertaste. Brew: 4 minutes at 180°F.

In my inimitable gong-faux tea stylings, I will use a fairly large amount of leaf in a lidded cup, around boiling, but for short steeps. Please, please, do not try this at home, using such an unsightly hodgepodge of tea equipment. I won't even show you a picture, such is my shame.

This is a very lightly oxidized leaf, rolled into balls. Lightly fragrant before steeping, but quite aromatic once the hot water hits. It smells much like a green tea, with high hints of maybe orchid, or

Rinse and discard

Steeping 1: 25s
The tea is quite aromatic, and smells much like a nice green tea. The cup is a light green color, and the aroma is floral, roasted honey and green, without much vegetal quality. A sweet huigan [aftertaste] lingers, which mixes nicely with the clover scent coming from outside my window.

Steeping 2: 20s
The tea is still pale, transparent green, but not terribly strong. This tea does not knock me down and take my lunch money, if you know what I mean. There is now a slightly bitter quality to accompany an increasingly dry mouthfeel. There's a lemony, citrus taste haunting the huigan, which is mild but lingering and pleasant.

Steeping 3: 20s
Not an aggressive tea, though very slightly bitter. Very like a green tea. As the leaves open up more and more, I find the leaves show very little sign of oxidization-- no reddish at the edges of the very complete leaf sets of two leaves-- furthering my impression of this as a very lightly oxidized oolong. As the tea cools in the cup, the bitterness seems to dissipate, leaving a green, grassy flavor and aroma I most often associate with Chinese green teas. The roasted honey notes remain strongly in the nose.

Steeping 4: 20s
Much the same as Steeping 3. Light and refreshing, very much like a green tea. Aftertaste less noticeable, but I drank it with dinner. Gregory, my seven-year-old boy, squaffed his down quite quickly, once the temperature got down to where he could drink it.

Steeping 5: 30s
The leaves are quite full now, having absorbed about all the liquid they're going to absorb. I did see one leaf with a bit of red at the edge. Again, the exception proves the rule: this is a particularly lightly oxidized oolong. The flavor is much more elusive at this point, as is the fragrance. Pleasurable mouthfeel, with just a hint of green at the back of the throat.

I always wonder if people ever read to the bottom of the post. Anyway, pleasant enough, light oolong, which tastes much like a simple, not-too-flashy green.

Dan Congs a-comin'


(Or, more accurately, my birthday. Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

Yesterday I received a package from Imen Shan, who owns Tea Habitat, outside of L.A. Imen created for me a variety of samples, which will help me become acquainted with dan cong oolongs.


As a very quick overview: Dan Cong oolongs can come only from Wu Dong (Phoenix Mountain), which is in Guangdong region, in the South of China. Because of thousands of years of propagating the tea plants primarily by seed, and using a subvarietal of C. sinensis sinensis that is particularly malleable and chameleonlike, the farmers developed an enormous variety of unusually flavored teas. Here there are ancient trees (some a thousand years old) with such unusual aromas that the farmers will pluck the leaves of a single tree and sell that tree's leaves, unmixed, sometimes for breathtaking prices (like $7000/kg), hence the name dan cong ("single tree").

Of course, this is the ideal for the most ancient trees. In practice, the less expensive dan congs are "single grove," rather than "single bush," with named sub-subvarietals (say, the daughter trees of a distinctive thousand-year-old mother tree) all being sold together. They are processed into oolongs that tend to be highly fragrant, if a bit touchy-- if you don't get the water just right, or the leaves are mishandled in any way, they can be bitter; but if you prepare it properly, the floral high notes and unusual flavors will be very rewarding.

Happily, the handcrafted, old-bush dan congs, like the ones Imen sent to me, are rather easy to work with, because they are more forgiving and less likely to tend to bitterness than the lower-quality leaves.

Below is the list of dan congs Imen sent me, and which I'll be reviewing in the days ahead. This is by no means the entire Tea Habitat catalog, and these and many more are available on her Web site, http://www.teahabitat.com/store/. If you are interested in learning more, I urge you to contact Tea Habitat (or, if you're in the L.A. area, by all means visit).

As a reminder, the teas below are actually bred to produce the aromas of, say, jasmine, or orchid, or orange flower. None of them are artificially scented in any way.


  • 1986 Mi Lan Xiang, Honey Orchid
  • 2004 Hong Cha Tou (wild)
  • 2007 Yu Lan Xiang, Magnolia Flower Fragrance
  • 2008 Mi Lan Xiang, Honey Orchid Gold Medalist #1
  • 2008 Huang Zhi Xiang, Orange Flower Fragrance
  • 2008 Song Zhong #4 (This comes from a 600- to 700-year-old bush)
  • 2008 Zhi Lan Xiang, Cattleya Orchid Aroma
  • 2009 Ju Duo Jai, Almond Aroma
  • 2009 Mo Li Xiang, Jasmine Fragrance (Very rare)
  • 2009 Yu Hua Xiang, Pomelo Flower Fragrance


As I'm reading up on this topic, I found it discussed by Cinnabar on her Web site, Gongfugirl.com. I posted this remark there:

Imen told me that this type of tea is uncommon in the U.S. (and I presume elsewhere in the West), largely because the more common, lower-quality plantation dan congs are very touchy and tend toward bitterness. But the high-quality leaf is transcendent. She is one of the very few that import this type of tea, direct from small farms. I feel delighted that I've discovered it. I urge you to contact her and get some of the 2009 crop she's just received-- and some of the others, as Imen directs.