Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Review: Yin Zhen (Silver Needle), Canton Tea Company

A typical day in the 39 Steeps tea laboratory.

To my taste, the first sip of a white tea is almost not worth drinking, so insipid do I find it to be. With Canton Tea Company's Yin Zhen (Silver Needle), I find that to be almost, but not quite, true. That was a compliment, by the way, in case you're keeping score.

I am always fascinated by how leaf juice from this plant can be so mercurial. It will change from steeping to steeping, from setting to setting, and the variation is endless. In fact, it's almost impossible for me to get the same exact results twice (though I don't try to do so very often, because variety is the spice of life). The literal translation for gongfu is, "skillful preparation." Knowing just how long to steep a particular type of tea, and at what temperature, and in what fashion, shows how deeply your knowledge of tea goes. In my case, I coined the term, gong-faux, to signify that much of my tea drinking is a clumsy combination of research, obsessive patience, and all-too-often failed experiments as I grope toward a decent cup.

Today's example from The 39 Steeps Tea Laboratory:

Read online that this particular Yin Zhen, distributed by Canton Tea Company, is best served in perhaps three steeps in a gongfu session. Think to self, "The amount of tea they recommend seems too small for gongfu. Like I know. Anyway, double it." Steep the white tea for 2 or 3 minutes at 75C, and sip when hot (or, hottish), and get... almost nothing. Pour out into the tiny gongfu cup, and sip again. Strong! Almost bitter. Maybe too much leaf for this gongfu preparation? Stupid to go off the reservation! Perhaps a white tea prepared gongfu only requires a tablespoon, rather than two, of the tea. Perhaps I should have compensated for more leaf by steeping less time, instead of (finally) following directions? Sip again... and ready for the second steeping. Go off recipe, and this time steep only half the time. Better, but still a bit bitter. This shouldn't be bitter. Am I mad to mess this up like this? Bleh. Toss the whole thing and try again. Note to self: following only half of the directions will ensure a lousy result, as anyone reading this could easily have predicted.

Well, let's reread Canton Tea Company's Web site to see how to prepare this stuff:

Origin : Fuding County, Fujian Province
Harvest : Spring 2009
Varietal : Fuding Da Bai Hao
Certification : Organic certification in China. Direct from the farmer.

This rare and delicious Silver Needle white tea is entirely hand-made from Fuding Da Bai Hao tips and is simply picked at dawn and scattered in the sun to dry. It is a very high quality Yin Zhen showing a dense covering of the characteristic white hairs on a healthy, plump, pale green leaf. The liquor is very pale and bright - the colour of champagne and it has a sweet nutty aroma. It tastes soft, creamy and mellow with a long and pleasant aftertaste.

Brewing tips: Silver needle should be brewed quite cool, around 75c, allowed to steep for 2 to 3 minutes and infused at least 3 times

NB These fine, high grade, whole leaf teas yield different flavours with each successive infusion. The second is usually considered the best. This is why the best way to brew the tea is in a small pot and to make several quick infusions.

Buyers Notes “Try nibbling on a bud of this top Silver Needle after infusion: it will be sweet and delicious, unlike lower grades which can be bitter and woody. This tea comes from Fuding, Fujian province. The farmer won the gold medal for Yin Zhen at this year’s international tea competition in Las Vegas.”

Nibbling, check. (Tastes a bit bitter, honestly, and kind of furry.) The appearance is exactly as described: small buds, olive green with a dusting of silver hairs overall. Dusty smell to the dry leaves that tickles the nose and reminds me of a hot summer meadow. The Web site provides no notes on how much leaf to use, but I can only assume the amount I used earlier was too much, so I am going to use about a tablespoon, give or take (now there's scientific accuracy for ya). I'll go with 2:30 to get the middle setting, and use that throughout the three steepings. I am unfamiliar with treating whit tea in gongfu fashion, so we'll see what we come up with this time.

1st steeping: 2.5 minutes, 75C, 1tbsp/cup
Pretty weak, not terribly gripping, though not at all bitter. The sweetness and drying make me experience this primarily in the feeling, but not the taste, of the tea. As usual, I think my barbarian tastebuds are not sufficiently attuned to properly enjoy this white tea. Incidentally, my seven-year-old boy enjoyed using the new wenxianbei immensely, and reported the smell of the dry leaves was, "weird."

2nd steeping: (same)
The tea has the slightest of flavors-- buttery is right, per the Canton Tea Company description of the texture. The tea, to me, seems apprehended primarily in the retronasal aftertaste that rises in the throat; a bit like water chestnut or brazil nuts, or perhaps white bread very lightly toasted.

3rd steeping: (same)
There is simply not enough coming from this cup of tea for my taste. Too subtle by half.

I'm beginning to feel like Goldilocks: first time, too strong. Second time, too weak. Third time, just right?


1st infusion: 2 minutes, 70C, precisely 1.4682 tablespoons per cup. Give or take.
The tea is quite strong, buttery, and a pale green-gold. Happily, I used a strainer, because there was quite a bit of broken leaf that made it past my gaiwan lid.

2nd Infusion: 2 minutes, 70C
There's a floral quality that reminds me strongly of a light jasmine tea. I'm not truly crazy about jasmine tea, as a rule, but this is interesting, not cloying.

3rd Infusion: 2 minutes, 70C
In spite of the description of the Web site, I enjoy the third steeping the most. Palest gold in color, and quite subtle in flavor.

Well, for all the hullabaloo of finding the right volume of tea per cup, and settling on a good formula, I end up thinking, as usual, "This tea, though rather interesting, is not what I'm looking for." Just too subtle for me. I like my enigmas wrapped in bright, shiny wrapping paper with a bow, thank you.

Great Frankenstein's laboratory image is by artist Steven Martiniere, found via the Frankensteinia blog.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Review: Big Red Robe Supreme (Da Hong Pao) 2009, JINGTea

Recently, I bought a simple gaiwan, as well as wensienbei, the Taiwanese-style aroma cup set. I tried them out on this Big Red Robe by JING tea and had a great time. (Sadly! I broke the gaiwan and still haven't replaced it. I will, I will, I promise.)

I have come to love Big Red Robe oolongs. At least, the ones I've tasted have been uniformly delightful, and JING tea's is no exception.

I steeped the tea with the best gongfu I could muster: I filled the gaiwan a little less than about a quarter of the way with the leaves, and used just-under-boiling water throughout the steeping sequence. By using a lot of leaf and many short steeps, I am able to drink tea in chapters, opening up the flavor of the leaves without having an overly weak cup. A good gongfu session can last an entire afternoon, with many many steeps. I recorded a few of them here, but I kept steeping well after I had run out of time to take sipping notes.

Steeping 1: 25s
The leaves are a rich, dark color, of what seems to be a medium-roasted DHP with a high level of oxidation. Leaves are beautifully resilient, with a sharp aroma that has high citrus notes. Quite brilliant.

Steeping 2: 20s
The aroma cup carries this intense, sharp aroma I describe as Christmas berries-- spicy, citrus, light, sharp. A slightly bitter edge that could easily be attributed to my inadequate gongfu.

Steeping 3: 20s
Almost a vanilla aroma arising; berries and pine, again making me think of Christmas after breakfast. The taste is... okay, not fantastic but good. It's slightly bitter, but again, I think it's my fu as I get used to my new equipment.

Steeping 4: 20s
Less sharp and intense, the bitterness abating (from the roasting process, most likely), I now start to get to know the tea itself. Woodsy astringency. My, but my table got wet. There is an attractive roughness to this tea, a hard-elbowed quality I rather like. It's the huigan that carries this lovely quality-- the rising sweetness that makes me think of burning sweet applewood, say; ever so slightly smoky, fruity but not fruit (again, applewood, not apple).

Steeping 5: 35s
Aroma: sweet sushi rice, applewood. The aroma seems to dissipate more quickly. The deep brown-gold color has become a lighter orange-amber. Beautiful sweetness, but with a burn in the throat that catches the attention and is sharply at variance with the lightness in the mouth. There is a lovely mouthfeel, substantial even at the fifth steeping. A slight minerality develops in the mouth, like iron perhaps, as the more prominent, roasty flavors are in retreat.

Steeping 6: 45s
Most surprising here is the huigan, which rises up a couple minutes after drinking. Complicated flavors that remind me of a bonbon thing I once had at the Russian Tea Cafe, in Chicago: as it melted, different flavors would appear (first the pomegranate sorbet, then the ice cream, finally the orange-scented white chocolate). Here, a progression. The flavor is now quite muted, but still enjoyable. Learning to burn myself a little bit less on the gaiwan.

Steeping 7: 55s
Finally, a bit of floral brightness appears in the aroma. Flavor receding, but the mouthfeel-- not as dry now, but substantial-- is quite good. I don't know what I think Qi is, but I feel quite energetic and alert, without a hint of anxiety or jitteriness.

Steeping 8: 65s
The aroma is now like a candy at the front, in the high notes, with a hint of tobacco following. And then very little aroma following through.

A very nice DHP, with a robust character that carries through a number of steepings. Complex and quite interesting.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

No, It's Not Tea: Gregory's Arroz con Pollo

No, everything is not about tea. Sometimes, it's about food and family.

My seven-year-old boy, Gregory Robert, is a serious reader of this site. Well, he claims to be, though I think he may skim a bit. At any rate, he's a young connoisseur (that's a person who enjoys things a lot) of fine tea, and he has definite ideas about food, as well. He has asked me to write in this blog about his new favorite food, Arroz con Pollo.

My wife and I are concerned about our health and weight, and as we try to gain the first and lose the second, we are cooking from, The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: A Delicious Alternative for Lifelong Health, written by Nancy Harmon Jenkins. And Gregory loved "Quick and Easy Arroz con Pollo" so much, he thought it belongs where all good things go: The 39 Steeps.

One of Gregory's best friends is Galito, the eight-year-old son of our great friends, Dunia and Galo. Galito gets to eat Arroz con Pollo all the time, because his mom was born in Cuba, where this is a staple (a food that people eat all the time).

When I first encountered Cuban food, I thought it would be very spicy, like Mexican. But no, it is more like classic Spanish fare, without so much heat in the mouth. Arroz con Pollo is rather like an easy version of the classic paella. And the easy version of an easy version just can't be beat.

Gregory loved the richness of the chicken and rice dish, which has been spiced up with onion, and cloves, and tomatoes, and pimento, along with the world's most expensive spice, saffron.

Saffron comes from the saffron crocus, a type of purple flower. Look at the picture at the top of this blog for an example of this crocus flower. And have a look at the little red strings poking out of the crocus. Those are the stigmas, which help the flower reproduce itself. These tiny, little threads are dried out and sold for a lot of money, because you can imagine how many of them it takes to make a pound! Thousands, I think. It takes so much work and so much time to pluck all of those little stigmas that it drives the price sky-high. That's why saffron is the world's most expensive spice. And we have a little of it right in our very own kitchen!

Gregory will get to smell the saffron when we cook the dish (if he can be dragged away from his wicked-sweet Nintendo DS long enough), so he can identify it in any dish he eats from now on. And there's just a touch of it in the Arroz con Pollo, but a little goes a long way! That's part of what makes the rice so yummy and golden colored.

I'm continually amazed at Gregory's perspicacity and willingness to explore new things. He is surprisingly aware of his palate and likes thinking about the interesting flavors of the teas and foods we give him. Someday he wants to be a videogame creator, or a tea maker, or maybe a rescue guy who works with the Coast Guard.

Well done, Imen Shan, owner of Tea Habitat

Imen Shan is a friend in tea, and I've come to appreciate her very much. Her tea store, Tea Habitat, was featured in the L.A. Times food section with a positively incandescent review that must be the envy of every other restaurant in the Los Angeles area. I will give you an excerpt:

This is the next level of hard-core Chinese tea appreciation: dan cong oolong. You know how there's single-barrel bourbon and single-cask scotch? Well, this is single-tree tea. This means that every cup of dan cong you drink has been brewed from the leaves of one particular tea tree on the slopes of Phoenix Mountain in Guangdong. Each old dan cong tree is known, named, carefully tended and loved for its own peculiar character.

And America's only specialist in dan cong is right here in Southern California: Tea Habitat, a hidden jewel of high Chinese tea connoisseurship. It's in a Rancho Palos Verdes shopping mall, across from a T.J. Maxx.

And after that, "At Tea Habitat, Tea Connoisseurship Is Taken to the Extreme," starts to get enthusiastic.

Imen deserved every bit of this glowing review, and I wish her all the best.

Monday, August 17, 2009

VIDEO: "Wrong Fu Cha" makes a cup of tea, Chaozhou style

Chaozhou Yiwu Puerh Cha from Brandon on Vimeo.

I only just discovered the "Wrong Fu Cha" site, which has a very nice video of the Chaozhou style of gongfu tea preparation for a Yiwu Pu-erh.

Now, for those reading that have no idea what the above sentence means: Chaozhou is a term I've only just come across myself, in reference to a type of teapot made in China's Phoenix Mountain region, where a special clay is dug to make teapots that are perfect for Dan Cong oolongs. Gongfu preparation means taking great care, using skill to produce a beautiful cup of tea. Typical gongfu tea preparation uses a lot of leaf and many short steeps. A Pu-erh is a compressed, fermented tea from the Yunnan region of China. Books have been read about each of these terms, but I won't attempt further explanation here.

Brandon here demonstrates how to break apart a beeng of compressed pu-erh tea, then to use hot water to heat the lidded cup [gaiwan] and the drinking cups, and then to rinse the pu-erh leaves, and finally to serve.

Notice how Brandon has everything nearby and never needs to get up. I love Chinese-style tea preparation because it's fastidious, but it's not fussy: There are no unnecessary movements. All the care taken to make the tea is done in order to produce the most pleasing cup of tea possible, using the materials at hand.

Also notice how the gaiwan [lidded tea bowl] is kept inside a larger bowl in which is hot water. This ensures the water stays at a high temperature as the water steeps. I would think this would work perfectly for pu-erh, but maybe not so well for teas where it's imperative the water is allowed to cool a bit to avoid stewing the leaves.

Obviously, this is not your hyper-refined Japanese tea ceremony. It's Brandon at "Wrong Fu Cha," for crying out loud, so what did you expect? (The Chinese gongfu tea practice as demonstrated by the Chinese-American Tea Association video I showed earlier is an example of a more delicate and practiced tea ceremony.) Brandon isn't demonstrating the most perfectly choreographed art of tea, but rather a very relaxed and pragmatic, thoughtful and fastidious way to make a cup of tea. I intend to try this out in the weeks ahead.

I've actually been using this method to make oolong and pu-erh teas, which require a high steeping temperature. I frequently have to empty the bowl as the water cools, replacing with hot in between steepings. And because I use an antique bowl and don't want to break it, I don't just pour boiling water into it, but rather use my quite-hot tap water, which is scalding but not boiling. The aesthetic effect is quite lovely, and I like how it keeps the gaiwan hot while it's steeping.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Review: Tea Hub, Da Hong Pao (lightly roasted) 2008

I recently wrote about Tea Hub's "Organic Da Hong Pao (heavily roasted)," and I urge you to read about it in full. An excerpt:

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.

As with all things, other people have already written about Da Hong Pao at great length, and I love reading information such as this, which I found at The Seven Cups:

In the last 1000 years, hundreds of varieties of tea bushes have been identified as growing in Wu Yi Shan. Out of these hundreds of bushes, Da Hong Pao, Tie Luo Han, Bai Ji Guan, Shui Jin Gui are considered the Four Famous Wu Yi Wulongs. Of the four, Da Hong Pao is unquestionably the most famous. What are considered to be the mother bushes of Da Hong Pao still live in the cliffs of Wu Yi Shan, and are now over 350 years old. Since Wu Yi shan has so many bush types, the famous teas are always produced in small quantities. They will never be truly common products, at least the tea grown inside the mountain range; there are a lot of areas in the surrounding mountains that are producing large quantities of these cultivars. Certainly the most common of the rock wulongs is Rou Gui, a cultivar that some locals rank as better than the more famous teas.

I beg you to read the rest, if you wish to learn about Da Hong Pao.

As before, I made the tea with my patented gong-faux tea stylings, in which I use my very Western tea equipment to approximate as best I can a true gongfu preparation. Namely, lots of leaf, very short steepings. As I've explained elsewhere, tea prepared in this style can be drunk as a book is read: in chapters. Each short steep allows the various flavors to be read separately, rather than all in one as is the Western method of tea preparation. And using a lot of leaf, you have the benefit of many steeps, all with different characters. (I've never tasted a tea yet that allows 39 steeps, but I'm looking!)

1) Rinse
A quick rinse to clean off debris from the leaf, as well as to wake up the leaves properly for a nice first steeping.

2) 1st Infusion: 25s
The tea is transparent and pure, and it has a good mouthfeel. But yet, it's a bit sharp, a touch bitter. I believe this is a fault of my own gong-faux and not that of the tea's. It is ever more clear that I need a competent instructor to help me increase the finesse of what I can get out of the multiple-steeping Chinese tea preparation. In retrospect, for Da Hong Pao, I would start with a quite short steeping-- perhaps 5 seconds-- and then go up from there. This is a tea with strong bones, and it must be respected (even though it is lightly, not heavily roasted).

3) 2nd infusion: 15s
Much more to my liking. Tea is clear, beautifully amber-peach-brown in color. The fragrance is lovely and light, and has a unique minerality that I've come to expect from Da Hong Pao. It is noticeably less "roasty" in tone than the last Da Hong Pao I tasted from Tea Hub.

4) 3rd infusion: 20s
Gorgeous aroma, which makes me think of sculpting clay or slip, perhaps-- a bit mineral, and beautifully rich. It's not a floral aroma, by any means, but it's sweet and sharp at the same time. The aroma seems to carry the flavor at first, but as it cools, the bright, sharp flavors rise up in the mouth, as well. The oolong has a pleasing mouthfeel, just a bit tingly, but with a great presence. This is the best steeping yet, and well worth the price of admission.

(4th, 5th, 6th infusions: No notes taken, so sorry.)

I really do love this tea. It's got bones, it's pure, it's complex, it is nuanced, and the flavor is utterly distinct. The light roasting allows me to taste the tea itself, rather than primarily the roastiness, which I think is a good choice.

Well done, Tea Hub, on sourcing this tea. Thanks!

[And by the way, I'm quite proud of finding the image above, which is a perfect counterpoint to the heavily roasted Da Hong Pao from TeaHub, which I interviewed previously.

>> UPDATE: I corrected the link above, so the picture of the young monks sends you to the right Web site. I hope you'll visit there, because it's a great site.]

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Review: The Tea Spot, Green Twisted Spears

Most people in the U.S. think of tea as the dusty stuff inside of a tea bag: dark brown or black, ground powder that is not interesting enough to bear mention. Green Twisted Spears, from The Tea Spot, is entirely different.

The leaves are two-inch-long, tightly wound spears, per the name, perfectly formed and worlds away from the tea powder most people are used to. The shape doesn't tell me anything about flavor or aroma, but it says an enormous amount about the attention that has gone into its manufacture. This is a very carefully made tea, and I have some hope that it will be interesting. When the leaves are steeped, they are lightly aromatic with a citrus tone, and the leaves remain fairly tightly furled.

A green from Sri Lanka, this is a novelty to me. I've had Ceylon black teas before, of course, and some of them can be quite nice. Now, green teas traditionally come from China and Japan. But more recently, other tea-growing regions have recognized that by producing high-quality, connoisseur-level teas, they won't be as boxed in as they would were they growing only the commoditized leaves destined for mass-produced tea bags. Happily, I discover, there are Sri Lankan tea farms with an eye toward the high-end market.

The Web site gave me no indication of steeping, so I called The Tea Spot and spoke to Jessica, who explained that a heaping teaspoon or maybe tablespoon of tea should go in water around 180F (82C), for two to three minutes. Further, she explained that the tightly wound tea leaves would allow me to steep it "multiple, multiple times," like an oolong. I chose 180F for 2 minutes for the first steeping. We'll see what happens with subsequent steepings, and I'll see how long I like to drink it.


Steeping 1
Golden and transparent, without a hint of cloudiness. The flavor is clean and lively, with a hint of earthiness to it. Sri Lankan teas have a unique flavor profile, which I can also taste here in this green-- earthy, fruity, even a bit buttery. As greens go, this provides that clean mouthfeel, very light, though it has that earthy note I mentioned earlier, which anchors the tea. It's just a little weak, though; 3 minutes would have been better than 2.

Steeping 2
2 min, 82C. taste is mostly same as before. woody quality stronger. Pleasant aftertaste that tastes, oddly, a bit like ghee, the Indian clarified butter I sometimes use when cooking.

Steeping 3
3 min, 80C. The tea weakens noticeably, and honestly it loses a bit too much interest.

I can see why the manufacturer tells us to steep many times, but I couldn't get enough enjoyment out of it to go past the fourth steeping. I like how the Sri Lankan terroir affected the flavor of the green, because it was like finding a friendly acquaintance in an unusual place: say, a friend from church, greeting me when I'm climbing up a mountain slope in Colorado.

I've never had a green Ceylon before, and I'm pleased with the beautiful handcrafting of the leaf, which was sufficiently interesting to merit an experiment with the tea, all by itself. While this tea isn't as nuanced or bold as the Chinese greens I am more accustomed to, when taken on its own merit, it's pleasant. I'd be interested to see what kind of tea the Ceylon producers will be producing in a hundred years, after much practice and developing cultivars specifically for the green tea style.

In all, this tea is beautiful to look at, and okay to drink. One could say this is like those presentation teas that are great fun to look at, but don't necessarily knock your socks off with aroma or flavor.

Found 08.17.09 on FaceBook:

The TeaSpot


If the rest of you are intrigued,http://tiny.cc/spearreview Get automatic 30% off all Green Twisted Spears sizes, today only! http://tiny.cc/spearsale

Friday, August 7, 2009

Found on Twitter: Tea Vs. Cancer

teacraftecm [Nigel Mellican] "Green tea can't prevent every cancer, but it's the cheapest & most practical method for prevention available to the public"- Hirota Fujiki

teacraftecm Hirota Fujiki is a chemist at the National Cancer Center Research Institute, Tokyo Japan - my thanks to Choi Time Teas for the quotation

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Video: "Love of Tea," by Chinese-American Tea Association

The Chinese-American Tea Association (CATA) produced this short video as an introduction to Chinese tea.

An observation: Whereas Japanese tea ceremony is intended to allow one to experience peace and harmony through the actions and carefully controlled environment of the tea ceremony itself; and English tea time is designed to give one a cozy, cultered sensation via the plenitude of accoutrements-- flowered tea cups, doilies, finger sandwiches, and so on; and American tea (well, of this, the less said, the better); the Chinese tea ceremony seems to me terribly pragmatic, every movement designed to squeeze the most flavor and aroma out of those leaves. By being so deadly serious about making leaf juice taste yummy, the Chinese have designed a very efficient process, hidden within all this seeming complexity.

I will have to find out more about CATA, and I'm very glad they spent the energy to create this video.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Chicago Tea Writers Confab

"I am quite certain, no better tea was drunk in all Chicago tonight, or with a more appreciative group of new friends."


Yesterday I had more fun drinking tea since... well, I can't remember when. Tony Gebely (World of Tea blog) and I met at the Chicago home of Lainie Petersen (Lainie Sips blog), where we proceeded to dive deep into our shared enjoyment of tea and respective treasure troves. And we took no tasting notes, save some short blurbs on Twitter. Lainie, our generous host, pulled out several sets of beautiful teaware appropriate to each tea flight. In all, we spent about six hours together, gravitating toward Chinese teas, served gongfu style where appropriate.

While Lainie, Tony, and I shared the teas we each brought, we got to know one another better; stories about how we came to love tea, and our thoughts on tea culture in the U.S., and so on. We came to the odd realization that we were undoubtedly drinking the best teas in all Chicago at that moment. I hope we can build on this gathering to become a vibrant part of the U.S. tea Renaissance.

We each had brought quite a number of other teas to the gathering, all of them excellent, but these were the ones we decided upon. (Lainie and Tony, if you have anything to add or corrections to make, please let me know.)

A TEA TORRENT (in two acts)

ACT 1: Lainie Petersen, host

  • Silver Needle white (Jing Tea). Lainie provided this lovely palate cleanser, a lovely Silver Needle white (Fuding Bai Hao Yin Zhen 2009) from Jing Tea, which I'd tasted before, when they sent me a generous sample. I'm not a white tea aficionado, by any means, as I find it to be too subtle for my taste; but as a palate awakener, it was perfect, and Lainie managed to serve it in such a way that it woke up my interest with some subtler notes in evidence that I hadn't noticed before.
  • Jasmine Yellow Buds (TeaGschwendner). For once, I found a jasmine tea I could drink. Lainie pulled this from her Cave of Wonders. When I smelled the package, I thought I wouldn't like it at all, because the jasmine scent was very strong. But when she steeped the tea, I discovered this yellow tea, scented with jasmine, is more subtle than I had thought. It's a yellow, not the typical green. I cannot find this specific tea on the TeaGschwendner Web site.
  • Pre-rain Organic Anji Bai Cha green (Jing Tea). I love this tea, and I had also written it up here. I convinced Tony to nibble on the leaves before drinking, and we all enjoyed the intense, light, refreshing complexity of this tea.
  • Honey Orchid aroma gold medal #1 2008, single-bush Dan Cong oolong (Tea Habitat). I pulled this one out, and Lainie and Tony were blown away by the long twists of leaf and the intense, ethereal aroma. Lightly roasted, the tea has quite an easy touch. I introduced this to Lainie and Tony, who had not had Dan Cong before. A great start.
  • Super Tie Gwan Yin oolong (Hong Tea). This was Tony's first contribution to the flight. Daniel Hong is a friend of ours, a tea farmer in China who writes about his tea in his blog, Hong Tea Dao (link above). When Tony compared the regular to the Super, he was amazed by the difference between them and the intensity of the latter. This is a superior, complex tea. As a side note, Daniel wrote earlier this year about a red-tipped TGY that he was personally overseeing, a varietal that is very difficult to maintain and manage, and I'll have to follow up to see how that came along. For Iron Goddess, Hong Tea is a purveyor to keep an eye on.
  • Fujian Golden Monkey (Teaism). Honestly, the exact order in which we drank the teas is a bit muddled in my recollection, but I'll do the best I can. But after the lighter offerings at the beginning, we moved on to the deeper, richer Chinese teas. This tea, provided by Lainie, was a Teaism offering. The Golden Monkey was a bit on the heavy side for me, but it's definitely one of Lainie's favorites.
  • Ju Duo Jai 2009, single-bush Dan Cong oolong, Almond Aroma (Tea Habitat). I was a bit surprised by Tony's and Lainie's exuberance over this tea. I mean, I like it, but I thought Lainie's head might lift off her body and float about the room, such was her delight. She is an almond fanatic, she says, and this tea (while not being flavored with almond) rather makes one think of almonds. What I find interesting, over the multiple steeps we got from this tea, is how strong the flavor is over the course of the flight.
  • Yunnan Gold Silk (Dream About Tea). I don't remember when we drank this. It is a spicy, lovely, affordable Yunnan. We discussed the Cha Dao Web site, and how one of their writers made an extensive study of Yunnan teas, well worth reading.
  • San Mao Pu-erh. This was from Lainie's stash, though I don't know the provenance. Lainie provided a few steeps from her dedicated pu-erh Yixing pot. It wasn't a connoisseur-level tea, perhaps, but it was enjoyable, and Lainie assured us it was a strongly energy-boosting tea. Of course, buried as it was within the deluge of other teas, I can only surmise about how it would be by itself. We didn't steep it too many times.
  • 20-year-old Tie Guan Yin (Hong Tea). (See notes below.)
  • You Hua Xiang 2009, single-bush Dan Cong oolong, Pomelo Aroma (Tea Habitat). This was, for me, the highlight of the evening. Lainie started serving Tony's intensely roasted 20-year-old Tie Guan Yin, which came from our friend, Daniel Hong. The first few steepings were very much about the roasty flavor. Then we popped open the Pomelo Aroma dan cong, which had been provided by Imen Shan of Tea Habitat. This lively, intense tea was pure and intense, with the fruity-floral aroma of the Chinese pomelo fruit, which is something of a melon or grapefruit, apparently. Then we decided to drink the two teas against each other, steep for steep, using one of Lainie's Yixing pots for the TGY and a tiny glass pot for the DC, and two sets of drinking and sniffing cups (wén xiāng bēi, 聞香杯: Thank you, Michael J Coffey) from Lainie's cupboards. The contrasts between the dark, roasted complexity of the Iron Goddess of Mercy against the intense but light Dan Cong were outrageously delicious (to steal Lainie's word). I was more drawn to the light Dan Cong, while Tony preferred the depth of the Tie Guan Yin, and Lainie seemed divided. Interestingly, the DC seemed quite consistent in flavor/aroma (prompting me to note that the dan cong seemed as intense on the seventh steep as it was on the second), while the TGY was changing pretty dramatically from steep to steep, as the roastiness gave way to the more characteristic oolong complexity. The TGY leaves were perfectly black and rather scary looking, reminding me of the black blob creature that comprised the black suit worn by the hero in Spider-Man III. The DC leaves were so long and perfectly formed, and they opened a bit more quickly than the TGY. For me, pairing the two teas allowed each sip to be fresh and intense, rather than losing interest. I was impressed at how strong both teas were after maybe seven steepings each, when we ran out of time. Lainie kept the two teas in the refrigerator and planned to continue steeping on into the next day. I'll be interested to find how far they went.

ACT 2: Dream About Tea, host Hong Wu

After all of that beautiful, complex, amazing tea, we were elevated and delighted (and in my case, quite chatty, whereas Tony seemed to be relaxed and peaceful, and Lainie remained ever the competent and generous host). Lainie, Tony, and I decided to move the party on to Dream About Tea, where Tony left after a good look at their serious collection of teaware, pu-erh bings, and loose-leaf teas. Lainie and I tasted the following:
  • Pu-erh. This had been extracted from a seven-layer bing and served in a tall, clear glass, and was fruity and light. As I got down toward the bottom of the glass, where the pu-erh had fallen, the brew would get quite bitter, and I would then refill the glass and drink the light, sweet, fruity tea again. I'll get you the exact title of this tea when I can. Dream About Tea is about to open their online store, and these teas will be able to be shipped directly.
  • Lu An Gua Pian, green tea. Lainie had this one, which I tasted, and it was big, full, green leaves and quite refreshing.


Well, I'm sure I forgot something, and I wish I had written at least something down at the time, so I wouldn't have to rely on my shaky memory two days later. I was delighted to meet in person the two other tea writers that I know of that live the Chicago area. Together, we were wondering at the fact that Chicago, being a world-class city, has not developed its tea culture in the same way Washington, D.C., or New York, or particularly San Francisco have. This is not to say there are not some serious tea companies here (Ten Ren, Chicago Coffee & Tea Exchange, TeaGschwendner, Dream About Tea, and Todd & Holland spring to mind). But nevertheless, we were thinking about the fact that we live in a coffee-drinking culture here, and it's rare to come across another tea drinker. We'll be exploring that together in the future.

Drinking so many first-rate teas was delightful and invigorating, and I wish everyone could have this experience. Tea is a great way to make new friends.

Thank you, Tony and Lainie, for coming together like this. And Lainie, you've been a great host. Cheers!

Well, with any post of this sort, there were bound to be some mistakes and omissions that needed correction. Above, I added Jasmine Yellow Buds, by TeaGschwendner; finished writing the Super TGY post that had been partially deleted; corrected the names and attributions of Lainie's teas; corrected the steeping method of the 20-year TGY; and added in the name of our host at Dream About Tea.