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.


Tony said...

I couldn't have said it any better! I hope we can get more people together next time and introduce some people to what we experienced that day!

A said...

Excellent recording of this adventure. Though I am only an occasional and casual tea drinker, I appreciate the passion and insight you brought to the meeting. Sounds to me like the beginning of a Chicago Tea Drinkers Association.

Lainie Petersen said...

It was a great time, and you and Tony were and are most welcome for tea at any time! In fact, any tea drinker is welcome!

I do love serving tea. :-)

Veri-Tea said...


*slightly green with envy*

Unknown said...

Veri-tea: That was one of the most enjoyable tea-drinking experiences I've ever had, and I think I'm green with envy of myself! That is, now that it's over, I wish it weren't.

Lainie Petersen said...

Well then, let's pick a date for another one, shall we?