Friday, May 29, 2009

REVIEW: Fang Tea, Medium LiSan Oolong

PORTRAIT OF THE TEA ENTHUSIAST AS A YOUNG MAN

When I was a little boy, perhaps 10 years old, my sister Kate (the flautist formerly known as Kathy) and I went to Ponderosa Steakhouse, which we walked a number of blocks to get to. It was a big deal, and we had to cross the Big Street to get there. Ponderosa was a buffet-style steak restaurant, not at all fancy. I remember they had vanilla pudding with whipped cream on top, which I thought was the bomb. Anyway, I clearly remember the two of us sidling up to the buffet ordering line, and I noticed something I'd never seen nor heard of before: Teriyaki Chicken.

This is the first Culinary Moment I can recall. My taste buds exploded as I experienced a flavor palate I was absolutely unfamiliar with. I can remember even now the raw amazement I felt as this foreign-tasting, gloriously new thing was introduced to me. This was a turning point for me, one that changed forever the way I view food.

From that point on, whenever we'd go to a restaurant, I'd make sure to order something I'd never heard of before. I didn't like to read too carefully the menu descriptions, because I didn't like to spoil the surprise. Sashimi! Pho! Cambodian lime chicken soup! Bratwurst! Veal canneloni! Chicken croquettes Pozharski! Borscht! Beef carpaccio! Blue cheese! The only thing that keeps me from eating out every meal is my pocketbook. One of the great delights in my life that moment when I am introduced to an entirely new taste that my palette has never imagined.

And this brings me to tea. ("Finally!") One of the glories of the last year of my life is that I've been having this experience again, and again, and again. This makes me a somewhat uneven reviewer, because I'm approaching these teas with an open heart but not often enough experience to apply a jaded standard, "Well, this is a pleasant enough [insert tea here], but I really liked last year's much better."

And so I approach Fang Gourmet Tea's "Medium LiSan Oolong" in this spirit. Having tasted it the first time, my taste buds opened up to an entirely new profile of flavor I've never thought of before. This is so unlike other teas I'm familiar with, I'm absolutely delighted to have something new to indulge in. I am having the best time, right now, as I sip and type. Something amazing and new! LiSan Oolong!

THE TEA
Last week, Fang Tea in New York was kind enough to send me a package of this tea. I knew it was going to be special, so I waited until I had the right moment to unwrap the package. Fang's packaging was quite smart, with the tea leaves protected in a vacuum-packed foil packet, which was inside the tin. The leaves appear to have a medium level of oxidation (hint: the word, medium, in the tea's name), which implies a certain level of body and complexity.

To research this subcategory of oolong tea, I read the blog by Winnie, who is with Teance, a high-end San Francisco tea shop. Winnie's blog, Tea Adventures, gave me the following:

Li Shan means Pear Mountain, and in the past, the most sought after fruits, particularly pears, came from there. Today, such famous heights as Da Yu Ling, and Fu Shou Shan, has dwarfed the fruits and made tea the most profitable and sought-after crop from this region. Li Shan oolongs generally refer to elevations of 1700-2000 meters,... The mountains are impossibly dangerous, downright scary in its steepness. One look at the prospects of tumbling down the hill from harvesting makes one understand all the fuss.

She goes on to write:

Li Shan Oolongs are the most intensely fragrant, smooth buttery oolong there is, topping Taiwan oolongs growing everywhere else. Particularly, there is a pronounced taste of gan that lingers for an entire day, with less and less astringency the higher the elevation, no matter how strong a cup of tea you make. Incredibly sweet with a taste of fruit that's been cooked at high heat, Li Shan tea no doubt is so highly sought after, many unscrupulous merchants would try to dupe the unsuspecting consumer. It is highly unlikely to buy any Li shan tea less than $200 USD p/lb. at a retail level, and at that price, one is guaranteed that it came from the second-flush or 'second spring', or lower elevations at 1700 meters. Da Yu Ling oolongs are well over $300 p/lb., and difficult to acquire even if one would pay for it, for all of the crops are usually spoken for.
Okay, check. Great tea, often at least partially faked up by opportunists. Now, in a lovely note in my Fang Tea package, Kyle Shen, the proprietor of Fang Tea, wrote:
Pear Mountain, or LiSan, is located in a highland climate region with an altitude of more than 2,000 meters. Tea quality from this region is especially superior, and LiSan Oolong has the highest index among the Taiwan high mountain oolong tea.

I hope you'll enjoy this tea as much as I do.
So I'm primed for this tea to be a pretty special experience. While I typically focus on the Darjeeling and other Himalayan teas, I have slowly been coming to truly love these Chinese-style teas. From Fang Tea's Web site, I find much the same information provided in the letter. Fang doesn't detail the name of the tea master, or tea farm, from which they get the tea. Would it pass the Teance test of authenticity? I can't be certain, but at this point, I would certainly guess that it does.

So I opened up the Hao De blog, which gives a very detailed description of a good way to steep Oolongs. I do want to derive the greatest pleasure I can from this experience-- I would hate to mess it up because of my own lack of knowledge-- so I follow his directions to the letter. The results are delightful, amazing.

THE LEAVES
The largish brown-and-greenish leaves are in big, complicated wads. When the package was cut open, there was such an unusual scent-- fruity, earthy.

MY GONG-FAUX PREPARATION
I haven't yet purchased a proper gaiwan and associated hardware, nor have I been trained in their use by a Chinese tea master. But I try to approximate the process I read about by using porcelain covered cups and careful attention to temperature and timing. Following Hao De's advice, I filled a cup 1/4 full of the balled oolong leaves. I did a number of short steeps, and I slowly increased the length of the steepings until the tea stopped being pleasurable. The notes below, I took as I tasted. I'll leave them as is, only editing the most egregious errors.

steeping 1: 30s
not very flavorful tea liquor yet
the scent of the leaves is outstanding, so unusual

Because the tea hadn't taken on the flavor yet, but the leaves were so brightly scented, I held up my steeping cup near my nose while I drank, sort of borrowing the aroma to flavor the tea. Very harmonious, though probably not something I'd do when people are watching. I couldn't keep my nose out of the steeping cup, away from that aroma.

steeping 2: 20s
totally unique flavor. now the tea begins to taste like the scent of those leaves.

steeping 3: 20s
Noticeably stronger flavor!
what is this aroma/flavor combination?! almost a mint/pine brightness, slightly dry in the mouth, like rich fruit and and perhaps a bit floral, but like no flower I'm familiar with.
just a hint of bitterness now developing
bright, amazing savor

steeping 4: 20s
best steeping yet. glorious. my wife and I are sharing the tea between us, and i am having a hard time believing how good this is. or keeping up with her demand for tea.

steeping 5: 35s
flavor maintaining its profile very nicely

steeping 6: 45s
(same)
I am enjoying just sipping, not writing. This is definitely a tea to be savored, and probably writing this post is taking away from that. The next time I make this, I will write nothing and taste everything.

steeping 7: 60s + 5m
60s is not enough, the taste is too weak. I will now follow another tea master's advice and start using longer steeping times. Don't be horrified! I poured the water back on the leaves and steeped this time for 5 minutes. drinking alone now, and wanted to get the most out of the tea.
at 6m, the tea tastes great again, though the mouthfeel is getting much weaker.

steeping 8: 15m
Just too weak to be enjoyed anymore. Faint hint of flavor, but not enough to compel me to fill up on more liquid.

As I walk around after the tasting, the complex, lingering aftertaste follows me around the house, clearly and distinctly, and much longer than I expected.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS
Awesome tea, and one of the best experiences I've had yet with oolongs. I am very anxious to get back to this tea and just drink-- no typing-- with my eyes closed and some music playing. Thank you, Kyle at Fang Tea, for the gift of such excellent LiSan Oolong. I'm a convert, and I will obviously have to search out more of the tea from Pear Mountain.

FollowFriday


#followfriday #tea @laniep @fangtea @AeyalGross @thetearooms @ericnicolaas @darjeelingtea @teacraftecm @teareviews @GongfuGirl @dr_oolong

(No baby birds were hurt, or asked to explain what the heck Twitter is, in the making of this post.)

Ching Ching Cha


Why can't we have a place like this in the Western 'burbs of Chicago?

http://www.chingchingcha.com/tea.html

Ching Ching Cha looks amazing. Next time I'm in Washington, D.C., I'll be sure to stop in.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Video: Production of Gyokuro and Matcha, in Uji, Japan



Video: Matcha and Gyokuro Processing.

My Facebook friend, Jean-Philippe Maurer, who is based out of Shanghai, China, and works with THEODOR tea company, sent me a link to this video, which is produced by O-Cha.com. It shows how gyokuro and matcha Japanese green tea are made in Uji, Japan.

In the beginning of the video, we see a green tea field in Uji, Japan, where workers are putting up an elaborate system of frames and sun shades, which are put in place for 20 days before the harvest to shield the leaves from the harsh sun, allowing them to achieve a quality of green tea found nowhere else. I found this description on the Chanoya Web site:

Gyokuro is the finest Japanese tea, known as “precious dew.” Carefully grown under diffused sunlight for 20 days before harvesting. It has a rich, sweet, dense infusion with a hint of marine flavor and a long, lingering aftertaste. Nothing like in other teas. Uji, Kyoto is traditionally specialized in Gyokuro and Macha production. Their tea leaves are often blended with other prefectures’ tea due to their small product quantity.

The video shows the entire process, from the leaves being stripped from the tea plants, to the steaming, the twisting (by machine), and the three times the gyokuro is baked.

In addition-- beautiful video here-- the matcha is shown to be heated, then the tea is air-dried by dropping in a mesh cage from a height of several stories up, down to a conveyor belt below that carries them on through to being heated and ultimately pulverized into the traditional matcha powder.

For all you green tea lovers, definitely something to take a few minutes to watch.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

REVIEW: Mighty Leaf, Emerald Pearls


Emerald Pearls, by Mighty Leaf

One of the perils of writing reviews is that you sometimes stumble upon other people's reviews of the same product. In this case, I've recently watched the enjoyable Walker Tea Review, with Jason Walker, who said this is what he would consider a "base model tea," to paraphrase; or in other words, that tea with other green teas would be compared. "It's more floral," or "It's more vegetal," that kind of thing. Well, let's see what I think, for what it's worth.

THE LEAVES
Emerald Pearls are certainly an emerald green, but not in "pearl" shape-- or, rounded balls of tea leaf. Instead, the leaves are short spears, deeply green-black in hue. I asked the Mighty Leaf person on Twitter about the name, and got a reply that perhaps the name signified its value and rarity. When steeped, the leaves unfurled in a forest green, with hints of gold. There is definitely a warm, garden scent to it-- the vegetal, or asparagus, note that Jason Walker speaks of.

THE CUP
My wife took a cup and wandered off into the other room with the baby. She said, "Wow, what is this? Mm, this is good." Or words to that effect. She liked it! Hey, Mikey!

Golden-green, transparent to the bottom of the cup. The tea has a rather dry mouthfeel, and it is nicely fragrant. It's a rainy day today, and as I stood in front of the open door with the tea flavor fresh on my tongue, I thought of my Grandma's wonderful garden, and how it smelled on a rainy day. I realized that the tea itself was providing the fragrance that triggered the memory. There's a slight sweetness, and the slight dryness doesn't really detract from the smoothness of the cup. I like that astringency, and it goes well with the hint of citrus in the high notes, or the umami of the low notes. The low note hangs on in the mouth, with a very long and pleasant finish.

Umami, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the elusive "fifth flavor," which accompanies the usual sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. It is caused by L-glutamate (and other variations of the glutamate molecule), which is present in large amounts in green tea. It's a yummy meatiness, or a satisfying happy flavor that is difficult to pin down, but wonderful to experience. If you want to learn more about umami, go to this Web site: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15819485 .

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS
I find this tea to be very satisfying and pleasurable in a simple, unobtrusive way. Nothing in this tea screams for your attention, but instead, it feels welcoming and homey.

Tea can be purchased here: http://www.mightyleaf.com/chinese-tea/organic-emerald-pearls-green-tea/

Monday, May 25, 2009

REVIEW: Xiao Tuo Cha, Red Leaf Tea

Today I type with cuts on my index finger and thumb on the left hand, which makes the letters t, f, g, r, b, and v rather difficult to achieve. I was opening a container of tortellacci, which are indistinguishable from tortellini except for the presence of an -acci at the end, and I cut myself. Being thus disabled, and dealing with the grotty remnants of a Nyquil hangover, and a fussy but temporarily sleeping baby nearby, I naturally thought to do something complex. So, pu-erh! I think I will review both the tea and its effectiveness in driving away the grunged-up feeling in my skull this morning. And if an occasional g is dropped, please have mercy on my cut finger.

Xiao Tuo Cha, Red Leaf Tea

This is what you'll find on the Red Leaf Tea Web site:

Description:

Xiao Tuo Cha Pu-erh tea provides a novel drinking experience by way of the tea leaves which are compressed into "bird's nests" and subjected to an aging process that imparts it with a distinctive earthy flavor. Known to many for its reputed weight reduction properties, Xiao Tuo Cha Pu-Erh comes individually wrapped and are ideal for families or single large servings. This tea is oxidized slowly, which explains its richer, deeper, flavor, qualities which only seem to get better and more intense with age!



THE LEAVES
The pu-erh is compressed into a tiny bird's nest shape (which is the meaning of the term, tuo cha), of very tiny leaves. Typically, tuo cha are not made of the highest-grade pu-erh leaves, so I chose to do two washes of 20s each to help clear the cobwebs, so to speak. As I rinsed, I noticed that quite a lot of tiny leaf matter made it past the built-in strainer on Great-Grandma's porcelain Japanese pot, into the secondary strainer below. Not quite dust or fannings, perhaps, but very tiny.

THE GONG-FAUX PU-ERH FLIGHT
Because I don't have all sorts of Chinese gaiwan or Yixing pots, I make do with what I have, trying to achieve the wabi-sabi relaxed preparation style anyway. I am doing a number of steepings, about 10-20s each, with two 20s rinses to start.

10s
The first steeping produces an opaque black brew, with a nice burn to the back of the throat, and a high note of berry, which is riding over the top of the rather smooth woodiness. Grottiness in my head is beginning to abate, slightly, and I don't feel as though I'm typing in such a fog. The letter g is still not wanting to appear when I type it, and I need to keep repeating every time I hit that letter.

15s
Second steeping was accompanied by baby waking up and fussing. Makes a proper pu tasting a bit questionable. But what is wabi-sabi about, but an embrace of the perfections hidden within the imperfections? I'm happy the baby is up, though my attention may now wander a bit from its intense (though bleary) focus on the pu. The liquor is a bit more transparent, just a bit. The wet leaves are waking up to a mild spiciness. Taste is not very strong, but it does have a bit of bitterness that is off-putting to my wife, who thought it could use a bit of sugar to smooth the rough edges.

10s
This steeping is significantly more transparent than before, and the bottom of the cup can now be discerned. Thus far, I've not been too excited by the flavor of this pu, but I'm willing to keep steeping to see where this goes. Starting to wake up, and was sufficiently alert to discuss the idea of Qi, and whether there's anything to it. This steeping is quite a bit smoother than previous, as well, with a hint of sweetness and a faint burn in the throat. Liquor at the bottom of the white cup now displays a nice reddish-brown. Some small amount of leaf dust has made it past two filters into my cup.

20s
Nicely transparent cup. Sufficiently awake to make breakfast. Is it the caffeine, or is it the Qi? Either way, being awake is no longer a bother. The flavor of this pu is slightly woody, and the bitterness has gone out of the cup. There is a blueberry or such astringent berry flavor hiding up inside the rafters, peeking out. Now I understand why reviewers of pu-erhs have such an odd assortment of steeping lengths: Basically, counting to 15 or 20 in your head combine with little life moments that mean that getting a tea to pour at a precise moment is not terribly likely, and it's a bit of a pain to achieve anyway. So why bother? If a pu-erh flight is a chore because it's impossible to maintain precision, then I'm probably missing the point entirely.

25s
Transparent, amber-brown cup. Awake enough to now remember that I have a seven-year-old boy, as well as the baby mentioned earlier. He's making a fort in the living room and is starting to require attention, too. The leaves in the pot are mildly fragrant, slightly spicy, but difficult to discern specific nose-references. (To hyphenate or not to hypenate? That-is-the-question.) The subtle flavors are starting to announce themselves, though they are quite restrained. I'll stop here, because I don't want to keep drinking it as it becomes even weaker.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS
I'm glad the caffeine or Qi have been sufficient in this cup of pu-erh to wake me up and let me feel refreshed enough to get started on the day. To be truthful, I'm glad this was not my first foray into pu, because I would have thought, "Meh. What's all the fuss about?" Though I was not the best test subject, what with noisy children, and demands of the day, and feeling as grotty as hell (there's that word again!) this morning, these tea leaves still seemed not to be very excited about going into the cup. My wife found it bitter and unexciting; I found it rather weak, insufficiently nuanced, and unexciting.

That being said: at about $2.50 per tuo cha, multiplied by 5 steepings with 2 teacups' worth of tea per steeping, we come to about a quarter per cup. Talking to a Chinese friend the other day, I was reminded that the Chinese-- inventors of the wonderful tea innovations-- don't always sit around drinking only the most ethereal of brews, which I as a Westerner dare not even contemplate. So it's certainly okay to drink a utilitarian cup of tea, and it doesn't always have to be a near-religious experience.

But I want to drink pu-erh not merely to wake up, but also to expand my tea-drinking horizons and excite my palate.


Note: no finger puppets were harmed in the making of this review.

REVIEW: Zhi Tea, Royal Gold


Zhi Tea
2008 Royal Gold


There's a sharp spiciness that is quite elusive, which I've come to think of as that Yunnan taste. It's highly unusual and distinctive. In a way, it reminds me of the aroma of a beehive: pollen-sweet, but with a sharp buzz.

I've moved away from drinking Yunnan teas of late, because I had been drinking them so much in years past. I typically tasted a mid-grade bulk Yunnan, which was sort of the benchmark flavor I came to associate with the region's tea. Coming back to it is rather exciting, because it's like visiting a friend I haven't seen in a while.

For those who have never had a Yunnan: It appears as a black tea, though the Chinese would categorize it as a red. It is full-bodied and has an intensely spicy flavor and a distinct aroma that I find a bit hard to describe, but it's what I always think of as that "Yunnan scent." And the flavor has a very unique flavor profile, as well: spicy, sharp, slightly bitter, slightly sweet, dry, smooth. It's the contrasts in the cup that are so beguiling. The Yunnan red teas are often described as earthy, sometimes smoky, malty (a description of mouthfeel, mostly), floral, honeyed. A fellow named "anodyne" on the ChaDao blog did a fairly extensive survey of Yunnans over a number of blog posts, and these were instructive to me as I began to think about this tea today.

THE LEAVES
These are lovely gold-and-black leaves, tightly twisted (which prevents such quick oxidation of the leaves, allowing them to taste better longer). Upon steeping, a very distinctly spicy aroma comes up from the chocolate-brown leaves, which have unfurled into beautifully long needle shapes. The leaves are quite complete, but no sign of insect bites, which is usually a sign of pesticide-free production.

THE PROCESS
1 tsp tea leaves to 1 cup near-boiling water, in lined Japanese cast-iron tetsubin.

THE CUP

THE FIRST STEEPING
This tea is sharp and spicy, just a bit bitter. My wife likes its smoothness and the cleanness of the flavor. On the other hand, I find it just a bit dry, and the bitterness, I find, slightly off-putting. The liquor is opaque, and I can't see the bottom of the teacup. There's a sharp spiciness that is quite elusive, which I've come to think of as that Yunnan taste. It's highly unusual and distinctive. In a way, it reminds me of a beehive: pollen-sweet, but with a sharp buzz (if you will) that is quite arresting. And there's a honey flavor within that, which seems as though created by some exotic bee somewhere. That being said, that bitterness was just a bit too much for me. On the second cup of the first steeping, I cheated and put in some sugar to ameliorate it. My wife, on the other hand, loved it and was disappointed that we had run out of tea so quickly.

THE SECOND STEEPING
Much of the powerful mouthfeel has gone out of this Yunnan Royal Gold by the time of the second steeping. The liquor is now a transparent brown, clear to the bottom of the cup. A bright earthiness becomes apparent, almost a metallic taste, though in a pleasant way. The bitterness is gone, as well. I definitely recommend taking this tea to at least a second steeping, because there are nuances that are revealed once the more powerful flavors are given their moment in the spotlight, and now can release the stage to the other actors. There's a slight woodiness, as well, which seems unusual with the more watery mouthfeel of the cup.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS
I really do like this Yunnan, and it's a good reintroduction into this type of Chinese red tea. Strong, bold, interesting flavors to match the spicy, exotic aroma. Thank you, Zhi Tea, for such a great offering.

>> UPDATE: ADDED WEB SITE ADDRESS FOR PURCHASE: http://www.zhitea.com/store/detail.aspx?category=14&section=13&id=539

Friday, May 22, 2009

If you think I'm a tough reviewer...


... by all means, have a look at this auto review of the Hybrid Insight. I'll give you an excerpt:

Much has been written about the Insight, Honda’s new low-priced hybrid. We’ve been told how much carbon dioxide it produces, how its dashboard encourages frugal driving by glowing green when you’re easy on the throttle and how it is the dawn of all things. The beginning of days.

So far, though, you have not been told what it’s like as a car; as a tool for moving you, your friends and your things from place to place.

So here goes. It’s terrible. Biblically terrible. Possibly the worst new car money can buy. It’s the first car I’ve ever considered crashing into a tree, on purpose, so I didn’t have to drive it any more.

REVIEW: Zhi Tea, Snow Mountain Green

The most beautiful place I have ever seen is the Königssee, in the Bavarian Alps, which I quite desperately long to visit again. It was summer, and my wonderful friends brought my wife and me to the high mountains surrounding the crystal lake, where the blue flowers against the verdant valleys echoed the perfectly clear sky framed by high peaks. These remain strongly in my mind, and the memory is sweet, though growing a bit fainter over the course of years.

The reason I'm thinking about this is because Zhi Tea's Snow Mountain Green tea is also like an exercise in memory. When drunk according to Zhi instructions, the tea taste is mostly experienced in its aftertaste, where the long finish unfurls the various aromas.


THE LEAVES
Surprisingly curly, twisted silver-white leaves with a very lightly floral fragrance. As they are steeped, they take on a jade-green color, long leaf tips joined together with a tiny bit of stem. Carefully crafted. The leaf aroma after steeping is not completely attractive, but it's interesting: a memory of the

THE TEA
Snow Mountain Green is a China green tea from the Hunan province.

THE PREPARATION
1 teaspoons of leaf in 80C reverse-osmosis filtered water, 2.5 minutes steeping time.

THE CUP

Two days ago, when I prepared this tea, I followed the Zhi tea instructions: 1 tsp per cup. As I made it, I thought the end result would be rather weak, because the large leaves were not very dense in the cup. I was right. Such a pale green-gold, the liquor was as transparent as clear water. The flavor of the tea itself was rather elusive, with a lovely aftertaste 2-3 min after sipping... like cherry, slightly bitter, dry, and rather flowery.

And so today I made the tea again, this time with double the amount of leaf per cup. The tea is lovely. The liquor is a just slightly foggy gold, with almost a cherry blossom aroma. As the leaves cooled, I noticed a green grape aroma coming from them in the pot. The tea was much more nuanced, with faint fruit-- grape, perhaps-- and with a floral aroma high up in the profile. Very springlike and fresh, smooth, with a longish finish.

Truly a beautiful tea, which benefits (to my taste) by being steeped with double the leaves as the Zhi packaging and Web site recommend.



(Beautiful picture of the Konigsee is able to be seen on an Alpine photography tour run by John Baker.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Review: You, Me and Tea, Quangzhou Milk Oolong


The flavor of this Milk Oolong from Quangzhou is quite singular, and though I've used up my sample, I'm already wanting more.
With this review, I hope to pique your interest so you might explore a rare tea that will surprise and intrigue you. I will be reviewing a pretty rare type of oolong from Quongzhou in China, the elusive creature known as the Milk Oolong.

You, Me and Tea gives rather little information about this tea on their Web site. Here's what they write:
Quongzhou Milk. Luxurious, that's what you can call this tea. It has a most unique character best described as sweet milk. It has impeccable orchid notes.
Okay, not much to go on, but sounds delicious. Note to the writers for You, Me and Tea: Because the tea has such an interesting backstory, you may want to write up more complete and interesting descriptions.

BACKGROUND
As I searched about online, I discovered that two of my favorite reviewers, Cinnabar at GongfuGirl, and Troy at TeaViews, have already written eloquently about this tea. I'll quote Troy here, who did some research into what this tea is all about.

Milk Oolong, according to the common story, is the product of leaves harvested during special seasonal temperature drops. These temperature drops, one would assume, infuse the leaves with a thicker milkier sap that curdles slightly during normal Oolong processing. I have, however, heard that the flavor is actually achieved by the addition of milk during the steaming of the leaves. I put a bug in David's ear, a voracious all consuming bug, when I asked him if he could find out whether this was the case, or not. What he found was at first a chorus saying that their products were Au-natural, followed by admissions that most of the producers do add milk to “enhance” the flavor. Clear as mud, eh?
Searching my memory, I do remember something about this. This is typically a limited-edition tea, because Milk Oolong can only be produced when there is a sudden drop in temperature, just at the time of the harvest. Very little of this tea can be created each year, because the conditions that give rise to this are quite rare.

THE TERROIR
Where is this tea from? Quongzhou (Guangzhou) is part of the Wuyi mountains, and has a very ancient tea culture. I'll quote from a local tourism Web site for the region.

Lingnan's tea culture is one of the four main tea cultures in China.

Lingnan Area consists of provinces of Guangdong, Fujian and Taiwan and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region with Guangdong as its core area.

Lingnan people began planting tea in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). A man called Cao Song brought some seeds of tea from northern China to Guangdong and planted them in Xiqiao Mountain. Since then, Lingnan's tea culture has become an important part of life here.

Because of the hot and humid climate, tea is a must-have daily drink for Lingnan people.

In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Lingnan people started a special Cantonese-style breakfast Yam Cha, or Dim Sum, which is popular little snack steamed, deep-fried or boiled.
Tea and dim sum? I'm sold. The site goes on to say that the practice of gongfu tea brewing also began in this region. Brilliant!


THE PREPARATION
Filtered water, rolling boil, 2 minutes maximum, porcelain teapot.

THE LEAVES
Dry, the leaves appear green-to-black, in little wads and a fair amount of broken leaf dust in the pouch. It does have a very unusual scent, very rich and thick. I could definitely imagine this scent being associated with sweetened, condensed milk, rather than the typical green or sharp smell one gets from the teas I've been driking. It has a silky nose to it, if that makes any sense at all. In fact, if I hadn't been told that this was a tea that I was smelling, I may not have figured it out without looking. As many good oolongs do, the tea opens up into full, deep green leaves. There are high floral notes I can discern in the tea leaves, which help me pick up that aroma in the tea itself.

THE CUP
This tea is a pure, pale-gold tea that is clear to the bottom of the cup. The tea perfectly carries the aroma from the leaves-- rich, creamy, with the faintest bit of flower very high up in the aroma, set against the heavy thickness of the lower aroma.

For this tea, the aroma and the flavor are indivisible: like springtime irises and slightly carmelized sweet cream. One could see this flavor infused into a complicated dessert by Gale Gand. I enjoyed the tea the most when it was fairly piping hot, and liked it progressively less as it cooled in the cup.

THE SECOND, THIRD, AND FOURTH INFUSIONS
For this tea, I performed multiple steepings, and each was fully as enjoyable as the first, with even more complexity of flavor, with a faint dryness in the mouthfeel appearing for the first time, and the caramel aroma heightening.

This tea's giving just goes on, and on, and on. Third infusion, the mouthfeel is not quite as silky as before, but the taste and aroma are still bright, with that milky and floral flavor very pronounced.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS
I do wonder about whether this tea was soaked in some kind of milk, or if they achieved this effect completely naturally. The flavor of this Milk Oolong from Quangzhou is quite singular, and though I've used up my sample, I'm already wanting more.

(Picture by Conservation Journal Online.)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Review: Zhi Tea, Royal Gold


Reviewing: Zhi Tea Royal Gold

Zhi Tea's Royal gold is familiar, it's friendly, and it's got complexity and intensity enough to make me happy while not needing to be explained to people who don't drink tea every day.

My life has changed a lot since I started writing about teas. For starters, I now have a healthy and happy baby girl of three months. And because I work at home, my tea times have become much more often packaged between bouts of work and diapers and carrying Charis in the football hold that leaves me entirely unable to type, but very able to read with the occasional mouse click. I've had the pleasure of reading many other tea bloggers, who write passionately and enjoyably about this obsession of mine. I find that some of the best tea bloggers, aside from their obvious breadth of knowledge and charming insight, also seem relaxed, and they are not trying to impress the reader. Humility seems to go with the territory, and I will try to emulate that here.

THE TERROIR
Yunnan is the heart of tea, and where it seems to have originated. The Web site reads:

Our organic Royal Gold from Yunnan Province is the queen of China Black tea! This top-most grade is comprised entirely of gold-tipped new-growth spring buds that produce a gorgeous dark gold liquor infusion. After harvesting, the buds are painstakingly hand-sorted, resulting in an exceptionally high-grade tea. When oxidized, these gorgeous buds turn gold rather than black and when steeped, release a rich, smooth flavor with lingering notes of honey, roasted almond, and bing cherry. The flavor will evolve through subsequent infusions (yes!). A royal treat.
I would like to know more from the Zhi Web site: Where in Yunnan is this tea created? What is it like there? How does the terroir affect the flavor of this specific tea? How is this specific vintage distinct from other Yunnan teas out there?

THE TEA
Zhi Tea offers their Royal Gold, which is a Yunnan black tea. The dry tea is made up lovely twists of brown-and-gold tippy leaves, which give off a tiny bit of yellow tea powder from the travel. The leaves are nice and crunchy when I crumble them in my fingers, which means this batch has been kept safe from its archenemy, moisture. Bodes well for a good pot of tea. The tea leaves have a rather dusty smell, like chocolate powder, perhaps. The scent makes me think the subsequent brew will be malty and thick... ah, but not so fast!

THE PREPARATION
Using Great-Grandma's Japanese porcelain teapot, my lovely wife prepared 3 cups barely boiling water with 3 generous tsps of the tea. Generous, because the tea leaves are pretty large and are therefore not too dense in the teaspoon. We steeped the tea for about 3.5 minutes before pouring off.

THE SPENT LEAVES
This is a very fragrant tea. The leaves have a rather spicy, dark, heavy scent, and they unfurl to large, chocolate-brown leaves that remain furled fairly tightly.

THE CUP
...And the cup belies the scent almost entirely. I was expecting heavy, thick, mouthfeel. Some people like this, but I don't particularly. However: I found the tea's flavor and aroma to be very clean and bright, with pungent berry notes and the kind of mouthfeel I would typically expect in perhaps a green or first-flush Darjeeling-- not at all heavy or malty. There is a very bright berry flavor (the Web site suggests bing cherries, and I am certainly willing to accept that), and the finish is quite subtle but lasting. One point of contention: The tea is not at all golden in color, but rather a dark brown, not truly transparent to the bottom of the cup. I did follow the instructions of the Web site, so I am not sure how their in-house preparation differed from mine so much that they arrived at such a result.

THE SECOND CUP
Interestingly, as the tea cools, the flavor dulls considerably. The higher, intense berry notes are gone; and the body note, the heavier chocolate-spice, has gone missing. For my taste, this tea seems to have a very quick life in the cup, and it benefits from being drunk quite hot, just as it leaves the pot. The second cup did not fare very well, and seemed much less interesting than the first cup. This is in opposition to many teas I have enjoyed, particularly from Darjeeling, in which that second cup is where the real business is.

The Half-Dipper Web site includes a nice discussion of the way aromas in tea behave, in this post. Here is a short excerpt from a thoughtful blog post, "Tasting Tea."

When you pour the soup out of the wenxiangbei [aroma cup], you get what perfumers (and modern day biochemists) traditionally term the "top note" or "head note". It's all of the "light" volatile compounds that make it into the nose first - you get lighter, higher notes such as sweetness, floral compounds, etc. Teafolk might call this the beidixiang (BAY DEE SHEE-ANG), lit. cup-bottom scent. Do you get mushrooms? Flowers? Sweetness? If so, what sort of sweetness?

As these disappear, and the "heavier" volatile compounds take over, you get the "bass note" or "body note". Perfumers liken their craft to music, and it's easy to see why. As an engineer, I think in terms of low-frequency spectral content and high-frequency spectral content - it's exactly the same as the audio analogy. (Engineers are great to take to concerti - "oh, listen to the high-frequency components in that section!") This heavier stage consists of deep sugars, richness, lowness, bass notes, that kind of thing. Teafolk might call this the lengxiang (LUNG SHEE-ANG), lit. cool-scent. Molasses? Brown sugar? What do you get at this point?

Sensing of these compounds gives you an indication of the content in various stages of the tea. Often, the aroma correlates with observations made using the mouth, throat, and aftertaste. It can another way to determine what compounds are tucked away inside your tea.
Do please read the article to enrich your own enjoyment of really tasting your tea.

OVERALL THOUGHTS
At any rate, this is the type of tea that benefits from paying it close attention, because it has a lot to offer. Some of the teas I most enjoy seem made for very private enjoyment, but this one is something I would easily see serving at a gathering of friends who don't usually drink tea (like most of my friends), but enjoy having their palates expanded. Zhi Tea's Royal gold is familiar, it's friendly, and it's got complexity and intensity enough to make me happy while not needing to be explained to people who don't drink tea every day.

The Half-Dipper Says, "You are, I'm afraid to say, a bit sad."

Well, Half-Dipper says a bit more than that, of course. But a typically enjoyable article about "Tasting Tea" a can be found here.

(i) I'm newish to tea and want to explore more.

Welcome. Gentle Reader, you have to come to terms with the fact that you are, I'm afraid to say, a bit sad.

Reading and writing about tea, of all things, is actually rather tragic when you look at it from a distance. I came to terms with this some time ago, and can live with it. I try not to tell people about the Half Dipper, and my wife is very sporting by not mentioning it to people. Yes, you can convince yourself that it's like enjoying wine or cheese, and that's very cool, and that you're a connoisseur (awful word), and so forth. Unfortunately, this does not change the fact that what we do here, furtively, behind closed doors, is rather unusual. I think it's brilliant, and very healthy, and great for the development of all manner of personal faculties... but your peers will, in all likelihood, judge you as being as sad individual. What do they know anyway, right? Everyone has their foibles. Etc.


As they say, read the rest.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

REVIEW: Mighty Leaf, Organic Yellow Flower


Mighty Leaf offers a green tea they call, Organic Yellow Flower.

I love that moment when I open up a package and get to smell a new tea. Upon tearing it open today, the Yellow Flower tea lit up the room with this bright fragrance, very floral. The leaves are very fragrant, and I am very excited about this tea. This is pure green tea, with no additives, but it still smells very floral and fragrant. I am definitely looking forward to tasting this.

80C, 1 tsp Per cup, 2 min

This tea should probably should be 2 tsp per cup, because it's a bit too weak following Mighty Leaf's posted instructions to use 1 tsp per cup. But still very delicious, if faint.
Liquor is almost clear, palest yellow. But a very heady aroma, nevertheless: floral, bright, beautiful. The aroma rather reminds me of Green Hill Tea's version of Dragonwell-- quite intense with a nicely long finish. The flavor of this tea seems best when the cup is warm (rather than piping hot), and the lower-range aromas appear.

The company's Web site tells us,

Organic Yellow Flower green tea, is a handcrafted tea grown in China's Anhui province. Often called yellow bud or yellow flower, its slender green-yellow leaves yield a sweet, floral character and a yellow colored cup. With a clean and smooth taste this chinese tea will refresh and revitalize.

Anhui is a great tea-growing region of the world, and it shouldn't surprise us to find lovely teas coming from here.

UPDATE
The above was edited, thanks to an alert reader who let me know that Anhui and Anxi are, in fact, not the same thing. I was a victim of transliteration!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

REVIEW: 2001 Pu-erh, Green Hill Tea

My friend George Zhang, who lives in China (GreenHillTea.com) sent me a 2001 pu-erh, for which I am very grateful tonight, because I'm depending on it to help me through a surprise all-night project. I don't know much more about this specific vintage of tea, but I'm looking forward to trying it out. George has been very generous, and I look forward to trying a new kind of pu-erh.

For those who haven't read my previous forays into pu, I'll tell you now that I'm a novice who is very keen to learn more. I'm becoming fairly aware of what is happening in my mouth, and I'm very good at following directions. So I'm following George's suggestions, which he wrote on the packet of pu-erh he sent.


THE LEAVES
The leaves look like a normal loose-leaf black tea's: small, brown-and-black twists. Dry, the leaves smell earthy, of course, but also of berries and fruit. I am creating a rather relaxed gong-faux setting for myself tonight. I don't have Chinese gongfu or Yixing, so my great-grandmother's porcelain Japanese teapot will have to do. I'm hoping for a bit of the Qi, or the energy, or what have you, to sustain me on what's turning out to be a late night. I will try to have steepings that range from 10s to 30s, in general, and just see what happens.


2001 PU-ERH GONG-FAUX FLIGHT

RINSE
I rinsed twice for 20s each, with very hot water. This is to wash off any dust, and it helps to smooth out the flavor of the tea later. I am using reverse-osmosis Culligan water, which I have switched to from my normal Brita-filtered tap water, which I wasn't too happy with.

1st Steeping: 35s
My first steeping was about 35s long, water just off the boil. Pu-erh is drunk with lots of short steepings, which allow the different layers of flavor to be revealed as they develop. Longer steeps are certainly possible, but the short-steep method is one that most pu-erh connoisseurs enjoy the most.

From what I understand, it seems this is a cooked shu pu-erh, not a bitter green one. The cup is dark brown but perfectly transparent to the bottom of the cup. This first steeping is pretty restrained, which is pretty common with this type of tea. I detect an oaky nuttiness ("Oh, I'm detecting nuttiness"), and a very buttery-smooth, slightly dry mouthfeel, with a slight tickle or burn at the very back of my throat after I swallow. When I get toward the bottom of the white porcelain cup, I see the liquor really has a peach, almost pinkish tone to the color.


2nd Steeping: 20s
I'm sitting here, with my nose stuck in the cerulean blue pot, trying to think of how to describe this aroma. It is very mineral, but very forestlike-- like cedar, and like mushrooms, and like a gravel path. The taste of the tea is a bit more bitter than before, not quite as smooth. Definitely, this steeping has sharp edges to it. There's a rather pleasant heat, or burn, in the throat as it goes down.

3rd Steeping: 25s
On the third steeping, the liquor is still fairly dark brown, but it's getting lighter. The aroma in the cup is still very woodsy, and the leaves are a bright, spicy smell, but not as mineral as before. The aroma is a subtle, wine-like scent, very rich and complex. I am definitely starting to enjoy the smell more as we go along.

SIDE NOTE: ON WRITING REVIEWS WHILE DRINKING TEA

This is probably something that could exist on its own as a complete blog post, but I'm thinking about this in the middle of the tasting, waiting for the next cup to cool a bit, and trying to caffeinate myself into a long night of working.

I was reading The Leaf recently, and an article struck me-- I'll have to source it later, when I have the energy-- which talked extensively about reviewers who did not really know anything, and who were more interested in talking than in listening to others more wise than themselves. Well, naturally, this struck me as being about me, because I'm blogging. But I'm definitely trying to learn and digest what I'm learning, and I hope I do not pass myself off as anything other than what I am-- an enthusiast who is eager to know more.

At any rate, in the article, the writer mentioned how important it is to just stop and close the eyes, smelling and tasting the tea, rather than thinking of what I'm supposed to be writing about next, or how I'll describe this, or how to stay interesting to a reader, rather than simply being. This is probably the trap of any critic: being more in love with the act of critiquing than in the thing itself.

And here I am: People are kind enough to send me samples of their teas, and I am more than happy to write about my experiences, in hope that someone may be edified in some small way. And, of course, to chart my own course, so that at some point, I can go back to my own writing and move forward rather than simply go in circles. But in the middle of this, I may be missing some of the more rarefied heights of tea meditation, as I type at a laptop instead of sitting crosslegged in a Japanese garden somewhere. But nevertheless, I love what I do.
Finishing the third steeping, as it cools, I find the mouthfeel is lighter than before. I'm going to go and start my work, and I'll come up here and continue my review later, when I need my next shot of caffeine.

4th Steeping: 20s
The 2:27 a.m. steeping is substantially lighter in color, a transparent, dark amber-pink now. A new, high, bright taste is appearing now-- a little like buttered popcorn, oddly enough, though that description seems a bit misleading, because there is now a rather dry, clean mouthfeel, and no burn in the throat to speak of. So far, this is my favorite steeping, because the lightness and sharpness of the flavors really suit my palate.

5th Steeping: 25s
The tea's appearance is now that of a second-flush Darjeeling: light, transparent amber-pink, perfectly clear, very clean looking. Drunk hot, the tea has very little flavor to it that I can detect-- tastes like hot water. I'll let it cool and allow my palate to refresh, so I can hopefully get something from this. I look forward to starting to experience subtleties that would have been drowned out earlier.... And allowing the temp. to drop a bit, I am experiencing the return of a mineral quality to the flavor, very bright and distinct. That heavier, buttery, oaky flavor from earlier is just the faintest whiff, underneath the sharper dry, metallic taste I get now. If drunk while cool, this is not very appealing, so best to drink when moderately hot.


6th Steeping: 45s
I'd like to say, it's the middle of the night, and I have a lot of energy to complete my work. I have no idea how I'll feel in the morning, but right now I'm doing fine. The pu-ehr is working its magic, and I'm lucid but not jittery. Note to college students: Quit drinking coffee for all nighters-- which used to cause me GI distress and serious nervous tension-- and switch to drinking a pu flight instead.
I'm not entirely happy with the flavor of the tea at this point, because again it seems like rather mineral-tasting water when drunk very hot. Cooled down to Warm, the tea remembers itself a bit. The mouthfeel is rather watery at this point, though, so I think I'll hang it up and finish the tea flight.

OVERALL IMPRESSION
The pu-erh seems to have a lot of Qi, which I believe is the term aficionados use to describe the energy in the tea, which is distinct from the effects that can be explained by caffeine alone. Thank you, George, for another great tea experience!

REVIEW: Narien Teas, Dragon Well


To say a cup of Longjing tea smells "grassy" is like saying a steak tastes "meaty." While true, it doesn't really convey much information.

I'm drinking the Dragonwell (Longjing) by Narien Teas today. Dragon Well is one of the ancient tribute teas, which were given to the Chinese emperors and were only to be drunk by his court. I'm exploring Longjing teas for the first time, and it's been very enjoyable.

Narien provided enough tea for me to try a few methods of preparation. The most interesting is:

For single cup brewing, fill a cup with about a tablespoon of Dragonwell tea leaves, then add steaming water. You want the water almost boiling in order to almost cook the tea leaves and infuse them into the water. After the leaves steep in the water for several minutes, you will notice some of the leaves will start to become turgid and sink to the bottom. This is when the tea is ready.

Traditionally, the leaves are not strained out, as they would continue to brew while you drink. Dragonwell can be enjoyed with a dash of sugar or even a bit of honey, but often the natural sweetness of the tea can be enjoyed without. The leaves generally can only be brewed once because the hot water cooks them, but you can squeeze multiple cups if the leaves do not steep too long and are brewed again within about an hour. The flavor will be a little sharper, similar to black tea, but a little sugar makes it taste just as sweet.

Well, I did try it this way, and the results were good, though I didn't quite know what to do with all the tea leaves floating at the top of the cup, which kept trying to get into my mouth. I'm sure the Chinese have thought up a very clever way of solving this conundrum. At any rate, it was fun to play with my tea leaves in a new way.


I also did create the tea in a teapot, 1tsp per cup. This made a more restrained cup of tea than did the method of leaving the leaves in the cup and drinking around them. I liked better the results from the more unusual preparation, though I wish I had figured out a good filtering mechanism to keep those leaves under control.

The tea itself: Transparent rich amber-gold color, rather deep in saturation, like the walls in a Tuscan villa. This tea is nicely aromatic, like grass! No, wait. Very slightly vegetal, and not really too floral. There's a slightly sweet honey to it, especially when it's quite hot.


(Dragon sculpture can be purchased at 1001Homes.co.uk.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Robert Mullenix, "long watch"


My sleep cycle is completely disrupted right now, and it's the middle of the night. So I thought I'd type about Robert Mullenix, a painter and my closest friend. I will try to express what his work means to me and a little bit about what makes him tick. And what makes me tick, as well.

It's hard to imagine, but Robert and I have been friends now for about 20 years, nearly all of my adult life. Through this time, I've watched him work and grow as an artist and as a person.

Over these years, Robert's painting has held me in serious fascination, and with good reason: The paintings are always more than they appear.

I had the privilege recently to be part of Robert's show in Chicago, at The Artists Project, held inside the Merchandise Mart. And by, "part of Robert's show," I mean I stood around near his paintings and acted as a docent, of sorts, when he was busy elsewhere. And in that time, I was able to pay attention to my own response to his work, in a setting among a lot of other fine artists of various hues. It was illuminating.

And illuminating is the right word. Even though very modern in sensibility, Robert's work has a rather old-world feeling, almost as if a craftsman from another era were transplanted into our own. His paintings have a very luminous, multilayered sensibility, whose subtlety draws one in, which I would expect to find in an illuminated manuscript, or a thoughtful Japanese watercolor, or a stained-glass window.

On the surface, the paintings' content is that landscape painting of rather stark, dense forest scenes. There is a forbidding and ominous presence to the composition in some of his work, which he highlights with titles drawn from literature and Scripture, such as, long watch, and hour come 'round, and through it all darkly. These are not paint-by-numbers landscapes, but rather works that are speaking to the primordial mind and spirit, the lost-and-found part that, even in our suburbs and cities, dimly remembers the terror of the forest.

That being said, there is a placid tranquility in other works, which employ that English horn call to to the soul one finds in fine pastoral works. His technique gives the sense of depth and space, of near and far, of sharp foregrounds and deep, hidden distances.

But these works in another sense are not really about metaphor and "content" at all, but also about Robert's playfulness with his craft: He loves paint. He loves getting his hands dirty, and attempting to solve visual puzzles he incessantly sets for himself, and getting lost in the materials at hand.

For instance: If you look through his Web portfolio, you'll find 10,000 images of trees. Or so you think. But if you look closely, you'll see this painting is about reversing the visual expectation of the relationship of foreground and background; or negative and positive space; or trying to figure out how the color gray changes when it's next to blue, or peach, or pink.

In other works, he will work by projecting a collage of found landscape photos that he's blown up on a photocopier over and over again, revealing the pixelation of the original images as well as interactions between different sets of grids (there's a word for this phenomenon, which escapes me at the moment)-- onto a canvas. Or maybe he'll take the collage and use a gel medium to transfer that blown-up photocopy to the canvas, which he'll then paint over and painstakingly recreate his chosen visuals, pixel by pixel, in paint and color. In this way, he is exploring the relationship of paint and photography, and he's wrestling with the question, "What the hell am I doing, making paintings in a world of photography?"

But at the heart of all of this is that I love the spirit behind the work, and the spirit of the man himself. The paintings show the world something of the incredible and somewhat mad complexity of the human soul, the density of layers that I find in my own self, but I am not usually cognizant of. When I have the opportunity to be around serious artists-- and Robert is certainly one-- it enlarges me, and I remember that I am more than I appear, and these inchoate longings I feel have deep root in my nature and, I suppose, in the nature of others, as well.

Robert Mullenix's work draws all of this out of me, and I am deeply grateful to him for the innumerable hours he's spent working on his craft, so that I can experience this elevation of spirit, even if it's only every once in a while.

AND JUST BECAUSE I CAN


Because this is a personal blog about What I Like, and not Tea Magazine of Great Repute, I feel free to break form and direct your attention to James Lileks, writing an High-larious review of the new Star Trek movie, which I have yet to see. A true trekker that one, and make no mistake.

Unlike Picard, I don't think James T. Kirk ever drank a cup of "Earl Grey, Hot," in his life.

As I Twittered earlier:

@Lileks trying to resist... reading... review... of Star Trek... by Lileks... Resistance is... Oh, what the heck. http://lileks.com/bleat


http://lileks.com/bleat/?p=2169

Monday, May 11, 2009

DID YOU KNOW: How did Oolong get its name?



My Facebook friend, Daniel Hong, works with Yunxiang Tea, who have this description of the "Legend of Oolong Tea" on their Web site. I will share the whole thing here for posterity. I did have to type the entire thing, which was embedded in Flash. But I'm a good transcriptionist, so have no fear: the ESL charm will remain intact.

The Naming of Oolong Tea
Oolong tea's homeown is a small village in Anxi county of Fujian Province. In this village lived many tea planters. At that time, people knew little about making tea. They just picked up fresh tea leaves, then baked them directly to be dry tea. One day, a boy named Wulong (similar spelling of oolong) who also lived in this village saw a pretty little bird perching on a tree. Wulong was so excited that he shot the bird with a catapult [I think they mean slingshot. --Ed.] on his way back from picking tea-leaves. The little bird dropped off the tree with a screaming of sadness. Wulong then run up to pick up the bird. However, the bird was just inquired and moved hard its wings to fly away. Wulong who is determined to capture the bird, run after the little bird. When he is running, the pack basket was sliding up and down. So the tea-leaves in the basket kept rolling and knocking each other. Wulong run for quite a while but failed to catch the bird. At the sight of the sunset, Wulong had to give up and returned home. He got so tired for tracking the bird that he didn't make tea at that day. The day after tomorrow, Wulong made tea and took a taste try. Surprisingly, the tea was so different from before. The new tea had strong aroma and tasted sweet and mellow. People were curious about how he can made such a nice tea. At first Wulong had no idea about the reason. Finally, he remembered that when he was tracing the bird the tea-leaves kept knocking and that such tea-leaves was left away for a day before being processed. He told people about this story. Although people had doubts about this story, they did try and got the same good result. From then on, thanks to its special aroma and mellowness, tea produced by this village sold very well. The village people named this tea Oolong to express their gratefulness.

What's funny about this legend is that it has the ring of truth to it, because it's so uneven and prosaic. The great sage This-or-That, or Emperor Whosit did not have a flash of divine wisdom to suddenly invent oolong; rather, a hungry little boy who chased a bird for dinner, until he had-- he thought-- ruined his day's labor of tea picking. And he never even caught the bird!

Thank you, Yunxiang Tea, for giving me this story to share and enjoy the next time I drink a cup of Wulong's tea.

(Image is called, "Birds," and was painted by Emperor Sung Huizong.)

GUILLOTEANED


DID YOU KNOW that the French dropped their tea habit like a bad suit? Or an aristo's head? Or something?

http://digg.com/u138Bt

(Article found by Jean-Philippe Maurer, Facebook tea friend.)

Bleh, the head cold.


One might wonder why all these blog posts about this-and-that this week, but no new teas to ponder? Well, I've been dealing with a nasty head cold that rendered my taste buds inactive. I may as well have drunk brown dishwater, for all I could tell.

Hopefully, I'll be back to normal soon. I feel much better, but I still can't really tell much of what I'm tasting. I sound terrible, though, so I'm hoping to milk the sympathy for all it's worth.

EVENT: "Spring Tea Festa," Fang Tea



For any New Yorkers out there, Fang Gourmet Tea will be hosting a tea tasting and workshop on May 16, 2009, between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. In particular, they will be discussing the 2009 Spring-picked White Monkey Tea. I quote their Web site below. I wish I could go!

With its successful tea art and culture expo in February 2009, the Fang Gourmet Tea is glad to invite community residents from all age groups and cultural backgrounds to join the “Spring Tea Festa” on Saturday, May 16th, 2009. In this exciting and elegant event, visitors will be able to experience the wonderful art and culture of fine Asian tea through tea sampling and workshops.

Green Tea Factory Tour

Thanks to the blog, The Tea Guy Speaks, for link to this video. I'm intrigued by how much human craftsmanship goes into the processing of green tea in Japan, and I never envisioned the machinery necessary to process the tea.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Cool Article: "The Ten Famous Teas of China."

Please read this article, "The Ten Famous Teas of China," which is on the All About Tea blog. This details the famous teas that were once sent to Chinese emperors as tribute, for example, and the characteristics of each tea.

As I learn about the Chinese tea world-- and I am only beginning this journey-- I am glad to find writers who can help me understand these things.

http://digg.com/u12yim

Advice for Steeping Oolong Tea

If you brew or review Oolongs, here is some very smart advice from the Hao De Tea blog. These guys really, REALLY know their stuff. Their advice for what to look for in a good oolong, and the way to steep it, lead to very good results.

http://houdeblog.com/?p=136

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Like Water for Tea: Japanese Charcoal


I'm thinking about the water I use for my tea.

Lately, I've become annoyed by the fact that the water that comes from my Brita filter tastes nasty, and the off-taste is affecting my tea. I use a new, clean filter, but it still leaves a metallic flavor that I dislike.

SO, I am thinking to start purchasing Japanese bamboo charcoal, which can be placed into the water to naturally and organically filter it. A $2.50 piece is supposedly able to filter the water for 2.5 months, which seems like quite a bargain. And perhaps if I keep the water in a stoneware bowl, it won't take on any weirdness from being in the plastic for too long.

I don't want to be crazy and overly fastidious, but I'm taking seriously MarshalN's advice about improving the water as a pretty economical way of improving the tea.

Does anyone else out there have experience with Japanese bamboo charcoal? Is it really a good option, or is it just one of those fussy things fussy people do to make themselves think they're doing something good?

On Freshness and the Seasonality of Tea

Westerners are not really used to thinking about how seasonality affects our tea experience. Most of us buy our teas in vacuum-packed cardboard boxes on the shelves of our local grocery store. Happily, we now have many more options available to us than just the Red Rose or Lipton brand teas, but we still drink out of these plastic-wrapped boxes. Even the variety teas are sold in the same way-- fanciful combinations of some base tea with fruits, flowers, and spices. But we still are cut off from the seasons of tea.

As the Internet allows us to learn about the where of the tea-- the terroir, the way the combination of soil, earth, weather, and so on in a specific place make the tea unique-- we must also become cognizant of the when.

Until recently, I bought my Darjeelings according to what flush and estate I was interested in at that moment. Here, a second-flush Castleton; there, a first-flush Avongrove; and so on. For a boy raised on Lipton, that level of knowledge felt very advanced.

But the effect of drinking fresh tea near the time of its picking is pretty new to me. In fact, the tea shop I normally buy from doesn't easily share this information with their customers, and they don't tell you, "Oh, this is the 2008 first-flush, a year old. Maybe you should wait a week or two for the new '09 teas." (I know this, because I called to ask when their new 2009 Spring teas were arriving. Other than the air-freighted offering, they had no other information, and seemed surprised by the question.) Because I've been in the past so dependent on my vendor, I didn't know that this timeliness was an issue at all.

But I'm coming to understand how buying a 2008 first-flush during the Spring of 2009 may not really be very wise, because the tea has been in bins for about a year, losing its aroma and specialness over the long months. It seems obvious now, but I'd never even thought of how different a brand-new, absolutely fresh tea could be, compared to one that's been on the shelf for some time.

And so I'm very excited, because with the fresh new Spring teas appearing on the market, I am prepared to be buying these teas as they become available. This is the first Spring that I have participated in the movement of the tea seasons. I've already tasted some of these spectacularly fresh teas, and I look forward to learning more, as the seasons move.

Cheers!

2009 Spring Longjing tea, Green Hill Tea



2009 Spring Longjing tea (Dragonwell), GreenHillTea.com

http://stores.ebay.com/Green-Hill-Tea

I'm a pretty enthusiastic tea drinker, because it affords me so many opportunities to indulge in surprising flavors and aromas. Recently a friend of mine, George from GreenHillTea.com, sent me a sample of his Dragonwell-style tea, and I loved it.

Now, because this is a moderately priced longjing that does not originate in West Lake (although it does come from the correct region, Zhejiang Province, China), I feel a need to curb my enthusiasm. But I don't want to. I like it!

For years, I have focused almost entirely on Darjeeling and other Himalayan highgrown teas, which have been my passion and great pleasure. But in the last year, I've finally been delving into the Chinese greens and oolongs. And me being me, I feel a need to learn everything I can about the new types of teas I'm drinking.


THE HISTORY
Throughout the centuries, China's emperors demanded tribute teas from the various regions. This is the origin of the Chinese 10 Famous Teas. The list is somewhat changeable, but everyone agrees that Longjing (or Lung Ching, or Long Jing, or other interpretations as the Chinese is transliterated into English) is at the top of the list. Happily, the world is now allowed to drink what used to be the privilege of emperors and their favored friends.

Longjing literally means "Dragon Well" tea, which is because all the dragons who live in wells really like this tea. Or something. Anyway, a fanciful name for an unusual tea. The leaves look quite unusual: they are flattened spears, with a slightly shiny appearance. This is because each Longjing-style tea needs to be processed by professionals who use the 10 Steps, or 10 hand motions that must be precisely followed to shape the tea like this.

I think the reason a lot of people like to drink green teas scented with other things (ginger, or flowers, or fruits), is because they haven't ever tasted a green like this, which naturally has so much complexity that to put something in it would be absurd.

This tea is the 2009 Spring Flush Longjing, which means it was only picked a couple weeks ago, and it's perfectly fresh. They're still right in the middle of the Spring harvest season, which is finishing up shortly, I think, and they're working around the clock to produce these teas. To get an idea of what goes into making the great green teas of China, please read this article: http://the-leaf.org/Issue1/wp-content/uploads/2007/12/chinas-legendary-spring-green-teas.pdf

I am thinking about how the best first-flush Darjeelings seem to bend toward how this green tea is tasting: brilliant, complex, bright, and wonderfully fragrant. I've never noticed how a black and a green tea could be so similar, but it's like that sweet spot where Mozart and Beethoven seem to reach toward one another.

Now, Longjing is traditionally sourced from a single place, Zhejiang Province, and from the West Lake. (However, there are many 'longjing'-style teas, which are made in 14 different provinces throughout China. But it's important to try to find a tea that comes from the right province, in the same way you would want your champagne to be from Champagne.)

There are about 30 different subvarieties of Zhejiang Province longjing, and this one comes from JiuFen Mountain, in JinHua. George tells me it's quite an ordinary longjing-- fairly moderately priced, around $90 per pound-- and it's not the very high-end tea from the region that can run easily over $200 per pound.

Because I don't have a wide variety of experience with longjing to weigh this tea against, I can only enjoy it on its own, freshly and without preconceptions.

Note to self: Definitely go search out different grades and styles of Zhejiang longjing!


THE PREPARATION
Water brought to boil then cooled to 80C, steeped 3 minutes in Great-Grandma's porcelain Japanese teapot.

THE LEAVES
Ridiculously Fragrant.

The aroma that met me when I opened the packet of 2009 Spring Longjing from GreenHillTeas.com was knock-your-socks-off intense, an exquisite citrus-and-ocean-green scent that I just cannot believe hasn't been turned into a perfume by some French parfumeur.

THE CUP
The liquor is a pale yellow, perfectly transparent liquid. The flavor is same as fragrance-- pine, citrus, ocean, sweet, and delightful.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS
Well, because I can't compare this against other longjings, I can only say that my family and I truly enjoyed the experience. It's very pleasant, every once in a while, to find a moderately priced tea that one can derive great pleasure from. In the words of MarshalN, of A Tea Addict's Journal:

Remember -- good tea is rarely cheap, but cheap tea can be good, and most importantly, expensive teas are not guaranteed to be good at all.

Good Advice from MarshalN


MarshalN writes "A Tea Addict's Journal," which has become very regular reading for me. Today I'm reading a concise post he wrote about the most cost-effective way to improve your tea experience. He recommends, in order, paying attention first to your skills at making tea-- which takes practice, practice, practice (like getting to Carnegie Hall); then fixing your water; then getting better tea leaves; then finally getting better tea wares. I'll pull the four th point and encourage you to go to his Web site to read the rest.

4) Wares -- kettles, pots, pans, dishes, cups, whatever. This is by far the least cost effective way to improve your cup. The benefits (if any) they offer are usually marginal, and not that obvious if you're newer to tea. It also clouds other things and can mask problems in your brewing technique, etc, and so it's better to get the basics down before trying to upgrade the wares. They are also expensive and unpredictable. To continue the golf analogy - using the best clubs won't make you a good player. It can help a good player, but if you're not good enough to use that help, it's just wasted money


Read it all here, and then poke around for a lot more where that came from.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Green and Black Teas Are Equally Healthful

Tea, whether black or green, has "astounding" healthful properties.

All teas from the camellia tea plant are rich in polyphenols, which are a type of antioxidant. These wonder nutrients scavenge for cell-damaging free radicals in the body and detoxify them, says Weisburger. "Astounding" aptly describes tea's antioxidant power, he tells WebMD. "Whether it's green or black, tea has about eight to 10 times the polyphenols found in fruits and vegetables."

Black and green both have different types of antioxidants than fruits and vegetables. Thearubigins, epicatechins, and catechins are among those listed in a USDA chart. All are considered flavonoids, a type of antioxidant. Brewed green and black teas have loads of those, the chart shows. (Herbal teas may also contain antioxidants but less is known about them, Weisburger says.)


Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

How To Use a Gaiwan


Marshal N. creates a YouTube video of how to use a gaiwan. He keeps it simple and doesn't go into a huge amount of overcomplicated gobbledygook.

Watch it here!

A gaiwan is a very simple, lidded cup. You can buy them all over, and one of them here.

AND THE WINNER IS...



Because I've been drinking Dragon Well tea today, I'll report that Rishi Tea has won the category of Longjing tea with their West Lake Miejiawu Long Jing Qingming.

You can buy the brand-new 2009 vintage here.

Congratulations, Rishi Tea!

REVIEW: Green Hill Tea, Silver Needle White Tea, Spring 2009


YESTERDAY, I reviewed Red Leaf Tea's 2008 Bai Mu Dan white tea, and found it to be very restrained, perhaps to a fault. As I wrote then, "Peony White is a white, unprocessed tea that is called bai mu dan in Chinese, and it is one grade lower than silver needle, bai hao yinzhen." The tea left me wondering about how drinking the 2009 would compare. because I'd be drinking it fresh.

Well, unfortunately, I don't have Red Leaf's 2009 to compare (yet), but I do have the Spring 2009 Green Hill Tea Silver Needle. This tea is very fresh, having just been plucked a couple weeks ago.

PREPARATION
The Web site suggests boiling water, 3-7 minutes steeping time. I am going to use water at a slightly lower temperature, boiled then brought down to 70C, for 7 minutes, the first time I steep this tea. I do find the lower temperatures to be helpful with white teas. However, I will also make my second pot at a higher temperature for a shorter time, to see how the tea fares.

THE TEA
Silver Needle, or Bai Hao Yin Zhen (also called white beatitude), is a Chinese white tea that is created by plucking the most tender buds at the very first plucking of spring. White tea has become quite famous for its health properties, which are the enhanced by the fact that this tea is (relatively speaking) untouched: it's not fermented, not heavily oxidized, and so on.

THE LEAVES
Beautiful olive or forest green buds with fine silver hair, gives the tea a shimmering silvery quality. Upon steeping, the leaves become a lovely spring green, with very little aroma.

THE CUP

Pot 1, 70C for 7 minutes
This tea is a transparent, pale gold with a moderately strong green flavor and a very slight, drying astringency in the mouthfeel. The aroma is very faint. The tea is very clean and smooth, with a bright tone. I notice a very faint floral note very high up, perhaps being picked up by my nose more than by my mouth. The flavor is a very singular event, without much layering or complexity, and it does not develop over time, but rather maintaining a very consistent flavor profile throughout the experience.

Pot 2, 100C for 3 minutes
Using fresh leaves, I steeped this in a different way to see what would happen. Tea is all about science!

This tea has a strong first impression as it his the palate, and then becomes progressively quieter and quieter. Slight dryness to the mouthfeel, and a touch of earthiness to the sweetness. About five seconds after each sip, there's a rather floral note that rises up and catches my attention. It's pinging a memory chord that I just cannot isolate. What is that flavor?!

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS
Quite a nice cup of tea. The white teas are a bit restrained for my palate, but nevertheless very pleasant, when I'm in the mood for something clean and subtle.

(The image, by the way, is of the Green Hill from the Sonic the Hedgehog video game. What can I say? It amused me.)

Monday, May 4, 2009

REVIEW: Red Leaf Tea, Peony White, 2008


Red Leaf Tea, Peony White

It's late evening, and the family has gone to bed. Time for something to drink. I'm grateful to Red Leaf Tea for their generous gift of tea, which I'll sample tonight.


The Red Leaf Web site reads:


Description:

Hot on the heels of our hugely popular White Tea blends comes this offering that is made of an even higher grade of tea. Peony White Tea is made only from the finest tea buds and leaves plucked in early spring from Fujian province in China. These ingredients are steamed and dried soon after picking, ensuring that all of the health giving properties contained therein is intact.

Brewing Instructions For A Single Cup:

Amount Of Water 6.0 oz
Amount Of Tea 1 tsp.
Water Temperature 170°F
Steeping Time 5-7 minutes

As always, I wish that Red Leaf had published the background of the tea, including details of where and when it was produced, a bit of history about this tea itself, and so on. I have not tried any of the Red Leaf brand flavored white tea mixes, so I can't compare with their other "hugely popular" whites.


THE TEA

Peony White is a white, unprocessed tea that is called bai mu dan in Chinese, and it is one grade lower than silver needle, bai hao yinzhen. I'm initially attracted to this type of tea, because it's unflavored and simple, and should afford some nicely complex flavor and aroma to wake up my tongue and nose tonight.

High-grade white teas are to be steeped for a fairly long time, which allows the layers of flavors to develop. I'm going to steep this at 170 for the entire 7 minutes, to get the full measure that the tea will provide.


MY MEDITATION TONIGHT

While I wait for my tea, I'll meditate a bit on the nature of my changing tastes. When I first started drinking tea, about 20 years ago, I was like most Americans first encountering teas of a higher grade than teabag fannings: I enjoyed the flavored teas with lots of additives. Over time, I settled into a very happy place, drinking high-end, single-estate Darjeelings and other highgrown Himalayan teas, without any additional flavors, trying to refine my own palate. And this year, I am finally delving into the Chinese teas, as well. I'm finding that the highest-end Darjeelings and the Chinese greens tend to reach toward one another, meeting in this zone of clarity in the cup, and brilliance of flavor, and nuanced subtleness that carries me through many stages of flavor and aroma in a cup, and in a pot.


THE PREPARATION

1.5 cups boiling water, brought down to 70C, with 2 heaping teaspoons of tea, in Great-Grandma's porcelain Japanese pot. One of these days, I'll perhaps start investing in Yixing, but at the moment, this is producing a pretty nicely consistent product.


THE LEAVES

Dry, they are silvery-gray buds with a very floral aroma in the high register, without a lot of deep or darker scent.


THE CUP

This tea has a very deep, port-wine golden color to the liquor, while still retaining its transparency. The tea has a very, very light scent, which is barely noticeable, but which is definitely floral in character. This is a very subtle, very smooth tea.


I don't know why, but this tea sets my mind thinking in terms of sound: This tea, were it transliterated into music, would be Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, Op. 11., perhaps; or piano music by Ginastera. In fact, I've put this music on in the background while I drink, a Pandora Web radio station that works nicely in the U.S.: http://www.pandora.com/?sc=sh30802010806901952 .


The tea, like the music, is polished and does not have sharp edges to jar me as I drink and listen. In some ways, this is a bit too subtle, a bit too restrained for my taste, yet still lovely. The bai mu dan has notes of honey, of cherry fruit, of green grass-- but one has to go looking for it, searching the subtleties out carefully to capture the quiet sensations. The tea coats the mouth with an almost buttery sensation, without any hint of dryness.


OVERALL IMPRESSIONS

This tea carries very lovely flavors, but in such a muted way (almost to the point of dullness) that I stretch to really discern what is going on here. I drink this in Spring 2009, and this is the Spring 2008 vintage. It is perhaps because the tea has been sitting a complete year before drinking that accounts for the overly restrained character of this cup. I'd like to try this Peony White again with a very fresh Spring plucking to see how they compare.


(Photo can be found on this lovely travel blog post, ComeFollowUs.com: Wandering Through Wuyishan)