Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Tasting Notes: California Tea House, White Monkey Paw 2009

California Tea House does not indicate whether the three wishes I made on my White Monkey Paw (actually, a green tea) will go horribly awry, as I should expect all such wishes to go, per W. W. Jacobs's classic horror story. I'll update you if any undead show up at my door.

The Web site describes it thus:

White Monkey Paw is a green tea made from the very young leaves and bud of new season growth. It originates from the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian Province, China. With the pride of an Italian chef creating extra long spaghetti noodles, the tea leaves are very carefully hand picked with an artistic process to preserve the tea leaf form and then delicately steamed and dried. These perfect, prized tea leaves in our California Tea House collection resemble a monkey's paw, hence the name.
Similar to Silver Needle white tea, the 'down' on the leaves gives the leaves a silver appearance and indicates that these leaves were plucked very early in the morning and within the first two weeks of growth. Enjoy the art of one of our finest green teas with approximately 2 heaping teaspoons of tea to each cup of mineral water. Steep under 2 minutes in just under boiling water.

The above is as good a description as any of the appearance of the leaves before steeping. After steeping, I found a few unbroken leaves, though most showed some breakage; and the color was a rich, olive green. In spite of its name, this is not a white tea, but a green. (My first wish: that Chinese tea names would be useful to us Westerners.)

This pale amber tea is highly fragrant, and as I let it rest a few moments after decanting-- a practice I've found that helps bring out the best flavor of most teas-- I am surrounded by the bright aroma of sea, a touch of pine, perhaps, and French Toast. (Of course, that last may be caused by the remains of breakfast on the table.)
Very nice. As I drink, there is an elusive flavor I can't quite put my finger on, and quite pleasant, though not something easily translated into words. The mouthfeel is nicely buttery, but with a sharpness that catches at the back of the throat, which balances nicely. That quite elusive flavor is in the huigan, that sweet aftertaste that is produced retronasally, as the tea hits the throat and goes from there up to the sinus passages, which can distinguish tens of thousands of aromas.

(Wish number two: that I could sit and write a review without near-constant interruption.)

Coming back to the tea again, after it's cooled just a bit more, the vegetal characteristic is more pronounced, though, the tea is mild and relaxed. Quite nice, rather homey. This is the type of tea I could drink every morning.

I did steep this tea a second time, with the same parameters as the first. This time, the liquor was a pale, sunny, lemon yellow, and the aroma was not nearly as pronounced from the pot. There was no noticeable bitterness, and the flavors were too muted to be of much interest. Next time, I would perhaps double the time of the second steeping in hopes of getting the most from a second shot of this tea.

Thank you for reading this review! Now, if you'll excuse me, there's someone knocking at my door.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Serial Killer's Guide to Making Sweet Tea (and possibly murdering people)

"Iced tea: that magical elixir of dreams . . . and sometimes nightmares."

Oh, yes, my friends. It is time for Steve Sutton's guide to making iced tea. I defy you to watch this and not wonder if he is going to pull a human head out of one of those sugar canisters on the counter.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tasting Notes: Menghai XX93 2006 cooked pu-erh

I'm outside on a very rainy-cloudy day in Illinois, on my balcony, drinking something to combat the damp: a 2006 cooked pu-erh from the Menghai Factory. This tea is a gift from the Tea Dork, or Tea Goober, who recently sold me a highly useful tea table and teapot, as well as some other items. Though the gift of tea was given to me awhile back, I believe TD indicated this came from Yunnan Sourcing. I've had a number of their pu-erhs in the past, and they are a favorite among those who drink this type of tea.

Because the tea has been cooked, I thought it best to allow the tea a couple of quick, 10-second rinses before I would drink. During the rinses, the first whiffs of the tea rise up out of the pot after I decant. These are highly fragrant leaves, fruity and complex. The bing is so tightly compressed that I only managed to break the piece I was given into a couple chunks and some powder. It is beyond my skill to separate out every leaf, as I often do with younger, uncooked pu-erhs, so it'll take awhile for this tea to open up. The trick with pu is to separate as much as possible the leaves, without breaking them into pieces, which creates a more bitter cup.

Steeping 1: 15 sec, wife stole it
My lovely wife was going out the door and stole the first steeping of this tea as she left. I did manage to get one small cup, which seemed quite light in flavor, even though heavy and black in color. But that's about all I could get out of it. Suzanne, enjoy the rest on your way to karate!

Steeping 2: 20sec, on the balcony
With great labor, I moved everything out to the balcony from my bunker tea laboratory, so I could enjoy the gray, moist weather. We'll see how long this lasts until the rain drives me in. The tea: Almost a coffee black, but still rather light in flavor. There are high notes of fruit and chocolate, a slightly hollow middle, and a rather bitter undertow that should fade with further steepings. I am refusing to be moved by the plaintive cries of the baby, who is supposed to be taking her nap right now.

Steeping 3: 30s, still on the balcony
Now joined by neighbors and their dog, my balcony is not quite as private as before. But happily, I can be sure no one cares about what I'm writing about tea, so I am in no danger of someone scooping me. By this third steeping, the tea still seems weak in its mouthfeel, eluding my grasp. The very black leaves have not really begun unfurling yet, and they have a lovely fragrance that I'm hoping to taste at some point in the liquor itself. My bare feet feel cold on the damp wood of the balcony. Because I'm anxious to get to the fifth steeping and beyond, I am going to drop this steeping into a larger pitcher for later, or for the plants or something. I want to get to the good stuff, but it seems that might be a while.

Steeping 4: 30s, Dvorjak's Slavonic Dances
"What does Dvorjak have to do with pu-erh tea?" you might ask. Well, nothing, except that I like both of them, and I happen to be enjoying them at the same time. Finally, the pu-erh is starting to get its legs. There's an almost cherry wood sense to the cup now, and a slight roseate glow about the edges of the tea in the pot.

Well, that's what you came here for, right? Writing and reading about tea is not just documentation of some liquid that is only valuable when making purchasing decisions. It's about culture, and about people, and what makes us tick.

I'm a bit of a melancholic. (My friends and family would ask, "A bit?!") Drinking tea is, for me, something of an ameliorative, a tonic that helps me find a moment of peace and solace. So I drink the good stuff-- as good as I can get my hands on, anyway, on the basic premise that what is good for my soul is good for my life; and that a healthy, prosperous soul is the foundation for a healthy, prosperous life.

And tea helps me with this, by giving silence an anchor in my noisy life, somewhere to hang its hat and stay awhile, so I can gather myself together. And, oddly enough, the music playing in the background while I write augments the silence and grace of this moment, given to me to enjoy. These are the moments in which I come to full stop and say, "This is the day that the Lord has made; I will [I make a conscious choice] rejoice and be glad in it." Odd, how a cup of brown leaf juice helps me come to that conclusion.

Steeping 5: 35s, baby still complaining
Just as the tea starts getting good, I think I've run out of time, because of the angelic but noisy baby upstairs. The tea has taken on a richness in flavor that matches the depth of the hue. The aroma is delicate, nevertheless; surprising in a brew so dark. In the aftertaste, there is a delicately woodsy, floral sense that makes drinking this outdoors quite appropriate. I'd have to say, if I were not rather used to drinking pu-erh, I would find this tea a challenge, because it is so unlike other, more commonly drunk teas. The fermentation transforms the flavor so profoundly, it seems an entirely different class of drink altogether.

Steeping 6: 60s, baby still quiet, Stravinsky inappropriate
I have finally bent the baby's will to my all, and she is quiet. I am listening to Pandora and fast-forwarded through Stravinsky's Petrushka, because it just was not working with the quiet but uplifted feeling I am trying to cultivate this midmorning. Switching to my "Stormy Weather" station, hoping to placate the weather and keep the rain off. The cup is now transparent to the bottom of the crystal pitcher I decanted it into. I feel like I'm finally tasting the pu-erh itself for the first time: cherry notes, something like a cedar woodiness, and a light quality I did not expect. For a pu-erh, this is surprisingly delicate (particularly in contrast to the 2010 Makaibari Estate Darjeeling I've been enjoying lately, which has a kick like a mule if it's not handled with the deftness of a Swiss watchmaker-- though why a Swiss watchmaker would be handling a mule is a puzzle I'll leave for you to unravel).

Steeping 7: baby awake, must attend.

Steeping 8, 9, 10...
On into the evening, the tea kept going, revealing more of itself to me. I went to bed and put the tea into a bag, into the refrigerator, so I could continue on into the next day.

Steeping 11: staying home from church
Today the baby is ill, drippy and crusty (blech), and so I am staying home to keep her happy while wife and son go to worship. And hopefully learn something. I shall learn patience, it appears. I ran a quick rinse over the leaves to wake them up and warm the pot, and then commenced with a longer steep, about three minutes. Though the mouthfeel is becoming rather too light, and the flavor is fainter, the overall delicacy from this tea remains quite similar to the previous steepings.

Steeping 12: onward and upward
Bright, sunny day, though a bit humid for my taste. Drinking hot tea makes me feel a bit overheated, but I don't really care, and I drink it anyway. Baby Charis (pictured above in the image, Not Still Life) is wandering around, being adorable while keeping me on the move, playing the game, "Throw Everything on the Floor." Hoping to keep Yixing teapot in one piece. This steeping is 6 minutes, trying to bring out a bit more kick while still enjoying the delicacy of the tea. The cup has a pinkish hue, with very little aroma. Though the taste of the tea is still able to be discerned, I believe I'm ready to move on from this pu-erh to something a bit more substantial.

Thank you, TG and Yunnan Sourcing, for a most enjoyable tea. And to my readers: I know this blog post took on the form of a series of snapshots, as I attempted to drink the tea within the constraints of my busy life. But in real life, grabbing these moments when we can is (for me) essential, and it's enjoyable to let you in on the life behind the tea, messy though it may be.

Cheers, and thank you for reading!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tasting Notes: Makaibari Estate 1st-Flush Darjeeling 2010

There was a little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very, very good; but when she was bad, she was horrid.

Behold the little Infanta Margarita at the center of Velázquez's masterpiece, Las Meninas. There's the painter himself, behind and to the left, rendering the scene that is viewed as the pinnacle of his work. The Infanta has seven attendants, plus a portrait painter, plus a dog, to keep her mildly amused. Her royal parents are watching the scene (you can see them in the mirror behind Velázquez), to ensure that he paints their little darling in the best light possible. Well, Sr. Velázquez managed to keep his position with his patron, even though you can just see the petulance seething under those little blond locks. Velázquez subtly leads us to understand that Her Cuteness can be quite the terror, and I'm certain this pampered princess would have remained so until well into adulthood. Delightful when you can catch her in the right mood, but watch out if she feels cross! Notice, there's not a smile in the room, and the attendants share a distinct tension as they await the next tempest royale. I feel for her future husband.

I am in love with 1st-flush Darjeelings, having drunk gallons of the stuff. But in general, I find this tea to be as touchy as old cats and dying empires, which, Mark Helprin assures us in Soldier of the Great War, "viciously insist upon decorum." Anything more than the lightest touch, and you end up with a brew that is harsh, bitter, and angry; but with gentleness and proper handling, as yielding and refreshing as a Spring meadow.

Arbor Teas sent me an enjoyable though rather temperamental 1st-flush Darjeeling from the Makaibari Estate, which I am sampling today. I've gone through several different iterations to get the tea just right, and I know that once I hit it, it'll be fireworks. By the third steeping, I've managed to get quite a delightful brew, though I'm certain the best is ahead. Just a bit more patience, and this should be very, very good indeed.

Not to be deterred, I shall try a fourth time and take notes as I go.

1 tsp per cup boiling water, allowed to cool to maybe around 88C to 92C. The reason for this is that, as a greenish 1st-flush, I want to minimize bitterness. I'll steep for 2:30. Again, the imperative here is to avoid the bitterness I experienced the first time out of the gate, when I first received the tea a couple days ago. Considering water: I use regular tap water, but which I have placed in a receptacle containing plenty of Japanese "white" charcoal for a day or so. I find the charcoal (which can be purchased online) eliminates the chlorine flavor in Chicago water, as well as adding a bit of body to the mouthfeel, which really rounds out the tea in a way that distilled or heavily filtered water does not. After steeping the tea, I decant and allow the tea to rest for maybe 3 to 5 minutes. This allows a bit further oxidation of the tea in the pot before I drink from it, thus allowing me to get at some of the more complex notes that are absent without oxidation. I used to notice that the second cup of every pot was much better than the first; so I just decided, why not just let the pot set and skip the less-flavorful first cup altogether?

The dry leaves are brightly aromatic, with a color ranging from pale green to black. My 18-month-old baby, Charis, is complaining now that I've taken away the tea jar from her, where she was breathing deeply to enjoy the smell. Catching the aroma is an important part of the tea-drinking experience, and I hope my readers know enough to stick their nose in the bag and get a good whiff. There is often an interesting contrast between the nose of the tea and the flavor on the tongue, which broadens the experience. Charis found the nose to be quite charming, though hinting at a lack of structure in the middle register. We'll see if how her advice plays out. I found the aroma to be bright and sharp, quite floral and a bit dusty. Although the label does not indicate so, I would expect from the size of the leaves upon steeping that this would be FTGFOP1, with perhaps a 60% oxidation.

Rich, deep amber, like middle-grade maple syrup. The aroma matches that of the dry leaves quite closely. The wet leaves, though, have taken on a completely different character, like that of a grape arbor. DO YOURSELF A FAVOR and always smell the wet leaves, once they've been steeped. While the tongue can identify five flavors, the nose can perceive literally thousands, and the aroma of tea leaves is not to be missed.

The flavor: Now that I've succeeded getting in within the sweet spot of this tea, how to describe? Bright on the tongue, but without being overbearing. Some complexity, mostly in texture, but with a bright note of flavor in the middle palate with a honeylike sweetness and a deep berry note in the upper register. It's dry, like a white wine; and the taste lingers on the tongue for quite a long time, slowly developing to a woodier, darker flavor as it rests on the palate and in the throat.

This is an excellent example of a highgrown Darjeeling. It's bright, enjoyable, and treated correctly can produce a light but memorable cup. But people with little experience with drinking Darjeelings must be warned that oversteeping this tea will kill it. If you find the tea to be bitter or difficult to drink, try a slightly lower steeping temperature, and go for a little less time than you ordinarily would. 2 to 2.5 minutes should be sufficient, and it will also allow multiple steepings of this quite lovely tea.

Arbor Teas, $12.50/3oz

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Tasting Notes: TeaGschwendner China Lung Ching 2009

TeaGschwendner is one of my favorite sources for Indian teas, particularly first- and second-flush Darjeelings. They have a large variety of flavored teas (which I shall not be reviewing on this site), as well as a number of unflavored greens and oolongs, though these are less likely to be found in local TeaGschwendner shops.

Though I bought the tea not too long ago, it was still the 2009 vintage, and so it's not at its very best (typically, one would want to buy a green tea as close to its picking as possible, which would mean anywhere between April and June; drinking a green a year after its picking is obviously going to dull the taste a bit and make it sparkle less).

The TeaGschwendner China Long Jing can be translated as "Dragon Well," hence the graphic I chose for today's post. I originally bought it for my lovely sister-in-law as a gift, along with several other teas, but she returned the Long Jing to me because she disliked it. Puzzlement! I had made Laura some Long Jing teas, and I knew she liked it. So what was the problem?

Donning my Charlie Chan robes (I would have used Sherlock Holmes, but since Charlie was "Chinese," I thought he would be funnier), I asked Sister-in-Law Number One what she was doing wrong. She was ignoring the directions on the packaging, and steeping at too high a temperature, and probably for too long. I write this as a teachable moment for all my readers: DO NOT, I REPEAT, DO NOT STEEP CHINESE GREEN TEAS AT BOILING, unless you steep for only a matter of seconds (in the range of 5 to 10 seconds per steep). This results in a harsh, ugly concoction that will make you return someone's very thoughtful gift to them, which they will then enjoy immensely without you.

When properly steeped, the TeaGschwendner Long Jing is predictably lovely: a tawny-gold color with a lot of fragrance. There is a slight bitter tang to the flavor, but the bright, high notes and long finish are quite pleasant. This tea survived two steepings nicely, and perhaps more that I'll savor later.

How to describe? There are elusive berry notes in the center of my palate, but the high is a bright, acerbic cheerfulness that I enjoy immensely. There is a hint of something dark in the low palate that offsets the high notes, to give a beautifully balanced cup.

I wish I had been able to get this tea when it was freshly picked, because I'm certain it would have been quite extraordinary. Unfortunately, the TeaGschwendner people have their tea shipped from China to Germany, and from there to the U.S., where it's shelved until it's sold, which means it was a bit beyond its prime by the time I got to drink it. I look forward to tasting the 2010 variety, which I hope will live up to my expectations.

Thank you, TeaGschwendner, for being so consistent and careful with your tea offerings. I've learned so much from living near one of your very few shops, and I am grateful for your considerable addition to the U.S. tea culture.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tasting Notes: Bily Jerab Jingmai 2009 Sheng Pu-erh

Little by little and more by more, I'm learning about pu-erh, albeit at a glacial pace.

But learning tea is like that: slow, with much to learn, especially when crammed into the corners of a busy schedule. Modern life-- particularly suburban life, entrepreneurial life, and life with small children-- doesn't allow for much slow-and-easy meditation. As I write, my seven-year-old boy is playing with my intermittently but earsplittingly shrieking baby, which does not really help me get "centered," as the pop-psy people would say. Indeed, sometimes it feels miraculous if I can string two sentences together or follow any thought through to its completion. At least, until they go to bed, when I'm too tired to think anyway.

So I shall write these notes briefly, if only because it's certain I'll be interrupted before I can finish my post, if I write with amount of painstaking care I usually take.

Today I am drinking some pu-erh from my friends at Bily Jerab, whose complex circumflexes I shall have to forego when typing. They can be reached at, and they're delightful as a vibrant part of the Czech tea culture, which you can read more about here.

The folks at BJ had sent me a package with a variety of young, sheng pu-erhs. I was rather hesitant at first, because I'd been reading how young pu can be extraordinarily harsh and difficult to drink. But I've found, with a light touch, that a very delicate and complex tea tasting can result in a time well spent.

Now, young pu-erhs have a lot more in common, in my tender experience, than they differ. I believe the process of aging a green pu-erh is that which really drives the different pu into their wide variations. But I find the freshly green pu-erhs are quite similar to my palate, and quite enjoyable.

This particular Jingmai 2009 has a very light start, with a pale golden liquor and an aroma and flavor of fresh hay, and very little bitterness.

The second steeping opens up with a bit more bitterness, which I don't really mind in this case. Light and airy, mildly astringent, with an almost metallic aftertaste that I find much more enjoyable than the wording suggests. A deeper amber color accompanies the aroma, which rides closely to the flavor experienced in the mouth (which is not by any means always the case).

The third steeping is a rich tawny color, with a very light, dry flavor, which makes me think of some white wines that are strong on "dry" and light on "fruity." For this tea, the trick is pulling out enough of the flavor without ratcheting up the bitterness. It's something of a tightrope, and it's difficult to hit it right at it's sweet spot with every steeping. As the tea sits in the fairness pitcher awhile, it mellows and sweetens.

As I wait for the fourth steeping, I'll stop a moment and think about these young, green pu-erhs. Unlike my expectations, they can be quite mellow, but that means keeping the steepings short, and not going overboard in the amount of leaf in the pot. A lighter cup might be interpreted as a weak cup in a black tea, but with pu-erh, the sharp brightness of the tea allows a fairly balanced cup. I use a purple-clay Yixing pot for my green pu-erhs, which provides a very happy experience. It's atypical for me to be able to sit down and have a proper tea, unbroken by interruptions, but when I can get one, it's something I look forward to. (I've been interrupted countless times during the writing of this post, so please pardon its fractious disorganization.)

The fourth steeping. At first blush, the tawny and transparent liquor has a herblike airiness, which reminds me of dry Illinois prairie in Summer. Which, coincidentally, I am surrounded by in my far-Western suburb of Chicago. There's a brassiness to the flavor in the very high notes, which is in contrast to the rich middle and the dry low notes.

As a quick note: The young, green pu-erhs I've been tasting via Bily Jerab do not have the richness and complexity of an aged pu-ehrs. In this case, the tea keeps the same flavor with only slight development as the tea goes, although it starts to lose its strength and power around the sixth or so steeping. At a certain point, I'll be steeping the tea for 20 or 30 minutes to get the last of the flavor from the leaves, before I compost them.

Well, I'm forced to stop my review, because a certain little princess is demanding all the attention she can muster. Please pardon the abbreviated form and the lack of deep rumination. I'd like to offer more, but a baby begging to be picked up just doesn't seem to care about the readership of The 39 Steeps. Well, she'll go to college someday, I suppose, so I'll be able to complete a thought then.

Until that time, thank you all for reading!

Later steepings revealed a carmel-corn aroma and taste that was knockout delicious. Even though the mouthfeel at this point was becoming quite thin, the awakening of the new flavor was worth the wait. Beautiful end to a series of steeps.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Tasting Notes: Green Hill Tea: OC Royal Pu-erh


I love tea, even though it's been a while since I felt up to writing about it. But the full moon is out, and the forces of darkness are resurrecting The 39 Steeps blog, dragging it from its shallow grave to shamble among the living again. Brainssssssss.

Or something like that. Really, I'd like to just talk a bit about Green Hill Tea's OC Royal Pu-erh.

The zombie imagery suggested itself to me by way of drinking this powerful, deeply black pu-erh, which I can feel pulsing through my nervous system. And with my wicked mood this morning, it seems even more appropriate. Brainssssssss.

The Royal Pu-erh looks like a typical yellow-tippy Yunnan tea, coming in loose-leaf rather than in compacted form. It's a shu pu-erh, from all appearances, meaning it was processed to hasten its appearance of aging.

Now, when this process was invented, it was viewed by aficionados as a way of cheating the system-- of taking a tea and making it look older than it really is. People can't always wait around for a green pu-erh to age 30 years to drink it, and the market had exceeded demand. So clever manufacturers took the green pu and ran it through some sort of wet-heat process, whereby the tea was artifically made to darken and take on the appearance of a time-fermented tea. Quelle horreur! The real problem was that often this type of shu was passed off as an aged tea, when it was not. And these shu pu-erhs may not age as well as a properly prepared and cared-for green pu, thus making them a bit less valuable.

That being said, there's much to enjoy about a shu pu-erh, drunk on its own terms, without any pretension that it is something it is not. A shu-pu (a phrase you can pop out in your next business meeting, to wow the customers and make them think very highly of your intellect) can be very enjoyable and fun as a self-drinker, without any need for further aging.

Now to Green Hill Tea's OC Royal Pu-erh. This does not appear on their Web site, and hopefully they will begin to market it along with their other excellent offerings. (As a reminder, I love, love, love their lapsang souchong, which they also market under various names as bohea lapsang and so on. Easily the best lapsang I've ever encountered.)


I prepared the pu in my Yixing pu-erh pot, and gave it a 10-second rinse, then poured it over my Yixing and warmed up my cups and fairness pitcher. This way, everything was happily warmed up for the next step.

And I did it again. Typically, with shu pu-erh, I don't enjoy the first couple steepings because they taste more like what I suppose is the storage facility than the tea itself.

The first steeping was lackluster, though bracing in its effect on my nervous system. Dark mahogany in color, the liquor has a nicely earthy, mushroomy aroma, with a lightly tangy spice in the high notes.

Well, this steeping had to be made after an hour wait, so the tea was, again, rather lackluster. My life keeps interrupting my ability to sit down over a long tea session, and these gaps in the tea production obviously affect the next steeping.

The leaves in the pot smell precisely like the liquor, which is kind of surprising, because that is not typically the case. The pure black leaves have no begun unfurling yet (at least, not so I would notice), and the tea session is still in its infancy. The liquor is a nearly opaque black, with a reddish tint, still, when viewed in the clear pot. Now the tea takes on an astringency, a dryness, with a woody dampness that softens the impact of the astringency. So far, I'm not bowled over by the pu-erh, but I'm interested to see what the next steepings will do. I've read that pu-erh drinking doesn't even really get started until the fifth steeping.

The tea is staying fairly consistent: fairly light, woody, but the astringency has diminished noticeably.

I thought to lengthen the amount of steeping time, to make the tea have a bit more personality. The pu has taken on a lighter transparency, with the reddish tint more pronounced. Aroma is pronounced and there's a pleasing mouthfeel: full and satisfying. It's a nice, though rather light, pu. I was sparing in the water to give it a greater strength, but it still sits a bit too lightly on the palate. For future, I'll lengthen the steeping times a bit.

AND THAT'S ALL I CAN WRITE! Cramming writing into my schedule is so difficult at this time in my life, and this little blog post has been interrupted so many times, that I am frustrated about the experience. Bleh. Well, at least the tea is good! I feel a bit less zombielike, though my mood is still black as I would think the undead would experience, as they cannot enjoy tea.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Tasting Notes: Culinary Teas, Irish Breakfast Green

Indifference is isolation.
In difference is texture and wonder.
(Edwin Schlossburg)

Looking at the leaves as they steep in my Tea-iere from JING Tea, I'm struck by the disjoint in visual texture. On top of the 75C water float largish, olive-green leaves, which slowly drift toward the bottom of the carafe as they gain water. On the bottom is a layer of what looks like some kind of water bracken-- tiny nodules in the same drab green, similar to stuff on the bottom of Clear Lake, in Buchanan, Michigan, where I go to swim and enjoy family and sun. And the liquor itself is a slightly foggy gold-green, which is much brighter and cleaner looking than the leaves themselves would suggest. The textural combination is visually interesting, but not what I typically expect with mixed-region teas, where some effort is usually made to ensure that the leaves appear similar to one another, as well as come together in an harmonious flavor and aroma.

I ordinarily don't drink many mixed-estate teas, much less those whose origins come from mixed regions: Culinary Tea's Irish Breakfast Green comes from Kenya, China, and Japan, and together they form a pleasant enough liquor, fairly light green with a hint of bitterness and a lightly floral, verging on citrus, note amidst the greenly vegetative impression the tea gives.

The instructions on the Culinary Teas Web site call for boiling water on the leaves for three to seven minutes, but I admit, I couldn't bring myself to follow the directions exactly. I could imagine using either boiling water with a duration of perhaps 10 to 30 seconds; or alternatively, 70C to 80C water for the longer duration, which is what I decided on. I think it's a mistake to steep a green tea in the Western style (which is boiling water, 3 or so minutes, as per the Culinary Teas Web site directions), because that tradition was created for black teas. Many people are turned off forever from green teas precisely because they follow this type of instruction, and they end up with a soupy mess that tastes like cooked spinach, completely missing the delightful nuance they might find with a lighter steeping. I, myself, spent 20 years drinking nothing but black teas for this very reason.

Prepared as a more typical green tea, this is enjoyable enough, though not particularly memorable; nevertheless, it does not remind me too much of the sharp, bright, hard-elbowed Irish Breakfast teas I have drunk in the past. I imagine that scalding the tea at a higher temperature and brewing it for a long time might provide that level of deliberate harshness, which is rather desirable in an Irish Breakfast, but can typically be cut by either milk or sugar. I didn't necessarily want to try a green tea with milk this morning, so I'll leave that to your own experimentation with this tea.

(The above image, brought to mind by my meditation on texture is Anselm Kiefer's Tes cheveux d'or Margarethe, 1981.)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Review: Dao Tea Balhyocha

Black tea

In appearance, like a typical black tea: tight, small twists of pure black leaf.

Again, in appearance, like any other black tea: dark, mahogany-brown cup, so deep I cannot see to the bottom of my white (though, admittedly, rather deep) cup.

On the surface, this seems very typical for a black tea: a touch of bitterness, an apparent simplicity. But then immediately, there's an indefinable-- This is a challenge, because it's my job to define these flavors. But the problem with much tea is that taste memories are highly subjective, and that it rarely helps a reader to understand what the character of the tea is like. But, being game, I'll give it a go anyway.

If this song is a voice, it would be a mezzo-soprano: a very strong middle-high range of distinct flavor that is unique enough, I'm struggling to put my finger on it, which primarily announces itself in the aftertaste, once the tea's been swallowed. When drinking this tea, take that sip, and then sit for about a minute without tasting anything else. Pay close attention to what's happening on your palate, and you will be rewarded by a rising taste of some unique hardwood, perhaps; a flavor like walking in a scrub meadow: a bit mossy, a bit dry, a bit weedy. Very satisfying and unusual.

In the low range, there is a bit of a throaty growl to the tea, which announces itself on my palate like a more typical black tea's personality. I wouldn't call this a smooth tea, because of this somewhat flinty edge to it. But at the same time, it is light, not heavy at all, but without the floral or sweetly fruity notes you normally would find accompanying such a light tea.

In all, for its unique flavor profile, a great choice for someone trying to enjoy an unusual morning cup.

Monday, February 8, 2010

INTRODUCING: Chicago Tea Garden's Golden Bi Luo

To my great delight, one of my tea friends of the Chicago Tea Confab, Tony Gebely, has opened the metaphorical doors on Chicago Tea Garden, and by so doing, he is raising the level of Chicago's tea culture.

During our informal tea tastings/gatherings of the Chicago-area folks who blog about tea, Lainie, Tony, Thomas, and I periodically gather for the Chicago Tea Confab, where we discuss the shape of American tea culture-- specifically Chicago's-- and taste treasures from one another's tea troves (though we do try not to be so alliterative, as a general rule). Tony had recently gone on a search for a great, authentic Chinese tea experience and discovered that to get a really great cup of such tea in Chicago, one had to travel up to Evanston to Lainie's favorite, Dream About Tea.

Seriously, for a world-class city, it's a wonder we haven't seen the type of tea Renaissance that has been developing in the U.S. in other population centers, such as San Francisco, or L.A., or New York, or D.C. Where is our Winnie Yu or Imen Shan? While our tea shops can be delightful and instructive (My favorite is TeaGschwendner, and there are many others), Chicagoans still toddle up to Starbucks for their cup of soy-latte macchiato joe.

Which brings me back to Tony. He and his business partner(s) have taken matters into their own hands, and they've started the beautifully named Chicago Tea Garden, which will primarily (as I understand it) sell teas sourced through David Lee Hoffman's extensive tea network, rather than merely reselling teas that can easily be found elsewhere. For Chicagoans, this is a big deal, because it represents a move forward in what tea is available to Chicagoans. TeaGschwendner, Dream about Tea, and Chicago Coffee & Tea Exchange (among others) now have some great company as they collectively build up our tea culture.

The first tea I can report on is Chicago Tea Garden's Golden Bi Luo. I've had and loved Bi Luo Chun before, which is a green tea whose name means, "Snail Spring," a reference to an early Spring-picked tea whose leaves have been hand-rolled into shapes resembling tiny snails. Because this is typically a complex green tea from Jiangsu province, I was very curious about how the "Snail Spring" tea would be treated when sourced from Yunnan province, as a black tea.

Following Chicago Tea Garden's instructions, included in the packaging, I made a number of short steeps at just under boiling (1 min, 1 min, 1.5 min, 1.5 min, &c.), each just slightly longer than the previous, and decanted.

Interesting, lovely. The leaves are that golden tippy appearance you'd expect from a golden Yunnan tea, but folded into the snail shapes you'd see with a Bi Luo Chun. The aroma in the tin tickles the nose, a dryish spiciness. The spent leaves are reddish-orange, fully formed leaves, maintaining the two-leaves-and-a-bud appearance they started with. No broken leaves, stems, or dust that I can discern, which speaks of the care that went into the production and shipping.

Over the course of the many steepings, the tea started with a deep reddish-brown cup, which lightened slowly to a pale orange-red. Chicago Tea Garden's description said it would be a golden liquor, but reddish-brown seems a more apt description, at least until the later steepings.

This Golden Bi Luo strongly reminds me somewhat of a Yunnan golden tippy tea, which is of course what it should; with a quite allusively spicy-sweet flavor of black raisins, perhaps, and a surprising smoothness, with no discernible bitterness. A slight burn at the back of the throat accompanies the retronasal huigan, which is the flavor that rises from throat to nose, which then picks up even more flavors in the aftertaste than could be interpreted by the tongue while drinking directly.

Drunk with short steepings, it's a remarkably light cup of tea, with an acerbic edge at the forefront that helps balance the sweetness that follows. I would perhaps experiment with slightly longer steepings, just to see how the tea holds up-- though I would definitely avoid steeping the traditional Western 3 minutes' steeping time, as these leaves seem to want a Chinese-style gongfu method instead. The rolled leaves allow for many steepings, because they release their flavors more slowly than leaves that have not been wound so tightly.

Tony, well done. I definitely look forward to seeing where you go from here. I'm delighted to see what you've got in store for us.

DEAR READER(S): I would be interested in your response to these tea notes, because I'm trying to gauge what kind of information is interesting and useful to you. Wandering meanderings about my childhood memories evoked from the particular tea I'm drinking? Long, involved posts that describe in painful detail each steeping of some pu-erh? Do you want to know more about the production, the terroir, the history of each tea? Or are you pretty happy with the reviews as they are, being that they spring from such a mind as my own, which is good enough for you? And does anybody in God's creation actually read all the way to the bottom of one of these things? And why do you read this blog at all? Is it part of your self-education in all things tea, or are you trying to figure out what teas to buy next, using my descriptions for help in your purchasing decisions? Thank you for your patronage!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Tasting notes: Yibang "White" cake 2009, from Bílý Jeřáb, drunk on a snowy day in Chicago

And behold, something new under the distant, barely warm Sun!

Well, newish to me, anyway: a white pu-erh. I've tasted this type of thing only once before, drunk with the esteemed Chicago Tea Confab of great fame, and now I have the opportunity to drink it alone, with computer ready to take notes, and attempting to keep a year-old baby and a seven-year-old boy quiet enough for that zenlike focus and laser intensity I am so famous for.

The Yibang cake sent to me by my friends from Bílý Jeřáb (there are too many Czech circumflexes and whatnot for me to correctly write that without copying-and-pasting), who are pu-erh aficionados with a great site. Though it's in Czech, they speak perfect English and will be happy to help you get your hands on some very nice examples of pu.

I've been drinking them for the last few months, as I took a break from writing. But I thought I'd try to open up the spigot to write again by telling you about something special, which is the white pu-erh.

Now, pu-erh-- the pressed, fermented, aged green tea from Yunnan province in China-- has been around for ages. But it's only the last couple years that they've been experimenting with white teas, giving them the same treatment. A white tea is typically the bud and perhaps one or two leaves of the tea plant. Because this type of pu-erh is so new, it's impossible to say how it will age, and what the end result will be after 20 or 30 years of storage. So these teas are purchased for immediate drinking at this point, and are to be enjoyed on their own merits.

Bílý Jeřáb's Yibang "white" cake 2009 came in the typical jigsaw puzzle fashion, with all the pieces needing to very carefully be pulled apart without damaging the leaves. In the portion I received as a gift from Bílý Jeřáb, I could very clearly see the white buds with two leaves throughout the cake, with no tea dust or particles of any kind. Quite pristine and lovely, with a light, tobacconist's smell about the dry leaves.

1st steeping: 15s
Because it's such a new tea, I chose to skip the typical rinsing, which I use to wash off some of the dust or whatnot that might accumulate on the leaves through the course of time. The cup was a clear, straw-colored liquor, with a light but distinctively typical pu-erhish flavor, if I might coin the awkward and hopefully never-to-be-used-again term. The fermentation had done its magic on the white buds. I had wondered about this, because a pu-erh is typically made from green leaves, not buds, and I had no idea what the true results might be.

2nd steeping: 20s
Well, 20s or thereabouts. I tend to pour a bit less "scientific," as my dad would say in his faux-German accent, when I have the children bouncing around. My wife has come downstairs on this Saturday morning, reminding me of the much we have to do, and how I'll have to make this tea tasting rather more quickly than I'd like. Second steeping pours out clear, accumulates in the pot a lovely straw-golden color, crystalline in clarity. Unusual in a pu-erh, that. The fragrance is lovely: tobacco, hints of something sweet-- vanilla, perhaps, or something spicier. There's a tiny edge to the tea, which exerts itself at the back of the throat, providing a nice counterpoint to the smoothness and sweetness of the tea. The tea leaves in the pot have taken on the appearance of a perfectly normal white tea, with the typical two-leaves-and-a-bud configuration, and nicely large leaves, freshly spring green. Again, highly unusual in a pu-erh.

Steeping 3: maybe about 30s
This tea is very forgiving. Some pu-erhs are so strong that you can only steep 2 or 3 seconds at first, or you get in danger of bitterness and just too much pu, if you take my meaning. But because this is young, and because the leaves it derives from are by nature very subtle, one can let it steep awhile without much ado. On the third steeping, the tea has become a richer gold color, much like honey. The haylike aroma is stronger, too, and that sharp edge is creeping toward the front of the palate, accompanied by a pleasant drying in the mouth and throat, but without a sense of coating in the throat. In other words, the tea is improving with subsequent steepings, as it wakes up.

Steeping 4: again, maybe about 30s
Now, I'm runnining out of time, and the result will be that I will pick up this tasting again after a couple of hours, which means the tea will lose a bit of its "oomph." Nevertheless, the fourth steeping is remarkably consistent with the third, with very little variation in flavor, appearance, or aroma. Very pleasant!

The wrap up
At this point, I can't tell you whether this is a 20-steeping variety of pu or a 6-steeping type, but we'll have to try it later, if I can get back to this . I'll update later, if I'm even able to complete this tasting. It's a date night, you see, which might mean that tea tasting takes a backseat to even more interesting pursuits.

Typically, I don't like white teas, because the subtlety of their flavor is just lost on my barbaric palate. I like my teas to be opinionated, and I like to taste them, not infer their flavor. Happily, a white tea that has been transmuted into a pu-erh has a lovely balance between subtlety and punchiness, which I find completely appealing. I would love to get my hands on a full cake of this stuff and see how it ages for a couple years, and compare the experience. But as a self-drinker, one which you can drink immediately without waiting, I can strongly recommend this, because it lacks that harshness and bitterness one often finds in a young, green pu-erh. Strikes a lovely balance, and I'm quite excited to have found it.

I thank Bílý Jeřáb for the opportunity to taste this tea! It's perfect for a beastly, cold day in Chicago.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Review: American Tea Room, Puttabong SFTGFOP1Q Darjeeling Muscatel, 2nd Flush 2009

As longtime readers of my reviews know (that is, if they care to remember), I find the Puttabong Estate teas of Darjeeling to be among the greatest in the world. Highgrown, mountain tea plants survive the rough winter and have a shorter growing season than those grown at a lower elevations, causing more intense flavor in the leaves, which is part of why the Himalayan-grown teas of Darjeeling are among the most prized in the world.

Smallish twists of pure black, highly fragrant. When they've been steeped, they take on a reddish-brown hue, fairly dark, indicating a highish level of oxidation, consistent with the way second-flush teas are processed. The aroma of the spent leaves is quite faint, easily overpowered by the other kitchen aromas of this morning's breakfast.

At three minutes' steeping time, about 90C, the liquor is quite a dark reddish-brown, crystal clear to the bottom of the cup. The very first moment, when the tea struck my palate, it was rather strikingly bitter (not a quality I look for in a tea, but not one I despise, either), but it quickly resolved into a very smooth cup, very complex.

When I speak of second-flush Darjeelings, "complex" is the characteristic I most highly prize. Layers of flavor reveal themselves on my palate at every sip. First, that bitter note (which may have been caused by my allowing the steeping to take place slightly longer than 3 minutes; life with an infant makes tea steeping times sometimes fall short of a laboratory's strict methologies); followed by an astringency that dried the tongue, reminiscent of a woody fruitiness, like blackberries or other dark berries; and then I notice this is followed by something akin to an aromatic evergreen resin, then other flavors I can't identify but enjoy.

For the second steeping, which I performed at 2:30, 85C, but it was underwhelmingly weak. I would advise a longer steeping. NOTE ON SECOND AND SUBSEQUENT STEEPINGS: I have sought long and hard for some kind of consensus among wise tea masters of whom I have acquaintance, and none of them agree about how to make a second steeping of a black tea like this Darjeeling. So you kind of have to guess and experiment with a tea until you find something that works for your palate.

I find that most people, when reading reviews of this sort, find them to be unhelpful when trying to recreate the exact taste experience of the writer. If you sat next to me while we drank the exact same cup of tea, you'd say, "Evergreen resin? What in the world are you talking about?" Well, perhaps it's best to paint in broader strokes, to convey the general, overarching experience, rather than try to notate personal taste memories that will not carry over to anyone else.

This Puttabong is enjoyable precisely because, as I allow a sip to sit in my mouth for a few minutes, various flavors slowly reveal themselves, ranging from the bitter, to the sweet, to the woodsy, floral, and fruity, and to things I can't identify but are uniquely characteristic of this estate's tea. It's the sheer range of characters that reveal themselves in this tea, one after another, that is so entrancing. It's by no means a tea that can be experienced at once, but rather one that is drunk as though it's a book, being revealed page by page.

The sweetly bright huigan, which is practically the only Chinese tea word I know (and so, yes, I overuse it; I'll work on that in future), is that retronasal experience when the tea is experienced through the back of the throat, entering up into the nasal passages. Did you know, the human tongue can only perceive five basic flavors-- sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami-- but the nose can perceive literally thousands of variations of aromas. This means that much of our delight in tea is caused by all those scents floating around within them. The retronasal experience of huigan is primarily caused by those smells, divorced from any of the five tastes perceived on the tongue.

There's a reason I spent almost 20 years of my life drinking primarily Darjeeling teas, and this is why: a second-flush Darjeeling can be an engaging, complex, delightful experience. My only problem with it was the strike of bitterness at the beginning of the drinking experience, but following more religiously the #1 Rule of Darjeelings: NEVER OVERSTEEP, would have served me better.