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.

THE PREPARATION
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.

THE LEAVES
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.

THE CUP
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!

8 comments:

Katrina said...

This is very exciting. I can't wait to explore this more...Now we just need some of these great vendors to expand to BOSTON!

tieguanyin said...

Thank you for this informative post. I have visited Chicago a couple times and been to many of the places you mentioned in your post. There is also Ten Ren in Chinatown (bring Mandarin interpret). TeaGschwendner definitely provides good loose leaf teas! Chicago Tea Garden and Dream About Tea are definitely on my "to visit" list next time!

I am glad you did not mention Argo Tea. I had one terrible cup from there. I went with low expectations (tea bag in a mug of hot water) only to be served a concentrate of "tea" diluted with boiling water...

If you are ever in the Washington DC area,
Ching Ching Cha
is the place to go for a nice gong fu cha experience!

Steven Knoerr said...

Katrina, thank you for your kind comments. Happily, most of the great tea vendors allow online purchase of their teas. I almost never get teas in person anymore; it always arrives in the mail.

And Tieguanyin, I must say, I am likewise no fan of Argo. Though my experience may not have been as execrable as yours, it convinced me never to go back again.

I've been to Ten Ren, but my opinion of them is... undecided but interested.

Really, though, even companies like Argo have their place in the tea multiverse. In order for there to be people who start to become interested in the world's great teas, they have to become aware that there's something beyond the year-old, stale Lipton's somewhere at the back of their kitchen cabinet. Argo does fulfill that, at least as a start. I can't stand their tea, but it's still a step up from what most people are used to.

Cheers, and thank you for your patronage!

Marlena said...

I really, really enjoy your blog because your tastings are so in depth. They make me take longer looks [sips?] at the tea I am drinking. I like it jst the way it is, but how you write it is up to you. Hope you feel better soon from your illness

Veri-Tea said...

That sounds like an amazing tea. I'm wishing Tony all the best for his venture!

Steven, I like your blog the way it is... in-depth without being painful... :D I just love reading about other people's experiences with fine teas!

Kate said...

Are you saying that you don't LIKE the Lipton's in mom and dad's cupboard? SHOCKING.

I, for one, would prefer more meanderings of memory.

pierce79 said...

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TeaCast.net said...

This is a tea that DEFINITELY needs to be experimented with in order to get the full flavor. I've steeped it two different times and have gotten multiple flavors with each steep. Beauty of a tea though!