27 October 2008

My first Tea-loves

Splat. Dribble..dribble..dribble.


When I think of my very first memories of fine tea, these sounds are what come to mind. A sip of hot Anxi Tieguanyin flew out of my mouth, splashing the marble-topped dining room table before proceeding to drip sloppily onto the floor. Amused chuckles followed as I decided that I'd rather drink a Coke that day.

My dad's good friend was a tea lover from the Chaozhou region of Guangdong province, an area known for sharp businesspeople and strongly-brewed gongfu-style oolong tea. Barely a teenager, I was just about as fond of my first sip of real gongfu tea as most people are of their first sip of vodka.

Strong, dark and bitter. I couldn't figure out why adults tortured themselves by drinking such beverages, smiling as if they could possibly enjoy them. I wouldn't learn their secret until years later, when I'd come to appreciate good examples of both.

My dad's tea friends didn't come over too often when I was a youngin', but my father never seemed to mind that I would join them for a chat. My dad wasn't - and still isn't - a tea lover, but he indulged in the process; the offering of tea to guests just like a kind host would offer up a glass of iced lemonade on a beautiful summer day. It was the process and simple ceremonies of tea that I first fell in love with. I came to associate having tea with philosophical discussions, laughter and happy experiences with friends. Back in the day, we usually drank Tieguanyin from Anxi. It was the brew of choice of my dad's friends and we always had at least one box of it in the tea cabinet above the rice cooker. Those were the days when premium oolongs were all handmade and hand-roasted with charcoal, with deep and rich flavors.

It wasn't until high school that my interest in tea propelled me to seek out new leaves outside of the Tieguanyin and ordinary greens at home. After weekend tennis practices, I'd occasionally stop by Chinatown and pick up some loose-leaf teas from the Ten Ren store there. King's tea, Dong Ding, and Jasmine; those were my usuals. To me, there was no world of tea outside of Ten Ren.

A Tieguanyin tastng in Taiwan - flight #1

I often drank tea with friends in college, especially during my later years there, and my friends would occasionally bring samples from their parents' special stashes. But it wasn't until my senior year, when I started working at Celadon Fine Teas (now Teance), that I received my formal tea training. I saw all of the varieties outside of my usual 1/2 dozen teas, learned how to grade & taste the expensive stuff, and how NOT to spit out puerh, even when I thought it tasted like mud. To this day, I still brew with a Gaiwan the same way that I learned to nearly 10 years ago, and I still love a finely-roasted Tieguanyin or Dong Ding above all other teas.

Just as a first love is ingrained in most people's memories, so too are my first tea-loves. Tieguanyin, with it's floral, fruity and multiple layers of flavor, and Dong Ding, with it's beautiful bouquet and balanced roasting, are still my favorites. I've had hundreds of teas in my lifetime, but the beautiful taste of a well-crafted oolong will still be what I'll always crave.

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