27 October 2010

For the LAST time, we don’t carry THAT tea!

“I want to buy some Dayuling oolong tea, do you sell it?”

The anxious couple showed up at the teahouse not long after I heard the Oolong Vampiress get off the phone with them.  As they walked into the shop and began to look around, they didn’t seem especially impressed by the teahouse or its wares, as if they were expecting a more elaborate setup.

“Where is your Dayuling?  I want to try it.”  The husband’s Mandarin wasn’t easy to understand, but it was better than his wife’s, who didn’t seem to be able to speak any.

The Oolong Vampiress repeated the same thing that she had evidently told him over the phone.  “We don’t have that tea this season.  We have a Lishan high mountain tea.  It’s good and has some similar flavors as the Dayuling.  You can try it.”

Somewhat-frustrated chatter erupted between the couple in a language or dialect that was not identifiable to anyone else.  They decided that since they had come all this way, they would try the tea.  They asked the owner why she didn’t carry Dayuling this season, and she said that it wasn’t good enough for her customers.  Each type of tea is different every season, sometimes moderately so and sometimes very much so.  The Dayuling, she felt, wasn’t good enough.  Some of the farmers and distributors implied the same when I saw them at the start of the winter tea season.  Dayuling or not, the Lishan was quite good.

The affectionately-titled Oolong Vampiress moniker actually carries with it quite positive and good connotations.  She is committed to good teas and diligently searches for them every season.  When she finds them, she will capture/suck out the essence of the tea’s goodness and infect her customers with its beauty.  If she said that the Dayuling wasn’t good, she had probably tried many of them and found that there was nothing good enough for her to carry.  If you ask her why she does or doesn’t buy a particular tea, she will gladly explain her reasons. 

After a few cups of tea, the couple looked at each other for reassurance.  I asked the husband what he thought of the Lishan and he kind of shrugged his shoulders as if to imply that it was borderline acceptable.  He wanted a real high mountain tea and this one, not being Dayuling, didn’t seem to make the grade.  He again asked why the Oolong Vampiress didn’t buy the Dayuling, then added, “I saw it at other shops.  They sell it, and it’s around the same price as your Lishan.  Other people have said it’s good, so why don’t you carry it?”  Then, in what may have quite possibly been accusatory in tone and manner, he uttered: “You should.”

You see, vampires have big and sharp fangs, so you don’t cross them (unless you’re Werewolf, Van Helsing or Borg).  The Vampiress doesn’t like to be told what to do by people who don’t know better, and she doesn’t like to debate over things that are perceived to be nonsensical.  Do not pick a fight with her about how to properly brew an oolong or what type of water to use; she knows her teas better than any of us and will not yield.  I was expecting her to slap the table with her palm while an eruption of un-restrainable yelling carried forth instructions to the offending party to get the heck out of the store after they had, again, disputed her decision not to carry a particular tea.  I have seen it happen with other teahouse owners before.  

I was in for quite a surprise, though.  Instead of kicking the couple out, she tolerantly asked what it was that they liked about the Dayuling that wasn’t pleasant in the Lishan.  It turned out that they didn’t really know because, well, they hadn’t really had Dayuling before.  They had just heard that it was the best high mountain oolong, and they had also heard from many friends that this shop sold good tea at fair prices.  What followed was a relatively friendly chat and basic education on oolongs.  They left that day with a few bags of Lishan and a greater appreciation for the spectrum of teas.

I received an email from the teahouse owner a few weeks ago and she mentioned, as an aside, that the couple had returned to buy tea from her several more times.  They had become quite friendly and appreciative of her honesty and patience with them.  The Vampiress is powerful indeed, having again infected tea-love in those whom so many others would have (and may have already) written off as a waste of time.  She reminded me that the culture of tea can be better appreciated when we have a desire to spread its virtues to others, so that they may more clearly see the beauty of the brew as well.  She’s a good tea Vampiress, so put your garlic away and expect that she will share a nice brew with you if you cross paths. 

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

21 October 2010

Patience and Old Teas

Gingko over at Life in Teacup has been generous enough to share several favorite tea samples with me recently, some of which are a fantastic value.  We’ve also been conversing for a few weeks about trends in oolong and she has good ideas and information regarding a much-appreciated revival of traditional Tieguanyin production methods in Anxi.  I can corroborate her news to some degree as my Muzha teacher has been invited to the mainland a few times to teach classes on traditional roasting.

I take care to be gentle when first sampling a tea.  I’ve given many samples out over the years of various teas that I’ve acquired or worked on.  Proper and careful brewing makes all the difference in the experience of the tea.  A 1997 sample of a premium Biluochun, for example, went to a man that brewed it in a French Press with boiling water.  He declared the tea to be bitter and stale and sent me a can of fancy Dragon Pearls so that I may learn what a “proper” green tea should taste like (to be fair, it wasn’t a bad tea, but jasmine is not the pinnacle of the art of green tea, either).  Another time, I gave a sample of an aged and roasted oolong to a tea friend.  As we sat together several weeks afterwards, I asked him what he thought of the tea I had brought him.  “Seriously?  It was awful,” he said.  Interesting, I thought, that he would have such a strong reaction to that tea.  We had coincidentally been drinking the same one for the past 15 minutes and he seemed to appreciate it quite a bit.  “Use a gaiwan and brew it for under a minute with sub-boiling water” I told him, “it will turn out much better that way.”


Aged teas are tricky for many reasons, a big one being that there isn’t a lot of it floating around here that can be affordably acquired.  It’s also tricky to immediately judge the tea.  Take an aged oolong that was recently re-roasted and it may taste smoky, burnt and/or awful.  It is true that no tea is supposed to taste burnt, but it’s also true that given time, the fire may subside and reveal a substantial and pleasant tea base underneath (unless the roasting chars the tea and it fails to open).  I agree that this is not the norm, but it happens, and the only way to know is to give it some time.  Aged oolongs also change rather quickly depending on how they’re stored.  For a simple test, find 4 small-sized, air-tight storage vessels:  porcelain; clay; glass and metal.  Place a small amount of tea into each one (maybe enough for 2 or 3 servings), put the lid back on (or not, if you’re feeling like a rebel) and wait a month or two.  Try the teas again and you may find that they taste quite different.  I find clay/stone to be the best for reducing fire quickly.  Porcelain and pewter tend to be better for storage once the tea has stabilized, and glass’ advantage is that it’s easy to find and relatively cheap (best if you plan to drink the tea inside of it fairly soon). 

Plastic?  Some say never, but I disagree.  The tea farmers don’t store all of their old oolongs in fancy vessels for decades.  They usually store their teas in a thick plastic bag (not the dinky zip-type baggies that can impart odors), which can be put inside giant metal drums.  Bags of random teas are often found in the nooks and crannies of their shops and these can turn out to be treasures.  Shiuwen at Floating Leaves once found a sample of a 1960s Baozhong when she was cleaning her house that turned out to be pretty special.  Incidentally, she talked with one of her producers a few weeks ago and asked, on behalf of one her customers, what the best way to store aged oolong is and he responded, simply: “Plastic.”  It is, after-all, quite resistant to air and moisture intrusion.

A few weeks ago, I found a little sample of an old-looking pu’er in a plastic baggie that turned out to be my 1970s brick of deliciousness; I still don’t remember when I packed that baggie, but it was a pleasant surprise.  Drink good tea and enrich your life.

07 October 2010

Some Interesting Uses for Old Tea

I was surfing the tea blogs and came upon a post by a Chinese blogger that talks about ten healthy uses for used tea

Some of the uses are new to me.  For the list in its entirety, check out “Jerry’s Blue Water Blog.”  It’s not stated what tea should be used, but I’m guessing it’s oolong since the blog writer has written several posts about oolong before.  The blog author works as a scientist or researcher, but it’s not stated as to if the items on his list has undergone any scientific evaluation.

1)  Make tea eggs.  There’s a recipe for these in one of my earlier posts.  Yum.

2)  Make tea pillows.  No thanks.  To the author’s credit, though, he doesn’t talk about a reduction in blood pressure, but mentions that sleeping on tea leaves improves mental clarity.

3)  Mosquito repellent.  Take dried tea leaves and burn them at night to ward off the insects.  I’ve tried this on Dong Ding before and it didn’t work for me.  I believe that smoke does help ward off insects, but unlike Citronella oil, I don’t think the natural oils found in tea are an effective repellant.  Dong Ding has some crazy thirsty mosquitoes.

4)  Plant food/fertilizer.  I haven’t tried this before, but I have heard of people using spent tea leaves as a nutritious mulch for plants. 

5)  Foot deodorizer/anti-fungal solution.  I’ve never tried this before, either.

6)  Eliminate bad breath.  The post’s instructions say to frequently place used, wet tea leaves into one’s mouth and to keep it there for a bit.  One could also rinse with a strong brew of used tea with the same effect, so says the author. 

7)  Special hair conditioner.  Washing with a strong brew of used tea leaves (after first using shampoo) can make hair look full, rich, soft and dark. 

8)  As a gentle cleaner for silk and nylon.  The author says that tea is not harsh on delicate fabrics.  I don’t know what properties in tea would make clothes cleaner than just using water, but I don’t find that washing with tea would be harmful, either.  Unless one uses roasted oolong leaves to wash a light-colored silk garment, in which case, the garment will no longer be light-colored. 

9)  As a multi-purpose cleanser for household items like furniture, glass, mirrors, etc. 

10)  As an odor remover, particularly for stinky utensils.  I think this can work.  I’ve randomly washed dishes together with tea bowls and messed around with scrubbing tea leaves on metal utensils and it does seem to have some effect on that stinky, fishy metallic smell that some utensils can get, as well as some effect on strong garlic smells.  Lemon juice or orange peel seem to work better, though.

Interesting list.  I have heard of many more uses, both abstract and reasonable.  Tea is quite a wondrous plant.