23 February 2011

A Friend’s Teahouse in Eugene, Oregon

J-Tea International is in the same city as the University of Oregon, about 5+ hours south of Seattle and halfway down the state of Oregon on a drive down to California.  It’s not a particularly scenic drive, but the drive is worth it to see an old friend.  It’s a long overdue trip and I plan my visit to occur just a few months after all of the renovations to his teahouse have been completed.  It’s pretty nice.

teahouse outside

Josh is an interesting guy and he also knows a lot about tea.  He has lived in Asia longer than I have and probably reads, speaks and writes in Mandarin Chinese better than I do (he did live there for over 6 years and got his MBA at Cheng Kung U).  We get along well because we both love oolong, especially Taiwanese ones. 

teahouse 2

His remodeled teahouse incorporates a lot of built-green concepts, including the usage of natural lighting (windows all along the front; nine skylights), recycled and/or low-impact building materials, etc.  And yes, he drives a hybrid as well (although I’m sure he tries to get around by foot when he can). 

J-tea stocks a variety of Taiwanese oolongs, as well as various black teas and mainland teas.  He also has a lot of unique teaware and antique pottery (I like his antique porcelain jars).  We drank several of his teas and he tried a few of mine.  I like some of his Dong Ding, I like it when Dong Ding is robust and full-bodied. 

What is of most interest to me, though, are his two aged Dong Ding oolongs, one from 1982 and one from 1986.  Curiously, the older one is considerably cheaper than the 1986 tea, but once you try both of them, you’ll know why.  The 1986 aged Dong Ding is a balanced and moderate tea.  It has some tartness from the age in the first infusion that gives way to a smooth, sweet and balanced brew.  The 3rd-5th infusions yield a delicate brew with a slight hui gan; it is quite a nice tea, even more so with sub-boiling water in a good Dong Ding pot. 

There is aged tea, good aged tea, and great aged tea (yes, there is stuff beyond great, much of which is difficult to find and can be pricey).  This tea is very good and will become better in the years to come.  I asked Josh to tell me more about the tea after I had the chance to try it with my own teaware and he said that it received the 銀牌獎 (gold medal) from the 2007凍頂老茶展售會鹿谷鄉凍頂茶葉生產合作社 (long name, it’s a 2007 aged Dong Ding competition).  It’s true that many of the tea competitions are kind of hokey and the winners jack up their prices, but the quality of the tea is judged by people who really know tea (whether or not we agree with the criteria they use for judging is a different story).  This tea is $25/ounce, which I think is reasonable for a tea that is tough to find outside of Taiwan and sold by a reputable retailer that will ship just about anywhere.  I’ll write more about value-priced aged oolongs that contribute to the experience of trying and collecting aged teas in the future, but this is a nice treat and very good experience to have with a high-quality aged Dong Ding.

1986 dd

Josh also sells tea plants…you’ll have to ask him what kind he grows.  Good guy, nice tea place, good tea – just my kind of place. 

[correction:  he has Sochi cultivar plants, but they are not necessarily for sale…sorry!]

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

18 February 2011

Age is just ONE factor – Aged Teas IV

Like anything that may derive some value from its age, a tea’s age can only tell you a part of its story.  It may not even be the most vital part of the story.  There is value in aged teas because it’s uncommon and has inherent quantity limitations.  Daniel’s special Congou tea that is intact and nearly 100 years old probably doesn’t, by his own admission, taste exceptional, but it’s very rare and valuable.

Tea has a shelf-life and period for optimum taste, depending on what one is looking for.  This is not unlike wine or cheese or cured/aged meat, all of which reach an optimum maturation point for which it may be best enjoyed.  All genuinely old teas are interesting to me because they are unique.  We can manipulate the taste/smell/feel of a tea through various techniques, but we cannot make a 20 year old tea overnight.  With that said, old teas may be interesting, but few of them that I’ve come across are worth their price simply because they don’t taste good and they probably never will. 

I was looking up at the upper side-wall at Floating Leaves Tea yesterday as Shiuwen and I were chatting.  That is where some of the odds & ends tea from various seasons are stored.  I jokingly said to her that she should do less business each season so that she would have more aged tea to sell in 20 years.  It’s not easy to anticipate the changing tastes of consumers or the volatility of demand, which is why nearly every retailer will have some leftover teas (later becoming the coveted “aged tea” that so many look for).  Twenty years later, some of these aged teas will be phenomenal and some won’t.  Shiuwen’s Nangang Baozhong will be exceptional, as will some of the Dong Ding. 

I wondered why more people haven’t thought about storing and aging oolongs, like they do pu’er?  Perhaps it has to do with the limited (but growing) appeal of aged oolongs, or the fact that a good aged pu’er currently fetches 4-5 figure prices whereas most aged oolongs are still in the 3-4 figure range.  It may also be that pu’er generally tastes and feels so much better after aging, whereas many oolongs taste exceptional when they’re fresh.  Regardless, my focus now is to collect good jars of all sorts and then to fill them with tea.  I was recently inspired by Josh Chamberlain of J-Tea in Eugene who is holding a tea-sealing ceremony (a get together of tea lovers to put their tea into various types of pots/jars, seal and date them, and enjoy tea and snacks as they do it) soon.  He also has a great aged Dong Ding that will be even better in the years to come (and it’s only $25 an oz!) that I’ll talk about in an upcoming post. 

In other news, I close on my home purchase next week (and my wedding is the week after, figured I’d do it all at once!).  I talked to my architect-friend yesterday about designing some kind of tea space either as an addition to the house or as a separate unit in the yard and wow, it’s going to be a lot more expensive than I thought.  In the meantime, my REI tea tent will have to suffice, although it might snow soon :)

Drink good tea and enrich your life.   

11 February 2011

Processing Shan Lin Xi

Several of Taiwan’s oolongs are world-famous.  Dong Ding, Bao Zhong, Oriental Beauty and high mountain oolongs are just a few of the well-known ones.  Each type of tea has variations in how it’s processed and produced. 

Shan Lin Xi is a type of high mountain tea produced in central Taiwan’s Nantou county.  You can see it from Dong Ding mountain and one can get there in less than an hour by car.  It is more accessible than Da Yu Ling and possibly more scenic than Li Shan.  What makes Shan Lin Xi a little different is that modern-day production of it relies more heavily on humidity and temperature control…via air conditioning.  I’m not familiar enough with the entirety of the process to describe it here, but I’ve seen giant warehouses being used in the withering and oxidation process.  Air conditioner-assisted tea production also occurs with some other teas, such as some Bao Zhong and Ali Shan oolongs, but it’s more widespread with Shan Lin Xi production than I know it to be with any other type of tea.  I have never, for example, heard of A/C being used for Dong Ding or Muzha Tieguanyin.

I visited a Shan Lin Xi farmer/producer in that region during the off-season last year and she told me that there is a difference in taste between low-tech and high-tech production of the tea.  She believes the A/C-assisted variant produces a more consistent, quality product.  She did admit, though, that a side-effect of using A/C may be a flavor note that is unique to Shan Lin Xi tea that has undergone this type of processing.  People have gotten used to that unique note, though, so they have come to expect it and identify it with this tea.  That made me think of Diet Coke, doesn’t taste the same as “Real” Coke, but a lot of people like that unique taste anyway.

This season’s high mountain tea has been surprisingly good.  After 2 winter seasons of lackluster ones, it was pleasant to try several good high mountain oolongs from several stores.  Nice.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.