30 October 2008

There's a lot of good tea out there

My duty as the one of the tea-buying guys this coming season is simple: find the teas that best represent the exceptional flavor profile that customers have come to anticipate.

I love a great tea that represents a solid value, and I want people to recognize that immense effort and care went into the production and selection of the products that they drink. To this end, I am singularly dedicated to the wonderful tea experience that tea friends - old and new - will receive.
I try many tea samples that are brought in from all over the world. I also travel a lot and make it a point to try new brews. With all of the good tea out there, I'm happy to see that the market for premium teas is expanding in America. I'm also very excited when I meet teahouse owners that are passionate about their teas, such as the owners of Red Blossom Tea in San Francisco. Hou De teas in Houston is another fantastic retailer. They've got some solid teas and a wealth of information on their blog.
I'll mainly be looking for well-crafted Tieguanyin and Dong Ding teas, and traveling to Shanlinxi to look for a good example of that tea as well. It's going to be quite an adventure!
I support the mission of honest tea retailers that are passionate about a great brew. Look for my tasting notes for the products that I'll be buying, as well as live trip notes.

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.

25 October 2008

Where in Taiwan is it made?

If you've been drinking Taiwanese oolong long enough, you've probably wondered where the tea comes from. Alishan, Shanlinxi, Pinglin...where are these places?

In consultation with Shiuwen at Floating Leaves Tea, I took a freely-available NASA satellite map of Taiwan and added in the major tea-growing regions in Taiwan. The map below is our approximation of the major tea-growing regions.

Click on the image for a larger version that is easier to read

There are several different teas that I did not include on the map because they may be produced in several different areas. Jinxuan/Jinshuan, for example, is made in several areas including Pinglin, Nantou and Alishan. Some other teas that I did not put on the map for the same reason I just mentioned include Four Seasons tea (Si Ji Chun) and Cui Yu (also known as Jade Oolong).

24 October 2008

This is the place where my tea thoughts will reside

I was born with what many friends have described as "an old soul," and I take an interest in subjects that deal with passion, appreciation, and which can add to the peace and joy in my life. Having been enchanted by tea for more than 10 years, Cha Dao has been my most enduring interest.

In my life with tea thus far, I've been fortunate enough to have had great mentors and tea friends. My dad's dear friend Mr. Chu gave me my first memories of fine oolong teas. Winnie Yu of Teance Teas in Berkeley played the most influential role in my development into a true tea lover. I worked with her when she opened her teahouse nearly 10 years ago, and she patiently helped me to build my foundation for tea knowledge. Shiuwen Tai of Floating Leaves Tea in Seattle has, for the last 2 years, been exceedingly generous with her time in teaching me so much about high mountain teas and Taiwanese tea culture.

Mr. Zhou and his wife have used their precious time to teach me to see beyond the realm of the five senses and to tap into the deeper philosophical and energetic levels of tea. Their aged Dong Ding is the finest example of that varietal that I have ever tasted. The Zhangs have been gracious and generous in teaching me about roasted oolongs, and my good fortune will continue this winter when they teach me to produce their seasonal product.

And to the many other tea friends and mentors that have - and continue to - help me find that perfect brew, this blog is my dedicated effort to share the insight that I have gained from all of you. It is my wish that the tea experience will bring fulfillment into the lives of all whom are blessed enough to explore its meaning.

Cha Dao, the way of tea appreciation, is not about whose tea is the best and which tea expert is the true master. It is the cultivation of the mind, spirit and the essence of existence by way of the exploration into the deeper meanings of the brew. To all of you whom chance (and Google) have bought to my blog, I hope you will share my desire to contribute to the appreciation of tea in a manner which is positive and uplifting.

I've had thousands of teas and have had phases where a particular tea was my favorite. Long Jing, Baozhong, Bi Luo Chun, Alishan high mtn tea, ginseng oolong, even dragon pearls - these have all had their turns. But Tieguanyin and Dong Ding are what gave me my first tea memories, and these two have endured as my old stand-bys. While I am happy to collect all tea knowledge, my musings will be rather oolong-centric. The variation is so great within the oolong tea category that multiple lifetimes would not be enough time for me to learn all about these teas.

Again, welcome to my site, stay for a while and relax. There's always time for a good cup of tea. As the first pot of tea moistens your lips and throat, the mundane world slips away around you. Allow yourself to become enchanted by the artistry of the leaves.