06 July 2009

Happy to find another local teashop with a solid Shanlinxi - tea review

I visited Xiu Xian teas in Bellevue late last month.  I met Mako - one of the owners - as well as her helpful Taiwanese employee, Jenny.  Xiu Xian teas opened their first teahouse in Kent several years ago, and a second store in Crossroads Mall was recently opened.  Good business means that the market for quality teas is growing; awesome.

There are many teas to choose from at Xiu Xian, including blended teas (e.g. fruit and floral blends), and a selection of greens, oolongs and puerhs.  I wouldn't say that Xiu Xian specializes in Taiwanese oolongs, since many types of Taiwanese teas are not yet available for purchase.  I say "yet" because it seems that they do intend to carry some in the future seasons, when Jenny may become their Taiwan tea buyer.  She mentioned to me that she might return to Taiwan sometime around the mid-Autumn festival.  I hope that she will opt to go later in the year, though, since Autumn is too soon for her to buy the winter crop of high mtn teas.  Unlike certain types of teas, like Four Seasons or Jinxuan, or some mainland oolongs, the two main tea seasons in Taiwan are Winter and Spring.  On my last trip, I missed the winter harvest by a few weeks, which generally occurs in late November/early December.  The quality of autumn high mtn teas is quite a bit different (and less complete) due to the weather, growing conditions, etc. and thus, do not compare favorably with the main harvests. 

From Jenny's recent trip, she brought back several teas that are available for purchase in limited quantities.  One of the interesting things about Xiu Xian is that unlike other teashops that sell by pre-packaged weight or by the ounce, this shop sells by the gram (although I don't know if there's a minimum purchase, as buying only 1-2 grams of tea would be odd).  I was fortunate to come on a day when I could try the Alishan, Shanlinxi and Oriental Beauty that she had brought back.

I've tasted several high mountain teas this season from several different Taiwan tea sources and have found the season to be ok. That is, not great, but not terrible.  Shiuwen at Floating Leaves in Ballard takes good tea quite seriously.  She didn't think that this season's Alishan was good enough for her customers, so you'll find that there isn't one for Sp 09 (although her last season's Alishan is more complete than anything I've tried this year). 

Xiu Xian's Shanlinxi is one of the better ones I've had this season.  Light and fragrant, with some citrus and light fruit tastes.  At roughly $10/ounce, the price is fair. 

I was happy to find a good quality Shanlinxi at Xiu Xian.  According to Jenny, the tea she has on hand is exploratory in nature.  If customers react favorably to it, they will carry more of it in the future.  I was a bit disappointed by the absence of Lishan or Dayuling-style teas there, though.  In recent years, my taste has changed so that I now prefer the deeper, richer and bolder tastes of Lishan teas.  However, it is not easy finding a good Lishan or Dayuling (I have in fact, never had a real Dayuling, as that tea is extremely limited in production and most such teas are just Dayuling-style) and the pricing is generally in excess of other high mountain teas.  Altitude is one indicator of price, but not the only one.  If it was, Jade mountain tea would be pricier and tastier than all of the others, which it is not.

The exception to my preference for Lishan is the "Happy Farmer's" superb Alishan tea that is no longer available for purchase in the US (or outside of Taiwan, I believe).  His pricing is easily double or triple that of other Alishan teas, but his quality and the undeniably high-level of craftsmanship and quality that is evident in his leaves justifies his pricing.  I've been told that his Baozhong is even better, but I have yet to try it.  Perhaps this winter will be a lucky one for me.

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