09 December 2010

1998 is NOT the same as 98 – Aged Teas II

An aged oolong, particularly Dong Ding and Tieguanyin, should have begun to “degrade” in the sense that it has lost much of its roast and the character of the tea has begun to soften.  It is often difficult to taste for these changes with much of the aged teas that are sold because they have undergone subsequent re-roasts.  I believe that a good aged oolong should have been oxidized; I don’t know to what percent, but I would guess 15% at the least.  Traditional Dong Ding that is over 10 years old will meet this criteria, and older Tieguanyin (especially the Muzha variety; Anxi’s started to go green over 10 years ago and varies more) should also meet this criteria.  The tea base will soften sloppily without the proper oxidation and may taste expired.  Anxi’s greener oolongs, for example, can taste quite harsh even after many years of aging.  The lack of oxidation seems to affect how well the tea can retain its base characteristics.  The tea should also have had several roasts when it was produced, which helps to seal in the flavor.  Traditional Tieguanyin is roasted as many as 4-5 times and Dong Ding generally has 2-3 roasts.

There are two main schools of aged oolongs, one which says that if the tea base is strong enough and the original oxidation and roast are good enough, that the tea should be left to soften naturally to reach its best state.  This type of tea is harder to find and usually more expensive.  The other major type of aged oolong is one that has been re-roasted over the years to preserve and/or enhance the taste.  This type of aged oolong is easier to find, but also easier to fake.  I was shown one method of fakery, alternating the tea betweens cycles of rest and baking, to produce a musty, tart, “old-ish” taste that is characteristic of aging oolongs.  After the finishing roast is applied, it is allowed to sit and would be able to fool a lot of people.  Since most people have not had a wide variety of aged oolongs of various types, the re-roasted variety of aged tea tastes more legitimate because it has fire and a robust body, which one can relate to what a traditional oolong should be like.

Like good, aged pu’er, Taiwan and Hong Kong can be good places to find aged oolongs.  And like an aged pu’er, aged oolongs can be very pricey, upwards of thousands of dollars a pound. 

If you’re shopping for aged teas in Taiwan, though, there is a basic thing that you need to know:  the year that the tea was made.  1998 and 98, for example, are not necessarily the same thing.  The Republic of China was founded in 1912 as the first year of the republic.  If 1998 is the common calendar year, 98 is the ROC or Minguo (民國) year, taken by subtracting 1911 from the current year.  Thus, a tea that is labeled or sold as 98 generally means that it is 1911+98 years old, or made in 2009.  That is not an aged tea.  Many Taiwanese tea farmers and retailers still use the Minguo calendar.

Fine, fine, good trivia you say, but you’re not as nutty about aged teas as I am and don’t plan to travel to Taiwan to search for them, since you’ve heard that the store 2 cities up the freeway from you has good stuff.  OK, but where did THEY get their aged Taiwan tea from?  I have visited many tea shops across North America and many of them don’t know as much about their product as we’d hope.  I was once told by a retailer that she had some excellent aged Taiwan high mountain oolong, but the date stamp on the packaging was for Minguo years.  She didn’t understand what that meant and didn’t believe that there was an alternate calendar system; I dropped the point since she was probably more embarrassed than defiant.  However, I’ve said before that when a retailer deals with premium products at premium prices, there is no excuse for “not knowing;” that means they’re either dishonest to sell inferior tea at superior tea prices, or they’re ignorant and sell lesser-quality tea at premium prices. 

I’d like to share a good source to buy an aged, non re-roasted Nantou (e.g. Dong Ding) aged tea to try, the type that is harder to find.  If you have never had this type of tea before, you may find it to be strange and quite different.  For the price, though, it is to this date the best place I’ve found to conveniently acquire and try this type of tea outside of Asia.  I share this with reluctance because the quantity is so limited, but it has to be done in the spirit of tea learning.  Essence of Tea is based in the UK and will ship all over.  They are knowledgeable about Taiwan teas (I’ve heard their pu’er is good, but haven’t tried much – Felicific Life Blog).  I know that there are other Western tea retailers with non re-roasted, aged oolongs, but this one deserves mentioning because the product is legit, the purchase quantity is flexible, and the price is quite good.

Mr. Zhan of Nine Pots Manor has an aged and re-roasted Hong Shui Oolong from Central Taiwan that I’ve talked about before.  As far as I know, his teas are not sold by anyone outside of Asia, but Shiuwen at Floating Leaves Tea acquired a small amount this year (not on her site).  The tea should be between 25-30 years old and is an example of a traditional, high-oxidized hong-shui tea, while also exhibiting some of the characteristic tastes of an aged oolong. 

Have you found other places with an aged oolong that deserve attention?

05 December 2010

What is Aged Oolong Tea? Part 1

“Why do young people always ask for aged teas?  Why do they want something that I didn’t sell out of years ago?  New tea is fresh and tastes good.  It’s also cheaper.”

Mr. Shhh is probably close to 90 years old, but he walks up and down the busy Taiwan streets as fast as I do, probably faster if I wasn’t holding him up by lugging stuff with me as we walked to his shop.  To him, even 60 year-olds are considered “young people.”  Mr. Shhh has a habit of interrupting people in the middle of their stories or conversations to give his commentary, hence he begins many of his stories with “Shhh shh, I….”  Having lived a full life and having many worthwhile stories from his years as a farmer, producer, retailer and educator, his words are insightful.

Mr. Shhh’s shop is now run by his descendents, but he maintains an office in the corner of the warehouse.  He invited me over to take a look at various types of teas that his family had worked on recently, as well as teas from long ago.

“How long does an oolong have to be aged or stored to be considered an aged oolong?”  All of the various tea makers, roasters and sellers have different answers for what they consider aged tea.  There are also no less than 3 ways to ask this question.  Lao Cha (老茶) is the most commonly-understood way to ask for old tea (aged).  I have heard some people call it Jiu Cha (久茶) which also translates as old tea, but connotes something that is possibly past-date or from past seasons (old, not necessarily aged).  Many farmers better understand what I mean by a good, aged oolong when I ask for Laoren Cha (老人茶) or old folks’ tea, which is the traditional type of oxidized oolongs that older folks drank decades ago.  Mr. Shhh says that if the tea wasn’t charcoal roasted, he doesn’t consider it aged.  There are relatively few roasters that still roast with charcoal, so his actual implication was that the tea would probably have to be 15-20+ years old for him to consider it an actual aged tea. 

Passing by various retailers in the markets and tea streets of Taipei, I have been told that an aged tea can be 2 or 3 years old.  “No, that is just old tea,” I would say, to which they would normally say something like, “Of course, aged tea is old, what’s the difference?”  Ha, not a bad answer, my fault for not being specific. 

I’ve been wanting to write a series of posts to share my knowledge and experiences with aged oolongs, Dong Ding and Tieguanyin in particular, for quite some time.  There has been a growing interest among tea folks for aged oolongs, and along with that, there’s been a proliferation of shops carrying “aged oolongs” – some at exorbitant prices.  My Dong Ding teacher really hates it when I bring up old tea because it is a complete rip-off to him.  What do we non-professionals know about what is aged or not and what is good or bad, he says.  For every real and good aged oolong that we may find, we may have tried or bought another 5, 10, 15…teas to find it.  I can’t even say that a good aged Dong Ding reminds me of the teas I first fell in love with, since they have changed so much over their years of storage and aging as to provide a different experience.  But there is a clarity in a good, aged oolong tea’s character that has blossomed and softened over the years, a complexity of “shadow” tastes, as if plum, pear, apricot and various floral essences had visited the tea long ago and departed.  It is a special experience to enjoy.  I hope that by sharing the knowledge that I have learned from successful and failed experiences in my search for these teas that you will be able to find some that are worth savoring.

Briefly, an aged oolong to me should have undergone the softening of its base and roast for quite some time, to the point where the major components of its taste should be less distinct as individual flavors.  The aged Dong Ding or Tieguanyin should have been properly oxidized and roasted in the beginning; a good, aged oolong will have been produced from a quality tea by a skilled tea-maker and masterfully oxidized and roasted (no different from a good contemporary oolong and a run of the mill one).  I’ve also mentioned in several past posts that age is only one criteria; not all aged teas taste good and in fact, most do not.  I don’t consider a tea aged unless it is at least 15 years old, and in most cases, I don’t think that the tea will reach its apex for several decades.  I’ll fill in the details in later posts and have more pictures to represent what I’m talking about, too.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

15 November 2010

Thanks for All Tea Leaves, Big and Small

“We are very lucky people.  With this cup of tea, let us never forget this.”

My tea friend Chan and I were having a cup together this past weekend.  He doesn’t say very much, but he is certainly more philosophical and profound than I usually am.  I was reading the news online and saw that Burma’s Nobel Prize winning political, Aung San Suu Kyi, had been “released” from house arrest after serving the last day of her latest sentence, imposed on her by the illegitimate military junta ruling Burma.

Burma?  Aside from the one refugee I had met in college, I know little about the country, have never eaten any of its cuisine, or thought about traveling there.  I visited the usual travel and information sites online to learn more about a country that is so mysterious to me.  A resource-rich nation that is considered to be, along with Somalia, the most corrupt place in the world.  The masses live around the poverty-level and the economy grows at a rate several times less than the SE Asian average.  There is limited access to all of the niceties that we have come to see as necessities.  What would life be like there, I asked rhetorically, as Chan and I shared a moment of obvious reflection over the gratitude we have for all of our blessings.  My father says that we reflect on our blessings not to compare ourselves to or boast about how much better we are than others, but to realize that what we have and enjoy also enables us to provide relief and aid.


Jars, containers and baggies of various teas sit on a cheap plastic table, abutting a teak cabinet holding a variety of teaware and the rare splurge on an antique.  A small and low table, pulled off of nightstand duty to serve as a makeshift bookshelf, accommodates various other samples and tea books, topped by a little statuette of a happy golden pig bathing in pu’er leaves.  The current state of the room is representative of an artful clutter of my life in tea, a statement that life is to be enjoyed in whatever state that it finds itself in.  I look around and for that moment, I’m overwhelmingly absorbed by the gratitude I have for everything that has come together in my life for me to enjoy that singular moment of beauty, surrounded by an accumulation of “tea treasures.”  Whether we can enjoy a delicious tea bag from the local market or an exquisite heirloom tea, we are all lucky to bask in that pleasure.


I reflect on these experiences and many others like them as a pre-Thanksgiving homage to the bounty that can be enjoyed every day.  Nobody’s life is perfect, and even as I sit here in my favorite Seattle cafe suffering from a sinus infection and hoping that any number of things in my life would run more smoothly, I am reminded of the fact that since I can sit here and write this in comfort, and that you have the time to sit wherever you may be and read this post, means that we are lucky people indeed.  It is our affinity that I may be able to pass my best sentiments onto you today, and I hope that you too will take a moment to appreciate how beautiful the many aspects of your own life are.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.  I’ll do just that, once I finish this awesome cup of . . . coffee.

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.

29 September 2010

Miraculous Tea Cures All!

“It lowers blood pressure, regulates energy and appetite, eliminates bad cholesterol, prevents and/or cures cancer, helps prevent tooth decay….”  The claims about the health benefits of tea often cross into non-approved and unproven uses.  The US FDA took action against many websites that popped up over the past few years claiming that miraculous Wulong tea guarantees weight loss, cures heart disease and lowers cholesterol.

Tea has been said to have a lot of health effects and I believe this is true.  I think that chief among these benefits it that tea’s pleasant nature can bring calm and contentment into our lives (which in turn can bring a whole slew of other positive mental and physical effects).

I hear a lot, for example, about how dried tea leaves can be made into pillows that help eliminate problems with high blood pressure.  I am curious as to what mode of transmission would cause dry, previously-infused tea leaves that are stuffed into a cloth case to release special properties that, when slept upon, would lead to a statistically significant reduction in blood pressure.  If a person with normal blood pressure or even slightly low blood pressure were to, for some reason, sleep on such a pillow, would their BP drop down to an unhealthy or dangerously low level?  Early on in my tea studies, I helped a friend collect used tea leaves to make pillows with.  We dried pounds of it in the California sun and stuffed them into pillow cases that we sewed shut.  I slept on one on-and-off for a few weeks and found it to be very uncomfortable.  I envisioned that it would be cooling and supportive like the buckwheat hull pillows that were all the rage back then, but no, these tea pillows were jagged and the crunchy noises frequently woke me.  After a few weeks, the moisture (humidity? sweat? drool?) that had found its way back into the tea leaves did not create a pleasant aroma of wonderful oolongs, but a stale odor.  The darkness, heat and moisture also created issues with mold.  Tea pillows for sleeping on?  Can’t say I recommend it, but your mileage may vary.

Tea has helped me to reduce my high blood pressure in a different way during stressful times in my career.  However, I cannot say that it was the beverage itself that led directly to the reduction.  The process of having to slow down and relax as I prepared and consumed tea, the “therapy” of being able to share my troubling thoughts with tea friends, and a general change in my dietary habits were key factors.  To say that the tea alone cured my ailment would be misleading. 

Benefits aside, I have read several studies regarding a link between tea consumption and esophageal cancer (source link).  The root problem, however, shouldn’t be the tea itself, but the high temperature of the tea that was consumed by the study subjects.  Repeated overly-hot beverage or overly-hot food consumption has been shown in several studies to highly correlate with gastro-intestinal tract damage.

I also continue to read and hear a lot about tea and caffeine.  #1:  “White tea has the least caffeine and black tea has the most.  Pu’er tea is fermented, so it has no caffeine.”  #2:  “Dumping the first infusion of tea will eliminate the majority of the caffeine in its leaves.”

Both statements are incorrect, and the scientists who study this kind of stuff have proven the wrongness.  White tea is minimally processed and has quite a bit of caffeine.  A green/sheng/raw pu’er cake can also have a lot of caffeine; even an aged one may have quite a bit.  If you take a white tea or a green pu’er cake and brew it in a big pot with boiling water, then proceed to dump the first pot but drink the next 4, you will certainly feel the effects of the caffeine (unless you are a cool mutant who is immune – which does happen).

If many online sources are to be believed, dumping the first brew will eliminate 80%+ of the caffeine; that is simply not true (unless, as the studies show, the tea is brewed for over 5 minutes).  Nigel Melican is a respected tea consultant and a defender of tea facts.  He does a great job disseminating scientific sources to show that some of the conventional wisdom surrounding tea is quite wrong.  This Cha Dao blog article from 2008 is well written and helps dispel some of the myths that continue to circulate.  Read through the comments to see just how much debate was generated (and it continues on/off on Twitter!).  Certainly it can reasonably be said that more research is necessary, but at this time, I can find no credible study of tea using scientific methods that has determined that white tea consistently has the lowest level of caffeine, or that a normal 30-60 second infusion will eliminate the majority of caffeine in the leaves.

I once believed, for years, that white tea had no caffeine and I brewed it for my grandma weekly.  Every time I did so, I’d think she was bonkers the next morning when she swore that the tea kept her awake for at least a part of the night.  Nonsense, it’s white tea, it has no caffeine!  Alas, I was very wrong.  There is no shame in being corrected, but there is when one continues to advocate nonsense (my poor granny!). 

At the end of the day, whether we have our facts right or wrong, it’s really what’s in the cup that should matter most.  If it tastes good, drink it and enrich your life.  But maybe not before bedtime.  And you might want to let it cool down a bit, too. 

16 September 2010

Truly Great Minds…

Read this blog!  The writer, though…eh, fairly hit or miss :P

Joking aside, after my last post on moldy tea, several folks wrote comments with more info/ideas on the tea.  They were spot on about several points after reading just the little info that I had written and by looking at my pics.  Impressive!

I brewed the tea last week and enjoyed it with a few tea friends.  We used a small yixing pot that has been used only for dark teas (pu’er, Liu An…that type) for several years.

yixing pot

With old teas, I nearly always drink the rinse-brew also.  With this particularly moldy one (and with a mold of unknown type or origin), we decided to rinse with boiling water, steep for about 20 seconds, toss the infusion, then brew.  Immediately after pouring out the first drinkable infusion, we noticed that the color was very light, which is not typical of an old pu’er (especially for a supposed label cake).

tea color

The color of the brew was quite light, appearing more like a green pu’er cake’s brew or a light-moderately oxidized Dong Ding brewed in a gaiwan.  There was also very little familiar fragrance.  I’ve observed that old pu’ers tend to have an aroma that falls into one of 3 categories:  camphor/woodsy; plum/apricot, and ginseng/herbal.  Wait, there’s one more – crap (but like someone said, don’t knock the poo poo pu’er, it doesn’t always suck). 

This brew smelled grassy.  The taste was light and fleeting – it didn’t have the smooth and refined mouth-feel that I was expecting (ie. “silk water”) nor did it feel substantive.  The taste reminded me a bit of the mixed, unidentifiable taste one would have by pouring hot water into an old, empty teapot that had been used to brew a certain type of tea for years.  The pot retains traces of flavor and fragrance, but the brew itself would feel and taste confused and mixed.  The energy of this tea also felt unstable.  The taste and mouth-feel were more harsh than I was expecting.  There was also an odd taste to the tea that reminded me of old teas that have been damaged by wet-storage.  I’ve mentioned before that I’m not against wet-storing, in fact, I sometimes like the flavor and scent profile of wet-stored teas.  However, the non-ideal storage conditions of this old tea have caused the flavors and aromas to feel as if they’ve been sealed away.  I think that proper storage in a small, good-quality clay jar might help this tea release characteristics that are closer to its true flavor.  There’s potential, but probably not for a mind-blowingly awesome brew.

I contacted my friend last weekend to figure out what tea he had given me.  He was surprised that we could taste so many different kinds of flavors.  He said I was right to guess that the tea was between 40-50 years old (he says it’s closer to 50) – which puts it out of range to compete in age with the fancy blue and red label pu’ers from the 40s and 50s (which corresponds to a comment that the tea just didn’t look quite as old as the famous label cakes).  Another very astute reader pointed out that this tea, with its Golden Flowers, looked like Fu Zhuan tea – and she is absolutely right.  The great article that she found on the Hojo Tea Site talks a lot more about Fu Tea.  It is grown and processed differently than Pu’er and has different flavor and scent characteristics.  Fu tea is also made in the Hunan area, whereas most Pu’er is made further south.  My friend said that although yellow mold does grow on a variety of tea, it is especially prized for the development of Fu Zhuan tea.  In fact, he said that this tea that he had given me needs to develop even more Gold Flower mold if it’s to improve in taste.  Interesting indeed, and quite a pleasure to try something different and special.

Now back to oolongs.  Drink good tea and enrich your life.

02 September 2010

It’s Old. And Moldy. Would YOU Drink It?

You bet I would!

I received a present from a tea friend recently.  He was given a big piece of an old, color-labeled pu’er tea.  The tea is old enough that it’s started to decompose, the leaves and stems blending into itself like organic matter that’s being composted (no worms or their byproducts!).  The tea has taken on a grayish hue as it continues to age.  What is most unique about this tea is not its age, though, but the “Golden Flowers” that have grown on it.

golden flowers 2

I wouldn’t give up the chance to try something new.  New, in this case, is a tea that is very old with yellow mold.  My friend would not tell me what year this tea is, or what kind of label tea it is.  He wanted me to try the tea first and give him my feedback.

Mold is not a bad thing.  It exists everywhere, whether or not we can see it.  It exists in our homes and on many of the items we wear and use.  Mold is oftentimes our friend, aiding in the creation of delicious treats (cheese, salami, etc.) as well as helpful medicines.  The rule of thumb that I’ve heard is that unless it’s black, mold is pretty harmless.  This is, I believe, only partly true, as not all black molds are particularly harmful, either (and even those that are toxic may only affect certain persons with allergies or compromised immune systems).  But what to do when one finds it on tea, and what does it mean?

My friend says that with old pu’er tea, golden flower mold is a sign of age and is a good thing.  Why this is, neither of us knows, and whether or not the golden flowers affect the taste of the tea (or grow on the tea due to some exceptional conditions of storage and/or special compounds found within the tea) I don’t know, either.  All I know is that this gift from my friend is of a rare tea.  He said it’s delicious and he’s never been wrong about delicious teas.  I have eaten all manner of moldy things and have extensively toured properties that have had toxic black mold as well, and I’m still alive.  I’ve seen white mold grow on stored teas and I’ve seen pictures of black mold on teas, but this is the first time that I’ve seen yellow mold in person.

up close

I went online using the search term 金花菌 (golden flower germ/bacteria/fungus) and found a Taiwanese pu’er lover’s site:

Art-Q’s Site 

He has magnified pictures of a pu’er brick tea with golden flowers that resemble the ones on my tea.  The real name of the golden flower mold is, per the site, 冠突散囊菌 or Eurotium Cristatum. 

I’ve already decided that I will be drinking this tea, although I will try not to snort too much of the loose mold spores into my nose.  Tasting notes to come.

extreme close up

17 August 2010

Where does Taiwan’s Vietnamese Tea go?

The amount of Vietnamese oolong-style tea that is exported to Taiwan is growing every year, as is Vietnam’s overall tea production.  Da Lat in central Vietnam is similar in elevation to Shan Lin Xi.  Weather, soil, growing conditions, etc are different, but several Taiwan producers and wholesalers who have visited central Vietnam’s tea mountains remark on how similar the topography of the two are.

It is also from talking to these producers and wholesalers, as well as other retailers outside of Asia, that I believe that Taiwan’s Vietnamese oolong is either being packaged – in whole or in part (as a blend) – as Taiwan tea.  The demand for Taiwan’s teas, specifically such teas as high mountain oolongs and Dong Ding oolong, exceed the amount of tea produced in those regions.  I’ve mentioned several times in this blog that lower-grade Dong Ding tea, for example, is often produced in neighboring areas such as Zhushan.  The elevation is lower, the soil is different and the temperature is not as cool as in the core Dong Ding production areas. 

Where is the rising demand coming from?  Interest in premium-grade teas has grown in the west, but we only account for a part of the increased demand.  Mainland China is a huge market for premium products.  I have met Chinese buyers that bring stacks of money to buy tea by the hundreds of jin.  One such buyer told me in the Spring of 09 that the resale price of good Muzha Tieguanyin is much more than in the US (I can’t remember what price he quoted, but I recall that it was over 30% more than the going rate here).

According to one Vietnamese tea exporter, over 10,000 tons (not sure if they refer to short tons or metric tons) of Vietnamese tea was exported to Taiwan per year in the mid 2000s (source link).  A Taiwan jin is 600 grams, so 10,000 tons of tea is equivalent to over 15 million jin of tea!  To put it in perspective, my Dong Ding teacher produced several tons of tea/year during his peak production years, when he was one of the biggest producers of Dong Ding tea.  10,000 tons of tea is a lot of tea to import.  I have never seen tea labeled as Vietnamese tea in any grocery store, teahouse or tea store in Taiwan, but that imported tea is going somewhere.  It’s no secret to the wholesalers and distributors that the tea is blended with domestic sources.

So what’s the big deal?  Vietnamese tea can be quite tasty and the price is lower.  It is dishonest, though, to blend and sell a cheaper foreign tea that is represented as a premium product.  There is a special pride in how much skill and quality goes into Taiwan’s premium teas, which I believe exhibit an unrivaled level of quality and expertise.  Where exactly is the blended tea going?  I don’t know, but it has likely made its way all over the world.  Good retailers that know their product and producers will greatly limit one’s exposure to dishonest products.

25 July 2010

Vietnam’s Oolong

Several Taiwan oolong teas have become quite well-known to tea drinkers all over the world.  Dong Ding, Baozhong, Oriental Beauty, and more-recently, its high mountain oolongs.  Taiwan’s tea technology and production skills have also been brought to other countries, particularly those in SE Asia.  Arable mountain land and lower production costs are good reasons why parts of SE Asia were picked for production of Taiwan-style high mountain oolong.

Vietnam’s oolong production in particular has benefited greatly from Taiwan’s investment of skill and technology.  Its main tea production regions are in the north of the country and in the central mountainous areas.  Da Lat is one such tea-producing area. 

Da Lat is a city in the central highlands of the country.  With an elevation in excess of 1000 meters, it meets Taiwan’s altitude standard for high mountain tea.  Some of my ancestors were merchants from southern China, and among their properties was a vacation home in Da Lat.  My parents spent some time there before the Vietnam War and the property, they believe, was eventually taken by the Communists after the fall of South Vietnam.  I’ve been told that it’s an especially beautiful environment with mountain and ocean views, cool temperatures, morning mists and that it is an ideal spot for resorts and recreation. 

Da Lat has a moderate climate with regular rainfall and is excellent for the production of tea.  I first tried Vietnam-produced Taiwan-style oolong in 2008, when an acquaintance imported the tea for his chain of supermarkets.  The name of the tea is Tam Chau Flower Oolong and if you can’t find it in your local grocery mart, this company’s site carries it for about the same price I bought it for.  What’s interesting is that the site states this tea is very similar to the Formosa Oolong 18 varietal, which I don’t believe is an oolong varietal, but a newer black tea varietal.  I understand from talking with distributors that have worked with the Vietnam tea market that much of the Taiwan-style tea that is grown over there is made from oolong varieties like Jinxuan and Sijichun, and to a lesser extent, Qingxin.  There are, however, multiple numerical systems, not least of which is one that the older farmers use and another one that is more widely-recognized.  No expert in the tea varietals myself, I don’t know if there is another 台茶18號 other than the black tea varietal known as Hongyu.  The tea did not taste like a high-grade Lishan or Alishan, but reminded me more of a Sijichun.  The picking is high-mountain tea style, but the leaves are more rounded – not sharp-edged like Qingxin.

I bought a can and had several tea friends try it in a blind taste test.  When the tasters tried the tea, most had no idea that it wasn’t from Taiwan.  It is not a premium grade of tea (as the site suggests), but it exhibited the fresh and floral attributes that Taiwan oolong is known for.  The rolling was pretty good, but the leaves were not supple, smaller or shorter-stemmed, which are some indications of a higher quality tea. 

I’ve tried several other Vietnam oolongs since 2008.  Not only have I heard about and tried teas that demonstrate the improving quality of Vietnam oolong, but I’ve tried some that rival a solid Taiwan Alishan oolong in taste and appearance (no surprise, the plant varietals are the same).  In 2009, I received a gift from a family friend that had traveled to Da Lat and northern Vietnam on vacation.  The quality of the tea was good; tightly rolled, 2 leaf/1 bud picking, softer stems from younger leaves.  The “tourist price” rivals that of a premium Taiwan-produced oolong (~$70 for ~250 grams). 

For now, Taiwan’s best high-mountain oolongs are still the best examples of those teas, but Vietnam (and maybe some other SE Asian countries?) is closing the gap.  Oolong production outside of Taiwan and China will continue and the skill level will increase.  Vietnam’s oolong teas have piqued my curiosity, and I’ll share some more of what I’ve learned about the relationship between the Taiwanese and Vietnamese tea industries soon.

04 July 2010

Refreshing and Smooth – Chilled Baozhong

We’re finally catching up to Summer here in Seattle and will be expecting mid-70s weather for the next week or more.  There is finally some warmth for us to enjoy.

Ever since my Tieguanyin teacher let me try his cold-brewed green oolong a few years ago, I’ve been hooked on cold-brewing tea for warm weather.  Mmy favorite cold-brew teas are Baozhong and Oriental Beauty.  I prefer the former because it has a lighter and cleaner finish, but Oriental Beauty has a natural sweetness to it that hits the spot, too.

I typically go through 3 or 4 hot infusions and then I dump the leaves into a brewing mug or thermos.  To that, I add cold filtered water and then let the brew sit in the fridge overnight.  The next day, I’ll filter out the leaves and sometimes I’ll add a bit of honey.  This tastes way better than any bottled tea and you can re-use the leaves to cold-brew 1-2 more times.  Tasty stuff.

25 June 2010

Blast from the Past – Here to Stay

At last, it’s been found for me, my first tea love!

Actually, it’s more like her younger and more ferocious cousin.  Loud bark, but very gentle once you take the time to understand her.

First, some background.  By way of circumstance and opportunity, the bulk of my tea learning has taken place in Taiwan.  It’s there that I was able to learn more about Dong Ding Oolong (my other favorite) and Muzha Tieguanyin.  Tieguanyin originally comes from Fujian and the best-known production area for it is Anxi.  The skills to make a traditional charcoal roasted oolong with moderate oxidation levels have deteriorated rapidly as preferences have changed to favor fresher, lighter tastes.  For years, I have searched for a round, complex and strong Anxi Tieguanyin with the beautiful mouth-feel and lingering, sweet finish (called guanyin yun), but have failed to find both the right product and the right teacher.  So it was in Taiwan that I was able to study the Muzha variant, itself as worthy as its Anxi counterpart; but they’re not the same.  Like two buckets of Haagen-Dazs ice cream, I will surely love both, but one will be particularly special (and that would be caramel cone – fantastic!). 

What are the differences between the two variants of Tieguanyin?  Actually, there are multitudes of variants and other lesser-known production areas.  The tea now comes in a vast range from super green (one would think it a green tea) to a deep amber, bitter, espresso-roast (I call that “oopsie” tea – too much fire).  I find that both types of tea with similar levels of oxidation and roasting will exhibit a clear fruit bouquet that is oftentimes accompanied (in the finish) by a subtle floral note.  What type of fruit?  When I think of a good Anxi Tieguanyin, I am reminded of ripe fruit, like a mushy apricot.  For Muzha, I cannot quite pinpoint what fruit the taste reminds me of, for the smell and the taste are not quite as in sync as for Anxi.  The floral aspect has hints of osmanthus, and if pushed to pick one fruit, I would say the taste (taste only, not smell) makes me think of an unsweetened jackfruit.

After two years of listening to me go off about how much I love Anxi tea, my friend – a tea retailer and lover of Fujian oolongs also – was able to source a limited quantity of the tea I’ve been looking for.  It is the best he could find after several seasons of searching, and unfortunately, by the time you read this post, it will probably have sold out.

tea containers

I know, the chintzy looking can on the left looks like it could have been found in a Chinatown grocery store. It is, however, 1/2 the size and double the cost of it’s older pal to the right.

Both of these teas are charcoal-fired Anxi Tieguanyin, aged 12 years (left) and 15-20 years (right).  The older of the teas has been periodically re-fired, so it doesn’t have the tartness or mustiness of a tea of its age.  There is some serious firepower in this tea though and the roast is alive and strong.  It is robust and delicious, but will be better to drink after a few months in that pewter jar. 

The tea on the left is younger and the base isn’t as robust, but it is also an exceptional tea.  It has never been fired again, so it’s got a mustiness to it.  However, the brew is soft and the mouth-feel is delicate.  It exhibits light fruit notes in the scent, and assertive fruit flavors in the finish.  Another 10 years or so and this tea will be quite a winner.

These teas represent a part of the history of tea, a time when producers roasted small batches of tea for days on end without the aid of machinery.  The charcoal flame’s temperature was calibrated by hand, and one roast – out of a total of 3 or 4 – could take a day or two to complete in a small and hot room.  I’m not merely romanticizing this tea when I say that there is more passion and skill in it; this is the type of stuff that old tea makers horde for themselves in the nooks and crannies of their stores.  Nowadays, it takes too much work to make this type of tea and there is not enough demand, either.  Drinking a good, roasted Anxi Tieguanyin is a completely satisfying experience.  It layers the beauty of its organic notes behind its fiery roast and gives you the pleasure of a substantive, round and satisfying mouth-feel.  The finish is dually flavored and dry, leaving you wanting to quench your thirst with another unending cup.  This tea is not shy when brewed in a pot, but it will imprint upon an understanding tea drinker quite a memorable experience. 

Not all teas are created equal; this one harkens back to my earliest tea experiences.  It just feels like one of those days to kick back and have another cup.  Drink good tea and enrich your life.

23 May 2010

Oolong Tea Eggs Recipe

I love tea eggs and soy sauce eggs.  You used to be able to get them at every 7-11 in Hong Kong, but they’ve become less popular and are not as easy to find.  Fortunately, they are still everywhere in Taiwan.

Most of the recipes for tea eggs use star anise and cheap but strong black tea.  The resulting flavor is bold and flavorful, but lacking the balanced taste profile that is found in a good oolong tea egg (uncommon and harder to find).

In the recipes section of a book I just obtained called 果然是好茶(Good Tea Indeed), I found a recipe for Tieguanyin oolong eggs.  Translated, the ingredients are:

- 4 eggs

- ~1.5 ounces of oxidized Tieguanyin (sorry, most of the mainland TGY, delicious as it may be, won’t be strong enough to impart taste to the eggs)

- 2 teaspoons of salt

- 1 teaspoon of granulated white sugar

1.  Heat a little more than 2 cups of water to near boiling and infuse the tea for 3 minutes.  After the tea has been infused, remove the leaves and add the sugar and salt.  Mix and let sit (preferably covered with a dish to retain the heat).

2.  Put the eggs into a pot with cold water and heat to boiling.  After the water boils, leave the eggs in the pot for 3 to 5 minutes and then turn the stove off.  The eggs should now be about 50%+ cooked.

3.  Put the eggs into a bowl of cold water (this will help to reduce the strong sulfur smell and the ugly green color around the yolk).  Remove or crack the shells and place the eggs into the previously prepared tea/sugar/salt solution.  Place in the refrigerator for at least 2 days and then enjoy.


I haven’t tried this recipe before, but it looks tasty.  I would probably use much less tea (I hate to waste so much good tea, an ounce would last many, many sessions) and when I’ve made tea eggs using black tea, I put the eggs into the black tea and salt solution and boiled them for a few hours before placing everything into the refrigerator overnight to soak some more.  However, even moderate-oxidized oolong is much less assertive in taste than black tea, so I can understand that it would take longer to impart flavor.


15 May 2010

Lucky to have Good Tap Water

Of the multitude of bottled waters, water filtration systems, charcoal/river rock additives etc, which ones really help tea bring out its flavor?  This, along with water temperature and brewing times, is one of the major discussion topics for tea lovers.

I’ve used several different sources of water for tea and I’ve tried adding in river rocks and bamboo (both made the water softer but also mutes the taste of the teas ever so slightly).  Well water and spring water are both great, but if left in a warm and sunny place in a transparent bottle, both had some sort of algae growth that changed the taste.  Leaving a big bottle of the water in a cool and dark place prevented nasty effects, but the water went flat if left for more than a week.

Of the many different bottled waters, I like the ones that have mineral content.  I try to avoid using too much bottled water because of the waste produced and the fact that up here, we have excellent sources for our tap water.  However, Evian, Volvic, Fiji and one of the NumerO waters work nicely.

So why isn’t there more talk about using the tap water of cities with good sources of water?  Ours comes from rain and the mountains.  I think the problem with tap is not the water itself, but the pipes they travel through. Seattle is not a particularly young city (unless you compare us to what is now Cairo, in which case we’re a baby), and many of the houses here still have old pipes (galvanized steel, prone to rust).  I was having tea with a friend that lives in Redmond, a younger, more recently-developed city that is best known as the home of Microsoft, and his tap water tasted fine, better than my filtered tap water.

I wonder why they haven’t started bottling and selling a filtered version of our tap water like so many other cities have?

23 April 2010

Say NO to Bananas

When you’re drinking some fine teas, that is.

I had already been sitting there for 3 hours with them and since I was running late, I had missed breakfast, too. 

I try not to eat too much when I taste teas.  Many foods will change one’s taste perceptions, but I was too hungry and I didn’t have time to run into the 7-11 for some biscuits before our meeting.

Mrs. Hoho (she chuckles at me fondly with a “hoho,” sometimes a “hohoho”) was packing tea.  She and Mr. Hoho (a misnomer, since I usually only get one “ho” from him) are usually pretty busy, so it’s not uncommon for them to miss meals.  I had been eyeing two bananas sticking out from a bag that looked like their daughter’s lunch sack, fighting the urge to take food from a child.


“Mrs. Hoho, I haven’t eaten all morning.  Can I have a banana?”

She walked over to me and put a hand on the table as she looked around to find the banana that I was eyeing.  “Oh, let’s go eat some noodles and buns, that banana is not for you to eat.  If you do, you won’t be able to taste tea anymore.”


“Bananas dull your tastes.  Some tea sellers used to offer bananas to their customers so that they wouldn’t be able to taste the bitterness and astringency of the tea.”  Mr. Hoho said that smaller finger bananas have a richer and denser taste than the average yellow bananas we see in our grocery stores.  Bananas, in retrospect, do tend to coat our mouths with a thick “film,” their mushy flesh filling in the many hiding spots in our mouths. 

We shared a several buns from a nearby shop and returned to drink more tea.  At the end of our day, they gave me a banana to eat and asked me to taste tea again.  It became hard to accurately taste the subtle flavors of tea.  Acidic fruits, like berries, kiwis and grapefruits, will definitely affect the experience of tea tasting (usually negatively), but bananas help bad teas taste less bad.

08 April 2010

Don’t Turn Down an Invitation for Tea

A tea friend reminded me of Lu Yu’s advice to never turn down an invitation for tea.  I have turned him down twice because of scheduling difficulties, but his advice is good and I find myself being more aware of trying to accept invitations for tea.


“I recommend that you don’t mention the year of your teas.  To experts, it doesn’t mean much.” 

She was quite busy that day, dually filling an order on the phone and preparing a pot of hot water for me.  I had been excited to meet this tea expert after having read a bit about her over the years.  Whenever I visit a new tea friend, I try to bring something special with me that I hope we will enjoy having together.  The reason is not to show-off what I have in my collection, but because it is an uncommon occurrence to find kindred tea spirits that would understand both the brew and my intentions.  I can share a special brew with any tea lover and we may enjoy its beauty together, but a long-time old-tea drinker will be able to connect with the brew in a more immediate and deep way.  Through that, we too may be able to relate and connect and when we do, there is so much excitement and discussion.  Rapture from a cup of tea.

A special tea, usually an older one for me, is a gift and a gesture of respect. 

She continued: “I have many teas here that are as old and older than yours.  Let’s have one of mine today, ok?  You can save yours to drink with your friends.”

I smirked to myself inside of my head, thinking that her statement was akin to a parent saying to a child, “Aww, that’s nice sweetie.  Now why don’t you run along and play?”  I am certain, though, that this tea expert did not mean to be rude.  She probably comes across many know-it-alls bringing low-quality tributes.  We shared one of her brews, she taught me some more about her oolongs, and by the end of our time together, we did not linger in the realm of tea zen.  40 mins was my allotted time and as if on cue, the tea price list appeared and I walked out with a bag of tea that I was sold on.


I was having tea at Floating Leaves some while back and a newer customer came in with a tea to share.  It was a 1 year old Muzha Tieguanyin.  The customer admitted that he didn’t know much about the tea, except that it tasted very good to him and he was looking for something similar.  Being that he was a self-admitted tea newbie, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the tea was indeed very good.  No wonder, he had bought it from Wistaria.  Don’t discount the newbies, many of them are lucky to have excellent tastes when they start.  Some of the rest of us have had to – or continue to – work a bit more to get there.


I was in the Bay Area this past week and wanted to visit a tea friend that I owe much to.  She was one of my first tea teachers.  I brought with me some of my prized teas that I rarely share, but alas, last-minute business emergencies caused her to miss our meeting.  I brought my old pu’er to our designated spot and shared it with some new tea friends.  We had a great time, but I lamented the fact that my friend was not there to share the occasion with us.  I asked the tea server if he would be so kind as to save a cup of the tea for her to enjoy at another time.  Following the last of my requests, he simply stated that my friend, a long-time tea lover and tea businessperson, has had many teas in her life and had certainly had one as old as mine.  Unsure of when she would visit again, a cup of saved tea would be left to sit indefinitely.  In short – my tea would not be missed.  A tea that has sat for 40 years can surely survive a week in the fridge, I thought, but I was not going to have my way.  There was to be no affinity between the brew and its intended drinker that day.

It is not every day that one has the opportunity to try such a well-aged and rare tea, one that also carried with it my gratitude and respect.  Many people have tried 40 or 50 year old pu’ers, but there is a big difference between a 50 year old label cake and other pu’ers, for example.  Age is only a part of the story.  I regret that I could not share a special brew with my friend, to whom I owe many more pots of rare brews.  Perhaps Lu Yu’s saying will remind us to meet for tea again in the future.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

02 April 2010

Doing it up, Tang Dynasty Style

I was at the Flagstaff Museum of Teaware in Hong Kong over a year ago, so these pictures and this article are long overdue.  In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that my pictures are of low quality, partly because of the yellowish-light used in the displays, but mostly because of user skill-lessness.  Photography is generally prohibited in the museum.  It was just my luck, though, that a group of art students from the University of Hong Kong were there that day to work on a project.  I had walked in with that group and the museum guide asked if I was from the University of Hong Kong.  Since I was technically a student there (on exchange) many years ago, I said yes I went there.  She waved me through and let me use my camera as well.  Sweet!  But she reminded me not to dawdle and to avoid using my flash, which is why my pictures ended up somewhat blurry and dark.  Ok ok, those “effects” probably have more to do with, again, the user.  Moving on….

The following series depicts the major steps for preparing powdered tea, per Lu Yu’s methods, during the Tang Dynasty.  Water, probably stream or mountain water, is heated in a charcoal burning stove.  The pictures are shown below, in order, with my paraphrased explanations for each step.


tang2 - boiling water, look for fish eyes.  Called first boil

Step 1:  Boil the water until you see bubbles the size of "fish eyes.”  Yes, I realize that different fish have different eye sizes and shapes, but I’m guessing that Lu Yu meant common Chinese river fish.  No idea what type of fish those would be.  This is called the “first boiling.”

tang3 - season the water with a pinch of salt Step 2:  Season the tea with a pinch of salt.  I know, it looks like the preparer is putting in about 1/4 cup of salt.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of the Chinese placard to reference what is meant by “a pinch.”  No worries, I can confirm next year.

tang 4 - boil to a string of bubbles, set one ladle aside for later use

Step 3:  Take out a ladle of the boiling water for later use.  Where to put it?  In a bowl of course.

tang5 - stir the boiling water with a pair of bamboo chopsticks

Step 4:  Stir the boiling water with bamboo chopsticks.  This step is pretty straightforward; I have no sarcastic comment here.

tang6 - add the tea powder and stir

Step 5:  Add the powdered tea into the boiling water.  Simple?  Maybe not.  There has been some gentle debate about whether the powder should be stirred as its added to the water or if it should be allowed to sit for a bit, be absorbed into the water, and then stirred.  I *think* Lu Yu said to stir as the tea is added. 

tang7 - reduce the boiling; ladle in that set-aside water to reduce the bubbles

Step 6:  Reduce the boiling.  That ladle of water you took out earlier?  It has cooled a lot; add it back in and watch the bubbling ease up.

tang 8 - serve the tea in bowls     

Step 7:  Serve the tea in a bowl.  Yes, I also wondered why the powdered GREEN tea that was added to the water turned BLACK in the picture.  As far as I know, salt does not interact with tea in such a manner.  That bowl of tea looks like it has pu’er in it.

31 March 2010

Dwell Deeply in the Present

I recently went out with some old friends of mine whom I’ve known since my college days.  One guy in particular has great stories to tell from his past.  By great, I mean they’re really funny and often quite scandalous.  And they almost always involve quite a bit of alcohol.

Three glasses of red wine later (a very delicious, bold and deep Syrah, I might add) one drunken friend asks me:

“Rich, why don’t you have more funny stories like mine?  Maybe more alcohol would help.  I haven’t seen you since last summer, what drama do you have to share?”

Perhaps we are, methinks, a different breed.  I am a tea drinker. I dwell in the present, sipping each cup of brew as I take in the moments that pass me by.  However, I can still recall the bountiful bouquet of the Syrah that we enjoyed.  The aroma and depth were alluring. Wine was, after-all, once a deeper passion for me than tea. 

The magic of tea is that it reminds me to be aware of the present.  Wine, however, can become an escape, each goblet of it can alter my reality and my understanding of myself.  Tea can stabilize me.  Each beautiful brew reinforces the awareness of my present self.  I am here now, enjoying an oolong that will never be the same again, happy and cognizant of the fulfillment of my desire at this one point.  Wine may lead me to heightened states that reflect upon me an imaginative view of who I’d like to be.  A good cup of tea reminds me of who I am as a whole, dwelling deeply in a continued understanding of my satisfaction in the here and now.

It’s a good life. Drink good tea.

18 March 2010

Tea Books – Fong and Fisher Reviewed

Roy Fong of the Imperial Tea Court is one of the first to make an impact on my personal understanding of tea culture (he used to have a teahouse near Seattle in the 90s) and his tea knowledge is quite vast.  I heard murmurs a few years ago that he was going to begin work on a tea book that he had been wanting to write for a while.  A tea book in the making by an accomplished tea expert, one that it seemed he was truly excited to write?  It would be a great read, I thought, as I impatiently anticipated its publication.

I bought the book from Imperial Tea Court as a pre-order late last year and the book was mailed to me after it was published in December.  In recognition of the patience of pre-order customers, our books were autographed (a nice touch).  However, the book, entitled Great Teas of China, arrived as a narrow and thin paperback.  For a book that costs nearly 20 bucks and took years to plan and write, I was expecting something substantial and insightful, a reflection of Roy’s deep knowledge of tea that I so respect.  I was disappointed by the “introduction to/basic-level” feel of the book, which outlines some of the better-known Chinese teas, interspersed with bits of Roy’s experiences in the industry.  I knew that since his knowledge and expertise span the major types of tea that this book would not be monopolized by oolongs alone.  However, I have a particularly soft spot for Muzha Tieguanyin and Dong Ding, the latter of which was relegated to a few verses in a short chapter that covered not a specific varietal of tea (which pretty much every other chapter did), but a general overview of Taiwan’s teas.  About 10 short pages to cover some of the region’s (some would use the term “Greater China’s”) greatest teas?  Really?!?  To be fair, I did find parts of Roy’s book to be enjoyable because of the stories he included of his own experiences with the tea, and his pictures, as usual, are quite nice.

Did I expect too much?  I don’t think so.  For an industry veteran with such a large amount of insight, connections and understanding of the industry, Roy has the unique ability to put together a substantive English tea book that, like his Imperial Grade Tieguanyin, can have character, body and depth.  There already exist many other tea primer and intro books, chief among them, the Heiss’ 430+ page The Story of Tea that is well-researched and comprehensive; hard to beat at less than $35.  


Last month, I received a complimentary copy of Aaron Fisher’s (of “The Leaf” online tea magazine and “The Art of Tea” English publications) latest book, The Way of Tea: Reflections on a Life with Tea.  I also received a note from Aaron that I was free to write whatever I thought about the book – good or bad – or nothing at all.  I finished the book late last week and the following review of it will be posted web-wide a little bit later:

“I most appreciated the interweaving of history and tea culture as seen through the stages of philosophical and spiritual thought.  The intelligent and penetrating insights and interpretations offered by the author with regards to the major Taoist and Zen philosophies are engaging to the reader.  Fisher ably uses key examples of "tea Zen" from the ages to show readers that mindfulness can be found not only in each cup of tea, but also in its ritual and accompaniments.  A core theme of the book is that the essence of tea is found not in the debate or study of its characteristics or in the compulsion to find, grab and “own” tea wisdom & knowledge, but through a mindful approach to contemplating, enjoying, and sharing the beauty of each brew.  Overall, the book is a gracious offering by the author to share the life-altering experiences that tea can have, which I think many introspective tea lovers will be able to relate to.  I think this book will be well received by those looking for an experience of tea beyond the brew itself.”

I enjoyed Aaron’s latest offering.  I did find that the book was heavy on philosophy and spirituality, and I commented to him that I sometimes felt that the book was more about those subjects, with tea serving as a bridge to unite thought and material existence.  After some continued dialogue with him, I’m comforted by the fact that there are many more stories for Aaron to tell, and many more books that he will tell them in.  As for this one, it is an enjoyable read and quite an interesting perspective from a fellow student of the leaf.

10 March 2010

A Visit to Hong Kong’s Tea Museum; Sharing a Cup of Old Pu’er

I like to visit Hong Kong, but only for brief periods of times.  The city is vibrant and fast-paced, but the sheer density of the urban areas makes it difficult for me to feel comfortable with the limited amount of personal space.  The city’s frenetic energy tends to stifle my thoughts until I can escape into the vastness of the New Territories on the weekends

Tea culture is decidedly different on the island.  The British influences of black tea and coffee, and mainland imports of oolong, green, pu’er teas etc., have crossed paths and produced interesting results.  HK-style milk tea (港式奶茶: black tea with evaporated milk and sugar), Yuen-Yang milk tea (鴛鴦奶茶: coffee, black tea, milk), and Taiwanese pearl milk tea (真珠奶茶: tea, various flavor additives, milk and tapioca pearls/”boba”) are some of the popular non-traditional tea drinks.  My favorite non-traditional tea concoction is cold lemon black tea with sweetener (凍檸茶).  Of course at dim sum, you will still have your choice of the traditional Chinese goods, staples like Tieguanyin, cooked pu’er, and Jasmine green tea. 

Although I’ve been to HK many times, it was only on my last trip that I made it out to the Flagstaff Museum of Tea Ware that’s located in Hong Kong Park.  It really is super convenient to get to, shame on me for not visiting sooner.  There are many displays at the museum that are on permanent loan to the museum from a private collection, one that includes very rare and old yixing pots and period tea wares.  I found two of the exhibits particularly interesting:  one was a step-by-step pictorial intro of the Song-dynasty style of whipped tea that was popular during that time.


The other exhibit was a pictorial intro of powdered tea consumption, one of the popular and predominant ways to consume tea during the Tang dynasty, which, as the exhibit mentioned, found its most famous supporter in the great tea connoisseur Lu Yu.


I regret that my pictures have still not been sorted from this trip that happened over a year ago.  I’m working on it!  The Tang dynasty powered tea preparation set of pictorials I have in its entirety; the Song dynasty one is MIA.

I was having tea with Daniel at Arts de Chine last week.  I told him that especially from western pu’er collectors and lovers, there is no small amount of opposition to the wet storage style of pu’er that is predominant in HK.  Daniel mentioned that of course the weather in HK affects storage of teas, but also that perhaps surprisingly, many HK people actually prefer the taste of wet-stored cakes.  Among his clientele, the preference is based on a desire to taste the unique tastes of older, wet-stored tea; a depth of taste characteristics that – for better or worse – dry-stored cakes don’t have.  Undoubtedly so, most old cakes have had some wet-storage (many of the remaining label cakes from the 50s and 60s have passed through wet-storage in HK or Taiwan before being resold elsewhere – many times back to mainland Chinese collectors). 

We broke a small corner off of my 73 brick, not an ancient pu’er, but one that has had no small amount of age for its leaves to soften.  By feel and sight alone, we knew that the cake had gone through a period of wet storage.  Boiling water was poured onto it as it sat in an antique gaiwan (a glazed thick-walled porcelain with blue highlights from the mid Qing era – a future birthday present to myself).  Clearly distinguishable camphor aromas, with some hints of various other herbs, were carried upwards by the rising steam.  Pour after pour yielded a medium-brown colored brew that was clean and not overly rich; one could still see the bottom of the pitcher through the brew.  The mouth-feel was near-complete and soft.  Its flavor was lingering; a part of its taste reminded me of clay.  The wet-storage imparted a unique depth to the tea, as well as some minor off-flavors that were apparent upon sniffing the gaiwan’s lid.  The tea has had more than 20 years of dry storage, though, so by the 3rd infusion, the true nature of the tea was quite brilliant and clear.

Daniel and I smiled at each after the 3rd infusion.  He said that there is affinity between tea, experiences and people.  I had the good fortune to come across this tea, and he had the good fortune to consume some of it with me.  I told him that earlier this year, my Dong Ding teacher told me that good tea will make itself available to a person when one is ready for it.  With that line, Daniel said perhaps it’s not his time to own a collection of pricey and old label cakes.  I’m sure his wife will be happy to know that their money may now be spent elsewhere!

20 minutes later, we were back at it, scheming over how to convince an old friend of his to sell us just a slice of his blue label cake.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

04 March 2010

Stale Teas – Baked, not Roasted

Since oolongs never touch a flame directly, tea roasting is a bit of a misnomer.  Baking is a more accurate term, with “roasting” equipment functioning much more like ovens than like grills. 

But since we all know the process as roasting, I won’t fight the tide. 

I’ve been drinking and giving away more tea these past 6 months than I’ve purchased.  For some of my favorite daily-drinkers, my supplies have dwindled to 1 ounce or less.  Some of these teas have been sitting in little bags or containers for nearly a year and have gone stale.  Too small in quantity to roast with any of my equipment, so what to do?

Wrap it in foil and stick it in a toaster oven.

I take a sheet of foil and place the remnants of tea in it, creating a flat plate-like vessel; I don’t enclose the tea with foil.  I preheat the oven to 150-200 degrees F and put the tea inside for about 20-45 minutes, depending on the tea and what I’m looking for.  The heat serves to push out the moisture and some of the odors in the leaves.  This simple process will not restore the full flavors of the brew, but it will make stale teas more pleasant.

I don’t talk about pu’er much at all, but I do read about and drink it regularly.  There is a lot of discussion about the pros/cons of dry-stored pu’er vs wet-stored ones in the pu’er world.  I like both, but with older wet-stored cakes, there may be some particularly strong off-flavors.  Being that I love to experiment with tea, I wondered if simple baking of off-flavored pu’er would improve the tea.  The formula is different than with oolong (and unfortunately, I haven’t played around with the process enough to share my experiences) but it does work. 

Try it for yourself, baked Pu tastes good.

14 February 2010

If so Fated, the Brew will Find You

"Tea and people resonate with each other.  If you want good tea, you will find it when you are ready.  Actually, it will find you."

award DD jar                                        (Jar of award-winning Dong Ding from 1975)

My Dong Ding teacher pulled a box off of a high shelf in his house and showed it to me.  I’ve learned that if he’s going to let me drink something, he’ll automatically offer it to me.  If he doesn’t intend to serve it, my requests might instead earn me a lecture about greed.  Or one about asking stupid questions.

I keep my mouth shut as he opens the box and pulls a jar out.  I am salivating already, imagining what a legendary caliber of tea like this one will taste and smell like.  He gently unties the red ribbon on the jar and removes the lid.

Award DD tea
I peer inside and the tea is beautiful.  Loose, ball-like shapes and a medium brown color that reminds me of caramel.  It hasn’t been touched by fire for nearly 35 years.  The tea is alive: it’s earthy, but sweet, bold and energetic.  I snap a few pictures and my teacher smiles and quickly places the lids back on before returning the tea back to its shelf.

“Tea finds a person when that person is ready for it.   A person is ready for it when his heart and mind are clear to understand the nature of the tea water.”

As I glance at the tea placed on the shelf high above me, I feel surprisingly relieved.  How many wondrous brews have I chanced to encounter, and how many more are to come my way?  The treasures of the tea world are vast, and there will be many more opportunities to see and try new things. 

Drink good tea and enrich your life.