Friday, July 31, 2009
You're right, Dennis! The reason those two teapots look similar is that they're both inspired by the design of a famous, historic yi xing teapot. We asked Roy to provide more detail on how the Yi Li Zhu is different. Here's his response:
The Dragon Alchemy is based on the same design, but I elected to make it more round. After attempting that teapot several times, I decided to make the Yi Li Zhu pot a bit more flat to open up the top more and give it more balance. The Yi Li Zhu is better balanced and to me, a far superior teapot.
We can't wait until the Yi Li Zhu arrives in the teahouse next month and we can check it out in person. When that happens we'll provide a full review here on the blog!
Thursday, July 30, 2009
The survey is open until midnight Pacific time, Saturday, August 8, 2009. The drawing will be held and winners announced here on the blog on Monday, August 10. You can complete the survey here. Thanks in advance for your participation and feedback!
Your teas are beautiful! I've enjoyed your Red Envelope Blend at Zao Noodle Bar in Tigard, Oregon, numerous times, and always keep some at home. I've been making sun tea with it. Here's my recipe:
- Place 1/3 cup loose tea in 1 gallon cold water
- Set jug in the sun for for 1.5 hours
- For those who are concerned about sun tea, try placing the jug in the refrigerator overnight instead of in the sun
In answer to Melanie's question, yes, the blend does contain stevia, the "sweetning herb."
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
If you've wondered what makes our jasmine pearls so special and delicious, it starts with the unique green tea leaves we select
Each pearl is hand-rolled and packed in paper
The packing helps preserve the pearls until jasmine blooms and the tea can be scented
Imperial Jasmine Pearls
For the last 3-4 years I've been grilling Mr. Chen about how we can improve on our already excellent jasmine production. His reply is always that nothing more can be done. We choose the best spring-harvested green tea, we protect it by wrapping the leaves and storing them in coolers, we carefully fire the green tea to reduce moisture to 3.5 percent prior to the initial scenting, and we use a whopping 3.35:1 ratio (335 pounds of flowers per 100 pounds of tea) for our best jasmine. He personally oversees the entire process from start to finish.
So he always says, what else do you want? He doesn't deviate a bit from tradition and the way he thinks it should be done. However, I've noticed that although our jasmines really are some of the best if not the best around (everyone else is cutting corners to save money), if we weren't working together we wouldn't be able to compete. Our jasmine profits have been slowly sinking the last few years, as I am reluctant to raise prices even though our costs continue to rise.
I made up my mind that I'm not leaving Fuzhou until I get Mr. Chen to follow my plan. He agreed that the flowers are not what they used to be due to chemical fertilization and pesticide use. In April, he agreed that we need to grow our own flowers in order to get what we want. I confirmed that I will fund the project and take full responsibility financially if it doesn't work out for whatever reason. My daughter Emily will have to do without her Wii if this falls apart!
But more importantly, I feel that there is more that we can do. Instead of machine-drying the tea between scentings, I want to go back to firing by charcoal. That's much more labor-intensive and costly, but the flavor can be improved dramatically. Fewer aromatics are lost in slow-firing than in convection-firing, which blows hot air through the tea and carries off aromatics along with moisture. Mr. Chen and I argued all day yesterday and some more this morning, from breakfast to now. Since he's older and I'm paying, he agreed to do as I say (very kindly forgetting to mention that I was the one who pushed him into using machines to speed up the process a few years ago, when my orders were growing). In any case I am very happy with the outcome. Mr. Chen knows that I am right but he needs to argue his side just out of general principal. What can a stubborn man do when caught? I would do the exact same thing!
I made him happy before he left to get my take-home tea ready. I told him he did an excellent job on this year's Jasmine Pearls and Silver Needles Jasmine and I told him that I simply cannot do without his incredible Golden Needle King, which I plan to introduce this year. He and I smiled and parted, both agreeing that I should skip lunch to avoid another heart attack.
When yan cha firing begins the baskets of tea are uncovered
After the initial firing the baskets are covered to retain aromatics and moisture
Busy workers hand-sort the tea before the final firing
I am so glad that I have a day job already!
Cupping four yan cha at a time
This is the kind of opportunity where you can check if you still have what it takes to be a tea man/girl. Mrs. Jiang's truck's airconditioning was not working and the factory has an ancient fan that was kind of working. The temperature was inching toward 38 degrees C with high humidity as we started to cup all 33 varieties of Wu Yi yan cha grown by her family. Sometimes I wish I would just keep my mouth shut! When she asked if I wanted to see all their selections I should have had enough intelligence to be a bit less enthusiastic when I said yes! After cupping everything, I only approved one purchase from the list of teas I was considering. This is a unique yan cha called Yan Ru, reputed to be one of the original ancient varieties that was virtually extinct but is now being brought back. I found that it has a distinctive kind of floral that I find interesting. I'll talk about it further after the tea arrives in California and I have a chance to finish firing it at our Oakland facilities.
After the humidity and the cuppings, even the beautiful Wu Yi Shan cannot keep me there another moment. I hopped the next plane to Fuzhou to see my jasmine tea partner, Mr. Chen Qin Di, to firm up my commitment to start growing our own jasmine flowers next year. I'll assure Mr. Chen that I will support him financially until the jasmine farm is up and running. I am excited and looking forward to producing the best jasmine tea known to mankind (ok, I am an optimist!).
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
The final step for puerh is that it is sun dried, not roasted or pan-fired until dry, which can prohibit later bacterial growth that helps age puerh tea. However, I find that even the pan-fired green tea, such as Misty Mountain, ages well. We've had Misty Mountain for around 10 years and it's much better now than when it first arrived. I purchased this tea because of a unique fragrance, but the ocean shipping wiped out that special aromatic, so I put it aside and, after several years, cupping showed improved tasted and mouth-feel.
Sword of the Emperor and Yunnan Spring Tips are both sun-dried, in fact, that's why I bought them. The Yunnan Spring Tips is a few years old and has already improved, with more concentrated flavor and aromatics. I expect Sword of the Emperor to do the same.
Yunnan Mao Feng is a pan-fired green tea that was purchased in part because it's organic. Some may find it too bitter because of the substantial amounts of catechins and polyphenols found in Yunnan tea, but these are good things that can be controlled with lower temperature water and more technique when brewing. I think it's a good tea for the price.
Monday, July 27, 2009
However, nothing can change the fact that some of the masterpieces displayed there are, simply put, Masterpieces! I saw the original work of Master Gu Jing Zhou's interpretation of Yi Li Zhu and I stood there for what seem like hours, just gazing at that pot. The original work is much larger than my modern interpretation. I asked my teapot artist to make the pot smaller and changed the original design of duan ni (tan-color clay) to ping zi (the classic purple-brown color). The teapot pours water like a dream. Like any good teapot, it just feels right in my hand, well balanced and sturdy. Unlike typical lesser teapots where you start to look around to find all the flaws, because this pot felt so right I just held it and felt it rather than moving it around to maybe discover something wrong with it.
I am so happy that after several years, I'm finally in possession of five of these excellent pots. I also have an example of a han bian teapot, which is designed so you can drink directly from the spout. The flat design allows it to fit perfectly in your palm. Sometimes, a tea towel is used to hold the pot to avoid heat from the brewing tea. When you're done, the towel is used to clean up and to wrap and protect the teapot. This is the second sample I've received and I'm happy with the duan ni mixed clay, where clay with different-sized mineral grains is mixed to produce a slightly rough texture. I placed an order for another five of these teapots.
My quick tour of Yi Xing showed me how much things have changed for teapot makers there. Prices have skyrocketed, but for top-tier pot makers, their work is exquisite and the prices well deserved (although as a merchant I gasp at the cost). Also, some of the artwork in Yi Xing figurines is exceptional. I wish I could bring some home so that we could offer them to those who would enjoy them as much as I do, but my shrinking pocketbook is screaming caution, so I will settle for showing you some pictures.
The elegant and tactile Yi Li Zhu teapot, based on a classic design
The Shu Bian teapot is made so it's easy to drink from the spout...the ultimate "personal teapot!"
In addition to teaware there's lots of beautiful ceramic art in Yi Xing, such as this Buddha
Not surprisingly, Lu Yu, the "Sage of Tea," has been captured in yi xing clay
A beautiful Guan Yin rendered in yi xing clay
Sunday, July 26, 2009
"I just finished with Yi Xing and came back with two very good teapots which we can offer for sale. I will finish writing about it later. I am currently on the way to Wu Yi Shan where some competition grade Wu Yi Yan Cha awaits."
Roy's report with all the details coming soon!
Yunnan's unique climate combines the mild temperature and clean, dry air of high altitudes with the potent sunshine of tropical latitudes far to the south of regions where green tea is grown in the east. As a result, Yunnan tea has larger, plumper leaves that develop extravagant flavor, aroma, texture, and nutrients compared to more conventional green tea. I shy away from analogies between tea and wine, but there's a parallel in the differences between wines from France vs. those from California. The juicier leaves can make it harder to remove moisture, so it's not uncommon to find smoky notes in Yunnan tea, an artifact of drying the leaves over wood or charcoal fires.
These teas aren't as famous as their refined cousins from the East, meaning they can be a better value. They're full of flavor and a great complement to food (it's the type of tea you're often served with meals in upscale Yunnan restaurants). Although they're processed differently from puerh, they grow in the same mineral-rich soil and unique climate, and therefore have some of the same structure, allowing them to age more gracefully than delicate early spring green tea.
Today in the teahouse we sampled four Yunnan green teas. We brewed them in gaiwans with water hotter than you'd use for most other green teas, 170-180 degrees on your programmable digital kettle. Here's what we found:
- Sword of the Emperor: This tea is made from a da ye (big leaf) puerh varietal but the tea is picked earlier and processed differently from puerh. It consists of large, downy leaf buds--hand-sorted to pleasing uniformity--that like to float on the surface of the water, so they should be infused with hot water and plenty of motion to ensure that they're thoroughly immersed. Also, because the leaves are fluffy and the tea is mild, you should use about 50 percent more leaf by volume than intuition might suggest. The liquor is pale golden yellow. Two powerful sensations emerge from this tea: an incredible, almost candy-like sweetness, and the apricot fruitiness that you find in some measure in virtually every Yunnan tea. The abundant fur on the leaves also yields a pleasing, rich texture. According to Roy, this tea was sun-dried, so there's no smoke and it should age well. Delicious, uncomplicated, easy to brew, and full of flavor, Sword of the Emperor is sure to be a favorite.
- Yunnan Spring Tips: This rustic tea looks completely different from Sword of the Emperor; in fact, visually, you'd be challenged to identify it as green tea. The leaves are large and dark. Yet it's picked in the spring and has a freshness that belies its appearance. It can become harsh if overbrewed, so use a bit fewer leaves, water that's not too hot (around 170 degrees F), and don't infuse too long. The surprise with Yunnan Spring Tips is that this green tea is several years old! Unlike green tea from China's Southeast, this puerh relative has improved with age and offers more concentrated flavor and aromatics than when it was new. Thanks to its age the liquor has a reddish-orange cast, with flavor that's an intriguing combination of apricot fruitiness--not as overtly sweet as the Sword of the Emperor--and a spring tea astringency. I also detect a slight metallic tang that I think comes from Yunnan's iron-rich soil. Yunnan Spring Tips will continue to ripen superbly; you can store it in your tea cabinet almost indefinitely. Similar to Sword of the Emperor, Roy selected this tea because it was sun-dried, a process that doesn't harm beneficial microbes and therefore helps the tea age well.
- Organic Yunnan Mao Feng: This tea's small, furry leaves have been twisted into distinctive mao feng, with pointy, blade-shaped tips. It's redolent of apricots, but both the aroma and flavor also have a distinct grassy note and some smoke that becomes more prominent after the tea is brewed. The yellow-gold liquor has an astringent tang and satisfying viscosity. The grassiness gives fair warning that this is a green tea and may become harsh if overbrewed. As with the Spring Tips, don't use too much leaf or water that's too hot. A bonus with this tea is that it's organic!
- Misty Mountain: This tea is made from furry young leaves that have been twisted to extract lots of flavor. There's plenty of fruit in Misty Mountain, but it's not so aggressive. That's because this tasty tea holds the biggest surprise of our four Yunnan green teas: it's 10 years old! I found Misty Mountain to be a sophisticated balance of fruit, smoke, and a touch of acidity in lieu of the sweetness that fades with age. The pale liquor has an orange cast because it's oxidized over time. An exceptionally satisfying tea at a great price!
Four Yunnan green teas: top left, Yunnan Spring Tips; top right, Misty Mountain; bottom left, Yunnan Mao Feng; bottom right, Sword of the Emperor
The same four teas infusing. The foam in the cup suggests how rich and full of flavorful, nutritious sap the leaves are, after coming of age in Yunnan's tropical latitudes
Wet leaves of our four teas
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
The impressive facade of Beijing Ma Lian Dao Tea City, only one of many "Tea Cities" in the capital's wholesale tea district
Inside Tea City are floors and floors of tea vendors
Shopkeepers waiting for me to walk over and give their tea a try
The day I visited business was slow. Even tea couldn't keep these guys awake.
I can't remember anywhere where hundreds of people showered all their attention on me (weekdays are very slow at the wholesale markets). Everyone is ready with a big smile and an invitation to come into their store for a look-see or a free sample of any of their teas. They scrambled to open freezers to show me their best tie guan yin (green style tie guan yin are typically kept in a freezer to retain freshness) and if I even looked like I wanted to stop at their store, they snapped to attention and were ready to serve! If I could import this kind of work ethic and attitude for my employees I'd be rich (sorry Michael).
What impressed me most was the fact that no one was going "psssh, come over here, my tea is better than his," or "my tea is cheaper, come over here!" All they're doing is smiling and inviting me into their stores and if I looked even a bit hesitant, they assured me, "don't worry, you don't have to buy anything. Just come in and look and sample our tea!" If that kind of attitude doesn't help your self-esteem, I don't know what will.
After many stops and cuppings and observations, I came to a shop with many big tins with signs reading "Aged Tie Guan Yin." I paused and the young man whisked me into his store with a big smile, asking "Uncle, what can I make for you?" I hated the Uncle thing, but he seemed like a nice kid so I asked him to show me some aged tie guan yin. After looking at three or four I asked if we could taste them. He responded with a big "yes, of course!"
After cupping three teas I felt like my welcome was wearing a little thin (but only in my mind, since I didn't plan to buy anything; he had a great attitude). He offered to show me his best stuff. I selected two samples for cupping; one was at the whopping price of 4,500 yuan per half kilo (about US$700/pound). After shaking my head on that one he said he had one even better. I gasped at the price of 7,500 yuan per half kilo (over US$1,000/pound)!
He assured me that he wouldn't call the police if I didn't buy any, but the sad fact was that the kid hadn't caught on that I'm in the business (I have to work on my swagger). The tea wasn't worth anywhere near that price. It was high-fired but not fermented (oxidized) enough, so firing it over and over again didn't improve the taste or color. It produced a darkish color instead of a bright reddish color that a well seasoned and fermented oolong would typically yield. I hate to be like this, but psssh, come over to my store, I have an aged oolong that you can steal...
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
If you don't know your Chinese zodiac animal, you can check our chart.
Our lucky knots come in an attractive satin-lined box and make terrific gifts for your favorite tea-loving rat, ox, tiger, etc.
Monday, July 20, 2009
Double-walled glass construction insulates the bottle from heat loss and makes it comfortable to hold. A silicone o-ring seals the screw-on top to ensure against leaks. And the bottle is attractively decorated with an etched leaf design.
The Imperial Tea Bottle comes in a well padded, silk-lined brocade gift box with a magnetic closure. Capacity: 10 fluid ounces. Affordably priced at only $12, it makes a great gift for yourself or your favorite tea lover.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
All thanks to Mr. Yang Wu, who oversaw the project while fighting cancer! He had the work crew clean and remove a lot of overgrown vegetation (my backyard looked like a jungle during my last visit), pave with slate tiles and plant bamboo and cherry and Chinese date trees. All was done within a couple of months after I visited him in the hospital last spring.
Yang joked that he asked the doctor if he could switch hospitals and the doctor said no, so I asked, what hospital did you want to move to? He said, a mental hospital because I'm going crazy in here! Anyway, he negotiated a treatment plan that allowed him to come home and only go to the hospital for a few hours a day. He oversaw the rebuilding of my backyard during his time at home. The man is amazing!
Today for the first time, I banished the wife and daughter from my private ting and cupped 13 samples of tie guan yin that arrived yesterday. I found several very interesting possibilities, including a fine Jade Tie Guan Yin I am leaning towards approving. I'm going back to Ma Lian Dao (Beijing's wholesale tea area) to test out every tie guan yin I can find and will let you know what I think afterwards.
Samples of tie guan yin ready to be cupped in the new tea sanctuary in my Beijing back yard.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
Here's what Roy says about the Contemporary Classic: "This is the first pot I created, by changing the classic design of a shui ping hu, which is typically taller with a smaller opening. I flattened the pot a bit to give it a larger opening and a wider interior to allow better leaf expansion. I also made the spout more pointy so the water shoots off the spout, providing better water flow when pouring. We've sold hundreds, if not thousands, of these pots!"
The Contemporary Classic comes in either dark brown or terracotta and holds approximately 170ml, the perfect size for one or two tea drinkers. At this price anyone can afford to start brewing oolong and puerh tea gong fu style--or to build your collection of fine teaware.
Friday, July 17, 2009
When I arrived at Ma Lian Dao I found that it has changed: it's now even larger, with many different buildings all claiming to be some kind of "Tea City." Each building houses hundreds of tea vendors who sell everything under the sun, including Darjeeling and Assams! After spending a whole day I didn't even finish one building, and after drinking tea offered by about 10 different vendors, I had to quit. My bladder was about to burst and I was getting tired! I never thought the day would come that I would walk away from tea, albeit tea that ain't so great, but okay, I will admit it right here, may be I AM getting kind of old??
Yesterday a bunch of samples arrived at my house here to await my cupping and comments. I will try them out, then revisit Ma Lian Dao to compare the best I can find there and see how my selections stack up against theirs.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
- Bring the best tea possible to America
- Build the teahouse of my dreams
- Live next to a tea farm and maybe build my dream teahouse there
As you know, I have recently talked a lot about finding or acquiring a tea farm. Although we contract with farmers to grow our tea now, it isn't the same as growing it yourself! I don't know if I will be a good tea farmer, but I sure would like to take a crack at it. Therefore, I have expended a lot of energy looking for available land both here in China and in the US. My secret dream is to have both, but I will settle for one if I have to.
It is also no secret that I've been wanting to live in China part-time. Through the generous aid of Grace's cousin, Zhang Hong, and her husband Yang Wu, we were able to acquire a very nice home in an exclusive neighborhood in Beijing. I have spent the last few days running amuck in Beijing, looking for possible space to start the Beijing branch of Imperial Tea Court. Beijing's maddening traffic and bad air is a constant turn off, but business potential abounds here. You think there is a recession going on back home? Well, no one told the folks here in Beijing. Going to a shopping mall is like running through 100-foot-deep human waves wherever you go. US retailers would kill for the sea of humanity and shoppers that seems to overflow every shopping center; it's like Christmas shopping rush times ten. Opportunities are everywhere!
Tomorrow I plan to spend my entire day at the Beijing tea wholesale district called Ma Lian Dao. A friend has some commercial space there and may consider partnering with me. I am excited! I also get to spend a lot of time with my friend Yang Wu, who is courageously battling terminal cancer. Mr. Yang has been through every western cancer treatment and is now undergoing a western and eastern combination regimen that requires a daily visit to the hospital for IV treatments. He has lost a lot of weight but smiles and jokes as if there is not a care in the world. We went out to dinner yesterday to our favorite grilled lamb and hand-pulled noodle shop. He put down his food with gusto. We drank some fantastic 20-year-old puerh (at my urging, Yang has begun to drink aged puerh) and very old Shao Xing wine. It was one of the best meals I've had in a long time. His courage makes everything else seem so easy.
I look forward to reporting my findings tomorrow at Ma Lian Dao!
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
No surprise that the top country for visitors is the US. But can you guess number two? It's Malaysia, with China coming in third. Canada's fourth, followed by the UK, Singapore, Netherlands, Australia, Mongolia, and--rounding out the Top 10--Brazil!
Our friends in Brunei and Qatar have the highest average pageviews per visit, while Ivory Coast and Argentina visitors have the highest average time per visit.
One of the things that makes tea culture so rewarding is it's truly a universal bond that unites all tea lovers. It's great to see the global perspective reflected here on the blog. We're honored to share our devotion to this fascinating beverage with so many people worldwide, and hope to meet many of you in person some day in one of our teahouses!
Monday, July 13, 2009
Here's some background on Dragon Well and the things that make it one of the world's most celebrated teas (not to mention a personal favorite here in the teahouse):
No tea variety exemplifies Chinese tea art more than Long Jing (dragon well). Unlike its more rustic cousins from Yunnan and Fujian, the best of Zhejiang’s Long Jing is exquisite and elegant, carefully hand-picked and hand-processed by skilled craftsmen to look as refined and flawless as it tastes fresh and delicious. Often at the top of the list of the Ten Great Teas of China, Long Jing is among the first green teas harvested in Eastern China each spring. Much as the revered plum flower is a harbinger of spring, the first cup of early spring Long Jing signals that the long-awaited season of growth and renewal has arrived.
Long Jing’s fame has motivated a slew of imitators, but connoisseurs recognize fine, authentic examples by four classic traits: the vibrant green color of new spring growth; the fresh, grassy aroma; the rich, sweet flavor with hints of chestnut; and the distinctive flat, pointy shape. Three other attributes distinguish top specimens: they must be picked before Qing Ming, the Chinese arrival of spring and tomb-sweeping festival that’s 15 days after the vernal equinox; consist of a single just-emerged leaf and bud, a configuration known as que she (bird tongue); and be grown in the Xi Hu (West Lake) area near Hangzhou. There are five Xi Hu growing regions: Shi Feng, Long Jing, Yun Xi, Hu Pao, and Mei Jia Wu. The tiny (many tens of thousands per kilo) leaves that meet all the stringent standards are carefully flattened and hand-fired in purpose-built electric woks to stop oxidization, then hand-sorted to an astonishing degree of uniformity. Visual presentation has a significant effect on the value of the final product, which even at wholesale is hundreds of US dollars per kilo for the rarest grades.
Many varieties of tea are harvested throughout the growing season, stimulating abundant new growth, but bushes that produce fine Long Jing are only picked during a period of about a month in early spring. Afterwards they’re coddled, allowed to grow at a natural pace so the plant can store the nutrients and complex botanical compounds that contribute to appearance, flavor, aroma, and Long Jing’s many reputed health-giving properties.
As the name dragon well suggests, exceptional water has always been inextricably associated with this variety of tea. By tradition, Long Jing is most delicious when prepared with water from Hu Pao Quan (Tiger Running Spring), a famed stream and now tourist attraction in the West Lake area. For anyone not fortunate enough to live near Hangzhou, care should still be taken about the water used to brew Long Jing. High quality bottled spring water, with a touch of minerals to raise pH, is a good substitute. Most important, the tea should be steeped in warm water, no hotter than 140 degrees F (60 degrees C), that has never been boiled. Boiling depletes oxygen, reducing the water’s ability to absorb and transport flavor from the leaves to the infusion.
A well-made cup of Long Jing is clear, bright yellow-green, neither pale nor too dark. It may sound like hyperbole, but if you’ve ever tasted excellent Long Jing you know that a sip is truly akin to taking a draught of the essence of spring, as the first-picked leaves release all the nutrients and spring growth energy that the tea plant has been storing since the previous year’s harvest. Long Jing is often served in glasses, the better to admire its striking appearance. But this technique is a poor choice because it usually leads to overbrewing and an unpleasant, bitter taste. By contrast, properly infused Long Jing is strikingly sweet, with a faint, pleasant tang of tannin. To get the most from these precious leaves, brew in a porcelain gaiwan, a traditional tea vessel whose thin body and wide mouth make it easy to control the temperature and avoid stewing the fragile tea. Place 3-5 grams of tea (a generous pinch) in the gaiwan and moisten with a few drops of warm water. Savor the potent aroma of the damp leaves, then fill the gaiwan with water and steep the tea uncovered (again taking care to avoid too much heat) for about two minutes, occasionally swirling the leaves with the edge of the gaiwan lid, until the infusion is the right color. At that point, using the lid to strain the leaves from the liquid, pour from the gaiwan into a serving pitcher.
The pleasures of Long Jing are as ephemeral as spring itself, lasting only about three infusions before the tea loses character. You’ll notice a weighty, luxuriant mouth feel and crisp, sweet, lingering finish. The experience of excellent Long Jing alone would be enough to bring it fame, but its reputation has been enhanced by a pedigree of imperial favor dating back to the 1600’s. Even in modern times, Mao Zedong and today’s political leaders have reserved a quantity of top-quality production. Like the season it represents, Long Jing’s peak period of deliciousness ends too soon; no matter how carefully preserved, the tea is at its best for only a few months before the delicate compounds that give it so much personality begin to fade. At that point many who truly love Long Jing turn to other seasonal teas and begin the long wait for next year’s spring to arrive.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
Friday, July 10, 2009
The stone-terraced tea farm in Shaanxi that was offered to me free of charge. The current farmer "efficiently" grows corn alongside the tea seedlings--which actually retards the growth of the tea.
You don't go hungry at a breakfast meeting in China!
The next morning Grace, Emily, and I caught an 8:00 AM flight to Xian, in Shaanxi province in Northwest China. Local officials of a nearby county invited me to visit their tea-growing region. Xian, as you may know, is the now world-renowned city where the first Qin emperor's tomb and the famous terracotta warriors are located. After a 2.5-hour flight we were met at the airport by my friend Mr. Frank Liu, whose parents are retired high party officials of the province. Mr. Liu was instrumental to my visit here; he’s urged me come to Shaanxi on many occasions and I’m glad I finally made it.
Many things attract me to Shaanxi and Xian, including their "hand-stretched" noodles. The noodles now being served in our Berkeley teahouse were inspired by them. Over 10 years ago, I tasted a very good green tea from Shaanxi. I didn’t try to procure any of it due to the high price and the fact that my focus then was on famous tea regions such as Fujian, Zhejiang, Anhui, Yunnan, etc. At the time there was no compelling reason to pursue tea from a region I didn’t know when there were plenty of opportunities in better known places. However, times have changed. With rapid development and economic growth in the tea regions mentioned above, pollution, quality, and pricing are all daily issues I must deal with. That combined with having to compete with a Chinese population looking for better tea mean the time has come to think out of the box. So here I am in Shaanxi!
Frank told me it would be a "short drive" to Hanzhong City and the Ning Qiang prefecture. Although the drive was on very nice highways, it was more like five hours instead of the "about 2.5-hour drive" he promised! I was surprised that the entire area is so lush. In almost five hours of driving, I can't remember seeing a bald spot on any of the mountains and certainly no dried, dead vegetation. Upon arrival we were fed a big feast and taken around the small township to meet all the local officials. It was refreshing that the officials are all young men around 30-40 years old, anxious to see economic growth and prosperity in their jurisdiction. Recently, the Chinese government has had a policy of encouraging development in the Northwest. Money for economic stimulation as well as general development has started to pour into the region; roads and highways are being built at breakneck speed. One stimulus plan is to revitalize the tea industry.
Bordering Sichuan Province (which has been producing tea for over 1,000 years, since the Tang Dynasty) Hanzhong and Ning Qiang prefecture have surprisingly good tea-growing potential, with ample rain, fertile soil suitable for tea, and most important, not a lot of population or industry by Chinese standards. Ning Qiang boasts 10,650 mu of tea farms (3,000 acres or so). The next morning I visited some of those farms first-hand.
The trip to the tea farms was difficult. We crept along dirt roads for what seemed an eternity before arriving at our first target. It was extraordinarily badly managed. Clearly, the farmer operating this field looks upon tea-growing as an afterthought. Other crops had taken root between rows of tea and some areas were so full of weeds that we needed to chop our way in! However, two things caught my eye: despite the neglect the tea was still growing well, and the soil didn't display the hardening commonly seen in high-growth areas where too much chemical fertilization has been applied. In fact, almost no one fertilizes around here. They pick whatever the tea plants yield in early spring, then turn their attention to other crops, leaving the tea to fend for itself.
The entire tea production of this region is only around 400 metric tons, according to officials here. From my estimation, it should be much lower than that! Local farmers I talked with said their yearly harvest is around 20 kg/mu, (around 80 kg per acre), much lower than the high-growth areas' production of 80-90 kg/mu. I was beginning to have reservations about this area after visiting the second farm of the day. While it was better managed and was by a horrible road, the local official assured me a new road would be built within the year. Being near the road didn’t interest me much and my inner self was ready to call it a day and go home!
The second day of my visit brought good news. I was taken to a mountaintop with a dirt road that connects directly to an incoming paved road. The government has spent massive amounts of money to help the farmer shore up the hillside with stone terraces. Tea seedlings were planted a year ago and the soil looked good. However, the farmer was growing rows of corn next to the seedlings for immediate profit, which of course retarded the tea plants’ growth. The farm is on a hilltop surrounded by other mountains, with potential for further tea field development. After our visit, all the county and village officials met with me. I voiced my concerns and the issues I felt would make it difficult to achieve success. Finally the mayor and the head of the county office both asked me to seriously consider making my tea home here. Not only would they cooperate to remedy as many of my issues as possible, they were willing to provide a farm at no cost and make a 30% contribution toward machinery as well as many other incentives.
I left the meeting feeling pretty good about myself. The fact that they were willing to go all the way to get me to come here told me the last 20 years of hard work wasn't wasted. However, I still wasn’t convinced.
I went back to the small guesthouse and had a discussion with my Supreme Leader (my wife). She wasn’t so crazy about this area, either. After having visited first-rate farms in Zhejiang and Fujian, she didn’t find this place very attractive. We talked and couldn’t reach a solid conclusion. Rushing to catch the plane I forgot to bring tea, so we had to make do with tea that was a gift from local officials. Not paying any attention, we put some into a glass (no other equipment was available) and poured hot water over it and continued to talk. Finally, I took a sip from the glass and stopped talking. I handed it to Grace. She sipped and looked at me and said, “maybe you should take another look?”
We decided to come up with a wishlist for the local officials and begin planning and seriously considering growing tea here and making it our home base in China!
After two days in Ning Qiang we returned to Xian, where I talked with provincial officials who also pledged support. The Ning Qiang officials had already filed reports with higher-ups at the provincial level. Everyone was eager for us to get started! Grace, Emily, and I took a day off to sightsee in Xian, where the Silk Road was established in the Tang Dynasty. It’s also the only city in China where the ancient city walls have been entirely reconnected. Even my twelve-year-old daughter--who’s now in "I can't be seen with my parents, that is uncool” mode--had a great time visiting the terracotta soldiers!
I’m back in Beijing, enjoying a bit of down time with my family and trying to catch up on a bit of sleep. I’m planning to visit Wuyi Shan for more oolong; Yangzhou, where another possible tea farm awaits; Guangxi for jasmine tea; and Yixing for teapots. It doesn't look like I’ll be enjoying much more down time on this trip.
Roy will be posting reports from his current China trip shortly, with more details.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
If you're curious to give the new yan cha a try, they were just delivered to the teahouse this afternoon. They're also available online.
Infused leaves of our 2009 Bai Ji Guan. This tea is noted for its pale green leaves edged in reddish-brown oxidation.
The jumbo leaves of our 2009 Fo Shou.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
In the cup it has a sweet, floral aroma with caramelized notes that develop when abundant sap in the leaves is exposed to the direct heat of firing. This is a complex and multidimensional tea that evolves through several infusions, however, the florals never overpower, and the charcoal never totally goes away. The texture in the mouth is substantial without being chewy and the lingering aftertaste is sweet with a just a hint of charcoal.
Da Hong Pao (sometimes known in English as Big Red Robe) is the most famous of all the 100+ yan cha varieties, and we're proud enough of our 2009 selection to give it the coveted Imperial designation. Try it and we think you'll agree, this legendary tea is like a tea tour of Wu Yi Shan in a cup, as you can discover flavors, aroma, and intriguing complexities of many individual yan cha varieties in this single extraordinary tea. It's highly recommended to brew this tea in an yi xing teapot with plenty of leaves, very hot water, and ample steeping time. Now available in our online store; coming to the teahouses by the end of the week.
On the palate, more florals come into play. Despite the pale color this tea has a pleasingly substantial texture that contributes to its sweet, long-lasting finish. Due to limited production it's hard to find authentic Bai Ji Guan and even harder to procure a great one, so we're excited to offer a rare opportunity to experience the qualities that have made this tea renowned among Chinese tea cognoscenti. Now available in our online store; coming to the teahouses by the end of the week.
In the cup you also notice that the leaves are enormous, as much as four or five times the size of most other tea leaves; perhaps that's why the locals named this tea Fo Shou (Buddha Palm). Now available in our online store; coming to the teahouses by the end of the week.
The high firing and oxidation produce a powerful initial charcoal impression with a hint of sweet spice; it's a tea that profits from a good rinse prior to brewing to help balance the flavors. However, as you drink it, and more so as you re-infuse the leaves a few times, a tantalizing sweetness and obscure florals emerge and the taste gains substance and complexity. It develops into a robust, satisfying brew with substantial depth and, improbably, a delicate, underlying woodsy nectar flavor. The texture is chewy and full-bodied, and there's a clean, sweet aftertaste.
My experience with this tea is that it evolves and improves over multiple steepings as the flavors come into balance. Initially I almost wrote it off as too high-fired, but by the end it was so delicious I didn't want to stop drinking it. The tea's weighty complexity also made me long to brew it in my yi xing teapot. Now available in our online store; coming to the teahouses by the end of the week.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
Roy returns to San Francisco in mid-August and shortly afterward will be firing the new Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin and teaching the much anticipated 2009 Oolong Tea Class. There's lots going on in the tea world this summer and we'll keep you posted here on Camellia Sinensis.
Saturday, July 4, 2009
Friday, July 3, 2009
Traditionally, oolongs are made to the formula of three parts red, seven parts green--in other words, about 30% of the leaf (mainly the edge) is oxidized red, while the remainder stays green. In a good quality oolong, after the leaf is brewed this mixture of colors will be quite obvious. The appearance of the infusion varies depending on the type of tea and brewing technique, but it's often a robust golden or amber color with an unmistakable floral nose that's sometimes mixed with fruit or charcoal (too much charcoal is undesirable). The leaves are always large, sometimes shockingly so, as when what look to be a few small pebbles of tighly balled leaf quickly swell to occupy the entire teapot.
Another interesting fact about oolongs: unlike green tea that's carefully selected to be only leaves and buds, oolongs always contain some stem. Typically, oolong is harvested in groups of three or four fresh yet well-developed leaves. The distinctive "woody" stem flavor is intrinsic to the oolong experience.
All great oolongs come from one of four areas:
- Wu Yi Shan, in Fujian Province, where oolongs are believed to have originated. This is the home of the great, high-fired yan cha. Wu Yi oolongs are rolled into the long, dark twisted shape that gives oolong (wu long, literally "dark dragon") its name.
- Anxi, also in Fujian, home of the beloved tie guan yin, a more overtly floral and fruity variety with added complexity from roasting. Rolled into a tight ball, these leaves are traditionally well fired.
- The Feng Huang Shan (Phoenix Mountain) area in northern Guangdong Province, near the border with Fujian. Phoenix Mountain oolongs are unlike any other, extravagantly sweet and floral to the point you'd swear they've been scented (they haven't). They're rolled in the "dark dragon" shape and moderately fired. Tea drinking is so ingrained in the culture of this region that its population is said to consume more than anywhere else in China.
- Taiwan, which has developed its own style of green oolong, a sweet, floral, and richly flavorful tea that retains more "green" notes than any other kind of oolong. Similar to their cousins from Anxi, most Taiwan oolongs are tightly rolled into balls, but they're only lightly fired.
Like any tea, oolongs can be brewed in the all-purpose gaiwan, but this type of tea is classically (and perhaps most rewardingly) enjoyed gong fu style in a well-seasoned yi xing teapot. To best capture and appreciate its delightful floral essence, we recommend a pot with a somewhat domed lid. The typically heavy body of zi sha teapots is ideal for yan cha, while zhu ni, which can be a bit thinner, can help moderate the brewing temperature, highlighting florals. But this is quibbling, as any oolong will profit from being prepared in a fine yi xing pot.
Oolong is an all-season tea, as welcome in summer heat as in winter chill. I'll never forget the experience of climbing a steep, rugged tea mountain in Wu Yi's late summer heat and humidity, with Roy and a group of tea lovers. Upon arriving at an idyllic farmhouse on the mountaintop we were served big bowls of lukewarm yan cha from a huge, rustic teapot. I've never had a drink so satisfying and refreshing! Equally, there's nothing more inviting on a cold, dark winter day than to walk into the teahouse and see the chipped little house zhu ni teapot stuffed with Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin, alongside a steaming kettle.
Just as spring is the season for green tea, so is summer the season for oolong. The 2009 oolongs will start arriving in the teahouse soon. In the meantime, we're still enjoying this spring's great green teas and waiting a bit impatiently for the next tea season.
Thursday, July 2, 2009
Roy's quick initial impressions:
- Da Hong Pao: A "pretty fantastic" tea with a pleasing floral undertone
- Bai Ji Guan: This uncommonly pale tea (both the leaf and in the cup) can sometimes have pale flavor as well, but this year outstanding growing conditions created a tea that's deliciously floral
- Shui Xian: Seems very promising but requires further firing to reach its potential
- Fo Shou: A very interesting, rather floral tea that also needs more firing to refine the taste and highlight its attributes
As you can tell, especially with oolongs, firing is a rare art that can make or break a good leaf. That's why Teamaster Roy Fong's personal touch makes all the difference with our tea. Other shops may sell teas with similar names, but often they were simply fired at the factory, assembly-line style - a process that generally guarantees mediocrity.
We'll keep you posted with further tasting notes and a heads-up when these teas go on sale. They'll also be in the spotlight in our next newsletter. A bit more long-term, the 2009 Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin will arrive in our warehouse in late July. Roy will fire it after he returns from China next month. 2009 is looking like a great year for oolong, and Roy will cover all of these outstanding new teas in his August 23 Oolong Tea Class. So get your yi xing teapots ready, oolong season is just around the corner!
For those that can't make it in person I'll post some of my favorites to share with you.
Serene quiet speech
Drifting aromas of teas
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Yesterday I eagerly accepted Roy's invitation for a first peek at the newly arrive yan cha from Wu Yi Shan. I made a few photos of the fresh leaves, and other shots as they were steeping. In the end Roy wasn't satisfied with how the teas were fired in China and is refiring them before they're released. If he has time to do the refiring before his upcoming trip to China at least some of these teas may be available in the teahouse this month. Otherwise you'll have to wait until August to try them. But polish up your yi xing teapot, because the summer oolongs are coming! And if you really love oolong tea, don't miss Roy's oolong tea class on August 23, when he'll discuss and teach you to brew this year's Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin and yan cha in both an yi xing teapot and a gaiwan.