Friday, July 31, 2009

A Bit More Detail on the Yi Li Zhu Teapot

A sharp-eyed teapot lover, Dennis from Hawaii, asked, "I have a question about the Yi Li Zhu teapot that Roy mentioned on the blog. Is this teapot similar in design to the Dragon Alchemy pot on your website now?"

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

Take Our Survey, Enter to Win a $25 Gift Card!

As part of our ongoing effort to continually improve the Imperial Tea experience we're asking for your feedback on what you like and what could improve. Everyone who completes the survey has the opportunity to enter a drawing for one of three $25 gift cards, valid in our online store.

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!

For the Dog Days of Summer, A Reader's Recipe for Iced Red Envelope Tea

One of our readers, Melanie in Oregon, passed along kind words and a recipe for iced tea made with our popular Red Envelope Blend herbal tea. Perfect for keeping cool during the heatwave they're having up in Oregon this week or anywhere that's suffering in midsummer heat. Melanie, thanks for sharing!

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
My kids and I love it. I have a question about this blend. I see that it contains lavender flower, orange peel, jasmine tea, and hibiscus flower. Does it also contain stevia? I'm wondering it that's the source of its sweetness. I'd like to recommend the tea to my friends, and I know that some of them, concerned with food allergies, are going to want to know.

In answer to Melanie's question, yes, the blend does contain stevia, the "sweetning herb."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Making Great Jasmine Tea: Photos


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

Two Stubborn Guys Refuse to Compromise on Jasmine Tea

I arrived yesterday from Wu Yi Shan and was immediately greeted by my jasmine tea partner, Mr. Chen Qin Di. I wanted to have a sit-down with Mr. Chen to look over this year's production, as well as discuss future plans. Those of you who know me know how stubborn I am; if you want confirmation, just ask my wife! Well, Mr. Chen is worse than I am. I often secretly ask God why he/she deemed it necessary to make two ultra-stubborn guys at the same time. One is certainly enough to cause plenty of troubles!

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.

Photos from Wu Yi Shan


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

Among 33 Cups of Yan Cha, One Interesting Find

I thought I'd get away from Beijing's sweltering heat and humidity by coming to Wu Yi Shan. I arrived at night and it was raining, so the temperature was relatively cool, around 26 degrees C. I checked into my nice hotel overlooking the river and settled in for the night. I was reminded of what a city boy I am by the frogs that serenaded all night long! I was awakened by Mrs. Jiang Feng a full hour earlier than expected. Country folks don't believe in sleeping in until 7:00 AM! Anyway, we had breakfast and drove over to their tea factory to cup ALL of their production and see to the teas I had ordered.

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

More Background on Yunnan Tea

When I wrote about the tasting comparison we did with Yunnan green tea I asked Roy for more information on the four teas and how they were processed. His interesting reply sheds more light on why the teas are so different. For the sake of clarity, I also updated the original article with some of Roy's input.

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

A Trip to Yi Xing Uncovers Ceramic Masterpieces

Having just finished meeting with my teapot maker in Yi Xing, I am pleased to report that finally, I have received a few of one my favorite teapot designs, the Yi Li Zhu (a single pearl). I fell in love with this teapot during one of my first visits to Yi Xing many years ago. I visited the Yi Xing Teapot Museum and found it in terrible shape, run down and badly needing attention. The lighting was horrible and in some cases not working at all. The teapots on display at the time were dust-covered and the museum showed a lack of care everywhere.

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.

Photos from Yi Xing


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

Roy's Enroute from Yi Xing to Wu Yi Shan

Roy just sent an update:

"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 Green Tea: A Midsummer Change of Pace

Midsummer. It's been almost four months since the excitement of the spring tea season; the days are hot, but getting shorter. If you're tiring of the green teas from Southeastern China that once seemed so novel, yet aren't ready to make the seasonal shift to oolong and puerh, here's something to try for a change of pace: the fruity and robust green teas from far Southwestern Yunnan Province, best known as the home of puerh tea.

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

"Sudden Specials" Only on Twitter

We're ramping up Twitter activity over the next few weeks and will be offering Sudden Specials to Twitter followers only. Today's Sudden Special was free homemade cookies if you ordered a gaiwan of tea in our Ferry Building Teahouse. Follow ImperialTea on Twitter so you won't miss the next great deal!

Uncommon Options for Summer Tea Drinking

A friend emailed this morning, asking for suggestions for "something different" in a summer tea, meaning a less oxidized tea with what Chinese believe are "cooling" properties (she lives in a hot climate and isn't ready to drink oolong or puerh yet). Among Camellia sinensis varieties green and white teas are considered cooling, while herbal chrysanthemum tea is even more so.

A couple of teas I love came to mind off the top of my head. From the 2009 harvest there's a terrific white tea, Organic High Mountain White Peony. Organic and sun-dried, this tea is ultra-natural and affordably priced. It tastes very fresh and sweet, without the astringency of a green tea. It's actually the same variety of tea as our Imperial Silver Needles, but harvested later in the spring when the leaves have grown out more and aren't as elegantly uniform. It's full of flavor and stands up to many infusions. If you haven't tried it yet, it's one of the 2009 teas you definitely don't want to miss.

Another favorite is Yunnan Spring Tips, a green tea made from puerh leaves. Unlike most green teas it's a da ye (big leaf) variety and it's packed with aroma and flavors that are uncommon in green tea, including the fruitiness of puerh as well as a slight metallic tang from Yunnan's iron-rich red soil. Because of its puerh lineage, unlike virtually all green tea Yunnan Spring Tips ages well so you needn't worry about drinking up your supply quickly. If you visit Yunnan, where they take tea seriously, this is the type of tea you're often served in good restaurants.

Those are a couple of different summer teas. What do you turn to when you're ready for a change of pace in your gaiwan? Leave a comment and share your favorites!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

New Newsletter: Teapots, Tea Accessories, Tea Classes & More

Our latest newsletter is available, covering new teapots, tea gifts and accessories, organic green tea, Roy's upcoming tea classes, and more. Don't miss a single issue; subscribe today so the latest updates and special opportunities will be delivered straight to your inbox!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Teahouse Poetry

sitting with good friends,
around our common teapot,
warms my hands and soul

A Look Inside One of Ma Lian Dao's Tea Cities


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.

Ma Lian Dao Prices Are Impressive; the Tea, Not So Much

Are you having a mid-life crisis and self-doubt or a general case of low self-esteem? You're lonely and starving for attention? Just having a tough day at the office and need to see a welcoming face? I can recommend a place that'll cure all those ills: Beijing's Ma Lian Dao wholesale tea district! I spent the day roaming around and was only able to finish ONE building. I ended up so exhausted that I fell asleep in the car going home. I am again forced to admit that I'm getting old!

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

What's Your Sign...In Puerh!

Here's a fun new item to decorate your tea room, kitchen, or any other favorite place: a traditional Chinese "lucky knot" tied around a bing cha embossed with your Chinese zodiac animal! These remind me of Kunming, the capital of China's Yunnan province, the home of puerh tea. Kunming has hundreds of tea shops, many of which are easily spotted by the bing cha lucky knots fluttering in the breeze at the entrance.

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

Must-Have Tea Accessory: Our New Imperial Tea Bottle

We only put our Imperial name on the best tea products, the ones we enjoy ourselves, so we know from personal experience that you'll love our latest favorite, the Imperial Tea Bottle. In China, the preferred informal way to enjoy tea all day long, at home or work, is to fill an insulated glass bottle with a handful of tea leaves and then keep topping it off with hot water until the leaves lose flavor. Our Imperial Tea Bottle brings that same casual tea experience to our customers worldwide.

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

Marathon Tie Guan Yin Cupping in a Private Tea Sanctuary

For those of you who've been invited to my private tea room in Oakland, CA, I want to let you know that if you're in Beijing and I'm around, you're invited to tea in my private tea sanctuary in my backyard here! I had a traditional ting (a pagoda-like structure in classical Chinese gardens) built during my last visit and saw it for the first time when I arrived here this month.

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

Bestselling Yi Xing Pot: Back in Stock, Unbeatable Price

If you've been wanting a high-quality yi xing teapot to enhance your enjoyment of oolong and puerh tea but were deterred by the bad economy, here's a great opportunity. Our bestselling yi xing teapot of all time, the Contemporary Classic, is finally back in stock! Best of all, because of his commitment to making great tea available to everyone, Teamaster Roy Fong has decided not to raise the price of this pot, despite higher production costs. This hand-finished pot, made to Roy's personal specifications from high-quality yi xing clay, is only $39.

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

Photos from Ma Lian Dao, Beijing's Tea District


Entrance to Ma Lian Dao, the main street running through Beijing's wholesale tea district


One of dozens of tea shops in one of Ma Lian Dao's Tea Cities

Beijing's Ma Lian Dao Tea District: One Trip Isn't Enough

I've said that I feel like time is running short and I need to accomplish some of my goals sooner rather than later, but I didn't feel so old that I should pack it up now! When I decided to spend a day visiting the famed Ma Lian Dao wholesale tea district I found that maybe I am getting a bit too old! On the way to Ma Lian Dao via Beijing's subway, some nice young dude got up and offered me his seat! Although I was grateful for the polite gesture, I was a little upset; just because I have gray hair doesn't mean I'm THAT old! I smiled and said thank you, but declined the seat and internally was dismayed that people thought I was an elderly guy.

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

Photos from Beijing


Beijing is packed with shoppers any time, any where


The street in front of my house in Beijing

Pursuing A Dream in Ma Lian Dao, Beijing's Tea District

When the first Imperial Tea Court was established back in 1993, I had three goals:

  1. Bring the best tea possible to America
  2. Build the teahouse of my dreams
  3. Live next to a tea farm and maybe build my dream teahouse there
I think in some ways, I've accomplished the first task of bring some of the best teas available to America over the last 16 years. However, the other two goals have still not been accomplished and I feel that my time is running short!

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

A World of Tea Lovers

The Camellia Sinensis blog isn't quite six months old, but it's exciting to see that we've already had visitors from 74 countries on six of the seven continents (surely there are tea lovers in Antarctica?).

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!

Teahouse Poetry continued

tea is an art
like aged puerh
big leafs from Yunnan
to Wu Yi Yan Cha
one smell you can tell
Dragonwell in the spring
birds will sing and
streams do flow
the wind blow past
moons ago

Lu Yu's Cha Jing Free Online (in Chinese)

If you read Chinese you may be interested to know that Lu Yu's Cha Jing (Classic of Tea), the Tang Dynasty chronicle of tea knowledge, is available free online thanks to Project Gutenberg. Unfortunately there's not an English version, and at least here in the US, no translations are currently in print. There's an attractive French edition published in 2004.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Flashback to Spring: Why We Love Dragon Well

It's out of season, but we recently got a request to write something about Dragon Well and in the process were reminded of our chronic spring infatuation with this exquisite beverage. Luckily, it's not too late to enjoy the excellent quality of the 2009 harvest. For the true connoisseur, our Imperial Lotus Heart Dragon Well provides the ultimate encounter, lian rui (lotus heart), the smallest and rarest form of que she (bird tongue)--a leaf set that includes only a single tiny leaf and bud. Imperial Dragon Well, also que she, offers another superb experience.

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

Teahouse Poetry

Coming in from the cold
my teahouse friends
greet me warmly

Friday, July 10, 2009

Photos from Shaanxi


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!

A Timely Sip of Shaanxi Tea Changes the Course of Destiny

My flight from San Francisco arrived in Beijing at night. I dragged my luggage out of the arrival terminal only to find that my wife, Grace, got lost coming to the airport. After the long flight I sat and waited over an hour! Although exhausted, I was excited about this summer's tea trip. I finally get to spend a little time in my Beijing house with my family. My older daughter, Courtney, is going to NYU's affiliated summer program at famed Beijing University, while my younger daughter, Emily, is with me. It’s my hope that I can impart a little Chinese culture into this US-born kid. I arrived home well past midnight, then Grace and I chit-chatted until 3:00 AM before we finally went to bed.

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.

New Newsletter: Oolong Immersion!

Our latest newsletter is all about oolong! Celebrating the arrival of the 2009 Wu Yi yan cha, we cover tasting notes on the new tea, an oolong primer, yi xing teapots, Roy's upcoming oolong class, and more. Have a look, and be sure to subscribe so you'll always have the latest updates and special opportunities in your inbox!

China Earthquake

Roy is in China now and a reader asked if he happened to be in Yunnan during yesterday's earthquake. Fortunately, he's still in Beijing, although his itinerary may include a swing through Yunnan in a few weeks. The earthquake was centered about 125 miles west of Yunnan's capital, Kunming. Most of Yunnan's famous tea areas are considerably south of Kunming, however, the quake was closer to one of Roy's favorite R&R spots in Yunnan, Lijiang. You may remember his account of taking a break in Lijiang during his trip to China back in April. Lijiang itself was the site of a major earthquake in 1996.

Roy will be posting reports from his current China trip shortly, with more details.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Reading the Tea Leaves

You may not be able to read them like a book, but they do tell a story! Our 2009 selection of Wu Yi Yan Cha includes two unusual varieties: Fo Shou (Buddha Palm) and Bai Ji Guan (White Cock's Comb). We've shown you the dry leaves; here's an up close look at the leaves after infusion.

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

First Taste: 2009 Imperial Da Hong Pao

This is an attractive tea with greenish black leaves and red-brown stems. It infuses to an orange-red liquor. There's initially a pronounced charcoal aroma, suggesting you want to be sure to rinse the tea well prior to infusing to help balance the flavors.

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.

First Taste: 2009 Bai Ji Guan

Along with Da Hong Pao, Bai Ji Guan (White Cock's Comb) is among the five most famous yan cha from the Wu Yi Shan region. This uncommon tea makes a striking visual impression with its pale yellow-green leaves fringed in chestnut that instantly set it apart from any other tea. The liquor is yellow-gold. The infusion smells so fruity it reminds me of the fruity teas of Yunnan, except without the distinctly metallic note that comes from Yunnan's iron-rich soil. There's an almost candy-like sweetness in the fragrance.

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.

First Taste: 2009 Fo Shou

This is the first time we've carried this uncommon yan cha in the teahouse. It's notably greenish with a sweet, slightly hay-like aroma, and it infuses to a golden orange liquor that I found subtly fruity with floral highlights. As you drink it, more florals arise from the back of the palate. It's a straightforward tea, crisp, pleasant, and full of flavor but not too complex, with a touch of astringency. The texture is significant without being weighty.

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.

First Taste: 2009 Old Bush Shui Xian

The 2009 edition of our popular Old Bush Shui Xian is a something of a departure from previous Shui Xian we've offered: in the classic local tradition of Wu Yi Shan an aggressive firing technique was used, with high oxidation. It features very dark leaves and is slightly glossy from the essential oils and sap that the leaves release during processing. The firing yields a chocolaty roasted aroma when the leaves are first moistened. The liquor is rich reddish brown.

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

Back to China

Roy's back in China! After he recovers from jetlag and catches up on some family matters he has a busy tea agenda over the next several weeks. Included on the to-do list: checking out potential tea farms around the country, a visit to Yi Xing to see how the new teapots he ordered are coming along, a stop in Wu Yi Shan during the July old bush harvest, and more. He's promised to provide lots of updates and photos here on the blog, so stay tuned for the latest news, adventures, and previews of interesting items that will be arriving soon in the teahouse.

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

Oolong Map


A map shows that production of great oolongs is confined to a fairly small area encompassing subtropical, mountainous regions of Southeastern China and nearby Taiwan. The farther south the growing region, the more floral the tea. In these southerly latitudes the leaves are absorbing strong, direct sunlight for almost half the day, year round. That helps them develop lots of flavor, color, and aroma.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Getting Acquainted with Oolong

What tea lover doesn't love oolong, the strain of Camellia sinensis bred, cultivated, and processed to emphasize the plant's floral nature? In oolong, it's as though the characteristics expressed in the flowers of other camellia varieties have been sublimated into the leaf. The big, thick leaves bask in the sun during late spring and early summer, developing outrageous amounts of flavor, aroma, and nutrients that a great teamaster can coax into the cup through a meticulous regimen of withering (when enzymatic action begins), rolling (to break down cellular structure, helping the essential compounds mix and hastening the oxidation process), and firing (to remove excess moisture, concentrate flavor and aroma, halt oxidation, and sometimes add distinctive "roasted" notes). That plus gong fu brewing technique!

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

Oolong Update

Roy promises to have four of the new yan cha (oolongs from Wu Yi Shan) in the teahouse this month: Fo Shou (Buddha Palm), Bai Ji Guan (White Cock's Comb), Old Bush Shui Xian (Water Sprite), and Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe). This is the first year we've offered Fo Shou and Da Hong Pao, and it's been several years since we've had Bai Ji Guan. Old Bush Shui Xian is a familiar favorite.

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!

Teahouse Poetry

If you've ever been to our Berkeley teahouse, take a peek inside the drawers at your table. You may be pleasantly suprised to find drawings, poems, and other nic nacs that await a curious eye.
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
Warm community

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sneak Peek at Upcoming Oolong

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.


Four 2009 yan cha ready for cupping. It's easy to recognize the pale bai ji guan (white cock's comb) at the upper right. Roy didn't originally plan to buy this tea, but his tea farm tipped him off that it's very good this year, so he took a small amount.


That's the bai ji guan in the middle. The teas on either end are shui xian that Roy wants to refire.


On the left is fo shou (Buddha palm). 2009 is the first year we've carried this uncommon yan cha variety. Fo shou and bai ji guan are likely to be two of our most interesting oolongs this year. Also pictured (moving from left to right): tie luohan, shui xian, and da hong pao.