Saturday, August 29, 2009

Details on Some of Our New Teapots

We've had several inquiries about the new yi xing teapots Roy brought back from China (see the previous post). Since we were making photos for customers anyway we decided to go ahead and post them to the blog. If you see a pot you'd like email us so we can confirm that it's in stock and complete the transaction. Each of these pots is one-of-a-kind, so it's first come, first served.

A couple of general notes: the stated capacity is US fluid ounces when the pot is filled to the rim with water. In practice there would also be tea leaves in the pot, so it won't hold that much tea. A good rule of thumb is that the expanded leaves will occupy a third to half of the pot's capacity. Also, these photos were made at our San Francisco Ferry Building teahouse. The lighting there isn't great, so the color rendering in the photos isn't perfect. We urge you to stop by the teahouse to see the pots in person if possible. There's no substitute for holding the pot yourself to test its tactile appeal.


This simple, classic pot holds a generous 11 ounces. Best suited for oolong, it costs $138.


This 9-ounce pot is the flat type of design that's often used for puerh. It has clean, classic lines and costs $128.


This fine quality zhu ni pot is made a respected teapot artist. It holds 6 ounces and is ideal for aromatic oolongs such as Taiwan oolong, Phoenix oolong, or tie guan yin. The price is $380.


This versatile 9-ounce pot is well suited to oolong or puerh tea. It's a simple design that harks back to natural forms, in the tradition of many classic teapots. It costs $188.


This cute pot holds 7 ounces and is well suited to puerh tea. It costs $128.


This 6-ounce deco-style pot harks back to designs that were popular in the Republic of China era. It's great for puerh and costs $138.


This small, versatile pot would work well with high-fired oolong or puerh. It holds 4 ounces and costs only $98, a good value in a fine yi xing teapot.


With its double copper wire handles this 11-ounce pot is deliberately aiming to be something different. The clay is very nice. It's well suited to high-fired oolong or puerh and costs $180.


This 11-ounce pot is made from a distinctly more reddish clay with a higher iron content than our other zi ni teapots (although it's not zhu ni). It's always been a personal favorite that seems just right for puerh. It costs $168.


This attractive and functional 8-ounce pot has an extra-wide mouth that makes it easy to add leaves and water. It would be great for high-fired oolong or puerh, and it only costs $98.


This is a very simple, flat 7-ounce zhu ni pot in a modern design. It's best suited to oolong or puerh tea and costs $138.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

New Yi Xing Teapots in the Teahouse

Grace and Roy brought back a bag full of interesting new yi xing teapots from China! Most are one-of-a kind, so they won't appear on the web site, but many are now on display in our San Francisco Ferry Building teahouse. The good news, if you're looking for a great pot to enhance your oolong or puerh pleasure, is that these pots are well made from high quality clay yet they're reasonably priced, with most ranging from $90-$150. If you've been looking at excellent yi xing pots recently then you know that's a real value.

It's been awhile since we've had a good stock of interesting new teapots, so stop by the Ferry Building and have a look. If you'd like advice on the right pot for your budget, tea preferences, and brewing style, come on the weekend and ask for Shirley Hu: she's worked here eight years and teapots are a specialty. Or, if you need a new pot but you're not in the Bay Area, email us and we'll be glad to send photos and make some suggestions.

I made quick snapshots of a few of the new pots. The lighting in the teahouse makes it hard to take accurate photos, and they're not to scale, but you can get a general idea from the pictures below:






First Taste: Yan Ru

Today in the teahouse we tried another of the new yan cha, Yan Ru. As with our oolong tasting yesterday, Roy wasn't around, so we're winging it and want to emphasize that disclaimer!

Yan Ru is an interesting, ancient yan cha variety; the name translates (a bit awkwardly) as "cliff milk." Roy was excited to find this tea at a farm in Wu Yi Shan and blogged about it from China, noting its distinctive floral character. He's promised to share his impressions in the near future.

Meanwhile, we brewed Yan Ru in a gaiwan and found the aroma strikingly sweet and fruity, almost plum-like. It infuses to a rich amber color in the cup, with the orange tone that indicates a moderate level of oxidization and firing. On the palate you immediately notice sweetness and the creamy, mouth-coating vicosity that gives the tea its name. There's a distinct floral undernote, held in check by yan cha's signature mineral element. The steeped leaves are a deep olive green with pronounced red edges. In all, it's a complex and multidimensional oolong that offers much to be discovered through multiple infusions in an extended tasting session. Add Yan Ru to the list of uncommon 2009 oolongs that enhance your understanding of this fascinating category of tea.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Adding a Little Spice: Two Rare Oolongs

Today in the teahouse we tasted two rare oolongs Roy brought from China that have an unexpected trait in common. Normally oolongs have a prominent floral character, either overt or subdued. However, today's teas offered an improbable spiciness that shows just how diverse the oolong family can be.


Ye Cha ("wild tea") is a moderately fired Wu Yi yan cha with a distinct floral undertone but also an almost cinnamon-like spiciness that brings to mind another Wu Yi variety, rou gui. However, Ye Cha is more complex and multidimensional, with a clear, amber liquor that's crisp on the palate. The spiciness lingers pleasingly in the finish. According to Roy, even locals don't know the exact variety of this indigenous tea; they just pick it in the wilds of Wu Yi Mountain and enjoy!

Hailing from the opposite end of oolong's growing range, to the south, Jiang Mu Xiang comes from Feng Huang Shan (Phoenix Mountain) in Guangdong Province, one of China's oldest centers of tea connoisseurship. Tea from this region is famed for potent aromatics that mimic the scent of flowers and other plants. However, this exotic example has a natural scent of old ginger (the name means "mother of ginger scent"). The rich, golden amber liquor leaves a distinctively peppery sensation on the back of the throat.

Anyone eager to experience the astonishing range and complexity of the oolong family won't want to miss these two very special teas. They're quite rare, and our supply is very limited. Available for purchase in our online store or by appointment in our teahouses.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Terrific Oolong Tea Class!

Roy had a great oolong tea class at the Ferry Building teahouse last night! It was a full house with 12 attendees who worked their way through an encyclopedia of 14 oolongs from Wu Yi Shan, Anxi, Phoenix Mountain, and Taiwan over the course of a couple of hours. Grace made some of her teahouse-favorite homemade spring rolls for everyone to snack on.

Roy initially presented the teas professional cupping style, carefully measured and consistently brewed to facilitate comparison. Then he concluded the class with a gong fu brewing lesson. If you're curious about the teas that were covered, here's a copy of the class handout. Not all of the teas are currently available in our online store.

If you missed this class there's another opportunity next month, Roy's much anticipated "OMG" Tea Class on September 13, when he'll share five selections from his personal collection. If you're serious about tea you don't want to miss this very special event!

Photos from last night's class:






Saturday, August 22, 2009

Roy Fong's Oolong Tea Class is TOMORROW!

Just one day left to register for Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong's 2009 Oolong Tea Class. The class is from 6:00-7:30 PM tomorrow, Sunday, August 23, in our San Francisco Ferry Building teahouse. Roy is finalizing the agenda, which currently includes an impressive seven fine Wu Yi yan cha, some of which are so new we haven't yet added them to the online store: Imperial Da Hong Pao, Bai Ji Guan, Fo Shou, Old Bush Shui Xian, Yan Ru, Jin Mao Hou, and a Wild Tree variety.

But that's not all! You'll also taste and brew three of the uniquely floral oolongs from Guangdong's Feng Huang Shan (Phoenix Mountain), including the rare and newly arrived Jiang Mu Xiang, plus two green oolongs from Taiwan: 2009 Imperial Bao Zhong and Superior Four Season Spring Green Oolong.

Because of the extensive lineup of teas, Roy has decided to use professional cupping techniques to taste every tea, then attendees can select a favorite or two to brew with Roy's coaching. It's guaranteed to be a fun and informative evening where you'll greatly expand your knowledge and appreciation of iine oolong tea. It's not too late to join us: register today! We look forward to seeing you in the teahouse tomorrow.

What Tea Are You? Black Tea is Leading

Over 100 people have taken our What Tea Are You quiz on Facebook in the last week and Black Tea is in the lead! 29% of quiztakers are Black Tea, while only 4% are Herbal Tea. Current stats:

Give it a try and discover your true tea nature. What tea are YOU? If you like the quiz, become a fan, write on the quiz wall, or leave us a comment here on the blog.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Check Out the Latest Newsletter

We just sent out our latest newsletter, featuring Roy's upcoming oolong class, the newest tea and teaware that's just arrived from China, specially discounted Values of the Month, interesting green tea from China's Yunnan Province, and more. Have a look, and be sure to subscribe so you don't miss a single issue, packed with news and special values.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fun Contest: Win a Seat at Roy's OMG Class!

If you'd like to attend Roy's upcoming "OMG" Tea Class but were concerned about the cost, there's an option: shop in our online store between now and September 4 and you'll automatically be entered in a drawing for one free seat in the class! The class is Sunday, September 13, from 6:00-8:00 PM in our San Francisco Ferry Building teahouse. If needed, the winner must provide his or her own transportation and lodging to attend.

The class is a hands-on session with Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong where you'll taste and brew five extraordinary, rare teas that are Roy's favorites from his personal collection. It's truly a once-in-a-lifetime event for connoisseurs of the finest Chinese tea that will take your appreciation of Camellia sinensis to the next level. We hope you can join us!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Coming Soon: Exciting New Tea, Teaware (Preview)

I stopped by the warehouse today for a first peek at some of the exciting tea and teaware Roy brought back from China. Over the next couple of weeks we'll be adding these items to the web site and profiling them here on the blog and in the newsletter. But to whet your appetite, here's a preview of some of the coming attractions:
  • There are three new Wu Yi yan cha to add to the four Roy introduced last month. Roy briefly mentioned the first, Yan Ru, in a post from China. It's notable for a pleasing vicosity that gives it its name (yan ru means "cliff milk"). Jin Mao Hou (golden-haired monkey) is another classic yan cha, while the third is an uncommon and pleasantly floral wild-tree variety. Roy still needs to fire some of these teas. We'll do an in-depth tasting when they're ready for sale.
  • Another yan cha note: Roy had some of this year's flavorful Da Hong Pao packaged in 8-gram envelopes, enough for one or two gaiwans or teapots (depending on size). We'll be selling these for only $8, so anyone can afford a taste of this great tea.
  • Speaking of interesting oolongs, Roy brought back three new Feng Huang Shan (Phoenix Mountain) varieties. Most notable is the uncommon, gingery Jiang Mu Xiang, which has a distinctly peppery aftertaste in the back of the throat and a clear, golden liquor.
  • Those who appreciate Taiwanese oolong will be delighted with our richly floral 2009 Bao Zhong.
  • Rounding out the new tea this month are three excellent jasmine teas: Imperial Jasmine Pearls, Silver Needle Jasmine, and Golden Needle King Jasmine. I had a whiff of the Silver Needle Jasmine's clean, fresh aroma: potent without being overwhelming, as richly floral as a fresh-picked spray of jasmine blossoms, without any of the off notes you encounter all too often in modern jasmine teas. These are classic jasmine teas just the way you remember them, and for jasmine lovers they're worth the wait.
  • If you appreciate fine teaware, the Yi Li Zhu teapot Roy blogged about is here! It's a small pot that cradles perfectly in two hands and is made from very high quality clay. If you're in the Bay Area you can see this pot in person at our Ferry Building teahouse next week. There's also a beautiful porcelain presentation vessel from Jing De Zhen that's sure to sell out quickly, as we only have four of them.

This is only a preview, these items aren't for sale yet, but we'll be adding them to the online store and our teahouses over the next couple of weeks. We'll update the blog with links, photos, and reviews as all of these exciting new products become available.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

What Tea Are You? Take Our Quiz and Find Out!

So many great teas, so hard to choose. To simplify the process we created the What Tea Are You quiz on Facebook! Take the quiz and let us know how accurate it is. Then peruse the results over a cup of your favorite.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Last Chance: Join Roy Fong's Aug. 23 Oolong Class

Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong has returned from China and is excited about his August 23 tea class focused on the 2009 oolong harvest. There's still time to join us!

Roy's current plan for the class mimics a tea merchant's experience at a wholesale market. First the class will use professional cupping techniques to sample a range of fine oolongs, then each attendee will select one or two favorites and brew them gong fu style, with Roy coaching. The class will be an open format and very hands-on. You're guaranteed to come away with a deeper knowledge and appreciation of some of China's most famous oolong.

The class will focus on this year's harvest, which includes some terrific and uncommon Wu Yi yan cha such as da hong pao, bai ji guan, fo shou, and yan ru, as well as the latest edition of Roy's signature Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin, which he will be firing this week.

The class is in our San Francisco Ferry Building teahouse and runs from 6:00-7:30 pm. It only costs $50--a bargain considering the value of the tea that will be presented. Attendees also receive a 10% discount on all tea purchases that day. Don't miss this great opportunity to learn from Roy and sample some of the most outstanding new teas of 2009. Sign up today! We look forward to seeing you next Sunday.

Customer Survey: You Spoke, We're Listening

Thanks again to everyone who took the time to provide detailed, thoughtful, and candid input in our recent Customer Survey. The responses are interesting and we wanted to share some insights:
  • Many of you shared fond memories of our original Chinatown teahouse. Although this beloved location is now gone, it's great to know that it's not forgotten and you love it as much as we do!
  • Only about 25% of people who interact with us live here in the Bay Area, although half of you have visited one of our teahouses at some point. The rest stay in touch through our online store, newsletter, Facebook, Twitter, and of course, this blog! Several of you specifically praised our new Sudden Specials program on Twitter. Stay tuned, we'll be offering more of those! As to all who passed on kind words about this blog, thanks for the encouragement. It's a labor of love and we're pleased that we're providing a fun, useful way to share our passion for fine Chinese tea with tealovers around the world.
  • Although a few folks asked for more choices among Japanese and Western-style teas, 93% of you say Chinese tea is your favorite style of tea.
  • Budget: 75% say you spend about $10-$60 a month on tea and teaware. That directly ties into another issue we heard a lot, price. This comment was typical: "I know high quality does not come cheap, so I buy what I can afford, look for specials, and treat myself when I can." Bottom line, especially with the difficult economy today, many people are looking for value-priced traditional-style teas that are still interesting and delicious. In the future we'll do a better job of identifying and promoting affordable options to our finest teas, which are increasingly rare and expensive as the vast Chinese consumer market becomes more affluent and interested in traditional culture.
  • On a related note, several of you asked if there was anything we could do about shipping prices in the online store. We looked into it and were pleased that the answer was yes! As noted earlier here on the blog, we were able to negotiate a better deal with UPS. If shipping cost has been an obstacle for you, check out our new rates.
  • Speaking of the online store, we also received some complaints about parts of the site that aren't working properly, as well as requests for features that competitors offer but we don't have yet. We're as frustrated as you by the store's outdated technology, and we're in the midst of a major project to rebuild the store from the ground up with a new back end that employs all the latest technology. Look for this exciting new venture to go live sometime in Q4.
  • Another frequent request: more face time with Roy. Several of you said you'd like to travel to China with Roy next year. We hear you and are planning to offer one or two tea tours in 2010. You also asked for more tea classes. In the past classes have been sporadic, but we're pulling together a more structured curriculum. More details will be available on both opportunities as plans firm up.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Last Stop in Tea City, Then Farewell for Now to China

I returned to Beijing's wholesale tea area, Ma Lian Dao, to take one last look before the flight home tomorrow morning. I dropped by the stores where I made friends to have a few cups of tea, leave more business cards, and ask them to send me samples of tea they think it is excellent. You never know!

I also got up the courage to walk into the store that exclusively sells Indian tea: Darjeeling, Assam, Ceylon, you name it! I asked to sample a few Darjeelings, but when the server didn't even know what estate or flush, I lost interest and walked off. I also found that work from China's famed porcelain capital, Jing De Zhen, has improved dramatically. Even the displayed items at wholesale vendors' windows are sometimes pretty good. Jing De Zhen is calling...


Hand-painted Qing Hua gaiwan set


Indian tea on display...in Beijing!

Our Survey Is Complete; Thanks to All Who Responded

We've completed our Customer Survey. Thanks to the hundreds of you who took the time to respond and share feedback and suggestions. We take customer input seriously and in the coming weeks we'll be making changes to address the top issues and opportunities you raised in your responses.

A promised, we held a random drawing among respondents to give away four gift cards good in our online store. We conducted the drawing by entering the email addresses of everyone who entered onto an Excel spreadsheet. Then we used Excel's Random Number Generator to pick the winners. To protect privacy we won't reveal email domains, but congratulations to snglauren, nico, christine, and dharbin!

For those who entered but did not win, check your email as well, we sent you a lagniappe as a token of our appreciation.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

For Tough Times, Good Values in Chinese Teaware

Yesterday we pointed out some excellent values in fine Chinese tea for anyone who's feeling the pinch of a tough economy. Today our value series continues with a focus on good teaware bargains. There's no need to compromise when it comes to teaware. We have some great values in fine traditional Chinese teapots, gaiwans, and other accessories.

Connoisseurs agree that yi xing teapots can substantially improve the experience of drinking oolong or puerh tea. If you've been waiting to buy your first yi xing pot or are looking to expand your collection you'll be glad to know that our Contemporary Classic Yi Xing Teapot is back in stock! This small pot is made of high-quality yi xing clay and was personally designed by Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong. The perfect size for one or two tea drinkers, it features elegant, classic styling, a well rounded body that gives leaves plenty of room to expand, and a wide mouth that makes it easy to saturate the leaves when you pour in hot water. A terrific value at only $39!

If you're really on a budget we still have an yi xing pot for you! Our Small Yi Xing Teapot, sized for the individual tea drinker, is a great starter pot that you can use to gain skill and confidence in your gong fu brewing technique. Now offered at a special price of just $20, this pot truly makes it possible for every tea drinker to explore the benefits of yi xing teaware.

If you're looking for value in a classic gaiwan, have a look at our Teahouse Gaiwan. It's the same sturdy, functional model we use in our teahouses, with a bright white glaze that makes it easy to check the color of your brewing tea and a wide mouth that facilitates temperature management with delicate tea. Generously sized for either one or two, the Teahouse Gaiwan is currently offered at a 10% discount off the $20 list price, making it a special bargain.

Another gaiwan option is one of our most popular, the Heart Sutra Gaiwan. The small, porcelain cup is the right size for personal teamaking and easily cradles in the palm of your hand. The hard, thin body quickly loses heat, making this a great choice for heat-sensitive green tea. And the beautiful design featuring the Chinese characters in the Heart Sutra prayer will give you something to meditate on while you enjoy your tea. Our most affordable porcelain gaiwan, priced at just $20.

You won't find a better value in modern, portable teaware than our Imperial Tea Bottle. This item has quickly become a favorite of all of us in the teahouse. The double-walled glass design insulates your tea, while the screw-on lid sealed with an o-ring prevents leaks even when you're on the go. An added bonus, it's beautifully gift packaged in a well-padded brocade presentation box. Holds a generous 10 ounces. Competitors sell similar tea bottles for twice the price; ours is a terrific bargain at just $12.

No gong fu tea service is complete without a nice set of wooden tea tools to measure, manipulate, and manage the tea and teaware. And now our handsome, durable Hardwood Tea Implements are a special value at 10% off the regular retail price! If you've been waiting to buy a nice set of tea tools don't miss this chance to bring both beauty and functionality to your tea table for a price that can't be beat, only $18.

While you're equipping your tea table don't forget our charming Gourd Tea Strainer, a high-quality strainer made from a real hulu gourd! For those who like to strain their tea as they pour it from the pot our gourd is a great solution: natural, traditional, and attractive. Hand-crafted to our specifications in Taiwan, with a fine nylon mesh screen, it's sized to nestle into the mouth of a serving pitcher. Priced at only $6.50, it's so inexpensive you'll want to give one to all your tea-loving friends!

Finally, if you've been looking for a solution that provides the taste and quality of fine loose-leaf tea with the convenience of a teabag, our imported Hand-Fill Teabags will meet your needs nicely, allowing you to include just the right amount of tea to fit your own taste. Available either with or without the familiar paper tag, our bags are imported from Taiwan, packaged in lots of 50, and value-priced at just $3.50.

Friday, August 7, 2009

For Tough Times, Good Values in Traditional Chinese Tea

In our Customer Survey one of the most frequent requests has been for fresh, high-quality tea at moderate prices. In these tough economic times no one wants to give up good tea and we sympathize! In the past we haven't made a lot of noise about our affordable teas, but there are some great choices that we're pleased to recommend. You'll find that our mid-grade teas are better than many of our competitors' top-of-the-line; the fact that we also carry some of the world's finest tea shouldn't obscure the many good values among our tea offerings. Whether you're on a budget or just learning about Chinese tea, these suggestions from our teahouse staff are a starting point for deeper engagement with the fascinating world of fine Chinese tea.

And remember, we've just lowered UPS shipping rates in our online store. Shopping for tea values and shipping your finds to your home or office has never been more affordable!

Green Tea: Our Longevity Green is an excellent bargain, offering the rich, green flavor and substantial mouth feel that you usually associate with far more costly teas. Hailing from Zhejiang Province, the home of many of China's best green teas, Longevity Green features small, furry, jade-green tips that are tightly rolled to extract extra flavor. The fur, which indicates the tea was grown at a higher altitude, adds an extra dimension of texture. Only $17 for a quarter-pound package that will make 30 gaiwans of tea; each gaiwan can be shared and infused several times. Or try a 1-ounce sampler for just $5.

Another value-priced green tea: our Organic Everyday Green, also from Zhejiang, is the top-selling tea on the web site this year. Only $15 for a quarter-pound package or $4.20 for a 1-ounce sampler.

White Tea: Our Organic Everyday White is a deliciously sweet, fresh selection from Fujian Province, which is famous for its white tea. Unlike lower-quality white teas, our Organic Everyday White is patiently sun-dried, maximizing flavor and nutrients. This tea is a mix of downy buds and newly opened leaves. The lack of uniformity lets us offer it at a better price and may even give the tea more dimensionality than a meticulously sorted version. Only $20 for a quarter-pound package that will make 30 gaiwans of tea; each gaiwan can be shared and infused several times. Or try a 1-ounce sampler for just $5.60.

Oolong Tea: Oolong lovers on a budget will enjoy our Fancy Tie Guan Yin. This Anxi tea is richly roasted without being overfired, resulting in a pleasingly balanced brew that's as aromatic as it is flavorful, a delight to savor as the tightly rolled leaves unfurl and evolve through multiple infusions. Only $22.50 for a quarter-pound package that will make 25 small pots or gaiwans of tea; each can be shared and infused several times. Or try a 1-ounce sampler for just $6.75.

Green Oolong Tea: If you enjoy Taiwan's fragrant, floral green oolong teas our Superior Four-Season Spring Green Oolong will be a welcome discovery. Sweet and richly aromatic, this high-mountain-grown tea will infuse many times. You can drink it all day long! Only $20 for a quarter-pound package that will make 25 small pots or gaiwans of tea; each can be shared and infused several times. Or try a 1-ounce sampler for just $6.25.

Puerh Tea: If you prefer loose-leaf puerh, try our Superior Puerh, an earthy brew that has attained the depth and sweetness only found in well aged puerh. Made from small, twisted leaves and abundant golden tips, it yields a substantial, dark-red brew that's flavorful and satisfying. Only $22 for a quarter-pound package that will make 25 small pots or gaiwans of tea; each can be shared and infused several times. Or try a 1-ounce sampler for just $6.50.

If you like puerh bing cha, our 2007 Spring Tip Puerh Bing Cha is an outstanding bargain. This shou ("finished") cake features small, early leaf tips and a mild, sweet taste with only hints of earthiness. It's ready to drink now but will also age well. The entire 13.5-ounce cake is only $35.

Coming tomorrow: good values in traditional Chinese teaware!

Still Time to Take Our Survey, Enter to Win a Gift Card

Have you taken our Customer Survey yet? We value your feedback and input and are eager to hear from you. The survey will remain open until midnight Pacific time tomorrow night. After it closes we'll hold a random drawing among respondents to give away four $25 gift cards good in our online store. We look forward to your participation!

Jasmine Tea Production in Hengxian


All of these will be turned into jasmine tea!


Machine-separating flowers from the tea after scenting


Final hand-sorting of flowers from the tea


Mountains of spent flowers

In Hengxian's Jasmine Tea Market Ideals Bend to Market Reality

At the crack of dawn I left Nanning for Hengxian, a small township with a population of around 50,000 that's the jasmine tea capital of the world. About 10 years ago or so a drastic shift began, where jasmine tea production started moving from Fuzhou, the jasmine destination for many decades, to Hengxian, here in Guangxi. The trend started because of the lower cost of land, labor, and of fresh jasmine flowers to scent the tea. The local government has been aggressively luring jasmine tea factory owners to put up shop right here in Hengxian. They offer low-cost loans and it seemed that overnight, everyone who was doing anything with jasmine tea was moving here.

Mr. Chen and I are among the few holdouts still doing jasmine tea in Fuzhou, where costs are much higher. Right now, only ultra-high-quality jasmine teas are still produced in Fuzhou; large-quantity production has almost all gone to Hengxian. Because of the slumping economy, I also must reluctantly move some of my larger and lower-priced orders to Hengxian in order to compete.

It's a real shame when people such as Mr. Chen and I, who do things right, are forced to bow to pressure from price and competition, which don't necessarily reward a job well done. Mr. Chen and I will continue to make our great jasmine tea possible by resisting the trend, but I also need to keep some of my less quality-oriented customers happy by making tea they can afford. With a heavy heart I arrived at the factory where my wholesale orders were made. I spent the day cupping each batch, giving instructions, and working out cost. I'm happy to report that Hengxian jasmine production has really improved, since a lot of the skilled labor from Fuzhou moved here. I rejected all of the working examples and gave orders to re-do to everything, but inside, I know it will work out and they've done a good job.

Tomorrow I return to Nanning for a late-night flight to Beijing, where I'll cup all the samples that have arrived at my house while I've been away. Maybe one more visit to the tea wholesale district before I pack up and go home to the US!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lower Shipping Costs on Our Web Site!

We're pleased to let you know that because of the volume of orders in our online store we've been able to arrange lower shipping rates with UPS! Shipping costs were one of the concerns you expressed in our current Customer Survey. Next time you order you should notice the difference.

Several of you mentioned issues you've had with our current web site. Good news, a new, improved site is in development. We're currently doing the first round of testing and hope to go live with it this fall. Stay tuned for updates.

We value all the feedback we're receiving in the survey. If you haven't completed it yet, click here to tell us how we're doing!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Reader Question About Flavored Tea

A reader asks: "Are there any tell-tale ways of determining if a particular tea has natural flavor vs. an added flavor? I have not tried enough different kinds of tea to make such a keen determination, but I sometimes wonder about this and if it is a valid concern to tea buyers. I guess soil, growing conditions, climate, and method of processing help determine a tea's characteristics. I recall tasting a "milk tea" (non-dairy) awhile back that was in the oolong family. It was delicious with buttery flavor overtones. I couldn't help but wonder if the flavor was genuine or artificial. Are there fake teas out there?"

We respond: The only defense is experience. Knowing the particular characteristics of each tea will help determine if something "funny" is going on. In the case of "milk" tea, it is an oolong from Taiwan that is most likely flavored.

Latest Newsletter: For Hard Times, Good Values in Tea/Teaware

If you've been struggling to enjoy great tea on a budget or are just looking for an affordable way to learn more about tea before diving into our top grades, don't miss the current issue of our newsletter. It's all about delicious tea and good teaware that are great values.

We recommend interesting choices of green, white, oolong, and puerh tea, along with yi xing teapots, gaiwans, and other basics of the tea table. There's truly no excuse not to appreciate great Chinese tea, even in a recession! Have a look and if you have other suggestions please share them in the comments below.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Photos of a Nanning Restaurant & You Cha


Preparing the you cha service


Bowls of you cha ready to eat


Exterior of the Ah Mo Mei Shi Restaurant in Nanning, a traditional dong zu restaurant that serves you cha


Entrance to the Ah Mo Mei Shi Restaurant


The Ah Mo Mei Shi Restaurant is made entirely of wood fitted with traditional joinery--no nails


Another view inside the Ah Mo Mei Shi Restaurant

The You Cha Trail Ends with an Idyllic Vision for Next Time

After chasing around Nanning looking for liu bao cha and coming away without much of anything, I decided to play tourist. After a five-hour drive I arrived at world-famous Guilin (ζ‘‚ζž—) and took the Li River boat tour. Unfortunately it was hot and humid and unless you stood on top of the big cruiser with a hundred other people, sitting inside the cabin didn't do much for me. In fact, the water and air seemed a bit polluted and I was somewhat disappointed.

I also visited Guilin's famous Seven Star and Silver Caves. Both are truly natural wonders, filled with various spectacular stalactites, stone pillars, and rock formations. The best thing is that touring these caves gets you out of the sun and the heat and humidity! I guess I am a Guilin philistine. While all the other tourists are going oooh and aaah I am just waiting to get back to the hotel for a shower!

On the way back to my hotel I saw a sign in one of the thousands of small eateries in Guilin that said "You Cha"--oil tea, in which a range of ingredients are prepared and boiled with tea leaves, served almost as a soup by Guangxi's Dong ethnic minority (侗族). I've heard of this famous concoction before and have never sampled it. I stopped my driver and ran off to the you cha shop only to be told, "we don't do that anymore!" Disappointed, I hopped in the car and went back to the hotel, but you cha was now stuck in my mind and I HAD to have some!

I asked a tour guide I met in my hotel lobby and she gave me the address of the "only" authentic you cha place she knew of. Off I ran! After a hour walking aimlessly in the streets of Guilin and three or four cell phone calls to the young lady tour guide, who kindly directed and redirected me to the store, I finally arrived, now dripping in perspiration but excited. I practically ran into the restaurant, only to be told that the guy who did you cha is gone; it's now a Sichuan-inspired restaurant!

Now that really made me mad and I was not going to rest until I got hold of some kind of you cha. I called on almost every single person I knew in Guangxi and finally was told that there is a place in Nanning that still serves traditional you cha. I didn't have to be told twice to split town and return to Nanning and the smiling faces of the toll collectors! After another five hours on the road my joints were cracking and my neck was killing me but I finally arrived at the Ah Mo Mei Shi Restaurant.

This beautifully built traditional Yao-ethnic-minority-style building is made entirely with wood, without a single nail. I finally was able to order the you cha and was served a somewhat simplified you cha service. The you cha is served with several add-on items: fried peanuts, deep-fried dough balls, puffed rice, chives. A big pot of cooked tea was also served. The service starts with the server placing a little bit of each ingredient in a small bowl and the cooked tea is poured over it. It tasted fine, but I said so what?

Just when I was going to blow off you cha, the young server said, this isn't any good unless the tea soup is made with tea from our village up in the mountains. He described his home where cars do not exist and the landscape is mist-covered with beautiful water and mountains. I returned to my hotel room troubled and thought, am I getting too lazy? I knew of the Dong mountain village but have never dared to think about going there. Am I really getting that old?

I am going to make a trip there next spring. Age and humidity are NOT going to keep me from finding more tea!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Reader Asks About Rinsing Tea; Roy Responds

A reader asks about the practice of rinsing tea prior to the main infusion: "I just read your note about rinsing Da Hong Pao in the July Newsletter and realized that I've never been rinsing my tea. I read somewhere, or was told, that it was an old-fashioned custom, but was no longer necessary. I guess I've been making a mistake. In general, which teas should I rinse? All of them? I think I've seen someone at the teahouse just pour hot water over the leaves in the pot to cover them, then pour off the water immediately. Is that right?"

Roy responds: Rinsing is a personal choice; it's not a must unless you have a reason to do so. Some of those reasons are as follows:
  • To remove dust-like material, broken particles, or broken leaves that are the result of packing, transportation, etc.
  • To moisten the tea leaves and release the aromatics. I enjoy smelling that aroma and the aromatics give me much info about how the tea is processed (high or low fired, fresh or not, etc.). This information helps me decide how I may want to adjust my steeping techniques.
  • In the case of the Da Hong Pao, it helps to remove some of the strong firing aromatics.
If none of the above is important to you or you really know the tea well, you don't have to rinse just because other people may do it. I rinse the tea by pouring water from the kettle from a moderate height into the teapot, making sure the flow of water moves and circulates the leaves inside, which allows loose particles to float up. Then the water is discarded.

After pouring off the rinse water I gently shake the pot so that the leaves are loosened and form a small mound in the middle of the pot. Then I start my brewing by pouring water again, this time in a circular motion around the mound of tea leaves until they start to float. I then continue to pour water in a circular motion over the pile of tea until the pot is almost full. I replace the lid (if the teapot is completely filled with water, when the lid is replaced it will displace some water through the spout) and let the tea infuse until I decide it's time to decant into a service pitcher to be shared.

I don't flush fine green tea due to its delicate nature, but sometimes I flush big-leaf green teas that are covered with fur or tea such as Silver Needles that's large and fur-covered. The common sense approach works every time.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Unlike the Teamaster, a Confusingly Named Tea Doesn't Improve Much With Age

I arrived in Guangxi's capital city, Nanning, a couple of days ago, leaving behind Fuzhou's heat and humidity only to encounter MORE heat, humidity, and thunderstorms! Since I've now admitted several times that I'm not as young as I'd like to be, I set out to reverse the aging process by doing 45 minutes of treadmill and 10 minutes or so of weight training every morning when I'm in a hotel with a training room. I got a bit enthusiastic in Fuzhou's Shangrila Hotel and when I arrived in Nanning, I was sore from lifting weights. That gave me an excuse to take a couple of days off from tea hunting and exercising. However, this relaxing stuff isn't so great for someone like me. I need to know that I'm busy and have no time in the day or I start to feel like I'm not needed. I know it's totally irrational, but that's me!

Guangxi Province is adjacent to Guangdong (Canton) and offers pretty good Cantonese food at half the price of Guangdong. Folks here speak Cantonese as well as Mandarin and I feel right at home. In addition, both my leaders (wife and daughter) seem to like the place. I've been running around China for at least 20 years now and I can tell you, I've never been to any city here that has so many smiling faces and good attitudes, especially from officials and government workers. These folks generally think they've moved a few steps closer to heaven as soon as they became "workers for the people." I was shocked to see the big smile and thank you from the lady who collected parking fees. Each and every one of the toll collectors we passed smiled to greet us and thank us by saying please drive carefully. Certainly that made the pain of paying the toll considerably less.

After a couple of days I couldn't stand the good life anymore, so I went back to hunting for tea. Guangxi is famous for its own style of puerh-like black tea, called liu bao cha. Cantonese call it liu an cha and there is a common mistake where some tea merchants think Cantones
e liu an cha is aged liu an gua pian from Anhui. I never took the time to confirm it, but I'm pretty sure that luk on (Cantonese pronunciation of the mandarin liu an) is the same as the liu bao cha offered in Guangxi. You can take my word for it, I drank this tea when I was a child in Hong Kong many years ago, but I don't often forget a taste.

I've always considered luk on the poor man's puerh (all tea merchants and some who hold collections of luk on will disagree and I apologize if I hurt your feelings). Rightly or wrongly, liu bao never became as popular as puerh. During the recent rush to collect puerh, liu bao also enjoyed some benefits. People who wanted another option began to collect and enjoy liu bao in loose and various compressed forms. Prices have also skyrocketed; not to the level of puerh, by any means, but it's still expensive.

I arrived at Nanning's "tea street," which features a kilometer or so of tea stores, one after another. Walking and checking out all the stores in that kilometer is hard work. I didn't know I was capable of perspiring several gallons at a time! Out of 50-60 stores, only two exclusively feature traditional liu bao cha. All the rest are transplants from Fujian, offering tie guan yin or other oolongs.

I checked out both of these stores and had a sit-down with the owner of one. Mr. Yang boasted, "I have the BEST liu bao cha in Nanning. You're wasting your time elsewhere!" I liked his spunkiness so I sat down with him. He chased off the salesgirls and took over the tea table, beginning with gong fu service of 1998 liu bao cha. I smiled and said, "That all you've got?" He said, "Of course not, I'm just testing you!"

We went on to sample teas from the 1980s to finally his "store treasure," 1976 Golden Flower Liu Bao. I really appreciated Mr. Yang's hospitality, but liu bao is just not my cup of tea. Once you've had a great puerh, liu bao, unfortunately, is an afterthought. We clearly tasted some rather old tea and it featured some of the distinctions only found in aged black tea, such as bright, clear, red liquor; soft mouth-feel; and a sweet aftertaste that gets sweeter after several steepings. However, for me, the problem with liu bao is that it's a wanna-be. It has some of these great characteristics, but it's thin, not rich and luscious like a good puerh. The mouth-feel is soft but doesn't offer that creamy softness that only comes from good puerh. I finally thanked Mr. Yang, offered my business card, and promised to drop by again next time.

As usual, I took pictures, but I forgot to insert the memory card into my camera! The images were saved but I don't have the USB cable to upload them to my computer and then to the blog, so you'll have to take my word for it and I'll share these photos when I get home!