Friday, October 30, 2009

All Treats, No Tricks in the Teahouses This Weekend

If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area don't be spooked! Mark your calendar for a couple of fun events this Halloween weekend, when it's all treats/no tricks in our teahouses. Tomorrow we're celebrating the holiday with a Halloween Special: an order of delicious, handmade pumpkin shao mai plus our popular Winter Spice tea, all for just $8.

Then on Sunday, November 1, join the San Francisco Tea Meetup Group at 3pm in our Berkeley Teahouse for an Oolong Tasting with Tea Sommelier James Labe. This event costs $15. James will select of up to six of our oolongs for tasting, commentary, and group discussion. Seats are limited, so sign up soon if you're interested.

We look forward to seeing you soon in our teahouses!

Tea Lovers Holiday Shopping Guide: Five Fine Gifts Under $120

If you're shopping to truly delight and impress your favorite tea lover, and give a gift that will be enjoyed for a long time to come, we have five fine tea items to suggest. High-quality, unique, attractive, and functional, they'll be the envy of any tea table:

For those who love to drink lots of tea, or enjoy sharing with friends and family, our carefree and versatile glazed stoneware Family-Style Teaset is a great answer. The large bamboo-handled pot holds a generous 60 ounces and comes with four matching 8-ounce teacups. This teaset works well with any style of tea. Attractively gift boxed. Price is $98.

For maximum enjoyment of fine oolong or puerh tea, we recommend brewing the traditional way, in yi xing teaware. Our Complete Yi Xing Teaset provides everything you need for gong fu tea service: an 8-ounce teapot, draining tray, covered pitcher, and six traditional Chinese teacups with saucers. Made of high-quality clay, this set will gain an attractive patina with use. Available in either dark brown or terracotta colored clay; comes packaged in an attractive presentation box. Price is $118.

This large, handsome Programmable Digital Electric Kettle has quickly become one of our top sellers. It's made exclusively for us and is UL-listed. You set a temperature target; the kettle will heat water to the desired level and hold it there, making it ideal for teas that benefit from careful water temperature control, such as green tea. Also a great chef's accessory! The kettle itself is cordless, with a corded base and stainless steel interior. Approximate capacity: 1 liter. Available in dark teal green or black. Price is $89.99.

Plan your next tea outing with our double-decker Handmade Basket Gift Set, which comes complete with an attractive, well made teapot and teacup set in your choice of colors. The top level holds the teaware snugly so that you can take your tea party anywhere. It's also insulated, so it doubles as a portable tea cozy! The lower level stores tea, snacks, and accessories. The handmade basket is also a beautiful decorative item when you’re not drinking tea. A gift any traveling tea lover will cherish. Price is $89.

The Three-Legged Treasure Toad is a powerful symbol of wealth in feng shui. This mythical creature is said to appear every full moon near homes where the residents receive good news the very next day. This is usually in the form of wealth or monetary gain. The Three-Legged Treasure Toad holds a coin in its mouth, brings a string of coins on each side, and carries seven stars on its back. It is often placed near cash registers, reception areas, managers' desks, or offices of successful businesses. At home, the beloved toad is placed in the corner of the family room to enhance the household’s wealth. It can also be found on tea tables across China, where it's used as a "tea helper." A splash of tea is poured over the toad during each infusion, and in turn it helps you with your brewing skills! Our finely wrought Treasure Toad is made from yi xing clay and comes in a silk gift box. Price is $88.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tea Lovers Holiday Shopping Guide: Great Values, $50 Or Less

Continuing our series of gift suggestions for tea lovers, we're pleased to present nine more customer favorites, all moderately priced at $50 or less. These high-quality gifts are terrific values, sure to delight anyone who appreciates fine Chinese tea, teaware, and tea culture.

Our Famous Tea Gift Tin Set includes three attractive, reusable metal tea canisters marked "Specially Selected Famous Tea" in elegant Chinese calligraphy. Each tin contains a legendary Chinese tea: Imperial Silver Needles, Superior Puerh, and Organic Dragon Well. Preparation instructions are also included, and the collection comes nicely gift boxed. Price is $50.

During the Ming dynasty Chinese stopped drinking powdered tea and took to infusing loose tea leaves in a gaiwan, a small, individual-sized covered bowl. The lid keeps the liquid warm and serves as a filter, preventing the tea leaves from getting into your mouth. Imperial Tea Court is proud to present our specially commissioned Ming Dynasty Yi Xing Gaiwans, modeled after the original Ming era gaiwans. These classic Ming-style gaiwans are available in zi sha (brown) or zhu ni (terracotta) clay, hold 8 ounces, and come in silk-lined gift boxes. Price is $38.

Customers love our adorable Lucky Pig Teapot. In many cultures around the world, pigs are believed to bring good luck and prosperity. Ours has the extra advantage that you can also brew tea in it! Made of yi xing clay, our Lucky Pig Teapot comes in an attractive gift box. Available in dark brown, terracotta, or red and tan spotted. Price is $48.

Our Yellow Mark Puerh Bing Cha is one of our most popular puerh cakes, a delicious shou (finished) puerh with a great balance of warming earthiness, mild, pleasant sweetness, and satisfying viscosity. Ready to drink now, but it will also continue to improve with age. Sold in a long-lasting, classic 375-gram cake. Price is $45.

Our Bestselling Tea Gift Tin Set includes three attractive, reusable metal tea canisters that each contain a generous supply of one of our best-selling teas: Jasmine Pearls, Imperial Red Hibiscus Blend, and Superior Yunnan Black. Preparation instructions are also included. Price is $40.

Whether you're looking for a unique gift, an impressive presentation for holiday guests, or a special treat just for you, our Blossoming Tea Gift Set is a great answer. The set includes one of each of our four spectacular blossoming teas, meticulously hand-tied balls of fine green tea and rare herbs and flowers that unfurl into beautiful, fragrant bouquets-in-a-cup that are as much fun to admire as they are to drink. Also included is our 12-ounce Dancing Blossom Glass Teapot, the perfect vessel for brewing and admiring each lovely blossoming tea. A truly memorable way to enjoy tea. Price is $40.

Our charming 6-ounce Contemporary Classic Yi Xing Teapot, one of our all-time best-sellers, has the elegant simplicity of a classic design. Its smooth, round body with a straight spout yields a profile that's unadorned yet forceful, simple, and pleasing to the eye. It's made with a superior grade of yi xing clay that provides rich color and will develop a beautiful patina with use. An attractive, high quality teapot that will appeal to beginners as well as aficionados, offered at an unbeatable price. Price is $39.

In many parts of China you can easily spot tea shops by the colorful hanging, tasseled Chinese knots tied around miniature bing cha made of real tea. Our version of this classic decoration, the Zodiac Bing Cha, features a bright red tasseled knot tied around a tea cake embossed with one of the 12 animal signs in the Chinese zodiac. "What's your sign?" never had so much meaning for tea lovers! Attractively packaged in a silk-lined gift box. (If you don't know your Chinese sign, look it up here.) Price is $30.

Anyone who loves oolong tea knows and loves the great oolongs of China's famed Wu Yi Mountain, which produces rich, complex, and full-bodied teas that benefit from moderate to high firing. While Wu Yi oolongs exhibit the pronounced florals characteristic of oolong, in this type of tea they're uniquely balanced by the strong mineral character that comes from Wu Yi's rocky terrain and gives Wu Yi tea its nickname, yan cha (cliff tea). Among the 100+ varieties of yan cha, the four most famous, known as Si Da Ming Cong (Four Great Tea Varieties) are Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe), Shui Jin Gui (Gold Water Turtle), Tie Luo Han (Iron Arhat), and Bai Ji Guan (White Cock’s Comb). Our Si Da Ming Cong Wu Yi Yan Cha Sampler provides an 8-gram sample of each of these outstanding teas. Price is $30.



Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tea Lovers Holiday Shopping Guide: Stocking Stuffers Under $20

Cooler weather has arrived and that means the holiday shopping season will soon be here. If you're searching for the ideal gift for your favorite tea lover, we have a list of customer favorites that are sure to delight anyone who appreciates fine Chinese tea, teaware, and tea culture. In the first installment, we present a fun list of stocking stuffers, all under $20. You're sure to find an item or two you can't resist!
Roy’s long-awaited book, Great Teas of China, will arrive from the printer just in time for the 2009 holiday season. In the book Roy picks 10 of his favorite Chinese teas and provides an in-depth picture of the origins, preferred growing regions, processing techniques, and more for each tea, all interspersed with colorful and revealing anecdotes from his lifetime in tea. A must for any tea lover who aims for greater appreciation of some of the world’s most renowned varieties of Chinese tea. Place a preorder and as a special thank-you we'll ship you a signed copy as soon as its available (expected ship date early December). Price is $18.95.

Over 1,000 years ago Yang Gui Fei was the concubine of Emperor Tang Ming Huang. Her beauty has been well documented: to maintain her looks she bathed regularly in a special blend of herbs and tea. Our luxurious Imperial Tea Bath sachets, filled with finest natural herbs and premium green tea, bring Yang Gui Fei’s immortal beauty secret to your own tub! And for the holidays, we’ve made the package even more romantic by adding our spectacular Valentine Rose blossoming tea. The special Imperial Tea Bath Holiday Gift Pack includes two tea bath sachets and two Valentine Rose blossoms, guaranteed to soothe, relax, and refresh the one you love most! Price is $18.

We've been using this durable, functional glazed stoneware gaiwan in our teahouses for over 16 years - that's why we call it our Teahouse Gaiwan. We love its sturdy construction, bright white interior that makes it easy to view the color of the liquor as the tea steeps, and wide mouth that allows for great temperature control with delicate green teas. Now you can enjoy the same benefits when you brew tea at home! The 6 ounce capacity is just right whether you’re brewing tea for one or to share. Now offered at a special value price of $18.

Those who appreciate the finest oolong and puerh teas know that the best way to savor these treasures is with traditional gong fu preparation. For the full gong fu experience you’ll want an attractive, sturdy set of tea tools to make quick and elegant work of the pleasant task of brewing tea. Our value-priced set of Hardwood Tea Implements is the perfect answer, a durable, attractive six-piece set with everything you need to make a great pot of tea! Price is $18.

Customers love the soothing Chinese music we feature in our teahouses. Traditional with a pleasantly contemporary spin, each of our Tea Music CDs has a tea theme. Over a dozen titles to choose from. Makes a great stocking stuffer for your favorite tea lover…or music lover! Price is $15.95.

A great solution for puerh lovers on the go! Our Mini Puerh Box is a handsome 6-ounce container filled with individually wrapped single-serving puerh tea balls, the most convenient way to enjoy one of China's most unique teas at home, at work, while traveling, or any time. Price is $15.

Customers love our new portable Imperial Tea Bottle! In China the preferred way to drink tea informally is to toss a handful of leaves into an insulated glass bottle and top it off with hot water all day long. Our 10-ounce Imperial model Chinese tea bottle features double-walled glass construction to retain heat, a silicone o-ring seal to prevent leaks, and an attractive etched design. Comes in a handsome padded, silk-lined brocade presentation box--the perfect gift for any tea lover. Price is $12.

Our Gourd Tea Strainer is hand-crafted to our specifications in Taiwan. Made from a real dried hu lu gourd with nylon mesh carefully hand-sewn into the bowl, our strainer is sized to nestle into the mouth of a standard-sized pitcher and makes quick work of removing any stray leaves that may escape from the teapot. It's an elegant, traditional, and natural addition to any collection of gong fu tea implements. Price is $6.50.

Long a favorite in our teahouses, our hot and spicy Imperial Chili Sauce is now available for your home kitchen! Made with organic tea seed oil, spices, and plenty of fiery chili peppers, according to a traditional Chinese formula, it will enliven almost any dish, from plain noodles to steamed vegetables to potroast. Sure to delight anyone who enjoys the delicious fire of chilis. Four-ounce jar makes a great stocking stuffer. Price is $6.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Purple-Tip Puerh Back in Stock!

Great news for tea lovers, Roy has decided to release a few more cakes of the spectacular Imperial Tribute Harvest Purple-Tip Puerh Bing Cha for the 2009 holiday season. This amazing and unique tea was harvested from centuries-old wild tea trees deep in the jungle in Yunnan. While it's technically a sheng cha, it has a richly fruity mellowness that comes from the age of the trees, rather than the age of the tea itself, with none of the harsh astringency often associated with sheng cha. We can only imagine how this extraordinary tea will evolve over time.

At a time when the provenance of many expensive, rare teas is questionable, there's no way to fake the distinctive purple-red leaf color that was noted as far back as revered tea sage Lu Yu as a marker of the finest and rarest tea from ancient wild trees. And once you taste this tea - uncommonly sweet, fruity, complex, weighty on the palate - you'll appreciate why we're so excited about it.

For those who would like just a taste, instead of an entire cake, Roy is also offering a small amount of the same tea in loose-leaf form, sold by the ounce. If you're interested order soon; quantities are very limited.

Update on Roy's Book, Great Teas of China

We're just about to ship Roy's new book, Great Teas of China, off to the printer and expect to have copies in the teahouses in early December. If you'd like to preorder, Roy will be filling all preorders with signed copies when the orders are fulfilled. You can also check out the Table of Contents.

New Newsletter: Terrific Holiday Shopping Ideas

Our latest newsletter just went out, and it's one you won't want to miss: 25 Terrific Holiday Gifts for Tea Lovers. We have all your shopping needs covered, with great gift ideas from the sublime (Imperial Tribute Harvest Purple-Tip Puerh, $888) to the meticulous (Gourd Tea Strainer, $6.50). If you're shopping for a tea lover (and we won't tell if that tea lover is you), don't wrap up your list until you've checked our fun, practical, and affordable suggestions, guaranteed to delight anyone who appreciates fine tea. Make this holiday season memorable with a unique tea gift!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

New for Halloween: Pumpkin Shao Mai!

If you're in the Bay Area this month be sure to drop by our San Francisco Ferry Building teahouse and try our Halloween Dim Sum Special: Grace Fong's special recipe Pumpkin Shao Mai. These delicate, hand-made dim sum treats are great for a snack or to accompany a main meal, and we'll be serving them the rest of the month. If you're in town on Halloween, mark your calendar: our Halloween Day Special will be an order of Pumpkin Shao Mai plus a cup of our delicious Winter Spice Blend tea that's sure to warm you up on a chilly autumn afternoon, all for just $8! We look forward to serving you in one of our teahouses soon!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How Do You Spell Tie Guan Yin: A Solution to Tea Name Confusion

Some of us on Twitter have been having a discussion today about romanization of Chinese tea names and other tea terminology. It’s a point that's top-of-mind here at the teahouse, as Roy is finishing up his forthcoming book, Great Teas of China, where he chose to title chapters with the pin yin versions of the famous teas (English translations are provided in smaller type). Here’s the statement in Roy’s book that explains his position, which he says “is the only way that makes sense to me”:

With regard to tea names, I have generally elected to represent the names of the teas discussed in the simplified Chinese characters and pin yin romanization of the People’s Republic of China, where most of these teas originate. However, in the case of puerh, I made an exception to follow the spelling convention of the venerable Yunnan Tea Import & Export Corporation, which to this day controls a large share of the market for puerh tea. In any case, it’s important for Western readers to remember that romanization of Chinese characters is only a concern for those who don’t speak Chinese. Everyone involved with tea in China understands tea names and other terminology in the appropriate Chinese characters, and anyone who aspires to communicate in this marketplace must aim to connect their messages to the Chinese language in a direct, consistent, and transparent way.

Without standardization, it becomes almost impossibly confusing to be sure Chinese and non-Chinese speakers are even talking about the same tea. The nightmare example is tie guan yin, which you can find rendered in maybe a dozen different ways. Adding to the complexity, many non-Chinese speakers rely on easily obtained but factually questionable information they find online. A Google search result or two is no substitute for the rigors of actually learning Chinese!

It's vital to remember that unlike Western languages, Chinese isn't phonetic. Characters are the standard of truth, but a given character may be pronounced differently depending on local dialect. When characters are romanized, it's important to use a romanization scheme that's easy for Chinese to connect back to the characters the Latin alphabet is trying to represent.


As global interest in tea is growing, now is the time for those who regularly interact with Chinese producers and merchants to agree on some basic principles and offer a unified solution to questions of spelling and naming. It will help everyone interested in tea to speak the same language so we can focus on the tea itself without having to worry about the nomenclature. On Twitter, fellow teaseller Winnie Yu called many common Western tea terms “still rather colonial” and tweeted, “time to step up and out of 1700s black tea perspective and understand tea from its origin.” We’re on board with that mission and hope Roy’s new book contributes to the clarification.

If you’re looking for a good online source for pin yin tea names, many people use Babelcarp. While the information isn’t bulletproof and is best verified with a Chinese speaker who’s knowledgeable about tea, it’s a good starting point for sifting through an overabundance of conflicting romanizations, translations, misspellings, etc.

UPDATE: Apropos of this discussion, an article from today's New York Times: In Chinatown, Sound of the Future Is Mandarin.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

2009 Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin: The Difference Is Big

While last year's Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin was an excellent tea, those of you who try the 2009 edition will notice a big difference. We mean that literally: the leaves are a lot bigger! We took a side-by-side photo of the old and new tea to show what we're talking about (2009 edition is on the right). Roy says this is the way a classic tie guan yin used to be in the old days; now it's hard to find top-quality tea with such large leaves. Those big leaves are packed with flavor and aroma that make this year's Monkey-Picked a real standout. Tasty and fragrant with a smoothness that invites you to drink it all day, the 2009 tea will delight even the most discriminating oolong lover. It's already the top seller in our online store for the month of October. Give it a try and let us know what you think!


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Breaking the Rules with a Little Silver Teapot

We've mentioned a few times here on the blog the Chinese preference not to mix tea and metal because of the conflict between metal and tea's wood element in the Chinese five-element schema. Ideally, metal is avoided at the tea table. But rules are made to be broken, especially by teamasters. So yesterday Roy and I spent about an hour doing something I never expected to do with a Chinese tea drinker: enjoying green oolong tea in a tiny silver teapot.

Apologies for the photo quality; I only had my phone to make pictures. Roy acquired this outrageously cute little pot 20 years or so ago, from a Taiwanese tea vendor. It has a charming inscription in Chinese about the pleasures of drinking its tea. Due to the conductivity of the metal, the handle is insulated with a hand-tied string cover and the top is attached with a classic tied teapot string decorated with a wooden bead. Both of these enhancements are practical with a metal teapot, but they also add to the little pot's appeal.

The pot hadn't been used for quite awhile and was rather tarnished. We rinsed it with hot water but didn't polish or otherwise clean it. Interestingly, as we brewed tea a few times, the tarnish diminished noticeably and the silver began to shine.

But appearances aside, how does it brew tea? Roy said silver pots enhance very aromatic tea and are also good for teas where quick cooling of the water is desired. He selected a Taiwanese jin xuan, sometimes known as nai cha ("milk tea"), a fragrant high-mountain green oolong. The infusion was a rich yellow gold that quickly filled the room with its distinctive florals. I braced myself for a metallic off-taste, but couldn't detect one. I was a big skeptic about mixing tea and metal but had to admit that this little teapot had just made a delicious brew.

It's rare to see a silver Chinese teapot, but if you do, keep an open mind! The universe of tea is always ready to deal a few pleasant surprises to those who aim to explore its secrets.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Latest Newsletter: New Tea & Teaware

Our latest newsletter just arrived in subscribers' inboxes, featuring the new 2009 Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin, great yi xing teaware to enhance your enjoyment of the new tea, a tasty lineup of herbal teas to warm you on chilly autumn days, and our spectacular Blossoming Tea collection, along with the perfect glass teapot to admire the lovely tea blossoms. Have a look and be sure to subscribe so you don't miss a single issue!

2009 Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin Now Available!

You've been waiting for it - now it's here! We just posted the 2009 Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin in our online store. It will be available in our San Francisco Bay Area teahouses tomorrow. Roy is excited about this year's edition, which features larger leaves packed with flavor, rich viscosity, a great balance of florals and firing, glossy bao guang ("treasured luster" - a sign of high leaf quality) and an uncommon but highly desireable reddish-orange liquor. As usual, Roy performed the final firing by hand in our Oakland warehouse, giving it his personal signature touch and ensuring that the tea you drink will be the freshest possible. Best of all, we're selling the new edition at the same price as last year's tea.

To make the most of this tea we recommend you use a generous quantity of leaves (for example, 6-7 grams in a 6-ounce gaiwan) and water around 90 degrees C (195 F). With so many leaves don't overdo the steeping; 1-2 minutes should be adequate for the first infusion and adjust to taste after that. We love this tea and we're confident you will too. Roy went to a lot of trouble to find and process a high-fired tie guan yin that recalls all the classic virtues and traditional flavors that made this tea famous. Give it a try and leave a comment here on the blog letting us know what you think.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cover Shot of Roy's New Book

The publisher still hasn't given us a publication date, but we just received the cover design for Roy's upcoming book, Great Teas of China, and wanted to share! The book is coming in Q4 of this year. If you'd like to be notified when it's available, email us and we'll add your name to the interest list.

Great Teas of China is an in-depth look at 10 of China's great teas--everything from processing details to history--mixed with lots of Roy's anecdotes and insights from over 20 years as a tea merchant. It's sure to enhance your enjoyment of favorite teas and perhaps introduce you to some new varieties you haven't tried yet.

We're excited that this publishing project is finally coming together and will keep you posted as we learn more specifics from the publisher.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Purple Tea Towel & Puerh Broom: Favorite Tea Souvenirs

Among the many pleasures of tea tourism is the opportunity to bring home tea souvenirs for yourself and your tea-loving friends. Some of my favorites are the purple tea towel and photo-pitcher I picked up in Wu Yi Shan, and the bamboo puerh knife, puerh broom, and set of lotus teacup coasters I found in various teashops in Kunming.

While the tea you bring back may be the best souvenir of all, it doesn't last forever. These tea tchotchkes--often only costing a dollar or two and quickly absorbed into everyday tea routines--are enduring reminders of great tea experiences past and ongoing motivations to plan the next one.

I imagine some of you have collected terrific tea souvenirs over the years! Share them with us, either by posting photos and stories in our Facebook Virtual Teahouse or by making a comment on this post with a link to your photo. As it happens, I have an extra bamboo puerh knife (for daintily breaking apart bing cha without the use of metal) and will award it as a prize to the best tea souvenir posted by midnight, October 19. Enter now and expand your collection!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

New Herbal & Scented Teas for Autumn

As the weather's changing we're all thinking about enjoying more warm beverages during the chilly weeks ahead. If you enjoy herbal or scented tea we've added three new selections that we're sure you'll want to try.


Our Autumn Herbal Potion, redolent of the finest lavender and mint with just a hint of green tea, will gently warm you, clear your head, and help bring your system back into balance during stressful cold weather and season changes. Soothing and restorative, it's a favorite you can enjoy any time of day.


For our fragrant Vanilla Needle, we sealed fine Silver Needle white tea from Fujian with generous quantities of premium vanilla beans (not vanilla extract!) until the tea was richly scented with vanilla. If you love vanilla and also appreciate the delicate flavor and many claimed health benefits of white tea, you'll truly find our Vanilla Needle to be the best of both worlds.


Finally, customers have been asking for the popular black tea substitute rooibos. We heard you, and we're pleased to offer a top-quality South African Organic Rooibos that you can enjoy either plain or with milk, sugar, or lemon. This caffeine-free herbal drink yields a rich, red infusion that you can drink worry-free morning or night.

Friday, October 9, 2009

New in the Teahouse: Our Special Recipe Hong Kong Milk Tea!

Earlier this year a reader asked for a recipe for authentic Hong Kong Milk Tea and Roy, a Hong Kong native and milk tea aficionado, responded with his favorite. In just a few months that post has become one of the most popular on the site. Now that we realize our readers are milk tea fans Roy decided to offer our own special recipe milk tea, both hot and cold, in our San Francisco Bay Area teahouses. To welcome milk tea to our menu of traditional Chinese specialities, and thank blog readers for the heads-up about your interest, tomorrow, October 10, we're offering an introductory special: mention the Camellia Sinensis blog and buy one milk tea, get one free!

Stop by either our Ferry Building or Berkeley teahouse and check out this delicious new menu item. We guarantee, you won't find more authentic Hong Kong Milk Tea this side of the Pacific!

First Taste: 2009 Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin

This morning in the warehouse Roy, Grace, and I tried the eagerly anticipated 2009 Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin. Roy is excited about this tea and took his time firing it to bring out all the best qualities of a classic high-fired tie guan yin. It will go on sale as soon as it's packed up and delivered to the teahouses.

Roy brewed it two ways: first in a gaiwan, then "farmer style" in his recently rediscovered yi xing teapot devoted to tie guan yin. This tea has big, heavy leaves (pictured here), so even though he barely covered the bottom of the gaiwan, the leaves weighed out to 6.5 grams. He set the digital kettle to a near-boiling 208 degrees F and steeped for approximately two minutes. This tea is packed with flavor and in order to enjoy it, you don't want to be timid with the leaves, water temperature, or steeping time.

The aroma gave the first clue that this was truly a classic tie guan yin, with its unique balance of fire and florals. You can smell the firing in the damp leaves, but there's none of the overbearing charcoaly or coffee-like harshness of excessive roasting that you find in carelessly fired teas. In the cup the infusion is a clear, bright orange-red color that can only come from the proper amount of oxidation. Inspecting the infused leaves revealed that sure enough, they come close to the classic ratio of 3 parts red (oxidized) to 7 parts green. Roy commented how rare it is to see tie guan yin this color these days; the modern version tends to be much less oxidized, yielding a greenish-yellow brew.

Next Roy brought out his tie guan yin teapot to make the tea in the style you're more likely to be served if you drink it in Anxi. He packed the small pot with at least a half-ounce of leaves (15 grams or so--we didn't weigh them), again infusing with near-boiling water for a couple of minutes. The liquor still had the beautiful orange-red color, but darker. When we removed the teapot lid, the expanding leaves were almost bursting out of the top of the pot. With so many leaves the tea has a bitter edge, but the astringency doesn't overpower and in fact is balanced by the other equally potent flavors that emerge with a strong brew, including delightful florals and a sweetness from sap in the leaves that's caramelized during firing. This tea is vibrant with enticing flavors, but in a totally non-aggressive way so that you feel like you could drink it all day. If you ever do stop drinking it, however, there's a delicious, lingering aftertaste.

We can't wait to share this very special, classic tea and will let you know as soon as it's available in our teahouses.


Roy's Teapot for Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin

Having shared photos of Roy's teapot for puerh, we thought you might also like to see his pot dedicated to monkey-picked tie guan yin. It's a small, unpretentious zi sha yi xing pot of good but not exceptional quality, but after over 20 years of brewing tie guan yin, it's developed a glossy patina and the coveted trait of being able to produce tea without adding leaves.

The pot was lost for a couple of years, ever since the original Imperial Tea Court in Chinatown closed. But this week, after searching intensely, Roy found it and celebrated by using it brew the first pot of the 2009 Harvest Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin, which will be coming to the teahouse and online store in just a few days.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Coming Soon: 2009 Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin

When I ran into Roy at the teahouse yesterday he mentioned that he's fired the 2009 Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin. We'll be releasing it later this week. I can't wait to taste this tea, which I saw when it came in, before Roy's final firing (photo). The tightly rolled leaves are extra-large, suggesting lots of flavor. Roy said that's the way tie guan yin used to be a decade or more ago, before the dramatic changes in China began affecting agricultural production in many dimensions, from sunlight and rainfall to increased use of chemicals on farmland. He was excited to have found a source for the increasingly rare classic style of this great tea.

Year in and year out, Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin, personally fired by Roy to his exacting standards, is our top-selling tea. Many ask if it's really picked by monkeys. The answer is no, but this legend, harking back to an earlier and simpler time in tea history, is still referenced to designate high quality, high-mountain-grown tie guan yin with a distinctive, classic firing profile.

Stay tuned, we'll let you know as soon as the 2009 Harvest Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin is available in our teahouses and online store!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

New Newsletter: Jasmine Tea, Special Values of the Month

We just published our latest newsletter, focusing on jasmine tea, including the 2009 Harvest Imperial Jasmine Pearls and 2009 Harvest Imperial Silver Needle. In addition, there's new tea and teaware, the Values of the Month for October, news from our teahouses, and more. Be sure to subscribe so you don't miss a single issue, conveniently delivered right to your inbox.

Return of the Birdmen

December 2009 will mark the second anniversary of the original Imperial Tea Court's last day of business. It was heartwarming to see all the people who came to say goodbye during those last days and shortly after we closed. I felt what I thought was a sense of relief; having one less store to worry about should lighten the load, allow me to do more traveling, and continue learning as a tea professional. However, as time goes by I think about the original "Court" more and more. Nearly two years have passed and I miss it more every day.

Last week, I drove by the empty space and memories of the band of old guys who used to bring their songbirds to the original Imperial Tea Court starting in 1993 came roaring back. Those guys are one of the many elements that made Imperial Tea Court unique and different. As the day continued, I simply could not contain myself any further. I called up Mr. King Wong, one of the original bird people, and offered to take him to lunch to talk about old times. I also wanted to invite him and his friends to come to our Berkeley Teahouse with their birds to renew the tradition of tea, birds, and conversation. (Unfortunately, health department regulations won't allow the birds in the Ferry Building.)

Since the original Imperial Tea Court closed the bird group has disbanded, but Mr. Wong promised to try to bring a few together and get the tradition going again. I can't wait until they return with the prized songbirds in our tea garden in Berkeley. I spent the day visiting with Mr. Wong and playing with his hand-reared songbirds in his private tea sanctuary. I've got my fingers crossed...


The birds have a dedicated area in Mr. Wong's backyard.


A peek inside the birds' world: a large cage for special birds.


Friday, October 2, 2009

Join Us for the Spice of Life in Berkeley October 4

Sunday, October 4, Berkeley is celebrating the Spice of Life Festival and we're pleased that our Berkeley Teahouse will be part of the excitement. Head to our location in the Epicurious Garden (adjacent to Chez Panisse) and sit and relax in our beautiful garden with a tall glass of our famous iced tea, while you snack on our organic potstickers, steamed buns, and other appetizers. Other vendors will be offering cooking demonstrations, sample plates, and more. If you love food you'll love the Spice of Life!

Celebrate the Moon Festival With Us!

If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area we invite you to stop by one of our teahouses to celebrate the 2009 Moon Festival, an important autumn holiday in the Chinese calendar. In honor of the full moon, tomorrow only, October 3, we'll be serving a mini-mooncake with a gaiwan of Superior Puerh mixed with a Chrysanthemum Blossom or two. The blossoms open and rise to the top of the infusion, recalling the beautiful reflection of the moon on the water.

Rich and flavorful, mooncakes are meant to be savored slowly along with a cup of tea. We've chosen a hearty puerh whose flavor complements the mooncake, and added the classic flower of autumn, the chrysanthemum, both for visual and palate appeal. And our delicious Moon Festival Special Combination won't stretch your budget; it's only $8! We look forward to celebrating the mid-autumn with you tomorrow in classic Chinese style.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Great Food & Tea Pairings in the Teahouse

Tea writer Tiffany Picard just published this article in TeaMuse about some tea and food pairings she sampled recently in our San Francisco Ferry Building teahouse. At Roy's suggestion she tried Jasmine Pearls with our Dragon Well Pork Dumplings; Wu Yi Yan Cha with baked vegetarian spring rolls; and Special Reserve Puerh with our popular Teahouse Spicy Pork Noodles.

Tiffany's comments: "The dumplings and jasmine tea were the perfect marriage of salty and sweet"; "the seasonings in the spring rolls were flavorful, but light enough to allow you to taste the complexities in our oolong tea"; the puerh "tasted like nature—floral and loamy like a garden after a rainstorm. We slurped up both tea and noodles all too quickly!"

Stop by one of our teahouses and see for yourself! Order one of these combinations or ask your server for a recommendation. As Tiffany says, "we left the Imperial Tea Court convinced that there truly is a tea for every mood, and a tea for every food!"