Sunday, April 25, 2010

Checking in on the Tea Farm in Progress

Roy and Grace invited me to tag along on their trip to the future tea farm this weekend. The rolling hills are still carpeted in green for a few more weeks before the long dry season sets in next month. Mustard and poppies are in full bloom, painting the landscape in vivid colors. The same wild mustard plants can be seen in some of China's tea-farming areas, as can the horsetail pine; according to Roy, there's a saying in China that if you can see horsetail pine, it's a good place to grow tea.

This weekend wildlife were on full display, unfazed by human proximity. Jackrabbits bobbed through the almond orchard while a pair of quail scurried through the underbrush and across the driveway. We couldn't spot the new baby koi, but the pond was teeming with tadpoles and minnows, with a bullfrog laying down a bass line nearby. The killdeer we spotted near the pond last month is now treating us to an elaborate protective display when we approach what must be his nesting area, while high in the cloudless sky we could spot half a dozen hawks on patrol.

After making the rounds in mid-day sun that's already intense, even in April, we retreated to the shaded patio to enjoy the cool, fragrant breeze and gaiwans of green tea from Ning Qiang, the region in Shaanxi Province where Roy will start his China tea farm next year - making him the first tea merchant in history with commercial tea crops in both China and California. We debated about the best spots on the property to install stone tea tables and stools and wondered if it's possible to get a miniature bamboo raft, modeled after the ones that carry tea tourists down Wu Yi Shan's legendary Jiu Qu Xi (Nine-Bend Stream), for the pond.

Roy met with his agricultural manager and signed some paperwork to get the farm certified organic. We also picked up a jug of local honey for his latest experiment: tea preserved in honey. This traditional Chinese delicacy is made by covering tea leaves with fresh honey and sealing the container for several months. Then you extract the leaves and brew tea. If Roy can match the product he remembers from China, it will be another specialty item for the teahouses.


The almond orchard is loaded with young fruit


This is the season for thousands of colorful wildflowers


This "grass dragon" is part of the farm's fertile ecosystem

Preview of New Tea Arriving Soon

More 2010 harvest spring teas are enroute to the teahouses and should be available shortly. Roy is excited to introduce a green tea from Ning Qiang prefecture in Shaanxi Province, where he will be starting a tea farm next year. Although the area isn't well known today, it merited mention in Lu Yu's Classic of Tea back in the tea-loving Tang Dynasty. This easy-drinking, pan-fired tea is full of flavor and will surely intrigue any green tea lover.

Our new harvest of the perennial favorite white tea Bai Hao Yin Zhen is also on the way. Fujian Province, where this tea is produced, was hard-hit by the devastating spring freeze and Roy was challenged this year to find a Bai Hao Yin Zhen that meets his exacting standards. Fortunately he succeeded and you'll be pleased by the results.

Finally, we'll be offering several new black teas. Stay tuned, we'll let you know as soon as all the latest tea is posted in our online store and offered in our teahouses. 

Saturday, April 24, 2010

California Tea Farm Update

We are going up to the tea-farm-in-progress this Sunday and plan to do so every Sunday from now on, if we can. Last week, 18 koi fish went into the pond (18 for obvious reasons - a group of nine fish is believed to be lucky, as is any number with an eight). I made a deal with a local farmer to start working the land and have requested a permit from PG&E to bring power to a pump station we're going to install to pipe in county irrigation water from the aquaduct. Unfortunately, it's already too hot to start cover crops now without irrigation, so we'll bring in the water and then decide if we still want the cover crops. The farmer, Joe Martinez, and I decided to start tea seedlings in the fall. For now, we are cleaning up the property and doing maintenance. It's hard to believe how fast grass can grow with so much recent rain!

The soil tested out to be within the right range (pH around 6) for tea. It's true that tea likes humid conditions; that's why it's critical to have irrigation in the summer. Summer in Asia is hot and humid, but here in California it is hot and dry. We will most likely go to drip irrigation with forging spray to keep the leaves moist. Since no one else has grown a commercial tea crop in California before, we will have to try it and see, but my gut is telling me yes, so what can I say! California's Central Valley is a major growing center for flowering camellias, so if these other camellia varieties do well, why not Camellia sinensis?

I have not completely settled on varietals yet, but most likely the first batch will be arriving from Taiwan and that means oolong.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

First Taste: 2010 Harvest Jun Shan Yin Zhen

We're pleased to announce the return to the teahouse of a popular tea we haven't offered for a couple of years: the yellow tea Jun Shan Yin Zhen (Laird Mountain Silver Needle) from Hunan Province. A former Imperial Tribute Tea, this uncommon tea is also renowned as the supposed favorite of Hunan native Mao Zedong.

Yellow teas are produced by a unique process. First, the downy young spring leaves are withered a bit, then they're pan-fired until they're not quite dry. At that point, the tea is divided into small quantities that are wrapped in paper packets for a time, a process that allows them to yellow a bit, giving the tea it's unique color.

Roy advises covering the bottom of your gaiwan with Jun Shan Yin Zhen and then adding one third more leaves. Pour near-boiling water into the room-temperature gaiwan (not pre-warmed) and brew for a couple of minutes with the lid off to facilitate cooling. Decant into a pitcher.

In our First Taste, the tea yielded a pale yellow infusion with a slightly greenish hue. Both the infusing leaves and the liquor had a delightfully fresh, spring green aroma that tea lovers recognize as a hallmark of the first newly picked teas of the year. Belying its pale appearance, the tea is full of mild but assertive flavor. It's powerfully sweet with substantial body, enhanced by the abundant fur that puts the "silver" in its name. The combination of rich viscosity and sweetness creates a unique, buttery sensation on the palate.

The surprise with this tea: the flavor stands up to a large number of infusions, many more than a typical spring green tea. No matter how often it's brewed or how long it's steeped, it never gets bitter. A delicious taste of spring!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

2010 Harvest Tea Now in the Teahouse!

The first 2010 harvest tea of the season has arrived in our warehouse and is now available in our teahouses! We'll have photos and put the teas on the web site by the weekend. The shipment includes an outstanding, early-picked Ming Qian Imperial Lotus Heart Dragon Well. Our tea farm is located in a sheltered valley and, similar to last year, the unique location protected our crop from severe weather even while nearby tea fields were devastated. I had an opportunity to taste this tea today and it's mild and sweet with substantial viscosity. The greenish-yellow liquor tends to the greener side of the spectrum, while the early-picked leaves, bursting with nutrients the tea plant has been collecting all winter, quickly sink to the bottom of the gaiwan, a sign of exceptional quality. The tea has an memorable long, sweet finish.

Our 2010 Harvest Imperial Dragon Well was picked only a few days later. The result is larger leaves with more of this varietal's distinctively flavored "fur" that lends the tea a hearty, forward aroma and slightly malty taste. While the leaves are spring green, the liquor is a bit more yellowish than the Lotus Heart. In the cup, the fur provides a satisfying, thick viscosity.

In addition to the Zhejiang dragon wells, Roy acquired two more interesting spring teas in Hunan Province, an area that was spared from the worst of the spring weather. After an absence of a couple of years we're pleased to offer a fine 2010 Harvest Jun Shan Yin Zhen, an uncommon yellow tea renowned as Chairman Mao's favorite. This tea acquires its color from a unique process in which the tea is withered, pan-fired until it's not quite dry, then wrapped in paper for a time. If you're not familiar with this variety, you owe it to yourself to get acquainted with one of China's most famous teas.

Roy also found an unusual green tea, Longevity Needles, that has the distinction of having been cooked three ways: the leaves are steamed, pan-fired, and roasted during the extended teamaking process. This delicious, easy-drinking tea is full of fresh spring flavor and will be a delightful discovery for green tea lovers looking for something different.

Finally, for the true contrarians (you know who you are) who drink black tea even in the spring, Roy found a fascinating golden tip tea from Guangdong, the first Guangdong black tea we've ever offered. Its exotic, southern taste recalls sugar cane and bamboo; it's familiar yet elusive, earthy and satisfying yet never overpowering. The beautiful gold-colored leaves brew up into a tantalizing amber infusion. If you appreciate fine black tea, you'll immediately understand why Roy was captivated by this newcomer.

Photos, tasting notes, and more details on these first tastes of Spring 2010 coming soon!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

First Look: 2010 Imperial Lotus Heart Dragon Well

Roy sent these photos from his cupping session with the tea he selected for our 2010 harvest Imperial Lotus Heart Dragon Well. Luckily, frost damage to the early spring tea crop in Zhejiang wasn't as severe as originally feared, and Roy is excited about this tea, which should be available in our online store and teahouses in the next week or two.


Cupping the 2010 Lotus Heart


Infused leaves after cupping

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Photos from Hunan



Longevity Needles brewed in a glass




Samples being prepared for cupping




Guangdong Hong Ya (Red Tips) ready for cupping




Sieving Longevity Needles




After sieving, the pile is reduced by half




Number 10 sieve used to regrade Longevity Needles




Hunan Tea Import/Export Corp.'s future 200 million RMB office and factory complex. It will have the capacity to process up to 10 metric tonnes of finished tea per day.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Cupping Report from Hunan

Today, April 5, is the Qing Ming Festival, a day Chinese celebrate in memory of their ancestors by visiting their grave sites to pay respect. It is also a national holiday. After breakfast this morning, Mr. Wang of the Hunan Tea Import/Export Corp. picked me up at my hotel and we went to his office to cup all of the teas his company produced this spring. I have lived in the US for so long that I forgot that this is an important holiday and I found a totally empty office with only me and Mr. Wang. Obviously he gave up time with his family to do this with me. I felt terrible, but since we had made the trip we got to work.

After cupping some 20 teas I found and approved three teas to be shipped immediately via express mail to the US:

Longevity Green Needles - A big, tippy green tea produced just about a week ago using the steam sha qing technique. As I explained in Great Teas of China, sha qing is the process where, after withering, tea is cooked through to stop oxidation - in this case, using steam. Next, this tea is pan-fired and roasted dried by charcoal. This process retains the green color but heightens aromatics and flavor. I wasn't totally happy with the sorting, so Mr. Wang and I hand-sieved the irregular leaves out and packed the remaining tea ourselves. The total is a bit less than 5 kg.

We moved on to cup the famed Jun Shan Yin Zhen, reputed to be Chairman Mao's favorite tea. After cupping it I think I can agree with the Chairman that this is an excellent yellow tea that deserves to be named one of the top ten most famous teas of China. This tea is produced much like a pan-fired green tea, but it's wrapped in paper packets before it is completely dried, allowing the leaves to turn yellow and thus removing the grassy flavor that may be found in some green tea. The tea is then roasted dry. This year's selection is excellent; I was only able to procure 3 kg.

The final tea is an all golden-tip black tea from Guangdong Province, a da ye (big-leaf) varietal that is unlike any other China black tea. It has nice reddish color and an unaggressive nature. The mouth-feel is thick and silky with good aromatics. Everything about this tea is just different; there is a lot going on, but one doesn't know how to begin! This is definitely a tea that requires learning and contemplation.

I returned to the hotel amidst a pouring rain and blaring horns from folks returning to the city. I think I'll put my foot up and stay in the hotel tonight. I am scheduled to go up to the mountains tomorrow to see what that'll bring me...

Further to my previous post, the report from Hangzhou is that we were not hurt by the frost as badly as we feared, and some good lotus heart was produced. A sample is being expressed to my hotel here in Hunan for cupping and approval. If approved, it will be expressed to the US immediately. I've got my fingers crossed!

I'll post photos of these new teas soon.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Roy Reports from Taiwan: Milk Oolong

After over 30 hours of no sleep, I arrived Taipei at 5:50 AM. My friend Mr. Chang met me at the airport and we headed toward the mountains.

There's been a lot of buzz in the US about Taiwanese "milk oolong" tea. I haven't entertained the notion of selling it, as most of what you find on the market was produced by spraying a milk-like flavoring agent onto the leaves. However, the original Taiwanese milk oolong (nai xiang, or milk fragrance) is a higher-grown Jin Xuan varietal of green oolong with a thick, rich, almost milky texture. It has a mouth-coating quality a little bit similar to milk. I cupped several newly harvested nai xiang yesterday and found some with possibilities, but since I was barely alive after two straight days of travels, I decided not to make any decisions. Instead I asked the producer to make some changes and wait for my return in mid-May.

What's the story on real (not artificially flavored) milk oolong, you ask? Some organic tea farmers started using a solution of egg, milk powder, soy bean meal, fish meal, honey, and yogurt that they fermented and used as liquid fertilizer. It seems to work well, as you can see from these photos: it produces an abundance of happy bugs and healthy looking leaves. I'll be adding some of these teas to our inventory this spring. But buyer beware when it comes to "milk oolong." The fact is, if it really tastes like milk, think flavorings! The fertilizer solution does not create tea that tastes like milk; it produces a very good-tasting green oolong with thick mouth-feel.

I returned to the hotel late at night and slept like a log. Now I'm on the way to the town of Yin Ko, Taiwan's ceramics capital, to look at some teawares promised me. After that, I have a quick flight to Beijing to meet up with some business partners and see my ailing friend Mr. Yang Wu, who is about to undergo surgery for cancer yet again. Mr. Yang has been fighting cancer for years and has outlasted every doctor's prediction, but unfortunately, the prognosis is very bad this time. I hope to see him one last time.

Then I'm scheduled for Hunan, which is affected by drought but has more tea currently than Hangzhou, where I generally stop first. Unfortunately, the Eastern coast of China - including Hangzhou, Fujian, and Guangdong - were hit with a severe late frost. The early harvest of green tea has been devastated. Thankfully, higher-grown and later-harvested teas survived. I've decided that this is the year to try a different approach. With frost in the East and drought in the West, including Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guizhou, I'm hoping our new tea-growing project in Shaanxi will save the day and yield immediate results by offering a new channel for interesting green teas.

Right now, I'm feeling every second of my 54 years in this wonderful world of ours...



Not just people, but all kinds of bugs seem to love nai xiang




The ingredients for the special fertilizer used on "milk oolong." It's not lovely to look at, but the tea plants can't get enough!

New in the Teahouse: Two Delicious Green Oolongs

Good news if you love floral, full-bodied green oolong tea from Taiwan: in general, Taiwan's winter harvest disappointed last year due to excessive rain, but Roy kept looking and managed to acquire a few kilos of a terrific 2009 green oolong that one of his suppliers had stashed away for his own drinking pleasure.

Roy was so impressed with this tea that he designated it our 2009 Winter Harvest Imperial Green Oolong. It offers gentle but persistent florals and great texture, with a thick - almost syrupy - mouth feel you can actually smell in the cup. The liquor is a rich, greenish gold that foretells the satisfying drinking experience. Delicious when brewed in a classic gaiwan, it will yield even more flavor and depth with traditional gong fu preparation in an yi xing teapot. Act quickly, supplies are very limited.

We're also pleased to introduce our first NOP-certified organic green oolong, an outstanding dong ding-style tea that's lightly oxidized to bring out the floral character green oolong lovers appreciate, but moderately fired to add even more layers of complexity and flavor. We've designated this tea our Everyday Organic Green Oolong, because it's so delicious and healthful you'll want to drink it every day, and so affordable, you can do so worry-free. This is a smooth, easy-drinking tea, full-bodied with a satisfying, weighty texture. As a bonus, the flavor-packed leaves stand up to many infusions, another sign of this great tea's high quality.