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I embarked on my tea journey when I studied abroad in China in 2008 and traveled around Taiwan that summer. I'm here to share my experiences and offer my own opinion, advice, and comments on tea.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Hundred Year Tree

*NOTE* I actually wrote this a really long time ago, but more interesting things kept popping up that I wanted to talk about instead. I had actually taken some photos of the leaves and tea soup, but I can't find them any more...and I already finished this tea. >.< href="http://www.teahabitat.com/store/">Tea Habitat and The Tea Gallery. All these teas have been challenged my conception of how teas within the same "family" could elicit so many different flavors, aromas, and emotions. It's hard to pick which one to review first, but I think I will start with the one that needed more special attention, but paid off beautifully.


Hundred Year Tree (description; $18/25 grams)
This is definitely the most I've ever paid for tea so far, but the price really is worth it. I've decided to slowly try all of The Tea Gallery's Wuyi offerings, ordering a few every so often until I've sampled them all. That's how amazing their tea is. I first brewed using 5 grams for my 120 ml teapot, which turned out okay. There was nice aroma and flavor profile, but I was kind of disappointed with the lack of a "tea high." I moved through all my samples once before coming back to this one. I decided to amp up the amount to 5.5 grams, and I brewed it with a heavy hand ... and jackpot.

It's useless to write a review of this tea, because what I experienced could not be described with words. I think they did a very nice job of describing the aroma very well in their description...can't really add much to that. Even though I like the Shi Lan more, I think I like the feeling this tea gives me the best. It had a profound calming effect, and I felt a tingling sensation go through my entire body. It was mind-blowing, and I don't mind that in a hyperbolic way, I was literally out of my mind for a few hours afterward.

I'm adding this to the list of "things to reorder" after I make it around all of The Tea Gallery's fine selection. A big thumbs up on this one!

(I realized that I said I would post about The Tea Gallery's Classic Roast vs. Just 4 Tea Classic Roast, but I just needed to post about this exquisite tea.)

*EDIT*
I was mulling over what I had written for this post, and I have a confession to make. I wrote this draft right after my cha qi high on my 2nd time trying this (which is why the review is so gushing), but on the 3rd and 4th go with this tea, the cha qi was absent. Looking back at my notes, reading what I had written, mulling over the tea in my head...I think I probably wouldn't re-order this tea. It's an interesting tea, and the old tree aspect probably gives the tea great depth. I like some of the other Tea Gallery selections better, such as the Shi Lan. I would probably feel differently though, if I could nail that cha qi feeling everytime I brewed this.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dedicating Yixing


Although I’ve heard tons of interesting theories as to which clay types/teapot shapes are best for what tea, some of which I agree with; however, I think the only postulate in this process is testing a pot out with different types of tea. The method I use originated from the folks over at The Tea Gallery, which I heard second-hand somewhere

  1. Pre-heat a yixing teapot (or two, if you’re doing a triple comparison) to account for any temperature differences.
  2. Brew 3 infusions gong fu style (I usually brew like six so I can do more comparisons if needed) using a gaiwan
  3. Pour the tea into the yixing teapot(s), removing the pre-heated water of course, and save some of the original to serve as a “control” (this isn’t exactly a control, but it’s the most neutral).
  4. After leaving the tea in the yixing teapot(s) for about a minute or so, and pour it into separate fair cups.
  5. Taste each one, and compare. I personally like to drink some water between each sample to clear the taste in my mouth.

So instead of enjoying my tea, I am doing this taste pretty much every day, trying to see which teapot is better for which tea. My friend WY let me borrow this shui ping hu.

there's something sexy about the water level-ness of shui ping


He’s pretty certain that it’s a fake, but if it is it’s a pretty good one. It has a pretty nice pour, and it even has good floating balance on water. The clay seems pretty high-fired, maybe some kind of Hong Ni IMO. The walls are medium-thick, and it seems pretty durable.


So maybe not completely balanced on water, but still better than sinking.


I thought it would go well with lighter high mountain balled Oolong, because the less-porous clay would protect the aroma better. Comparing with a gaiwan, the aroma seemed a little better, but what I noticed the most was the improved mouth-feel coming from the yixing. It’s pretty hard to differentiate between the two; it’s enough for me to only say which one is better. If you ask me why, I’d probably be a little hard-pressed.


Even though it did well with greener oolong, I thought the thicker walls might make it suitable for medium roasted oolong or lighter roasted Wuyi. For medium-roasted oolong I compared between the Hong Ni, a gaiwan and a Lin’s Purion, while for the lighter roasted Wuyi I compared between the Hong Ni, a Zi Ni and a Gaiwan. The Hong Ni failed all of these tests, so I think I’m pretty set on dedicating this to greener oolong, until I find my own, “authentic” Zhu Ni pot for green oolong and I can return this back to WY.


Of course, this presents a conundrum for my most recent acquisition, a 130 ml Hong-Ni/Zhu Ni mixture (I think), very thin and high fired shui ping from The Tea Gallery. It hasn’t arrived yet, but hopefully it’ll be here by Saturday…just in time for extensive tests. I had bought this pot with the expectation of using it with lighter roasted Wuyi, but judging from the results from WY’s shui ping, the results may not be favorable.


The Wuyi I used for the Hong Ni was more of a medium roast, but I ordered some of The Tea Gallery’s Bai Ji Guan (quite possibly one of my favorite Wuyi) so hopefully it’ll work out. If not, I might just dedicate this pot to greener oolong, and just stick to my Zi Ni pot for all my Wuyi, heavy to light roasted. (There aren’t too many light roasted Wuyi, are there? I wonder if it’s even worth it to dedicate a separate pot to it).


Anyway, the testing continues…

Friday, August 21, 2009

2008 Zhi Lan Xiang - Orchid Fragrance

I had actually written this post during lunch today at work, but I forgot to email it to myself, so I'm really kicking myself for doing that. I wonder how different my post now will be from what I wrote earlier today. Anyway, in light of Tea Habitat's new-found publicity, I decided I should blog about my first single-bush Dan Cong, the 2008 Zhi Lan Xiang - Orchid Fragrance.

2008 Zhi Lan Xiang - Orchid Fragrance ($30/1 oz.; product description)

This was the tea I ordered when I ordered my Chao Zhou pot. I had asked Imen for some suggestions, and this was suggested to me. Having experience with only commercial Dan Cong I expected the two to be fairly similar. Commercial Dan Cong didn't thrill me that much, because of their capricious nature to turn astringent with poor brewing skills, and an aroma that almost seems artificial. I've had some good commercial Dan Cong before (best one is The Tea Gallery's Phoenix), but I think that you can't put the two in the same category. The difference between commercial and single-bush is like the difference between night and day.

Imen had suggested that I first try brew using a Gaiwan, and although I was anxious to put my Chao Zhou pot into action, I refrained at the advice from a professional. I used 3 grams for my first attempt, and followed Imen's instructions on her blog (which can be found here). I used 4 and 5 grams for my later attempts, settling at 4 grams as my sweet spot.

The dry leaf is like autumn, with the scent of spring and the sweetness of summer

When I first smelled the dry leaf there was an exquisite scent. Although it was very "strong," it was at the same time very subtle. It's like the difference between good perfume and cheap , bad perfume (I think Imen said this somewhere? Her interview with Steven I think?). And the taste, well, the product description sums it up pretty well...but to me, it felt like I could taste the orchid's scent, if that makes any sense.

I also loved the evolution of this tea through multiple infusions. Whereas most other teas, once they get to the 5th infusion and beyond are only paler versions of their former self, the Zhi Lan kept revealing new tricks, new tastes, new experiences in which I relished in. When I brewed this tea for the fourth time, I brewed it for 26 infusions. Sure, the later infusions tasted like rose water, but I still loved it. By the 12 infusion and beyond I was steeping for up to 5 minutes or so, and I was rewarding with a faintly floral but sweet brew. It was like drinking something sweet without the sugar in it. It was exciting, as I pondered if this next infusion will be the one that the tea finally putters out on.

And just when the sweetness began to die around the 22nd steeping, a new floral aroma showed up and kept me captivated for 4 more infusions. This was easily one of the top three teas I've tasted, though I think once I start exploring Imen's other selections, it will be a much stiffer competition.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention. There was a remarkable difference between brewing in a Gaiwan and brewing in the Chao Zhou pot. I feel that the Gaiwan protects the tea's aroma better, but the Chao Zhou pot gives the tea better flavor and better mouth-feel. I think with all her teas, I'm going to brew with both just to get a complete picture of the tea.

Congratulations once again, Imen, on your outstanding tea and the public recognition and accolades you have received. My hat is off to you.

Addendum: I'm beginning to realize how Single Bush Dan Cong can be more masculine and feminine. As I'm drinking this Zhi Lan Xiang, the initial infusions have a bolder flavor and greater "mouth-feel," while the later brews reveals a softer, more refined and delicate brew, with better aroma and a lingering rose water flavor.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Wen Xiang Bei

Hobbes has an excellent article here on wenxiangbei (smell aroma cup), which I first stumbled across when I was looking over Tea Nerd's tea ware guide here. I had come across wenxiangbei when I was sampling tea in Taiwan, and I fell in love with the practice. I like to judge food/drink by smell, because touching doesn't really do anything (and for drinks it's a social faux-pax), and if you taste something bad...well, it takes time to spit it out. If something smells bad, you can immediately turn away. Anyway, that's not the point here...

I told myself that I would buy a set of wenxiangbei, but more "important" purchases came in the way: tea ware, tea, even more tea ware. I was serving tea to my mom and grandmother, and in force of habit, after I poured the tea liquor into the faircup, I took it up to my nose and sniffed. My mother looked a bit appalled, saying that it looks out-of-place and would be impolite in front of company. I told her I did this because I didn't have any wenxiangbei. She said, "oh, I think grandfather left a set up in the attic."

I love being part of a Taiwanese family, especially one with a tea-drinking grandfather. It means free tea-related stuff for me!

I'm not usually a fan of blue and white porcelain, but I like this because it's very subtle and simple in design

Painted with standard blue-and-white motifs, the porcelain is quite translucent. If I hold it with cup facing me, I can see a faint outline of the painted chop on the other side. I've been using my porcelain-lined Zisha cups, but I like these much better. They display the tea's color so much better.
This is a terrible picture, it's actually more translucent than I make it seem

My Sencha looks more vibrantly green than it usually does. I love the concentrated aroma from it, and I'm able to pick up some of the higher notes (beidixiang "cup bottom scent") which were often elusive to me beforehand. I'm particularly fond of longer-lasting scent of lengxiang ("cold scent") which happens when the wenxiangbei cools down. I read a hypothesis someone put forth that the beidixiang is the water-soluble particles, while lengxiang is the water-insoluble particles, which might include things such as essential oils. I think I agree with this theory.

Anyway, I've been practicing the motions of using the wenxiangbei. Is it considered improper if I use two hands when flipping it? I can do it with one hand but it looks clumsily awkward. I thought I would grow tired of using wenxiangbei after a while, but after a week I'm still loving the ritual of it all.

On another note, I just received some of Just4Tea's roasted TGY, which I was thrilled to trade for via TeaChat. I had actually wanted to buy some myself, but when the opportunity came up I swooped in on the offer. I'll write a comparison review later, but The Tea Gallery's Classic Roast TGY wins...hands down (but the Just4Tea version puts up a nice fight for the price)

*Note* I just realized that I really need a few of those wooden tablets to hold these things...hmmmm

Monday, August 10, 2009

What was I thinking?

I'm not old yet to experience this phenomenon, but it's portrayed often in popular media. You have a normal-looking adult who looked completely different in their high school days. I.E. you have high school nerds who turn into studs, conservative Christians who dressed like goth punk, etc.

I just had the experience with my tea-ware. When I first got into tea drinking, I was studying abroad in China. In my limited experience/knowledge of brewing tea, I knew that Yixing was the way to go. I proceeded to buy a collection of these Yixing, not paying attention to size or quality of clay. They were mammoth pieces, about three times as large as the teapots I use now. I paid about $50 for eight of them, so it wasn't a bad deal.

I had shipped them from China to the United States. By the time I got back (I spent the summer in Taiwan) in the fall, I had moved past large Yixing and brewed tea gong fu style. I decided I would relegate my larger pieces as decorations when I moved into my own place, so I didn't bother to remove them from the bubble wrap, to save me more trouble later.

I was looking for my peeing ceramic boy...er, it's a clay figure of a little boy, and when you pour hot water over it, it um..."pees." I think it's mostly a gag thing that you keep on your tea table/tray to mess with people. But back to the story...I was curious about my large Yixing, and in a moment of sheer spontaneity, decided to free them from their bubble-wrap prison.
Group "A"

Group "B"

Wanting to test how far I've come, I put the pots through various tests, including the tapping test, the stop-pour test, and the smell test. First came the tapping test, which means I took the lid and tapped it gently against the handle, and body, and the spout. I was surprised by hot "metallic" sounding some of these sounded. Of course, the larger hollow body might have contributed to that. Although they didn't sound like bells, group "A" made some pretty nice sounds. The ones in group "B" sounded dull and flat.

Next was the stop-pour test, in which I tried to pour out water with my thumb held over the "blow-hole." Well, some of these didn't have it, so yeah...the ones that did though failed miserably. It was as if I didn't stop the "blow-hole" at all! I sniffed the pots after I poured in some hot water, and it seemed okay, they all had a clay smell to them. I'm not surprised by what I found out about these pots, although the results of the tapping test are very interesting, although I don't know what that says about the quality of the clay, though the metallic sounds might mean these pieces are high-fired?

The food chain in the Teapot World

I had thought that these pots might actually be usable enough that I can trade them away for some tea samples or whatever, but these things are so darn user-unfriendly that I'd be one dishonest salesperson if I did that. But, if anyone wants these teapots for decoration purposes, let me know and maybe we can agree on something. Still, I can't believe that I actually bought eight of these ridiculously large teapots before I learned that small = better. I'm tempted to just destroy the whole lot, since they're so ungainly large and really poor quality.

Note: My teapot and tea from Imen arrived today. I already brewed the Zhi Lan in my gaiwan and I was supremely impressed. Prepping my teapot as we speak....*sigh* I can't believe I have to let it sit there overnight, and since I work tomorrow I probably won't be able to put the badboy to use until tomorrow night...but anyway, this is just a tease so you can keep following my blog (yes, I know I'm desperate/cruel).

Tea Ruts

I had first heard the term on a thread on TeaChat, can't remember exactly who said it. For me, it means being in a state of funk with my tea drinking. It had been about half a year before I made my first purchase of Japanese greens from O-Cha, so my stock consisted mostly of nice quality Taiwanese High Mountain Oolong, Dong-Ding, and some everyday Shui Xian from TeaCuppa. Besides my Japanese greens and my daily dose of Matcha, I didn't have much else.

Don't get me wrong, these were all great teas, well except for the Shui Xian. It was okay, but it's an everyday tea so there isnt't any panache. I was getting pretty tired of the same routine, the same kind of flavor profile, etc. I couldn't make my next purchase until last weekday, which ushered in a new monthly budget (my monthly cycle follows my credit card statements).

I ordered from Tea Habitat and The Tea Gallery, two top-notch vendors who I was very excited to order from for the first time. I purchased one of Imen's Chao Zhou teapots and some '09 Zhi Lan Old Bush DC. I'm a total sucker for new tea-ware, especially stuff that's "authentic" to the tea experience. I really hope you can use a Chao Zhou stove in an apartment though, because I think that would complete the entire experience of brewing DC Chao Zhou style. I also bought some samples from The Tea Gallery. I got their Classic Roast, Phoenix, 100 Year Tree, and Shi Lan. Winnie and Dae had some excellent suggestions, and I think next time I will try the Cove Mist and Water Golden Turtle. Well, I ordered these on Saturday, so they probably won't be here until Wednseday or so, though I expect my Tea Habitat order to be here tomorrow (they're only a hour away from me!). But until then, I'm still stuck in this tea rut.

I knew that I had a ton of Lapsang Souchang from my study abroad in China last year, but I was avoiding it. I hadn't tried Lapsang Souchang for a while, so I was afriad that the tea profile would put me off. I decided why the hell not, and brewed up some LS in my gaiwan. It had the usual smokiness you would expect, but there was also some lingering sourness, balanced by a slight sweetness. Maybe because of the aging, but who knows, it's only been a year.

Hopefully by the end of this week I'll be out of this rut, and my new teas will keep me occupied for a while...at least until my next monthly cycle.

Note: I was glad I decided to purchase a Chao Zhou from Imen now rather than later, it seems that out of the 10 pots that were listed about two weeks ago, only 2 are left...Imen is definitely making brisk business on DC and DC-associated tea-ware.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sencha Review, Finally

I was planning on doing some GRE exercises, but decided to do this instead. Even though I'm applying for graduate school after Peace Corps, I'm researching programs now...is it bad that I'm strongly considering Columbia and NYU because The Tea Gallery is nearby (They also have excellent Anthropology programs, but the tea thing is a real bonus I think)?

I waited until I've sampled a few other Sencha before writing a review, because I wanted something to contrast with what I'm tasting. In my opinion, a review wouldn't make much sense unless I was relating it to something else, or using something as a standard.

Many thanks to Chip from TeaChat for some excellent samples, and for allowing me to enjoy a wide range of Japanese greens. I ordered O-Cha's organic offerings of Uji Sencha, Ooigawa Sencha, and Kabusecha. From Chip I have properly sampled the Rishi Honyama (I'm still working out the kinks of the others he gave me).

I think out of the three steamed levels (asa, chu, and fuka) I think I like the fukamushi the most. I really enjoyed the Ooigawa's richer taste, as well as a lingering sweetness which I enjoy very much. I also liked the fact there wasn't any astringency at all. I had originally disliked the Rishi Honyama, but it turned out it was because of my sloppy technique. Both the instructions and Chip told me that the 2nd steeping should only be 15 seconds. Thinking myself wiser, I thought a 2nd steeping could go for a bit longer, and brewed it for about 30 seconds.


WORST MISTAKE EVER!!!!*

I learned from this to always follow the directions at first, and if they're unsatisfactory, do whatever the hell you want. By oversteeping by only 15 seconds, I ended up with a very astringent brew, and it put me off from this tea for a while. I came back to it a few days later, when I had gotten over the experience. This time, I followed instructions and the brew was much more pleasant. There was still a little astringency/bitterness that came out during the 2nd steeping, but it was much more subdued. The astringency/grassiness was a nice balance to the sweetness, and there was also a mellow umami flavor in the mix. I think I prefer a fuka to an asa though, to be honest. I don't really like astringency/grassiness, but I highly recommend this tea though for those who like asa-style teas.

I also like Kabusecha, and I can't wait to get my hands on some gyokuro. Of course, I need to buy one of those gyokuro pots to really brew it right, so maybe not for a while. But wow, the umami flavor is really intense. When I was tasting this, I couldn't taste it for the first second or two, and than BAM!!! it really hit me. It tastes very "meaty" by the second brew, not like a steak but like a savory kind of mouthfeel. The umami gets a little tamer by the second steeping, and is better incorporated into the flavor profile of the tea.

I think after I finish off my current stash of tea, I'm probably going to order the Yutaka Midori and the Sae Midori from O-Cha. I've heard nothing but great things about these two, and I'm hoping they can be a benchmark I can count one.

Oh yes, since these teas are organic, they require more leaf than usual. O-Cha's instructions didn't point this out, but I use about 8 grams for my 300 ml kyusu, which seems just about right for me. I don't really think there's that much difference between the flavor profile of conventional and organic teas, but I haven't tasted enough organic teas to make a call here.

Anyway, this was a nice distriction...time to get back to those problem sets
*Overbrewing, not the tea

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Matcha Matcha Man!

*Title borrowed from TeaChat thread topic*

These past few weeks have been a whirlwind of different events. Firstly, I am official employed. Even though I'm happy I'll no longer be a burden to society or to my parents, it will keep me away from my tea exploits. I'm only working part-time though, so it's not that terrible.

Even though I told myself to wait a month or so before plunging into a new world of tea, I could not resist the allure of new tea-ware; especially when you've studied Japanese art before. So I bought a Chawan off of Rikyu, and the rest of the stuff from Yuuki-Cha. My matcha of choice: The Yuuki Midori, which they promote as their "best-selling matcha." Even though I've heard good things about the Yame, I wanted to give their best-selling matcha a try (plus, the 10% off didn't hurt either).

The rest of my equipment came before my Chawan, which is somewhat ironic since my Rikyu was EMS, and Yuuki-Cha was plain old airmail. My first experience was in a rice bowl (Japanese also), which seemed fitting since the first Chawan were also rice bowls. I picked one with similar dimensions to my Chawan, and it hit me for the first time: Wow, Chawan are pretty small!

I used two scoops, and sifted through a handled-infuser basket. I poured some water in, about 160 F but I eyeballed the measurements and whisked away. I was a little too rough, and I broke the ends of about two tines. I'm glad I got the 100 tine version. By the month's end, it'll probably be a 40 tine Chasen.

It was very creamy and the flavor hit me right away. There was a little bitterness, but in a bittersweet dark chocholate kind of way. It seemed very vegetal, which I expected since I was drinking the entire leaf, not just an infusion. Since there were only two sips or so, I felt a little unsatisfied, and unsure if I was really tasting the right thing. I tried again three more times, until I was a little more satisfied. I was pretty wired by the end of the whole ordeal.

The next day, when my Chawan finally arrived.



Notice the Ensō, more on that later


The kodai, with a glaze beauty mark

I think using a proper Chawan makes a difference in the matcha preperation, but maybe it's all mental. Ensō is a Japanese word meaning "circl," and and is a symbol closely associated with Zen Buddhism. Connotations it carries include the universe and the void, which seem like c
pretty contradictory concepts. Some artists, usually Zen influenced ones, will use it as their signature. I chose this particular piece because I think it represents the philosophical qualities of the Zen, which I studied a bit of when I took a Religions of Asia course at my college.

I'm also reminded of the Japanese character mu "む" or written with kanji, "無" which means "nothingness." I love this Chawan, because it feels so rough in my hand, yet so smooth. It "glistens" when I pour hot water to pre-heat it, although this has lessened recently. I look forward to owning many more Chawan (I'm eyeing a Hagi next), but I promise myself not to purchase one for a few months, until I get a little better at preparing and tasting Matcha.