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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.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

To Pu or Not to Pu?

The title sounds crass, I know, but I couldn't resist...much like how I can't resist saying "that's what she said" when the situation calls for it...

So I've had the occasional pu'erh here and there, but I've never bought any on my mine. Out of all the pu'erh I've tasted (which isn't saying much), I think I like young sheng, old sheng, and middle-aged sheng...in that order. Once I start drinking more pu'erh I will probably have more nuances in this list, but this will do for now. Anyway, I digress from the point of this post.

Unlike other tea drinkers I know, I have been blessed/cursed with coming across tea at a (relatively) young age. I'm like a teenager compared to all the tea drinkers I know, whether in person or by guessing/implying peoples' ages on TeaChat. I'm blessed because I have the time to age teas and by the tea I can enjoy "aged" teas I won't be at the age when I'm senile. Now it's a curse because I don't have the cash to spend on tea, especially as a part-timer in this shitty economy. So my budget is limited, which means compromises need to be made.

So I enjoy young sheng, and I feel like it's about the right time to starting exploring that particular genre...the final frontier in my tea journey. All the heavy hitters in the blogging world, A Tea Addicts Journal, The Mandarin's Tea, The Half-Dipper, etc. talk about pu'erh alot, and a part of me feels like I won't be validated as a tea blogger or even a tea enthusiast without owning a few cakes/bricks/tuocha of my own. I couldn't be comfortable calling myself a tea geek until than. It would also allow me to enjoy these blogs even more, since I love to read them despite my non-knowledge of pu-erh.

A new month is approaching, and as my previous postings have indicated, I have begun to run dry on certain goods, mainly high-fired TGY and Yancha, though WY saved me by generously donating some samples of Shui Jin Gui. But I only have enough high-fired TGY for one more session, and I've been thinking ordering some from Aroma Tea House.

I was thinking of putting a massive order with Yunnan Sourcing at the beginning of November, consisting of a few "classical" Menghai and Xiaguan cakes, as well as some single-estate Nannuo and Bulang cakes. Why the single-estate cakes? Well, I want to slowly learn the characteristics of each mountain, and though these regional characteristics will differ from cake to cake(due to a whole slew of factors: plantation vs. wild arbor, vintage, processing, producer, etc.), when someone talks about a cake having that "classic Nannuo/Bulang/Menghai/etc. flavor," I want to be able to nod along and know what they're talking about. From what I've read on TeaChat and the blogosphere...these two estates sound appealing to me.

So, back to the original question...to pu or not to pu? Should I embark on a new journey now, or should I replenish my reserves first? My tea future is up to you, dear readers!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tea Ruts, a Redux

It's that time of the month again...when I start running low on supplies, but I'm over my tea budget so I need to wait until next month until I can order teas again. But unlike my tea ruts of July, I'm actually quite happy to be drinking the same kind of teas over and over again. In this case, I'm mostly drinking Taiwanese oolong these days, and my light roast/medium roast pots have been getting quite a bit of action.

Now, coming from a Taiwanese background, Taiwanese teas (as one might surprise), are the rage in our household. I still have about 400-600 grams of high mountain stuff still open, about 200 grams of lower elevation cheap jinxuan, and 600 grams of recently discovered aged tea (more on that later). So I pretty much never have to order Taiwanese oolong, because it's so readily available.

My latest obsession has also been DIY roasting, mostly in a crockpot. Since I have so much tea, especially jinxuan stuff, I've been using it to experiment roasting. See here for some helpful tips:

Tea Obsession

My Tea Stories (a whole series, fascinating btw)
TeaChat

You would think that I, like any proud Taiwanese, would use the traditional DaTong rice cooker...but for some reason my model hasn't have a keep warm function, so I've decided to go western on this one. I don't like to drink too many green oolongs, so my hope was to give some of my teas a light/medium roast, to mix it up a little. I got a little carried away and charred the Dong Ding...I don't know if it's drinkable.

I was a little more careful and less ambitious the next time, and I had some pretty decent results. It doesn't taste like a true roasted oolong, since that kind of a roasted flavor profile only comes from hardwood/charcoal roasting.

Now, the aged oolong I mentioned earlier. Asians like to give tea as gifts, and the rest of my family, non-tea drinkers, kindly accept said gifts and chuck them in the corner somewhere. Just last weekend, I found some Taiwanese jinxuan (I believe), still in its vacuum sealed bags, original canister, boxes, etc. ... from 1996. That's right, from over 10 years ago. I don't know how much a tea can age in a vacuum, but from what little I know of science, these vacuum bags aren't probably perfect vacuum spaces, and the tea inside probably mingled together and aged a bit.

It has an interesting taste, it's still floral, but not in a dominating way...it's kind of subtle. There's also a better mouthfeel and a kind of honeyed flavor to it. Since I have 600 grams of it, I took 200 grams away for further aging (just another one of my on-going experiments). People have called me crazy, but hey, if it's airtight enough...it will age. Tea Habitat carries aged green tea from 1994, so I'm definitely not crazy. I gave a portion of the aged tea a little roast, and it's a little more interesting, but I'll see in a week when the roast starts to become more stabilized.

Good thing this month is almost over, I'm looking forward to my next big order, which should probably sustain me until the year's end.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Now For Something Completely Different...

When I bought the before-mentioned pots, they came with samples. I like samples, because they're free and they let you taste teas that you probably wouldn't buy otherwise (too expensive or not your style). But this is different from everything I've tasted...this was a sample of sheng pu'er. Now, I've had the occasional sheng here and there, but I've never bought any on my own...much less brew it myself. I have a general understanding of how to brew it, but I'm just curious as to what kind of flavors or aromas to expect, since this is the youngest sheng that I've tasted. Of course, I'm also scared that I really like it...and than I start getting into pu'er.

I've been staring at this tea ever since I got it, and I wonder when I'm going to brew it

For anyone who's curious, the product description is here. Thank goodness Hobbes reviewed the tea (see here), which have given me a better idea of what to expect. Anticipating how a tea is going to taste is probably one of the worst things, because often times it leads to unrealistic expectations that aren't met in many cases. I should probably just drink this ASAP before I think more about how this tea will taste.

*NOTE*
It tastes pretty delicious...crap, I believe I've been bitten by the pu'erh bug

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The End of a Phase

As of today, I've reached a crucial point in my tea journey. I finally have a dedicated yixing for every tea I drink on a regular basis (at least once every two days). It might be surprising to some that it's taken me this long (a whole year into the journey!) but I've made some bad tea-ware purchases along the way. Well, not bad per se, but just not good in the long run. I had thought that shape = most important factor, but I think now I'm beginning to think that clay is more important.

I've also learned that matching teapots to teas is mostly a personal thing, but as a result of many personal experiments, here's what I like: for roasted/harsher teas I like to have a softer, more non-porous clay such as Zi Ni. Softer clays round out these roasted/harsh notes that I don't really enjoy in excessive amounts. Duan Ni, in my opinion, can sometimes be too rounding, and should be reserved for the really roasted/harsh stuff. For more lighter roasted or delicate teas, I like to use a more non-porous clay, such as Zhu Ni or Hong Ni. I do this because non-porous clays bring out the "sharp" flavors of a tea. This is just what I like, and you're free to do whatever you want. I've actually "broken" some of these rules myself.

Here's a photo of the family:

From left to right, from top to bottom, these pots will labeled as 1 - 6
  1. Chao Zhou Pot: 120 ml, from Tea Habitat: I bought this about two months ago, and I've been using it for (surprise surprise) Dan Cong. Even though Imen recommends multiple CZ pots for the different types of Dan Cong out there...I don't drink enough Dan Cong to justify multiple Dan Cong pots. I might upgrade to one of the more expensive Wu pots, at which point this will be dedicated to young Sheng Pu'er. Some hairline cracks have developed at the bottom of the pot, but so far these cracks are only on the outside, so I'm trying to be a little more cautious with this one...Very thin walls, excellent lid fit, and a fast-medium pour.
  2. Modern Zhu Ni/Hong Ni Pot: 130 ml, from The Tea Gallery: I bought this a month ago, and it's first purpose was to be filled with medium/light roast yancha. It's now been dedicated to lighter balled-up oolong, and it's done wonderfully. I love Shui Ping, and I immediately had to buy this one out of all the ones Winnie showed me. The clay is very high-fired, and it has the best sounds of all my pots. It sounds closest to the Early R.O.C. Zhu Ni in this video here, courtesy of Guang from Hou De. It's a contemporary pot, and it was made on special order by Bill Lee from China Flair Tea. A very fast pour and excellent lid fit. Balances perfectly on water w/lid on.
  3. Late 70s/Early 80s Sand-Blended Zhu Ni: 100 ml, from Hou De. My newest purchase, which just arrived today. Even though I haven't used it yet, it's going to be dedicated to light roasted yancha. I was looking for a pot for light roasted balled-up oolong, but I realized that the Shui Ping would be perfect for that, and this would be perfect for light roast yancha. Even though this is my first "authentic" Zhu Ni piece, it's sand-blended so maybe it doesn't count. I theorize that the sand-blended nature, which increases porosity (?) would help soften (just a little little bit) the roast, while the Zhu Ni portion would help protect the flavor/aroma. It has very thick walls, and a pretty thick base as well, which is also perfect for keeping in heat.
  4. 90s Zi Ni: 80 ml, from Nada. My newest purchase also, also arrived today (daily double for me!), will be dedicated to high fired balled oolong. The previous pot I had dedicated to high fired oolong was also a Zi Ni. Why did I decide to change it? Well, the pot was cumbersome to pour (for me at least), and it wasn't really easy on the eyes. The lid fit is excellent, and the pour is medium-slow, but that's fine for me. I love the silver lining on the lid and spout. It's as if the pot is "pimped-out." Very thick walls too, and quite solid/heavy for its size.
  5. 80s/90s (?) Pin Zi Ni (?): around 80 ml, fished from my grandmother's house in Taiwan. It seems to be an authentic piece from Zisha Factory #1, since the potter's name is stamped under the lid. The clay is very soft, and maybe it's just me, but it seems quick to absorb tea oils. The lid is kind of loose and there's a chip on the lid (not my fault, but my grandmother's). This is probably one of my favorite teapots, sees usage at least once a day. It's dedicated to medium-fired balled oolong. The clay, while not high-fired, seems more high-fired than #4, and this has been "proven" with personal experimentation. Balance is very good, would be perfect if there weren't a chip on the lid, IMO.
  6. 00's Zi Ni (?): around 120 ml, from Ching China Cha in Washington D.C. My second tea-ware purchase, I actually haven't used this until the last few months. I had originally used it for Dan Cong, but between the thick walls and something...it just didn't brew right. I had it sit in the corner, thinking that it would be dedicated to Sheng Pu'er when I start getting into that. I tried it (on a whim) with high-fired yancha, and it did very well. I had previously used a Duan Ni pot with high fired yancha, but the Duan Ni rounded out the flavors a little too much, IMO. It's got thick walls and excellent lid fit. Surprisingly, the lid between this and #2 are interchangeable, and the fit is perfect too! The heaviest of all my pots, it looks like a modified version of the classic Shi Piao shape. I like to call it "the tank."
And actually, this is a distant cousin of the family. He's a little weird and shy...so he had to take a picture by himself:


This is the one pot that I don't use on a regular basis. I bought it from Yunnan Sourcing about a year ago, and I've been drinking shu pu'er with it. I drink shu pu'er with my meals, so this fits with that perfectly. The clay is now a nice dark color, and the pour/lid fit is really nice as well. It's one of the cheapest pots I have (if you count the slip-cast knock-offs I bought from China), and it exceeds well beyond its price. I think if you want to buy a good modern pot at excellent prices, you can't go wrong with Yunnan Sourcing.

I don't have the kind of money or space to be a collector of pots yet, so this is it for me for the time being. I don't like making tea-ware purchases unless they fill a void that exists or it's a noticeable improvement on what I have now. So maybe in the late future I'll buy more pots, but I like to focus on raising a few pots than having to juggle between tons of other pots. I might pick up a pot or two for aged oolong, but I don't have much experience with that yet, so it can wait.

*UPDATED*
I recently decided that the CZ clay was too stifling on my DC, so it's been re-allocated for young sheng pu'er. I decided that it's too complicated (IMO) to have two pots for wuyi, so the ZiNi pot is now dedicated to whatever aged sheng I happen to come by...

Monday, September 14, 2009

Cha Qi

My first encounter with Cha Qi occurred when I was sampling The Tea Gallery's Hundred Year Tree. It was a very potent brew indeed, and it had a calming effect on the nerves. Sadly, I was able to grab onto this feeling two out of the four times I brewed...and it's a bit expensive to buy more just to capture something that's by nature elusive and almost mystical in a way. My second encounter, and the subject of this post, was a bit weirder in nature, and it was probably due to the circumstances than the actual tea itself, but I'll see when I polish off the tea later.

This sample, courtesy of WY, is labeled Gu Shu Cha. IIRC, he had bought it at Wuyi Shan when he visited. Now, the direct meaning of the name is simply Ancient Tree Tea, implying that the trees from which this tea was harvested from come from older trees. How much older? I didn't ask WY, and I'm guessing that he probably couldn't give a reliable age(Chinese tea vendors can be a conniving bunch sometimes).

The bottom of the barrel....*sigh*

The dry leaf is pretty roasted, and there's a distinct citrus aroma, kind of sharp, but it reminds me of a nice men's perfume in that kind of citrus-like aroma. the wet leaves had a nice "roasted" aroma with some deep, rich chocolate in the mix there. The initial infusions had a upfront fruitiness with some spiciness that made the tea even more intriguing. I found it very deep in flavor, but not too aromatic...which disappointed me a bit since the dry leaf smelled so delicious.

Now, the actual interesting part of the tasting. About three infusions into the tea, I started noticing that my hands were twitching, and there was a tingling sensation throughout my whole body.

The sandwich would've been this big, if only there I had more slices of bread in my pantry

I hadn't eaten much, so perhaps it was the lack of food and the caffeine rush from the tea; however, six infusions into the tea I was overtaken by a raw urge for food. I wanted to finish the tea, but my primal instincts drove me to the kitchen, where I devoured a five layered sandwich with five different types of meats. While I was eating, my mind was empty and the only thing I was doing was bite, chew, swallow, repeat.

If this was an instance of Cha Qi, than this was one hell of a tea. I'm going to try the tea at some later time...with ample food in my stomach, and seeing if the feeling returns. Even without the Cha Qi though, this was quite a delicious tea, probably my favorite of the Yancha samples WY gave me. *Two Thumbs Up*

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Visit to Tea Habitat

There are tea shops, and than there are tea shops. The former consists of obnoxious vendors such as Teavana to well-meaning shops that carry okay quality loose-leaf, the kind of stuff that would be nice everyday tea, but could not satiate the refined palate of experienced tea drinkers. The latter, in my mind, consists of the “legendary” stores strewn across the country, the places that carry teas that make people cry out to the heavens…places such as The Tea Gallery, Best Tea House, Floating Leaves, Tea Habitat, etc.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity of visiting a tea shop in the latter category, Imen’s Tea Habitat, nestled in a most unlikely place as any teashop could be…across from a T.J. Maxx. I apologize for the lack of photos. I had brought my camera, thinking to snap a few photos of the teas I was sampling, but I quickly forgot as I surrendered my mind to the Cha Qi. Hopefully my words can try to capture at least 25% of the amazing experience I had there.

I also neglected to take any tasting notes, but that was fine, because the tea lingered in my mouth for hours after I had left. Those that stood out in my mind included her Li Jai Ping Lao Cong, Song Zhong #5, ’78 Vintage Dan Cong, and Tian Yi Xiang (the name conjures up a fragrance equal to heaven. I think the Jade Emperor would have pressed his nose down towards the earth for a whiff).

After this experience, I realized that being a tea master isn’t just about brewing tea perfectly; I like to think a larger part is creating a cultivating environment for enjoying tea. My mother and grandmother found the first tea she brewed, Zhong Ping Lao Cong #4 (I think), to be too faint and delicate in flavor. Quick to think on her feet, she quickly switched it up to the heavy hitting Ba Xian, and not only did my mother/grandmother enjoy the teas more, the conversation also became livelier.

Imen was also a great conversationalist, answering my mother/grandmother’s questions, and turning their questions into focal points for even more conversation. I was initially afraid that it would be awkward because my mother/grandmother don’t really speak English, but luckily Imen’s command of the Chinese language is much better than my own. Imen told us that drinking tea between three people is best, because with one person it’s kind of lonely, while with tea the conversation can get a little stilted, while with four people the conversation tends to jump all over the place, or in my experience people often “break” into pairs (forgive me Imen, if I botched up your more elegant description).

Even though I’m unable to elaborate on it, but I definitely felt a difference between using a stainless electric kettle and her Chao Zhou kettle. Of course, there definitely was a difference in brewing skill, but the water tasted sweeter, and most of the teas left a pleasant coating over my tongue. Even though she didn’t use her newly arrived Wu Chao Zhou pots, I had the chance to feel them for myself, as well as inquire the differences between the Wu pots and the cheaper Zhang pot I got. The Wu pot had much heavier walls, and there was none of the “make-up” clay my pot had. The texture felt more familiar to Hong Ni/Zhu Ni. I’m para-phrasing what she told me, but brewing in the Gaiwan protects aroma, while brewing in a Zhang pot “mutes” the aroma, while giving the tea a better “mouth-feel.” The Wu pots protects both aroma and gives the tea a better mouth-feel. This was very interesting, since because the Wu pots had thicker walls, I thought aroma would be protected less.

Anyway, back to the actual tea tasting. I think I enjoyed the ’78 Dan Cong and the Li Jai Ping Lao Cong the most. I had actually intended to just buy her ’98 Hai Mei Zhan, but I liked the Li Jai Ping so much I just had to buy some too. The ’78 Dan Cong started off with a dry leaf aroma and initial flavor similar to Pu’Er, but the similarities quickly ended around the 5th-6th infusion. Around that time, the familiar sweetness of Dan Cong returned, and there was a “nourishing” taste, very reminiscent of chicken soup…not the actual flavor of chicken soup, but just the thick feel you get in your mouth. The Li Jai Ping Lao Cong left a nice coating of something on my tongue…it was very unusual, but a delightful experience nevertheless.

The hours past, and it came time for us to depart. We left in high spirits and with a longing to someday return, and I definitely will, not only for the vast selection of teas, but also for the enjoyment of tea in the most ideal of environments.

*EDIT* Just realized that my visit to Tea Habitat coincided with the "official" anniversary posting of my blog...what a fitting way to celebrate an anniversary

Friday, September 4, 2009

Tea Gallery Classic Roast vs. Just 4 Tea Traditional Roast

I’ve heard some pretty good things about both of these teas, so I was excited when I finally had the chance to try them both, and to have them in my possession at the same time! Since these two are frequently suggested on TeaChat, I decided that it would be a good idea to have a “throw-down” between these two teas, and compare them head-to-head. Countless people have tasted and reviewed this tea before me (see here and here and here and here) and I really don’t have much to add to what they’re saying, so I’ll just be seeing how the two stack up to each other.


And in this corner, standing at $17.50 for 100 grams is the Just 4 Tea Tie Guan Yin…

And in the other corner, standing at a whooping $9.00 for 25 grams is the Tea Gallery’s Classic Roast Tie Guan Yin…


Okay, I’m probably not cut out to be standing in the middle of a boxing ring, so let’s spare the dramatics from here on out. Okay, even though price is definitely not an indicator of quality, I had a sneaking feeling that the Tea Gallery’s Classic Roast would probably stand victorious at the end of the day. Not surprisingly, I was correct. But I hope you do read on, because I think the exciting part of anything is not in the end result, but rather is the path that leads to the end result.


The Tea Gallery Classic Roast, the last tea to be brewed in my heavy roasted Oolong pot, before I "upgraded"


I tasted the Classic Roast first, and I was taken aback about how potent it was. The smell from the dry leaf was very heavy, roasted, with a dark-chocolate-like aroma. The leaf seems very roasted, and the color borders between really dark brown and black. As I was tasting the tea, I tasted burnt sugar/caramel and cinnamon/spiciness. The tea has great body, and I imagine it would taste better in the cold winters. The words “roasted coffee” kept running through my mind when I was tasting this tea, and I think in many ways the aroma is very similar to nice roasted coffee, but the taste is much better. This could be the ultimate weapon to convert coffee drinkers to tea.


A very delicious tea, IMO. Even though it might be overly roasted, I tend to like these types of teas, so I enjoy it very much. I wish that there was a year or vintage attached to the name though. Is it 2009 Tie Guan Yin, or is the old stuff from last year’s qingxiang TGY that the shops they import from couldn’t sell. Regardless of the tea’s background/heritage, I don’t care too much. The proof of the pudding (or in this case, the tea) is in the eating (drinking), and I must say, the proof is very strong.


I wish I had tried the Just 4 Tea Tie Guan Yin at the same time, but I didn’t get the Just 4 Tea version until a little while after I got the Classic Roast, and I had no idea at the time I would be able to get my hands on the Just 4 Tea one. The Tea Gallery’s Classic Roast certainly upped my expectations for the Just 4 Tea version, which probably created some bias in my part.


The dry leaf smelled really nicely roasted, although the aroma is a bit more subdued when compared to the Classic Roast. The Just 4 Tea TGY was pre-owned, and I suspect that might have contributed to the “weaker” aroma, but it probably wasn’t a leading factor for it. The leaf was also smaller too, and looked like cocoa Rice Krispies, whereas the Classic Roast looked like Cocoa Puffs.


The tea had some of the same similar characteristics to the Classic Roast, but not as “loud.” I got none of the cinnamon spiciness from the lid aroma like I did with the Classic Roast. It was still very delicious though. It didn’t have that strong roasted coffee aroma like the Classic Roast either.


So the Tea Gallery Classic Roast won the throw-down hands-down, but what if you consider the price? The Just 4 Tea version is cheaper, and by a lot. I think I could rink the Tea Gallery Classic Roast if I was splurging myself. I could definitely see the Just 4 Tea TGY as like a really good everyday tea. It might be a tea I might buy to try my hand at aging Oolong. So, perhaps the winner at the end of the day is the Just 4 Tea version, because after I’m done with my stash I’m definitely going to order more, probably the 8 oz version so I can try my hand at aging Oolong.