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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.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!

Nothing tea-related, since I'm in kitchen instead of in front of my tea station; also, small cousins = disaster just waiting to happen with my pots. However, I have learned two valuable life lessons:

  1. Turkeys are large, very large, and if you're going to brine a turkey...make sure your refrigerator can hold it (mine barely can). Also, a large enough pot to hold said turkey is valuable too. Make sure your refrigerator can hold the weight of the turkey + brine.
  2. I have a terrible time reading to children. My four year old cousin asked me to read a story to her/explain it whilst reading out loud, and I gave a really precise/technical explanation that kind of put her off. Oh no, I feel old already!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Looking Back

It's almost been two years since I dove head-first into the world of "serious" tea-drinking, but in reality my tea "roots" are way older. I grew up on various Taiwanese High Mountain teas and cheap shu pu-erh at dim sum restaurants. It's a bit embarrassing, but for a while (before really getting into tea) I thought shu pu-erh was the only kind of pu-erh there was! In my household dim sum was synonymous was shu pu-erh, with a healthy dosage of chrysanthemum flowers. Shu pu-erh was also something I drank casually in the house, when I wanted something with more flavor than water, but not as unhealthy as soda or something.

So how exactly did I make the "jump" from casual tea drinking into a geekdom that I would be hesitant to tell anyone except my tea friends and those closest to me. Like any good story, it all started with a girl...

Just kidding, there's no romance here, but it's really funny when you consider the circumstances. I was getting acquainted with people from various other universities when I was studying abroad, and one girl came from a tea-enthusiast background (Fujian), and she asked if I drank any tea, to which I said shu-puerh. Later that night, she prepared some of her expensive TGY gong fu style, and I was dazzled by it all: the artistry, the floralness, and the warm feeling from drinking her tea.

Deciding to make the most of my convenient surroundings, I headed to the local tea mall (Tianshan Tea City). My friend (the same girl) and I browsed around, and after sitting at a shop for a while I found my first tea-love: yancha. I had walked in expecting to buy TGY, and walked out with DHP. I've never looked back, and thinking about it now, I don't really drink much TGY anymore!

Thinking back to that tea shop, I probably got price/quality gouged just a bit. I had no clue how bargaining in a tea shop worked back than (still don't really have a clue), and I basically had no clue how to judge good tea. Luckily, I didn't spend too much money, and her stuff was decent in my memory. I was at the mercy of the shop-keeper, and I was a very soft target. I also spent way too much money on cheap slip-cast pots...which still haunt me today.

Before coming back to the United States I worried that I would be unable to continue my growing tea habit, not knowing you could buy good tea online. My friend (still that same girl) showed me the Hou De website, and told me it looked like a good place for Taiwanese oolong. Intrigued, I jumped from the Hou De website to various blogs, making my way to TeaChat, which is where my obsession began. I decided to create my own blog...and basically things just kept growing out of proportion, and here I am today. There are things still I regret and things I wish i had done differently...but these are reflections for another day.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Holidays...Finally

Ah yes, the holidays are here...and despite critiques about the commercialization of Christmas, and the fact that these holidays are nothing than a way for us to spend our way out of a recession. So much of our economy depends on Santa Claus that it's not even funny anymore.

But despite all this, the holidays are quite frankly my favorite time of the year. I am a 1.5 generation immigrant from Taiwan, so I spent many years absorbing all the trappings of American culture, for better or for worse. Although I can proudly say that I am Taiwanese (take that you Mainland unificationists!), I have my "white-washed" traits, which manifest themselves in the kitchen. As a teenager, I longed for the "traditional" American dinners that my friends enjoyed, at the same wondering what white people ate for dinner. For the longest time I thought a traditional American dinner consisted of pizza and ham burgers, since most of the dinners I spent at my white friend's were due to various parties or such.

So what's a guy longing for a well-done osso buco supposed to do, when your family insisted that Marco Polo stole the idea of pasta and pizza from the Chinese? I cooked it myself, naturally.

Even though I have a knack for some classical Chinese dishes, I relish the opportunity to explore cuisines I never would taste otherwise. The years went by, and my obsession with the culinary arts grew, though I'm an amateur at best.

So only on two days of the year (Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve) does my father begrudgingly forgo his daily rice in lieu of stuffing, mashed potatoes, and all the trappings of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Of course, I apply my own personal interpretation on some classic dishes, including mashed potatoes with mustard greens which I boil for a while before mixing it in with the mashed potatoes, using olive oil to lubricate it all. Classic mashed potatoes, but with a little more color (and more healthy too!). I'm also serving pumpkin tortelli, with fresh hand-made pasta....

My Uncle and Aunt are coming with my young cousins (5 and 7), and since I love flattery on my cooking I've been busy these past few days thinking up recipes and drafting out a Thanksgiving meal. Thus why I haven't had any tea reviews lately...and the fact that not much has wowed me recently, except for the Yunnan Sourcing Yiwu Daqiufeng, which is surprisingly good considering its relative low price to its Yiwu siblings. A bit sour, but within acceptable limits and quite chunky and thick in the mouth feel....very delicious. May pick up a cake once I have more sessions to confirm my feelings towards this cake.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Musings on Pu-erh

Haven't been drinking anyway terribly exciting these past few days, but I've been slowing down my consumption of young sheng. Not because my stomach is reacting negatively to it (thank goodness), but the simple fact that I'm tired of disappointment from all my samples. Luckily, I have only out-right hated one (the Mengyang Guoyan "Queen of Yiwu"), but most of them have failed to "wow" me. I'm slowly beginning to know what I like, and what I should be looking for.

The other thing I've been doing these past few days is brewing my teas competition style. It's quite difficult to detect subtle nuances when you've been steeping young sheng for five minutes, and the excessive bitterness in most of them just punch you in the face. I can only imagine how bitter my Guan Zi Zai Lao Man'E cake will taste brewed competition style...and thus I have left that aside for now.

What I have been doing over is thinking about is pu-erh collecting, and just how much of it is speculative. I have yet to see anyone give advice as if they were an "expert," and most people have differeng opinions on what ages well and what doesn't. There is a thread on Teachat discussing different criteria for selection, which should be interesting as the interplay between those who buy great quantities of modern stuff vs. those who are more selective, buying stuff pre-2004. I think the purchasing criteria may have something to do with the purchaser's age. If one were to buy nascent sheng, it would be 20 years (give or take depending on storage) before it becomes "aged." What would happen if your entire collection turned out to be crap? How much money is going down the drain? Sure, people say that tried and true old recipies have shown the capability to age well, but maybe quality was better back than? And is it really worth it to blow your entire budget on only a few stellar-quality cake?

Returning to the original point, if I were older (say 40s) would I be buying as much nascent sheng? Probably not ... since by the time it becomes aged who knows how old I'd be. But if I were young (20s-30s), maybe I could afford to buy some nascent sheng. Also, as one gets older perhaps tolerance to younger sheng also declines too.

So what is my own strategy so far? I think it's important to hedge, and not rely too heavily on all nascent stuff, but at the same time not invest entirely in older sheng (unless you have money/access it cheapily, i.e. in Asia). Personally, I have to deal with excessive dryness and the fact that I'm leaving the country for 2-3 years, which negates the possibility of using a humidor. So right now I'm not looking to buy much nascent sheng, except for a few for immediate consumption/curiousity sake. I'm looking more for juvenile/adolescent sheng - stuff that has a "head start" on the aging process, and while the prices for these are fairly high, they are at least cheaper than stuff from the 80s or 90s (at least in my budget). I'm thinking that buying wetter-stored cakes would be a good idea, and I can use the "dry storage" here to get over the shi cang.

Just my two cents, and the usual warning: I am by no means an expert...

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Most Useful Tea Device ... Ever

The following is the most important piece of tea equipment, and yes, it's more useful than a tea pot, cups, fair cups, etc. It's importance might even exceed that of the tea itself!



Okay, so I'm clearly joking here, but these competition tasting sets are really useful. I'm kicking myself for not buying a few earlier. I ordered these from Adagio, for the modest price of $9 each ($54 for 6 so you save $5). I received them the other day but there were some minor chips on the cups (the packaging was so poor that it was asking to be broken). But they're shipping me a new set of cups, and I'm glad they were so prompt it getting back to me. However, the replacements are being shipped from the East Coast, and they won't be here until next Tuesday. No biggie, since I'm not actually drinking directly from the cups.

But before I get to singing praises about the usefulness of a tasting set, how the hell does one use it? For those who are familiar with using these, you may scroll down at your leisure or feel free to correct my technique.

Step One

I have heard there are different standards, but what I've heard is either 3 grams for 5 minutes or 5 grams for three minutes. Granted, you can go longer or shorter depending on the type of tea at hand, but at the very least make sure that you have consistency across the board. Have someone else put the samples into the lidded cup so it's a blind tasting, and please have the person write down what sample they put in what lidded cup, as to ease any confusion.

Step Two

Pour the water into the lidded cups, and I believe the temperature should correspond with what tea you're dealing with. Greener teas will need cooler water while roasted teas can deal with hotter water. Of course, things like this are highly subjective so do what you normally do. Now put the timer on. Than wait, but don't wander too far; 3 or 5 minutes can go by faster than you would think.

Step Three

Decant the lidded cup into the bowl, starting with the lidded cup in which you poured the water into first. The lidded cup is position in such a way that it lies perfectly balanced on the bowl, as shown below. So you don't need to hold the cup while decanting. Continue as necessary until all the cups are decanted. Please be quick when decanting, because there isn't a spout, so the tea can "dribble" down the cup if you're not quick enough. Put the lidded cups aside for now. See the following:



Step Four

Place a porcelain spoon into the bowl. Ladle some of the tea into a separate cup using the spoon, and after doing so smell the spoon to catch the aroma, both wet and dry. Taste the tea and make notes, either mentally or physically. If you're tasting with someone else, talk about it. Two heads are better than one, and more ideas are created by the interaction of opinions. Continue this with how many different tasting cups you have, and feel free to go back to a particular one if you need a double-take.

So What's the Point of All This?

There are several advantages to using the tasting set, and these are just off the top of my head. First, this is how many competitions are judged, and this method allows for more consistency in preparing the tea. However, judging a tea competition style is only one way of judging a tea, because some teas don't perform well under competition brewing standards. Or you have a tea that does well brewed competition style that doesn't perform well when brewed regularly. Tasting a tea brewed competition style is one aspect of judging a tea, IMO. The other aspect is judging a tea brewed normally. So it's important to do both.

If the tasting is done blind, it frees you from much of the bias that may happen if you knew what the teas were. Of course, there is still some bias because you're frantically trying to guess from previous knowledge/expectations, but it still allows you to taste tea(s) "as they are." I'm surprised at how accurate I am about my preferences, and at other times I'm horrendously wrong. Some of the teas that I love perform well under competition standards, while others perform abysmally. It's also a way to notice similarities or differences within the same type of tea, i.e. if you're competition brewing all Shui Jin Gui, or Bu Lang, etc.

Finally, it offers a very good way of comparing teas. You can brew several teas over the course of a day or a few days, but because you're not brewing it at the same time, it's more difficult to make comparisons. So brewing something competition style gives you the chance to compare a whole slew of teas at the same time. Of course, you don't have to use competition sets...similarly sized gaiwan or even bowls/cups would work just fine too. I think that brewing competition style could definitely be a good way to narrow down a list of potential purchases, and thus saving a lot of money.

Luckily for me, brewing my favorite sheng competition style has only confirmed how much I like them, so my short list of what to buy hasn't changed at all. I think I'm going to have a fun time competition brewing the same single-estate teas, just to notice the similarities/differences between them, if any, and maybe even see which ones are "better" examples of said region.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

2009 Guan Zi Zai Ban Zhang

This one is dedicated to Tea Goober, and his relentless quest to find quality Lao Ban Zhang. See product description here.

To be honest, I have purposefully been avoiding the Lao Ban Zhang samples I have, because of their reputation, and the ever-present question if what we're tasting is real Lao Ban Zhang, or if it's been mixed with filler from other areas (Lao Man'E, New Ban Zhang, Bing Dao, etc.). I'm at the point where it's not a question of if a particular cake is "pure" Lao Ban Zhang, it's question of what percent, because it's almost never going to 100%. It's unrealistic, because the area is only so large, and everybody wants it.

The second reason why I've been avoiding my Lao Ban Zhang samples is that I have seen "the truth." Simply, I have had the opportunity to taste a 100% Lao Ban Zhang cake. Okay, this was a private-private solo pressing, and everyone present (including pu-erh expert BBB) gave the general impression that this was the real deal. It had that bitterness that everyone and their mother associates with Lao Ban Zhang, but it wasn't as potent as one would think. Sure, it was extremely bitter, but the bitterness was fleeting, descending into a really awesome hui gan. It was very good tea, and I know what the fuss about Lao Ban Zhang is all about, because it really deserves the reputation that it does. Okay, so that experience created a set of expectations from my samples, and sadly these expectations weren't going to be fulfilled. So my Lao Ban Zhang samples sat in the corner while I danced with general merriment with the likes of Jing Mai, You Le, etc.

Third reason (I promise the actual review is coming soon) is that this cake seems too cheap to be what it claims, though even if it's 50-75% Ban Zhang, it might be worth it. The wrapper seems pretty enough too, and to be expected from the older brother of Yong Pin Hao.

The anticipation of expectations are right here in these leaves


I've only tasted one other Ban Zhang besides this one and the one mentioned above, the 2008 Lao Ban Zhang which was pressed as a side project of people from the Shuangjiang Mengku company. The 2008 disappointed me a bit, with its lack of fresh bitterness but it was still enjoyable enough with its bouquet of roses.

My first sip...and holy cow! This stuff is quite bitter. In fact, the word "bitter" appears in every sentence of my tasting notes, except for the first one: "dry aroma of leather and sweetness." But it's not an astringent bitterness, but it's the bitterness that I (and many other tea drinkers who employ Chinese) as ku. This is quite bitter, even more so than the private pressed cake that I sampled. The bitterness is quite present throughout the brew, and only in the 6th infusion does it "mellow" down. The bitterness is followed by a smooth/creamy and sweet hui gan, but it's slow...if that makes sense at all. But the bitterness sticks around, even in the aftertaste, as a constant reminder. It has a nice caffeine kick, and I feel my hands shaking and I have a slight cold sweet breaking out. Remarkable endurance, and though I don't keep track of how many infusions...it has been at least 15+ infusions, and still showing some slight bitterness!

It was interesting, and I wish I had more experience with Ban Zhang so I could "out" this one as being an authentic example or a "fake." Honestly, the bitterness didn't endear to me, and it stayed far too long than it had to. The mouth feel was pretty solid, and this certainly appealed to be more than most of the samples I have. But would I be willing to spend $48, when their $30 Jing Mai can satisfy me completely? Probably not. I know this review is making this tea sound lame, but it's pretty tasty...though if you're not a fan of bitterness, stay away. The aftertaste and hui gan is quite nice, and the bitterness itself itself of the offensive kind, it's bitterness but in a good way.

Tea Goober, if you want, I'd be more than happy to send you what remains of my sample (around 15 grams) as my donation to your quest to taste different Lao Ban Zhang. I also have a sample of the '08 cake version Lao Ban Zhang if you're curious to see if there are any differences between the brick and cake version.

*addendum* 11/7/09

Even though my initial impression of this tea may have been a little critical, after tasting the 2008 Mengku Lao Ban Zhang and the 2009 Yunnan Sourcing Ban Zhang I've been thinking more about the 2009 Guan Zi Zai Lao Ban Zhang. Out of all these samples, the Guan Zi Zai had the most "guts." I'm doing a blind competition tasting sometime soon, and hopefully it'll confirm this. I recall Hobbes said that the 2008 Menghai 7542-801 was like "being punched in the face by an old friend." (see here for details, scroll down to #1026) To put my spin on it...the 2009 Guan Zi Zai Lao Ban Zhang was like being kicked in the crotch by an old friend. Depending on what Tea Goober thinks of it, I may buy a cake of this with my next order.

*addendum* 11/8/09

Going back to the product description, it actually doesn't say Lao Ban Zhang at all! It just says Ban Zhang. So somehow in mind I automatically thought it was Lao Ban Zhang. I'm beginning to think that it may be harvested from Lao Man'E, which another area inside the Ban Zhang region. This is a pretty good thread about Ban Zhang, which also supports my belief that the maocha is from Lao Man'E: here
This would perhaps explain why this particular offering is so inexpensive compared to other Ban Zhang cakes. From both the product name, wrapper (at least from what I can see on the Yunnan Sourcing site), and product description don't refer to Lao Ban Zhang at all! I admire Guan Zi Zai's integrity and honesty in not fudging the facts about the provenance of their maocha.