teance-bar

Teance Tea Time

After the fashion of my last post on Song Tea I wanted to highlight another exceptional tearoom that I encountered in San Francisco, Teance. This shop is a little different than Song Tea, for while they also sell their leaves for home consumption, they also have a bar (and tables) at which everyone can sit and drink tea. Teance has a very modern, carefully-designed atmosphere and construction. I was told that one of the two founders has a great skill in internal design and it was under his guidance that the tearoom’s physical appearance was shaped. The skill and attention to detail certainly shows.

Paradoxically just behind a Pete’s Coffee, Teance sits elegantly in a pedestrian shopping district near the bay in Berkeley. While small, the shop feels roomy and cozy at the same time, from its stone Koi pond at the entrance to an upstairs seating area with beautiful wooden tables. But the most striking part of the tearoom is a round circular tea bar made of solid artisanal concrete inlaid with glimmering stones, glass, and shells (“artisanal concrete” may be the wrong term for this, but I didn’t know what else to call it). Atop this bar are two shining brass brew stations with a clever drainage system that carries the water away without a sound. The tea server stands in the center of the circle and graciously prepares a wide selection of Green, Oolong, Black, and Puer tea in yixing-ware, glass, and bright porcelain. As a tea drinker you may choose to have the tea master prepare your tea or reserve that honor for yourself with a thermos of hot water. You can probably guess which option I chose! In this way their service is similar to that of Camellia Sinensis in Montréal, but what surprised me was the effect of the circular tea bar. It somehow brings people together.

teance-talkingIn many ways, the tea bar has the same effect as the custom bamboo bar at Tea Drunk in NYC, making what could easily be a solitary or insular experience of sipping a fine Wuyi Yancha into a kind of social event. One is magically drawn to talk to the other patrons at the bar, as well as to the person serving tea. Particularly at Teance I found that the curved nature of the bar made it nearly impossible to avoid looking at other tea drinkers and so snatches of conversation naturally jump around. Also just like Tea Drunk, the tea servers are always hovering nearby to provide a bit of knowledge or suggest another tea profile to taste. The pouring of water, the sipping from cups, and the discussions that take place flow almost organically. I find it a real pleasure to share tea in this way.

I visited Teance twice and one thing I noticed quickly was that they have more teas available than what is on their menu. I suspect that many of their more rare teas are of such a small quantity that printing them on their menu would be a waste since they may change or disappear with short notice. So, just like when discussing tea with any knowledgable vendor, be sure to make inquiries about your preferred style before purchasing a pot-full! You may find something similar but more exotic to tempt your taste buds.

teance-puerOne of the first things I tried there was an exquisite 18-year-old Sheng Puer. The taste was deliciously heavy, textured like old leather, and with a musty aroma like an ancient book. At the same time it was mellow and comforting, without any of the sharp cedar characteristics that would be present in a younger Sheng. It was definitely Sheng, though. There’s something nearly unmistakable about the sweet-yet-musty flavor of a traditionally aged Puer. The only other tea I’ve had which has anything similar is a 1986 Yiwu which, sadly, has all been imbibed. To quote myself on that venerable tea, “Sipping this tea is like walking in to a comforting old library.” I think the same is true of Teance’s Sheng.

I have to say that (as happens time and again) I was surprised to discover a tea that I knew very little about, and another that I had never heard of before! I have tasted the oolong known as Golden Turtle on a few occasions, but I rarely hear of it being sold in the West. It is a beautiful and rich Yancha from the Wuyi mountains of Fujian province with aromas reminiscent of cinnamon and charcoal, and here it was in a jar before us. Our tea server, Keiko, then showed us yet another Wuyi oolong, this time one that I had never heard of and actually had to look up. Teance calls it “Halfway up Sky”, but I’m going to try to remember the Mandarin name, Bàn Tiān Yāo (半天腰). The aroma of the damp leaves was a little like roasting rice, charcoal, and toffee. Much to my regret I didn’t have time to taste all these luxurious teas, but be certain that I’m going to look around for some in the near future.

teance-all-wetMany thanks to Keiko and Teance for the experiences and the tea discussion. I clearly need to spend a week in Berkeley some time to get to know this tearoom (and Far Leaves!) a little better.

song-tea-pots

Sing a Song of Song Tea

There were a few wonderful moments in China and Taiwan where I was able to sit for an hour or more, sipping tea with people who were complete strangers when we entered their shop, chatting about the qualities of tea and about the world as gaiwan after gaiwan was poured. A wonderfully forthright lady in Lijiang, a tiny shop in Kunming, a friendly gentleman in Dali, a flute-playing family in Liu’An, a group of expert tea women in Shanghai… the list goes on. At each place when the tea started flowing I felt that I was in the company of good friends. And the tea! Such infusions of subtle and delicate beauty that I was humbled and enlightened all at once. These hosts gave just as much from their leaves as from their hospitality.

Though not exactly common in Asia, such experiences can be found if you visit enough tea shops. So far in the US, that has not been my experience, and understandably so: tea is an emerging industry in the States and for a (so far) strictly imported product the cash flow part of running a tea business must be seriously considered. It’s a difficult nut to crack if you want to offer really premium full leaf tea to customers, many of whom can’t get their mind past the humble 25 cent tea bag. Not that there aren’t adventurers among us, but in general the United States population is only beginning to be curious about unsweetened, unblended, full-leaf, skillfully prepared tea.

song-tea-signSo today I was happy to have an experience on a quiet street in San Francisco that brought me right back to those shops in Muzha and Dali. Song Tea and Ceramics is a small beautiful oasis in the busy city. Just a few blocks from Japantown in a pleasant mostly residential neighborhood, Song Tea’s large glass windows allow passer-by to admire their beautiful wooden shelves full of handmade Taiwanese and Yixing teaware. After lingering over their tea selection with a cup of cold-brewed Winter Sprout Lishan oolong (without a doubt the tastiest cold tea I’ve had with the possible exception of Happy Tea which I will certainly write about one of these days), we sat down to a tasting with Amanda, one of the three folks who run the shop.

song-tea-iced-lishanAs I’ve been digging into Hong Shui style oolong lately, our first cups were a pair of Lishan-grown Hong Shui rolled oolongs from 2013 and 2014 respectively. The first was a Tieguanyin cultivar and the second a Shui Xian. I’m not sure I’ll ever be an expert in what tea is grown where because I had no idea that those cultivars were even grown on Lishan, let alone processed as Hong Shui. As far as I’m aware most of the Lishan oolong I’ve tasted has been Qingshin or Jinxuan. Nevertheless, here were examples of very skillfully produced Taiwanese versions of what were traditionally Fujian and Guandong leaves, right in my cup.

To say that I was disappointed by any tea I tried at Song Tea would be a lie. Clearly they use a great deal of care choosing their leaves and their selection is probably one of the most unique in the city, if not most of the country. Well done, Peter and friends! The Hong Shui Tieguanyin (红水铁观音) was carefully roasted and reminded me of a smoother, more creamy version of the 1995 aged Tieguanyin I got in Maokong. The slightly dry, metallic character that I associate with Tieguanyin was still there, but mixed in was a richer mouthfeel and some fruit flavors that became more dramatic as the infusions progressed. Near the end of our tasting we sampled a last pour of the cooled third infusion and, quite surprised, unanimously agreed that it tasted like coconut and pineapple!

song-tea-hong-shuiThe Hong Shui Lishan Shui Xian (红水梨山水仙) was even more unexpected. The first taste was fruity in a way that I find difficult to put into words. Something like a brown-sugar sweetness combined with the aroma of roses. Our host called it a “funky floral” aroma, and I’d say she’s spot-on. As we neared the third infusion the taste became a bit more roasted and less sweet, though the aftertaste was long and comforting. I’d be hard-pressed to compare these two Hong Shui directly; they’re both quite unique, and easily as wonderful as the other Hong Shui I tasted recently. Is it possible that Hong Shui is always amazing? Maybe that’s just my taste buds’ bias.

We had to try a hot infusion of the milky-smooth Lishan (梨山) Winter Sprout next, having so enjoyed the cold brew. To the best of my knowledge I’ve never heard of this style of harvest, but apparently some Taiwanese producers will pick their leaves in the last days of Winter, before the first flush of the plant. Of course, it requires just the right weather conditions for the tea leaves to appear at all and no doubt only a skilled and experienced grower can successfully craft those leaves into this amazing experience. The Chinese name for this type of harvest is 不知春 (bù zhīchūn), or “Never Know Spring”, which I think is a very poetic term for this craft.

This tea was harvested just at the start of this year (2014), and it still has all the bright green energy of a freshly rolled oolong. After that, everything else about the infusion surprised me. The initial aroma was like steaming asparagus (and that comes from someone who loves asparagus). The closest tea aroma I could pair it with was Gyokuro, but without the smell of the ocean. It was undeniably a green high-mountain oolong, but not floral or light, instead giving forth a thick brothy body of sweet vegetable tastes. Cucumber and carrot, maybe even a bit of celery seemed to float from my cup. The glowing green liquor made me think of some of the brightest Kabusecha that I’ve ever seen, but wasn’t salty or grassy. And the leaves! The leafsets were thick and hardy as I guess I’d expect from a true winter harvest. They were almost leathery on their stalks. Although still pliable, it would take a dedicated effort to tear them.

That wasn’t the end of my tasting adventures at Song Tea, but I’ll leave the rest to you, humble tea drinker, to discover on your own.

It’s certainly not impossible to find other tea sipping conversations like this in the States, and indeed I’ve had a few at places like Tea Drunk in NYC and Stone Leaf in Vermont, but I’d say that Song Tea is right up there on the list of must-visit locations if you’re a tea pilgrim like me. There’s something magical and very restful about bringing a shared love of tea to the table. It’s as though these simple leaves are capable of bringing together friends who have never met, yet who have known each other for a lifetime.

It wouldn’t be fair in this post to leave out the other wonderful tea shops in and around the Bay Area, but I’ll devote another post to describing my fun and delicious experiences at Samovar, Imperial Tea Court, and Red Blossom to give them appropriate room. Suffice to say that San Francisco is a great place to be in the Western tea world right now. I hope to visit again soon!

hongshui-liquor

Four Heavenly Hong Shui

For my birthday I ordered some lovely tea from Stéphane over at Teamasters. Most of what I ordered was one of my favorite tea styles, Hong Shui (“red water”) Oolong. 红水乌龙茶 is a style that has fascinated me ever since I first encountered it in Taiwan some three years ago and it’s not a type of tea that’s found very easily, at least on the Western market. Apparently it’s a challenge to produce. Despite all the effort that several blog posts have made to explain the processing, I still have trouble putting into words what makes this tea so unique. Once you’ve tasted Hong Shui, however, you won’t easily forget it.

Based on my understanding (and I’m certain you can find something there to criticize), Hong Shui is a slow and careful roasting of a flavorful rolled oolong. The roasting lasts a long time compared to other oolongs, interspersed with several resting periods to avoid over-baking the leaf. It requires great skill to produce the stone fruit flavors of Feng Huang and the charcoal dryness of Wuyi-style Yancha in a Dong-Ding-style oolong, often from a High Mountain (> 1000 meters) garden, without losing the sweetness of the underlying leaf.

To quote Stéphane:

High Mountain Hung Shui Oolongs are made with Oolong leaves that have been sufficiently oxidized to receive a slow and deep roast while preserving their mountain characteristics: freshness, lightness and elegance. Like for the best Wuyi Yan Cha, the roast is lightest and skillfully done when the underlying quality of the leaves is the highest! The leaves open up very well and turn green quickly again.

The taste of a Hong Shui is something between a great Da Hong Pao and a great Dong Ding: dry hay with an almond sweetness. Despite the name, the liquor of the Hong Shui that I’ve infused tends to be a light gold with only a hint of red. In fact, if I let the color get to a dark orange, the taste becomes overly strong.

hongshui-pour

I purchased four examples to taste and it was fascinating to compare the differences. My favorite of the bunch was the 2013 Winter San Lin Shi Hong Shui. The brownish-green leaves have a heavenly aroma when warmed. A little bit like roasting butternut squash combined with the sweetness of ripe pear. After a few infusions I noticed the taste of smoked wood. It was something like almonds or cinnamon bark: a delicate sweetness underneath a woody flavor that lingers in the mouth. My second favorite was the 2014 Spring harvest Hong Shui Dong Ding. This more recent harvest had a little more energy than the others, and its taste was also remarkable, though less dramatic.

yonglung-gaiwansThe remaining pair were 2013 Winter Hong Shui from Yong Lung (a village near Dong Ding mountain), both the “regular” and the “strong” style. These were surprisingly light bodied compared to the San Lin Shi. The “strong” version (“fort”, en Français) had a pronounced apricot aroma much like a Feng Huang. In fact, by smell alone I probably would have said “Phoenix” without a second thought. The taste of these teas was definitely in the Hong Shui category, though. A little bit of ash and hay in the flavor, sweet hidden under layers of toasted grain.

yonglung-liquorsOne thing I noticed when making these teas was that, just like Stéphane experienced, it’s definitely possible to brew them without bringing out the energy of the leaves. My first few infusions of the Yong Lung were very bland. The “strong” also had a notable sour taste, but that tea was rolled more tightly and with fewer full leaf sets, which might have added to its potency.

I quickly learned to use fewer leaves than my usual 4g and make sure my water was very hot. This is one of the occasions where the speed and energy when pouring the water into the teapot makes a difference in the results. My first attempts were poured from a thermos that spread the water flow out into a band, but when I used a strong water stream directly from the kettle both the Yong Lung teas tasted much better. Both took on a thicker mouthfeel and a sweet aroma. Clearly I still have a lot to learn!

The most remarkable thing for me (particularly with the San Lin Xi) was the comforting Cha Qi of these teas. That is what draws me to this style like nothing else. The smooth and relaxing feeling that permeates my body when sipping these Hong Shui is reason enough to choose this unique tea style out of my collection, and I hope you get a chance to try it as well.

anniversary-setup

First Anniversary Tea

To celebrate the one-year anniversary of my wedding, we had a small gathering with tea and friends. We started with bowls of Matcha prepared using the same tools we used during our wedding ceremony. The chawan (bowl) was custom made by Petr Novak. After a few rounds, we switched to a 1998 Jinuoshan Sheng Puer that was a wedding gift from a friend. As you’ll see from the photographs, we were also joined by our dog, who showed a keen interest in the Puer bing. Maybe it looked like a frisbee?

 

kyushi_on_sil

Preparing Japanese Tea

Green tea from Japan differs quite a lot from its Chinese cousin. The different cultivars, harvesting, and processing provides a distinct experience. It can also be challenging to steep. Many folks I’ve encountered have found their first experience with grassy bitter Japanese green tea to be their last. With this post I hope to provide those people and others with inspiration to give this amazing style of tea a second chance.

While the steps below may seem complicated, if you understand some of the principles of how tea steeps, it all makes sense. First of all, Japanese tea tends to be machine-harvested, which results in smaller and more broken leaves. Broken leaves mean that the tea will infuse much more quickly and can become bitter in much less time than a full leaf Chinese green.

Furthermore, unless passed through a fine mesh strainer, it’s likely that many of the leaves will end up in the cup when it’s done. These leaves will continue steeping the tea as it cools and may cause unwanted strength even if the timing is just right.

Finally, Japanese green teas are generally steamed to fix the leaf rather than pan-fired or baked as they are in other countries. This results in a tea liquor that’s much more “vegetal” in the same way that steamed vegetables tend to be “greener” tasting than those same vegetables when fried. If the infusion is too strong, the result can not only taste bitter, but grassy as well.

In essence, Japanese green teas are much more delicate and need a little more care when preparing them. Here’s my suggestions for most styles of Sencha, as well as Kabusecha and Gyokuro (Genmaicha, Hojicha, Kukicha, and Matcha are a different matter).

1. Use a mesh strainer

Because of the small and broken leaves we ideally need to use a mesh strainer. Japanese Kyushu pots usually have these built-in, but such pots can be hard to find on the Western market. Another option is the ceramic “teeth” on the lip of a Shiboridashi pot which are designed to catch the small leaves as the liquor pours over the rim. Lacking these tools, any wire mesh strainer will do the job, even a large kitchen strainer. If you don’t have any strainer on hand, just be aware that the tea will continue steeping in the cup and you may want to reduce the infusion time to compensate.

2. Use fairly cool water

tama_setupSince the broken leaves will steep much faster, we need either a very short infusion time (which can be challenging) or we need to slow down the infusion somehow. More of the compounds in a tea leaf will transfer to the water if the water is hot, so using cooler water will slow down the process to make it more manageable. I usually use about 55-70°C (131-158°F) water for Gyokuro or Sencha. Within that temperature range, a steep of about 1 minute should result in a delicious brew. If your water is hotter, decrease the time. With 80°C water, a 20-30 second infusion should work, but it might taste a little scorched. The amount of leaves in the pot also makes a difference. I tend to use more than I would for a Chinese green; for a 300ml pot, I usually use about 8g of leaf.

3. Use fresh leaves

tama_dryThis step may be out of your control, since many vendors don’t list the age of their tea, but green tea (Japanese or otherwise) should be consumed within 6 months to a year of its harvest date. It should also be stored in a sealed package with no air or light reaching the leaves. Older leaves tend to be dull and flat tasting giving the palette all the tannin but none of the sweetness. For this reason be wary of stores that keep their tea in clear plastic or glass containers (I’m looking at you, grocery stores).

tama_pouredFollowing these steps should result in a deep and rich cup of Japanese tea. The qualities to look for in a good cup are usually a bright energy with seaweed-like saltiness and a satisfying Umami taste on the tongue. The aroma of freshly-cut grass is a good sign, but a “grassy” or bitter taste is not usually desirable. As always, your taste may certainly be different from mine, so experiment to find your preferred brew. Even so, hopefully the above guidelines will give you a head-start.

tri-roast-wet

Tri Roasted Ali Shan

Not too long ago I had a chance to attend a tea class held by John at Stone Leaf Tea. The topic was Taiwanese tea, since he had just returned from travels on that venerable island. When we were there we tasted a tea that was stunning in both its creation as well as its flavors. I recently prepared a tasting at home to try and capture more information.

The tea is a Tri Roasted Ali Shan Oolong harvested last spring, and quite a treasure it is. Probably my favorite style of oolong in recent years is Hong Shui, and this tea reminded me of it instantly.

tri-roast-dry

The aroma permeates the senses. When I take a sip it feels like standing next to a cauldron of roasting nuts in a field of fragrant flowers. Even minutes after the cup is empty, I want to just sit and inhale the scent left behind.

Although this is undeniably a roasted oolong, I definitely wouldn’t call it a “dark roast”. There’s none of that intense charcoal flavor, nor is the roast similar to the autumn-leaf dryness of Yan Cha. There’s none of the fruitiness that accompanies a Phoenix or the honey of a Bai Hao. I can detect the High Mountain characteristics that I’d expect from a greener Ali Shan, but this has so much more character.

The taste reminds me of buttered pecans. Rich and aromatic in both the leaves and in the mouth, this tea has everything. It’s energy is very balanced, neither too bright nor too mellow. Leaves like these show a real skill in both processing and roasting.

This amazing leaf was roasted by Mr. Huang, the brother of Stone Leaf’s main Taiwan tea supplier Mr. Liao. His pretty unique “Tri-Roast” consists of a careful charcoal roasting (a rare skill these days) followed by an electric roast in bamboo baskets and lastly a small electric oven roast. Each of these steps requires a great deal of labor and talent as each roast must be tweaked and adjusted based on the results of the previous one. As Stone Leaf’s owner John wrote to me:

A big part of the skill with roasting is knowing what the tea will be like months AFTER it is finished. It changes so much in that time period…so to have 3 different methods triples the number of variables that are present to change the results.

My entire day noticeably improved after this tea session, and I can still sense the aroma in my mouth several hours later. And what a session it was! Eight infusions in, the liquor was still a buttery yellow-gold. The leaves were like a soup of collard greens, massive and heavy when they unfurled. Not too many full leaf sets were present, but plenty of full leaves that seem to glow like a cedar tree in winter.

Many thanks to Stone Leaf tea for finding and sharing this piece of craftsmanship. I hope every tea drinker can experience a cup like this at least once.

Hong Cha? No, I wanted Black Tea

Black tea. This can be a misleading term. During my recent visit to Tea Drunk in NYC I really enjoyed that they wrote this little gem on their menu:

RED TEA 紅茶: known as black tea by rest of the world for reasons we do not understand

When working at the teahouse, this was one of most frequent ways I found that people got confused. They would ask for a “red tea”, but not really have any idea what that was, or they would order a Chinese black tea and then ask for something else because it was too light a flavor.

Suffice to say that this topic needs a little clarification.

All of these are Black Tea

All of these are Black Tea

Let’s start with the basics. As you all probably know from reading these posts, the six categories of tea mainly differ by oxidation, but each category is so broad that it really does a disservice to group them all together. “Oolong”, for example. The kind of oolong you get in a Chinese restaurant is very different from a Yan Cha, which in turn is an extremely different experience from a High Mountain Dong Ding. It’s nearly impossible to pin down the general qualities of Hei Cha, and for people who like “green tea”, do you mean you like the bright salty energy of a Kabusecha or the sweet buttery notes of a Bi Lo Chun? Black tea is no different. And as Tea Drunk’s menu so clearly explains, this heavily oxidized category is actually called “Red Tea” (Hong Cha) in China.

The main difference you’ll find is between black tea made in China or Taiwan (let’s call this “Chinese” style), black tea made in Darjeeling or Nepal (I generally call this “Darjeeling”), and black tea made in Assam, Sri Lanka, Kenya, or basically anywhere else (let’s call this “Assam”).

chinese-black-teaAlthough all tea production began in China, their concept of black tea is quite a long way from what most westerners are used to. Skillfully made Hong Cha is rich and malty, sweet without any additives. Notes of caramel and chocolate can be found in the aromas of black tea made in Yunnan, Anhui, or the famous Sun Moon Lake region of Taiwan. The color of the liquor is usually a deep ruddy red with a bit of a golden hue and yet clear enough to see the bottom of your cup through the broth. That’s certainly nothing like what you get in a supermarket teabag. In fact, the leaves themselves are sometimes not black at all, but can be gold and silver. There’s many legends surrounding the separation within this category, but I tend to believe that distance and money were the major contributing factors to the development of “English-style tea”.

The English quickly became addicted to tea as it filtered in from their trade ships and mysterious Chinese ports. The terminology and categorization problems began right there since it was difficult for well-translated tea processing information to make its way to the tea merchants of London, not to mention the secrecy and tales of the Chinese tea producers. Many of these stories persist even today, like the legend of “monkey picked oolong” and the idea that Puer is some sort of foul health tonic.

assam-black-teaBy the time they managed to grow tea in the Indian colonies, the British were beginning to create their own tea culture: one based on the same leaves, but very different concepts around processing and steeping. Theirs was a culture that to prized the energizing quality of tea over nuance. Tea making involves a lot of manual labor and as time progressed Indian and British tea growers increased their production by sacrificing quality to make the highest quantity possible. This led to the popularization of BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe) and CTC (Crush Tear Curl) and, eventually, the humble tea bag. These teas were nothing like their forebears, infusing so quickly and with so little aroma that it was necessary to brew them quite strong and then add milk, sugar, or citrus to make them palatable. The comparison of a Hong Cha to these inky black infusions is not unlike the difference between artisan coffee and what you’ll find in a city diner.

Of course, not all black tea produced in Indian soil is low grade, just the huge quantities that made it to the English and Indian citizenry in the first hundred years of its production. Many gardens in Assam and Nilgiri (as well as later production in Sri Lanka) care deeply for their leaves and can make a delicious full-leaf SFTFGOP that is enjoyed by many world-wide. As labor prices have risen, the production of low-grade tea for bags has moved to Africa, but the product is nearly the same. In the lofty gardens of Darjeeling (and neighboring Nepal), however, a truly unique tea was being created.

darjeeling-black-teaDarjeeling tea has some of the characteristics of a red wine. In a well-made cup you can taste raisins and dates, plums and chocolate. If brewed well, there’s no hint of bitterness, and if freshly picked the energy is unparalleled. The first and second harvest (or “flush”) of Darjeelings command a high price indeed, from antiquity until modern day, and even today it’s common for companies to use the name just to make broken leaf tea bags sell better.

What all this should tell you is that when buying an unfamiliar “black tea”, be sure to do some research to know what you’re getting. And if you’re surprised by the taste, experiment with how you make it. Despite the size of the leaves or the pedigree, any tea can be a delicious experience if skillfully prepared, but it might not be what you’re expecting!