2011 Meng Song

Getting Tea Drunk at Tea Drunk

Last weekend I was in New York City to see a show and one of the things I always do in New York City is visit all my favorite vegan restaurants and cafes. This trip had an additional draw, though, being able to visit Tea Drunk, a gongfu teahouse that brings me right back to Taiwan. In fact, it’s really on-par with my favorite teahouses the world over. Small and cozy with a real expertise in Chinese tea and quite a selection, it was a perfect place to sit, sip, and chat. I even got to meet a few of the other guests, because it’s hard to avoid making friends over tea.

Nicole at Tea DrunkOur host was the imitable Nicole Martin, aka: Tea For Me Please. The owner of Tea Drunk was away in China, sourcing the great teas that appear on their menu, but Nicole was there to guide us through what probably amounted to 20 infusions of a nicely woody 2011 Sheng Da Meng Song (大勐宋), followed by maybe 10 gaiwans of a 2010 Shou Tuo Cha (of uncertain origin) that was even better than I expected. I was very energized by the time I left. The shop certainly lived up to its name!

The Sheng was crisp and comforting. The Shou was not too sweet, and had a blackberry quality to it which I really enjoyed. There are some really great young Puer cakes being produced these days, but a few years can make a big difference.

Photo Jul 12, 4 25 42 PMThe shop is small, but beautiful. It looks from the outside like its space is in part of an old church. A host of teaware adorns one wall, while the other is devoted mostly to a seven person bamboo gong-fu bar that I’ve always dreamed of having for myself. The rest of the space holds about six square tables, each with its own custom-made petrified bamboo tea table that are works of art in themselves. When we sat down, we were able to pick one of the cute tea pets from their collection to share our tea. You’ll notice our friendly tea-loving bulldog in the pictures.

One of the most exciting aspects of Tea Drunk for me is their events. They have started a weekly “Tuesday Tea-Off” where each participant (including the teahouse) brings a tea of the same category for a blind tasting to compare and contrast. If only I lived closer! Nevertheless, it’s inspiring and a great way to involve the tea community.

Normally I would have been sipping with one hand and taking notes with the other, but I was really enjoying the conversation with Nicole and I never got around to writing down my thoughts about these teas. At this point all my memory can tell me is that they were both delightful and that I will definitely be returning to Tea Drunk next time I’m in New York. Their tea is definitely priced for small groups to share, but is undeniably worth the expense. If you are alone, perhaps you can find a friend in the city who’s willing to share a cup or two.

 

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Short, Medium, and Long Jing

Recently I had the pleasure to receive a sample set of three 2014 Long Jing (Dragon Well) teas from Teavivre, so naturally I had to taste them all together.

My first impression is that the dry leaves look mostly the same. All have the typical Long Jing blade shape. A few white haired leaves appear in each pile, making all three look like very nice full leaf teas. Their dry aromas also were all very similar: toasty and green — exactly what I expected. I think I wouldn’t be able to tell these apart by dry leaf, which is another good reason to always taste a tea before buying if you can; appearances only go so far.

The first tea I tried was the Premium Grade Dragon Well. I used 80°C water for about 1 minute with my green gaiwan and cups (I used matching gaiwans and cups for each tea so you’ll be able to tell them apart in the photos). I tasted fresh Chinese greens and watercress. The liquor was vegetal, but not overwhelmingly so. There was a roasted taste, almost like popcorn kernels, but I detected no buttery qualities (which you’ll see appear in the next tea). It had a nice full mouthfeel which remained into the second infusion, but the roasted flavor basically vanished at that point; not unexpected for this style of tea. The wet leaves showed about half full leaf sets, half broken and are definitely a darker green than the pair of organic teas that come next.

The second tea of the set was the Organic Nonpareil Ming Qian Dragon Well brewed in my brown gaiwan and cups. The flavor was immediately buttery with less watercress than the previous Dragon Well but with a thicker mouthfeel. There was the same roasted quality, like popcorn, but it was also notably salty, especially in the aftertaste. The second infusion had a little roast remaining, but mostly lost the buttery quality. The wet leaves impressively showed almost entirely full leaf sets. They’re everywhere! The color is definitely a lighter green than the Premium. Perhaps that’s a quality of organic harvesting? More likely it was the amount of sun the tea plants were exposed to during the growing period.

For the third taste I had the Organic Superfine Dragon Well in my white gaiwan and cups. The liquor tasted of young green grass and fresh zucchini. Still quite a good experience, but it was notably more flat tasting with a very short aftertaste. It was not bitter, but there was not much energy to it. The wet leaves also showed very few full leaf sets compared to the other two. They were mostly broken apart, while similar in color to the Nonpareil.

Clearly the Nonpareil (as the name suggests) is the top of the line here. But it’s not fair to say that the other two teas were poor examples of Long Jing; they were actually very good, just not quite at the same level as the Nonpareil. Long Jing is a tea that’s so famous and has so much history that the variety in its production may be greater than any other single named tea out of China. Because of that it’s really nice to have a sample of three notably different — but all well-made — examples of this style.

 

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A One Garden Comparison

This month’s offering from Global Tea Hut is a pair of organic teas from Mr. Xie in Ming Jian, Nantou, Taiwan. One is processed as a green oolong, lightly roasted. The other is processed as Hóng Chá (红茶), or what we might call “black tea”. Both sets of leaves were made from the same garden and (I believe) around the same time, which makes this a very interesting comparison indeed.

 

I set up another tasting, much like my post on bi lo chun last week, with two small gaiwans and my small Totoro tea pet to assist us with his invaluable perspective. These two teas are quite different, despite their similar origins, and further demonstrate the profound effect of oxidation, rolling, and roast.

The warmed leaves have a delicious aroma. The oolong smells buttery and with an unmistakably light roast and the scent of chestnuts. The hong cha’s leaves give off a hint of candy sweetness, but mostly smell of dry bark in spring. When I say “warmed leaves”, I mean the leaves in the pot before they’ve been infused. It’s possible I’ve never mentioned this here, but if you warm your teapot before brewing, try putting the leaves into the empty pot just afterward and quickly shutting the lid to let them absorb some of the moist heat remaining. After a few seconds, lift the lid and inhale the aromas of the warmed leaves. This can produce an amazing effect, all before even adding water to your leaves!

Both of these teas have been allowed to grow without pesticides, which means that many of them have been nibbled by small insects before the harvest. This can be a very desirable event. The resulting tea, characterized by the iconic Bái Háo (白毫茶), tends to have a sweet rich flavor like honey. This tea magic is due to several factors including defensive compounds that the plant releases when it is attacked, as well as the beginning of oxidation while the leaves are still on the tree. I can taste the effects in both of Mr. Xie’s teas.

The oolong (infused with no rinse at around 2 minutes) produced a golden liquor. The flavor was buttery with quite a roasted and honeyed aroma in the mouth. The roasting of this tea was clearly done with a lot of skill! The finish was crisp and short, not lasting as long as I wished, but that only encouraged me to make a second cup!

The mouth feel was very pleasant, more light and silky than thick and creamy, but it paired well with the aromatics of this tea. The third infusion brought out something like the flavor of oranges, which perhaps was there before but hidden by the roast. Usually I would say “citrus” here, but in this case that word really didn’t fit; I was really getting the sense of oranges.

The Global Tea Hut article accompanying this tea reads,

The oolong tea is bug-bitten, plucked, withered outdoors, and then indoors, shaken and mixed in piles (jiao ban), withered more, pan fired (sa cheen) to arrest oxidation and kill green enzymes, rolled to break down the cells and further oxidation, as well as to shape the tea (ro nian), and then roasted twice — once to dry the tea and then for a longer time to add flavor and fragrance.

The Hóng Chá’s liquor was a delicate tan, as expected, and the wet leaves had the sweet smell of candy sugar. The taste, however, was very surprising. I was expecting something like either the minty quality of Sun Moon Lake or the chocolate notes of Feng Qing, but instead it reminded me of nothing else but maple syrup. Not that extremely sweet Grade-A stuff or the sugar paste that you find in restaurants, but thick, dark, Grade-B maple syrup fresh from the tree: still sweet, but more like caramel (if you were under the mistaken impression that Grade-A maple syrup means higher quality, you might be surprised to know it’s just a designation of color and season of production).

To quote Global Tea Hut,

The red tea is also bug-bitten, plucked, and then withered indoors, piled on bamboo mats for 12-24 hours. It is then rolled for up to ninety minutes before being roasted dry. … This results in a deeper, darker liquor than the oolong — though less refined.

I only made three infusions of these teas during this sitting, but I think that both could easily have made five to ten with their flavors intact. Neither has full leaf sets, and there were lots of broken leaves and stems (even with the rolled oolong), but this tea does not suffer from that. Based on the appearance of the leaf damage, I’d say the broken ones were in that condition on the plants, not because of poor handling. I also noticed that the cha qi was very energetic. I’ve felt this before with arbor tree sheng puer, where the tea seems to infuse a “wild” energy in the body, but I think this is the first time I’ve felt the same with an oolong and a black tea.

globalteahut-june-leaf-textureOrganic farming and hand processing mean that leaves may not look as immaculate as some other teas, but that does not mean that they are poor quality! The skill of the farmer is always present in your cup: the growing conditions, the picking, processing and roasting are all equally important. The proof is always in the taste.

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A tale of two Bi Lo Chun

As soon as I open the package I know this is going to be a special tea. The aroma of freshly harvested leaves is like clouds and mist floating through the air after a spring rain. I’ve had several opportunities to try 2014 Bi Lo Chun (碧螺春) in the last month and I’ve been really pleased each time. Here I’d like to compare a few that I have in my home: Teavivre and Stone Leaf Tea House.bi_lo_chun_teavivre_and_stone_leafTeavivre’s sample was delicate and beautiful. The silver-green leaves are loosely curled and covered in a glow of fuzz as is traditional for a “Green Snails in Spring” (the usual translation for this tea). This small-leaf style of green tea originates from a mountainous peninsula in Jiangsu province near Suzhou, and that is where this tea was harvested not too long ago. In recent years, Bi Lo Chun made in Taiwan has also become popular and, in my experience, is also very delicious! The key differences I’ve noticed (and I’m sure that there are exceptions) are that Taiwan Bi Lo Chun tends to have slightly larger leaves and the aromas tend more toward oceanic. This makes a kind of sense to me since Taiwan is surrounded by ocean and the original is harvested on a mountain surrounded by a lake (Tai Hu).

 

I infused about 4g of this tea for 1 minute at around 80°C, following my instincts, although the package suggests a similar brew. The result was a transparent jade liquor with a few leaf bits and a delicate aroma that lingers both in the mouth and in the mind. The taste is slightly dry and has an energizing cha qi which doesn’t appear until the liquor reaches the back of my tongue.

My first infusion of the Stone Leaf Bi Lo Chun was made with the same details for the sake of comparison. This tea is made in Taiwan, and as I mentioned above the leaves are larger and darker in appearance with fewer of the white hairs on their surface. The taste and aroma are deep and rich, bringing to mind a Japanese gyokuro, but not quite. Immediately it seemed that while the Teavivre Bi Lo Chun had a vegetal and bright energy quality, Stone Leaf’s was more floral and mellow. What an amazing variety!

bi_lo_chun_wet_teavivire_and_stone_leafTwo more infusions were made of these delicious teas, increasing the time and temperature a bit with each one. Both teas became more cloudy and drier on the tongue, and they maintained their separate qualities: vegetal energy in one cup and floral mellow in the other. I felt as though drinking the Teavivre Bi Lo Chun was walking through a spring field and the Stone Leaf Bi Lo Chun was swimming in a summer pond.

As the infusions progressed, the nuances of aroma began to fade. This isn’t a bad sign for a green tea; indeed it’s quite common for a green to give up its most potent flavors in the first two infusions. Still, the third infusion was just as pleasant, even as the fading aromas evoked a more full bodied mouthfeel. This is the life that tea shows us: dramatic and delicate, comforting and fleeting. We must be present with our cup to notice these things. Happy sipping!

Springtime is Tea Stove Time

The seasons have changed, and with green grass and warm sunshine comes a perfect time to make tea outside. To celebrate the occasion I’ve pulled out my ceramic tea stove and some rather delicious sheng Puer that’s this month’s offering from Jalam Teas.

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Of course, in the two seasons since I’ve used the stove, I’ve forgotten somewhat how best to get it going. It’s not the most complex device, but as my previous entries on the subject suggest, if I want to brew tea before too many hours have passed there are some tricks I need to know. Caveat lector: I’m equally unskilled at building campfires, so it’s not just this particular firebending with which I have trouble; I think I was born into the water tribe. I may need to get some practice lighting charcoal this summer.

Thankfully, with some patience and the meticulous skills of my wife, boiling water was not far off. There’s something really magical about heating water on a stove like this. I think because the water comes just to a boil without sending the lid flying across the room. When I’m using a gas range or electric kettle the water tends to get a little out of control. There’s often a sense of, “Oh no! The water is boiling; I need to shut it off before it’s too late!”, especially if there’s a shrieking whistle going off. The gentleness of boiling water on the tea stove seems to me a perfect complement to the essence of a tea ceremony: in the constant sound of the boil and the occasional hiss as a drop of water escapes only to instantly evaporate on the side of the stove, I find a feeling of tranquility and the natural order of things.

 


I don’t have a lot to say about the tea itself, other than that it’s really very delicious for being so young. The liquor is a beautiful amber, and the aroma is woody, but not overly so. It actually seems more oak-like than the cedar scent I expected, and is quite smooth (at least brewed gong-fu style; I haven’t tried any other way). I think that with some age it may produce more bold flavors, but I like the subtle taste and potent energy that it carries. It’s a young, but very dignified Puer and I feel very fortunate to have such a cake.

Jalam’s site names this tea an Autumn 2013 harvest of Meng Hun, from southwest of Menghai county in Yunnan, harvested by the native Lahu people. From the description, I really was expecting a tea that should be stored away for a few years before even sampling, and maybe my taste is unique, but I really am enjoying this cake right now!

menghun-dry-leavesTea is a reminder that we are all interdependent. From the native people growing and harvesting these leaves to all the fine people at Jalam teas for getting the final product to my door, to the amazing pottery of Petr Novak without whom I would not have this lovely kettle and stove, they are all equally important. Even my water, kindling, and charcoal are derived from the hard work of many humans. Without any one of those people, the tea in my cup would not exist. Drinking tea with mindfulness is paying tribute to all those who provided this day for me. I hope to have many more days like this, and I hope that you do too!

Moving Leaves and Tea Balls

Let’s talk about all the different shapes of tea pots that are out there. It’s quite an interesting artistic exploration to see how some teapots are designed. Now first of all, as I’ve often said, you don’t need anything fancy to make tea. A saucepan, kitchen strainer, and a mug will do. But what’s a little non-intuitive about that statement is that sometimes a saucepan would actually do better than a teapot.

Why is this? It has a lot to do with how the leaves come into contact with the water.

I’ve done some really terrible drawings to help explain this.

wide-tea-infusion-basketFull leaf tea infuses rather slowly, meaning that it takes some time for the flavors, aromas, and other properties within the leaf to be extracted into the water. This is a good thing. It’s what allows careful brewing to bring out the best balance of flavor and strength. The bitter properties of tea are generally the last to emerge, so they will appear only at very high temperatures or after a relatively long immersion time.

In still water, the (delicious) chemical properties of the tea leaf will expand slowly outward from the leaves themselves, concentrating around each individual leaf. If the leaves are just floating around, as in a saucepan, then this will ensure a fairly even distribution of tea taste in the water.

tea-infusion-leaves

Tea infusion with leaves loose in the pot.

If instead, however, the leaves are held in once location and packed together, then that area of the water will become quickly infused with flavor, leaving the rest of the pot to be mostly uninfused. This is how a tea ball works.

As such a pot is poured, it’s likely that the tea area and the non-tea area will mix, resulting in a fairly weak infusion. To compensate for this, many people have taken to steeping their tea for a longer time, which does indeed make the average tea body stronger, but it also allows the bitter qualities of the leaf to be more prevalent, since it gives them time to be extracted from the tea.

tea-infusion-ball

Tea infusion with the Death Star tea ball.

But this problem is not only related to tea balls. Many tea pots include a built-in basket strainer designed in such a way that the leaves are also unable to carry their flavors around the pot. The wide, flat, cast iron pots that I’ve seen so much recently have this problem built-in. They have a tiny central straining basket, which acts like a tea ball to keep the leaves in the very center of the pot, and the wide internal area keeps most of the water away from the leaves while steeping. (Brewing in a mug can have the same problem if you use a basket strainer that is too shallow.)

tea-infusion-basket

Tea infusion with a shallow basket strainer.

All that said, if you’re used to using tea bags, the same rules don’t always apply. Or rather, the rules do apply, but the infusion is so fast that there’s little chance for control or refinement anyway. The tea in most tea bags is ground up CTC (“crush-tear-curl”) or at least very broken. The result is that most of the possible flavors as well as the bitter qualities are released all at once, and the result is similar to the tea ball but much more blunt. If many tea bags are used or allowed to infuse for several minutes, the result is the same blunt, strong infusion spread all around the pot.

So, what can we do about this? Well the answer is to look back at the saucepan and the kitchen strainer. Putting tea leaves directly in the water without any separation will give you the best possible chance of finding the flavor of the leaves. Straining can come when pouring (in fact, the best tea pots in my opinion have strainers built into their spouts). The usual rules of time and temperature still apply, but experimentation will be much easier since you can much more easily see the color of the infusion as it progresses and you can even sample it without worrying that one part of the pot will be different than another.

Am I being too picky about my tea brewing? Oh, most definitely. These factors are only one of the ten thousand things that can affect the results of making a pot of tea. Don’t stress. Keep this piece of information in the back of your mind as you choose a teapot, but use your own experience as your guide for steeping tea. As the ancient tea masters wrote, “Tea is very simple… it is only to boil water, along with tea leaves and drink it. Anything else is superfluous.” The rest comes from within.

Grampa Style

I’ve been meaning to write a post about infusing tea Grampa Style for several months now. It so happens that Floating Leaves beat me to it. Ah, but it’s too good to pass up! I think that every new full-leaf tea drinker should learn about this technique because it’s so eminently useful.

The term was coined by MarshalN as a way to refer to the steeping technique used by a huge percentage of the population of China to make their every-day tea. Really huge. You see it all over the place in the tea belt, and if you visit teahouses in Sichuan, Yunnan, or as far east as Anhui it’s likely that you’ll be served green tea this way as well. It’s how I brewed traveling tea during my trips through Asia and I’ve used it extensively in many other trips since.

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The basic idea is to put a few leaves directly into a cup and pour on some hot water, straining the resulting infusion through your teeth as you sip. The brew will get stronger as it rests, so you add more hot water periodically until there’s no flavor left (if you’re in China, just walk up to any shop or dumpling stand and ask for Kāishuǐ, 开水, or boiled water). Using a small thermos as your cup works really well if you’re moving around.

The key to success with this method (as becomes obvious very quickly) is to use very few leaves. Probably 2 grams of leaf where you’d normally use 4 or 6. Rolled oolongs make this particularly confusing, because it looks like you just put in a tiny amount of tea, but remember that as the leaves unfurl, they can get quite large. By using a small amount of leaf, you prevent the tea from becoming too strong before you can drink it. Of course, you want to get flavor from the infusion as well, so you don’t want to use too few (remember my tea mantra: Experiment!).

Photo Apr 24, 1 22 34 PMAnother important factor is to use medium to large leaf tea. Very small or broken leaves, like Sencha or most lower-grade black tea will make it very difficult to sip the infusion without slurping up a mouthful of plant matter. Rolled oolongs and full leaf green tea usually work very well with this method. I’ve successfully brewed large-leaf black tea using Grampa style as well.

It’s also worth mentioning that making tea like this will not bring out the finer flavors of any high grade tea. There’s too little control to find the balance of time and temperature that can be crucial for some leaves. That’s why I usually use this technique for traveling: it’s easy and requires no equipment other than a cup, mug, or thermos.

Photo Apr 18, 5 33 04 PMI think that the simplicity and convenience of Grampa style can make the world a more tea-accessible place. It’s economical (since it uses less tea) and can lower the bar when introducing others to brewing loose-leaf tea (since it requires fewer tools). Of course, there’s a time for the practice of meditatively steeping a pot, and listening to the waterfall flowing from a gaiwan, but when out in the world that time isn’t always upon us. Those are the moments for infusing tea Grampa style.