Category Archives: Travel

A short tea adventure in Vancouver

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Vancouver for a couple of days and so naturally I had to know: what’s the tea scene like?

Short answer? It’s amazing. I need to go back.

I got some fantastic recommendations over Instagram from the Vancouver Tea Society, and did a little planning. It was a pretty short trip, and I had a lot of other things to do so I couldn’t justify spending four hours in each of the (seven!) suggested tea shops. To that end I picked two.

o5 Tea was the closest option to where I was staying in Kitsilano, so that was an easy choice. I was able to taste some impeccable 2017 Darjeeling First Flush while there. The kind and knowledgable Jacob made a great cup, which I paired with an (also delicious) Autumn harvest for comparison. There were so many teas on their list that I wanted to try, I’m definitely going to have to visit there again.

I was in the city with several of my friends who had not been introduced to the wonders of gongfu tea, so I also set up a Puer tasting at Silver Crescent Tea. We drank a very smooth younger (2012) Sheng, a malty 90’s loose Shou with huge leaves, and an older (1998) 7543 Sheng. As I was talking too much with Erick and Keira I didn’t get any tasting notes, but they were a great spectrum of the Puer world.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that yet another West Coast city has such great tea, but it’s welcome news. Next time I hope to be able to spend a week just sitting and sipping throughout the city. Well done, Vancouver, well done indeed.

Ales visits Burlington

Ales Jurina, one of the two founders of Dobrá Čajovna (“Good Tearoom”) in Czech visited Burlington this week. Of all the people that have taught me about the way of tea, I think that Ales has affected me the most. He is a kind soul and a true tea devotee. Along with his partner and fellow tea master Jirka Simsa, Ales brought tea culture out of Asia and into the Czech Republic. From there his spirit of travel and tea adventure has influenced hundreds of tea pilgrims, tea houses, and importers since 1992. There are over thirty Dobra teahouses across the US and eastern Europe and many others which have been influenced by Dobra’s Bohemian example. If you’d like to read more about the story of Dobra Tea, there’s a good summary on their main site.

I had the privilege of traveling in China with Ales and a group of other devoteas in 2012, when I was the manager of the Burlington tearoom. We spent five weeks traveling by plane, train, bus, boat, and car from the mountains of Fèngqìng in Yúnnán province across the Tea Belt to the lakes of Hángzhōu in Zhèjiāng. Although we all traveled together for most of the trip (in a very bohemian, tea pilgrim style), there were several points where we split up into small groups of two to three people and went exploring for many days entirely on our own. Often this involved arranging transportation to other towns and cities, finding lodging and meals, and looking for tea when our grasp of Mandarin was very poor. And yet, these excursions proved to be some of the most amazing parts of the journey, and Ales says that that is all part of the plan. I didn’t write down his exact words but he said something like, “When together as a group, you experience travel on the surface, but you don’t get to really know the culture until you travel by yourself.”

ales-at-dobraThis was Ales’s first visit to the Burlington tearoom (the first Dobra in the US) since it opened in 2003. In the intervening time there have been four owners, several renovations, and a large increase in tea knowledge in the West. With his typical calm and humble style, he shared tea with the group, answered questions about tea culture, and showed several videos from tea travels in Japan, China, and one of the annual tearoom gatherings in Prague.

One of the questions asked was, for me, a very important reminder of what tea culture can mean; Ales was asked what Tea meant to him. He explained that while some people in the tea world are primarily focused on possessing tea knowledge and being seen as Masters, he felt that was missing the point. When the first Dobra tearoom opened in Prague they were mainly trying to introduce quality tea to their changing country, but over the years the (now hundreds of) tearooms of the Czech Republic have evolved, becoming gathering places and a social touchstone of the culture. “For me,” Ales explained, “tea is about sharing.”

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!

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 wasn’t in that day, but Nicole was there to guide us through what probably amounted to 12 infusions of a nicely woody 2011 Sheng Da Meng Song (大勐宋), followed by maybe 15 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.

 

Painter’s Roast Oolong

Of all the many, many (read: too many) teas I brought back from Taiwan, the most eloquent was a small unlabeled pouch of rolled oolong carefully hand-roasted by a man in Lùgǔ (鹿谷鄉). As I’ve just sipped the last of that fine vintage, I thought I might tell you the story of where I found it.

Perhaps I should first explain why I think this tea is so special. Certainly it has all the qualities of a first class tea, from its smooth mouth-feel to the blissful aroma of sweet roasted chestnut as the liquor engulfs my senses. Yet those mundane aspects are only one level of the intrigue at play here. What really draws me to this tea is a characteristic that is difficult to put into words. Some people call this Cha Qi (茶氣). It’s something like the energy of the tea.

Photo Feb 24, 2 54 41 PMSome tea tastes great or has a very interesting aroma, but after drinking it I feel unsettled. A tea which leaves me feeling at peace in mind and body is a tea which I consider to have good Cha Qi, and it is a rare thing indeed. This tea has Cha Qi in abundance, and I wonder what it must take to craft such magic from plants. If you’d like to read more about this elusive quality, Stéphane has a good discussion on his blog and TeaChat has one as well, but you’ll probably have to experience it for yourself.

These fine leaves originated in Nántóu (南投縣), the only land-locked county on the whole island. While Taiwan is generally an easy place to navigate with English, smaller regions like Nántóu can make life a little more interesting. As we got off the bus in front of the Lùgǔ 7-11 (they’re everywhere in Taiwan), there was some confusion about our bus tickets. In order to exit the bus, you had to hand your ticket to the driver to prove you had paid for that leg of the journey, but one member of our group had already misplaced his ticket. In the ensuing chaos, we met a very nice woman getting off at the same stop who helped us communicate to the bus driver and resolve the situation.

We only knew of one person in the town, a man who worked at the renowned Lùgǔ Farmer’s Association, but we weren’t sure where we might be able to stay. Fortunately the nice woman at the bus stop (whose English was excellent) led us to a sort of bed-and-breakfast she knew across the street. Apparently the building was also attached to some sort of school for children where she taught art classes. And of course, like many people in Lùgǔ, the owners of the house were involved with tea production. 

IMG_2115

A good place to stay if you’re ever in Lugu.

We immediately started exploring the small and friendly town and learning about its vibrant tea culture. In the last few decades that culture had been in decline until the Farmer’s Association was created to preserve the traditions of the growers, pickers, and craftsmen of the region. At one point we browsed a small tea exhibit at the town hall and the employees there took a keen interest in us. I think that having Americans touring their town was quite a rare thing. Since they didn’t speak much English and our Mandarin was non-existent, they called up someone they assured us could help. As good luck would have it, our friend from the Farmer’s Association walked in the door! He had a busy schedule but told us a little about the town and then promised that he could make more time to chat if we could wait until the following day. Not wanting to take advantage of his kindness, we agreed to spend the rest of the day wandering on our own.

 

Our tea friend and translator.

Our tea friend and translator.

After another hour had passed we found a very interesting shop on the far side of the town. Being able to tell the difference between a shop and someone’s home is often very difficult in Taiwan; they’re frequently one and the same. This place was run solely by a very kind man who clearly knew about tea (his home-made tea station was something to behold) but whose primary activity appeared to be brush painting. He spoke not a word of English, but we sat and enjoyed tea with him just the same, jovially munching on sunflower seeds and observing the varied paintings that surrounded us.

 

The painter himself.

The painter himself.

As we were preparing to leave, we wanted very much to purchase some of his really excellent tea but at that point our ability to communicate without words completely broke down, so the painter called someone up on the phone. We figured that he knew someone who spoke English and could translate for us. Imagine our surprise when our Farmer’s Association friend again walked in the door. Apparently he was the one to call if you needed to talk to foreigners, but we felt very guilty for disturbing his work twice in one day.

Photo Feb 25, 10 20 44 AM

It turns out that the painter did not actually produce any tea, but would purchase mostly-finished tea leaves from the farmers and then roast it himself in a large electrically-heated bamboo basket: quite an art in and of itself. It was very much an education on the amazing effect that a carefully executed roast can have on a tea leaf. Of course the base tea needs to be of a high quality as well, but by roasting the leaves just enough to engage their mouth-watering fragrance without burning anything, the master of roasting can transform a good tea into an outstanding tea. I have cherished my small bag of “Painter’s Roast” ever since and I hope someday to return to Lùgǔ to pay my respects to that master (and, of course, to get some more tea!).

Gui Fei at Stone Leaf Tea House

Yesterday was a beautiful lazy Saturday, and my wife had the brilliant suggestion to spend our afternoon drinking tea someplace we don’t get to nearly often enough: Stone Leaf Tea House in Middlebury. As we sat and tasted some fine Gui Fei oolong I realized I have never written about this wonderful tea destination, despite it being one of the three nearest tearooms to my home. (Of course, I have written about some of the tea before.)

Photo Feb 22, 4 55 12 PM

My favorite part about visiting Stone Leaf is the intimacy of the experience; when I step in the door and look across the beautiful wooden counter, I’m immediately greeted by John (the owner and a friend) or another one of the skillful tea masters who work there. I tend to immediately launch into a discussion about the newest teas on the menu or some new tea pot on display. Talking about the tea helps me to settle into the space as I consider what I’d like to drink that day. I can be very indecisive (there’s so many great options!), but John is very skilled at guiding the conversation toward a specific few teas that I will probably enjoy. I see it happen even with those customers that are brand new to the greater tea world: before they even sit down there’s often already a perfect tea picked out.

To be fair, this sort of skill in tea recommendation is what I appreciate from all of my favorite tea shops. What I think sets Stone Leaf apart is the unhurried nature of the exchange. I know first-hand how difficult it can be to run a tea room and try to give each person the attention they deserve in a shop full of customers. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. This may be just the times I happen to visit, but I’ve never felt a need to hurry up when at Stone Leaf.

Photo Feb 22, 4 17 42 PM

Finally, and not the least impressive: the selection of teas is top-notch. Stone Leaf is always importing the freshest tea nearly as soon as it is harvested. John even roasts some of his own oolongs; there are very few tea shops in the West that can claim that skill. I definitely recommend some house roasted Jin Xuan, if you have the opportunity to visit.

The Gui Fei we tasted was gentle and smooth with a really entrancing aroma and a light body. The air around the tea seemed to take on a delicate floral sweetness, like standing in a field of spring blooms: not pungent or overwhelming, but undeniably present and comforting.

The consistency of the leaves was a welcome find. Each rolled ball contained around five full leaves all still attached to the stem. The leaves were of small-to-medium size, but I think that the presence of so many complete leaf sets helped to create the smoothness of the tea. After the fifth or sixth infusion the liquor began to take on a more bold, coconut aroma and flavor. I love a tea that presents a whole new side of itself as the infusions progress.

A heart-felt thanks to Stone Leaf for bringing us such a fine tea!

Photo Feb 22, 4 54 36 PM

The Tea House in Sarasota

While visiting family for Christmas outside of Sarasota, Florida, I naturally brought my own tea along. Even so, at one point I really needed to get out of the house. I searched the Internet for tea in the area, not really expecting to find much; maybe there was a coffee shop with a good loose tea selection somewhere around. Much to my surprise, I found a listing for a place called “The Tea House” that looked promising, on Foursquare of all places.

Confused that I didn’t see a matching entry on Yelp or anywhere else on the Internet, I called the number listed and spoke to a very nice woman who assured me that they did exist (and had for two months) and were indeed open. The few photos I saw on the listing showed some classy large Chinese tea tins, which made me hopeful, and supposedly they had some vegan snacks too, which made it definitely worth an expedition.

Photo Dec 27, 4 35 15 PMI’m very happy I went! The owners, Jill and Tony, have created a wonderful oasis of tea in a old house in what appears to be a cool little corner of the city (there’s a handful of other independent shops around the area). They even have a cushioned platform seating area complete with a slew of moroccan lamps. It’s the kind of place I feel instantly comfortable just walking inside. Soft lighting, candles, and pleasant music drifting around the worn wooden furniture. Their menu is really filled with options, and although more than half of them didn’t appeal to me (tea snob that I am), I had definitely seen three bing of Puer when I came in that I was dying to know more about. Also, just seeing Puer displayed at all is, in my opinion, a really really good sign when visiting a teahouse in the West since there’s plenty of places that don’t even know what it is. There were also small cloth bags filled with mini tuo cha (small bowl puer) and some matcha whisks. Clearly there was more going on than I could discern from the items on the menu (The Tea House has opted to list all their teas with English names only, which all-in-all is probably a better way to lower the bar to entry into tea knowledge).

Photo Dec 27, 4 35 37 PMThe menu listed only a couple of Puers, without a lot of identifying information, but it turns out that asking questions was the right direction to go. I discovered that, although the Puer I saw on display was not available for drinking in-house, they had recently acquired a case of various bing (cakes or 饼茶) and zhuan (bricks or 砖茶) from Yunnan that hadn’t yet made their way onto the menu. I opted to try a 2007 (or maybe 2009; my notes are not the best) Shou bing (熟饼茶) that came highly recommended by Jill. It had a rich, thick body and a hint of fruitiness that made me think oddly of oranges, although that could just have been the knowledge that I was drinking Puer in Florida. I examined the leaves ahead of time and they looked medium-sized and consistent. I really need to improve my reading of Chinese, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to discern any more information from the label.

Photo Dec 27, 4 10 14 PMWe were given plenty of leaf and extra hot water (in the cutest elephant pot I’ve ever seen) to easily sit for an hour or more. Jill apologized for the lack of a sharing pitcher (we ended up using another teapot) and explained that they had been ordered but not yet arrived. I have a feeling that I was one of a very small number of customers that would want one anyway. After we had enough infusions and had started to feel at home, my wife and I ordered a pot of a 2012 Sheng (生茶) whose leaves looked quite beautiful. Again, I didn’t get a ton of information about the cake, but I can at least write about the taste. It was surprisingly mellow for a young Sheng, without much of the cedar aroma that I usually associate with such tea. Instead there was a dry woodiness that made me think more of a green tea or perhaps a mao cha than an aged Sheng. It was good, certainly, but I suppose it probably needs a few more years on the shelf.

Photo Dec 27, 6 22 16 PM“The Tea House”, by the Sarasota Tea Company (it turns out they do have a Facebook page) is definitely somewhere I’ll visit again when I’m in the area. From what I heard while there, some local tea aficionados are already regular customers and have started private tastings of some of the mini tuo cha they sell. I think Jill and Tony’s already large selection will continue to grow and evolve as the good folks of Sarasota and Bradenton learn more about the mystery of the leaf. The US needs more good tea houses, so I hope if you’re in that corner of Florida, you’ll stop in and sample a cup yourself.