As I mentioned last week, I recently was given a gift certificate to review some teas from Adagio. A long time ago I was a regular on their sleek website with all its tea information and community resources, but since then I’ve been more drawn to smaller specialty shops. To really see what they could offer, I decided to jump straight for the “Master’s Collection” teas. My second try was their “Hsinchu Oriental Beauty”.
I appreciate the naming of this offering, as even among specialty tea shops, it’s rare to see Hsinchu listed so explicitly. Hsinchu is a region in north-western Taiwan where Oriental Beauty (東方美人茶, Dōng Fāng Měi Rén Chá, or sometimes simply 白毫 – Bái Háo) is grown and processed. This remarkable oolong, which I’ve written about before, is gifted a very special technique around the harvest time. Before picking, the farmers encourage a species of leaf hopper insect to bite the leaves of the tea plant, triggering a chemical reaction that our taste buds find delicious.
Brewed for about 2 minutes at 95°C, the aroma of this tea was striking as soon as it came out of the gaiwan. Definitely Bai Hao. That roasted grain and honey sweetness is recognizable anywhere. In fact, the perfume it gave off was almost overly sweet, reminding me somewhat of a Dan Cong. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Bai Hao quite this dramatic before, and I’ve drank a lot of it. I would recommend keeping the infusions short for this tea or at least taking care how many leaves are used to avoid being overwhelmed!
That bold sweetness continued for another four infusions, so the life of the leaf is not in question. Sometimes Dong Fang Mei Ren Cha is called “honey oolong” and this sweetness is the reason. The liquor feels like a mouthful of amber honeycomb.
Our days can be full of chaos and confusion, so please, take a moment to watch the swirl of leaves in your pot. I hope you can see within the all the hands (both human and insect in this case!) whose lives are intertwined with the tea. We’re all in this together.
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.
Bai Hao two-leaves-and-bud
Bai Hao in well-loved Yixing
Koi Pond in the center
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.
In 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.
One 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.
Many 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.
My friend Andrew is visiting Bai Hao tea fields in Taiwan as I write this, so it’s small magic that my fiancee, when asked to choose a tea, picked out my bag of 2012 M. Xu Bai Hao (東方美人茶) that I picked up several months ago in Montreal (courtesy of the fantastic folks at Camellia Sinensis).
I’ve written about this tea before, but I have to say that this time through I felt as though I was drinking a different tea.
The first thing I noticed was the color of the dry leaves themselves. My fiancee did a good job of describing them as “multicolored”. There was bright green, dark green, tan, gold, and dark. It’s rare I’ve seen such a change in hue within one tea, perhaps only in a First Flush Darjeeling with their particular early-season processing that makes for such a nuanced flavor. I tried to capture the colors in a photo. Maybe you can see some of it for yourself.
When I poured the first infusion, I was struck by how the liquor reminded me of apple juice, right down the the small bubbles on the surface. It’s possible that first impression might have colored my later thoughts, but I don’t know.
What I do know is that the taste was a wonderful crisp sweetness with a round body to match. I have to say, this tea is aging well for what I heard was a bad harvest year. The aroma was cloying. I was reminded distinctly of a cup of apple cider as the first drops touched my tongue. After that I couldn’t shake the apple connection. The toasty, crisp cider character pervaded everything.
I guess the next time someone asks for an Apple tea, I should produce this Bai Hao.
What a delight. The taste of honey and street roasted chestnuts. A full body and dark orange color that are as comforting in Spring as they were in Winter.
This tea is Bai Hao or Dong Fang Mei Ren Cha (東方美人 – Oriental Beauty). I picked up this bag from Camellia Sinensis a few months ago at their recommendation. It’s definitely a classic Bai Hao taste and very welcome this evening. I was very pleased when I gave a sample of the fifth infusion to some customers at the tearoom and they immediately said that it tasted of honey. That’s exactly the flavor that I think best describes Bai Hao in general and so if someone who’s never had it before thinks of honey when it touches their palette, it must be good!
The Bai Hao sourced by Dobra this season is much darker and even though I think it’s delicious, I’m much more reminded of a sweet Chinese black tea, perhaps an Anhui Qi Hong.
I’ve read that the 2012 Bai Hao harvest was not very promising in general, due to weather conditions earlier in the year. I have high hopes for the 2013 season, but for now this is the tastiest Bai Hao I’ve had since the last of the 2011 passed us by.
I easily got 9 infusions of honeyed goodness, making for a sweet night indeed.