Tag Archives: oolong

A Calm Fragrance in Autumn

A lazy trail of incense drifting over the pot, the tea steeps in silence, peacefully abiding.

This month’s Global Tea Hut offering is a relatively unique creation, a Honey Scent Oolong (Mì Xiāng, 蜜香, also titled “Calm Fragrance”, Yǐ Xiāng Rù Dìng 以香入定). This leaf was crafted from the Four Seasons cultivar (Sì jì chūn, 四季春) which has been intentionally bitten by the leafhopper so highly prized for the creation of Eastern Beauty Oolong (Dōngfāng Měirén, 东方美人茶). The tea was then oxidized a fair amount before rolling and roasting, becoming a style known as Concubine Oolong (Guì Fēi, 貴妃茶), but with a deeper roast.

mixiang-leafThe result is a golden cup of sweet nectar whose aroma carries the mind across fields of blooming flowers. Even the aroma of the warmed leaves, devoid of any water, is indeed an incense into itself.

Sipping this tea brings me back to the days when I first discovered the joy of unscented loose leaf tea. The gentleness on the tongue, the incredible aroma, and more crucially the way in which it opens my senses to the world around me, outside of my thoughts.

outdoor-autumnAs I hold my cup, I hear the strumming of music on the speakers and the notes are more vibrant. I see the orange and yellow maple leaves outside my window and the blue-gray of the distant sky as though for the first time. The colors each seem to glow. Each sound – a drop of water, a clink of saucer, the softly breathing dog beside me – becomes somehow more vivid and real for this moment.

Although it is certainly a luxury, I highly recommend Global Tea Hut to anyone who can afford it and who wishes to explore and learn from the world of tea. Such experiences as this are meant to be shared.

I raise my cup to you, fellow tea lover. Experience this moment with me.

Tea in the Year of the Wood Sheep

This weekend morning I drank some lovely Lishan Winter Sprout (kindly sourced by Song Tea) as the chill wind shifted the piles of snow outside my window. It was a peaceful and delicious way to start the day. To bring a timely quality to this gathering, a small ceramic sheep (who followed me home from Montréal many years past) joined the Chaxi. He likes to celebrate special occasions, this sheep, and as the Chinese New Year resonates, our wooly friend was most pleased to be included. He refrained from drinking any tea, however.

The Lishan was sweet and bold, nearly glowing in the cup, with leaves that reached out to touch the winter air. A bit of the ice and the pines outside made their way through the aroma of the tea into our thoughts.

May your winter days be quiet and warm, with a cup of tea for everyone.

Alishan Oolong Black

This morning’s treat was to share some waffles and a pretty unique tea with my wife as we watched the snow gently fall outside. This is one of the teas I bought from a small shop in Taipei called DigniTea, which is a family-run artisan tea company that grows (as far as I know) all of their leaves on Alishan (a rather famous mountain outside of Chiayi). I have of course written about their lovely oolongs before. Unlike their other offerings, however, this one is an “oolong black”, which seems like an unlikely descriptor, yet there it is, right on the package.

alishan-oolong-black-package

 

Well, ok, the package also reads “大紅帖”, or Dàhóng tiē, which to the best of my ability to translate means “big red ribbon”. So perhaps the title in Chinese is just as mysterious and unexpected.
alishan-oolong-black-leaves-dryWhile I might expect a title like “oolong black” from a Western tea bag company, where precision in naming is less important than floral descriptions, DigniTea is hardly that type of company. Their Jin Xuan and Qing Xin products are some of the finest I’ve tasted, and their packaging specifies the cultivar, year, and season of harvest. This leads me to believe that the title is not mere embellishment. So, how can a tea be made as both an oolong and also a black tea? My only guess is that the style is processed in the rigorous rolling and drying system common to high mountain oolongs but allowed to oxidize longer than any other similar Dong Ding or Alishan. In fact, I’m surprised that I haven’t heard of such a creation before.

The dry leaves are dark and rolled into small balls, already giving a unique impression. It is as though one took the dark roasted leaves of a Wuyi oolong and rolled them like a tiny Dong Ding. Infused, they produce a beautiful amber liquor reminiscent of a Sun Moon Lake black tea.


The taste as well is similar, I think, to that famous Taiwanese black tea (Hong cha, really) known variously as Sun Moon Lake, Red Jade, or Number 18. Sweet and caramel-thick, but with a slight dryness and rough mouthfeel that reminds me of a charcoal roasted oolong, this tea has a gentle but unexpected character. Indeed, every time I drink some my palate is always a little confused. Is this oolong, or is it Hong cha? The DigniTea page designates it as the latter, but this may be one of those cases where the question is simply one of experience and not semantics.

The uniqueness of this tea has earned it a special spot on my shelf over the last few years, although there is precious little remaining. But that is a good thing! The way of tea is to remind us that the present moment is fleeting, and that change exists in all things. The seeds of a flavorless teabag exist in even the finest high mountain oolong, if it is not consumed. I am fortunate, and it speaks to the quality of this tea, that my Alishan oolong black has lasted so long while retaining its delightful character. It is time to drink it and move on, giving thanks for all the joy and mystery it has brought to my life.

May your tea be warm and delightful during the frigid winter snows. And may your mind find peace in the cup.

alishan-oolong-black-wet-leaves

 

San Lin Shi Winter Sprout 2014

What an interesting oolong that I discovered in a small package I brought back from my trip to California. I remembered good things from this tea, and today’s snowy conditions seemed like the perfect day to bring back some memories of sunlight.

sls-wintersprout-dryThe first thing that hit me upon opening the package was the scent. There’s an amazing dry-leaf aroma of pineapple that brings to mind nothing short of a creamy Pina Colada. It’s astounding how fruity the leaves smell, but without any of the acrid or overpowering notes that you’d get with an artificially scented tea (or any scented tea, for that matter). It’s pretty clear that this magic comes from the leaves themselves.

Even so, I worried that the liquor might be too strongly fruity to really taste the oolong flavor. Of course, I needn’t have worried. The scent is only part of the overall flavor, which has all the character of a deliciously light-roast San Lin Shi: a hint of pine over a bed of sweet artichokes and creamy spinach. The warm flaxen gold liquor is a perfect counterpoint to this blustery December day.

sls-wintersprout-liquorI’ve written before about Winter Sprout tea (不知春 or bù zhīchūn), but it’s still a fascinating topic, and this leaf hasn’t lost any potency for its one year of age. The tea is harvested in the coldest time of the year when most tea plants have yet to even give forth a single new leaf. And yet the humble Tea (Camellia Sinensis) is, after all, an evergreen plant. From what I understand, occasionally the right weather conditions manifest for a small harvest in the wintertime, and this magnificent oolong is the result. (Note that this is different from a typical “winter harvest oolong”, which is usually from late autumn, although those can certainly be some of the finest teas ever picked.)

sls-wintersprout-snowMy continued admiration to Peter Luong at Song Tea for his skill at sourcing this unique style. I can’t wait to have a tasting with the other Winter Sprout I brought back. For now, though, I’ll sit back and sip this gentle reminder that even in the depths of Winter there is a little bit of Spring waiting to emerge.

Baozhong observations

Baozhong (包種茶, literally “wrapped item”) is a very interesting tea to categorize. It balances on the border of being Green and Oolong. Very lightly oxidized, bright and floral, green and tan, it is one of the oldest styles of tea produced in Taiwan. When I think of Taiwanese oolongs, I usually imagine the sweet roasts of Dong Ding, or the high floral scents of Ali Shan. It’s easy to forget the humble twisted leaf grown in Taipei when confronted with all the miracles of the Taiwanese Tea Research Institute growing in Nantou and Chiyai.

Despite various spellings of the name (e.g.: “Pouchong”), Baozhong is pretty obvious when you see it. Most oolongs from Taiwan are of the rolled style, meaning that they are rolled during their lengthy processing into small balls which open up upon steeping to reveal three, four, or five leaves attached to a soft stem. Baozhong, however, is twisted into a sort of curl of one or possibly two leaves (the size of which varies based on the leaf) and you’ll rarely find more than the hint of a stem. The leaves are usually a bright green that immediately makes me think of a green tea, and indeed the oxidation level for Baozhong is only 5-15%, making it closer to green tea than any other oolong.

To the best of my knowledge, almost all modern Baozhong is grown in and around Pinglin, a region in the Wenshan mountains within the borders of Taipei. It’s a place which I’ve actually had the good fortune to visit. As with most tea growing areas, the people I encountered there were very friendly and welcoming, especially when they learned that I was visiting because of their tea!

Today I thought I would compare a few examples of 2013 Baozhong that I have in my cabinet. The first is from Red Blossom tea in San Francisco. It was purchased a year ago and has been resting in a double-lidded metal tin since. Even though the leaves have only been exposed to the air at the infrequent times I’ve opened the tin, I had it in my head that the leaves had lost a lot of their luster and energy. Many oolongs can retain their greatness for several years after harvest, but Baozhong is so close to Green tea that I feared its magic had been depleted by time. I was pretty pleased to discover that I was wrong about that. I infused 4 grams of leaf for about 1.5 minutes with 90°C water in a gaiwan and was greeted by a floral aroma and brightly energizing tea! A very impressive feat given its nearly 2 years of age.

baozhong-packagesThe second tea I tasted was actually the same tea from the same purchase, but had been stored differently. Following some advice from Stéphane Erler, four or five months ago I had moved a good amount of the tea from its metal tin to a ceramic jar to see what effect it would have. Today I opened the jar to a wonderous aroma and was excited to compare it to its near cousin. As you might expect, the tastes were very similar, but there were notable differences. First, the liquor of the tea from the ceramic jar was a shade darker (and remained so at every infusion) despite identical measures of weight, gaiwans, and water. I brewed these very close together to see if I could spot anything unique and to minimize any variations. Secondly, the ceramic jar Baozhong had a deeper, richer flavor than its metal-tinned version. The floral notes were much the same, but the mouth-feel was decidedly changed by its container. This is a fascinating experiment that I hope to repeat in the future!


The third tea I tasted was also a Baozhong from 2013 although just purchased recently from Teamasters. Its leaves were dramatically larger and darker than the Red Blossom tea and in fact barely fit in the gaiwan I was using. After the second infusion I removed one third of the leaves to allow the remainder to open and move about. I try not to get too far into “tea dogma”, but if my experiences are anything like yours let this be a lesson as you explore the tea world: if your gaiwan or pot is overflowing with leaves, it will dull the taste and make for a strong and blunt cup. Best to remove a few (or a lot!) of the leaves and until the remainder can swirl about efficiently. This Baozhong was dramatically more buttery and smooth than the others, making my mouth water at each sip. The buttery quality of tea is hard to describe unless you experience it, but this one was sweet and thick like cream. I’m very glad that I ordered it!

All three gaiwans gave me two good infusions and a third that was still tasty if faded. I might have been able to coax a few more from the leaves, but after drinking three infusions each of three teas I had consumed more than enough for one sitting! I bow deeply to the farmers in Pinglin for growing and crafting these unique leaves and to Red Blossom and Teamasters for giving me the chance to hold them in my cup.

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.

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!