Tag Archives: oolong

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!

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.

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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.

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.

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. 

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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!

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Cultivars and Places in Tea Names

Tea naming is an interesting art, and it’s easy for us Westerners to be confused by the plethora of naming conventions out there. I think a little primer might be helpful.

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Let’s take a tea name like Gao Shan Ali Shan Jin Xuan Milk Oolong. That’s a lot of words! But we can break it up pretty easily to learn more about our tea. Within we will find:

1. The height of the tea garden.

2. The place the tea was grown.

3. The cultivar used.

4. A common use-name.

In this case we’re going through a Chinese tea name because I think that can be the hardest to understand, but the same principles apply to tea from other countries. There may, however, be more information as well, such as the leaf size or grade.

“Gāo Shān” (高山) literally means “High Mountain”. It refers to tea grown in a garden above 1000 meters. Many of the oolong teas from Taiwan fall into this category. The theory goes that if a tea is grown at a higher elevation, it will tend toward lighter, sweeter flavors as the increased sunlight and decreased temperature affect the leaf. This is not universally true, of course, but Gao Shan oolongs usually do have those qualities.

tea_culitvarsMany teas include the place name for the mountain or region in which the tea was grown. This has led to some famous locations throughout the tea growing world, and plenty of counterfeits. Ālǐ Shān (阿里山) is one of the most popular tea mountains in Taiwan and so you can often find “Ali Shan” tea that was actually grown someplace else. Still, the place a tea is grown does not in itself tell you if a tea will be good or not, so it’s just another guideline.

A Cultivar (short for “cultivated variety”) is the particular version of Camellia Sinensis that was grown to make this tea. Often the cultivar isn’t mentioned in the tea’s name, but sometimes it is the entirety of the name. Jīn Xuān (金萱), for example, is the name of a particular tea cultivar that is grown in Taiwan and Fujian, China. A particular cultivar is usually processed in the same manner, even in different locations, so if you are familiar with the way a cultivar tastes, that can give you more of an idea of the experience you will have with a tea than anything else in the name.

“Milk Oolong” is the more common name for Jin Xuan tea in the West because the flavor of that cultivar, when gently roasted by the tea manufacturer, gives off a sweet aroma with a texture similar to cream. The common name of a tea is often a translation of the Chinese cultivar name or location, but not always. In this case, Jin Xuan literally means “Golden Day Lilly”, so “Milk Oolong” is not a translation.

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So finally, our “Gao Shan Ali Shan Jin Xuan Milk Oolong” is a tea that was grown about 1000 meters on Ali Shan mountain using the Jin Xuan cultivar. This is why you can’t have a Dong Ding Ali Shan (two place names) or a Jin Xuan Tie Guan Yin (two cultivars). As always, though, the only way to really learn about a tea is to give it a try (preferably several).