Monthly Archives: December 2013

First Pick Korean Wild Green from Franchia

This Christmas I received a surprising present: a package of the Korean First Pick Wild Green tea that I mentioned in my earlier post about Franchia, the tea house in New York City. Definitely a great opportunity to expand my knowledge of Korean greens. Today I had my first try.

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According to their website:

Our Korean Wild Green Tea comes from the rocky slopes of Mt. Jilee and is 100% natural. Because it’s not cultivated, the root of our Wild Green Tea draws richer nutrients and minerals from almost 60 feet deep. The region’s colder climate (even in summer) and drastic temperature difference between day and night produces tea leaves stronger in “chi” or “energy.” Moreover, what differentiates Franchia Wild Green Tea from other green teas is our completely natural production process from growing in the wild to being harvested by hand to our unique processing method.

The site shows that the unique processing method is an immediate wok-firing, followed by hand-shaping (to bring out the oils and enzymes in the leaf), resting and drying, another wok-firing in an iron wok, more resting and drying, and finally a gentle roasting step in a steel pot. That last step is definitely unique, as when making tea in China a final roast (which tends to bring out the leaf’s aromas) is generally only applied to oolong tea. I’m not certain if these steps are common for Korean tea or just this factory, but there is definitely a notable effect.

Photo Dec 31, 12 06 32 PMGoing with my instinct and advice from my friends, I used 90 degree Celsius water in a gaiwan for about a minute. This is hotter than I’ve used for similar tea in the past, but I wanted to see what would happen. If the result from such a brew was bitter and pungent, I would know my mistake, but the dry leaves seemed a bit dull; they must be nearly a year old, so I thought I might be able to fire some life into them with hot water. (It turns out that the Franchia site includes instructions that recommend 50 degree water for one minute, but I didn’t see that at the time.)

The liquor was light blond with the aroma of green bark after a spring rain. So much for my impression of the dull leaves! When they got wet, they took on a bright green glow. I think that the matte leaf appearance must just be a characteristic of Korean tea, perhaps due to the final roasting process.

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As I mentioned in previous posts, I’m only familiar with one Korean green: the Nok Cha from Dobra Tea. That tea is milky smooth and rich with a bit of saltiness. The taste of this Wild Green reminded me more of Japanese Gyokuro than Nok Cha, and yet not as smooth or creamy as either. I want to say it was oceanic, but for me that usually means hints of seaweed and salt water and I detected neither in this brew. It had the tasty quality of bean sprouts, snap peas, or kale: a sort of woody sweetness that pervades the mouth and coats the tongue. Like a bowl of Matcha or the best Li Shan, it slowly seeps into the body and mind for a good minute after drinking. A soothing experience to be sure.

Photo Dec 31, 12 11 25 PMI look forward to trying and experimenting more with this tea. From my first leaves I managed to get about 4 great infusions with about the same time and temperature. That’s a good record to start with, for a green tea. Well done, Franchia.

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.

1995 Tieguanyin From Maokong

The leaves of this tea are dark brown, and clearly roasted as I’d expect from an aged oolong. As usual I can’t honestly verify that this tea is actually from 1995, but I know that when I was in the shop purchasing it, we tasted a selection of the owner’s aged Tieguanyin ranging from 1992 to 1998 and decided we liked this one the best. Buying directly from a tea master like this is about as good a guarantee as you can get unless you’ve aged it yourself.

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The infusion is a beautiful dark amber, already giving a sign of its quality. An overly-roasted aged oolong can be murky, but this is clear and glowing. The taste is roasty and rich. It has a full mouth-feel like a good Da Hong Pao and, for me at least, a comforting sensation. I suppose I can be comforted by many teas, but I would definitely call this ‘comforting’ as opposed to ‘energizing’ or ‘calming’. Drinking it is like sitting by a winter hearth, basking the gentle scent of woodsmoke.

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The level of roast is what sets this tea apart for me. Roasting oolongs, particularly for aging, is not an easy task. A little too much and the tea tastes sharp and baked. Too little and the tea may be too bland or worse, too green for aging. This Tieguanyin doesn’t taste of charcoal or burning. There’s even a light touch of sweetness, as though someone added a tiny spoonful of sugar to my cup.

I bought this tea in Maokong, Taiwan at the Chang Nai-miao Memorial Hall (張迺妙紀念館) while looking for teahouses. My friends and I stumbled across this wonderful place quite by accident.


Maokong (貓空) is a popular but rural and somewhat remote part of Taipei, sitting atop a mountain. They’re famous for their teahouses and the tea they grow tea there. We took a gondola to get up to the area which is a popular tourist attraction in itself. Not only was the line quite long, but we had to get a ticket and wait an hour to even get in line in the first place. The gondola ride was beautiful, going past temples and between some low mountains (~400 meters).

IMG_1874When we arrived at the top we were starting to get hungry, but we also wanted to find a pleasant teahouse. Well, in Maokong, there are a lot, but most of them seemed to be just restaurants. We hiked for an hour or two around the mountain until we stopped in to a small family cafe. We were served a delicious selection of veggies and some OK oolong. Of course, we weren’t going to get amazing oolong with a meal!

While eating we tried to communicate with the proprietors (including one very helpful dwarf gentleman), but without much luck. As is often the case in these situations, it seemed that they knew of someone who could help. One of the family members rushed out of the door on some mission. Minutes later, she returned, alongside a woman who spoke excellent English. With the new woman’s help we were able to explain that we were in Taiwan exploring the tea culture. Much to our surprise the woman asked us to join her next door where she worked in a tea museum! It turns out that she was the wife of the owner of the hall and a relative of the owners of the restaurant. We snagged a personal tour of the hall and a lot of tea processing information, as well as a wonderful gongfu service with the current master.


The woman’s husband was Chang Weiyi (張位宜), a descendent of a famous tea master for whom the memorial museum was made. He had also studied teapot making in Yixing and the hall sold some of his works. One of my all-time favorite teapots is one that I purchased there. With his wife’s translation, he brewed us several Tieguanyin as mentioned above. This 1995 was so divine that we decided to split some to bring home.

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The stoneware jar it came in reads 木柵鐵觀音, which is Muzha Tieguanyin, and the year. I still feel that this experience was one of the best parts of the whole trip and I’m very happy to still have this tea to remember it by.

Korean Wild Green Tea 2nd Picked

While attending a Broadway show in New York City this weekend, I had the opportunity to visit a lovely little Korean teahouse and vegan restaurant named Franchia. I confess that I learned about the food first and was drawn in by the tea only after I decided to go. So many restaurants these days will put “teahouse” in their name, meaning that yes, like every other restaurant, they serve something almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. Sorry, I get carried away. Actually most places willing to call themselves a teahouse do indeed have tasty tea, but Franchia definitely impressed me with their unique offerings.

franchia_menuI’m familiar with Nok Cha (녹차, or “Green tea”), the delicate tea lovingly produced in Korean gardens, by way of the versions (apparently Jiri Mountain “Jungjak”) procured by Dobra Tea. That hardly qualifies me as experienced, though. I’ve rarely had the opportunity to try any other varieties, but more and more I have read about the delicious things coming out of Korea and now I’ve grown quite curious. It’s been on my to-do list for a few years now to gain at least a little more familiarity with tea from this country.

Well, I was fortunate to stumble across this gem in New York. I highly recommend them for both their food and their camellia sinensis! They offer three harvests of their “Wild Green Tea”. The menu gives water temperatures for each tea, which is already a good sign. Being as it is the middle of winter, I wasn’t sure which one to pick, but I opted for the middle ground and chose the 2nd harvest.

franchia_cupJust as I had come to expect from my previous experiences, the ceramic strainer (I love Korean tea cups) was filled with beautiful whole leaf sets that produced a creamy, but very light-bodied broth. The aroma was a combination of roasted hazelnuts and toasted seaweed that I tend to associate with fine Japanese Gyokuro and Kabusecha. Intoxicating. The taste was delicate and sweet. I found I was able to get just about 3 infusions from the leaves before they began to lose their luster. This also meshes with my previous experiences of Korean greens. Still, there were hints of flowers and a little roastiness that I would like to know better, perhaps with longer infusions. If I hadn’t had to get to a show, I would have sat and tried all three harvests!

franchia_outsideIn my haste to leave, I didn’t even notice that they sell their tea. I will definitely have to return during my next trip South. Perhaps if any one else out there in tea-land has a chance to visit Franchia, they can add their reviews to mine. In the mean time, I will definitely need to check out some Korean offerings from others on the ‘net.

2006 Fengqing Sheng Tuocha Puer

Twice now I’ve had the wonderful experience of tasting this Sheng puer, another sample sent from TeaVivre. Both times I’ve been very pleased with the result. This tea held a special interest for me since I’ve visited tea factories in Fengqing before, but never one that produced Puer. The city is known mainly for its Hong Cha (black tea).

Even though it was delivered in a sample pack, the leaves were noticeably from a Tuocha, one of the traditional shapes of Puer cakes. I’ve tried to translate Tuocha (沱茶) many times, but it doesn’t really have a literal translation. It apparently only has meaning when referring to this particular bowl-shape of tea. From what I understand of Puer aging, it’s important for all the leaves in a pressed tea to remain near to the air, so you’ll notice that in all cakes intended for drinking there are no sections thicker than about 3  to 4cm. I say, “intended for drinking”, because there are many decorative cakes out there which are made to look nice and are not really for consumption (the “ingot” and “melon” shapes, for example). This allows all the leaves to continue to benefit from the fermentation processes that make Puer what it is. If a section is too thick, the leaves inside would either dry up and cease to age or possibly retain too much water and start to rot. If I’m right, in a Tuocha, the bowl shape allows for a fairly sturdy and compact construction, like a ball, but without overly increasing the thickness.

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The aroma of the orange infusions was deeper than I expected, bringing to mind oak more than the cedar scent that I often find with young and middle-aged Sheng (I consider any Sheng Puer less than 5 years old to be “young”, and more than 10 years to be “old”). This was the first sign that I was getting a tasty cup.

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Starting with about a 10-second infusion, the flavor was very smooth and round with more of that oak character. It had a dryness to it that pervaded the mouth, but it was a pleasant dryness, akin to the feeling of a Bordeaux wine. The taste reminded me actually of another one of my favorite Sheng cakes, coincidentally from the same year: the 2006 Lao Shu Bing Cha from Dobra Tea (alas, no longer available in that year).

Infusion after infusion produced quite lovely aromas and taste. I wasn’t counting, but I believe that I made around 15 infusions of 5 grams of the leaf before it devolved into a yellow broth. Occasionally I detected a strong punch of astringency when I infused the leaves for a bit too long, but that’s true of nearly any Sheng Puer, and is a good reminder to pay attention to the timing of my tea.

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When the tea was spent, I found that the leaves were very small and fairly broken. In other styles of tea, this can be a sign of a lower quality, but Puer is a special case. Firstly, there was a consistency in the leaf sizes. Puer manufacturers occasionally will cover the outside of their cakes with nice large leaves and fill the inside with tiny pieces to make the tea more marketable. This tea was honest with its leaf size, an excellent sign that allows the tea brewer to judge how best to infuse based on sight alone. Secondly, Puer is “graded” by leaf size, and unlike their non-fermented cousins, smaller leaves don’t necessarily mean less pleasant tea. I have a feeling that the pressing process itself has a lot to do with this phenomenon, as the leaves are much less likely to “bleed” away their flavors while in the air or in the pot.

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I may order some of this tea for myself for a later date. That’s one of the great benefits of Puer: being able to save it for a rainy day, and it will only get better as it waits.