Monthly Archives: February 2014

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

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.


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.


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).

Shui Mi Xiang from Camellia Sinensis

This is a tea I haven’t had before. Shuǐ Mì Xiāng (水蜜香) means “Water Honey Aroma”, or perhaps more lyrically, “Honey-water scent” and it’s easy to see why. The dark twisted leaves give forth a dusty sweet aroma that gave away the family of this tea even before I knew what it was: Guandong oolong.

Photo Feb 11, 3 15 33 PM

This is the first tea I’ve had with this name, but I assume it falls into the category of Phoenix oolongs (凤凰茶 or Fèng Huáng Chá). This class of oolong is grown in the Phoenix mountains of Guǎngdōng Province (广东) in south-eastern China and has very specific characteristics. Dark, long, and twisted leaves which carry an unmistakable roast and the subtle aroma of sweet stone fruit are the hallmark of this style. Typically they produce a golden infusion with a honey and apricot flavor. I’ve tasted many different Phoenix oolongs, and there is a variation in flavor intensity, aroma, and body, but otherwise they all share the qualities mentioned above. It’s one of my favorite styles of oolong to share with new tea drinkers as I think it showcases the amazing flavors that can be brought out of the tea leaf with nothing added. I’ve even had someone call me before to ask if the tea they bought was scented!

As with any tea, consistent leaf sizes are desirable and this tea has them. They will allow the tea to infuse at a consistent rate without small or broken leaves confusing things. Many Phoenix oolongs I’ve had are of the Dān Cóng (单丛) harvest. Dān Cóng means something like “single bush”, and (from what I understand) refers to wild or arbor tea trees, that is, tea plants that have been allowed to grow without pruning so they reach three to five meters in height. Arbor tea leaves tend to have more complex flavors than those found in cultivated gardens. Perhaps this is a Dān Cóng and perhaps not, but it is definitely an exceptional tea. I smelled the aroma during a recent trip to Camellia Sinensis and immediately picked some up.

Xiāng (香) can also mean “spice”, which is really interesting because I definitely detect cinnamon notes in the taste and texture. My first few infusions reminded me of cinnamon sticks and the sweetness of cherries. The translucency of the liquor implies a lighter body, but it’s actually quite full in the mouth.

Photo Feb 11, 3 45 21 PMI easily made four good infusions of 4g of the same leaf, with no loss of flavor that I could detect. Another good sign. I don’t think this tea will last very long in my collection with the speed at which I’m drinking it, but if there’s one lesson I’ve learned over the years, it’s that tea is meant to be consumed. If you hoard tea without drinking it yourself, you’re missing the point, and even better is to share!

Taiwan High Mountain Oolong from Teavivre

High mountain oolong (gāo shān wū lóng chá, 高山乌龙茶) almost always refers to a rolled oolong tea grown in Taiwan at a height of more than 1000 meters. Beyond that, it’s really a pretty vague description. As I read somewhere recently, calling tea by a name like this is something like calling a wine, “red wine from a field near a lake”. Actually quite a lot of tea is marketed without even the general style of production or the mountain name included, an unfortunate circumstance for us tea drinkers! Of course, this lack of information neither labels a tea as likely to taste delicious or common, so it is up to us to learn more.

My best guess about this tea would be that it’s a Qīng Xīn cultivar (青心) from Shānlín Xī (杉林溪) mountain or someplace nearby, but I definitely could be mistaken. The package lists Nántóu County as the location of origin, which is a prime producer of this style of tea on mountains like Shānlín Xī and Dòng Dǐng Shān.

Photo Feb 07, 1 45 30 PMAt my first inspection, the leaves seemed rather broken and small, but after some infusions, I discovered quite a few full leaf sets with long stems. I wonder, actually, if the broken leaves have more to do with the small sample packaging rather than the tea itself. Fair warning: this tea was sent to me by Teavivre as a sample.

When a tea is labeled as “High mountain oolong”, I usually don’t expect that much from it. Way better than any bagged oolong, certainly, but lacking in the nuance and intensity of a tea worthy enough to have been given a name. My experiences infusing this oolong fall within that category. The flavors were varied, but light, and the leaves opened up rather quickly, so the number of good infusions was somewhere around two or three.

Just to be sure, I infused a new packet with exactly 4g of leaf, no tea dust, and a fairly precise timing of around 1.5 minutes. The results had a pleasant energy, and were not without a good flavor, but a somewhat uninspiring aroma and flat mouth-feel.

The aroma of the wet leaves is honeysuckle and rose, with a little bit of raspberry sweetness, but it doesn’t seem to linger. The taste reminded me of eating the wakame seaweed out of miso soup or water chestnuts: a thin sweetness on top of the water.

Photo Feb 07, 2 33 58 PMSo: for me, a good daily tea but not something I would much want to show off. On the other hand, much better than many other teas I’ve had with the same name. With tea, it all depends on what you are looking for!