Tag Archives: green tea

Re-discovering Japanese tea

This spring I had the amazing chance to visit Japan for two weeks. While I certainly love Japanese tea (we had a Cha-no-yu ceremony at our wedding), I’ve always treated it as a little… less interesting than the wide breadth of Chinese and Taiwanese tea. This is not totally surprising since I’ve traveled in China and Taiwan and spent a lot of time learning and tasting tea from those regions. My experience with Japanese tea has been mostly limited to one example from each of what I think of as their main categories: Sencha, Gyokuro, Kabusecha, Genmaicha, Hojicha, Kukicha, and the inimitable Matcha. I’ve had a few other niche experiences such as Shincha, Kamairicha, Tamaryokucha, Tencha, Aracha, and Fukamushi Sencha, but for the most part I wasn’t drawn to Japanese tea as a realm to explore. It was basically all green tea, and it all tasted – forgive the obvious bias – “the same”. Guess what? I was missing out.

It turns out that, as I should have inferred, Japanese tea has just as much variety and complexity as Chinese tea. There’s a massive range of Sencha, a spectrum of hand-processing and machine-processing techniques, no end of Matcha characteristics, Japanese red tea (aka black tea), aged tea, and even tea that defies categorization. I also discovered teas I had never before heard of like Kawayanagi and Karigane. Even in the relatively small subcategory of roasted tea (Hojicha) there’s quite a difference in leaf material, roasting percentage, and cultivar.

That last bit was perhaps the most surprising; I learned a long time ago that brewing Japanese green tea required quite a lot more care than, say, a Zhejiang Long Jing. While I can get away with a one-and-a-half minute infusion at 80°C for the latter, that kind of brewing can quickly produce a bitter cloudy soup when applied to Sencha. My routine for most Japanese tea was 70°C for 1 minute exactly, and then an instant infusion after that. And while a good Pinglin Baozhong can make five infusions with little trouble, two tasty infusions of Sencha was a mark of high skill.

Imagine my shock when I sat down for a cup with the proprietor of a tea stall in Kyoto (whose business, Horaido, has been there for 200 years) and proceeded to drink at least five delicious infusions of rich and savory Gyokuro brewed without any particular focus on time other than a vague sense of “a couple minutes”. As we talked, Mr. Nagahiro Yasumori explained that, to the Japanese connoisseur, water too hot to bathe in is too hot for tea. He used water that was roughly 40°C! To pull out the rich concentration of flavors, he only poured in enough water to just cover the pile of jade leaves in the pot. This creates a very small amount of liquor, and so the pot and the cups were as small as Chinese gongfu tools. Furthermore, he emphasized the importance of capturing every last drop, which requires a certain meditative patience as each drop slowly gathers, coalesces, and then falls into the pitcher. He called these “golden drops”, and the metaphoric importance was not an overstatement.

Later I had the opportunity to have five incredible infusions of an aged Sencha brilliantly made by a tea sommelier in the eclectic back streets of Omotesando, Shibuya, Tokyo. At his little shop of Chachanoma, Mr. Yoshi Watada used several different temperatures to make each infusion a whole experience unto itself. This master not only prepared each infusion in its own particular way, he also served each one in a different vessel to bring out different characteristics. From a tiny funnel-shaped cup to a wide, round cup, to a bulbous red wine glass (for the third, cold, infusion), the experience of each taste was emphasized and refined in amazing ways.

This whole adventure left me with a deep reminder of the critical relevance of what in Zen is called “don’t know mind”. It’s so important to come back to the things we are most familiar with with the mindset of a beginner. Our unconscious biases strangle our ability to learn and to discover, and the more we think we know, often the less we really understand. I’m so grateful for having had this opportunity to rediscover Japanese tea. I still have so much experimenting to do! Hopefully I’ll have a few more blog posts coming in the near future to share those experiments with you.

Short, Medium, and Long Jing

Recently I had the pleasure to receive a sample set of three 2014 Long Jing (Dragon Well) teas from Teavivre, so naturally I had to taste them all together.

My first impression is that the dry leaves look mostly the same. All have the typical Long Jing blade shape. A few white haired leaves appear in each pile, making all three look like very nice full leaf teas. Their dry aromas also were all very similar: toasty and green — exactly what I expected. I think I wouldn’t be able to tell these apart by dry leaf, which is another good reason to always taste a tea before buying if you can; appearances only go so far.

The first tea I tried was the Premium Grade Dragon Well. I used 80°C water for about 1 minute with my green gaiwan and cups (I used matching gaiwans and cups for each tea so you’ll be able to tell them apart in the photos). I tasted fresh Chinese greens and watercress. The liquor was vegetal, but not overwhelmingly so. There was a roasted taste, almost like popcorn kernels, but I detected no buttery qualities (which you’ll see appear in the next tea). It had a nice full mouthfeel which remained into the second infusion, but the roasted flavor basically vanished at that point; not unexpected for this style of tea. The wet leaves showed about half full leaf sets, half broken and are definitely a darker green than the pair of organic teas that come next.

The second tea of the set was the Organic Nonpareil Ming Qian Dragon Well brewed in my brown gaiwan and cups. The flavor was immediately buttery with less watercress than the previous Dragon Well but with a thicker mouthfeel. There was the same roasted quality, like popcorn, but it was also notably salty, especially in the aftertaste. The second infusion had a little roast remaining, but mostly lost the buttery quality. The wet leaves impressively showed almost entirely full leaf sets. They’re everywhere! The color is definitely a lighter green than the Premium. Perhaps that’s a quality of organic harvesting? More likely it was the amount of sun the tea plants were exposed to during the growing period.

For the third taste I had the Organic Superfine Dragon Well in my white gaiwan and cups. The liquor tasted of young green grass and fresh zucchini. Still quite a good experience, but it was notably more flat tasting with a very short aftertaste. It was not bitter, but there was not much energy to it. The wet leaves also showed very few full leaf sets compared to the other two. They were mostly broken apart, while similar in color to the Nonpareil.

Clearly the Nonpareil (as the name suggests) is the top of the line here. But it’s not fair to say that the other two teas were poor examples of Long Jing; they were actually very good, just not quite at the same level as the Nonpareil. Long Jing is a tea that’s so famous and has so much history that the variety in its production may be greater than any other single named tea out of China. Because of that it’s really nice to have a sample of three notably different — but all well-made — examples of this style.


A tale of two Bi Lo Chun

As soon as I open the package I know this is going to be a special tea. The aroma of freshly harvested leaves is like clouds and mist floating through the air after a spring rain. I’ve had several opportunities to try 2014 Bi Lo Chun (碧螺春) in the last month and I’ve been really pleased each time. Here I’d like to compare a few that I have in my home: Teavivre and Stone Leaf Tea House.bi_lo_chun_teavivre_and_stone_leafTeavivre’s sample was delicate and beautiful. The silver-green leaves are loosely curled and covered in a glow of fuzz as is traditional for a “Green Snails in Spring” (the usual translation for this tea). This small-leaf style of green tea originates from a mountainous peninsula in Jiangsu province near Suzhou, and that is where this tea was harvested not too long ago. In recent years, Bi Lo Chun made in Taiwan has also become popular and, in my experience, is also very delicious! The key differences I’ve noticed (and I’m sure that there are exceptions) are that Taiwan Bi Lo Chun tends to have slightly larger leaves and the aromas tend more toward oceanic. This makes a kind of sense to me since Taiwan is surrounded by ocean and the original is harvested on a mountain surrounded by a lake (Tai Hu).


I infused about 4g of this tea for 1 minute at around 80°C, following my instincts, although the package suggests a similar brew. The result was a transparent jade liquor with a few leaf bits and a delicate aroma that lingers both in the mouth and in the mind. The taste is slightly dry and has an energizing cha qi which doesn’t appear until the liquor reaches the back of my tongue.

My first infusion of the Stone Leaf Bi Lo Chun was made with the same details for the sake of comparison. This tea is made in Taiwan, and as I mentioned above the leaves are larger and darker in appearance with fewer of the white hairs on their surface. The taste and aroma are deep and rich, bringing to mind a Japanese gyokuro, but not quite. Immediately it seemed that while the Teavivre Bi Lo Chun had a vegetal and bright energy quality, Stone Leaf’s was more floral and mellow. What an amazing variety!

bi_lo_chun_wet_teavivire_and_stone_leafTwo more infusions were made of these delicious teas, increasing the time and temperature a bit with each one. Both teas became more cloudy and drier on the tongue, and they maintained their separate qualities: vegetal energy in one cup and floral mellow in the other. I felt as though drinking the Teavivre Bi Lo Chun was walking through a spring field and the Stone Leaf Bi Lo Chun was swimming in a summer pond.

As the infusions progressed, the nuances of aroma began to fade. This isn’t a bad sign for a green tea; indeed it’s quite common for a green to give up its most potent flavors in the first two infusions. Still, the third infusion was just as pleasant, even as the fading aromas evoked a more full bodied mouthfeel. This is the life that tea shows us: dramatic and delicate, comforting and fleeting. We must be present with our cup to notice these things. Happy sipping!

Premium Grade Dragon Well from Teavivre

I must thank Teavivre for sending me this sample to try. It reminded me how rarely I actually make green tea for myself lately. Partially that has to do with the season (it’s -19C outside right now) but it also has to do with my tea collection. Green teas last so much less time in storage than oolong and puer that most of my drinking at home is within those two venerable categories. The result? I forget how important the proper water temperature is for a classic green like Dragon Well (Long Jing, Lóngjǐng, 龙井, or 龍井 — I love the traditional character for Dragon).IMG_8401

I had to make this tea twice, because in my excitement for the first infusion I made a very poor cup with water that was probably 95C and something like 6g of leaves. It was strong and flat, with only the essence of a grassy green in the background. In fact, it came out much like a generic bagged green tea might taste. After scorching the leaves like that, there was very little I could do to restore the tea’s luster. Sometimes when I realize a mistake like that, I can save the tea and brew it more carefully the next few infusions, but not always. Delicate green teas especially can have all the flavor sucked out and replaced with a taste of scorched grass. Such is the price of experimentation and lack of mindfulness.

Photo Jan 03, 1 07 43 PMLuckily, I had more than one sample! This time I was prepared. Careful brewing with 4g of leaf and a thermometer to test my assumptions. I played around a bit with the temperature to see if I could find the right balance. First, 75C for 45 seconds. Ah! Much improved. The wet leaves have the aroma of dried figs and moss in the rain. The taste was of coriander and rosemary with a bit of osmanthus flower, quite pleasant. The texture is powdery a bit, drying the front of the tongue (I associate this with Lóngjǐng) and full bodied in the mouth. There’s a gentle sweetness in the aroma and the aftertaste.

For a second infusion I tried 60C water for 1 minute. The tea definitely had a lighter body from the decreased temp. I detected much more of the aroma in the taste this time: more grass and figs and less of the rosemary. My third try was 80C for 1 minute and I noticed that it was sweeter this time with some black cherry in the taste and less grass.

Photo Jan 03, 1 05 16 PM

The leaves were moderately broken but with a decent number of beautiful two-leaves-and-a-bud sets to be found. You can always tell a Dragon Well leaf: they are generally medium-to-large leafed full and partial leaf sets, and when they’re dry, they resemble flat blades with a cross-thatched pattern on both sides from a pressing step during processing. A bright green is desirable, which I certainly see here. Lóngjǐng that’s been exposed to too much air, light, or time will have lost its green glow and will appear dull and sometimes a bit brown (look in many grocery stores and you’ll see it).

To be fair, I’ve certainly had Lóngjǐng that I’d rate higher than this — teas with overwhelming sweetness and aroma overflowing with perfect leaf sets — but those are the exception to green tea and can fetch a very high price indeed. For a more accessible tea, this Dragon Well is a really good find. It’s nice to see that it’s from the Xīhú (西湖, West Lake) area of Zhèjiāng province as well, which is the traditional home of Lóngjǐng. Since Dragon Well is so popular, this style of tea is often made in other places, but in my opinion these versions tend to lack the same sweetness and energy of tea from Xīhú.

When I visited the gardens in the hills around the lake region, I was impressed most by the feeling of the place. It was calming and energizing at once. Probably because Lóngjǐng is arguably the most famous orthodox tea from China, there has definitely been some care taken to preserve and cultivate the region. A definite peace surrounded the forests, paths, and springs which was notable given that the populous city of Hángzhōu is very close by. While the historical veracity for such a beloved name is unclear, I did visit the fabled “Dragon Well” itself: a small circular stone pool which has some interesting rippling properties when it is stirred. If you are ever in the South-East of China, I definitely recommend a visit.

Thanks again to Teavivre, and Happy New Year all!

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.

Photo Dec 31, 11 57 27 AM

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.

Photo Dec 31, 12 11 46 PM

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.

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.