Last week I had the opportunity to visit Vancouver for a couple of days and so naturally I had to know: what’s the tea scene like?
Short answer? It’s amazing. I need to go back.
I got some fantastic recommendations over Instagram from the Vancouver Tea Society, and did a little planning. It was a pretty short trip, and I had a lot of other things to do so I couldn’t justify spending four hours in each of the (seven!) suggested tea shops. To that end I picked two.
o5 Tea was the closest option to where I was staying in Kitsilano, so that was an easy choice. I was able to taste some impeccable 2017 Darjeeling First Flush while there. The kind and knowledgable Jacob made a great cup, which I paired with an (also delicious) Autumn harvest for comparison. There were so many teas on their list that I wanted to try, I’m definitely going to have to visit there again.
I was in the city with several of my friends who had not been introduced to the wonders of gongfu tea, so I also set up a Puer tasting at Silver Crescent Tea. We drank a very smooth younger (2012) Sheng, a malty 90’s loose Shou with huge leaves, and an older (1998) 7543 Sheng. As I was talking too much with Erick and Keira I didn’t get any tasting notes, but they were a great spectrum of the Puer world.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that yet another West Coast city has such great tea, but it’s welcome news. Next time I hope to be able to spend a week just sitting and sipping throughout the city. Well done, Vancouver, well done indeed.
Today I found a package in my box of Sheng Puer that I haven’t yet opened (let’s be honest, there’s two boxes of Sheng Puer and many unopened packages, but I digress). This beauty is from my last trip up to Camellia Sinensis in Montreal. I remember having it recommended to me by one of their tea crew, and being intoxicated by the smell of the leaves. Much like the aroma of roasting oolong in Pinglin, the crisp fruity sweetness of Máochá brings back memories of walking around tea factories in Southern Yunnan.
Máochá is so fun to brew: toss a pile of it into a gaiwan and pour on the boiling water. The result? A golden cup of thick liquor with the taste of freshly cut hay. There’s also a floral component, like the sweetness of honeysuckle, that I find very comforting. A mineral overtone is unmistakeable, but it doesn’t result in a overly dry mouth feel.
That honeysuckle sweetness is more prevalent in this Laos tea than in other Máochá that I remember. It’s not really a perfume, but more a gentle sweetness that just tickles the senses.
So, if you’ve read this far and have no idea what kind of tea I’m drinking, maybe I should explain a little about Máochá (毛茶 or sometimes Mao Cha).
Máochá isn’t technically Sheng Puer (生普洱茶), even though it is often placed in that category. Literally it is something close to “raw tea”; the fresh tea picked from the large leaf varieties of Camellia sinensis that grow in the south-western region of China, or in this case, Laos. (Aside: It is always important to remember what Global Tea Hut wrote in their October 2015 issue: “tea regards no borders”. While you can talk about tea practices, production techniques, and preparation, the tea itself, “belongs to Nature”. Our political and social delineations of territory don’t mean anything to the tea plant, which just grows where it finds itself, and produces leaves that are adapted to its climate and terroir.)
Most Máochá is steamed and then pressed into cakes, producing Puer as it ages. Some, however, is left raw, and this is the tea that a lot of the locals in Puer-producing regions drink as their daily beverage. Made with minimal processing, Máochá has very little in common with the Puer that much of it becomes, evolving much more like a Green, or even a White tea.
Characterized by large, wildly twisted leaves that glow with a green and gold energy, Máochá can harbor some delicious flavors that are not seen in any other tea category. In fact, I’d much prefer to think of Máochá as its own type of tea rather than trying to explain how it comes from a world of Puer, but acts like Green tea.
As I’ve written about before, most tea drinkers in the tea producing regions of China don’t drink tea gong-fu style, nor with western style strainers, but grampa style: just leaves in a jar with hot water. Máochá lends itself really well to this style of drinking. The massive leaves just melt as you pour in the water. It’s a beautiful thing. Máochá is great for every day drinking, and usually rather inexpensive compared to Sheng cakes from the same region.
Like other tea (outside the Hēi chá category), I’d say that Máochá is better within the first year after harvest. It can be aged, but in my experience the flavors can become overly dry and dull the older it becomes, unless aged very skillfully. I imagine that the process of pressing Máochá into Sheng Puer cakes offers the leaves some protection against the elements which the raw tea doesn’t have. Then again, I have tried fewer than six different Máochá in my time, so please conduct your own research and let me know!
When I saw that White2Tea had revived the legendary 2002 White Whale puer tea, I immediately placed my request. Google that tea, it has quite a reputation. It’s a shame to order only one item from such a noble company, though, right? I decided to add just one more tea to the order, conscious of my ever-expanding puer collection. Two-thirds of what I have are Sheng, so I felt justified to add a Shou to the list. I drink those more often anyway. (What’s Sheng and Shou?) At a recommendation from my friend Ben I tacked on a small Tuo from 1998 without too much of a name. Just an extra, right? An opener? Well… I need to tell you about this tea.
Are you familiar with a Tuó? It’s a “nest” shaped chunk of pressed tea leaves, aged. I think it’s fair to say that most puer is shaped as a Bǐng (饼) or cake: basically a big disc somewhere between 100-400 grams. The other two most common shapes are the Zhuān (砖) or brick, and the ball-like Tuó (沱).
The dry leaves on the Tuo don’t give much away. They’re certainly dark, yelling “Shou!”, (“ripe” tea, meaning accelerated aging) with just a hint of a reddish glow that implies a good storage. As soon as they enter the warmed pot, though: wow. Rich, earthy aromas. Like being in a bookstore. Not just any bookstore either, but one of those tiny, poorly ventilated shops in the unfashionable section of town with floor-to-ceiling stacks of yellow-edged Sci-Fi from twenty years ago. Is that not a common memory? Maybe I’m weird. Anyway, that’s what this tea brings to mind.
A dusky red-black liquor promises wonders, and this tea does not disappoint. In the mouth it’s smooth and malty, with just a touch of dry sweetness. It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a treat like this. Both my wife and I immediately remembered our first trip to Camellia Sinensis in Montréal so many years ago, and drinking whatever aged beauty they had on the menu. It was like this. Sheer perfection in a cup.
The tea was so thick that I started feeling full after just a few cups. But I had to keep going. About seven infusions later, the magic began to wane, and I was once again just a normal human sitting on a normal couch drinking a normal Shou puer. That’s not extreme longevity for a Shou. But for those seven infusions I was a god sitting on Mount Olympus supping on Ambrosia and Nectar. I hope you can relate.
Even after number seven (this was with eight grams of leaf in a Jianshui pot) I managed to create at least four more infusions with a delicious earthiness that, if somewhat lighter, were still within the realm of enjoyable.
I don’t know if it’s because of the age or what, but I can definitely recommend this one for anyone who loves puer or the smell of ancient books. Or if you’d like to be a greek deity for a few infusions. It just goes to show that the single-origin Shengs of the puer world aren’t the only ones with something special to give. As White2Tea says, “blank white wrappers are adept at hiding the true value of a tea.”
Last weekend I gathered some friends together to get to know a handful of my Shēng (生, raw) Puer. I confess that most of the time I drink Puer I go for my favorite Shóu (熟, ripe) cakes. The deep, earthy flavors are very comforting and they tend to pack less of a punch. Also, many of my Sheng cakes are either too young to be tasty yet or expensive enough that I often think I’m saving them for a special occasion. It was easier, therefore, to create a special occasion just for them!
After a lot of discussion we picked four teas that were different enough that we hoped would give us a good range of tastes. A 2007 Yiwu, a 2007 Yinzhu factory bing, a 2009 Nanuo Shan, and a 2013 Yibang rounded out the circle.
The Yiwu was the darkest infusion of the four (9g each, with one rinse and then a 30 second steep) and had the largest, darkest leaves. The first infusion ended up with a fruity, cherry-like taste and a very interesting aftertaste-feeling that we could only describe as “minty”.
The Yinzhu was something of a mystery tea because while I know where I bought it (Dàlǐ Old Town in Yúnnán), I don’t know where the leaves were grown. The first infusion of this interesting tea had the second darkest liquor with small, orange tippy leaves. The flavor was very surprisingly rich with a smoky, oak and peat aroma, very like some of my favorite scotch.
Nannuo is one of my favorite tea mountains, so I had high expectations for this 2009 bing. The leaves were wiry and long, and with a light gold infusion. The flavor was a little sweet like strawberries, with a woody, cedar aroma. Overall, it had almost the quintessential Sheng flavor.
The 2013 Yibang was the youngest of the lot and so it’s not surprising that it had the lightest liquor. Its medium size leaves were dark brown speckled with blond. Using the same steeping time was probably unfair for this tea, and it tasted a little under-infused with not much body and a light mineral bite.
For the second infusion I brewed each tea for 45 seconds, partially by accident, and partially to see how the flavors would develop if they were made really strong. (This is a good point to mention that if you have never made Puer yourself, 45 seconds for a second infusion is quite long.) The result? Bitter tea, of course. But the comparison was pretty fascinating as it emphasized the characteristics I found during the other infusions. The Yiwu was very herbal, the Yinzhu gave the impression of a charcoal baked potato. The Nannuo tasted like mushrooms, and the young Yibang was bright and acidic.
At the third infusion (10 seconds this time), I think each tea hit its stride. The Yiwu created a cooling, refreshingly minty feeling with a herb and cherry taste. The mysterious Yinzhu made us all think of cacao nibs, with a warm scotch peat aftertaste. Our Nannuo leaves had a woody, mouth-filling texture and a smooth, crisp Bartlett pear taste. FInally, the 2013 Yibang tasted a little like a woody green tea with a long, second sweetness in the throat.
All in all most of the consensus was that the Yinzhu was the best of the bunch, but that’s just because most of us liked scotch. The dissenting opinion was in favor of the Yiwu, and indeed the unique mouth feel of that tea was both unexpected and fantastic. We all agreed that the Yibang was too young (although it definitely has promise) and that the Nannuo was a good sipping Sheng but didn’t stand out from the crowd.
I’m very happy to have had the opportunity to taste these teas side-by-side with friends and I think it’s setting me on a good path to get to know my Shengs. I have a whole lot more cakes, though, so next time promises to be just as exciting. If you have never tasted different teas together, I highly recommend it. If you drink a single tea one day and then another the next day, it’s very difficult to get a sense of what sets them apart. So grab those gaiwans (or tasting sets) and get brewing!
That’s what I crow every time I make some of this great Sheng Puer from Jalam Teas. Not just because it’s really fun to say (and it is!), but also because for a relatively young Sheng (Summer 2014) it’s got quite a lovely character. (The tea is harvested on Bada Mountain and “Bing”, or 饼, means “cake” and is more or less the standard form into which Puer leaves are pressed.)
Compared to most Shengs of this age range (1-4 years), I taste surprisingly very little cedar and sulfur. Instead, notes of leather, wicker and straw are prevalent. Really, I like this tea almost more for its drinkability more than any sort of dramatic flavors or aroma. It’s so mellow and light bodied that I infused even the first three pots for almost a full minute, which for a lot of Sheng Puer is pretty rare if you don’t want a sharp bitter mess in your cup.
There’s a dried herb quality in the taste as well for which I had trouble coming up with a label, perhaps dry cilantro? Maybe that’s not too appetizing a term. Let’s just say there’s a fresh and interesting flavor somewhat reminiscent of an herb garden.
I steeped the fifth and sixth infusions longer just to see what would happen, but they still came out not as sharp or sour as I expected. The strength manifested instead as a tannic dryness and little else. Even brewed strong like this, the aromas remain mild and light.
Definitely this Bada bing is going to be a regular in my gaiwan, as long as the small 100g cake lasts!
What a great name Wu De and associates have chosen for this month’s tea. The gift from Global Tea Hut this December is a bit of loose Spring 2007 Shou Puer they call “Old Man Camphor” (老夫樟 or Lǎofū Zhāng).
Earthy and with a wonderful aroma. Just by the smell it makes me think of some really great old Sheng (生 or raw) Puer that I’ve had in the past, but those teas were all more than 10 years old and this is a blend from only 2007. It’s rare in my experience to find such delicious old-book notes in a Shou (熟 or ripe), so I’m very pleased to have this in my cup. The closest Shou I can think of is the 1998 Xiaguan from Camellia Sinensis, but this has some characteristics that are unique. The mouth-feel of those old Shengs was leathery and dry, but Old Man Camphor is quite smooth and clean feeling on the tongue, which is not a judgement on the quality of either tea, only a comment on the differences of the experience which I find fascinating.
When drinking this tea I feel my mind transported to a far-away oak grove, surrounded by ancient trees and stacks of drying lumber. The scent of woodsmoke floats around my nose, a delicate reminder of a warm glowing fire that keeps out the chill of winter. I can almost feel the snow in the treetops. This image is appropriate for the region of Northern Vermont where I live and the brisk time of year, and so nature complements my tea. Or perhaps my tea complements nature. Either way the experience evokes a harmony in my thoughts that is sorely needed.
The Global Tea Hut magazine this year is filled with wonderful writing and tea knowledge as usual. Besides a very good discussion of the processing of Shou Puer and the ten factory leaf grades (which layers nicely on their previous Puer special edition), there are some really inspiring poems in the margins. The accompanying stories of the Tea Hut crew’s adventures through Europe are inspiring and make me want to host more tea gatherings myself!
But enough analysis. As Wu De is quoted as saying at a tea gathering in the last article, “[this] is the tea we are having in this moment.” Be here with your cup (whatever it may be!) and enjoy. I’ll be here with mine.
Just a short post to mention a link I stumbled upon today. This page by Bana Tea has some really great Puer tea videos. I’m amazed I never encountered them before. I learned the terms Táidì Chá Yuán (Terraced Tea Garden – plantation-style puer) and Gŭ Chá Yuán (Old Tea Garden – wild tree puer). If you’ve ever wanted to see Puer being made, this is a very good resource.
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.
Bai Hao two-leaves-and-bud
Bai Hao in well-loved Yixing
Koi Pond in the center
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.
In 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.
One 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.
Many 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.
Last weekend I was in New York City to see a show and one of the things I always do in New York City is visit all my favorite vegan restaurants and cafes. This trip had an additional draw, though, being able to visit Tea Drunk, a gongfu teahouse that brings me right back to Taiwan. In fact, it’s really on-par with my favorite teahouses the world over. Small and cozy with a real expertise in Chinese tea and quite a selection, it was a perfect place to sit, sip, and chat. I even got to meet a few of the other guests, because it’s hard to avoid making friends over tea.
Our host was the imitable Nicole Martin, aka: Tea For Me Please. The owner of Tea Drunk wasn’t in that day, but Nicole was there to guide us through what probably amounted to 12 infusions of a nicely woody 2011 Sheng Da Meng Song (大勐宋), followed by maybe 15 gaiwans of a 2010 Shou Tuo Cha (of uncertain origin) that was even better than I expected. I was very energized by the time I left. The shop certainly lived up to its name!
The Sheng was crisp and comforting. The Shou was not too sweet, and had a blackberry quality to it which I really enjoyed. There are some really great young Puer cakes being produced these days, but a few years can make a big difference.
The shop is small, but beautiful. It looks from the outside like its space is in part of an old church. A host of teaware adorns one wall, while the other is devoted mostly to a seven person bamboo gong-fu bar that I’ve always dreamed of having for myself. The rest of the space holds about six square tables, each with its own custom-made petrified bamboo tea table that are works of art in themselves. When we sat down, we were able to pick one of the cute tea pets from their collection to share our tea. You’ll notice our friendly tea-loving bulldog in the pictures.
One of the most exciting aspects of Tea Drunk for me is their events. They have started a weekly “Tuesday Tea-Off” where each participant (including the teahouse) brings a tea of the same category for a blind tasting to compare and contrast. If only I lived closer! Nevertheless, it’s inspiring and a great way to involve the tea community.
Normally I would have been sipping with one hand and taking notes with the other, but I was really enjoying the conversation with Nicole and I never got around to writing down my thoughts about these teas. At this point all my memory can tell me is that they were both delightful and that I will definitely be returning to Tea Drunk next time I’m in New York. Their tea is definitely priced for small groups to share, but is undeniably worth the expense. If you are alone, perhaps you can find a friend in the city who’s willing to share a cup or two.
The seasons have changed, and with green grass and warm sunshine comes a perfect time to make tea outside. To celebrate the occasion I’ve pulled out my ceramic tea stove and some rather delicious sheng Puer that’s this month’s offering from Jalam Teas.
Of course, in the two seasons since I’ve used the stove, I’ve forgotten somewhat how best to get it going. It’s not the most complex device, but as my previousentries on the subject suggest, if I want to brew tea before too many hours have passed there are some tricks I need to know. Caveat lector: I’m equally unskilled at building campfires, so it’s not just this particular firebending with which I have trouble; I think I was born into the water tribe. I may need to get some practice lighting charcoal this summer.
Thankfully, with some patience and the meticulous skills of my wife, boiling water was not far off. There’s something really magical about heating water on a stove like this. I think because the water comes just to a boil without sending the lid flying across the room. When I’m using a gas range or electric kettle the water tends to get a little out of control. There’s often a sense of, “Oh no! The water is boiling; I need to shut it off before it’s too late!”, especially if there’s a shrieking whistle going off. The gentleness of boiling water on the tea stove seems to me a perfect complement to the essence of a tea ceremony: in the constant sound of the boil and the occasional hiss as a drop of water escapes only to instantly evaporate on the side of the stove, I find a feeling of tranquility and the natural order of things.
I don’t have a lot to say about the tea itself, other than that it’s really very delicious for being so young. The liquor is a beautiful amber, and the aroma is woody, but not overly so. It actually seems more oak-like than the cedar scent I expected, and is quite smooth (at least brewed gong-fu style; I haven’t tried any other way). I think that with some age it may produce more bold flavors, but I like the subtle taste and potent energy that it carries. It’s a young, but very dignified Puer and I feel very fortunate to have such a cake.
Jalam’s site names this tea an Autumn 2013 harvest of Meng Hun, from southwest of Menghai county in Yunnan, harvested by the native Lahu people. From the description, I really was expecting a tea that should be stored away for a few years before even sampling, and maybe my taste is unique, but I really am enjoying this cake right now!
Tea is a reminder that we are all interdependent. From the native people growing and harvesting these leaves to all the fine people at Jalam teas for getting the final product to my door, to the amazing pottery of Petr Novak without whom I would not have this lovely kettle and stove, they are all equally important. Even my water, kindling, and charcoal are derived from the hard work of many humans. Without any one of those people, the tea in my cup would not exist. Drinking tea with mindfulness is paying tribute to all those who provided this day for me. I hope to have many more days like this, and I hope that you do too!