23 May 2013

Neglect…Oops….

It’s been nearly 4 months since I last made an entry…and most of the readership has disappeared because I made a mistake and didn’t update my credit card for auto-renewal of my domain.  myteastories now goes to some random site with someone that has been squatting the domain name with no new content.  My bad.

Life has been really busy as business has picked up and time for tea has diminished.  I got to swing by Asia earlier this year and made some new tea friends also – there are some new things that I’ve learned and some new teas that I’ve tried.  Time to rebuild this site and find a new domain name, too!  More to come…

24 January 2013

Don’t be so quick to judge the brew

Tea can be temperamental and need some warming up before it will brew a really solid cup. You may have found that if your pot is too hot or if the water temperature isn't just right, your ideal cup of tea doesn't turn out quite the way you may have expected it to.

Tea also seems to get jet lag sometimes. It may be the high air pressure, the cold of the cargo hold. . . which leads tea to taste bland, lifeless or just plain bad after it travels. Like people, tea may need to rest for a bit after its flight. A sealed bag of oolong needs to be opened up to breathe before it completely comes back go life. Transferring it from the bag into a jar will do wonders for it. Give it a week or two and try it again, it will taste different and open up for you to enjoy.

I've been relatively critical when tea tasting in the past. When one is on a mission to buy teas, there isn't much time to explore each one in depth. Decisions are made on the spot and tea buyers do their best to guess the potential of the tea and how it will change over a given season. When tasting tea with friends, I have also been quite critical of brews that lack the bouquet, the essence or the range of expected tea traits.

The longer I drink tea, the less judgmental I become. Maybe this naturally comes with aging and maturity! I know what I like and want, but I’m also accepting of all sorts of brews and I trust that many teas have more to share than what I may have experienced with them. Nowadays, I can only say what my initial thoughts are about a tea, I’m not usually inclined to judge how terrible it may be – although there are certain brews that seem so bad that one can never imagine them improving.

I’m especially silent when it comes to predicting how a pu'er will turn out. I have read and been told about so many different ways for judging how worthy a particular cake may be for aging. Aside from fundamentals such as using good raw materials, correct pressing procedures, proper blending, etc, I have yet to meet anyone that can definitively and accurately predict just how good a particular cake will become decades after it was pressed. Do the best ones start off smoky? Rich? Sweet? Woody and camphor-like? My oldest raw teas surpass 50 years and they are still changing. My mid 2000s brand-name old arbor cake started off grassy and smoky, then became a bit flat, and is now somewhat sweet and mellow.

What's next? Actually, not knowing for sure is part of the fun.

13 October 2012

Why Drink Old Tea?

"Ha! Why do you look for old teas?  There is so much good, fresh tea to drink.  It is easier to find and costs less.  You have too much money!!  Why do you like old tea so much?"  The old man still had so much black hair left; he had to be at least 80.  Impressive...Mr. Forever Young.

"It reminds me of the first teas that I've had.  Strong teas with solid body.  Older teas can have a distinctive flavor of passion and love.  They were hand-made by experts.”  True, 20 years ago, the tea industry was less industrialized and artificial methods to boost production were not as widespread.

"HAA!  What do you know about tea from 20 years ago?  You were probably less than 5 years old!"  Mr. Forever Young was a funny guy.  And blunt, like a lot of tea farmers tend to be.

"No, no, I'm quite a bit older than I look...."

"Fine, you were maybe 6, but no matter what, younger than me and I have a better memory than you."  Laughter ensues.  You’ve got to be able to laugh at yourself if you want to get along with these guys.  He was right, though.  He of course possessed more tea knowledge and experience than I.  He eventually agreed that tea back in the days was "better," produced with more care and labor, fewer fertilizers, and fewer shortcuts.  But he also said that it was nonsense to seek those teas out as they no longer exist, at least not in the way we remember them to be.  They are like dried flowers or preserved specimens, still unique, special and beautiful, but not the same.

The times change, he said, and like everything else in the world, we need to change with it, adapt, and come to love the things around us.  He said that holding on to the past is why old people feel old, because everything they love no longer exists.

I've been drinking a lot of greener teas lately, whereas in normal years, it'd just be cooked pu'er and roasted oolongs by now.  Maybe it's because the weather has been so nice.  We've enjoyed an unusually warm, dry and long summer.  We’ve had a few days above 70 degrees here, in October, which is quite abnormal but extremely welcomed. 

I thought of Mr. Forever Young a few days ago when I had a cup of matcha...what a funny guy.  He reminds me to be present in the moment and to enjoy things as they are, not as we wish they could be or how they were.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

04 August 2012

Deep Fry Leftover Tea

We are a household of fooders; we are too varied and sometimes too indiscriminate as eaters to be foodies.  We wouldn’t be ashamed to follow up an excellent 5-course French meal with popcorn (although at $6 Hurricane popcorn is kernel royalty).

We love fried stuff: fried chicken; fish and chips; French fries...all of these are household favorites for which a deep fryer is an indispensable appliance.  From one of our fancy meals out, we tasted the deliciousness of fried Brussels sprout leaves.

Not yummy when boiled or undercooked; bearable when sautéed and mixed with strong flavors like smoked meats, onions & garlic, peppers, etc.  Sweet and crisp when deep fried.

The catch when you deep fry many kinds of green-leafed edibles is that texture and the taste of the oil can dominate the flavor profile.  The intense flavors of basil, mint and parsley, for example, become delicate and subtle after deep frying.  Fried Brussels sprout leaves are, by comparison, almost tasteless, until you add coarse sea salt...the pink Himalayan salt or coarse fleur de sel work particularly
well.  Table salt from the blue can, lava salt, garlic salt, Lawry's seasoning salt...don't work so well.

To the list of delicious green things to deep fry we can, naturally, also add tea leaves.  The variety is seemingly endless, but in reality, I've found that only a limited subset of teas work.  Cooked pu'er and high roast teas don't turn out well.  Aged teas, thin leaf tea (some sijichun, for example), small leaf teas (dragonwell) also don’t work out.  Tea bag tea, crushed/powdered tea, kukicha...don't work, for obvious reasons.  This brings us to mainly green and light oolongs.  Of the several types of tea I've tried, Baozhong is my favorite.  The leaves are big enough, the taste is sweet, crisp & delicate, and a hint of the floral aroma remains.  I recommend using leaves that have already been brewed a few times. The flavors are more enjoyable that way and you get to enjoy the best infusions. 

Aside from using deep fried Baozhong as a garnish for various dishes, deep fried Baozhong would pair nicely with a fruit platter, an appertif or digestif, and would look great atop a few scoops of ice cream (we recommend vanilla bean).  It also tastes great on its own, and though it could benefit from a sprinkle of coarse salt, the leaves don’t need it.

When one has more leftover tea than time or interest to re-roast, we find new ways to use them.    Contemporary Baozhong, like green teas, aren't suitable for re-roasting, so finding ways to hide the off-tastes while retaining any positive flavors is the goal.  Sweetened, iced Baozhong tea, tea-based soups and other edible recipes can be good ways to use the tea.

25 June 2012

Many Teas Deserve a 2nd Chance

Many old oolongs can taste rather odd.  Older oolongs - those with at last 20 years of age - can taste exceptionally sour, bitter and "wet.”  They can smell musty, “ripe,” and seem otherwise unappealing.  There can be an indescribable taste/aroma of "oldness" that is referred to as "陳味.”  While the aging process can be thought of as “softening” the tea, I also imagine that it’s the breakdown of the product that what we're tasting; the unique flavors being, in part, a result of decomposition.  Lovely!  From experience, I will also say that unless an aged tea is roasted to death, aged teas also require more patience and experimentation to draw out their best flavors.  It could be a mistake to try an aged tea once and quickly write it off a horrible, as so many of them have potential that can be worked out, but that is a topic for another time.

After my recent experiment with tea-infused liquor, I thought more about how we come to acquire a taste for things that endear us to their "acquired" properties.  What possesses college students, for example, to drink the most unholy of spirits (that would be Tequila...I hate the stuff from the first to the last drop regardless of what premium cactus it comes from) party after party?  And many actually come to enjoy it!  Or what person, upon first eating the Chinese preserved duck egg, has the immediate initial reaction that it’s so yummy as to ask for seconds & thirds, or to compel themselves to add it to their congee, or mix it with salted eggs & steam it with lettuce and conpoy...?  I can say the same about bitter melon, I don’t think any child loves it, but the taste grows on you as the bitter gives way to an understated sweetness - a mature flavor profile - that is actually enjoyable.  Interesting.

I think back to the first time I had real Chaozhou style gongfu tea.  I was barely a teenager and it was so strong and the infusion so thick and bitter.  It was not enjoyable.  How did that awful encounter eventually lead me to become a tea lover?  I look back and find that some of my favorite things in life began with less-than-pleasant experiences.  Many different edibles (spicy food, moon cake, sashimi...), alcohol, tea, hiking, Zen, pants….

If many of my favorite things started off as unpleasant experiences, I wonder how much more in life I’m missing out on because I refuse to try them out or give experiences second chances?  The first time I met my Tieguanyin teacher's wife, she served me a mediocre, pricey tea, and then another, and it wasn't until 3 or 4 teas later that I was told they had a lot of much, much better stuff that they don’t stock on their retail shelves.  I probably had pu'er over 50 times (not counting restaurant tea) before I had an eye-opening experience that led me to enjoy and appreciate it.

I recently had the chance to try a rather rough tea that, I believe, has the potential to shine if it receives some refinement via skilled roasting.  It reminded me that I should try to keep an open mind and give experiences and people a few chances to put their best foot forward, since some of the best things in life don’t always reveal themselves to us on the first go-around.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

16 June 2012

Spring 2012 Oolong…Liquor!!!

My last post was 2 months ago, wow, long break.  Work has been intense without much opportunity to concentrate on a nice cup of brew, let alone write about it.

The experience of tea, as we all know, can be calming and induce self-reflection.  Sometimes, though, what I crave is something intense, with a kick.  No, I’m not talking about a high-fire oolong…I mean something with a lot more firepower.

Introducing my latest impulse buy/experiment:

Hour 1

High Mountain Vodka

Purely a spur of the moment creation, I freely admit that I had no clue how to do this “the right way” and that I didn’t care.  I picked up a bag of the freshly-arrived Alishan HM oolong (I know, green oolong?  Me?!?  We have so much to catch up on…), drove by a Safeway (our grocery stores now carry liquor) and felt like getting salad, beef, and a bottle of vodka for my tea.  Trust me, it all makes sense.

I put the 5-times distilled vodka into a bowl with about 2/3 ounce of tea (no idea what I’m doing).  I soaked for about 20 minutes.  The leaves started to open and when I shook the bowl, tea dust settled.  I scooped the leaves into the empty vodka bottle and used my trusty alcohol Brita (that would be the Brita filter that I use on crappy mixer alcohol to “charcoal filter” it. I swear it makes junk taste better but I’m not responsible if it makes you go blind, grow hairy palms, hate tea…) and filtered the alcohol through it 3 times.  The smell was less and less “napalm-y” with each pass through the Brita.

Alcohol went back into the bottle and I shook it around a few times.  After a few hours, the leaves continued to unfurl and the fragrance of HM tea became more pronounced. 

As of right now, about 26 hours later, the bottle looks like this:

Hour 26

2/3 of an ounce of tea leaves are growing.  The leaves have no doubt absorbed a significant amount of alcohol: I didn’t want to contaminate the taste by putting in brewed leaves…yes, I realize how silly that sounds when that statement refers to a $10 bottle of vodka.  The aroma is just like the Alishan – it is quite nice – and the taste has the bite of vodka with the sweet/floral notes of Alishan.  It also has a very apparent HM aftertaste that lingers.  I knew there was a reason that I wanted to use good tea….  6 minutes later and I can still taste the unmistakable flavor notes of HM oolong.

I’m sure this has been done before; I could have read a few articles online before bottling.  It doesn’t matter, this was an impulse experiment and so far, it is turning out nicely.  I see no harm in leaving the leaves in for a while, I think the alcohol content is high enough to kill a wide variety of bacteria and if the lid starts to bulge, I will certainly throw this out before some botulism-like organism gets me.  Or not.

Learned:

-I chose vodka because it is a neutral, relatively tasteless spirit.  I appreciate that it’s clear so that I can see the degree to which the tea infuses the liquor.  Some people may prefer gin or various other grain spirits.  I hate gin.

-I chose a vodka that is both inexpensive (on sale!) and has been distilled multiple times.  My alcohol Brita’s charcoal filter further removes some of the edge/bite.

-I decided to use a tea that has less body/depth and more aroma.  A roasted oolong would be too heavy and might make the drink even more bitter/astringent and/or produce that irritating “hairy tongue” sensation.  I could have used a cheaper HM tea, but my $10 vodka demanded the best.  I bet a Four Seasons or light Dancong would also work nicely.  I would like to try this again with a Baihao.  Dong Ding?  Are you crazy, that’s for drinking, not for playing with! 

-I expect that at some point, over-steeping the tea will produce bitterness.  Next time, I will pick out the stems and use less leaf.  I think 1/3 – 1/2 an ounce would have sufficed.