14 October 2017

Yesterday...

Long ago, before this blog’s first lines were published, I was gifted a free ticket to Taiwan.  There are few words I appreciate more than “free,” “travel,” or “tea!”  I fully expected that my first trip to Taiwan would turn out to be an amazing experience - and it was.  I met my first 2 Taiwanese tea teachers, Mr. Purple Clouds and my Tieguanyin teacher, during this first trip to Taiwan and still try to see them when I go back.  Nearly a dozen trips later, I’ve now added so many more teachers to be grateful to.  Mr. Zhan of Nine Pots Manor; My Dong Ding teachers; Mr. Li the tea scientist; The Younger and The Elder, tea distributors; Mr. Big Way, a master of tea brewing; Mr. Stillness, a tea maker who infuses his brew with heart and mindfulness, and so many others I have yet to share stories about.

But before I met any of my current teachers, there was Winnie Yu.  Winnie opened a teahouse called Celadon Fine Teas (now known as Teance) in the Bay Area about 15 years ago.  I was one of the first employees she hired and she taught me everything she could about evaluating, serving and appreciating tea.  What she did not know she found other experts for us to learn from.  She taught me how to brew from a gaiwan without the saucer so that I could maximize the feel and control (nevermind the boiling water...desensitization happens sooner or later!).  I learned the difference between a light oolong like a Baozhong and a weighty one like the Monkey Picked TGY...and came to love oolongs all over again.  Don’t brew Dragonwell too long or it can get astringent!  Don’t brew pu’er too briefly or you won’t get the depth of flavors!  She taught me how to tie the lids to the handle of teapots because they’re more functional that way (less prone to dropping and breaking the lid) and prettier, too.  That was my experience with Winnie, she was really good at getting to the heart of stuff and had a devotion towards tea that was radically different from the nonsense that so many other so-called experts liked to peddle (and still do!).  She was practical and straight-forward, but her devotion to the leaf remained.

...and she was generous, too. Not just with her time, as she patiently explained to me over and over again why and how to do things a certain way.  I can’t tell you how many times she picked up the bill for my lunch or dinner, or sent me home with samples of something to try.  The company’s signature vessel, the celadon-colored gaiwan, was used for tea service, along with matching drinking and aroma cups.  We had a gaiwan that sat in the corner of the tea service bar, out of use, after it slipped out of someone’s hand and banged against the concrete counter.  I asked Winnie if I could buy the otherwise beautiful and perfectly-usable gaiwan from her and she furrowed her brow and said, “Are you kidding?  Just take it home!”  I still have that gaiwan, it sits on the 2nd shelf of my cabinet along with other fun and meaningful pieces I’ve collected.

I ended up moving to Asia for further studies, so my time with Winnie and Celadon was not lengthy.  I kept in touch with her off and on over the years, and even got to see her again a couple of times.  She’d update me on the cool projects she was working on, like bottled tea, new retail packs to sell at local stores, web initiatives, and what other former employees that I knew were up to.  
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Winnie passed away about a month ago, at the age 47.  I had no idea she was ill.  A tea friend texted me and asked if I knew of her passing. I thought the news must have been a mistake...too young!  I scoured the net and read about her death from one of the employees at the teahouse.  I didn’t know how to react.  I have an old pu’er that I thought she’d love to try, but she had a last-minute scheduling conflict that meant I would miss the opportunity to share it with her the last time I was in town.  “Eh, I’ll be back sometime, it’ll taste better as it gets older, anyway,” I thought.  

It may have been my dad’s good friend that sparked my love for tea decades ago, but it was Winnie that gifted me the foundation for understanding and furthering the art of tea.  I always meant to tell her how much I appreciated her time and nurturing.... The tea community has lost one of its great advocates.

Today’s a good day to dust off the old gaiwan.  I’ll put in a generous serving of my favorite Dong Ding and brew up two cups of my best.

Thanks Winnie.  Here's one more for the road.




Drink good tea and enrich your life.

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.