30 November 2008

My Teapot priming method - Part 2

In the past, I had simply put hot water into a teapot, scrubbed it with a brush, then boiled it with tea leaves and let it air dry. That took about an hour. Daniel's process will take more than five hours, but he is a devoted lover of teapots and tea culture and his procedure is the result of his experience.

I ended up using a shortcut method that took about 3-4 hours. My method uses less time for boiling and substitutes baking soda for the effervescent tablets. The concern I have about baking soda is that it contains a fair amount of sodium that can impart flavor to the pot, so I use the product sparingly.

1) Soak teapot and lid in hot water.
2) Use Sonicare and baking soda to scrub the teapot and lid.
3) Rinse teapot and lid.
4) Place teapot and lid on top of a towel in a pot of water and bring to a boil. Add baking soda. Reduce to a simmer for an hour.
5) Dump the water and rinse the teapot. Use Sonicare and baking soda to thoroughly clean the teapot again.
6) Place teapot and lid on top of a towel in a pot of water and bring to a boil again. Reduce to a simmer for 30-60 minutes. This step is meant to remove any baking soda taste from the teapot.
7) Dump the water and rinse the teapot.
8) For the 3rd time, place teapot and lid on top of a towel in a pot of water. Add in a handful or two of good tea leaves and bring to a boil for about an hour.
9) Dump the water and rinse the teapot well. Let it dry for a day or two. Begin brewing with good tea.
teapot - done Drink good tea and enrich your life

28 November 2008

The Teapot priming method - Part 1

I was at Vancouver's Arts de Chine last weekend. Its proprietor, Daniel, is a tea guy that knows quite a bit about Chinese arts and teaware. I bought a yixing teapot made from Zhuni clay, probably about 20 or so years old, and he taught me how to correctly prep it for use. His procedure is by far the longest that I've ever heard about, but it's worthwhile for a serious tea lover looking for a better brew. His instructions have been posted here as intact as I can recall. I did an abridged version of his cleansing procedure that I believe achieves a similar level of cleaning with no harsh chemicals and less time; my procedure is outlined in Part 2.

The first step is to take hot water and fill the pot, placing the lid on top and pouring water all over the exterior. Let this sit for a few minutes.

toothbrush and paste I used a Sonicare

Next, take a toothbrush and toothpaste and scrub the teapot well inside and out. Take a thin chopstick or skewer and move it around the spout area to dislodge any dirt. Then take a kitchen pot and place a small towel on the bottom, on top of which you'll place the teapot and the lid. Fill with enough water to cover past the top of the teapot, but leave at least 2 or 3 inches of space from the top edge of the pot.

pots in boiling water 
Bring the water to a boil and then reduce. Now add 8-10 tablets of effervescent denture cleaner. They come in tablets and can be found at many drugstores. Strange? I thought so too, but it does make some sense. Good pots are porous and effervescent products are like cleaning bubbles. If you'd like to make a substitution during this cleaning phase, that should be ok. I'd rather use a milder cleanser, like pure baking soda.

If you choose to go with the cleanser, let the pot simmer with the tabs for an hour or two before pouring out. Rinse the pot and teapot with warm water. Put the towel, teapot and lid back into the pot and fill with water. Bring to a boil and let it slow boil for a few hours. This step is meant to remove any leftover taste from the tablet cleanser process. Pour the water out and rinse everything with warm water again.

tea and pot
For the 3rd time, bring the pot of water with the towel, teapot and lid inside of it to a boil. Add a handful of quality leaf, the kind of tea that you intend to use in the pot. I'll use an aged tea for this process. Leave the teapot in and boil it for another hour or two.

After this, remove the teapot, rinse, and then use a toothbrush and toothpaste to clean it thoroughly again.
Once this process has been completed, you'll have a blank-slate teapot. Daniel mentioned that it may take 8-10+ pots of tea before the teapot starts to take on the correct brewing characteristics for that tea.

24 November 2008

Silently testing your tastebuds

tea testing

I sit at the edge of the tea table as I've done many times before. A friend is at my side and the teahouse's owner sits opposite me warming the cups. A small dish is passed around with the tea leaves - an invitation to inspect what we're about taste. Small talk ensues, but the focus is really just on the tea.

And probably me, too.

Having been to many teahouses, it doesn't matter whether I sit down to have tea with the owner or a tea expert/connoisseur, the experience tends to be the same. I'm invited to have a seat and I'm introduced as a knowledgeable tea guy. I will proceed to correct that statement by introducing myself as just a tea lover, never calling myself a tea expert.

shiuwen edited 

The server will sometimes ask what I'd like to drink or they may just serve whatever they feel like. Seldom will the first pot be their best tea. The server watches me as I inspect the leaves. I smell the brewing vessel after the leaves have been rinsed and he will notice what I look at and what expressions my arched brows may reveal. As he brews infusion after infusion, he will watch me as I glance at the color, as I taste and coat my tongue with the liquid, and as I wait for the recurring flavors. He wants to see if I know what I'm tasting, and then after a couple of cups, he'll ask me what I think.

It's rude to say the tea's inferior to the tea's buyer or maker, but I once told a famous tea maker that he wasn't serving me the quality of tea that that he was known for. He smirked, got up and left without any utterance, and returned with a different brewing vessel and a heaping serving of jade-colored leaves. Once the rinse water was poured in and out, I looked at him and smiled. He finally laughed to break an otherwise tense silence, nodded, and said that my tastes weren't bad.

That, in Chinese, means that he thinks they're good.

I believe it's natural for people to test a fellow tea lover's tastes. They want to know what product they can direct you towards, get a feeling for your level of tea tasting & knowledge, and lastly, they probably don't want to brew you a tea that you won't like.

We're all nice people and if we cross paths and I make you tea, it won't be anything but the good stuff that we would enjoy having.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

21 November 2008

Revealing the whereabouts of the Magic Well


Naturally-filtered artesian water.  Rain and moisture that permeates many layers of sand, rock and gravel - nature's Brita filter - picking up minerals along the way.  The taste is crisp and sweet.  Nature's filtration system adds pleasant flavors, unlike a commercial water filter that is meant to remove tastes from water. 

Did I mention that it's free?

Go to Lynnwood and follow 164th St SW West of the I-5.  Go down the hill and look to your right for a gravel parking lot with a small, covered structure.  That is the well.

The water is monitored and tested by the Alderwood Water District.  You can find out more information about it here:

Try some blind taste tests of the same tea brewed with different waters to see if you can detect a difference.  The easiest way to be consistent is to take several bowls, each with a specified amount of tea leaves, and then add the same amount of hot water to each bowl.  In several experiments, tea friends picked bottled spring waters and this well water-brewed teas over tap or Brita water-brewed teas.

There isn't a lot of information about this site anywhere; it's one of those things that people-in-the-know just know about and keep to themselves and their friends.  Although a bit reluctant to share this source and add to the already long lines, I think it's more important that I contribute to the pool of tea knowledge by revealing what I know that may help you to produce a better cup of tea.  That is, after-all, in keeping with the spirit of my writings.

Experiment with your equipment, your water, leaf amounts, brewing times/conditions....  It's through exploration that we can continue to add meaningful discoveries to the body of tea knowledge.

13 November 2008

The only green tea I love

Although I write mostly about oolongs, there was a period of about a year where all I really wanted to drink was green tea.  Through personal purchases and gifts from friends, I had amassed an assortment of fine green teas, including Long Jing, Sulloc Green from Korea and Gyokuro from Japan. 

But my favorite green tea is Bi Luo Chun.  It's a delicate tea with a sophisticated flavor profile that is clean and smooth on the tongue, radiating aromas that are smoky, fruity and floral.  Its dry leaves have a unique appearance, like hairy little critters, contributing to its name that translates as "green spring snail."

I've read many stories about this tea's background and I think the Wikipedia article sums it up rather succinctly.  For reasons that would cause many a tea friend to blush, I've posted the link to the article below for you to read at your leisure.
Bi Luo Chun is a tea that is produced in very limited quantities.  Like many other precious, premium-grade teas, production of Bi Luo Chun has been expanded outside of China's Jiangsu province, to Zhejiang and Sichuan provinces, as well as to Taiwan.
I had my first excellent cup of Bi Luo Chun about 11 years ago.  My father received a small can of it from a Chinese consular representative that he had met.  At the time, I had already tried several Bi Luo Chuns, but had never had anything that was a real stand-out.  I later learned that the product's limited production and the region's climate and pollution issues resulted in irregular product.
Some competition-grade teas, like the Bi Luo Chun, come in small, cylindrical cans
I can remember taking the top off of my father's gift, the "hiss" as the air entered the can simultaneously inflating the fluffy buds of the tea and releasing its slightly sour but pleasant aroma. 
Green tea is much more delicate than the the Tieguanyins and Dong Dings that I grew up drinking.  Those teas are robust and can handle a variation of brewing times and water temperature.  Green teas cannot.  Leaves that have been scorched by water that is too hot will brew tea that has an unbalanced flavor and high astringency.  The result:  toss the leaves and start over
This can was amazing.  It is still the best example of Bi Luo Chun that I have ever tasted.  Light flavors coupled with an irresistible fragrance.  A lingering aftertaste of floral notes that returns from your belly with every breath, not with the throat-sweeness of "hui gan," but with a perfumed fragrance.
I had found the first and only green tea that I would ever love.
Over the years, I tried dozens more Bi Luo Chuns from tea stores in the US, China, and Hong Kong, but failed to find another acceptable product. That is, until a tea friend brought me to New Century Tea in Seattle's Chinatown about 2 years ago.
Dafe and Grace at New Century specialize in mainland Chinese teas.  Brought there by a tea friend, I took a chance and requested a sample of Bi Luo Chun.  With great generosity, Grace popped open a can sitting next to her tea table, scooped it into a Gaiwan and poured in the rinse water.  I immediately knew that it was my lucky day.  The aroma was enchanting, like a first-love that visits your dreams.  The tea was reminiscent of the amazing can I had nearly a decade before. 
Six infusions later, the flavors still danced in my stomach and revisited my nose with every exhalation.  Beautiful.  Ever since, I've tried New Century's Bi Luo Chun when it arrives every spring. 

09 November 2008

NO bug eggs here: clarifying the source of Oriental Beauty's sweetness

Oriental Beauty/Bai Hao oolong comes primarily from Taiwan's Hsinchu area, about an hour south of Taipei.  It's unique among oolongs in that it has an especially sweet taste, often described as honey-like, and the leaves range in color from whitish to dark-brown.

A close-up of Oriental Beauty leaves from my collection
I can't remember exactly when or from whom I first heard it from, but there was the rumor that Oriental Beauty derived its sweetness from the eggs of insects that laid them only on the leaves of this type of tea.  After having heard this seemingly-absurd statement several times and even seeing this statement pop up online, I went to the source to find out the truth.
Hsinchu is the "Silicon Valley" of Taiwan.  You'll find many high-tech companies here, including some of the world's largest semicondutor manufacturing companies.  When it comes to edible products, the city is known primarily for two things:  rice noodles and Oriental Beauty tea.
I first asked the tea wholesaler Mr. Hong in Taipei about Bai Hao.  He responded as most tea experts would:  Oriental Beauty's sweetness is the product of a chemical reaction resulting from the mix of the tea leaf's juices and the insect's saliva.  He had never heard of the story about bug eggs being rolled in with the leaves - he thought that sounded totally disgusting.
Coincidentally, I made some new friends that were from Hsinchu when I was in Taipei, and they took me down to their city for a tour.  We stopped by a small teastore and I had the chance to ask the teamaker about the source of his Bai Hao's sweetness.  His explanation was similar to Mr. Hong's, but he added that while it was entirely possible that bugs laid eggs on tea plants, that was most definitely neither common nor the source of the tea's distinctive flavor.
The word of two experts and a host of articles that corrobated their stories should have been enough to put the rumor to rest.  However, I decided to take a closer look at the tea and see if my naked eye could detect any sign of eggs (Yes, I know, they are most likely microscopic). 
It may not be entirely clear from the pictures above, but none of the leaves showed any sign of insect parts/eggs.  On the above-left picture, I brewed the tea in a clear bowl and looked for any eggs or small objects that would detach from the leaves and either float to the top or sink to the bottom - no such things were found.  An examination of the tea leaves showed no eggs either.
However, I did notice that the shape of the Bai Hao leaves are more rounded.  I believe that this is due to the insects nibbling on the edges of the leaf, producing the reaction that results in the tea's flavor.  Below is a picture comparing a Bai Hao leaf to a leaf from a high mountain tea.
Notice how smooth the edges of the Bai Hao Leaf on the left looks compared to the jagged little edges of the high mountain leaf. 
There's a saying that Cantonese people will eat everything that flies except airplanes, and everything with four legs except tables and chairs.  Although the old saying applies to me too - with some exceptions - I can DEFINITELY do without bug eggs in my tea.

04 November 2008

POLICY - Usage of my material

I consider myself to be pretty generous.  All of the tea knowledge that I have and continue to accumulate I intend to disseminate for the benefit of tea lovers everywhere.

With that said, much of my material and learning, especially my pictures, are quite dear to me.  I have no problem with sharing my intellectual/literary/photographic property, but please adhere to the moral and ethical code when using my materials. 

Please first send me an email or a comment to let me know what, where, and for what purpose you will use my material, and then please cite the source in your work.  I will respond to you shortly with approval.  In general, I will have no problem with you using my materials, but there are cases, such as commercializing my work or using it in obscene ways, that I would like to have clarification and give approval for.  I'm not asking for money, fame or your soul, just a heads-up and recognition.



A complete set - looking at unfurled oolong tea leaves

When people say that a proper oolong should have 2 or 3 leaves and a bud, what do they mean and what should it look like?

For an oolong tea, specifically a high mountain ooong tea, the tea bud is basically the baby leaf.  In Chinese, it's called the "xin" or heart.  For white teas, the bud is very light/white colored, often with "fuzz" on it.  Green tea buds may or may not have the fuzz; Bi Luo Chun's buds do.

Below is an example of an oolong that has what I refer to as the complete set.  In the picture below, the leaves are from a Taiwanese Lishan high mountain tea.

Due to the delicate nature of the bud, it sometimes gets torn off or falls off during the drying, rolling or roasting process.  It may also come off during the brewing process. 

The picture below shows an open leaf set from an Alishan high mountain oolong that is missing its bud leaf.  It otherwise has the 2 or 3 leaves, nice color, good leaf shape & texture and the characteristics of a quality high mountain oolong. 

Below is a picture of a lower-grade high-mountain Chin Shin (or Qingxin) oolong varietal from my tea collection that was grown in SE Asia.  Notice the irregularity of the leaf shape, holes in the leaf, the missing leaves and the large stem.  Per the packaging, this tea was produced in the Fall/Winter of 2007.
Unlike many other blogs out there, my pictures are simple and non-artistic, but they illustrate my point.  A tea friend, Brian Glanz, has excellent pictures of, well, pretty much everything, on his site.  Do check him out here:
Brian's wife, Mohini, has a cool site called Mango Power Girl that has good recipes and beautiful food pictures.
As I've mentioned before, not all oolongs have the leaf set I've described.  Traditional Tieguanyin, for example, may not.  It is roasted fairly heavily and handled pretty roughly and the leaves tend to be separated.  Baozhong is another example - the tea isn't even rolled into a ball like many oolongs. 

03 November 2008

My Tea language - the tea experience

    Beautiful Maokong Valley
This is Part II of my tea terms, dealing mostly with how I describe the experience of tea tasting.


-Body: A tea has body when it feels substantial to the taste buds and has substantive flavor, vs. just fragrance and some taste.

-Round/roundness: A tea that is balanced and exhibits the characteristic flavors of that particular type of tea.

-Aromatic/Fragrant: It smells nice. Floral, fruity, smoky, roasted, nutty, grassy, and vegetal are common aromas. Delicate fragrances are good to have and would represent one aspect of a quality tea.

-Has a bite to it: This can mean the tea is astringent and/or is very full-bodied. Astringency can be a good or bad thing. Some excellent green puerhs are astringent and have quite a bite, but will soften over time. Some old teas that may not be very tasty can have quite a bitter bite.

-Mouth feel: This refers to how the liquid from a brew feels in your mouth. Some, like a bad cooked puerh, can have a malty and unsatisfyingly thick texture. A good Bi Luo Chun green tea, on the other hand, may feel light and smooth. A fine Tieguanyin can be round, full, deep, rich and feel weighty in the mouth because it has so much body.

-Incomplete: I usually use this when I refer to a roasted tea. The roasting process of an oolong, or the frying/drying process of a green tea, are vitally important for shaping the end-result of the tea's flavor. Sometimes the roasting isn't quite there and a great tea may not live up to its potential when brewed.

-Stale: Teas that have started to change - quite noticeably - in fragrance and taste: AKA, it's getting older. Improper storage can greatly affect the speed at which this happens. Stale oolongs may exhibit a very strong fruit/plum smell, but it's possible to save a stale tea with a proper re-roast.

-Goat milk taste: A taste that I experience with lighter-roasted teas that have (A) not been brewed by water that's at the right temperature or (B) has been brewed the full number of brews and has lost flavor. Goat milk is a bit sour and slightly gamy, like goat meat. This taste doesn't automatically mean that a tea is bad - I've experienced it with excellent Alishan teas that were brewed past their number of brews and lost flavor.

-Earthy: Usually used to describe puerh tea. It's a diplomatic way for me to say that it tastes like dirt. Not necessarily a bad thing, as good puerhs are deep and rich. Many good mushrooms taste earthy too, and I love mushrooms.

-Aged (Chinese medicinal, aged "sour"): Many aged oolong teas have a woody, earthy smell and taste, reminiscent of Chinese medicine. I have in fact bought tea several years ago from a retailer that doubles as a Chinese herbal shop and thought that he may have mixed his prized oolongs with some herbs by accident. He was gracious enough to enlighten me about the process and I have subsequently found that many aged oolongs do indeed have this particular flavor profile. Some aged oolongs also have a slightly sour taste to them as well. Not sour like lemons, though, more like a preserved fruit rind.

-More: The tea tastes good and I like it. More, please!

Pretty simple, just tell it like it is. If you've got some useful terms for tea too, feel free to comment. I'll mostly be using English descriptions when I describe tea, but I'll occassionally use Chinese words when I can't think of an appropriate translation. Do ask if I don't make my thoughts clear.

02 November 2008

My Tea language - tea leaf terms

Different types of puerh tea - one from a broken-up cake, one from an old tea tree
I take a "live and let live" philosophy to tea. Although it can be hard to find the good in all teas, I can usually find something nice to say, like "at least that jasmine green tea was green. . .ish." In short, I appreciate that there are many ways to enjoy tea, and to each their own.

Chinese phrases that I commonly use to describe tea include:

-Hui Gan - the delightful occurrence of returning sweetness (usually starting in the throat) after drinking a nice oolong tea
-Hui Wei - the aftertaste - should be clean and not astringent
-Se - astringency of the tea as sensed by the tongue. Generally not a good thing to have
-Huo Qi - a phrase that I use to describe the "fire energy" of a roasted tea. You'll find that I like to talk about the energy of tea. If it doesn't make sense, don't fret, I might be tea crazy

Describing fine oolongs with English words is not so easy. With the lack of descriptive translations in English, many tea lovers turn to using wine terms. There are some similarities between tea and wine. They can both be expensive, they're both liquids, they have legions of lovers, and they can be delicious.

I'm not upset by or critical of people that use terms like tea sommelier or tea liquor. However, these are misnomers, as the term sommelier doesn't apply to tea and tea is not a liquor. It's my hope that tea will stand apart on its own and have its own vocabulary of interesting terms.

I'd like to use this post to describe some common English phrases that I'll be using when I talk about the stuff we love. Many terms and their definitions are wholly of my own creation; I don't intend to be a "Dictionary" of tea terms. I support people using terms to describe the tea experience that they feel make sense to them, so if someone tells me that my aged puerh cake takes like mud, that's completely fine. If there's a term that I use that doesn't make sense or doesn't sit well with you, don't sweat it, you're welcome to think of a descriptor that you find more appropriate - please do share though!

To keep this post to a suitable size, I'll be talking about my common tea terms for the leaves. In the next installment, I'll talk more about the tea tasting experience. While I do borrow terms from the appreciation of food/wine/gadgets/beautiful people, I try not to use words that I feel inaccurately describe tea, such as "tea liquor." In describing the taste of teas, my descriptions can be strange, like "goat-milky" or "soapy." If you're curious about what such sensations are really like, come have tea with me. If after that you still don't quite get it, please refer to my following disclosure:

"Rich drinks a lot of tea. All opinions expressed in this blog are his own, and if they make no sense to you at times, don't worry about it, he probably just had too much tea and his head is in the clouds."

And now for some of my terms:

-The complete set: Refers to a high mountain tea with a bud and 2 or 3 leaves that appear to be hand-picked. One of several indicators that the tea is of a higher quality.

-Red-trimmed: Many varieties of Taiwanese high mountain tea, such as Lishan and Shanlinxi, have nice, green leaves that have a slight reddish tint to its edge. This is a sign of good oxidization in these types of teas. However, some great teas do not have this; it's again, just one indicator of the tea's quality.

-Whole: The tea is intact and resembles a leaf. Many lower-quality teas are picked using less-skilled laborers or machines, both of which may break apart the leaves as they collect them.

-Stemmy: Too much stem can be a sign of a lower-grade tea or poor picking. Stems have a different flavor than leaves and I have seen oolong farmers pick out the stems of their product before tea competitions. Stem-only tea is pleasant in its own way.

-Good color: Fresh, lightly-roasted oolongs should be quite green. I've found that some inferior grades of oolongs have substantial yellowing, spotted leaves, or appear grayish. Off-colors can be indicative of an inferior product, or just one that's not so fresh anymore. Medium to heavily-roasted oolongs are tan in color, and the tea they brew is also quite a bit darker. There are exceptions, though, like Oriental Beauty/Bai Hao.