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.


-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.

15 April 2012

Local shops need your $ support!

“$280, green pu’er, you will like it, very popular…”

WHOA!  That’s a lot of money for a cake I’ve never heard of, with coarse, mismatch-colored and uneven leaves.

“8 years old, aged, very good.  Sweet!”

“No thanks, I’m just looking, what brand is the tea?  Where did you get it?  What does it taste like?”  I felt bad asking questions, I was probably not going to buy anything from the shopkeeper’s store.  She was having a going out of business sale and I had wandered in to see what she had.  She didn’t know what mountain or the brand of the tea and had no time to offer a taste; she seemed intent on liquidating her stuff.

“Ok, too expensive?  $40, I’ll give to you for $40.”

WHOA!  $280 down to $40.  For a no-name, no-sample, not-good-looking product.  And I didn’t even have to ask.  I walked the row of pu’er cakes and saw one that looked familiar, a yellow “Zhong” cooked CNNP cake, year unknown.  Price?  In the several hundreds range.  I was starting to see why she was maybe going out of business.  The experience reminded me of buying tea in China.  I haven’t been so aggressively sold to in North America before, it was very odd.  Confusing that the price tags meant little, too, as she would just shout out seemingly random prices for any product that I laid my eyes on.


The high-end, premium and/or artisanal tea shop business is a tough one, and definitely not one that most people choose as a path to vast fortunes.  Behind the scenes, it takes a lot of work for shop owners to source good product each season and to anticipate customer demand.  Following the devastating rains in Taiwan around 2008 that destroyed many tea plantations, Alishan high mountain oolong in particular was in short supply (thus, higher prices) but didn’t taste so great.  Many retailers were stuck with stock of an otherwise-popular tea that they couldn’t sell, one that unlike pu’er or roasted oolongs is particularly sensitive to age.  Going online, you may still find product from around that time.

Tea sales in the west are also different in that most people like to sample several teas at a shop before purchasing.  Then when they purchase, it is usually by the ounce.  In Taiwan, most purchases are by the bag or some quantity starting from 1/2 jin.  If a customer over here has to sample 2 teas to buy 4 ounces, then it costs the shop owner ~8-10 grams of tea to sell about 112 grams.  Multiply this by 50 customers a week and that’s a lot of tea that’s going just to samples.  I have seen some shops in North America charge for sampling, but most don’t.

During my time as a tea lover, I’ve seen quite a number of shops go out of business, change owners, or continue to struggle for survival.  A lot of shops subsidize their business by selling other things like snacks, furniture, antiques, consulting services, and even lotto tickets.  It is a tough business, and it’s sad to hear about good shops with good people that get out the business because of economic reasons.  Not so sad to me, though, when shops with unreasonable prices, terrible values, poor information or dishonest practices call it quits.

Brick & mortar retailers are wonderful places to learn, exchange ideas, meet new friends and advance tea culture.  As e-commerce has changed the function and profitability of so many businesses out there, it’s to be expected that tea would be one of them.  The internet tea businesses has taken off.  Low barriers to entry, limited overhead and staff expenses, no free samples, an efficient ordering process….  It’s also unsurprising that pu’er tea is so popular to sell.  Unlike other teas, it’s shelf-stable and usually improves with age, removing the anxiety of having to sell out a product each season or year.  On average, wholesale prices of popular, new pu’er cakes is also lower than premium oolongs.  Third, aside from sample sizes, most people buy pu’er by the cake/tuo/brick…not by the ounce.  As far as tea businesses go, pu’er is a smart move (or it was, before thousands of pu’er shops sprung up all over the web).  Doubly so for the retailers that have been able to anticipate demand for products with good potential and adjust price accordingly over time.  A green 90s Xiaguan tuo that I picked up earlier this year has just about doubled in price.  Good stuff, people continue to buy it at the new price, but I couldn’t imagine this happening with a Baozhong or an Oriental Beauty.

I buy a lot of tea online, but I buy even more of it in person.  Tea shops add a lot of value and I wouldn’t want to imagine a world without them.  This same sentiment is echoed across the vastness of all retail locations, whether it be boutique clothing shops, independent coffee shops, travel agents….  Buying online is great for price, variety and efficiency.  Buying at your favorite local tea shop preserves community and enhances the tea experience.  Realizing how hard it is for small businesses to stay committed to their passions and dreams in serving us, let’s try to give them our support by spending there, too.

To all of the uniquely awesome tea friends that I’ve met face-to-face, and to all of the passionate and generous tea retailers & producers that have provided me with the time, space and opportunity to be a part of their tea community, I continue to be grateful for all of you!  CommuniTEA makes the experience so much more rewarding.

Drink good tea (at your local shop) and enrich your life.

15 January 2012

What tells YOU that a tea is worth buying?

My recent tea inventory led to panic (not enough!), then to a frantic pursuit of more product.  Storing tea for my retirement…it’s not too early to think about the future, especially with green pu’ers that need to mature.

I’m continuously curious about what other tea lovers are buying, wanting to buy, and most importantly, what they’re currently enjoying.  Many tea lovers have particular tastes and search for favorite teas that roughly fit their list of requirements (myself included).  Tea enthusiasts read about what’s popular, try them, and either add to their collection or blast them in their reviews.  My non-scientific “research” shows that review blogs and posts consistently get the highest page views, leading me to assume that buying trends for certain types of tea follow the preferences of the more popular review blogs (not uncommon in any interest group/product) and that many enthusiasts are both trying to learn about new products to acquire as well as to validate their own thoughts about a certain tea.  I rarely review teas, so the fact that I have managed to maintain your attention thus far, dear reader, is something that I am quite grateful for!

I grew up drinking Ten Ren, restaurant tea and various gift teas from Asia.  We had old pu’er at home (until I drank it all) that stayed intact only because no one wanted to drink it for 20+ years; its popularity as something to savor is relatively recent.  I randomly share various samples of my tea – both the rare and the very common – with anyone I sit down to drink tea with wherever I happen to be and I will tell you that no one I’ve had tea with is always right about the particulars of what we’re drinking, nor do people usually agree on all of the flavor notes they taste, the aromas they detect, or their preference for the brew.  Differences in opinion shouldn’t offend most people (though the sometimes heated debates online might seem otherwise), unless, unfortunately, you made the tea.  It can happen with retailers that custom-press their own pu’er, for example.  The staff of just such a retailer told me that it makes them reconsider their profession every time they read or hear about a bad review, though they remind themselves not to take it so personally.  Several years ago, I finished the roast on a summer Dong Ding that I sent to a friend to distribute as “educational” samples from his shop.  My friend emailed me earlier this week and said that one of his customers randomly brought a sample of that tea in (with my label on the vacuum pack!) and said the tea tasted a bit like – no joke – goat’s milk.  Goat’s milk oolong is a rather unique taste identifier that I use, so it was no surprise to learn that my friend’s customer learned about it from this blog.  Sigh…and ouch.

In my most recent quest for tea to buy, I decided to add more “cheap tea;” I need the quantity for long-term storage.  I bought a lot of good value stuff (low price, lots of potential, needs patience), high price/good taste, and then just OK, everyday tea.  With few exceptions among even fewer blogs, I don’t agree with tea reviews online, especially when it comes to oolongs and green pu’er. 

So what makes a tea worth buying?  Good value can be tasty tea that is well-priced.  What is well-priced?  Harder to pin down.  I subordinate pricing to personal preference, so I’m not especially focused on getting good product at the lowest price (though of course, that doesn’t mean I enjoy buying expensive crap).  If the tea is very good and not easy to obtain, I accept that I may have to pay more for it.  There is also a limit to how much time I want to spend searching for and trying samples until I find the right one, though the process itself is fun.  I look for tea specialists that I like, trust, can learn useful info from and consistently have product that I enjoy.  It does require that at some point I explore parts of Asia with a giant bag (to fill with tea samples) and a giant lunch bag (full of snacks to soak up the tea in my stomach) until I find something that suits my needs.  Those initial encounters were the original inspiration for this blog, though there are many older stories that have yet to be told.  For everyday teas, good is good enough and I can drink an affordable oolong (the Four Seasons varietal is cheap in Taiwan and pleasant enough).  But as I find myself having less free time to enjoy a brew, I especially appreciate a session with a solidly good tea for which good-enough won’t do and for which value is not a priority. 

With most of my posts, I sign off by saying drink good tea and enrich your life.  Good is whatever you think is good at the time you enjoy it, and I hope it adds to your life by way of the friendship that comes from sharing a brew, the clarity of mind you may receive from contemplation, or the internal harmony you may experience. 

Drink good tea and enrich your life.