Thursday, July 26, 2007

Wen Shan Bao Zhong

Tea: Wen Shan Bao Zhong Oolong
Origin: Taiwan
Year: 2007
Vendor: Red Blossom Tea Co.
Price: $148/lb.

I received an ounce of this a few weeks back from Peter at Red Blossom as part of the replacement for the tung ting. I had yet to try a bao zhong, so I was excited to get my hands on it, but I had no idea what to expect. I was in for a pleasant surprise.

I've also recently purchased a digital scale, and this was my first time to use it for gong fu. I used 4g for a 150ml gaiwan. In retrospect I should have used at least 5g. Now that I think of it, I believe Bill once told me I should use a ratio of 1g/30ml.

1 - 45s
2 - 75s
3 - 2 1/2 min.
4 - 4 1/2 min.

I took a whiff and said, "Fuck me." It smelled good. It had the aroma of a good tung ting, very floral. After my first sip I was in love. It had the qualities of a good high mountain oolong, but with notes of green tea, and a rather mild astringency that was quite favorable. The flavor wasn't as strong in the subsequent infusions, but I think that is because I did not use enough leaves. I'm still pretty new to oolongs. I'm not sure how this one would compare to other bao zhongs--I can't wait to find out, but I liked it a lot. This is a tea that I want to keep on hand.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


A few days ago I sat down to write a review on my Fukugata Kyusu. I thought I would do bit of research, Google "kyusu," and provide some history on this wonderful and unique style of teapot. Several hours and a trip to the bookstore later, I had almost nothing. I could find hundreds of websites that want to sell me a kyusu, but none that could tell me much about them.

The only interesting information I found came from Artistic Nippon, which states that there are different types of kyusu, the two main ones being yokode (side handle) and ushirode (rear handle). This was confusing, as I thought that kyusu were side-handle teapots. I checked several Japanese to English Dictionaries, and it would seem that kyusu just means teapot. Yokode is actually two words, yoko (side) and the particle de (at), and ushiro means rear.

Since the folks at Artisitic Nippon seemed to know their stuff, I sent them email asking them to tell me more about yokode kyusu. Toru Yoshikawa was very helpful and wrote back in just a few hours. Because I prefer to get my information from more than one source, and because Yoshikawa-san also stated in his email that his "comments are not Academically proved," be aware that the following information may not be accurate. However, it is all I could find, and it seems legit, so I am going with it.

"Senchado is similar to Chado - the matcha tea ceremony. However one of the differences is that in Senchado metal kettles are not used boil water because it is believed that it affects the taste of the sencha in a negative way. Instead, a terracotta pot called "bofura" is used.

Sencha was introduced in mid 17th century to Japan from China, and this bofura originally came from China too. It has a handle on the side and it is therefore considered to be the fore-runner of the yokode kyusu. In the early Onkoyaki kiln workshop (Gifu-pref) established in 1859, houbin (teapots without a handle) and yokode kyusu were produced. Old banko kyusu were also in the yokode style. Onkoyaki no longer exists, but the area of Onko is in the same vicinity as Tokoname and Banko and therefore we can assume that yokode teapots were produced by these kilns at around the same time."

I had not heard of senchado before, but it is just what it sounds like, a tea ceremony using sencha instead of the more expensive matcha. According to the Japan Times, the idea was to make tea "available to everyone, rich or poor, educated or illiterate."

Diameter: 3.6"
Height: 2.5"
Volume: 10 oz (300 ml)
Price: $35
Vendor: Rishi-Tea

Fukugata Kyusu (Fookoogahtah Kyooosoo), its name means "happy shape," or the implied, more whimsical "Shaped like a jolly, full-bellied man. I love this teapot. This is the teapot I reccomend to anyone looking to buy a Tokoname teapot. Its a classic shudei (red clay) pot, elegant in its simplicity. At $35 it is about as low as you are going to pay for a pot from Tokoname, at least a good one that is.

But what sets the Fukugata apart from all the rest is its sasame, clay mesh screen. You wont find other teapots with a sasame of that caliber at that price, or at least I haven't. Most have only have a stainless steal mesh like an obi-ame. Functionally it doesn't matter; both styles of filter will get the job done, but the sasame is just so much...cooler. Using traditional, hand-crafted tea ware connects me to the timelessness of tea, and seeing a big, shiny piece of stainless steal kind of takes the fun away.

There are a couple of things to say against it, though. 1) Its design is simple, perhaps too simple. One person I recommended this pot to wasn't interested because of that, a valid point. 2) I think it may be too large for gongfu, so if you are looking for something for puerh or oolong, you may be happier with a traditional yixing pot or gaiwan. That is not to say it can't be done. I've used a 13 oz yokode kyusu for gongfu demonstrations before and had great results, but that was for serving many people.

All in all I rate the Fukugata a 4.5. It is a great little pot, and that price makes it very hard to beat.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Dian Hong

For those who don't know, dian hong refers to black tea from Yunnan, China. Dian = Yunnan, and hong = red, as in hong cha or red tea, what we in the West call black tea, not the stuff from Africa. Dian hong is a relatively new tea that began production in the early 20th century. In my opinion this is some of the best black tea on Earth, more character than most Indian tea, more depth than an Assam, more body than what you will find in Fujian. What sets this tea apart are the rich golden/khaki buds. The more buds present, the more smooth, sweet, and less astringent the brew will be. Golden Needle (Golden Thread, Yunnan Pure Gold) is comprised of nothing but buds, a very unique tea, and possibly the most superb cup of black tea you will find.

Given my love for this tea, I though it would be fun to do a blind taste test, choosing five samples from three different vendors, Rishi, Adagio, and The Republic of Tea (TROT because I could get some for free). I was surprised by the results and by how difficult it was, tasting different teas that were almost identical, trying to catch the nuances that set them apart, and in the end I had to rely more on gut reaction than my uneducated taste buds to rate them. This was a good learning experience, one that left me with more respect for those in the business that have to evaluate dozens, if not hundreds, of samples and pick out the best.

I had my wife measure out two teaspoons of each into small, paper bags, lettering them from A to E, so that I had no way of knowing what I was drinking. At the time I didn't think it mattered to be honest. They were all teas that I had before, and I was sure I could tell the difference just by taste. I was wrong, and so were all of my guesses as to which was which.

A - Rishi's Golden Yunnan (Xishuangbanna)
B - Adagio's Yunnan Jig (Kunming)
C - Rishi's Golden Needle (Xishuangbanna)
D - TROT's Golden Yunnan (They wouldn't say)
E - Adagio's Yunnan Gold (Kunming, I think)

I rated them in order of best to not-so-best, C, E, B, D, A.

C and E were clearly the best, and in a class by themselves, both being made of nothing but buds. They were incredibly smooth, and posses a taste and aroma that reminds me of honey. B, D, and A were very close, malty, no bitterness, low astringency. TROT had the best looking dry leaves, lots of buds.

Of the three vendors, Adagio is the least expensive. The jig sells for $19/lb. and the the Gold is only $46/lb. Rishi sells their Golden Yunnan for $36/lb. and the Golden Needle for $108/lb. TROT sells their Golden Yunnan for $80/lb. They were all great teas, with marginal differences, so based on price alone, go with Adagio. The two from Rishi are Fair Trade Certified and Organic, so those are the ones I pick.

I had a lot of fun with this, and I am looking forward to doing more tastings like this in the future.

Monday, July 9, 2007


Tea: Himalayan Black
Origin: North East India
Year: ?
Vendor: ineeka
Price: $9.99/14 "Brew-Taches" (35g.)

We started carrying ineeka about three months ago. Its gimmick is their new take on the tea bag, what they are calling a Brew-Tache--a name they've bothered to trade mark, or as Mary put it so well, "an awful lot of money just to reinvent the wheel." Their snazzy tin also helps them get noticed, as I have seen many customers stop to pick it up...then put it back.

My first impressions were skeptical but hopeful. The leaves looked good, and while I don't like tea bags, their uber-bags do appear to leave more room. I boiled about 8 oz of spring water and steeped it for 4 minutes. The liquor was great, a rich burgundy. So far so good.

Then I tasted it. First the good, it wasn't overly bitter or astringent, almost but not quite. If you prefer milk and sugar in your tea, you could make a great cuppa with it. But you can do that with PG Tips and save yourself some cash. Overall nothing in the flavor stood out. It tasted like a generic, Indian black tea; more similar to a Nilgiri than something from the Himalayas, which in the past I have always found comparable to a late harvest Darjeeling.

The main problem for me is the price. The tea isn't that bad, but at $10 for 35g., it needs to be more than not bad. Which is why I rate this tea with a 2 instead of a 3. Tea aficionados wont want to mess with it, and beginners can spend less money on higher quality tea.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

What's to come...

Over the next two weeks, there will be my first vendor review, and I promise to say at least three nice things about the ministers at TROT, an introduction on Dian Hong with a review on five different black teas from three different vendors, and I'll taka a look at these new-fangled tea bags from Ineeka.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Masala Chai (Rishi Tea)

Tea: Masala Chai, Organic FTC
Origin: Rishi Blend
Year: ? (I'm guessing 2006)
Vendor: Rishi Tea
Price: 8.99/4oz tin or $32/lb.

Chai was my very first tea, and my favorite for some time, as I progressed from the syrup-y crap served at Starbucks to the much better and more authentic loose leaf versions. I tried every kind of chai I could get my hands own, looking for the perfect blend. Now I don't know if Rishi's Masala Chai is perfect, but it is mighty fine.

Chai is the word for tea through out South Asia, East Africa, and the Middle East, and masala translates to spice. Masala chai is traditionally a blend of strong black tea, like Assam, and spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, peppercorns, star anise, and cloves. It can also be made with tissanes like rooibos or yerba mate.

This is a traditional blend, using cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and black pepper. The tea leaves are a dian hong from Xishuangbanna, harvested from ancient tea trees.

I used these instructions on Traditional Style Chai. It really helps to have a sauce pan with a spout, like the one pictured, or it is easy to make a mess when straining. I bought this one at Target for about $15. I got to use it once before my wife comandeered it for cooking; now she lets me use it every second Tuesday or so. The straining holes on the lid were too big, thus the ghetofied People's brew basket with a chopstick stuck through it.

For just me, I cut the recipe in half, using 2 tbsp of tea, 3/4 cup water, and 1/2 cup milk. I get better results with whole milk, but of course you can use anything, though I have found that it isn't as good with soy milk. Toss it all in a sauce pan, brink to a boil--be careful not to let it over boil, and let simmer for five minutes, sweeten to taste (2 tsp of sugar is enough, in my opinion).

Overall I give it a 4. Quite tasty and creamy, you can actually taste the nuanced spices, something you can't do with powdered or liquid concentrates. The only negative thing I can say about it, is it could use more pepper; however, I am a pepper fiend, so take what I am saying with a grain of salt.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Fair Trade Certified

"Whatever you do may seem insignificant, but it is most important that you do do it." -Ghandi

For me the most important thing about my tea is simple: is it Fair Trade Certified. Most of the tea/tea ware that I buy comes from Rishi, not because the quality of their tea is excellent, which it is, and not because their tea wares are some of the fines in the world, which they are, but because they have one of the largest selections of Fair Trade Certified (FTC) teas. I choose to support companies that share my priorities. See also Silver Tips Tea.

True, if you taste in tea is as eclectic as mine, it is not always possible to purchase FTC tea. There are only a smidgen of FTC puerh or green teas, almost no white tea, and no authentic oolongs. Still it is important to me to do what I can when I can. I can't comfortably use tea as a way of appreciating an other's culture, if I am exploiting them in the process.

Which is how I stumbled upon FTC, not by exploiting foreign labor, but by seeking to explore China through tea. I thought I liked tea, but I had no idea until I saw Rishi's Travelogue on their FTC project in Yunnan, China. I was in love. It was a new experience, knowing the people who grew my tea, seeing their faces on the side of my tin. It drew me in. No more mass-produced blends of English Breakfast or what not. This was personal.

Sounds great, what the hell is it?

In the U.S. all FTC products are certified and monitored by an independent, third-party company, Transfair USA. They are part of an umbrella corporation, Fairtrade Labeling Organization (FLO), which includes Canada, Japan, and 17 European countries. FLO establishes Fair Trade criteria and makes annual visits to producer groups to ensure that the benefits of Fair Trade are reaching the farmers.

The Fair Trade Principles include:
  • Fair price: Democratically organized farmer groups receive a guaranteed minimum floor price and an additional premium for certified organic products. Farmer organizations are also eligible for pre-harvest credit.
  • Fair labor conditions: Workers on Fair Trade farms enjoy freedom of association, safe working conditions, and living wages. Forced child labor is strictly prohibited.
  • Direct trade: With Fair Trade, importers purchase from Fair Trade producer groups as directly as possible, eliminating unnecessary middlemen and empowering farmers to develop the business capacity necessary to compete in the global marketplace.
  • Democratic and transparent organizations: Fair Trade farmers and farm workers decide democratically how to invest Fair Trade revenues.
  • Community development: Fair Trade farmers and farm workers invest Fair Trade premiums in social and business development projects like scholarship programs, quality improvement trainings, and organic certification.

  • Environmental sustainability: Harmful agrochemicals and GMOs are strictly prohibited in favor of environmentally sustainable farming methods that protect farmers’ health and preserve valuable ecosystems for future generations.
Like tea, Fair Trade is another example of how my job in specialty grocery facilitates my hobbies and passions. I have been thankful for the opportunity to support Fair Trade not only as a consumer but as a retailer. I believe in this with all of my heart, but having taught classes on Fair Trade and participating in events, I know that are many skeptics. If you have questions, or you would like to know more, or if you just like clicking on all the links, I will leave several for the cynical, the curious, and the obsessive-compulsive.

Basic FAQ Advanced FAQ Social Benefits Producer Profiles FTC Tea & Herb Program More Pictures by Sean O'leary Where you're going if you don't buy Fair Trade

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Tung Ting (Red Blossom) Update

I removed my original review of the Tung Ting from Red Blossom. They have been very helpful and have had a chance to examine the leaves that I sent back, and there is nothing wrong them. It seems that the problem was me. I don't know how many readers I have, and I definitely do not consider anything I write here particularly influential, but I don't want to give a good company a bad review if all evidence suggests that I was doing something wrong.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Shimizu Genji-san Update

When will the Shimizu-thon end?!

This morning someone emailed me these pictures. I enjoyed them, so of course I'm going to assume that you will, too.

Update: Okay, these pictures were provided by a French company, Tamayura. And for people who can't get enough of this stuff, go here. (Thanks wehayley).

Whoever sent me these pictures, thank you very much, and I hope its okay that I posted them here. If not, I will remove them right away.

Come back soon for a blog entry that has nothing to do with Japanese potters or even Japan.