Monday, October 29, 2007

Ancient Green Tuo Cha

A final addition to sheng week, this sample came to me from Rishi; my rep was kind enough to honor my precocious request.

Ancient Green Tuo Cha
Origin: Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China
Year: ?
Vendor: Rishi-Tea
Price: $22/4 Tuo Cha
Organic, Fair Trade Certified

This is a rather unique puerh, completely unlike any other that I have tried. The tuo cha is comprised completely of buds, something I have heard about but have not seen before. The aroma is free of the typical smokiness that I've experienced in other young sheng. There was a bit of ambe-rish honey that was very familiar, but I couldn't place it.

I'm still trying to get the hang of gong fu-ing tuo cha. I rinsed twice, 10 s each and steeped for a minute.

This was more similar to a white tea than a puerh, very mild, a tad sweet; a bit of astringency creeps up in later infusions. What interested me the most was the amber-ish honey. As soon as I tasted it, I knew what it reminded me of, a very high grade of dian hong, like the golden needle. I very much enjoy dian hong cha, so it was a nice surprise.

This is an odd tea. Had I not known what it was, I would never have guessed puerh. I am very curious what this would be like after several years. I am not sure what benefits it would gain from aging, but interesting as it was, I don't think its ready yet.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Wild Leaf, Sheng 1993

It would seem that Bill and I drank the same puerh this week, only he drank it much better than I did. I really think you should go read his review instead. He talks about dry storage and mold, notes of beets and camphor. I don't even know what camphor is, and until recently, I thought wet storage had something to do with water. So do yourself a favor, and follow the link. Come back later if you don't have anything better to do.

The details of this tea are it was picked from the ancient tea trees of Yunnan, China. The exact origins are unknown, but it was acquired around 2000 and stored in Guangzhou until 2006, when it was purchased by Red Blossom Tea Co.

For more information on puerh storage, Marshal has written some excellent posts, here and here.

This tea was a pleasant change of pace, something different than the "smoked melon" of every other sheng that I've tried. Because of that, at first this tea confused me; it was so much like a shupu in aroma, appearance and taste. Then it was explained to me, patiently, that it was an aged sheng, and that was the point. To which I said, "oh," and then, "ohhhhhh."

The dry leaves are similar in appearance to the shu that I am used to, only larger. I can see some stems.

I flashed rinse, then 15 s, 3o s, 90 s, and 4 min--I like my pu strong if it wont turn on me.

The initial aroma is very earthy. I don't know why I said initial; the aroma was consistently earthy, and a bit of something almost vegital; however, this could be another time when I smell something I can't place, but it reminds me of something else, and so on.

The first infusion the taste is thin, a little crisp, reminding me, of all things, of the gyokuro karigane. I swallowed some too fast, choked on it and coughed, and noticed a clear note of spice, cinnamon, perhaps. Molly says she can taste a bit of caramel. Over all it is delightfully smooth, and I start to brew it longer.

Then a bit of morbid curiosity takes hold. I dump the spent leaves, toss what's left of the pu into the pot (I guess about 10-12 grams), flash rinse, and steep. For 3 minutes.

Coffee anyone?

The resulting brew was strong and rather enjoyable. Very similar to a good coffee. I can taste a bit of chocolate, but more like chocolate after it has been added to coffee. There's also a mildly acidic bite on the end, that I likewise associate with coffee.

In conclusion...

I like this tea. It was remarkably gentle, playful and easy. Fun, in a word. There isn't an abundance of complexity, so my instincts tell me that this is probably an average sheng, but I think it is perfect for any one like myself experimenting with puerh. It was enjoyable and educational.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Dubious Sheng

This is the puerh that I refereed to in my lan gui ren review.

It was sourced by Roy Fong of Imperial Tea Court for The Republic of Tea, who sold it to my store and a few others as an exclusive. The rep from TROT told me he thinks it is about seven years old. They refused to tell me anything more about it. The original cake came in a paper bag, no wrapper, so no luck there, either.

For quite a while, I considered this the worst sheng, and possibly the worst puerh, I've tried, but the tourist tuo cha from the other day now has the honor. I thought it a good idea to give it another chance, if we had any left.

Dry leaf: The leaves in the larger piece are darker in color, while the smaller piece is lighter. I don't know if this is due to the position of the leaves in the cake, or if it may be a difference in the grade of the tea used. The cake was loosely compressed, the leaves easy to separate without breaking.

I would describe this tea as dry. Smokey, but no fruit or sweetness, and it turned on me quickly. The third and fourth infusions becoming quite astringent, developing that dry mouth feel.

I think I might take back what I said in the beginning; the tourist tuo cha may be better than this.

The wet leaves are nice, though, some stems and pieces, but lots of whole leaves.

If any puerh aficionados out there can tell me something more about this tea by looking at the leaves, I'd be curious to here what you have to say.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

2006 SE Asia Puerh Trade Memorial Cake.

This one was recommended to me by Bill a few months back. I kept meaning to buy a cake, but my pursuit of oolong and sencha consistently consumed my tea money, so I picked up a sample instead.

Origin: Yunnan, China, Chan-Tai Tea Factory
Year/Manufactured: 2006
Vendor: Houde Asian Art
Price: $37.50/400g Cake or $5.50/1oz Sample

My cold is preventing me from fully enjoying the aroma of the dry leaves, but I seem to be picking up the same smoked melon that I usually get from young sheng. Why melon? Sheng smells very similar to a particular green tea, to me at least, and that tea always tasted like melon. So, when I smell a smokey sheng and try to translate the aroma into words, fruity and melon are what I get.

I used 5 grams in a 150 ml gaiwan again, and rinsed once for five seconds.

The first infusion was smokey, thin mouth feel, a pleasant bit of astringency that gives the tea texture. A bit of something I'd describe as either fruity or naturally sweet. The second was more of the same. The third and fourth mellowed out a bit, decreased astringency, but also decreased sweetness. The fifth was a dud, so I doubled the infusion time, and the sixth was back on track.

Unfortunately, as I said, I've had a cold the past few days, and this time around the puerh wasn't agreeing with my empty stomach, so I think I rushed it a tad. Over all I liked it quite a bit, as much as I like any puerh--I like to experiment with puerh, but so far I am not in love. I think I will pick up a cake later and revisit it again.

What have I learned? Now I have a benchmark for both a bad and a decent or good young sheng. I've also learned this week the value of smaller tea ware for gong fu. I think most new tea drinkers balk at the idea of a 90 ml teapot; I know I did, but now I wish I had one, or five. I have a feeling that I could get better results with a smaller gaiwan or yixing pot, have more control.

Oh well, Christmas is around the corner.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Yunnan Tuo Cha "Tourist Type"

First, if you are like me, new or inexperienced with puerh, Houde's Anatomy of Puerh is a great place to start for information.

The nice thing about experimenting with an unfamiliar type of tea is that even bad tea can be worth the money for the experience gained. When I bought this from Teaspring, I wasn't expecting much, and when it arrived, and I saw the words "Tourist Type" on the side of the box, I figured I was right not to. Nonetheless, it did indeed prove to be a learning experience.

Yunnan Tuo Cha, Sheng/Green/Raw
Origin: Yunnan, China, Xiaguan Tea Industry
Year: 2005
Price: $9.40/12 pieces (36 grams)
Vendor: Teaspring

The dry leaf aroma is pleasant and what I've come to expect from young sheng, smokey but kind of...fruity, smoked melon, I guess. Each piece is approximately 3 grams, so I used two pieces in a 150 ml gaiwan. My first two sessions with this tea were ultimately unpleasant. Both times it turned harsh quickly, leaving a dry mouth feel by the third infusion; however, today I tried to be more careful with it.

Brewing Parameters: 2 5s rinses, 30s, 45s, 60s, 45s, 45s, 65s.

The first two infusions are weak; the tou cha had not yet separated--probably should start off with a longer infusion time. Kind of smokey. The third infusion: leaves have separated, nice orange liquor, bitter in the back of the throat and tip of the tongue, a hint of what's to come, so I shorten the infusion time. Over all, I was able to keep that dry mouth feel at bay, but the infusions remained bitter, no real flavor or nuances show up. At least none that I can pick out. Today's session was better than the first two, but still failed to produce an enjoyable tea.

The leaves are most bits and pieces; the few larger leaves I found you can see on top.

What did I learn? I know what a bad sheng can taste like. Well, I already knew that, but what I thought I was a bad sheng, turns out to be better than this. I learned, or more accurately, was reminded, that tea demands something from us. The very best tea can produce a dreadful cup in the wrong hands, and even low quality tea can be improved with a little practice. (I gave up looking for it, but I think MarshalN did a post about this, though I'm not trying to suggest I am as experienced or skilled as the men he was talking about).

I also learned that China has lovely stamps.

I wouldn't recommend this tea to anyone, but for my purposes, it was worth the money.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

This Week in Tea

This is something new that I've thought of doing for a while, a weekly or bi-monthly post with links to various news letters and videos or other tea-related tidbits that don't warrant an entire post but are interesting, nonetheless.

A newsletter from Hibiki an about organic farming in Japan. Click Me.

This is a spoof on Japanese tea that Ian from Teachat was kind enough to show us. I got a kick out of it. Click Me, Too.

Amanda Hymson from CHOW e-mailed me a this link quite a while back, so its nothing new, an interview with James Norwood Pratt. And Me!

Next week is Sheng Week.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


One of the nice things, an unexpected bonus, to running a tea blog has been the free stuff. Even bad tea is kind of fun when someone took the time to give it to you. Though this time the free tea has nothing to do with the blog and everything to with the fact I have no life and spend an inordinate amount of my free time on TeaChat. Adagio recently introduced a new flavor of their Anteadote bottled tea, Oolong, which I understand uses TGY, and asked their more chatty users if they would like a free case.

To which I said, "Yes, please."

I received the case a few days ago, and I thought it would be just the Oolong, but it turns out to be an even mix of all five flavors.

Adagio's Anteadote is a line of five organic ready-to-drink (RTD) teas, Green, Jasmine Green, White, Black, and now Oolong. They're all sugar and sweetener free and only three ingredients, water, tea, and vitamin C.

The Green and White are my least favorite. There's a funky taste that I can't place, and to be honest, they're kind of hard to tell a part. That being said, they're still better than most of the bottled alternatives. The Oolong isn't much different, but I like it a bit more.

The Jasmine Green is pleasant enough. Nice and jasmine-y, moderately astringent. I have a small appetite for jasmine tea; its nice every now and then, and it went well with my dinner.

The one that really excites me is the Black Tea, made with dian hong. I think dian hong cha is vastly superior to most other types of black tea, and while I am sure that Adagio is using a very low grade, I still prefer it to the standard Indian, Ceylon, or African tea that you usually find in RTD teas.

Thanks again, Adagio.

Extreme Gong Fu

Our Fair Trade event to promote Fair Trade Certification was this past weekend. I wish I could say it was a wonderful success, but with vendors not showing up, product not being delivered, and employees calling in sick, the event as a whole never picked up momentum. I do appreciate the vendors from Beantree, What's Brewing, and World of Good who did participate and help us out.

Even though things didn't turn out like I planned, I had a lot of fun. I of course demo-ed tea. I chose Rishi's Ancient Tree Teas and African Rooibos. The thing about trying to demo tea is I only know how to brew tea in small amounts, 5-8 oz at a time, not entirely suitable for serving tea to hundreds of people. I suppose I could have found a way to brew a large quantity of tea and stand there with a carafe and a smile on my face, but where is the fun in that?

I felt gong fu was the way to go. Not only did I hope to draw people in by showing them something they hadn't seen before, but it was also quite practical. Short steeping times meant I could still brew tea in small amounts, while still ensuring that there would always be tea available for sampling. Using multiple gaiwans gave me flexibility to move between teas and offer a variety, and if one tea in particular wasn't exciting anyone, dump the leaves, rinse, and move on.

This also meant that I brewed tea non-stop for four consecutive hours.

Tiring? yes indeed, but it was also rewarding. It was like having spent months studying for an exam, then acing the test. I had been practicing gong fu at home for quite a while with the aid of a digital scale and a timer, but this weekend that wasn't an option. I had to use The Force and feel my way through it, eye-balling how much tea to use, guessing by color and aroma how much I should increase the brewing time from one steeping to the next, and trying to keep it all straight in my head while brewing three different teas simultaneously. Blending the various infusions into a sharing pitcher helped, I think, with the end result.

And the customers were fun. It was a pleasure to serve what was for most of them their first puerh. After the first day I settled on Puerh Maiden and the Jamaican Red Bush, a shupu and a fruity rooibos blend, as the two best sellers. These two are on opposite ends of the flavor spectrum, so it was kind of cool to see which one a customer would respond to. I am pleased that even though the rooibos was the over all favorite, I sold just as much of the puerh.

My favorite question was, "Why doesn't my Celestial Seasons taste this good?"

My favorite pronunciation of rooibos was, "Roo-bee-us."

My best moment, a gaiwan in each hand; I was kind of proud of that.

My stupidest moment, scalding my tongue with tea after the first hour. I couldn't taste anything for two days.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Book of Tea

Okakura Kakuzo's oft-quoted The Book of Tea is nothing new to most tea enthusiasts. I imagine many of us have read it at one time or the other, but what surprised me, and pleasantly so, is how little it had to do with tea as a beverage. Not merely a book of warm anecdotes, Okakura sought to explain to the Western world why tea was held in such high regard, and in doing so, explores Japanese and Chinese aesthetics and the influence of Tao and Zen on art and tea.

"But I am not to be a polite Teaist."

From the beginning Okakura's tone can at times be mildly aggressive as he defends Japanese culture and art. To understand his frustration, it is beneficial to realize what was happening in Japan before and during his life.

Japan had been largely closed to foreigners during the 265 years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, or Edo Period--in later chapters, Okakura explains how Japan's isolation, not only then but also in resisting the Mongol invasion, was instrumental in the continuity of teaism in Japan. The first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu, was quite fond of trade with the outside world, and allowed the Portuguese Jesuits to build churches in Japan; compared to his successors, this was remarkably tolerant.

However, Christian priests began encouraging their Japanese converts to disobey their lords in favor of obedience to the Church, which threatened the order of things, and possibly worse, demonstrated clear foreign interference with Japanese affairs. Further exacerbating the situation, when the priests were told to leave, they instead flocked to Ieyasu's rival, the son and proper heir of Toyatomi Hideyoshi, Hideyori, in Osaka. This was the end of the Portuguese in Japan, and incidentally, of Hideyori as well. With the death of William Adams, the English eventually departed as well, and by the time the of third Tokugawa shogun, Japan was forbidden to all foreigners by pain of death, save for the Dutch, who were still allowed to trade in Nagasaki.

Combine this with the relative peace of the Edo Period, and a renaissance emerged, one often depicted in Ukiyo-e, a world of geisha and sumo and kabuki.

This lasted of course until Commodore Perry forced open Japan's harbors in the 1850's, precipitating the Meiji Restoration. Japan was quick to embrace Western culture, which didn't sit well with everyone, leading to the Satsuma Rebellion and the end of the Samurai and of Feudal Japan. Japan was rapidly growing into a dominant world power.

"Tea is the art of concealing things so that you may discover it."

Okakura was born in 1863 during the midst of the Meiji Restoration. A man who loved his country and culture and art, would have spent his life witnessing the erosion of the things he held most dear. Which is not to say he was completely opposed to Western culture or the modernization of Japan, instead he only sought to preserve Japan's distinct identity.

Now...if you're still with me, you understand, I hope, some of the historical context in which The Book of Tea was written, and can see that the book is not a quaint collection of romanticized musings and tea fancy, but rather an impassioned description of a country's aesthetic ideals.

Even so, in the book you will find much information about tea. Okakura explores the development of tea over the centuries, from cake tea to powdered tea to tea as we know it now. He also goes into some of the particulars of cha no yu, or the tea ceremony, describing the tea room and periphery details such as flowers. He dedicates a whole chapter to flowers. You will also discover accounts of tea masters such as Rikyu.

But what speaks to me the most is the continuous theme of tea as a metaphor or an actualization of something greater than ourselves. Teasim has its roots in Taoism and Zennism, and once you grasp the spiritual significance of it, you can see that the tea ceremony was no less profound than partaking of the holy sacrament.

I think on some level we, my fellow tea bloggers, sense this. We turned away from teabags and instant tea and microwaved water to pursue countless hours of careful tea preperation and knowledge, with little or no thought to the current tea/health craze. I do not think this is simply an epicurean venture on our part. Do you not in some part agree that the current tea culture in America is similar to taking Communion from a vending machine, quick, easy, and selfish, instantly gratifying but forsaking all that may be eternal.

Eh, maybe its just me.

I don't know how spiritual tea is for me. I do know, that as much as I enjoy drinking tea, for me the pleasure is found in the process. This is clear in the disproportionate amounts I spend on teaware vs tea, or my refusal to settle for teabags when at work or elsewhere. If I can't have good tea, I would just as soon not. Making tea, I feel connected, grounded in something beyond all the irrelevancies of my daily life. A daily affirmation that everything is transitory, that so much thought to be important, really is not.

I'll end with a story from the book that's stuck in my head and doesn't have much to do with anything else I've said here.

"This dialogue recalls that of Soshi, the Taoist. One day Soshi was walking on the bank of a river with a friend. 'How delightfully the fishes are enjoying themselves in the water!' exclaimed Soshi. His friend spake to him thus: 'You are not a fish; how do you know that the fishes are enjoying themselves?' 'You are not myself, how do you know that I do not know that the fishes are enjoying themselves?'"

Sources: Concerning my unsolicited history lesson, all dates used are taken from Wikipedia. Most everything else was taken from Giles Milton's Samurai William.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sencha and Gyokuro Karigane

Uji River:
Up until my recent success with sencha, my favorite type of Japanese tea has been kukicha, or karigane. (It is my understanding that karigane is simply a snazzy way of saying kukicha). Various people had suggested that I try some of the tea at Hibiki-an, and with the imminent arrival of a new kyusu dedicated solely to Japanese green, I decided it was time that I did.

Hibiki-an is a tea farm in Uji, just south of Kyoto, owned by the Yatsui family. Uji is the oldest tea growing region in Japan, and a historically interesting place. The latter chapters of The Tale of Genji, one of the worlds first novels, were set in Uji. Uji is also the home of Tsuen, Japan's oldest teashop, and of Sohen Nagatani, who developed the steaming process used to make sencha in 1738.

I'll skip the brewing parameters this time. I'm still experimenting a bit, and the reviews are from my overall experience with these teas, rather than from a single session.

Origin: Uji, Japan
Year: 2007 Ichiban (First Flush)
Vendor: Hibiki-an
Price: $20/200 g.

The sencha karigane was very good, but I was a little under-whelmed by it. My regular kukicha comes from Shizuoka, and its quite sweet; I am very fond of it. I was hoping that by purchasing this tea direct from the farm, I would get something that was even better. In the end I think my high expectations spoiled this one for me. The aroma is still wonderful though, and the tea is clearly fresh. I'll come back to it when I've finished off the gyokuro and give it another chance.

Origin: Uji, Japan
Year: 2007
Vendor: Hibiki-an
Price: $19/100 g.

The aroma and flavor of this tea is amazingly crisp. Crisp is the single word that comes to me every time I smell or taste it, like biting into a fresh vegetable or an apple. At first I didn't care for this much, but it is growing on me fast. Its kind of sweet and smooth. I took a whiff of the wet leaves, and it was like walking into a produce valt, very fresh, vegetal, and crisp.

Of the two, I prefer the gyokuro to the sencha. The gyokuro karigane is rather unique and bold, while its sencha counter-part isn't as enjoyable as what I'm used to.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Shizuoka Sencha Hatsumi

Some may have noticed that in spite of my fervid interest in Japanese teaware, there is a certain lack of posts or reviews concerning sencha. Well, I have been drinking it; I just haven't been prepared to write about it. The thing is I didn't like it. I wanted to, but it was never enough for me, not as soothing as Chinese tea, nor as sweet as kukicha. I thought it was kind of bland. During the whole time I was experimenting, my fellow tea-enthusiasts were raving about O-cha, so I knew sooner or later I would have to buy some tea from there to see if the problem was that I honestly didn't like sencha, or if I was simply buying the wrong stuff.

The problem was I didn't like the owner, Kevin; the guy got under my skin, and I was not inclined to send him my money. I say this not to sound petty, or to besmirch O-cha or Kevin, but to make it clear that the lavish praise I will soon bestow upon his tea is not idle sycophancy. When I say that the Hatsumi is the best sencha I've had, the first one that I not ony liked, but enjoyed and perhaps love, I have to swallow a certain amount of pride to do it. Thankfully I have some wonderful tea here to help me get it down.

Tea: Sencha Hatsumi
Origin: Shizuoka Japan
Year: 2007
Vendor: O-Cha
Price: $24.95/100 g.

(Take a second to marvel at the price. I just did the math. If you get 22 first infusions out of one package, that's $1.14 each. But you also get 4-5 solid infusions out of each serving, which means some of the finest Japanese sencha, shipped direct from Japan, costs about a quarter a cup, cheaper than many teabags).

About 50 percent of the tea grown in Japan comes from Shizuoka Prefecture, an area that is south of Fujiyama and southwest of the Greater Tokyo Area, historically notable for once being the home of Tokugawa Ieyasu. For more about tea production in Shizuoka, take a look at this video from the Discovery Channel.

The tea is well packaged, nitro-flushed and shipped in a foil bag.

When I first tried the Hatsumi last week, I was disappointed, but I had some help with the brewing parameters, which improved the tea greatly. I use 4.5 grams for 7 oz. and start with 175 F for 2 minutes, increasing the temperature and time for each brew. By the fifth infusion, I use boiling water for 4-5 min.

The aroma of both the dry leaf and the tea is amazing, rich and fresh and green, the benefit of buying tea direct from Japan. The liquor is fairly consistent, a bright green that is slightly cloudy for the first infusion or two.

This is one of the few teas that I can regularly drink five infusions of without getting bored. I'm on my tenth for the day. It starts off soothing yet with an astringent finish, sort of lingers on the tongue. By the third infusion the the astringency is gone. With the fourth I start to notice a natural sweetness that is more pronounced in the fifth and final infusion.

If you like to know about the wet leaves, they, like all sencha I've seen, become a goopy mess.

This truly was an amazing tea, I'm only sorry it took me this long to buy it. I look forward to trying the Miyabi and Yutaki Midori next.

Thanks should go to Chip from Teachat and O-Cha's forum for helping me with the brewing paremeters.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Ume Shiso

Today I re-visited a tea that I bought almost a year ago, that has spent most of its life in the back of my cabinet. I think I've pulled it out once since moving into this house, and that was only to feed it to the Zarafina. The thing is, the Ume Shiso is a good a tea, just not something I'm ever in the mood for. But this morning I was helping a customer look for some umeboshi, Japanese plums pickled with shiso leaves, and that got me thinking about this tea.

Ume Shiso is a blend of houjicha and red shiso leaves. I've never developed a taste for houjicha, early attempts turned me off of it, so I should be honest and say that I bought this tea mostly because I thought it was pretty.

I hope I'm not the only one who does that.

Origin: Japan
Year: 2006
Vendor: Rishi
Price: $10/30g Tin

I'm sure the past year has dulled this tea a bit, but it is still very flavorful. Its been three years since I tasted houjicha, and I've never tasted shiso leaves before this tea, so I am unsure of where one ends and the other begins. Its nutty and a bit tart. What I like most about this tea is its heartiness; it feels filling, and while I'm not into tea/food pairings, I think this would go great with a meal, or even in place of a snack.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Where is all the Fair Trade Oolong?

Over the last several months I've noticed that all the new Fair Trade Certified teas that I've seen tend to have new-fangled flavors and are clearly meant, in my opinion at least, for the average American tea-drinker. Which is all well and good; its wonderful to see FT reach a larger consumer base, but what about me? Does this mean that all the wonderful tea I buy is picked by children and exploited workers?*

I got to thinking that perhaps with higher quality tea, working conditions are intrinsically better, and the need for programs such as Fair Trade is not as pressing. So I asked around, and Benjamin Harrison, one of the three founders of Rishi-Tea, was kind enough to give me a detailed and candid answer and gave me permission to post it here:

"FTC and quality do not go hand in hand, much like Organic and quality. You can have both but it’s not automatic. For us, finding Organic that hit our quality requirements (which is our guiding principle above all else) was a huge challenge. We spent years looking and developing relationships at origin to do so. It wasn’t until 2003 that the quality of Organic tea really started to catch up with the rest of the market. A lot of FTC products are “commodity” products from depressed areas, where the product is subject to macroeconomic forces (largely export markets) and/or where there isn’t a domestic market for high quality production. This usually comes at the expense of the producer and quality is in many cases a moot point. Rather, FTC is a system that tries to level the playing field on an economic scale. The market for mass produced cheap tea will never go away so long as consumers want cheap teabags and cheap bottled drinks. Quality is needed for those products but quantity is required to support that market demand. Hence, FTC sends something back to the producer but doesn’t provide any incentive to produce higher quality product.

This, of course, is not always the case and high quality products can be produced and go hand in hand with FTC. Our teas from Yunnan are a perfect example of this dynamic. This origin produces very high quality teas and has for a long time, in part due to a rich tradition of producing tea along with the fact that Rishi Teas from this project are made from a wild and semi-wild tea trees that offer a unique flavor profile that is quite appealing. The FTC premiums paid on these teas have gone a long way to helping to develop infrastructure (roads, schools, waterworks, etc.) that help the standard of living as well as help the producers get their teas to market. This is an extremely remote part of China so one of the biggest challenges in the past has been actually getting the tea to market. The premiums have also gone towards programs to help protect and maintain the trees and the land in the region. As you know, economic development is a double-edged sword. It provides access to market, creates wealth but also attracts others looking to take advantage, develop the area for tourism, etc, etc. For the most part, our FTC project in Yunnan has been a huge success, almost to our detriment, such that Rishi has been challenged to get enough of Yunnan tea to support our own growth and maintain price stability. What’s not lost on us, though, is the larger fact that this is what we wanted to see happen. The origin doesn’t exist just for Rishi, and the farmers and producers there are now making a lot of money. Moreover, they’re in an increasingly improving situation: they have access to a growing domestic market, a growing international market and demand exceeds supply.

Working conditions at our projects, non-FTC and FTC are very good. People work their butts off, as most farmers do. But they make good money, are looked after by the managers of the projects and enjoy better than average living standards. There is no small amount of pride on the line on how a manager’s workers appear. If they look bad it reflects on him/her. And in many cases, there is a larger sense of community in place that helps maintain and improve working conditions. At the same time, I don’t want to paint a picture of rainbows and butterflies. It’s still in most areas the 3rd world and has a host of social problems in the towns, inadequate infrastructure and struggling economies. But tea production is one of the best agricultural jobs to have in China and provides good paying jobs to a lot of people who would be otherwise destitute. So if you’re concerned that we’re making tea in a Nike factory, our model is anything but that.

There are less than 5 FTC tea projects in China that I am aware of (maybe as few as 3), and Rishi has been instrumental in developing 2 of them. One big obstacle is politics. FT projects are based on democratic principles and of course this does not sit well with the Chinese government. But they tend to look the other way when they see that it does more the economic vitality of a region than they can provide on their own. In other cases, there is simply no need since the farmers make more than enough money to need or want Fair Trade premiums. This is one reason why there is no FT oolong – oolong teas command such strong prices every year that the producers make plenty of money."

Thanks again to Benjamin who has helped me better understand the situation and feel better about my purchases. For more information about Rishi's Fair Trade projects in China, check out an excerpt from this interview with Joshua Kaiser:

“In India,” Josh explains, “you have hundreds of Fair Trade projects. Then you go to China, which has the world’s largest tea production, and there’s just two [Fair Trade projects] and these are just right now in their pilot stage. They’re [TransFair] actually just monitoring how we’re developing and how we’re working with people to get an idea of how they can even introduce the Fair Trade project in China. There are so many areas of China that desperately need this Fair Trade compensation that we’ve been doing all we can. Because there are so many tea projects in China, especially where the working conditions are not good, not clean and it needs this sort of third-party sourcing.“We go to these areas,” Josh continues, “to buy our teas and interface with the people who grow our tea, but also to monitor how the Fair Trade funds are being spent in the area. Basically Fair Trade funds have gone into water-purification systems, hot-water shower systems, an agri-training center and to send the first college student ever from this village to study Agricultural Science.”

This specific tea project is the cooperative called The Jing Mai Ancient Tea Association, an elected group of leaders from each village in the area’s ancient tea forests who preside over the group and vote on how to best spend the money. They come together and discuss everyone’s needs, then go back to their village and consult with their communities. To be clear though, Josh says, “Many of our products are made by small holders and they don’t have cooperatives.” A family or an extended family group will have ten acres of tea that they pick and process. Typically the women pick the tea and the men handle the processing.”

* I want to make it clear that while I strongly advocate Fair Trade, I am not trying to imply that any tea without the label is using exploited workers or unsafe working conditions. I do think it behooves us all to be more aware fo where our products come from, particularly in light of the recent recalls on Chinese goods. It benefits us, and it benefits them.

All pictures were borrowed from Rishi's Travelogue, because I just couldn't stand not having any pictures at all.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

My First Puerh

Rishi's Ancient Mini Tuo Cha was my very first puerh, long before I knew anything about puerh, or had heard the terms sheng or shu, or had even seen a puerh cake. Back then this was very exciting, sexy stuff, harvested from ancient trees in Xishuangbanna, Fair Trade Certified, and pressed into miniature cakes. If you were still drinking Twinnings only a month before, it doesn't get much better than all that.

But after a while my knowledge of puerh grew, I became a little more experienced, and about the time I bought my first yixing pot and started experimenting with gong fu was when I stopped drinking it. Now that I have a broader, well, moderately broader, idea of what is a good or a bad puerh, and in honor of Fair Trade Month, I thought it would be fun to go back and revisit it.

Tea: Ancient Puerh Tuo Cha
Origin: Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China
Year: ?
Vendor: Rishi
Prices: $28/lb. ($.25/piece)
Organic, Fair Trade Certified

Each tuo cha is about 4 grams, give or take .1 grams. I put two pieces in a 150 ml yixing pot, rinsed for 10 seconds, and steeped the first infusion for...I forget, 30-45 seconds sounds right. The first infusion was about what I remembered, not unpleasant, but nothing exciting. I though I had over-steeped the second infusion, the liquor was almost black, but it turned out okay. Thick mouth-feel, a slight nuance of cocoa, then a tad bit of astringency.

Over all I'd say this tea was average. Every other shupu I've had is either much worse or a lot better. I think its a good pu for beginners, but experienced drinkers will probably want to pass on it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Fair Trade Month

October is Fair Trade Month!

This is my second year to be involved and to coordinate a Fair Trade Weekend for the store, where we do various demos on coffee, chocolate, sugar, and tea, while trying to raise general awareness in the area about the existence and benefits of Fair Trade Certified goods. This year I am also planning an event for one of our other stores to coincide with ours, and while so far it seems to be mostly a learning experience on how to do it better next year, all in all I am pleased with our progress. This year there is more vendor involvement and lots of new items we didn't have last year. Let's take a look.

They are my favorite bottled tea company, dedicated to offering bottled tea without all the sugar and calories, and they have the distinction of offering the first Fair Trade Certified bottled tea, Peach Oolong using tea from Makaibari.

Pomegranate Red Tea with Goji Berries: I liked this one. A lot. Though I'm not often a fan of flavored teas, this one was enjoyable. Moderately sweetened, it could have had less or no sugar and been fine, but it was not overpowering, and I could actually taste the Goji berries.

Just Black Tea/Just Green Tea: The just black tea was kind of average. Props to Honest Tea for offering unsweetened, bottled tea, but this ones is not very exciting. However, I am completely fascinated with the Just Green Tea. I want to know how they made it taste like that. Did they simply boil some tea leaves for a fort night and bottle what was left, or what. This stuff was inexcusably vile. It went beyond bad green tea, which I've come to expect from RTD teas, and into a whole new level of suckiness.

Sorry, Seth and Barry.

Chai mixes don't compare to the real thing, but as chai mixes go, these are rather nice. Not quite the best mix I've tried, but a solid second best. Of the four we carry, I think I like the Honey Vanilla the best. I have not tried it hot yet, only cold.

A line of iced tea mixes, each tin contains five silk tea pillows. Sounds cozy.

Goji Berry Pomegranate: Goji berries have been big this year; I've seen them in a variety of products, including a barbecue sauce. Unfortunately you can't taste the goji berry in this, which may be because there is only one berry per tea pillow, or because the only thing you can taste is the large amount of lemongrass they added to it. I have a small appetite for lemongrass, so I wouldn't say this tea was a waste, but it was a disappointment.

Blueberry Acai: This one was much better. A rooibos blend not quite as good but similar to Rishi's blueberry rooibos. Pleasantly fruity and tart and a more balanced blend.

That sums up most of the new teas. If you were wondering, the Ben and Jerry's Fair Trade Certified Coffee Heath Bar Crunch was also delicious. I'm sure I'll talk about Fair Trade some more this month, but in the mean time, if I didn't leave enough links the last time I talked about Fair Trade, check out this video, Fair Trade: The Story.