Saturday, September 29, 2007

Lochan White Tea Samples

After I wrote a review on Rishi's Silver Needle, Ankit Lochan was kind enough to send me a package of white tea samples, which I received a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, with half of my department on vacation, and my grocery manager in Houston, I had to work through most of my regular days off and haven't had a chance until now to sample them or write a review.

To the Lochans, thank you for the tea, and I apologize for the delay.

I've never been proficient at identifying and describing the characteristics of white tea, but I will do my best. I used the same parameters for each tea: 3 g/8 oz/5 min, brewed in a kyusu.

Lochan Silver Silver Snow Buds
2nd Flush 2007
Darjeeling


I rushed this one a bit. Over all it was okay. The color was strong, but the taste was sort of watery; I should have brewed this one longer. There was a slightly unpleasant, artificial taste, that had me checking to see if my water was the culprit, but it wasn't. I have some leaves left, so I plan to try this tea again.

Giddapahar White Tea Needles of Jade
2nd Flush 2007
Darjeeling


This one was my favorite. The color was very strong, like a 1st flush Darjeeling. It has the characteristic white tea smell, a clear Darjeeling taste, and a mild astringency in the back of the throat. This is the first and only Indian white tea I've had that I would hold on par with bai hao yinzhen in levels of uniqueness and enjoyment

It also came with a toy surprise.


Doke Silver Needle
2007 "Special Edition"


Doke is an interesting garden started in 1998 by Rajiv Lochan on a plot of land that others said was useless. Nonetheless, Doke started to prosper, and Rajiv shared the profits with the local community through the development of the Indus Foundation, a non-profit organisation promoted by Lochan Tea. Its main goal to promote education and primary schools in a way the will most benefit Indians. As a supporter of Transfair USA and Fair Trade Federation, I'm pleased to see a grass roots project such as this.

The Silver Needle was enjoyable, similar-ish to the snow buds in color and in that I should have steeped it longer, but kind of sweet. Over all a decent tea but not super great.

Locahn Wiry Delight of the Himalayas
2006
Darjeeling


The wiry delight is my second favorite of these four. Good strong color, and a pleasant fruity smell I can't place. It is kind of tart. Very good. I like the unique appearance of the dry leaves.

While some were better than others, all of these teas were enjoyable. Thanks again to the Lochans for the samples.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Shimizu Genji-san, Part 3

Last week I received two new items from Tokoname, Japan via Artistic Nippon that were hand crafted by my favorite tea guy, Shimizu Genji-san (Hokujo), and I think they are perfect.

Mogake Yokode Kyusu


I knew that I wanted a side-handled kyusu by Genji-san, and I have been saving up for one for a while, humming and hawing over which one I should purchase. At the last minute I picked this one, and I'm glad I did.

This teapot uses a "mogake" design, where seaweed is attached to the pot using string, thus allowing the salt to oxidize the clay during firing. This creates a unique and elemental pattern.


The spout is well made, and the lid is a remarkably precise fit, so there is absolutely no leaking or dripping.

Notice that the handle and spout are not a perfect right angle. I can't remember where I read it, but supposedly that is a sign of a well designed kyusu.


Another fantastic sasame.


Three-Footed Yuzamashi



I saw this one on a Japanese website that only sold wholesale, and I had been looking for it since. When I ordered the kyusu, I figured it couldn't hurt to ask Yoshikawa-san if this was an item that he could procure for me. To my very pleasant surprise, it appears he spoke with Genji-san, who then made this particular one.

When I first saw a picture of it, and every single time after, all I could see was water being poured into it, sort of sloshing around, pure and clear. It sounds lame, I know, but the yuzamashi knew its purpose and wanted to full fill it. When it came, as soon as it was unwrapped, without thinking about it, I filled it with water, and it was like a deep itch had finally been scratched.


Yeah, lame, I know, but this piece is special to me, nonetheless.

It handles very well. Being wide and shallow allows a better distribution of weight than the tetsuki yakishime samashi, facilitating a smoother pour.


I like the feet.


I chose to say little and let the pictures try to speak for themselves. But I can tell you that seeing a picture is nothing like holding them. These two items are superb.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Zarafina Tea Maker Suite

Update (9/22/07): I should say that I have not used this thing once since writing this review. I guess it really wasn't for me after all.

If they had contacted me about reviewing the Zarafina Tea Maker Suite a few months ago, I would have been rather skeptical. I am mostly a purist when it comes to tea, but having read the reviews from Tea Guy and Gongfu Girl (huh, reminds me of a movie), I was reasonably optimistic. It turns out the optimism was justified; the Zarafina is as good as I expected, if not a little better.

Zarafina's website has some nifty videos and interactive demos, so I wont go into much detail here. I am pleased with the overall construction, and features like the small blade built into the infuser basket to cut tags off of tea bags are a nice touch. The infuser basket itself is large enough and breaks down easily for cleaning. Cleaning is simple; tossing the leaves and rinsing the infuser and removable brewing chamber is sufficient between each use, though the manual does include more thorough cleaning instructions to be used every 40 cycles or so.

When using the infuser basket, I found early on that I get better results when I spread the leaves out evenly. The first time I only dumped the tea in the basket, and afterwards some of the leaves weren't even wet. Also, even when set to strong, the tea was still too weak for my taste. I remedied this by adding extra leaves. Instead of my usual 3g/8oz, I used 3.5-4g.


Since receiving it two days ago, I have been on a tea drinking marathon, like a kid with his first chemistry set, sticking a bit everything in it just to see what would come out. I've had over 30 infusions of 21 different teas. Here is how the Zarafina performed in each category.

Black:

Black tea is the Zarafina's raison detre. It is what it's best at. After I got the hang of it, learned to add extra leaves, it made a cup of dian hong as good as I do. It also did well with an autumnal flush Darjeeling from Makaibari and New Vithanakande Ceylon. Of course black tea is kind of hard to get wrong, but even so, after my second cup I looked forlornly at my kabuse ushirode, fearing it would not be used as often.

White:

I had mixed and interesting results with white tea. I started with bai hao yinzhen, and it turned out okay, but not as good as when I make it myself. Bai mu dan turned out quite different than when I make it, but pleasantly so. Not better, not worse, but different, lighter.

Green Tea:

I tried a variety of different green teas, Japanese and Chinese, but I could not get it to make a good or even palatable cup. Which isn't surprising, as green tea tends to be more temperamental than any other tea, requiring a certain amount of skill and practice to yield pleasant results.

I did have a little luck with some Ume Shiso from Rishi, which is a mix of hojicha and shiso leaves, so I imagine one could get decent results using flavored green tea or perhaps other hojicha or even bancha.

Oolong:

I had mixed results with this as well. It did a good, sometimes great, job with wuyi yan cha, like qi lan or the beeng from Tea spring, and it made a good cup of dan cong. It also makes an okay cup of bao zhong, but high mountain Taiwanese oolongs, such as dong ding or ali shan, were not enjoyable. On the other hand, I can't make a good cup of high mountain oolong either.

Herbal:

I don't drink herbal tea, never developed a taste for it, but Molly had some African Nectar teabags from Mighty Leaf, and I was sent some osmanthus flowers with the Zarafina. Both turned out well, and I imagine it would have just as much success with other herbal and floral blends.

Puerh:

There isn't a puerh setting, but I tossed some Puerh Maiden in and set it to black. It turned out well; not as nuanced as it would have using gongfu parameters, but not worse than had I brewed it western style.

You can also see the results using my complex and sophisticated system of smileys.

:) Good Cup
:/ So-so Cup
:( Bad Cup

I guess it's kind of self-explanatory.

Over all I think the Zarafina is perfect for people who want to drink good tea, but are not particularly interested in tea culture, art or ceremony. It is very convenient. On the first day, I came home from the store, filled it with water and measured out some leaves. After putting away the groceries, I had my first cup while checking my email. I added more water, washed the dishes, swept the porch, then had the second cup of tea. Its a great way of making tea when you are busy with other things.

Tea-enthusiasts more like myself may not be interested, though. In the end it is still just a machine and will not make better tea than a person who has put some skill and practice into it. That being said, as one of those people, I still think we can get us out of it. Brent said it well, and more concisely than I was going to, "its the difference between tea as a beverage and tea as art."

Up till now I have been strictly a tea-as-art kind-of-guy. All the time and money I spend on tea and teapots, every day reading about tea and talking about tea, and I only drink tea on average once a day. Kind of silly. The Zarafina will allow me to enjoy tea more as a beverage from now on.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Sencha and Sake

Ito En Sencha Shot, I've seen this at Whole Foods before, and we started carrying it this week. I tried it today, and I was pleasantly surprised. No, it is not as good as freshly brewed sencha; it is rather astringent leaning towards bitter, but as bottled, or in this case canned, tea goes, it was incredibly flavorful and natural, bold. You know you're drinking Japanese sencha. I drank it chilled, which may have helped. I remember enjoying some of the other teas from Ito En better if they were served cold.

Retail: $1.79/ea. (store price) $45/case (Ito En price)

Sake or Nihonshu (日本酒)

I learned about and purchased my first bottle of sake today. I have nothing to compare it to, the stuff I bought was made and bottled in the U.S., so I have my doubts about how wonderful it really is, but this stuff was good, strong at first with a remarkably smooth finish.

What I learned is that the quality of the sake depends on how much the rice is polished, so here are a few words to look for.

Junmai: Pure rice wine, no additives or added alcohol.
Ginjo: Rice has been polished down to %50 or less.
Daiginjo: Rice has been polished down to %40 or less.

The bottle I bought just says Ginjo. Wikipedia says that the added alcohol isn't always a bad thing. Next time I'll try to find some Junmai Ginjo and see how that is.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Its here...

Excessive tea drinking will now commence.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Teance Free Leaf Tea

This is something new from Teance, FreeLeafTM Teas. We got them in about a week ago, and I haven't made up my mind about them yet, but I do think they're neat. It seems the idea is to offer the convenience of a tea bag by attaching a string to a bouquet of hand tied leaves--I assume they are hand tied. A simple and effective idea; I'm surprised no one hasn't tried it before. There are four varieties available, White Peony, Jasmine White, Green Carnation and Green Rosebud. There are eight bouquets to a box, each individually wrapped in foil.


I sampled the Peony, and I was surprised by the quality. The bouquet uses lots of buds, and you can see the fine white hairs. The flavor is very pleasant, and it reminds me of the xian tao, only "whiter." It is also fruitier than most white teas I've had. The single bouquet easily yielded a few solid infusions. I would happily drink this tea again. But I wouldn't want to pay for it. I didn't care for the $10 price tag at my store, and I am less fond of the $13 price on their website. Even taking into consideration the labor intensive bouquets, $1.63 a bouquet seems a little steep. The overall quality of the leaves is quite decent, but I fear this may be just another expensive gimmick.

Edit: I feel I should clarify that my comments about the price are based solely on my opinion and limited observations. I know nothing of the costs involved with producing this kind of tea, and for all I know, it is a fair price. Just not one I'm going to pay.

Friday, September 7, 2007

A Brief Hiatus. Maybe.

Update: Hiatus has been canceled. Some old business has been taken care of, and I didn't have to go away. Instead I spent a beautiful day out in the sun and shopping with my wife, and I am very, very thankful for it.

Some things have come up, and I may be going away for a bit. I may get an update in before that happens, I may not. There are a few other things on my mind this week.

In the meantime...since Molly wrote about Wal Mart's Altern in the last post, I've been getting visitors who are googling "Wal Mart oolong," or "Wu Yi Wal Mart," or "Does Wal Mart carry oolong," Let me help you out. I've seen Wal Mart's tea set, and I am comfortable saying no, they don't, and if I should be wrong, I certainly wouldn't spend any money on it.

To everyone else, don't drink all the tea while I'm gone.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Lochan

I received my samples from Lochan today, so thank you, Ankit. I'm drinking one right now, though I wont write a full review till I have more time. This one is very interesting; I like the color, and it has a pleasant...fruitiness. Its probably the best Indian white tea I've had. More on that later. Expect a mega-lochan-Indian-white tea review as soon as I get back.


If the cat doesn't eat it all.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Zarafina

My digital timer, thermometer, and scale aside, I am a traditionalist when it comes to making tea. I haven't purchased a Zojirushi yet out of fear of making my samashi feel insecure. That being said, I can't wait to get my hands on this thing.

Will it replace my Tokoname-yaki? Not likely. Will it rock my world? Maybe so.

Reviews to come.

Kikumaru Kyusu

This is for Mary, who requested a review on the Kikumaru Kyusu from Rishi.

Diameter: 3.73 in.
Height: 2 in. (not including lid)
Volume: 9 oz.
Price: $55
Imported by Rishi-Tea

This was my second teapot from Tokoname, and since I gave the first one away some time ago, it is the one I've had the longest. I dedicated it to white tea, and in some of the pictures you can see the patina that has built up over time. The name translates to round (maru) chrysanthemum (kiku).


Like the Fukugata the elegance of this pot is found in its simplicity.


And as you can see, it is not particularly large. I like to make white tea in 8 oz portions, so I find it to be the perfect size.


The spout is designed well to prevent dripping, more on that in a bit, and the lid is a perfect fit.

The sasame is wonderful, slightly finer than the one in the Fukugata. When looking for a Tokoname pot, or Japanese teapots in general, the sasame is the first thing I look at. If the filter is high quality, than odds are the teapot is as well, and this sasame is the best I've seen.

Another important aspect of a good pot to consider is does it have a "leaky bottom." If the pot is designed and crafted well, it will not drip or drain while pouring. The video will demonstrate what I'm talking about.

video

Like the Fukugata, I think this is a wonderful teapot at a good price. If you are looking to purchase you first Tokoname pot, I still say start with the Fukugata. You will get the same functionality for $20 less. If you are looking for your second pot, or don't mind paying a little more for a marginally better pot, do not pass this one up.