Monday, December 31, 2007

Full Leaf Tea

The other day I was drinking some da hong pao I received as part of a Christmas present. I was warned that it would be unremarkable, and rightly so; it was rather bland and uninteresting. At some point between admiring the dry leaves and being disappointed with the brew, a silly and obvious, silly because it is so obvious, thought came to me: loose leaf tea does not inherently equal quality.

This isn't news; had you and I had a conversation about it, I would have agreed wholeheartedly, but it was not until this moment I realised that this misconception had still been lingering in the back of my mind.

I presume this ill-formed idea has its roots in my early tea-drinking days, as I made the progression from teabags to loose tea. When trying to move away from BOP, searching for better tea, full, loose leaves become a convenient, visual indication, and in that context, not entirely misleading. Now that I continue advancing to better and better tea, this sort of prejudice is a handicap.

The art and science of making quality, artisan tea is clearly more involved than simply not having had it reduced to dust.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Mao Feng

Do you know what mao feng is?

I didn't. When I received this tea, I assumed mao feng was fancy, pu-erh speak. Wikipedia's article wasn't much help, saying only that it was a green tea from Anhui. Further investigation revealed references to keemun mao feng and golden monkey mao feng. A bit confused I turned to Bablecarp for a literal definition, and it turns out mao feng is a grading term meaning downy tip, a step above mao jian.

The dry leaf aroma was nutty at times, melon-ish at others.

After brewing it in a gaiwan first, then a kyusu--both had similar results, fruity, light, though the tea in the gaiwan had a touch of astringency--I decided to finally get around to experimenting with glass brewing. The method is simple enough, take a glass, dumps some leaves into said glass, add water, and from what I understand, this is a fairly traditional way of drinking tea in China.

First let me say this whole using-your-teeth-as-a-filter takes practice. While this method was attractive, I did not much care for the tea. It was lighter, chewy and nondescript, though the dregs had more flavor, fruity and astringent, that made it similar to a decent young sheng that's not too harsh.

The wet leaves are comprised of full leaves and lots of bits.

I welcome some feedback on this style of brewing. I used 3 grams per 8 oz at 160 F. Did I do something wrong?

Tea Classes

January 26, my first professional tea class. I did not give myself the title of Tea Expert.

Then after that, on the 30th, Roy Fong is finally coming out to my store to teach us employees a thing or two about tea, an experience I've been looking forward to.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Zhen Qu

Its nice to be back and have the holidays behind me for another six or seven months. Over the last few weeks I've received so many new teas and teapots, it was hard to know where to start. The weather was brisk and gray this morning, foreboding, with the vultures outside my front yard and all--who the hell knew there're vultures in the city? So I found myself leaning towards something black.

The Zhen qu from Chado was part of a generous gift from Salsero of TeaChat. It is an interesting tea; small, fuzzy leaves that shed on everything, as you can see.

(Well I guess you can't see, because I can't get the damn pictures to open in a new window).

It is from Fujian (or Pan Yang, which I am told is simply and older name for Fujian), and the dry leaves smell like bai hao yinzhen. I brewed 3 grams for 3.5 minutes. It is a wonderful combination of two of my favorite teas, the yinzhen and pure-bud dian hong. Tastes tastes like Fujian bai cha with a touch of amber honey and a slightly dryer mouth feel.

Per Sal's instructions I experimented with 6 grams and 3 minutes. The honey becomes more pronounced, and an astringent bite creeps in. Overall the tea is gentle and flexible.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Help me save my teapot, please.

Update: Thanks everyone here and elsewhere for your help and advice. I contacted Rishi and their guy Sean, a fellow Shimizu enthusiast, figured out that the mineral deposits are most likely caused by letting water dry in the pot. Since that is exactly what I do--I always rinse my pots thoroughly after each use and let the inside air dry--I am inclined to agree with him.

Now that I know the cause of the problem and how to prevent it, I am willing to leave things as they are. The build-up is rather mild at the moment, and unless it gets worse, I see no reason to try anything potentially harmful.

Take a look:

I first noticed it a few months ago, and it has been getting worse. Is this just mineral deposits? If so, how do I get rid of it? I've heard white vinegar, but not only is this my favorite and most used pot, it is the most expensive. I want to be very sure that whatever I do will not harm it. If it isn't mineral deposits, any ideas? Your feedback would be appreciated.

(Edit) More information: Yes, the pot is porous. I use spring water to make tea, but I rinse my pots with tap water. Its this teapot right here.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

2007 Spring Oolong

This next sample from June, I'm not sure what it is, other then it is a lightly fermented, rolled oolong from the Wuyi mountains. She sent me two different (does oolong have flushes?) harvests, a 2006 Winter and a 2007 Spring.

My notes on the winter oolong met the same fate as the long jing, but I completely botched it anyway, so no loss; I'll just skip it. I simply can not gong fu lightly oxidized oolongs; it never ends well. Yet I keep trying.

But not this time. I used a larger pot and steeped 3 grams for 3 minutes.

Aroma: there is a sharp, vegtal scent buried in layers of honey and butter, reminds me of my father--he would mix honey with warm butter and spread it on slices of bread, and there is a pleasant pang of melancholic nostalgia.

The first thing I notice is that this time the tea does not taste like an astringent, over-steeped mess. Progress! The brew is light, light to the point that perhaps I should have used more leaf or less water. It is more similar to the wen shan bao zhong I've had than its Taiwanese counterparts such as dong ding. There is a green-gold tint to the liquor that didn't show up in the pictures. The second infusion was fuller, less nuanced, and sweeter.

The wet leaves are mostly single, whole leaves, but there are a few of the two or three leaf clusters I've always admired.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

2007 Long Jing

Another sample from Just4tea.

I've only had long jing a few times before, and always from stores that sold it in bulk glass jars, not ideal storage conditions. When it comes to Chinese green tea, its any port in the storm for me. I prefer Japanese green tea by far, but there are times I appreciate the more mellow, soothing qualities of Chinese tea. When I do, I am none too picky about what's in my cup. So not only was it a challenge to try and talk intelligently about this tea and do a proper review, but I drank it last week, and my notes have largely been obliterated by a spilled cup of tea.

The leaves are what I expect, uniform and flat, sort of a yellow green. I used 3.5 grams/8 0z/175 F. for some random amount of time.

In my notes I wrote, "Damn. Sweet/floral. Surprisingly light," but I'm not sure if I was talking about the aroma or the tea. Further down there is, "sweet honey quality" followed by " two infusions" and a "Hangzhou" written in the margin, the last I safely presume to be the origin of the tea.

I know, that was all kinds of helpful. But at least the fukugata was dusted off and got some love.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

2006 Tie Guan Yin

For information on the religious/spiritual and mythical background of Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess/Bodhisattva of Mercy), take a look here.

Before we get started, let me just say, oh my Bodhisattva this tea, the second sample from Just4Tea, was good. I have hitherto been disappointed with TGY; I have brewed samples some from various places and from various price ranges, but it always left me wanting.

The bouquet was complex, layered. The dry leaf aroma was of roasted sugar cane with a fruity presence. After I rinsed the leaves the smell of chocolate was so strong I could taste it, feel it on the sides of my tongue. And after the first infusion a charcoal tang emerged, confirming that this was indeed a high or higher roasted TGY.

I use 6 grams/150 ml, 5 s rinse, 35 s, 45 s, 70 s, 100 s.

The first infusions are as elaborate and effervescent as the bouquet. The first steeping has a familiar fruit I can't place at first. Lots of cacao a la shuixian, and I check the package and sure enough this tea is Fujian. There are also traces of a greener TGY present. On the last sip I place the fruit, peach, similar but not as strong as what you would find in a dan chong. The second infusion has more chocolate, but the peach is gone. I can taste a bit of the charcoal. A hint of the peachiness returns in the third and the fourth, while the charcoal and cacao diminish. I think there was enough life left in the leaves for a fifth and sixth steep, but this was my third tea session for the day, so I called it quits.

The wet leaves feel thick, coarse, not as supple as other rolled oolongs.

As I said in the beginning, I liked this tea a lot, the different flavors that would shift back and forth or come at you all at once, one after the other. Its similarities to other oolongs that I love while retaining its own TGY character, make this a sort of "best of..." tea. This is the first free sample I've received that I like well enough to buy more of.

Monday, December 10, 2007

2004 Puerh Tuo Cha

Just4Tea is a new and small tea company operated by June Lao, a very nice person who sent me her tea. Her family opened a tea shop in Chaozhou, China during the 1930's. She grew up in her parent's shop, but has now settled in San Francisco, importing her family's teas and selling them here. Each day this week I will post a different review of one of the seven teas she sent me.

The thing I like most about pu erh is that I feel completely neutral about it. I enjoy it well enough, but I have no expectations. I am completely detached from the experience and free to fully enjoy even the humblest cup of pu. Because of this I have better luck with tasting notes, identifying different nuances. Its good practice.

Its a mini tuo cha of some shu pu, and my experience tells me that no one seems to waste quality tea on these things. When I first opened the package there was a stronger aroma that's gone now, but I can't remember it.

Each piece is about 4 grams. I use one in a 150 ml pot, rinse twice for 20 seconds each, and steep for a minute. Its a thin brew, a faint hint of camphor, and the finish has a whisper of astringency that threatens to turn harsh. As it cools I can pick up a smidgen of cacao.

In the second infusion I can taste the chocolate now that I know its there. One piece was only good for two infusions. I doubled the steep time for the third and doubled it again for the fourth, up to 6 minutes, but the liquor was fainter, and the tea a bit watery.

The wet leaves are standard bits and pieces.

My over all impressions are for an average tuo cha, this was an enjoyable tea while it lasted.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Uji Matcha Manten

The Manten comes from O-cha via Tsuen, Japan's oldest tea shop, and at $60 for 30 grams, this is the most expensive tea I've purchased. Manten is a koicha (thick tea), and it comes from bushes at least 30 years old, grown in Uji by a distinguished gentleman who has won awards for his Tencha.

The Manten comes in an elegant and simple tin with an inner plastic lid that keeps it air tight.

Making it for the first time was an experience. The timelessness of tea, the fusion of history and culture, has always been the primary appeal for me, but never before had it been this poignant, preparing tea from a family that has been growing and selling tea for 23 generations and using a chasen that was crafted by another family that has been making them for 35o years. I got kind of tingly.

Properly preparing matcha can be problematic and requires a little practice, mainly because with a chashoku and a samashi you have to eyeball the corect amounts to use. I have found that if you use too little water or too much matcha, the tea will become thicker and sour.

I've had more experience now, and I must stress the importance of sifting the matcha first; it will clump much less and always seems to taste better when you do. Unsifted matcha has the consistency of talcum powder, while sifted matcha will have a homogeneous, sandy texture.

Again, for koicha use 3-4 scoops and 3-4 oz of water.

The Manten tastes very green. I made same for Molly's friend, and she said the same thing. It is flavorful, bold, not quite sweet, but definitely not brassy or astringent. Quite smooth, but I didn't notice that at first, only later, after I drank some lower quality matcha that was rather harsh, then went back to the Manten.

Other than that the Manten was too much for my palate. In the same way it was difficult for me to discern or describe the differences between the Kiri no Mori and the Kiku Mukashi, I can not adequately distinguish the Manten from the Kiku Mukashi. I am not experienced enough yet, as this was only my third matcha.

Honestly this is a relief; I can not afford a regular supply of the Manten at this time, and I am pleased that it hasn't ruined me for all lesser matcha.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Free Stuff Makes me Smile Like a Dumb Ass

Update: So far the samples from Just4Tea have been quite good. I'll post the reviews next week, one for each day:

The Tea Fairy visited me today and left lots of free goodies for me to experiment with.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Cha Dao Revisited

Click here for the original post.

They were demoing the Cha Dao RTD teas this weekend, and I sampled the two flavors that I had not previously tried, the Jasmine Green Tea with Lemon and the Chrysanthemum. I was intrigued, so I picked up a bottle of each.

Initially the Jasmine and lemon seemed a pleasant combination, but soon the lemon became cloying, overpowering instead of blending with what would have been an unassuming jasmine green.

The Chrysanthemum was more successful and enjoyable, crisp and clear. RTD teas rarely taste like they "should," often only an imitation of whatever tea it claims to be, but this tastes and smells exactly like ju hua. My first thought was that they did a better job of making it then I did. It was refreshing and an agreeable change of pace.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Hansen's Imported From Nature Tea

I have tried not to use my blog as a place to rant. If I pick a tea to review and it turns out that the tea is poor, so be it. But more and more I try to avoid reviewing a tea that I know will be unpleasant or simply unpalatable. What would be the point? "Bigelow Green Tea, not so good." No shit, right? But I simply can not hold my peace on this any longer.

Americans have a rather dichotomous relationship with our bodies. We are collectively caught up in the health food craze, tea good, carbs bad, and yet we are a nation of fat people. 127 million Americans are overweight; 60 million are considered obese.1

Of course there are a variety of reasons for this, but I think part of the problem is this propaganda war that food and beverage companies have launched against we the consumers. Junk food proclaimed as healthy; Oreos with no trans fat, low-carb beer, and now Hansen's new line of Imported From Nature Tea, "lightly sweetened," with 75 mg of EGCG (its on the label four times, so you wont miss it) and 46 grams of sugar.

I was curious just how much 46 grams of sugar is, so I took a picture, an approximation of the ingredients: 16 oz water, 4 grams of tea (BOP), and 46 grams of sugar.

Maybe its just me, but I think the picture speaks for itself.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

How to hold a gaiwan like a pro... ; )

By special request, for my "retarded" friends. Their words, not mine.

Oh, note for safety: if you are inexperienced with a gaiwan or this method, practice with cold water first.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Imperial Tea Court Dian Hong

For me, when it comes to black tea, its dian hong cha or gtfo. These three come from Imperial Tea Court, Yunnan Black, Select Yunnan Black, and Yunnan Gold Rings. These are the first teas I have purchased from ITC. I had been hesitant, because they source The Republic of Tea's Imperial tea; I find that line to be very overpriced for the quality. However, these three ranged from decent to quite good with comparable prices, so I am not displeased with my purchase.

First up is the Yunnan Black (3 g/8 oz-ish/3.75 minutes).

Of the three this is the least expensive and has the lowest percentage of khaki buds. It is also the most unlike any other dian hong I've previously tried. It smells more like some puerh. At first I didn't like it because it was different, but I've come to enjoy its uniqueness.

Note that the actual leaves do not look as good as the picture on the website, but I guess that is to be expected.

The liquor is more orange than brown or red. It has a rather thin mouth feel, the malty depths I find typical of this type are not there. No innate sweetness, kind of bland, suitable for adulteration. I prefer my daily black tea to be strong and sweet, sweet with the benefit of a judicious allotment of sugar, so while this one is clearly not a sophisticated variety, it will not go unused by me.

The Zarafina didn't like it.

Next is the Select Yunnan Black (3 g/8 oz-ish/3.5 minutes).

This one has a much higher quantity of those golden, khaki leaves that equal deliciousness. The aroma is more typical.

The tea has more depth to it, notes of the sweet amber/honey that I find so endearing. As it cools it becomes more flavorful, though I still can not taste the "pepper" that I often see attributed to Yunnan hong cha.

Of the three, this is the closest to my regular dian hong.

I saved the best for last, the Yunnan Gold Rings.

As the name indicates, the leaves have been rolled into rings. Attractive and interesting yes, but don't worry, I'm not easily drawn in by such frippery. The aroma makes me think of mead in that it makes me think of fermented honey, or what I imagine fermented honey should smell like. In reality fermented honey may smell most foul, for all I know.

This time I tried a different approach with the brewing parameters, using 4 g of leaf for 3 minutes. I did not prefer this way. The flavor did not increase, and it became unpleasantly astringent.

So I made a fresh batch with my standard 3 g/4 min. This was not the best pure bud Yunnan I've tried, but it was very good. Naturaly sweet, malty, and smooth. The "honey" lingers in the mouth for several minutes after.

Wet leaves, clock wise from top: Gold Rings, Black, Select Black.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

2000 Loose Shupu

This one is another generous sample from ABX.

The dry leaves appear standard, uniform in size and shape, varying in color from brown to khaki. Once again after rinsing their is a sweet, sausage-esque aroma.

I like to bully shu a bit when it comes to brewing it, try to get the strongest, most flavorful infusion without the tea turning on me, so I used 10 g/150 ml for 25 seconds. The liquor is a rather dark brown nearing black, and I wondered if I pushed it too far.

Yes. Yes, I did. There is an acidic bite similar to a coffee that has been poorly brewed. I can taste the "meat" I picked up in the aroma.

I scaled down the steeping time to 10 seconds, then 8 seconds after that. The tea is decent, smoother now, but I can't pick up on anything. Either it is too nuanced for me, or I fried my taste buds with the first batch, or both. The fourth steep developed an astringency that was less noticeable as the tea cooled, and it was sweeter. I went for a fifth steep, but I had to go help Molly hang some Christmas lights, so it went untouched, ending the session.

It was a good tea, but I think I was too rough with it. I'll be more gentle next time.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

2000 Commercial Half-Cooked Puerh

Another sample of half-cooked puerh, this one from ABX.

The sample came in a plastic bag, and there wasn't much aroma left, but rinsing the leaves for five seconds brought out the standard earthiness, but something different as well. Something sweet, and something, meaty. Together they reminded me of the sausage rolls you can get at donut shops.

I used all 4 grams and steeped for 1 min, 2 min, and 4 min.

The first infusion was light. There wasn't any of the pseudo-minty camphor, but it had the same cooling qualities of the other half-cooked pu. The second infusion the liquor progressed to a rich burgundy. Still cooling, but stronger, and a thinner mouth feel than a full shupu. Kind of sweet finish on the tip of the tongue. There was also something remotely vegetal, but watered down. The third infusion something else emerges, almost spicy at times, a different sweetness; its too fleeting for me to figure it out.

The wet leaves are comprised mostly of whole, larger leaves with smaller portions of stmes and smaller, tattered leaves.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Indonique Chocolate Chai

I'm feeling indulgent tonight. I was watching a Modern Marvels episode about chocolate, and it, along with the colder weather, put me in the mood.

I received a package of Chocolate Chai from Indonique a while back. Its a mixture of Indian black tea, cocoa, and cinnamon. The dry leaves aren't anything to look at it, but it smells very good.

I ignored the directions on the package for the most part, and boiled 3/4 c milk, 3/4 c water, and two heaping teaspoons, and let it steep for five minutes, adding two teaspoons of sugar at the end.

The beverage is a tasty combination of hot chocolate and English style tea. The cocoa is pleasantly pronounced. The Indian tea, something I don't usually care for, was complimentary, strong, but not bitter. It was creamy and delightful, a nice post Thanksgiving meal treat.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Thank You

I wanted to take a moment and say thank you to everyone.

A lot of free tea and what not has found its way to me since I started this blog, friendly samples from my fellow TeaChat members to things sent to me from companies hoping to generate some word of mouth. The later doesn't always get mentioned here (If I don't like something, I choose not to write about it. Small tea shops have a hard enough time competing for business on the web without bad press from me, even if it is honest bad press).

I appreciate all of it.

I wanted to single out Toru Yoshikawa-san of Artistic Nippon. Again. A few weeks back there was a conversation on the Green Tea Forum in which the owner, Kevin, pointed out that the chasen I had just purchased from Toru-san looked like it was made in China. Within two days I received an email from Toru-san saying that he became aware of the conversation and checked with his supplier.

It turns out that the chasen was made in China. He apologized profusely and offered a refund and free shipping on a replacement as soon as he was able to procure a Japanese-made chasen. I thanked him and declined, because I felt, made in China or not, the price I paid was very fair.

So he sent me a new chasen anyway.

To Toru-san, and everyone else, thank you for being kind to me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Keemun Hao Ya

This is the last of the samples from Red Circle Tea, save for the dan cong, which I will get to next week.

For those who don't know, Keemun is grown in Qimen County in Anhui, China, north of Fujian. Production began in 1875, and Keemun has been frequently used in blends. I understand Hao Ya is the highest grade of Keemun. Its the only type I have tried, so I cannot confirm or deny this.

The leaves look good, identical to the only other Keemun I've had. The samples were shipped in plastic bags, so there isn't much of a dry aroma left.

Again I went with my standard brewing parameters, 3 grams/8 oz for 4-5 minutes. It was good, smooth. Smokey and sweet, like smoked sugar, made me think of sugar cane and camp fires, but a brisk sweetness, not like the honey-sweetens of the ying de or dian hong. I only steeped the leaves once. I frequently find that consecutive steeps of black tea are too watery, a shadow of the original cup, so I don't often bother.

2006 Half-Cooked Puerh

Today's tea is another sample I received from Red Circle Tea, part of a brick of half sheng, half shu pu from 2006.

I think the dry leaves are beautiful, auburn and brown mixed in with bits of green; it was like autumn. The usual earthy aroma was present, but so was something else I couldn't place.

I measured out 5.5 grams, but there was only a little left, so I tossed it all in the pot. 5 s rinse, then 30 s, 50 s, 90 s, 3 min.

Camphor was the first thing I noticed. I have frequently read about camphor and puerh, but I have never noticed it before today. There was a moment of profound satisfaction as I said to myself, "So that's what they're talking about." Bill says that camphor suggests the use of wild arbor leaves. It was also...minty is definitely not the right word, rather it reminded me of something that reminded me of mint. The puerh was very cooling.

In the third and fourth steeping, notes of something green, vegetal emerged.

All four brews were balanced in strength and color, but shifted from heavy nuances of camphor to a far less pronounced veggie-ness.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ying De Hong Cha

Ying de hong, or ying hong, is a red (black, for us westerners) tea from Guangdong, China. All the sources I checked agree that it was introduced in 1959 in the town/city of Ying De. I don't know how I missed this tea; a few of the tea sites I frequent carry it, but I had not heard of it until recently, when Aroma Tea Shop offered to send me samples. Given my love for dian hong, I was quite curious and not a little happy when a rep from Red Circle Tea offered to send me a sample as well, ostensibly for comparison.

First up is the Ying De Gold #9 from Red Circle. The leaves are from a particular varietal that is crossbred from Yunnan big leaf and Feng Huang.

I used my standard brewing method for hong cha, 3 grams/8 oz for 4 minutes.

The dry leaves are attractive, long and wiry with khaki coloring. When placed in a heated pot, there is a sweet, dark grain-ish aroma that makes me think of raisin bran of all things. The taste is reminiscent of a good dian hong, without the maltiness. I get strong notes of warm honey. There is a thin mouth feel, but not as thin as a Keemun or Ceylon.

I also tried the brewing instructions that came with the tea, steeping the tea 15-45 seconds in a gaiwan. The focus of this method seems to be to on multiple infusions, the instructions say up to six. It produced a lighter brew, less intense flavor. I prefer my hong cha stronger than this.

The wet leaves remind me of Wuyi yan cha.

I enjoyed this tea, but to be honest, I think the price is a bit much for 2 oz.

The ying de from Aroma wasn't as pleasing over all. I have had it three times, now, and each time it was different.

The first time it kept shifting, reminding me of a keemun one moment and of an assam the next; at one point I picked up on a little fruit. The second cup tasted a bit like an "orchid" oolong I had once. The cup I just finished was fairly nondescript. Over all it never settled on any characteristics that set it apart from any other black tea.

You can see the wet leaves of the two ying de side-by-side for comparison.

I'd like to say thank you to both vendors for the samples. My curiosity is still piqued, and I'll have to try some other varieties of ying de in the future.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Weil for Tea

Ito En teamed up with Dr. Andrew Weil and released a line of tea bags, loose tea, and RTD cans.

Lest you think...I don't know what you might think, but I wish to make it unequivocally clear that I am here to explore the palatable, historical, cultural and aesthetic side of tea, not to perpetuate the current tea related health craze. If you drink tea for health, I think that is wonderful; we could all benefit from healthier lifestyles, but it is not my thing. I work with tea in a retail setting, and one can only sell so much wulong weight-loss tea before becoming a mite tetchy with the subject.

It turns out this stuff is quite good, standard disclaimers concerning ready to drink teas not withstanding. I brought home three flavors, Jasmine White, Gyokuro, and Darjeeling, all unsweetened and calorie free.

I think that these are the tree best RTD teas I've had. They are well balanced. Some unsweetened teas are too weak, watery, while others become overly astringent and unpleasant. These are flavorful, clean and fresh.

I have yet to try real Gyokuro, so I can not properly compare this one to anything. It is smooth, less astringent then Ito En's Just Green, kind of nutty. The Darjeeling was amazing for what it is. Possibly a blend, definitely a late season flush if not, but unmistakeably Darjeeling.

I am impressed. Never before have I had a bottled tea that had as much natural flavor without tasting over-steeped or relying on sweetener to mask the bitterness.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Matcha, Part 4

Sweet Matcha

A few weeks back, Rishi started offering a line of Sweet Matcha. Since then there has been a recurring, morbid interest in it on TeaChat, so I took it upon myself to trek out to Whole Foods and see what it's all about.

The Original Swet Matcha isn't anything new for Rishi, though the packaging is new, and I've never seen it advertised on their website, but it has been part of their Bulk Tea program for some time. I first saw this stuff a year or so ago on an old order guide. The sweet matcha is a mix of matcha and milled cane sugar. I don't know the sugar to tea ratio, but I'd guess at least 50/50.

The color is rather pale, reminds me of dried peas. As to be expected, the aroma was faint.

I used one scoop per ounce of water, and whisked thoroughly, but it wouldn't froth. I suppose because of the high sugar content.

It tastes....I probably have customers who would love this, but I found it very unpleasant, and very, very sweet. A mouth full of warm sugar followed by the distinct taste of matcha. This is not something that I would drink.

However, I looked at their website later, and it would seem that they do not intend this stuff for traditional consumption either. 125 grams for $10? I think its safe to call this food grade matcha.

And sure enough, look at that; they have recipes.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Matcha, Part 3

Kiri no Mori and Kiku Mukashi

They both come from O-cha, and both are grown in Uji. Uji, near Kyoto, was the birhtplace of tea cultivation in Japan. While not always the case, matcha produced in Uji is often superior.

This is an amazing tea, its preperation and consumption unique and unlike any other. From the moment I begin boiling the water till the last drop, I find myself completely engaged in the task at hand. There is little or no waiting, each step flows effortlessly into the next. I better understand the marriage of cha no yu and Zen, the art and practice of continuously committing oneself to the moment.

I covered the preparation of matcha earlier this week, but I left out sifting, mostly because I was still having mixed results at the time. I got the kinks worked out, and I did notice an improvement. It seems to produce a thicker foam and a more thorough consistency. You can purchase a sifter for your matcha, as I will do eventually, but a brew basket will work as well.

The first thing I always notice is the aroma, just a moment after I open the can, green and sweet. The Kiri no Mori has a slight vegetal smell, where as the Kiku Mukashi does not.

Usucha (2 scoops/3-4 oz)

It is hard for me to tell the two apart. Both are sweet, thick but mild, and thoroughly smooth, no astringency or bitterness.

Koicha (3-4 scoops/2-3 oz)

The Kiku Mukashi, a higher quality matcha that "borders on the threshold between the koicha and usucha." I experimented with different methods of preparing koicha. The directions I found on Ippodo pushed the Kiku Mukashi to its limits. Intense, but unpleasant, becoming more astringent than I like my tea to be.

Tonight I tried to remember the instructions that came from O-cha, and used 4 large scoops with 3 oz of water, and the result was outstanding. Certain nuances emerged that weren't there before, and it developed a pleasant bit of astringency that gives the tea texture.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Matcha, Part 2

Raku Yaki

"Ichi Raku, ni Hagi, san Karatsu." -a Japanese expression: First Raku, second Hagi, third, Karatsu, essentially affirming the superiority of Raku yaki. Of course, art apreciation is always subjective.

Raku yaki originated towards the end of the 16th century in Kyoto, during the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, by Sasaki Chojiro, a tile maker who enjoyed the patronage of Sen no Rikyu. Chojiro's chawans sought to embody the essence of wabi cha, Rikyu's fusion of the cha no yu with the aesthetic ideals of wabi sabi.

The briefest explanation of wabi sabi I can offer is finding beauty in the impermanence and imperfection of things.

Prior to Rikyu and Chojiro's contributions, the tea ceremony was a rather jovial affair, full of pomp, and expensive, ornate chawans from China were widely used. Rikyu sought to merge Zen and Tao with Chado, thus the tea ceremony evolved. Chojiro's Raku yaki (at the time it was called ima yaki, literally now ware) were ideal for this. They were monochrome, traditionally black (kuro) or red (aku)--these colors were thought best for enhancing the color of the tea.

Raku yaki is formed completely by hand and low-fired in a special kiln. The resulting piece is light weight and delicate.

Chawan, Chasen, and Chashoku
(Things you need to make matcha).


The aku raku is from artistic nippon; it is wonderful and indeed light weight and delicate. I particularly enjoy the glaze.

The other two chawan were made in Tokoname. I purchased them from Rishi about a year ago. I have been using them as teacups; they comfortably hold an entire pot of tea, and are considerably more aesthetically harmonious with my my Tokoname yaki then a coffee mug.

For making matcha, the larger raku is more suitable. The wider diameter makes it easier to whisk the tea--I found it more difficult to get a good froth going when using one of the other two, and the raku has less heat retention, allowing one to drink the tea immediately. This is important, because if the tea is allowed to sit too long, the matcha will begin to settle.

The last two things you need. The chashoku is not as important, but they are affordable, about $5, and are kind of cool. A chasen is a small work of art in and of itself, and essential to getting the best out of your matcha. As Kevin's expert eye pointed out, this chasen was made in China, not Japan, which explains the lower price I paid. (Thank you Yoshikawa san for being so honest about it as well). While a Chinese made chasen can be good quality, it is likely that it will not last as long as a Japanese made one will. So when choosing a chasen, let the price be your guide and be concerned if the price is too low.

That covers the equipage, next post we'll finally get to the matcha.

For more information about Raku yaki, take a look at the website. It includes a gallery of chawans created by fifteen generations, from Chojiro to the current head of the family, Kichizaemon.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Matcha, Part 1

Intro to Matcha

I always feel a little awkward merely re-wording information I gathered from other blogs and sites if I don't have anything new or original to add; however, since the following posts this week will cover my first ventures into the world of matcha, I think it is important to at least cover the basics.

Matcha (抹茶) comes from tencha (展茶), tea that is grown in the shade for three weeks prior to harvest. Tencha is then destemmed and deveined and ground into a fine powder, matcha, which is what is used for cha no yu. It is important to remember that not all powdered green tea is matcha.

There are two types of matcha, usucha and koicha.

Usucha (thin tea) is more astringent and not as sweet as koicha, so less is used, approximately two scoops using a chashoku.

Koicha (thick tea) is a higher quality matcha, sweeter, allowing more to be used, approximately four scoops.

For more detailed information... O-cha, Hibiki, Wikipedia, Tea Nerd.

How to Brew Matcha

For best results you need a minimum of three things, a chawan (tea bowl), chasen (tea whisk), and a chashoku (tea scoop).

For usucha, start with two scoops and 3-4 oz of water at 175 F, then whisk briskly from side to side. You do not want to use a circular motion. The video should adequately demonstrate what I'm talking about.

I am unclear on the brewing instructions for koicha; I've read different things from different sources, so I'll experiment more before posting the instructions later this week.

This concludes Part 1 for today. Part 2 will cover chawans in more detail, and Part 3 will be a review over my first matcha, o-cha's Kiri no Mori and Kiku Mukashi.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Cha Dao Bottled Teas

A new line of teas from Cha Dao came in today.

Now this may all be a gimmick, who's to say, but Cha Dao describes their teas as "Fresh," meaning instead of a bottled tea that is shelf stable that could have been brewed over a year ago, these teas are kept refrigerated and have a relatively short shelf life. The one I'm drinking right now expires next Saturday.

Both the Sencha and the High Mountain Oolong taste over-brewed. They have a high level of astringency I find typical in many unsweetened bottled teas. The oolong does have a distinct jade oolong taste, setting it apart from the Ito en or Adagio oolong.

But the Yin Yang, a lightly sweetened blend of black tea and coffee is surprisingly good. Much better than my attempt to make a coffee tea. It is wonderfully balanced, both the coffee and the tea are distinct without overpowering the other. It has a very clean taste, nothing artificial. The 9 grams of sugar per 8 oz is almost perfect, in my opinion--I usually use 5-7 grams (one tsp.) for black tea.* As trite as it may be, Yin Yang is a fitting name for this tea.

*This is my public confession; yes, I use sugar in my tea. Only in my black tea, though. Never in anything else. The coffee drinker in my wants it to be strong, dark and sweet.

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.