Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Pumidor update: 90's Small Yellow Label from Essence of Tea

(photo courtesy of Douglas King)
So far so good with the pumidor storage experiment.  Too bad I can't upload aromas to this blog.  You'll have to take my word for it that the smell in that room is incredible. Soon I'll go in to do a thorough check for signs of mold, but I do check individual cakes frequently and all looks well.

Recently I was presented with a great opportunity to do a taste comparison of the 90's Small Yellow Label puerh that Essence of Tea carries.  Although I've kept some teas out of the pumidor to do taste comparisons with (those which I have several cakes of) I haven't done this with the older pricier cakes.  But at a recent gathering at Floating Leaves Tea it was discovered that another attendee had this same cake, purchased from Essence of Tea at around the same time (about a year ago).  He's kept his cakes stored in his house without added humidity, while mine has been kept in 70% RH (75-80 F temperature) for the better part of the last 7 or 8 months (initially the air tights bins, then moved to the pumidor).  We arranged to each bring our cakes to a tasting session at Floating Leaves for a comparison.

(another great picture by Doug King)
I didn't know what to expect.  Seven months is not a long time.  Would there be a difference?  As it turned out, there was.  First, the cakes themselves showed a difference in color, with the pumidor stored cake being slightly but discernibly darker.  The tea soup, as well, showed the same slightly darker hue.  But the most pronounced difference was in the taste.  The pumidor stored cake was smoother, deeper in flavor, with less of the edge that the drier stored cake showed.  All seven of those who were present to taste it were in agreement.  The difference was clear.

(Doug, thanks again for letting me use your great photos!)
But while I took this as a good sign and a welcome affirmation for all this pumidor stuff, there's still the possibility that other factors may have played a part outside of the humidity component.  After our group tasted the two teas there was some good discussion about it.  It could be that our two cakes were from different tongs, perhaps even with a different storage history, acquiring variances in taste long before they came into our possession.  Unfortunately we can't turn the clock back a year to taste them when they were first bought by us.  There were also questions about whether my cake might have acquired some flavor nuances from being stored next to other cakes in my collection.  Another good point to consider.  In the end, while the comparison was an interesting one and might seem to affirm the value of controlled humidity in storage, it's ultimately inconclusive.  But it does warrant more comparative tastings, and it definitely prompts me to bite the bullet and break off a (small!) chunk from a few of my nicer cakes to set aside (removed from the pumidor) for future comparisons.

Finally, thanks to Shiuwen and Floating Leaves Tea for hosting some truly fun and educational tastings, thanks to a great group of tea lovers who come to be part of the fun and be treated to some very good tea, and thanks especially to Doug, the man behind the camera.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Yixing by way of the Czech Republic

If you keep up with Petr Novak's Pots and Tea blog then you would have heard about these.  Much better to read Petr's words about it here and here, but (in a nutshell) he was given some Zi Ni clay by way of a tea friend, who got the clay by way of a potter in Yixing.  Petr worked his magic with the clay and produced a small number of teapots, of which I consider myself very lucky to be the owner of one.
In the last month or two I've been using this little "Czech-xing" teapot almost exclusively.  It's a great size for me, at around 100ml.  One of the first things I noticed was how it took to the tea almost immediately.  Other yixing pots often take a bit of time to season enough to where it feels like there's balance, but this teapot had very little of that awkward phase.  I'm eager to see how it continues to develop with more use.
Another feature I like is that the vent hole on the lid is located someplace *other* than the top middle of the knob.  I like to pour with one hand, placing my finger on the lid knob to keep it in place.  Although I've learned to adjust my finger placement just off the top of the knob (thanks to the many pots I have with the holes right on top) it's nice to not have to worry about that.  The handle of the pot is also very comfortable.  My finger fits in it perfectly, and the flattened width of it makes for a confident hold.
And then, there's just the humble beauty of it.  The rough texture of the surface, the fire-kissed subtle iridescence to the color, the little mark on the side of the body, probably from sitting too close to something in the kiln.  In the dim light of an early morning tea session the steam from the water seems to gather and cling to the rough skin of the pot, leaving it shrouded in a swirling fog.  I've tried again and again to get a decent photo of that sight, but its proving to be the ultimate elusive shot.  I've pretty much given up on photographing it, and now just sit back to enjoy the show.

Friday, October 26, 2012

wild wood tea

Even if you intellectually understand what things are in themselves, if they linger on as objects of inspection there is no benefit in such understanding. In order to acquaint your intellect with what intrinsically matters, you must go into the wild wood of inner calm.
                                                                               - Longchenpa

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Pumidor Project

It begins, March 2012.. plywood purchased and cut
It all started like many of my wild ideas -- reading through blogs, forums and articles.  Then it continued and blossomed in email correspondence and phone calls.  Makes sense, doesn't it?  You only need to taste the difference between a dry stored tea and a "traditionally" stored tea ("wet-stored," for those who don't keep up with MarshalN's musings) to know that the environment a tea is stored in will have significant effect on the taste and aroma.  But here in the West it's all still quite new (pu'erh collecting, that is).  While there's an abundance of opinion (experienced and otherwise), plus a few brave souls who are actually trying a stab at something other than just sticking their beengs in an empty shelf, it's still definitely in the experimental stages. No one really knows for sure.

Angled screw holes, ready for joining
But I was curious.  When asking around I got a lot of responses to the effect of "Well, you live in the Pacific Northwest!  You've got PLENTY of humidity!  No need to worry!"  Sure, maybe if I stored my teas in an unheated yurt in the backyard I wouldn't have to worry about humidity.  Except that I live in a very comfortable house with central heating and A/C, and this is where my teas live, too.  Even so, not being one to cling to "One Truth" in any guise I decided to find out for myself.  I purchased a couple of hygrometers, set one inside the house and one outside and spent a week checking on them throughout the day/night.  Sure enough, the indoor humidity levels stayed quite low in the mid-50% range, while the outdoor levels moved each day from the mid-60% range up to 80% plus (this was back in January/February of this year).  Once it was established that just because I live in a notoriously rainy climate doesn't mean that my teas are benefiting from all that humidity, I decided to continue with the experiments.

We made 8 of these in total, about 4x4 feet square (just one corner showing here)
Somewhere I landed on a couple of descriptions of someone (Tim?) using a temporary method to boost the flavor and aroma of his teas.  Temporary is key here, because this method involves storing the teas in air-tight plastic bins for a short time (a month or two, although I had mine in there for about four) along with some sort of humidifying agent.  If you do any reading on the storage of teas (or cigars) you quickly learn the importance of some minimal amount of air flow, otherwise you're just begging for mold growth and the ruin of a lot of good tea.  I decided to keep it simple and safe and purchased a bunch of Boveda 72% RH packets to toss into the bins.  I also placed a hygrometer into each bin to keep an eye on what was happening.  Interestingly, it took several weeks (and several more Boveda packets per bin than I'd planned) to get the RH up to 70%.  Clearly, my teas were very dry to begin with and it took some time for them to absorb the moisture.

Gluing two 4x4 frames together, extra support for the back wall of the cabinet
But good tea storage isn't just about humidity levels.  Temperature also plays an important role.  Somewhere out there in the online tea world is an excellent blog post and forum discussion or two (written in large part by the Zhi Zheng tea guy, who's knowledge I've relied upon to great degree), all about humidity, temperature and that thing called the dew point, which involves some pretty fancy math but is basically a calculation of humidity and temperature (I'm not going to get all technical on you here, you're welcome to google away a few hours to learn more).  For my little tea storage experiment here at home I'm fortunate to have a small room in our house that stays a whole lot warmer than the rest of the house (brilliant central heating design, at least for my teas), maintaining a temperature in the low 70's at night and in the upper 70's to low 80's during the day.  From what I've read, this is the lower end of what might be considered ideal temperatures for storing tea, but it's still in the ballpark, so at this point I'm not artificially boosting temperatures.

Routering out the grooves for the cross-braces (will make more sense in next photo)
Okay.  Back to my story.  So I put all (or most -- I kept some duplicate cakes out for comparison purposes) of my teas into these air-tight bins along with several Boveda 72% packets.  Then I waited a few weeks for the hygrometers to even reach the 70% goal.  Then I let them sit like that and would frequently open the bins to smell and taste the teas.  After a good month of maintaining 70% humidity and 70+ degree temperatures, something happened.  The aroma of the teas was incredible!  Really blew me away, they smelled SO GOOD.  Taste-wise things were getting impressive too, although the change in taste was not as pronounced as the change in aroma.  At this point my guess is that aroma is more sensitive and quicker to respond to storage conditions, while depth of flavor is something that requires longer exposure to optimal storage conditions.  But this bursting of incredible aroma from the teas was enough to convince me that storage with increased humidity and temperature (relative to sticking my teas in shelves in the dining room) was worth pursuing.  And so began the big "Tea Pumidor Project."

Big picture view, all 8 4x4' frames have been clamped tightly together while being routered
(a side note -- While the teas were in the air-tight bins I kept very careful watch of them.  All did fine for the four months they were in there, but one brick did start to develop a few little spots of white mold, this 2005 Dehong brick, which I removed from the bins and which is still sitting on a shelf in my very dry dining room)

First, the design.  I've got a lot of tea, far more than I'll ever consume in a single lifetime no doubt (common scourge of tea lovers, I hear), so the cabinet dimensions needed to be big.  Roughly, it's about 4 feet high, 4 feet wide and 2 feet deep.  Another factor in determining the dimensions was the available space in the small overheated room where the cabinet would be placed.  Next, we (my husband and I) needed to figure out how to construct the thing.  Thus began my evening hobby of reading cigar blogs and forums and making friends with cigar folks discussing the important considerations when constructing cigar humidors.  So many options!  Should I use an already-constructed cabinet and retrofit it?  Should I buy an enormous cooler (like some enterprising DIY cigar aficionados do) for the great insulating capabilities and add a good humidifier/fan unit?  Maybe find an old non-working refrigerator, add some humidity and an incandescent light bulb and call it good?  I could fill numerous blog posts about all the many options I pondered, but considering this one's going to be a doozey as it is, I'll just stick to what I decided upon and do my best to explain why.

Wood frame portion nearing completion
In short, the outer shell of the cabinet is constructed from plywood, the inner walls of the cabinet (which are also sealed so there's no intermingling of potential plywood chemical-glue sketchiness with the teas) are lined with food-grade HDPE (high-density polyethylene), and sandwiched between the outer plywood and inner HDPE is an inch and a half of rigid foam insulation board.  The shelves are a coated wire shelving to allow for good air circulation, and the whole thing is humidified by one of these fantastic units from Aristocrat Humidors (Bob Staebell is excellent to work with, extremely knowledgeable and helpful).

I can hear the cries as I write this -- "HDPE plastic?!?  wtf??"  Well, I'll tell you.  Keep in mind this is all one big experiment, and this is simply what seemed to me the best possible solution to the matter of potential infiltration of non-tea odors into the teas, thus altering the classic puerh taste and aromas.  If I change my mind on this (and I may.. we'll see), I'll let you know.  Cigar humidors are traditionally lined with Spanish cedar which is an aromatic wood that imparts a desirable light woody flavor to the cigars as well as keeping bugs away.  But I don't want my teas to be infused with cedar aromas, no matter how much I like the smell of cedar.  Some will argue that there are other wood species available which do not have a strong woody aroma.  While it's true that some woods are less aromatic than others, my feeling is that all wood has some degree of smell to it.  Put that wood into a warm, moist environment and even the least aromatic of woods is going to give off a certain aroma.  The advantage of HDPE food-grade plastic is that it has no detectable aroma.  None. Zip. Zilch.  It's also extremely dense, slick and ultimately non-porous, which means that nothing sticks to it -- not mold, not mildew, not even any glue or sealant known to mankind (more on this challenging bit below).

ahhh, there is it!  Ready for insulation and HDPE
For those of you thinking about building your own pumidor, there are options other than wood or HDPE.  I've considered at least one of these, and may very well build another cabinet to experiment and try it out.  One possible lining is a skim coat of light cement or lime plaster (for all of these options, I'm talking about the old-school simple-ingredients DIY mixes, not the chemical-laden modern "just add water" versions).  I even thought of brick and mortar, such as purchasing large natural terra cotta floor tiles to line the walls with, or even making my own tiles with a natural clay (and put that kiln of mine to good use!).  But the clear disadvantage to these is weight, and since I hope to actually be able to move this cabinet around if I need to, I ruled these out (for now) even though they strike me as potentially good options with regard to issues of insulation, humidity control and/or potential odors.

Working with the HDPE was tricky.  Like I mentioned above, NOTHING sticks to this stuff, so while it would have been super easy to just glue it down to the insulated wood frame (Plan A), we had to improvise (Plan B).  You can see in the photos that the plastic is secured by metal screws.  Specifically, stainless steel screws with a dab of aquarium-grade silicone sealant in each screw hole.  I said that nothing would stick to HDPE, and while that's true, it's also true that stuff (like silicone sealant) will stick to it AS LONG AS the piece stays perfectly still.  If you put silicone between two sheets of HDPE, let it dry and then moved the two pieces of HDPE even just a little bit, the sealant would pop right off, but it sticks as long as there's no movement.  Hopefully, given the stability of the cabinet (believe me, it's a monster of stability) and the fact that I don't plan to move it once it's in place (barring any unforeseen circumstances), I think the silicone will hold for the purpose we need it for -- to seal the inner chamber holding the teas.

Rigid insulation cut and ready to install
Sealing the inner corner seams of the cabinet was another hurdle.  To save some cost, we had purchased a very thin HDPE sheeting (1/8") for the inner walls, and given that we hadn't anticipated the difficulties of working with this stuff, we didn't have a lot of exposed wood to screw it to from the inside.  The seams along the corners were particularly problematic because the plastic would warp and buckle despite our best efforts at virtually carving each piece to fit as perfectly as possible.  To solve this we placed aluminum angle iron (or "angle stock" because it's aluminum, not iron, right?) along the length of each inside corner, as well as along the perimeter of the opening where the doors will (someday) be placed, screwing it to the wood where ever possible and sandwiching a bead of silicone sealant between the aluminum and the plastic.  This addition of the aluminum actually turned out to be a big positive when it came time to put the shelves in.  The aluminum provided some very sturdy, and much needed, extra support.

Insulation along back wall in place
For this project, my biggest worry was about the potential for unwanted aromas infiltrating my teas, so once the cabinet was built and ready to be filled, I waited to put the teas in.  I needed to know for sure there were no odors.  I put the humidifer unit inside (no teas), closed the "door" (more on this door matter below), let it come up to the desired temp/RH levels, then I opened it and gave it a big whiff.  It stunk to high heaven!  I was dismayed but knew there had to be a cause.  But what was it?  The smell was a sour chemical one, more sour than chemical.  There were only two possibilities -- either the brand new humidifier unit was off-gassing, or the silicone sealant was.  My guess is the sealant.  I've smelled a similar scent when using silicone sealant in remodeling jobs.  So, I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  In all, it took about 8 weeks for the smell to disappear completely.  During that time I would alternate between closing up the cabinet and letting the humidifier run, and opening the cabinet to let it air out with no added humidity.

Placing insulation in side walls
Finally the day came to put the teas in!  I'm very happy to report that the cabinet was built big enough to hold all my collection with a bit of room to boot (although I think I heard my pocketbook audibly groan with the news).  Thanks to the 2-foot depth of the shelves I can line the stacks of cakes two rows deep (something I probably won't do again if we build another one, to make it easier to find teas).  It's important with these humidity units that you allow a sort of "chimney" above the units, not placing any tea directly above them.  Otherwise, those cakes would impede the flow of the humidified air and become too wet.

A note about circulation.  This is one of the beauties of this particular humidifier unit.  When the unit turns itself on to maintain the humidity level (which you pre-set to whatever you'd like on the main contol) a little fan atop of each unit turns on to direct the flow of air upward (why you don't want to place any tea directly above the units).  Then, along the top back corner of the cabinet two additional fans (a bit smaller than the ones on the humidifier units) turn on at the same time (as well as intermittently at other times) to direct the air flow along the top of the cabinet and down the front, in a big circulatory effect.  The fans don't operate constantly.  They turn on only when the humidifier units turn on, and then intermittently between.  The flow of air is very slight, but still discernible if you stick your hand inside the cabinet while they're running.

Screwing down the back wall of HDPE
Finally, the door.  As you can see, there is no real door.  This is not because we planned it this way.  It's because building doors (especially doors that are perfectly square, with the ability to seal completely) is a challenge for folks like us who don't build cabinets for a living.  The doors are a work in progress.  But because this project has been so long in the making (started in March), and because I had taken the teas out of the air tight bins and was getting nervous as each day passed and I knew they were drying out again, I wanted to get them in there.  So we improvised a door, for now (Plan C).  It's a large piece of extra-thick plastic sheeting (and not the HDPE kind, just the kind you get at the hardware store... not ideal, but working for now) which is held to the cabinet thanks to a perimeter of velcro.  Totally low-tech.  So it goes.

Cutting and placing side walls
Oh yes, one more thing.  I'm disabling the comments for this post.  I know this whole puerh storage thing is a hot topic, and there are plenty of places to discuss (and argue) it.  I just don't want my blog to be one of them :)   If you have further questions about how we went about building this thing, or if you've built your own pumidor and want to swap notes, please do send me an email (openingone-at-gmail-dot-you-know-what-comes-next).  Remember, this is all just one big experiment.  Although I read everything I could find on the topic and then some, I don't know how this will all ultimately work out.  Just like with the air-tight bins, I'll be watching my teas like a hawk, checking frequently for any signs of "Turn back! Re-think!" (we're talking mold, strange tastes or odors, stuff like that).  Also keep in mind that we're not professional cabinet makers.  Not even close.  I'm sure if there are woodworkers out there reading this (or even just looking at the photos), they're either cringing like they just bit into the sourest apple ever, or laughing uncontrollably on the floor.  And lastly, I promise to keep this blog updated with any new developments or learnings about this whole thing  :)

Lower right humidifier unit, aluminum angle iron along corner seams

View of small fans along top back of cabinet, control unit in upper right

Completed unit, sans doors...

Yes, it really does get this hot in that room, even hotter

7 months later -- tea home!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Shou-Spiced Blackberry Apple Jelly

I've had this experiment rolling around in my head since brewing up that first shou that filled my nose and kitchen with yummy smells of spiced earth and blackberries (specifically, that 2003 Longma Tong Qing).  Now that flats of luscious berries are filling the markets I decided it was time to try it out.  I made a few different batches, tweaking the recipe each time.  I still think this could use some revisions, but this one is pretty darn good.  Lest you think that shou-flavored jelly sounds like an "acquired taste" let me assure you, this will surprise!  I was wondering, too.  Do I really want jelly that tastes like garden mulch??  But much like a well-crafted perfume, the shou blends in beautifully, adding surprising depth and even creaminess to the deep dark blackberry goodness.  If you didn't know it was in there you'd never taste it and think "tastes like my jellied scone was dropped in the dirt," even though there's a good amount of strongly brewed shou in the recipe.  I even tested this out on unsuspecting family members and friends, not telling them what I'd put in it.  Everyone happily devoured their jelly-slathered English muffins with many compliments, although none could pinpoint what kind of berry I'd used.  The addition of the shou has a terrific effect on the flavor.  This coupled with the bit of added spice and the use of raw, unrefined sugar (which lend a very subtle molasses note) turns a plain old blackberry jelly into dark mystery-berry yumminess.  Here's the (current) recipe:

Shou-Spiced Blackberry Apple Jelly

2 1/4 pounds blackberries
2 1/4 pounds tart cooking apples (or crab apples, if you have access to some)
5 cups water
20 grams shou puer
6 whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon five spice powder
about 5 cups raw unrefined pure cane sugar

Cut the apples into rough chunks.  No need to peel or core them (the peel and cores are good sources of pectin).  Add the apple chunks and the blackberries to a large stockpot.

In a separate saucepan boil 5 cups of water with 20 grams of your favorite shou puer.  Let boil for 5 minutes for a good dark brew.  Pour tea water into the stockpot with the fruit, pouring through a sieve to catch the spent leaves.  Discard tea leaves.

boiling the shou

Add the five-spice powder and whole cloves into the fruit/tea mixture.  Bring to strong simmer and allow to simmer until apples have softened and begun to break down, about 10-15 minutes.  Pour mixture into a jelly bag suspended over a bowl to allow liquid to drain.  Don't squeeze the jelly bag to force more liquid or it will cause the jelly to become cloudy.  Allow to drain for an hour or two.  You should end up with about 5 cups of juice/tea liquid.

Measure drained liquid into a clean stockpot.  For every cup of liquid measure a cup of sugar into a separate bowl.  Don't add the sugar to the liquid just yet.  Bring the liquid to a boil.  Just as it's starting to boil add the sugar and stir until dissolved.  Once the sugar is dissolved bring the liquid to a full rolling boil again.  Let boil, without stirring, until it reaches 220 degrees (Fahrenheit), about 9-10 minutes.  Remove from heat, pour into sterilized jars and proceed as you normally would for canning.

Makes about 7 half-pint (8 oz.) jars.

draining the liquid

Friday, July 6, 2012

A bit more about that 2001 Jasmine Liu An...

Wanting to keep things at least marginally organized, I've added the extra info here at the bottom of the original post.

Monday, June 25, 2012

2001 Jasmine Liu An

2001 Jasmine Liu An
Here's a little something different.  Recently picked up some Liu Bao/Liu An samples from Red Circle Tea.  I started the morning with the 1994 Liu Bao they're currently offering.  It was a nice, comfortable tea with a satisfying creamy quality and a pleasant cooling/warming sensation deep in the chest.  I wouldn't call it an exciting tea, but it made for an enjoyable session nonetheless.  After sitting with this tea for awhile I decided to try another of the samples I picked up, the 2001 Jasmine Liu An.  Interesting, yes?  I had no idea what to expect.  Opened the packet to smell the dry leaves and was hit with about as intense an aroma of quality milk chocolate as I've ever experienced, even from an actual chocolate bar.  Definitely a nice introduction for a chocoholic like myself :)   Upon rinsing the leaves the aroma stayed just as intense, only deepening to something nearly identical to baking chocolate.  Dark and bittersweet, but oh so tempting.  Where's the jasmine, you ask?  It finally made an appearance rising with the steam from the tea soup, mixed with a fascinating assortment of fragrances -- medicinal herbs, roasted chestnuts, a bit of fig, a wisp of smoke.

This tea turned out to make for a fun, if different, tea session.  I was surprised to pour it and find it very light in color.  A real contrast to the shu-like Liu Bao I'd just finished.  The same contrast showed up in taste, as well.  The Liu An lacked the dark smooth creaminess of the Liu Bao and carried instead a surprising dark roasted oolong-like flavor.  In fact, with it's chocolatey roasted aromas and aftertastes it seemed to echo a few aged shui xians I've had.  A good cleanliness to this tea, as well.  It seems to have been nicely stored.

I think the most fun I had with this tea, though, was in enjoying the evaporative fragrances from the bottom of the cup.  There were so many different and interesting scents going on, many that I don't often find in the teas I drink.  While the jasmine was present it wasn't nearly as dominating as I feared it might be.  Age seems to have mellowed and broadened it somewhat, and as for the other interesting aromas and flavors I'm not sure if those were originating from the aged jasmine component or the liu an tea base.  Probably the mixture of the two, I'm guessing.  The spent leaves included a few whole leaves in the mix along with plenty of chop, as well as containing a smattering of small round yellow seeds.  They looked very much like the little round seeds I found once in an "orchid puer" tea sample I picked up a few years back from Red Blossom Tea, which turned out to be quite undrinkable, although I just learned that this tea is meant to be brewed in a larger teapot, Cantonese style, and not gongfu cha like I had prepared it (see comment below from Peter Luong of Red Blossom Tea).  This Jasmine Liu An was quite drinkable in comparison.  I quite enjoyed it, in fact.

All in all, a very different and surprisingly fun tea experience today.  I'm tempted to pick up some more of this Jasmine Liu An just to set it aside and see what continued aging does to it.

* * * * * * *
(Additional information)

So it seems that Red Circle Tea doesn't have a big following among certain tea drinkers, hm?  I don't like to put vendors in a bad light and usually just keep mum about teas and vendors I don't like, but we reap what we sow and this vendor certainly isn't alone in certain practices.  Claims such as "rare tea," "hard to find," "ancient tea," not to mention questionable prices, seem quite common among tea vendors.  Occasionally (rarely is probably the best word to use here) these are merited but often they are not.  It's definitely a buyer-beware market.  For most of us, it's necessary to educate ourselves by tasting lots of tea, including teas from vendors whom we know little about.  It's all part of the process.  No shame in tasting, testing and learning.  Never let anyone tell you otherwise!

I've since learned a bit more about this Liu An -- specifically, what those little "seeds" are.  Turns out they're not seeds, at all.  Neither are they related to jasmine.  They're the flowers of the Aglaia odorata plant, otherwise known as the Chinese Perfume Plant.  It's also sometimes referred to as the Peppery Orchid Tree, although it belongs to the Mahogany family (meliaceae) and not the orchid family (orchidaceae).  But this may explain why some teas that have these flowers in them are referred to as orchid teas, like the Aged Orchid tea I purchased some time ago from Red Blossom Tea (not Red Circle, although both 'red' and in the SF region), a tea which I didn't enjoy at all (most likely due to incorrect brewing, see comments below).  In fact, I had a hell of a time picking all the little flower balls out of the holes of the ball filter on the yixing I was using at the time.

Just as with this 2001 Jasmine Liu An tea, the Orchid Black tea from Red Blossom (which was listed among their puerh selections) was advertised as being extremely rare and a unique and special find, a claim which turns out to be more full of holes than that frustrating ball filter.  Apparently these teas are quite common and inexpensive in China, a point which MarshalN made and which others I've since talked to have confirmed.  Yet another good lesson in "buyer beware."

Monday, June 11, 2012

2012 QiShengGu from Essence of Tea

How exciting to finally receive my order of Essence of Tea's 2012 offerings!  I'm not one to purchase a lot of brand new, fresh-from-the-presses sheng, but when I know it's made with the kind of attention and care EoT puts toward their teas I'm happy to set aside another shelf in my storage.  Still, I'm determined to break out of my staunch preference for older puerh and so have been picking up a lot of samples of young sheng this year in an effort to learn more about what youth can bring to a tea session, to see if I can cultivate an appreciation for it.  It hasn't been easy learning for me.  Young sheng often seems to bother my stomach, leaving me with a tightness at my core all day that is honestly unpleasant.  But while the majority of young teas seem to carry this energy, every now and then I find one that sits well with me.  The 2012 QiShengGu is one of those.

When I sat down at the tea table this morning I was planning to bang through several of the new EoT samples.  This is a lot of what I've been doing lately with the large pile of new sheng samples I've been acquiring.  It's not that I don't prepare them carefully or pay attention to what they offer, but given that I don't particularly enjoy drinking these young puerhs I'm not in it to savor a tea for a long time.  Rather, I'm looking for first impressions.  I guess you could call it a "meet and greet" approach (speed dating?? haha!).  I'll prepare just enough infusions to get an initial sense of a tea, paying particular attention to how it's affecting my body.  If all goes well I'll sit longer with a tea to see what more it has to say (so to speak).  The unintentional, but very positive side effect of this approach is that it has effectively moved the whole "taste and smell" aspect of tea from front-and-center to something only peripheral -- enjoyable certainly, but not the dominantly defining characteristics of a tea.  Drinking the 2012 QiShengGu has been a great reward in this effort.  Though I had planned to sample several of the new EoT offerings, this one caught my attention immediately.  No need or desire to rush on to others.  The QiShengGu is very pleasant company, indeed  :)

As you can tell, this tea sat very well with me.  A real pleasure to drink.  The broth slipped through my mouth with ease and fullness, a pleasant light oiliness to it.  The aroma not too loud, but interesting and complex nonetheless, lasting throughout.  But the thing that got my attention most, even in the first few sips, was how this tea sank very deeply, opening the throat and filling the chest and torso with warmth.  But it was interesting in this respect.  'Warmth' is not really the best word to describe it.  It was more of a feeling, not just a sensation.  Yes, there was warmth, but there was also a deep calmness about it.  A silence, if you will.  Very, very nice.  It was enveloping and boundary-blurring in the way that some of my favorite aged shengs can do.  I can't help but wonder if this is the magic of gushu that one often hears about.  

But while this tea has that deep silent quality about it, I can also feel it's youth.  It has much activeness about it, and while it sits well with me I can still feel that ball of energy in my core that I've come to associate with young sheng.  There was a good deal of activity in the mouth and in taste as well, as the infusions increased in number.  In this way it was a real joy to drink.  At the end of my session I had this funny but utterly delightful combination of deep silence in my core and a wide joy-filled smile on my face.  

This will be a great tea to follow through it's development and maturation, I think.  I look forward to the next time I sit with it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

NW tea destinations

My list of Northwest tea links keeps growing, so I decided to organize it a little better, separating it into three sections -- Seattle, Portland and BC Canada links.  While I do my best to keep current I'm sure there are tea houses, tea schools and tea sellers I'm missing.  Please don't hesitate to contact me if there are others I should add.  Also, I should tell you that I haven't visited or done business with all of the companies listed and so can't vouch for the quality of each.  Some sell great tea, some are just really cool tea houses to visit and hang out at, some are probably best classified as tea schools, and one I felt just deserved mentioning even though it's neither a tea seller or tea house (Tokara Japanese Confectionary in Seattle -- yum!).  I've also removed the few blogs I had listed previously since they're all included in the blog roll already.  There are also several high tea (British) tea houses in Seattle and Canada which I haven't included in the lists.  Maybe I should?

At the very bottom you'll see one very tiny list -- Northwest Tea Farms.  This is an exciting development in recent years.  Only time will tell what will come of these, but I find it enjoyable to watch how these take shape.  Sakuma Brothers (in the Skagit Valley of northern Washington) have been growing tea for well over 10 years now.  I visited their roadside farm stand a few years back and picked up some of their teas, but alas I somehow lost my purchases on the way home!  So I still haven't actually tried them.  Their tea bushes (or at least some of them) were growing just a short distance from their stand and I walked over to take a look when I was there.  Perhaps it was just the time of year, or maybe those weren't their best tea plants, but I can't say they looked to be in the best of health.  Still growing, and still green, but were sparsely-leaved and leggy.  Hopefully what I saw did not reflect the whole of their operation.  The Vancouver Island farm, Teafarm, is still in the process of nurturing their tea bushes to sufficient maturity to harvest.  They expect it will be another few years before they can start picking from the plants, but from what I've seen in photos their plants are looking very healthy and well-cared for.  I only hope that as their operation grows they begin experimenting with making pure Cowichan-grown green and oolong teas, and not simply use their leaves for making herb and fruit-infused blends.  But they've certainly got a lovely little oasis to tea (and pottery!) up there on the island.  Definitely high on my must-visit-soon list.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Spring greens and the honor of age

Spring is here.  Life is waking to the slowly gathering presence of warmth and sun.  Everywhere the catkins are opening and lengthening, relaxing from the tightened grip of winter.  This is the time of year when I find myself craving fresh green teas, counting the days until the first ones arrive.  The past couple weeks I've been in green tea heaven, thanks to Gingko at Life in Teacup.  This is my second year participating in their green tea pre-order arrangement.  Truly a great opportunity and one which I hope they continue to make available.  Although Long Jing will always have a special place in my heart, I'm finding so many new varieties to add to my list of favorites thanks to the diverse selection offered.  It would be easy for me to say they're *all* my favorites!
Today, though, was a blustery day out.  The trees are bending and swaying from their very trunks as strong winds blow through the Puget Sound.  A day for sitting quietly to take it all in and enjoy the show, better suited to the deep mellowness of a good aged puer than the exuberant fullness of the greens.  I chose a sheng from the 1970's that's a bit new to me.  I'm still getting to know it.  A nice gentle woodiness to this one, full of the feel and scent of age that I've come to love so well.  It delighted with surprising wafts of sweetness all around the tea table and plenty of nuance in the mouth and taste between sips.  But here's the thing.  I'm becoming reluctant anymore to write about tea brand X or Y, especially for teas such as this.  It's a bit of a conundrum because I wholeheartedly believe in supporting vendors and makers who actively practice quality and discernment.  If it were a newer sheng I were speaking of I'd be more inclined to disclose the 'what' and 'where' of it.  But teas like this require more than just a recommendation.  They require skill and devotion to the practice of tea.  They are a reward for extended dedication as well as patience.  Some would muse that teas like this somehow enter your life of their own volition, but really it's a matter of the level of involvement and awareness one has with puer I think.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A quintessential NW teahouse: Zen Dog's Tea House Gallery

the sign says it all

Here's a little treat for you -- a field trip to Zen Dog's Tea House Gallery, a beloved Seattle haven for tea lovers and community.  This place is special.  No doubt about it.  Zen Dog (or ZD as he likes to be called) has built a whole world of loveliness, a temple to tea.  Every nook and cranny, every turn and vista beckons the eye to admire, the body to relax and the heart to open.

main floor tea table and gathering area
ZD has some magic going on here.  You sense it the moment you approach the front gate, but it's when you step inside and are invited to sit for tea, often with several others already seated around the table, that you start to feel the draw of the place.  The conversation flows easily, buoyed by the good tea prepared gong fu style by ZD, or sometimes by other guests.  Before long you find yourself talking with strangers as though they were old friends.  The crowd is always delightfully diverse.  All ages, all backgrounds, tea lovers and tea novices, neighbors out for a walk and visitors from afar, all are welcomed and honored and made to feel at home.  As a result, the conversations at the tea table are engaging and full of interest.  While the tea is always good, I believe it's the spirit that ZD lives and manifests which is responsible for this very real sense of welcome and community.  In a world so full of rush and salesmanship where we all too often feel anonymous or preyed upon, the joyful, no-strings-attached hospitality at Zen Dog's is a rare oasis.  It's no wonder people seek this place out, tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood in the far NW of Seattle.

small Dragon tea table in the upstairs gallery
The tea menu here is just as diverse as the guests, with a large selection of all manner of teas, including puerhs.  There's an array of interesting blends available too, all of which were created by regulars to the tea house.  While I was asking ZD about a few of them (like the one with the can't-miss name "Folsom Prison") it became apparent that many of these blends were discovered at his tea table as guests would come to sit and share their favorite teas and tea stories.  The Folsom Prison blend was thanks to a tea friend who shared her favorite blend but didn't have a name for it.  When she pulled out her guitar and started playing Johnny Cash songs... well, there you have it...

The Tea House hosts many organized gatherings, as well.  There are monthly lunar celebrations at the tea house, and while I have yet to attend one I hear they're full of great music and poetry along with good tea and good people and community.  Another gathering that's been on the calendar recently are the "Tea and Chocolate Pairing" events with local chocolatier Aaron Barthel of Intrigue Chocolates.  Barthel and ZD have even teamed up to produce a special tea-and-chocolate truffle bar (available at ZD's place), aptly named "Zen Dog Bark" (and yes, it's yummy!).  Another frequent guest speaker here is Harrison Moretz of the Taoist Studies Institute in Seattle.  Also, about once a month the tea house is host to talks from the Venerable Tulku Yeshi Rinpoche of the nearby Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, and occasionally teachers from another local Buddhist group, the Blue Heron Zen Community, will come to give talks.  Although ZD himself will tell you he ascribes no labels to himself when it comes to spiritual paths and that his spiritual practice is simply tea, it's not surprising that many in the local contemplative communities have found a kindred spirit at his tea table.

upstairs tea table and gathering area
Shall I tell you about the artwork and calligraphy covering the walls?  The beautiful antique furniture filling the rooms?  The abundance of comfortable seating of all kinds, inviting you to sit and hang out for awhile?  The sparkling cut-glass jars that fill the countertops and which store many of the dried flower buds and teas?  The enormous yixing canisters storing loose leaf puerhs and the smaller ones full of cakes?  I haven't even touched on the beauty found outside in the gardens, the koi pond and the lovely outdoor tea pagoda built just last year, thanks to the hands and help of many tea friends.  So much to take in and appreciate here.  The pictures below will offer a few more glimpses of the wonders of this place.  At ZD's it's not so much a matter of "If you build it, they will come," although he's clearly built a place of beauty.  Rather, in ZD's case it's "If you be it, they will come," because all you see and experience here is a reflection of the man himself.  It's his home and his life, and the community that has blossomed here has it's roots deeply planted and nurtured in ZD's heartfelt embodiment of the spirit and essence of Cha Dao.

Tea as a Way of Life.

another view of the main floor gallery
view to the gardens
koi pond and meditation rock
wonderful tea friends, Zen Dog and Stephen Bonnell
ZD's always-present footwear of choice :)