Monday, December 22, 2008

My First Tasting of Real Hawaiian Tea

Last November after an excellent family vacation to Maui I posted about genuine Hawaiian-grown tea. The only problem was... I had never actually tasted Hawaiian tea. Until now.

A friend (and former coworker) named Jessica brought a little can of Hawaiian oolong into Teacup (my work) to share with us. She said a friend of hers had bought it on a recent trip to the Big Island.

The can:

I do not know too much about this particular product; in fact, I could not find it on the Hilo Coffee Mill website. I'm betting this is due to very limited supply and that the tea is currently only available for sale on the Big Island.

While researching my original Hawaiian tea post I emailed several farmers who seemed extremely passionate and knowledgeable about their teas. They mainly seem focused on producing small quantities of superb tea for connoisseur buyers. In fact, one farmer claimed that her best tea fetches $1 per gram ($453 per pound). I'm hoping to try her tea next spring when she has fresh tea ready.

The dry leaves of the Hilo Coffee Mill tea (currently the only Hawaiian tea I have ever tasted) are twisted and voluminous. Their colors range from black to orange to forest green. They have a sweet, earthy smell that is reminiscent of fallen Autumn leaves.

The dry leaf:

I'd say this tea was a great introduction to Hawaiian tea. It had a wonderful and complex flavor.
The first flavor most people picked up was intense rich, raw, fresh honey. Beyond that, delicate notes of volcanic minerals, raisins, and tropical flowers could be detected.

The tea soup:

In other news, Seattle is still buried in snow!
Check out what Alanna and I made today:

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Three Winter 2008 Wenshan Baozhongs

Snow has come to our hilly northwest city. It looks like we have about six inches already and there is no sign of it slowing down! Fortunately, I have today off and Alanna can work from home. I expected Teacup would have it's busiest weekend of the year on December 20th and 21st, but now I'm not too sure, because it will be very hard to get up Queen Anne Hill. It may be an adventure getting to work tomorrow!

A view from the side of our house:

Last week I stopped by Floating Leaves tea shop in Ballard to pick up an ounce each of their three new Winter Wenshan Baozhongs (文山包種茶). Floating Leaves, in my opinion, is one of the best tea vendors in America. The proprietress, Shiuwen, is brilliant, fun and welcoming. I always enjoy stopping by her little shop to sample some incredible oolongs and puer teas!

These Wenshan Baozhongs are competition teas from Pinglin, Taiwan. They are simply called: 1st place Baozhong, 2nd place Baozhong, and Farmer's Choice Baozhong. This morning my wife and I cupped them up using the bowl and spoon method recommended by Shiuwen. Because these teas are very aromatic it is lovely to smell their fragrance evaporating off of the Asian soup spoons. I'm not certain why, but the convex and concave sides of the soup spoon smell very different. The convex often has a sweeter sugarcane-like aroma and the concave often has a fruitier, maltier and richer aroma.

"Bowl and Spoon Cupping"

Each of these three teas cupped up very nicely using four grams of tea in a half-filled bowl of 200 degree water. After about 3 minutes of spoon dipping and spoon sniffing, we decanted the tea soup into mugs for sipping.

Looks pretty tasty:

The aroma of the 1st place Baozhong was noticeably stronger than the other two with a slightly "greener" smell that reminded me of pine trees. The liquor had a light yellow color. All three teas were very smooth but Alanna and I ranked this tea as the "least smooth." That is not a fault because this tea's warming, spicy flavor was extremely refreshing. This tea presented delicate tasting notes of pineapple and orange rind and its aftertaste and aroma were clean and very long lasting.

The aroma of the 2nd place Baozhong was sweet and creamy. I would say that the 1st place had a brisker taste, while this tea was more floral. Also, the yellow color of this Baozhong is a shade darker than the 1st place's. The flavor reminded me slightly of a perfectly ripe papaya that I had eaten last month in Maui. Alanna and I favored this tea for its buttery, flowery taste and thicker texture in the mouth.

The Farmers Choice Baozhong is in a class by itself. Shiuwen told me that this tea has a higher level of oxidation than most of the Wenshan Baozhongs currently being produced and I have been told that higher oxidation such as this used to be more common. I believe the farmer prefers this tea for its luscious and thick mouth feel. The tea soup was easily the darkest shade of yellow and the aroma was unique and pleasant. The flavor of this tea was much maltier and toastier than the other two teas and I even picked up a slightly "hoppy" note. The taste had a nice balance of rich, warming, complex and floral. I might say: "This tea drinks like a meal."

While these three teas may not have been the greatest Baozhongs that I've ever tasted, they are clearly among the best you can buy for this Winter. They are all very good, and they were a real pleasure to review.

After our tea tasting, Shu Shu the dragon enjoyed a steaming hot "Baozhong Bath" in the falling snow!

Shu Shu's Baozhong Bath:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Nannou Shou Cha 1997

These days America has no shortage of businesses that sell Chinese and/or Taiwanese teas. If you live in an urban area or have access to a phone or computer, then excellent tea is fairly easy to come by. In fact, I could easily name about 20 wonderful and trustworthy tea vendors right now off the top of my head. One of these tea shops is Red Blossom in San Francisco. My wife and I had the pleasure of checking them out last year when we traveled down to the Bay Area for our baby shower. We sampled many sublime teas at Red Blossom and ended up buying an ounce each of: 2007 Spring Heirloom Lishan, Spring 2007 Supreme Panan Dragonwell, and 1997 Nannou Shou Puer tea. Our total came to $48. That provided us with 25 amazing tea sessions each with 3 to 8 delicious infusions, so I'd say we got a fantastic value!

This afternoon I savoured my penultimate pot of Nannou Shou Cha 1997 and on a whim I decided to blog about it. Up until now I haven't posted many tea reviews, and when I do attempt a tea review, I rarely say anything critical or negative about the tea. The best tea reviews, in my opinion, are the ones that balance the "clinical" aspects of the steeping parameters (ie. the amount of leaf, the water temperature, the brewing vessel etc...etc...) with a good story. There are plenty of writers out there who can produce an interesting, informative and genuinely "readable" tea review. My goal is to be one of them (someday).

This loose leaf puer is from Nannou Mountain (南糯山), a famous tea producing area in southern Yunnan, China. Because I do not have much experience with region-specific puer teas, I will not be making any claims about how Nannou Mountain tea should taste or what particular flavors they usually possess.

I used about 4 grams of tea in Xiao Xiao (a very small clay pot). The dry leaf is a random assortment of different sizes, stems and colors. The colors range from orange to grey to black. They have an earthy, malty smell.

The dry leaf:

Because today's weather is cool and cloudy with a soft misty rain, I have cracked open the dining room window to let in a bit of fresh air. I believe that the sweet smell of Northwest rain can be highly beneficial when paired with some teas. (On that note, the smell of newly fallen snow is a heavenly compliment to Winter Shan Lin Xi High Mountain Taiwanese Oolong Tea.)

I used filtered Seattle water that had just reached a rolling boil and first gave the dry leaves a 5 second rinse, then I prepared five delicious infusions. Each infusion steeped for about 30 to 60 seconds and always produced a milky-black color. This puer had no smokiness and the flavor was velvety and malty like an infusion of roasted grains. I wonder if Nannou shan's tea leaves are known for thick, round, and smooth tastes or if this particular tea is an exception to the region's usual flavor profile?

Xiao Xiao and the fourth infusion:

I drank my tea slowly and mindfully while my little daughter sat in my lap. She is a peaceful and sweet baby who seems to enjoy good tea. When I pass my teacup under her nose she will instinctively stick out her tongue and try to lick it.

As I sip this satisfying puer tea I think about traveling to Yunnan, China. Someday I will go there and spend some time learning about puer tea production. Hopefully my wife and daughter can come too!

A quick look at the spent leaves:

Monday, December 8, 2008

Winter Worm Summer Grass - 冬蟲夏草茶

On May 11, 2008, Nicole (my little sister), Justice (Nicole's then-fiance now-husband), Andrea (Justice's little sister), David (my tea buddy), Gwen (David's girlfriend), and I were all having a nice time playing tourist in Taipei. We six laowai (老外) (old foreigners) were walking from Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall to Taipei 101 when we came across a big poster announcing: "The 4th Taipei Vegetarian and Organics Festival 2008." Because we all love our veggies and the Festival was open to the public for just NT$100 (about $3) per guest, we decided to check it out!

The poster:

This Festival was massive with hundreds of exhibitors and thousands of attendees. Inside the enormous showroom we saw many teas, tinctures, faux meats, vitamins, vegetables, mushrooms and new age products from all over the world! It was quite an experience with tons of free samples to be tried! (Ever tried Tahitian Noni Fruit juice? I like it, but it's not for everybody.)

Inside the Festival:

Some cool food art:

More cool food art:

Grow your own mushrooms display:

At one booth a man was selling a product called "冬蟲夏草茶". I knew the characters: 冬 (Winter), 夏 (Summer), 草 (Grass) and 茶 (Tea) but I didn't recognize 蟲 . My little sister and I thought it was a tasty broth to make soup with. When I asked if it was a Chinese medicinal soup the man began to explain the product to us but my elementary mandarin was not good enough to understand his very technical description. Nicole and I each bought a box at NT$600 (about $18) each. We thought that was pretty expensive but enjoyed the novelty of the product.

The Product:

Only after returning home did I translate 蟲. It means Worm. Then, using the Internet, I began to learn more about this interesting infusion. As it turns out 冬蟲夏草 is a specialized fungus that attacks a certain Tibetan worm to spawn and thus multiply. The product is called Cordyceps in English and is highly prized by some Chinese as an herbal medicine. One website I looked at claimed that this worm fungus could: "Invigorate the kidney and supplement essence for treating impotence, emission, physical exhaustion, dizziness and tinnitus, invigorate the lung and eliminate cough and phlegm, stop bleeding, build immunity, prevent pre-mature aging, tonic for recuperation from surgery or long illness."

The herbal beverage that my sister and I purchased was a blend of these herbs:
(Thank you so much to my awesome Chinese teacher Cindy for translating!)
冬蟲夏草 (dong1chong2xia4cao3) Cordyceps
枸杞 (gou2qi3)Lycium chinensis, Chin. wolfberry, matrimony vine
枸杞根 (gou2qi3gen1) wolfberry root
黨参 (dang3shen1) Radix Codonopsis Pilosulae; Fllase Asiabel Root Tangshen
七葉蘭 (qi1ye4lan2) Pandanus odoru; Pandan leaves
菊花 (ju2hua1) Chrysanthemum
白鶴靈芝 (bai2he4ling2zhi1) Rhinacanthus nasutus; Twig and leaf of Bignose Rhinacanthus
决明子 (jue2ming2zi3) Catsia tora Linn; Semen Cassiae
甜菊 (tien2ju2) Stevia (aka sweetleaf)

The actual herbal tea:
(It looks kind of like the stuff I used to feed my pet mouse.)

So you're probably wondering... How does it taste? It's not too bad. I liked it when we had a tiny sample in Taipei but here at home I can't drink more than a small cup because the stevia gives it a terrible aftertaste and it just doesn't sit well in my stomach. It has a sweet, roasty, Chinese medicine taste so mostly I keep it around as a conversation piece.

The 冬蟲夏草's liquor:

Thursday, December 4, 2008

League of Pots #013

Code Name: "Blue Plum" (藍梅)

Material: Fine Bone China
Height (not including handle): 11 cm
Length (back to spout): 17 cm
Weight: 504 grams
Volume: 700 ml

Brews: Blue Plum is great for brewing any type of tea
Specialty: Wenshan Baozhong (文山包種)
Story: I bought this beautiful teapot with 4 matching cups from the Teacup about 3 years ago. My good friend and former coworker Heidi rang up the sale. After my employee discount it cost $130. At the time that was the most I've ever spent on teaware. Now the most is "Double Dragon" (He cost me about $200).
Super Powers: Blue Plum can swim better and faster than a shark and she can breathe under water.

League of Pots #012

Code Name: "Iron Moon" (鐵月)

Material: Japanese Cast Iron Tetsubin
Height (not including handle): 7.5 cm
Length (back to spout): 21 cm
Weight: 1458 grams
Volume: 650 ml

Brews: Most green teas and black teas (Not good for oolong or puer.)
Specialty: Sencha green tea
Story: My mom bought me this wonderful iron teapot for Christmas about 5 years ago.
Super Powers: Iron Moon is a transforming robot with super strength. He likes to change into a flying saucer shape and can often be seen zipping around in the sky above New Mexico.

League of Pots #011

Code Name: "Sara" (莎拉)

Material: Green Celedon Pottery Kyusu
Height: 9cm
Length (handle to spout at right angle): 24cm
Weight: 603 grams
Volume: 400 ml

Brews: All types of tea
Specialty: Japanese and Korean green teas
Story: I purchased Sara with her matching cooling bowl, and three matching cups from a thrift store here in Seattle. The pieces were being sold separately $2 for the pot, and $0.99 for the cooling bowl, and cups. All of the pieces were in perfect condition! Whoever it was who was crazy enough to get rid of this teapot... I thank you very much! This was a major "thrift store score" and I use her often to make tea.
Super Powers: Sara can sing a beautiful melody. Anyone who hears her tune will fall fast asleep, and be unable to wake up until Sara releases them from her spell.