Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Pretty Tuo vs Ugly Tuo

Ladies and Gentlemen... tonight's main event is a steel cage match-up between longtime Xiao Tuocha (小沱茶) puer rivals!

In the steel cage!

In this corner, weighing in at 4.12 grams, our returning champion, "Pretty Boy Tuo"...

Pretty Boy:

Pretty Boy showing off his nice physique:

...and in this corner, weighing in at a mere 4.02 grams, tonight's challenger, "Ugly Joe Tuo"!

Ugly Joe:

Joe minus that tattered rag:

Ding! and there's the bell. Pretty Boy started round one with a full bodied brew, though his tea soup was a bit "thinner" than Ugly Joe's more luscious broth. Ugly Joe wins round one with complex, and almost "keemun-like" punch (pardon the pun).

Round 1 goes to Ugly Joe!

Ding! Round two is off to a great start with both combatants putting forth a thick black infusion. This time Pretty Boy pulls ahead with a divine "milky smooth" brew. Joe falls short with a distinct "dirt" taste that distracts from the infusion's redeeming qualities.

Round 2 goes to Pretty Boy!

This steel cage match-up went on for 3 more exciting rounds with each tuocha presenting great cups of dark puer tea. The referees (me and Shu Shu) decided to relax, stop taking notes, zone out and enjoy these luscious teas. In the fifth and last round Ugly Joe came through with a slightly darker color and a more pleasant flavor.

And the winner is... UGLY JOE! WE HAVE A NEW CHAMPION! (...and the crowd goes wild!)

Monday, January 26, 2009

World Tea Expo

The World Tea Expo is the biggest tea industry trade show in North America, and as tea's popularity grows, so does the Expo. People come from all over the world to learn about tea, buy tea, sell tea, drink tea and network.

My first trip to the World Tea Expo was in 2004 (back then, the Expo was in its infancy and called "Take Me 2 Tea"). I have been back twice since then (once more in Las Vegas and once in Atlanta) and each time it seems to double in size. It is very important to me to see what new products and trends are being examined at the Expo.

It is encouraging to see a greater role of traditional teas at the Expo. In particular oolong, puer and matcha are all growing in popularity among North American tea drinkers!

The World Tea Expo does feature some terrible teas and pointless gadgets that may distract people from the enjoyment of good tea. Also, some tea lovers are (understandably) turned off by the large crowds and hectic consumerist vibe. That said, I believe that most of the people at the Expo genuinely love tea and feel blessed to play a small role in the international tea trade. I'm certainly one of them, and am looking forward to this year's Expo. I will be at the Expo on Saturday, May 2nd and Sunday, May 3rd. I am very excited to attend Yoon Hee Kim's focused tasting of Korean tea and Guang Lee's focused tasting of Puer tea!

If you will be at the World Tea Expo on Saturday or Sunday and you would like to meet, please send me an email so we can make a plan to find each other at the Expo. If you aren't attending, don't worry; I promise to write a blog post about this year's World Tea Expo sometime in mid-May.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

My Tiansiang Story - 我的天祥故事

January 20, 2005 was a very slow day for tourism when I made my way from Hualian (花蓮), a coastal city in eastern Taiwan, to Tiansiang (天祥), a small village located in the scenic Taroko Gorge National Park (太魯閣國家公園). While waiting for my bus at the sleepy bus station, I chatted briefly with a French Canadian fellow who was making his way to a teaching job in a nearby village. I also made small talk with three different taxi drivers who desperately wanted to drive me up to Tiansiang for 3 times the price of the bus. It would have been a good deal if I was traveling with one or two friends but because I was solo I choose to wait an hour for the next bus.

My bus ride up into the mountains was itself a thrilling experience. The highway is cut into the rocky gorge with many sharp turns. I was amazed at the driver's ability to keep this massive bus from falling into the gorge, especially with all of the cars and scooters speeding along the narrow highway!

Arriving at Tiansiang:

Tiansiang is located where two rivers come together. In the main part of town there is a Buddhist monastery, a resort hotel, and a few small restaurants and gift shops. I walked a short distance along the river and up a small hill to the Catholic hostel and made arrangements to stay in the "dorms."

The dorm room at the Catholic Hostel:

People come to Taroko Gorge for the fresh air, beautiful scenery, awesome hiking trails and spectacular hotsprings. In particular Wenshan Hotspring (文山溫泉) which is about 2 kilometers further down the highway. After I had stowed my backpack, grabbed my swimsuit and changed into some hiking clothes, I headed out to find the hotspring.

Along the way I met two very cool Swedish travelers named Mats and Ann. We chatted briefly about the beautiful scenery before continuing on our individual hikes. Coincidentally I met up with the same couple in Alishan three days later. In Alishan we became good friends and they even visited me in Seattle a couple years ago.

Further along the trail I came across a new trail that started with a long dark tunnel that went deep into a mountain. It was such a long and intriguing tunnel that I decided to make a detour and find out what was on the other end. In the middle of the tunnel it was pitch black; only a faint dot of light could be seen at the far end. Several other hikers were also in the tunnel and we called out echos for fun. It took about 15 minutes to walk through the tunnel. At the other side there was a mountain vista and several trailheads for more advanced mountain trails. I choose to go back to my old route and continue my trek to the Wenshan Hotspring. A Korean tourist, who spoke good English, waited for me. We chatted as we walked back though the tunnel. At one point he said "I didn't want to be in this tunnel alone."

Half way though the tunnel (taken with flash):

Because it was now mid afternoon and I had lost an hour with my tunnel detour, I decided to hitch the remaining 1.5 kilometers to the hotspring. The first car stopped for me. It was two college girls on a camping trip. They were pleasant company and dropped me off right at the entrance trail leading down to the hotspring.

The Wenshan Hotspring is a very special place. First you hike down to a wooden changing station with bathrooms, then you hike further down into the gorge along beautiful old stairs.
The hotspring itself consists of a hot pool, a warm pool, and a "cool pool" formed where the spring water mingles with the river. I spent the rest of the day enjoying the relaxing water and chatting with the other folks who had made their way to this heavenly place. I even received a lift back to Tiansiang from a very nice family!

Looking down at the hotspring from a bridge:

Looking back up at the same bridge:

Back in town I enjoyed a simple and inexpensive dinner of fried rice, wild mountain greens and soup, then I headed back to the hostel to relax with some delicious Shanlinxi high mountain oolong that I had purchased earlier in my travels. I brewed the tea using several Western-style mugs that I found in the hostel's main room. The proprietress of the hostel was making a basket out of candy wrappers and watching a "kung fu soap opera." I offered her tea several times but she politely declined. On the bookshelf of the main room there were many Catholic books in Chinese and several crucifixes. Also, there was a soda bottle full of giant, scary bugs! Which I thought was weird and cool. A little while later another American came in to hang out. It turns out that she and I were the only guests at the hostel that evening. She was a teacher from Vermont who was also traveling in Taiwan for the first time. We became friends while we chatted about Taiwan, traveling, and tea. She was excited to drink fresh Taiwanese tea (her first) and to learn a little bit about it.

The Bug Bottle:

I loved my time in Tiansiang and can't wait to go back to this beautiful place!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

2002 Langhe Factory Sheng Cake

Today I'm reviewing a tasty 2002 sheng puer tea cake (生普洱餅茶) from the Langhe tea factory (朗河茶廠). The Langhe tea factory was started in 1995 in the famous Xishuanbanna region of southern Yunnan. "Lang" is a name that can be translated as clear, bright, official or distinct. "He" translates to river. According to its advertising, this factory is very clean and natural. It has a blue roof and white walls "to mirror the sky." Also, the surrounding area comprises thousands of acres of camphor forests and large leaf tea trees. Langhe is one of many newer factories making exciting and beautiful tea cakes for serious pu-erh collectors.

Check out the cake:

Around the top it says: 雲南 (Yunnan), 喬木 (mature trees with a single trunk), 七子 (seven sons), 餅茶 (cake tea). Around the middle it has 野生喬木 written over and over in a circle. That translates to "wild raw single-trunk trees." The three characters under that are: 珍藏品. They state that this is a "precious collectable." Around the bottom of the cake you will find the words: 中國 (China) 雲南 (Yunnan) 西雙版納 (Xishuangbanna) 勐海 (Menghai) 朗河茶廠(Langhe Tea Factory) 出品 (produce).

The naked cake:

Tea soup (third infusion):

The orange-red tea liquor is very aromatic with many wild herb smells such as rosemary, eucalyptus and camphor. It also has a smooth balanced smokiness that typically fades out by the fifth infusion (peaking around the third or fourth). The taste is very complex and nuanced but, like many young sheng puers, it will become too astringent if overbrewed. I typically brew this tea in a small gaiwan or clay teapot filled about 20% with dry leaf. This way I will get 10 to 20 short infusions using boiling water. My first five steeps will be "water in - water out" then I'll add about 3 to 5 seconds for each of the next 5 infusions. After that, anything goes. I'm not saying that is the only way to brew it. That's just my suggestion. As with any good tea, you should try brewing it lots of different ways until you find your favorite.

The wet leaves:

The Money Shot:

The Money Shot (Close Up):

Thursday, January 8, 2009

League of Pots #016

Code Name: "Brew Master" (泡師傅)

Material: Stoneware Pottery
Height (not including handle): 16 cm
Length (back to spout): 21 cm
Weight: 1300 grams
Volume: 1550 ml

Brews: Any type of tea.
Specialty: Spiced Chai
Story: My wife bought him for my Christmas gift a few years ago. I usually use him to make a big batch of chai or strong black tea on mornings when we have caffeine craving guests. I'm not sure who made him so please let me know if you recognize the artist. My wife bought him at Damselfly in Ballard.
Super Powers: Brew Master is made of heavy stone. He is rock hard and super strong.

League of Pots #015

Code Name: "Chip" (碎片)

Material: Ceramic
Height (not including handle): 10.5 cm
Length (back to spout): 16 cm
Weight: 387 grams
Volume: 550 ml

Brews: You name it and Chip can brew it!
Specialty: Assam (Indian black tea)
Story: I bought Chip for $0.99 at a thrift store about seven years ago. I use him all the time so he has a nice dark "tea patina" that coats the inside of his spout and around his lid.
Super Powers: Chip can quickly heal any wound simply by touching it.

League of Pots #014

Code Name: "Rusty" (生銹)

Material: Red Clay
Height: 8.5 cm
Length (handle to spout): 15 cm
Weight: 247 grams
Volume: 225 ml

Brews: High Mountain Oolongs
Specialty: Shan Lin Xi (杉林溪)
Story: I bought Rusty in Fenqihu (奮起湖), Taiwan in May 2008. He has a cool little creature on his lid. I'd call it a "Gremlin," but it is most likely a dog or a lion.
Super Powers: Rusty can start fires using his mind.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Ba Bao Cha - 八宝茶

Last Summer I met a really cool fellow named Marty. He lives in Xining City in China (西宁市,中国*) and studies Mandarin and Tibetan. He is very passionate about improving the relationship between the Chinese, Muslims and Tibetans who all share this diverse region. According to Marty, the most popular tea among the Muslims in this area is called Ba Bao Cha (八宝茶) (Eight Treasure Tea).

A few months after Marty returned to China, a mutual friend named Nicole also traveled to China. She visited Marty in Xining and at his request brought a package of Ba Bao Cha and a package of Tibetan brick tea home for me to try!** (I promise to blog about the Tibetan tea later.)

Ba Bao Cha Front:

Ba Bao Cha Back:

Ba Bao Cha is a blend of: green tea, rock sugar, herbs, flowers and dried fruits. Different people have different recipes for Ba Bao Cha, but each recipe usually has eight ingredients because eight is a very lucky number in China. A recent Internet search revealed the follow ingredients to be the most common: wolf berry (aka goji berry), raisin, apricot, sesame, longan, walnut, jujube (aka red date), chrysanthemum, nasturtiums, honeysuckle, lemon peel, ginseng root, tangerine peel, and bingtang (aka candied hawthorn).

The contents of the package:

I decided to wait until Christmas morning to try the Ba Bao Cha with my wife, my sister and my brother in law. I now know that I didn't brew the tea correctly. I used "Chip" (a 20 ounce teapot) while the Chinese will typically use a 6 ounce gaiwan. Also, I reserved the sugar to mix in at the end because I normally don't like sweetened tea, but the Chinese will put it right into their gaiwan so that it will melt while the tea is brewing. Finally, I only steeped the tea for five minutes. That may have been OK if I had been using a gaiwan but our tea turned out far too weak brewed in Chip.

We decanted the liquor into our teacups and tried it first without sugar. It tasted fine, like a slightly smoky Chinese green tea, plus it had a nice fruity aftertaste. Then we each mixed in a heaping teaspoon of rock sugar. Unfortunately it was now way too sweet for our tastes. The sugar did bring out more fruity flavors but the cloying taste of weak tea and too much sugar was almost unbearable. We then steeped the Ba Bao Cha one more time for about 10 minutes... but the results were the same as our first infusion so we decided to move on to another tea.

Chip (the teapot) and the Tea:

I found the Ba Bao Cha to be a very interesting and pleasant brew. I only wish I had another package so that I could try brewing it again in the correct style. Someday, I may even be inspired to make my own Ba Bao Cha recipe.

* For this post I used "Simplified" Chinese characters instead of the "Traditional" characters which I typically use and study. The reason I chose "simplified" characters is because the Ba Bao Cha's packaging and the city of Xining also uses this system. In the "traditional" system treasure is written 寶 (as opposed to 宝) and Xining is written 西寧 (as opposed to 西宁).

** Dear Marty and Nicole, 谢谢你们. Thank you so much. I was very surprised and delighted by your exotic gift!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Shu Shu's Mandarin Lesson #1

Happy New Year, B.D.T.B. blog readers! I hope 2009 is a peaceful and productive year for all of us. Do you make New Year's resolutions? I do. This year, my resolution is to practice Mandarin Chinese more often. Now that Shu Shu the dragon has come to live with us I have another friend to practice with! He is a Chinese dragon and speaks Mandarin fluently. If you are interested in learning a little Chinese, look for a new series of posts called "Shu Shu's Mandarin Lessons." Each month he will teach us a few useful phrases! He will give us the Chinese and the meaning followed by the pronunciation and tone in Pinyin.

新年快樂 = Happy New Year
新 Xīn (sounds like "shin") = New
年 Nián (pronounced like nee-an) = Year
快樂 Kuàilè (Kuai rhymes with "buy." Le sounds like "luh") = Happy, Merry

你喜歡我的褲子嗎 = Do you like my pants?
你 Nǐ (sounds like "knee") = You
喜歡 Xǐhuan (Xi sounds like "she") = Like
我的 Wǒde (Wo sounds like "woe." De sounds like "duh") = My, Mine
褲子 Kùzi (Ku sounds like "coo." Zi sounds like "zuh") = Pants, Trousers
嗎 (?) Ma = Question particle. It turns statements into questions.

貓咪在哪裡 = Where is kitty?
貓咪 Māomī (pronounced like "mow mee") = Kitty
在 Zài (rhymes with "spy") = At, Located
哪裡 Nǎlǐ (pronounced like "nah lee") = Where?

Thank you Teacher!