Monday, December 28, 2009

Ba Bao Cha Revisited

Last year, I chronicled my first experience with Ba Bao Cha (八寶茶) (eight treasure tea). It is a blend of green tea, rock sugar, and eight different fruits and/or flowers and is a relatively popular beverage in certain parts of China. According to Google Analytics, my Ba Bao Cha post has brought more random searchers to this tea blog than any other post.

After reading my original review, my good friend and tea industry contemporary, Tiffany Picard, sent me 19 single-serving packets of different Ba Bao Cha blends. Because I am very seldom in the mood to drink flavored or sweetened tea, I decided that I would brew one packet every year around Christmas time.

This morning I decided it was time to try one, so I fired up the kettle and grabbed a gaiwan. Last year I used a larger teapot and omitted the sugar during brewing... but this time I emptied the entire contents of one small packet into the gaiwan (which is the traditional way to do it).

This was what was in the one packet that I chose to brew.

Steeping in the gaiwan.

I steeped the blend for 3 minutes with boiling water and then strained it into a decanter. I sipped it cautiously and noted its heady, perfume-like flavor. It is very sweet and fruity. My 22-month-old daughter, who is used to sampling a tiny bit of my tea, asked for a taste, so after it was cool enough I gave her a little sip. "Funny Tea!" she exclaimed. That cracked me up and we ended up talking about "the funny tea" for the rest of the day.

It tastes as "pretty" as it looks.

Keep in mind that Ba Bao Cha is not really "tea," it is a sweetened herbal beverage containing a little bit of tea. There are some people who believe the herbs it contains are particularly healthy or curative. While I can't speak to that, I do believe that it is much healthier to have a cup of all natural Ba Bao Cha than it is to drink soda or Kool-aid.

I steeped the Bao Bao Cha one more time and it was not nearly as good as the first brew. After a few more sips I started playing with the herbs to see just what I was drinking.

I found...

...a few chrysanthemum flowers,

some dried strawberry,

one rose bud,

three or four goji berries,

a plum, I think,

these weird little things,

a pinch of sad looking green tea,

one lonely nut of unknown name,

and an empty, mysterious pod, of unknown name.

I look forward to my third cup of Ba Bao Cha sometime in December 2010... but until then I think I'll go make myself a nice pot of Alishan!

Monday, December 21, 2009

The laid-back person's guide to brewing a good pot of green tea

Step 1 - Select a teapot. If you only have one teapot this should be easy. If you have several (like me) this step can sometimes be a bit tricky.

...eenie meeni miny moe...

Step 2 - Boil some good water.

(somebody must really like apples)

Step 3 - Put a basket style infuser of some sort into your teapot.

Step 4 - Put some dry tea into the infuser. Use about one teaspoon per cup. Don't over think.

Step 5 - Pour 160° to 180° F water over the tea leaves.

You can pour in some cool water or add an ice cube or two,
if you're worried about the temperature being too hot.

You can even use a thermometer if you have one,
but try not to worry too much if you don't.
Remaining "Laid-back" is always the most important thing.

Step 6 - Steep green tea for about 2 minutes.

I'm using my oven timer.
If you don't have a timer you can just guess.

Step 7 - Take the basket of tea out of the teapot.

This step is probably the most important because
green tea will get bitter if it's steeped too long.

Step 8 - Choose a tea cup. (Advanced tip: Try doing this step at the same time as step 6!)

Any cup you pick will be just fine.

Step 9 - Pour the tea into your teacup.

I chose this cute little Peter rabbit cup!
(I'm not sure why it wont display "right-side-up"
because it's fine in iphoto.
There must be some weird html thing going on.)
Oh well, I'm much too "Laid-back" to worry about that right now.

Step 10 - Sip your tea.

Step 11 - Let out a happy, contented sigh.

Step 12 - (optional) Put a tea-cozy over your teapot.

This one looks pretty cool.

Uh. Festive... but No.

Oh Yeah, Chip you're looking sharp in that little coat!

Look out for more posts in my "Laid-back person's guide" to come in 2010.

Happy Solstice!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

2009 觀自在早春南糯山七子餅茶

Back on November 5th, I posted a review of Yunnan Sourcing's Banzhang Chun Qing Puer. That cake was the most expensive of the four new sheng puer cakes (生普洱餅茶) to which I recently treated myself. Today I'll review the least expensive of these four puer treasures. This cake is called: "2009 Guan Zi Zai Zao Chun Nan Nuo Shan tea cake (觀自在早春南糯山七子餅茶)." According to Yunnan Sourcing, these cakes were made entirely from wild arbor, spring harvested, sun-dried leaves from Yunnan's Nan Nuo mountain (南糯山). That information and much more can be found here.


I used 5 grams of dry leaf in a small, black-clay gaiwan. The leaf was given a 3 second rinse with about 200° F water. My first impression of the aroma was green grass and green banana. It had a hint of flowery sweetness that reminded me of the way Hawaiian air can sometimes smell.

My first three infusions were short (15, 15 and 20 seconds). The broth was was nice, but too thin and crisp. At the fourth pour, a little more creaminess made a welcomed appearance. My taste buds must have been on a tropical vacation because my flavor notes for this session included lilikoi and papaya. These occasional pleasant flavors were elusive and they were sometimes muted by the cake's other grassy, bitter or peppery tastes.

Although the leaves were plump and pretty and the flavor had a few tasty moments, I wouldn't rate this tea too highly. It is just an OK tea at a fair price. I'll have to change some of my brewing parameters and give it another chance later.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Regarding Taiwan - January, 2010

Dear Tea Friends,

As some of you already know, I am once again bound for the lovely island of Taiwan! I leave on January 14, 2010 and return 8 days later (making this my shortest trip to date). On this trip, I plan to focus most of my time exploring new high mountain tea farms and hope to return with several very special new oolong teas, as well as many new photos and stories for this tea blog. I will also visit a fun little town called Yingge which is famous for teaware, pottery and tea shops. Besides finding great new tea to sell, my other goals include: learning more about tea culture, improving my Mandarin speaking skills, and eating as much great food as possible!

As I have done prior to each of my four previous trips, I am trying to gauge my potential customers' interest in buying any new tea or teaware from me.

When I return home, I will announce all of the new teas that I have found... But if you are already sure that you will want something, you can let me know before I leave.

You may pre-order tea or teaware by emailing me your potential wish list. My email address is I will email you a cost estimate and after we negotiate prices, we can arrange payment. I will contact you within one week of my return from Taiwan. All pre-ordered tea and teapots are 100% guaranteed and I will give you a full refund if you do not love it.

If you do not wish to pre-order tea or teaware, but you are still fairly sure that you will be interested in buying something from me after I return from Taiwan, it will still help me to hear from you before I leave.

Thank you!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Purple Cloud Temple - 紫雲寺

Purple Cloud Temple (紫雲寺)* is located in Bantian Yan (半天岩), a small town in Taiwan's Chiayi county (嘉義縣). The temple has several rooms available for monks and travelers to use during their visits to this holy site and so my wife and I arranged to stay one night in March of 2007.


The same view but in super thick fog and mist!

We arrived by taxi from the Chiayi city rail station and found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of worshippers (it was a busy Sunday afternoon) and thick clouds of incense. After poking about for a few minutes we asked a stranger for help and were led to a Miss Wang, a kind and pious woman who was expecting us. She asked me to sign my name and passport number in an old ledger and took my NT$1000 (the agreed upon donation). Mine was the only English name in the book as far as I could tell. We were surprised to be allowed to share a room as we expected that men and women would be segregated for sleeping at such an old temple. I think Miss Wang made an exception for us, so that we would feel more comfortable.

Our room was located around the back of the temple. It had a hard tatami bed with one pillow, a little bathroom and a couple of old metal stools. It also had a creepy picture of a doll-woman hanging over the head of the bed to watch us sleep.

After putting down our bags we walked around the temple grounds and admired the beautiful 38-meter-tall Guanyin who watches over the temple. We observed some faithful visitors performing a serene and interesting dance in front of the Guanyin. The dance is hard to describe but it did involved bowing and twirling.

The Guanyin

...and from behind

The hills surrounding the temple were filled with many peaceful trails. We spent a short time hiking around the lush green hills while listening to the strange calls of the local insects and frogs.

After our hike we returned to the temple and joined the others for worship. Several visitors helped guide us. We were instructed to light 6 incense sticks and follow the flow of people bowing to different gods and depositing a stick in their respective urns. Although we obviously stuck out like sore thumbs, the people were very patient and sweet to us. It was easy to get caught up in the meditative spirit and enjoy the new experience of pai pai (worship) (拜拜) in this centuries-old temple.

In the early evening we walked down to the small town-like area across the street from the temple. We found a little mom-and-pop tea shop that was selling Alishan Gao Shan Cha (the famous and delicious oolong tea from Chiayi county's high country) (阿里山高山烏龍茶). We drank several pots of tea with the proprietor and played with his many (at least 5) young children. His wife gave us some fresh fruit. They were very welcoming and kind to us, but I knew they were probably getting close to closing up shop and having their dinner so we purchased a jin of oolong and thanked them before saying goodbye. At this point my wife and I were getting pretty hungry so we walked a few meters down the road to a little outdoor restaurant and asked about getting a vegetarian dinner. As you might have guessed, a restaurant across the street from a busy Buddhist temple knows how to make a good vegetarian meal! We were treated to big bowls of savory noodle soup as well as five spice tofu with a yummy dipping sauce. It was very tasty and satisfying.

After dinner we bought a can of coconut water and retired to our rooms for the night. Unfortunately, we did not sleep that well due to our hard bed, one pillow, and some yapping dog that was howling all night long. At 5:00 am we were awaken by drums and gongs to signal the first prayer service... but we pulled the blanket over our heads and slept in for a few more hours.

After we woke, we headed down to the temple's main desk to find Miss Wang. She led us to the dining room where we ate an invigorating Buddhist breakfast of rice porridge, pickled vegetables, bamboo shoots and faux meats, all of which were delicious. We also had two cubes of what appeared to be tofu but after I took a huge bite I realized that it wasn't. It turned out to be some sort of super salty miso block!

Once we had finished breakfast, we took one last hike around the adjacent hills. While walking around a deserted pond some soft pop music was being played from hidden speakers along the trail. It was very surreal and, combined with the lush tropical forest, made us feel like we were in an episode of LOST.

After our hike, Miss Wang gave us a more personal tour of the temple and all of its wonderful symbolic art. Then, we said goodbye to the temple, the Guanyin and to Miss Wang. We asked her for help on the next leg of our journey. Our goal was to find a taxi to Chungpu township (中埔鄉) where we would get the bus up to Shihjhuo (石桌). Miss Wang was not able to help us but instead a very nice couple came to our aid. They gave us a ride to Chungpu and told us the time the bus would come. I am always humbled by the amazing kindness of the Taiwanese.

All in all, it was a fantastic experience to visit this venerable holy site! I would recommend it to any other Western travelers who want to get off the beaten path.

*The Temple itself gives this interesting report about its own history:
"As the folk-tale saying, in 1682, an old monk traveled to Fanlu (番路) area and found a place with an extraordinary scene to build a cottage temple to worship Mercy Buddha (觀音). Because the site is always surrounded by clouds and fogs, and the clouds usually reflected in purple, the temple is named Zihyun (紫雲). However, the ownership of the land did not belong to the temple until 1765. Decades later, instead of monks, inhabitants began to manage the Zihyun temple, and to bring other gods to worship: Shengnong, Pangu, god of earth, goddess of birth, Santaizih, and god of tiger. The temple was restored in 1855 and 1920, and then destroyed by an earthquake in 1941. Because of the lack of materials in the wartime, the temple was rebuilt temporary. Today's construction of temple was established from 1947 to 1950, and funded by Zaisheng Liou and Ju Lin."

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Teacup's Winter 2009 Wenshan Baozhong

Yesterday morning I stopped by the Queen Anne Post Office to pick up 5 jin of Winter 2009 Wenshan Baozhong tea (文山包種茶). This tea is for Teacup (the tea shop I manage on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill) and will be available starting today.

The tea is from my friend Amin in Pinglin, Taiwan and it was processed early in November, 2009 (technically fall but it's still called winter tea). Amin said this winter's Wenshan Baozhong tea supply is decreased compared with the spring's because the weather was not stable, but he promised that this batch would meet my standards for quality.

I wasted no time opening up a bag and firing up my electric kettle. I brewed the tea in a small gaiwan filled about 60% with dry leaf. I used boiling water and short infusions.

The tea has everything I look for in Wenshan Baozhong... beautiful, twisted, forest-green dry leaves, a sweet, floral aroma, and a buttery-smooth liquor. The first infusion did have a bit of a light grassy note but after that infusion the flavor really opened up and steeps 2 to 6 were like thick nectar. My tasting notes included violet and ripe papaya.

Although this is not the best Wenshan Baozhong tea I've ever tasted (I am friends with Shiuwen, after all), I prefer to live in the present and in my opinion this is a fantastic tea that I am very proud to sell.

I look forward to hearing from some of you after you too have tried this fresh Wenshan Baozhong tea!