Monday, July 20, 2009


The history of steam is long and fascinating. It is a natural force that has made things happen for millennia. One Chinese word for steam is shuiqi (water gas) (水氣). Qi (氣), besides meaning "gas," also refers to the energy that flows through ourselves and the universe. When we humans eventually tamed steam's awesome energy, we found many new uses for it, such as making electricity, cooking food, powering trains and sterilizing instruments. One of steam's sometimes overlooked powers is its ability to soothe and comfort us. To a tea drinker, steam is a beautiful companion that flows and sways like a graceful dancer.

The appreciation of steam (and bubbles) will enhance your overall tea drinking experience. Here are a few tips to get the most out of your steam:

1. Spend a minute with your fresh-brewed cup held right below your face. Breathe deeply and evenly to feel the hot steam's gentle caress on your cheeks, mouth and nose.

2. While drinking tea many years ago, an elderly Chinese gentleman instructed me to "tea-steam" my eyes by looking directly into an aroma cup (聞香杯), while rolling my eyeball. Make sure it's not too hot of course! The man told me it was very good for the eyes and although I've never seen anyone else do this, I still enjoy doing it from time to time and think it feels great.

3. When brewing Chinese tea in a small clay pot, my mentors will often pour a small amount of boiling water onto the teapot during the infusion. Besides keeping the teapot extra hot this step will also produce a glorious burst of sweet organic steam that will rise like a triumphant phoenix.

During every tea tasting, while we are appreciating tea's many heavenly qualities, let us not forget to honor our friend, steam.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Original Bubble Tea

In the history of the universe, googols of bubbles have come and gone. I like bubbles. I especially like the bubbles that live (if only for a second) on the surface of my tea.

What does it mean when bubbles are floating on our tea? Are they trying to tell us something? In their interesting article, "A Survey of the Gelatinous Qualities in Tea," Geng Jian Sing and Jhang Yan Ren postulate a connection between the presence of saponin, a "sticky, as if frozen, congealed substance" found in many well-aged puer teas, and a "rich and substantial liquor." There must be truth to that because a single cup of fine tea contains thousands of chemicals that give it its unique aroma, body, healthfulness and flavor. Bubbles may or may not be a sign of saponin, but lingering, well-formed bubbles usually indicate a desirable brothy-thickness... plus they're totally awesome.

This afternoon I sipped a tasty sheng puer tea (生普洱茶) that I purchased in Yingge, Taiwan (鶯歌,台灣). It was produced in the early 1990's (at least that's what the vendor told me). While drinking, I decided to take a few photos of my gaseous little friends.

1st infusion with a low and slow pour

2nd infusion with a high and fast pour

3rd infusion with a low and slow pour

Bubble Chasin' Vid:

So whenever you're drinking tea, always take a moment to appreciate your bubbles. They are like little tea angels surfing in your cup! Make friends with them. Give them names. Dance with them... and please tune in next week for an illuminating post about Bubbles' equally airy cousin, "Steam!"

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Wistaria tea house 紫藤廬

Taipei's Wistaria* tea house (紫藤廬) has been inspiring tea lovers for decades. Although many more qualified people have already written volumes about this serene establishment (Ang Lee even shot a tea drinking scene for his beautiful 1994 movie "Eat Drink Man Woman" at Wistaria), I think it's about time I catalogued my own happy experiences.

I first heard about Wistaria in 2004 when my mentor and friend Rob Bageant recommended that I seek it out. Because Rob truly loves Taiwan and tea culture I promised I would try to find it. I had him mark its location on my Taipei map.

It turns out that the Wistaria Tea house is not too hard to find. Here is a map. As you are walking along busy Xinsheng South Road, you turn into the courtyard of this Japanese colonial era house and instantly the air feels 10 degrees cooler, the din of scooters has been muted, and the gentle smell of good tea greets your nose.

The courtyard

I visited this tea house in 2005 (solo) and 2006 (with my buddy Darald). I tried to visit it in 2007 (with my wife) and in 2008 (with my little sister and some friends) but it was closed for a remodel. I'm not sure what they were doing or why it took so long to finish but I've since heard that it has been reopened and still retains the same tranquil feeling it had before the remodel. I definitely plan to visit Wistaria again on my next trip to Taiwan.

On my first trip I sat by the window sipping some fresh winter Alishan high mountain oolong and writing in my journal. The staff were so sweet to me. They offered to take my picture and gave me a few English language brochures of Taipei and Wistaria. It was very relaxing to mindfully sit and sip in this famous tea house.

Savouring my winter Alishan (January, 2005)

In 2006 my friend Darald and I spent several hours at Wistaria sipping tea, people-watching, chatting and snacking on dried mango, dried cherries and watermelon seeds. We choose a delicious aged puer tea from the beautiful, handwritten, all Chinese menu. It was easily worth the cost (about US$20) as we got 15 infusions out of it and felt so mellow and peaceful in the tea house.

D. and I May, 2006

The follow text was taken directly from Wistaria's own English language brochure given to me in 2005:
Wistaria-House is a place full of beauty and vitality, full of contradiction and experiment. The former tenant, Professor David Chow, introduced Western liberalism into Taiwan during the 1950th, transforming the house into a place for critical debate. The Japanese-style house was damaged by a typhoon in 1961. Afterwards, the front part was refurbished into a western-style edifice. Although the building embodies disparate architectural styles, the utensils, artworks and furniture are uniquely blended into a special aesthetic atmosphere. In 1976 Chou Yu began to transform the house into a center for cultural activities. After the "Formosa Incident" in 1979 (the brutal crackdown of Taiwan's raising democratic movement), Wistaria-House became the meeting place for political dissenters and a new generation of artists. In 1981 Chou Yu opened Wistaria Tea House which deeply influenced the renaissance of tea culture in Taiwan. Wistaria Tea House successfully developed a new "way of tea" by creatively transforming daoist aesthetics and the idea of self-cultivation traditionally cherished by Chinese literati within the sphere of consumer culture. Furthermore, it became a meeting place for social activists and critical scholars holding many symposiums and public discussions. This mixture gave Wistaria-House its unique atmosphere and cultural significance. In 1997 Wistaria-House was declared a Taipei City historical site. In January of 2003, the Taipei City Cultural Bureau formally turned the operation of the teahouse over to the Wistaria Cultural Association, which heralded a new era for this "public space of Dao".

Inside Wistaria (January, 2005)

The Wistaria tea house has been an inspiration to many tea house owners and managers around the world and while there are certainly other old, peaceful, and beautiful tea houses in Taiwan (and I'll admit that I have not yet been to very many) Wistaria is my current favorite!

*We spell it Wisteria. They spell it Wistaria.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Microwave Water Experiment

On July 4th, I organized an experiment to compare the flavor of 4 different teas. Each tea was brewed with both microwaved water and electric kettle heated water. Six volunteers participated in the experiment. They were given two cups of each tea and then asked to rate the flavor of each tea on a scale of 1 to 10. They knew what tea they were drinking, but they had no idea which cup held the microwaved water and which held the kettle water. Without talking they wrote their ratings down on a post-it, then I collected the data and prepared the next round.

My lovely volunteers:
Their names (based on their Post-it colors) are:
Ms. Yellow, Mr. Yellow (no relation), Ms. Purple,
Ms. Pink, Mr. Orange and Mr. Blue

These variables were controlled:
1. Style of teapot (2-cup Chatsfords)
2. Same brewing baskets (brand new medium Finums)
3. Weight of dry leaf
4. Source of water (Crystal Springs)
5. Temperature
6. Heating material (Pyrex)
7. Steeping time

Heating the water in microwave:

Heating the water in kettle:

Brewing the tea:

I was not trying to prove anything by conducting this experiment. My goal with the experiment was simply to have a good time and to get some friends together to drink tea in an unusual format.

Most of us agree that natural elements are the key to brewing great tea, therefore, regardless of my results I wouldn't recommend using microwaved water to brew tea. That being said, I am also a big fan of the scientific method, and entirely curious (and clueless) about how this experiment would turn out. My hypothesis going in was: "very close results, slightly favoring the kettle."

The first tea was White Peony (百牡丹), a delicate white tea from Fujian, China.

Taster / Microwave / Kettle:
Ms. Yellow / 4.97 / 4.99
Mr. Yellow / 7 / 6
Ms. Purple / 5 / 6.25
Ms. Pink / 5 / 7
Mr. Orange / 4 / 6
Mr. Blue / 6 / 5
Total Rating / 31.97 / 35.24

The second tea was Joh Sencha, a vibrant, fresh tasting green tea from Japan.

Taster / Microwave / Kettle:
Ms. Yellow / 3.02 / 3
Mr. Yellow / 6.25 / 5.75
Ms. Purple / 7 / 7
Ms. Pink / 5 / 6
Mr. Orange / 7 / 4
Mr. Blue / 6 / 5
Total Rating / 34.27 / 30.75

The third tea was a delicious Spring 2009 Wenshan Baozhong from Pinglin, Taiwan.

Taster / Microwave / Kettle:
Ms. Yellow / 6.5 / 6.52
Mr. Yellow / 7.33 / 5.33
Ms. Purple / 7 / 8
Ms. Pink / 8 / 4
Mr. Orange / 5.5 / 9
Mr. Blue / 8 / 9
Total Rating / 42.33 / 41.85

The final tea was Keemun Hao Ya A, a rich black tea from Anhui, China.

Taster / Microwave / Kettle:
Mrs. Yellow / 6.5 / 5
Mr. Yellow / 1.99 / 1.98
Ms. Purple / 4 / 4
Ms. Pink / 1 / 2
Mr. Orange / 7 / 4.5
Mr. Blue / 7 / 8
Total Rating / 27.49 / 25.48

These results show very close numbers with microwaved water winning 3 out of 4 times and a combined rating of 136.06 for microwave and 133.32 for kettle. Because these ratings are so close and the sample was so small, we cannot make any real claims based on my experiment (except maybe that Ms. Pink hates Keemun)... but they do make you think!

In the end, we all had a fun afternoon and made some new tea friends. Most of the volunteers shared my hypothesis and, like me, seemed to be a little surprised by the results of this blind tasting.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Teacup's July Tea Classes!

I am pleased to announce the two tea classes I will teach this month at Teacup!

Monday, July 13th - Introduction to Oolong Tea
In this class we will cover the basics of oolong tea history and production. We will also taste several oolongs from China and Taiwan and focus on their distinct flavor profiles. You will even receive tips for brewing oolong tea in the traditional Chinese Style.

Thursday, July 23th - Green Tea 101
In this class we will learn what to look for when you buy green tea and how to brew a perfect cup. We will also taste many famous green teas from China and Japan.

These evening classes will go from 7:00 to 8:00 pm and cost $2 per guest. They require a RSVP (it's sometimes OK to RSVP even on the same day!) You can RSVP anytime by visiting, calling or emailing the Teacup (206-283-5931), (, or by emailing me at I will let you know as new classes are scheduled, and please feel free to suggest a class idea on a subject you'd like to learn more about. I hope to see you soon at a class!