Wednesday, October 28, 2009

60 Year Old Baozhong Stems

In May 2008, while tasting fresh spring Wenshan Baozhong tea (文山包種茶) with my friend Amin (阿民) in Pinglin (坪林) Taiwan, I asked my host "What is the oldest tea you have here?" Amin thought I wouldn't be interested but he answered "60 year old baozhong stems (包種梗)." I had him write out the number 60 because I wasn't sure that I had heard him right. Amin's dad (who I'd estimate was only in his mid-fifties) also told me that he thinks these stems are around 60 years old. After tasting them and considering the price (relatively cheap) I decided to buy about 5 pounds of them. My thinking was that some old tea enthusiasts (aka fellow puer nerds) or outdoorsy types (aka fellow hippies) might think these stems are pretty cool and, like myself, may enjoy their unique flavor.

This is what they look like.

It took me just over a year to sell out these stems (compare that to the myriad other oolongs that I imported, most of which sold out in just 2 to 4 months). I did however keep one 300 gram bag of these stems for myself and I do drink them from time to time.

I've found that the best way to brew these 60 year old stems is to toss a pinch of stems into a rustic looking bowl. Steep them for as long as you like using boiling hot water. This tea (like most good teas) responds particularly well to natural elements like wood and stone. For best results guys may want to grow a beard before sipping this tea and girls may want to wear something hand knitted. Also, if you have any rocks, nuts, leaves, shells or small bones lying around your house... it would be a good idea to gather them around you while you drink.

The flavor of these 60 year old stems is fantastic (in my humble opinion) but I can easily imagine it being a bit off-putting for some tea drinkers. When I asked my friend Lin Xiuyue (林秀月) in Yingge (鶯歌) Taiwan (who has a fantastic palate for high mountain tea) what she thought of aged stems, she answered by making a "yuck face."

The first sip is earthy, very very earthy... but after several sips the sweetness will start to appear. It tastes like roots with faint hints of licorice, ginseng and old-growth-forest-soil. If you drink this tea slowly while standing in one place for too long I imagine that roots may grow out of your feet and anchor you to the ground (which may or may not be such a bad thing). To me, this tea reveals a happy, and hospitable personality that reminds me of hobbits.

The liquor after about a five minute steep.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Green Tea Flavor Project - SEAWEED

Fellow tea blogger Jason Walker recently came across an interesting research experiment conducted at the University of Kansas' Sensory Analysis Center. The experiment identified 31 different flavor attributes found in the 138 loose-leaf green teas randomly and blindly cupped by the study's participants. These 31 flavor attributes can be seen in Table 1 of A Lexicon for Flavor Descriptive Analysis of Green Tea (I am currently checking if it is possible to link to this study).

After reading the study results, Jason proposed a collaboration among members of the Association of Tea Bloggers to pick one flavor attribute and then prepare, photograph and evaluate an infusion based on the information in the study. I chose SEAWEED, defined in the article as: "the aromatics associated with shellfish, fresh fish and ocean vegetation." The study referenced a specific brand of "brown seaweed" that I couldn't find so I used kombu (which, along with wakame, is a type of brown seaweed). The study goes on to say: "Use 1 gram of seaweed with 300 mL {I'm assuming boiling} water. Let it sit for 10 minutes."

1 gram of seaweed. Check.

Steep for 1o minutes in 300 mL water. Check.

The resulting brew:

In that last photo it just looks likes plain water but it did have a little bit of a greenish-yellow tint when held in the right light. The taste was not nearly as oceanic as the smell (which could be a little hard to get past) but once the liquor was on my tongue I felt rewarded by its thick, umami mouth feel. It had a wonderful buttery, brothy flavor with notes of minerals and sand.

I have cupped tea with people in the past who identified a light oceanic or fishy taste in some teas while I did not. I imagine that if a green tea I was sipping had such an intense oceanic aroma or taste I would be pretty turned off by it. Tea grows in the mountains and seaweed grows in the ocean... and that's the way it should be! But that buttery, thick, smooth flavor (that I found to be very intense in the seaweed infusion) is one I have noted in several fantastic green teas such as high quality gyokuro tea from Japan and super fresh taiping houkui (太平猴魁) green tea from China. I believe part of this may come from a higher amount of theanine in these types of tea.

In closing, I am glad to have tasted an infusion of seaweed and look forward to reading the other bloggers' posts about their own flavor experiments! I will add the links to the other blogs as they are posted.
10/19/09 Walker Tea Review - Parsley
11/7/09 Tea Pages - Asparagus

And after the experiment... I ate the seaweed. Yum.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

阿里山 日出商店 綠觀音茶

In my recent post Alishan Photo Gallery, I talked a little bit about drinking tea at the Sun Rise Tea Shop (日出商店). Sun Rise is one of several open air tea shops specializing in Alishan High Mountain Oolong Tea (阿里山高山烏龍茶) located in Zhong Zheng Village (中正村). It has a beautiful wooden tea bar that is stained and shiny from years of tea brewing. According to Ming Chuang (a photo of whom can be seen in my Tea Basics - Oolong post) the shop sources most of its tea from Shizhuo (石桌) which it then roasts in the shop to create a handful of signature products. Because of this the tea shop always has this amazing smell of baked oolong and sweet mountain air.

Ming Chuang has a special technique that adds a bit of razzle-dazzle to his tea brewing. He brews the tea in a large lid-less gaiwan which he fills about one quarter full with dry leaf. Then he smoothly pours in boiling hot water from his big steel kettle to whip the leaves into a cyclone. The gaiwan is filled to the point where it is almost about to overflow and the "skin" of the hot water is bulging over the edge but not breaking loose. Next he takes two Asian soup spoons from a pitcher of hot water and uses the spoons to break the surface tension of the water thus making a dramatic fountain. After this he'll mix the leaves gently with both spoons like he's tossing a salad. At this point he will offer his guests the spoons to smell and pour the tea soup into a decanter before serving. I tried several times to get a good video of myself preparing tea in this style but I was unable to do it justice. However, I did just manage to spill a whole gaiwan of tea all over my pants. You'll just have to settle for this picture for now.

My favorite tea at Sun Rise is (usually) their "Green Guanyin (綠觀音)" which is a high mountain oolong using the Tie Guanyin (鐵觀音) tea cultivar. It has a slightly higher oxidization level and amount of roasting than many Alishan teas. The tea yields a clean, fruity high-mountain taste with a warming, nutty finish. I have recently broken into my last 150 grams of this tea which I purchased in May, 2008.

The 綠觀音's dry leaf and its original train canister.
(Trains are a very popular mascot for Alishan tea.)

The 綠觀音's liquor

Good quality baked oolongs such as this one are very satisfying this time of year.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Varietal or Cultivar?

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of attending Yoon Hee Kim's presentation "Tea 101: From Garden to Cup" at the Northwest Tea Festival. I was heartened to learn that all of the basic tea information I have been imparting to my clients is congruent with Yoon Hee's. But there was one minor difference... for the past five years I have always used the word "varietal" when describing the many specific types of tea plants grown to produce various teas. Tie Guanyin (鐵觀音), Shui Xian (水仙), Qing Xin (青心), Jin Xuan (金萱), and Fo Shou (佛手) are just a few examples of the numerous types that currently exist. In her presentation, Yoon Hee chose the words "hybrids" and "cultivars" to describe these subcategories of Camellia sinensis*. After doing some botanical research, I now feel like these words are more accurate, so I plan to switch from varietal to cultivar when talking about these distinct tea types.

* Camellia sinensis is the species name for the tea plant. This species appears to have two major varieties Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Teacup Tea Classes - October 2009

This month I will present these 3 tea classes at Teacup (2128 Queen Anne Ave. N. Seattle, WA, 98109):

Wednesday, October 14th 7:00 to 8:00 pm
Herbal Tea Tasting Party - In this class we will taste and discuss ten exciting, healthy and unique herbal blends. These tasty brews are naturally caffeine free and very aromatic. This class would be great for kids and people who avoid caffeine, but even drinkers of pure traditional tea may learn something at this tasting party!

Thursday, October 22nd 7:00 to 8:00 pm
Introduction to Green Tea - In this class we will learn what to look for when you buy green tea and how to brew a perfect cup or pot. We will also discuss the health benefits and production methods of many famous green teas from China and Japan.

Monday, October 26nd 7:00 to 8:00 pm
Exotic Tea Tasting - In this class we will taste some rare, special and exotic teas from many different countries such as Silver Needle white tea, First flush Nepalese black tea, Moroccan mint green tea and aged pu-erh tea. While we sip these fine teas we will discuss tea drinking traditions from many distant lands.

These evening classes will go from 7:00 to 8:00 pm and cost $3 per guest. They require a RSVP (it's sometimes OK to RSVP even on the same day!) You can RSVP anytime by visiting or calling 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!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Alishan Photo Gallery

The Alishan (阿里山) Forest Recreation Area located in central Taiwan's Chiayi county (嘉義縣) is a beautiful and serene place to visit. The main town, called Zhong Zheng village (中正村) (more commonly known as Alishan Village), is basically a big parking lot adjacent to a bus station, train station, visitor center, gift shops, and restaurants. This area can seem a little bit crowded and touristy, especially when the cherry blossoms are blooming, but I find it charming. There are lots of nice hotels around Zhong Zheng village, but you can also find comfortable homestays and hostels nearby.

The real draw for me is the sweet, clean air and lush green forests that surround the town. There are also a couple of great tea shops such as "Sun Rise Tea Shop" run by my friend Ming Chuang. The tea prices in Zhong Zheng village are understandably higher compared to an actual tea farm, but they are negotiable.

Because the Alishan Forest Recreation Center is over 2000 meters elevation, the temperature can get a little cold. When I went in January, the nighttime temperature hit freezing and many tourists were taking photos of themselves in front of a large digital thermometer in the center of town. The next morning everyone was taking pictures of the ice on their windshields.

If you are a fan of trains, sun rises, forests, cherry blossoms, hiking and/or high mountain oolong, I would definitely recommend a trip to this very scenic and relaxing alpine area.

Here is a photo gallery of pictures taken in the area. Photos with a * were taken by my friends David and Gwen who traveled with me in May, 2008.

Cool tile art*

Foggy Afternoon*

Sunrise and Sea of Clouds*

Tasting Sun Rise Tea Shop's
"Green Guanyin" Alishan High Mountain oolong*

Tasting oolong at Sun Rise Tea Shop*

The little old forestry train roundin' the bend*

Sunrise and Cloud Sea*

Dramatic Mountains*

High Mountain Cliffs in Fog*


Sea of Clouds*

Old hotel in the rain*

Crags and cliffs*

Here comes the sun*

Misty foggy trail*

Incredible Cloud Sea*

Zhong Zheng Village:

Fog rolling in*

Sunrise with fellow pilgrims

Classic peace sign pose with Cherry blossoms!

Rolling down the line

Zhong Zheng village in the rain

Zhong Zheng in the rain 2