Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cha Xi

Cha Xi (茶席) generally refers to an artfully arranged tea session or tea ceremony. Several beautiful books about Cha Xi exist in Chinese, but outside of Taiwan the concept is still little known. If you're new to Cha Xi, I invite you to do a Google Image search for "茶席" to view hundreds of enlightening photos. I'd also suggest you read the wonderful and inspirational Tea Masters blog where author Stéphane Erler has been writing about Cha Xi and sharing lovely tea photos and stories with readers for many years now.

A mentor of mine, Thomas Shu, recently informed me that Cha Xi seems to be growing more popular among Taiwanese tea lovers. We discussed which English words, if any, could capture the meaning of Cha Xi as the practice begins to make its way to the West.

I had a hard time coming up with any great ideas. Cha of course, means tea, while Xi (according to the online Chinese-English dictionary means: banquet, woven mat, seat, or place in a democratic assembly. None of those words accurately expresses the concept in my opinion. I personally kind of like the translation "tea gala" but I would gladly welcome other suggestions from any readers who are fluent in Chinese, English and Tea.

If this idea of Cha Xi is new to you and my post has inspired you to try using it to enhance your own tea brewing, here are four tips I've collected to help you get started:

1. Incorporate elements of nature. Try moving the tea session outside or even just opening a window with a nice view. If that's not possible bring nature to your tea table. A bouquet of flowers is always a nice touch, but rocks, shells or other found items can be just as beautiful when they're displayed cleverly.

2. Try using a favorite mat or cloth to help set the stage for tea. Sometimes a shallow bowl or a cool stand is a better fit than your normal gongfu tray. Think outside the box. A man in Taiwan once served me tea over a rustic tray filled with golden sand and little flat stones on which he rested his teapot and cups.

3. Choose teaware that will resonate with you and your guests for aesthetic and sentimental reasons. You can do this by sharing some stories about your teaware and by having a unifying theme for your session.

Which brings me to my last tip....

4. Have a unifying theme that ties together your Cha Xi. For example: seasons, the weather, or even a special holiday. More esoteric themes such as an element, a song or a color are also possibilities, so use your imagination.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

League of Pots #28

Code Name: Panther (豹)

Material: Black Clay
Height: 10 cm
Length (handle to spout): 15 cm
Volume: 440 ml
Weight: 315 g

Brews: Hong Cha (紅茶)
Specialty: Big Leafed Taiwanese Hong Cha
Story: I found Panther last month at a south Seattle rummage sale for just $1. He appears to have never been used.
Super Powers: Panther is a ninja assassin who can transform into a "dark shadow cat" which allows him to sneak undetected into any place, and even go through the cracks underneath doors.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

30 Years Old

My friend John H. recently returned from two weeks in Taiwan. One of the many tea houses he visited, Water Moon Grass (水月草堂), sounds like a particularly posh establishment and has a good reputation for aged teas.

I am a truly lucky guy because John gave me a small bag of 30 year old loose-leaf puer tea that he purchased at Water Moon Grass. The tea is from Tong Qing Hao (同慶號), a business that is said to be 272 years old.

I think this tea is one of the most complex and delicious puer teas that I have ever tasted. It is dark, rich, earthy, sweet and ever-so-luscious. The aroma teases notes of potato, ginseng and soil while the broth delivers ripe stone fruit, cocoa and malt. The aftertaste is clean, sweet and long-lasting and the effect on my body is serene and comfortable.

This ripe old tea and I have already shared 3 wonderful sessions with our friends and family but I did save one last serving just for today. Now I shall toast the start of my thirties with a tea the same vintage as myself.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Organic Winter Shibi Oolong tea

My friend Nicole (the same generous, globe-trekking tea lover that gave me the Indonesian Teh, Ba Bao Cha and Tibetan tea) has recently started her own tea business called Green Leaf Tea Company.

Today I'm going to review one of her new offerings called Organic Winter 2010 Shibi (石壁) Oolong tea.

Shibi is a small township in Taiwan's Yunlin (雲林) county where the organic tea farm is located. Last year Nicole spent a little time working on this farm, so it could be said that she helped care for the plants whose leaves I'm now drinking!

Here is what Nicole says about this tea: "The small family owned farm is nestled in the mountains near Alishan near the Gu-keng township of Yu lin county. The tea is grown at 1,500 meters, and is Taiwan Agriculture and Food Traceability System Certified (TAP - Taiwanese certification). Their farm does not have organic certification because of the cost (because are a small family owned farm many can't afford the certification). However, she does follow organic practices and uses no pesticides (which I can personally attest to). This farm is the only one in her immediate tea growing area, and thus is trying to set the example to her neighbors." I'm hoping to learn more about all of this and read some of her travel stories when she begins writing her own tea blog.

The dry leaves are vibrant, green, and beautiful with lots of long fat stems. They have a delicate floral pine forest aroma.

I was lucky enough to be given about an ounce of this tea, so I had a little wiggle room to experiment with different brewing methods. What I came to learn, at least for my own taste, is that this tea likes it hot. First I tried it in a bowl with a spoon and it was awesome with lots of fragrance, then I tried it in a glass gaiwan but it was lackluster and I just couldn't coax out all of the aroma or the mouth-feel that I wanted. Then I tried it in a small thick clay teapot set within a bowl of hot water with boiling hot water used for every pour, and it was truly transcendent. It makes since to me that this tea would like such hot water because these leaves are so thick and strong.

I poured 8 wonderful infusions each with a nice, complex, heady, floral, aroma. My tasting notes included: sugarcane, rose, bamboo, coconut milk and nectar. I really enjoyed this tea and I'm still enjoying its aftertaste hours later.

Nicole is currently selling this tea ($6 for 25 grams) and welcomes any orders or queries at

She also gave me a sample of a Summer 2010 Hong Cha made on the same tea farm which I'll be reviewing soon!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Garden Tour Spring 2011

Our house is a very very very fine house...
with two raised beds in the yard...

...and two kids too!

Here's our newest garden (still under construction).
It's home to the blueberries and the tea.

Welcome to Potatoville.

Here is our back deck, apple tree and two Rainier cherry trees.

And this is the new strawberry patch!

How about a little peek under our umbrella-shaped birch tree...

...where you'll find a little stump table and a fiery red rhododendron in bloom.

On the left we have peas, nasturtiums, cilantro and green beans.
On the right we have lettuce, kale, beets, onions and carrots.

Yum Yum.

The sun is shining and the lilacs are blooming.
Spring is officially here.

And let's not forget my two tea plants.
They had a pretty rough winter and I don't plan to make any tea this season.
I'm sure they'll be fine...

... and here is my proof!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tips for Buying Yixing Clay Teapots

A few of my readers recently asked me for some advice on where to buy Yixing (宜興) clay teapots here in North America. Each of these potential buyers did not want to spend a lot of money and they wanted pots that they could use often (rather than just sitting on a shelf looking pretty). They also appeared to have already done a fair amount of online research and had run across tons of (sometimes contradictory) information and a baffling array of options and prices.

So for those readers and any others who might be interested, here are my tips for buying Yixing clay teapots:

1. Buy teapots that appeal to you aesthetically, feel well made and balanced, and pour well. Easier said than done eh?

2. Buy local if possible. Small retail tea businesses are truly a wonderful thing and deserving of local support. If you live near a place that sells Yixing teapots you should feel really lucky. Ask the buyer where they get their stock. Some may import directly (which is wonderful) while others will wholesale from larger domestic distributors (such as a notable Bay area company called CCCI). There is really nothing too special about these mass produced teapots but they can still be a good choice if they look nice, pour well and are well priced.

3. Buy used. This might be a controversial tip when talking about a porous, flavor absorbing, highly personal item such as Yixing clay. (Sort of like buying used underwear.) But I'm a big fan of thrift stores, antique stores, garage sales and rummage sales and you really never know what is going to turn up. All I'm saying is keep your eyes open. Even if the teapot is well used it may still brew great tea or be otherwise salvageable... and for just a couple dollars it is probably worth the risk. You could even get lucky and score a well seasoned treasure. Also, sometimes clueless people will receive unwanted teapots as gifts, never use them, and then just give them away. In fact, just last weekend, I found such a pot for $1 at a rummage sale. I am drinking Alishan out of it as I type this. It looks like a panther. I'll add it to my League of Pots later this month.

4. Who said you have to "buy" anything. No, I'm not suggesting you go out and steal a teapot, but there may be other ways for you to score your dream pot. If you have a marketable skill, art or craft, perhaps you could make a trade with another tea loving friend (including an online tea friend). If that's not going to work, you could always start dropping hints with friends and family around Christmas or your birthday.

5. Don't buy teaware at a corporate chain store (especially if it's in a mall). This last tip is just my own personal opinion. You're invited to do your own research about individual stores and make up your own mind about where to spend your own money.

I hope some readers will find this post to be a useful tool. I'm certainly no expert on this hugely intricate subject and I'd really appreciate it if some of my truly Yixing savvy readers would add more helpful comments. I'm also inviting readers and trustworthy vendors to share links to themselves or their own favorite places to buy Yixing teapots.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Kenya White Rhino Matcha

Today I tasted a tea that I'd never tried before, in fact before last week I'd never even heard of it. It's called "Kenya White Rhino Matcha" and it was imported by a well regarded, Can-Am outfit called Metropolitan Tea Company.

The Rhino (as I've come to call her) is a Kenya grown white tea that has been powdered like matcha. The powder...

...which looks like this...

...has a very nice, heady, fresh, white tea aroma. I tasted a tiny bit with my finger and it was very bitter.

I used a small, level, half teaspoon, of powder (about what I wound use when I whip myself a bowl of regular matcha) and about 4 ounces of 180° water. I'm certainly not a skilled matcha whipper, but I gave it my best, and the result looked and smelled pleasant.

Ick... way too bitter... like badly over steeped yinzhen (銀針) (silver needle white tea) (think 30 minutes, with boiling water and too much leaf). It was undrinkable and just two sips made me feel shaky.

I cut the amount of tea powder down to about 1/8 flat teaspoon (almost like a "finger nail" amount") and tried again with 160° water. Ah... much better flavor for me. It was a bit too weak and watery but I think that an experienced matcha whipper could probably coax out a little more body and sweetness.

If you've ever had a decent Indian or African white tea you can sort of guess at the flavor profile. I really struggled to put my taste perception into words with this tea so I'm just going to stick with "malty and grassy."

I didn't love the Rhino, nor the shaky, "not-mellow-buzz" that she left me with... but I did find her to be a very interesting and worthwhile beverage. Has anybody else ever tried any powdered white teas?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Teacup Tea Classes - May 2011

I am very happy to present one tea class this month at Teacup (2128 Queen Anne Ave. N. Seattle, WA, 98109).

Thursday, May 12, 2011 - 7:00 to 8:00 pm
Tea Tour of Japan - In this class we'll focus on the production, history and customs behind Japan's many delicious green teas. We will also use traditional Japanese tea ware for a more authentic experience.

My tea classes are great for tea lovers of all levels, so feel free to bring a friend or family member that you'd like to "get hooked" on tea. The cost is $3 per guest and a RSVP is required. The money for this one class will not be kept by Teacup, instead it will be donated to Tsunami relief in Japan. You may 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!