Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Taiwanese Bi Luo Chun

Sanxia (三峽) (sometimes spelled Sansia and San Hsia) is located roughly 20 km southwest of Taipei, Taiwan. This area produces quality green teas in both longjin (龍井) and bi luo chun (碧螺春) styles.

Last spring, my friend Israel sent me a generous sample of Tea Master's San Hsia Bi Luo Chun harvested March 15th 2012. Since that time, I have enjoyed several sessions with this green tea but I thought I had better post about it here on my tea blog (for the sake of posterity) before I drink it all up.

It doesn't look like its mainland cousin but it sure is a lovely tea.

I used a 100ml gaiwan, 2 grams of dry leaf, and freshly heated (not boiled) 160° F spring water. I did three infusion with these parameters. Each infusion was 2 minutes long. For the first infusion I left the lid off the gaiwan, but the next two were covered.

The tea poured a beautiful yellow color with a delicate buttery aroma that reminded me of steamed greens or artichokes. It also yielded very subtle ocean mist and wild flower aromas.

The flavor is different from the aroma. It is elusive but somehow compelling too. I find it to be a little bit nutty and a little bit grassy with gentle notes of cashews, sugar snap peas, vanilla and marshmallows. This tea is tasty and refreshing but if I'm having one of my "serious green tea cravings" (which happens quite often) it usually won't completely satisfy me because it is just too smooth and mellow.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Herbal Blends from Birds Eye Tea

Recently I received an email from Birds Eye Tea company asking if I'd be willing to review some of their products on my blog. I get similar emails fairly often but in the past I have always declined. Not this time though. I was intrigued, which was strange because they are an herbal tea company and my focus has always been on traditional tea made from the tea plant. That being said, I am interested in herbal beverages. Beyond the culinary realm, I really don't know much about plants and their many uses but I have been on a recent quest to learn more so Bird Eye's solicitation came at a good time for me.

After reading the email, I did some online research to see if I really wanted to review this company's blends. The first three things that attracted me to Birds Eye Tea were their logo, website and blog. The artwork has a smart, natural, d.i.y. feeling that appeals to me and their little bird logo makes me smile. From the blog, I learned that the proprietress, Sarah Farr, is a local Seattle herbalist who is extremely knowledgeable about plants. She uses both local ingredients (sometimes even forages for wild herbs herself) as well as more exotic ingredients such as Chinese herbs, real tea, and chocolate. I also like Birds Eye's business model which currently utilizes farmers markets, tasting events, etsy and a monthly subscription service to generate sales. Businesses such as this are almost always true labors-of-love and deserving of growth. For these reasons I agreed to review some of their blends.

One week later a box of goodness arrived at my house.

The box contained five blends and a tiny jar of DELICIOUS chai spiced honey. I've now tried all of the blends and offer the following humble reviews:

Floral Focus (Lightly oxidized Taiwanese oolong + Codonopsis + Osmanthus flowers)
The oolong tea base is actually high quality stuff. It's almost a shame to see it blended with the other ingredients. Fortunately its buttery, floral, refreshing goodness really shines through. The codonopsis adds a little earthiness to the flavor. I like!

Honeybush Spice (Honeybush + Cinnamon + Star Anis + Ginger + Cardamom + Orange zest + Licorice)
This blend is great. It was fine on its own but I'd probably only ever drink it with some soymilk and a touch of sweetener on a cold evening.

Slumbering Slope (Chamomile + Skullcap + Catnip + Spearmint + Rose + Licorice)
Sweet with fruity and grassy notes. Hippy bedtime tea. I like it. 

Awake (Yerba Mate + Tulsi + Bacopa + Spearmint + Currant)
Earthy and minty with a taste that reminded me somewhat of a chewable multi-vitamin. Not bad.

Xocolatl (Raw Cacao + Rose Petal + Chamomile + Spearmint + Ginger + Cinnamon + Star Anise + Chipotle powder + Roasted Cacao Nibs)
Yum! I liked this both straight and with soymilk and sweetener. The heat and spice from the ginger and chipotle are just right. Of the five, I see myself finishing this sample the fastest.

If you're into drinking herbal beverages or looking for a gift for a friend or family member who is, I would definitely recommend checking out Bird's Eye Tea.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pursuit of Yellow Tea

Lately I've been enjoying a beautiful yellow tea (黃茶) from Anhui, China called Huo Shan Huang Ya (霍山黃芽). I've heard the term "yellow tea" plenty of times over the past decade but the actual meaning of the term has remained nebulous in my mind. In their excellent book The Story of Tea, Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss write: "Tea experts outside of Asia have a difficult time explaining exactly what yellow tea is." That statement rings true for me. Although I'm nowhere near being called a tea expert, it's about time I learned how to properly describe yellow tea.

Huo Shan Huang Ya

I spent the afternoon doing some research and here is what I came up with.

Yellow tea, the majority of which is made high in the mountains of Anhui or Sichuan provinces, refers to a lesser known category of Chinese tea. It is a handmade tea produced similarly to green tea but it employs one additional production step known as menhuang (悶黃). Menhuang (literally "sealing yellow") is a tiny bit like the wodui (渥堆) (moist pile) step involved in the production of shu puer (熟普洱). During menhuang the tender young leaves will be wrapped with cloth or paper and kept moist and warm for the appropriate length of time (ranging from a few hours to a few days). Sometimes they are also stored in wooden boxes. The leaves will actually turn yellow (or at the least yellow-ish green) during this step.

The deeper I go into my research, the more I become conflicted. Seven Cups (an American tea company that I greatly trust) claims that "there are only three kinds of yellow tea that survive today." They go on to say that Huo Shan Huang Ya (the tea I'm sipping as I write this blog post) used to be a famous yellow tea, but is now only available as a green tea. Apparently there is a subcategory of green teas called luzhen (緑針) (green needle) that often becomes mixed up with yellow tea.

Whether I'm drinking a true yellow tea or a green needle tea, I really like this Huo Shan Huang Ya. It has a gentle, sweet, nutty flavor that tastes more mature than many green teas. I've also heard that yellow teas store well and may even be amenable to careful aging. Because of this I'm very eager to learn about (and taste!) more of them.

The Story of Tea by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss
Tea Dictionary by James Norwood Pratt
How Yellow Tea is Produced by Peony Tea S.
About Yellow Tea by Seven Cups
Babelcarp by Lew Perin

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Flowering Tea Plant

This photo shows the healthiest of my three backyard tea plants. It is currently flowering. You can see two pretty little tea flowers and five or six more blossoms soon to open up.