of the Lazy Literatus

Month: November 2013

Nan Nuo – My Favorite Mountain

Anyone that’s developed some sort of taste for tea starts to identify flavors with places. As palates develop, so do preferences for terroir – i.e. the characteristics tea plants take on based upon their geography. Where do Assams get their malt, or Darjeelings their muscatel notes? Why do Hawaiian teas tend to have fruit-sweet/tropical sensations on tongues? Part of the answer is where the tea is grown. I just so happen to have a favorite mountain.

Image mooched from JalamTeas.com

Image mooched from JalamTeas.com

Back in ’05, I had no liking for pu-erhs at all. At. All. It took a raw pu-erh from an unassuming mountain located in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province, China to convince me otherwise. I first had it in ’08; the tea was an ’05 – aged three years. It tasted like herbal wine with a dab of lemon. In mere moments, my palate changed. The words “Nan Nuo Shan” – “shan” meaning “mountain” – became a buzzword for me.

One could say that said tea was a fluke, but my foray into the tea review game proved otherwise. Every loose maocha (proto-pu-erh), sheng, beengcha (cake) and kitchen sink from that mountain had a profile that I liked. The best part? They could take a Western-style brew-beating. Before I even knew what “gongfu” was, I knew how much I liked teas from Nan Nuo.

I just didn’t realize how little I actually knew about the mountain until running across JalamTeas. For those that haven’t heard of them, they’re a relatively new pu-erh subscription service. Every month, they send out new pu-erhs from areas around Yunnan province. How can they possibly do that? you ask. Well, pipe down, I’ll tell you.

They have a man on the inside, or at least someone who visits Yunnan proper very frequently. I must say, I wasn’t familiar with author/mountaineer/explorer – Jeff Fuchs – before JalamTeas.


But the more I read, the more fascinated I became. To sum him up in Internet terms, he’s basically the Bear Grylls of tea.


He was the first Western explorer to cross the Ancient Tea Horse Road and the Tsalam. Never heard of the latter, but it has something to do with salt. A salt road, of some sort. I think. Moving along.

JalamTeas’s model was simple: Mr. Fuchs visits a place that produces pu-erh, he writes up a bio about said pu-erh, and then makes it available. Rinse, repeat, once per month. Brilliant, really. The tea bios themselves are rather in-depth, and sometimes video accompanies the write-ups and photos taken. Thus making the overall experience more well-rounded.

Fellow tea blogger – Nicole “Tea For Me Please” Martin, whom I seem to mention in a lot of my origin stories – did a write-up about JalamTeas’ March offering – a Nan Nuo beencha produced by the native Hani people of said mountain. That led me to zap an e-mail  to JalamTeas HQ to acquire a tea cake.

I got both a reply from their Yunnan source – Jeff Fuchs himself – and from their co-founder – Allen Leftick. The replies were along the lines of:


Okay, maybe less Izzardian, but still…I was excited.

I received the – not one, but two – cakes in the mail following my return from World Tea Expo in June. And in true me-like fashion…I didn’t break into either cake until…um…several months later. Well, I was busy. Yes, I felt bad. But in November, I finally unwrapped one of ‘em. Yep, right before Thanksgiving. Same week, actually.

I had some difficulty getting the damn thing unwrapped. Although, to be fair, I was never good at unwrapping presents deftly. The brand sticker on the back wouldn’t let up, even for a slow tear. It took the pu-erh wrapping with it no matter what angle I chose to peel. The results were…well…expected.


That said, once I got it unwrapped, I was greeted by a lovely li’l beeng of compressed leaves – some lighter colored than others. The aroma was straight earth and wilderness dipped in sweet white wine. It smelled like how I expected it to, if not younger.


Using my pu-erh stabby-thingy (I still don’t know the proper name for it), I cut off roughly a tablespoon-sized chunk of the cake for brewing. JalamTeas recommended at least 8 grams of leaves per serving, but I didn’t have any way on-hand to measure that out exactly.

The infusion times were what I expected – short brew times (fifteen-to-twenty seconds to start), and add ten seconds to each additional steep. I went with three infusions to start with – the first at twenty seconds. Ten seconds for each additional; last one at forty. I sipped the pre-wash, but that was a bad idea.

After pouring three infusions, the first thing I noticed was a smell of grapes on the nose emanating from the cups. The second was the lack of difference in color in all three liquors. All were light amber and welcoming. No shift in shade. All three were spry, fruity to the palate, earthy, slightly grassy, and…young-seeming. At their current level of maturity, they tasted like a full-bodied Taiwanese green tea, rather than a pu-erh.


That is in no way a negative. Far from it. I’ve tasted a few young pu-erhs in my time. Some have a mature character right out of the starting gate, others feel rough and young. This one had character. It had all the right aspects of Nan Nuo Shan in play, but in the early stages. Even a novice pu-erh drinker could tell this was going to get better as years went on, but recognized its greatness early on. In short: A talented youngster.

A few days down the line, I even tore off a piece and took it to work with me. No proper gongfu brewing; just a tea travel mug with a mesh. It handled a neglectful Western approach perfectly. Not only that, it was thirst-quenching. Tea is many things, thirst-quenching ain’t one of ‘em.

If my first impression to a tea is “My God”…then it’s on the right path. I’m just glad JalamTeas gifted me with a second cake to revisit in a few years’ time. My gratitude is endless.


Smoked Tea with Friends

Days like this are frustrating. One casually glances around at different tea vendors, and then…it happens. There is a particular tea that catches the eye and doesn’t let the gaze turn away.

That was my reaction to Norbu Tea’s Jin Xuan Xiao Zhong. (Try saying that name three times fast.) The extensive bio said everything I wanted in a tea. From Taiwan? Check. Jin Xuan cultivar? Check. Smoked over sugarcane? Wait…what?!

Yes, this was a sugarcane-smoked black tea from Taiwan, utilizing the Jin Xuan cultivar of tea plant. Said cultivated variety is usually used for oolongs of the same name, particularly Taiwan’s answer to Quanzhou Milk Oolong. I hadn’t had a black tea made from the cultivar, let alone a smoked black from it. My tiny brain knew about pinewood smoked black teas (the typical Lapsang Souchongs), oak-smoked oolongs, and cinnamon-smoked teas, but this was new and unique. And as all three of you readers know, I like “new and unique”. It’s kinda my thing.

I picked some up a week later. Got to brewing that night. This was one subtle and resilient S.O.B of a tea. Like a ninja mime that was accidentally lit on fire. It was smoky yet sweet, floral yet malty – all juxtaposition, but with a bit of a bite. That and it lasted three solid Western infusions.


Norbu’s Greg Glancy, however, passed on an interesting tip: I should try it gongfu-style and compare. That seemed like a worthy enough approach, but then an odd thought hit me. I didn’t want to do this alone. This required spectators and additional commentary.

I put out an invite to friend’s PDX Tea’s David and Blackstone Hermitage’s Danica. The former was always worthwhile company for trying weird teas, the latter was a staunch Lapsang Souchong fan. Perfect chorus for a cupping session.


The first phase of the “plan” was to pick up David before said session. Danica agreed to host us at The Blackstone Hermitage, David’s duty was brewing equipment, and I…well…brought the tea. I arrived early on David’s side of town and had roughly an hour to kill.

While wandering the block, I spotted a brewery accidentally. Yes, I had not intended on that. Stop looking at me like that! To make time go by faster, I tried a few of Base Camp Brewing’s samplers. One of which was a stout…with a marshmallow in it. No wonder they dubbed it “S’more”. And the odd combination worked entirely too well.

Basecamp Marshmallow

That successfully annihilated the time, and I headed back over to David’s block. First, I went back to my car to check on the teas, update various social networks about the weird stout I just had, and so on. Then I closed the door…with my keys in the car.

I walked over to David’s and explained the situation. We went to my car, and I proceeded to call locksmiths and different outlets provided by my insurance company. All the while, two homeless people kept commenting about how much they wanted my shoes.

Note to homeless people: Don’t do that. It’s creepy.

At one point, David and I even tried to beg a AAA office to throw me a bone. They weren’t having any of it, though. Apparently, we tea men look threatening, or something.

Eventually, I got a hold of my insurance’s roadside assistance hotline. (Dunno why it took me so long.) And we headed off to the Blackstone Hermitage.

Danica greeted us when we arrived, supplied me with a parking pass, and we headed in. First thing I marveled at was how clean her place was. It made me wonder why I couldn’t keep a room so in order for more than a day. I have a problem, I guess. But back to tea…


I don’t remember exactly how many infusions we did, but the Jin Xuan Xiao Zhong lasted us a good two hours. Dave kept the hot water coming, and the leaves held up each and every time. Smoky sweetness didn’t let up until the last three infusions or so, remaining steady throughout. While I preferred doing it the Western way (for strength’s sake), this was a close second, if only for resilience alone.

In addition to the Jin Xuan Xiao Xhong, I also brought two aged oolongs that Norbu Tea had provided me. One was a 1983 Tie Guan Yin Greg used to carry, the other – one we went with – was a Baozhong of indeterminate age. Greg even said as much on the bag:


(Personal stash – not a website tea.)

Late-70s (?) – Early 90s (No way to tell) Baozhong

They told me 1970s, and an expert in Taipei said maybe late 80s to early 90s. Who cares? It tastes good. 🙂

To measure that tea in taster notes would be unfairly futile. There are no words for how wonderful it was. I can only sum it up with Danica’s reaction: It made her cry. Tears of joy, of course.

Good and tea drunk, we called it a night with promises of future tastings. That has yet to happen, but it’s kind of comforting knowing that you can count upon tea friends for impromptu tea tastings for the sake of “science”. Unique smoked teas, aged oolongs and friends.

There were far worse ways to spend a Friday. I could’ve been locked out of my car with a marshmallow-dolloped, smoked teabeer in my hand. Wait. That sounds awesome.


Tandem Tastings and Tea Moment Tags.

I was originally saving this blog space for a totally different write-up, but two occurrences have sidelined that extended anecdote. First was the advent of another Tandem Tea Tasting via Google+ Hangout, and the second…was a blog tag. And I’m not one to ever turn down either. As such, priori-“tea” dictates that I cover those before anything else.

Tandem du Hammam

It was that time again – time for another tandem tasting…over the Internet. For this session, the decided-upon tea was an offering from Palais Des Thés dubbed Thé du Hammam. (That’s a LOT of accents for one sentence.) It was a Turkish-inspired blend, or so the site implied.

13 - 1

At first, I wasn’t even sure I had the damn tea. My room’s tea corner was getting a little crowded, and I didn’t know if that particular tea sample – graciously provided by Jo “A Gift of Tea” Johnson – had been lost in the move back in June.


Luckily, I found it in the “new tea” grocery back. Yes, that’s how limited my organizational system is at the moment. Shush.

The usual suspects were all in attendance – Nicole, Jo, hostess Rachel, and Darlene. We all gave our impressions of the tea, but then quickly moved on to other subjects – namely overly-expensive oolongs and Lapsang Souchong variants. Rachel also showed us her brand new spawn – Ethan “ASOM!” Carter. Adorable li’l pup, he was.

Not sure how it happened, but the Hangout lasted for almost three hours. We started at 6PM, and I didn’t shut off my phone until well after 8:30PM. Subjects of discussion were a blur, but part of it was spent treasure-hunting tea sources in Taiwan. That. Was. Fun. So need to do that again.

All in all, one of the more lively Tandem episodes I’ve attended.


Cast of Characters:

Jo Johnson – A Gift of Tea/Scandalous Tea

Nicole Martin – Tea for Me Please

Rachel Carter – I Heart Teas

Darlene Meyers-Perry – Tea Lover’s Archive/Tea Enthusiast’s Scrapbook

Tagged by a Tea Moment

Recently, I was tagged by Jen over at An International Tea Moment to answer a series  of “origin story” questions about the beginnings of my tea journey. I can never say “no” to a good tagging.


(1) First, let’s start with how you were introduced and fell in love with the wonderful beverage of tea.

It’s…kind of an embarrassing and inappropriate story. And in true TMI fashion, I’ve already told it in full detail HERE.

Short version: It all started with male enhancement products.

(2) What was the very first tea blend you ever tried?

Stash’s Moroccan Mint. I was on a quest to find a green tea that I liked, and I hadn’t really developed a palate for…grass. Moroccan Mint was the first thing I came across that made me go, Hrm, I could get used to this.

(3) When did you start your tea blog and what was your hope for creating it?

The first tea blog I ever wrote was actually posted on Myspace back in ’07. That led me to seek out a tea review site (Teaviews) to contribute to. I made a few tea-related posts on my personal website, but they never quite “fit” with the rest of my geek rants. So, I opened up Steep Stories on Tea Trade in April of ’11.

When I started, I had no aim for the blog. Still kinda don’t.  Slowly but surely, though, the articles started focusing on teas with unique stories to them. And that’s the niche I stuck with. Mostly…-ish.

To explore strange, new teas.


(4) List one thing most rewarding about your blog and one thing most discouraging.

Encouraging: I seem to have developed a bit of a name for myself in the tea community, and I owe it all to the blog. Some even look at me as an authority of some sort. (Shhhh! Don’t tell ’em the truth!)

Discouraging: Readership. As in, there isn’t one. Tea is such a niche subject still, no matter how many claim that it’s entered the mainstream. Most normal folks aren’t interested in reading stories centered around a “dead leaf beverage”. Let alone from a man. So, finding an audience has been the most discouraging aspect.

Still looking.

(5) What type of tea are you most likely to be caught sipping on?

It changes with the season, but recently I’ve been on a full-on oolong kick. I have a relatively stressful (and low-paying) job. And I need all the “happy” I can get. Oolong is instant happy juice.

(6) Favorite tea latte to indulge in?

London Fog. Earl Grey concentrate blended with steamed milk and vanilla syrup. Nothing like it.


(7) Favorite treat to pair with your tea?

Del Taco.

(8) If there was one place in the world that you could explore tea culture at, where would it be and why?

The entire planet. I want to go on an international trip exploring every weird tea region I can. And hopefully die in a tea drunken stupor in the process – naked on some “shan” in Yunnan province, China.

(9) Any tea time ritual you have that you’d like to share?

Before I head to work, I tend to brew tea by the pint. Two teaspoons in 16-oz. of water. I have a preference for teas that can put up with a lot of neglect. Sometimes, I’ll leave a tea steeping while I’m in the shower. Then I’ll drink it on the go.

(10) Time of day you enjoy drinking tea the most: Morning, Noon, Night or Anytime?

All. Day.

(11) What’s one thing you wish for tea in the future?

I hope to be alive when the U.S. develops its own unique cultivar.



And now, it’s my turn to tag people.

I Tag:

– Naomi and Audrea of Joy’s Teaspoon. Because I think it’d be hilarious for you two to do a blog like that as a duo.

Gary Robson. Because…mountain kilts. And poop books.

Michael J. Coffey. Because I’m surprised no one has tagged him, yet.

– Natasha the Snooty Tea Person. Because I need to hear this superheroine origin story.

Talks with a Tea Fairy

Over a year ago, I came in contact with a particular gal through another gal. (And I just like using the word “gal”; I don’t care if it sounds old-fashioned.) Tea MC Tiff – who I’ve mentioned on a couple of occasions – made a trip to Kyoto, Japan and visited the Obubu Tea Plantation. While there, she also made contact with one Elyse Petersen – then an intern for Obubu. Elyse was also instrumental in hooking me up with some of the plantation’s sakura blossom tisane.

She found me on Twitter, and we began networking a wee bit. In one such twitversation, she mentioned how she and a few others were starting up their own tea company – Tealet. In passing, she pointed me in the direction of their Kickstarter campaign. I paid it some attention, but…I had no funds to pay. (Perpetually broke and all.) However, I filed them away in my mental archive for future consideration.


Their business model was a unique one, and – I’ll confess – one I didn’t fully understand.  (I majored in English, not Economics.) As far as I could comprehend, their goal was threefold – act as an auction house, a monthly subscription service and a wholesaler. Representing whom? This was the kicker: Small farmers.

We on the snootier end of the tea community (and/or circus) always speak in glib terms like “estates”, “farmers”, and “gardens”. Funny thing is, though, most of us haven’t made a whole lot of contact with growers themselves. We rely on larger e-commerce wholesalers and retailers to do the sourcing for us. Even at our most esoteric, we’re lazy like that. In short, we know nothing about the tea except for  what’s provided by the middle-folk.

Tealet’s mission was to establish a more direct link between the grower and the consumer, as well as acting as an intermediary between retailer and sourcer. The best part being, the farmers themselves would see a greater share of profit from their wares through Tealet’s business model.

Image mooched from Tealet.com

Image mooched from Tealet.com

At least, that’s how my tiny, tea drunk brain understood it.


Fast-forward to World Tea Expo in June – the Tea Bloggers Roundtable, to be precise. There was a woman in the audience dressed in a hot pink wig with furry green antennae. The sight made me wonder if the Las Vegas Convention Center was also home to a cosplay event as well. It wasn’t until I was within earshot of the conversation that I learned it was Elyse. And, so, I made my actual, IRL acquaintance with Tealet’s Tea Fairy. (A masterstroke of mascoting, I might add.)


In the ensuing months following the Expo, we remained in cursory contact. Nothing big, nothing small. But then I watched an interview podcast she did for Nicole “Tea For Me Please” Martin regarding Tealet. That gave me gumption to check out Tealet’s website again. I was particularly impressed how all the growers Tealet had come in contact with had their own in-depth profiles. The sheer diversity of regions they covered also left me slack-jawed.

I don’t recall exactly how it happened – I may have been tea drunk when I did it – but somewhere down the line, I inquired about the Indonesian teas they’d featured for auction. One was a curled black tea (dubbed Black Pearl) from Mountain Tea; the other was an oolong from PT Harendong. A week or so later, I received samples of those and a few others.

Since I was on a bit of an oolong kick that month, I dug into the PT Harendong one first.

The leaves were traditionally ball-fisted, dark to the appearance – ranging from brown to…uh…browner. By sight and smell, it reminded me of a dark roast Ti Guan Yin, exuding a nutty (if burnt) smell like chestnuts lit on fire. (I like using that term – “lit on fire”. Very apt.)


I treated this as I would any other oolong, as gongfu (or gongfoolishly) as possible. Several successive infusions – each for twenty seconds or more. The first infusion was somewhat roasty and a wee bit floral. Subsequent infusion took on a roastier, woodsier profile. My favorite was probably the second (at thirty seconds), which took on an almond note on the finish. The whole shebang was very Ti Guan Yin. There are worse teas to be compared to. Generally, I liked it.

The second was a confusing beast of a tea. At first, I thought Mountain Tea (a Taiwanese based grower/retailer) had merely sourced their Black Pearl tea – given that it was from Sumatra. Elyse quickly set me straight, informing me that Mountain Tea had a garden in Indonesia as well. Color me corrected.

When I originally tore open the bag, the first thing I caught a whiff of was chocolate candy. I looked down at the leaves. They were chocolate-colored and ball-fisted, interspersed with bits of stem. The visual and aromatic presentation reminded me of a heavily oxidized oolong from Taiwan.

I used a teaspoon of leaves in a 6oz. gaiwan, and infused them for two-and-a-half minutes in boiled water.

Black Pearl

On the grower’s profile, they said that this tea had a distinct flavor of Washington Red Apples. Yeah right, I thought. Well…color me impressed when I got a sense of apple-like sweetness in the top note. The flavor started with a typical black tea-ish wood-sweet, maybe malty lean – similar to a few Taiwanese blacks, and then just…grew. I’ve tasted teas with nuance, but not very many that changed flavor as I was sipping them. Very beguiling.

If this was merely a prologue of what Tealet had to offer, then they were now permanently on my list. I hear the term “direct-from-the-grower” a lot, but I don’t necessarily believe it until I run into weird s**t like this.

Recently, Tealet finally went live with their wholesale catalogue. Some familiar faces were on the roster, as well as some unfamiliar ones. American ones. Elyse and Team Tealet have been on the forefront of the coverage given to U.S. tea growers, both in Hawaii and beyond. In fact, they just recently finished a cross-country tour of U.S. tea growing regions.

They also put the bug in Jason “FiLoLi Farms” McDonald’s ear to allow participants to adopt tea plants in states not associated with tea growing. Too bad Oregon already had a tea garden. I would’ve been all over that like a stripper to a pole

Bad analogy? Oh well…I didn’t say I was a good English major.



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