I shattered a gaiwan lid. Even “funnier”? This was the second such gaiwan lid I’d shattered this year. My luck with even the most basic teaware was middling at best. Like any “softboi”, I posted this guy-winey gaiwan lament online. First person to comment on this tragedy was Rajiv Lochan.
He basically said, “I have a gaiwan for you, just send me your address.”
Surprised, I tried to dissuade him. Anyone who knows Rajiv can tell you . . . there’s no dissuading him once he gets an idea in his head. Especially a generous one. On top of that, he also wanted to throw in some tea surprises. From Doke Tea, of course, the garden he owned and that his progeny operated in Bihar, India.
Not one to argue, I gave my mailing address again. A couple of weeks after “The Shattering”, a package arrived. In it were three teas, and the brand-spankin’ new gaiwan.
First tea I used to break it in? Doke Black Fusion. Second Flush, 2020. As he had hoped.
This year’s version was very chocolaty. More so than it ever had been before. I wondered about this to him, and he gave a coy reply about “more water” that year. Whatever that meant.
In later days, I dug through the other teas he included. One was another Doke Black Fusion version he really wanted me to get to.
In 2014, Rajiv took some black tea they made, and stuck it in an earthenware pot. Just to see what would happen. Six years later, he took some out … and sent it to me.
I remember the 2014 batch quite well; very honey-nut-spice-y. Man, it REALLY changed over the years. Some of the young profile was there, but it got really earthy. Like a Dian Hong, but still sweet. Not stale at all. That and it made me feel very relaxed.
I’m never relaxed.
And I certainly didn’t appear that way for the next few months. No clue why, but my anxiety for most of the last summer/early autumn was in overdrive. Nothing in particular was triggering it, at least as far as I could discern. A tea friend in Canada—Phil Holmans— in particular took it to heart. So much so that I received a package from him a week or so later, via his Halifax-based tea operation—World Tea House.
Among the teas included were my favorite Assam, a few Darjeelings I favored, yellow tea from the Great Mississippi Tea Company, and—as if by sheer serendipity—more Doke garden teas. Not that I was in any shortage of them. Still . . . ?
Again, at Rajiv’s urgings, I dipped into a tea he recommended. This time, the Diamond Green. As I’ve confessed on this blog before, their green tea was rarely one I liked. He said this year’s was much different. Again, he said, it was because of the water.
It was damn near perfect. Probably the best iteration, yet. I don’t ever recall it tasting as sweet as it did in my cup that day.
However, the biggest surprise was the Doke Rolling Thunder “oolong” from this year. The Lochans changed up the recipe several times over the years. Most of the time, it just resembled any other Assam; malty and nutty. This year was markedly different.
Not sure how or why, but it tasted like a Darjeeling. Keep in mind, it’s made from assamica leaf, so that shouldn’t have been possible. But there it was, muscatel notes on a semi-oxidized assamica tea. Yet again . . . Rajiv credited the water.
I looked again at the note that World Tea House Phil had included with the tea gift.
Throughout 2020, whether with merit or none, we’ve all gone through some mental anguish. Some more than others. In terms of tragedies, I’ve experienced very little throughout this trying/travailing year, but even I experienced bouts of mental and emotional exhaustion at the constant upheaval. One of the few centering activities I held on to was tea. That and talking to tea people
And, to date, I haven’t found a more caring circle of friends. No matter what corner of the world they hail from.
Must be something in the water.]]>
Well, until a few months ago, neither did I.
Long time readers of this blog (all three of you) will remember that my original mission statement was to track down strange new teas from off-the-beaten-path growing regions. In the subsequent decade or so, I’ve done a fair bit of cataloguing. The country of Bhutan was never on my radar, mainly for how northern and remote it was. I knew it was a heicha drinking country, but that’s all I knew.
Bhutan is a landlocked kingdom that borders several states in India, and even parts of Tibet. All the points in India it borders just so happen to be tea producing states. Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh; I’ve tried teas from all of these. So, it goes without saying that tea could be grown in Bhutan, too.
How did that happen? Well . . .
The project has an interesting history. In the 1950s, Darjeeling tea seeds were gifted to the then-king of Bhutan, and they were planted at his winter abode—Thruepang Palace.
There, they grew into shrubs and trees, but served no other purpose than ornamentation. Fast-forward to the 1990s, a younger Sebastian Beckwith—a few years shy of starting the tea outfit, In Pursuit of Tea—went on a hunt for these rumored tea bushes. He found them, and afterwards, made connections with varied individuals in the Bhutanese government. Those connections turned into a project to revitalize the former serf region of Samcholing. Tea seeds from Thruepang Palace were brought to Samcholing, and the first plot was planted. Since then, it grew to 42 acres. Along with that, came the construction of a tiny tea factory for processing the tea, and by 2016, they were producing green tea.
In 2019, Sebastian was brought back in, along with Bachan Gyawali (from the Nepalese tea garden, Jun Chiya Bari), and Kevin Gascoyne of Camellia Sinensis. Now that the plants were beyond mature enough to cultivate, and an all-woman cooperative had been established, the next bit to tackle was improving upon production quality. I’m not sure how or why green tea was decided upon as the first beta test, but I suspect it had something to do with the sheer dearth of green tea in Bhutan as a whole. The country mainly consumes yak butter tea, heicha, and black tea from other Himalayan regions. That said, green tea is tough to master, even in more established regions. Darjeeling and Assam—save for a few garden exceptions—still haven’t a grasp on it.
That unfortunate bias aside, I still wanted to try it for myself. While In Pursuit of Tea had exclusive U.S. rights to the green tea, Camellia Sinensis began carrying some as of 2019 . . . but it sold pretty quickly. I hoped to get my hands on some once the 2020 harvest went live. My finger on the proverbial buzzer, I contacted Kevin Gascoyne to see if I could procure a sample for palatial perusal. To my kinda-surprise, he obliged!
Camellia Sinensis mentioned the “rusticity” of this green tea, and they weren’t kidding. The leaves were as rough-hewn as any green tea I’d ever seen. Or any sheng puerh, for that matter. In fact, the aroma this gave off had a very sheng vibe to it, with emphasis on the cantaloupe/grape lean. That compounded with a pronounced earthiness. What kept it’s maocha lean in check, though, was a more “leafy” bend on later sniffs. This was still a green tea through-and-through, but one could tell some oxidation snuck through in the processing. Which was fine by me; I dig the occasional oxidized, steamed green. Jie Cha (from China) and Bihakko Cha (Japan) come to mind.
Brewing recommendations called for water heated to 185F, and a steep time of three minutes; one-and-a-half teaspoons of leaf. I didn’t deviate too much from that. Actually, not at all, which was a shocker for me. Although, from the earlier brew up, I knew I could have without much palatial penalty.
The liquor brewed a very bold gold color (rhyme intended), with a steam that felt like it was scented with grape leaf. Not that I’d know what that smelled like, but I’d assume it was like the steam coming off this sucker. The forefront, on first sip, started off with a slight vegetal tickle, and—not gonna lie—I grew concerned. However, that smoothed out to something more . . . well . . . green. The roughness to the start complimented the earthier aspects of the top note, and the more traditionally stone fruity trail-off.
Is it perfect? No. Some oxidation is still present in the final product. Of course, the rougher side of my palate views this as a benefit. It means that—like the other oxidized greens I mentioned—it could put up with a bit of brew-abuse. Not that I’d want to; it’s just reassuring to know that it can. The flavor profile, the full-bodied taste, the relatively pleasant mouthfeel, and the rustic fruit notes prove that they’re very much on the right track.
I would normally post a link to the product after my narrative ramblings, alas, Camellia Sinensis sold out of it long before I got to this write-up. Of course, they did. No surprise there. It is available at In Pursuit of Tea. (At the time of this writing.)
For Camellia Sinensis’s write-up on this tea, go HERE.]]>
Since March, I’ve catalogued numerous ways in which this herb is grown and processed, done terroir analyses, and even commented on how well it blends with actual tea. Through it all, there were a couple of question I hadn’t answered. How did it taste un-processed? How well did it taste young? And how well did it taste aged? Well . . . I found a small company in Moscow that—quite handily—answered all three.
Rus-Bay is a small online shop based in Moscow that specializes in just products made from fireweed. The shop is run by a web developer, Max Kirpichev, whom I had a delightful e-mail correspondence with when I asked about his vendor outfit. Max was already a fan of Chinese tea, but decided to branch out his exploration toward the national drink from his childhood. Around 2014(-ish), he pondered the idea of starting a shop that specialized in Ivan Chai, but for selling it to international consumers.
Since the shop was small, he tried many different varieties of Ivan Chai before settling on six that exemplified the diverse profiles the herb could take on. Of the ones he sent me, there were three I really wanted to feature. Not only because they were each processed (or in one case, not processed) in different ways, but they were also produced in three different years. One was produced in the spring of 2019, one from 2018, and the last was made in 2017.
For the sake of time travel, I’m going to start with the youngest.
Maisky Fireweed “Tea”
As the name implies, this was plucked and processed in May of 2019. It was cultivated from the new leaf sprouts. So, for all intents and purposes, this was very similar in processing to a bud-heavy black tea. The difference, though? The leaf germs were cut. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing here; fireweed leaves are quite large, so (probably?) the sprouts were of comparable size.
In appearance, this looked like any other black tea made from Camellia sinensis. Even stranger, it smelled like it, too. The aroma was sweet, floral, slightly woody, and gave off Ceylon vibes.
The liquor didn’t brew up crimson like a black tea, but sure did taste like one. Those Ceylon vibes translated to the liquor perfectly. When infused like a black tea—Western style—sweetness took point, followed by a honey-ish middle (a fireweed staple), and ended on an alternating floral and gentle malt note. Many a summer afternoons were spent with this one.
Green Fireweed “Tea”
The second one on the docket was plucked in July of 2018 . . . and that was it. Okay, not entirely. There was one step in processing before being cut to a BOP-ish standard. The leaves were sun-dried almost like a white tea. This resulted in a dry leaf aroma that reminded me of green honeybush by way of lemon verbena. Citrus and honey aromatics played with my nostrils, but there was also an added depth to it—probably due to age.
I brewed it up like I would any old assamica white tea; 3 to 4 grams of leaf per 4oz. of boiled water, and a steep for three-to-five minutes. This resulted in a gold-to-amber liquor with a deep honey profile. Not deep as in, full-bodied, deep as in . . . wise?
The taste reminded me of a three-year-aged Bai Mu Dan, a white tea just gaining that honey profile as it ages in cold storage. Except, I know that the honey lean comes from the natural taste of the leaves. Even when oxidized that profile shows through. It was just less refined, yet more vibrant, in the unfettered form. It even worked well iced.
Fireweed Snails “Tea”
This one was . . . nuts. In the best way possible. Brace yourselves.
I actually had to contact Max again to get the full story on this sucker. The pressed snails of fireweed leaf were plucked-‘n-processed in July of 2017. And unlike other forms of Ivan Chai, these were not just oxidized, they were fermented. Not in the puerh “microbial ripening” way, either; actual fermentation occurred here.
The leaves were handled in the traditional Russian way. What did that mean exactly? Well, that meant the leaves were bruised by hand before withering. Granted this is always done, even with your run-o’-the-mill oxidized Ivan Chai, but there was a difference here. Instead of automatically withering after bruising, the fresh leaves were left to stew in their own juices before withering. This allowed the natural yeast on the leaves to eat the sugars present within the leaves.
Now, hold on, my brain said. Yeast? Sugars? This sounds like ethanol fermentation.
Yeah, that’s exactly what this is. The leaves were left to legit ferment and create alcohol. After that stage occurred, the leaves were spread out in a thin layer (sorta on top of each other), so that they created a consistent sheet, and then they were wrapped with a thin cloth to retain shape. For a few days, these leaf-roll-ups were left in the sun. Finally, they were cut in to individual, snail-like sections, and given a final drying. This resulted in . . . a tea experience I’ve never had before in my life.
The site recommended using one snail and a 500ml teapot. I did exactly that and infused the leaf-snail until the liquor darkened.
Basically, I followed Max’s YouTube video on how to brew it.
Following a five-minute steep, the finished brew was . . .
Insanely good. Beyond any herbal infusion experience I’d ever—well—experienced. The craziest thing about it was the taste. It reminded me of a Spanish or Irish coffee. The full body was like coffee, the bite was like whiskey. I even had to ask Max if this had been aged in a liquor barrel or something. He said all that was done to it was the fermentation. Somehow, after the drying phrase, it still kept the liquor lean in the aromatics.
No alcohol, but some of the lovely kick. No side-effects. Seriously, it doesn’t. I had to consult with my tea scientist comrade—Eric Scott—just to be on the safe side. He explained how all that worked and assuaged my fears.
No wonder Russians fell in love with this damn plant.
With some of the smaller snail chunks, I tried to gong fu it a bit.
Not quite as successful as the potting method, but still delicious. At shorter infusions, it reminded me of an aged oolong, due to a distinct plum-to-prune note. Not nearly as strong on the liquor bite. Both methods worked splendidly. So much so . . . that I ordered two more bags of the stuff prior to this write-up. (Just in case.)
Over the last six months, Ivan Chai has replaced regular, caffeinated tea as my morning cuppa. I read somewhere that caffeine in the morning was a bad idea; that it messed with a person’s cortisol levels if consumed shortly after waking. It was best to wait a couple of hours before partaking. With Ivan Chai, that wasn’t a problem. It gave me my tea fix, and—somehow—I felt energized after imbibing it.
It truly is a weird, wonderful herb. I know I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. And I guess, for now, my Ivan Chai saga draws to a close. That is, unless I find another unusual way it’s made. Maybe there’s an Ivan Chai oolong look-alike out there?
Oh wait . . .
To buy the Maisky Fireweed, go HERE.
To buy the Green Fireweed, go HERE.
To buy the Fireweed “Snails”, go HERE.]]>
Such was the case a few weeks back.
Sometime this last July, I was contacted by a company I hadn’t heard of—Naoki Matcha. I appreciated their aesthetic for one simple reason. They appeared to be a no-bullsh*t matcha company. Meaning: they told it like it was, and provided all the necessary information about the products they offered. The part that made my eyebrows arch, though, was that the carried matchas from regions I hadn’t tried. Two of the ones they slated for me to sample fit this category.
One hailed from the town of Chiran in Kagoshima prefecture, the other was from Yame in Fukuoka prefecture. The only thing that gave me pause was that both teas were from the 2019 harvest. But I later learned that was actually a good thing. If properly stored for six months to a year after harvest and grinding (preferably in a cool, refrigerated place), the flavor was better.
The day I got them, I had intended to do them on separate days . . . but I didn’t. I did them back-to-back. Here were the results:
Fragrant Yame Blend
This one had an interesting story. Yame, Fukuoka prefecture is better known for gyokuro and old tree Zairai sencha. Until this li’l canister, I hadn’t heard of matcha being made in Yame. Well, apparently, it’s a new thing. This product comes from a small tea farm that usually specializes in gyokuro. Since the leaf material for gyokuro and matcha’s base material—tencha—are grown the same way (shaded, et al.), it wasn’t that much of a stretch that such an outfit could make matcha.
The powder was gorgeous, and very vibrant in its green hue. What surprised me most was how sweet it smelled. There’s usually a sweet and savory scent, but—in my limited experience—the aroma never bordered on confectionary.
I went with an usucha style brewing. Three chashaku spoonfuls, 160F water, whisked vigorously.
The sweetness I smelled carried over to the sip. The froth was silky in texture as it was in taste. The umami bend most matchas have was dialed back with this one. And, that’s okay! I preferred the sweeter, more tencha-forward flavor profile. I’d call this one a daily drinker, and in the best possible way.
Mere moments after downing that bowl, I moved on to the next one.
Limited Edition Chiran Harvest 2019
Give the moniker for this tea, I could tell it was a very special case. Unlike a lot of sencha or matcha offerings—which are made from a blend of cultivars, or Yabukita—this was made from a new Kagoshima innovation; Seimei. According to the ever resourceful My Japanese Green Tea blog, Seimi is an ideal cultivar for making tencha. Almost as effective as the famous Ujihikari cultivar. It can be harvested earlier than most cultivars, and it’s almost as cold resistant as the Sochi cultivar (from Russia). On top of that, the leaf material lends to a smooth, clean, and pure taste—as its name implies.
The powder was as bright green as the product description claimed. Not as bold about it as the sweet show-off, Yame, but reserved in its excellence. The aroma was also more typically matcha-like in its presentation. Umami for days, almost bordering on meaty.
I prepped it the same way I did the Yame. Although I think it would’ve fared better with a koicha brew-up, I opted for usucha. Why? Well . . . um . . . I can’t really make “thick tea” that well. Gotta go with what I’m used to.
The Chiran frothed up more readily than the Yame, pale green foam appeared mere moments after the chasen touched water. The aroma matched the powder in meatiness, but it also had a fair amount of date bread sweetness to go along with that. The taste was all over the place. It started off buttery, nutty, then creamy, and went into a direction I can only describe as, “almond butter made into a FIST!”
This was so rich that I poured half of it off, and gave it to my Marine veteran roommate. He grills our burgers at home. He concurred on the meatiness of it.
Was there a favorite?
Well, it depends on what I’m in the mood for. If I need the tired tar beaten out of me, and a general feeling of blissful euphoria? Chiran wins. For a delicate, sweet, casual daily drinker? Yame is the best choice. If I were to compare these two to anything, it would be Indian teas. (Not in taste; disposition.) Chiran would be an Assam—chewy, full-bodied, punch-to-the-face happiness. Yame would be a Darjeeling—light, delicate, sweet, and the perfect way to waste away an afternoon.
I look forward to future sessions with both. Just . . . not back-to-back. The world doesn’t need to see that. Er . . . again.
To buy the Fragrant Yame Blend, go HERE.
To buy the Limited Edition Chiran, go HERE.]]>
Pedro, one of the tea outfit’s co-owners referenced my first Ivan Chai article to go along with something they just produced for their brick-‘n-mortar shop and website. I remember having a conversation with Pedro right after posting the article. He mentioned they were heading somewhere to pick fireweed, and that I should join them. Up in Canada.
I declined because . . . well . . . COVID, but apparently he and one of the O5 Tea team—someone named Kseniya—went to Burnaby, B.C. to harvest. Not only that, but it was their second year doing so. Somehow, I missed the announcement that they did the same thing last year.
I’m no stranger to Pedro’s tea adventures. Heck, I even participated in one seven years ago.
But this one had a little more to it.
Team member Kseniya was of Ukrainian descent, and she possessed an old family recipe for making Ivan Chai. Yeah, the Russian herbal I’ve written a lot about this year. However, her family’s take was markedly different from the strongly oxidized Russian variant.
Most of the Russian Ivan Chai versions I’d encountered featured only the leaves. Sure, there were some Russian versions that included the flowers, but I hadn’t encountered many. One out of the last ten I’ve tried.
Well, her family’s recipe called for dried flowers, a lighter oxidation cycle, and a rolling process similar to a Yunnanese dragon ball puerh. Except looser compression, and a little rougher.
The process was uncomplicated in describing, but the actual means to do it could be a challenge. First, they picked the leaves. I mean, obviously that has to be done.
Secondly, they bruised them to allow the oxidation to occur. Then waited for fourteen hours. Then they dried the flowers, and—somehow/someway—re-added them. Following that, they rolled them into balls.
The original plan was to sun-dry the leaves. When Pedro and Kseniya made their first batch in 2019, they were able to take advantage of the good weather, and got a nice, even sun-drying done. This year, however, the weather wasn’t cooperating. So, they took the Ivan balls indoors and baked them—like an oolong!—for eighteen hours.
And that totally changed the game.
In typical tea blogger fashion, I asked Pedro if I could obtain a few Ivan balls to play with. He agreed, and a week or so later, they arrived. I got to the first Ivan ball almost immediately.
It was hard to pinpoint what the aroma was. At first, I was like, This smells like weed. But then I remembered, I thought all herbals smelled like weed on a casual sniff. On a more tuned-in second whiff, I was reminded of the first Ivan Chai I tried from Latvia. The aroma was all floral perfume and tartness. This had that only . . . toastier?
Brewed by the pot, the liquor darkened to a bold amber, like an oolong. And the taste reminded me very strongly of a light-roast, low-altitude Taiwanese oolong. Not sure which one, exactly. Only the more herbaceous lean gave away its botanical origin. Some of the honey profile came through on the finish.
On another morning before work, I took out a second chunk.
And did something completely different. We were expecting a heat wave, so I iced it. The notes were similar to the heated version, only sweeter somehow.
Both methods played to the strengths of the “tea”, but I felt I was missing something. Some other bit of untapped potential in this Ivan version that escaped my notice. At the bottom of the bag, I saw that some of the leaves and flowers had fallen off the last ball. I gathered some of those up . . .
And . . . um . . .
Gong fu’d it.
Straight-up oolong notes with a bit of floral tisane sweetness on the back-end. In every way, it reminded me of a Fujianese oolong scented with osthmanthus . . . dipped in Ivan Chai honey.
Every time I think I’m done being surprised by this herb, something like this crosses my cup. Just when I believe I’ve unraveled the “ball of mystery”, I realize it’s still holding together. Another steep, then, is in order.
To buy O5’s Ivan Tea, go HERE.]]>
As long-time readers already know, I’m a bit of an old hat (and advocate) of sheng cha produced outside of Yunnan province, China. I’ve devoted the last decade or so to trying sheng cha from countries along (or near) the Yunnanese border. The Phongsaly region of Laos, the Kokang region of Myanmar, the northern provinces of Vietnam, states of eastern India, and—finally—the hill countries of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces in Thailand.
However, while my palate was definitely well-rounded, my reference to these products as “border sheng” might’ve been incorrect. Or even worse, misinformed. And this clarity came about because of an unassuming tasting of two factory-specific Thai “puerhs” that fell under the brand: Hong Tai Chang.
Hong Tai Chang has a very storied history, but I’ll try to “TL;DR” it. The company started off—in Bangkok in the 1930s—as a subsidiary branch of the Chinese puerh conglomerate, Hong Chang. The Thai division was given the name “Hong Tai”, but the branded puerhs they sold were labeled “Hong Tai Chang”.
The branch experienced rapid expansion over the next few years. To the point where they, at the behest of their parent company in China, set up factories in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, for making “puerhs” from local assamica trees. Lucky for them, there already was a centuries-old tradition among the hill tribes in both provinces for making sheng cha. Hong Tai Chang merely modernized and standardized it for ease of export.
Then . . . World War II happened.
This resulted in all trade routes to Yunnan being closed, and the eventual disassembling of private industry in China once their li’l revolution happened. This left Hong Tai Chang to plot its own course without a parent company, anymore. And plot it did, successfully, to this very day.
Tea-Side has a great article on the brand, which you can find HERE.
In my decade-plus tea drunkery, I’ve sampled quite a few Hong Tai Chang shengs, but Tea-Side presented me with an interesting opportunity. They contacted me to try some of their Hong Tai Chang “puerhs”, and two really stuck out. Both hailed from a factory in Chiang Rai province, dubbed Ming Dee, and that tickled my tea fancy. A factory centered sheng flight was something I’d never done before.
While I waited for those to make the trans-Pacific journey to me, I tried my darnedest to look up information on Ming Dee. And there was . . . nothin’. Every time I typed it into Google, the search query defaulted to Menghai—a Yunnan factory. I asked Tea-Side for more information. Apparently, there wasn’t much to add. It was a small, family-owned outfit that produced puerh-style cakes in the “old fashioned way”, whatever that meant. Old fashioned Chinese way, or old fashioned Thai hill tribe way? Difficult to say.
When the two chisels of sheng finally reached my waiting cups, I . . . didn’t get to them right away. In fact, I waited months. In that time, a pandemic hit the globe, and I lost my job. Then got re-hired. It was a weird time. Correction: is a weird time.
Sometime in July, I finally sat down with both shengs.
2006 Hong Tai Chang, Ming Dee Factory, Raw Puerh
The dry presentation for this tea was gorgeous, even by Yunnanese standards. The pressed leaves were a remarkable, and aged-looking, brown with gold flecks. And the smell they gave off was like a well-used tearoom—established worn cedar dust fragrance.
For the first infusion, I didn’t taste anything. Well, not like nothing, it was just not that dissimilar from other sheng cha teas I drank. If I could come up with some analogy, it tasted like the color amber. If that actually had a taste, and I could picture it with some clarity. By the second steep, though, it really opened up with notes of cardamom pods that got locked in amber and mixed with tree sap.
The third infusion had more sheng toasty notes by way of . . . sage wisdom, and by the fourth it felt like my Third Eye melted into the cup.
2006 Hong Tai Chang, Ming Dee Factory, Raw Puerh (“Special” Storage)
I asked Tea-Side what they meant by “special storage”. All they could tell me was that they came up with the term to convey the nebulous conditions in which this tea was produced and stored. Unlike its aforementioned sister, some of the processing was different. Whether it was a different “ancient tree” recipe or blend, or even a matter of timing, is anyone’s guess.
Only thing that is certain is the way these cakes were stored. Tea-Side believed the environment was more humid. I happened to agree, just given the dry aroma itself. There was a “wet-stored” quality to it; not in a funky way, just in the depth. The aroma was . . . thicker, sweeter somehow.
That also showed up in the taste. The first infusion tasted like someone liquidated a whiskey barrel. There was a very mild, peaty quality to it. Further infusions deepened, and conveyed more of the tea’s body. It was oddly creamy, like . . . sage butter? Towards the end, I could only detect taste by way of full-body sensation. Pure sheng-y goodness that massaged my brain with spirit cat paws
After that . . . I couldn’t tell ya . . . I was leaning to the side in my office chair.
The day I did that tasting, I decided to float a teaser image of both teas to Instagram, which may have been a bad idea.
Or a good idea, depending on your point of view.
In the post, I referred to both teas as “border sheng”—a term I’d used innocuously for years. Someone brought up that the term was a bit ignorant. And for the next few weeks, I sat on it, and postponed this article as a result. Then I came to a conclusion.
The detractors were right, and I had said as much in some of my prior articles. Ethnic groups in the “border” countries I mentioned at the top of this write-up have been producing sheng cha for centuries, nearly as long as the Yunnanese tribes. Even before Yunnan province and it’s porous “border” even existed. The proliferation of different genetic strains of Camellia sinensis var. assamica, and the wide-spread migration of these tea processing techniques are proof of that. How?
Well, I touched upon some of that HERE and HERE, but the short answer is: Dali Kingdom.
I won’t go into too much detail, but Dali was a Buddhist kingdom that ruled Yunnan province from the years 937 (C.E.) to 1253. Its territory was largely comprised of Yunnan province, as well as parts of modern-day Myanmar and Laos. The tumult surround its rise and fall (and the whims of those pesky Mongols) meant that its influence, culture, and agriculture likely spread well beyond its borders. The existence of supposedly ancient gardens of assamica trees—stretching from India all the way to Thailand—is proof of that. Such a crescent-like swath can also be owed to the Indus Valley Civilization even prior to that.
Put more succinctly, China didn’t start the sheng cha trade, it merely put a brand on it before any of the other parallel territories did. So, calling these teas “border sheng” is reinforcing a form of sinocentrism. Now, granted the categorical moniker of “puerh” is strictly Yunnanese from a heritage perspective. But other regions were making similar types of teas for just as long. Even before conglomerates like Hong Chang came along.
On a completely different note, I have a small confession.
I got really tea-blasted during that inital flight.
So much so, I went to look over my tasting notes prior to doing this write-up, and realized I forgot to differentiate between the two teas. Both said “Ming Dee”, but I didn’t indicate which taster notes were for the “special storage” version.
So, I got tea-blasted again. “Border”-ing on tea-fuzzy.
Eh, to hell with “borders”.
To buy the 2006 Hong Tai Chang “Ming Tea” cake, go HERE.
To buy the “Special Storage” version, go HERE.]]>
Herb is a tea pet. What’s a tea pet, you might be asking? Well, it’s a long story, and—honestly—one I haven’t taken much interest in. Until now.
There is no clear origin story about how tea pets came to be. The only consensus that exists is on what they are, and—by extension—where they’re from. Tea pets are small figurines made of clay that originally hail from the region in China associated with clay tea pots; the Yixing region of Jiangsu province. The rest of their origin is pure conjecture.
Some say they were added to the cha xi (tea play) experience as a sign or symbol of good luck. Others considered them clay garnish to the overall Gong Fu Cha experience. Some tea pets are hollowed out to allow for tea to be poured into them, others are made of special clay that change color when tea is poured on them. Some bubble from the mouth, some pee, some . . . lactate. (Don’t ask.)
There was even a Toy Story-like movie made about them.
No, I haven’t seen it.
I’m no stranger to owning tea pets. I have a few, including a clay slug I named Mortimer. However . . .
In my care, he lost an eye.
Then I got a message from tea friend, Michell Hovey. She wanted to pass on a tea pet she made, for me to have a session with. The above turtle named Herb.
He wasn’t the first turtle she’d crafted. Using stoneware clay from Kentucky Mud Works, a whole family of Herbs was created. However, Herb was the first to be drafted for a community “project”, of sorts. She and her husband Derek felt that the tea community was one of the most tightly knit on the Internet, and she wanted to contribute to it in some way. A traveling tea pet was the answer.
And for some reason, I was drafted to be the first Herb parent. Originally, I declined. I’m the last person to care for a tea pet. Just look at poor Mortimer. That and I rarely cluttered my tea tray with extra garnish. Gaiwan, Cha Hai, cup, catch; that’s it—function over form. However, as I went through my day, I . . . caved.
A week later, Herb arrived at my mailbox, along with a leather-bound, leaf-embossed notebook.
I opened the notebook to find very detailed instructions on how to take care of Herb.
Short version: have tea, pour tea on Herb, let Herb dry, post the Herb-sesh to Instagram, leave an Herbecdote in the notebook, and then send Herb to another tea nerd. The project sounded fun. The Hoveys even sent a couple of prospective teas to session with. The one that caught my eye was called “Ostfriesen Breakfast” from Blue Willow Tea.
I tucked Herb and the notebook away in the cubby of my tea table, and . . .
Forgot about them for two whole months.
Michell sent me a message some time in July to remind me that Herb was a-waitin’. To which, I apologized profusely, and found time in my weird schedule to do a tea session with Herb in tow. It was a late-afternoon on a weekday, I was already sufficiently caffeinated, but it felt like the right time.
I gongfooled around with the black tea blend, steeped it three times, and displayed Herb on the tray.
By steep two, I remembered I had to pour some over Herb’s shell, something that felt . . . oddly satisfying, to be honest.
After doing that, I felt more at ease than I had prior to the session. I, then, remembered the notebook, and scrawled a chicken-scratchy entry.
Geoff Norman in Portland, OR.
I’m not usually a tea pet kind of guy, but it’s really difficult to resist Herb’s charms. I’m just sorry it took so long for me to get to a session with him.
I gave him his second tea bath with Blue Willow’s Ostfriesien blend. Really malty, woody, and floral black, hearty too. (Pardon my very terrible handwriting.)
For a little while, I played around with the little guy, imagining him as a tea braggart like me.
Following the session, I packed him up the best I could, and—the following week(s)—sent him on his way to another potential tea-bather.
I’m still not much of a tea pet guy, but I do finally “get” why people like having them around. In a tumultuous world, it is difficult to find pockets of whimsy. Even our tea experiences sometimes can’t remain unfettered from the troubled times we live in. But tea pets, whether as a sign of good fortune or merely a peace-loving trinket, they provide additional joy for some tea drinkers amidst the chaos of it all.
I can’t wait to see what another person gets out of their visit with Herb the Traveling Tea Turtle.
Not all of these blogs are about dirty jokes, weird teas, or heady topics.
To keep tabs on Herb, go HERE.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll be the next one he visits.]]>
So Han Fan, purveyor of West China Tea.
I’ve “known” So Han for nearly six years. I put that in quotes because . . . we’ve never actually met in person. Our mutual tea-related hijinks only criss-crossed online. He first caught whiff of me as a tea blogger when I wrote extensively about my favorite puerh mountain – Nan Nuo Shan. He just so happened to work with a farming/processing genius from there named Li Shu Lin.
And since then, I’ve written extensively about his Nan Nuo farmer friend’s wares – even once in sonnet form. During our live talk, though, I got So Han to expound upon something of Mr. Lin’s that I hadn’t tried. That being his Yuán Shēng Tuó line of shou puerhs. Yuán Shēng Tuó literally translated to “Original Life Chunk”; a term coined by Li Shu Lin. It was a new form of small batch fermentation that sometimes allowed for the leaves to glom together into nuggets of ripe-y goodness.
Shou puerh is typically wet-piled (practically composted, really) in large . . . well . . . piles. Li Shu Lin—customarily—deviated from this approach. By focusing on smaller piles (a process called Xiǎo Duī Zi), as opposed to giant mounds, one could theoretically have more control over how each batch fermented. Yuán Shēng Tuó was merely a means of focusing that in even further. The whole thing sounded fascinating to me, and I wanted to try some.
So Han hooked me up with a coupon code for doing the live session, and I picked up what I thought were three Yuán Shēng Tuós. After I made the order, though . . . I realized I’d only picked up one. The other two were other shous he’d made, but batched (and then later aged)—all prior to when he perfected the Yuán Shēng Tuó method.
But this buying blunder provided me with another, almost-serendipitous opportunity.
While I wouldn’t have the opportunity to try three Yuán Shēng Tuó small batch fermented shou puerhs, all three teas were still considered Xiǎo Duī Zi (“small batch fermentation”) teas. Meaning, I would be tasting how Li Shu Lin’s small batch fermentations had changed over the years. After all, one of the teas I purchased hailed from 2009, another was from 2015, and the one and only Yuán Shēng Tuó was from 2019 (I think?). Or close to it.
By way of tasting tray, I was going to time travel.
First up: the youngest. And the only Yuán Shēng Tuó of the three.
The first thing I noticed about the leaves were how gold the were. Almost like “Tippy Dian Hong” gold, but more faded, more ancient-looking. Like . . . gold stripped from the ruins of a sunken city; that kind of gold. The aroma they gave off lived up to the moniker; it was a very creamy fragrance, underscored by shou pu earth. Everything about it was markedly different.
The forefront was crisp! Can’t say I ever ran into that before in a shou puerh. That, then, transitioned into a requisitely creamy top note. And the finish just lingered for seconds after the sip to remind me of the sweetness that was. Not a hint of the usual, shou puerh dankness at any stage of the slurp.
2015 Vanilla Obscura
This one had an interesting sub-story. Apparently, So Han picked it up—not because it was made from “gooshoo” or drought year leaf material—but because it just . . . tasted damn good. That and it originated from one single batch of farm around Douyi village. Most industrial puerhs are either blends from related farms, or related mountains. Single batch, single patch, single mountain puerhs? Not all that common.
It looked just like the Cloud Cream in leaf quality and rolling, but the visual palate was far different—more “shou”-like. Meaning: the visual pallor of the leaves were more in line with its post-fermented category, dark brown and dusty looking. The aroma was more understated, didn’t detect any vanilla (of its namesake), but it gave off a pleasant earth-sweetness. No fishiness at all.
I was soooo surprised this. The forefront resembled the Cloud Cream, but then took off at hyperspeed to parts unknown. Vanilla-adjacent aspects showed up in the middle, with a top note that had sweetness and creaminess in roller-coaster loop deliveries. The finish ended on more of an earthy note, and it didn’t quite have the huigan of the Cloud Cream, but the aura of its wonder echoed throughout a cathedral in the back of my brain.
2009 Rain Butter
Some of the leaves in this batch looked like straight-up Lao Cha Tou nugs.
Many were simple maocha-like leaves in the batch, but others were chunks. Not sure if they underwent a more extensive rolling, or if—indeed—this was a Lao Cha Tou. The aroma was also expectedly old, betraying its decay of storage, but not unpleasant. Like the Vanilla Obscura, it also possessed a pleasant earth sweetness—only on a more “castle dungeon”-y level.
It’s amazing how these teas live up to their crazy names. The initial sip started off a lot like a usual shou puerh, then elevated to the decade-old guru that it was in the top note, and then caused a waterslide sensation of my pate chakra to acknowledge its buttery profile. Like the Cloud Cream, the flavor lingered; like the Vanilla Obscura, its memory lingered. This stuff was magic!
Obvious question: favorite? No. Because that wasn’t the point of this exercise. All were all equal footing. The real question: was this like time traveling through the development of Li Shu Lin’s small batch fermentation expertise? Unequivocally, yes.
From the Rain Butter to the Cloud Cream, one could literally taste the tapestry and his brush-stroke techniques. The outpouring of love and skill showed through all three of these teas, and one could see where Li Shu Lin tweaked the recipe to get similar but just different enough results, ultimately leading to the current Yuán Shēng Tuó mastery. It truly was time traveling by way of a tea tasting. Or more aptly put . . .
It was like Raining Vanilla Butter below a dark (Obscura)in the Clouds . . . which was almost the title of this here article. You guys got lucky.
To buy Cloud Cream, go HERE.
To buy Vanilla Obscura, go HERE.
To buy Rain Butter, go HERE.]]>
I mean, sure, there might be German chamomile stans versus Egyptian chamomile stans, but I haven’t run into any. Actually, come to think of it, there are “wars” about who produces better peppermint (Oregon or Washington), but those are slap-fests at best. Conversations about herbal terroir rarely happen. At least, not in the tea circles I orbit.
Well . . . then I started exploring Ivan Chai. And that led me to one particular lake, in one particular region of Russia, with one hell of a unique approach. Let’s just say my perspective was turned in on its figurative eyelid.
This is Lake Seliger, one of many bodies of water that make up the Tver Oblast region of northwestern Russia. The area is considered a protected nature reserve, and is home to a vast array of flora and fauna. The lake encompasses some 212 km of space, and is a conglomeration of many connected water bodies and islands. A perfect sort of environment with which fireweed (the titular herb for making Ivan Chai) would thrive.
I received two Ivan Chai offerings grown and processed from this region from the Moscow-based vendor, Moychay. Just by looking at the leaves alone, I could tell I was in for something completely different. In other Ivan Chai “teas” I drank, the leaf cuts were haphazard; as were the oxidation levels. The leaves for both of these were large, whole, un-cut, fully oxidized, and—about as indistinguishable from tea as one could get. Save for the aroma.
And, oh! That aroma! I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first tea was a large leaf tea, and the other was . . . the exact same thing, only with a lengthier oxidation cycle. The latter was oxidized for forty hours after rolling; not sure about the former. One uneventful night, I dug into both.
If someone were looking at these leaves with no frame of reference or context, they would’ve assumed they were looking at a Taiwanese black. The leaf cut (or lack thereof) and rolling seemed eerily familiar to—say—a Shan Cha or Ruby #18. Only the aroma betrayed its true origins as something more herbaceous, but even that was deceiving. Ivan Chai offerings I’d tried up ‘til now had a strongly “herbal” lean. Sure, there was a sweet, honey-ish vibe—maybe even some hibiscus sharpness—but there was still something herb about it.
Some descriptions I encountered online noted that the honey lean should be strong, but I never got that from the variants I tried . . . until now. This large, whole leaf version? Straight up raw honey on the nose.
The liquor brewed to what can best be described as soft, pond water brown. It didn’t look as appetizing as a black tea’s crimson or copper, but for an herbal, it’s what I’d expect. The steam aroma was all honey floral something. And that very something translated to taste for a soft, sweet introduction, a honeycomb top note, an herbaceous finish, and a silky texture throughout.
Large Leaf – Strong “Fermentation”
On a passing glance, this looked like her sister—large leaf, twisty, black, raw honey aroma. Observed (and sniffed) closer, however, some differences emerged. The leaves looked thinner, smaller, and somehow twister. I wondered if this had something to do with the longer oxidation cycle, or more about the leaf stock used. The aroma also differed, but only slightly; imparting an earthier bend to its raw honey fragrance. It also appeared less sweet to the nose and more . . . well . . . raw. Darker, somehow, too.
The liquor for this sucker colored a li’l bit lighter than the other. For something that read “STRONG FERMENTATION!” I expected a darker brew. Instead, it was about the same color of brown, only a tad lighter and . . . shinier? If that counts for anything? (Probably not.)
Steam aroma was also similar, save for something I didn’t expect. And that “didn’t expect” part came up in the taste as well. While the intro wasn’t as sweet as the less fermented version, that top note . . . oh, that top note. Chocolate along with the raw honey bend. For some reason, I was reminded of Nutella, but—nah—it was nowhere near that basic. What it lacked in liquor color, it made up for in deceptive depth! This was a full-bodied brew.
Favorite? I . . . can’t really pick one. Both are on par with each other in their perfection.
I wondered for the longest time if an herbal would ever come along and replace tea, should I ever have to give up caffeine. For a while, I wondered if Ivan Chai could be that replacement, but with the many variations I tried, it did wonders, but it couldn’t replace the magic of Camellia sinensis.
Well, that is, until now.
Over the course of the last month, I’ve played with these two teas in a variety of ways. Shorter brews, longer brews, THICC-er brews; heck, I even haphazardly gongfooled around with them. They held up to the usual punishments I usually reserved for actual tea. And my body seemed satisfied to consider them on par with tea. If . . . or rather, when . . . I have to give up caffeine, I know what will replace it. Ivan Chai, but the high grade, whole leaf stuff.
Still somewhat of a tea snob, after all.
To buy the Large Leaf version, go HERE.
To buy the Strong Fermentation Large Leaf version, go HERE.]]>
In my Bible readings, there is one aspect I keep coming back to. In the Gospels, Jesus conveyed his teachings through the use parables. Short, fictional stories that often left the listener with more questions than answers. He gave his reason for doing so in Mark 4:10-11, when his disciples asked about them: “He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables[…]”
These vignettes weren’t just moral lessons, they were the only way Jesus could convey Divine wisdom, and his role in greater world. Some even straddled the line between allegory and fable. Oftentimes, they possessed more than one meaning. Such is the case with the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke.
For the sake of this write-up, I must transcribe it in its entirety:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heard and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him, bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii [two days wage] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
This parable struck a particular chord with me because I went through this exact experience a year ago. Like . . . exactly a year ago, to the day. At 1:30AM on June 15th, 2019, while returning home from World Tea Expo in Las Vegas—on my walk home from the light rail station—three young men followed me. They distracted me, flanked me, tripped me, punched me in the face repeatedly, and made off with my duffel bag full of tea samples from the trade show.
Luckily, they didn’t go after anything else on my person—like my suitcase, my wallet, or my phone—and they didn’t beat me any further once they procured said duffel bag. Even better; the bag wasn’t zipped all the way, and all the tea samples flew out onto the street.
They paused in shock for a moment, I managed one weak taunt, and then they ran away. With blood streaming from my nose, I called the police. But by the time they got to me, the assailants were long gone. The most frustrating aspect was that I was a mere corner away from the safety of my house when it happened.
When the EMTs and police officers left—dubbing me mostly intact, just shook up and stirred—I retired to an empty house. No one to talk to about it; not even roommates. My phone chimed mere seconds later. A friend and mentor in my tea circles texted me, making sure I made it home safe. I told her what just happened.
She immediately expressed condolences and concern, and wondered what the thieves absconded. I informed her that nothing of value was taken, save for a bamboo matcha whisk. (And my dignity.) There was a pause. Then she said that a new one was on its way to me in three days. She bought a new matcha whisk on the spot.
I relayed this story a month after the incident, but I left out some key details. Reason? I felt they weren’t relevant at the time. Well, a whole year later, they are more relevant than ever. For you see . . . the three men who attacked me were African-American, and so was the first person who helped me after the attack.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan made manifest in my own life, and I thought that was enough to help me keep things in perspective. To keep me from being yet another jaded statistic. I thought my cursory understanding of the parable, and my parallel story to it, would keep me on the path of ally-ship. I was wrong. I understood nothing.
After the attack, I noticed an increase in both my cynicism and fear towards African-American men. I tensed up when I saw them in groups. I muttered things under my breath when I saw them on television. I shared racially epithetical memes with acquaintances online in private conversations. I dealt with my trauma by painting a painful canvas over the entire community.
The worst part is: I was aware that this was happening. Time and again, I tried to course-correct my own thoughts, and every time, I defaulted to the same negative frame of mind. Just how deeply ingrained was this?
The day before [this write-up], I listened to an episode of the BibleProject podcast. On Sundays, I try to get as much God-talk delivered to my earbuds. I happened upon the first episode on a series they did discussing the Jesus parables. The first one on the talking block? The Good Samaritan.
In their conversation, co-host Tim Mackie brought up an interesting point about the parable. As stories go, it was a bit of a double-edged sword. Sure, Jesus wanted to point out to the man whom he should define as a “neighbor”, but his non-answer to the lawyer’s query was twofold. The second, understated intent was to cause the questioner to come to grips with his own prejudices.
In ancient times, the Samaritans were considered a bastard stock of Jewish people. While they thought of themselves as fully Hebrew, the rest of the old Jewish world did not. They considered Samaritans “partial” at best. (Although, the Samaritan version of the Torah is the oldest transcribed version in existence . . . but that’s an entirely different discussion. Moving on.)
In the parable, when Jesus asked the “expert of the law” who the neighbor in the story was, the man wouldn’t even use the word “Samaritan”. Instead, he used the words: “the one who showed mercy upon him”. So deeply ingrained was his disgust for that group of people. And Jesus still managed to turn his words upon him.
The New Testament word for “mercy” in the original Greek is έλεος, transliterated as “éleos”; literally meaning: “pity, mercy, or quarter.” Conversely, “neighbor” (πλησίον/ “plēsion”) literally translates to “close fellow” when used as a noun. Nowadays, “mercy” is rarely used as a synonym for “pity” or “quarter”, and “neighbor” usually means someone geographically close, not essentially.
In all my years, I can’t think of one time where I considered an African-American man a close fellow, but I’ve catalogued many instances where African-Americans showed me pity or granted me quarter. When I first went to college out of state, it was an African-American woman who made sure I was fed. She even gave me a job. After graduation, an African-American woman hired me upon returning to my home state. And finally, in my tea community dealings, African-Americans introduced me to new people, new experiences, and broadened my horizons. But I oftentimes returned those acts of kindness, not with gratitude, but with casual indifference.
How deeply ingrained was my fear? Answer: DEEP.
The attack didn’t inform my negative opinion of African-American men; it merely surfaced the pre-conceived notions that already existed. I had never been a New Testament “neighbor” to the African-American. I had never shown mercy. Like many, given current events, I’ve had to come to terms with that.
In addiction therapy, one of the first steps is acknowledging that there is a problem. I think the same type of process might apply here. Before becoming an ally, I must first acknowledge out loud how I’ve been a part of the problem. This article is my attempt to do so. From there, I need to learn how to be a good neighbor, to show mercy, and put both into action. As a Christian, I have to. Nay . . . I want to.
For as Jesus said to the expert in the law, “Go and do likewise.”]]>