Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Tag: Li Shan

A Tie Guan Yin Flight from Taiwan

Tie Guan Yin is one of the most interesting takes on oolong ever developed. Despite its ancient-sounding name—invoking the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Guan Yin— the “Iron Goddess of Mercy” only dates back to the 19th century. Hailing from Anxi county, in Fujian province, China, this complicated style of oolong originally began its life as a medium-roast, “strip leaf”-shaped incarnation; similar to Wuyi Mountain yanchas, or Phoenix Mountain Dan Congs—only nowhere near as dark. That changed around the turn of the 20th century when the processing techniques grew even more labyrinthine.

Image mooched from Wikipedia.

Contrary to popular belief, though, Tie Guan Yin didn’t start out as a processing style of oolong. Rather, the style was inspired by a slow-growing, low-yielding cultivar of the same name.

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Tea and a Tea Garden

One might recall – if they actually read this blog – that I made an impromptu trip to Eugene, Oregon…for a beer. An oolong beer, to be precise. While there, I also stopped by the shop that provided the oolong – J-Tea International. It’s a great little shop situated in the ‘burbs run by Josh (the titular “J” in the name) Chamberlain. While I was there, I was treated to an experiment of his, a black tea made from leaves grown in Oregon. An outfit called Minto Island Growers, in the state’s capital of Salem, had a half-acre plot of garden set aside for tea bushes.

The tea in question was exquisite, very much like a Taiwanese Ruby 18 only – well – ‘Merica.  Deep, medium-bodied and slightly fruity. Color me shocked several months later when I saw a photo of Josh shoveling a bunch of black tea out of a cooker.

Josh and his tea pile

Josh and his tea pile.

More Minto Island black, to be clear. I salivated on my keyboard. Apparently, this time ‘round, he’d acquired enough leaf to make a product out of it. Well, of course, I was going to buy a tea grown in Oregon! And buy I did. On my phone. As I was stepping out of a fast food joint.

It arrived a week later, and I paid it as much fanfare as one could a new baby or puppy. Y’know, skipping, dancing, hooting and hollering; things a thirtysomething-year-old man shouldn’t do unless he intended to scare children. I tore open the bag to get a good whiff. By sight and smell, I could tell this was already going to be a different beast than the Minto Island Black Mark-1. Instead of a Ruby-ish smell, this resembled…maple? Very wildernessy.

When I brewed 2 teaspoons of leaves per pint of boiled water for five minutes, I was shocked by how light it was in color. That said, it still tasted damn good. Instead of a solid Ruby through-and-through, this was more…Li Shan black by way of a Nuwara Eliya Ceylon. High-altitude in character, floral on taste, with trickles of fruit notes interspersed throughout the flavorful experience.

Oregon-brewed

I finally read the description on the J-Tea site and found out why it was so different. The leaves were first flush. Not sure what the Mark-1 leaves were, but my gut tells me they were later. This did have first flush written all over it in both appearance and appetite. Light but with a kick. By sheer negligence, I also learned it could take a punishment of ten minutes or more with barely a tannic tickle.

However, a part of me kept egging me on, insisting that my experience with this tea was far from over. I’d had an urge to visit Minto Island Growers’ tea plot for over a year. If my experience at Sakuma Bros. had done anything, it was to instill a sense of, “Just f**kin’ do it!” And so I did it.

Minto Island Growers

I e-mailed Elizabeth and Chris Jenkins to see if I could stop by and photograph the tea bushes for my blog. Elizabeth responded promptly, gave her consent, and followed that up with directions. The day I was to leave, I hadn’t intended to bring anything, but a last minute thought entered my brain: Brew a pint of Minto Island black and bring it with you!

I’m a “jeenyus”.

The trek was made that Wednesday. And, naturally, I got horribly lost before finding it. I found the Minto Island Growers market stand, and – by chance – got to meet Elizabeth. She pointed me in the right direction again, and – within a minute or two – I was standing in a tea garden again. A mere week after being one in Burlington.

I took my pint of Minto Island black with me. When I was about at the center of the garden, I began swigging. No words can describe what it feels like to drink a tea in the middle of the garden it came from. I could try, but my mere words would only act as a tribute. I now know how tea gardeners must feel.

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Throwing in the Towel after a Tea Fight

A couple of weeks back there, I attended a different sort of tea meet-up. The Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance and The Jasmine Pearl Tea Merchants joined forces for a movie night. The movie in question? Tea Fight (or “Dou Cha”) – a Taiwanese/Japanese co-production centering almost entirely around tea, and the people who drank it. One of the Jasmine Pearlites described it as “tea porn”.

Sold.

The Jasmine Pearl were serving up hojicha and Mayucha sencha, while PDX Tea Dave brandished some Taiwanese oolongs. Fitting given the origin(s) of the movie. I was looking forward to it on a scholastic level; I’d never seen a movie that focused completely on tea. Well, except for a rather cool, teacentric episode of Sherlock. The writer part of me wanted to see how it was done so I could compare it to my own tea-fiction-y efforts. Another thought that ran through my head: When/where did Portland get so many hot tea chicks?! (It was ruining my concentration.)

Ahem…

The movie opened with an anime sequence – yes, an anime sequence! – explaining the backdrop. In the distant past, there were two rival tea clans – the Female Golden Tea Clan and the Male Golden Tea Clan. The Female clan brewed tea that instilled a sense of calm and peace, whereas the Male clan’s brew instilled passion and aggression. Due to a misunderstanding involving a Japanese tea merchant (surnamed Yagi), the Male Golden Tea Clan exterminated the Female.

In the ensuing kerfuffle, a little boy combined both the Male and Female liquors, drank them, and turned into a dragon. Realizing the wrong they’d done, the Male Golden Tea Clan scoured the remains of the Female clan’s village for any surviving tea bushes. There were none – save one. A single plant rescued by the Japanese merchant, Yagi.

And that’s just the first ten minutes of the movie.

The rest of it deals with the descendants of the two tea clans and the father/daughter heirs to the Yagi family. I won’t give anymore away than to say that the movie plays out like Karate Kid meets Romeo & Juliet by way of Sideways. The story is told in broad strokes – as it should be – and particular emphasis is placed on tea brewing. Albeit exaggerated.

From a tea geek’s perspective, I found some of the brewing techniques fascinating. The Male Golden Tea Clan pressed their tea into beengcha cakes, scraped leaves off, stone-ground them to a fine powder, and then whisked. The Female Golden Tea Clan…uh…did tea-fu. (No, seriously, it looked like they splashed water in the air, and went all Crouching Tiger with it. Quit epic.)

The Yagi family stone-ground their own matcha!!! I want my own stone-grinder! If I had one, I could finally realize my dream of making green rooibos matcha. And, wow, I’m getting way off topic.

In short, the movie was cheesy in all the right ways. It was the first media-ish piece I’d seen that captured the true grand scale that tea’s multi-millennial history encompasses. And it took me over a week to watch it. I’ll explain…

I actually had to leave the PDX Tea/Jasmine Pearl event early for…beer. Yes, beer subverted tea. A friend of mine made a homebrewed oatmeal IPA and was unveiling it for swigging. Couldn’t be passed up. However, I was able to at least take in over half of Tea Fight before leaving.

And I was humbled.

For the better part of November – as some of you know – I’d undertaken a NaNoWriMo project. For those not familiar, that’s where a writer tries to concoct 50K-word novel in a month. That’s right, a month. My initial goal was to cheat and repurpose old blogs into a book; I called it “CheatoWriMo”. Unfortunately, nine days into the project, I had an inconvenient epiphany – dictating that I start from scratch. The new idea was pure tea porn.

At first, I was engaged in the project, but the narrative was heading in a direction that I didn’t quite like. The entire affair was starting to make me feel uncomfortable, and I wasn’t quite sure why. Maybe it was the fact that it hit too close to home, or maybe it was just bad writing. I dunno. Then I saw Tea Fight…and I was ready to throw in the towel.

While it wasn’t a perfect movie by any stretch, it did what I was trying to do and did it better. What I had put to paper so far didn’t convey what I wanted it to. And Tea Fight did. Toward the tail end of the week, I announced that I was scrapping my little tea tale. I couldn’t even stand to look at the manuscript.

In the interim, fellow Tea Trader and NaNoWriMo participant – Courtney the Purrfect Cup – had reached the 50K mark. I was proud of her. She  and another compatriot – authoress Katrina Avila Munichiello – plus others in the NaNo group  urged me not abandon the project, but instead give it room to breathe. An answer would come, they stressed.

Yesterday, I finally finished watching Tea Fight, and came to a realization. I totally missed the point of the movie. Yes, there actually was a message it was trying to convey, and it was oddly relevant to my mid-writer’s crisis. One of the deus ex machina characters in the movie was the ancient tea scholar, Lu Yu. He appeared occasionally to motivate the characters forward. I won’t give away the movie’s ending, but the overall moral was (paraphrased slightly): “Your true fight is the one with yourself. Tea is innocent.”

All this time, the story made me uncomfortable because I was drawing upon more of myself than from stories prior. Actual life experiences were being used as a basis for the plot. I was blaming the material, but – in reality – it was me. The story wasn’t crap; I was crap for trying to quit. Only time would tell if it was a train wreck.

At the time of this writing, I was undertaking another challenge. The Canton Tea Co.’s Tea Club had sent me some Ali Shan and Li Shan (i.e. Taiwanese oolongs), and they were asking participants to choose a victor. This proved a difficult comparison, but in the end, Ali Shan won me over by a hair. However, the best results came from mixing the two. Unity superseded the tea fight. Right now, I’m swigging the mixture by the pot…

And listening to M.C. Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit”.

To read what I have so far on said “tea porn”, go HERE.

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