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Tag: pu-erh

Do Tea Drinkers Dream of Electric Kettles?

Back in January, I was contacted by JalamTeas to try another one of their pu-erhs. This was different than their Nan Nuo offering because it was a loose, young sheng as opposed to a beengcha (tea cake). Well, of course, I said, “Hell yeah!” Or something akin to it. JalamTeas had a pretty good eye for pu-erh.

Then a funny thing happened…

Peter

I received the sample about a week later, dove into it right away, loved it, but sat on the write-up for it. In the ensuing weeks, I had a dream that centered around JalamTeas. To this day, I still have no idea what to make of it. I’ll let you – fine reader(s) – be the judge:

This took place at a hotel. Jeff Fuchs – and, by extension – JalamTeas were hosting some sort of symposium. They were set to unveil a new product – a Kenyan “pu-erh”. I was also in attendance.

During the event, someone stole exactly $790 worth of product from the JalamTeas stores. From the corner of my eye, I saw a hooded figure down a hallway. Why I was the only one who noticed, I dunno. Dream-related narcissism, I guess.

I dashed down the hall after the supposed thief. To my surprise, I was keeping pretty good pace with the suspect. Maybe I’m fit in my dreams. Anyway…

He made his way out an emergency exit and ascended the fire escape stairs. I followed suit, closing the gap. By the top floor, the suspect stopped. I never got a good look at the guy, but I noticed a box of tea in his hands

Then…I immediately threw him over the balcony.

toss

And I woke up.

That was the first time I’d ever committed tea-related homicide in a dream. I must’ve really wanted to get my hands on some Kenyan heicha. Perhaps that was why I stayed away from this write-up for so long, to make sense of that quixotic dream. Then I thought, That’s not fair to the tea.

After all, as Lu Yu said (in some movie I watched once), “Tea is innocent.”

With that out of the way, I shall segue to…

Zhang Lang

This was actually the first of two such pu-erhs offered up by JalamTeas with the “Zhang Lang” name attached. Another one – a shou (or cooked) version was made available in January. The sheng (green) variant was their May release.

Both teas hailed from the Zhang Lang area near Bada Mountain, part of the greater Xishuangbanna region of Yunnan province, China. The Pulang people of the region picked and processed the leaves from medium-aged trees. By that, I mean, tea trees that ranged from thirty-to-seventy years old. Young by pu-erh standards.

Pulang

Image owned by JalamTeas

The leaves for this looked like no other pu-erh (sheng or otherwise) that I’d ever seen. Strangely enough, the leaves looked…Darjeeling-ish – multi-hued layers of brown, beige and green. The smell they gave off was also vaguely grapy and herbal. I had nothing else I could compare it to. Other loose sheng pu-erhs at least gave me some clue; this was its own beast.

Zhang Lang leaves

I went with a typical pu-erh brewing approach. I had plenty of leaves to play with, so I opted for a more traditional gongfu brew – about a tablespoon of leaves to a 6oz. gaiwan of boiled water, multiple steeps. Yes, I could’ve gone with more leaf than that, but I’m not that traditional.

Of the first three infusions – ranging from thirty-to-forty seconds (or whatever I felt like) – flavors ranged from straight grape-‘n-leaf to something akin to linden flower. By that, I mean herbal, sweet yet floral with something citrusy on the aftertaste. The experience was lingering with each cup. Spry, layered, fruity, sweet, herbal, slightly earthy, and…well…young.

Zhang Lang gongfu

Like with all young, greener pu-erhs I’ve tried, the only thing lacking was dimension. Given a half-decade or so, more nuanced and winy flavors will develop. It’s akin to watching girls grow into beautiful women. (Natalie Portman Syndrome.)This tastes great now, but I’m really excited to see what happens in the next few years.

I’d probably toss someone over a balcony for it, then.

balcony

Good Afternoon, Vietnamese Pu-Erh!

In 2010, back in my review days, a Vietnamese cooked pu-erh happened upon my desktop. By then, I had developed a predilection for weird teas and new origins. So, the idea of a pu-erh, from somewhere other than Yunnan, excited me. That is, until I tasted it. Let’s just say, I wasn’t a fan.

Angry Williams

But – in its defense – that might have been my ‘Merica brewing approach.

I also mistakenly assumed that said cooked pu-erh was only named for being close to Vietnam, but wasn’t actually from there. As far as I knew back then, pu-erh wasn’t pu-erh unless it was from Yunnan province, China. Well, apparently, some parts of Yunnan and Vietnam are only separated by a river. Therefore, it was safe to assume that some Chinese pu-erh making techniques crossed the border.

Just this last year, I ran across a company that did sell Vietnamese pu-erh. Alas, they were all sold out of the stuff by the time I made an inquiry. However, around the same time (circa November), a forum topic was started by a new Tea Trader who went by the name “@Caobo”.

Apparently, he was affiliated with an outfit called Hung Cuong Trading Company, LTD, out of Ha Giang province, Vietnam. I knew nothing about the company. But further digging did turn up a website and a Facebook page.

Hung Cuong

Imaged owned by Hung Cuong Tea

The website was in Vietnames, but what did I expect? ‘Merican English everywhere?

After some discussion with Caobo, I was able to acquire two cooked pu-erh cakes – a 1999 and a 2005. And they. Were. Huge!

Vietnamese pu-erh cakes

Left- 1999. Right – 2005

Seriously, beautifully pressed cakes. Not that I’m an expert on the subject – I’m nowhere near. But these were gorgeous. However, time and life got the better of me, and I didn’t dip into these until four months later. I know, par for (lazy) course.

Let’s get this out of the way. As I mentioned above, yes, I know they can’t be considered pu-erh in the traditional sense because they’re not Chinese in origin. Anything not from Yunnan is simply a heicha (or “dark tea”) in the most generalist of terms. But you know what? If the only thing separating your pu-erh variant from Yunnan is a friggin’ river, I think you’ve earned the right to the name.

Anyway, enough ranting, on with the tasting.

The ’99 cake had an aroma of dirt and…Russian caravans. Seriously, it was as earthy as any aged cooked pu-erh I’ve ever come across. I felt like I was on a dirt road riding on horseback. The ’05, by contrast, had a more spry smell – mint, dust, dirt, and something medicinal on the back-whiff. Points to the ’99 for sniff-test win.

And now…the hard part: Cutting into these beautiful cakes. Seriously, not since childhood birthday parties have I been so torn. To cut into something so beautiful made my heart ache. But there was tasting to be done, so I went to stabbin’.

Cutting the cake

The ’99 was murderously difficult to cut into. And I do mean murderous. I had to channel some misplaced rage just to plunge the pu-erh pick deep enough. Once I was able to pry some slivers free, the rest was easy. The parts I did flake off did so with ease once pressed.

The ’05 didn’t put up as much of a fight as its older brother, but the pieces that came off were far flakier and small. I gathered up what I could and put them in the cup. Color-wise, there wasn’t a difference between either cake’s compressed leaves. Only their consistency differed. As one would expect, the ’99 leaves kept together in their pressed form, whereas the ’05 was more prone to loosening.

versus

Left- 1999. Right – 2005

For brewing, I decided to actually learn from past mistakes and went with a gongfu-ish approach. Boiled water, multiple steeps of about thirty seconds – gradually increasing the time on successive infusions. Given their age, and the “cooking” process, it was the only way to go.

The wet leaves for the ’99 stayed together after the first infusion, while the ’05 broke apart pretty easily under waterboarding stress. Aromatically, both couldn’t have been more different – the ’99 being straight earth, while the ’05 smelled like pipe tobacco.

The liquor for the ’99 also came out considerably darker (plus more difficult to pour, for some reason). The ’05 looked more like a small-cut Nilgiri black tea in liquor color. As for the steam scent off of both cups – ’99 was more pungent and dusty, and the ’05 was mild in its “essence of wilderness”.

liquors

Left- 1999. Right – 2005

As one would expect, the ’99 tasted much older – giving off a fungal vibe on the tongue, mixed with the earthen qualities already present. While the elder was more nuanced, the ’05 was a far smoother drink – reminding me of a light-smoked Lapsang Souchong in character.

Further infusions provided deeper dimensions to both, but honestly, after steep #2…descriptors escaped me. I was well into tea drunk by then. The only thing I can say for certain is that the ’99 the Elder started developing an oddly sweeter profile as time went on. The ’05 still stuck to its toasty guns on the smoke end of the spectrum – with a tickle of spice (???).

After I was done with all that finagling – and feeling a wee bit Zen-peachy – I decided to take the powdery dregs from both aged cakes…and gongfu them together.  Oh, c’mon, like you weren’t expecting this?!

The results were…schizophrenic. Best to keep these two siblings apart. Age before beauty.

liquor fusion

My favorite?

Well, they’re both tied, but for different reasons and in much different ways. I liked the way the ’99 felt and made me feel. I liked the ’05 for how it tasted and how comfortable it went down. For everyday drinking, the ’05 wins out. It’s a very approachable pu-erh. For the discerning palate throwing a special gathering of like-minded tea snoots? The ’99 wins out. All said, these were even better than some Yunnan cooked pu-erhs I’ve come across.

Consider me a very vocal Vietnamese tea fan.

Happy Williams

White Buds Pu-erh

White Tea Week, Day 7: “White Buds Pu-Erh”

Okay, technically, this is cheating. It’s not really a white tea. Hear me out.

Just yesterday, I covered aged white tea. The process for that is relatively simple. Find a cool, dry place to store it, keep it covered airtight…and forget about it for five years. Awesomeness can – and may – ensue. If pressed into a beengcha (tea cake), even better. Gives one something to work for. What I haven’t covered, though, is the difference between aged white tea and pu-erh made from white tea leaves.

Sheng (or raw) pu-erhs are made from tea leaves that have been wok (or pan) fired then sun-dried. After that, they’re either compressed into cakes or other shapes, and ferment naturally on their own. The other type of pu-erh – shou (or cooked) – goes through a more…impatient process. Machine-tumbling and wet-piling. Think of those like composting mulch, then you’ll get the idea.

wet-piling

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Cooked pu-erhs do take on some interesting characteristics once given a chance to age naturally after the initial compostumble-stuff. The gold medal, though, goes to the shengs. They’re my chosen form of pu-erh-ing. And we won’t even go into the larger family of heicha (dark tea), of which pu-erh is a part. Too much ground to cover.

(Sidenote: Yes, I’m skating over a lot of pu-erh knowledge for the sake of witticism. I’m no expert on the subject. Just a taster.)

The first “white tea” pu-erh I ever tried was almost entirely by accident. A local tearoom was carrying something they dubbed “Silver Needle” pu-erh. Back then, my weird tea radar was in its infancy. While I was eager to try it, I didn’t just stop my life in order to hunt it down. I waited a good week, at least.

It was exquisite. And since then, I had three or four others that met similar approval. Most of these were five-year or ten-year teas. What I was really curious about was how a white bud pu-erh held up somewhere closer to infancy. By a twist of fate, a White Buds Sheng Pu-erh (2011) was hidden among the Taiwanese whites I received from Norbu Tea.

white buds

Image mooched from Norbu Tea

The leaves were definitely white buds to the core. All light green needles, young forest green leaves leaves, and fuzzy excellence with a smell that could best be described as…uh…sheng-y. There were more needles than straight-up leaves, though, which was a plus. Subtler than most other raw pu-erhs, I really couldn’t make out much other than grass, wilderness, wood, and a smidge of something almost stonefruity. It reminded me of straight-up White Peony that’d been in storage for a couple of years.

chunk

For brewing, I boiled water and approached it like any other sheng pu-erh. Gongfool-style, all the way. I took a hefty enough chunk to fill a teaspoon, and placed it in a 6oz. gaiwan. Three successive infusions were a good enough judge of character, each one at about thirty-to-forty seconds.

Over the course of three infusions, the needled leaves had broken apart and infused to varying degrees of yellow. The first infusion was obviously the lightest, but the other two were around the same shade of pale gold. The real difference between the three lay in the flavor.

Each one had the citrus and grass lean in common. But the further down the white rabbit hole I went, the bolder the profile became. Lemons, forest, and hay were the dominant nuanced notes on display. Smoke was a trait that showed up in the underpinning. Not that I minded.

infusions

Even after three years of aging, the white tea profile still dominated the flavorscape of this still-young pu-erh. Some wine notes were emerging, but only in the aftertaste. Given another three years of resting on its pressed-leaf laurels, I’m sure more fermented characteristics would emerge. As for now, it was like a white tea that could take a pu-erh punishment. I’ll drink to that.

*****

And that, folks, is the end of White Tea Week. What did I learn? Well, nothing I didn’t already know. White tea is awesome. It got me started on the road to orthodox tea appreciation, and it still holds the crown.

What did I benefit from seven days’ worth of white tea blogging? My teeth have never been whiter. I was fighting a cold/flu-plague, but it seems to have retreated thanks to all the antiviral badassery from the teas. And lastly, my outlook has never been whiter. Er, I mean brighter!

In the end, it’s nice to know what’s out there. I’m reassured that so many countries are playing with the tea type.  After all, I’m only getting started.

Image copyright Oleg Kozlov – iStockphoto.com

Image copyright Oleg Kozlov – iStockphoto.com

A Bourbon Barrel Pu-erh Origin Story

Art by Dave Snider

Art by Dave Snider

I talk a lot about new and interesting teas on this blog. It’s kind of my thing. But this article’s going to be a little bit different. I’ve always tried to talk about the origins to unique teas, or the regions they stem from. This is the first time where I was actually there when the tea was conceived. And it all started…in a bar.

On October 23rd, I made the two-hour trek to Eugene, OR .for an event called Tea Beer Fest. Of course I was going to go; how could I not? That’s – like – the combination of my two favorite things on the whole planet. I’d heard about the event through Josh “J-TEA” Chamberlain, and the fine tea lad even acted as a gracious host for my soon-to-be-tea-drunk arse.

When I first met up with Josh, it was – fittingly enough – at his teashop. J-TEA HQ. As I sipped copious amounts of sheng pu-erh and aged Baozhong, I even got a brief tour of the operation. Eventually, I had to address the elephant in the room. And by elephant, I mean…bourbon barrel.

He told me several months prior that he’d acquired such a barrel from the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky. I was just surprised it hadn’t been used yet. Originally, he told me that he was going to load it up with Eugene Breakfast – a Yunnan Dian Hong – but was a little tight-lipped about his hesitance to barrel said tea.

Teabeer drinking commenced later that evening. As I was I-fergit-how-many-pints in, I brought up the bourbon barrel again. Because nothing says social tact like beer. I barreled into the subject with all the finesse of a village idiot. Keep in mind, this is how I recall the conversation…and granted, it’s a little fuzzy.

“So…how come you haven’t loaded that barrel with tea, yet?” There might have been a slight slur to my speech at this point.

“Truthfully,” he began (and I’m paraphrasing). “I sell a lot of Eugene Breakfast. I don’t know if I have any to spare for that.”

I mused. “What tea do you have that you’d want to sacrifice to the altar of awesomeness?”

(Okay, I didn’t quite put it like that, but – in hindsight – I wish I had.)

Josh thought it over for a moment, “I’ve got this loose cooked pu-erh I could use.”

I snapped my fingers. “Yes! There you go. Pour some in, age it for a month or two, and done!”

“If it doesn’t work, I’m naming it after you.”

“Challenge accepted.”

The next day – after returning to Portland – I ran across this video on J-TEA’s Google+ page.

Oh lord, what had I done?

It wasn’t the first time, I’d operated in a “soft” consulting capacity before. For some reason, people in the tea industry/community value my opinion. Not sure why, sometimes. But this was the first case where someone had remembered one of my suggestions…over beer. I prayed to whatever Tea Gods that existed on high – heck, even Lu Yu himself – to make the tea turn out well.

The day after Christmas, my can arrived. Yes, I said can. Because everything that’s wonderful in ‘Merica comes in a f**king can!

The moment I got the can, I pried it open with my house-key and just…inhaled. It smelled like the inside of a bourbon barrel, as it bloody well should have. Strong peat and gasoline aromas invaded my nostrils like a sophisticated frat party. Whiskey notes took point, followed closely behind a hint of pu-erh earthiness. Not pu-erh fishiness – earthiness. This was a quality five-year-aged Yunnan cooked pu-erh; from that I could tell. The two different aromas complimented one another, translating from oak to earth with nary a jarring sensation.

(Sidenote: A day didn’t go by when I wasn’t caught just sniffing the can for minutes on end. One time, my sister/roommate came in as I was in mid-whiff. I had to say something akin to, “It’s not what it looks like.”)

I dug into this the very night I got it. I chose to brew it two different ways – one gongfoolishly, the other Western-ishly. The first: Boiling water, thirty-second steeps. The second: Boiling water, three-minute steep. The vessel I used was a gaiwan, and I infused 1 tablespoon of leaves.

For the gongfoolish prep, the liquor brewed up…well…dark as night. Even after only thirty seconds, the brew was as dark as any – uh – dark tea I’d ever tried. The aroma from the cup was almost strictly pu-erh-ish – alternating between earth and wood. Not so with the taste. On first sip, I was met with bourbon-drenched oak. A feeling I’d only encountered with bourbon barrel-aged beers. It was sweet, smoky, vaguely alcoholic, and flowed right into a cooked pu-erh woodsiness.

Most alcoholic barrel or drench-scented teas I’ve come across usually have the savory notes on the finish as a compliment. A subtle nuance in its character. This was the first time where I ran into such a flavor on introduction. Not even the one whiskey barrel-aged Lapsang Souchong had so strong an intro.

When gongfu-ed, the leaves lasted a good eight infusions before diluting. The pu-erh notes took over after about Steep #6, but still…that’s a long way to go for a scented tea. Brewed Western-style, I have to say the results weren’t that different. It lasted three good, strong infusions, but the notes were exactly the same. No real change.

My only real regret is that I didn’t have any original, unscented cooked pu-erh on hand to compare and contrast. No matter. I suppose I’ll make do with what I have in front of me – a can I can repeatedly sniff like glue.

For more info on this tea, go HERE.

The Portland Tea Community I Never Knew About

pdx - a portland tea community

Discovering the Portland Tea Community

The weather was piss-poor on Saturday. It wasn’t the kind of day where anyone would want to go anywhere. However, there was one event I absolutely could not miss out on – crappy weather or no. Tea friend, David Galli, was finally having the Grand Opening for his Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance sipping space. This might be the new hub of the Portland tea community, there was no way on Earth or Hades I was going to miss.

Sidenote: It surprises me that – even living in one of the rainiest states in the Union – Oregonians actually forget how to drive in it. I ran into no less than three accidents on the highway to PDX Tea HQ. One was a sideswiped hybrid that was literally blocking the entire exit…sideways. I had to squeeze my way around the dented hippie-mobile just to enter Southeast Portland. Okay, rant over.

I arrived rather early. Dave and co. were still setting up the space for the incoming crowd. It gave me ample time to look around at everything. PDX Tea HQ was shaping up to be an orthodox tea nerd’s paradise. People began arriving shortly after the official start-time. Some were familiar faces to me, but most were not.

That gave me quite a shock. Apparently, there is a Portland tea community of sorts, and I had been unaware of it. There were a whole slew of folks that new each other from different groups, classes, vendorships, workshops, and correspondences. The realization reminded me that I was living in a proverbial puerh cave of hermitism. There it was, the Portland tea community.

David was the perfect, casual host for the group. Weaving in and out of conversations and anecdotes with moderate finesse – like a tweed-vest-clad tea ninja or something. Whenever he had an announcement to make, he was able to grab attention without too much trouble. (Whereas I would’ve been shouting like a carnival barker.)

Among the first teas put up for palate perusal was a Yunnan white made from the “wild arbor” varietal. I had tried pu-erhs from that particular leaf, but never a white from it. Taste-wise, it was like a more feathery and grassy Dian Hong.  The sucker lasted almost five infusions without losing strength.

The second on the docket was a green tea from the New Century Tea Gallery in Seattle. The family that owns it also operates their own tea garden in China. That alone was instantly fascinating. The tea itself reminded me quite a bit of a Mao Feng or a better-tasting Clouds & Mist green. High marks.

Thirdly, another green tea was brought out. This one I knew next to nothing about. Apparently, it was a green tea – simply dubbed “Zen Tea” – imparted to David by tea sommelier, Becky Lee. I wasn’t too familiar with its origins, but David did mention that it was grown and prepared in a monastery. Visions of Trappist monks filled my head.  It was one of the more delectable green teas I’d ever tried – both sweet, floral, light and mildly fruity.

I mingled as best I could, but that was never my strong suit. Beyond talking blog-shop with a few folks here and there, I spent most of my time simply marveling at how connected these local tea drinkers were. It was quite a sight to behold, and David wove them all together like some sort of pu-erh-drunk puppet master. Unfortunately, I had to leave early.

But I left sated, caffeinated, and meditated.

Tea Pairing with Job Hunting

The idea for this entry was suggested by my mother, as great ideas often are. It never occurred to me to pair tea with job hunting until she posed the idea after reading my tea-fueled rant. This reflection has – in no way – any science to back it up, just anecdotal “evidence”. Trial and error, hypotheses, and conjectures also played key roles in the missive. Oh, and oolong. Lots and lots of oolong.

Let’s begin.

Getting Started

As an unemployed person, one of the most difficult tasks is literally getting out of bed. Let’s face it, joblessness is depressing. Why does someone want to get started when it feels like their world is ending? The key is a self-fueled kick in the pants.

I’ve personally found that having a morning routine helps to motivate one away from the comfort of a ‘lectric blanky. Getting your day going as if you already have a job puts you in the right frame of mind to look for one. Shaving helps, too (for either gender). And for the love of God, put pants on!

Possible Tea Pairing:

Caffeine is required – lots of it. You need something that’ll give you an extra oomph! My personal recommendation is Assam. Better yet? Assam with some Lapsang Souchong sprinkled in. Nothing says, “Wake the f**k up!” like a caffeinated kick o’ campfire.

Writing a Resume and Cover Letter

If you – fair reader – are anything like me, you hate writing about yourself in a clinical manner. The urge to self-deprecate is a strong one. Same with wanting to sell yourself short. Some have a magical grasp of inflating their accomplishments; I am not one of them. Plus, I’m not very good at summarizing my abilities and accolades (whatever they are) concisely.

The importance is to consult others that have some expertise in these areas – people who’ve either submitted several times, or have a surefire approach. I’ve learned that submitting a resume or cover letter blindly, without having someone looking it over, is like turning in an obituary.

However, you don’t want to be too wired while you’re doing it. I’ve found that these two exercises require a lot of patience, or rather “calm wakefulness”.

Possible Tea Pairing:

I’m taking a page right out of Lindsey Goodwin’s recommendations by saying the best tea for writing is oolong. Sure, it’s caffeinated. And – depending on the sourcing – it can be strong. Yet I feel it truly gives someone a time-released dose of wake-up-call. Enough to instill a sense of focus. I turn to a good oolong – gongfu-ishly-styled – when I’m in the middle of a writing project. And believe me…resumes are a project.

Pounding the Pavement

As much as I hate to admit it, networking is the lifeblood of the job search. Talking to people, keeping your ears open, going from shop-to-shop, doing informational interviews, and putting yourself out there are mandatory. Ever hear that phrase, “It’s who you know…”

I’ll be damned if it ain’t correct.

Possible Tea Pairing:

Anything aged. In my experienced, teas – whether they’re oolongs, pu-erhs, black teas, or whites – that have at least five years on ‘em are eerily soothing. Sometimes they might actually taste as old as they are, but one thing can’t be denied. They make your brain feel like it’s sitting on a park bench feeding pigeons. Even when you’re doing something as socially uncomfortable as talking to people.

Just resist the urge to yell, “Get off my lawn!”

Interview Hell

Congrats! You’ve made it to an actual interview. Someone has taken the time out of their busy schedule to interrogate you for thirty minutes to an hour. But you don’t want to come across as a complete tool. (Unless they’re looking for someone useful.)

There are tips and guides aplenty on how to prepare for an interview. I’ve personally found that dressing to the nines doesn’t hurt your prospects. Where I’ve tended to fail, though, is in the verbal delivery. You don’t want to talk too fast or sound too deliberate. That and you want to have answers to questions prepared – in your mind, anyway. (Note: Do not bring cue cards.)

Some unorthodox methods for confidence and relaxation I’ve heard are: (1) Doing push-ups before an interview. Sound – if odd – advice from my brother. (2) Giving yourself an affirmation speech in the mirror. I do this. (3) Talking to someone before you leave for the interview. I’ve found that parents help. (4) Having a theme song. Okay, I made that last one up. Still, that’d be pretty sweet.

Possible Tea Pairng:

Gotta go green or white here. I made the mistake of having a pint of Earl Grey before an interview. At a tearoom, no less. The result? I was a motormouth, talking a mile a minute. My posture was equally off-putting – hunched over, feet tamping nervously. In other words, the less caffeine, the better. If you want to split the difference – a heartily brewed Bai Mu Dan should do the trick.

Rinse and Repeat

Your day is done. You’ve talked to people, made the rounds, applied for new jobs, and now all you want to do is relax. A cup o’ something herbal will work wonders. Pat yourself on the back…because guess what?

You get to do the whole thing again tomorrow.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank my mother for this idea. Do me a favor and like her career advice page on Facebook – Careers/College Not By Chance – HERE. She is an invaluable resource.

Much obliged.

My First Tea Fest

I hemmed and hawed for weeks about whether or not I would actually go to the Northwest Tea Festival this year. Thankfully, my poor impulse control got the better of me, and – boy! – am I glad it did. To miss this tea-binge-o’-thon would’ve been act of idiocy. I present to you – fine tea reader(s?) – my disorganized and picture heavy coverage of Day #1 of said festival o’ the leaf.

(NOTE: This coverage will not include the workshops that were offered because…er…I couldn’t afford them. Being poor sucks. The end.)

Getting There

Washington, I hate you.

Seattle, I hate you more.

Not only were their cops on every exit along the highway getting there, but once I made it to Seattle proper, the roads turned into some other dimension. I swear, it was like the roads in Seattle were designed by someone on barbiturates. Same could also be said for the Seattle Center, which was difficult to navigate through. If it weren’t for signs pointing to the event, I would never have found it.

The Tasting Booths

I guess I’ll get my one gripe out of the way early. The way they organized the private tasting this year was downright awful. Patrons were only allowed two tasting tickets per day. Keep in mind that the event was only for two days – total. Granted, they likely did this as a way to funnel taster traffic. The event was crowded. Still, there had to be a better way to handle it.

Luckily, most of the focused tastings were featuring teas I already knew about extensively. There were two that I felt I had to do, though.

The first tasting was a 2012 Ice Island Pu-erh hosted by Guitian (Becky) Li – a certified tea master. As she told the large group of fifteen, the leaves for this beengcha were picked from high elevation, ancient tea trees – some as old as five hundred years. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an aged version.

That said, the tea itself displayed differing characteristics per steep – starting off grassy and sweet for the first two, and transitioning to a more winy presence in the successive infusions. I could only imagine what this pu-erh would be like given five years to age. Guitian handled the crowd like a seasoned pro.

On an unrelated note, before the tasting even began, I disrupted the proceedings when I realized I’d lost my teacup in another room. I made a mad-dash from one booth to the next to retrieve it – pants almost falling down.

The second tasting I attended later in the day was put on by Brett Boynton, co-owner of the Phoenix Tea Shop in Burien, WA.  I had wanted to meet this guy for months ever since we traded tea barbs over Twitter. That and he had a fantastic tea blog I checked in on regularly.

He was just as quirky and irreverent in person as he was online. And I truly thought the way he handled a crowd of newbie tasters was the stuff of legend. Keep your eye out, you will hear about the “Burien Tea Ceremony” someday. Hint: It involves jokes. Lots of jokes.

The teas he featured were ones I had tried from their shop before – Korean green teas. Jungjak and Daejak, respectively. But it was a treat to see him doing the prep work for them. Like his partner in tea-crime, Cinnabar Gongfu, he’s a character.

Vendors

The first vendors I explored – in true “comfort zone”-y fashion – were the ones run by people I already knew. First up, The Jasmine Pearl Tea Merchants. Yes, I know, I hang out at their Portland shop all the time. I happened by their booth on several rotations – perhaps too much. However, I tried to hang back because they were slammed with visitors the entire day.

My main reason for hovering, though, was the unveiling of two new blends which used A-MURR-ican-grown tea as a base. They struck a deal with the Sakuma Bros. to use their white tea and new (experimental) black tea for locally-sourced blends. Oddly enough, I preferred the black blend over the white blend; strange because I liked the white tea by itself better than the black. Both were well put together, though.

Right next to the JP folks was the Phoenix Tea House booth, and it was equally as crowded. However, I did manage to scissor my way through to mooch a bit of their Ali Shan and copious amounts of their hei cha (post-fermented tea). Particularly worthy of note was a hei cha that was blended and bricked with rose petals. It was strangely sweet on the front, which is a trait I never associated with hei cha – at all.

Cinnabar Gongfu noted that she was skeptical about them because they were pressed into heart-shapes. (The name for them was “Rose Hei Cha Hearts”, after all). I didn’t come back to buy one until later, but they had unfortunately run out of ‘em within the first couple of hours. Not surprising. However, I did settle on a bit of bricked hei cha…which I’m having right now as I write this.

Of the new tea vendors I knew nothing about, first on my sip-list was an outfit out of…er…someplace in Washington called Snow Lotus Fine Teas. It was owned and operated by Lavina Rao, and she was presiding over the tasting at their booth. The one I took notice of was their Yunnan black – dubbed Honey Orchid. It was a malty beast of a Dian Hong. Naturally, I loved it.

After visiting their website, they are officially an outfit I have to try more stuff from. A lot of their offerings fall into my quirky taste of unique. Their black and white  tea selections are phenomenal.

Teahouse Kuan Yin is based in Seattle proper, and I have no clue why I hadn’t heard of them until now. Guess I’ve been under a rock or something. They had a unique tea for the tryin’, which they dubbed “Taiwanese Assam”. It was from the Assamica varietal and reminded me of…well…just that, but with a bit of a Ruby 18 characteristic for good measure. I almost bought some, but it was only available in 2-oz. bags. I was on a budget.

There were plenty of other great vendors that were represented – especially some big-named ones – but I only wanted to cover the unique“teas” here for good measure. You understand, right reader? Good.

Presentations

I had one goal in mind when attending this festival and that was to finally meet James Norwood Pratt – the proverbial rock star of the modern-day tea renaissance. Others have touted his books and personal appearances, but I had yet to experience them for myself. How could I truly be a tea nerd without picking that man’s brain.

His informal lecture was on the subject of “The Tea Renaissance” in the U.S. and the different factors that led to it. He also reflected upon the dour state of the American tea industry after World War II and lamented the existence of mass-produced, low-quality teabags. What I found particularly interesting was the light he shed on white tea popularity in the U.S.

I had not been aware that white tea experienced a boom in the late-90s thanks in no small part to…Britney Spears. You heard right. Apparently, she was a regular customer at Chado – a popular tearoom in L.A. Somehow, someway, it got out that her personal trainer recommended that she only drink white tea for the higher antioxidants. Teeny-boppers the world over demanded white tea en masse soon after. Naturally, that made me rethink my entire white tea obsession.

He closed off the presentation with a Q-and-A. The only question I could think of for him was one that was un-tea-related. I raised my hand.

I asked, “Is it possible to get a picture with you?”

Laughing, Pratt replied, “You’ll have to ask my wife.”

“I’m his wife,” came a voice behind me.

Well-played, Team Pratt. Well-played.

Right after Norwood Pratt’s presentation was an interesting seminar on pu-erh, presided over by Jeffrey McIntosh of McIntosh Tea. He is a pu-erh specialist that spent several years learning from different tea masters in China. One of the facts he elaborated on that I hadn’t known was the varietal of tea tree used for pu-erh teas. The large leaf Yunnan tea tree varietal was Assamica! Okay, that doesn’t mean anything to most people, but my mind was blown. I stayed long enough to try some Wild Arbor pu-erh but had to depart for a tasting soon after.

Which brings me to…

Meet-and-Greets

I’ll bring this winded entry to a close with an excuse to show off a bunch of pictures with blurbs. Why? Because I’m a dork. Deal with it.

As mentioned above, my primary goal for the NW Tea Fest was to get a photo with James Norwood Pratt. I ended up also walking away with his latest edition of The Ultimate Tea Lovers Treasury. Of course, I also got him to sign it, and – like a true fanboy – made a cheesy grin when the snapshot was taken. He was an absolute pleasure to meet. I want to be just like him when I grow up. (For the record, I’m 36.)

After meeting JNP, I finally had to meet Devan Shah, the purveyor of the Chado Tearoom. I’d heard his name bandied about in tea circles, but honestly hadn’t been familiar with Chado until this festival. I must say, I was impressed with some of his wares. That and he was kind enough to oblige a photo.

This one was a two-for. Chuck – The Jasmine Pearl’s co-owner – had informed me that Richard Sakuma (of Sakuma Bros.) was going to be on hand at their booth. I had wanted to meet him for over a year after having tried their Sun Dried White Tea. The man was humble and good-natured and put up with my many questions with wonderful patience. I absolutely needed  a picture with him and JP’s Chuck.

It wouldn’t be a trip to Seattle unless I caught up with the city’s resident “Tea Geek” – Michael J. Coffey. Strangely enough, he spotted me before I noticed him. He was donned in a lab coat and a TeaGeek.net nametag. We traded barbs and posed in front of a tea plant because…well…tea plant!

On one of my many pass-throughs of the Phoenix Teahouse booth, I demanded a photo-op with the owners Brent and Cinnabar. Both bloggers have my dream job.

I also caught up with fellow Portland teapal, David Galli of Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance outdoors.

I finally met Chris Shaw of Contemporary Clay. His various teaware creations were on display at different teashops I’d frequented. Really genial guy.

And last, but certainly not least, I had shwarma for the first time. The Avengers are right; it tastes like EPIC. How could I not draw this to a close with shwarma?!

 

In short, a spectacular day of hyper-caffeination.

After I made my fond farewells to everyone at the fest, JP Chuck had said, “Don’t fall asleep at the wheel.”

“I WON’T!” I said…happily hopping out the door.

Defending a Discerning Palate

Source: Cute Overload. Submitter: Maureen K.

Source: Cute Overload. Submitter: Maureen K.

A few nights back, I had a dream where I was asked by a vendor in Darjeeling to review some of their products. The box that came in the mail was huge; there were at least fifty 100g bags in it, along with other various Indian-ish tea apparati. The first bag I took out was by some estate I’d never heard of. When I tore it open, a foul, earthy smell invaded my nostrils – like poorly cooked puerh only worse. On the inside, instead of leaves, I found beige furballs and brown clumps.

I was known to be an experimental drinker, but even this weirded me out. The ingredients listed on the package mentioned squirrel, venison, animal droppings, and molded leaves. With a shrug, I brewed it up…and tasted the worst muck that ever befell my tongue. Yes, even worse than overbrewed genmaicha or anything with copious amounts of lavender. I woke up after the first taste.

And that was my first tea nightmare ever.

What does that have to do with discerning palates? Probably nothing; possibly everything. What it did do was finally compel me to make a more legitimate response to a blog post by fellow “Beast of Brewdom”, Ken (aka. Lahikmajoe) – a collaboration with another Twitizen, Radhika/Levis517. The dilemma that was posed was how the social celebration of tea was lost the moment people ascribed pomp and circumstance to it, plus the cost therein – i.e. snobbery.

Source: Yunnan Sourcing

Source: Yunnan Sourcing

At first, I was completely on board with Radhika’s well-versed argument in the post. In developing a fancy-schmancy culture around something so simple as dead-‘n-dried leaves in hot water, some of the inclusivity is lost. I will fully admit that I sometimes take a ridiculous amount of pride in having a favorite pu-erh mountain. (It’s Nan Nuo Shan, by the way.) But does it really matter if there’s no one to share this joy with over a cup of Nan Nuo sheng?

You’re damn right, it does.

When I first started this nerdy persuit – and, yes, it is nerdy – I was mainly sticking to the teabag fringes with the likes of cheap Moroccan Mint or a blueberry-flavored white. Heck, when I worked nights, my beverage of choice was a bag o’ Stash Orange Spiced Black in a paper coffee cup, boiled to s**t, and mixed with sugar and French vanilla creamer. Why? Because it tasted like an orange creamsicle. Sophiscated? Not in the slightest.

As my tastes changed, so did my leanings. I started off hating pu-erh, then I had some of the aged stuff. Darjeeling was a name I met with derision, now I can’t resist its earthspice aroma. Oolongs used to tasted like roasted, metal feet but now impart a sense of peace I haven’t felt in any other beverage. Japanese green teas hinted at a world populated by spinach that spewed fire, now it embodies vegetal sweetness personified. And none of that would’ve happened had I not heightened my brow a bit.

A funny thing, though. As snooty as my tea tastes became, my approach hadn’t. I never considered myself better than the average teabagger at Starbucks. Nor did I cringe (too much) when someone mentioned their favorite tea flavor was “cheesecake”. Granted, I do wince a bit when my brother takes a Lipton over a Golden Bi Luo, but I don’t throw a huff about it. Much.

In short, yes, tea snobbery is alive and well. It is as drowned in ritual as any fancy ball…but it’s a party everyone is invited to. The tea folks I’ve met are like Quakers; they’ll extol the virtues of the leaf, welcome you to the fray, but they won’t force you to join, or turn a nose up at you if you don’t. None of the social importance is lost on us. We want to talk about tea with non-tea drinkers, preferably over a cup of tea. I mean, it’s a beverage that’s been around for millennia, how could we not geek out over it?

What I’m trying to say is, I would like what’s in my cup to taste good. I would like it to have a story to tell. And, lastly, I would like to tell it to someone. I think that’s what this little blog of mine (and every other tea blog) is about. So, come on in; I’ll warm the kettle. Pick a tea. A good tea.

Very Well, Give Him Tea Cake

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

I received an e-mail some two months back from Canton Tea Co. wondering if I had interest in reviewing a new sheng (raw) pu-erh. Far be it from me to refuse such an offer, I nodded (and typed) an emphatic, “Yes!” The only question would be where to put the review. I contribute to three different sites and keep my own blog for musings and unique teas. As I was pondering this, the tea arrived a short week after.

Canton Tea Co. described this as a sheng pu-erh made of “just-pressed” maocha (unfinished pu-erh leaves), and that it was privately commissioned by them from a small tea farm in Yunnan. That’s right: A custom-made pu-erh. I guess this was Canton’s way of saying: “We have a tea cake named after us, what are you doing with your life?”

Ah yes, the term “tea cake”, I almost forgot to get to that. For those in the pu-erh know, post-fermented and/or aged teas are often compressed into different shapes. These forms are almost always cake-shaped. “Beencha” (or “bingcha”, depending on your pinyin) literally means “tea cake”. Personally, I think the pressed pu-erhs look more like Frisbees…but I don’t think there’s a fancy Mandarin word for that (but I’m sure someone will prove me wrong).

But I digress.

While I was pondering where to put a write-up for this tea, I decided to take a sliver of it to work. I found most shengs could take a Western brew-up pretty well – even allowing three steeps. The flavor I expected was the usual rustic, earthy, and somewhat winy lean of raw pu-erhs past. That was not the case here. In fact, it was rather light, fruity and floral – kind of like un-pressed maocha, but not as brusque. Perhaps I should’ve read the fine print on Canton’s custom tea.

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

Not only was it a sheng beengcha specially made for Canton Tea Co., it was also one of the youngest pu-erhs I’ve ever come across. The stuff was plucked, pressed and packed in the spring…of this year! Up to this point, the youngest sheng I had tried was at least three years old. That would explain the green tea-ish flutteriness I felt on the tongue. That settled the inner debate of where to put the write-up. Youngest pu-erh ever? Custom-commissioned? Yeah, that’s unique.

Now I had to give it a more thorough, worthwhile look-through. Canton also mentioned in the tea’s profile that the leaves were of the “Arbor” varietal – a wide-leafed cultivar often used for pu-erh. They were also labeled Grade 6 and above. I had absolutely no idea what that meant. What I did know was that the leaves looked like a sliver of tree bark in their pressed form – wonderfully sweet and floral tree bark.

Brewing instructions on the Canton site recommended a gongfu prep using a 3-4g chunk (a teaspoon) in 203F water and a first infusion of twenty seconds. They also mentioned that it could infuse up to six times. I already knew it could hold up to Western prep rather well, but I wanted to see how a gongfu go-ahead would fair. Instead of twenty seconds for the first steep, though, I went with thirty. I also followed that up with three more infusions – another at thirty seconds and the last two at forty.

First infusion (thirty seconds): The liquor brewed pale (but crisp) yellow with a wonderful aroma of tangerine blossoms – sweet and citrusy. It reminded me quite a bit of a white tea I had from the same varietal. The taste was smooth, lightly citrusy as well, and only mildly grassy on finish.

Second infusion (thirty seconds): A bit of a deeper yellow-gold liquor this time around, and the scent had more of a floral presence. Also in the aroma was a distinct feeling of “smoke” – not sure how that got there. The flavor began with a clean introduction that emboldened to a lemongrassy top note before trailing off pleasantly into Mao Jian green tea territory.

Third infusion (forty seconds): The liquor color hadn’t changed, but the smell was dominated by lemons and flowers – faintly, of course, but still there. Flavor-wise, it delivered a crisp smack of citrus, then smoothed out to a completely green tea-like palate delivery. Pu-erh? What pu-erh?

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): This hadn’t weakened in either color or scent; the yellows and lemongrassiness still reigned supreme. The taste was still crisp, and there was no change to the spry citrus mouth-feel. On the finish, I got some of the residual, pu-erh-ish mustiness.

Photo by Davis Doherty

Photo by Davis Doherty

Beyond the four I wrote about, this could’ve easily gone on for another three infusions. Any brewing beatdown I gave the leaves, it took with steeped stoicism. Much like a loose sheng pu-erh I wrote about last week. Canton Tea Co. was spot-on in their belief that this was a perfect introductory pu-erh for the uninitiated. It lacks some of the feeling of “old” that its mature cuppa compatriots possess. It’s the perfect gateway to the world of aged teas, and I bet it could age well on its own. If I had a pu-erh cellar – and if I believed I could live past fifty – I would experiment. You’ll just have to take my word (and theirs) for it in the meantime.

To purchase the 2011 Canton Tea Co Special Puerh, go HERE.

(Title “inspired” by Eddie Izzard, watch and laugh.)

Pwned by Purple Pu-Erh

I remember when I first tried pu-erh; I couldn’t stand it. The black muck someone pushed in front of me didn’t seem like tea. It had the consistency of thin oil and the smell of sardines. This wasn’t something I could fathom anyone drinking. I was even more surprised to learn that there were pu-erh enthusiasts, and that it could be aged like wine. Prices sometimes rose in the thousands. “That does it,” I said to myself. “That will be my snobbery capper.” The moment I started worrying about the age of my tea would be the moment I’d stop drinking it.

That changed in a matter of years.

Now that I was completely far gone in my pursuit of aged teas, most raw pu-erhs (and all cooked pu-erhs) made before 2009 were met with skepticism. It was the winy note produced by the older ones; for some reason the youngling Yunnans lacked it. Even with that unwritten rule established, I was still a sucker for something unique. Even if it was new.

In this case, not only was it young…but it was produced this year. That made it no older than most Long Jings (a spring-harvested green). Along with some Kenyan Purple Tea (which I loved), Butiki Teas also sent me a rare sheng (read: raw) pu-erh that was dubbed “Wild Purple Buds”. The tea trees for this sheng pu-erh grew at an elevation of 6,000 ft., and naturally possess a higher level of anthocyanin (a flavonoid), which gave the leaves their purplish hue. Unlike the new Kenyan strain that was tailored to produce more anthocyanin, the leaves from this Yunnan cultivar already had it. Likeliest of reasons for this naturally-occuring…uh…”purple”-ing might’ve been the UV radiation exposure due to the higher elevation.

According to Butiki, the leaves for this uniquely young pu-erh were harvested from ancient tea trees (Da Ye, perhaps?) by the Wa tribe. From what I read, there are only 350,000 Wa living in China. They are predominately a rural culture living out of bamboo houses, and they still practice a form of slash-and-burn agriculture. Historically they are known for two bits of infamy – headhunting and their involvement in the opium trade. Most reside along the border of Thailand and Myanmar.

I found this mountaineering tribe far too interesting for my own good. Trying a tea from a former opiate-fueled, headhunting culture? Yeah that screamed “Awesome!” (Not a politically correct thing to say, I know.) It was time to give this purple beast a brew-up.

The dried leaves weren’t that purple to the eye, but there was a semblance of their fresher days in the red-brown palette on display. If I squinted, I could make out a purple leaf piece or two. They were also prettier than their more aged kin, looking more like wild leaves than – say – compost. Like with the Kenyan Purple, there wasn’t much of an aroma to speak of. What I could discern – if I tried – was a mild, wilderness berry-ish scent with a tinge of leafy smokiness. Definitely a sheng pu-erh.

Butiki Teas’ brewing instructions recommended a water temp of up-to-212F and twenty different infusions at three seconds or more – 1 level teaspoon of leaves per cup. I honestly didn’t have that kind of time. The first infusion I went for would be three seconds, but the last two – for note-taking’s sake – would be at my usual thirty-to-forty seconds approach. I also middle-grounded the temperature at 200F.

First infusion (ten seconds…accidental): I meant to do this for only three seconds (per the instructions), but I was having technical difficulties with the camera. That shot the three-second mark up to ten seconds. What resulted was a white tea-ish, pale yellow liquor with a grapy/grassy nose. First sip tasted like a smoker Silver Needle.

Second infusion (thirty seconds): It was the same clear liquor but with a more of a juniper aroma. The taste was slightly smokier, and I could see what Bukiti meant about the presence of oak. Still very white tea-like, though. Was this really supposed to be a pu-erh?

Third infusion (thirty seconds): What the heck? The liquor was still clear, but the aroma…what a change! I detected hints of strawberry and vanilla. The flavor echoed this – fruit-filled, creamy and sweet. Trailing close behind was a peaty finish. Very strange.

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): As expected, no change in the color. However, the same could not be said for the aroma; it was like blueberry-scented white wine. Flavor, though? Okay, forget the blueberry. That damn strawberry cream spiel was still going strong. How was that happening with so clear a cup? I dunno…

I think this tea was trolling me.

Fifth infusion (forty seconds): Still zero change in color. The wet, spent leaves in the gaiwan smelled like boiled artichoke hearts. The liquor itself was now fully reminiscent of a strawberry-cream-flavored white tea. I should know, I’ve had ’em. Taste-wise, though, it possessed only a faint fruit presence, a nutty top note, and a wood-smoked leafy finish.

To conserve time while note-taking, I actually poured the remaining contents of each of the five infusions into one cup. Only when they were combined did they taste anything remotely like sheng pu-erh. Well, a pu-erh that’d been blended with whiskey-dipped peat moss.

I’d gone five rounds with this pu-erh, and it still had all its strength – taunting me with its deceptively clear liquid. I ran out of the time I allotted myself in reviewing it and decided upon an intermission. There was someplace I had to be. However…

When I returned, I intended to go all in with the same leaves – Texas Hold ‘Em-style – in one last cuppa cage match. This time I opted for a Western Assam approach; five-minute brew time, boiling water temp. That would surely kill it. If not, I was fresh out of ideas.

Sixth infusion (five minutes): FIGHT! The liquor was still clear-to-pale yellow. The aroma was almost straight leaf, only more prairie-like. It tasted like the lewd embrace between a lemon and a maple leaf. Not fair! Where was it getting its resilience?!

SEVENTH! infusion (lost track o’ time): Now it was showing signs of fading. The flavor had receded to something more akin to a Bai Mu Dan – nutty, lightly fruity, and somewhat earthy. I may have sipped its remaining life, but the leaves still looked up at me. Always taunting.

This was one tough sheng pu-erh. It even stood steadfast where most Assams would’ve waved a white [tea] flag. There was just no killing it. I had been owned, “pwned”, schooled, defeated, beaten and broken by a purple leaf. And the fight tasted fantastic.

To purchase Wild Purple Buds Pu-Erh from Butiki Teas, go HERE.

Addendum: The brewing instructions per the Butiki site says to use 1 level tablespoon, not teaspoon.

(For a definition of “pwned” – for ye n00bs – go HERE.)

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