Let’s get right to the point, I’ve been a fan of the sencha brand, Mellow Monk, for years.
Pretty much since the early days of my tea blogging career. The only one who seemed unaware of this, however . . . was Mellow Monk.
Australian Tea Week, Day 3: “Japanese Style Green Tea . . . From Australia”
I received the subject of today’s blog from this fingergun-toting, doughnut-destroying badass.
This is Naomi Rosen; no, she’s not Australian. But she could certainly pass for one. She’s the purveyor of Joy’s Teaspoon. Aside from selling some really good teas, she could also probably take down a bear singlehandedly . . . and show more love in her left pinkie . . . while still restraining said bear. This last summer, she was gracious enough to let me crash for a few nights while attending World Tea Expo. On my last day with her, she decided to part ways with some of these lovelies.
Japanese style green tea. From Australia.
A couple of years ago—on a visit to the Jasmine Pearl Tea Merchants shop— I tried a Japanese tea (that wasn’t sencha) that just . . . blew me away.
It was a black tea blended with yuzu rind. Yes, the Japanese orange.
When I described it to people, all I could muster was, “It’s like an Earl Grey that followed the Bushido code.” The astringency was balanced, there was a malty kick, and of course there was that effervescent blast of citrus at the top note. Never tried anything like it.
The Jasmine Pearl folks told me that it came from one particular farmer in Kawanehon-town in Shizuoka prefecture.
I have always had a fascination with Japan for as long as I can remember. The first seeds of wonder were planted by early-80s dubbings of Robotech, and continued on well into my teens and twenties with samurai films galore. One could even say my otaku (read: fanboy) brain was hardwired to like everything Japanese from the get-go. So, why did it take me so darn long to like Japanese teas?
The first sencha I ever tried was from a coffee shop in San Francisco. This was early on in my tea exploration – 2005-ish – and I was just getting used to the different regions. I had no idea where sencha came from, or where it fit in the green tea hierarchy. My cousin suggested it, and I bought a 12oz. cup. And I hated it. Every spinachy sip of it.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned the asshats at said coffee shop had used boiling water, and that sencha required the lightest possible heat setting – like “white tea” light, no more than 160F. Unfortunately, that experience turned me off of sencha for a period of years.
Then I met Ms. Gyokuro.
Talk about life-changing. It was like watching Robotech in my mouth. An epically different experience than I’d had with other green teas. Of course, I also learned that it was considered the green tea from Japan. Highest grade and all. But then I met her wilder sister, Tamaryokucha.
Hard to describe tamaryokucha, but I’ll try. It’s like someone took all the rules to sencha, and threw them out the window. The type didn’t just convince me that I could actually like sencha, but actually opened me up to exploring more. Through that, I encountered many of the weird experiments being done with tea by the Japanese. And I’m all about the experiments.
Okay…maybe not all the experiments.
After going down the windy, surreal road that is Japanese tea, there was one thing that always irked me. Why were all Japanese teas green? No blacks, oolongs, whites, or anything else; just different shades of green. Granted, I liked a good percentage of the tea-speriments out there, but where were the others?
It wasn’t until I encountered my first Japanese black tea that I learned why. Japan had tried making a go of black tea production roughly two hundred years ago, but they could never produce at the same level (or at the same cost) as neighboring competitors like Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Plus, the quality of the product was not as up to par. I can attest to that. Of the three-ish Japanese kocha (black tea) I sampled, I liked about half.
Somewhere down the line, though, I learned of the existence of hand-crafted Japanese oolongs. Not sure when I ran into it or how, but that instantly grabbed my attention. That in turn led me to contacting an outfit called Yunomi.us.
I knew of (and talked to) Ian Chun of Matcha Latte Media before. His du-“tea” prior to Yunomi.us was setting up online stores for various Japanese tea farmers. Yunomi.us was a bit of a different beast because it was modeled as a collective marketplace for Japanese teas and teaware. Instead of independently-run, un-connected sites, different tea farms were listed under one umbrella. Similar to Tealet but focusing exclusively on Japanese wares (or so I surmised).
Yumoni.us graciously sent me three Japanese oolongs to try. Two from the Kaneban Higuchi Tea Factory in Asamiya, Shiga Prefecture…and one from the Takeo tea farming family.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to brewing them until six months after receiving them. Not sure why I waited so long, especially given the results.
The leaves looked and smelled like no oolong I’d ever seen. The cut was similar to a curly-style sencha, but with flakier, leafy bits. And the color palette was like a Japanese kocha. The aroma was even more bizarre – something like mint and sweet rice.
Brewing instructions on the site recommended 90C water (190-ish F, roughly) and a five-minute steep. I used 1 teaspoon of leaves in a gaiwan, and did just that. Five minutes seemed like a long time, but…might as well try it there way first, I thought.
The liquor brewed up to a beautiful brass-to-dark-amber color with an aroma that was both dry and sweet. On taste, several things were at play. When the liquid first hit the tongue, a nutty and tingling sensation occurred. Never had that happen before. In the middle, there was a tad bit of roastiness but not much. A mineral lean as well toward the top note, typical of an oolong. By the finish, it rested on its laurels with a mild but welcoming astringency. As if to remind me, Yes, this is still tea.
Only on the aftertaste did it remind me a tad of other Japanese teas I’d tried. It even lasted a good, medium bodied second steep.
The leaves looked exactly like the Higuchi Blue Oolong, but the smell was quite a different experience entirely. There were hints of brown rice and unfiltered sake – sweet, nutty, a little woodsy and a hint of vanilla. In short, I had no idea what I was dealing with.
I brewed this up the same way I did the Blue Oolong. One would think that something with a “black” label would brew up darker. Not the case here. The liquor for this oolong was a shade or two lighter than its blue sibling. But that may have been my brewing technique…or lack thereof.
The area where this tea differed was…everywhere else. The aroma was malty, along with the requisite nuttiness I found in the Blue. Taste-wise, astringency was the first thing to crop up, followed by a strange mélange of almonds, roastiness, malt, and an odd feeling like I was tasting green tea. This was closer to a Japanese black tea than an oolong, but it definitely pulled back before going all “kocha” on me. Still a very pleasant cup.
A second steep at a shorter steep time produced a crisper brew.
This was different than the Higuchi stuff by sheer sight alone. The leaves were longer, curlier, and their aroma – while still nutty in that Japanese way – had a little more going on. The fragrance was – oddly enough – like a Dong Ding. To me, anyway. I wondered if these were hand-rolled as opposed to machine cut.
Brewing instructions for this oolong differed considerably. The tea profile recommended a steep of two minutes in 176F-ish water. An approach more in line with a pan-fired green tea.
The liquor infused to a vibrant copper. The aroma resembled a straight OP, slightly astringent but full-bodied, like an autumnal Darjeeling. As for taste – oh my word, the taste! – it was an oolong in all the best possible ways. Sure, there were some aspects of it that were truly Japanese. (You can definitely taste the region.) I want to say there was a hint of muscatel toward the middle. While most of it reminded me of a lowland, medium-roast Taiwanese oolong – at least on introduction – the rest reminded me of a Darjeeling oolong. Spry, ornery, but oddly refined. Definitely my favorite oolong of the bunch.
While the experimentation of semi-oxdized teas is new in Japan. It is my ne’er-do-well opinion that they’re on the right track. Some refinement of artistry is in order, for certain, but the efforts on display speak for themselves. It was a nice change to encounter a Japanese tea that I instantly liked as much as anime.
Of course, that’s probably the old otaku in me talking.
Or would that be o-“cha”-ku?
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”.
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.)
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.
To those that have been following the sporadic attempts to give this blog focus, you’ll know I’ve been experimenting with tea fiction. Sometimes with wondrous results…and other times with startling missteps. Train-wreck or not, I figured an exercise on how these yarns developed was worth exploration.
Up until the “Great Vanishing” of September, I had two more entries planned. The process of how they came to fruition was simple. I would first try a rare tea, I would photograph the finished brew, I would jot down taster notes (like from my review days), then I would weave a story around said notes. I only made it halfway through this process on the last five teas I tried. So, what I’m going to do for you – fair reader(s?) – is show those taster notes, and the fictional blurbs I’d come up with around them.
WARNING: The results are…weird.
Tea #1: Lochan Teas Doke Silver Needle
Acquisition: This was one of three samples I received from Mrs. Tea Trade herself, Jackie D. I think she caught wind of my whimpering whenever someone mentioned the Lochan-purveyed, Bihar-located tea estate. She kindly donated this tea and a couple of others for my perusal and odd use.
Taster Notes: The leaves were actually much smaller than I thought they’d be – what with a name like “Silver Needle”. I was expecting plump, down-furred, rolled leaves, but these actually looked like tiny needles. They were comparable to a Risheehat Silver Tip I tried three years ago. There wasn’t much aroma to the leaves, either – spry, somewhat grassy, and mildly lemon-like.
The liquor brewed to a pleasant yellow-green with an aroma of apples and lime. Taste-wise, they more than lived up to their Yinzhen-ish moniker, delivering on the promised melon notes with added dollops of citrus and muscatel grapes. The finish reminded me of a warm Reisling, minus the alcoholic headache.
Fictional Use: This would’ve been the first tea tried by “the other me” (The Lazy Literatus, made manifest as a fictional character), Zombie Robert Fortune, and Thed the Gnome while at a subterranean train station. Formerly Fortune then gets nervous when he sees a literal Grim Reaper sipping tea from the far corner. Soon after, a literal tea trolley pulls up…that is also an actual trolley.
Acquisition: The second of the three Lochan samples, this was a rare Bihar, India oolong that had me all sorts of excited.
Taster Notes: The visual presentation of the leaves was rife with uniqueness. It looked like an orange pekoe black on first impression but possessed silver-tipped leaves amidst the darker brown ones. The aroma alternated between spice, chocolate and olives. It smelled quite a bit like an oolong I tried from the Phoobsering estate last year.
I gongfu-ed the heck out of this, but didn’t pay attention to brewing times. The liquor alternated between varying shades of amber and bronze throughout the successive infusions. On flavor, it was a surprisingly malty oolong with nutty and fruity notes sprinkled in for good measure. Overall, though, it resembled a more nuanced Nilgiri oolong.
Fictional Use: Once the three companions boarded the tea trolley-that-was-an-actual-trolley, they would’ve been greeted and waited upon a British rabbit in a suit – named Peter. (The security officer of the trolley.) Then their tea needs would’ve been tended to by his spouse, Jackie Rabbit. (Yes, I know, bear with me here.) That is when my alter-ego would’ve encountered another Doke offering – an oolong. All three would’ve found it exquisite, but it would also draw the attention of the Grim Reaper further back in coach.
This would’ve sparked a chase throughout the trolley, with a scared Zombie Robert Fortune attempting to run for his life. Reason being, he thinks the Grim Reaper is after him for escaping “actual death” – given that zombies are considered a clerical error. The three of them are finally cornered by the Reaper, who stops short and looks at “my” teacup, and says…
“Is that Doke?”
Then a gust of wind would’ve knocked the Reaper back, thus allowing him to be restrained by a British sweater.
Tea #3: Taiwanese Sencha
Acquisition: I received this lovely sample from the kind couple that own The Jasmine Pearl Tea Merchants. It was a simple blending green tea from Taiwan, done using Japanese techniques.
Taster Notes: I never actually took formal taster notes of this when I tried it. I guess I was just distracted by its awesomeness. In short, it reminded me a lot of Chinese sencha (which I love) and other Formosa greens I’ve sampled. There wasn’t much grassiness to it or much of a vegetal profile. It was slightly fruity and damn strong. One could even boil the heck out of the leaves for a bolder brew.
Fictional Use: This would’ve been the tea The Lazy Literatus was sampling as they all interrogated a restrained Mr. Death. Turns out the Reaper was actually a temp by the name of Solomon Grundey – a character I borrowed from a Devotea story – and that he wasn’t after Zombie Fortune at all…but rather the Doke Oolong that they were all drinking.
It would’ve been also revealed that the “tea trolley” trolley was run by two air elementals – Milly and Mimsy.
Tea #4: Guranse Estate Soun Chandi – Nepalese White Tea (2012 2nd Flush)
Acquisition: Also picked up from the folks at Jasmine Pearl. I practically had to beg for this one. I mean, Nepalese white tea?! Who’s ever heard of that? I didn’t pick up just one, but two! Both were exquisite, but this one was really something special.
Taster Notes: The visual presentation wasn’t much to write home about. It looked like a typical orange pekoe with downy-fuzzed leaves strewn into the mix. Nothing about it immediately screamed “white tea”. However, the aroma was leafy and slightly zesty – very similar to Bai Mu Dan.
The liquor brewed to a pale yellow and bombarded the nostrils with a fruit-sweet aroma. The taste – oh my, the taste! There were many things I could compare it to – a Darjeeling white tea from the Arya estate, a 2nd flush black tea from Sikkim – but it was entirely on its own in excellence. The flavor alternated between grape and citrus with a dash of sugar. The finish was tart and sweet.
Fictional Use: After disembarking from the Tea Trolley trolley, The Lazy Literatus, Thed the Gnome, Zombie Robert Fortune, and Grundey the Grim Reaper would’ve made their way to Nice, France. Their goal? A tearoom that caters only to immortals run by a guy named Tim.
Upon entering, Zombie Fortune’s original human color would’ve returned, and Grundey’s skeletal form would’ve grown skin. Tim greets them and explains that this is a refuge for immortals from all walks of life, then proceeds to sit them. The first tea offered would’ve been the rare Nepalese. After the initial sip, though, the tranquility of the establishment would’ve been interrupted by the arrival of the King and Queen of the Faery Folk – Oberon and Titania.
Tea #5: Guranse Estate White Crescent – Nepalese White Tea (2012 2nd Flush)
Acquisition: Same story as the other Nepalese white. Great but not perfect.
Taster Note: The leaves for this were rather lovely and looked quite similar to a Silver Needle white – save for their darker appearance. The aroma was also startling in its peppery presentation. I was reminded of a Huang Ya yellow tea on first whiff.
The liquor brewed up rather clear; only a smidge of pale yellow was detectable. The soup’s aroma echoed the dry leaf pepper lean but with a dash of muscatel. Taste-wise, it gave me a vague impression of Yunnan Gold black tea by way of a Darjeeling 1st flush – honey-like, fruit-filled, but with a hint of spice.
Fictional Use: Oberon and Titania would’ve arrived with much pomp and circumstance (and some wanton destruction). Their tea demands would’ve been a riddle: “We want white tea and/or green tea not of the normal East.” The request has Tim wracking his brain, but Grundey the Reaper answers the riddle by handing off the newer Nepalese white (the White Crescent) he was sampling. This appeases Oberon…but not Titania.
That’s when The Lazy Literatus realizes he still has some leaves from his Taiwanese sencha left. He (or rather, I?) passes it on to Grundey to brew up. It pleases Titania to an…almost embarrassingly orgasmic effect. The two faeries sit down and enjoy their teas peacefully. After the commotion dies down, The Lazy Literatus sees that one of the immortal patrons is Guan Yin – sipping from Liddy, the gaiwan he thought he lost.
Tim invites Grundey to stay on as an expert brewer. Thed and Robert Fortune also tell the Literatus that this is where they’ll be parting ways. Tim sadly informs the pajama’d writer that he cannot stay because he is neither magical nor immortal, but offers him a free ley-line teleportation home. After a sad farewell, the Literatus prepares to leave Tim’s ImmortaliTea Room. Not before Tim finally reveals that his name was actually Utnapishtim – the Babylonian Noah, and first immortal. He also offers him some sage advice – to apologize to a certain someone.
The Lazy Literatus finally approaches Guan Yin and says he’s sorry for writing the “adult” story about her and Robert Fortune. She accepts his apology, and tells him that’s all she ever expected of him, and returns the gaiwan. This allows him to successfully ley-line travel home.
After that particular arc had wrapped up, I’d also planned on relaying the adventure Liddy the Gaiwan would’ve had in nursery rhyme form. The story would’ve dealt with her forced journey into the Land of Leaves and her exploration of aged oolongs. I don’t know what I was smoking when I came up with that idea…seriously…
All said, I still haven’t abandoned tea fiction as a possible outlet. I mean, I still have a yarn about a cat-owned flying tearoom I want to write. But I will humbly acknowledge that I have a long way to go before I display it in the future. There are far better tea fiction stories out there. I can think of two right off the top of my head.
Some of The Devotea’s stories can be found on his blog HERE.
There’re also the fictional interviews put forth by The Purrfect Cup HERE.
In the meantime, I have some sci-fi to get back to. Un-tea-related. (-Ish?)