Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Tag: Taiwan (Page 1 of 2)

The Ruckus over Ruan Zhi

Ruan Zhi—or “soft stem”— is a particular cultivated variety (or cultivar) of tea plant originally hailing from China, before making its way to Taiwan, and then migrating further along to Thailand and Myanmar . . . I think?

I say “I think?” because, well, information is not all that clear about the cultivar’s origins. As a result, I’m going to have to approach this write-up in reverse. That being: focusing on teas that were made from said cultivar once it made its way to Thailand, and even as far away as Myanmar. After that . . . I’ll attempt to elaborate upon the soft-stemmed tea bush’s checkered past.

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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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A Wild Mountain Tea Mystery

Editor’s Note: The following article is inspired by real events. I say “inspired” because . . . well . . . obviously a lot of it is totally made up. It should be pretty obvious which bits are pure B.S. Anyway, enjoy. (This took weeks to put together.)

**************************************************************************

Chances are, you’ve probably never heard of me.

Photo by Robert Norman.

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Dong Ding Near-Death Experiences

In 2009, Shiuwen Tai—the plucky owner of Floating Leaves Tea in Seattle—made her first trip to Dong Ding Mountain in Taiwan . . .

Shiuwen Tai on Dong Ding Mountain in 2016. Photo by Jake Knapp.

Shiuwen Tai on Dong Ding Mountain in 2016. Photo by Jake Knapp.

. . . And almost died.

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A Totem Tea Story

The definition of the word “totem” is thus: “A natural object or animal believed by a particular society to have spiritual significance and adopted by it as an emblem.” It is derived from the Native American language, Ojibwe; the word, dodaem.

The concept, however, is not limited to just Native American cultures and religious practices. Many cultures worldwide also place such significances on totems as well. Totem poles, on the other hand—at least to the tribes of the Pacific Northwest—use these objects and animals as family crests and as a way to recount stories of that family group’s past.

So why did a tea company use “Totem” in their name?

totem-tea-logo

I’ll get to that.

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Dark Tea from Taiwan

In late 2013, I thought I tried the rarest, weirdest, most unheard-of tea unicorn out there—a heicha (dark tea) from Taiwan.

dark tea

After three years of palatial growth, though, I’m now convinced that it was a Yunnan grown puerh that was merely stored in Taiwan. Still unique, but not quite the unicorn I thought it was. However, I learned of a group who might have created one.

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A Bug-Bitten Beauty of a Black Tea

NaNoTeaMo, Day 28: “A Bug-Bitten Black Beipu Beauty of a Tea”

If you’ve spent any time around hardcore Taiwanese tea drinkers, you probably ran into the term “bug-bitten”. And probably thought of this.

big bug bite

No? Just me? Anyway . . .

“Bug-bitten” refers to teas that come from tea plants where pest involvement is encouraged. In Taiwan, there is a common pest called a leafhopper (Jacobiasca formosana). The bug species is common throughout much of Asia. They are especially drawn to the phloem found in stems, leaves and buds of tea plants.

leafhopper

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A High Mountain Happy Accident

The late Bob Ross used to close his show with the line, “There are no mistakes, only happy accidents.”

bobross

His philosophy – if it can be called that – holds true for a lot of things. Oolong, for starters, was a happy accident. As legend has it, the style came about because a leaf picker fell asleep, allowing the leaves to partially oxidize. Taiwanese aged oolong was a happy accident. Someone once thought, “Hey, why don’t we sit on this back stock of tea for a few years and see what happens.” Lapsang Souchong . . . well . . . I think I’ve covered that subject aplenty.

Point being, while the Ross-ite “happy accident” logic doesn’t hold true for all things, it does for a lot of things, especially in the tea world. I just never thought I would run into one in my pursuit of weird teas. This one practically fell into my lap.

I received an e-mail from Eco-Cha, a relatively new outfit. The name “Eco-Cha” in Chinese literally translates to, “A Sip of Tea”. The company was the brainchild of Andy Kincart, Tom Lin and Nick Fothergill – all of whom had lived in Taiwan for a number of years. Advisory support was provided by Tony and Lisa Lin, renowned proponents of Taiwanese tea culture. Their mission was simple, source and sell Taiwanese oolong tea directly to the consumer.

Occasionally, however, they sourced the odd black tea or two. One in particular hailed from the Shan Lin Xi district in Nantou county, Taiwan – a relatively high altitude tea growing region. The name Shan Lin Xi translated to “Pine Forest Stream”, and was also home to the famous oolong of the same name. Many farmers in the region have been at the tea growing game for several decades . . . including this guy.

Image mooched from Eco-Cha.

Image mooched from Eco-Cha.

(I have no clue who he is.)

In winter of 2012, after tea leaves had been plucked and fried, they were brought indoors to oxidize. They were stored on multiple racks, one on top of the other. The tea master had inadvertently forgotten to check the top rack. (It was above eye level.) He didn’t realize this until the next day, after the leaves had undergone roughly 75% oxidation. The typical Shan Lin Xi oolong oxidation level is about 30%.

Instead of tossing the entire batch, the tea master adapted his rolling techniques to suit these accidental leaves. The result was a unique beast in the tea world often referred to as a “red oolong”. While it was still an oolong by technique, the mostly-oxidized profile gave it a black tea (or “red tea”) character. I had sampled red oolongs before, but those had been intentional. This was my first taste of a happy accident.

loose leaf

The leaves looked like a darker-roast, heavier oxidized version of almost every Taiwanese oolong I’ve ever come across. They were ball-fisted in appearance, and the color spectrum ran from forest green to cherry wood red. What was different, though, was that the actual leaf-rolling appeared incomplete. They weren’t as tightly rolled as others I’d come across before. As for fragrance, I was more reminded of other Taiwanese black teas – due to the sweeter aroma – but there was something different at play, too. A floral underpinning was also present amidst the sweetness.

Eco-Cha surprised me with some of their brewing recommendations. Aside from the usual gongfu (multiple short infusions) brewing instructions, they also recommended brewing this grandpa-style – putting leaves in a mug and pouring hot water over it. That gave me a grin . . . so, I did it both ways.

Brewed gongfu-style, the liquor color on each infusion gradually grew darker.

gong fu

It started off pale, like a typical Taiwanese oolong, then grew slightly more crimson by the second, and a deep bronze by the third. Each steep had an aroma of sweetened nuts and a hint of fruit. That also showed up in the taste, revealing a complex combination of flavors and sensations. Like an oolong with darker – if mintier – aspirations

Grandpa-style, though . . . wow . . .

grandpa style

I didn’t have a 16oz. mug (that was clean) for taste-testing, so I utilized a 12oz. one. Unfortunately (and awesomely!), I kept the leaf ratio the same – roughly 2 teaspoons. The results were sheer brilliance – a bold, rust red-colored liquor with leaves at the bottom beckoning to surface. The aroma was like that of a Ruby 18; woody, minty, sweet, and slightly malty. Some astringency showed up the further down I sipped, but it helped bring a spry note to the sweeter proceedings. The further I sipped, the more it was like I was sipping cherry-filled chocolates that’d been left in the sun.

By the end of this Taiwanese double-fisting, I realized I was extremely wired. Not just any wired, but “Rainbow Fuzzy Buddha”-wired. Doesn’t make sense? Well, it didn’t to me, either. I hadn’t intended to have that much of this black tea in one sitting. Nor did I plan on re-steeping both helpings. My excuse? Another photograph.

both preps

Flimsy, I know.

Oh well, like this tea, the resulting warm fuzzy feeling was just a happy accident.

An Excellent Different Beach House Tea Party

The Road Trip Sextet, Part 4 – “An Excellent Different Beach House Tea Party”

For Part 1, go HERE.

For Part 2, go HERE.

For Part 3, go HERE.

I think I mentioned in the prior entry I only allowed myself one day at World Tea Expo this year. It wasn’t for lack of things to do, or desire, but rather a simple matter of timing and priorities. The overall trip had a twofold purpose – one was Expo, but the other was to see family members. As luck would have it, my cousin had a place a mere fifteen-minute drive from Long Beach. I stayed with him the two nights I’d allotted for everything Expo-ish. The second day – effectively the last day of Expo – was spent with him pal-ing around and getting into some sort of well-mannered mischief.

When we rousted, he brewed himself his usual coffee and allowed me to siphon hot water for some Doke Rolling Thunder.

Doke Rolling Thunder

It seemed only fitting that I end my Expo-ish adventure – brief, though it was – with a tea from the Lochan garden. One of the only regrets I had from my Expo brevity was that I didn’t get to talk with Rajiv Lochan more. We only had time for a brief meet-and-greet, totally my fault. However, there was another opportunity to see him, and a bunch of other tea folks, yet I was undecided about it.

So, while the last day of Expo commenced, my cousin and I (and a female friend of his) gallivanted around downtown Orange.

Downtown Orange

(Yes, there is a city called “Orange” in Orange County. I didn’t know that, either.)

While fellow tea bloggers marveled at the sight of cosplayers from a neighboring Comic Con at the Long Beach Convention Center, our little trio tried on various ancient battle regalia at antique shops.

Knight of Nih!

A fitting parallel.

After a sizable waffle sandwich lunch, though, something tugged at me. I received a few texts and/or tweets regarding a beach house party that night in Long Beach proper. Team Tealet had mentioned they were throwing a “World Tea Expo After-Party” following the major festivi-teas. I caught wind of it when I visited their booth the day prior, but was unsure about my own attendance.

By that afternoon, I had decided.

Team Tealet had rented out a beach house through Airbnb mere minutes drive from the convention center. Several other people had ponied up cash to be a part of the living arrangement – all folks I knew, including the aforementioned Rajiv Lochan. How could I not go?!

Beach House

Photo by Rajiv Lochan

The only regretful occurrence was Naomi “Joy’s Teaspoon”-‘s early departure. She had to be back home that night, but she did pass on a fond farewell via text. D’awwwww.

I arrived just in time to see Tealet’s Elyse ‘n Mike and a few others (including Tea For Me Please’s Nicole) making a beer run. Naturally, I joined in. Once that trip was done, it was back to the beach house. And I finally got to lounge back and shoot the breeze with RAJIV!!!

Rajiv!!!

No, I can’t say his name without shouting.

In our conversation, I marveled at the fact that he had a Lochan Tea “tea-shirt”. I asked, “How can I get one of those with your face on it?” And he almost – quite literally – gave me the shirt off his back. That’s the kind of guy he is.

Shortly after, I made the acquaintance of one of the members of JoJo Tea – a wholesaler op out of Florida. And…we fist-pumped over our mutual love of Oriental Beauty oolong. Probably the only time a fist-pump was ever naturally-occurring.

As the night progressed, randomness ensued. Adventure Tea’s Alex graced us with his elfin presence. He and Snooty Tea Person’s Natasha carried on a conversation in fluent French, which boggled my mind. Teaity/Tea-Guy Chris and I talked a bit of shop. I was also introduced to World Tea House’s Phil Holman’s among many others. Tealet’s Rie “Oolong City” showed me basic kung fu forms. And throughout, tea and alcohol flowed freely.

The highlight was the true purpose of the party, which was a presentation on  Tealet’s latest trip around the world dubbed “The Amazing Tea Race”. One of their more famous stops was the Goe Tea Garden in Nantou County, Taiwan headed by Alfredo Lin.

I have no idea how to express how awesome this guy is, just watch this:

How can one not love a guy that sings to his tea plants?!

The phrase “Excellent Different” became a meme-like catchphrase and has since proliferated into every aspect of tea-related social media.

As an added bonus, samples of Goe’s Zhushan Oolong was served.

Goe Zhushan Oolong

It was extremely pleasant – lightly sweet, slightly buttery, and all-around aromatic. A great, greener-style oolong.

Before my inevitable exodus from the party, I was suckered into an unusual experiment. Since I somehow – over the course of the night ended up with a flower pin in my hair, Oolong City Rie felt my “transformation wasn’t complete”…or something. And then broke out her make-up kit. Being two beers and lots of oolong in, I acquiesced to this strange request.

The Great Mississippi Tea Company’s Timothy took over to finish me off.

bigger party

 

Wait, that sounded wrong. I mean, he completed the “prettying” with the subtle application of…well…I guess it was guyliner.

The result?

Eddie Izzard Look-a-Like

I looked like Eddie Izzard.

Make-up removed, socializing complete, and mildly sobered up, I finally had to take my leave of Chez Tealet. Fond farewells were made, samples were imparted, and I left with a general feeling of bliss. I’ve been to many parties in my time, but I can’t say I was so…in my element as I was with that crowd.

Over a month later, when I brewed up my own stash of Goe oolong, I got a little choked up when I thought about how generally happy I was there.

Goe

No other social gathering – save for a precious few – have had that effect on me.

I wonder when I’ll be able to experience even a fraction of that feeling again.

Tealet

Huh…sooner than I thought.

Continued in Part 5, HERE.

My Day as a Warrior Tiger Monk

I was first contacted by Temple Road Tea back in late-March. They were a relatively new outfit specializing in Taiwanese high mountain oolongs. The foremost oolong they wanted me to yack about was their Tiger Monk Roasted Oolong. My first inclination was to decline because…roasted oolongs weren’t really my thing. That and I really didn’t have anything specific to talk about regarding them.

However, the description of this particular oolong caught my eye. As per the product notes, they said the name was inspired by the Warrior Tiger Monks of millennia old martial arts traditions. Frankly, I’d never heard of Warrior Tiger Monks before. The only thing I knew about tiger-related martial arts were what I learned from Kung Fu Panda.

 In other words, not much.

All I knew is that I started picturing myself as a warrior monk in tiger-skin robes – leaping from tree to tree – felling enemies with my deadly claw-slings! Okay, those probably weren’t actual weapons back then, but I saw something similar in Kung Pow: Enter the Fist…so, it’s totally relevant.

bettyclaw

That aside, the fact that this was a triple-roasted, medium-oxidized oolong really sold it. I was in – hook, line, and cupper. A week or so later, I received it.

The package was already made of WIN. The oolong was vacuum-sealed in gold foil with a golden label. If anything could bring out my inner Charlie Bucket – besides being poor – that was it.

golden ticket

The leaves were the standard brown, ball-fisted oolong fair, but with an aroma of hickory, charcoal and chocolate. It honestly reminded me of a medium-roast Dong Ding on first impression. The nuttiness toward the end of the whiff also added to that. It was a very pleasant, warming smell.

Temple Road Tea recommended brewing 3 grams of leaves (roughly a teaspoon) in a 200ml pot of boiled water. I was a little dicey with this, so I opted for a gongfu-ish approach instead. Thirty-to-forty-second infusions each.

gongfu

The liquor for the gongfu approach came out green on all three steeps I tried for. The roastiness was also similar with each infusion. They only differed in intensity. Subsequent steeps developed more depth in flavor – more toasted nut notes further down the line. All very Dong Ding-ish, save for a creamy texture on the finish.

After (not much) inner deliberation, I finally decided to chance the six-minute steep on another go-around with fresh leaves. I dipped a teaspoon of leaves in boiled water in a gaiwan…and waited. Kinda prayed that I hadn’t blown it, too.

The results were…

six minutes

Oh my.

The liquor brewed a lovely, bold amber with a requisite roasty aroma that wafted from the cup in plumes. Taste-wise, it was like buckwheat, Ali Shan and a Buddhist prayer all rolled into one. Seriously, I hadn’t quite experienced that effect with a roasted oolong before. Tea drunkenness hit after one sip. Imagine how I looked after five.

sheentiger

Later on that day – for monks and giggles – I took the spent leaves from both brew attempts, and stuck ‘em in a pot. I was almost ready to take a nap and needed an evening upper. I boiled some fresh water and poured it over the already-used leaves. Both rounds still had plenty of flavors to grant. Roasted stubbornness personified.

pour

Charlie Sheen, I think I found your tiger’s blood source.

I don’t care how dated that pop-culture reference is. Totally relevant here.

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