Wednesday, December 9, 2015

NoirDragon - Asian Inspired Teaware on Etsy

For most of my tea reviews I use a white teacup, or sometimes clear glass.  If I'm drinking tea alone I use one of my cups that are the same volume as my brewing vessels so I can just pour my brews directly into the cup without using a cha hai.  A white teacup is perfect for showing the color of the tea liquor, and if you don't use a strainer and get some small leaf pieces in the cup you can easily judge the clarity of the liquor.

However, none of these white cups are my favorite teacup.  My favorite teacup doesn't end up in photos very often because it's one I use when I'm simply drinking tea for myself, for pure enjoyment.  So I decided that my favorite cup itself deserves to be in the spotlight today.

This cup came from an American artist who sells teaware on his Etsy store "NoirDragon."  One interesting thing about NoirDragon is that his path to producing beautiful ceramic teaware is completely rooted in his passion for tea.  His passion for tea naturally lead him to appreciate and collect teaware, and then eventually he decided to learn more about the art of pottery so that he could create his own teaware.  And now he is sharing his creations with fellow tea lovers.

NoirDragon has used a beautiful stoneware clay for this cup and left a band of unglazed clay at the outer bottom edge to show off both the color and texture of this clay.

The quality of my NoirDragon cup shows very precise craftsmanship and attention to detail.  I can turn this cup over and set it on a flat surface and the rim is perfectly even and the base is perfectly level.  I discovered this by chance while trying to photograph the bottom of the cup and was very impressed with the geometric perfection.

I'm really happy with the glaze/color of this cup.  The inside has a slight blue hue to it, and the outside has a bit more green.  I used to say that I don't have a favorite color because all colors can be great depending on context, but despite that, I do admit that I tend to gravitate toward green, and I absolutely love the color of this cup.

At first I assumed that the speckled pattern on this cup was due to the glaze used, but when I asked the artist about it, NoirDragon told me that the speckles are actually due to manganese granules in the clay itself that produce this beautiful pattern through the glaze when fired in the kiln.  If white glaze is applied to this clay, it will show up as little brown speckles on the white glaze which also has an interesting effect.

This has easily become my favorite cup for more than just the appearance and craftsmanship as it functions very well for my typical personal tea brewing sessions.  True, it doesn't have a white interior so it doesn't show off the tea liquor, but adding a glass cha hai would take care of that if needed.  I really love this cup though because it is the perfect volume for holding the contents of an 80ml gaiwan.  The 80ml gaiwan is the brewing vessel I use about 85% of the time I brew tea, and I can pour directly into this cup and it fills it to the top.  The clay is thick enough to keep my hands from getting too hot, and once preheated, that thickness holds in heat well to keep the tea warm as I sip.  The size, shape, and weight of the cup feels perfect and natural in the hand.  Drinking from this cup allows me to have a better connection with the tea and I'm able to enjoy the tea without being distracted by an uncomfortable or awkward cup.

NoirDragon's creations are continually evolving, and I really look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.  Through recent conversations I have learned that he often tries out new glazes and clays.  He has some pieces that have a crackle glaze, and a few that have a really interesting highly textured "crawl glaze" that look like they were crafted directly from parched earth.  I have also heard that he is experimenting with brewing vessel designs such as shiboridashis and possibly gaiwans, and I think he may even be trying out some tea pet designs!

So you may not see this cup make an appearance too often in my tea reviews, but if you stop by when I'm having an enjoyable tea session with my favorite teas, there's a real good chance that I'll be sipping from my favorite teacup.

Link to NoirDragon on Etsy:

Sunday, December 6, 2015

White2Tea - 2015 Pin (Raw Puerh)

When White2Tea first shared a teaser image of the mao cha they were using for an upcoming sheng cake, I was quite confused by the apparent nei fei in the image.  The nei fei (a small inner label pressed into a puerh cake) had a reddish blob that appeared to be a pair of lips. But knowing that this is White2Tea, which never fails to amaze me with their unique style and creativity, I decided that this was probably not an optical illusion, and it was best to just accepted the high probability that I actually was seeing a mouth and hope the meaning of that would be clear later on.

I later learned that this new cake is named Pin, and the outer wrapper has not one but three colored blobs that are, without a doubt now, mouths.  I'm sure anyone with a good understanding of Chinese probably got a chuckle out of this, but the rest of us need some explanation from TwoDog.

White2Tea - 2015 Pin sheng puerh 200g cake

According to TwoDog, the Chinese word for "mouth" is "kou" and represented by the chinese radical 口.  If you have three of these radicals in a triangle configuration, you get 品, the word "pin."  The word "pin" is Chinese for "to savor" and he further explains that it could be applied to a drink, such as tea, to mean, "drinking with intent." Further he explains that the phrase "pin cha" (品茶) "literally means 'to taste tea.'"  This wrapper has even deeper meaning than that though.  The triangle theme is also represented in the red/pink background which is actually a triangle when the wrapper is unfolded.  The three mouths or three points/sides/angles of the triangle represent the tea material used to make Pin, which is a blend of Lincang material from 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Aww, the nei fei got flipped over during pressing.
Blended Lincang material from 2013, 2014, and 2015. 

The 200g cake as a whole shows a beautiful mosaic of colors.  This is partially due to the fuzzy white buds mixed with the fuller leaves, but is also likely a result of the blended material of different ages.  The older material was stored by TwoDog in Menghai to mellow out a bit in contrast to the young 2015 material.  The compression is a good "medium" -- not so loose that it can be pulled apart by hand, but loose enough that a tea pick can separate it without doing too much damage.

White2Tea - 2015 Pin sheng puerh

I wasn't entirely sure the best way to brew this tea and I'm still experimenting, but so far I have been using water around 200 degrees F which I sometimes use for younger raw puerh.  Of course this one also has components from 2014 and 2013, so going with water right off a boil might not be too risky.  I have stuck with my usual 5g per 80ml gaiwan for now and started my first few infusions around three to five seconds or so.

White2Tea - 2015 Pin sheng puerh

Maybe it’s because I just got over a mild cold and can breathe better today than any day this past week, but the wet leaf aroma of this tea is very strong, and although it does have a “young raw puerh” aroma, it seems much deeper than some, likely due to the older material also used.  Imagine autumn leaves coated in dark honey-- that may sound strange, but an aroma like that in a tea is amazing.

The honey colored clear liquor is very viscous and has a thick mouthfeel-- it is one of those teas that you almost feel the need to chew while drinking it.  The sides of the tongue feel some mild astringency at first, and then a couple minutes later the entire mouth feels a subtle tingly sensation.  It's suiting that a tea with three mouths on the wrapper would have such an active mouthfeel.

The overall taste of Pin is very well balanced.  It has a general herb-like flavor similar to oregano accompanied by grassy and hay notes, and early on it also has a hint of clean smoke which seems to fade in the middle and late infusions.  After the first three or so infusions the flavors become even more balanced and stay very consistent with each subsequent infusion.  These middle infusions bring out a pleasant sweetness that contrasts well with the young sheng bitter bite.  This is again one of those teas where I lost count of how many infusions I got out of it, but my 1.7L electric kettle was giving me a "Low H2O" warning before I was finished.   Well balanced flavors and many consistent infusions seems to be a great indicator of high quality material.

Beautiful deep olive green leaf color.  I broke this selection from a tighter part of the cake but was still able to leave many leaves mostly intact.

Beyond the taste is a wonderful aftertaste which further indicates the high quality of material used to make Pin.  The aftertaste first retains the hint of smoke and herbal characteristics found earlier, but then blossoms into a nice tea perfume hui gan that lingers in the mouth for several minutes.  I should also mention that the cha qi from this tea was quite noticeable when I drank it.  This is certainly a great tea to drink with intent and savor, and I'm very curious to see how this one will taste many years down the road.  

Pin was released in November to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the White2Tea monthly tea club, but is also for sale in the White2Tea 2015 raw puerh lineup; sample sizes also available.  More details can be found here:

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Taiwan Tea Crafts - Red Jade Black

I recently did a tea trade with fellow tea drinker and received a generous 25g packet of Red Jade black tea sold by Taiwan Tea Crafts.  My friend also sent a 25g packet of Taiwan Tea Craft's GABA oolong, but I am trying the Red Jade first.  I have never actually ordered any teas from this vendor, but am thankful for the opportunity to give a couple of their teas a try.

This particular packet of Red Jade that I have is lot #346 and is the 2014 version of the current 2015 Sun Moon Lake Red Jade, which is a TRES #18 style black tea.  As I briefly mentioned in my Formosa Assam entry in August, Taiwan's Tea Research Extension Station (TRES) in the Sun Moon Lake/Yuchi area of Nantou County has done extensive research to develop various Camellia sinensis tea hybrids, and TRES #18 is one of the most popular Taiwanese black teas.  The 2014 and the 2015 versions of this tea are from the the same farmer/producer, and the foil package contained an oxygen scavenger packet which has likely helped keep this tea extremely fresh.

This offering from Taiwan Tea Crafts is a near perfect Taiwanese black tea.  The dry leaf is very fragrant with a nice fruity aroma and the leaves are very long and mostly whole.  The wet leaf has a yummy fruity sweet candy-like aroma which also comes across in the flavor.  Like my other favorite Taiwanese black tea, this one has lots of berry flavors and a nice creaminess to it.  The sweet berry flavors are held up by a solid foundation that I simply call "black tea" flavor-- it's the part of the flavor that gives the tea some boldness.  The mouthfeel is also very bold, thick, yet soft, and a hint of astringency.  Like many good teas, Red Jade provides a strong pleasant aftertaste similar to the main taste, and the leave have wonderful resteepability.  I used 5g in a 120ml gaiwan and almost ran my 1.7L kettle dry while brewing this tea today.  I imagine the leaves could have gone even further.

Again, I have not tried any other teas from Taiwan Tea Crafts yet, but Red Jade was an excellent introduction for me.  (I will try the GABA oolong soon.)  If the quality of Red Jade is representative of their other teas, then I look forward to shopping with them quite a bit in the future to try more of their large selection of oolong and black teas!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Tea From Vietnam (.com)

On September 2nd, Tea From Vietnam had a Vietnamese Independence Day sale and offered their tea 20% off and a reduced free shipping threshold.  I decided to take advantage this great sale and I picked up three of their oolong teas: Golden Lily (Jin Xuan), Ta, and Gui Fei.  I also received a sample of their "Red Lily" which is a black tea made from Jin Xuan leaf.

While thinking of my new Vietnamese teas, I had a craving for some pho and thought this would make a perfect pairing.

Unfortunately though, I made my pho much too spicy which completely ruined my palate.  I cannot possibly enjoy tea right now so instead I will use this time to read Tea From Vietnam's blog and learn a little bit more about them.

Tien Vu launched Tea From Vietnam earlier this year and is proud to offer tea produced by his family in the northern province of Thai Nguyen, Vietnam.  Mr. Vu respects the history, reputation, and ideal terroir associated with Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese teas and does not try to claim that his teas will outdo the best of those traditional teas but instead promotes his teas as examples of some of the finest tea that Vietnam can offer to a tea lover wanting to experience tea from other regions.  Although Taiwanese style teas have been grown in Vietnam only in recent years, Mr Vu has provided an in depth review of the history of tea from the Vietnamese perspective which shows how deep the tea roots really are in Vietnam and the importance of the Thai Nguyen province for high quality tea production.

Of the teas I have in my order, the Golden Lily and the Ta oolongs both fall in the "jade" (low roast/low oxidization) oolong category.  The Golden Lily, as expected, is made from the Jin Xuan cultivar of leaf which was introduced to Vietnam from Taiwan a couple decades ago.  The Ta oolong though is a cultivar that is unique to Vietnam and is why I wanted to give it a try.


These two teas may seem pretty similar at fist.  The oxidation level is about the same and they both brew up a nice looking very clear light yellow liquor.  Both teas have the distinct "gao shan" aroma that you would expect from this style of oolong, and since these teas were grown at or slightly higher than 1,000m elevation, they may qualify as "high mountain" oolongs if defining that term by elevation alone.  The aroma does present slightly differently for each of these teas though.  Both teas smell of sweet honey and buttery toffee, but the Golden Lily is more vegetal and reminds me of tomatoes where as the Ta leaves are more floral with a slight nutty/cashew aroma.

The mouthfeel of the Golden Lily is surprisingly active with some pleasant atringency, though not much body, and the Ta oolong is very smooth and coats the mouth.

Golden Lily, also known as Jin Xuan is sometimes marketed as "milk oolong" due to a natural milk-like flavor that it can sometimes have.  The Vietnamese Jin Xuan definitely has a very creamy taste.  I even let my 5 year old daughter have a sip and she herself said that it tasted a bit "like milk and something else."  The "something else" in my opinion is the vegetal almost green tea-like flavors resulting from the low oxidization.  The green tea-like flavor also has a nutty characteristic to it like you might find in Dragonwell or some other green teas.  Although the vegetal flavor does dominate at first, there is a good floral aspect as well and later steeps reveal a pleasant lychee flavor.  (To avoid confusion, I should mention that this "milky" flavor is definitely a natural flavor in the tea and should not be confused with artificially flavored milk oolongs sold elsewhere.  TeaFromVietnam doesn't even mention this alternate name of Jin Xuan, but it's just a flavor note I picked up on.)

The Golden Lily aftertaste is slightly peppery early on, but then later becomes more floral.  Of the few times I have brewed this tea now, I find that it does best with slightly more leaf than I originally thought I would need.  Not much more, but an extra one half to one gram seemed to really help this tea deliver a fuller flavor and not taper off as quickly.  As the tea does taper off though, long infusions can produce a good vegetal tea soup that still provides an interesting floral aftertaste.

Tea From Vietnam - Golden Lily oolong - Great looking leaves!

The flavor of the Ta oolong is also very creamy, but it does not have the same dominating vegetal nature as the Golden Lily and instead has a nice citrus (orange, grapefruit) flavor with lemongrass and a nice floral perfume taste in the back of the throat.  Subsequent infusions reveal more light honey sweetness that combines with the creaminess to create a sugar cookie-like taste.  The enjoyable aftertaste is floral and lingering.  

Tea From Vietnam - Ta oolong - Also great looking leaves!
Another difference between Golden Lily and Ta is the price.  Golden Lily is $5.90 for 50g and Ta is $11.90 for 50g.  Part of the price difference is likely due to supply-- Jin Xuan cultivar is grown more commonly than Ta and is a high yield cultivar which can make it more affordable.  Of course personal preference will dictate if these are good deals, but I think the prices are good.  Although I am not personally a huge fan of the milky vegetal flavor of Golden Lily, I enjoy the tea enough that I think it's definitely worth $5.90 for 50g and I would be happy to buy this tea again as a daily drinker jade oolong.  I also think that the higher price for the Ta oolong is a good deal too because I prefer the flavor profile of the Ta much more-- it's a well balanced tea with good gao shan flavor and complexity. 

In contrast to the low oxidized Golden Lily, I also received a small sample of the Red Lily which is a black tea made from Jin Xuan leaf.  Red Lily is fully oxidized and has a medium bake/roast. Close examination of the leaf though does show some greenness.

Due to the rolled nature of this tea and large leaf size, it seems to do better with more leaf than I typically use for black tea-- a good leaf to water ratio would be similar to what I use for oolongs, roughly 5g per 80ml, though I would like to experiment more to see if any other parameters would have an effect on this tea.  The first time I brewed it I did not use enough leaf so I used more leaf the second time which helped.

The Red Lily brews up a beautiful clear orange liquor and the leaves unroll fairly quickly and give off an aroma of dark raisins, black cherries, dark chocolate and a hint of strawberry.  The first infusion had a darker version of that milky "jin xuan" taste which I did not enjoy, but the tea became much more enjoyable in the second and third infusions where it transformed into a nice peach cobbler with ice cream flavor, dark cherry, and cotton candy.  Later it reminded me of apple cider spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, etc), dried orange peel, and figs with a similar aftertaste having a brown sugar sweetness.  Occasionally though I would get a slight milky reminder that this is Jin Xuan which is not something I'm used to in black teas and that made it difficult for me to really enjoy this one as much as I did the oolongs.  At $6.90 per 50g though, it may be worth a try for something unique as it is the only black tea available right now from Tea From Vietnam, but I would like to see them offer some others in the future-- perhaps a Vietnamese version of an Assam would be really interesting.  

Tea From Vietnam - Red Lily - Really nice looking leave, some greenness to them despite being a black tea.

My final tea from Vietnam is the Gui Fei oolong.  This type of oolong is low roast but moderately oxidized and is similar to Oriental Beauty in that leafhopper insects are allowed to nibble on the leaves prior to harvest which causes the leaves to produce additional flavor compounds that add an extra layer of complexity and sweetness to the tea.

The Gui Fei ended up being my favorite tea that I tried from Vietnam.  The wet leaf is very fragrant of dark honey, nutmeg, raisin, a hint of chocolate, and the muscat grape that is common in Darjeelings and also leafhopper oolongs.  The liquor is an orange dark honey color and the mouthfeel is very soft yet has enough pleasant astringency to keep it interesting.

The initial flavor reminds me of gingerbread and molasses with a rose floral note.  The middle infusions are where it begins to taste like an autumn flush Darjeeling and muscat grape and it has a nice caramel sweetness.  The later steeps bring out some citrus flavors like lemon and lime.  The flavor alone is really enjoyable, but the aftertaste is what makes this tea my favorite.  Over the gingerbread base is a very intense floral aftertaste like red roses.  Overall this is a very pleasant tea to sip slowly and enjoy without haste.  This tea sells for $11.90 per 50g which I think is an excellent deal. (They also offer their teas in larger quantities for less per gram too.)

Tea From Vietnam - Gui Fei oolong - Also very high quality looking leaves - mostly "two leaf one bud" configuration

In addition to these four teas, Tea From Vietnam also has a couple more oolongs and a few green teas.  I did not order any green teas this time, but I have a fellow tea friend who did order some of the greens and found them quite enjoyable.  I look forward to trying those in my next order!  At the time of writing this, they provide free shipping on orders over $30, but orders under $30 ship for a flat rate of only $4.90, so these teas are very accessible to anyone in the world.  

Friday, September 18, 2015

A Perfect Day with Whispering Sunshine (2015) from Crimson Lotus Tea

I'm not too picky when it comes to describing nice weather.  I want comfortable temperatures, no storms, and comfortable levels of humidity.  I do get picky though when describing the weather on a perfect day, which includes temperatures in the low 70's or upper 60's, low humidity, a gentle breeze, and generally blue skies but with just enough clouds to keep it interesting and give some intermittent shade.   These are stereotypical spring or fall days in my opinion.  In Kentucky we truly do experience all four seasons, though I often wish spring and fall would last longer than they do; if we do happen to get a perfect day, then I want to make sure I fully enjoy it.

We recently had one of these perfect days, and the timing could not be any better because my Crimson Lotus Tea order has just arrived with their 2015 teas.  On this perfect day I knew exactly what tea I wanted to brew.  Though based on nothing more than a non-scientific gut feeling (since I had not tried any of these new teas yet), I knew that the perfect tea for this perfect day would be Whispering Sunshine.

Crimson Lotus sourced the material for Whispering Sunshine in person earlier this year and pressed it in China before returning home to Seattle.  They report that the leaves were harvested by hand in Bai Ying Shan (Lincang) and hand processed into mao cha by tea producers in the He Tao village.  Crimson Lotus chose the name for this tea because of Bai Ying Shan's high elevation which exceeds 2000 meters; so high that the "tea trees were close enough to hear the gentle voice of the Sun."

On this perfect day I found a long extension cord (despite discouragement from the kettle manufacturer) so I could set up a nice gongfu session outside on the patio.  The birch tree in the yard provided some cool shade yet the gentle breeze moved through the branches just enough to allow a few rays of warm sunshine to float down to the ground and dance across the tea table.  I couldn't think of a more perfect way to admire this tea.

The compression of this sheng puerh cake appears pretty light from the outside, but upon further picking it seems to be more dense than first though.  This may be a good balance of being loose enough to pick apart without doing too much damage yet tight enough to help lock in some of the fresh aroma, though after an initial rinse it still may be helpful to tease apart some of the tighter leaf clusters to help with more consistent brewing.

I have brewed this more than once by the time of editing this writing, and I found that using water around 200F/93C degrees results in almost no bitterness, though near boiling will give it a bite that some people prefer.  I also found that if you want low bitterness yet strong body, adding an extra gram or two of leaf than usual in addition to using 200F water works out great.

Whispering Sunshine brews up a yellow liquor that is slightly cloudy due to leaf fuzz, and if the light catches it just right it can give off a pleasant warm golden glow.  The mouthfeel is soft yet thick enough to coat the mouth with lots of flavor.

Although the initial taste has a hint of smoke from the wood-fire processing, the tea overall is extremely clean and fresh tasting.  The amount of leaf used will make a difference, but Whispering Sunshine has a very light and delicate flavor.  It has some vegetal characteristics, however not that of bitter leafy vegetables but that of green beans fresh from the garden and sweet peas.  This is beginning to sound like the flavor profile of a green tea, and the first thing I thought of when drinking Whispering Sunshine was that it reminds me of fresh Huang Shan Mao Feng green tea, with a floral aftertaste and honey sweetness similar to a high mountain oolong and a hui gan you would expect from a high quality puerh.  As the tea cools it reveals a subtle petroleum taste like that of a Riesling white wine, and at one point the freshness and cleanliness of this tea simply made me think of clean linens hanging on a line outside to dry in the afternoon sun.

There are some puerhs that are hard to judge (at least for me) when they are this young because they could be fairly bitter and strong and are hopefully going to improve after years of age, and then there are others which are extremely good right away and may be best consumed now rather than later.  To me, Whispering Sunshine has a perfect "drink me now" flavor, and I imagine that I will probably end up drinking through the entire 200g cake before having a chance to see how it will do over time.

Is this the perfect tea for a perfect day?  I believe the tea alone has the ideal flavor profile for a perfect spring or fall day, so yes, it must be, but all the additional information that Crimson Lotus has shared about this tea is really what solidifies the distinction.  If you have been following Crimson Lotus through their various social media accounts, you know that they gave weekly if not daily updates about their travels throughout China earlier this year.  I may never get a chance to visit Lincang, but I am very thankful that Crimson Lotus shared photos and stories while they stayed in places such as the the He Tao village.  The more we can learn about the tea that we drink, the better we can understand the cha qi held within its leaves.

When I sit on my patio and drink Whispering Sunshine on a perfect day I feel the calm Kentucky breeze on my face, but when I close my eyes I imagine myself standing on the steep northern slopes of the Bai Ying mountain.  The rustling leaves I hear may be my birch tree behind me or my maple trees that were planted about 20 years ago when my house was built, but maybe I'm hearing the leaves of ancient tea trees that have been growing in a remote forest long before I or anyone I know was alive.  Is cha qi simply the energy we get from caffeine and theanine, or is it the energy represented as experiences that ancient trees have accumulated over centuries of growth while watching the world change around them?  Perhaps a part of cha qi is simply an acknowledgement that energy has been transferred to us through the consumption of the tea; an energy that was transferred to the leaves themselves through chloroform, photosynthesis, and rays of whispering sunshine.

Link to Crimson Lotus Tea:
Link to Whispering Sunshine.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

What-Cha - Fujian Anxi 2008 Heavy Roasted Tie Guan Yin in Bitter Melon

(note:  This is a re-hosting of my review of this tea which I wrote in July 2015 on Reddit /r/tea)

I’ll be honest here. I bought this tea simply for the weirdness factor. OK, that may not be entirely true because I do really like roasted oolongs, but this is the first time I have seen anything like this, and when I first saw it on What-Cha, I immediately said, “I want that thing.” I even bought 100g of it because Alistair of What-Cha says, “We will endeavour to send out a whole bitter melon on orders of 100g or more.*” For some reason I felt that if I only ordered 50g I would only be getting half of the strangeness of this tea, and I didn’t want to feel cheated, and forget ordering just a 10g sample-- I imagine that would just be small handful of oolong balls and a few slivers of melon rind-- that’s hardly weird at all. I wanted to experience the full WTF (weird tea factor).

(*This was recently changed to, "All orders of 125g will be guaranteed to receive a whole bitter melon." as the 100g option has now been replaced with a 125g option.  I speculate that this is due to the many complex factors regarding the bitter melon market that I do not comprehend.)

So here it is. 100g (including the 5g in my gaiwan) of heavy roasted Tie Guan Yin stuffed into a Bitter Melon.

I can't stop staring into the intricate patterns and colors of the melon rind.  It's like an extraterrestrial landscape.

Although I did buy this because of how it looks, I was hopeful that my love for roasted oolongs would actually make this a useful purchase. It’s true, at first I was scared to even brew this tea; I have no idea what a bitter melon is, how it tastes, or if tea or anything else is routinely stored inside of one for practical reasons, but the tea itself looks like normal high roast TGY, though a bit squashed together, and it has a nice fruity smell like Fig Newton cookies, so that’s definitely a good sign!

Alistair said that it is recommended to break off some of the melon and brew it with the tea. For a moment I tried to pretend that I didn’t see that, but then I reminded myself that I want to experience this unique tea to the fullest so I made sure to toss a few melon chunks into my gaiwan. It’s much thinner and fragile than I imagined it would be; thin as an egg shell, but not quite that brittle, more like the bark of a sycamore tree.

The liquor looks like normal high roast TGY… nice light brown/orange color, and surprisingly very clear. A nice fruity smell with no unusual aromas... Maybe this isn’t scary after all...

I took a deep breath and then a sip. IT’S GOOD!

It has the flavors that I really like in a roasted TGY: cherry, charcoal, and hint a chocolate. This one is actually even better than the last roasted TGY I drank a week or two ago-- I’m also getting some raisin and tangerine flavors, and a very dominant flavor of figs. (The website mentioned plums… I haven't had any plums in a while-- Do figs and plums taste similar?)

Like a good oolong, this can be resteeped many times, and the fig flavor stays dominant throughout, with a nice fruity sweet fig aftertaste.

So my gamble of buying 100g of this tea definitely seems worth it-- not only did I get the entire full weird looking melon, but I also got 100g of tasty roasted oolong. And the price is actually very good. Although it’s weird, unique, and good tasting, it’s also very affordable-- the 100g package was less than $15.  I noticed that recently the 100g option has been replaced with a 125g option for just over $16, but you can also order this tea in 50g or 10g packages.  

This item to me is representative of why I really like shopping at What-cha. They seem to offer a wide variety of less common teas from a wide variety of sources, and the prices are very good. Even if I’m shopping for something somewhat normal, I try to look around their selection for at least one unique item to throw in my cart just because it’s not an opportunity you have everywhere. Don't be afraid to try something weird!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

White2Tea Tea Club - August 2015 (Da Hong Pao oolong)

I am one of the newest members of the White2Tea monthly tea club.  My first month was July which I'll likely post about later, but today I had two of the three teas featured in the August package which highlighted some Wuyi oolongs.

Although White2Tea's primary focus is in puerh, they do have some select Chinese black teas and oolongs.  The tea club package for August hints that they are in the process of adding new oolongs to the selection, one of which will be an aged Da Hong Pao.

To give some perspective on what some age can do to a Dahongpao, the package included a sample of freshly roasted Dahongpao for comparison to the aged DHP.  So it made sense for me to drink them on the same day.

These teas are reportedly made by the same farmer on the same land, but the aged one is about 8 years old.  At first glance there are not too many visual differences, though the aged one may be slightly more brown.  The aroma though does reveal more roast scent in the fresh version where as the aged one has a bit of leather smell instead.  Both teas have a dominant chocolate smell in the dry leaf.

Both teas brew a nice clear reddish brown liquor with similar looking wet leaves, but the similarities stop there.  The brewed fresh DHP smells of fresh cherries and strawberries and is very candy-like.  The gaiwan lid actually smells exactly like cotton candy.  The brewed aged DHP has a darker aroma of black cherries and raisin with a hint of fig.

The mouthfeel of the fresh DHP is very thick but otherwise not very active, while the aged DHP has a very soft body and a mouthfeel that is active with pleasant astringency and tartness on the back and sides of the tongue.

The enclosed description newsletter with this month's teas mentioned that the fresh DPH will have "thrashing youth" and "harsh and sharp" roast flavor compared to the aged one which should be "mellow" because the "fire flavors have subsided."  After tasting these teas I can easily agree that the aged DHP is much more mellow than the fresh.

The fresh version is initially very sweet and fruity, though almost unnaturally so-- like strawberry candy as opposed to real strawberries.  The roast flavor does seem harsh and almost gives the tea a plastic taste, but the fruit flavors keep it enjoyable.  The aged one still has a dominant presence of fruit in the initial brew, but the fruits seem more natural and darker, like black plums, black cherry, and autumn apples.  The aged DHP is definitely very mellow compared to the Fresh and has a hint of that "dry leather" taste that I find in some aged teas.  With the roast flavor being less prominent, the aged tea takes on an obvious mineral/earthy clay flavor under the fruit notes.

The aftertaste of both teas is pleasant and  follows the main taste.  The fresh DHP has a lingering strawberry jam aftertaste and the aged one has a nice apple cider aftertaste with an apple peel flavor in the back of the throat-- I'm not sure what it is about apple peel aftertastes, but all my favorite roasted oolongs have this.  Both teas have a floral component to the aftertaste which begins to show up after a few infusions.

As the teas evolve over further infusions the aged one seems to remind me more and more of a slightly aged sheng puerh as some orange peel and coriander flavors start to come through.  Much to my surprise the fresh one began to transform with very strong and dominating presence of guava!  It still remained candy-like though, and had nearly an identical taste as a guava candy that I am very familiar with.  My favorite Chinese restaurant has a large bowl of them on the checkout counter, and I used to sneak extras into my takeout bag until very recently when I found out that I can buy them in bulk at my local Asian supermarket.  These would be a great way to extend the aftertaste of this tea if you wish.

Overall it is almost difficult for me to say which of these teas I liked better.  As of right now the Fresh Dahongpao is not a tea that White2Tea is planning to have for sale (at least in its young state) and was simply included as a comparison tea for the aged version.  The club newsletter actually mentioned that it would "likely not be a crowd favorite, though some may love it."  I do agree that the "freshness" of this recently roasted tea does come across as "harsh" and "sharp" and the flavors seem almost unnatural, but the flavors are definitely interesting and the tea seems a bit unlike other teas I have had which makes it something I would enjoy drinking from time to time.  I drank it today on a mild summer day which was nice, where as the aged DHP would be cozy on a cool autumn day.  The apple peel taste of the aged tea is a key flavor I love in roasted oolongs and easily makes this one I would consider buying more of.  As of right now I do not know the price since the website has not been updated yet and that would be an important deciding factor.  I also think that the aged one would do better with even more leaf.  I had my gaiwan about 1/3 full but would definitely like to try this tea again with at least 1/2 full.

The third Wuyi tea included in this month's package is called "Clover Patch Oolong," which is reportedly very different from the DHP despite coming from the same farmer.  I will brew that one soon!

Keep an eye on the White2Tea oolong page where we'll hopefully see some new teas added soon.  I still need to try more of the ones that are already there as I've only had the OBSX so far, and it's REALLY good.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Beautiful Taiwan Tea Co. - Formossa Assam (Farmer Lee's Black Tea from Sun-Moon Lake)

Many tea lovers can relate to or have at least heard about someone's eye opening experience of trying good quality loose leaf tea for the first time.  It's very exciting to have a new tea that is so dramatically different or better than what you've had before that it changes what you thought you knew about tea.

I probably haven't given Assam black tea a fair chance and gave up on them too quickly years ago after having a few underwhelming experiences with some.  I remember them being very bold and trading complexity in favor of in-your-face strength.  (Though some of that may have been my brewing methods which were not as controlled then as I try to be now.)  In general though I associate Assam black tea with Breakfast blends, and I typically tend to gravitate toward more fruity and lighter tasting teas.  I have avoided Assam for a while now.

If you missed it, a few months ago Beautiful Taiwan Tea Company (based out of Indiana, USA) had a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a sourcing trip to Taiwan and other parts of Asia.  They have already been sourcing tea from Taiwan for a few years and they try to negotiate with the farmers directly as much as possible when buying tea.  The Kickstarter project funds would allow them to expand their travels and selection, and they offered various quantities and types of tea to anyone who backed the project.  I had already tried some of their high mountain oolongs a couple months before and am very happy with the quality.  Based on the amount of tea they were promising and their past experience with sourcing good tea, it was an easy decision to back their project.

Beautiful Taiwan Tea had a successful Kickstarter project and after their travels I had two boxes with almost 10 total ounces of fresh oolong, green, puerh, white, and black teas.

Among Beautiful Taiwan Tea Company's offerings is Farmer Lee's Black Tea from Sun Moon Lake.  On the website they list this tea as "Formosa Assam."  Although Assam tea is traditionally from Assam, India, the Sun Moon Lake area of Taiwan is well known for their versions of Assam too and have been growing it there since importing the plant from India in the mid 1920's.  Even today the Tea Research and Extension Station near Sun Moon Lake still actively studies new hybrid varieties of Assam tea.1

How does Farmer Lee's Formosa Assam compare to my memory of bold and overpowering Assam from years ago?

Upon opening the bag I am first amazed by the aroma coming from the dry leaves.  Is this really black tea?!  At first I thought I may have opened a bag of oolong or maybe Darjeeling.  I mention Darjeeling because in addition to blackberry and blueberry this tea also has a nice muscat grape and raisin aroma that you can find in Darjeelings.  One of my favorite Darjeelings also has a similar blueberry aroma.

It's clear from the dry leaves that this tea was carefully produced and handled to avoid breaking the leaves too much.  They are twisted/horizontally rolled to maintain the length of the leaf.  The unpleasant Assam I had years ago looked like small broken pieces and had a generic "black tea" aroma without any memorable characteristics.

I have brewed this tea both western style and gongfu style, and this is a black tea that definitely does well gongfu style.  Using 3g in an 80ml gaiwan with near boiling water for 30s to start works well, but even with varying those parameters a little I have never managed to get any bitterness or unpleasant astringency from this tea.

The deep reddish orange liquor has a thick mouthfeel and sweet aroma, and the wet leaves maintain the fruity aroma which seemed to deepen into black cherry and chocolate.  Before even taking a sip I knew that this tea was in a completely different class than the Assams of my past.

Tasting this Assam for the first time was my exciting Assam eye-opening moment.  This Assam is NOT bold and in-your-face strong, yet it does provide a full flavor and full body.  This Assam does not have a flat generic flavor that lacks complexity but has a variety of interesting flavors that work very well together.  The flavor maintains some of the blueberry from the leaf aroma, and the grape notes come through as a sweet red wine flavor.  The taste has some of the malty creaminess that you might want from a black tea, yet is extremely well balanced with the fruit flavors and sweetness.  I never add cream or sugar to my tea, but this Assam has a natural creaminess and dark honey/molasses sweetness already, and I urge anyone to who usually does additions to give this one a try without any extras first.

Unlike the Breakfast blends that I usually think of when I think of Assam, I think this Formasa Assam would be perfect as a dessert tea.  The berry flavors, creaminess, and sweetness combined is really not much different from eating a nice slice of cheesecake with blueberry topping.  And interestingly, every time I finish a session with this Formosa Assam the sweet fruity aftertaste lingers for at least 10-15 minutes, and I feel a satisfactory fullness and warmth in my belly that I might get from eating the actual cheesecake, minus the calories!

I have measured leaves from this tea as long as 9+cm!
Beautiful Taiwan Tea Company's Formosa Assam from Farmer Lee in Sun-Moon Lake has definitely changed the way I think of Assam black tea.  In fairness to Assam teas in general, I believe my experiences in the past may have been a combination of low quality tea and poor brewing parameters, but Farmer Lee has definitely set the bar high now and I'm definitely going to give more Assam teas a try to see if any can come close to how much I have enjoyed this one.

Link to Beautiful Taiwan Tea Formosa Assam.

1(Sun Moon Lake reference:

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

2005 Manzhuan Raw Puerh - Xiangming Factory

2005 Manzhuan Raw Puerh - Xiangming Factory

(note:  This is a re-hosting of my review of this tea which I wrote in March 2015 on Reddit /r/tea)

I picked up this aged raw pu-erh from White 2 Tea (unfortunately it is out of stock now).  This was pretty much a blind buy, but I had heard good things about this one from and decided to get it.  I’m not able to read the information on the wrapper, but White2Tea says:
Manzhuan mountain is near Xiangming, located west of Yiwu. The label reads “Manzhuan Early Spring” and was pressed at Xiangming Longxing factory, near Xikong, in April of 2005.

2005 Manzhuan Raw Puer - Xiangming Factory
The 357g cake appears to have good quality leaves that are not tightly compressed which makes it fairly easy to break up without doing too much damage.  I was originally not going to say anything about the aroma of the dry leaves, but one interesting note that came to mind from them is a hint of watermelon.  Not a strong artificial watermelon, but the nice subtle watermelon aroma that I get when I’m eating actual watermelon.

Setup: I ended up using about 7g per roughly 120ml and that worked great.

My first infusion was about 10 seconds with water right off a boil and subsequent infusions were around 15-45 seconds then longer as it tapered off.  It seems like it would be very difficult to over steep this tea.  I felt that I could be very relaxed in the time between pouring the water in the pot and pouring the tea into the cup and always get a proper tasting brew.

The liquor is a nice light to medium orange color and very clear.   The wet leaves and tea have a really nice sweet aroma of butterscotch and apricot with distant floral notes and only very slight clay-like earthy notes, which may have been enhanced by the clay pot itself.

The mouthfeel of this tea is very viscous.  At first I did not detect any astringency at all, but then began to notice a hint of it-- it’s the type of astringency that is actually welcomed and seems to awaken the taste buds a bit without being dominant.

The taste of the first one or two infusions is reminiscent of freshly fallen autumn leaves, and I imagine that drinking this at that time of year would greatly enhance the flavor.  A slight hint of smoke is present, but I hesitated to mention it because this is not a smoky tea at all.  The third and fourth steeps started to show the most floral aspects of this tea.  The floral notes that were distant in the aroma come through strong in the taste here-- not as the tea hits the tongue though, but it seems to mature as a nice dominant aftertaste that lingers in the mouth for several minutes between sips.  This tea is also very sweet and reminds me of honey and apricot.  I lost count of how many infusions I did, but the same leaves provided me with tea all day long today, and the very late infusions had a hint of citrus fruits and orange zest.

One thing that impressed me is how mellow this tea is right from the start.  I find that some puerh are very bold and intense early on even with extremely quick infusions, and it’s not until the 4th or 5th steeping that they start to deliver a more balanced flavor profile.  This tea though seems to deliver a nice balanced flavor right away, and it stays that way throughout the subsequent steepings.  You may interpret this to mean that the tea doesn’t provide a huge range of complexity, but I personally think this is a nice property to have when considering a tea that I would want to drink often, even on a daily basis.

Overall this tea is extremely smooth and mellow and does not have anything that comes off as harsh, extreme, or unusual; perhaps it is the 10 years of age that has allowed this tea to be so mellow.  (When I drink aged teas I wish could go back in time and taste them when they were young to compare!)

I also want to point out what this tea is NOT.  Compared to some other puerh, this tea is not real earthy, it does not not conjure images of tobacco and barns, it is not real medicinal or have a strong camphor taste (only very slight), and it does not have an "antique" flavor or tree bark flavor-- I do enjoy all those flavors in puerh, but sometimes it is nice to have one on the opposite end of the spectrum with its strong floral and fruity notes.  That sweeter flavor profile combined with the ease at which it is to brew this tea would make this a perfect introductory puerh or a puerh for someone to try who has tried other puerh before and didn’t like it.

(Although this tea is currently sold out, I have since found some teas that are similar to this and I will post about that at a future date.)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Introduction and Tea Memories

2003 Xiaguan "Xiao Fa Tuo" shou puerh

I am starting this tea blog mostly as a way to organize and share my notes, photos, and thoughts about various teas I enjoy (or even the ones I do not enjoy).  I have been drinking tea on and off for as long as I can remember, but it was not until late 2014/early 2015 that I began to drink it on a more serious level and challenge myself to try many different kinds of teas and really get to know the flavor profiles of each one and perfect my brewing methods with each one.  I hope to post a mix of short tea reviews/tasting notes among some lengthier writings, and also whatever else tea-related I find myself interested in over time.

The tea that really motivated me to take the plunge into the world of tea is nothing more than a 2003 Xiaguan "Xiao Fa Tuo" shou puerh.  Someone with a lot of experience in puerh might consider this a "daily drinker" -- a good tea, but nothing to get too excited about.  To someone new to Chinese teas though, a name like that can be a bit intimidating.  Not to mention the appearance of the tea itself.  A nest-shape of tightly compressed brown worm-like leaves that smell like something which should be left outside, not brought into the kitchen where we prepare and eat food.

2003 Xiaguan "Xiao Fa Tuo" shou puerh - 100g tuo

But to me this round green box contains more than just tea-- it has the ability to conjure memories of the past and generate new ones.

Having grown up in central Kentucky, the aroma of this shou puerh brings memories of home.  It has a distinct earthy aroma that I describe as a "horse farm," which might sound bad, but it's actually a good thing to those who live in the horse capital of the world.  Truth is, I find riding horses quite terrifying though I have done it a few times, but my family has a tradition of going to the track a couple times a year to watch horses race.  Sometimes though I find that we spend less time at the side of the track and more time in the paddock enjoying the horses in a calmer setting.

Another similar aroma I find in this Xiaguan shou is that of a tobacco drying barn.  As a kid in Boy Scouts years ago we would often go camping on various farms, and one in particular that I remember had a black tobacco drying barn at the edge of the main field.  During rainy weather we would hold our meetings inside the barn surrounded by the big leathery brown leaves hanging from the rafters.  Tobacco farming in Kentucky has been declining for years and I rarely see the crop growing anywhere now days, but the Xiaguan shou aroma makes it feel like I am back in that barn right now learning to tie knots, read topographical maps, and carve wooden sculptures with a pocket knife.

When I first brewed the Xiao Fa Tuo, I wasn't too surprised to find that it has a taste consistent with the aroma-- it had the horse farm and tobacco barn flavors in addition to some smoke and clay flavors.  The mouthfeel is quite interesting-- it's thick, yet it feels very soft/smooth too; almost as if the volume of tea weighs less than the same volume of water would if physics did not have laws.

2003 Xiaguan "Xiao Fa Tuo" shou puerh

Tasting such an earthy tea for the first time was a strange experience though.  I definitely liked the tea, but I wasn't sure if I loved it.  It was certainly different from all other teas I have had in the past.  I had heard though that puerh can change a lot over subsequent steepings so I kept steeping it to see what would happen.  Around the 5th or 6th steep I noticed that the flavor mellowed out quite a bit to reveal flavor characteristics of leather and wood.  This tea went from good to amazing!

The later steeps brought back more memories.  The wood flavor notes reminded me of an incense that my old college roommate and I used to burn.  He acquired this incense in a large jar from his older brother and it had no packaging, labels, or wrapper.  We actually had no idea what scent it was supposed to be.  We just knew it as the velvety reddish-purple sticks among the assorted rainbow in the jar.  But the woody note in this tea is the same.  Perhaps it is cedar?  Not freshly cut cedar though, but that of an old cedar tree that has long since fallen to the ground where the forest has had some time to try to reclaim its nutrients; a microbial process happening over time like the microbial process that created this tea.

In addition to this tea bringing back memories from long ago, this tea also has new memories attached to it that are now locked within the green box.   When I see this tea I think of the night I bought this tea in December 2011.  I had gone in to the tea shop while my wife and I were waiting for our turn to ride a horse-drawn carriage around a block of our town.  It was the third time we had ridden in one; the second was at our wedding, and the first was on the night of our first date.  Also that night we visited my good friend's parents who had both been battling cancer.  That was the last night I saw either of them before they passed away months later.  The days following the purchase of this tea I also came down with strep-throat and felt horrible-- That week of strep throat with high fever and swings of chills still sits within the top two or three moments of the worst I have felt in recent memory.

Every time I saw the green box for a while I kept thinking about how awful it felt having strep throat, which caused me to delay drinking this tea for over 3 years after buying it.  It was like Beethoven's 9th in A Clockwork Orange.  So I pushed the puerh to the back of the cabinet to let the memories fade a bit, like a strong shou puerh wo dui aroma.

I'm glad I decided to pull this tea back out and finally give it a try.  It has helped opened up the world of tea for me and has since lead me to discover and try many more teas.  As I explore them one by one and continue to learn more about tea, I enjoy creating new tea memories as well as revisiting the old ones.