Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Month: January 2014 (Page 1 of 2)

A “Potential” Story

The last two weeks were a busy time. Yes, tea was included in the list of activities, but it wasn’t the central occurrence. Instead, the most common element in everything that happened can be summed up in one word: “Potential”. I’ll try to explain…

A Teaneer Tandem Tasting

At the start of January, I “attended” yet another Tandem Tea Tasting with the girls – Jo “A Gift of Tea/Scandalous Tea” Johnson, Nicole “Tea For Me Please” Martin, Darlene “The Tea Enthusiast’s Scrapbook”/”Tea Lover’s Archive” Meyers-Perry, and Rachel “I Heart Teas” Carter. This time, it was Nicole’s turn to provide the wares for discussion. These were teas I was particularly excited about.

In Nilgiri, India there’s a new organic tea outfit called Vijayalashmi Natural Tea Farms. So new are they, that they don’t even have a website up yet – just a Facebook page, at the moment. One of the fantastic things about this outfit – and their spokesman, Teaneer Suresh – is what they’re doing to change the face of Nilgiri teas in general. The region sometimes gets a bad rep for low quality, CTC-grade bulk teas. Rarely is it considered a region of orthodox exploration – save for a few estates like Tiger Hill.

What I found fascinating about Teaneer Teas was their emphasis on other tea types besides the old Nilgiri standby – black tea. Of the four Nicole sent to us, none of them were blacks or oolongs. One was a white, one was a yellow, and two were green. A bit on the impatient side, I dug into the white tea before the tandem tasting, and found that it hit all the right marks.

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The flavor was odd – like salted grapes – but the character was very White Peony-ish with a Nilgiri lean.

During the tandem tasting, I put the Aristocrat Green Tea, Flow Green Tea and Yellow Tea back-to-back. The greens reminded me of one other Nilgiri green tea I’d tried – same kelpy taste and everything. The yellow was the real surprise. Never had I tasted a “yellow tea” outside of China that actually resembled a Huang Ya. Peppery, nutty, and vegetal only in a “cooked green beans” sorta way. This was my favorite of the four. The yellow also seemed to be the consensual favorite of the group – or from what I gathered.

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It was also (mostly) agreed upon that while Teaneer was off to a good start, they hadn’t quite reached greatness, yet. I could almost compare their upward progress to that of the Doke estate in 2012. They were still in their experimental phase, trying to find the approach that worked best. The teas were good, but I saw a greater potential. (See? There’s that word again.)

And speaking of potential…

After discussing the teas at length, we segued into a discussion about the tea community as a whole. Particularly about “bad eggs” in the social fray. There were some dissenting voices to one of Nicole’s posts about tea snobbery toward the end of 2013. I also had my disagreements with it, but only to one aspect – that of defending a discerning palate.

We agreed overall that while there were…unpleasant tea drinkers on the fringes of the community, they were given many chances to prove themselves. No one was automatically shut out of the discussion – no matter how blowhard – just because of one social infraction. Forgiveness and tolerance were prevalent in all the “corners” of the cuppa circle. All I had to do was point to the tea community’s tolerance of me. If they could put up with my antics, they could put up with anybody. That is…for a time.

We – no matter how splintered, jaded or clique-ish we got – saw potential in any tea drinker new or old. No one was exiled…except under circumstances of extreme douchebaggery. Even teabaggers were welcome. Hey, sometimes I’m one. Yeah, I admit it. What of it? Come at me, bro.

And speaking of anti-teabaggers…

An Infusiastic Trip

Last week, I was drafted by my Mum to help her road trip from Wyoming to Oregon. There were more job opportunities in the rainy state, and she wanted company for early winter trek. I burned three vacation days and agreed to fly out. (On her dime, of course.)

Being the neurotic sort, I liked to arrive at the airport early. If mobile Internet didn’t provide enough of a time-waster, I went with something old school – a good ol’ book. The only one I grabbed from home was Robert “The Devotea” Godden’s story collection, The Infusiast.

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I’d intended the book to last me the entire trip, thinking it would last through several spurts of reading. The moment I started the damn thing, I couldn’t put it down. By the time I arrived in Wyoming, I was at the epilogue. And I’m not that fast of a reader.

The book was potential realized – a humorous, touching and thought-provoking guide to all things tea. Sure, it only hit certain bullet points of interest to the author, but they were intriguing ones. And it was nice to see his humor and wit display on good ol’ fashioned paper. My favorite bits were the ones dealing with Orwell. Yes, that Orwell.

My least favorite? The tea/food recipes. Truth be told, I skipped them. I can’t cook; didn’t apply to me. Although, I would totally taste-test someone’s attempt at a tea pizza. Like, the entire pizza.

Steeping Lady Violet

The first thing I wanted to do the moment I arrived in Wyoming was sniff a certain tea. Darlene had sent my mother a bag of her new Tea Lovers Archive blend – Lady Violet – after I mentioned she was a Downton Abbey fan. During the tandem tasting, Darlene mentioned the blend was made of black tea, malva petals and violet flavoring. While I’m not much of a blend person (er, anymore), this one had me curious. What the heck does “violet” even smell like?

Apparently, it smells like blueberries, at least to my odd nose.

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I dug into it the next morning, and it tasted exactly like it smelled – a floral and berry-ish black tea. I steeped that sucker twice, and the flavor never let up. In fact, I think I preferred the second steeping to the first. More refined and witty, like Lady Violet herself. It was good to have a good tea with Mum again.

Three Generations

Throughout the two-day drive to Portland, my mother and I had many discussions. The focus was primarily on transition. I felt like a self-centered idiot having not realized she had been in a bit of a winter funk since the beginning December. Throughout all our phone conversations, she never let on that she’d been down at all. Either she was sparing me the worry, or she was glad to speak to someone else about their issues, I have no clue. Point being, I felt like I’d let her down by not inquiring about her.

But I made up for it on the car ride.

She was hoping that a brief stint in Oregon would reinvigorate her. I, for one, was glad to have her back. The woman was one of the few people who motivated me out of my lazier habits. We talked of future plans and hypotheses for two straight days. And it was glorious.

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Upon returning, we also learned that my sister/roommate had a hard week at work, and that my niece had passed all of her classes by the skin of her teeth. Sis had realized that there were limits to even what she could accomplish and realized her potential as a proper delegator. Whereas my niece realized that she was indeed smarter than what her earlier grades indicated.

That Sunday, we relaxed in front of the television – three generations of people in transition – and partook of a double-helping of Downton Abbey  and Sherlock. So much potential in one room, all in pajamas. And me, slippers donned, raising a tea-laden Chewbacca chalice in celebration.

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White Buds Pu-erh

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

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

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

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

wet-piling

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

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

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

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

white buds

Image mooched from Norbu Tea

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

chunk

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

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

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

infusions

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

*****

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

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

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

Image copyright Oleg Kozlov – iStockphoto.com

Image copyright Oleg Kozlov – iStockphoto.com

White Tea Cakes – Old versus New

White Tea Week, Day 6: “White Tea Cakes – Old versus New”

Well…this was a first.

Being contacted by companies is not a new experience for me. For some reason, tea vendors look at my quixotic li’l corner of the Internet and say, “Hey, we’d be a nice fit here.” I, then, twizzle my nonexistent mustache and go to work. Can’t say anyone had ever contacted me based on other posts I’d written, though.

Conceptteas had done just that. One of their co-founders had taken the initiative, after seeing my feature on JalamTeas Nan Nuo pu-erh. A good piece, if I do say so myself – humbly. Not only did they find my tea site, but they also sought my contact information from my other website. I should – perhaps – link those two together better. I don’t make it easy to get in touch with me. Old hermit habits.

This newer Swedish-Chinese company (yes, you read that right) focused mostly on white teas – Silver Needle, White Peony, and white tea cakes, to be precise. Fuding, Fujian province-produced teas in specific. Also available were pomelo-scented black tea and Bai Lin Gong Fu. Wait a minute. Let’s rewind a moment. White tea. Cakes?!

Eddie Izzard sprang to mind again.

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They had two on hand that particularly caught my eye. One was a newborn 2013 cake made from – by the looks of it – White Peony leaves, and an older version dating back to 2009. My gears were already turning. I had, back in my review days, compared a white tea and a 20-year-aged version of it – a Shou Mei pairing. However, I had yet to compare two white tea cakes! of differing ages.

Old Willis/New Willis

Less than two weeks later, I had the teas for palate-related playtime. I expected only slivers from the white tea cakes, and from the ’09, that’s exactly what I got. Just enough to experiment with – all I needed. The full cake looks like this:

Aged white tea cake (2009 autumn)

To my surprise, for the 2013 sample…they sent the entire cake.

Look at it. Simply behold its majesty.

white tea cake!

I almost wanted to gnaw a piece off of it with my teeth. It even smelled fresh, spry and ready for munching.

Er…I mean…

The ’09 cake and 2013 cake didn’t really differ in visual presentation. Both looked like White Peony leaves and silver buds that’d been compressed until ready. Young, downy fur still existed on the old cake, as well as the new. The only real difference in appearance was the greater presence of browner leafy pieces in the old, which was to be expected. Also, the old seemed more settled into the cake compression than its younger counterpart, like it found a very comfy couch to nap on.

Comfortable Couch

Real differences didn’t emerge until I put my nose to either samples. Where the 2013 smelled fresh, young and ready for college, the old had a more distinguished “air” about it. Not exactly “get-off-my-lawn!” old, but definitely a more regal fragrance – woodsier.

cake comparison

For brewing, Conceptteas recommended 90-95 degrees Celcius for water temperature and a three-minute steep. The amount of tea leaves per 8oz. serving – 3-to-5 grams. Oh, Celcius, my old nemesis, we meet again. For us ‘Mericans, that’s about 203F – fresh off the boil. Just what I wanted to hear. When I brewed this, it was late…and I was tired.

Following the brewing temp wasn’t a problem. Cutting off the exact grams needed? Not so easy. I guestimated. Tea brewing is an art.

The first difference I noticed between the liquors was the color. As expected, the color for the ’09 white was considerably darker than the ’13. One was brass while the other was still on the side of yellow. The second – and even more obvious – was the aroma. Where the new still smelled like a white tea – all fresh-cut lemongrass and wilderness – the older one smelled like an aged oolong. There was a strange, roasty quality to the ’09 that I couldn’t quite pinpoint by nose alone. It reminded me vaguely of Da Hong Pao.

cake comparison 2

The 2013 was exquisite on first sip, giving off all the trademark white tea taster notes and then some. Melons: Check. Grass: Check. Citrus tickle: Check. But there was also something else at play, a bit of a medicinal quality rearing its head. Not unlike a young sheng pu-erh learning to flap its fermented wings.

The ’09, though.

No other way to put it. I was transported. Generals boomed orders from the mountain tops in Mandarin bravado. Buddhist chants echoed in the distance. Giant, serpentine dragons blanketed the sky in fire.

Okay, maybe a little far-fetched.

Discord

Put in more earthly terms, this did what many an aged oolong had done to me on first sip. It wasn’t always just about the taste with those teas. Sometimes it was about the experience. On first sip with this aged white, I was tea drunk. Instantly. A toasty quality introduced iself, followed closely by a fungal/fermented lean at the base, the climb to the top note culminated in a fruity sensation, and the trail-off was an exercise in bliss.

In short, the best white tea I’ve ever had. I mean, yes, I’ve had a lot of perfect white teas – five this week, actually – and this raised the bar. It was already a pretty freakin’ high bar! The 2013 white tea cake was on its way there. The 2009 was already there on the hill, banner held high.

This all came to pass on what was a very stressful day. I was almost late to work this morning because of a plumber’s van blocking my garage. I spilled tea on my work station, drenching my paperwork in Oriental Beauty. I was operating on only about five hours of sleep. And, yet, it was all worth it. Because it all led to this; this moment. This…blissful…moment.

I have nothing else to add. The 2013 is a gifted youngster. The ’09 is Stephen freakin’ Hawking with superpowers.

mighty stephen hawking

I’m out.

Born-Again Virgin – A White Tea Revisited

White Tea Week, Day 5: “Born-Again Virgin – A White Tea Revisited”

In March of 2011, I tried the most unique white ever. Some would decry that as an exaggeration, but in this case, completely true. Back when I still did copious amounts of tea reviews, this li’l offering came up on the roster. I was one of the first to snatch it up.

The tea in question was the Virgin White Tea from the Handunugoda tea estate in Galle, Sri Lanka. Leaves for this unusual white tea were plucked by women wearing gloves and brandishing gold scissors. Human hands weren’t allowed to touch the tea. The idea being that the tea retained a more natural taste without [too much] human intervention.

Handunugoda

Image Owned by The Handunugoda Estate

It was arguably the most expensive white tea on the market.

When I first tried this tea, I dug the ever-loving heck out of it. There was just one problem; I found a hair in the sample bag I received. It was too long and brown to be one of mine. I don’t know if it was the fault of the grower or the vendor I acquired it from, but that little added ingredient detracted from the “virginal” profile of the tea.

Three years went by, and I felt kind of bad for having knocked the tea a point in my review. The tea itself was beyond wonderful. I’d even say darn near perfect. But I couldn’t give it a flawless rating – in good conscience – because of that. It’s the only review I was ever torn about.

In the summer of ’13, I contacted the Handunugoda tea estate to acquire their Sapphire Oolong for a feature. I made the mistake of referring to my review of the Virgin White Tea in the initial e-mail. Malinga Gunaratne – the estate’s proprietor himself – responded to that e-mail, and even asked to see said review. My stomach tightened.

I did send the review on, and a month or so later I did receive the oolong. To my shock, they also included a 12-gram sample of the Virgin White. Almost as if it was a silent way of saying, “Give it another shot.”

And this week, I did.

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The leaves were smaller than I remembered. Needles – yes – but with a smaller, darker green appearance than most Ceylon Silver Tips I was used to. That and the aroma of the leaves was stronger than I last recalled, giving off a peppery and herbaceous scent – still pleasant, just bolder. It’s reasonable to assume that the processing methods may have changed a tad in the years since I had this last.

Sidenote: Since the leaves were plucked by women wearing gloves and brandishing gold scissors, I decided to keep with the “virginal” treatment. I would not let the first leaves touch human hands. I wore science-y type gloves as I worked, so as to not…uh…impugn upon their good character.

gloves

For brewing, I went with a standard white tea approach – 1 tsp. of leaves in a 6oz. gaiwan, steeped in 165F water for three minutes. I went with a gaiwan because – well – I wanted to. My show, my rules.

The liquor came out water clear. If I looked really close, I could make out the faintest hint of a pale yellow color. The aroma was equally as light, imparting a fruity and floral aroma – albeit understated. The taste was just…I was not expecting it. It matched my earlier taster notes to a “tea”. Before, I’d noted sweetness, fruitiness, and lotus-iness. Same thing was the case here

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On a second infusion, I took the temperature up to about 175-ish F, but kept the steep time the same. This resulted in a slightly darker yellow liquor (but not by much) with an even bolder fruit aroma wafting from the cup. Taste-wise, while slightly grassier, it still retained all the magnificence of the lighter attempt.

Further infusions at undetermined times yielded even better results, fruit-sweet floral cup after fruit-sweet floral cup. So glad I gave this tea a second shot. For the first time ever, I’m retconning an old review. This is the “Perfect” it deserved all along.

retcon

Now, if you’ll excuse me, this white tea and I need some private time.

No calls.

I Dream of Doke for a Day

White Tea Week, Day 4: “I Dream of Doke for a Day”

The Doke tea estate is a small garden situated in the northeastern state of Bihar, India. In 1998, Rajiv Lochan – of Lochan Tea – got the best of all retirement presents. His own tea garden to do with as he wished. Best. Retirement. Ever.

Doke

Since then, the li’l-garden-that-could has become one of the more experimental gardens in India. In fact, in conversations with two of the Lochan children, who also work for the garden, talks have emerged of playing around with smoked tea…which always has me excited.

I first heard about this estate when a certain e-“steamed” blog colleague ranted and raved about a Bai Mu Dan-style white tea he discovered. Upon hearing that the region it hailed from was neither in Darjeeling or Assam, my curiosity was already peaked.

Curious George

After making some beggar-eyes at Tea Trade Jackie, I was able to acquire Doke Tea’s 2012 Silver Needle. I found it to be a very serviceable white tea, reminding me quite a bit of a Darjeeling white in overall character. It was somewhat spicy, lightly grassy, with a hint of melon and something else. All in all, rather memorable. As was the Doke Rolling Thunder Oolong.

Fast-forward to 2013, and I began hearing across-the-board praise for the new batch of second flush Doke teas. Particularly, the Silver Needle. The same blog colleague even went so far as to declare it his favorite tea in the history of Ever. (My words, not his.) Doke Tea must’ve had ears against the Internet walls. Before I knew it, there was a package at my door with a sample of the new Silver Needle, as well as Doke’s other wares.

Doke teas

First off, let me say that this tea was a gorgeous site to behold. The Doke Silver Needle of a year ago was nowhere near as refined-looking as this. The rolled leaves were light green, plump, evenly shaped throughout, and possessed the downy hairs associated with its tea type. The aroma was spry, like salted lemons, and possessed something that reminded me of a muscatel Darjeeling by way of a Yunnan Silver Needle white.

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For the first brewing, I went with 1 heaping teaspoon of leaves in a 6oz. gaiwan of 175-ishF water, steeped for three minutes.

The liquor brewed to a very pale yellow with a faint, wilderness/wheaty aroma crossed with melons. On taste, it was all Silver Needle all the way – in the best possible ways. This was even better than most Fujian-made Silver Needles I’d come across. So many things at work on taste: A hint of lemon, melon, grass, leaf, a shot of maple, I don’t even know where to start. It was quite nuanced.

Silver Needle

A second infusion at about 185F turned up a yellow-amber liquor with a bit more vegetal nose. The taste, though, changed quite a bit – picking up some aromatic high-altitude oolong notes. No astringency or spinaching to speak of, though. Like a white peony, only with a bit more…awesome.

I dared a third infusion at just under a boil (190F), per the recommendations of the e-“steamed” tea compatriot. The soup was straight amber, and the nose was…strangely smoky. Oh, dear God, I burnt the tea, I thought. Quite the contrary, actually. This was my favorite steep yet with bold notes of apricot and a distant memory of peaches. Plus, there was a cinnamon-like lean toward the finish.

To that I say…I dunno what to say. Kinda floored here. I got more steeps out of it after that, bringing the tally to five. Each at three minutes or more.

As luck would have it, I found some of the ol’ 2012 Doke Silver Needle second flush in a random tin while looking for an oolong. This gave me a splendid opportunity to taste and compare the two years; see how far the Lochan technique had come in just twelve months.

side-by-side

Visually, the differences in the leave cutting and rolling were night and day. The 2012 leaves were small, pine-like needles – dark green in appearance with a very spry aroma. Whereas 2013 needles were large, plump, downy-furred and brimming with a pungent, melon-like aroma. It made me wonder if Doke HQ changed their cut-‘n-roll techniques or went with a different cultivar.

When brewed, the liquor for the 2012 was considerably darker, more amber-ish, while the 2013 maintained a subtle yellow palette in the cup. Taste-wise, they both conveyed a citrusy, herbaceous and melon-like delivery. The 2013 just tasted more refined, more reassured – perfumy, elegant and vibrant.

Doke liquor

Like I said, night and day. But a perfect day for both.

I can only dream of what 2014 will bring.

EDIT: It would appear the Lochan Tea site is all sold out of the 2013 Doke Silver Needle, but fear not! If you’re in the U.S., you can fetch it at Butiki Teas HERE. And if you want to compare/contrast with the 2012 Doke Silver Needle, you can pick that up at The Devotea USA HERE.

When You Wish Upon a Taiwanese White Tea

White Tea Week, Day 3: “When You Wish Upon a Taiwanese White Tea

Back in the Fall, I saw a retweet from Greg “Norbu Tea” Glancy that just about put me into cardiac arrest.

Japanese White Tea

Japanese. White Tea. Oh. My. G-word.

I saw mention of something like this existing on (of all places) Wikipedia a year prior. Not sure how such a mention got there. I think one of the Wiki article writers planted it there to screw with my mind. Yes, my mind – personally! The article has since been updated/edited, but at the time, I went on a research binge to find out more.

Queries turned up nothing…until Greg’s retweet. Unfortunately, the tweet from the company in question was dated for back in August. I checked the site, and the Japanese white tea was gone. It’d sold out in days after its mention.

In true tea-fanboy fashion, I repeatedly contacted the vendor, and gave my best beggar-eyes. No luck. They were fresh out. Not even test-samples. I made…uh…”ridiculous offers” to even smell a bag that had housed the white tea leaves.

crack

Nothin’.

After a day or two of pouting, I returned to business as usual. Another round of Japanese white wouldn’t be available until May of the next year. I’d just have to live with it. But how?

Oh yeah.

I thought back to the entirety of the year, and to the teas I’d tried. Then I thought back to Greg and Norbu Tea. There was a type of white tea from another Asian isle that was hard to find – two actually! – and I’d sipped ’em both.

Tsou-Vayiyana Nano Alishan High Mountain White Tea

This white tea from Ali Shan (my favorite Taiwanese mountain), was from the Qing Xing cultivar. I tried it completely by happenstance at World Tea Expo at the Tsou-Vayiyana booth Norbu Greg was working at. The taste blew my mind. Alas, I didn’t have more time to concentrate on it, seeing as I was already well beyond tea drunk at the time. However, I did give it a proper treatment at home a few months later.

The dry leaves looked like…well…dry leaves.

Ali Shan

Not much else to say there. The smell, though, was pure wilderness with a slight tickle of lemon on the back-whiff. This may sound sacrilegious, but it reminded me of an American-grown white tea I tried. Same lemon-leafy fragrance finish.

I used roughly 3 grams of leaves, placed ‘em in a 6oz. gaiwan, and used 175F water for the brewing. Then I waited for about three minutes. And…prayed I didn’t screw it up. I didn’t have a lot of this stuff to go around.

Ali Shan again

The liquor came out practically clear with a smidge of yellow. At first, I thought I’d brewed it wrong. Was the temperature wrong? Should I have gone higher? Was the infusion time too short? But then I smelled it. Lemons and flowers wafted from the cup. Score! On taste, it was exactly how I thought it would, based on the aroma. Lemons, citrus, flowers, and…autumn dominated the cup.

I tried a second infusion at five minutes, but that appeared to be too long – given its more leafy kick. That said, when done right, it hit all the right white tea marks. And then some.

There was something missing, though. Oh yes, I needed to compare it another white tea from the same country, but a different region/cultivar because…well…it’s me. I gave Greg my best beggar eyes, and got this.

Zhao Lu

For some reason, the bag made me feel alarmingly inadequate.

Norbu Tea Zhao Lu Bai Cha

This hefty bag o’ leaves stemmed from Nantou county, Taiwan, and were from the Jin Xuan cultivar. The tea plant type was usually used for oolongs and occasionally black teas – rarely white teas. It was also – blessed be – a white tea that Norbu Tea personally carried. I remember missing the last batch by a matter of days.

The leaves for this white tea looked like…well…leaves again. Forest green, plucked whole and dried leaves. No other nuance to the appearance besides that.

Zhao Lu, too

As for aroma, there was more to talk about there. I whiffed straight olive leaf, mint and sage. Very little processing, but a whole lot of natural awesomeness to potentially bestow. I was starting to see a pattern to these Taiwanese whites.

A small confession: Before this official trial run, I actually dipped into it several times. I mean, wouldn’t you if you had that much white tea to play with? I did it delicately, I boiled the heck out of it, I treated it like a green tea, I took it for long walks on the beach, we woke up in Vegas…then everything got blurry. Point being, this tea held up to some pretty unusual punishment on my part. But it was time to give it a more clinical whirl.

madman

The brewing instructions were thankfully lax. Norbu Tea recommended “grandpa style” – leaves put at the bottom of a cup, 160F water, and a ten-to-twelve-minute steep. I went with a 6oz. steeper cup instead, opting for something more – shall we say – proper. It’s nice to know there’s a white tea out there you can totally forget about while you’re taking a shower.

The liquor brewed pale yellow – as expected for any tea worth its weight in “white”. A fragrance of lemony herbs emanated from the cup with a subtle sweetness on the end. As for taste, I don’t know where to start. On the one hand, it was as herbaceous as a White Peony, on the other it was melons and muscatel – like a Darjeeling white. Somewhere in the middle, tropical fruit notes happened. Not sure how, but they were there.

As luck would have it, I received the perfect chalice in which to grandpa-style the heck out of this white tea. And it was in the shape of Chewbacca. The results were unsophisticated, tea-geeking bliss.

Chewie

Later that week, I finally went about trying the Ali Shan white and Zao Lu Bai Cha back-to-back. The results were…conflicting. No, not bad. Just…oh hell, it was like judging a mud-wrestling competition – no matter who lost, everybody wins.

The Ali Shan white had a darker liquor and a more robust flavor. Sweetness began on the initial sip before dissolving at the top note, to be replaced by a caramelized almond sensation – wrapped in lemons. The Zhao Lu Bai Cha went down a more subtle and floral road. It retained its sweetness throughout, sure, but remained – how should I put it? – fluttery. Which one was a favorite?

Hard to say.

back-to-back

If you ‘re no stranger to this blog, you know what I did next. I mixed them and blended both of the leaves for a second brew. Just for s**ts and giggles. Fusing both liquors turned up a magical cup of melon-on-lemon action. Brewing the blend by the pint just turned up straight lemons! As opposed to…uh…bi-curious lemons? Where was I going with this?

Oh yeah, I love both of these teas. I love them both together. Taiwanese white tea should be more of a thing than it currently is. Formosa oolongs are great for every other time, but Formosa whites keep me from taking a nap in the late afternoon. And taste damn good, to boot.

With goodness like this, I can cope with waiting another year for a Japanese white tea. For someone so full of lament, I have it pretty good. Yes, I’m bragging – Taiwan pint held high – in ode to granted wishes.

I apologize for nothing

The Whites of Nepal’s Eyes

White Tea Week, Day 2: “The Whites of Nepal’s Eyes”

Back in June, again at World Tea Expo, I had the pleasure of meeting the proprietors of the new company, Nepali Tea Traders.

Nepali Tea Traders

I first sought them out when I noticed they had Nepalese oolongs and a Nepalese pu-erh among their wares. I found both iterations of old Chinese tea formulas  beyond acceptable. Particularly the Wild Yeti oolong…because…YETI!!!

A brief recap: Nepali Tea Traders is a U.S.-based outfit that specializes in importing teas from Nepal. (Obvious enough.) However, their particular focus is on Nepal’s Ilam region, specifically the farming collective-owned tea factory – Sandakphu. Teas purchased through NTT help benefit the workers and their families in the region.

I think I got that right.

Nepalese white teas weren’t exactly new ground for me. I covered a couple of ’em HERE (in a fictional vein). But there was one experiment I wanted to try with the Himalayan variants that I didn’t have the opportunity to before. Drinking them all side-by-side.

One night in the Fall, I decided to do just that. These were the results:

Three white teas

Ama Dablam White Tea

On first impression, I noticed the very pretty, light green, downy-fur-covered leaves. I was instantly reminded of the Darjeeling estate Arya’s Pearl white tea. The aroma was like olive leaf with a hint of spice.

The liquor infused extremely pale – like, Silver Needle pale – with a subtle aroma of melons and herbs. Taste-wise, it was like a White Peony by way of a jalapeno popper. The latter metaphoric comparison was due to the spice and fruit I detected – as well as the grape-like finish. A very beguiling liquor.

Sandakphu White Tea

This one had a VERY muscatel, spicy smell with a hint of wildness, similar to a Yunnan province Chinese white. The overall sensory experience, though, I likened to the Darjeeling estate Risheehat’s Silver Tips white tea.

The infusion brewed to the darkest liquor of the three, a very obvious yellow. Not much of an aroma to speak of. On taste? It was woody, nutty, and an alternating flavor of lemons and sage on the finish.

Dhulagiri White Tea

Appearance-wise, this looked like a White Peony/Silver Needle hybrid. However, the smell (and look) was that of a green tea – particularly reminiscent of Mao Feng, except the shape of the leaf-rolling was definitely Himalayan. It also gave off a very grassy fragrance with a trail-whiff of artichoke hearts.

A three-minute infusion resulted in greener liquor as opposed to the usual white tea yellow. The aroma was still very green tea-ish, a lot like a Chinese Clouds and Mist green – one I despise. The taste, however, was a relieving sensation of butter, cooked veggies, and an undefinable sweetness on the end.

While I liked all of them, my clear favorite was the Ama Dablam. For some reason, it was the most white tea-ish to me. Aside from the spice, everything about it screamed, “Pay attention to my subtleties!” Like a mystery woman with a name you can’t pronounce. So glad I had the opportunity to do this. Brings an old tear to the whites of my eyes.

eyeballing tea

Bi Luo the Belt

White Tea Week, Day 1: “Bi Luo the Belt”

In late 2012, I was given a unique opportunity. Canton Tea Co. wanted me to guest blog for them, relating my personal experiences with Dan Cong oolongs. I did finally get around to said blog…oh…three months after they asked. Instead of using it for “just” a blog update, I was informed it would be used for something else.

They asked me if they could use said blog in the third week of a monthly subscription service they were launching. As payment, I got to test-run said service. Monthly tea subscriptions are a dime a dozen now, and there are some great ones out there. However, a year ago, the only game in town (of that magnitude) was 52Teas. Canton Tea Co.’s Tea Club was taking it a step further.

tea club

Each week, new and unique teas would be featured along with profiles, background info, and personal anecdotes. Even in my smidge of a capacity, I was happy to be a part of it, and I was able to experience some fabulous teas in the process. There was this Hawaiian white…oh my gawwww *cue drooling*…

Alas, all good things had to come to an end, and my trial run of the subscription ran out. I wish I could’ve monetarily renewed it, but I was poor at the time. Actually, make that all the time. Seems to be a recurring problem. Luckily, I was in no shortage of teas to try. However, one showed up that made me go, Damn it!

On Week 26, a White Bi Luo Chun appeared. White. Bi Luo. Chun. Until that week, I was only aware of three variations on that style of tea – a gold-tipped black, a Keemun, and the original green tea. A white tea of that style definitely made my neck hairs erect.

I made my best beggar eyes in Canton Tea’s general direction.

cutesy eyes

They appeased me…probably out of pity.

I won’t go into what Bi Luo Chun is, or what its precarious history amounts to. I covered that story quite vividly HERE. No, I made none of that up.

Bi Luo Chun green tea actually hails from Jiangsu province, China. This white variant hailed from Yunnan province, much like it’s gold-tipped sibling. However, unlike Golden Bi Luo, this looked like no “Green Snale Spring”. Bi Luo Chun usually looks like this:

Green Bi Luo

Photo Owned by Esgreen

Leaves rolled to look like snail shells, as per the name. These looked like, well, slugs maybe. (Green Slug Spring. Heh. That has a ring to it.)

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Okay, that’s not entirely fair, there is some wiggle room to the rolling of the leaves. I have come across some more anachronistic approaches to Bi Luo Chun rolling. Generally, though, they’re rolled pretty tightly.

All snark aside, the leaves did smell very pleasant, and as floral smelling as the description indicated. I caught a whiff of lotus and honeysuckle when I put nose to bag. Aside from the flowers, the scent also reminded me of rough wilderness – a common trait I find in Yunnan whites. It wasn’t quite as rough as rough as those…but close.

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On taste, it’s a Chinese white through-and-through with an herbal front that transitions to a slightly grassy but mostly floral middle, and trails off nicely into a feeling of old forest. It doesn’t have a melon-ish lean like some good Chinese whites, but makes up for it with a slight citrus tickle on the aftertaste. All in all, it had a lot in common with Yue Guang Bai, another Yunnan white, but with a better flavor delivery.  I, frankly, enjoyed it over its Jiangsu-produced green tea sibling.

Don’t believe me? Well, try it for yourself. Or you can take your opinion and “Bi Luo” off. You know I had to use that pun at least once.

fozzie-bear

Journeys to Jungpana

The Darjeeling tea estate of Jungpana has a unique history for its name. According to Norbu Tea Company, there are two possible origin stories. One Norbu Greg heard from the locals states that the name is an alteration of the Farsi word “Jahanpanah”, which means “Shelter of the World” – in reference to how the estate resembles a palace on a hill. The other posits that the name was a blending of “Jung” (the name of a Gurkha guide who got mauled to death) and “Pani” – the Nepali word for “water”.

I like to think it’s a combination of the two – the name given to a brave Gurkha who fended off rabid tea-thieving werewolves atop a hill. That’s how I’d want to go. Where was I going with this?

Oh yes, Jungpana.

Jungpana

Image Owned by Vanessa Sly

Until last June, I’d never even heard of the estate. And in less than seven months’ time, it has become one of my favorites. My first exposure to it occurred at World Tea Expo. Yes, yes, I know I keep talking about that damn event. How was I to know it would influence umpteen origin stories months later?! Stop complaining or I’ll…uh…Gurkha you. In the face. With water.

Anyway…my first exposure was at a tasting event on my second day of the Expo. Perennial Nice Guy – Rajiv Lochan of Lochan Tea – was in attendance, and he brought with him a first flush Darjeeling for the tasting. It was an OP from the Jungpana estate. I don’t recall any other details about it other than the fact that it made mine and Robert “The Devotea” Godden’s eyes glaze over in delight.

I wish I had more information beyond the crinkled, felt-writ foil bag still in my possession.

sample bag

I have barely two servings left of the stuff, and – for the longest time – I thought those vestiges would be the last of that estate I’d experience all year. Boy, how wrong I was!

Among many other samples, I received – not one but two! – teas from said estate, courtesy of Norbu Tea Company. One was a second flush OP dubbed “Muscatel” (fitting), and the other was a uniquely pan-fired green simply called “Yellow”. Just what I needed, more yellow-named teas to confuse my palate.

Well, I’m glad they did.

Jungpana teas

Jungpana Yellow (Left). Jungpana Muscatel (Right).

The Jungpana Muscatel’s infusion yielded a pleasantly…well…muscatel and floral cup with a citrus feel on the back. Never thought I’d say it, but this is a Darjeeling second flush that begs to have a pre-wash to allow the leaves to open up. Thirty seconds, tops. For some reason, more exhilarating flavor notes emerged from that. Not sure how to properly convey it.

The Jungpana Yellow on the other hand…holy Gurkha guide water!

The liquor brewed bright green with a fruity aroma. What fruit, eh, I dunno – something mildly citrusy. On taste, I can’t describe how pleasant this was. The forefront was tropical, the middle possessed the wine-like characteristics of a Long Jing, and spice appeared on the trail-off. No grass, no spinach, none of those negative green tea traits. It was green tea perfection.

No wonder this sucker won an award.

(No, seriously, it won an award.)

award

After that dual tasting, I looked at the bags and said, “Okay, Jungpana, I get it. You’re awesome. You’ve made your point.”

Oh, but it wasn’t done with me, yet.

Last Sunday, I ventured out to Stash Tea’s new store and tea bar in North Portland with my brother and his wife.

We planned a trip, since none of us had been yet. It was a lot like their Tigard retail space, but with a slight Teavana-ish lean (minus the upselling). That and the employees were nice – like, really nice. Genuinely friendly tea people from a large chain, what a concept!

Stash Tea Bar

I also appreciated the layout of the store. Once someone entered, the bar was on the right, loose-leaf single origin teas were on the left, and the bagged teas were toward the back. As they should be.

Unfortunately, they only had a limited selection of canisters one could choose from for sampling at the bar. Most of the bar-ready teas on display were of the flavored variety. Not that I was surprised. It was Stash, after all. They catered to the general tea drinker, and that was decidedly not me.

Then I saw it. At the front of the black tea line – even ahead of the Earl Greys – was a giant tin with a label that made my jaw drop and my lips moisten: “Darjeeling Jungpana”.

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I ordered a 12oz. glass of it immediately. So exclusive was this tea, that it wasn’t even available on their website. (Trust me, I looked.) It was…oh my omnomgharblemummerssss….

It wasn’t quite as perfect as the Jungpana Yellow…but still way up there.

As my brother and his wife looked around, I chose a spot by the window – gingerly sipping and watching traffic go by. Both of them joined soon after – my brother had ordered a Chai Latte, his bride cupped some Mangosteen Green. My younger sibling let me sip his masala chai, and I let him try mine.

“Whoo!” he exclaimed. “That’s primo!”

“I know!” I replied.

He feigned a pout. “I like that almost better than mine.”

And we wasted the late-afternoon, cupping away like gentleman hunters waiting for their Gurkha guide.

Shelter of the World, indeed.

Brothers Norman

Photo by “Critter”

A Perennial Passport to Pike Street

Back in early September, my mother was visiting us from out of town. It was the week of my brother’s wedding, and she was – as any mother would be – flustered. On an innocuous trip to JC Penny’s, the unthinkable happened. She set her purse on a random chair as she went to return a pair of shoes. When she came back…it had been gutted. Her wallet was missing. She kept everything in that wallet, except money.

Credit cards and cash were in her jacket pocket, but her IDs, her birth certificate and her passport were in her wallet. Everything that identified her as – well – her was now in someone else’s possession. The worst part? She and my stepdad were making a trip to Ireland later in the month. And now she had no passport.

She spent the rest of the week swimming through the sea of red tape to get everything expedited. Most of the documents, she was able to replace in one way or the other. The red herring was the passport. The only way to expedite that process was to go straight to the nearest port authority. And that was located…in Seattle.

seattle

While she wasn’t entirely keen on the idea, I offered to go with her. We could view it as a mother/son trip. Plus, there was a tearoom in Seattle I wanted to notch off, anyway. That and neither of us had been to Pike Street Market in forever. She agreed, and we planned to make the trek on my next day off.

The day of the trip, it seemed nothing would let us leave Portland. We encountered two roadside accidents, flash-flood rains, and gridlock on the way out of Oregon proper. That and the bridge to Vancouver had been lifted. The worst part was that the trip was time sensitive. We only had four hours to make our way to the port authority before it closed. My mother was calm. I was…well…this.

doge

As luck would have it, we made it just on time. Traffic into Seattle – shockingly enough – was pretty bare. Roads were mostly empty. I’d never encountered that in Seattle – ever. I dropped Mum off at the authority building, circled around several blocks to find parking, and then set about foraging for food. Eureka! A shawarma eatery was just down the road from the building. As I waited for the matriarch, I gorged on meaty goodness.

Mum called twenty minutes later, informing me that she was done. All that hassle to get up to Seattle…for only twenty minutes of processing. She had all her documental ducks in a row, and the passport gears were set in motion.

Our next stop was an obvious one. After all we’d been through, it was time for tea. The Perennial Tea Room was a place I’d always wanted to venture, but never had the opportunity. While not the oldest tearoom in Seattle, it was the only one to have the same owners throughout its run.  Where a lot of teashops change hands multiple times, Perennial remained steadfast with its current crew.

The fun lay in trying to find the place. It was situated in this back-alley area between several buildings. Seriously, finding it was like going through Diagon Alley in Harry Potter.

Alley

When we arrived, I beheld a magnificent site. In front of the tearoom were three bearded old men having a cuppa and shootin’ the breeze. A thought went through my head, This is how I want to die.

We went inside, and there is no other word to describe The Perennial Tea Room other than “darling”. Although not the largest tea place I’d set foot in, the menagerie on display was the most diverse.  Naturally, I bee-lined to the teas they had ready-made. There were three carafes with tea for the serving. One of them was a Keemun Hao Ya A. Damn…I was home.

As  sipped my Keemun like a drunkard, Mum settled in with a Peach Ceylon something-er-other. We conversed for a bit as we sat by the window.

Perennial Tea Room

After killing some time with conversation, my attention turned to the loose-leaf selection they had on display. I squinted for a moment, then got up to take a closer look.

Two teas made my mouth gape. One was Persian Gold, the other was Natela’s Gold Standard – Iranian-grown and Georgian-grown black teas, respectively. I think I muttered something like, “Duuuuuude.”

On our way out, I bought a to-go cup of the Persian. I remember liking the stuff quite a bit, and admired its ability to take a brew-beating. I let the leaves steep continuously, as my mother and I journeyed down to Pike Street.

Persian Gold

The only time I remember visiting the market was when I was in my pre-teens. I only had the vaguest of memories about the place. Funny, considering how memorably crowded it is. For those that’ve never been, think of it as a cramped but exciting fish bazaar. Mum and I walked the inner path of the market, picked up some crab to munch on, and just marveled at the sights. I could see why this was tourist destination.

We returned home later in the evening – exhausted. I think I went to bed particularly early that night. Mum was more relaxed as well – passport mission accomplished. Before turning in for the night, another thought occurred to me. If I ever found out who put my mother through that hassle to begin with…well…

I have a metal kettle, and I’m not afraid to use it.

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