Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Tag: heicha

Putting “Tea: A User’s Guide” to Good Use

In May of 2013, I finally met this tea-bro in person.

Tony Gebely—award-winning tea blogger, tea business insider, and all-around nice guy. When we first met, we did what any self-respecting tea people would do on first impression. We drank beer.

While we were downing pints, he mentioned he was working on a book, and ran the title by me. He wanted to call it: Tea: A User’s Guide. I told him I dug it, and that he should keep me posted on its release.

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Dark Tea from Burma/Myanmar

No one likes to talking about Burma . . . or Myanmar . . . or whatever it’s calling itself, now.

Photo by David Blackwell.

Photo by David Blackwell.

Even the name of the country is a hotly contested issue. At college parties, whenever some Eastern Philosophy major brought up Buddhism as an example of a nonviolent religion, all someone had to do was say, “Myanmar.” Or Burma. Or whatever!

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Dark Tea from Taiwan

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

dark tea

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

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Dark Tea from Thailand

Well over a year ago, Tony “World of Tea” Gebely posted a photo of a dark tea on Instagram.

It was an aged moacha (i.e. the rough stuff used to make puerh cakes) . . . but it was from – of all places – Thailand.

Used with permission by Tony Gebely.

Used with permission by Tony Gebely.

For obvious reasons, it grabbed my attention.

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Russian Dark Tea

Russians love tea. Like . . . really love tea. Even the British and Irish look at the Russian love affair with tea and say, “Would you kindly tone it down?”

I learned of this secondhand when I was doing research a couple of years ago on tea grown in Russia. Not exactly sure how it happened, but Russians took a rather strong liking to low-altitude Ceylon. Brewed as a concentrate . . . from a giant brass water heater . . . that was stoked with a boot. Yes, a Samovar.

But in recent years, there’s been a shift in the Russian tea palate. One I learned of from – of all places – Instagram.

Photo used with permission from Electrogorilla

Photo used with permission from Electrogorilla

Young Russians love dark tea (or “heicha”). Like . . . really love dark tea. Puerh, to be precise.

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A Different Dark Tea on Black Friday

NaNoTeaMo, Day 27: “A Different Dark Tea on Black Friday”

As I’m writing this, it’s the night of Black Friday. To most tea people with a pun gland, though, it’s Black Tea Friday. So, in honor of that, will I be talking about another unique black tea?

NOPE

Forget it, I’m going to talk about dark tea, instead. That’s right, heicha! And not from China, either. This time? We’re going to look at a little known tea growing country called Laos.

Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of Laos. Ever watch The King and I? That’s Laos!

The King and I

Well, Siam to the time period it was portraying and . . . y’know what? Bad example.

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Dark Tea Déjà Vu

NaNoTeaMo, Day 5: “Dark Tea Déjà Vu”

It all started with a tweet . . . when I was drunk.

teabeer drunk

Not tea drunk, actual drunk.

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The Dark Side of Bancha

Bancha (literally translated as “ordinary tea”) is the redheaded stepchild of the Japanese green tea family. Whereas the topmost tea leaves are reserved for higher grade sencha, gyokuro and matcha, the older, courser leaves are reserved for lesser brews. They typically lack the flavorful kick of the top-tier leaves or the caffeine level.

Left with no other option, the Japanese do what comes naturally with these late-harvest, leafy underachievers. They f**k around with them. Sometimes, the results are magical – as demonstrated with houjicha, a charcoal-roasted tea. Other times…*sigh*…abominations like genmaicha – tea leaves blended with rice – occur.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Genmaicha has plenty of fans out there, and that’s all well and good. We’re allowed to like terrible things. I’ve been known to chuckle at an Adam Sandler movie or two, for instance.

sandler

But I digress.

One of my favorite f**ckarounds the Japanese devised seems like it was lifted from the Chinese/Taiwanese handbook. It was as if there was a meeting that went something like this:

Guy 1: “So…what should we do with all these autumn harvest bancha leaves?”

Guy 2: “I dunno…let’s age ‘em.”

Guy 1: “No, too long of a wait…and the Taiwanese already do that.”

Guy 2: “Uh…we could ferment it?”

Guy 1: “Don’t the Chinese already do that?”

Guy 2: “Yeah, so?”

Guy 1: “Fair point.”

Which brings me to Goishicha.

goishicha stacks

Source: Tosa Wave Blog

Goishicha originates from a town called Otoyo in the mountains of Kochi Prefecture. It is so named because of the tea’s compressed appearance – resembling playing pieces for the game, Go. The process involved in making it is rather labor intensive. Bancha leaves are steamed, stacked on the ground, flattened by a mat, left to ferment, then stacked into a barrel, and left to ferment a second time.

For awhile, this was considered the only post-fermented tea coming out of Japan. A tea so rare that at one time there was only one known producer of the stuff. That has changed in recent years due to a rise in Japanese tea experimentation. With the proliferation of other Japanese heicha (“dark tea”) surfacing, it was only a matter of time before the Goishicha practice resurfaced.

I first ran into mentions of Goishicha while researching another fermented bancha for an article – Awabancha. That eventually led me to getting in contact with Yunomi.us about acquiring some for a write-up. Around the same time, I also sampled two other Japanese dark teas through Yunomi – Batabatacha and Mimasaka Bancha, respectively. I covered both on my oft-overlooked Tumblr page. After those taste-tests, I could safely say I had a palate for “dark bancha”. All that remained to be seen was if I took a liking to the granddaddy of them all.

goishicha piece

This was one of the most unique dark teas or banchas I’d ever come across. In appearance, the leaves were compressed like a Chinese heicha, but more complete. It was like the makers just took the unbroken leave, without bothering to roll or cut them, and just pressed ‘em – waiting for fermentation. The aroma they gave off was also rather bizarre. I’ve encountered teas with kelp-like characteristics, but this was straight saltine seaweed snacks on smell. It took a whole lot of composure to not bite into the sliver.

Yunomi.us recommended three different forms of brewing, but the basic gist was the same for each method. Boil water, put a piece in per cup size, wait for four-to-five minutes. I went with the scaled down version for a steeper cup’s worth of testing.

goishicha brewed

The liquor brewed bronze with an aroma that reminded me of a rice-cultured Japanese pu-erh variant from yesterbrews. On taste, just…whoah. Sooooo much going on. The flavor started with a soy-sauce-tart and salty introduction, then shifted to something akin to prunes or raisins, and finished with a lingering, earthy mouthfeel. Basically, like a pu-erh that the Japanese would concoct. It may sound rather primal, but a part of me compared it to a rum barrel-aged beer I had long ago.

If this is what bancha could become after embracing its dark side, then consider me a steeping Sith Lord.

ITS TOO HOT!!!

A Taste of Taiwan and a Teattle Trip

Let’s talk about networking…or rather how much I hate doing it.

Around this time last year, I was among the many underemployed folks out there. My mother – a former career counselor – always stressed that making contacts helps in the process. I knew she was right; she’s almost always right. That didn’t stop me from stubbornly clinging to my hermitism.

I ended up finding more gainful employment (if you can call it that) in June of that year. Networking really had nothing to do with it, but had I stuck it out a little longer…who knows? One area where it seems to be crucial, however, is with my “other” job. Yeah, that whole tea thing.

Not to toot my own horn (man, that sounds wrong), but I had online tea networking down to an art. Juggling three social networks, three blogs, and a cat aren’t easy feats. And for some reason, my opinion seemed to matter to some people. What was odd, though, was how I fell out of the loop from January to – well – now.

No fault of the tea community, mind you, more a matter of stuff going on in my own head – introversion and depression at their most crippling. For a while, I was starting to believe I was “tea’d out”. I even thought of curbing the whole review thing entirely. It took real-life networking contacts to make me see the error of my ways.

If you folks haven’t made David Galli – oh, he, of PDXTea.org fame – a contact, you really should. This is a guy who doesn’t have networking down to an art; he actually has it down to a friggin’ science. And I’m forever in his debt for somehow keeping me in the IRL tea loop. Examples:

In late January, I received an e-mail from Chuck – the co-owner of The Jasmine Pearl Tea Merchants – to my “company” account informing me of new teas they got in. A whole flight of Taiwanese offerings awaited my palate perusal. It was Mr. Galli who had passed word to Chuck on how to contact me.

We made a jaunt out to the JP shop the following week and sampled some wonderful Formosan flavors. Particular standouts for me were an aged charcoal-roasted Dong Ding (review pending on It’s All About the Leaf), a GABA green tea (yes, such a thing exists!), and a Ruby black. Chuck also kindly passed along some heicha my way, something that’d been on my “List” for awhile. Before I left the shop, I had quite the bounty.

I also made a follow-up jaunt the next week when a much-touted organic Formosa green was in stock. To put it shortly, I picked up an ounce instantly. That and it’s become my go-to green tea on a work day – mainly for its ability to stand up to boiling water. And none of this would’ve been close to possible if I didn’t have an expert networker in my social arsenal.

Less than a month after that, I had a thought to finally make my way to Seattle. A fellow tea blogger had opened a new shop in Burien – a Seattle suburb town – and they were one of the few places that carried Korean teas. By luck or fate, I had landed a Thursday off, allowing me ample opportunity to make a day trip of it. A co-pilot seemed necessary as well, and I invited PDXTea Dave along. He proceeded to take the trip to another level.

Dave was kind enough to do the driving for the trek, and I covered the gas. We arrived in Burien less than three hours later. The Phoenix Teahouse was just as advertised on their Facebook page – a cozy shop right in the heart of downtown. Cinnabar Gong Fu was on hand to tea us to death. I must say, I was expecting her to be a lot more serious. It turned out she was just as silly as the rest of us. We blew through three exquisite Korean green teas – all with a “-jak” suffix, which I still have no translation for – and all possessed an exquisitely sweet and nutty profile with a wonderfully wildernessy finish.

My favorite of the bunch, however, wasn’t a green tea at all. Somehow, someway, Phoenix had acquired a Korean black (or red) tea dubbed “Dan-Cha“. I have no idea who Dan is, but his tea is wonderful. I ended up grabbing an ounce of it to go. (A full write-up just on that tea is forthcoming.)

Before we knew it, four hours had breezed by. Dave and I, in the midst of our sipping, even got a glimpse of some of Burien’s local color. The quaint town makes Northern Exposure look like a documentary. Cinnabar handled the traffic like a laid-back pro.

We ended up finally leaving as they were closing. That’s right. We closed down a tea bar. We’re hardcore like that. Before leaving, I made it a point to try some strongly-brewed Ceylon from a samovar they had in the shop. (You heard right, they have a f**king samovar!) Did I like it? Oh my, yes. Problem? I had to use the restroom immediately after. A career zavarka drinker, I will never be.

Originally, I intended The Phoenix Teahouse to be our only stop, but David had made more arrangements. The super-networker had connected with Michael J. Coffey – Seattle’s resident tea tome – and we added a second tearoom, The Floating Leaves, to our trek.

The Floating Leaves was an archival-looking tearoom on the fringes of downtown Seattle run by Shiuwen Tai. The first thing that caught my eye about the space was the grand table in the right-hand corner of the shop on entry. Shiuwen sat at one end – like a presiding tea judge – with various drinkers seated around it – sipping away with merriment.

As we got acquainted with the owner, I came to another realization. She was silly as well. What was it about tea that induced silliness?! First Cinnabar, now Shiuwen. Was no one in “Teattle” serious about their beverage occupation? No, I’m not complaining. Far from it.

After parting ways from the Leaves – and leaving with yet more oolong than I knew what to do with – we ended up making one last stop at a gigantic burrito place. I practically had to roll out of the joint when we were done. And that was only after ingesting the SMALL one.

Dave and I finally made it back to Portland about 11PM that night. Only a mere three hours past our originally-intended 8PM ETA. Was there nary a regret? Nay.

And that’s why it pays to have a real networker in your circle of friends – tea or otherwise. They remind you of other avenues of exploration that may not have occurred to you. I have a bevy of beverages as evidence.

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