Sunday, December 23, 2012

Tea in Missoula

I think there are quite a few people in this town who drink tea, but there hasn't really been a way that I know of to acquire decent tea without ordering it from afar.  Not surprising- this is Montana, USA, after all.  But there is good coffee-with fine selections available from the old standby Montana Coffee Traders as well as new and ultra-slick Black Coffee Roasting Co.  We are close enough to Seattle and Portland to have absorbed some of the coffee culture that keeps the mist-plagued citizens of those towns from jumping into Puget Sound or the Willamette River, respectively.  (I actually love both of those places and fantasize regularly about moving to Seattle. The weather is crap here in the winter, too, but much colder with an ugly inversion to boot.)

But good tea- fresh or intentionally-aged, whole-leaved, non-pulverized, unbagged, tasty, interesting- good tea has been hard to come by. 

(I took this photo at the Cooke City Store this summer.  The proprietor of this 1886 general merchandise joint that sits sandwiched at 7600 feet between the Beartooth and Absoroka Ranges said that these tea bins were original to the store.  I wonder if that oolong tasted like horse turds. And what was contained in the bin simply labeled "Japan''?)

I like to think of these guys drinking roasted tieguanyin grandpa style, filtering the leaves out with their remaining teeth.

There's a new teashop in Missoula, Lake Missoula Tea Company, and I have hopes that this budding business will come into its own and thrive.  I went to a green tea tasting there last weekend.  There was a watery Liu An Gua Pian and a smokey Vietnamese green both served out of a pump carafe into paper cups.  One of the store owners kindly gave me a porcelain cup after they had washed some.  We also drank some kind of jasmine pearl that was nicely brewed- boy, it has been ages since I had a cup of jasmine tea.  Not my favorite, but fine.  There was also a matcha that did not work out very well- gummy, harsh, no froth.  I would not try and serve matcha to a crowd, but I respect that the attempt was made.  It's hard to brew tea for a group of people, especially green tea.  I wouldn't know how to do it without an army of gaiwans.

The owners seem like very nice, humble people who are genuinely interested in tea.  I brought home a bit of super-oxidised oolong grown by a Taiwanese family in Sumatra.  It's not bad, a lot like a mid-grade Dong Fang Mei Ren but rolled into pellets of broken leaf.  Lake Missoula Tea has a connection with a Kenyan grower's collective and some of the black tea they are selling looks very nice, furry and golden.  We'll have to give that a shot and see if we can't start saving on Dian Hong shipping costs. 

*I filched the photo of the Cooke City residents from the C.C. Chamber of Commerce site.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Checking In

Tea has become so utilitarian over the last few months- it keeps me from yawning and slobbering on my desk at work.  My desk is my new home where I make tea in a squat infuser cup I got from Brett and Cinnabar last month.  Visiting with them and getting dangerously drunk on tea was a bright spot amidst a series of prosaic days.  I have been breaking up bits of shengpu for my cup which isn't the best way to drink shengpu but is a good way to utilize all those cakes sitting on the dry shelves wafting away their essence like miniature bales of straw in a cold wind.  Better drink em while there's something left, baby.

I've been slowly making my way through a grandpa-style-tailored care package sent to me by ultra-kind tea personality Hster.  Even more exciting was this second package:

We took care of these delectable chocolates in a week and a half and got a great introduction to some unfamiliar chocolatiers.  I've always loved chocolate and now we're regularly ordering bars from the Bay Area company LAmourette.  Their "Carenero Superior" bar has become a favorite and I bought a whole stack to give out for the holidays.  Thank you, Hster.  Such kindness is a beacon.

We went to a production of "Pinocchio" tonight put on by the Portland-based puppet company "Tears of Joy." It was a riotous performance for kids with more than a little adult humor.  I was angered and distraught when I found myself terrorized by the vision of some malicious, battle-clad young man bursting in and tearing a hole in this community.  My heart goes out to the people of Newtown, Connecticut and the victims of senseless suffering everywhere.      

Friday, September 21, 2012

Chop Chop

Hello again, tea folk.  I've been neglectful of this little blog.  Late summer brought on a spate of busyness and work travel.  Tea has been on the back burner, as it were.  Hurried slurps here and distracted gulps there.  I've simply been tossing leaves in water (hot or cold, whatever), letting them steep and then drinking the resulting substance.  It is mostly pleasant to shed some of the fussiness and effort I have tended to bring to the tea table in recent years.  

That said, it is good to sit down for a cup and to write about tea again.

In my long-standing quest to find good aged oolong, I came across this tieguanyin from the Chinese Teashop in Vancouver.  (Led there after reading a post on Jakub's blog about a 90s Hong Yin, which I have also enjoyed.) The website states that the tea hails from 1990.  The 50 grams I bought is comprised of a few whole leaves, but is mostly crushed down to fragments and powder.  Not surprising if the tea has really been kicking around for 20 + years.

What this tea demonstrated to me is that substantially fragmented tea is not necessarily bad-harsh and astringent.  It may gum up your tea pot, but it won't necessarily murder your tastebuds and throat.  This tea is decent, soothing.  One of those smooth, raisiny affairs.  It is a bit faint and it helps to use a lot of leaves (or dust).  

It also appears to be a blend since some of the leaves are still relatively green in appearance and open easily while others are quite dark and remain furled.  No carbonization here, thankfully.

 While I'm aesthetically drawn to full, luscious tea leaves, I'm not sure they are of primary importance when it comes to brewing an enjoyable cup.  Good aged oolong is tough to scare up on the web.  There's no assurance you're going to find it on a trip to Taiwan, either.  I brought back some wonderfully crappy "aged" oolong from Taiwan.  Buy a plane ticket, add some abominable language skills and there you have it-some shiny, vacuum-packed bags of crap, all torched or soured to perfection.  I drank it all, every last humble pellet.  It was good for me.  I'm glad to bumble across this little TGY, though.  A bit tame, nothing to rocket one to rapture.  But I've gotten over trying to shelve tea with that burden.  Sometimes it works to take aim with that mouse and just click away.

Friday, August 17, 2012

On the Rocks

The last couple of summers I've been brewing iced oolong in the evenings after work.  Who wants to sweat over a steaming brew when he's been sweating all day long?  I've had good results with Taiwanese high mountain stuff and Dong Ding, quite refreshing. I have tended to brew the leaves hot and pour the tea over ice, but a few weeks ago I tried a cold brew in the refrigerator overnight to good effect.  I had my doubts about the leaves opening and giving up their juice in such an environment, and though the leaves don't tend to open all of the way, they do brew up nicely in the cold.  It is quite pleasing not have to adjust leaf volume for ice melting and watering your tea down as happens with the hot-brewing method.  

It's a good way to deal with run-of-the-mill oolong-of which there is a great abundance available for purchase over the web (some, unfortunately, without a price tag to match its unremarkableness.)  I'm talking about oolong that is "fine"- nothing off, but nothing vibrant.  I've recently been cold brewing a Dong Ding and a TieGuanYin that are a bit dull when brewed gongfu style, but are quite refreshing when iced-down.  Of course, they do not become extraordinary once you ice them, no alchemical transformation occurs.  But they make a clean, tasty drink to cool you down when you are running hot.  

The temperature dropped down to 29 F on the thickly timbered ridge where I slept last night.  This seemed weird for mid-August at 5300 feet.  Before I zipped myself away in the sleeping bag, I dropped a small handful of cheap TieGuanYin pellets into a quart mason jar and covered them with water from a cubie we kept in the shade.  I set the jar on the hood of the truck.  When we woke and dragged ourselves out into the hard frost, an amber tea slushie sparkled in the early light.  It was delightful to slurp from this chilled vessel during breaks while we worked clearing downed trees with axes and crosscuts and the day grew hotter.  The day was clear with a hint of the cold fall light that sharpens the landscape.  Traces of wildfire smoke were blown out by the cold front and the air was clean and new.  It was a good day to be drinking tea like this.  I am reluctant to attempt the experiment with nicer tea, afraid of "wasting" it.  But it will probably just be better.  We'll see.  There will be hot days yet. 

"Iced" Tea


Saturday, July 28, 2012


I have long tracked various tea bloggers' home-roasting experiments with keen interest.  I'm a sucker for skillfully roasted oolongs and sometimes wish that I had one of those cute little electric roasters to try my hand at transforming a surfeit of fresh Baozhong into a pile of something more dark and soothing.

One of the teas Brett kindly sent as part of our trade is a Baozhong he roasted after his sister found it in the back of her cupboard.  The tea had been left open and neglected since a trip to Taiwan in 2008.   In accordance with the pleasing element of surprise that has characterized the teas Brett sent, I didn't know what it was until I clipped open the sample.  

This is what it says on the sealed bag he sent me:

When I saw that the sack contained roasted Baozhong, I remembered reading about Brett's roasting experiment.  The tea had lost potency sitting on the shelf for four years so he threw it in the roasting basket for a few hours and tried it again.  While the aroma of the roasting tea was pleasant, Brett did not enjoy the tea when he brewed it.  He roasted again the next morning and liked the results a bit more, but still was not pleased by a metallic aftertaste he attributed to the bag the tea had been stored in.  He planned to roast once more and store the tea in a jar to let it rest awhile.  I assume the tea I have in hand represents that final roasting and jar storage.

I've had two sessions with the tea today and I think it's pretty good.  In fact, it is astounding that this tea sat open on a shelf for 4 years.  It has been revived.  I used a lot of leaf and very short infusions for both sessions.  The first session was early in the morning before breakfast and the scent of the dry leaves in the pre-warmed pot was sweet and nutty.  Inviting.  The brews:  fruity, sweet, a bitterness slightly on the harsh side and a long lasting coolness in the throat.  After eating a lunch of tacos with carnitas, cilantro, lime, radish and slivers of new onion, the second session was very different.  I don't think I've ever realized how much lunch can impact one's experience of a tea.  There are so many factors that affect a tea tasting-- yet another argument for postponing set ideas about a tea until one has had it many times.  The second session oozed a thick honey flavor.  More honey than in any tea I've had.  Still the bitterness and the nice cooling sweetness to wrap things up.  

Thanks for sharing, Brett.  I did not detect anything metallic and the bitterness was the only drawback.  But that may derive from using too much leaf.  I'll try a lighter brew with the remaining tea.  I would drink this stuff regularly.  I do love a roasted Baozhong.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Warming up

The summer temps are climbing in Western Montana and the fire season is ramping up.  It's not nearly as hot as the Eastern and Midwestern states, but it is hot enough that I find my behaviors and cravings changing in accordance.  In addition to swimming/drifting down 1/4 mile of the Clark's Fork River in town and sucking down a great deal of iced Aperol and soda, I've been drinking mostly young sheng pu.  I don't know if that's because it is genuinely cooling or if it's just some idea I have or if somehow the general flavor profile of young sheng is more tolerable than other kinds of tea when it is hot outside.  

Aside from Jakub over at "T," I haven't seen many reviews of Essence of Tea's 2012 puerh pressings.  I'm not sure if folks have not got around to (or are avoiding) trying them, or are withholding negative opinions out of politeness.  Maybe people are simply tired of the hype that attends products from this company.  The prices this year were hard to swallow.  I enjoyed the few sessions I had with the Bulang bing, but I tend to enjoy bitter teas.  I had a somewhat less successful session with this year's Bangwei/Bangwai (I've seen it written both ways) today.  The tea has a sourness that I find unappealing.  The dry leaf smells good enough.  The brews present a decent bitterness as well as a cool sweetness that lingers in the throat.  As far as flavor goes though, the tartness breaks like a wave over whatever other characteristics this tea might possess.  Maybe, as Jakub suggests, these leaves need to rest awhile to take the sour edge off.  Maybe this tea is a diamond in the rough and years down the road will be a pleasure to drink.  Unfortunately I won't have any left to drink then because I'm not going to buy more than this wee sample.  

I have had many enjoyable sessions with EoT offerings-- for example the Bangwei from 2010.  This was not one of them.  

Inspired by a session with the "Shi Dai Mao" from Brett, I've ordered some sheng samples from Scott Wilson's enormous cache.  My tea tastes are so fickle.  After a long break from young sheng pu, it's what I most crave.  Go figure.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The beauty of trade

I recently exchanged some teas with Brett of BlackDragonTeaBar and it has been pleasant to brew teas toward which I have no, or very few, preconceptions.  The business of buying teas through the web based on blogger reviews (god bless 'em), vendor reputation, price, vendor's descriptions, etc. can be wearisome and disappointing.  The prospect of offloading some decent teas that I just didn't have the taste for in exchange for new stuff was very welcome.  

What I did not anticipate was how nice it would be to sit down with a bunch of teas that I hadn't read any blurbs about or clicked away at with the mouse, piling hopes upon a shot-in-the-dark.    Whether I like them or not, it is refreshing to experience the teas without measuring them against what so-and-so has said.  I know only that I trust Brett's taste and that he would not send junk.  

When we were arranging the trade via email, I listed the teas I thought Brett might like to receive in order to get feedback from him.  "Surprise me!" he said.  And that's just what Brett went and did with the parcel he sent my way.  I didn't realize at the time what a swell thing it is to approach a tea cleanly, just the two of you in the ring, mano a mano.

Today I sat down with something called the "Shi Dai Mao Purple Varietal Sheng Puerh Tea Cake" from 2010.  If folks have blogged about this one, I don't recall it.  The dry leaves are very dark, the darkest I have seen in a sheng this young.  The cake is loosely comprised and satisfyingly easy to prize apart.  

A clean, mild, sweet opening led me to think:  nothing wrong with this tea, maybe a bit light, but drinkable.  The broth is dark yellow.  After the first cup a cooling sensation presents itself in the throat, followed by pleasing bitterness and a lingering sweetness.  Quite an active tea, something I would enjoy on a regular basis and, in terms of being active and interesting, something that rivals cakes I have paid a fair amount for.   

After the session, the Google at Delphi leads me into the familiar recesses of the Yunnan Sourcing site where I see that the tea is going for $14 for a 357 g bing.  Not bad for a clean tea (meaning, for me, no smoke, rubber, acid, or other off flavors) with enough guts to keep one interested.  It inspires me to order some samples from YS sometime soon.  It has been a long time, basically since I stopped consuming large amounts of young sheng pu a couple of years ago.  The description of the Shi Dai Mao states initially that the cake is "composed entirely of fall 2009 purple leaf varietal of Puerh," and a couple of paragraphs later says "Spring 2010 material, April 2010 pressing."  I'm not sure which it is.  Whatever year the leaves were harvested, I look forward to another session with this tea.  

There has been some discussion of late among tea bloggers about how many times one ought to drink a tea before forming an opinion about it.  The consensus seems to be at least three sessions.  While I agree fully with that, I have so little time to drink tea these days, I would never get around to blogging about anything if I followed the three session rule.  I think that exhaustive study and re-tasting over time is best when it comes to tea, but I also think there is something to be said for first impressions.  Better yet, gut impressions informed and updated by long study and inquiry.  It is instructive to have a large quantity of a particular tea that one likes in order to live with it for awhile and watch how one's impressions change.  Not always possible.  Until I have the time to devote to a decent quantity of a particular tea I shall have to take my own impressions with a grain of salt.  I try to make a practice of that.  I take for granted that readers of this blog are doing the same.       


Tuesday, July 10, 2012


The height of summer busyness is upon us, and, unfortunately, not much tea is being consumed at the present time.  I'm off for the Missouri Breaks for 10 days of work restoring a 100-year-old homestead barn for the Bureau of Land Management.

I hope to get back to the tea table in late July.  For now, it's bags of Yorkshire Gold in the morning and that's about all.


Friday, June 29, 2012

Tea Bag

I bought this sack of tea at the big market in Galanba outside of Jinghong in 2010.  

A jin of mystery tea
 I didn't have high hopes for it.  I was just desperate to buy some spring tea because we were in Xishuangbanna too early for the big spring harvest, which, that year, was seriously impacted by extreme drought conditions.  The tea was cheap though not as cheap as it should have been.  I don't know anything about it and, at the time, I thought it was just some kind of porch-dried green tea because that is what it smelled and tasted like (when I brewed it up back at the hotel).  The seller did say that the leaves were from old trees, for what that's worth.  

We saw a bit of drying tea here and there while on a 4 day walk along the Lancang.  I didn't know if it was sun-drying puerh maocha or what.

While we did run into a fair number of tea groves, we saw a lot more of this:

Rubber trees
Catchment bowl
The market at Galanba is an impressive and bustling affair.  The whole thing is covered by a roof that blocks out the sword-like rays of the tropical sun.

Anyway, back to the tea.  I carted the bag back with somehow minimal pulverization and tossed it on the shelf and forgot about it.  About a year ago, I opened it up and sniffed.  I was surprised to find that it smelled like sheng pu.  I don't remember the session I had with the tea then, but I opened the bag today to give it another try.

Still quite green

Though the dry leaves continue to be fragrant and reminiscent of young puerh, the tea soup tells a different story.  

The tea brews up a slightly cloudy yellow and is quite empty of flavor.  It's thin, too.  It does not resemble young puerh much at all, but instead tastes a bit like stale sencha.  There's some bitterness and a sweet finish.  

Looks like maocha
The wet leaves are fairly strong, but the stems are not super thick.  They are VERY green and there are a few hints of oxidation here and there.  They smell like wet sheng leaves.  

I don't know what it is.  Could be sheng pu that has been terribly stored (by me) or Da Ye leaves that were processed like lu cha.  Whatever it is, it's stale and is giving me a nice case of heartburn.  If anyone thinks they have an idea of what this mystery tea is, I'd be happy to know.  It's going back on the shelf.

I'm sure this dish sounds more compelling in the local (Lijiang) vernacular than it does in the English translation provided in the menu.  The English description conveys about how I feel after drinking the mystery tea. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Bruiser

Two teas from Bulang today.  Two toughs.  One young and the other a precocious teenager.  Both admirable and husky and just what I needed.  I overdid it.

I'm always awed by the distinctive bitterness of Bulang teas:  thick and centered in the back of the throat.  It somehow manages to punch without being harsh.  A bone crusher rather than a lacerator.  

I think Essence of Tea won in the Bulang department this year.  I never tried last year's offering, but the 2009 and 2010 cakes have been shelved in the hope that time will take their edges off.  In fact, these teas might be the only ones that survive the dry climate here.  We'll see.  The 2012 Bulang is excellent, still quite a brute, but drinkable now if one is careful about leaf/water proportions.  I went overboard with leaf today and could only finish 5 or 6 pots.  The bitterness lasts in the throat and mingles with a lingering sweetness.  This tea has stamina.

For comparison, I broke out the last of a sample of the Heng Li Chang Bulang bing and alternated cups.  I've never sipped an older and younger tea back to back like this and it was quite the contrast:  the crisp and fragrant hammering of the younger tea and the sweet, thick, rounded depths of the 1997 cake.  The quality of bitterness is very much the same in both while being diminished in potency in the older cake. 

I wouldn't drink tea like this often because I think the specific qualities of both teas got submerged in the combination.  But what the hell.  It impressed upon me just how wonderful it is to drink great, meaty, carefully aged sheng pu.  Truly a delight.  I wish I could drop the $180.00 for a full bing of the Heng Li Chang.  I'm sure that's reasonable for a tea of this caliber, I just don't have the spare change.  After today's session I went on the EoT site and tried to order 100 and then 60 and then 40 g more of the tea to no avail.  Maybe one can only order up to 20g in lieu of a full cake.  Maybe they're out of samples.  All I know is that, for good or ill, this tea has become a benchmark for me and I'm going to miss it.

Heng Li Chang Bulang
Essence of Tea 2012 Bulang

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Green Things

I don't know if it's the cold spring or whether there are changes afoot with my body's preferences, but I'm having trouble downing the rawer teas of the 2012 spring season.

It happened first with the fabulous range of fresh lu cha from Gingko.  Great teas, beany longjings and ethereal mao fengs.  Lovely teas.  I just don't find myself stuffing them in the gaiwan.  

Now the same is the case with the spring EoT puerh cakes.  What I have tried has been very fine indeed (how about that Bulang this year?  Butterball.  well done!)  I'm just not in the mood.  

And this 1500 m Alishan:

It is everything a fresh, high mountain oolong should be.  Fragrant beyond measure.  Neon green and crystalline in the cup.

I just find myself craving the dark, heavy, old, fired, meaty, musky stuff.  I can't get enough of it.  I've had my first encounter with the Heng Li Chang Bulang cake and basically melted into a puddle of ecstatic goo.  The thick, greasy, bitter-sweet brew stuck to the ribs and swaddled the throat in such a satisfying way.  The energy low and focused.  Chewy and rooted.  

I don't know what's up.  Perhaps my heart has finally become a dark and withered mandrake-- a poison soothed only by similarly concentrated poisons.  (Hee Hee)

Maybe I'm just....cold?

All I know is I'm craving thickness.  I want a tea that drives me like a coal-black Mack truck.  A pile of old oolong, a jin of last year's yancha or an oily bing from the nether-basement.

Nothing against the wonderful greenery of spring time.  It all just feels too sharp and frigid.


Friday, June 15, 2012


Here's what the first pot I ever bought looks like after a moment of spaciness this afternoon:

It's always the handy ones that get busted.  Why not one of the pots of no account that I sometimes consider throwing against the sidewalk- just so I don't have to be reminded that I spent hard-earned cash on them?  Oh yeah.  It's because I don't use them.  Woe unto any item of tea ware decent enough to be used by me with frequency.  For them, it is only a matter of time.  

I've not had much luck with gluing lids back together.  If anyone has a recommendation, I'm all ears.  

Bye bye 'lil oolong brewer.  Sniffley sniff.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

"Paradise Regained"

Well, that's overstating it a bit.  After some infernal sessions with the rebel angel's char-grilled oolong offerings, I've happened upon an upstanding Tie Guan Yin.  It is dark roasted, yet retains its essential character.  Thanks again to Mr. Erler.    

It's been a cool spring in Western Montana.  I'm a big fan.  But, all of these fresh spring tea samples are flooding in and they just aren't sitting well in my bundled-up body.  I'm left searching for something to stoke the internal furnace. 

End of March

I bring attention to this TGY not because it is mind-blowing, but because there is a fundamental decency to it.  The roast is prominent but not at all overbearing.  Very pleasant, soothing and toasty.  Good sweetness and fairly long throaty aftertaste of dried cherries. It tastes like TEA, not a barbecue pit.  This TGY is reasonably priced for a well-stored 2008 tea.  ($25 for 100g)  I've paid more for TGYs that were far inferior.  I can see drinking this stuff very quickly as the clouds and rain hover.  

  "Let it rain, let it pour.  Let it rain a whole lot more, cause I've got those deep river blues."
--I wish to recognize the passing of the great Deep Gap, North Carolina musician Doc Watson who died at the age of 89 on May 29th.  Among Doc's many accomplishments is his signature version of "Deep River Blues," a tune originally performed under an alternate moniker by the Delmore Brothers.  A good tune for gray days.  Raise a cup for Doc!

Friday, May 25, 2012


Do you ever wonder:  where's the tea amidst the roast?

Why do some aged oolongs resemble carbonized fragments left in the wake of a fire?

Dominic Point Fire, July 2010
It is my understanding that many folks periodically re-roast old oolongs to keep moisture out of the leaves.  If oolong sits around exposed to humidity, bad things can happen.  I've never experimented with long-term oolong storage, but I have soured my share of teas because I could not drink them fast enough and failed to protect them from the air.  Where does the sourness come from?  And why does this not happen with puerh which seems to require a modicum of humidity and air to age properly?

Some old, roasted oolongs retain something of their original essence and are quite complex and soothing like this 1994 Muzha Tie Guan Yin:



Time has been good to this tea.   I'm not sure if it was roasted more than once, but it was obviously handled well.  The roast is mildly noticeable and the tea is still intact.

On the other hand, this 1996 Ali Shan has been eclipsed by the roaster's hand.  The leaves hardly open, even after many infusions:


I am curious.  Why do some aged teas get over-roasted?  Is it because they were not very good to begin with and a heavy roast is an attempt to mitigate their mediocrity?  Did the roaster over-do it on accident?  Do some people like tea that tastes like charcoal?  Am I sometimes drinking teas that have been too recently re-roasted and which have not had time to settle?  My guess is that most of these hold true.  But my suspicion is that the primary issue is that it takes great care to age oolong in such a way that multiple roastings are not required.  Such oolongs, those that were high quality to begin with and that have been stored carefully and roasted with restraint, tend to be difficult and expensive to acquire.  One gets lucky now and again.  My guess is that a lot of the great tea from the past that was put aside for storage was kept for personal consumption and never sold.  

I welcome comments and thoughts about this phenomenon.  

Friday, May 11, 2012

On Using Enough Leaf: More Hong Shui Oolongs

When first starting to brew tea with attention, I had the tendency to shoot for maximum potency in brews.  Something about wanting the tea to make a grand impression on my senses, something about not being at all subtle.  I quickly learned to be more conservative when starting to experiment with young sheng puerh.  After a few nausea-inducing sessions, I changed my whole approach to tea and erred on the side of leaving plenty of open space in the pot for the leaves to relax and unfurl.  Insipid brews encouraged longer steeping times. 

But each tea requires its own peculiar parameters to coax it into giving up its best.  In the case of two more Hong Shui oolongs from the Lugu environs, a thicker brew proves better.  I acquired both teas from Stephane of Teamasters blog.        

One is a winter 2010 high mountain oolong from Feng Huang.  I had a few sessions with this tea and the finest was when I added a little extra leaf to the pot.  (Covering the bottom plus a small heap more)  The more leaf-laden brews yielded a bright fruit taste during the first few infusions that was either non-existent or subdued in more judicious leaf-to-water ratios.  Being over-generous with leaves might ravage the mouth and throat- as is the case with certain potent Bulang bings sourced by the Essence of Tea folks- then again one might just uncover something that was hidden before by pushing things a bit.

Here's this Feng Huang oolong with it's pretty winter-gold stems:

The other Hong Shui oolong was grown at lower elevations on Yi Guang Shan, which Stephane writes is halfway between the heights of Shan Lin Shi and the lower reaches of Zhu Shan.  This tea is quite affordable (half the price of the Feng Huang), and very smooth and pure.  I often dislike the lower elevation Taiwan oolongs.  More often than not they seem a bit empty of anything other than a candy-sweet quality that I find unpleasant.  Not so with this tea. While it lacks the content of the Feng Huang and the Shan Lin Shi that I wrote about earlier, it has a soothing honeyed fruit flavor that is greatly enhanced when a decent amount of leaf is used.

Yi Guang Shan
 Thanks to Stephane and the farmers for the abundance of pleasure they have provided through the years.

ALOT of strawberry plants grown with garlic to ward off insects in Zhunan, Miaoli CO.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Shan Lin Shi

In the early spring of 2010, we had the good fortune to stay with the Chang family in Lugu, Nantou County, Taiwan.  We met the family through WWOOF Taiwan, a branch of the well-known organization that links organic farmers with folks interested in working in the dirt in exchange for room and board.  The Chang family has a plantation on Shan Lin Shi and a small organic oolong grove near their place in Lugu.  We were early for the tea harvest (and probably wouldn't have been much help anyway with our clumsy laowai picking fingers), but the Changs kindly invited us to visit for a couple of days anyway.  We shared some delicious meals and fabulous tea sessions and we deeply enjoyed the company--especially that of the hilarious and mischievous Miss Chang.

On a bright morning we drove out of the dewy valley where Lugu perches and entered the crystalline realm of Shan Lin Shi.  

Those spindly forms among the tea shrubs are ginkgo trees said to be planted at the behest of the Taiwanese government to mitigate erosion.  Our tea friend and guide, Miss Chang, told us that farmers plant ginkgos because they grow slowly and therefore do not compete with the tea plants.
Shan Lin Shi is one of Taiwan's major high mountain oolong production areas and tea farms are tucked into the folds and contours of the mountain.  The tea plants were dark green, waxy and sleeping.  At the Chang's quiet processing center, we saw where fresh stem-and-leaf sets are sun-withered.  Lines above the withering area held a transparent awning that could be drawn to shield the tea in case the sun's rays become too piercing.   

           Indoor withering room where leaves are stirred and rested after outdoor wilting.
Indoor Wilting Baskets
I do not recall the intricacies of the wilting, drying, rolling and roasting process these tender leaves are put through.  I do know that creating a fresh tea with the proper oxidation level and moisture content is not a simple endeavor.  We also got a look at ovens that remove moisture from the leaves.
Drying ovens 
How do they get those leaves and stems into such tight little balls?  

Rolling press
While in Taiwan, we got the sense that large-scale high mountain oolong agriculture can be hard on the land.  (Like industrial agriculture in the central United States and elsewhere) It depends upon the approach of the grower.  Some farmers apply a lot of pesticides to their tea plants and have installed permanent structures that hold applicator tubing.  

Wish I had a better photo of it.  The  line dangling between two poles on the top right of the knoll is a hose that carries chemicals.
We spent a week with another WWOOF family in Zhunan (Miaoli CO) and our host, farmer Lin, a dedicated coffee drinker and skilled roaster, relayed his reservations with the gao shan oolong industry.  (He did so over a pot of Alishan)  Since Taiwan's mountainous core is so steep, he said, the pesticides used on high-grown tea wash downslope and contaminate the island's streams, valleys and the densely populated outer lowlands.  Add to this an increased tendency to erosion brought about by replacing native vegetation with relatively shallow-rooted young tea plants, and it is easy to see that many of the fresh teas I love to drink come with a cost.  Farmer Lin's notion seemed quite plausible to me, especially after taking a bus from Chiayi to the interior and seeing the effects of the August 2009 typhoon that sent mountains sliding everywhere.  

Farmer Lin's artfully rendered and conscientiously sourced oolong alternative.

Where does that leave the helpless gao shan oolong addict?  Trapped between the leaf and his conscience?  As a North American and a denizen of a region most suited to growing wheat, hay and black cherries I consider it a luxury to have access to Shan Lin Shi tea.  I am far from perfect in this department, but after visiting Taiwan and China, I feel compelled to try and support tea vendors who pay attention to how the tea they sell is grown.

In addition to stunningly delicious teas, the flanks of Shan Lin Shi produce other, equally scrumptious fruits of the soil.

Bamboo shoots!
Miss Chang's grandmother digging shoots on the mountainside.
Thanks to the Chang family for such fine days.