Saturday, March 5, 2016

2016 North American Tea Competition - Thoughts

This is a guest post from Lydia, a tea buyer and expert who I've known and worked with for a number of years now. She is always frank, straightforward, and honest with her thoughts on tea and the tea industry. She had the honor to serve as one of the judges during the 2016 North American Tea Competition, and has been gracious enough to share some of her thoughts here. She can be contacted via email here.

Hello and good afternoon,

The North American Tea Competition is an opportunity for companies to showcase their prize-worthy teas, and in some instances, winning entries call attention to little known teas.   On February 25-26th, various blended/flavored teas, autumnal teas, and single- serve teas totaled over 200 teas for evaluation.

Speaking as a (very) interested party and from the perspective of a judge, the tastings provide a rare opportunity to enlarge visual/palate memory, to mull over category definitions and their boundaries, to hone cupping skills and the ability to make distinctions. Still, there is an ever-present sense of having to assess independently and being aware that numbers should probably not veer too far from what other judges determine.  That said, it is a true luxury to have a support team watch water temperatures and steeping times, and weighing out the loose teas.

Entrants of course do not see other teas in their category but do receive comments even if their teas do not place.  They therefore do not see the context and most importantly, the comparative stage on which the competition plays out.  It is this setting that makes me happy to serve, with meals and a bed as my only recompense.

Here briefly are some lessons gleaned from the two-day session, and while none is a new insight, they nevertheless serve as useful reminders:

  • Knowing  benchmark teas: this cannot be over emphasized. I was not alone in stating that some were weak because flavor was lacking or the distinctive and defining character of a category was missing (which, for example, we found to be true of the Yunnan Black group).  In some instances, careful tasting prior to sending off a tea with hopes of recognition might have alerted an entrant to possible taint or defective manufacture, resulting in low scores.
  •  Balance in blends and in flavored teas: because the tasting was blind – and any identifying tags on single-serve teas had been removed – we approached the teas without any preconception of flavors we expect to find.  A label on a box announcing raspberry may predispose your palate to detect this feature.  We found many in which a featured flavor was hard to discern, while on the opposite end, the flavor was so strong as to become a one-note beverage, lacking evidence that tea was a carrier.  Finding the correct balance is a challenge, especially with green and white teas since they are mild to begin with.  One adage that came to mind: Just because you can does not mean you should. Botanicals and flavors are meant to enhance the teas to which they are added, not overpower them.  (One useful example to consider would be jasmine scented Silver Needles White - - a delicate scent [not essence/oil] combined with a  mild White tea.)
  • Trends:  the high number of of submissions in the Flavored Black and Flavored Green categories is a useful mirror reflecting market demand, so no surprises here. The fact that there were six entries in the Jasmine Pearl group is a good sign for premium teas. In the Oolong groups, despite a long craft tradition and what I consider to be complex and deep flavors, the greener style – teas that are floral and friendly - continues to show greater appeal.
  •  Highest scoring teas: I don’t have the full stats yet but my impression is that Oolongs will show the highest numbers.  Teas must earn a minimum threshold to place third, but in terms of absolute points, I think Oolongs garnered the top marks honor.
  •  What’s happened to Chai? We’ve noticed this trend for a couple of years now: the tea has become thinner in body even as more ingredients are added to this classic (defined here as made with Black tea). Brewed with water first and then cupped with milk, many of the teas were insipid rather than hearty, even though after viewing the colors, it was decided to add only 1 tablespoon of (whole) milk.
  •  How to convey a message to consumers: broken does not = bad.  Whole leaf teas, loose or bagged, have rightly received much attention of late, and perhaps this has had the unintended consequence of consumers dismissing cut or broken leaves without having tasted good representatives of those teas.  Black teas from Sri Lanka, such as BOPs or BP1s, give a satisfying, full-bodied cup that is a different, not necessarily inferior, experience than that from an OP.

The next NATC will be in summer when spring teas are evaluated, and as we are now in March, my natural impatience runs stronger waiting for the new teas.  Air freight rates are increasing (I don’t remember them ever going the other way) but some teas are worth the effort.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

2015 In Review - Pounds Of Tea

We are well into 2016, and I thought it would be interesting for some people to review - have a discussion - about how much tea they bought over the course of 2015. There are three types/levels of tea buyers I run into on the web, and they can generally be pinned into the basic categories of: 1) personal enthusiast/connoisseur, 2) tea lover and buyer for a cafe or restaurant, and 3) a tea wholesaler or entrepreneur generally selling on the web. I fit into category #2, and although I participate in various forums and other tea related discussions, I don't encounter many other people who also fall into category #2. Most seems to be in categories #1 and #3, which is fine, if you are in #2 like me, you probably have a ton of other things to do like run your cafe or restaurant. However, to put out some numbers for discussion and to help those who may be interested in starting a cafe, tea house, or restaurant, here are the teas and amounts that I bought last year.
Top half of current teas on offer

Chinese White: 10 pounds
Chinese Green: 139 pounds
Chinese Oolong: 25 pounds
Chinese Black: 64 pounds
Chinese Post-Fermented: 69 pounds

Indian White: 4 pounds
Indian Green: 1 pound
Indian Oolong: 0
Indian Black: 144 pounds

Taiwan White: 0
Taiwan Green: 0
Taiwan Oolong: 32 pounds
Taiwan Black: 0

Japanese White: 0
Japanese Green: 54 pounds
Japanese Oolong: 0
Japanese Black: 0

Total: 542 pounds of tea in 2015
Bottom half of current teas on offer

That seems like a fairly decent amount of tea for one year, but I don't know. Perhaps it is low, perhaps it is high. Tough to say without any numbers out there. In comparison to the amount of coffee we bought last year, it is 10 to 1, i.e., we bought over 5,400 pounds of coffee.

This year I plan on buying a bit more, as we continue to grow and sell more tea and coffee. It is an uphill battle, as there is so much out there in terms of coffee education, coffee events, coffee support, and so forth, whereas with tea, there is very little. The largest gap that I see in the tea market in the U.S. is simply educating consumers about quality tea on all levels. If you are interested in learning more about tea, it can be a long journey depending on where you live and how much money you have, whereas with coffee, it is easy to find a high quality roaster or cafe within 1 hour drive of almost anywhere (except for some areas that are simply to rural to sustain that type of business). 

To my mind, cafes are the best place to grow tea culture and tea appreciation in the U.S., far beyond online efforts, trade fairs, or specialty classes. Cafes are where people can learn about tea without being put-off by it's mystery; you can go to a cafe and try a tea while your friend gets a Americano or some other familiar drink. It is the perfect spot to relax and to be open to learning and trying new things. When I travel, I always go to the local cafes and try both the coffee and any tea if it is available, but I am always struck by how tea is treated as a side project of the cafe or not included at all. 

I hope to meet other people in category #2 (as well as #1 and #3) so that we can learn how to grow tea appreciation and tea culture in the U.S. If someone is traveling, I'd love to be able to tell them where to get an excellent pot or gaiwan of tea, but other than a few spots in San Francisco and one shop in Tucson, I can't say much. If you are out there, I'd love to hear from you, it's a long journey and I'm always looking for friendly faces to share the adventure with.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Wild Jungle Sheng Maocha Puerh and Liming Spring High Mountain Sheng Puerh

Wild Jungle Sheng Maocha

A little while ago I acquired a couple pounds of a "wild jungle sheng mao cha" dating back to the year 2000. Although technically not a pu'er as this tea comes from Laos, it is a pu'er and has been exceptionally aged. Picked and processed by the Dai people just across the border from Yunnan, the wild tea plants and associated leaves are delicious and exhibit many of the characteristics that I love about this style of pu'er. The leaves are very large and thick, coming from the summer harvest. They were minimally processed, being sun-dried before being piled and aged. Opening up the bag, the classic "funk" of a good pu'er wafted out and overwhelmed my senses. The tea brewed up to a smooth, slightly sweet brew with a slight viscosity that coated the tongue before slowly revealing the subtle flavors.

Sharing the tea with friends, all seem to really enjoy it and it has been selling really well, even to a few green tea fans who enjoy it's ability to not turn astringent on longer steeps. People really overlook aged maocha in my mind, thinking that cakes are where it is at when it comes to pu'er, but to my mind a good aged maocha can be exceptional, and often just as good as an aged cake pu'er but for less money. Something like this one will never be found on the market again, and so I will be holding on to as much of it as possible to slowly put out over the next couple years. If you happen to come into the cafe and see a "wild green sheng" available, I strongly suggest you give it a try.

The readings I got on this were:

TDS - 87ppm
PH - 7.56

TDS - 484ppm
PH - 5.95

TDS - 397ppm
PH - 1.61

This was a really good extraction, as I usually only get that much TDS change in black teas. The PH change is a bit above the normal pu'er, but not a total outlier.

2005 Liming Spring High Mountain Sheng

I got one cake of this 2005 gushu to try before buying the entire tong. A couple people have put forth a negative impression of the factory, which is located in the Menghai area and is one of the oldest pu'er factories, having been established in 1964, but from what I can tell they have done so to simply push their own pu'er and agenda. Others have noted how Liming, which also produces under the name Ba Jiao Ting (which is the label of their higher quality products), has been noted for its consistency, quality, and push towards organic tea. The online world is full of players pushing their own agenda - I try and ignore that and let the tea speak for itself. So I ordered a cake, as the price was favorable and I wanted to try the tea.

I enjoyed it - my notes include "nice, alert, hay and honey, lingering through the nose, good digestion, a touch dry in aging." It did not have the viscosity or slowly rising chi of the Wild Jungle Sheng above, but I was able to pull a 5 hour standing counter shift with no breaks right after enjoying this tea and felt great the whole time, so that should speak to something. I will order a tong and see what the customers say, but think it will go over well.

This photo shows the difference in leaf size between the spring Liming cake and the summer Wild Jungle maocha. Quite the difference!

Here are the numbers I got:

TDS - 53ppm
PH - 6.95

TDS - 388ppm
PH - 6.07

TDS - 335ppm
PH - .88

Another good extraction, although not as high as the Wild Jungle Sheng above. The PH change was also much less, indicating that the leaves released less carbon into the water, most likely because they are 5 years younger.

Monday, January 25, 2016

2015 Huang Guanyin - Yellow Goddess of Mercy

I'm seriously backlogged on getting teas up on the site, but that means that things are busy and that is a good thing. I've been prepping for the upcoming Assessing Assam Tasting, which will be this Saturday at 1pm for anyone that wants to join. It's a free tasting during which we will compare six different orthodox Assams from the 2015 second flush harvest. Should be fun!

This is a look at Huang Guanyin (Yellow Goddess of Mercy) from the 2015 harvest. Huang Guanyin is a relatively new hybrid cultivar that comes from a cross between Tie Guanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) and Huang Jingui (Yellow Gold). The cultivar was developed by the Fujian Academy of Agricultural Sciences - Tea Research Institute in the late 1980s and adopted in the Wuyishan area of Fujian Province in the 1990s. The cultivar name is ART.NO.W003A (or WYA38): Huang guan yin. Picked only in April, this oolong is roasted and rolled unlike the two varietals that it comes from - Tie Guanyin and Huang Jingui are usually ball-rolled, with Tie Guanyin being either medium to heavy roasted (traditional style) or light roasted (more modern style) while Huang Jingui is usually lightly roasted (for an excellent version I often buy the Yellow Gold from Teance). 

This is perhaps one of the best Wuyi oolongs to get people excited about these amazingly complex teas. Medium roasted, with a nice sweetness and floral orchid notes, this tea is hard to go wrong with. The one exception is if you try and brew it in a pot - I really don't think Wuyi teas respond well to pot brewing, and need/must be brewed in a gaiwan with lots of leaves and quick steeps. I like 7grams in a 100ml gaiwan with ~20 second steeps. On this one, the charcoal roast notes dropped off after the first 3 steepings or so, but the honey and melon flavors persisted well into the 7th steep. Wuyi oolongs are not cheap, and if you do find a cheap one, it will probably be a disappointment. You pay for what you get, and in this case, paying for a quality Wuyi will make all the difference.

Beautiful leaves.

Nice quality plucks.
Couple of other teas that I got with the Huang Guanyin.
For this tea, the readings were:

TDS - 67
PH - 7.07

Brewed Tea
TDS - 310
PH - 6.06

TDS - 243
PH - 1.01

Monday, January 11, 2016

1998 Menghai Area Pu'er

Ahhh, the mystery and fun of older pu'er (puer, puerh, etc.). I recently bought a tong of this old pu'er - the only information I got on it was that it was harvested around 1998 from the Menghai area. Obviously it is a Menghai pu'er based on the paper wrapping, but beyond that the only other information I have is that it was stored in Guandong until 2008 under "wet conditions" and then brought over to the United States where it continued to age in "dry conditions." Some may not like the lack of information, others may not approve of the storage techniques, but one must taste the tea to make an ultimate decision.

The tea is very good in my opinion. It is what I would call a "classic" Menghai pu'er - deep, smooth, semi-sweet at the end. Some earth flavors, but really a mellow, all day drinking tea with a very slow rising cha qi. The tea can handle many steeps, and can either be brewed with flash steeps for a lighter cup or let sit for a dark, thick brew. I prefer the flash steeps myself, but one of our regulars loves to let the pu'er sit until it is nice, thick, and dark.

Measurements on this tea are:

Temp - 165
TDS - 73ppm
PH - 7.34

Brewed Tea
Temp - 165
TDS - 288ppm
PH - 6.48

TDS - 215ppm
PH - .86

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Comparison of Four Da Hong Pao Oolong Teas

We sell a lot of oolong tea in our cafe, primarily because it is delicious, but also because it is a good intro tea for many people. This is especially true for those who try the light roast oolongs from Taiwan or Anxi in China. With their high floral notes, slight sweetness, and forgiving steep times, they make a perfect introduction for many people to venture into the world of tea. More complex oolongs, such as the twisted oolongs from Wuyi, Fujian, China are a bit harder to get just right on the steep time, and often the charcoal roast puts people off until they know what they are doing and what they are drinking. We have a fabulous 2015 Winter Harvest Long Feng Xia and 2015 Winter Harvest Ali Shan right now, both of which are high mountain green oolongs from Taiwan. We also have several other oolongs (a couple competition oolongs from Taiwan done in the traditional style, a Mao Xie [Harry Crab] and medium roast Tiequanyin from Anxi, China, as well as an amazing Baozhong twisted oolong from Taiwan. However, we have not had a good Da Hong Pao or Wuyi oolong to offer so I have been on the hunt for one.

Over the past two weeks I compared four different Da Hong Pao oolongs from various vendors, trying to find one that I thought was the best. All of them were very good, with some slightly better than others.

For the tea to be a true Da Hong Pao, it must come from within the Nature Preserve located just outside of Wuyishan, Fujian, China.

This is Tongmu Guan village, where Cindy's tea comes from.

As you can see, the mountains are not just rocks, but they are rocky. The tea farms can be seen spreading up the hillsides a bit from the village, as well as the extent of the mountain environment and the little villages located up and down valley.

This sample came from Lydia, and although I enjoyed it, I did not end up buying it. The aroma was wonderful, with shifting flavors of honey and melon. After 4-5 steepings, the flavor dropped off significantly.

TDS - 79ppm
PH - 7.47
Temp - 165

Brewed Tea
TDS - 181ppm
PH - 6.42
Temp - 165

TDS - 102ppm
PH - 1.05

This sample came from Scott, and again, I found it to be another fine tea, if not slightly subdued to the other two samples with a slightly heavier roast profile coming out in the tea.

TDS - 67ppm
PH - 7.39
Temp - 165

Brewed Tea
TDS - 178ppm
PH - 6.17
Temp - 165

TDS - 111ppm
PH - 1.22

The next one is one I have actually bought over the years. It comes from Winnie and is a delicious example of a Da Hong Pao. Full of complex flavors including lemon, honey, citrus and orange - really a top notch tea.

I didn't take any photos of the tasting for some reason; must have been busy that day.

TDS - 73ppm
PH - 7.53
Temp - 165

Brewed Tea
TDS - 161ppm
PH - 6.53
Temp - 165

TDS - 88ppm
PH - 1.18

The final one, coming from Cindy, is perhaps the best of all of them. Sweet on the tip of the tongue, with smoke at the end, the tea is smooth and more complex compared to the others. Sitting with the tea and enjoying the flavors transmute as they cross your palette is a wonderful way to pass the afternoon.

TDS - 106ppm
PH - 7.45
Temp - 165

Brewed Tea
TDS - 232
PH - 6.38
Temp - 165

TDS - 126ppm
PH - 1.07

Interestingly, Cindy's tea had the largest difference in terms of TDS, but was third in terms of PH. Both Winnie's and Scott's were slightly more roasted, and that is apparent in the greater change in PH, as charcoal roasting makes the PH of the tea water turn more alkaline because of the carbon. Cindy's TDS change was the largest, resulting in the more complex flavor profile that was noted in the tea.

Da Hong Pao's are amazing teas, and although I cannot claim to be an expert by any means, I'm pretty happy with how the tasting went. Both myself and a good friend who tried all of the teas with me agreed that the two best were from Winnie of Teance and Cindy of Wuyishan.


Now to get into the harder part - what varietal is Da Hong Pao? I'm hesitant to put anything out there, as there seems to be a lot of confusing opinions on exactly what varietal Da Hong Pao comes from. Babelcarp states that Da Hong Pao is both a varietal and a type, meaning that there are true Da Hong Pao tea bushes, but that any clippings or clones taken from these original Da Hong Pao bushes (depending on who is doing the counting, there are 4-6 of these original bushes still alive today) are also Da Hong Pao. However, it gets confusing because the clones of the original bushes have been given their own names - Dahongpao, Shui Xian, Qi Dan, Bei Dou, Rougui, and others. Austin of Seven Cups says something very similar, in that Qi Dan is a varietal, but originally came from a clone of the original Da Hong Pao bushes. Winnie of Teance, who is an expert and a person I highly trust, states that Da Hong Pao is a blend of these clones. A short thread on TeaChat also supports this theory, that Da Hong Pao, whatever it might have been in history, is now a name for a type of oolong coming from the Wuyishan area of Fujian, China. Scott from Yunnan Sourcing simply states that Da Hong Pao is a varietal, but doesn't say anything more.

Part of the problem is that no one has actually done any genetic tests, or at least there are no English language sources if such tests have been conducted. One genetic study supports the notion that Da Hong Pao is a varietal and a type, in that Dahongpao, Shuixian, Qidan, and others are all of the same genetic family. Other genetic studies have demonstrated that the varietals - whatever they may be - do cluster around their own regions, so that Fujian varietals are more closely related than they are to those found in other growing regions.

So, what is Da Hong Pao? My understanding currently is this - when I write Da Hong Pao I am thinking of the TYPE of oolong, coming from several sub-varietals that most likely were at some point taken from the original plants but now have been given their own names. This oolong is also more tied to terroir, processing, and style, most likely a blend of the various sub-varietals. When I write it as Dahongpao, that is in reference to an actual sub-varietal that may be made into Da Hong Pao, but could also be made into Shui Xian or blended with other sub-varietals to end up with Da Hong Pao. There is no definitive answer, because there are no definitive studies.

But really, for most people none of this matters. What really matters is whether one enjoys the tea, and a good Da Hong Pao is certainly an enjoyable experience.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Puer - 2006, 2007, 1995

Puer - Puerh - Pu-er

Oh, how people love to tell stories about puer. The "drinkable antique" fills books, Facebook groups, and hundreds upon hundreds of blog posts. I find it fascinating how people are head-over-heels about puer, but not necessarily other teas, especially considering that we know the least about most of these puers compared to other teas. Ages of trees are thrown around like facts when really it is all made up. Varietals are tossed around like soccer balls, when really again, we know hardly anything. Even the location of the harvest is largely made up, yet people will stake their lives on so-called "single origin" puers. The puer market is one giant illusion, with little transparency and jianghu players throughout.

But that rant is for a later post, when I, naive as I am, have more knowledge and education surrounding this tea. The main point here is that if you are a tea buyer - hold off on puers until you get a good handle on the truth behind them, or if you must have a few for your customers, focus on shou or cooked puers that come from the main "factories".

Yunnan and Pu'er. The main centers are listed: Xishuangbanna and the Six Tea Mountains, Lincang, Dali, Dehong, and Pu'er.

2006 Dali Xiaguan Jia Ji Sheng

I have been sitting on this sheng for a couple years now, and put it out recently or our customers to enjoy. Pulling the tuocha's out of the tong was a magical experience, as the smell oozed out and began to pervade my nostrils. Breaking apart the tuocha was perhaps even better, as the aroma rose and coated my fingers, leaving the residue of a properly aged puer for me to enjoy. The tea had hints of spice and black pepper at the front, mellowing to a smooth finish with hints of sweetness and hay towards the end. Drinking the tea was a pleasure, and the effects lasted long after the last drop had been drunk - I continued to taste the tea for several hours after. It proved to be a great seller, and we quickly went through our 5 tuochas. I put one last one aside to age for a few more years, and then gave the remainder of one tuocha to some friends to try.

The tuocha before being broken up.

As we roll through winter here in Colorado, I will continue to pull out various sheng and shou puers for people to enjoy. I find winter to be the prime drinking season for puers, and plan on featuring several rare ones for people to try over the next several months.

I came across this print by Utagawa Toyokune, the great master of ukiyo-e and found it relevant to my current thoughts around puer. Although it is a print of kabuki scene in Japan, it illustrates the intrigue, mystery, and showmanship surrounding puer in the contemporary market.

2007 and 1995 Mao Cha Sheng

A couple years ago I bought a couple pounds of a 2007 and a 1995 loose sheng from a particular vendor. I've sat on these, continuing to age them, as well as bring them out from time to time to share with friends and others. To me, these illustrate perfectly the real puer market before and at the height of the boom. Little information is known on these shengs, other than they come from Xishuangbanna and the year they were harvested. At the time, prior to the re-invention of puer and especially pressed puer from Yi Wu and other villages around 2004, most was harvested and then sold to "factories" for fine processing. That is the case with these - most likely a mixture of "wild arbor", "terrace", and other leaves all mixed. Most was probably turned into shou puer at the factories, but some was set aside and aged as mao cha such as this. The flavor profile fits the location of Xishuangbanna, but beyond that it is hard to pin-point much more. The 2007 has aged well, mellowing into a nice sheng that is fairly easy to approach. The 1995 is even better, with more complexity in the flavor profile - including some interesting notes of spice, wood, and fruit.

2007 Mao Cha Sheng

1995 Mao Cha Sheng

A very nice pluck coming from 1995, demonstrating the quality of this sheng.

Now for the numbers...

2006 Dali Xiaguan Jia Ji Sheng

TDS - 86
PH - 7.49
Temp - 165

Brewed Tea
TDS - 407
PH - 5.85
Temp - 155

TDS - 321
PH - 1.64

2007 Mao Cha Sheng

TDS - 73
PH - 7.32
Temp - 160

Brewed Tea
TDS - 400
PH - 6.05
Temp - 156

TDS - 327
PH - 1.27

1995 Mao Cha Sheng

TDS - 76
PH - 7.57
Temp - 165

Brewed Tea
TDS - 240
PH - 6.17
Temp - 153

TDS - 164
PH - 1.40

What do the numbers reveal? Well, preliminary data suggests that the ages of the puers are correct. The 2007 and 2006 extract almost the same as a fresh green, but less than an oolong or a shou. The 1995, because of it's age, did not extract as much, resulting in a lower TDS difference. The only other tea showing these characteristics so far are charcoal roasted Da Hong Pao's. Logically, this makes sense, as the older the tea, the harder it is to get them to "open up". Likewise, the more roasted an oolong, the harder it is to get it to "reveal itself to you."

But really, all of the above is beyond the point. Tea, and drinking tea, is about sharing and enjoying with friends. So, I end with this photo of a good puer session I had recently with friends. Enjoy!