Monday, October 26, 2015

Four New Teas To Try - Gold-Flecked Green, White Forest Oolong, Tsui Yu Competition Oolong, and Chamraj Extra Long Nilgiri

It's amazing how busy things have been - sourcing new teas, tasting teas, selecting which teas to put out and which to hold back on. There really are a lot of quality teas on the market and it is hard to balance what one needs to fill out a cafe's tea selection versus which ones I personally want to try. However, I'm very happy with these latest offerings, some of which we were able to only secure a small quantity of. 


Four new teas arrive on our shelf this month – a delicious summer green, two rare oolongs, and a black tea from the Nilgiri Hills of southern India

Gold-Flecked Green – Plucked at the beginning of the summer season, this green tea from Anhui Province, China exhibits a deep, rich flavor characteristic of a fine summer green. Ball-rolled and twisted, the golden amber liquor and leafy-green aroma make this a prefect everyday green tea.

Beautiful, rolled, twisted leaves.

A delicious green with a fresh, vegetal liquor.

Nice, uniform full leaves.
White Forest Oolong – Located just across the border from Darjeeling, the Pathivara Farm has been working to raise international awareness about Nepal’s fine teas for some time now. With a similar terroir and climate as Darjeeling, the teas produced from the this farm are processed in a twisted oolong style, resulting in a fresh tea that is a cross between a First Flush and a Moonshine Darjeeling. A unique tea that is not often found outside of the region (although this is changing, especially after the 2013 Darjeeling labor strike that pushed many to purchase Nepali teas, as well as the end to the Maoist insurgency which made many to abandon the tea estates in Nepal until just a few years ago when they were brought back under cultivation).

The fine hairs on these leaves really stand out.

Compare these leaves to one's from Darjeeling and you will see how similar they are.

The flavor is similar to a cross between a First Flush Darjeeling and a Moonshine Darjeeling.
Tsui Yu Oolong – Produced by the Nantou County Tea Trade Association for the 2015 Spring Oolong Competition, this tea is a rare treat. With only 2.2kg available for public purchase, we were lucky to secure a small lot. Submitted into the Tsui Yu varietal medium roast category, this tea was awarded a Superior Grade and placed within the top 20% of 2,400 entries. Photos and more on the Tsui Yu Competition Oolong can be found in this post.

Chamraj Estate Black – An organic black tea coming from the famed Chamraj Estate high in the Nilgiri Hills of southern India, this Extra Long Orange Pekoe tea provides a smooth, winey cup with hints of tropical and citrus fruits. On the lighter side of black teas, it can be drunk as a standalone tea, or with milk and sugar.

The color of this tea is simply beautiful.

Although an orthodox tea, many of the leaves are slightly broken.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

New Tea From Scotland Produced - Kinnettles Gold

Always on the hunt for new and exciting teas, the other day I ran across the story of Kinnettles Gold, a new tea grown and produced in Scotland. I was amazed to be reading about a tea coming out of Scotland, as tea is a sub-tropical plant that really should not grow so far north. Yet, here it was, the first ever harvest** of Camellia sinensis coming out of Scotland.

Only 2kg of tea was produced this harvest, and I'm hoping a bit more is produced in the next harvest as this is a tea I really want to taste. The terroir, light, and uniqueness that Scotland is must have resulted in a highly interesting tea. Produced from mixed varietals including ex Soviet Georgian and Soviet clone Kolkhida, the tea was grown near Angus at an altitude of 400' above sea level; the hand-rolled, golden tipped tea sounds highly unique!

Pekoe Tea in the UK is the only place selling the tea, so it will not come to the US market, but I would love to get a pound next year to try out if it does. The owner of Kinnettles Gold, Susie Walker-Munro has an interesting history with tea, as it was her great-great-great-grandfather Charles Alexander Bruce who was largely responsible for bringing tea from India to the British market in 1839.

Last year I brought into the cafe the delicious and expertly produced Amba OP1 from Sri Lanka. One of the better Ceylon teas I have tried, this tea sold well and was one of my favorites. Yet, I was saddened to learn that it was no longer going to be produced, and that the Amba Tea Estate was going to focus on mixed blends rather then high-end artisan tea. The reason, I found out, was that the main person at Amba was leaving and so the Estate was taking a new direction. Now, here is the news of this Scottish tea and who is behind it, but Beverly-Claire Wainwright, the same person who had worked at Amba to create the Amba OP1. Because of my love for the Amba OP1, I was even more excited to hear about this new Kinnettles Gold.

With fond memories of the Amba OP1 still fresh on my palette my hopes are high that the Angus Farm will continue to produce Kinnettles Gold and that I will get to try a small bit in the future! For a tea buyer, it is always exciting to learn about new artisanal teas, and it doesn't get much more artisanal than this.

**I've been informed that Kinnettles Gold is not the first tea out of Scotland, and that there are other Scottish artisinal teas, so I changed the headline.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Fighting In Formosa: Competition Oolongs From Taiwan

This afternoon on a glorious "Indian Summer" Sunday I hosted "Fighting in Formosa: Competition Oolongs from Taiwan." Although not the most PC of titles, it goes along with the other kitchy titles I've come up with for the last couple tea tastings: Drunk on Darjeeling and Overboard on Oolong.

It was a great time, and I'm honored that so many people came out to enjoy some wonderful oolongs from the central part of Taiwan. After a brief explanation about the teas and how competitions work in Taiwan, I opened up the tasting and let the chaos ensue. People were free to taste and steep the teas as long or as short as they wanted, and we did two "competition style" as well. I also brought out a more modern style Long Fen Xia Jin Xuan for people to compare. Below are my notes in a slightly elaborated format.

First, I wanted - and still want to - stress the importance of tasting each tea on its own merits. It is unfair to the farmer, roaster, and everyone else to compare a Nantou Qing Xin Light Roast Oolong to that of a High Mountain Jin Xuan from Alishan. Not only is it unfair, but it is missing the point of each tea, especially competition teas. Competition teas are a celebration of each unique artisanal region and style, and comparing them to each other would be inappropriate. You don't compare an American IPA to an Australian Lager to an English Stout. The same holds true here.

The other point I stressed is that although the trend over the last 20+ years in marketing and pushing Gaoshan or High Mountain Green (Jade) oolongs has resulted in some remarkable teas, it has at the same time done a disservice to the more traditional flavors and profiles found in Taiwan (and China as well). The initial push by TenRen in the 1980s for green oolongs, which can be more readily replicated then complex, more oxidized and roasted oolongs continues, and every year more and more oolongs are produced in this green style than in the more traditional style.
This is the map I made for the tasting, highlighting the teas we were tasting, not all teas or regions in Taiwan. Red are ones we tasted purple are other famous regions.

To combat this, and to celebrate regional and traditional practices, varietals, and flavor profiles, farmers in Taiwan have formed their own associations and trade groups. Not only does this allow the small farmers in Taiwan - some 12,000+ in total - combat the larger corporate farms, but it also builds community, solidarity, and allows them to share resources and knowledge. To honor each other and their hard labor, each association holds their own competition - once in the spring, and once in the winter. Not every farmer enters their association's competition - sometimes their bushes do not produce, sometimes their entire lot is bought prior to the competition, sometimes a roaster does not want a certain farmer's crop (farmers and roasters are not synonymous in Taiwan).

Competitions are run on a modified Indian format, with each entry submitting 13kg of tea within their respective field. Fields are broken down by roast level and by varietal. So, for the Nantou Farmer's Association Spring Competition one could submit an entry into the Jin Xuan Light Roast category, or the Qing Xin Medium Roast category. Each tea varietal and roast are compared only across their own qualities.

During the competition almost all of the tea is consumed in the judging process, but there is often around 2kg (4.5lbs) left over. If the tea "wins" and is designated Top Class or Gold Winner, it is officially packaged and sealed by the competition body and sold immediately to those with lots of money or the proper connections. However, those that make it through the first rounds of the competition, but do not make it to the final top ranking, can be acquired if the right opportunity presents itself. That is how I was able to get these teas.

A note on competition judging. The judging is composed of 20% on aroma, 20% on appearance, and 60% on taste. Each competition has it's own ranking system, so some award Top Class, while others award Gold Winner. However, unlike here in the US, there is no single winner. Rather, there are percentages: 60% are dropped from the initial entry into the competition, then the next ranking is Premium, followed by Superior, then Top Class or Gold. So, in the end, if there are 1,000 entries, there are 10 winners, 100 Superior, and so forth. Still, since one needs to judge the tea on its own merits, they are all usually very good and of high quality.

Another important note is how the tea is brewed during the competition. I prefer to use gaiwans, and do quick steepings with lots of leaves. In competitions it is different. The steep time is 6 minutes, then the tea is poured off and let to cool, then the judging begins. We did this for the Meishan and the Tung Ting entries, as well as brewed with gaiwans and the differences were noticeable. I won't say which was "better" since that is subjective and dependent on what I like, my constitution, the water one uses, etc.

The most common varietals found in Taiwan are:

  • ·         Qing Xin: Soft stem varietal, one of the original strains from Fujian, China, known as Green Heart. Found throughout central Taiwan, but more prone to disease and pests, so being displaced by Jin Xuan.
    • Qing Xin Da You: A sub-varietal.
  • ·         Tsui Yu: Newer varietal, TRES #13, known as Kingfisher Jade, registered in 1981. A lowland varietal, lighter, more floral.
  • ·         Jin Xuan: modern varietal, TRES #12, registered in 1980. This is the big modern one that is very popular because it is disease and pest resistant and also produces larger leaves for bigger crop yields. Often called "Milky Oolong" whether or not it was steamed over milk or not.
  • ·         Si Ji Chun: 4 Seasons, modern varietal, not produced by TRES but rather a a hybrid that was found by a farmer. Popular because it is floral and has a high yield, allowing it to be harvested during "all four seasons."
  • ·         Ti Kuan Yin: from China, one of the original strains, mostly found in the north of the island.
  • ·         Bai Hao: Oriental Beauty, another original varietal, grown in the north of the island. Unique because it is "bug bitten" like Darjeelings and Concubine Oolongs. The original Formosa Oolong.
  • ·         Bao Zhong: A green varietal, grown in the north, usually not rolled or roasted, the lightest of the oolongs.
     Finally a note on harvesting. There are generally two harvesting methods: by hand and by "machine." By hand is the traditional method, and is still the only way to harvest most of the High Mountain oolongs because of the steep slopes. This method preserves the integrity of the leaves and stem, but it does not allow for optimal harvests. Machine harvesting is newer and performed on less steep terrain. It is really not a "machine" like we think in the West, but basically a motorized clipper with an air vacuum attached that clips and then sucks the leaves into the basket. Two people hold it, one on each side of the bush.  This method does not preserve the stem, but it does allow for leaves to be harvested at the optimal time, which is after the morning dew has evaporated from the leaves, but before the sun has heated them up. It also allows for the harvest to take place faster, which provides more control over the outdoor oxidation that occurs between plucking and wilting. People argue for each method - I can't really say which is "better." But it is something to think about.

Nantou County Tea Trade Association Qing Xin Oolong 2015 Spring Competition
Elevation: 2,600’
Roast: Medium
Oxidation: Medium (30-45%)
Varietal: Qing Xin
Competition Entries: 2,400
Place: Superior Grade (Top 20%)
Comes from Song Bo Lin, Nantou.

Nantou County Tea Trade Association Tsui Yu Oolong 2015 Spring Competition
Elevation: 2,600’
Roast: Medium
Oxidation: Medium (30-45%)
Varietal: Tsui Yu
Competition Entries: 2,400
Place: Superior Grade (20%)
Comes from Song Bo Lin, Nantou.

Mingjian Farmers’ Association Qing Xin Oolong 2015 Spring Competition
Elevation: 2,600’
Roast: Light-Medium
Oxidation: Light-Medium (25-35%)
Varietal: Qing Xin
Competition Entries: 2,134
Place: Superior Grade (Top 20%)

Meishan Farmers’ Association High Mountain Oolong 2014 Winter Competition
Elevation: 5,800’
Roast: Unroasted
Oxidation: Light (10-20%)
Varietal: Qing Xin
Competition Entries: 2,437
Place: Superior Grade (Top 20%)
Second largest competition, comprises the majority of the Alishan High Mountain Oolong region.

Tung Ting Tea Cooperative Jin Xuan Oolong 2014 Winter Competition
Elevation: 5,600’
Roast: Medium-Heavy
Oxidation: Light-Medium (30%)
Varietal: Jin Xuan
Competition Entries: 2,535
Place: Top Class Gold (Top 3%)
Comes from Yong Long Village, just above Tung Ting Mountain.
Stems were hand removed from the most eligible batch produced from this farmer’s winter harvest.

Sadly, I have no photos of the Tung Ting. No excuse, just my fault!

 Thanks everyone for coming out and tasting teas! A special thanks to my source, Nic and Andy! Some of these will be in the cafe for regular drinking in a week or two, but I think everyone was able to take some home to enjoy at their leisure. Thanks again, until the next one.


I spent a long time researching this post. I did a lot of surfing of the web, spent some time on Google Scholar, and also on the TRES website and the various Association websites. If I got anything wrong, just tell me and I'll fix it. This is a learning journey for me and I would like to make sure I get things as accurate as possible.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Wulu Mountain Tribute Green, Tea Culture, and 2011 Man Tang Hong 2 Shou Puerh

I've been busy preparing for this Sunday's upcoming tea tasting on competition oolongs from Taiwan, but that doesn't stop me from trying teas on a daily basis. I'm also constantly researching tea and tea history, as I find what is out "there" really is inadequate or incorrect. I don't pretend to know very much, but I do find it frustrating when people do pretend to be authorities, yet it is obvious with a little research that what they are saying is not completely accurate. The real lesson is that if you are serious about tea, and want what you actually pay for, then you need to do a lot of research and learning. The internet is full of "authorities" or websites that are fudging their facts to make it sound like they have the "best" or "true" or "highest quality" tea out there.

This rule of caution may not hold as much truth when buying teas from Ceylon, Nilgiri, Assam, or Darjeeling, simply because you can generally get the quality and grade you pay for directly from the Estate. So, in the cafe, I buy directly from each Estate in these locations and have the tea air shipped in. This allows us to get the freshest tea possible from these locations. It may cost a bit more for the air shipping, but when you are dealing with a Moonshine Darjeeling, or a SFTGFOP Assam, or a Ceylon Silver Tip, fresh is the name of the game.

However, when talking about tea from China or Taiwan, if you do not know your source - and hopefully it is direct from farmer/grower/producer, then caution must be exercised. It is very easy to be sold a Long Feng Xia from Taiwan made of the Jin Xuan varietal when you wanted one from the Qing Xin varietal. Or a Wuyi Oolong that really is not Wuyi. And puerh is an entirely different story. So, education and research, every day is how I go about learning what is real and what is hype or exaggeration.

But part of this is also learning the larger history of tea and appreciating it in all forms across what many call "tea culture" - a culture that goes way back in history, for thousands of years.

This is a photo from the book "The Dali Lama's Secret Temple Tantric Wall Paintings from Tibet." This image is that of Chandrabhadra receiving an ambrosia. Accompanied with the photo below of the same wall painting, one may argue that the ambrosia is tea!

From the same book, this is Nagarjuna receiving some ambrosia from a forest spirit. But look at the tree - it sure looks like it could be a tea bush/tree. There is certainly a high reverence for tea among Tibetan Buddhists, and monks have been using tea for centuries to help with meditation practices.

Wulu Mountain Tribute Green

One of the newer green teas that I put out recently in the cafe. Another summer green, from the Anhui Province in China. The leaves were picked in June of this year, pan fired and slightly rolled by hand.  The liquor is delicious, classic green, with hints of herbaceous, grassy flavor that is found in well made summer greens.

The dried leaves, slightly curled.

I do fast steepings of around 20 seconds, for a slightly lighter cup.

The unfurled leaves.

Another images, this one from the book "Oriental Rugs and Carpets" by Stanley Reed. The image shows Mumtazi-i Mahal, wife of Shah Jahan in a 1726 painting.  Shah Jahan was the 5th Mughal Emperor of India. Here she is enjoying some tea, perhaps from the tree just behind her?

2011 Man Tang Hong "Number 2" Shou Puerh

This puerh was made from an average of grade 2 ripe tea leaves harvested from mature tea bushes in Mengku county (Lincang prefecture), in southwest Yunnan Province, China. The tea was made from spring leaves harvested and fermented during the summer of 2007, then allowed to age for 4 years before being blended and pressed. Finally, after six years of dry storage in Kunming the puerh was released onto the market. I only had a sample to try, and although I found it delicious, with a classic ripe puerh flavor and a smooth, dark liquor, I can't say much more. It was a perfect everyday drinking puerh.

The pressed, dried leaves.

Third steeping, deep and dark.