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