Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Tie Guan Yin, An Xi, Fujian, China
Out of 5.
Overall - 4
Primary Flavors - 4
Secondary Flavors - 3 1/2
Aroma - 4 1/2
Finish - 3
Temperament - 4

Another of the Taiwanese batch from Tea Masters, this was a full-bodied, oxidized Oolong with a pleasant flavor.

The tea came in tighter, dark shapes, looking almost like a Pu-erh or other aged black tea. I had a small emvelope that held enough for 4 pots, and I found that the more tea per pot the more it brought out the wood and stone primary flavors. A dark brown liquor hinted at the acidic finish, but it was not unpleasant, and countered the "fallen tree" wood tones nicely. In a darker brew a strong tea leaf flavor came through, rare in a more oxidized tikuanyin. Like the other Taiwanese variety I give it high marks for the basics, but in the end I am left uninspired. It's a competent pot of tea that is difficult to find a flaw in, but not exotic or daring.

Monday, January 30, 2006


China Special Oolong, "Buddha's Palm", Upton Tea Imports
Out of 5.
Overall - 3.5
Primary Flavors - 4
Secondary Flavors - 3
Aroma - 4.5
Finish - 3
Temperament - 4

That this is the most expensive of my Upton Teas at $72/lb underscores how reasonable their teas are. I've been consistently surprised at the way they price their teas too, several of the $15/lb chaff teas have had more going for them than their more expensive counterparts. Going way out on a limb, perhaps Upton is targetting their teas for the more straightforward neutrality occidentals traditionally prefer?

This is a relatively delicate tea with a wonderful aroma and an agreeable, if shy, flavor. The liquor is light for a tea from Fujian, but the flavor is nicely rounded without a hint of green. The aroma is what really stood out about my first cup of the tea. There is no name for it... it's an organic, almost peaty flavor - not in the way Darjeelings often are, more distinctively oolong. Very good, if difficult to pinpoint. The primary flavor is less interesting however, a neutral, delicate woody tone without much backing it up. Vaguely sweet. I have a theory that I didn't let it go enough so I am going to try again, but this time I will seek to destroy the tight little rolls with a good minute under hot water.

My second round was definitely stronger... a burnt umber colored tea, with that aroma now infused into the flavors, a strengthening of the woody primary flavor and that funny numbing of the tongue I've tasted on several really good 2005 pickings. This is a much better tea when you smack it around. There is a lemony tartness to the undertone which is an odd counterpoint to the woody main flavor and the earthy aroma, but the package works well enough. The finish is longer this time around, and picks up the lemon and earth tones.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Premium Formosa Choicest Oolong, Upton Tea Imports
Out of 5.
Overall - 3
Primary Flavors - 3
Secondary Flavors - 3
Aroma - 3
Finish - 4
Temperament - 3

This was another very "Wuyi" Formosan, with long, curving, black, green, white leaves, and a straightforward yet delicate oolong flavor. It's good for a Taiwanese, but other than the finish there really isn't too much I can say about this tea. The aroma is mild and the primary flavor is an agreeable green bamboo with a hint of toasty oolong goodness.

I used a lot of leaves in the large yixing, in my experience longer "tri-color" leaves stew easily, so more leaves allows for a shorter brew while still bringing out the subtlety. Your tea color comes out lighter, but the flavor is robust. Basic gong-fu, but especially important with this type of tea. The high leaf content rewarded us with a very nice finish for such a bland tea, a unique salty bitter-earth that sits on the tongue long after you finish the cup. It was really quite pleasant, and counterbalanced the greens and toast of the primary flavor nicely. The tea is a little bit of a one-trick pony though, the finish redeems what is otherwise bland on a 'Republic of Tea' scale. A good tea to experience once, then put in the drawer to drink when you have a cold.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Shui Xian, Wen Shan, Fujian, China
Out of 5.
Overall - 4
Primary Flavors - 3 1/2
Secondary Flavors - 4
Aroma - 4 1/2
Finish - 3 1/2
Temperament - 4
I recently recieved a package of tea samples from my friends over at Tea Masters in Taiwan. I need to remember to return the favor! I selected the Shui Xian to try first, a loose rolled darker tea from Wen Shan. This was an interesting tea, unique in several ways from other teas I've had. First, it's almost black in consistency, with a fairly neutral aroma to the leaves, which seem much shorter than you'd expect, though they unfurled to normal long leaf dimensions. I brought my white crackle yixing into work to brew it in, it's a larger yixing that works better for sharing with Jocelyn and drinking tea throughout the day, but given the sample nature (I'm hoping to get 2 pots out of the bag) and the cooler water than at home (maaaybe 200 degrees from the tap, then transfered before pouring), the larger pot exacerbates the diluted nature of the brew, so my steeping times go up significantly. Still, it's a quality yixing and it comes with excellent wide-mouthed 1.5 oz finished yixing cups.

The tea's aroma has an acidic, almost smoky note to it, not like lapsang souchong, much more faint, and slightly sweet like barbeque. This acidic roastedness is prevalent throughout the experience, with the first flavor that greets you a toasted rice note matched with a rounded classic "dim sum" oolong taste. After a moment the secondary flavor greets you - unmistakably pu erh! The rich earthyness picks up on the toasted rice acidity and briefly eclipses the primary flavor, but the aroma of the classic oolong returns as the pu erh fades into a fairly sharp finish which leaves a sweet flavor on the palate. Overall a particularly complex, yet agreeable tea. The flavors work in much better concert than most muti-faceted teas, and it shows competency in each major area of the experience. For a classic oolong with some pu erh notes it has my recommendation - however in my opinion there are better teas available for an overall tea experience. With most things I'm a classicist-minimalist, I value simple things done exceptionally well over radical creativity, but tea isn't one of them. To evaluate a tea as truly world-class I look for a wonderful taste that I'd never imagined before, in addition to complexity and agreeability. So far I've never found a tea I couldn't find room for improvement on, and doing the basics exceptionally well put this tea in rare company. A delicious, if possibly somewhat uninspired tea.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


Formosa Fancy Oolong Imperial, Upton Tea Imports

Out of 5.
Overall - 3
Primary Flavors - 3 1/2
Secondary Flavors - 3
Aroma - 4
Finish - 3
Temperament - 3

Today's tea attacks the monster head on, with a pricey loose roll Formosan. While I didn't love it, I appreciated this tea. The aroma pulls you in, a grassy meadow with a black earth undertone... it smells like summer in Georgia. One of the best aromas I've found in an oolong. The taste was less subtle, however, with an overpowering taste of sugarcane and grass. It sits on your palate overly sweet, and stifles the sesame and mahongany undertones that would have really filled out the flavor. There was no bitter green at all, which represents a major step forward for Taiwan, and bodes well for their chances of overcoming their national fear of oxidized tea. I definitely "get" this tea, I appreciate the uniquness of the aroma, primary and secondary flavors, but it isn't my favorite.

Another light liquor, this tea looks almost identical to Rishi's Wuyi generic tea you can buy at Whole Foods. You could easily pull a Folger's crystals switcheroo and fool someone with the loose, multi-colored red/green/white leaves - at least until you went to brew it, when the very Taiwanese yellow-green cup would give it away. We did it again with hot water and a basket... I wonder if a yixing would mellow out the sugarcane? A darker clay would add some much needed toastiness... I almost suggested that this tea would blend well, but besides being anathema to tea snobbery I think the sesame/mahogany secondary notes would be crushed rather than enhanced by a blending, and a crude sugary grass isn't going to enhance anything else well. It would be much too cruel to suggest a nice plum flavoring, so this one will have to stand on it's own... an interesting but gangly prototype of a tea, a few pekoe leaves and another couple of hours in the sun away from greatness.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


I've been on a bit of a hiatus from writing about tea because I've been gnawing my way through a pound of Imperial Tea Court's Aged Oolong, a long leaf and therefore lightweight medium bodied "Chinese Restaurant" style oolong. It's cheap and not bad for a daily cup, and a pound of loose rolled tea lasts a very long time. I'll review it at some point, I still have about 1/4 lb left, but I got a slew of new teas in to review. My general policy is to order an assortment from a new vendor each time, usually everything from China with Wuyi, Monkey Picked, or Tikuanyin in the name, and then buy a pound of my favorite. When I get back down to about a quarter pound the process starts over. Thus this blog will have lots of entries all at once as I sample the new haul, then go quiet as I drink the winner off.

Yesterday two boxes arrived, one being a half pound of my favorite tea in the world, Teance's Monkey Picked Tikuanyin from Mom for Xmas. I haven't tried the 2005, but I'm sure it's dreamy. Thanks Mom. I also received my assortment from the new vendor, Upton Tea Importers. I liked their website, they seem pretty serious about tea and offer samples of everything. I ended up picking like 10 teas that looked pretty good.

First Grade Tie-Guan-Yin, China, Upton Tea Imports
Out of 5.
Overall - 2 1/2
Primary Flavors - 2
Secondary Flavors - 3 1/2
Aroma - 1
Finish - 3 1/2
Temperament - 3

This was a confusing tea... with its tight little green rolls it looks like another formosan tea aka dish water, but when brewed is "actually not so bad". I was heartened to notice that this was one of the Chinese varietals and my hatred of all Formosan teas remains unabated. Upton convinced me to try a couple with florid prose about dark chestnut chocolate woody yummies, so I got a couple of Formosans to try later. Back to our Wuyi disguised as a Taiwanese, the dominant flavor is quite mellow, but not green at all. The undertones are even milder, but touch on spice and bamboo. It's the sort of tea that makes you wish you'd used the light colored yixing and the good water, less because it is so wonderful than because you can taste *everything*. The finish holds only the undertones, and creates a good balance of wood and spice. Aroma is basically nonexistant. This is a truly neutral tea and though I can appreciate the sublety, a better tea would leave me more satisfied with the main course as well.

In defense of this sampling, it was made using hot water and a strainer by Jocelyn... she makes a fine cup of tea but to be fair I ought to test it out using a light clay yixing and 200+ degree water. But I probably won't, I have a huge amount of really stellar tea going stale at home and no amount of zazen preparation is going to make this into a winner. Way better than the Formosan that it looks like, but I wouldn't buy it in bulk.

Monday, August 15, 2005


Aged Bush Shui Xian

Today's review is the first of a few teas I tried from Imperial Tea Court. First I'd like to point out that their name isn't a stupid pun involving the word tea, a major point in their favor. Their tea comes in little shrink wrapped green packages however, which have 2 problems... they don't reseal, and they're translucent. Tea hates light, which is why most higher end companies put tea in opaque packages. Anyway, their prices are about average with some being quite reasonable, and this one at $180/lb is pretty middle of the road.

The concept of using an old bush as opposed to a young bush hadn't really occured to me, and I remain skeptical that it is gimmickery. At least we're back to Fujian province, makers of some "good-assed teas", second only to Wuyi as a region.

Aged Bush Shui Xian, Imperial Tea Court

Out of 5.
Overall - 3 1/2
Primary Flavors - 4
Secondary Flavors - 2
Aroma - 3
Finish - 3 1/2
Temperament - 2

This was an interesting tea in that it had properties and primary flavor of a straightforward classic oolong but acted more like a complex, fickle oolong in other ways. The initial flavor was similar to a staple like their Aged Oolong that had been made with too few leaves, but after a moment it passed and allowed the undertones to come through... a subtle chocolate with smoke taste that hung around for several seconds, albeit understated. It was pleasant enough, but the flavors didn't entice the way a really good monkey-picked coaxes you to chase them, burning through pot after pot. This is a good tea if you're tired of an agressive dim sum oolong but still want that toasted flavor.

One downside of this complexity is that you can oversteep this tea, both with leaves and with time. This makes it a fairly difficult tea to work with - you want to be liberal enough to bring out the primary flavors but not to overdo it so the undertones stay in bounds. A long leaf, it worked well at 45-45-1:00-1:15. The 4th steeping was usually just to fill up the pot, this tea is only good for about 2 steepings before you're left with weak straightforward oolong which trails off quickly. Considering the care you have to take with it this isn't the end of the world though, you'll burn through it at a normal rate.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

So I've referred a couple of times to the modifications I do to the traditional Gong Fu Cha style of tea making, adjusted for every day use. Since there are lots of variations it's probably easiest to just describe how I do it.

I take 1 tbsp of tight-rolled or 2 tbsp of dried-long tea, and put it in my 6, 10, or 12 oz teapot. The 12 oz is easiest and most common, as I can make fewer batches to fill my teapot, usually 2.
I boil tap water in a metal kettle. While it heats I put aspertame in my drinking teapot, definitely non-standard but it makes me happy. I put a lipped plate under my yixing, it isn't a fancy wooden collector but it does the job. When the water boils I fill the yixing till over flowing and look at the clock. Sometime between :40 and 1:30 later I start decanting it into the drinking teapot. I then refill the yixing without re-heating the water and repeat. It's a stripped down method which makes a pretty good every day cup of tea.

Sunday, August 07, 2005


Today I am reviewing perhaps the best Taiwanese tea I've had, which is not saying much. The problem with Formosans isn't that the leaves are inferior, which they are, it's that the Taiwanese are afraid to oxidize their teas, so they all come out mostly green. Take today's tea, for example, a High Mountain Dark Roast. I got pretty excited when I saw this tea. Grown at 6000+ feet, as a rule of thumb altitude is generally required for subtlety in tea. Dark Roast implied that perhaps this tea would overcome the Formosan problem, and Teance's teas are as good as their name is stupid, no kidding. I dream about their Tikuanyin.

In the end, the Formosan Dark Roast was ok. The leaves were quality but the tea was a little green. A little browner and this would have been a real winner, and as it is it was decent, I drank the whole quarter pound fairly quickly.

Teance High Mountain Dark Roast Oolong Tea Tung Ting Taiwan, 2005

Out of 5.
Overall - 3
Primary Flavors - 2
Secondary Flavors - 3 1/2
Aroma - 3 1/2
Finish - 2 1/2
temperament - 3

If you like your oolongs green this is a really excellent tea. The finish was much less sharp than I expected, and the secondary flavors held up. These were what you'd come to expect from a high altitude Wuyi - a nice toasted flavor, with a unique hint of matcha. A woody undertone. The liquor was a darker yellow than I expected with a true oolong aroma.

The tea comes in tight, glossy little knots, some with stem - the bottom leaves. I thought it was interesting they used the lower leaves for such a high grade tea, but the result was fine, it actually probably helped. Being the bottom leaves they unrolled huge, 3+ inches long. If you wanted a tea to make in your gaiwan, this would be a great candidate (both because of the green-ness and because the leaves would stay put in a loose infusion).

Brewing was fairly delicate but the lack of a sharp finish helped with malleability. Since it was so tightly rolled you have to go long on the first infusion, especially if you don't wash the leaves, which I haven't been. A point of order here. In traditional gong fu the rules are pretty firm about washing the pot with boiling water without leaves then washing the leaves with boiling water to clean them and get them unfurling. I have been known to cheat this process in order to save time and get more out of the leaves. For dried-long teas from good importers I don't see a need to ever wash the leaves. For tight-rolls it makes a difference though, no doubt. The best way to do it is to wash the leaves then let them sit for about 5 minutes damp to let them unroll. Like I said though, I've been known to cheat. I usually make several pots at a time and mix them in my bigger serving teapot, and I've found that inconsistencies in flavor from brewing the wash water get smoothed out when pots two, three, and four are mixed with it. That said, if I was serving someone else or really being careful I'd definitely wash a tight-roll tea first.

So back to it, for an everyday cup without washing, I usually did 45-35-40-50-1:00-1:15. This tea finished strong on the 5th and 6th, with more of the undertones coming out rather than fewer - it actually settled down in a good way.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

I killed the Japanese "darker" today. I eked out 6 pots from my brown 6 oz pot. They were pretty good, I wouldn't change any ratings. Remember 6 pots of the 6 oz is a different beast, and frankly not the ideal pot for a straightforward tea like the Yu-cha, but being the last pot I thought I could get more out of it that way.

Tomorrow I'm back to finishing the teance teas before I break open the 1 lb of aged from empire. Aging isn't just for pu-erh... it makes a pretty good oolong too. My next reviews are of the teance teas though, especially my all time favorite, the '04 monkey picked.