Category Archives: all the tea in China

Separated with my phone at the border of my mind

My friend Jeni Dodd, who used to be a lawyer, teamed up with Jason McDonald, another legalese–>tea leaves person, and headed down to New Mexico this week to help the NM Immigrant Law Center with reviewing, digesting, and writing briefs for the detained immigrants at the border. This is a complicted and nutballs situation, and as positive as one can be in theory I’m sure visiting the Cibola County Correctional Center in Grants and hearing the stories of the separated families and kids sucked.

They have a gofundme set up, but being from New Mexico I wanted to try and arrange for a catered lunch to be sent to the entire staff at the Center. I asked my dear old friend Michelle, from high school, who runs a catering business making her own pastas and amazing Italian food, if she could swing something at the last minute. I texted Jeni to give me the total head count.

Then, the screen on my old iPhone lifted off. The battery had swelled up like a giant zit, rays of lights could be seen shooting out the sides of the phone, but until then it was hobbling along just fine. I took the phone to my pals at UbreakIfix, who were in the middle of dealing with a crazy lady from Miami speaking in rapid fire Spanish. The UbreakIfix guy kept typing into the computer and shaking his head and pointing to the back of the lady’s phone. Her child kept complaining that the password to the free wifi wasn’t working. The woman kept insisting on something, and finally the guy turned the computer to face her/me and I saw that he was showing her a map of Miami, proving there were lots (tons!) of places for phone repair. She was incredulous but finally grabbed her son and left.

The guys replaced my battery, but as soon as I left the store my phone began restarting every few minutes. They wanted to run additional tests and put in yet another battery so I had to leave my phone for an hour. ONE HOUR!

Things I noticed without a phone:
– I had no idea what time it was so I didn’t know when the hour was up.
– Everyone is on their phones
– Going shopping for shirts and sucking down a root beer float takes half an hour, even though the lady who scooped the ice cream confessed she tends to put way too much ice cream in the cup.
– Worrying about missing messages is super intense when it’s 100 degrees out.

Sadly the tests pointed to a motherboard issue, and even putting the old battery back in, cantilevered screen aside, caused the phone to continually restart. Bleh.

At least I was able, back home on my computer, to finalize everything, and sure enough lasagna, garlic bread, ceasar salad, lemon ricotta cake, and ice cold drinks were delivered today.

Hooray for old friends, hooray for the internet!

Tea lab – Heatwave

What happens when you schedule a tea tasting on the day the temperature climbs to 117? You start out with a plan, two wild raw pu’ers and some dim sum take out, and end up meandering into GABA oolong, charcoal roasted Tieguanyin, and green tea from Santa Barbara.

Dim sum dishes usually come in threes, so tea tasting in threes (Linda and I were joined by our friend J.D.) is perfect, as it ensures no one feels bad for eating that extra egg tart.

First on our list was two wild teas from Hojo. If you don’t know Hojo, be prepared for incredible teas laced with intense agricultural knowledge. We tasted his 2018 wild raw pu’er from Da Xue Shan, which smells fruity and sweet, and looks nothing like a traditional puck of pu’er.

Hojo thinks the flavor of wild tea tends to be milder because it’s grown in a lot of shade. To bump up the flavor he lets these leaves wither overnight before pan-frying, which oxidizes the tea slightly, and produces awesome color variations.

His definition of “wild” tea is pretty severe, if there are trees growing near paths where cattle may pass by and take a poop, they don’t count as wild, due to the fertilization, which he says will diminish the long-lasting aftertaste of real wild tea. He doesn’t say whether the same applies to wild animals cruising by, but this tea tastes green and fresh, has absolutely no bitterness, with a sugary aftertaste that’s lasting as long as this heat wave.

We drank it with a 2005 wild pu’er (exact origin and animal poop percentage of fertilization unknown, it somehow ended up in our hands) that tasted smooth and brown, full of burnt caramel and marshmallow.

Next we tried Hojo’s wild white tea from Da Xue Shan, made from the same leaves as the pu’er. And yes, it’s really this vivid in person.

This tea was withered for several days but instead of piling the leaves on top of each other like many Fujian white tea producers, Hojo gives his white tea a lot of space. The taste is thick, and lemony, like a sour apple. From what I can gather, Hojo prefers teas on the fruitier side in terms of flavor, so it’s fun to think about someone’s specific personality as you taste their teas.

On that note, J.D. brought some 2003 silver bud white pu’er (I know, the labeling is confusing) also from Da Xue Shan but from David Hoffman’s Phoenix collection. You can’t talk about personality without bringing up David Hoffman, one of the most eccentric and famous of the old guards of tea that are slowing dying off. He’s got a fun shop (and rumored to have a pu’er cave) in Marin County, and the last time I visited he let me sit and brew all afternoon. Supposedly I’ve been promised a tour of his home the next time I visit, before the pesky building inspectors force him to tear it down.

Also dying a slow death is the technique of charcoal roasting Tieguanyin. Our friend Max is writing an article on it (URL to come when it’s published) and we were able to get some Drunken Imperial Concubine from Master Chan. His roaster dude is 70 years old and when he’s gone that will be that. The leaves are roasted for about 22 hours in total, but not continuously, as the roaster (especially if you’re 70) needs to sleep. To keep the pit hot, the ashes of a parasol tree (梧桐樹) are spread over the coals. You can taste a little ashiness in the tea, on top of the roasted coconut and buttery flavors, quite different from the greener, lightly-roasted and more popular tieguanyins.

We got tired of lamenting old tea techniques so we moved on to something high tech and trendy: GABA Taiwanese oolong from Te Company. GABA stands for Gamma-Aminobutyric acid, and supposedly it’s responsible for reducing neuronal excitability, or lowering your blood pressure, or mellowing you out. You can, of course buy GABA as a supplement. The process of GABA tea was invented by the Japanese in the 80’s, where trees are shaded a few weeks before harvest (like gyokuro) in order to produce an excess of glutamic acid, which the leaves already have quite a bit of. When the tea is oxidizing, the oxygen is replaced by nitrogen (technically it’s nitrogized?), which converts the glutamic acid to GABA. This is all fine and dandy, only there’s evidence that taking GABA orally doesn’t increase GABA levels in your brain, because the substance is not able to pass the blood-brain barrier in order to enter your central nervous system.
Though the taste is a little un-tea like, more like a sweet potato leaf tisane, it’s fun to believe in blood-brain barrier penetration, when it’s 117 degrees out anything that promises to reduce your stress level is going to do exactly what it claims to do.

J.D. had with him some Lu An from 1999 (also from David Hoffman) and we thought it would be interesting to try it along side some Lu An Gua Pian, which I’ve never tasted. Lu An is the name of the area, and Gua Pian means melon/pumpkin seed, which the wet leaves definitely smell like, along with nori, and salt. There’s no pumpkin seed taste in the tea, which may mean that the tea isn’t very good, or that it’s supposed to just look like pumpkin seeds. The aged Lu An, however, had some good pumpkin seed flavor, but was a little harsh around the edges.
Lu An Gua Pian is the most complicated green tea to make. Instead of the bud set, the second leaf grown on the branch is plucked, along with a little piece of twig to make sure the leaf doesn’t tear, removed later by hand. After firing over different pans that are set to different temperatures, and a special shaping technique that involves a broom, the tea undergoes a set of one-minute on/off intervals over a charcoal fire (like VO2 max training).

We ended the day with tea from trees grown in Santa Barbara. I don’t know anything about this tea, but the farmers sell their blueberries at the farmer’s market and I’m happy to try any tea made in the US. Their website says they have 300 tea trees, from which they make white tea, but the sticker on the package says it’s green tea. That’s good because when we brewed it, it sure looked and tasted like a white tea.

Heatwave tidbit: Lu An Gua Pian tea was used during the Ming dynasty to prevent sunstroke. No reason it won’t have the same benefits today. Alternatively, you can always cool down with a chicken soup popsicle.

Tea lab – new and better teas

For those interested, 1001 Plateaus and Bana Tea Company will be hosting a Tea Presentation and Tasting at the Huntington Gardens, on Saturday, May 12, 2018 at 9:00AM. We will have a presentation on the history of Chinese tea and taste something like nine different teas. Why so many teas? Because we can.

Also, it’s spring and that means we’ll have fresh green teas on tap and there’s nothing like drinking the stuff straight off the plane. Unless the trade war throws a wrench in our direction. We’ve heard that exporting goods and shipping logistics have been mired in more silliness than usual. (I remember several years ago trying to ship a small piece of furniture home from China and having to buy bubble wrap at the post office one square at a time. There are a lot of hand signals used in China but I have yet to find the one that means “keep it coming.”)

Apparently the post office in China opened up all of our bags of tea for “inspection” and our contact had to follow the workers around bag by bag to reseal. We can only hope he got to all the bags. It’s just like when I dropped an enormous jug of maple syrup on the kitchen floor and as I tried to mop it up I realized my dog, well trained enough not to lick it but not careful enough to avoid stepping in it, was following me around.

A few years ago we ordered a batch of pressed Big Red Robe tea from our friend Mr. Wang. The tea was inexpensive, as it was made from broken leaves of Authentic tea (only the tea picked from bushes grown in the Wuyi National Scenic Area can be called Authentic) and the guy who pressed it (not Mr. Wang) thought it would be interesting to add some yellow leaves, which are older leaves with good flavor but are not valuable because of their looks. We ran out of these bricks so we ordered a new batch but asked our guy to skip the yellow leaves. (See the difference between the two, obviously the darker one is the new tea)

Not sure what happened but this tea is so unbelievably good it’s not clear what’s going on. I’m pretty sure I like it better than the Jade Buddha Oolong, which is a lot more costly. (The new bricks are $20/18 bricks (8.5g), and you can brew several rounds with half a brick).
This is the MOST VISCOUS tea I have ever had. I’ll just leave it at that.

Next we tried our newest tea (after three weeks mired in customs), our 2017 Mengsong, with a drawing of mine on the label, and after many years of spelling Mengsong incorrectly we finally got it right just before going to print. This is a classic autumn tea. It’s quiet, moody and delicious.

We wrapped up the tasting by trying the “second red” pu’er stuffed mandarin. It’s called second red because the fruit has been on the tree longer than the green mandarin, but not as long as the big red mandarin. The flavor has lost some of the green mandarin’s limey tangy flavor but hasn’t taken on the more medicinal “eau de grandma” of the big red.

So I was on a panel

Here’s me signing copies of The Illustrated Wok, an illustrated recipe book from the creators of The Cleaver Quarterly, along with cookbook author Diana Zheng, Chef Johnny Lee, and Cleaver managing editor Lilly Chow.

The awesome team at Now Serving LA were our gracious hosts serving up beef tendon noodles (from Johnny Lee) and intriguing questions.

Every recipe was assigned to a different illustrator. I was given a zongzi recipe handed down to Chef Danielle Chang by her grandmother (I’m thrilled that her grandmother’s recipe, like my grandmother’s, does not use peanuts).

For the book signing, I had an idea to sign my page with a chop, which actually already has my chop printed on it, but not wanting to be so meta I asked people what their favorite food was and “tried” to draw that.

Here are some snippets:

“Burmese food.”
“That’s a tough one for me.”
“OK. How about a salad.”

“Can you draw me a food pyramid?”
“Yes, but I’ll put butter and cheese on the bottom.”
“OK.”
“What else do you like?”
“I love this store.”
So I drew the window of Now Serving LA on the second level of the pyramid, and on the top I put a golden goblet.
“Oh good, that will be for my boba.”

“Anything not tech related.”
“How about spaghetti and meatballs?”

“Pig. Pig. Pig.”
“Unfortunately all animals I draw tend to look like my dog.”
“That’s fine, I’ll recognize it by the nose.”

“Shrimp… It’s OK if it looks like your dog.”

“Anything baked.”

“This is for my mother-in-law. Oh God. You need to give her a whole fish.”

I’m biased but there are many reasons this recipe book is so cool. Besides the recipes from chefs trying to push Chinese food into a more contemporary space. Besides the illustrations of fantastical eggplants and cherubic soup stirrers. Besides giving up the secret for achieving the best Hainan chicken texture. Besides completely avoiding cultural tourism and Chinese weirdness and potentially fetishistic iconography. It’s brilliant.

Here’s the California bear, looking like… you know who.

(panel photo: Diana Zheng)

Tea lab – relative teas

Linda and I are getting ready for another Tea Lab at the Huntington Gardens in November, so we figured we should drink some tea. We never really plan for what we brew at our tastings, we sort of start with lunch and go from there, fitting in the teas we want to offer in the upcoming workshop, getting distracted with ideas for interesting comparisons, and brewing away the day. Today’s tastings started with a little business and ended with a jar of mother-in-law tea, and us being convinced that whatever we drank today was going to be good. Some days are like that.

We started with a fall-picked Mengsung raw pu’er from our friend Xiao Cao. He had given us a sample of his spring-picked Mengsung, which was great, so great that by the time we drank it, it had sold out. Comparing spring to fall picking is a great way to understand the price difference between the two, or why some teas fail to mention the harvest season at all. Don’t even get me started on what summer-picked tea tastes like.

We decided to pass on the fall tea, and try to elbow our way to the front of line for next year’s spring tea.

Our first comparison was between two relatively inexpensive (and brand new) raw pu’ers that use different methods to bring the cost down. The first tea (Bana Tea’s Little Bing Dao) is made from old trees from the region adjacent to Bing Dao. Bing Dao has become a very famous region lately (ie. $$$$), but sunshine and soil tends to bleed so if you’re lucky some tea trees can score the benefits of a particular mountain without having to bear the price tag.

The second tea is Denong’s Mountain Oasis, made from trees on the young side (300 years, LOL) and not from a particular region.

The LBD was more floral, with a taste of rock sugar whereas the Mountain Oasis was rounder, with a smell of chocolate, less high notes. Nothing surprising here, just good stuff. (LBD on the right, MO on the left, below).

Next up, Brother/Sister teas from White2tea. These teas are made from the same source material (Nannuo), the only difference in taste is the person doing the processing. A perfect comparison to show how the taste of tea can be changed by small differences in personality. “The sister brick is material processed with a shorter kill green phase at a lower temperature, where as the brother brick is processed with a higher flame and fried for a longer time.” It’s not clear whether there were any differences in the kneading/rolling stage.

The brother’s tea was darker (in color and taste) and slightly thicker, rounder (which surprised me, this difference, though I don’t know why), with a hint of honey. The sister’s was sweeter, brighter and just a little rougher around the edges. Fiesty sis.

Last time I was in Yunnan I didn’t get to do the killing green, but the guys let me put some sweat equity into the rolling.

Next we headed into the world of old pu’er, old as in from the 80s and 90s but also old enough to not know exactly what we were drinking.

This bag is from the 90s, and is sort of called half ripe half raw. Say what? I guess there are a few ways pu’er becomes this halfling. It’s possible back then the tea was only partially fermented, sort of. It’s also possible back then things were willy nilly and teas sort of mixed in with each other. Most likely, for this bag, it’s a raw tea that was stored in HK until the early 2000s, which means it was “wet stored,” a term nobody likes to say anymore, preferring the euphemism of “traditional stored” or “half ripe half raw,” or even “great for dimsum.” (Forget the fact the bag says a totally different tea).

This tea was actually really good, much more interesting than this “traditionally stored tea” from the 80s from Ying Kee, which was bland and watery in taste, super thin in viscosity. Makes it a no brainer which tea to keep around.

Finally we got to the mother-in-law tea! Lots of people tell me their parents have an old stash of tea and wonder whether it’s worth any money. Some of these people even show me photos of the tea, in the cabinet next to old mushrooms and dried jujubes, expecting me to give my opinion on the spot. They never want to actually taste the tea, they’re just waiting for the Chinese Tea Roadshow to come to their town.

But this mother-in-law tea was crazy good. It wasn’t earthy at all, tasted like wheat/rice soup, had a very sweet aftertaste, a rich grandmothery warming sensation you only get from old teas, and gan! Who knows what it was (possibly a Yunnan/Guangdong blend, based on other teas she had), but for sure we’re going to take it out of that glass jar and drink it… and drink it and drink it and drink it.

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Acid reflux that is good for you

For those interested, 1001 Plateaus and Bana Tea Company will be hosting a Tea Lab focusing on pu’er tea at the Huntington Gardens, on Saturday, September 9, 2017 at 9:00AM. We will talk about why pu’er is so unique, and why pu’er made from old trees has a lot of gan, the sweet, sometimes cooling sensation that is experienced in the mouth and throat (yup, like acid reflux) after an initial bitterness, and if you can’t taste the gan you shouldn’t be paying the money that is charged for old tree pu’er.

First, a head’s up. The brilliant Cleaver Quarterly will be publishing an essay I wrote on gan in the very near future so I won’t get into it now. It explains everything. Stay tuned!

As with any kind of tasting, one of the best ways to highlight a certain flavor/effect is to drink it side by side with something that lacks that flavor/effect. So in preparation for our Tea Lab we compared a tea with gan to a tea with no gan.

The crazy thing about gan is that if you drink some tea with a lot of gan, it will infect all the teas you drink afterwards. Best thing is to drink the no-gan first and then wait and see if anything happens. And wait and wait and wait.

After a few minutes of waiting you can probably assume there isn’t going to be a delayed reaction so it’s safe to try the second tea.

The no-gan tea was a 2004 terrace-grown raw tea (with a lot of tips rather than leaves) that had a lot of things going for it taste-wise: it was round, thick (being 13 years old), had a good dried jujube taste, almost like a strong white tea. But without the gan it became more like raisin-juice, which just shows that drinking pu’er is more about flavor and sensation put together, rather than flavor alone.

The tea with gan was a 2017 Mengseng made by our friend Xiao Cao. Here he is in his tea room in Yunnan with a tea table from Laos that took ten people to move.

The 2004 no-gan is the tea on the bottom (on the left in the second photo). The color of the leaves is lighter, due to all the tips, but the color of the brewed tea is darker because of its age.

Next we revisited one of my favorite teas, Young Jade from Denong, which I tasted in 2012 when it had just come out. It’s a blend made from old trees grown in three crazy famous regions – Jing Mai, Xi Gui, and Lao Ban Zhang, picked before the spring rain.

Back then it was a little tricky to brew, it easily went bitter if you used too much or brewed it longer than 5 seconds. I had given some of that tea to a friend who promptly brewed it incorrectly and told me he thought the tea wasn’t very good. So much for that friend. Now five years old the tea has a super sweet gan on top of the last remnants of its floral flavors. Five years is roughly the time the date and plum flavor start emerging so there’s a lot going on in this tea. I think because it’s a blend all the sensations happen at different times, or even on different levels of your mouth. There’s a slight puckery taste at the sides of your mouth, and a sweet, vaporous sensation that floats above your tongue like a cloud. My suspicion is that it’s the Jingmai doing that, levitating, since the next tea we tasted was the 2017 Jing Mai (Meng Ben area) also from Denong, so smooth and floral and crisp we stopped drinking tea altogether and switched to water. Those few grams of leaves next to the gaiwan is all we have (for now) of this tea, and when that last little bit is gone that paper towel will be worth rolling up and smoking.

Updated December, 2017 with link to the essay on gan.

Peaceful chickens and mockingbirds

So I know it’s been awhile. You might say that the election and its aftermath has subsumed all rational activity. Every day I wake up and take an extra long time to do the mundane crap, extra care for the same old same old, because when you consider the number of people in certain swing states who voted for third party candidates versus the number of votes Trump won over Clinton, or the news that the impending retail job market crash will be #(*&@@!x number of times worse then the coal worker’s crisis, even with the news that Pandas have been upgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable things just seem so awful.

Many years ago I wrote a story where the Aphex Twin was the president of the United States and he changed the name of “The White House” to “Rationality.” The fact that his chief strategist was Klaus Meine (from the Scorpions) made the story a little over the top.

It’s classic June gloom in Los Angeles, but the recent rains have given us poppies, fat blackberries, bees, and tons of weeds. Our gardener is very stressed out. He just wipes his brow and says “Everything keeps growing.”

We’ve planted tomatoes every year but this is the year the squirrels have decided they are good enough to steal. They (the squirrels) have suffered a little bit of a setback the last few weeks because a pair of mockingbirds have started hanging about the yard, another first for us. Usually we get a cooper hawk visiting every spring, which is a beautiful thing to see in the crepe myrtles, but these mockingbirds are assholes.

They attack Stevie the border collie, going for her eyes. They attack the squirrels (OK) and they attacked the cooper hawk (not OK).

They’ve woken up Bing Bing the cat, who for the past six months has done very little other than sleep and vomit, and now she’s climbing up on anything that gives her a front row seat of the mockingbirds beating up on Stevie.

For some reason MO is free to walk about and enjoy the sunshine, being the hippie, solar-addicted bird-lover she is. Or maybe it’s random, right? Like each dog walks out into the yard, and they don’t know what’s going to happen?

The last Trumpian I have spoken to since the night of the election was this guy that walked into the Thai restaurant where I was picking up dinner. He takes one look at the polls on the television (at that point bleak but not apocalyptic, yet), and tells me and the owner that he hadn’t voted yet, “but I’m gonna.” The owner says “White rice or brown rice?” and the guy says “Well, we all know what we’re going to get with one candidate. We know exactly what we’re going to get. With the other one, it’s different. It will be something new.”

It feels silly to end on such a low note, so I’ll put this out there:

Yingelishi is a genius and crazy language opera written by Jonathan Stalling that “works” in both Mandarin Chinese and English. The Chinese phrases read out loud mean different things depending on whether you’re asking the words to produce their meaning in English or in Chinese. For example, my name in English is Angie. An easy way for me to get Chinese people who don’t know English to pronounce my name is to have them call me “Peaceful Chicken,” because Peaceful Chicken in Chinese is pronounced “An Gee.”

The title of Jonathan’s opera, Yinglishi, means “Chanted Songs, Beautiful Poetry” in Chinese, but it also sounds like what he calls “an accented pronunciation of the word ‘English.'” All of this is part of a brilliant effort to teach English using the sounds of the student’s native language, rather than making them first learn romanized letters and their sounds before actually speaking English. I figure this is totally helpful in a large part of China where the English teacher doesn’t actually have great pronunciation, and the students (being nice, eager mockingbirds) simply repeat what they hear.

Tea lab and snorting catechins

tealab

For those interested, 1001plateaus and Bana Tea Company will be hosting a Tea Lab at the Huntington Gardens, on Saturday, November 5, 2015 at 9:00AM. We will be doing side by side tastings of several factors that can affect how a tea tastes.

Tea tasting is comparative, like running in a marathon. In a race, no matter how small or large the field, you can only win against the other people who have entered, much like how a tea can only be compared to what else is at the table. It’s fairly common to do a tea tasting comparing different types of teas or different price points, but what about brewing the same tea under different circumstances? Beyond the obvious ones like using a porcelain gaiwan versus a Yixing pot, or varying the temperature or type of water used to brew. What about the harvest season? How about if we introduce some vibration to the water molecules? Or compare the same tea which has been stored on different continents?

In preparation for our upcoming Tea Lab at the Huntington Gardens, we thought we would brew a few comparisons. But first, because we knew one of the tests would be a tea brewed with tap water, and we’d also have to drink a tea harvested in the summer, we treated ourselves to some *@@&#^#!! jasmine tea.

That’s right. Haters are going to hate. I hate jasmine tea also, but I mean the stuff that’s known around the world as “jasmine tea” – bitter and smelling like Jean Nate. Those tea leaves have never seen a jasmine flower in their life, their jasmine scent has been sprayed on, much like the machine that coats dog kibble with flavors.

jasminetea

jasminetea2

The real stuff is made by spreading fresh leaves on the ground in a thin layer and covering the leaves with jasmine flowers. The flowers only bloom for one night so in the morning the flowers must be picked out. (BTW – that pretty jasmine tea at the store which still has flower petals mixed in with the tea? The flowers are not adding any flavor to the tea, but they are adding weight. It’s the equivalent of the deli guy resting his thumb on the scale when he sells you bologna but tells you it’s prime rib. Not to knock bologna, but still.)

This process is repeated many many times until the tea has absorbed the scent. The jasmine we drank was made with small tea buds, whose fuzzy hairs absorbed more smell. Probably too small to roll into the usual pearl shape, which is good, since I have a bad connotation with that visual.

jasmine

jasmine-brewed

Sure it tasted flowery but in a subtle way, like you’ve already walked past the house with the flowers blooming in the front yard. There was no astringency at all, no resemblance to drinking something at a Chinese restaurant, and actually it didn’t taste like tea either, more like a precious juice.

On to our taste tests:

– Organic Wild Peony (ming qian) White tea from Fuding brewed with Crystal Geyser versus Los Angeles tap water.
This comparison is the crowd pleaser. You’re pretty certain one of these will taste better, but it’s plenty surprising how salty and gritty that tap water can be.

whitetea

– 2011 Treasures of the Five Mountains raw Pu’er. Stored in Hong Kong, vs. stored in Los Angeles. The larger puck is HK, the smaller is LA. There’s a pretty noticeable difference in color.

la_5mountians

hk_5mountians

This is one of those tastings where it gets personal. Sure the HK stored tea seems more aged, is generally darker in appearance and has more plum flavor. But the LA one is more floral, more complex, in a way, with hints of different flavors, probably due to the fact that Five Mountains is a blend. Aging a tea will flatten the differences out and since the LA tea is “younger” there are more differences to taste.

hk-la1

hk-la

We over-brewed these teas for fun to see what that would do, and the HK one showed it’s age. It was definitely less astringent, and more mellow than it’s twin other. Another great example of how a tea is brewed is just as important to how or where it’s stored, and since most of us don’t have a choice on where our tea is stored…

We ended the day with some magical white powder called catechin. This is the phenol or flavonoid that is responsible for gan, that sweet or minty taste you get after drinking Pu’er teas with high mineral content (and eating bitter melon, ginseng, and a few other foods. More on gan coming very soon). What a better way to experience gan than to lick it off a wet finger?

catechin

The sensation was purer than when you get it through tea, more direct, no tea flavors diluting the experience, and the sweetness lasted a good fifteen minutes or so, especially noticeable when we drank some water. That water, good old plain water, tasted incredibly sweet I wanted to floss my teeth with it.

catechin-wrapper

mo-smello-tea

Pu’er tea harvest season taste test

For those interested, 1001plateaus and Bana Tea Company will be presenting a focused tea tasting on Pu’er at the Huntington Gardens, on Saturday, November 14, 2015 at 9:00AM.

Yiwu_harvest_tasting2

There’s been a backlash recently about the fuss and puffery used to describe flavor profiles, so in going “totally layman,” I’m going to stick with these three phrases: Great, pretty OK, and no good.

Tasting, of course is a relative thing. Given several teas/coffee/wines to choose from, the goal is to look for characteristics that stand out from the others: least acidic, most creamy, etc. but it only makes sense compared to what else is at the table. In addition, flavors are subjective, so it’s best to focus on characteristics that don’t rely on flavors. In terms of Pu’er, the look of the brewed leaves, bitterness on the finish, the presence of gan (a returning sweetness in the mouth), viscosity of the tea, and how it feels in the mouth and throat are indicators of quality whether or not the tea has dried-plum or orchid flavors.

It’s common knowledge that harvest season greatly affects the quality of tea, but I have not found anyone who has actually done a harvest season taste test. It’s quite a feat to get real Pu’er from Yi Wu in the first place, so we were super happy to get three pucks of 2015 raw Pu’er from San He Chun, picked from old trees in the spring, summer, and fall.

Yiwu_harvest_tasting

The color difference is interesting. From left to right is spring, summer, and fall. Since these teas are all from 2015, the spring is actually the oldest, and yet the lightest in color.

Tasting the three teas initially blind, it was obvious which one was spring. It was clean, complex, and very thick. Out of the remaining two, one of them was like drinking a brick, bitter, dull, and funky smelling. This turned out to be summer. Summer is the time of the monsoon, and when it’s raining, trees are focused on growing (trunk, branches), and the minerals absorbed by the roots go toward that end. During the rainy season the tree is not interested in producing leaves, and those that are produced are weak in mineral content (flavor).

The third one, fall, was OK. There is no better word. It was slightly bitter, had a little flavor, but didn’t make me want to dump the cup out.

After this first brewing we had some plain water, and since this is Yi Wu Pu’er from old trees, there was a lot of gan, resulting in sweet, fabulous water, and honestly I’m not sure whether the gan came from all three teas or just the spring. (Next tasting!)

Then we brewed the teas a second time, for a lot longer than we should have, just to draw out some (if any) of the bad qualities. I tasted fall first, and it tasted better, pretty OK. Then I tasted the spring. If the fall was somehow elevated for the second brewing the spring was equally lifted if not more. The second it hit my mouth I could tell the difference in viscosity, and then came the various flavors. Viscosity = mineral content.

Finally I tried the summer again, and, instead of just tasting slightly over-brewed, like the others, the long brew created a bitter fur bomb that stuck in the front of my mouth and on my tongue, like eating an unripe persimmon, or that thin papery skin that surrounds a walnut. A perfect example of unwanted astringency in tea, however.

Like the age of the trees and the terroir, harvest season has a considerable effect of the price of Pu’er. Generally, the price of the fall picking is 2/3 of the cost of spring, and summer is half, but considering those fakers out there, it’s potentially an easy thing for vendors to sell a fall or summer Pu’er for spring prices.

pups

There’s some “hint of wet dog on the nose” for the Scotch drinkers.

You are what you smell

missing-teeth

Last year the porcelain bridge I’ve worn in my mouth since high school gave out, so I’ve been spending a lot of time at the dentist lately, preparing for some new teeth. As it turns out, I’ve also been spending a lot of time with my dentist.

teeth_impression

He’s the guy that got us into roasting our own coffee beans, so in return we told him about Sean Thackrey wines. Now his new obsession is a gadget called the Coravin, which allows you to “access” a bottle of wine without removing the cork. A needle is inserted into the bottle (“cork strike”) and argon gas is pumped in and the wine comes out. When you pull the needle out, the cork reseals itself, and since argon is an inert gas, the wine will not be oxidized.

coravin_demo

All this is theory, so Coravin’s founder, Greg Lambrecht, who’s more like a cool inventor than a sales person, invited a group of wine professionals plus my dentist, who invited me (we’re “fans” I suppose) to a blind tasting (plus a steak lunch at Morton’s). Classy!

coravin_tasting

We were early, so I got to chat with Greg about the company who produces his argon canisters (same company that provides Starbucks with helium. Go whippets!) and what he’s working on next: screw top wine bottles and champagne. He explained that when you force a gas and a liquid out the same hole you get flat champagne. But he’s very close to figuring out a solution. For those wines that use plastic corks he told me the secret was to always place the needle in the same hole (HA!), store the bottle standing up and it will keep for a month (argon is denser than air), or use *** to seal the hole in the cork. He actually made me promise not to divulge what *** was.

coravin_bottles

The tasting consisted of 5 glasses of white and 5 glasses of red (of the same wine). Some of the glasses were filled with bottles that were accessed exactly a year ago, and the others were filled with bottles opened that day. We were told not to look at our neighbor’s notes and not to speak. Some thirty people handling ten wine glasses each is actually a loud affair. Then there was a little bit of hubbub regarding how, exactly, we were all supposed to share the spitting buckets. This was soon addressed, and we got to tasting.

Both of the wines that were served were natural, which meant some variation from bottle to bottle was to be expected. Though last year’s wine may taste a little different, the point is that it’s not something anyone would be embarrassed to serve. The Coravin works incredibly well.

Apparently the percentage of people that can taste the difference is 5%, and apparently I fall within that 5%. I’ve got “Smell-o-vision.” I picked the whites correctly and got all the reds except for one. Bastard! I suppose I’ve had a lot of practice. I live with a dog that can vapor wake and I’ve spent a lot of hours tasting tea. Wine is harder than tea. Your palette gets very tired. I did spit most of the wine out, but I felt I had to drink a little from each glass. By the time I got to the reds, I was ready for lunch. Lunch was a three-course affair with some rare wines thrown in for fun, but it wasn’t lunchtime yet.

I went around the room smelling things. I smelled the leatherette sleeve for the wine bottle that comes with the system. It’s supposed to keep you safe if the bottle you are accessing is one of the 1-in-50,000 bottles that break when the needle goes in. I smelled the paper doowahs that went around the base of each glass to assign it a number. I smelled someone’s bad breath, which my dentist later confirmed was the sign of “perio.” I smelled the soap from the bathroom on the ladies that walked by. This was way too much fun for an event that was free.

I asked Greg how one was supposed to get the wine from a very old bottle, and he gave a demonstration of how to get at the bottle sideways while keeping the sediment untouched. He added that when the bottle gets low, like around 5 ounces, you should do yourself a favor and just pull the cork out and drink the damn thing. Now that’s some no-nonsense advice.

stevie-yellow-flowers

MO-smell-toy

coravin_table