Category Archives: all the tea in China

Tea lab: the long slog of comparing two teas

In preparation for our upcoming workshop at the Huntington Gardens on October 20, Linda and I broke down several ways in which the differences between similar teas could be seen/smelled/experienced. As I have often said before, a great tea is only great in relation to the other teas at the table. Either of these teas on their own would have been extraordinary, where it gets interesting is comparing them side by side.

We were lucky to have two samples of extremely high quality Old Bush Water Sprite (Lao Cong Shui Xian) from Wuyi Mountain. Both of these sell for over $60/50 grams. Both of these name the tea master dude who made it, we’ll call them Mr. X and Mr. W. Old Bush Water Sprite is supposed to be picked from old bushes, and where these bushes are grown governs how much mineral content is absorbed into the roots and leaves. Wuyi Mountain is karstic and volcanic and has wonderfully porous rock that enables mist and dew to permeate easily. In some areas the cliffs suck up moisture from the river and excess water trickles down all day long onto happy tea bushes.

The leaves: On the left is Mr. X, on the right Mr. W.
Mr. X smelled slightly fruity, a little tangy like passionfruit, and Mr. W had more of a dark chocolate, roasted Cheerios smell, as if it were roasted for a longer length of time, even though it was actually lighter in color, with more variance across the leaves.

Mr. X

Mr. W

Sometimes the aromas change when you place dry leaves into a heated gaiwan. Sometimes darker, funky smells come out, and lighter, floral ones disappear. This wasn’t the case with these teas, both smelled incredibly rich and clean.

The color: Mr. X is darker, more amber red, compared to Mr. W’s golden brew. Both liquids are very clear, but the tea on the left (Mr. X) is slightly less so. Again, it’s interesting to note that although Mr. W smelled more roasted, the color of the tea is lighter, more orange than brown.

The first steep: Mr. X has a slight vanilla and ripe fruit flavor that happens right up front when you drink it, but there’s a rough edge afterwards, as if the flavor was somehow rushed, leaving a slight harshness behind on your tongue. It has an odd, thin flatness reminiscent of tea that’s been brewed with with tap water (we’re using Crystal Geyser).
Mr. W has wheat and honey notes which glide into your mouth slowly, the flavor is more noticeable after you swallow, which of course makes you want more. The tea is smoother and thicker compared to Mr. X, and becomes more viscous as it cools. There is a feeling that the gaps in between your teeth have been filled with some fancy lubricant.

The fourth steep: We lengthened the brewing time for the subsequent steepings, to see if that made any difference. Mr. X remained slightly edgy, until the fourth steep, when all of a sudden the slight roughness seemed to go away. Oddly enough the tea started to taste rounder than the previous steepings. Mr. W remained a smooth cool cucumber. It would have been interesting to continue brewing, to the tenth or twelfth steeping.

The cup: After five steepings we smelled the empty cups. The aroma from Mr. X was feint and barely perceptible. Mr. W smelled like flowers and honey, and this was still the case after leaving the cups alone for several minutes while we went on a tangent into Hunan Fu Zhuan, which quite literally is drinking tea with mold on it.

The yellow spots on the tea are spores from a fungus called Jin Hua that is cultivated in rice or wheat flour. The tea is inoculated with the fungus and gives it a very sweet taste. I’m not sure how tea is inoculated and why Jin Hua tea is associated with Mongolian Diet Tea but I’ll be sure to find out.

Tea Lab: the Best Tea House (China)

In 2001, my husband and I went to China to research tea and we saw a place on the map in Guangzhou called the Best Tea House (China) Co., LTD. We went in the front door, sat down with a woman named Rainbow, and stumbled out five days later. Some very old pu’er was drunk after hours one night, after the gals in the shop broke off a small piece of a mushroom/turdy looking thing in a very dark (and fragrant) storage room. We were all giggling so much only Rainbow had the steady hand to brew it. They claim it was from 1901 and I believe it. It looked older than dirt. The taste…honestly, does it even matter?

(photo altered to protect the innocent)

After we returned the the U.S. we sent Rainbow some money and she shipped over various teas, porcelain ware that never made it (no easy access to bubble wrap back then) and three-toed sloths made out of Yixing clay.

A few years later we found out Rainbow’s boss (I’ll call him Chevy, since he looked like a Chinese Chevy Chase) had kyped the name “Best Tea House” from Vesper Chan, who had been doing business in Hong Kong under the same name. Copycatting is often seen as a form of respect in China, and Mr. Chan never thought he’d be doing business on the mainland anyway so he didn’t think much of it. A few years ago Mr. Chan decided to open up business in China, and found out he couldn’t use the same business name as his HK shop. So, Chevy’s a little shady. Oh well.

Two of the teas Rainbow sent over have the Seven Sons wrapper, the name for pu’er teas made by the Menghai Tea Factory, overseen by the China National Native Produce and Animal By-products Import and Export Corporation (otherwise known as CNNP), the official government agency in charge of those exact things in its name, (including pu’er) since the seventies. As with anything that old, especially from China, there are many variations in the paper, the font size, the printing, and the tea. Our tea, in the thin wrapping paper that’s very close to crumbling, is in this book.

Most of the pucks she sent were from that year, 2002, but a few of them came with this note, saying that it’s fifteen years old (from 2002, which places it at 1987). I thought it tasted delicious back then but now after another fifteen years this tea is crazy.

The taste is of rice soup with a little bit of date, but there’s an incredible sweet aftertaste that’s so rich and warming if feels like your mouth has been lined with a fleecy sleeping bag.

Next up was the “four gentlemen” set from Denong. The four gentlemen are plum, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo. Each of these are picked ming qian from leaves from a single famous mountain but you aren’t told which one.

The plum tasted like white sugar, the orchid smelled like rock sugar, which made me think it was from an area close to Yi Wu, the chrysanthemum was the thickest tasting with a hint of citrus, and the bamboo, was, in a funny way, manly. Woodsy without being woodsy, a lot of fiber notes, no florals.

We left the pu’er world by trying a stuffed yuzu from Korea. The packaging says Yuzu Citron Tea but according to my handy dandy citrus chart, yuzu and citron are not the same thing.

The flavor of the yuzu is lovely and sweet, and the color of the liquid was like sunshine, but we couldn’t discern any tea flavor. The tea was very broken up, and when I chewed on some unbrewed pieces, and chewed and chewed, after about a minute it started to taste like black tea.

Black Magnolia from the Great Mississippi Tea Company is the third tea grown in the U.S. that I have tried, and it’s always exciting to see the the outline of a state under Origin on the back of the package.

Only problem is that the back of the package also called this tea an oolong, and it had two different brewing instructions, one that said 4 teaspoons for 8 ounces of water, and one that said 2 teaspoons, with a different temperature recommendation. This was all so confusing it left us with an argument of whether the average tea drinker sees “teaspoons of tea” and uses a kitchen spoon or a measuring teaspoon. In either case, I couldn’t heap ANY tea into the measuring spoon because the leaves were too large and 4 kitchen spoons of tea came out to be over 6 grams which is way too much tea to be brewing with 8 ounces of water for five minutes (as one of the instructions said).

To cap off the afternoon we pulled out Denong’s 2008 Lao Ban Zhang (picked ming qian). It looked so innocuous, but one sniff of the leaves (chocolatey) and I started to salivate. I didn’t need to drink any tea. I think my body just remembered what it was supposed to do. Your mouth turns into the best sugary garden hose you’ve ever taken a drink from. The best part of LBZ is that flavor wise it’s pretty unremarkable. This leads to possibly a taste comparison for an upcoming workshop at the Huntington (note to anyone who has managed to read this far, our October workshop is sold out!): a pu’er that has OK flavor and no gan, versus a pu’er with a similar OK flavor but all gan. Now that’s going to be fun.

Tea lab – for sure, for sure

This week in the world of “Tea vs. coffee” debates I know for sure if some dude does a rookie move at the Velodrome and crashes into you, and you break your wrist, it’s far easier to make an espresso than to brew tea.

Obviously it’s easiest to just have someone brew tea for you, so head’s up on two upcoming tea tastings with 1001 Plateaus and Bana Tea Company at the Huntington Gardens.

– Saturday, September 15, 2018 at 9:00 AM – “Tea Tasting: The Basics.” We will discuss brewing methods, factors that can affect the overall quality of one’s cup, and storage, as we taste rare and high-end teas from the six major categories.

– Saturday, October 20, 2018 at 9:00 AM – “Tea Tasting: Subtlety, Complexity and Beyond.” a workshop that is focused solely on tasting: We will taste specific flavor profiles of the major types of tea and then examine the often wild variations within each category. (Tickets go on sale one month prior).

Linda and I planned to get together and figure out what to do for our “Tea basics” tasting but didn’t quite get there. It was hot, it’s been hot, and the Thai place offered us free mango and sticky rice to go with our three other dishes, so we ate all our sticky rice and didn’t worry about the basics.

We started with three raw teas from Mengsong.

We tried two spring teas, a 2018 spring made from 100 year old trees from Vesper Chan, another 2018 spring made from old trees by our friend Xiao Cao, and Xiao Cao’s 2017 fall harvest, same farm. Xiao Cao’s spring tea is named after Hunter, Linda’s new grandson so you don’t have to finish reading this in order to know which tasted the best out of the three.

Xiao Cao’s Mengsong Fall tasted quieter, softer than his spring tea but with the same smoothness and detail, like slightly muting the tone of a color photograph. Both of Xiao Cao’s teas were thicker than the tea made from 100 year old trees, a great way to understand how 100 years is a spring chicken as far as pu’er trees go.

I get a lot of comments as to how tea is confusing: how some wild tea trees used to be farmed many years ago, or how “wild” depends on which animal has or has not pooped on its roots, or how does something like the half-raw/half-ripe get explained.

One tip I’ll always stand by is you should always brew tea using spring water from the same area that the tea was grown in. At least it makes agricultural sense even if it’s not practical. Maybe the next best thing is to use the local spring water to ferment your ripe pu’er, which is what makes Vesper Chan’s 2018 Enchantment of Ancient Trees so amazing. At first it tasted like a crazy candy bar because of the gan from the earlier teas, which caused more confusion for a minute.

It had a strong raw cocoa bean taste, and no deep earthy tones, which tends to be one-dimensional and boring in most ripe teas. It was also super thick and bold, and didn’t taste like a new tea. Because, just to add to the confusion, this tea is a 2018, but it was made in 2015. What was it doing for three years? Hanging out in a controlled environment.

We compared this young tea with the enormo-brick (a hefty one-pounder) from 2010 called Chang-An which was probably made by the same person (Vesper Chan’s ripe pu’er dude).

It had a similar cocoa bean flavor, no earthiness, and hint of something tangy like dried currant. Eight years (plus/minus three) has given it a lot more flavor and richness so we encouraged the Enchantment of Ancient Trees to do some additional hanging out. Note: no way you can break off a piece of that brick with one hand.

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.”
“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.