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The Iron Goddess of Mercy – Part 2

Myths and Legends of Tea coverThis is the continuation of yesterday’s post, which is one of the stories from my book, Myths & Legends of Tea Volume 1. If you enjoyed this story, the Amazon Kindle edition and the Apple iBook edition are online and waiting for you, and you can read the notes about this tea and all of other the stories from Volume 1 right now!

In our story so far, a farmer named Wei has discovered an abandoned temple to Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, and worked tirelessly to restore it to its former beauty.

The Iron Goddess of Mercy

China, 1761

One day, Wei walked into the temple and realized he had done everything he could do. All of the little things were repaired. Everything was clean. The incense was burning and someone – he did not know who – had placed an offering in the bowl. He looked at the statue of Guanyin and thought he detected a trace of a smile. Just a tiny bit. Just at the corner of her mouth. But he didn’t see the sadness he had seen before.

There may actually have been a hint of smile on the statue’s face, or Wei may have been imagining it. It really didn’t matter, though. It brought a real smile to Wei’s face. There’s a special kind of happiness we get from doing things for others, things that bring us no personal benefit. That is what Wei felt as he walked home that afternoon.

That night, as Wei slept, he had a vivid dream. Not like our normal dreams, where things have soft edges and little detail and we forget them as soon as we wake. This dream was crystal clear, and felt like he was actually experiencing it.

Wei stood on the shore of an ocean where a mighty storm was raging. He was on a rock looking down at the powerful waves crashing against the shore. The wind whipped the spray into his face and threatened to knock him from his precarious perch. Although it was daytime, the dark clouds above hid the sun from him, making everything look like it was drawn in charcoal.

He seemed to actually feel the sea water on his skin, hear the howl of the wind and the roar of the surf, smell the salt in the air. Never had he experienced a dream with such clarity, and it made him nervous.

He fell to one knee and braced himself against the wind so that it wouldn’t sweep him into the surf booming against the sharp outcroppings below him. As he knelt there, the clouds parted far out over the water and he saw a beam of sunshine fight its way through. Where it hit the water, the head of an enormous sea dragon breached the surface of the sea, and the furious storm-whipped waves began to calm around its mighty neck. As more of the dragon crested, Wei saw someone standing on its back, wearing flowing white robes.

As the dragon approached, the calm water and the beam of light came with it. Soon, Wei could make out the woman riding upon the dragon. It was Guanyin, carrying a willow branch in her right hand and a jar of clear water in her left. Although water coursed from the back of the sea dragon, Guanyin’s hair and robes were dry. On her face was an expression so serene, so calm, that Wei did not fear the monstrous beast that towered high over the shore. Guanyin stood effortlessly, her dry feet showing no signs of slipping on the wet scales of the dragon’s back.

When the dragon approached his rock, Wei was encompassed by the beam of light. The crashing of the waves ceased and the world around him suddenly felt like it was painted in delicate watercolor. Tranquility settled over him, and he rose to his feet to find himself looking into the eyes of Guanyin. He fell back to his knees and bowed his head.

“Rise,” she told him. He stood awkwardly, intimidated by her presence and the head of the dragon looming over him, water dripping from the barbels alongside the fearsome mouth.

She studied him for a long moment before she spoke. He kept his head down, but could not stop himself from looking at her.

“You are a good man, Wei,” she said. “You have worked long and hard to restore my temple, and you have shown me great respect. What would you ask from me as a reward?”

He responded without stopping to think. “I did what I did because it needed to be done. I did not fix your temple because I sought reward. I fixed it because it was the right thing to do.”

“I know that,” the goddess responded. For the first time, Wei saw a smile on her face, and it brought such joy to his heart that he almost interrupted her. Luckily, he held back, for it is not wise to interrupt the gods. But what reward could compare with bringing a smile to the face of the Goddess of Mercy? No man could ask for more.

“Had you done this for a reward,” she continued, “I would not be inclined to give you one. But your motives are pure and enlightened. Kindness deserves kindness, and for that reason, I shall reward you.

“You did not select a gift, so I have selected one for you. You shall find it behind the temple, shadowed by the large bear-shaped rock. It holds the key to your future and your village’s future, so treat it with care and respect.”

He bowed his head again as the dragon pulled back from the rock upon which he stood. The clouds dissipated from the sky, and the sea became smooth as glass. A single yellow butterfly danced before him as the dragon swam away, gradually disappearing under the water.

Wei stood on the rock, overcome with joy. Slowly, the vision faded and he settled into a deep dreamless sleep.

When Wei awoke in the morning, he lay quietly in his bed, serene and rested. Then the dream came back to him. He leapt out of bed and rushed through his morning routine. He felt no hunger, and took only a moment to eat a half-bowl of rice, barely tasting it as he ate.

He rushed to the temple. How different it looked! The stone wall looked sturdy and solid. Flowers were beginning to bloom in the rays of sunlight that streamed through the neatly-pruned cherry trees, which were showing signs of blooming themselves. The entrance to the temple was inviting, clean, tidy.

Without even pausing to enter the temple and light incense, Wei stepped from the path and circled around behind. He hadn’t ventured here before. It was still wild. A rivulet of water burbled happily down the steep slope, and only a small area was flat and level. In that small area stood the bear-shaped rock that Guanyin had referred to, taller than Wei himself.

He looked eagerly in the rock’s shadow, not knowing what to expect, and saw nothing but dirt, rocks, and a pathetic little sprig of a plant.

I see nothing, he thought. My treasure must be buried.

But as Wei kneeled to start digging, something about the sapling caught his eye. The deep green of the leaves and their slightly jagged edges looked familiar. It was a tea plant! Small, undernourished, with only a few leaves, but a tea plant nonetheless. He dug it up and carefully transplanted it into his garden at home.

For days and weeks, he watered it, tended it, fertilized it, all the while not quite sure if this tiny plant was really his reward from the goddess. The scraggly plant grew quickly into a thick healthy bush. The trunk grew strong and thick; the leaves glossy and bright. He picked a leaf and crushed it between his fingers. The aroma was strong and sweet. It was time.

Carefully, he selected a handful of delicate new buds and the young leaves next to them. He laid them out in the sun to wither, and went to tell his friend Wang about his prize. Wang came back to see the tea bush, and they took the leaves into the house to cool.

“Should I go to the city and find a tea master to help me prepare this properly?” Wei asked his friend.

“No,” said Wang. “Guanyin gave you this tea plant. Meditate as the leaves cool. Clear your mind, and then follow your instincts.”

And so he did. He followed the same process that he always used with the scruffy tea plants that he and his neighbors grew. Tossing, a bit of oxidizing, fixing; he dedicated the next day to working with his prized leaves.

He rolled the leaves as oolong tea makers did – and still do. Not being very skilled at it, he ended up not with neat little balls, but with little curled-up tadpole shapes, which he roasted very lightly. Over the next two days, they dried hard as he looked on impatiently. At last, the leaves appeared ready.

Excited, Wei fetched one of his most prized possessions: a beautiful black iron teapot. He took a small scoop of the leaves and dropped them into the teapot and they made sharp “ping” sounds, almost like iron pieces tumbling into the iron pot. He rushed to get Wang and some of his neighbors. They looked at him dubiously as he chattered on about the visit from Guanyin in his dream. They passed around one of his dried leaves and looked it over uncertainly.

Then he poured the hot water over the leaves in his teapot, and the aroma of the tea struck them. They rushed in to look, to smell, and – when the tea was finished steeping – to taste.

The tea was magical. It had a rich amber color and a bold taste with overtones of honey and spice. They held the liquid in their mouths and it felt smooth and light. The taste lingered long after the tea was swallowed, and it brought what could only be called an energizing calm to the villagers. All of the tea they had ever produced before suddenly seemed inadequate and drab.

Because of the hard dried leaves and their ringing sound when dropped on iron or steel, Wei called the tea tieguanyin, which we translate today as Iron Goddess of Mercy.

As Wei’s tea bush flourished, he took cuttings for his neighbors, his friends, and his own farm. All of the other tea plants in the village were slowly replaced, and he taught everyone in the village how to produce his special tea. Soon there was enough tieguanyin to take to market, and the reputation of the tea spread like fire.

The poor village prospered and expanded, but Wei was always there to remind them to take time for Guanyin’s temple. Together, they expanded the garden around the temple, lovingly planted with the most beautiful and fragrant flowers, the most luscious fruits, and of course, the goddess’ own tea bushes.

They sculpted a streambed for the water flowing down the slopes behind the temple. They directed the water around the bear-shaped rock and past the temple to the front, where the garden filled with the tinkling sound of water over rocks, and made a pool in front, which they filled with koi and lilies. In that magic way that ponds have, it filled itself with frogs, who added their music to the sound of the stream.

Drinking a cup of tieguanyin there made the garden seem brighter and the tea taste better. Life was not always easy in the village, but it was never as hard as it had been before Wei began his work on Guanyin’s temple.

Does that temple still stand? I don’t know. If so, I think you’ll agree that the statue of Guanyin upon that alter must now be smiling as tea lovers the world over enjoy the rich ambrosia that we call tieguanyin.

Buy the Amazon Kindle edition of Myths & Legends of Tea, Vol 1

Buy the Apple iBook edition of Myths & Legends of Tea, Vol 1

The Iron Goddess of Mercy – Part 1

Myths and Legends of Tea coverThis is one of the stories from my book, Myths & Legends of Tea Volume 1. I will post the conclusion tomorrow [Update: here it is]. If you just can’t wait, no problem! The Amazon Kindle edition and the Apple iBook edition are online and waiting for you, and you can have all of the stories from Volume 1 right now!

Each story is followed by notes about the tea and how to prepare it. I hope you enjoy the stories!

The Iron Goddess of Mercy

China, 1761

It was the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty in China, but our story concerns no emperors, warlords, or nobles. It is just a tale of a humble farmer by the name of Wei.

Wei lived in Anxi Country in the Chinese province of Fujian. People there were struggling with hard times. Fujian, they say, is eight parts mountain, one part water, and one part farmland. Wei’s tiny village was no exception. He and his neighbors grew what they could. A bit of wheat, a bit of rice, and a few sweet potatoes were enough for most of them to get by.

Their favorite crop was tea. They worked hard to produce good tea, using the complex oolong production style. Their process wasn’t bad but the result was usually mediocre, as it came from poor stock.

“Oh, well,” they used to say. “You can’t get silk from an earthworm.”

Each week, Wei would go to market in the city. Each week, he passed an old temple that had fallen into disrepair. The pathway was overgrown, the gates had fallen, and it appeared that nobody had worshipped there in a very long time. It was such a part of the scenery that Wei walked by it without even seeing it.

Like the rest of his village, Wei was a Buddhist. It’s difficult to describe how Buddhism works to Westerners like us, as the Buddha himself isn’t considered a god but an enlightened being. What we often refer to as gods and goddesses in Buddhism, actual Buddhists would call bodhisattvas. The temple Wei passed each week was built for the Bodhisattva Guanyin, whom you or I might call the Goddess of Mercy.

One particular day – a day that would become a major turning point for Wei, Wei’s village, and lovers of tea everywhere – Wei stopped on the road to rest. Not that stopping on the road was an unusual occurrence. The trip was long and Wei was not as young as he used to be. On this very notable day, however, he stopped right at the pathway to the temple of Guanyin.

After Wei set down his heavy load, he pushed back his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead. What used to be the temple’s garden was surrounded by a small rock wall, more decorative than functional. It would do no good at keeping out deer or rodents, and in its current tumbledown state, even a rabbit could hop right through in several places.

Once, the flowers and cherry trees of the garden had been carefully-tended, but that was long ago. The undergrowth almost completely obscured the path, bushes had grown tall and scraggly, and the unpruned cherry trees blocked the sun to the flowers. At least, he thought, the wall provides a place to sit and the trees give me shade.

He looked down the pathway, wiped his sleeve across his forehead again, and thought about the temple.

Guanyin is the Goddess of Mercy, he thought. Okay, perhaps he called her a bodhisattva rather than a goddess, but he was, after all, Chinese, and neither goddess nor bodhisattva is a Chinese word, so I shall use the more familiar word in my telling of Wei’s story.

It is not seemly that we should treat Guanyin’s temple with such disrespect, he continued to himself. We should show … well … mercy.

He picked up his wares and continued to market, but his moment of epiphany (or dare I say, enlightenment?) stuck with him throughout the day. The following week, he brought some old gardening tools with him and stashed them beside the pathway on his way to market. He hurried through the selling of what little he had to sell and the buying of what little he could afford to buy, and then he headed home.

When Wei reached the temple, he retrieved his tools and began clearing the path. Carefully, he pruned back the bushes that encroached on the pathway. Thoughtfully, he trimmed the tree branches that overhung the walk. Delicately, he pulled the weeds from the path itself. Soon, the sky began to redden as the sun fell in the west, and he secured his tools behind the rock wall and went home, a bit disappointed that he had cleared only the beginning of the path.

Over the following weeks, Wei repeated the process. Sometimes he would clear the plants. Sometimes he would fix the flat rocks and fill in gaps to smooth the path. Sometimes he would leave the path alone for an evening and work on the wall. He made a special trip with a friend from the village to fix the gate.

This continued until the path was clear all the way to the temple entrance. Pleased with his progress, he lit a candle and stepped into the temple itself.

The sorry state of the exterior was nothing compared to the disrepair of the inside. Webs occupied the corners of the room, and spiders occupied the webs. Dust was everywhere. The offering bowl was reduced to ragged shards, and vines crept in the windows. A mouse skittered across the floor, and a snake watched hungrily from behind the altar. But Wei noticed none of it. All of his attention was drawn to the statue of Guanyin.

There she sat! The center of the temple was dominated by the statue of a beautiful maiden meditating. In her lap she held a fish basket. Although the statue was dirty and old, it was unbroken and the fine details of her necklace and her Tang Dynasty clothing were clear. Wei thought he could see sadness on that lovely face, and it nearly broke his heart.

He stood staring at Guanyin for many minutes, finally breaking his reverie to look about the room. To one side was a painting of Guanyin with a child on each side and a white parrot above. A beetle crawled across the frame. Even the painting looked sad, he thought.

Wei was touched by the experience and vowed that he would get rid of that melancholy look. He continued coming back each week on his way home from market. On one visit, he brought a stick long enough to take down the spider webs. Of course, he carefully took the spiders outside without harming them. Guanyin is, after all, the Goddess of Mercy.

The next week, he brought a broom and swept out the temple. The next, he delicately dusted the statue itself. He found the nest the mice had built and moved it outside. The snake, he scooted out the door with the broom. This had to be repeated several times as snakes can be stubborn once they’ve chosen a home.

The next time he stopped at the temple, he looked at the shattered bowl in front of Guanyin’s statue. He carefully gathered the pieces of the broken offering bowl in the sleeve of his robe and took them home. He set the pieces on his table and studied them. Wei was a simple farmer. He didn’t have the skills to repair the bowl. But perhaps he knew someone who did.

Wei once again gathered up the bowl fragments and carried them to the home of his good friend Wang, the potter. Wang invited Wei into his home and went immediately to the teapot. After all, when a friend visits, it is important to serve them tea.

As the water heated, Wei began to tell Wang about the temple. Wang listened as he carefully measured out the leaves. At first, the tale did not interest him much, for China is filled with old temples and roadside altars. Some are well-kept. Some are not.

As large bubbles began to form and rise through the water (the Chinese people call this stage “fish eyes”), Wang put the tea on to steep. When Wei started to tell him about the offering bowl Wang’s ears perked up.

“I do not know how to fix the bowl,” Wei told him, “and I do not have the money to buy one.”

“Let me look,” Wang said, and Wei spread out the pieces before him. Wang became so engrossed in studying the broken bowl that he almost forgot to pour the tea. He was so distracted that he hardly noticed the muddy flavor and the bitterness of their tea. When you can rarely afford to buy good tea, you soon become accustomed to poor tea.

“Can you repair this,” Wei asked anxiously, “or perhaps make another one like it?”

“Where will you get the money to pay for it?” Wang responded. “I am very busy and must make many bowls to sell so that I can feed my family. And Guanyin’s temple is your project, not mine.”

“You are my friend, Wang. When you were sick last summer, who brought tea and rice for you and your wife? When the monsoon rains came early two seasons ago, who helped you to make a ditch to drain your wheat field and irrigate your rice properly?”

“You are right, Wei. I am sorry. Friends help their friends. I shall make you a proper bowl. I cannot do it today, and maybe not for a couple of weeks, but I will make a bowl that you will be proud to give to Guanyin.”

And so things went. Wei replaced the offering bowl with the one that Wang made him. He pruned the trees. He found an inexpensive incense burner and set it in a nook on the wall. He took a pitcher of water and washed the statue. He kept the pathway clear. He even planted some flowers. And every week he lit incense and meditated before he left.

Tune in tomorrow for the conclusion to Wei’s story!

Buy the Amazon Kindle edition of Myths & Legends of Tea, Vol 1

Buy the Apple iBook edition of Myths & Legends of Tea, Vol 1

Myths & Legends At Last!

Myths & Legends Header Since I first announced I was working on a book called Myths & Legends of Tea, a lot has happened. For one thing, the project got delayed, interrupted, and re-prioritized for almost two years. For another, it was broken into four volumes. I am pleased to announce, however, that Volume 1 is done! The Amazon Kindle edition and the Apple iBook edition are available now. I’ll be posting some free excerpts and news about the book over the next week, interspersed with all of my World Tea Expo posts. This first volume in the series features six stories, each accompanied by a profile of the tea featured in the story, and a prologue that sets the stage. The stories are:

Prologue: The Origin of Tea

China, 2737 BC One of the most-recited myths in the tea world is that of Shennong, the legendary Chinese emperor who introduced agriculture to China, worked extensively with herbs to create the first Chinese pharmacopoeia, and invented acupuncture. In working with herbs, Shennong discovered that boiling water somehow made even “bad” water healthy to drink. One day, Shennong settles under a tree to relax with a cup of hot water. As he rests and waits for the water to cool, leaves from the tree blow unnoticed into his cup. After a while, he notices a heavenly aroma. He raises the cup to his lips and becomes the first man to enjoy what is now the world’s most popular drink.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Tea, Serenity & Death

Japan, 1591 It is never wise to offend a daimyo, as Tea Master Sen no Rikyū discovers when his patron Toyotomi Hideyoshi commands Rikyū to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). Rikyū, who developed the Japanese tea ceremony as we know it today, asks Hideyoshi for permission to conduct one last ceremony. Rikyū shares his philosophy, his poetry, and the beauty and serenity of the tea ceremony with four of his disciples. Each is given a gift and all but one of his disciples, Zen priest Nanpō Sōkei, leave the tearoom. Rikyū hands him a sword. It is time.

The Iron Goddess of Mercy

China, 1761 During the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, a poor farmer by the name of Wei is walking to market. He notices a crumbling abandoned temple of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Every time he passes the temple, Wei stops for a while to fix it up. He works on the pathway, the gates, the temple building, and the statue of the goddess. When he finishes, the goddess appears to him in a dream and gives him a reward: the tea plant that becomes the heart of one of the greatest oolong teas.

Earl Grey: This Water Sucks!

England, 1806 Lord Charles, soon to become the second Earl Grey, is content at his home in Howick Hall, save one unhappy thing: the water is terrible, and it produces quite an inferior cup of tea. He and Lady Grey have experimented to no avail, and they finally turn to a tea expert for help. Chen shows up at Howick with a huge chest of tea and a virtual mobile laboratory of bottles and vials containing everything from essential oils to ground herbs. We know the rest. Even though Charles goes on to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, his own fame will be eclipsed by the tea that bears his name.

Teatime in Georgia: The Birth of Southern Sweet Tea

United States, 1870 One oft-repeated story is that iced tea was invented in 1904 by a vendor named Richard Blechynden at the St. Louis World’s Fair. He was having little luck selling hot tea, says the story, and dropped ice cubes in the tea, creating the first iced tea. Nice story, but it doesn’t account for the 1879 cookbook Housekeeping in Old Virginia, which includes a recipe for iced Southern sweet tea. Where did iced tea really come from? Our version of the legend is set in Georgia, where a lady named Harriet Suggett is struggling to come up with an alternative to the popular alcoholic tea punches of the day for an event that includes members of the rapidly-growing temperance societies.

Oriental Beauty: The Braggart’s Tea

Taiwan, 1931 Huang is very good at keeping his head down. He comes from a prominent family that has been farming in Beipu for many generations, but since his father and brother were killed in the uprising almost 25 years ago, Huang has tried not to draw too much attention to himself. When his tea crop is destroyed by leafhopper insects, he is near despair. That field of tea is all that he and his mother, Lin, have to live on. The leaves are chewed, the tips have gone white, and his neighbors have already given up. But Huang doesn’t give up so easily!

Post-apocalyptic Earl Grey

Australia, 20 years from now The zombie apocalypse has spread mercilessly across the country. Only small pockets of the uninfected remain. Sam’s band of survivors is a small one, and they have resigned themselves to a long and difficult road ahead. It will be a much easier road, though, if they can only lay their hands on some tea. Earl Grey, perhaps. Little do they know how much that tea will change their lives… I am particularly excited about the cover of the book, which uses a photograph by Nicholas Han of the sunset over a tea plantation in Taiwan. Myths and Legends of Tea cover

Jasmine Tea

Jasmine Tea Header

Even purists who eschew “flavored” teas will often enjoy a cup of jasmine green tea. Perhaps it is because when you look at the loose tea, all you see is tea leaves; there are no visible indications that your tea leaves have been adulterated in any way. Perhaps it is because the affect of the jasmine in a well-made jasmine tea is delicate and subtle. Perhaps it is the rich history of jasmine teas.

Jasmine first made its way to China from Persia (now known as Iran) over 1,700 years ago, and it took hundreds of years before it was used to scent tea. Even then, it spread quite slowly, and it wasn’t until the Qing Dynasty, which began in 1644, that it became widespread.

The making of jasmine tea is quite different from typical flavored teas. Most flavored teas are either blends, where dry ingredients are mixed together, or tea leaves sprayed with flavor extracts, like Earl Grey with its bergamot oil. Jasmine tea, on the other hand, is scented rather than flavored.

In the traditional process, jasmine flowers are picked early in the morning, when the blossoms are still tightly rolled. Trays of processed and dried tea leaves (usually, but not always, green tea) are stacked in alternation with trays of jasmine. The trays have woven mesh or screens as bottoms, so as the jasmine blossoms open up and release their scent, it travels freely into the tea leaves over the course of about four hours.

jasmine green tea

A typical loose-leaf jasmine green tea from the Fujian province in China.

The tea leaves pick up moisture from the flowers along with the jasmine scent, so they have to be re-dried before they can be packaged. In the finest quality jasmine teas, this scenting process may be repeated half a dozen times or more. The finished tea has no jasmine blossoms in it — only the scent that has transferred.

How you prepare a cup of jasmine tea depends on the base tea used. If it is made form a green tea, as most of them are, then you’ll want to use 175-185°F (80-85°C) water, and steep for three minutes or less. Using boiling water is a quick way to ruin a good cup of jasmine tea — or any other green tea, for that matter — by bringing out unwanted bitterness.

Grades of jasmine tea vary with the quality of the tea and the process used. One of the popular higher-end styles involves tea leaves that are tightly rolled, often known as “jasmine pearls.”

jasmine dragon tears

Jasmine Dragon Tears from Red Lodge Books & Tea — a variety of jasmine pearls.

When drinking jasmine pearls, seven balls are placed in a small cup. Seven is considered good luck, so with jasmine pearls you don’t weigh them out or measure them in a tablespoon. Each rolled ball contains two leaves attached to a bud, which will slowly unfurl when the hot water is added.

Unlike most loose tea, jasmine pearls are infused right in the cup with no screens or filters, and you don’t remove them before drinking. The unbroken leaves assure that if you sip carefully, you won’t get a mouthful of leaf. If you’re drinking jasmine pearls with friends, the host should make sure that there’s always more hot water available to keep refilling the cups.

Jasmine blossoms certainly aren’t the only flowers used to scent tea — I’ve written about Vietnamese Lotus Tea, for example — but jasmine is definitely the best-known and most popular.

2005 Vietnamese Shu Pu-erh

2005 Vietnamese Shu Pu-erh

This posts kicks off the new “haiku tea reviews” section of my blog. I’m going to begin with a 2005 Vietnamese Shu “Pu-erh.” I use the quote marks because, technically, if it isn’t from the Yunnan province of China, it isn’t pu-erh; it’s dark tea. Nonetheless, this is a very nice aged ripe fermented tea, and a good start to the section:

Light color; rich taste
Every infusion unique
Where do I get more?

Yes, by the way, I’ll be using the 5/7/5 haiku structure here rather than the more modern American freestyle form. I learned it as 5/7/5 and it’s still what I like to write best.

Tea plants as props? Thanks, #TeaAcrossAmerica!

When we first joined #TeaAcrossAmerica, I had visions of a big bushy tea plant in the front window at the shop. I still think we can build a neat window display around it at some point. When our tea plant, Tea H. White, arrived, the temperature outside was well below zero Fahrenheit. Even the windowsill seemed awfully cold for a little cutting that had just been shipped halfway across the country. So we set him on the tea bar instead.

Tea H White - Mar2014

Tea H. White today, about two months after his arrival in Montana.

Tea H. started out as a decoration and a passive tool for raising awareness of American-grown tea. Every now and then, I’d point at him and say, “that’s a tea plant.” Perhaps I’d explain what the significance is of Camellia sinensis and talk about Tea Across America. Perhaps not. But that slowly began to change.

I found myself saying things like, “we could make black tea, white tea, green tea, oolong, and pu-erh, all from this plant here.” I was pointing at the plant a lot.

Then it got more specific. I’d point at the bud and leaf at the end of a branch and say, “this right here is where the plant concentrates its caffeine.” I’d point at a smaller, brighter-colored leaf and say, “this leaf would find its way into something like this oolong tea we’re drinking, but this big leaf down the stem would probably be broken into dust and stuffed in a Lipton teabag.”

In the last week, I’ve referred to little Tea H. White every day.

I brewed up some taiguanyin, and showed a customer the dried, rolled-up, tadpole-shaped leaves. Then I pulled an unraveled leaf from the infuser and held it next to a similar-sized leaf on the tea plant to show that it really is a whole tea leaf.

I showed someone the soil in the plant’s pot and explained that Camellia sinensis can grow on steep hillsides at high altitudes where other crops can’t thrive, and talked about what that’s done for the economy in places like Kenya’s Rift Valley.

I was talking about the ancient tea forests near Mannong and Manmai in the Yunnan province of China, and I walked over to Tea H. White and said, “little tea plants like this one can grow into 30-foot trees and live for a thousand years or more.”

Just today, someone asked what variety of tea Orange Pekoe is. I started to explain that it’s not a variety, it’s a grade. Then I went over to the tea plant and showed them what a pekoe is.

My tea plant has become an educational tool.

As I’ve said many times before, the primary job of a tea vendor today is education. Learn everything you can about tea, and then pass it on to your customers. It pays back in spades when you can find the perfect tea for somebody and they turn into a tea fan (and a loyal customer)! I live for the aha moment, when somebody really “gets” what tea is all about. Having a real, live tea plant sitting on the tea bar makes for more of those moments.

Someday, that plant will grow into a tea bush, and we’re going to produce a batch of tea from it. Between now and then, however, the plant will help to educate hundreds of people about the world of tea.

Phong Sali 2011 Pu-erh from Laos

At World Tea Expo this year, I picked up a Laotian pu-erh (well, technically a “dark tea,” since it doesn’t come from Yunnan) from Kevin Gascoyne at Camellia Sinensis Tea House. I mentioned this in a blog post back in June, and said I’d be tasting it and writing about it “soon.” Well, since it’s a very young sheng (a.k.a. “raw”) pu-erh, I figured it wasn’t a big hurry, and “soon” ended up being October. Oh, well. Had to get all that Oktoberfest stuff out of the way first, I suppose.

Phong Sali Laotian Pu-erh

Let me begin by explaining the label and the style of this tea.

That big “2011” on the label is the year that it was produced. Most pu-erh drinkers will tell you that a sheng pu-erh should be aged a minimum of five years before you drink it. I certainly won’t argue that the flavors improve and ripen as the tea ages, but in my humble opinion there’s nothing at all wrong with drinking a young sheng. I enjoyed the bit that I took off of this 357-gram beeng cha (pressed cake), but I’ll be saving most of it to drink as it matures. Will I be able to hang on another three years or more to drink the majority of it? That remains to be seen.

The words “Phong Sali” do not refer to the style of the tea, but to its origin. Phong Sali (or, more commonly, Phongsali) is the capital of Phongsali province in Laos. Technically, as I mentioned above, this tea style should be called by its generic name (“dark tea”) rather than its regional name (“pu-erh”), because it doesn’t come from the Yunnan province of China. Since the little town of Phongsali (population about 6,000) is only about 50 miles from Yunnan (which borders Phongsali province on the west and north), I think we can let that bit of terminology slide.

“Old tree” refers to the tea plants themselves. In most modern plantations, the tea is pruned to about waist height to make it easy to pick. In many older plantations, the tea has been allowed to grow into trees, which can reach heights of thirty feet or more. The particular tea trees from which this tea comes are over 100 years old.

Tasting the tea

Unwrapping the beeng cha provided my first close look at the tea. The leaves are quite large, and the cake is threaded with golden leaves that didn’t oxidize fully.

Phong Sali beeng cha

There is still enough moisture in the cake to make it fairly easy to flake off some tea from one edge. Shu pu-erh is often dried very hard, as it is “force fermented” so that it will be ready to drink earlier. Sheng pu-erh, on the other hand, needs a bit of moisture in it to continue fermenting over time. I decided to try it in a gaiwan rather than making a large cup, so that it would be easier to experiment with multiple infusions and smell/taste the tea as I went.

I used water just a bit cooler than boiling (water boils at 202°F at this altitude, and I used 195°F water for this tea), and roughly 7 or 8 grams of tea. Unscientific, I know, but I didn’t measure it. I steeped the tea for just a minute the first time, and got a delicate but flavorful cup of tea. The flavor is similar to a characteristic Chinese green tea (think dragonwell), but more woody and with a bit of spice.

The picture on the right shows the leaves, uncurled after the first steeping. They are large, supple, and fragrant.

Phong Sali leaves and liquor

That one-minute steep wasn’t really enough to hydrate the leaves, so I went for a second steep at 1:30 (pictured at left above). Much more flavor, but still extremely delicate compared to a fully-aged sheng pu-erh. I enjoyed a third and fourth steep, which had only minor changes in flavor, but was interrupted before I had a chance to keep going and see how it stood up to eight or ten steeps. An experiment for a quieter day, I suppose.

This tea is definitely worth enjoying a bit early, and I will definitely be coming back to it. Again, we’ll see how much survives to full maturity. I’m not very good at waiting!

Vietnamese Lotus Tea

Nelumbo nucifera - the sacred lotus

Nelumbo nucifera – the sacred lotus

Although my tastes generally run to non-flavored tea, I have long enjoyed Chinese jasmine tea. Technically, it is scented rather than flavored, but either way you’re getting more than just the flavor and aroma of the tea. The producer starts with a good green tea, produces in the Chinese manner (pan-fired rather than steamed, as the Japanese do). They pick fresh jasmine blossoms and layer them in with the tea overnight. The scent from the jasmine infuses the tea, and in the morning they take the jasmine blossoms out and re-dry the tea to remove the moisture from the flowers. This process is typically repeated up to about six or seven times.

I speak here of the traditional production method. Cheap green tea can be made by simply spraying jasmine extract onto tea leaves.

At World Tea Expo this year, one of my goals was to expand my knowledge of tea from parts of the world other than the ones we most encounter in the U.S. (China, India, Japan, Kenya, and Sri Lanka) and to expand the tea selection in my tea bar. I made quite a few new discoveries, one of which was lotus blossom tea from Vietnam.


If you walk into an average tea shop, you’re not likely to encounter much Vietnamese tea, if any at all. Vietnam, however, is the sixth-largest producer of tea in the world, with annual production approaching 200,000 tonnes — over double that of Japan, which has fallen to tenth place.

Vietnam - Noon Gate in Hue

The Noon Gate in Hue and the Vietnamese flag. The photo I based this on comes from the Vietnamese tourist bureau.

Green tea in Vietnam is produced as it is in China. The tradition of lotus blossom tea is similar to that of jasmine tea, but with a twist. Unlike a jasmine flower, a lotus blossom is a large bloom that seals up tightly like a tulip. By ancient Vietnamese tradition, lotus blossom tea is produced by filling fresh lotuses with green tea and binding the blossom together overnight. In the morning, the flower is opened and the highly-scented tea extracted. Today, the process is more likely to be like jasmine tea. Often, freshly-picked lotuses — or just the stamens of the flowers — are sealed up with the tea in an airtight container or baked with the tea.

Lotus tea, like jasmine tea, gets more aroma than flavor from the flower. Since lotus is much less delicate than jasmine, I settled on a pretty short brewing time of two minutes. When I raised the cup to my nose, the first thing to hit me was the smell of anise (licorice). I’m not a big licorice fan, so I was a bit put off, but I took another whiff. Beneath that strong anise is the vegetal aroma so common with Chinese green teas, but a bit earthier. The taste is very pleasant with a nice medium body to it.

The lotus tea I have came from the Thái Nguyên province in northeastern Vietnam. It is a mountainous area where a lot of Vietnam’s tea is grown.

I don’t know if it’s going to become one of the most popular teas in the tea bar, but it will certainly become one of our regular offerings. I’ve begun recommending it to people who want to try something a bit different, and reactions have been mostly either “wow!” or “meh.” If you like floral tea and you’re ready to move beyond the jasmine blossoms of China and the cherry blossoms of Japan, then I would definitely recommend trying this unique Vietnamese treat.

Champagne, Tequila, Darjeeling, and Dark Tea

glass of tequila

I took this picture for a poster and ad promoting a tequila tasting that I put on a few years ago. That doesn’t have anything to do with the blog post — I just thought I’d mention it because I’m quite proud of the picture.

If you make a carbonated white wine, it’s called a “sparkling wine,” unless you are producing it in the Champagne region of France. Then, and only then, should it be called Champagne. I say “should” because there are a number of countries that didn’t sign (or don’t honor) the treaties involved, but that’s a whole different blog post.

The same applies to beverages made from distilling blue agave cactus. If you are in the Mexican state of Jalisco — or designated portions of certain other states — you may call that beverage Tequila. Otherwise, you have made mezcal.

The theory behind these distinctions is not so much the strict corporate trademark enforcement that governs most usage of names in the U.S. It is more a question of terroir. If you were to take two cuttings from the same grape vine and plant one in Napa Valley, California and the other in the Rhine Valley of Germany, you would get different wines from the two vines. Terroir describes the effect that the soil, weather, drainage, and related geographical factors have on the resulting taste of the beverage, whether it be wine or tea.

Darjeeling tea is often called the Champagne of tea (this appellation is usually reserved for first flush Darjeeling tea, but we’ll ignore that distinction for the moment). This little factoid has little to do with the subject of the article, but does make for a marvelous segue from alcoholic beverages to teas, n’est pas?

Like Champagne and Tequila, Darjeeling refers not only to a particular style of tea, but to the origin of that tea: the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, India. Darjeeling tea is unique because of its terroir, but also because of the varietal of the tea plant that they use. Most tea grown in India comes from Camellia sinensis var assamica (the varietal native to India), but Darjeeling tea comes from Camellia sinensis var sinensis (the varietal native to China). Combining the terroir of West Bengal with the flavor of the Chinese tea plant produces the tea we’ve all come to know and love.

And, finally, we get to dark tea

Another geographically-named tea style is pu-erh (also spelled pu’er or puer), named for the town in the Yunnan province of China where the style originated. Only recently has the tea industry really started using the more generic name of “dark tea” to refer to fermented (as opposed to oxidized) teas.

There are two ways to make pu-erh: sheng and shu (also spelled shou).

SHENG (a.k.a. raw or green pu-erh) is the more prized by collectors. The tea is stored in a slightly damp humidity-controlled environment and allowed to slowly ferment. It’s generally not considered ready to drink for years after being picked. Shengs have the same vegetal flavors and aromas as a good Chinese green tea, but with very complex earthy undertones.

SHU (a.k.a. ripe or cooked or black pu-erh) gets a bacterial “kick-start” to the fermentation process, so it’s ready to drink within a matter of months instead of years. Shu pu-erh requires very little steeping time (I’ve spoken to producers that recommend as little as ten seconds), and many pu-erh drinkers start with a “wash,” where you add boiling water, swirl for a few seconds, and pour it off before doing a “real” steeping. Shu pu-er tends to be extremely earthy, with a “composty” undertone. The flavor profile is even richer and deeper than a strong black tea (often reminiscent of a good Keemun), but with very little astringency.

There are several common shapes of pu-erh cakes, including rectangular bricks, bird-nest shapes (“tuo cha”), and flat disks (“beeng cha”).

Phong Sali Laos dark tea

A beeng cha of Laotian dark tea from my friend Kevin Gascoyne at Camellia Sinensis Tea House.

The standard size for a beeng cha (like the one pictured above, which I’ll be sampling and writing about soon) is 357 grams, although they can be found in smaller sizes as well. I’ve found several suppliers for 100g beeng chas lately, which is a more affordable alternative for someone new to dark teas or someone sampling a new variety.

Tuo chas, on the other hand, are available in a wide variety of sizes usually centered around 80-120g. Mini tuo chas have become quite common. Each is a single serving of tea, roughly 5g.

Bricks can be found in a variety of sizes as well.

Something new (to me, anyway) is the log-shaped dark tea. My wife, Kathy, and I found these at the World Tea Expo (the big annual industry trade show for tea people) a couple of weeks ago. The ones we purchased for our tea bar are logs about 3.625 kilos (8 pounds), 25 inches long by 5 inches in diameter. We’re selling a single log in its bamboo wrapping with a canvas carry tote for $99.99, but most people will be more interested in slices taken from the log.

In the picture below, Kathy and I are posing with what the tea grower calls the world’s largest log of dark tea. If it puts the size of that tea log in perspective, I am 6’5″ tall (195 cm) not counting the hat and boots. Not having a spare thousand dollars laying around, we didn’t buy that one!

Log of dark tea

The world’s largest log of dark tea?

The Oolongs of Taiwan: Stop 6 on the World Tea Tasting Tour

Taiwan may not have originated oolong tea, but it is definitely at the forefront of oolongs today. At this stop on the tea tour, attendees learned about what oolong tea actually is, and tasted a variety of Taiwanese oolongs, including Bao Zhong, White Tip Bai Hao, and of course Tieguanyin, better known as “Iron Goddess of Mercy.” We’ll also talk a bit about the history of Formosa tea (Taiwan was called Formosa until the 1940s).

For comparison, we also tasted a couple of Chinese oolongs.

The teas we tasted were:

  • Bao Zhong (Pouchong) – Taiwan
  • White Tip Bai Hao – Taiwan
  • Tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) – Taiwan
  • Wuyi (Shui Xian) – China
  • Qilan (Dark) – China
  • Boba (“bubble”) Tea – Taiwan
Taiwan Flag

The flag of Taiwan

Officially, Taiwan is known as the Republic of China (ROC). It is an island off the coast of mainland China, which is officially known as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC lays claim to Taiwan, but the ROC has declared its independence and established its own government, currency, and economy. The island, formerly known as Formosa, is 13,978 square miles — only about a tenth the size of the state of Montana. It’s population, however, is about 23,315,000, which is significantly more than the state of Texas.

A variety of tea styles is produced in Taiwan, but their specialty is oolong. About 20% of the world’s oolong tea comes from this small island.

There have been wild tea plants on Taiwan for a long time. They were first reported to the Western world in a report in 1685. Chinese tea plants were brought out to Taiwan by Ke Chao in the late 18th century, and a Scotsman named John Dodd established a tea export business in 1869. Tea soon became Taiwan’s major export, and the Tea Research Institute of Taiwan was formed in 1926.

Oolong, which means “black dragon” in Chinese, is the most complex of tea styles to produce. Oolongs are generally not crushed or torn, and are only partially oxidized (not fermented), unlike green tea, which isn’t oxidized at all, and black tea, which is fully or almost-fully oxidized.

Generally, we tailor the steep time and water temperature to each individual tea in our tastings, but tonight we wanted to give everyone  a solid basis for comparison, so we prepared all of the oolongs in 195-200 degree (F) water and steeped them for two minutes.



Pouchong is often spelled as “Bao Zhong” to more accurately reflect the way it is pronounced. It’s a very lightly oxidized oolong tea that appeals well to green tea lovers. Because of its mild taste and aroma, many flavored oolongs use pouchong as their base.

White Tip Bai Hao


Here’s a tea with many names, including Bai Hao in the east and Oriental Beauty in the west. In the beginning, it was known as “bragger’s tea” because of the origin story (one of the stories that will appear in my new book, by the way), where a farmer went ahead and used leaves that had been chewed up by insects and discovered that the flavor was so wonderfully enhanced that he got twice his normal price at market.

Tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy)


This style originated in China, but has become a staple of Taiwanese oolong as well. I’ve written about it before. Even with 120 different teas to choose from in my tea bar, it’s rare for me to go more than a couple of days without drinking a few cups of Tieguanyin. It’s generally good for at least 5-7 infusions, and it’s a great everyday tea.

Wuyi Oolong


We then moved to the birthplace of oolong tea: the Wuyi mountains in the Fujian province of China. This tea is highly oxidized and then roasted to give a very full-flavored cup. We tasted it on the first stop (China) of our World Tea Tasting Tour, making this the first tea that’s been in two different tastings.

Qilan Oolong


Staying in that same area, we moved on to an even more oxidized and roasted dark oolong. Qilan (“profound orchid”) is actually a darker and more flavorful tea than many of my favorite black teas, like Golden Yunnan, Royal Golden Safari, and first-flush Darjeeling (all described in previous tasting notes).

Boba Tea


The most recent export from Taiwan is an iced drink they call “boba milk tea,” usually served as “bubble tea” in the United States. It has taken many urban areas here by storm, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, the way most of the mainstream purveyors prepare it, there’s no tea in bubble tea — they use snowcone syrups or similar super-sweet flavorings.

We prepare ours by steeping a strong cup of tea (tonight’s tasting used a mango-flavored tieguanyin as the base). In a cocktail shaker we add ice, simple syrup (sugar water), and a bit of milk. After shaking that into a froth, we pour it over fresh-made tapioca pearls.

This was the sixth stop on our World Tea Tasting Tour, in which we explore the tea of China, India, Japan, Taiwan, England, South Africa, Kenya, and Argentina. Each class costs $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.

For a full schedule of the tea tour, see my introductory post from February.

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