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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

World Tea Expo 2014, Day 3: Revenge of the Pu-erh

WTE2014 Day 3 header
If you haven’t already read Day 1: The Saga Begins, Day 2: Attack of the Clonals, and Tea Bloggers Roundtable, you might want to read them first for context. If not, that’s fine. Read on. No biggie.

The third day of World Tea Expo 2014 started rather unexpectedly, as we pulled into the parking garage and encountered Harley Quinn. On roller skates. As we walked to the expo center, we met up with a variety of other comic characters — along with some characters from movie and TV shows. Yes, it was cosplay time at a comic book convention. Parked in front of the expo center, we saw a variety of vehicles: Kit from Knight Rider, three (Count em! Three!) Jurassic Park tour vehicles, the Back to the Future DeLorean, complete with a dead ringer for Doc Brown, and quite possibly the most awesome Batmobile I’ve ever seen.

WTE cosplay

That wookie was BIG! I’m guessing he drinks a lot of good healthy Taiwanese oolong.

Once we got past the Star Wars crowd, however, it was back to the business of tea. And most of that consists of placing orders on the last day of expo to catch all of the show specials. Most of what we purchased was pu-erh tea, which I drink a lot of these days. A good part of the reason we buy so much pu-erh at the World Tea Expo is that there’s a rich variety available, but it can be hard to find in the U.S.

Looking for a nice first-flush Darjeeling? Every major tea importer or distributor has one. Sencha? There’s hardly a catalog without at least one. Earl Grey? Even grocery stores in Montana are likely to carry more than one. But if you’re looking for unique and tasty pu-erh teas, you just might have a long (and pleasant) task ahead of you.

At World Tea Expo, there’s a broad variety of pu-erh laid out on tables all across the expansive show floor, almost all of it compressed into cakes of some form or another. One of the most intriguing we came across this year is a jasmine sheng pu-erh. It has the same jasmine aroma that any Chinese green jasmine tea has, but the underlying flavor is much more robust. A touch of the expected pu-erh earthiness comes through, along with more astringency than most. Part of the astringency is explained by the relatively long steeping time that LongRun used in their booth. They steeped for about four minutes. When I got it home, I played around and decided two minutes is more my speed on this one.

jasmine sheng pu-erh

These are 100 gram beeng cha cakes, which are significantly smaller than the traditional 357 gram cakes. This also makes them more affordable for someone who’s experimenting.

Yes, I can hear the faux gagging sounds coming from the purists, aghast at the idea of scenting a pu-erh tea. Pish tosh, I say to you. I’ll drink my straight pu-erh in the morning, but this lightly scented jasmine delight is just the thing for mid-afternoon. Also, being such a young fermented tea (2012), it will continue to get better and smoother for many years, aging like a fine wine. If you end up with enough self-control to put some away for five more years, it will be awesome!

Two other interesting things about that picture: the color of the tea in the glass in the background, and the pu-erh knife in the foreground. If you’re used to shu (“ripe”) pu-erh, which brews up very dark red, this pale green concoction will look mighty odd. I suppose if I wanted to really show the color, I wouldn’t have set it on a dark wood counter, but that’s beside the point. Sheng (“raw”) pu-erhs are much lighter and more delicate than the “in your face” shu pu-erhs.

For breaking apart pu-erh cakes, you don’t want a regular sharp knife. Cutting it will tear the leaves. What you want is a pointed knife that will slide between the layers of leaves and flake them apart. This pu-erh knife, which they call a “needle,” has a very sharp tip and basically no edges at all. I also like the ceramic handle.

In addition to the other pu-erh cakes we bought, my friend and fellow tea blogger Geoffrey Norman slipped me a little present: two “pu-erh” teas from different countries.

Geoff Norman pu-erhs

I’ve talked about spelling of Chinese teas here before, so don’t let Geoff’s “puer” and my “pu-erh” throw you off. The transliteration from Chinese into English will never be perfect, and often you’ll find different translators spelling the same words in different ways. The spelling Geoff uses is how the town of Puer appears on most maps, so it may end up winning out eventually if we ever come to consensus, but until then I’ll stick with my way.

Speaking of the town name, that’s why “puer” appears in quotes on the tube. Technically speaking, you’re not supposed to use the name pu-erh unless the tea comes from the Yunnan province of China, where the style originated. The tea is named for the town where it was processed and marketed. A fermented tea from anywhere else should be called a dark tea rather than a pu-erh. We’ll see if that works out as well as “masala chai.” Translated into English, that one should be “masala tea,” indicating a tea made with a masala spice blend. Instead, most Americans call it “chai tea,” which translates to “tea tea” and loses the whole meaning. *sigh*

There are fermented teas (pu-erh style dark teas) made in a number of places outside of Yunnan. In addition to the Taiwanese and Vietnamese I got from Geoff, I bought dark teas from Fujian and Anhui provinces, and I am carefully aging a Laotian beeng cha as well.

There is no other style of tea that has the variety pu-erh does. Some I steep for minutes, and some for mere seconds. Some brews so dark you can’t see through it, and some as light as a short-steeped dragonwell. The colors range from yellowish-green to orange to deep red. The flavors are all over the map. You can steep pu-erh leaves a dozen times, and each infusion will be different from the last. If you haven’t experienced pu-erh before, don’t blindly order some online. Go to a tea shop and talk to someone who really knows the style. Try several different ones to narrow it down. Only then, make the investment in a good pu-erh cake to take home and enjoy.

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.

All the Tea in China: Stop 1 on the World Tea Tasting Tour

Guangzhou teapotLegend says that tea originated in China in 2737 B.C., over 100 years before the first Egyptian pyramid was built. In this first stop on our tasting tour, we explored China’s best-known tea growing areas in Yunnan, Anhui, Zhejiang, and Fujian provinces. We also took a look at traditional Chinese teaware, including gaiwans and guangzhou teapots.

The teas we tasted were:

  • Organic Longjing Dragonwell (green)
  • Organic Pinhead Gunpowder (green)
  • Jasmine Dragon Tears (green)
  • Silver Needle (white)
  • Organic Shui Xian Wuyi Oolong
  • Organic Keemun Mao Feng (black)
  • Organic Golden Yunnan (black)

We started out by taking a look at the legend of the history of tea, going back to Emperor Shennong in 2737 B.C., and then talking about the major tea growing provinces of China. Four provinces were represented in our sampling: Yunnan, Anhui, Zhejiang, and Fujian. Obviously, this is just a beginning, but in a single short class, we can’t hit them all.

China - Slide04

After the background was covered, including varietals of the tea plant, we launched into the individual teas, organized by style.

White Tea

First was white tea, the most lightly processed. I chose a Silver Needle blend from Rishi instead of a single-origin tea for this one mostly because our focus was comparing Chinese white tea with green and oolong teas. At some point down the road, we’ll do a comparative white tea tasting where the focus will be on terroir and origin.

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One of the bullet points on the slide is an important one: busting the caffeine myth of white tea. The fact that this tea is made from early-picked buds means that there is a high concentration of caffeine. The preparation style does nothing to change that. The longer steep times we typically use on white tea just accentuates this.

We steeped the tea for five minutes in 165 degree water.

Green Tea

I chose three different green teas for the tasting. Each brought something completely different to the party.

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First – a straight green tea very typical of Chinese fare, with a history dating back well over a millennium. The name of the tea comes from the finely-rolled leaves resembling gunpowder.

We steeped the gunpowder tea for three minutes in 175 degree water.

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I simply couldn’t resist including the original story (fable?) of Longjing tea here, which I’ll be covering in much more detail in the future. Of all of the green teas I’ve tried, this is the one I keep coming back to as my favorite.

We steeped the dragonwell tea for three minutes — although I only do two minutes when I’m brewing it for myself — in 175 degree water.

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And finally, we come to the only flavored tea of the evening. We followed tradition with this tea, placing seven tears in each cup and sipping the tea as the leaves unfurl. Unlike all of the other teas we tasted, this one didn’t have a fixed steeping time. Everyone began sipping after a minute or two and kept sipping as the character changed over the next few minutes. We used 175 degree water.

Oolong Tea

We could have easily set up an entire evening just tasting Chinese oolongs (we are, in fact, doing this with Taiwanese oolongs on March 29), but for tonight we chose only one: an oolong from the Wuyi mountains.

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It was a very difficult choice deciding which oolong to include. My first temptation was Tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy), but since I had two rolled teas already I decided to go with an open-leaf oolong.

We brewed this for three minutes in 195 degree water.

Black Tea

And finally, we moved on to black tea. Choosing only two black teas to represent China wasn’t easy (although it was a lot easier than choosing a single oolong), so I simply went with my two “leaf and a bud” favorites: one fully oxidized rich black with overtones of red wine (Keemun Mao Feng) and one lightly oxidized golden tea from Yunnan.

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This was another case where I steeped the teas both at three minutes in boiling water for a better comparison, but when I drink them myself I prefer about 2:30 for the Keemun and 4:00 for the Yunnan.

We closed out the evening with a discussion of steeping times, water temperatures, multiple infusions, and other factors involved in preparing a great cup of tea. As always, I ended with the admonition to ignore the Tea Nazis and drink your tea however you like it.

There is no wrong way to enjoy a cup of tea.

If you live in the area and were unable to attend this session, I sure hope to see you at one of our future stops on our World Tea Tasting Tour. Follow the link for the full schedule, and follow us on Facebook or Twitter for regular updates (the event invitations on Facebook have the most information).

A Tea Tasting and Class

Teapot and CupsThis article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of the Local Rag newspaper, describing a tea tasting and class I held at our bookstore before we added the tea bar.

When I was a kid, tea was something that came in bags with a little tag that said “Lipton.” Visits to a Chinese or Japanese restaurant introduced me to the “other” kind of tea: green tea. The first time I ordered tea in a nice restaurant, I encountered the fancy presentation box, containing exotic varieties of tea like chamomile, Earl Grey, English breakfast tea, and Constant Comment. In high school, I drove a delivery truck for an office supply store in Boulder, Colorado, and one of my stops was Celestial Seasonings.

By that time, I was probably a typical American tea consumer. I classified teas into herbal, green, medicinal, and “ordinary.” Not until quite some time later did I discover just how much I was missing, and in an April tea tasting at Red Lodge Books, I tried to pass on a bit of what I’ve learned. This article is a distillation of the talk I gave that day.

All “true” tea comes from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. There are three major variants. The China bush (var. sinensis), the Assam bush (var. assamica) from India, and the Java bush (var. cambodi). Within those broad categories are over 1,000 individual subvarieties. Just as red climbing roses and yellow tree roses are both roses, all of these subvarieties are still Camellia sinensis, the tea plant.

There are six generally-accepted ways to process Camellia sinensis leaves, which produce white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and pu-erh. Yellow tea is so rare that I decided not to cover it. All “true” teas have caffeine, including the delicate whites and greens. Red tea (a.k.a. African rooibos), which I’ll discuss next month, is made from a different plant that does not have caffeine.

White Tea

White tea is the least-processed, and generally lightest and sweetest-flavored tea. It is typically more expensive than black or green teas, and is recognized as having significant health benefits. It is brewed at a lower temperature, and steeped for a short time. The leaves can be re-used, to make 2-3 cups of tea from one teabag or container.

The white tea we tasted at the bookstore was Rishi’s organic Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yin Zhen), from the Fujian province of China. This tea was voted the best tea in the world at the 2008 World Tea Championships, and the best white tea in 2009. The taste is very light and subtle, and there is a wonderful jasmine-infused version available as well.

White teas start out as young budsets (an early bud with or two leaves). After picking, they are “wilted” indoors to get some of the moisture out, and then baked or panned. After a light rolling of the leaves, they are dried and packaged for shipment.

Green Tea

Green tea is the traditional tea of China and Japan. It has long been lauded for its healthiness, and intricate ceremonies have been developed around its preparation. People study the Japanese Tea Ceremony for years before performing it publicly. Like white tea, it is brewed at lower temperatures, and can yield 2-3 infusions.

The green tea we tasted was an organic Sencha from the Kagoshima Prefecture of Japan; voted the best green tea in the 2008 championships. It is a very traditional green tea, grown in volcanic soil, yielding a deep almost grassy flavor.

After picking, the leaves are steamed or panned, rolled, and then dried. Sometimes, they’ll be formed into balls or other shapes before drying.

Oolong Tea

Oolong is a very highly-processed tea; one of the most complex to produce. It is generally flavorful and rich without the bitterness often associated with black teas. Unlike green and white teas, the leaves are partially oxidized, which darkens the color and intensifies the flavor.

We tasted an organic Wuyi Oolong. The Wuyi Mountains in Northern Fujian are where oolong tea was first produced, and this variety has a roasted aroma, complex flavor, and sweet finish.

To make oolong tea, the freshly-picked leaves are first wilted (partially dried) in the sun, and then again indoors. They are tossed in a basket to bruise them, and then partially oxidized (typically anywhere from 30-70%). After oxidation, the leaves are baked or panned, and then rolled. The final steps are drying and firing, which produces the smoky aroma.

Black Tea

By far the most common type of tea in Europe and India, black tea is usually brewed hot and strong. Many cultures serve it with milk, sugar, or both to mitigate its inherent bitterness, and it is often flavored with lemon, orange, or other spices (Red Lodge Books has a fascinating vanilla black tea). Black tea flavored with bergamot is known as “Earl Grey.” Black teas are also the basis of English and Irish breakfast tea. Unlike white, green, and oolong teas, black teas are generally only infused once: use the leaves and discard them.

At the tasting, we had Rishi’s organic fair-trade China Breakfast, which won “best breakfast blend” at the 2009 World Tea Championships. It’s rich, malty, and robust; great for the first cup of the morning.

Black teas are usually made with an indoor wilting, followed by a cutting or crushing step. This can range from a light crush to a full “CTC” (crush-tear-curl). This exposes more of the leaf’s insides to assist in oxidation. Black teas are 100% oxidized, yielding higher caffeine content and stronger flavor. Following oxidation, leaves are rolled and dried.


This is probably the least familiar process to Americans, but it has been around in China for centuries. What differentiates it from black or oolong tea is a fermentation step at the end of processing. Although the term “fermented” is often incorrectly used instead of “oxidizing” for black teas, pu-erh is the only variety that is actually fermented.

2009 Tong Qing Tang

A cake of 2009 Tong Qing Tang Pu-erh tea.

If you’ve ever had a mulch pile, you’re familiar with the process: plant matter is piled up wet, and left alone. The inside of the pile grows hotter as it ferments. Unlike most teas, which are served as fresh as possible, pu-erh is often compressed into cakes (sometimes immense bricks) that can be stored for years. Century-old pu-erh cakes are sold at auctions for thousands of dollars.

Pu-erh is brewed in boiling hot water, and can be re-infused at least 6-8 times. I’ve used leaves ten times and still gotten good flavor from the tenth infusion.

At the tasting, we had a classic loose-leaf organic fair-trade pu-erh from Yunnan, China. The flavor was earthy and rich. The description may seem off-putting to some, but it’s definitely worth trying a good pu-erh.

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