Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Sax and Pu

In the past week, I’ve acquired a big hunk of brass which has distracted me from my tea writing. This baby can really blow. It’s an old 16m Conn, the student model that Conn was making in the fifties. Lonnie Williams, a brilliant and very fair repair guy down in Columbia City opened the horn up a few years ago, and this baby boy sax resonates like a big man sax because of his good work. I’m gonna bring my alto of identical model down to him to do the same work, opening up the keys and such, as soon as my finances recover from tenor madness.

Anyway, just because I didn’t spend my time writing about a tea doesn’t mean I didn’t drink a hell of a lot of it. And interestingly enough, having the tenor around has correlated to my increased consumption of young puer, especially material from Qian Jia Zhai. The elevated but grounded, almost magnetic feeling energy of QJZ area tea gets in my body and I swear it comes out through this new horn. Maybe that’s merely a fun image, but it sure feels damn good to be stoned on strong puer and rip up and down my new sax.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Fun Times with Dong Ding Wulong

I’ve been thinking about our Traditional Dong Ding at the shop a lot recently, my own, personal bag of which I just finished. Twas a sad day... Getting to know this tea was a long process, but now it’s become one of my favorite go-to’s when I want to attend to a tea but don’t want too heavy an experience. It’s not fluffy, but it can roll.

The farmer doesn’t roast his tea, he leaves that to Mr Z in Taipei. And he’s also a character. See Shiuwen Tai’s blog for some stories Floating Leaves Tea: Dong Ding, Farmer, and Tea: Tasting Tea. He’s the kind of guy who is so focussed on health and organic, traditional foods and medicines that he shoves said subjects and consumables alike down your throat.

"Oh yeeeaaahhhh... Woah!"

His tea is a careful, friendly duel between man and nature, understated and crunchy. He processes his as an orthodox oolong, oxidising the leaves to the point that they are a foresty, marine colored green when dry, and the soup brews up a healthy ale-like copper. Over the course of the bag, the word ‘amphibian’ once came to mind. Another time I thought that was the silliest dingle dangle. Sometimes there’s an herbal, almost medicinal kind of smell to the wet leaves.

It brought me cycling through tea pots before I could understand it, sometimes coaxing out the tea’s very minerally, mouth-watering body with my coarse clay pot (a) which I use for roasted oolongs. Other times the tea produced an almost exotic fruit-like aroma (an aroma earnestly termed “dong-ding fruit”) when accompanied by a fine, high-fired pot (b).

(b) a high fired pot, this one is Japanese clay formed by a Taiwanese maker
(a) coarser clay pot which I tend to use for roasted, heavier teas

There’s a strong salivation effect that approaches dryness, but still tends to remain juicy throughout. What I really enjoy about the tea is the deep feeling that warms the entire throat and sets my nerves abuzz. This can sometimes spread all the way down to my belly, if I’m paying attention, which is plenty pleasurable. It gives a good body buzz, but I can still sleep soon after I drink it. I had some wonderful sessions on these hot summers nights in Washington in my usual Tie Guanyin pot.

I think there’s a lot of ‘traditional’ style oolongs out there that are uninspiring at best, the kind of tea you might drink at a Dim Sum place. I believe the baseline is higher for high mountain tea, so some people feel like they’ve never had a bad one. But finding a tasty traditionally oxidised tea from Taiwan is quite the treat, and I think may be considered more mellow and grounded than their lightly oxidized, modern counterparts. Both types of tea can be very rewarding depending on the season, land and (most importantly?) farmer’s skill, but I spend my time chasing after the former because I’m of the mellow camp.

By drinking a tea by the bag -- or by the cake for puer people -- a person and a tea can become well acquainted. This Farmer’s Dong Ding Wulong has warmed my belly in early spring, provided me with a cool sweat in the heat of our (admittedly oft-relenting) summer, and is currently buzzing up and down my body as the decay of autumn sets in around Seattle. She has contorted herself in my thermos over longer journeys, and contentedly performed with the prerequisite of my attention and patience on a few tea tables. She’s become an old familiar, and I’ll be sad to see her go. But the next season’s crop is growing right now, and tea goes on.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Tea Stories and a Thai Grown Black Tea

I learned something about tea stories when I picked up a kilo of a black tea from Meisile in Northern Thailand. The mountainside village of Meisile was founded by ex-Guomindang (KMT) soldiers who were pushed out of Yunnan by the communists in the ‘40s and fought their way into a high altitude alcove where they began to grow opium. When the Thai government tightened their regulations on the opium trade, they switched to tea, and with their access to Taiwanese education, citizenship and tea knowledge they became relatively settled.

The farmer who really struck my fancy, Mr. Zhu, produces an organic, coarse black tea. He doesn’t make the best stuff in the world, but he’s proud of it and he cares about producing stuff that makes people happy. The dry leaves are pretty gnarly and very light weight. I think he may be picking further down the branch to get some of the uglier leaves, but I don’t know. Reminds me a bit of a gnarly Autumn picking bancha I drank once, but this has much more laid back body feeling. He uses two varietals, Assam and Jin Xuan (Taiwan #12), and processes them together to yield a black tea with the funkiness of a dark assam, but the Taiwanese body and sweet aroma of a Jin Xuan. I need to really stuff the pot to get any chunkiness out of the tea, but once I stuff the pot it holds up to countless infusions and doesn’t impact my sleep, but gives me a warm/rich but also vigorous energy. I’m not really a mixer, but I’ve been throwing in a few plateau chrysanthemum flowers in the pot. It pairs pretty well!

The tea has a story, and that’s what makes me enjoy drinking it even though it doesn’t knock my socks off. It reminds me of Mr. Zhu, a snag hanging out of the side of his mouth, explaining to me that opium isn’t all bad long as you don’t turn it into heroin. He also said of Thai people that his grandpa told him their soldiers were very cute because they would cower behind a hill to avoid the KMT, that his grandpa would sniff them out without having to look very hard, which is why they successfully defended their mountaintop stronghold in Thailand instead of Burma or Laos.

This brings me to the main point of bringing up this (only slightly vulgar) black tea. In my mind, tea with a story is better than tea without a story. You may call it power of suggestion or placebo, but I think it is just a lens to better connect with the tea, as long as you remember its utility as such. Making a story isn’t easy, and that’s what a good tea person can do. For example, a Taiwanese teaman and roastmaster of some repute says that a certain puer he sells has the calming energy of an older sister. This is a story, or a maybe a myth, but it helps me decode the tea in a way, because it is a very useful and pertinent myth. The same thing goes for meeting the farmer or producer of a tea, which is a different kind of story but a story nonetheless. In the same vein, I believe tasting notes are a kind of mini-story in themselves and, in relativity relegated to the diminutive ‘mini’, a useful way to decode a tea.

Anyway, I’d like to thank Mr. Zhu for the inspiration. The guy's doing good work. It’s always great to meet the real teafolk who are at the roots of our humble obsession.

Self Introduction

Welcome fellow tea geeks and miscellaneous friendfolks,

As you can see, I’ve decided to start a blog (mostly) dedicated to tea stuff. I’m more than a tad obsessed with tea stuff and am needing an outlet. I’m recently graduated from a Chinese Linguistics program and am apprenticing at Floating Leaves Tea in Seattle. I have to thank the wonderful proprietress, my tea teacher Shiuwen, for creating a wonderful Cascadian tea style from this tiny beacon of tea culture, a little shop in Ballard. I also want to thank the other drinkers who have adopted and developed this style, as I will reference their knowledge often. And in the end, the primary source is the most important; those who grow and process the tea. The artists whose tea moves through Floating Leaves are my greatest inspiration.

Because of who I drink tea with and who I am as a tea drinker, I mostly focus on oolongs, and have a passion for more traditional leaves. The kind of teas that give you a warm feeling in your belly and set your throat abuzz. I do however venture outside of roasted, oxidized, stinky, sexy, funky Taiwanese granddaddy teas fairly often, so keep an open mind. I will occasionally play with puer and other ‘dark’ teas, and may even goof around with a green or a black now and again.

Tea for me is a practice of alchemy, both on the tea table and within my mouth and body. It sometimes develops into a meditation, and sometimes it’s just enough that I get sufficiently high so I can float through the city. It’s an ongoing learning process, and I hope that this blog will help me organize some thoughts and share with other drinkers. Feedback is generally very helpful, so be generous with your comments!

I plan here to post stories from my own tea experiences, explore themes in tea and review some teas. Thus, I have to make a disclaimer about tea reviews here: I don’t love reviewing teas and find that listing tasting notes can be profoundly boring. So if I get a little more poetic than scientific in my reviews, that’s why. I think that a tea (especially a good tea) is verbally evasive and always changing on top of that, so the only way I can think to write about them is to be linguistically acrobatic and sloppily literary.

So my goal is storytelling, sharing thoughts and developing tea literacy. Hope you keep reading and enjoy doing so!

Yours truly,