Thursday, January 19, 2017

Searching for tea in Taipei, Taiwan

with Shiow Lin, owner of Lin Hua Tai tea shop (and sporting a travel beard)

A recent tour-themed vacation back home to see family in Pennsylvania also spanned Washington DC, New York City, and a short stop in Taipei, Taiwan.  I posted about looking for tea in NYC but the subject didn't come up in DC.  So close though!  We were right on the edge of their Chinatown at Union Station at one point but bizarre as it might seem the search for tea wasn't a priority.

Of course it was a priority and did come up in Taipei; tea is part of what they do.  My wife said "given what you bought in NYC that's enough tea already," but that was clearly just temporary insanity induced by the jet lag.  I'll go through what I experienced of it there, although I really didn't do the subject justice since that visit was basically a long layover to take a look around, with only two full days there.

Taipei is cool, by the way.  It felt a little like Seoul to me, maybe even a little more laid back, with a vibe that's different in a way that's hard to describe.  I wasn't seeing so many foreigners around but I never had the impression anyone cared much either way that we weren't from Taiwan, which was nice.  People seemed pleasant and genuine.  It's tempting to compare it to mainland China but perhaps not fair or equivalent to directly compare the few places I've been in China given some significant differences (Shenzhen, Beijing, and Shanghai).  The culture was friendly and relaxed, not as hectic as most cities everywhere feel (except Bangkok also isn't like that; Thais wouldn't be into it).  The look was as if it had been completely modern and fully developed a few decades ago, maybe even longer.  It didn't have that aged urban / industrial look US East Coast cities have but it didn't have a brand new feel either, in the middle.

Taipei 101!

On the subject of tourism and what else we did, we saw Taipei 101, and shopped a little, and tried some local food.  That was it; the two days filled.  I really wanted to try the Taiwanese version of shaved ice but being the dead of winter there--at a balmy 19 C / 66 F, give or take, cool but on the comfy side coming from -6 C / 20 F in NYC--no one was eating flavored ice just then.

About looking for tea there

Tea is not so hard to run across there; tea shops turn up everywhere.  Unfortunately I was seeing places selling the same ten or so common types, high mountain oolong, with an Oriental Beauty version, and a little black tea.  Those are fine, it's just that one would want to either find something more unique (ideally) or else at least run across above average versions of those.  Without trying a tea it would be hard to know if it wasn't just a mid-grade uninteresting version.

I'd just had a so-so experience in a NYC branch of the main chain store from Taiwan, Ten Ren.  They were selling tea as "black tea," a clear violation of the idea that there should be as many details about the tea offered as possible.  Of course if you can try a tea first that's sold only as "black tea" if it's great then it's great, but that's not a good sign.

Taipei, from Taipei 101 on a cloudy day

So how to turn up leads?  The obvious answer:  Google!  Going further, an online acquaintance and blogger Nick Kemble wrote a great post on tea from Taiwan, based on background knowledge from living there (where he still is now), in this post:

I've been living in Taiwan for nearly eight years and I've become addicted to all kinds of Taiwanese foods and drinks, but it wasn't until last year that I first developed a true appreciation for Taiwanese tea (cha2 茶).

His advice his favorite place made up a short list, which is almost all I had time for:

My favorite place in Taipei to buy bulk tea is the Lin Mao Sen Tea Co 林茂森茶行 (195-3 Chongqing N Rd, MRT Daqiaotou...  The clerks speak impeccable English and can describe all the characteristics of the teas to you before you buy. There are dozens of varieties on display in large metal barrels, and the main local varieties are sorted according to quality, ranging from very cheap to very expensive.  Tea, just like most dried goods and produce in Taiwan, is sold by the jin (jin1斤). One jin is equivalent to 600 grams... 

Lin Mao Sen shop; it is absolutely beautiful, and the people were nice

I should also mention that Lin Hua Tai is a related shop (website), with Lin Mao Sen actually split off from that older shop located next door.  There is more backstory about that I won't get into, but both are worth a look.

The one place that comes up a lot in online discussion is Wistaria Tea House, a cafe that also sells loose teas.  Per reputation they have a connection to aged pu'er, even though that's tea from Yunnan, China, not local.  I didn't make it there; time was really tight.  One can review random observations about there on TripAdvisor, or review Tea Chat tea forum mentions of experiences there, or of other places.

I missed meeting a vendor that's probably a better tea reference than one is ever able to find, Stephan Erler of the Tea Masters Blog and the related Tea Masters Blog shop.  His blog is one of the best references about Taiwanese teas on the internet (in my opinion) and it's a real shame to not get a chance for a visit while there.  I could always just order online but I tend to buy teas when I travel and my wish-list for purchase ordering results in a long, endless queue I barely chip away at.  Perhaps it's not my place to judge since I haven't tried the teas but they look like incredible options in terms of range of selection and value, and some limited feedback in a discussion thread seconds that.

some pork dish, and other sides, just delicious

Visiting Lin Mao Sen and Lin Hua Tai tea shops

Lin Hua Tai; a bit of a warehouse feel, but cool

I'll come straight out with it:  these are the only places I bought tea.  We spent two full days in Taiwan, which went fast working around 11 hour time-shift jet lag, especially with two young kids in tow.  I was happy to have found such a good resource, although Wistaria would've been nice to see, or the Yingge traditional ceramics district a bit outside of the downtown area.

It would be hard to go further than Nick Kemble's description of the basics related to both those shops (Lin Hua Tai and Lin Mao Sen; he only described one but they're functionally similar).  They are both retail and wholesale shops that sell a lot of the basic types, and then a few others, in a range of quality levels or grades.  The smallest quantity they sell is 150 grams, with most teas a bit under $20 per that quantity for next to highest grade and around $30 for the highest.  Those are great prices, for what the teas are, at least in my estimation.  I'd know better after drinking what I bought, but at a guess people in the West aren't finding any better teas from most outlets, and they're definitely not paying as low as around $10 for 50 grams for teas on that level (although the Tea Master's outlet is a possible exception--just take a look at this description, or something more unusal).

Onto more back-story first, though.  Freeing up time for an outing was brutal, given only the two days to work with, so I was skipping an afternoon nap to shop.  A friend recommended another shop I visited first, in a different part of the city, but the tea offerings looked a bit standard.  They were probably good, but I passed.

after visiting NYC the subway had a 4 star feel, just missing "local color"

Getting around was rougher due to that sleep-cycle disruption haze, and not so long into the search I was slightly mis-routed twice in two places, looking for the Lin Mao Sen shop.  At least it wasn't snowing--the Taiwan winter is a cool version of room temperature, not that you'd know it from the winter jackets they wear.  It turned out I found Lin Hua Tai first, next door to where I'd set out to go, on the far side of the same street when walking from the metro.  Maybe it was the universe trying to tell me something.  It turns out the owner, Shiow Lin, had also lived in Pennsylvania (where I'm from), doing graduate studies at Wharton.  That is on the other side of the State in Philly, and I'm from up near Erie, but close enough.

After checking out some teas it was clear I was in the right place.  The lower grades looked and smelled nice; upper grades had that extra level of fruit, complexity, richness, or buttery character.  I mapped it all out:  I needed some high mountain oolong, some Oriental Beauty, and some of a nice fruity and soft black tea style that I love.  Onto payment:  they weren't set up for credit card payments, but luckily I had extra US cash they would take.  Or I thought I did:  my ultra-efficient wife had emptied my wallet of that when we changed countries, so I came back the next day.  That also let us check out a nearby Carrefour, a French grocery store chain my wife loves that's no longer in Bangkok.  I've only tried one of the teas so far, a honey flavored black tea, and so far so good, it was rich, complex, fruity, and very clean-flavored.

Lin Mao Sen teaware selection, part of it

Lin Mao Sen (website) was really more of the same, just in a lot more beautiful a shop setting, a bit more organized towards retail sales.  One owner--or the owner's son, however that goes in a family business--had lived in Canada so his English was also flawless, just lacking that cool twist that Brits put on the language.  I bought a sweet and rich black tea for a friend there, and more for me (so maybe I can do a comparison tasting with one from next door; I think those styles are the same), and some more-roasted Dong Ding, I think it was.

We had a nice talk about tea, about different shops, and pu'er, about the relation between the two shops (they had split five years ago), and about gaba tea.  Is that type familiar?  It's nitrogen-environment processed tea, a Japanese invention I think, designed to produce gaba, a brain-regulating compound that's supposed to relax you (with more on that in this post).  Per what I've tried of it the processing gives the teas a strange sour taste.  His insight:  it's really about the tea being relaxing, but it's also an acquired taste, as pu'er can be, although not everyone would acquire it.  Who knows if I've tried the best examples just yet; that would make a difference.  We talked a little about pu'er, about why it's even there, but nothing really new came up.  Somehow people there appreciate it too, even though they're not so into Wuyi Yancha or Longjing or whatever other styles might map over, but don't.

Lin Hua Tai teaware section, limited, but seemingly good value options

I also bought a couple of clay pots at Lin Hua Tai, at a reasonable price.  As for how that works out in function I'd not be the right person to judge, given my limited experience and knowledge related to different pots and types of clay.  But it'll be one more thing to mess around with.

my favorite part of visiting Taipei, these two

About comparing the two shops, Lin Hua Tai and Lin Mao Sen, the latter is set up better as a retail outlet (they take credit cards, it's more beautiful, with more range of teaware), but in general they seemed similar.  I'm not completely impartial because even after such a short span of time I consider Shiow Lin a friend.  I see that as a good thing; feeling a connection with a vendor with some shared background and a shared love of tea should be a more typical experience than it often turns out to be.

I'd recommend sparing some time at both shops, talking to people at both, and buying tea from both.  The tea might well not be the "teas that never leave Taiwan" but my impression was that most tea lovers would wish it was more common to find teas this diverse and this good, and offered as such good values.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Tea culture in Mexico; an interview with Claudia Aguilera

Initially published as part one and part two by the TChing tea blog site

As part of helping moderate an international-themed Facebook tea group, and just due to being curious about the subject, I talk to people in different places about tea.  One of those is Claudia Aguilera, a tea enthusiast in Mexico, and founder of  TÉ EN HEBRAS HINDIE, (on Facebook here).  I had previously been surprised to learn that that tea isn't produced in Mexico, although the climate is suitable in places, one part of what she covered.

Claudia Aguilera, Tea Somellier and all around tea ambassador

She answered questions about tea culture there and her experience as follows.

1. Can you say a little about specialty tea awareness and consumption in Mexico?  How large is the demand?  Are there specific types that are popular, eg. Japanese green teas or Chinese oolongs?

Specialty tea awareness in Mexico is something that just started. We can say it has been around for 20-30 years and it’s been built by the new experts along with the tea culture. Still a lot needs to be done, shared and settled in order to see better results and positive answers by consumers. The demand belongs to a small percentage of population and is highly related with the power of acquisition, since having access to it is always an expensive option. 

Because of our connection to USA some teas on trend like matcha are becoming very popular in our country. The thing is very little people know what it really is and why it is becoming so popular, anyways, they are willing to buy it because it’s trendy and related to health, again referring to a small group of consumers. Black teas are known from tea bags, but good quality black teas like Darjeeling do not have much protagonism yet. 

Brands like Teavana, are introducing teas like oolong which is helping people to open the door to new options, most of the times because it’s advertised as a fat-burning product. 

2. How long have you been interested in specialty tea?  What got you started, and which type is your favorite?

I’ve been interested on these types of teas since I had the opportunity to travel to Europe 7 years ago and discover the amazing variety and quality of teas around the world. Later on I became more interested on getting to know the roots. That was the time when I met the Tea Sommelier Certification, and it totally made sense to me, the fact that this complex world needed more attention and study. I honestly have something with oolongs; I love the complexity of its flavors depending on its oxidation, the possibilities of every infusion, the process of production and the art on the leaves. In general, I am very curious and always enjoy a good quality tea, but the journey of discovering makes it all the way more interesting. 

[editors note:  nice answer!]

3. In the US the earlier tea tradition was essentially the same as the British version, black tea prepared as tea bags drank with milk or milk and sugar, and also sweetened iced tea, then leading to floral blends and such.  Were those also the starting points in Mexico?

The consumer behavior with teas in Mexico was not completely like in the US. In this country, since ancient times, herbal remedies were part of the culture, and there is rich knowledge of the uses and benefits of many plants. Every Mexican family has its remedy recipe, mixing different herbs and roots for any ache.  Considering this, we can observe that the Camellia Sinensis introduced itself as another plant but was not really considered for its benefits in the beginning. This information is kind of new to consumers and it has just started to receive some respect and consideration. 

4. Is specialty tea interest developing differently on different levels?  I mean in the US we see people getting introduced to blends, then to different lighter oolongs, Japanese green teas, or maybe better black teas, but then tea enthusiasts might prefer pu’er, Wuyi Yancha or Dan Cong instead.

In this case I can say, we are managing it very similarly. I found out the excess of sugar consumption had lead us to sweet blends in order to introduce teas in a friendly way, slowly migrating to specialty teas. Learning and educating our palate is key to really appreciating the real natural flavors. Still there is a big effort needed considering sweet sodas are directly competing with tea drinking.  

familiar aesthetic in a Mexico City shop (Tomás Tea House, photo credit)

5. Are both Western style brewing and Gongfu cha style brewing used?

As tea culture is just starting, the western style brewing is gaining more strength. I can see how us, tea sommeliers, try to first make people aware of the correct brewing methods in order to have a good tea to drink. Gongfu cha is automatically dismissed as it is considered a ritual just for special occasions. Anyways, there are some tea masters teaching this ritual and some tea ceremonies are offered in different places of Mexico. Hopefully, it will gain more attention in the spiritual world and different disciplines such as Yoga. 

6. Is there a connection between Mexican tea drinking and teas produced in South America?

Not really. Teas in Mexico come basically from American and European tea brokers. There is very little concern about tea production in our continent. In our case, only Mexicans attending tea expos get to know there are important places like Argentina and Colombia producing tea. 

7. Per my understanding there is essentially no tea production in Mexico, not even small experimental farms.  Is that correct?

Right! There is no official data about it and no propaganda either. I’ve heard there are foreigners interested in our land for tea production but nothing concrete so far. Although our country has all the potential to start producing, we would need some support from experts. 

tea growing, in Mexico!  credit Lorena Foglio (garden owner; detail follows)

8. Part of my own adopted project is trying to expand on tea awareness in Thailand, using different means.  How do you help develop awareness there?

It’s been a hard and very patient work here. I have always been interested on different ways to share tea knowledge. I started offering tea tastings, short courses, tea pairings on restaurants, cooking with tea classes, master classes etc. The objective in my case is to help people get closer to this amazing product and create awareness about the infinite possibilities. 

Having this as a purpose, I developed a tea Brand (Té en Hebras Hindie) with a fresh and friendly image, and that has established a stronger base to increase tea consumption. With the brand, I can supply restaurants and coffee shops with good quality tea. This has been a very important tool helping me reach more people, achieving better tea consumption instead of bad quality tea bags. Loose tea leaves needed to be introduced and carefully respected. I think we, as tea experts, are making it happen. 

9. What tea type pairs best with spicy Mexican foods, or is that just an American stereotype about the general character of Mexican food?

I can say Mexican food is a fest of flavors; spicy can be definitely a way to describe it since we use many types of chili as base of every sauce. Anyway the variety is huge. I recently worked with the Mexican chef José Hernández on a tea-pairing event and we really liked the results.   Our favorites: 

Torta de Chilaquiles with avocado paired with a Darjeeling FTGFOP 

Chilaquiles is one of the favorite dishes for breakfast, it is basically fried tortilla chips with red sauce; there are many options for the sauce. In this case the sauce is made of different chili, spices and tomato. 

Churros, by Yokot´an Chef owner José Hernández (credit Claudia Aguilera)

Churros de Yuca with Pu’er Blend (Pu’er, vanilla, strawberry and orange)

The Yuca is a fruit and churros is the name given to this typical food, churros actually came from spain but we have our mexican version, these are made with the pulp of the Yuca fruit and a little bit of sugar on the top. Since it has some greasy and sweet flavor, the tea totally matches and leaves a clean and delicious after taste.  

10. Is there any project, or business, or training initiative you’d like to share something about?

One of my projects as a tea sommelier is to keep on sharing the knowledge and of course, to never stop learning. So, in this journey I plan to support awareness and care for our mother nature, looking for the least environmental impact in our practice.  Also, I am planning to develop a campaign against excessive sugar consumption, especially for kids. 

tea garden in Mexico (credit Lorena Foglio)

Others I've spoken to are ready to do their part, related to tea education and running tea businesses.  Lorena Foglio, owner of the BeauTea Full tea business, and Tea Sommelier and Tea Master, contributed pictures of her tea garden, shown here.  It's the only example of tea growing there that I'm aware of, based on limited research and discussion with some others working in the local industry.  It's not really for tea production on a significant scale, it's her garden, but that's inspiring enough to me.  Once the plants gain some size she can borrow some leaves to experiment with.

One person can only do so much in bringing tea awareness to an entire country, and the means to try better teas, but it sounds like Mexico has some great tea awareness advocates working on it.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Tea shopping in New York City

Sounds cool, doesn't it, venturing out into the snowy cold of a New York City winter evening, stopping by cozy shops packed full of jars and tins, with herbal remedies mixed with teas from different origins.  Or maybe instead visiting a Chinese market basement crammed with all sorts of teaware and tea, or stopping by a trendy cafe-themed shop in a hipper part of Manhattan.  I did all that, barely over a week ago now.  I got turned around in the subway, getting off at a different stop than I expected, smelled weed while walking the streets, walked by homeless guys sharing bottles, and even had a kind offer for a warm break and a massage from a cheerful and pretty Asian woman (which I turned down).  I always disliked NYC on previous visits but this time I started to get it.

I'll stick more to shops, to what I ran across, which is by no means a good guide to what tea is available in New York City.  I read background on other interesting places but had very little time to work with, so I visited wherever I happened to make it to.  Finding options there wouldn't be difficult, but finding the type of place you really want to visit with the tea you'd love to try is another story.

the munchkins at ground zero, the World Trade Center memorial

Google turns up pages summarizing options, like this list of the ten best NYC tea shops or cafes (their take, at at least), or Foursquare's version, or a list of nine places here, or eight more here.  Of course all of those overlap, with some unique suggestions in each.  Asking a local enthusiast should be good strategy, and I did that, or checking things like Tea Chat threads, although that one is a bit dated.  On to the shops I did make it to then.

Shops I visited

Ten Ren:  a Taiwanese tea chain shop, the first place I visited (which I also saw in Taipei the next week, a different story).  They tended to sell teas labeled as general types like "black tea;" a bit off-putting.  I didn't stick around or buy tea, although of course that doesn't really imply that the tea wasn't good.

Chung Chou shop, Chinese herbs and tea shop

Chung Chou City shop, in Chinatown, Manhattan (website and Yelp page).  This is the kind of shop you might drift into walking around, as I did, a Chinese medicine shop with some jars of tea in one section.  It's also the kind of place you might be inclined to walk right back out of, but curiosity had me testing out a couple of plain looking black teas, not a huge risk for teas costing around $60 a pound.  I tried one; it was about as good as the price indicated, decent for inexpensive tea, perhaps a bit awful for someone accustomed to better.  Of course it's still the next level up from almost any tea sold in tea bags, so better than 99% of all teas Brits or Americans drink, and a good value for what it is.

Manhattan Chinatown, with the WTC in the background

Sun's Organic Garden (on Facebook):  the first store that showed up on those list references, and also in the Tea Chat discussion.  Per a Trip Advisor rating it's #474 of 576 Coffee & Tea in New York City, but I'm pretty sure it should be at the front end of that list, even with some pros and cons.  The owner carried one each of about 50 or 60 tea types I've tried (or was that 100, hard to keep track), and a good number I've not tried.  A couple of the teas included enough detail on the label I could tell exactly what they were, from which producer, and those were pretty decent teas, but most were just a general reference to a type.

If the owner's judgement in teas is good--who I won't be referring to by name, since I don't know it--then the lack of information is no problem; if not then shopping there might not be worthwhile.  Some of the pricing seemed just a little low--which she explained related to them not being organic--but most was right on what a fair price would probably be, for a decent but not exceptionally high quality level of the types.

I'd really have to try the teas to be better informed related to final outcome, but based on trying one of four so far that's promising (which I'll review following).  That tea was pretty good, a Kenyan black tea, basic but nice.  The owner probably wouldn't want her shop judged by one of the least expensive and atypical teas in it, since there was a general focus on Chinese and Taiwanese teas, with Japanese and Indian offerings, and a mix of others.  I also bought a Russian black tea (which I've not tried yet--interesting, but no baseline to work with), and gambled on a couple of pu'ers, a five year old sheng, sold as broken up, and a tuocha of cooked / shou pu'er.  The shop carried a lot of herbs too, with the owner offering some limited advice for use.  It was nice eavesdropping and hearing her cut off explanations and suggestions where drawing on medical input instead would make sense, not overselling based on guesswork and ancient Chinese wisdom, which would be an easy habit to drift into.

On the whole I liked it; to me it was well worth a look.  I got a good vibe off the owner, who seemed a little unconventional in a way that I could relate to, even though she was really too busy to talk just then.  Teas were stored well enough, in small jars, so not completely isolating air contact, but not those crazy-sized large jars in some shops that would be sure to ruin the teas.  She wasn't open to offering smells of the teas, or ok with people opening the jars, which really does make perfect sense.  It was busy when I visited, around 5 PM, and it would be better to stop by earlier in the afternoon to get more time to chat.  I'd probably be taking some herbal treatments for mind-fog, bad memory, and early onset of arthritis if I had stopped earlier, but as things stand I'll just tough those out.

New Kan Man Chinese grocery shop

New Kam Man Chinese market tea shop (website):  on first glance a tea lover might think that they'd died and went to tea heaven, with a large basement shop space crowded with teaware, vast rows of boxed teas, and lots of jars.  Looking closer it's lots of what someone who has moved past commercial teas no longer drinks:  boxed loose teas, some tea bag teas, and large-jar stored inexpensive loose teas.  It was still worth a look, and another gamble.  This time I bought a spare gaiwan ($8, not bad, in a print I like), and a lapsang souchong and peony, which looked a bit rough but might have taken aging well.

new gaiwan test run

I've tried the peony; it's drinkable, but it didn't age so well, so not exactly interesting.  The lapsang souchong stunk up my luggage, quickly separated from all other teas, even after being wrapped in 4 or 5 plastic bags to limit the smoke fumes coming off it.  I'm putting off trying it but it'll probably go in the bin.  If the taste isn't too toxic it might work as a meat rub, but I'm doubting it's actually from pine smoke, just as likely chemical.  If I'd not just bought black tea before then and two pu'er in the last shop it would've seemed natural to try those out, or if I liked jasmine pearl teas those might hold up ok to storage.

And really, who would be familiar with commercial boxed loose teas to know what's ok in those?  It's better to move past them onto more interesting teas and better sourcing, but it's a normal rookie tea drinker mistake to get stuck in that mode.  It took me a couple of years to learn to look at teas in grocery stores but generally never buy them.  I still buy an unusual looking commercial tea I expect I'm probably not going to like from time to time and I'm usually not pleasantly surprised, and then I'm challenged by what to do with it.  Mediocre tea is ok for making blends, and a little smoke in tea works better for making masala chai than it sounds it would.

T Shop, more a small version of a cafe really

T Shop (website)  an online friend in NYC--or is that contact?  I don't really know her but she's definitely cool, so it's a shame to not drop a name here--recommended this place, the last I tried to find that day, so I pressed on through a minor blizzard to make it to this last stop.  It's always funny when you ask people for directions and they point the wrong way, as someone did in a local shop a few blocks away.  It was that kind of outing at that point, really intense, snowing hard, but really I was just crossing a short enough distance headed straight North.  Then when I finally made it there it was really a cafe, although they did sell the teas loose, with only two-word descriptions to go by.  I kept looking at those few words as if they'd somehow say more to me.

Tea pricing was on the opposite side of the ruined large-jar teas I'd been browsing, some upwards of a dollar a gram.  Most was from Taiwan, and I was going to Taiwan in two more days, so paying over $50 for 50 grams of tea just before dropping in on that country would seem absurd.  I was kind of stumped.

I bought a Nantou high-mountain oolong, likely not a tea type that would be a favorite, typical relatively lightly oxidized and roasted oolong, but it didn't cost an arm and a leg.  It was $20 for 50 grams; normal, perhaps a bit high to some, or perhaps on the inexpensive side for where I was standing.  I suppose this is a good place to mention that I'm a bit spoiled by vendors sending me free tea samples (thanks for that!), and shopping for tea on-site in different countries, and by internet options, and by buying tea directly from producers.  Not everyone spends every day talking about tea to people in different countries online so I guess most wouldn't have a queue of teas they want to buy from sources in Asian countries in the back of their mind.  There's something about a tea being right in front of you, about smelling it or even trying it first, but I tend to avoid the upscale cafes that sell unique teas for high market value here in Bangkok, even if that's the only price range that really unique teas are ever typically sold at.

Really people were supposed to be there to buy a $10 or 20 pot of tea, it seemed, to enjoy the space and the unusual quality level of the tea (presumably), and discuss tea a bit, however that would go.  All that probably would have been nice.  As it was that blizzard had my name on it; I was supposed to fight it to get back to a hotel and check in with my family, which I did.  It was only then that NYC finally clicked for me; things just felt right on that walk.  I walked past people that looked trendy and interesting, but still low-key and casual, of course dressed warmly, and past novel shops and bars.  This wasn't my world but it had a nice feel to it.

not quite as polished as Singapore or Taipei's subways

I don't love cities, even though I'm often in different ones (in DC just prior--that felt different), but the diversity there is interesting.  Even people seeming a bit somber seemed genuine--or even crazy, late at night down in the subways.  Thais smile when they're happy, or just to be polite, or when they're slightly upset, but those neutral scowls were the real thing, along with the less common smiles.  Seeing a homeless guy wearing make-up like the Joker's was a good example of that extra level of local color.  I'd have taken his picture if there wasn't a remote chance he might have killed us.

So that was what I experienced.  I'll add a review of that Kenyan tea at the end here, to shed some light on how random tea purchasing might go.  The Chang Chou nameless black tea wasn't so far off, just not as good, and I've not yet tried the rest.  First I'll mention a few places that I didn't make it to for completeness, without as much to say about those.

Shops I didn't visit, but would have

Te Company (website):  someone mentioned in a Facebook comment that this was the right place to buy Taiwanese oolong, not so much a selling point given the context (visiting there two days later, on the way back home), but it sounded great.  Check out this edited tea description, for a tea selling for nearly the same as the oolong I'd mentioned buying, just slightly less:

Royal Courtesan oolong is a relatively recent varietal. It was the silver lining of the devastating earthquake of 1999 in Nantou county. After the earthquake, many tea gardens were abandoned temporarily... Unattended, these tea gardens were attacked by Jacobiasca formosana, the same tiny tea plant insect that provided muscat sweetness for Oriental Beauty. When the farmers returned to their gardens they were disappointed with the harvest, though curious enough to still use that year's harvest to make Frozen Summit. The result turned out extraordinary.

Oxidation level at 40%, a taste description as "rose, artichokes, caramelized sugar, muscat grape;"  sounds great.  Next time.

Tea Drunk (website):  this place also appeared in those best-of lists, some of them, and might be familiar from one of the best known tea bloggers managing there previously (Nicole of Tea for Me Please).  It seems as well to leave off guessing about tea offerings quality or value, but I'm sure it's worth checking out, although at an online glance maybe not as worthwhile to a value-oriented consumer.  I can appreciate a range of different quality and price level types of teas but my own tea budget is limited; I've got kids, and we spend too much on travel.

Bellocq shop interior (credit their site)

Bellocq Tea Atelier (website):  I didn't clarify that, but I was talking about tea shops in Manhattan in those other cases, where I was visiting, and this is in Brooklyn instead.  I didn't go so far into reading up on this place but even at a glance the decor theme stands out, I guess something like rustic industrial.  It reminds me of a place here in Bangkok (Luka cafe), and of a place I mentioned in an article on tea culture in Mexico (part one is here on TChing; part two isn't up yet).  The selection looks good, and a lot of the teas seem back under $20 per 2 oz / 50 grams, versus double or triple that place I'd just mentioned prior (but then tea grade / quality variation is a real thing; I'm not saying it's not).

I probably missed a lot more than that, but these stood out.

Sun Organic "Kenyan black tea" review

I was almost put off by the low cost pricing of a few interesting looking teas but after thinking it through there would be little to lose. The tea isn't organic, the owner's explanation of the moderate pricing, but another few 50 gram lots teas produced with chemical assistance won't tip the balance of my general health by much.  On to review.

The tea is nice, of course in the conventional black tea range, not far from Assam or Ceylon.  It's not CTC ground-up tea, it's real orthodox tea. The next issue would be which Assam or Ceylon it's similar to, which I'll only clarify by describing the tea, a bit non-specific.

The astringency is fine, with a little edge and dryness but not too much bite. I brewed the tea in a large gaiwan I just bought, Gongfu-style modified towards western brewing, instead of more typically going in the other hybrid-style direction. Tapering off temperature or brewed strength would moderate astringency further, or switching back to more conventional Western proportion and timing, but it's fine as it is.

There's a nice fruitiness to the tea, a citrus on the top end and a raisin / date tone under that, with a middle range a bit towards dark cherry. Those tastes and that astringency dryness work well together.  Of course it's a bit earthy as well, or maybe that background effect is better described as light mineral, in addition to the one flavor typically described as malt.  Malt really seems to relate to a range of flavors, or maybe two connected ranges, with a version as in mineral intensive black tea, not like the malted milk ball malt in soft Chinese black teas.

If anything that dryness is a bit much, otherwise it would all balance very well. I'm not paranoid about it but that dryness in the explicit non-organic context could start one wondering, but I think it's just the tea, a natural astringency.  I also tried the tea with sugar and half and half (after tasting it plain) and of course that astringency dropped out.  The fruit worked really well with the black maltiness, almost easier to pick out  But the effect also moved towards those milk teas people drink, towards more neutral, just a relatively genuine version, with freshly made decent black tea.

It seemed no accident that the general effect was so positive, as balanced as it was, and that the flavors were that clean, even if taken alone the characteristics weren't so unique.  I didn't buy anything that was really supposed to be a great tea at that shop but I'd expect the others will also be quite nice, and perhaps also novel.  Shou pu'er in particular varies from complex, earthy, unique and interesting to earthy more in the range of peat / dirt, or even fishy, so it'll be interesting to see how that goes.

sporting a travel beard for that gritty, urban look

I didn't mind so much missing so many options; coming from Asia it's hard to adapt to the pricing that comes with teas being even rarer on the other side of the world, where that rarity and shipping costs and higher overheads can really add to the cost.

I didn't have more than the same type of short visit to work with in Taiwan, on a short stop-over on the way home, but that is closer to the source.  It was my first visit to that major tea producing country, and the next story to tell.