Friday, November 22, 2013

tea and a newborn, tea and Australia

A recurring theme in this blog seems to be things that don't necessarily go together.  I just had a baby, and just visited Australia for work, so I'll cover how all that did or didn't relate to tea.

tea and a newborn

The day after my daughter was born I came close to not drinking tea.  You would think tea might be a great way to freshen up a bit since newborn babies keep strange hours, waking every 2 to 3 hours to eat, but it didn't work out that way for me.  I was too busy, and always hoping to catch a nap between all the feeding and oohing and aahing, but in the end I just didn't sleep much.

At one point I actually did drink a really sweet lemon iced tea from an Au Bon Pan (coffee-shop in the hospital), but that sort of doesn't count as tea since it might as well have been lemonade.  I'm not good about carrying tea-ware everywhere I go so I ended up brewing some ti kuan yin in paper cups, and never did actually miss a day of drinking tea.

my little angel
Before she was born I was picturing how hectic everything would be later and how I'd be trying to brew tea with one hand while holding a baby.  I'm not sure what I was thinking, especially since she is my second child.  Newborns take a lot of work but they sleep more than half the time, and of course my wife covers a lot of the work anyway.  It never was easy before to set aside an hour just for brewing and drinking cup after cup of tea, and that's tightened up a bit, but it's not so bad.  I drink even more tea at work now because I'm a zombie from not sleeping regularly.

tea and Australia

I visited Sydney for a convention the first week my baby was born--just awful timing, but it was important to go--and of course my experience of the tea scene was very limited.  I stopped by a T2 (a standard commercial slightly overpriced tea shop there), so I'll start with that.

It was nice seeing all the teas presented in a visually interesting way, lots of dark wood shelves filled with tea and tea-ware, with samples set out so you could also see the teas.  Of course I was going to buy some, just a matter of which and how much.  The staff was helpful and relatively knowledgeable, only really having no clue what pu'er was all about, but then that's as good a place as any to fall short.  People that don't know anything about pu'er don't absolutely need to be drinking it anyway, as well to stick to oolong until you really must venture out, and that probably isn't the place to buy it anyway.  They sold only one pu'er that wasn't flavored, and it was a loose version (non-pressed), both not such good signs.

I stocked up on white tea, something I'd been meaning to try more of, and one relatively oxidized oolong that matched some flavors I was craving.  The salesperson did a great job of describing the different teas, especially given that he didn't seem to be as obsessed with tea as might seem normal to me.  Later the tea he recommended was nice and malty with fruit elements and a bit of vague spice under that, like Christmas might taste if it was a tea, just the thing.  That's not exactly how it sounds on the T2 website description but close enough (T2 grand china oolong).

Convention travel is never set up with lots of free time, but better it wrapped up so quickly in this case since I had somewhere else to be.   I squeezed in some shopping since some things are hard to find or more expensive in South East Asia, even basics, like decent chocolate. I stayed relatively near the Sydney Chinatown and did some shopping so close by I walked past the edge of it, without straying even steps to look for tea. In this one case the parental instincts helped steel my resolve; I needed all sorts of first-world baby stuff my wife had kindly written out a shopping list to buy, and basic essentials like Leggos for my 5 year old.   It was like my own personal Christmas rush; odd going through that before Thanksgiving, in nearly empty stores.

At the convention itself I had my first experience with decent tea in tea bags.  When you think of it putting tea in a bag wouldn't need to make it taste that much worse, just not so likely the best tea would ever end up there.  A shop here in Bangkok was selling Dong Ding tea that looked ok in tea bags, and I might have bought that except the pricing wasn't so favorable and they botched brewing it for a sample--should've used a timer, I guess--so I didn't know what it really tasted like.  It looked too green anyway; not the page I'm on just now. 

The tea-bag tea in the 5-star conference hotel included darjeeling and earl grey that weren't too bad, which really came in handy since I was jet-lagged after days prior without sleep.  I drank tea after tea between the sessions, and even mixed in some cups of coffee, which just about never comes up.

Friday, November 8, 2013

mystery tea investigation

Back in August I was lucky to travel a lot, which is a lot easier here because so many countries are relatively local.  Traveling to the North of Thailand or over to Laos or Cambodia (or Malaysia, Vietnam, etc.) is like someone visiting the next state back in America, and probably costs less.  An overnight sleeping berth train ticket to Chiang Mai (the North of Thailand) or to the Laos border costs just over $US 20 (second class; more like 40 for first class in a two-person cabin).
I bought teas I didn’t completely identify in both Chiang Mai and Beijing.  China is a bit further out there, of course, with more visa paperwork, which costs around $100 to process. 
In Chiang Mai the tea was labeled as oolong, grade #1, but based on my wife’s translation of the package (entirely in Thai) there was no cultivar designation.  It seems possible there was more information she just wasn’t catching since there was Thai language all over the vacuum sealed bag.  One could assume the tea was grown in the Chiang Rai area since most grown in Thailand is, although it might not have been.

tea before brewing
The tea from China was more of a mystery, sold in a small shop in an old-style market from bulk, labeled as high mountain organic green tea.  I bought some oolong and longjing tea at the same shop (possibly knock-off longjing, which is a different story).  Both turned out to be quite decent, reasonable mid-grade, much as I could tell such a thing.  The “high mountain green” tea had a very unusual look, quite like pine needles, with more to follow on the taste. 

A short aside on what an old-style market is, since that can mean a lot of things.  Local food markets in Thailand are really interesting, large rooms full of tables with people selling goods, sometimes in buildings that look like an old warehouse.  In the rougher versions bare light bulbs hang to show goods packed on crowded tables, with troughs in the floor as drainage since the refrigeration for foods that require it is just ice.  The smells can be incredible, a mix of interesting and some unpleasant smells that takes some getting used to.  It's like the smell equivalent of being in a loud room where lots of people are talking.
But this market wasn't like that.  Traditional goods markets are a bit more orderly, with large buildings separated into stalls, often with different types of things on multiple floors.  I also bought tea in a Russian market like that Beijing (mid-grade oolong; decent, but not quite so mysterious).  This tea shop was just a counter and shelves in the middle of lots of other things, with lots of types of teas in different containers.  The market in Chiang Mai wasn't so different, a traditional market selling all sorts of dry goods, but with teas sold pre-packaged.

Thailand oolong

I experimented with different brewing techniques with this tea, probably just not getting it right at first, and the tea seemed mediocre or good depending on how I made it.  Or maybe it was varying with my mood, or what I had with it, or the noise level in the room (little boys really do love noise). 
After already trying it a few times I brewed it Western style in a large glass pot and was amazed at how buttery the tea tasted, and trying it again later brewed in a gaiwan the results were the same.  To make a long story short right away it seemed it must be Jin Xuan, which is a very common Thai cultivar best known for this “milk oolong” effect.  The teas can have a creamy feel or taste to them that can even resemble butter, or some taste nutty instead.  I've read of the possiblity of fake versions of milk oolong, flavored to emphasize certain tastes, but for reasons I'll skip it seemed "real."
This cultivar is also known as #12 from the registration numbered list of hybrids, widely imported from Taiwan back when Thailand was trying to get farmers to switch from opium to other crops.   More on all that here, and more description of Jin Xuan. 
I just shared this tea with my favorite local pu’er shop owner this week, Paula from JRT Gallery and Tea shop.  There really should be a website to link to but the Google maps location will have to do for now.
Paula is an amazing source of tea information, although I’ve always wonder how much of it isn’t grounded in solid facts when it starts to get unusual (she’s Chinese, and from China, not Thai).  For example, she talks about the effect different teas have on mood and feelings, the chi / qi idea, or how the tea in the top of the cup can taste different than the tea in the bottom of it, when the cups are holding half an ounce of tea. 
She said the oolong probably wasn’t made using a lot of fertilizer or pesticides because you could check the leaf by rolling it between your fingers and see if it makes a ball or starts to shred.  The ball is the good result, so apparently chemical use can degrade the structure of the leaf to some extent (my interpretation, of course).  
Paula said the tea is good--so I was right for liking it, much as external validation is valid--seeming to like the buttery taste, floral undertones, clean flavors, long finish, and nice feel.  But she said since this tea is from a high production plant type it is seen as an everyday tea in China, potentially a good tea but not an expensive one.  She also said it’s a tea women would tend to like more.  Gender-based tea preferences; odd.  I’ll check back later on which is a really manly tea.

Chinese high mountain organic green

leaves after brewing
This tea wasn’t so easy to identify.  At first it was so unusual I couldn’t be sure if I liked it or not but it soon had me appreciating vegetal flavors more than I had before.  

It starts out with a touch of astringency but with a nice pine / rosemary flavor.  By the second infusion the astringency really drops out and other vegetal flavors join the rosemary, a grassiness, even a hint of green beans.  As infusions go on the rosemary fades and the green beans get stronger.  More than just the taste there is a feel and impression to the tea that is nice.  The flavors are bright with a hint of sweetness, with a little dryness to the feel of it.  The brewed leaves are still very small. 
So what type of tea is it?  I don’t know.  It seems like with more tea experience (rather than the relatively little that I have) I’d probably have more information to go on.
I asked someone with a lot of tea background on-line and he said: 
“might be a Chinese-grown sencha (either Chinese copy of a Japanese tea, or a Japanese-commissioned tea from China) or one of the various "bird's tongue" style teas.  I'd lump Lu'an Gua Pian (Lu'an Melon Seed) into that group as well .”  
Pretty good for an off-the-top-of-the-head guess based on limited information, right?  I researched those teas and they didn’t sound or look exactly right.  I Googled “green needle tea” since that’s what it looked like and nothing fit well.  It’s not like this is the only tea ever made of its kind, I’m just not sorting out what it is.  It’s interesting to consider if it might be a copy of some other type of tea, but under the circumstances it would seem not to matter. 
After the horror stories about China and fake foods there (industrial chemicals used in place of food ingredients, steamed buns made from cardboard, fake eggs that come in a shell, with a fake yolk) at first I was wondering if it might be something other than tea. 


I’ve bought more teas that were not so good tea-shopping at random in South East Asia—more on all that in other posts—but sometimes it works out.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

comparing tea and wine

Before I was a tea drinker I went through an extended wine drinking phase, long since over now.  Around then I was also into tisanes / herb teas, but that's a different subject.  There are some interesting comparisons between tea and wine. 
Tasting style:

When tasting wine you smell, sip, and slurp the wine, and the same process works with tea.  The slurping aerates both allowing access by sensors associated with smell.  One difference is the use of large glasses for wine for swirling.  There are a variety or cup types used for tea-drinking but the scent seems to come off the warmer tea much better anyway, even a very small cup, and even an empty tea cup can still be filled with aroma after drinking. 
In some types of wine tasting there is an emphasis on blind tasting and identification of type, maker, vineyard location, and year as a measure of advanced palate training.  I was never remotely near that level, and it seemed a bit abstract related to enjoying wine.  For both wine and tea there is a learning and experience curve that just keeps going; generally a good thing.

with wine in the Utah desert; Australian shiraz recommended

Wine and tea rating:

My wine guru once told me that you should take the expert opinions for what they are worth and then go with what works for you, for any subject.  That seemed very open since he is a top-tier wine maker in Napa Valley, surely immersed in conventional opinions and ranking considerations.

The wine industry has developed an easy to follow number system of ranking wines on a scale of 100.  Preference is still as much a consideration when selecting a wine as score since the individual character, strengths, and weaknesses all roll together to a number. 
I’m not familiar with anything nearly as standard in tea evaluation, but then I’m really not familiar with the different types of scoring that are in use.  Even if this could be standardized it wouldn’t mean as much without a central influence to consolidate consensus like the Wine Spectator magazine, and even then rating limitations could offset any benefits.  The paradigm of allowing tasting of teas in a tea shop before buying them is also different, not nearly as practical for wines, so in that context ratings become less important.

Entry to wine / tea:

It seems to me there is a natural entry path to wine, a progression of what someone would normally prefer first, and natural end points for later preferences.  It would make sense to start with an approachable merlot, a relatively tannin-free, sweet and fruity wine, then move on to more complex red zinfandel or syrah to experience other flavor elements.  Later one might explore balanced and layered blends, mixes of wine designed to replicate French styles (Bordeaux, Rhone, and such), and end up liking subtle pinots and bold cabernets, or just keep try different source-region variations.  Wine that might not appeal to a beginner at all, like a complex tannic-structured cabernet, might be a natural later preference, but that depends on individual tastes.

In tea there seems to not really be a natural starting point.  Blended black tea in tea bags and generally inferior oolongs in Chinese restaurants are what many Americans try first.  Green tea is widely available, but more so in less interesting tea bag versions.  Green tea has some degree of natural appeal built into it, related to health claims and general positive image, but to me it doesn’t necessarily seem a natural a place to start based on the taste.  I did get into tea in part through drinking green teas in Japanese restaurants but later Chinese teas fit better. 
Flavored teas or tea blended with something else could be an entry point that bridges from other beverages first.  To me starting on tea by drinking oolong makes sense because of the softer nature of the tea type.  Also mid-grade oolongs can show interesting character and diverse flavors, and there is a lot of room for continuing to try more interesting types, so the next exploration steps follow naturally.

Pu'er wouldn't seem like a normal tea to start on, perhaps better after more exposure, but then maybe to some it could seem closer to coffee (although it really doesn’t to me).  Even though black teas could be familiar from exposure to commercial blended black teas for me better black teas also don’t seem a natural place to start, but then I didn’t drink a lot of black tea before.  The only time was joining my parents for their nightly cup of black tea before bed (from tea bags), which never seemed to hinder sleep. 
In a tea shop in Beijing a sales person mentioned that younger people generally prefer Longjing (green tea) and older people Biluochun.  Her explanation: the flavors in Biluochun are stronger.  A description like “earthier” might have fit better but her general point was clear enough.  It’s an interesting idea that tea preferences could correspond to age, perhaps related mostly to experience, but people’s sensation of taste can change over time apart from that.  I’m between young and old now but I like Longjing better.

Since tea and wine are so different there is a limit to the usefulness of comparing the two, but since people are the common element it’s interesting to me.

Monday, November 4, 2013

two teas for breakfast

Recently my son woke me up early because it was his birthday (5th).   The one good part of getting slightly less sleep was having more time to drink tea at breakfast, since he didn't have extra plans for the morning, he was just awake.   Usually I'm rushing enough just to brew a few cups of tea and not drop him off at school late.  Why I wouldn't save time by drinking just one cup of tea is obvious enough.

I've been drinking Darjeeling teas lately through as samples sent by Lochan Tea (thanks much to them; more standard reviews will follow), so I decided to try one from Assam instead.  The tea was a Lattakoojan estate Assam black tea, 2nd flush TGFOP, which unless I'm mistaken stands for Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe.

I never drink more than one type of tea at breakfast--who would do that?--but with extra time to spare
I decided to try it.   I picked a second familiar tea, a Thai oolong, a #17 Ruan  Zhi / Jade Pearls / Bai Lu from Siam Teas.   Bai Lu seems most familiar name to me so I'll go with that, with more background on the cultivar from Teapedia here.

The tea I have with breakfast is always about whatever I happen to feel like then, not reasoning out a selection or favoring a type to wake up to, so from that perspective drinking two teas made perfect sense.  Lots of the rest of the day doesn't have so much to do with personal preference so it's nice to start out on that page.

Thai oolongs are a favorite of mine in general.   The two I seem to see the most of here (Thailand) are both from Taiwanese developed hybrid cultivars.  Where Jin Xuan (#12) can actually taste like butter, or might emphasize pronounced floral flavors, Bai Lu (#17) flavors generally include nuts or spices.  This tea was medium in oxidation level, enough to let some malt come through but not too much to get away from that fresh "green" element.  The nuttiness was in the range of a macadamia; rich, flavorful, and complex, but also slightly non-descript, with some vague spice tones underlying that.

The Lattakojan Assam--way different.   The first infusion had a lot of tanninic astringency that really took over the flavor, but you could tell nice complex flavors were struggling to show themselves.   Hard to say how much that was due to the tea itself or messy brewing technique; I brewed the oolong western style and the Assam in a gaiwan.   There is no way I was getting the muchkin to school on time with all that messing around, even with an early start.

Amazingly most of the astringency just dropped right out next infusion, likely in part due to using a really short steep time. The tea was dark reddish brown and tasted like it looked; full flavored, a bit of grape / raisin, but not nearly as pronounced as with the Darjeelings I'd been trying, mild orange citrus, hints of spice too subtle to name, some natural sweetness, and more than all those flavors malt.  But where the oolong was nutty and smooth, with slight vegetal undertones, leaning towards subdued maltiness, this was bright, naturally sweet black tea that really emphasized the malt. 

I would consider sweetening some black teas, and wouldn't tell someone else how to drink their tea--put chocolate milk in it if you really must--but for me it would be crazy to have added anything.  For a few more short infusions the tea lost no flavor and didn't change much, just softened, but then I ran out of time.  During all the tasting I had also needed to eat to keep clearing my palate, since it was breakfast.

I've tried the Jin Xuan cultivar processed as a black tea instead of an oolong, and of course it starts to head in a similar direction, in a limited sense, but there is no way it could approach the same end point as an Indian tea. The Lochan teas I've tried could be sweetened, or drank with milk, or I suppose even iced (which would seem odd to me, even if leagues better than a conventional iced tea), but I wouldn't do those things.

It would've been nice to put more thought into the food, and for it to be more suitable and neutral.  That day I had an almond danish and fresh papaya, a typical breakfast.  The danish was a little sweet but it worked well with both teas; I love papaya but it doesn't match so well.

This picture shows papaya growing at the house, not the tree that contributed the papaya that day, but the tree is working on it.

Drinking one type of tea with breakfast really does make more sense, especially since I'm just not a morning person.  It was nice that the little bit of commonality--and there wasn't much, a little malt coming out in very different ways--tied the two teas together as much as it did, but it was really an experience in contrasts.  It was interesting noticing the different feel and flavors of both, how each worked as a balanced and complex tea but in very different taste ranges, and experiencing that much taste shift.

And my son was on time for school, just barely.

Friday, November 1, 2013



I live in Bangkok, Thailand.  The “ancient world” refers to modern and traditional aspects of Thai culture, and to a silly expression my Thai wife uses.  She is a former journalist with a colorful way with language, some of it unconventional, which wasn't diminished by going to grad school in America. 
Old traditions here include Buddhism, old-style markets with almost no packaging, travel by banana boat, and agricultural lifestyles that have changed less than most in Bangkok have, although everyone in the country seems to have a cell phone now. 
I ordained as a monk here for two months and lived a lifestyle almost exactly like that described by strict Sangha rules over 2000 years ago.  For example, the cat I'm holding in the picture is a female, so I really shouldn't even have been touching her (with that rule applied more strictly with humans).

Oddly they don’t drink a lot of tea here, or at least the kind I like.  Popular teas include Thai tea (black tea with milk, and other flavoring), sweetened lemon tea (also black tea), and bubble tea, a flavored tea variation with tapioca pearls.  There is a lot of Indian and Chinese influence here, and many Chinese immigrants or second generation Chinese Thais, which better relates back to teas I now drink.  The Chinatown here is said to be the second largest in the world, after the one in San Francisco, of course not including cities in China, a different thing.
I wasn’t really introduced to drinking loose teas here, although I had tried some.  That happened on a business trip to China, to Shenzhen, just over a year ago.  My first experience was an unusual place to start, with a relatively formal gongfu-style ceremony, complete with a hostess wearing traditional silk clothes, and with lots of figures to pour tea over to enable making wishes. 
A lot of first-tea-experience stories include “just then—I knew” but I didn’t get it right away.  The tea flavors were very subtle and unfamiliar, perhaps better than I could appreciate, or maybe it wasn’t such good tea, I probably wouldn’t have known.  Later in the trip I visited a tea store and tasted more tea and bought some but I still kept getting drawn into tea more as time went on.

So now it seems odd that the modern tea culture and tea popularity I read about in America isn’t happening here.  There are tea shops but the selection is limited outside of Chinatown, and tea shopping is an unusual experience there, as is just walking around.  The Bangkok Chinatown is like visiting another country (Renegade Travels description).  It’s a place I’d like to get to more often than I do, but I don’t get many visitors here that are obsessed with tea as an excuse.

I’ll try to keep a bit of tea tasting focus in the entries I write, but lots of other related ideas keep coming up.