Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Yellow tea explained, and a Korean yellow tea reviewed

This post will cover yellow tea research first, then a review of an example I bought in Korea.  As I mentioned recently it's not informative to review one tea against a type, without reference knowledge of trying others, but at least it fits my "journey to tea" blog theme.

Yellow tea research

Why not start with Wikipedia input:

Yellow tea (Chinese: 黃茶; pinyin: huángchá) usually implies a special tea processed similarly to green tea, but with a slower drying phase, where the damp tea leaves are allowed to sit and yellow... The smell is sometimes mistaken for black if the tea is cured with other herbs, but similarities in taste can still be noticed between yellow, green and white teas.

Sounds good, if a bit vague.  Maybe back to the reference graphic on tea processing, with the long attribution label:   by Sjschen (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

yep, add "moist heating," or sitting there wet (can't be that simple right)

Another vendor reference (Tea Trekker) clarifies what these steps really involve:

During men huan [firing] the heated, softened leaf is removed from the tea firing pan, covered with a cloth, and allowed to ‘rest’ for a few hours or as long as a day. This smothering step can be repeated several times over several days... In this step (which is not part of green tea manufacture ) men huan encourages the softened leaf to reabsorb its own aromatics. The results of this step will be expressed later as additional sweetness...

The same reference said the teas can be produced from buds only or from a bud and two leaves, which sounds essentially the same as for white teas, but then resulting in the two different white tea types.  This and other references say the combination of better leaves being used for the process and additional expertise and expense being required lead to limited tea availability and higher cost.  Fair enough.

It sounds a little like the processing step for shou pu'er (also called cooked pu'er), the step that chart called "wet piling," although of course it's not exactly the same.  The variation in those final products indicates it's not so simple to leave a pile of wet leaves sit to result in a better tea.  It can go badly.

World of Tea processing by type chart (credit Tony Gebely; see link)

This seems a good place to mention a separate tea processing reference, found here, included above.  This replaces the yellow tea processing step "moist heating" with "heaped," and omits "rolling."  Of course with more research one could go to the next level of detail of specific steps variations of this processing.  One other interesting difference in both does tie to pu'er (fermented tea / post fermented tea in these, or heicha if you must, since pu'er is really a regional designation), but I'll skip getting into that.

So far nothing about the taste of the tea, which is compared to both green and white teas in processing, but surely with a taste difference.  A relatively well-known mainstream source, Teavana, describes their product as such:  

Unlike any tea you have tasted before... Captivating high floral notes mingle with a smooth honeyed body and a subtle creamy, buttery finish. A perfectly balanced tea.. 

Ok!  The price is on the higher side but not different than the range for white teas, comparable to the cost for both the yellow and black teas I just bought in Korea.  Their site is actually interesting for including good product description, and of course a clear photo, and also a product review section.

It could be in poor taste to make fun of the reviewer comments but I can't help but mention a couple of anomalies (aside from the tea getting really high reviews--it probably is nice).

One said "when I add the right amount of sugar to this tea it bring the honey and buttery notes to the front..."  I'm the first person to advocate someone drinking their tea as they like it but this seems odd, tea blasphemy, but at least I didn't read about someone icing it (which I suppose they could do--it's their tea).

Another person recommended it so highly they mentioned buying five pounds, well over $1000 on one tea purchase.  My wife should be grateful I don't do that, and ease up about the small stock-pile at home I keep trying to drink through.

Another vendor reference (Vicony teas) roughly matches other type descriptions, just a bit more colorful (with more information in the site content):

This rare yellow tea from Mt. Mengshan, Mingshan County, Sichuan province has been a tribute tea from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to the Qing Dynasty(1644-1911). ...  Meng Ding Huang Ya is mostly made from tea buds picked during the early spring to create a nutritious tea with a mild and sweet flavor and unique fragrance... It is ideal for tea drinkers especially women who like green tea but want to avoid stomach upset that can occur from drinking green tea. Yellow tea is legendary for its healing properties.... this lightly oxidized tea has a mild flavor without the grassy smell associated with green tea.

... one of these few rare yellow teas, Huo Shan Huang Ya, is now only made into green tea so Meng Ding Huang Ya is seen by Chinese tea industry people as "living fossil of tea".

To be clear I'm not saying that this is the same type of tea I bought and will review; the general category of"yellow tea" is supposedly common.  Cool reference though, "living fossil of tea."

It takes some paging through Google search results to get to any reviews.  The Steepster reviews of the Teavana product (mentioned earlier) don't shed much more light on the character:  floral, smooth, subtle, buttery finish.  Actually it seems you never do make it to the familiar blogger posts; on page 9 of searching "yellow tea" a reference page on yellow tea by the "Tea Stylist" includes a short review section, with the tea described as:

 The taste was indeed subtle, but round and a little more vegetal than sweet with no astringency.

I kept reading it to see if I'd missed the actual description but that was it--a subtle review description for a subtle tea.  The point of the reference was really a description of the tea type, and there was a good bit more content on that.

Of course changing a search to "yellow tea blog review" did turn up different results, a review by one of my favorite tea reviewers, Kevin Craig, the Tea Journeyman, covering the yellow tea that stood out the most in the research, a Tealet product.  The review description:

The leaves are fully intact, appearing to be one leaf and bud, with the occasional two and a bud... The aroma of the liquor is delicately sweet and floral, with a slight vegetal scent. The liquor has a light body and a very mellow texture. The taste is delicate, with a nice balance of floral and very light sweet and vegetal notes. There is no bitterness to the taste. The finish and aftertaste are light and floral....

As a yellow tea should be, this Yellow Bud Yellow Tea from Vivid Huoshan displays characteristics of both white and green teas, and yet has characteristics that are unique to yellow teas alone...  It also maintains the fresh vegetal notes of a green tea.

The other Teavana tea is also reviewed by a familiar name in a video review, by Jason Walker, which I'll only cite the location of here.

One more tangent, a health claim related

There are plenty of health claims in different references, even more for yellow tea than most others, for what that's worth.  I never really personally attach to these; maybe the teas are good for you, but who knows.  One research study article did say this about the tea though:

The yellow tea significantly ameliorated the increase in the activity of the alanine- and aspartate-aminotransferases in plasma. Thus, the drinking of yellow tea may contribute to protection against liver injury.

Sounds good, but it's quite difficult to review the study parameters, and who is financially supporting the work.  Just ease up on the binge drinking and your liver will hang in there; no tea will help you if you alternate glasses of whiskey and cups of tea.

Review challenges

Again reviewing one tea of a type is problematic, and the subtlety attributed to the related teas could add to that.  Even silver needle teas demand a reviewer base their impression and preference on more subtle factors than the list of flavors that really could sum up most of the impression of some other tea types.  It's not that black tea or oolong doesn't have subtle elements, or qualities related to the feel or body of the tea, but somehow--in general--a list of flavors and a comment about that dimension seems to do it for some teas but not as well for others.

Regional differences are another unusual factor.  Of course most of these references and reviews are talking about Chinese teas, with an Indian tea reference coming up, again related to a Tealet offering.  Even if this is authentic yellow tea, produced in essentially the same way as Chinese yellow teas, using a comparable tea product starting point, based on similar processing skill, terroir would vary the nature of the tea (differences in location, soil, climate, etc.), so all I've cited would be talking about something else.

To review teas is to be bold, though, with some allowance for personal style, so I'll give it a go.


I tried the tea!  My first impression was:  unusual, subtle, hard to describe.  At first some taste element reminded me of a black tea, but the body and feel and subtle character more of a white tea.  The different taste components were all subtle, quite light, and complex, but not so easy to distinguish, not pronounced, similar to a silver needle.  

Maybe there was some hint of a floral aspect, but not much, and a sweetness reminiscent of honey, but not pronounced as these can be in a better tie kuan yin.  A trace of a mineral component reminded me of such found green teas, a trace of flint.  Yet another subtle flavor element resembled hay.  The richness of the feel and that taste component could come across as butter instead, but it seemed to me the separate trace of mineral pulled the interpretation of that other separate component in a more vegetal direction, from butter to hay, if that even makes sense.

Something about the set of flavors and character reminded me of the Korean black tea I reviewed, but it was hard to say what.  I think maybe the mineral element was common, or maybe more than one component.  

The tea produced multiple infusions with subtle changes in character, so a more standard, some could even say "proper" review wouldn't summarize flavor components together as I have, but would instead track the elements and transitions across them.  Perhaps later I would as well, but for trying a new tea type it seems as well to keep it simpler.

To back up to the beginning, the tea was presented as small, twisted leaves, without any stems.  The scent was sweet and distinctive, a bit herbal and rich, slightly towards grassy.

It's harder to say if I liked the tea.  It was so unusual I'm still taking it in.  Someone that really loves white teas might love this as well, but although I've tried some and can appreciate them my own palate still seems a bit juvenile for that, back towards black tea, or maybe more accurately more oxidized oolongs, comparatively straightforward stuff.  

I could see how subtle differences in brewing might really affect this tea, or differences in water used, etc.  It could and probably should be optimized.  For some teas brewing them very lightly actually seems to enhance the way the flavors are presented, or maybe that's just my take.

Or, on the other extreme, as one reviewer I'd mentioned here expressed a bit of sugar probably would bring out some of the honey and butter.  It would be hard for me to do that to this tea, even in the name of experimentation; it would be disrespectful to this tea.  I'm reminded of a co-worker trying a taste of a nice Rou Gui I was excited to try, and asking if she could add sugar to it.  I replied no, you can't, you're thinking of a different type of tea.

Is it really a yellow tea?  I couldn't know for sure.  It is an interesting tea, unlike any other I've tried yet.  I also couldn't guess where it stands related to similar teas.  

There is one best reference on Korean teas I've not mentioned yet here, but the range of posts and detail doesn't lend itself to citing a few sentences as review blogs or vendor descriptions might.  I'm referring to Mattcha's tea blog.  Even the tea types aren't always presented there in such a clear-cut fashion as the standard categories, with yellow teas exhibiting a bit of range (here is why).    

A really interested reader might explore a range of posts on that blog, (eg. http://mattchasblog.blogspot.com/search?q=yellow), with further reading about where to get teas in this post, a list of vendors and some sourcing information, a bit dated now from posting in 2010.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Japanese roasted green tea, hojicha, reviewed and researched

I'm reviewing a roasted green tea from Japan, which will involve describing the tea, and also considerable research into what that is.  At first it seemed it would be partially oxidized tea, so essentially oolong, but based on a comment from a tea expert that probably isn't right (Michael Coffey).  He said the tea wasn't oxidized but instead converted by a different type of reaction, the Maillard reaction, which he described as the change that browns toast (which I also thought related to the seared coating on steak).  Wikipedia can clear that part up, but describing the tea in more detail will also take some research.

It goes without saying, implied in the context of the writing, but in most cases these posts are more about sharing my "journey to tea" than describing really unusual teas, or as an authoritative reference, and so on.  Some of the teas are exceptional types, and some exceptional examples of a type, but generally I wouldn't try to specify that, more just talk about the teas.

This tea I'm writing about seems a conventional type, although an example that perhaps few people "outside the world of tea" would have got around to trying.  It wouldn't be new to most tea enthusiasts, and would almost surely seem quite common in Japan.

unconventional looking; still cool

Review part:

should say hojicha?

The tea is nice.  It is just tea but the processing gives it a grain-like taste, perhaps most like toasted sesame, maybe a little like a fresh home-made loaf of wheat bread would taste (I can't remember ever having that though; my Mom only used white flour, but after this tea I'd like to try it).

So it's nothing like green tea; no astringency, very soft, not grassy or vegetal, with a rich, full flavor, a bit sweet, maybe even towards caramel.  And not really like black tea or oolong, different than those ranges of flavors.  So new to me, just great!  Except I bought and tried another similar tea in Japan recently, almost certainly the same type, but still new enough.

still not informative to me

It would seem to work well as an everyday tea; not so exceptional I'd keep seeking out slight variations on the type, but good in a way that I don't think I'd get tired of it.  Of course this is based on trying one such tea (ok, two; not different, especially since the other was an inexpensive tea I picked up in passing).  Different versions could shine in some different ways, or I guess someone else could get really caught up in the flavor profile.

It almost reminds me of genmaicha, the Japanese tea that blends roasted rice with green tea.  I suppose in addition to the grain-like flavor profile there is a hint of fresh vegetable flavor below that, slightly towards seaweed, but in a good sense.

It's a bit of a tangent but seaweed really could get a bad name it doesn't deserve, of course; it's a broad range of plants, not just one.  I don't love most of those plants or most of the ways they are prepared but once you get past the unfamiliarity and texture a lot of them are nice, just not my favorite.  Of course it works great with sushi, and there's no other decent vehicle for consuming wasabe, at least that I've tried.

Hawaiians love seaweed mixed with raw tuna (poke); not so much for me.  Koreans, and I suppose Japanese, love dried sheets of processed seaweed as a snack, salted or flavored, and those are nice.  Japanese ramen often comes with similar sheets that integrate really well with the other rich flavors, nice with pork stock broths, or for me even better with a miso base added.  Now this really is a tangent.

Related to tea I favor more oxidized versions so I'm on the opposite page but green teas have a fresh taste they can't match.  I suppose to be honest I like longjing best because it has a slightly less grassy, vegetable range profile, closer to toasted rice, grain, or nuts, so this tea works well with my natural preference.  It turns out the processing steps aren't so different.

Type of tea: research section

I've read of this tea type recently in summaries of types being sold in Japan, and when doing online research (I think).  Of course Wikipedia content matches all the following research turns up, but since that article is a subset of "green tea" Japanese black tea falls by the wayside (wakoucha / kocha; the tea I reviewed last).

Per Google's first reference suggestion (thefragrantleaf.com/guide-to-japanese-teas):

the degree of roastiness in the aroma and flavor will depend on whether the tea is lightly or more deeply roasted... Lower in caffeine, it makes a great after-dinner tea. 

So there's that; maybe drinking tea in the evenings is one way I could work on the growing stock-pile at home.  I'm still not seeing how that's different than an oolong though.

A bit of a different subject, but related to the main Japanese green tea type the reference also said:

sencha can be translated as "roasted tea". This term refers to an older style of processing Japanese green tea that was influenced by Chinese tea processing methods. Today, most sencha is steamed instead of pan-roasted in its initial stage to prevent oxidation of the leaf.

A second general reference (japan-guide.com) sheds no more light on these types, but does refer to Japanese black tea as "kocha," not wakoucha, which seems a variant, and adds:
Oolongcha (a type of Chinese tea):  Oolongcha involves allowing the tea leaves to oxidize, and then steaming or roasting them to stop the oxidization process. 

On the first read I thought now I've got to go back to Japan to try their version of oolong but this seems to actually just refer to Chinese tea.  Chinese oolongs are nice (pretty much my favorite), and they were selling them in different places in Japan, along with lots of other types of teas.

hojicha would've been nice

Yet another summary reference didn't add much, except that the tea is roasted by pan-frying, and also the point "this tea is usually the first tea that Japanese babies drink."  Too late since my baby has tried a few types already, but I will certainly introduce her to it, and I'm sure it will suit her palate.  Now I just need to teach her to talk so she can describe her preferences and general flavor profiles.

I'm still not getting to processing details for this tea:  a better blog reference from Ricardo Caicedo starts into more detail at least:  myjapanesegreentea.com/houjicha.  It add lots more depth, including brewing instructions, and a video on how the tea is roasted, and a link to how to try that at home (cool enough!), along with background:

Houjicha is most commonly made with bancha, although it is also made with sencha and kukicha as well. The basic process consists of roasting the loose leaves at about 200 degrees celcius, followed by a quick cooling.

This process lowers the catechin and caffeine content of the leaves. Why is this important? Because the catechin is the main source of astringency and caffeine an important source of bitterness in the tea. 

A different blog post discussed re-roasting teas, not exactly related, but this might sound familiar, as a way to refresh the flavors of a pan-fried type of tea.  While I'm digressing, comments about how to make masala chai in recent discussion covered how roasting those other ingredients changes and heightens their flavors when making that type of spice and tea blend.  My blog post on this subject didn't cover that technique, but a comment did, and the technique used by my Korean tea guru did (I'll have to figure out a way to get her to guest post about something as an introduction).

Another reference claims the tea is oxidized, along with this interesting point "because Hojicha is roasted, with a lengthier oxidation it converts the catechins into compounds called theaflavins and thearubigins."  Good to know, but that won't stick.  It seems possible "oxidized" isn't really the right concept.

A redit page includes a lot of general background on different teas, and makes the point that this tea type (hojicha) includes stems as a component that provides a particular flavor, whereas in most other teas including stems is a sign of lower quality tea.  That's starting on a separate subject I've often considered, the impact of stems on the taste of tea.  It always seemed it wouldn't necessarily just be negative, that the stem included could compliment leaf flavor elements, but I've not made any ground on that line of thought.  The "common tea myths" section by Michael Coffey in that reference is worth a read but not related.


This never did get around to completely settling the difference between oxidation and the later roasting process changes in this tea.  It was interesting to read through tea processing references, and some did go into how this tea is made (with further reading out there; seemed like a lot of links to keep adding them all), but apparently it's just pan roasted after normal green tea production.

The Maillard reaction reference is a start but doesn't clarify things either, really:  per the Wikipedia article:

The reaction is a form of nonenzymatic browning which typically proceeds rapidly from around 140 to 165 °C (284 to 329 °F)...  The reactive carbonyl group of the sugar reacts with the nucleophilic amino group of the amino acid, and forms a complex mixture of poorly characterized molecules responsible for a range of odors and flavors.

here it is, tea processing summarized!  and no oxidation.  graphic credit doesn't fit here.

Tea processing graphic credit:  by Sjschen (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

So there's that.  The process corresponding to roasting (pan frying) this tea is related to browning toast, searing steak, that crust on pretzels, and malted barley, but not oxidation.  It does create a nice, distinctive tea in this case.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Review of Japanese black tea (wakoucha)

I tried the black tea I bought in Japan recently.  I wish I could say it was an interesting and positive presentation of a black tea style, but I didn't like it.

Usually it's not so simple; teas have a complex character, and some aspects are positive, others negative, and it's more about appreciating aspects and then noting how it matches overall preferences.  This tea had a strange flavor element that I didn't care for.

looks like tea (maybe a little choppy)

tea label (black tea?)

That taste element reminded me of gaba teas I've tried in the past:  nitrogen-environment processed teas, designed to result in production of a brain function regulating component compound (with the shortened name "gaba").  Maybe such a tea calms you, or possibly it doesn't, with more on the flavor and effectiveness in my earlier research and review post.  You might wonder, why would exposure to nitrogen affect a tea, because it's the main component in air anyway?  Good question.  My understanding, as conveyed by a tea guru, is that the lack of nitrogen forces reactions that would normally be based on oxygen to occur with nitrogen instead, so the tea would be less "oxidized," even though something similar but different would still happen.

It's worth noting that I've only tried such teas produced in Taiwan but the processing was developed in Japan, and it's my understanding that most such are consumed in Japan, perhaps even of those produced in Taiwan, so I don't know for sure that there wasn't some type relation.

But onto a review of this tea.


A general maltiness came across first, and a fraction of a second later that taste element that I'd spoken of.  It's hard to describe; a bit like cardboard or chalk, a mustiness, maybe leaning a little towards wet dirty sock.  In some gaba teas a similar taste tied to a dry feel to the teas, and maybe a little here, but less so.

It was hard to get past that flavor element to evaluate the rest of the tea character.  It didn't have a lot of astringency, and was a little malty, a bit earthy, and if somehow that one taste could be removed it might have balanced into a nice tea.  With it--I'm not sure what I'll do with the tea.  More guesses on what it tasted like:  cork, but not a fresh and light cork similar to balsawood, which would be nicer, or a little like that smell of old books in a library.  I love that smell but wouldn't love it as a flavor in tea.

I almost have to compare the tea to a black tea I just bought in Korea and recently posted about, although the two teas are quite different.  That one lacked an objectionable flavor component, and so seemed superior.  Attributes that weren't as positive as in my favorite teas stood out in the Korean tea, so it was interesting but wouldn't be a favorite.  In both cases I couldn't help but think drinking green teas instead might make more sense, reminded of the expression "when in Rome do as the Romans do."

But I'd been through the opposite experience in Vietnam half a year ago.  I tried a lot of consistently good, distinctive green teas--what they typically drink--and also tried two very nice black teas, and one very good darker oolong, and one nice lighter oolong.  These were interesting not just because they were good but also because they were different than others I'd tried before, as with lots of types of teas I tried from lots of different places.

could be clearer (same for the website)
I could say more about the tea based on reading up on it on a vendor website (the package referenced one:  http://www.mikuniyazengoro.com/).  But that site is only in Japanese.  They also have a Facebook page (page linked here) but it's also only in Japanese, or at least mostly Japanese, since there at least some section heading titles are in English.

Ordinarily if I really didn't like a tea it would be as well to just not write about that particular tea (if you can't say anything nice...), especially given I'm not completely sure what I've bought.  In some other cases I've passed label photos onto foreign friends for translation, but didn't this time, so I've no idea what that site would've told me about that tea, or related product options.

In this case I'm posting all this because it's part of a larger search for teas I've already been discussing, and even a relatively negative result is part of that process.  I'm completely sure this one tea doesn't indicate anything general about the rest of that vendor's teas, and I wouldn't be surprised if there are considerations I'm not taking into account, like it's not really supposed to be equivalent in style to many other black teas I've tried.

Other considerations

Somehow it softened the blow that this tea wasn't sold as a premium tea, that the cost was at least in the normal range (around $10 for 60 grams, versus around $30 for 40 grams for the Korean black tea--not normal, for me).  It wasn't just the expense at stake; it seemed to make a difference how the tea was represented, as much as packaging type and foreign language text did such a thing.  Staff in both tea shops could barely speak English, so hardly offered any input or opinion on the teas.  In Korea the shop had been selling one significantly more expensive black tea--the one that I bought--and one relatively inexpensive one (at a more typical pricing level, likely roughly similar to this tea), so if I'd hated that tea, or if it seemed flawed, it would seem a different thing.

Of course my wife is concerned with how much money I waste on teas, but no need to get into that (it's not much; nothing like a Starbucks habit or bar spending).

To compare further and provide some context, I bought two lower range Chinese teas in a tea shop in Chinatown in Yokohama.  I was there to find Japanese teas, and only there realized they'd probably not sell much in the way of Japanese teas (after they said they didn't), because it was Chinatown.

I've tried two of the four teas, one sold as Wuyi Yancha (more oxidized oolong), the other as shou or cooked pu'er (or at least as compressed tea; labeling wasn't in English, so likely not from the right region for pu'er).  I didn't keep close track of cost for these but it was low; around $20 for a two or three hundred grams of tea.  Both teas I tried didn't seem to be high quality level teas but I liked both more than the two black teas I'm discussing here, in part related to preferring those general types, and also because they were decent teas.  I won't mind drinking them, and wouldn't have reservations about sharing it.

It was interesting they were calling black tea "red" in that shop in Chinatown, and referring to compressed teas as black.  This seemed to come from Chinese terminology, of course, and also helped explain why I might have never found a Japanese black tea without using a different Japanese name (wakoucha).

It's not possible to judge a general tea type by one tea product, so I really can't say much about either Japanese or Korean black teas in general.  As luck had it the two Vietnamese black teas I tried were both quite good, so evidence mounts that there is a generality there, but surely I could have tried two much worse teas based on having less luck.

A comment made on a Japanese black tea blog post (here) referenced another more experienced tea blogger having tried several such teas, and this is how more informed perspectives are developed, over time, based on more sampling.  Of course sourcing is also relevant.  If I'd instead tried a tea a vendor had provided based on trying many such teas and selecting a favorite that would seem a better representative than allowing random chance to lead to only one.

A very limited selection process applied to the Korean black tea; the shop presented two options and identified one as better, potentially based on cost more than the product qualities, although often the two go together.  There also seems a chance that just because the tea was sold as such and was expensive that it still wasn't a great representative of the general type.

Korean tea

It can be misleading to judge by appearance but that Korean tea did include a good bit of stem and the leaves weren't whole, so it seemed at least possible it could have been sorted as that tea product and also as a higher grade.  But who knows.

The Japanese black tea consisted of shredded leaves, typical of machine-processed tea (but again who knows; an informed tea expert might extrapolate from the final-product evidence more effectively).  I tried a machine-processed Cambodian black tea once that didn't look like much but was nice (that I wrote about here), which was nearly given away for free compared to all of these teas.

In conclusion, you really can't conclude much from trying one tea, but I didn't like this one.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Travel and tea in Japan, versus Korea

I've recently visited both Japan and Korea, with this post covering travel and especially a tea search in Japan.  I didn't do that search justice given places like Disneyland were a higher priority but I still managed to come across a few interesting teas.

It seems as well to start with general impressions.  People tend to ask which country I liked better, and how the two countries differ.  Of course it really doesn't work to summarize the second; the two places and cultures are far too diverse to really compare in that way.  But still the questions are valid, so I'll make a start.

sakura in Yokoham, Japa

sakura and other blooming trees in Seoul, Korea

To me nowhere in Asia looks like Japan; it's the only fully developed country in Asia in the same sense America and Europe are completely modern.  You can even drink the tap water (take that Europe!).  Korea is not far behind, even ahead in some ways, like internet infrastructure and speed.  It's not as if there are things you can't find in Korea that they have elsewhere (ok, possibly some Japanese things, but it's pretty much all there).

giant Buddha

Aside from that Japan has its own style, something impossible to describe, so that buildings and designed areas have a great look and feel (of course the gardens are unique; I mean everything else), and even nature as well.

I noticed something similar in Bavaria, German, where the country was so tidy that even the woods you could see from roads were a bit landscaped (not seemed so, they were).  But Japan takes it to another level.  Cities have a carefully planned style, even nature does, clothing, etc.

amazing miso ramen
Food is taken to another level in Japan.  Even here in Thailand where Japanese food is popular you can't compare what you can find of it here to there.

A hole in the wall ramen shop near where we stayed served the best ramen and the best gyoza I've tasted (fried dumplings), and we've tried versions from dozens of restaurants between Hawaii--which has more Japanese residents than "white"--or Bangkok, which also has a significant Japanese population.

I keep having the experience of a food not really making sense to me until I try a great version.  This happened on a trip to Japan two years ago related to Japanese food, and especially buckwheat noodles (and related to Korean barbecue and kimchi as a condiment a bit over a week ago, but that's a different story).

Of course people are asking me about the culture and the people more than level of development or landscaping or architecture.  A lot of them are now huge fans of Korea because of K-pop (music) or Korean drama.  Of course those exports don't really relate to how one would interact with the average person in Korea, which is more relevant to a visitor.

Japanese people seemed a bit reserved, so it stood out moving on to Korea when people again started commenting on how cute our one-year-old daughter is (essentially like a doll-baby come to life, really).  But then being a bit quieter isn't so negative, and we ended up in some relatively populated places, which would tend to result in people keeping to themselves more.

happier than most commuters
My son's favorite part of the vacation was the trains in both countries, and the rail system in Japan is more developed and extensive than anything I've seen, sort of the opposite of the US.  Then again the rail system around Seoul is fairly complete too, which was all we needed to use on this trip.  In Japan it's different though, lots of different networks, different types of trains, local and express versions to go everywhere, high speed trains, customized luxury touring trains, on and on.

one of many local train networks; in any other country this would be all of it

 English language use is helpful for us when travelling, and it's not so common in either country.  At least in Korea signs were converted to English, which helped a lot, but in both places down to the last person every by-stander we asked for instructions went way out of their way to help us.

For a typical traveler books like Lonely Planet would cover a lot of step-by-step directions anyway, and use of tourist SIMs (phone cards) and Google Maps could help a lot with pointing the way.

Tea in Japan

Maps knows!  some, at least.
I'd hoped that tea would be so prevalent that it would be easy to find in Japan, and didn't do a lot of prior research about it.  Of course it was common, and I did eventually stumble across some less common teas I'd hoped to find, like Japanese black tea.

Given the limited use of English I wasn't sure Google Maps could identify tea shops (as in Thailand business names aren't always identified in English wording) but it did turn up many.  Cafes--places to get a cup of tea, not bulk loose teas--tend to mix with other shops, so it would be nice to get input ahead of time of just the right place, not so easy to do.

I tried finding tea in Chinatown in Yokohama (which of course worked), and only there it occurred to me they would only sell Chinese teas.  Of course I'm not basing that on visiting a lot of shops; given conflicting time demands I was only in and out of a few places.  So I bought four Chinese teas there instead--strange, but based on trying two so far great value for decent, inexpensive teas.

tea shop in Chinatown

Grocery stores sell tea, of course, but in any country there's the concern that they are usually relatively low grades of tea.  In Japan the language issue made it more confusing; with packaging written only in Japanese I'd be buying it almost completely at random.

I did buy a package of "roasted green tea" in one based on getting help from the staff.  I'll research what that means and add more on it in a separate review post.  It was interesting that most seemed to sell teas from other countries as well; nice they could show such diverse tea appreciation, given the range and quality of their domestic products.

I finally found Japanese black tea in a specialty tea shop, the second such shop I found (essentially just on the way to other places, so the plan to invoke luck sort of worked).  The first shop had sold relatively little Japanese tea, focusing more on sales of teas from other countries.  I never would have found it if I hadn't known the Japanese name for black tea (wakoucha; more background on that here).  It was interesting they seemed to be calling black tea "red" tea (from the Chinese convention, of course), so along with the rest of the language issues asking for Japanese black tea might not ever have worked.

Ordinarily when someone would write about tea in Japan they'd move straight into numerous types of teas Japan is famous for, essentially variations of green tea (for the most part, but of course it's not that simple).  I started on drinking loose tea in the form Japanese green teas years ago (maybe four or five?), but only started going overboard with research and tasting in the last two years, so I never did really completely know what I was drinking.  And I still haven't circled back to that, although I expect to eventually.

To make a long story short I've since preferred Chinese teas, especially more oxidized oolongs and black teas, and tried others from lots of other countries.  To stick to more familiar scope and still try something different I wanted to find Japanese black tea, which did work out.  Japanese grocery stores in Bangkok stock an entire aisle of green teas so really I wouldn't need to get on a plane to get back to basics, when I get around to it.  Of course that assumes that Japanese people could somehow counter the curse of almost all grocery store tea being awful.  After seeing the miracle of their rail system I'd think they might be able to, or maybe it's still asking too much.

Conclusions about Japanese teas

fascinated, and not thinking about tea

I never will be able to settle on objective conclusions based on my limited experience, but even limited findings will need to wait until I actually taste the teas I bought.  I've only been back a few days and I was too busy for tea tasting in Japan and Korea.  Shocking, right?  Probably not to anyone routinely traveling with two young children.  I managed to make tea most of the mornings but it was rushed work, not the right time for breaking out the most interesting teas.

I will write more of my impressions in more standard review posts.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Korean black tea review, plus tea haul in Korea and Japan

This post is really about reviewing a Korean black tea but I'll start with pictures of all the teas I brought back from my recent trip to Korea and Japan to start (to Seoul and Yokohama, to be more specific, although we did visit the Tokyo Disneyland).

Maybe it's no wonder my wife is always bored to death with me buying teas, and repeatedly says "enough tea already" on trips, when it's really not.  So this post is dedicated to her; hang in there.

Korean teas!  Middle is black tea (reviewed), plus a green (left) and yellow (right)

Korean teas!  In the the middle is the tea I'm reviewing, and a yellow tea I bought in the same Insadong shop, and a green tea I bought in the Seoul Gyeongdong Market (traditional medicine market).  Since the green tea seems a more typical preparation of Korean teas and it was by far the least expensive ($5 for 150 grams) I'll be interested to see how it compares to the others.

Japanese teas!  left to right, black tea, then roasted green (?), and two others

Japanese teas!  A black tea (wakoucha (Japanese black tea) 和紅茶 ), a roasted green tea (more on what that means to follow), and two relatively "generic" teas I'll also get into later.

Chinese teas!  (we visited Chinatown in Yokohama)

Chinese teas!  Odd, right.  We visited a Chinatown in Yokohama to find tea (in part; my family wasn't interested in the tea) and it turns out they only sold Chinese teas.  These are two wuyi yanchas (one identified as dahongpao, the other left generally referenced), a lapsang souchong, and a pu'er (must be shou / "cooked" ).  It was interesting to see teas from different countries on sale all over in Japan; nice they can appreciate their own diverse green teas and still branch out.

Snacks!  Three of them even tea related, green tea Kit-Kat, Oreos, and Pocky (all from Japan; where else), and a nice graham-cracker type biscuit they sell in Korea (which would be nice with tea).

Korean black tea review

First impression is of a higher grade black tea, the smooth and subtle balanced character.  Mineral elements give it a touch of dryness, in the range of flint.   there is some sweetness, not much of a fruit element compared to mineral, malt (a lot of malt), and light wood (so decent complexity),  maybe a hint of underlying grape, leaning towards a darjeeling flavor spectrum related to some of those elements, but definitely not in general.

The feel of the tea is a bit unique.  It's not really astringent in the normal sense, which comes across as bitterness,  but the dryness is related to a different presentation of astringency.  This ties with the mineral components and also to a long finish (aftertaste).  The effect is very pronounced; the taste of the tea doesn't diminish much for the first 30 seconds after swallowing it.

So that's the tea described; very interesting.  It's not really like any other tea I've tried, although some components remind me of a higher grade lapsang souchong I reviewed,  which was malty, complex and subtle, and very light on smoke (but different). But do I like it?

nice red black tea color

To clarify,  I mean how do these unique and generally positive taste and body elements relate to my subjective preference.  That goes without saying, really, (what "like" means) but I've been drifting towards deconstructing impressions one wouldn't normally express, so I may as well be clear.

I like it but don't love it.   It's quite good tea (based on my judgment,  which is still a work in progress), but I might like it better for swapping out some subtlety and mint and mineral components for a light fruit element and more typical body / feel.

Then again,  since I seek out and try different teas to experience new things it would've been disappointing if it tasted a lot more like any number of black teas I've already tried.  Another reviewer referred to a tea I loved as "juicy" (Indonesian black tea reviewed here) and I loved that impression in that tea, a bit opposite in this one, not that I dislike it.

brewed leaves; a bit chopped, some fine stem
Something about the feel of the tea reminds me of different Taiwanese red jade / ruby teas I've tried (one review here) Taiwanese teas I've tried, and just thinking about that shifts the mineral component impression towards mint. And it seems to really resemble mint, which I'd missed.

This tea's taste elements seem more complex and balance together better than the version of that tea I'd tried, with malt reminiscent of lots of black teas,  and mineral tones that remind me of distinctive Vietnamese tea flavor elements.

All in all a nice tea, and an interesting one.  Not a great value given the tea pricing in the range of a US dollar a gram but worth a try.

Searching for tea in Seoul

I'll write more about what I actually found--review of two different teas, one black tea and one yellow--but this is more a travel guide part about where the search for tea in Seoul led.

I don't mean to even imply Korean tea has anything over Japanese teas for emphasizing that search in the last post, or starting with it here (I just got back from both countries).  Even accounting for varying preferences that would seem silly.  Tea from Japan is justifiably famous, and it doesn't all taste like you've brewed seaweed.

In both countries I focused more on destinations like Disneyland so this also isn't meant as a guide to what someone else might find, if they put more ground work in.  And it goes without saying, Japan has an incredible look and feel, and the people there are great even if a bit reserved.

before starting on tea, Korea in spring is worth a look (Japan too, for that matter)

the kind of places I visited most--not so bad

Tea search in Seoul

A tea shop!

I had the best luck wandering around Insadong, a tourist / art / traditional area. It would take a full day to really do that type of search any justice at all but in an hour I found a few tea cafes and two shops selling loose tea (actually one was pu'er, compressed Chinese tea; close enough).

I bought a Korean black and yellow tea, so I did find interesting types. The downside: I paid through the nose, about as much as I've ever paid for tea, $30 for 40 grams of tea for one, if I'm remembering right (one third that price or less is more standard, for decent tea).  I didn't have a great feeling about grabbing the first teas I saw, of course, but that was how timing went (I did spend two full days at amusement parks though, based on someone else being a higher priority than my tea habit).

A later check on teas in a higher end grocery store, under the O'Sulloc brand I was supposed to check out in their cafe, turned up even more expensive teas, so maybe I wasn't missing so much.  Would've been nice, though.

Insadong!  Cool vibe, even when rainy and cold

I didn't go to any of the other places I'd mentioned in the reseach post because I didn't have time to spend on running down shops; just enough to go take a look (it was a family vacation).

I'm not completely sure what to make of it but there seemed to be a lot of tea cafes in Seoul compared to tea shops.  Walking into a few--looking for the other kind of shop, given the tight time-line--and browsing the menus turned up a second interesting point:  they were selling more tisanes (herb teas, if you're ok with that expression) than tea made from tea leaves.  Along the same line, Wikipedia lists lots of things in an article on "Korean tea," just not any made from the camellia sinensis plant.

Nothing wrong with tisanes, to me, it's just a phase I was on years ago, and now more into the other kind of tea.

Another online contact mentioned another tea store I didn't make it to (in addition to the others I didn't go to in the last post), Ancient Futures Tea Lounge (their Facebook page), but according to them they specialize in Chinese teas.

In summary, Koreans don't seem to drink tea as they do in Japan or China, which explains the emphasis on herbal teas / tisanes. In retrospect that makes sense; it's too far north to be ideal for tea production. Japan isn't much further South--the Southern parts; the north is at the same latitude--but obviously tea demand has to do with culture more than what can grow everywhere. Since the supply is limited and there is some demand the cost is high, and I saw teas selling for even more in a higher end grocery store. More than a dollar a gram for tea is a bit excessive, to me, but to put it in perspective it still costs less than a Starbucks habit.

Tisanes in Seoul--there's a market for that

Based on another recommendation I checked out an interesting traditional medicine market, but there was only a bit of loose tea being sold there, not the compressed disk teas I'd hoped to find (dok-cha). Here's a link about the Gyeongdong Market, which seemed a great place to buy all sorts of other things, like fresh ginseng:

Visit Korea guide reference on the Gyeongdong Market

The look of that market wasn't what I expected, a bit more of open stalls than medicine shops, but it's a familiar format here in Bangkok.  Usually in Bangkok those places have an unusual smell to them (as expected, for having fresh fish sitting out with a little ice to preserve it) but this market smelled like potpourri mixed with food spices, only a lot better.

Gyeongdong Market!  (probably)

Fascinating selection, to me at least.  But not really about tea.

I never did find the Korean compressed tea disks I was looking for, dok cha (pictures references here).

Other options:  tea expo in Seoul, grocery store tea

Another online contact mentioned a tea expo / convention as the best place to find and stock up on Korean teas.  Here is a link about one this June (too bad I won't be there).

As I recall from the conversation the point was that better Korean teas are available in places like higher end grocery stores or specialty tea shops but due to how supply and demand balances out these can be quite expensive (which was my experience), and the range of offerings making it to such markets could be limited.  I've been to this type of event in Thailand but Thai oolongs tend to be a bit consistent, so although it was a great place to buy a lighter oolong it didn't seem to get much further.

Of course on-line sales is another short-cut I'm skipping, but based on lots of Google search it might work a lot better if you can read and type in Korean.

Which leads to one other possible outlet, grocery stores (right--somehow that never works for decent tea, maybe better in China or Japan but even there better to go to a shop).

at a glance not expensive (1000=$1, appx.), but these are 10 and 25 gram packages

These teas and others I didn't photograph show part of the problem:  these are some expensive teas.  Both of these on the right come to close to $40 per 50 grams worth, and there's no guarantee it's even "good" as mid-range teas go.  

It was the same for the O'Sulloc brand in a different store; maybe decent pricing for a very open tea budget but I'd just been to Japan where the scale was sort of different (hard to factor in quality, of course, to some extent even when tasting the teas but much more so for looking at a package in a foreign language).  Glass jars are nice for getting a look, and probably a great storage solution, but nothing like drinking a sample.

I almost bought this but didn't, mostly to keep looking

back to a realistic price range at least.

Getting around Seoul

One more step towards just travel blogging, right.  The obvious way to get around Seoul is to use the subway, and get a tourist SIM (phone card) with data support and let Google Maps take you the last few blocks, after research has already "starred" where you want to go.  Easy peasy lemon squeezy, as my son says (right, some British school influence there).

looks complicated, but in Japan this would only be one of many networks

Looks pretty easy, right?  Zooming in a level in Google Maps even tells you which door to get off at the station, and more street names, so how could you go wrong?  Easy.

In fact I think I was there but may not have been.  I saw information signs in the different intersections (helpful, especially the part about including some English text) that actually conflicted each other about where that market was.

People on the street standing less than a block away seemed to have no clear idea where it was, and pointed in different directions (nice of them to try and help, though; people in pretty much all countries are great about that).  To top it all off there was no way a sign was going to say "Gyongdong market" in English / Roman lettering to make it clear you are there.

The subway map version:  again really clear (nice work adding some English words; you take that for granted until it's not there).

One interesting semantic point ends up being a stumbling block:  what is a "market"?

Here in Thailand it usually refers to a group of lots of stalls in one building area, usually with a bit of an industrial look to it, or maybe even vendors selling things outside in stalls without boundaries or maybe even tables.  A "night market" might just be sidewalks or blocked off streets.

I was thinking of the shops areas in Chinese markets, like a very old version of a mall, similar to Korean clothing stores in a different part of town.  Unless I'd missed it this was a little more open, in the earlier pictures, with distinct "stores" and a common roof, but still not really shops.

priorities conflict, but great seafood Udon
If the mission was wandering around Insadong then just finding the main street and wandering in would do the trick, provided spending one day and taking many steps wasn't an issue (both things I would love).

One co-worker who was in Seoul just now when I was said she thought the next neighborhood over might be a better place to look (based on living there for a year--but then she's not into tea).  And there's the problem:  it could always be just one more more block to find the holy grail, the perfect shop, with a selection you just can't believe, great pricing, friendly staff tasting the teas with you, etc.

more important to me than tea

More on how that goes in a different country in a later post on the same type of search in Yokohama, Japan.

The final conclusion:  do research, ask Google, network and get advice, and walk a lot, but most of all be lucky.  If you can't enjoy the sights and smells along the way for not finding what you're looking for then you should just be searching online anyway.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Online tea exploration: preparing for a trip to Tokyo and Seoul

One might read of well organized tea-theme group trips (if you haven't then read about this one, organized by Tealet, or there is a more obscure one in Korea this May), but you typically don't see so much about how to turn up tea leads on your own going places (in Asia, presumably, but of course tea is in lots of places).

I'm about to go to Japan and Korea (Tokyo and Seoul, to be specific), and while my wife plans for outings like Disneyland and Unesco World Heritage sights, or maybe to see sakura blooming (cherry blossoms), I'm looking into tea.  But how would one go about that?

I guess this will be worth a look too (this week, from FB friend)

I'm no travel expert but here are some thoughts, also related to this subject coming up before and in Vietnam and Cambodia last year (in Singapore it seems easier; go to Chinatown).

Tea contacts:

Having friends where you travel would make for a great lead, and a guide.  Even an online contact could help, a forum friend, or someone from a Facebook group (etc.).  I indirectly "know" a number of people in different places and this is still not so simple since you need the right person in the right place to help answer relatively specific questions.

But it could work.  If you come to Bangkok feel free to ask me.


Almost should be first in this list, right.  Google knows a good bit about lots of things, and combined with Google Maps it's possible to be very specific about locations, and even search by location.

One catch:  Google works much better searching in English in English speaking countries.  Even here in Thailand, where English use is much more common than in Japan or Korea (my take, but kind of an informed one) lots of blind spots turn up.  But the highest profile places Google will know about aren't always the best options.

Tea farms:

This gets into a different kind of trip than I typically take, more related to the Amazing Tea Race subject.  I go on family vacations where I try to stop by tea shops, or even tea districts if a city is set up for that (like Beijing).  I guess the same type of search could apply, just supported by a lot more effort and networking, and without relying on direct internet search quite so much.

A more indirect approach could still work, but there would have to be a way to find people that know people that are hard to contact, willing to act as leads and share contacts that are hard to come by.  That last part would probably be the catch.  Just finding your way to a tea growing region wouldn't be so difficult--no secret where the main ones are--and the subject would come up a lot there, along with lots of related shops and tour options.

Trip advising sites:

For example, the one called Trip Advisor, which posted this entry about the O'Sulloc Tea Shop in Seoul.  The Lonely Planet is another familiar reference, where you might find something like this entry for the Yetchajip Tea House in Insadong, Seoul, or this one for the Beautiful Tea Museum, not far from both others.

Sounds great, right, three places to buy tea.  Maybe, maybe not.  A cafe or museum theme might not be the best place to buy tea, even if both sell loose tea, and the main places tourists go might not match the selection and pricing available somewhere else.  Would be great to talk to a local that loves tea that's spent years working on all that instead, rather than other tourists using the same types of references.  How to do that; good question.


This should be obvious enough to a blogger, right; why couldn't there be someone else sitting at a keyboard in those cities typing out what they experience related to a tea obsession.  I did try that type of lead.

Here is a site dedicated to referencing expat authored blogs in different countries, which could help get around the issue of blogs being written in Japanese of Korean.  I focused more on Korean teas and blogs out of Seoul just because I'd been reading more about Korean teas lately.  I also think we'll have more free time in Seoul, and I'm hoping to have better luck due to everyone drinking tea in Japan.  Also references on Korean oxidized teas sound so interesting, like this one by the World of Tea.

You'd think I would be about to explain how this approach cracked it, but not really so.  Other than references to the three places Google mentioned others cited only tea cafes, which didn't seem promising as loose tea shops (like this one, about a tea cafe, with the cool blog name "cute in Korea.")  If anyone is going to Seoul in June you are absolutely set because there is a tea festival / expo then,  related to information in this blog post / reference site, but that doesn't help me.

Or there are Western oriented blogs that talk about Korean teas, like this one on tea types (Tea at Morning Crane Tea blog), or this blog that covers lots about such teas (Mattcha's blog).  The problem is that typical tea blog entries don't lead back to physical tea shops very often (certainly not if written by an online vendor), so these could more often help you order tea but usually not to find it walking around Seoul or Tokyo.  Of course there could be exceptions, but looking up and reading dozens of tea blog entries is problematic.

Forums, discussion sites:

I don't think Steepster or Teachat is going to help--although maybe, but I didn't try them--but there are countless other forums covering countless other topics.  Again as an expat I thought expats might be one way to get around language problems, so I looked in places like an online penpals site.

Get the impression I have too much free time yet?  Or maybe also that wasting it is sort of a hobby.  Of course that didn't work, but it is one of many ways to talk to strangers, if that sounds like a good thing.


I went through all this not so long ago, actually, in Hanoi (not all of it; I've escalated the online research part, sort of my thing, trying new research directions out).  There I had the best luck in talking about it on a forum afterwards (the expat blog one I already mentioned), and someone told me about a great reference online, a shop in Ho Chi Minh City, Hatvala, which is not even where I was in Vietnam, or probably all that close to where most of the tea is grown.

I ran across some really nice teas in Hanoi by luck (see a few other blog posts in the last few months), and Google Maps pointed out some other shops (many I didn't get to; gotta go back to Hanoi at some point), so a relatively standard approach and some luck can work.  Time is a part of it; if I had a couple of days to dedicate only to the search for tea it would be easy, but different family members have different agendas, and I'm the only one inclined to focus on tea.

China was a similar story, but I was much less obsessed when we visited back then (a year and a half ago).  My first work trip there started me on tea and a later vacation helped push me over the edge.

I guess there is more to life than tea (really!) and places like World Heritage Sites and Disneyland deserve attention too.  It's nice the travel planning can extend so far into the online world as it does but in my experience the last steps are in real life, and not just related to actually drinking the teas, but often also to finding the best places to get them.  Or there are online shops; of course that works too.

I didn't get far in this particular search beyond identifying the shops I mentioned, which might work out.  A real-life friend will help me find tea shops in Seoul (good luck having one in that city).  The posts that follow about different teas, or lack of such posts, will tell the rest of the story.