Friday, February 22, 2013

Tea Review: Formosa Wild Yu- Chi Black Tea

UPDATE 19/04/2013: It has come to my attention, that this tea really is something as special as it tastes; the teaplants from which this tea is made from are truly a "new" variant of Camellia sinensis. It is said that this plant is further away in it´s genetic make- up from both the Chinese and Assamese variants of the plant, than those two are from each other. So that´s like, you know, really something!

  First of all: sorry for the long hiatus. The winter together with some personal issues hasn´t really helped in keeping me in the productive zone, but hopefully that´s getting better now.

   I went to get some new teas from my local teashop today. There´s been all kinds of stuff happening in the past few days that have kept me from making it to re- stock my tea stash. I had some teas on my shopping list that have become somewhat of "regulars" in my tea diet, like Sikkim Temi and Margaret´s Hope- Darjeeling (the Darjeelings and the like have really grown on me during the last couple of months). The very helpful sales lady recommended this Taiwanese wild tea to me while she was packing the others. The dry scent was so unique that the high price of 28 euros per 100 gram didn´t stop me from buying some.

   So of course, once home it was the first one to try out. The leaves are long and curly. I didn´t get any more info about this tea other than that the leaves really are wild grown. Wikipedia tells us that Yuchi is the name of a rural Taiwanese township, but that´s all. I would love to know more.

   I already mentioned the incredible dry scent. It´s the scent of sweet summer darkness. There´s orange chocolate dipped in milk and honey. Truffles sold on an oriental secret bazaar. Night flowering orchids perfuming the air somewhere in the dark where you can´t see them. A truly Freudian odour in the sense that it seems to awake all kinds of feelings and memories which you just can´t seem to bring to the concious mind clearly enough to name them. Superb.

   I steep it at 80C´ s for 2 minutes. The liquid is a beautiful deep orange. The scent changes a little, the milkyness is much more pronounced. If I couldn´t see the drink I would definitely say there must be some milk in it. Apricots and cinnamon.

   The taste is light, there´s this quick ting just after the upper teeth. This is the promise of summer; not quite here yet but very comforting. All great teas do this to my brain: myriad memories surge through them with every sip. It has countless nuances too fine to name. Summer swimming trip, sun flickering through the canopy, sand between the toes. This is sweet without being tacky. It re- steeps very nicely for a second cup, and even the third one is ok. I become very alive and happy from drinking this, enough so to break my long hibernation and actually write this entry!

   So happy first day of spring, because that´s what this feeling must be about.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


   I´ve been drooling over some Yixing- teapots lately. The only problem is that they aren´t exactly cheap and with christmas coming up and taking all my money, I settled for the next best thing: a gaiwan (apparently they can also be called zhong). It´s a smallish cup (mine is about 100ml) with a lid and a saucer. Mine is made of dark clay and the inside is coated with porcelain.

   With a gaiwan you do these kind of continuous steepings: you add leaves and water, steep for a minute or so and when you´ve almost emptied the first cup you pour more hot water in and re- steep for a while, drink again, repeat as long as there´s any flavour left in the leaves or you have someplace else to go. The lid is used to keep the leaves from getting into your mouth. I´m under the impression that it best suits green teas, but I guess you can do pretty much any kind of tea with it, as long as the leaves aren´t too small. I see it as a very elegant method of making and enjoying tea, it fits especially well the chinese greens which are usually very light and delicate; the continuous steeping extracts more flavour from the them.
   Now that I´ve had the opportunity to have a few "rounds" with my gaiwan, I can give a couple of observations. A thermos bottle is pretty much a necessity (I made do this far without one) so you have hot water available without having to boil some and measure the temperature again. I haven´t found out the "official" method of holding the gaiwan other than that you shouldn´t be holding it by the "cup" part (it´s hot anyways), but by the saucer and the lid, so I hold the saucer´s edge with my left hand while I open the lid just a little bit with my right hand, so that no leaves get to my mouth while I sip. It´s pretty easy after just a little practice. My gaiwan´s saucer (do the parts have their own names?) has quite a deep indentation for the cup to sit in, which is a good thing because this way it won´t slip and fall. Another porcelain gaiwan I looked at the tea shop where I bought mine from had almost no more of an indentation than your normal western tea cup and saucer- combo has; I instantly had a vision of hot tea falling all over and didn´t buy that one.

   I still have some adjusting to do when it comes to the drinking experience with the gaiwan. There´s a bit more stuff to think of when having tea this way. Maybe it contributes a little in making the experience more concentrated in some way? You really have to have your mind more present, you can´t just sip away with a mug in your left hand while reading a book at the same time. So there´s a time and a place that´s absolutely right for a gaiwan, but you should not take it out for every quick cup of tea you´re having. A gaiwan gives more diversity and options to your tealife.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Tea Review: Sencha Kura, Shizuoka Japan

   This tea comes in a very nice vacuum-sealed paper package. Once you open it there´s a small "whoosh"- sound as air gets in and the whole packet expands a little. So it´s as fresh as when it was packaged this spring. Text on the package tells us that this is “a high quality first green tea of the year from the famous tea area Shizuoka. The young and tender leaves have a fruity aroma. A very delicate and sweet sencha from Otsuka, the multiple prize winning company for best tea of Japan.”

   I steep it at 70 degrees for a minute. The resulting drink is light yellowish green, with small particles of leaf dust swirling around. Beautiful. I take a sip and close my eyes: grassy summer slopes with the sea visible from the hills, sun shining gently on top of everything, a warm slight breeze keeping the air fresh. I´m taking a nap beneath a giant lemon tree. There are no worries here. Soft but light. Umami. There´s a lot of leaf particles floating in the tea, it´s almost like a green soup, quite thick.

    Sitting here after the first cup I feel acutely present in this moment. Being present is perhaps the only thing a human should strive for in this life. It is painfully difficult, though. Or maybe it´s more like that not being present in the moment is what is actually painful? Or running away from the pain that is present… I lost it. Sorry.

   Steep number 2: only 20 seconds at 70 C. A lot darker mossy green and cloudy liquid. A conifer forest. Dash of citrus, a little spinach, not too much to make it vegetable-y. The taste: now we are definitely in a moist shadowy forest, with moss covered logs and stones. Shiitake mushrooms. Kois swimming in swift small streams. It´s that umami taste of sweetness without being sugary. A remarkable change between steepings. I´m starting to feel really pretty high with all the caffeine, L- theanine, antioxidants and what not.

   A lot of the plants that are native to Japan also grow somewhat well here in Finland. I have a rare dwarf form of the Japanese rhododendron, for example, growing in my yard. Unfortunately the prettiest Japanese tree, the Acer palmatum, or Japanese maple, is too tender to grow here. I´ve killed three of them being stubborn and just trying to plant them against what I know is inevitable. There´s something in Japanese plants that is very special; they look “Japanese” no matter where you grow them…

   Steep no 3. is 40 seconds at 70 C. The tea gets more fruity and lemony. The flavors are mellowing out, comfortable and round. I´m a bit disappointed that the greatness stopped here, maybe a little bit short? But those first two cups were really special, so I won´t complain. I´ve noticed that I can only make a tea review that I´m myself satisfied with when I´m alone and there´s at least an hour to use without of danger of getting interrupted. With a somewhat busy lifestyle of a family- father it´s somewhat challenging to find those quiet niches. But when I do have the change to sit down like this and really concentrate to whatever tea I´m having and writing about, then it feels that this must really be what tea is all about.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Tea review: The peasant and the noble

I wake up 05:20 at least five days a week. No matter how early you go to bed you will be tired at that time in the morning. It has something to do with dream cycles: at five I usually wake-up straight from a dream which feels very startling, every time. So I really need something strong to get me going, and after quitting coffee the only choice I´ve found so far is Assam.

   Assam is the name of the world´s largest tea growing region in northeast India. The black teas from this area are probably one of the easiest even for a complete beginner to recognize, the taste is really distinctive. It is because the plants from which the tea is manufactured, Camellia sinensis var. assamica, are altogether a different variety of the tea plant, distinct from the "original" chinese tea bush. Of course, the Assamese tea also has it´s own methods of manufacture.

   I´ve been drinking a very run-of-the-mill Assam bought from the local supermarket. It´s not a bad tea in any way, a reliable and stout drink that packs enough punch to get you awake and out of the door. Still it does have a tendency to go quite astringent, especially if steeped too long. This is the taste that one would very naturally want to soften with milk, which I think is why tea with milk is associated with the English; Assam was the main provider of the British Empire´s tea. As I have a personal preference of not mixing milk into my tea, I´ve just tried to make do with a little shorter steeping times and/or less leaves, although the latter tends to compromise the fullness of taste which I do want to be there.

   Last week I bought a small packet of premium Assamese tea, Budla Beta S.F.F.T.G.F.O.P 1 (that´s a lot of alphabets!). It cost only marginally more than my supermarket- Assam. So I thought I'd do a side-by-side comparison of the two.

   The dry leaves had some differences but not much: in the cheaper one they were darker, almost black, and their consistency was also finer and smaller, the leaves looked almost scorched. Both showed about the same amount of lighter coloured buds among the leaves. I steeped a teaspoonful of the leaves in pre- heated cups, the water was about 97 degrees Celsius and I steeped both of them for 4 minutes.

   In the picture the right hand side cup is the Budla Beta. It is lighter in colour and more clearly reddish. The cheaper one is a quite dull dark brown. But the taste was where these two differed the most. Both of these had the "trademark" Assam- taste of leather, rum, smoke, madeira wine, oak. This is where the cheaper one stopped: it had the basic tastes down allright, but it was quite noticeably astringent, and there was no real depth or aftertaste to speak off. Budla Beta on the other hand continued where the other one stopped. A world of further nuances came through in a buttery sweet roundness. There was no astringency, just a thick and full, really robust fullness of taste. Your brain expects astringency to follow such a strong taste, but it just never comes. Tasting these two like this side-by-side made the cheapos´ astringency really stands out and I couldn´t even finish the cup.

   I also examined the steeped leaves, and the differences were a lot more pronounced now than when they were dry. Whereas the cheap leaves were a uniform leathery brown of pretty small broken leaf pieces, Budla Beta had more variety of brown and dark purples and greens. The leaves were still broken but the pieces were bigger.

   So the result is clear and simple. Once you taste the good stuff there´s no going back. I can't even think of how low quality those bagged Assams have been that I've happily drunk in the past. Now I'm spoiled for life. Luckily, here the difference in price is really insignificant. It seems you get a lot more quality for less money in Assams than in Chinese green teas, for example. I'm sure to be trying out many other high quality Assams in the near future.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Tea review: Tie Guan Yin Autumn Flush 2012

Ok, for me, this is expensive tea. Almost 300€´s per kilogram. It has been handpicked only a month ago in Anxi, southern Fujian, China. It´s very exciting to think how fresh this tea really is.

I steep it at 85ºC for 2 minutes. I find myself being extra careful while handling these delicate and precious leaves. It´s a nice feeling.

Iron, metal. Rolling hills of knee high grass. It takes me up, I quite literally raise my head up with the fumes. Very light yellow/green drink.There´s myriad nuances in the odour, too fine and fleeting to desribe in words. Like butterflies in dappled sunlight.

First sip:wow. First a vegetable round sweetness that changes to a rapid tingling sourness on the tip of the tongue and frontal palate, just behind the upper front teeth. There is a great ocean somewhere nearby, although the surrounding hills don´t give a direct view of it. I´m a miner mining iron ore with old time pick-axes and shovels.  The tea goes down the throat like liquid gold. There´s this big orchestra with traditional instruments playing the solid undertones, but the virtuoso solo violinist takes the whole into new soaring heights. I didn´t know tea could have this many levels and tones. Remarkable! A fresh breeze like someone opened the window.

I read it´s called "iron tieguanyin" and I really can see why, now. There´s this really special smell and taste, a tingy metal. Iron hitting flint. I feel it´s somehow heretic to say this: it´s almost like the smell of certain plastics.  Very surprising but absolutely perfectly functional.

I find it a bit hard on my conscience to keep on purchasing expensive teas. I feel I really would have some more practical things that I should use that money on. But life is short. That´s one thing I´ve been thinking more and more about, and these teas really give me some comfort and meaning, so why not? I should try to find and settle on a couple of affordable basic teas as my "every day" drinks, though. I can´t drink Tie Guan Yin for breakfast every day.

Second steep. The open leaves have serrated edges and they are really dark green, is that the autumn flush´s trademark? A slightly greener liquid. The scent is more round, with a clear hint of orchids. It´s exactly the same scent as that of a zygopetalum- orchid that I have on my window. The leaves in the pot are dark green and they are opening up, they have a slight maltiness to them. The tea is like a walk in a sub-tropical garden. Humming birds and exotic fruit trees. An umami roundness rolls down the tongue. I feel very happy and peaceful. The long awaited guest has taken his overcoat off and is chatting with me in front of the fireplace, the formality is melting away.

Now I remember this smell: it´s the cow parsley that I slash down along the path as a kid.

Steep number three. The orchid is even stronger here. I´m feeling so blissful that I don´t see the point in describing the taste which is just perfectly harmonious and whole. I don´t know the particulars of Tie Guan Yin´s manufacturing process, or what makes it a wulong, but to me it´s like the perfect green tea.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

On meaning

   The human mind is such, that it thrives when it has a meaning and a motive for it´s own existence. That may sound obvious, but from an objective viewpoint there is no absolute meaning. In certain ways everything is futile. I´ve struggled with this a lot in my personal life. I have felt a strong urge to find something, just anything, that would be good and true. If ever I would find a single concrete truth, I could then base my life on that. But meanings are by their very nature subjective. Only a subjective mind would be capable of making up such a concept. So we end up trying to find something we can´t ever find. Our brains are very good at trying to come up with ways to fool ourselves about this. Religion is the usual escape. It makes our brains happy even if it´s not true.

   Tea is a meaning. I use it to bring meaning into my life. Objectively speaking it is a random activity. But maybe a non- perfect mammal will have to, at some point in his or hers life, just do whatever it is that feels good. I can take the framework of tea culture and learn about it, immerse myself in it, and use it to carry me in this mysterious journey called life. To feel good is what our brains want to do. I feel good when I drink a nice cup of tea, even if  4.5 billion years from now when the Sun will become a white dwarf it won´t make the least bit of difference whether I drank tea or not. The paradox with humans is that we are seemingly capable of thinking about the idea of objectivity, yet we live in and are bound to a subjective reality.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The pot

   It was Father´s Day yesterday. I got my first teapot as a present. Up until now I´ve used these simple cup- sized infusers made of wiremesh. They are very handy for a quick cup, but of course I´ve been thinking about getting a proper teapot, if not for other reason than aesthetics.

   My new teapot is nice and compact, a little over two medium- sized cups, made by Zero Japan. It´s some kind of clay with a metal lid. The color is a stylish moss green with a "Crackle Glaze"- finish which looks like broken porcelain under the surface lacquer . Inside there´s the same kind of infuser as I´ve been using before, but this one fits the pot. As  a first steep I did some organic Fujian Shui Xian- wulong. The teapot keeps the liquid in a lot more stable temperature throughout the steep. I might consider adding some kind of insulative "hat" for the pot to make it loose even less heat. Maybe because of this the tea had a lot fuller and stronger taste. It was really quite noticeable. The two cups of Shui Xian we´re really nice with my FD- breakfast.

   One potential problem I noticed is that I will always have two infuse two cups with this teapot if I intend to use the basket infuser, because when only half- full the water doesn´t rise sufficiently high to adequately cover the tea leaves in the basket. Of course, I can just put the leaves straight into the pot and use a sieve when I pour the tea out. This might be a good way in a case, because the leaves would have more space to move and expand. Gotta give it a try today.

   The teapot definitely makes tea better, both the absolute taste of it as well as by giving you a more satisfying experience aesthetically and mentally. I´m already drooling over other teapots as well; I guess it´s addictive when you start hoarding them. A nice and earthy Yixing would be nice, as well as a modern glass pot and a gaiwan....