2006 White2Tea Old Bear

I would offer you some tea, but this one is kinda gnarly...

At least, that's how I phrased it when a friend came over and I was on my fifth or sixth steeping of this pleasurable tea. According to White2Tea "The Old Bear brick is a smokey, heavy tea that is ideal for tea drinkers who enjoy flavors that are present in Scotch whisky, cigars, and pipe tobacco."

How can you not be sold on that description alone?

This tea a sheng puerh, however the aging process has transformed it into a hulking behemoth of a tea, wrapped in a dainty 100g fangcha brick. Don't let the peaceful looking cartoon bear fool you, this tea wants to smother you in blankets of smoke and wash your mouth out with peaty whiskey.

Believe it or not, dear reader, that was exactly what I was seeking out when I came across Old Bear.

I won't bother to harp about White2Tea or my thoughts on their tea (just look at my post history...Jesus). Let's just get into what this tea is, and what it uniquely brings to the table.

I've seen some comparisons of this tea to 1990s big factory-era teas from Xiaguan. I personally, do not have experience with factory teas, but I do understand the general intent: highly compressed, well-aging teas that take on a dark and complex character. This is the type of flavor that shu puerh attempts to emulate.

The fangcha is quite compressed, but breaks apart in layers.

Upon brewing (via yixing teapot in 200F water - flash steeping), this tea produced smokey and woody smelling tea. Tasting it, the smokey flavor was near-overwhelming for the first few steepings and I would certainly tend more toward pipe tobacco than cigar. The only characteristic it borrows from whiskey would be peaty-ness.

The flavors that emerge upon repeated steeping is what I've really been looking for through shu puerh - a dark, roasted tea that isn't tarry like Lapsang Souchong. This tea is perfect for a cold evening and really tolerates long steeping times without bitterness. I guarantee that you will run out well before this tea's flavor does.

Tea Review: "King of Duck Shit Aroma" Oolong (Not Kidding)

Every so often, especially when placing an order with an astronomical shipping rate, I impulse-buy a tea based on name alone. Ya Shi Xiang Dan Cong normally wouldn't trigger such a reaction, but the translated name "King of Duck Shit Aroma" definitely captured my interest.

When thinking of oolong, many of us immediately think of the nuclear green, tightly-rolled balls of Taiwanese tea. Chinese oolongs are usually uniformly rolled in long leaves and are heavily oxidized (60%-85%). Chinese oolong mainly comes from two regions, the Wuyi Mountains between Fujian & Jiangxi provinces, and on and around Phoenix Mountain (Feng Huang Shan) located in eastern Guangdong province.

Dan Cong,  "dan" single and "cong" bush, implies a hand-crafted approach to tea making. In fact (thanks to the /r/tea subreddit) dan cong actually refers to trees that are not grown in plantations, like "wild" or "arbor" trees. Any tea can be "dan cong" but it typically refers to Phoenix Oolongs. There are over 80 cultivars that originated in the Phoenix Mountain region, with names based on the aroma that the tea gives off. Rou Gui (Cinnamon Aroma) is one that I've also had, though I had a Wuyi sample. Po Tou Xiang (Ginger Flower Aroma) and Huang Zhi Xiang (Orange Blossom Aroma) are also examples.

Which brings us to duck shit. I had been wanting to try Duck Shit Oolong for a while now, and had the opportunity while buying teaware on Yunnan Sourcing. According to YS the tea is:

grown in and around Ping Keng Tou village in the Phoenix Mountains outside of Chaozhou in Guangdong Province. The tea bushes from which our King of Duck Shit Aroma are more than 80 years old growing naturally!

Ya Shi Xiang Dan Cong or "King of Duck Shit Aromoa" is named because (drum roll).... of the yellow-brown soil in the area. Legend has it that the tea is named as such in order to protect the tea from outsiders and thieves. This makes sense, especially since there is another Phoenix Oolong called Zei Shi or Thief Shit.

The dry leaf was not overly powerful. It had a pretty light roasted smell for a Phoenix or Wuyi Oolong tea, and was very sweet and chocolaty smelling. I did not do a rinse and paid the price - this tea needs a rinse to get the initial, overpoweringly bitter taste off. The second infusion yielded a much more pleasant experience. The brewed tea was quite sweet still, and very pungent. It's an abrasive tea that you could either start a cult around or throw in the trash. For me? I enjoyed the experience but I wasn't overwhelmingly impressed by it. I will certainly be drinking the rest of it, however I did not enjoy it more than the Wuyi teas that I've had. I'm certainly interested in finding more Phoenix Oolongs in the future though, as I found the Duck Shit to be really flavorful.

I hope that this review wasn't too much of a let-down. I assume that everyone wants me to describe in overly descriptive terms what duck shit smells like. Unless it smells like chocolate malts and honey, I'm afraid I disappointed you!

Fuzz in My Tea?

I was reading the other day about how having fuzz in your tea was a sign of quality for some teas, especially Longjing/Dragonwell. Of course I had to run over to my Nearly-Pre-Quing Ming Longjing that my parents brought back last year. Sure enough, there was fuzz in it!

Sorry for the blurry photo :(

Sorry for the blurry photo :(

For those who can't see it, I found three leaves with big fuzzy patches on it, and also one whole fuzz ball. What's up with that?

According to this article by Tea Trekker:

Some tea leaf varietals (more so than others) produce these little hairs on the surface of newly emerging spring tea buds and leaves. For early green teas that are pan-fired (pan roasted) such as Longjing, most of these leaf hairs are rubbed off as the leaf is being handled, pressed and shaped. These fuzzy hairs evaporate when the leaf is heated in the firing pan, and much of what remains s removed from the tea in the tea factory.

But a small amount of these leaf hairs gather into those fuzzy balls. These tiny balls are sprinkled throughout each batch of tea – there are not so many, so perhaps it is good luck to receive a few in our bag of tea!

The Tea Trekker article has better pictures as well. Well there you go! You learn something new every day.

Guest Review: Mengding Gan Lu "Sweet Dew"

After sampling this green tea from a co-worker and enjoying the flavor, I added Mengding Gan Lu to my list of spring teas to order.  Gan Lu or “Sweet Dew” is one of the oldest teas in continuous production and grows in the Mengding mountain peaks of Sichuan Province.  I ordered the tea from TeaSpring – an importer out of California and the tea arrived in a sealed gold bag. 

The dry leaves have a small, twisted, multi-colored budset, which after infusion produce a light yellow-gold cup.  This tea has a bit more of the lighter tips than the sample from my co-worker, so may be from an earlier harvest.  But they are fairly similar in appearance. 

So how does it taste?  The aroma of the dry tea, the aroma of the infusion, and the taste from the cup are all consistent.  This is one of those teas that you hold under your nose and enjoy between sips.  It has a sweet aroma and flavor as the name would imply, and to me it is a chocolaty sweetness that also lingers on in a satisfying aftertaste.  The flavor is more complex than that, but that is the predominant flavor comparison.  This is a very pleasant and distinctive green tea that I was fortunate to be introduced to and quickly fell in love with.  Mengding Gan Lu has now entered into my pantheon of Chinese green teas!

- Bob Johnson

"New School" Puerh and the Growing Tea Industry

I'm certainly not a "tea world" mover and shaker. One that produces teas, retails a tea store, or attends World Tea Expo with a name badge that says "Tea Consultant." I am, however, a huge fan of what's going on right now in the tea world, especially as seen through the lens of a globalized society and as a niche hobby. These are exciting times, and I want to take a moment and shine a light on "new school" puerh that is the vanguard.

HISTORY: I'll let TeaDB give you a history lesson on puerh production before I ramble on with my thoughts:

Before the formation of the PRC, there were a number of pu’erh producers. Many of the most famous operations were centered around Yiwu and the six famous tea mountains. Some of the most famous operations were Songpin Hao, Tongqing Hao, FuYuan Chang, etc. During and after WWII, the Chinese pu’erh industry was consolidated into larger organizations. The organizational shift put more of a focus around Menghai County and away from Mengla County (the greater Yiwu region). This fluctuated a bit over the years, but the major factories were all large operations (Kunming Tea Factory, Menghai Tea Factory, Xiaguan, etc.). Depending on the exact period, quantity was a major emphasis, making the harvesting of older or wild trees oftentimes impractical. Teas were usually blended and were seldom marketed as being from a single region, let alone a single village or tree. The previously hot areas of production (Yiwu) either didn’t cultivate tea or simply sold their raw materials (maocha) to the major factories for further processing and pressing. SOURCE

Fast forward to the 1990s and more so in the 2000's where the internet opens the possibility to market niche products directly to consumers. "Ancient tree", "wild tree", "arbor" and other buzzwords start to shift the tea culture towards young puerhs from small farms that are produced custom for the retailer. Old trees from abandoned tea plantations are now sought after for their leaves and Yiwu tea comes back into the spotlight.

CURRENT TREND: I promise, soon I will stop harping about the 2015 White2Tea releases, BUT I do see them as part of an important new trend in how tea is marketed and presented to the general Western population. Of course, they aren't the ONLY vendor who is paving the way for "new school" puerh. Crimson Lotus, Tea Urchin, and others are sourcing, blending, and packaging NEW teas that do not bound by region, factory, or single-origin restrictions. I find those teas extremely important to the fledgling, American tea market because:

  1. They have attractive packaging and names. Is this important? Not really. However, if you compare this practice to the wine industry or the craft beer industry, it is certainly a proven method of attracting new customers and enticing the coveted "Millennial" trendsetting generation. Compare their wrapper designs to other puerh, or even just tea producers. The reduction or remixing of the asian asthetic on their packaging is actually a pretty innovative and new idea. Which leads me to...
  2. I'm onboard with this post by The Tea Kings where they make a case for removing the language "barrier to entry" for the Western tea market by marketing tea with it's English or Romanicized version.*** The White2Tea lineup gives easier access, especially when you can pronounce the name of the product you want. For an analogy, it's exactly like wine producers creating names and labels for their products, rather than relying on the 'Estate Name-Wine Type-Year' formula to sell their product. There's no problem at all with tea produces naming their teas after the type of leaves, the place of origin, or the factory name, and it certainly helps in advocating for tea education, but it does become an alphabet soup of sorts and makes it overwhelming for the consumer.
  3. Despite the funky names & labels and lack of Chinese characters on packaging, the fact remains - this is still great tea. Don't take my word for it, two of my favorite tea reviewers TeaDB and The Half-Dipper are both on board with "new school" vendors. These teas are affordable, carefully curated, and come with a greater feeling of care than traditional Yunnan factories. Also, it's exciting!

Lastly, I would certainly make some parallels between the "new school" puerh market (though these companies also delve into other tea styles) and the craft beer industry. Tea companies sourcing and curating raw tea in China from field to cup seems to me like a radical new approach from the earlier method of tea companies scooping up whatever the factories are producing and shipping it overseas. Craft beers are produced with care, and are nimble enough to directly address the growing tastes and niches within the beer community with handcrafted products.

*** I do want to make a distinction that I am not condoning "whitewashing" the ancient cultures, traditions, and languages that makes tea infinitely interesting. Like music, you need to have a healthy, reverent understanding of the past before you can begin to create for the future. However, I do think that the tea industry must be looking every forward, and if they're concerned with creating a Western tea culture, I believe it's a good practice to make language barriers less onerous.

Guest Review: Crimson Lotus "Planet Jingmai" Ancient Tree Sheng Puerh

The inspiration for my love of tea, and my literal reason for being, my father contributed this review of the "Planet Jingmai" from Crimson Lotus that I got him for his birthday! Great review and photos!

Let me begin by saying that while I have adored fine teas for the last couple of decades or so, I have had very little exposure to Puerh teas.  My past experience has been with the random, occasional toucha of some type that I had very little information on, so I was very excited to take some time and give this tea a try.  The "Planet Jingmai"  Ancient Tree tea was picked in the Spring of 2014 and processed in small spheres (planets) rather than the traditional bowl shape that I'm used to. The tea bushes are 300 years old growing atop the Jingmai mountains of Yunnan Province.  This is a Raw or Sheng Puerh, so it's processed in the ancient traditional way.

Unwrapping the ball of tea, I can see that much of the leaves look greener than I have experienced previously.  I decided to infuse the tea in a gaiwan and decant to a mug for drinking.  After first rinsing the leaves with water heated to just boiling, I filled the gaiwan again and let the leaves soak for a minute.  The first infusion was fairly light in color and flavor, but starting with the second and many subsequent infusions that followed, the leaves opened up along with the deepening color and flavor.  I could see that almost all the leaves were intact and uniform - so good quality. My infusions were kept at no more than a minute.  (I did let the leaves steep for 5 minutes as a test which produced a very bitter cup.)  The aroma and the taste were very different than my prior experience with Puerh - perhaps because I am remembering the Shou or Ripe Puerh.  Gone was the strong earthiness and long lasting harsh aftertaste.  Instead I found it to be much more subtle and pleasant in both aroma and taste, which held up after 15 infusions.  It is a difficult flavor to describe, more savory than sweet. I think of mushrooms (That's "umami"! - G).

What's unique about the Puerh style of post-fermentation processing is that this tea can be consumed now or decades from now, as it can only improve with age.  So the Planet Jingmai Puerh tea gets a thumbs up, and definitly makes me want to continue to explore a wider range of this type of teas.

- Bob Johnson, Guest Reviewer

My Iced Tea Recipe

After being outed as a sweet tea hater, I thought I'd show how I brew iced-tea. My Dad perfected this recipe over time, using similar Assam tea from Upton Tea. I've seen iced tea brewed a variety of ways and there are certainly correct and incorrect ways to do it. The worst is using a concentrate like FUZE, the Coca-Cola brand. The next step up is using Lipton gigantic bags, which are used for almost all tower-stand iced tea makers. My favorite commercial iced tea is at Panera, and it should come to no surprise because they use Republic of Tea for their product.

Growing up in the Louisiana heat I would drink gallons of iced tea, made by my Dad. Below is how it's done:

And that's it! Pretty simple, but for me and my taste buds it's a lot better than any other iced tea on the market.

The Tea-ing of Things

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Recently I've been searching far and wide on the internet to find any research concerning putting tea in food or other beverages besides "tea" (camellia sinensis leaves steeped in water). This turned out to be much more difficult than I anticipated. Tea has been hailed for its health benefits and medicinal value, usually misguided or over-hyped. I thought I'd share what I've found on the subject and hopefully receive some comments on what I missed.

Tea is usually added as an ingredient to food or non-tea drinks in the form of either powdered green tea or matcha powder. It's important to draw a distinction between the these two. Powdered green tea can really be any style of leaf of any origin that has been processed in the green tea method. Matcha on the other hand, is a Japanese tea whose quality ranges from low to high, but in general it retains much of its health benefits (in the form of flavoids/catechins which provide antioxidants like EGCG) due to being processed in the shade. Powdered tea that is added to food or non-tea beverages that is matcha, not "green tea", would indicate a higher quality additive.

This information encouraged my next questions: does the ingestion of matcha provide the same if not more catechins, antioxidants, caffeine, and theanine than steeping it? Does adding a scoop of matcha powder to your Smoothie King smoothie really provide you with as much caffeine and theanine as brewing it?

The answer to this question is usually the citing of a 2003 University of Colorado study, which claims that "the concentration of epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) available from drinking matcha is 137 times greater than the amount of EGCG available from China Green Tips green tea, and at least three times higher than the largest literature value for other green teas."

After reading that I had several problems with the study, though I could not find a free version of the entire study to read it. It compared a Japanese style tea to "China Green Tips" which are not comparable styles. Secondly, according to this great post that also questions the study, they are not steeping the leaves multiple times. Finally, was the "China Green Tips" used whole leaf or were they dust, like you would find in tea bags? The Amazing Green Tea blog post also noted that the fibrous leaves also filter out contaminants such as chemicals and heavy metals from the steeped tea, which would be lost if ingested.

I would really like to read more information on the subject, and it remains a major interest of mine as the "tea-ing" of foods and beverages increases. In fact, I just picked up some sports drink powder that includes matcha in it (pictured) even though the lemon taste overpowers it.

Ending on a fun note, there has been recent buzz about adding tea to beer, like the Stone Brewery IPA in the photo. Other breweries are also experimenting with tea and chai, like Dogfish Head’s Sah’Tea and Goose Island’s Sai-shan-tea beer.

Tea Review: 2003 Aged Green Heart Oolong

This tea is really what sparked my order from What-Cha. I saw a review of the 2003 Aged Green Heart Oolong and heard how it won second place at the Fall 2014 North American Tea Championship for the Aged/Baked Oolong category. They were beat out by The Tea Kings, another company that I really admire due to their tea education and selection, and their Traditional Coal Fired Tieguanyin Wulong. Now the Aged Green Heart is actually made by the Taiwanese Mountain Tea Co. and sold by What-Cha. I would put Mountain Tea's Dong Ding as one of my favorite teas of all time, so they know what they're doing when it comes to roasted oolong!

The first thing I noticed was how insanely small and tightly rolled the leaves were. For comparison, L to R: Dong Ding, Jade Oolong, and Aged Green Heart.

The first thing I noticed was how insanely small and tightly rolled the leaves were. For comparison, L to R: Dong Ding, Jade Oolong, and Aged Green Heart.

I used the recommended teaspoon or 5g of tea leaf. This photo is after a rinse to open up the leaves a little and warm up the gaiwan

I used the recommended teaspoon or 5g of tea leaf. This photo is after a rinse to open up the leaves a little and warm up the gaiwan

I went with the recommended 185F (Hey, I'm following the directions for once!)

I went with the recommended 185F (Hey, I'm following the directions for once!)

The color was a gentle yellow with a tinge of honey orange.

The color was a gentle yellow with a tinge of honey orange.

I believe this is after 5 infusions. It's incredible that these leaves and stems came from such tightly rolled oolong balls. The leaves show signs of aging, they are more kale-like and maintained a dark coloration. With other, younger roasted oolongs the leaves will still flatten out after several steepings.

I believe this is after 5 infusions. It's incredible that these leaves and stems came from such tightly rolled oolong balls. The leaves show signs of aging, they are more kale-like and maintained a dark coloration. With other, younger roasted oolongs the leaves will still flatten out after several steepings.

This tea really did live up to expectations. It was complex, very hardy, and got me tea-drunk-wasted. The flavor's noted by What-Cha were "walnut shell and ripe fruit." I didn't get any ripe fruit but was ever walnut, with or without shell, the dominate flavor. This tea had a subdued smell as opposed to Dong Ding, perhaps having to do with age. The mouthfeel was very solid and created the complexity of the tea.

Go ahead and chalk this one up to another satisfying experience from this What-Cha order.

Shop Tour: Teavolve in Baltimore, MD

I was in Baltimore for work and had to seek out a local tea shop to check out during my stay.

Teavolve has a really great name, and an even better atmosphere inside. Lots of large windows and a high ceiling make the space seem roomy, while stylish wooden partitions keep the noise down. The teas are served either hot in a single serving cup, a candle-warmed pot, or iced. Tea cocktails and non-alcoholic tea based drinks give customers a wide range to choose from.

Let's talk tea, real tea. There's not enough of it! Of the tea menu presented, most of the teas were not straight up camellia sinensis! They even have a section labeled "Tisanes", but that doesn't include their other teas that mix herbs with their tea leaves.

I went with the Imperial Gold Oolong, which proved to be a decent Taiwanese Oolong and it was exactly what I was looking for in the windy 60 degree weather. I also had the hummus plate, as I was having lunch an hour later.

Tea snob gripes aside, this was a great experience and a wonderful haven to introduce people into loose leaf tea. As I have said: if you're drinking tea ANY TEA, you're doing it right.

Tea Review: Malawi Zomba Tea Pearls

Along with the Satemwa Antlers, I also opted for the Zomba Tea Pearls, another white tea from Malawi sourced by What-Cha. Just the appearance of the dry tea peaked my interest, loosely rolled balls of reed-like tea, almost like rolling hay around in your palms.

I overestimated the amount of tea pearls to use. Only after selecting 10 pearls did I look at the packaging's recommendation of 4-5. Oops. How to remedy this problem? Rinse the pearls with one long rinse and then use short steepings of 15-30 seconds. Keep in mind the next time I had this tea I used a proper amount. Having too many pearls really tampered with their opening and expanding while steeping. Water temperature was at 185F.

I really thought that the Zomba pearls tasted very similar to Bi Luo Chun, with a seaweed and slightly salty taste to it. I certainly enjoyed it more than the Antlers, and I really enjoy the flavor that came from a non-tippy white tea. However, I feel like this is a divisive tea, where people will either love it or hate it, much like the particular taste of Bi Luo Chun. Check out the photos below of this very unique tea, both in taste and asthetically.

Zomba Pearl, puerh pick for scale

Zomba Pearl, puerh pick for scale

So use half as much as this... Really cool looking tea though!

So use half as much as this... Really cool looking tea though!

Rinsing the leaves to open them up.

Rinsing the leaves to open them up.

After rinse before first infusion. Scroll down for the final image of opened leaves. Again, I should have used fewer pearls.

After rinse before first infusion. Scroll down for the final image of opened leaves. Again, I should have used fewer pearls.

This is after two steepings. The pearls opened up and they produced very well for the five steepings that I enjoyed.

This is after two steepings. The pearls opened up and they produced very well for the five steepings that I enjoyed.

The liquor the brewed tea appears a bit darker than other white tea styles, but not as dark as the Antlers.

The liquor the brewed tea appears a bit darker than other white tea styles, but not as dark as the Antlers.

Opened leaves after a few steepings. The leaves were a beautiful green color with little withering. That may account for the similarities to Bi Luo Chun, a green tea.

Opened leaves after a few steepings. The leaves were a beautiful green color with little withering. That may account for the similarities to Bi Luo Chun, a green tea.

Tea Review: Malawi Satemwa Antlers

I've heard a LOT about What-Cha, mainly from folks in the /r/tea sub-Reddit where the owner of What-Cha is a very active member. They offer a really unusual collection that contains teas, like the Satemwa Antlers, that you can't find anywhere else. They source from unusual locations such as Nilgiri, India & Portugal, as well as Malawi where this tea comes from.

When placing my order I definitely had to try out the Satemwa Antlers, as I had never heard of that variety before. The Satemwa Tea Estate is the only tea producer which uses the "antler" style - using not the leaves of the tea plant, but the 1"-3" section of the stem. I was a bit skeptical, as I have never really enjoyed lower-grade white teas, like Shou Mei.

I was actually shocked at how much I enjoyed this tea! I opted for the recommended 175F water temperature and used a one minute steep time. The taste had a lot of hay in it, lots of mouth feel, and tasted thick compared to the perception some might have of white teas. It was also notable how long the stems held up for multiple infusions considering that there aren't any leaves!


Tea Review: Tangerine Puerh Ball

Tea Review: White2Tea "White Whale" Raw Puerh

First, make sure you have the appropriate music going while you read this review. As they say, "White Whale - Holy Grail." This is my second review of White2Tea's selection, and my first using my new Yixing tea pot - see the Blog for information on that lustful item. With 4 infusions, this is a very brief tea sampling, however it was with my family and gave me a whole review panel. Make sure to read to the bottom!

Tea Review: Phoenix Dan Cong Oolong

Another TeaVivre sample of a really fascinating Oolong. Check out the resources at the bottom of the page for more great information.

Tea Review: Li Shan Oolong

This is the first of the five samples I ordered during TeaVivre's $1 Anniversary Sale. Though the quality of my sample was a little underwhelming, it served as a great demonstration of how to identify dry tea quality. Enjoy.

Tea Review: 2007 "Repave" Aged Hekai - White2Tea

Added to a shipment from White2Tea, this sample of their 2007 Repave aged raw puerh shows how robust puerh can be!