Monday, May 29, 2006

TNs: Two Estate Darjeelings and a Pu-erh

Just tried these two Estate Darjeeling from Upton Tea and a pu-erh from Jing Tea Shop.

2006 Arya Estate Pekoe, 1st Flush, Darjeeling

Medium yellow-orange liquid color. A woody (cedar-y?) tea with overtones of tobacco, cigar box and forest floor. Highly aromatic and fresh smelling, like walking in the forest or meadow in the spring time (I've hiked in the Yosemite and Sequoia Nat. Park a few times before). This 1st flush is not as tannic as the Makaibari Estate 1st Flush I tried, and it's also not as fruity. Light body. A slightly bitter aftertaste, but the woody aroma is definitely pleasant. I got around 7 - 8 infusions out of the leaves, using a 6oz gaiwan and boiling water. 7s 7s 10s 15s 30s 45s 1min...

===+ / 5 (g - vg)

2006 Arya Ruby, 1st Flush

Medium orange-reddish liquid color. Much redder and darker leaves than the previous sample. Surprisingly, however, it's more fruit-forward than the previous one by the same estate. Aromas of overripe mango, jackfruit, some other yellow fruit that I can't quite place and a hint of citrus. It's also not as astringent as the Makaibari estate 1st flush. Light bodied and tastes like a fruity red tea. About 7-8 infusions with the same method as above.

=== / 5 (g)

I noticed that Darjeeling teas' bouquet is most intense on the bottom of an emptied cup and in the wet leaves, but less from the liquor itself. This is similar to fine green(er) oolong teas, where people sniff the bottom of the cup to enjoy its bouquet.

1998 Haiwan #7548 Pu-erh Beeng/Cake

Loose leaves that came from a tea beeng, sent as a sample to me by Jing Tea Shop in Guangzhou. Broken dry/wet leaves. Quite dark in appearance, showing some age look-wise. Taste wise, however, it's still astringent and young tasting. A so-so quality, in my opinion. Earthy tones with green tastes mostly. Nothing complex, nothing great.

== / 5 (ok)

Friday, May 26, 2006

Wow, it's been more than a week since I posted anything here. It's been a busy week at work, at home -- our Sophia caught her first cold bug -- , and I've been helping setting up WineXiles, our new wine forum.

The heritage of WineXiles can be summarized with the following words, which was written so eloquently by a fellow forumite, GK:

WineXiles began as a refuge for a group of "exiles" from an old forum. In May 2006, when the community on that board became a little too rambunctious for its owner, the old forum was unceremoniously closed down. Cut adrift, the core group of regular posters decided to create its own forum here -- one that would be open to a broader range of posts both on and off the topic of wine, without strict posting rules or heavy-handed moderators.

We are spirited, we are rambunctious, and doggone it, we love wine! I highly recommend visiting the forum at if you are interested in discussing or learning about wines with a very hospitable group of people from all over the USA.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

TN: 2001 Pedroncelli Vintage Port "Four Grapes", Dry Creek Valley

From Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma. $13.99/500ml. 19% alcohol content .

Made from 4 types of grape: Tinta Madeira, Souazo, Touriga and Tinta Cao. All port wine varieties grown locally in Sonoma.

Inky purple color and thick. This is a wonderful juice for such a bargain! Why haven't I had this before? Powerful fruits, consisting of blackcurrant/cassis, blue and black berries, framed with plenty of beautiful oak. This somehow reminds me of a top notch Californian cabernet sauvignon (Beringer Private Reserve?) on steroid. It has a firm tannic backbone that, in my opinion, will allow it to age for many more years! Yet it swallows down silky smooth. Bitter chocolate / coffee aftertaste that lasts for 20+ secs.

==== / 5 (Very good!)

Will definitely go back to the store and get at least 3 more bottles!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

TN: 2003 Xiang Zhu Aromatic Bamboo Pu-erh

Finally...whew! I was able to split open the bamboo stick, get some of the leaves out, and brewed the 2003 "xiang zhu" fragrant bamboo pu-erh that is described by the vendor, Yunnan Sourcing LLC, as follows:

"Another incredibly unique Pu-erh process that is particular to the Dai and Jingpo people living in Dehong Prefecture of Yunnan. This Bamboo Pu-erh is special because a species of Bamboo called "xiang zhu" is harvested at a special time once a year when the aromatic bamboo is still relatively young and imbued with an incense like smell. Raw Pu-erh leaves have been forced down in the the open end of the aromatic bamboo section, then bamboo sections are barbecued in a wood fire. As the bamboo dries in the fire the special aroma intermingles with the Pu-erh inside. A tasty and intoxicatingly aromatic Pu-erh! Unforgettable!"

Unique? I think not. I honestly didn't detect any special fragrance from the bamboo itself (inside and out) or from the compressed tea leaves. Also, when brewed, neither the wet leaves nor the tea liquor give any "incense like smell" of the bamboo. In fact, this tea is of low quality (as expected), young, astringent, throat-scratching coarse, and unpleasant to drink in general. I've drunk quite a number of pu-erh to know what a good young pu-erh should taste like...and this is not one of them. To make things worse, it was very difficult to split the bamboo open to get into the leaves. I had to use a hammer, a screwdriver, and a lot of willpower. Unforgettable (in the worst sense)!

zero / 5 (yuck!)

Note: This is the same as item # D in my post dated 5/10/2006 below.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

TNs: Mother's Day Wines

The wines to impress the mother-in-law, in my case, were:

2003 Wegeler Bernkasteler Doctor, Spatlese, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer
(won at an online auction for $15 per...great deal!)

A beautiful riesling that is way above the spatlese ripeness level. I believe this is the equivalent to an auslese goldkapsel level if it were produced in a more classic year (i.e. cooler weather than the 2003 was). The wine sings with class and elegance. Stone minerals, yellow fruits, ripe pears, all accompanied with very subtle fizz. Medium bodied with some viscosity, sweet, and it lacks the bright acidity that usually accompanies a spatlese, but more suitable of an auslese ripeness level. Typically 2003 German (bigger, heavier, sweeter). A joy to drink with the Luau Hawaiaan salad tossed with vinagraitte dressing. Picture: Bernkasteler Doctor Vineyard in Mosel, Germany.

====+/5 (very good - excellent)

2001 Turley zinfandel, Pesenti, Paso Robles
($40, at the winery in Paso Robles, CA )

Your usual BIG and hedonistic Turley zin. At 15.3%, this is a heavy weight wine, and I could feel the heat in the back of the throat. The power of the fruits, pepper, and acidity fortunately saved the day for this big wine. Blue/black berries, dark cherries, plenty of oak, and plenty of spiciness and peppery finish. Medium - long finish. A wonderful treat!

I thought this was an appropriate wine to open on Mother's Day since I obtained this bottle at the winery when I was travelling with my mom. Unfortunately she couldn't be here to enjoy it with me because she is still in the hospital on her long journey to recovery. I drank to her health as well.

====/5 (very good)

TN: 2000 Hai Wan Factory Gu Hua Pu-erh, Raw

Jing Tea Shop in Guangzhou was kind enough to send me some pu-erh samples along with my order of several pu-erh beengs and bricks. One of the samples that they sent me is a 7gr compressed piece of 2000 Hai Wan Factory Gu Hua Cha, raw, from a 375gr beeng type pu-erh (see picture below, courtesy of Jing Tea Shop).

2000 Hai Wan Factory Gu Hua Cha Beeng
Dry appearance: dark colored small whole leaves with some red ones. Smell quite green, woody, and appealingly fresh. Seemed like it's been stored well.

Medium brown/red liquor. This is one of the more earthy and woody pu-erh. There is an aroma of wood, earth, camphor, and what I thought to be black forest mushrooms. In the mouth the coarse tannin is still present abundantly (of course, this being a relatively young pu-erh at this time), and the taste of the black mushrooms is quite persistent. A slight bitter note. I like it. It's a brooding and serious pu-erh. Medium length finish. It reminds me of some earthy, brooding and mushroomy pinot noirs.

===+/5 (good - very good)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Just Arrived: Pu-erh Direct From Yunnan

My first order from Yunnan Sourcing LLC just came all the way from China the other day. All of them pu-erh, about 6 kg (~13 lbs) total. The package was securely boxed and everything arrived in good condition. When I opened the box, I thought this must be the dustiest package I've ever received in my life (is the dust from the tea, the box, or warehouse dust?). Glad I had enough time to cover my face when I sneezed violently, otherwise these pu-erh would have instantly become "wet-storage" pu-erh.

I wanted to try out the aromatic bamboo pu-erh, but I haven't got a clue how to get the tea out of the bamboo stick. The bamboo is thick, hard, and without any crack on its side. Should I use a sledgehammer or a pound of C-4 to crack the shell open in halves?

A - 2006 Menghai Factory Caravan Yunnan to Tibet, cooked ($15/beeng)

B - 2005 Chang Tai Hao Tea Factory, Yi Wu Mountain Ancient Tree Raw Pu-erh tea cake, raw ($48/10x100gr beengs)
C - 2005 Six Famous Tea Mountain "Year of the Rooster" Tea Cake, raw ($21/beeng)
D - 3 pipe bombs. Just kidding. 2003 Aromatic Bamboo Species Raw Pu-erh Tea Xiang Zhu, raw ($5.99/100gr stick)
E - 2005 Menghai Factory, Early Spring Raw Pu-erh Tea Tuo, Ban Zhang, raw ($9/250gr tuo)

I reckon I have a lot of tastings and posting TNs into this blogspace to be done.

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

TN: 2006 Makaibari Estate, 1st Flush, Darjeeling

I ordered 3 Darjeeling samples from Upton Tea, and the order came in perfectly packaged tin-lined bags inside a box filled with styrofoam. An elegant and classy way to deliver teas, I thought.

The first sample I tasted was the...

2006 Makaibari Estate, 1st Flush, FTGFOP1

Dry appearance: a mixture of darker leaves, greener leaves, and lots of twigs. All short. On their website, the picture of the leaves, however, shows larger green leaves w/o any twig, so I thought it was a misrepresentation.

Brewing method: 6oz gaiwan, 100'C boiling water, enough leaves (well, obviously, with a lot of twigs too) to fill 2/3 of the gaiwan when the leaves have unfurled fully. 10s, 7s, 7s, 10s, 15s, 15s, 20s, 20s, 30s, 50s,...

Medium orange/ light brown liquor. Delightful aromas of vivid peach, ripe mango, floral and spring grass. The tea came out quite strong with the first brewing of 10s. The second brew of 7s gave a more balanced taste. In the mouth it's quite tannic and puckery, but the interplay of tastes and aromas are very interesting. Refreshing and pleasurable! The leaves held out more than 10 infusions...amazing!

Wet leaves appareance: the leaves opened up to show their greener side. They are mostly broken leaves, and among them are a lot of brown twigs. I think the fact that the leaves are broken and the twigs are present in abundance made the tea very tannic and somewhat coarse.

=== / 5 (good), would have given more points if the tea was smoother.

Saturday, May 6, 2006

My Humble Tea Sets

A wine friend who is interested in knowing more about Chinese teas and its ceremony asked: "Is much of the pleasure in tea-drinking coming from the use of nice utensils?" To which I answered yes, as much as both of us take pleasure in using our Riedel crystals, wooden plated Laguiole corkscrews, and our pretty crystal decanters. However, they are just a means to an end and never the main attraction.

To drive the point home some more, I asked him: "Do you know which part of the crystal glass is THE most important part? Without it, your wine will not be as enjoyable." He thought for 2 seconds and said: "This is one of your eastern philosophy bullshit again, right? It's the hole, no?" I guess I underestimated this guy. Wine drinkers are, in general, quite well-read individuals, I suppose.

The same thing also goes with tea wares, or at least that's how I think of them. They are just, at best, a means to an end. As long as they are made of good material, functional, behave well and help to brew good tea, then they are perfect! All other factors are merely for showing off or for your own personal enjoyment. I'm 10% show off-y, I guess. I can be a little vain that way when guests are at my home.

Anyways, here is my larger tea set and one of my several Yixing teapots (click to enlarge picture):

A - My Dan Cong (Lone Bush) oolong teapot. A modern design Yixing zisha (purple clay) with sexy curves, heavy clay, and smooth pour. Large top opening is ideal for the long wiry shape of the Dan Cong oolong leaves. And the "flat" cylindrical body is appropriate because Dan Cong leaves do not unfurl as much, unlike densely rolled Fujian Tie Guan Yin or Taiwanese oolong leaves. I love this pot!

B - Receiving pitcher for pouring extra tea. Also used by a lazy tea host (me) to pour into directly, so that I don't have to perform the intricate dance of pouring tea from one cup to another back-and-forth-back-and-forth. Some people call this thing a "fairness cup", which I think is an oxymoron term.

C - Real dried gourd's shell with a built-in organic fine mesh filter. For people with borderline OCD who don't like the presence of leaf or tea dust in their cups.

D - Cups. Simply small zisha cups. Need I say more?

E - Presentation vessel. For placing dry leaves before they are put into the teapot for brewing.

F - Decorative zisha water buffalo.

G - Boar's feather brush. For distributing stagnant water droplets evenly on the surface of the hot teapot so as to prevent any mineral buildup, especially around the top "button" handle, the sprout, and any sharp curves that tend to trap water.

Last but not least is the wooden tray itself. Beneath it there is a plastic retrievable compartment whose existence is to capture discarded tea / water.

I have another tea tray that I use more often and is always on the kitchen dining table. It's smaller, round-shaped, and made of porcelain. I bought this in L.A. Chinatown for around $15. The large (~16oz) teapot shown is my pu-erh teapot, which I use to serve a larger gathering of about 6 thirsty people. As you can see, this teapot is way too big to play in the small porcelain tea tray.

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Jasmine Flower Tea Balls

Jasmine tea balls are a kind of beautiful novelty tea that my wife and I usually enjoy in the morning with breakfast or when guests are over at our place. When I say "beautiful", I refer more to the way it looks than to the way it tastes. Don't get me wrong, the aroma and taste are just fine, but I would never expect it to be as fragrant and tasteful as a high quality jasmine "dragon pearls" brewed properly in a gaiwan could provide.

So if these jasmine balls cannot be expected to be as good as the jasmine pearls, then why do I like it? Well, first, I like it because it is still, in my opinion, tastes better than any regular jasmine teabags. Second, to steep it is as easy as steeping a jasmine teabag. And third, it's pretty! What I do is boil some water in the kettle, and in a separate transparent glass jug (to enhance the visual effect) add the boiled water with some cool water to come up with a hot mix of about 75-80 degree Celsius (approx. 165-175' F). The next step is the most complicated one: *PLOP* one ball into the jug and enjoy seeing it bloom into a beautiful flowery presentation. If I were not so much in a hurry to beat the traffic, I would add an extra step: right before plopping the ball into the glass jug, I soak the jasmine ball with hot water in a cup for about 30-40 seconds before picking it up and plopping it into the glass jug. This extra step "rinses" away any unwanted (but not harmful) dust and particles, and it also helps to bloom the ball faster in the glass jug.

For the guests, an offering of this tea will almost always invite some oohs and aahs from watching the flowers bloom. Plus, it's hassle free. I don't need to whip out my tea set and brew the best possible tea liquor in the most complicated way, which would distract the ongoing meal or conversation too much. With the jasmine ball doing its quiet magic, our guests and us can continue to eat and keep the conversation flowing as freely as the tea itself can.

My observation is that most tea stores in the US (online or not) tend to apply insane mark ups onto jasmine balls, thanks to the aura of gourmet elegance it lends unto itself. In my opinion and experience, a decent price for a pound of mid-sized jasmine balls (more or less the size of a US 25 cents coin) with 2 or 3 types of pretty flowers in the middle should cost around $25-35/lb. I expect a much better bargain of about 1/3 or half of most US prices if I buy this tea in or from China. In my opinion, anything over $40/lb for this kind of tea is daylight robbery. Also, I would only get them from tea shops that allow their customers to decide how much tea we'd like to get, instead of from shops that force customers to buy prepackaged things at fixed prices. Besides, when it comes to buying loose leaf teas, one should never -- or rarely -- be placed in a position of buying more than one needs or wants, ounce by ounce.

All in all, I think jasmine balls are an indispensable type of tea to have in my tea cabinet.