Cup of Tea and a Blog

Welcome to my spot for musing about all things tea. Here you'll read reviews of quality teas, click through comments on tea rooms and shops I've visited, and see photos of leaves and cups. You’ll also find things I might talk about over a cup of tea, like philosophy, literature, current events, or fun ways to pass the time.

Location: Pacific Northwest, United States

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29 April 2005

Links of the Day, 4/29/05

Women's Place in Tea History, written Eve Hill for Tea Muse, a monthly newsletter for Tea Aficionados.

1001 Plateaus has two very interesting videos on their web site. One features tea being pan toasted on the street in Shanghai, while the other shows Long Jing tea buds being handpicked.

Tea Masters Blog, with many great posts, about half of which are in English.

Shanghai Online's Tea Site, a great reference tool for information about tea (including pages on tea pots, cooking with tea, and tea production).

Imperial Tea Court's Classroom, with lessons on Tea Leaf Varieties, Gongfu and Gaiwan Tea Preparation methods, Yixing Teapots, and a China Tea Tour.

Another site for learning about tea is Chinese Tea 101.

I used to drink Red Rose tea with my grandmother (still do when I visit), and she always had a small collection on her counter of the animal figures that came in the box. It was fun to see this web site that offers the Wade Red Rose Tea Figurines for sale. I think I still have a few animal figures in a drawer somewhere.

27 April 2005

Tasting Natural Tea Flavors

A Teamailer, Winnie, asked a really interesting question about how to taste the natural flavors in a tea. I spent a bit of time responding on the e-list, so I thought it would be good to post part of my response to her in this blog.

WATER BOILING TEMPERATURE: This was a stumbling block for me until recently, I think because for so long I lived at quite high altitudes in Rocky Mountain states. I'd try the trick of grabbing the kettle just before the water boiled, but it just never worked correctly. The temperature of boiling water is too different at those altitudes. It wasn't until I (a) moved to sea level, and (b) finally started using a thermometer, that I was able to get the water to match the tea's needs. I still play around with the temperature a bit, but now I have a mark -- this has been especially important with oolongs. It continues to surprise me when a big dose of extra flavor sometimes comes through after the water has cooled even a few degrees in a cup I've been sipping.

THE FLAVOR OF WATER: The taste in water can be dramatically different from one town to the next. I'm just now (after 3 years!) getting used to the vegetative nature of the water here in the Pacific Northwest. I can't use the tap water for white teas (filtered or bottled for that) because the natural water flavor competes too strongly (for me, anyway). The water usually has a very nice flavor that matches up to most teas quite well, but I'd been used to the salt & peppery flavors of water in arid climates (caused by high saline from evaporation, and by lots of natural minerals filtering the underground aquifers -- like limestone and calcium). I wonder if I'd be able to taste the peppery bite of a yunnan with that salt&pepper water? I'll have to bring some along when I visit my family this summer. :)

BE WILLING TO DISCARD A BAD POT OR CUP: This past weekend, I actually tossed an entire pots' worth of freshly-brewed batch of tea (one of my husband's breakfast blends) because it tasted so strongly of asparagus that we couldn't drink it (this was black, not green, tea). We used the same blend, but shifted over to filtered water, and that asparagus flavor went away. There was just something in the water that day that interacted with and changed the nature of the tea. It's easier to toss the water and leaves with gaiwans, since you're using less and don't feel so guilty.

THE SERVING VESSEL: The gaiwan cup really helped me understand the power of oolongs. I don't know if it is having such close contact with leaves, or if having a lid somehow lets me taste more than I smell, but the gaiwan has been great for me. I generally use Chatsford pots of varying sizes (standard brown betty pots with a basket), and I've found that some teas prefer small pots -- especially my golden yunnans. Others want tons of room to unfurl and loosen the leaves before the true flavors come out. (see my previous post, Leaf: Before & After)

TRYING A TEA WITH A STRONG FLAVOR: There’s just something about tasting what is familiar or known to you. This is sort of intuitive -- how can you identify or separate out a flavor if you don't already know what it is? There's more to it than this, though. For example, I didn't taste an after-bite of pepper until after trying IPOT's golden yunnan. There was an "ah, okay" moment -- now I get what that peppery note is, and now I taste it in other teas. The same for the cocoa flavor (dark unsweetened cocoa powder, not chocolate) -- I had one tea that was extremely heavy in cocoa flavor, and now I taste notes of cocoa all over the place (even in an Assam that has been a regular tea for years). So, once you "get it" in one, it spreads. By the way, that orchid taste was the first flavor I got in oolongs. It took several cuppings of a variety of oolongs (I purchased a bunch of samples to start out) before I really started to expand and taste other things as well. :)

QUALITY OF TEA: This doesn't necessarily mean the tea has to be ultra-expensive, but (unfortunately) that often is the case. The high-quality leaves that have been tended with care, then packaged and shipped carefully, have many more flavor characteristics. They also can often be steeped several times, so you end up using less tea. Most importantly, I think that the closer you are to purchasing from the actual tea makers, the better. The tea is fresher, plus it has had less opportunity for damage to the leaves from packaging and re-packaging.

STEEPING & LEAF AMOUNT: This is probably my number one problem. Some teas really do need a ton of leaves with just a little water, but other leaves need to spread out to unfurl and release their flavor. Additionally, if they sit too long (especially in extra hot water), the acidity in the tannins gets overwhelming and the tea flavor itself can become very strong and end up sort of suppressing the underlying notes. Now that I think about it, maybe this isn't so much a problem, actually, as it is part of the fun. :)

23 April 2005

Leaf: before & after

This week I've been sipping a medium-roast oolong from Floating Leaves Tea. Some oolongs have a late summer or fall vegetation flavor (tomato leaves, falling leaves, mosses), but this tea is on the other end of things -- the end with flavors of fresh spring, early blossoms, and young grass. It's very fresh in the cup, and it brews up easily and quickly.

The first time I tried this oolong, I used way too much tea and the resulting brew was too bitter. What I hadn't expected was the dramatic change in size when the leaf unfurled; I ended up with a cup full of leaf and nowhere for the water to go. Now I know to only use 6-8 of the rolled leaves. Here are a few photos that demonstrate the change between leaf in the bag and leaf 2 gaiwan steeps later.

Click either photo to see it as a larger, more detailed image.

The smaller, furled, "before" leaf is circled.

note added: a few people have asked where I found the glass gaiwan. I purchased it from TeaSpring, one of my favorite online tea shops.


Links of the Day, 4/23/05

Tea plays an important role in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I'm planning to reread the book (and probably the series) soon, and I'll post fun quotes when I do. Right now, I'm just trying to decide whether to read it before or after the movie. Here's a book review with a fun anecdote about the author, Douglas Addams, being given tea with a surprise at the bottom.

World Sunlight Map, so you can see how sunny (or dark) it is in your favorite tea region.

Fold an Origami Teapot, from Cat-tea Corner: I'm saving this to do with my nieces and nephew.

I stumbled across Tea and Art, a web page with links to art that features tea. The web site hasn't been updated in almost 7 years (!), so only half of the links work. I loved seeing how different the Cassatt is from the Pollock (no surprise there), but I think my favorite piece of art here is Tea for Three, by Matisse. What's yours?

Time for Tea, a good overall look at the importance of timing in tea. Unfortunately, the blogger didn't remain active. Please note, although the pages look the same as mine, it is a different blog (we both used the same template, that's all).

I've been looking for other tea bloggers out there.So far, I've mostly found tea company blogs, some green tea blogs (usually in languages I don't speak), blogs that were started but went nowhere, and lots of blogs with "tea" in the title but nothing actually about camellia sinensis. If you have a tea blog, or know someone who does, or even if you have a link that you think might interest me, please feel free to post a comment!


22 April 2005

First Puerh

I have just brewed my first Puerh (other than a nasty cheap bagged tea experience years ago that doesn’t really count). After all of my raving about golden yunnan teas, it seemed logical to make the progression from yunnan to puerh (a fermented tea that is also from the Yunnan province).

The brand/type of the puerh I tried is unknown. This was given to me after a visit to a fellow tealover’s home; she found out I had no real experience with puerh and handed me 5 small paper-wrapped balls of the fermented tea. Here’s a photo:

click photo to see larger, more detailed image

Although it is not one of their teas, I mostly followed the instructions from Hou de Fin Asian Arts. They had one of the more thorough web pages I could find, and I respect the owner’s knowledge and the quality of the tea (see comments below for a review I wrote of a 12-year aged oolong).

Brewed with tap water. Steamed small cake just for a minute, then gently broke apart (but into chunks more than leaves). I brewed the tea in a small Chatsford for only about 90 seconds, but the color was quite dark so I decided to remove the leaves.

Nothing objectionable, but this isn’t knocking my socks off like a golden yunnan does. I found the odor a bit . . . disconcerting. However, the flavor itself doesn’t bother me, just seems a bit flat. I may need to experiment with water temperature and steeping time, as well as finding other web sites and checking the Teamail Archives.

2 minutes later: As the tea cools in my cup, the range of flavors is becoming more distinct. It’s quite earthy, in a dark clay way. I’m not sure what about this reminds me of banana peels, but there is a vague memory that is kicking in. Maybe it’s a musky odor that I associate with bananas peels that have been sitting in the sun? Or perhaps it’s the the way that any vegetation smells after baking in the sun on a summer afternoon? It’s that sort of warm and musky scent.

My overall reaction to this tea: interesting. I’m intrigued enough to try it again, perhaps brewed a bit differently. I’ll definitely be watching Teamail for discussions and recommendations and giving puerhs a try at various shops. If it starts to strike more of a chord with me, then I’ll start purchasing more appropriate pots and cups that may affect the puerh tea experience.


21 April 2005

Tea Trip: Portland, Oregon

This past weekend I had a great time on a tea trip to Portland, Oregon. I’ve only been to Portland once before and had never really explored the city. After a 3-hour rainy drive, I stopped by for tea at the home of a teamail acquaintance, then headed to the Heathman Hotel downtown. The small rooms are nice and cozy – just what I wanted on a rainy evening. Downstairs they have evening jazz and small plates in The Tea Lounge (which has a full tea service on Saturday afternoons). The rooms have Russell-Hobbsish kettles and nice cups/saucers. Next to each bed is a platter with the fixings for an herbal tisane (mint – chamomile). I didn't know until just now when I did a quick google search for the hotel, but apparently I stayed in a supposed haunted room (one that ended in 03). I don't remember anything funky happening, though (bummer!). :)

I spent the evening walking around and exploring – found one geocache and spent some time at Powell’s Used Book Store (which is interestingly set up a lot like its web site). Thanks to Marilyn, I knew that the Portland Farmer’s Market had started early this year, so the next morning I had a great time buying radishes, fancy breads, and big, leafy lettuces. Next stop, the Saturday Market, a uniquely Portland experience. Great fun, but the final stop was the reason for my visit – a Northwest Gathering of Teamailers at the Tao of Tea.

It was wonderful meeting a great group of tea lovers. I think that the Tao of Tea in Portland is one of my favorite-ever tea rooms, in part because of the great tea and food, but also because of the wonderful company. Each tea is served in the appropriate pot and/or cup, making every person's experience just a little different. The food is all vegetarian, and there are some incredible desserts.


Yunnans Side-by-Side

One of the fun aspects of golden yunnan tea is the leaves -- they're really beautiful, long, and twisted. The twisted nature of them gives them body and keeps the bag of tea full and round (no sinking into the bottom for these teas). They feel great in the hand, with a distinctly youthful texture. They look delicate and soft, but they're very durable and springy. Here's a side-by-side comparison to give you a sense of the leaf:

click the photo to see a larger, more detailed image

From left to right, these teas are Floating Leaves' Yunnan Gold, IPOT's Royal Yunnan, TeaSource's Golden Downey Tip. You can read my review of these teas in two of my past blogs: Golden Downey Tip and Golden Yunnans.

I don't have a high-powered camera, so it's hard to see two important things. First, the color varies just slightly, darker to lighter from left to right (Floating Leaves to Teasource). The color definitely reflects the taste, with the darkest the most chocolately of the bunch. Second, there is a dust that is left behind by the two darker teas. This dust is most pronounced in the Floating Leaves' tea; it is a golden-brown color and comes across almost as a cocoa powder (when you open the bag the scent of cocoa dominates).


Lapsang Souchong Song

One of my favorite songs with tea lyrics is Colin Hay's "Beautiful World." You may know Colin Hay from his old group, Men at Work, but this song is from a later solo album titled Going Somewhere. It's a nice song, great for sipping tea on a summer afternoon. Plus, how many songs actually mention lapsang souchong? Here are the relevant lyrics:

My my my it's a beautiful world.
I like drinking Irish tea
with a little bit of lapsang souchong
I like making my own tea

Click here to listen to a clip of the song

Lapsang Souchong is one of those love it or hate it teas, and I'm on the Love-It end. I enjoy the tarry smokiness (it's actually smoked over pine needles) and find it especially good when at very high altitudes (always sip it at my parents' home, which is about 7500 ft) or when you're outdoors and/or camping. A Teamailer says there's a lapsang souchong that's actually smoked in the Pacific Northwest, and I'm hoping to find that soon. In the meantime, here's a link to Mark T. Wendell's Hu Kwa, which is one of the more popular lapsang souchongs out there.

I do love my golden yunnans!


19 April 2005


I was taking photos of gaiwan cups and tea still-lifes to find a photo for my profile. Here are the two runners-up:


Moby has been making the rounds the past couple of weeks -- he has a new album to plug. I saw him last week on the Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Moby joked that there has been tea for him at every stop on his junket (is that the right word?), and after 12 shows worth of tea he’s been getting to know show’s bathrooms quite well. Most tea-philes can relate to that! He mentioned his (and his girlfriend's?) New York City tea shop, and I've been wondering about it -- figured that it was probably cool and fast-paced, which can be fun, but isn't what everyone wants in a tea shop.

Teamailers have given generally negative reviews. I gather that Teany is a place to see-and-be-seen, the service is poor, and (worse) the food and tea aren’t all that good. I’m still curious, but this tea-sippin’, electronica-lovin’ , middle-aged-and-a-bit-frumpy woman probably wouldn’t fit in well. :)

One last thing, this time about the Late, Late Show. Craig Ferguson does a recurring bit called "Cup of Tea and a Chat." It's usually on Thursday or Friday (this week is in repeats, so it's hard to say) -- mostly it's a setup for gags, but he has a full silver tea service and it looks like actual tea is being poured. Kind of fun. If you’re interested, you should be able to find the latest in Late, Late Show Comedy Clips.

Golden Yunnans

Golden Yunnans grow in the Yunnan province of China. The tea is handpicked as partially-opened buds in the early spring. Even though it is a black tea, the leaves actually turn gold after the oxidizing process. Good quality golden yunnan features long, thin, tightly-rolled leaves, and it has a distinctly earthy flavor.

In the past few months, Golden Yunnans have become my irreplaceable tea. I've fallen in love with the earthy, smokey characteristics of this tea and tend to shy away from any on the more floral end. I prefer overtones of cocoa and pepper with this tea. Here are my current favorites:

Teaspring's Golden Yunnan (the first I tried), a nicely grounded tea, and I mean that literally. This tea reminds me of a foggy day in the Puget Sound, when the air smells of moss and clay and ferns. My husband has used this in a blend that turns out quite nicely, but we've been wondering if the batch of tea has changed. We're not tasting as much depth in our most recent order (it's also possible that the strong cocoa overtones of my other two favorites are changing our perception).

In Pursuit Of Tea's Royal Yunnan, with its wonderfully peppery finish and beautifully "sproingy" leaves. I never use a spoon to measure the leaves with this because I love the feel of it in my fingers when I pull out a pinch. I'm starting to taste the hints of cocoa more, now that I've had the next tea. . .

Floating Leaves' Yunnan Gold, which is an incredible experience. When I first opened the bag, a heady scent of cocoa rose up. The leaves remind me of IPOT's -- very beautiful, and I can't help wanting to hold them in my fingers. There is a hint of a musty dark chocolate, and some great smokey undertones. There's also a nice pepper flavor, especially as the tea cools and you can feel the pricks on your tongue. Oddly enough, this reminds me of certain foods in New Mexico (smokey dark roasted chiles, moles, chipotles).

Imperial Tea Court's yunnan gold has been suggested to me, but that's next month's new tea. If anyone out there has suggestions for others, let me know! :)

see the comments for a copy of my initial experience with "Herons, Mud, and Yunnan Gold"

Links of the Day, 4/19/05

Teamail, a friendly e-mail list for those who love tea. There are conversations to be had with sippers and purveyors from around the world.

Thanks to Winnie from Teamail for sharing a nicely upbeat quote: “bread and water can so easily be made into toast and tea”

Tea Rooms Northwest, by Sharron and John de Montigny, has become a standard for those who love trying tea rooms. There’s definitely a British tea/Red Hat Society slant to this, but it’s a useful guide. The accompanying web site has page-numbered updates.

Marmalady's Jams & Jellies are wonderful. I am particularly fond of the Apricot-Darjeeling.

One Perfect Cup of Tea Measuring Spoon, the name says it all.

Review: Teasource's Golden Downey Tip Yunnan

I first tried this tea about a month ago, and here is what I then posted to Teamail:

The leaves for the tea look quite delicate, but they really aren't. I think that's my reaction to this tea -- I expect it to be delicate, almost weak, then it isn't. There is a definite earthiness that you smell and taste on the roof of your mouth, but there is no "muddy" followup. I think [Holly is] right in describing this as a clean earth taste. For me, it's has the qualities I want in a nice afternoon/evening tea -- very refreshing and not heavy.

I’m returning to this tea for the first time, and it is indeed a good afternoon tea. I’m finding it smokier than a I remembered (perhaps because I used a lower temp of water?) and am enjoying that sensation. I miss the cocoa overtones of other yunnans, but this does have a peppery finish.

It’s hard to sip the Golden Downey Tip with a gaiwan, and I am wishing I used a Chatsford to brew it instead (as I did the first time). The leaves are young and tightly furled, almost “needle-ey,” and this means they slip out of the cup and into my mouth when I sip. Next time I’ll use to the Chatsford.