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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30 June 2005

Music Mix??

Christine, of the Morning Coffee & Afternoon Tea blog, recently posted about Tea Tunes. I was glad to find some more music featuring tea because I've been trying to collect songs to create a "tea mix" for myself. Here's what I have, so far:

Tea For One, Led Zeppelin, Presence,1976

Baby Beautiful, Aiha Higurashi, Japan For Sale: Volume 4

Scottish Tea, The Amboy Dukes, The Golden Age Of Underground Radio (all instrumental)

Beautiful World, Colin Hay

I'm still looking for songs that have a title or at least one line about tea. Any suggestions are welcome. :)

Poetry With My Tea

My apologies for not posting here in a while. Blame it on lazy summer days, when 2 weeks seem to go by in a blink of the eye. I also have to say that my taste buds have just been “off.” Nothing has been tasting right lately, tea included. That means I won’t be posting any detailed tea notes for a bit. Instead, I turn your attention to some poetry. Don’t worry; there is a connection to tea at the end.

Delights & Shadows, a book of poetry by Ted Kooser, current Poet Laureate of the United States

Curious after it won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, I went to my local library and checked out Delights & Shadows. Kooser’s poetry is deceptively sentimental, but as you read through this slim volume you find an unexpected depth to his work. Taken as a whole, the poems aren't as safe or naive as they first seem. In some ways, the book is a eulogy for the twentieth century's passing, and in other ways there's a sense of “innocence and experience” to it. Even in the wordplay of his title, Kooser is making some obvious overtures to Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Kooser is not as great a poet as William Blake, but the alignment and content of his poetry uses similar twists in perception to make sometimes-wry and often-wistful observations about life. Both poets also use puns and other wordplay to strengthen metaphors, and both manipulate poetic structure as they move between topics.

It has been a while since a poet’s words have spoken deeply to me, so I was surprised by my immediate and very personal response to the poems in Delights & Shadows. I laughed and cried, wondered if we shared the same relatives, got excited when I recognized a river’s name, and mostly just couldn’t believe how familiar it all seemed. The poems are set in the landscape of my childhood. No, that’s not quite right. Perhaps more accurately, they are set in the landscape of my parents’ childhood and are a part of my roots. They are the memories of my recent ancestors, the families who settled in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa.

The poems are staunchly Midwest America, shamelessly sentimental, delightfully playful, and actually good poetry. And yes, I do know good poetry – am still paying off my student loans for a master’s degree in literature. Head to a library, borrow the book from a friend, or buy a copy of your own. Even if you don’t usually like poetry, give this book a try, then let me know what you think of it.

Oh, I promised there would be something about tea, didn’t I? This is one of my favorite poems from the book. I hope you enjoy it, too!

The China Painters

They have set aside their black tin boxes
scratched and dented,
spattered with drops of pink and blue;
and their dried-up, rolled-up tubes
of alizarin crimson, chrome green,
zinc white, and ultramarine;
their vials half full of gold powder;
stubs of wax pencils;
frayed brushes with tooth-bitten shafts;
and have gone in fashion and with grace
into the clouds of loose, lush roses
narcissus, pansies, columbine,
on teapots, chocolate pots,
saucers and cups, the good Haviland dishes
spread like a garden
on the white lace Sunday cloth,
as if their souls were bees
and the world had been nothing but flowers.

Kooser, Ted. Delights & Shadows. Copper Canyon Press, 2004. p. 21.

19 June 2005

Recently Clicked: June 19, 2005

The Artful Teapot, a museum exhibit in Bellevue, Washington, June 18 - October 2, 2005. If you live near Seattle, or if you'll be visiting this summer, you might want to check out the exhibit in the newly re-opened Bellevue Art Museum. "The Artful Teapot examines the teapot as an inventive vehicle for artistic expression in the twentieth century. The 250 objects on exhibit include teapots by painters Roy Lichtenstein and David Hockney, sculptors Arman and Michael Lucero, ceramists Betty Woodman and Adrian Saxe, as well as works by more than 100 other artists."

I've been wanting to put together some samples of tea for friends, and Mountain Rose Herbs was recommended to me as a good resource for small tins. Nice tins, good price, quick shipping.

Yesterday's tradition becomes today's cup of cha, an article from China Daily, looking at the revitalization of the teahouse tradition.

Tea made with skill, patience, an article on the gongfu method of tea preparation for Chaozhou natives.

Oolong, the pancake rabbit. Oolong is a mellow bunny named after tea, with an owner who liked to take photos of pancakes (and other objects) balanced on his head. No tea involved, just rampant silliness.

18 June 2005

Searching for Hints of Cocoa, part 2

As whined about previously, Floating Leaves has run out of last year’s supply of (sob!) my favorite tea. This, of course, was not unexpected. Tea is produced from an annual harvest, and tea purveyors purchase limited amounts each year. We want fresh, flavorful leaves, and part of the wonderful experience of tea drinking comes from the changes in leaf from region to region and harvest to harvest. Still, my favorite tea had a particular aroma that I continue to crave, a flavor that woke me up in the mornings, that held steadfast through my sleepy bumbling fingers and tendency toward oversteeping, and that always elicited an “ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” with the first sip.

Floating Leaves has replenished their stock with a new Yunnan Gold after an annual buying trip. While excellent, the new tea doesn’t have the deep cocoa character that I so loved. I have enough left of last year’s yunnan gold for about two small potfuls, but those are being saved for some day that needs a special boost.

I fully intend to replace my old favorite with a new one. To that end, I’ve been ordering small amounts (and occasionally not-so-small amounts) of golden yunnan teas. A side benefit to all of this tasting is that I’ve learned quite a bit about the overall characteristics and the range of golden yunnans. Perhaps most importantly, I’m coming to recognize the two different ends to the flavor spectrum – my terms for these are “vegetable” and “cocoa.” Both can have an earthy foundation with a fern/moss underlying the tea, and often there's a good bite of pepper in the aftertaste, but an overtone pulls them in one distinct direction or the other.

Vegetable: The “vegetable” taste is not usually to my liking, although I suspect it is desirable to others. There’s a sort of cabbage or asparagus flavor that comes through, both in aroma and flavor. Those are favorite foods of mine, so it’s a bit surprising that I don’t like that taste in the tea. It’s possible this flavor just combines in a bad way with the water here in the verdant Pacific Northwest. I’ve noticed that the flavor diminishes when using a brita filter rather than straight tap water, and that certain times of the year tend to bring (what is to me) undesirable flavor to the forefront. However, it’s not just the water, for I can usually smell the vegetable aroma on the dry leaves before brewing.

Cocoa: The other end is what I identify as having notes of unsweetened cocoa (like the powdered cocoa used in baking). The height of perfection is when this cocoa combines with pepper. It produces what others refer to as a smoky maple flavor, but for me it is more familiar as the smooth sauce of a Mexican mole. The cocoa-pepper-mole is the special flavor that wakes me up and gets me going in the morning.

Comparison of 7 Golden Yunnans

This comparison only includes teas newly sampled in the past month, so there are a few good golden yunnans not listed here (most notably those from TeaSpring and TeaSource). There are also many good tea shops I have yet to try. If you have a suggestion for a wonderful golden yunnan with cocoa-maple-mole overtones, please post a comment!

My criteria: The leaf should be thin, strong, with a quick twist that gives it a needle-like appearance. Leaves are gold, not just black with a few gold tips. The teas I most often prefer have leaves that are quite long. They fluff together with other leaves, and there's an airy, spongy feeling in the fingers when holding a pinch of them together. Often, the leaf is downey and accompanied by a dust or powder that coats the inside of the tea container. This powder is what I think of as “cocoa,” and it produces a wonderful aroma when first opening a packet or canister. The liquid should be a clear, strong gold (with just a hint of verdigris when milk is added). And, yes, I personally want the tea to hold up to a splash of milk, since I like milk in my morning cuppa. Occasionally, however, this a late night comfort drink for me, which means that my perfect golden yunnan should also hold up to the 30-second decaffeinating process.

Preparation: boiling water, one big heaping tablespoon of tea brewed for 3 minutes in a small Chatsford. Each tea was sampled on at least two different occasions.

In Pursuit of Tea's Royal Yunnan, new batch, and it seems to be just a bit different from what I purchased in Febuary. So far, this is the one with the best dusting of cocoa, although it’s not quite as nice as last year’s Floating Leaves’. I do like the sweet tones to this tea, sort of a honey or maybe maple flavor that is very appealing. This is great with milk.

Floating Leaves’ Yunnan Gold, now that I’m not all disappointed in the lack of heavy “cocoa powder” dusting the leaves, I'm finding this is a very good tea, with many of the elements I seek in a golden yunnan. There’s just a tiny hint of pepper, it’s got the sweet quality that I expect, and it has an almost smoky aroma that sortofkindofalmostbutnotquite fools me into thinking of the cocoa powder of the previous batch. As it cools in the cup, the pepper aftertaste really strengthens. This and the IPOT tea are the ones I'm most likely to grab in the morning.

Adagio, Yunnan Gold, on the earthy end – no cocoa or peppery tones really (just a really subtle hint in the aftertaste). This tea needs more leaf in the pot than I gave the first time around. Once I got the amount right, I found that it’s good basic tea that holds up very well to de-caffing. A side note about Adagio – amazingly fast shipment, less than 48 hours from order to being at my door!

Jing Tea, Yunnan Gold, the fragrance is of late summer, indeed it reminds me of the smell of a mowed hayfield drying in the sun. After the first time, I increased the steeping time to 4 minutes and added a pinch more leaves to the pot. I wanted it to be stronger, but perhaps that isn't really what it needs. I'm still experimenting because the secret to this tea isn't unlocked for me yet, but so far my impressions are of drying grass and meadows and hay. No cocoa in evidence, but no vegetable hints either. Oh, and there's a pronounced peppery finish.

Te Tea, Yunnan Golden Supreme: smaller leaf, cocoa aroma in the dust but the notes don’t come through with brewing. There is a solid earthiness that develops more strongly as the tea cools. There’s just a hint of pepper. I prefer this to their Golden Needle Supreme.

Te Tea, Golden Needle Supreme, There's a nice hint of cocoa powder with the dry leaf, but oddly, this one ends up with a vegetable taste. It brewed up much differently than I expected. As it cools, a peppery aftertaste emerges quite strongly. I find it to have a very delicate flavor, and it’s perhaps a bit lackluster for me. Better without milk. Not good decaffed.

Imperial Tea Court, Yunnan Gold, I really want to like this tea; in fact, I fully expected to love it. Unfortunately, although I’ve tried it several times, it is just not my preferred aroma and flavor. This is a vegetable-tasting tea – could smell that strong asparagus scent as soon as opening the bag, and I actually cussed in frustration. So, now I have some really expensive tea that someone else is sure to love. Time for me to find a friend with oppposite tastes, so we can hand-off teas to each other!

Standard Disclaimer: Just a customer, not employed by any of these companies.

13 June 2005

Cleaning out the Cupboards

This morning I realized that there’s a reason all of my envelopes and canisters of wonderful tea are overflowing my kitchen countertops. It is because above those countertops are two cupboards full of tea I never use. Most of it is tea that was given to me (tons of little sample packets), some is tea I ordered but didn’t like, some can be attributed to changing tastes, and all of it is really too old to enjoy. However, among all the odds-and-ends were a few fun surprises, including a couple of puerhs (see below) and a sealed tin of a breakfast blend I love from a company that no longer exists.

Two quick asides: (1) My tastes in tea seem to have shifted this year, and now I almost always drink Chinese/Taiwanese teas instead of Indian assams. This is an interesting development to be pondered over my next cup of oolong. (2) Does anyone else get tired of tea companies including sample packets of tea that you would never drink? It always surprises me, for instance, when my box of pricey loose leaf comes with sample tea bags, or if the latest rooibos-cardamom-ginger-peppermint-ginseng-lemongrass-chamomile blend is included when all I have ever ordered from the company is unscented and non-herbal.

Back to the surprises in my tea cupboards. . .

Rose Pu Erh, Ten Lee brand tea with a Ten Ren price sticker (quarter used to indicate size of rose bud)

This must have been given to me because I haven’t ever purchased anything from Ten Ren. Perhaps it came with a batch of teas handed off to me by a friend? I’ve checked the Ten Ren Tea web site, but they don’t seem to carry this puerh any longer. The tea itself looks to be a fairly standard loose puerh with full rose buds mixed in. I brewed it to see how it tastes – it’s okay, but nothing remarkable in this first try. The puerh is lighter in taste than I’d assumed from the color of the liquor. I don’t really taste the rose, although with the third brewing there’s just a hint in the aroma. Perhaps rose buds need to steep longer than tea leaves? The leaves themselves don’t seem to have taken on any rose characteristics.

Also Found: tucked way in the back corner of a cupboard were three round boxes of 100g Yunnan Pu-erh Tuo Cha (bird’s nest shape). I vaguely remember purchasing these at an Asian grocery or mall, either in Colorado or Alberta. It’s been at least 5 years (probably more like 8 or 9), and they’ve moved with me a few times, getting stuck in some back nook and eventually forgotten. My taste in tea back then was primarily Indian assams, but somewhere I’d read about buying aged yunnan tea and saving it for many years.

I have no idea if the puerh tuo cha is any good, or if it’s worth keeping around. Certainly these boxes were cheap when purchased (probably just $2-3 each), since that was back in starving graduate student days. Anyone have suggestions about whether I should continue to store them? They are at least 5 years old, probably more, and they’ve sat in a dark and dry cupboard the entire time. Are they ready for me to try now? I’ll post a question to Teamail and continue to browse the web to see what I find, but any readers of this blog should feel free to post a suggestion.

12 June 2005

Recently Clicked: June 12, 2005

Summer Reading 2005, a blogger links to about 40 summer (and other) reading lists. It's a bit silly to start my own list with a link to another list, especially one that's not about tea. However, I'm pretty sure I'm not the only tea-sipping book lover out there, and this is a great resource for those of us who love the smell of a library or used bookstore. :) These lists range from best spy fiction to syllabi from college literature courses.

An Oolong Quest in Taiwan, a travel essay with some nice photos. Here’s a quote, to give you an idea of the content:
“Two-thirds of Taiwan is mountain-covered. With fifty peaks over 3000 meters, this wet green island sitting off China’s coast provided the perfect home for the fabled tea. My destination was a teahouse run by a family that had grown specialty Oolongs for 200 years, after emigrating from the Wuyi region of Fujian province in China (the ‘birthplace’ of tea).”

Emagein Tea has a couple of fun pages for tea lovers. If you like word games, give the Tea Word Search puzzle a try. If you’d like to keep your own tea-tasting notes, you can print (or cut & paste into a document) their Tea Tasting Form.

Traditional Chinese tea ceremony from Wuyi - the art of tea in 27 moves, on the Jing Tea Shop web site. My favorite description is #15, “three dragons guard the vessel.” This was how I naturally held the cup, but I like the way the metaphor gets at controlling the fragile cups (at least they’re fragile to me, since I have this tendency toward clutziness). By the way, I recently received my first order from Jing Tea and am quite pleased. I’ll be posting more about the puerh soon.

Adagio Tea Timer, which looks really cool but (alas!) I can’t use because there is no mac version. :(

A Canadian Folk-song that features tea -- “While on the hob the kettle sings | Margery, Margery, make the tea”

10 June 2005

Tea Video

I found this while looking through an Internet video archive. You need Quicktime to play the 12-minute video. The opening and ending are kind of silly, but the focus of the show is tea and most of it takes place in a Taiwanese tea shop. I think you'll enjoy it. :)

Gone Learnin' Episode 3: What is tea? (2004)

If the above link doesn't open up a quicktime movie, go to the archive page and click through to the movie.

05 June 2005

Review: Perennial Tea Room, Seattle

Here’s my second review after spending the afternoon in downtown Seattle.

The Perennial Tea Room is located in the picturesque Post Alley area of Pike Place Market. They carry a nice selection of teas along with a wide range of teapots, tea accessories, and selected teatime goodies.

The entryway is open and welcoming, and the atmosphere inside is quite friendly, cheerful even. :) I never felt crowded or rushed, and when the shop emptied out a bit we had a pleasant time chatting with the woman in charge (Sue?).

I’d gone with a mission: go get some of that excellent lapsang souchong that had been recommended to me. I am currently sipping said tea (Wuyi Shan China Lapsang), which is indeed quite nice and rather unusual -- look for a review here soon. My husband prefers the deeper smokiness of the more traditional Lapsang Souchong that we bought at the same time. So, two teas purchased, and two happy sippers.

The tea room serves a rotating selection of teas that are pre-brewed (brown betty pots in the back room). You can get cups of tea – no food or milk or sugar, just good tea. Both teas we sampled were quite nice. Even though I rarely drink flavored teas, I decided to try an interesting combination: the Harney & Sons coconut-ginger-lemongrass green tea. It was very aromatic with an unusual flavor reminiscent of Thai food.

I was glad to sign up for notification of special events, and I’ll definitely stop by next time I’m in downtown Seattle.

Review: Crumpet Shop, Seattle

The Crumpet Shop is quite popular with downtown Seattle-ites. I love crumpets and have been wanting to stop by there, so. . . using the excuse of updating my guide to tea spots in Seattle. . . today I grabbed my husband and we headed to Pike Place Market.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but what I got was great food at a fun and casual order-at-the-counter cafe. The area is always filled with the energy of the market, and the Crumpet Shop has the characteristic friendly bustle of the city.

The Tea: You can choose from a selection of loose leaf teas, or get one of about six all-you-can-drink “fast teas” that are pre-made, sitting in carafes on the counter. For less than $1.50, you’ll be given a mug to use while you’re there, and then you can get a to-go cup to take more with you. On a cold and drizzly day, when you need to warm yourself up and keep the damp away, you can’t get much better than this. We went with the quick tea today, but next time I’ll give one of their other prepared-to-order teas a try.

THE CRUMPETS!: The fast-tea is just an okay cup of tea, but the crumpets (ooooooooh, the crumpets) are really why you're there. These particular crumpets are made on-site, and you can buy packages to take home or get one with toppings to eat there. Now, recognize that I haven’t been to England (yet), but these are the best crumpets I’ve ever had. They are nearly an inch high, and somehow light yet substantial at the same time. If you have time for a quick bite to eat, then by all means get one of their specialty crumpets – they’re topped with everything from bacon and eggs to more traditional jams and nutella. The smoked salmon spread, with sliced cucumber on top, is fabulous.

I can’t wait to go back for a visit, and I suspect that this may become a regular trek into the city for me.

04 June 2005

Tea in International News

I've been following links to various stories and articles about tea this past week. I've tried to give a quick synopsis, so you'll know if you're interested before you click.

From Reuters, Cloud of Fear Hangs Over India's Ailing Tea Gardens: I've seen a few headlines in the past week or two, but this is the first time I actually followed through and read more. Evidently, several managers/owners of tea plantations in Assam have been murdered by workers. There is quite a bit of disrest and fear in the region. Some link this to failing sales of Assam, stating that Darjeeling is more popular in the west, and that the lack of money is keeping workers from being paid as well (or even paid at all). The bottom of the article presents more of the worker's side of the problem, pointing at the great disparity in living conditions.

A Teamailer posted the URL for an interesting article from the China Daily (this link goes to articles written in English). I did a search on "tea" in the China Daily and found several interesting articles and photos. I'm posting some of those I found below. All are from the past month, so they should be fairly recent.

Tea Street: This is the place to go when you're in Beijing because "with a big shining logo 'Beijing No 1 Tea Street' and a teapot sculpture at one end, the 1500-metre-long street is lined with numerous teashops and colourful signs." I've added this street to my travel wishlist. :)

Oh, and the city of Hongzhu (famed for longjing tea) would be nice to visit as well. Click through to this photo of a longjing tea processing contest.

For more on Hangzhou, here's an article on the Growing Problem of Top Green Tea. What's the problem? At the same time that longjing tea is more popular and pricey than ever, it "is facing a challenge because of the lack of professional tea farmers, said Wu Guowei, deputy head of Longwu Town in Xihu District in Hangzhou. The young generation of tea farmers refuse to learn traditional tea processing skills because the processing is considered drudgery, Wu said." Contrast this to the next article that argues for modernization . . .

Still Steeping in Time: this looks at changing times for tea farmers and workers, at government initiatives for co-operatives, and at the need for the general modernization of technology and management in the tea industry.

New Criteria Set for Food Safety: "China is working on a series of technical standards to minimize pesticide residues and other hazards in food and fabrics."

Kong Fu Tea Photo: black and white of a Chinese tea ceremony performer.

A second photo: Plantation Owners Examining Recently-harvested Tea Leaves.

02 June 2005

Gift of Oolong

One of my students is from Taiwan, and yesterday (our last class meeting) she brought me a wonderful gift of oolong tea.

click photo to view larger image

As you can see from the box, the text is Chinese (which I can’t read). The inside packaging, however, does have a few words in English, so I know this is a Formosa Oolong. It didn’t take long before I was heating up water and pouring it over the leaves in my glass gaiwan.

click photo to view larger image

Tasting notes:

Water: filtered in brita pitcher, temp = around 170F
Brewed and sipped: in gaiwan cup, first steeping about 2 minutes (I preferred a longer brewing time than for many oolongs, since it takes a bit for those leaves to go through the agony of unfurling and producing the liquor)

The aroma that rises from the freshly rinsed leaves has a very toasty or roasted characteristic. This is the scent that I often equate with toasted coconut. I’ve run into it before in an aged oolong that I like quite a bit. This Formosa oolong, however, produces a much lighter brew, with just a hint of green. It is not as dark as I expected from the fragrance of the leaves.

The distinctive toastiness holds up through the second cup, but there are only traces of it in the third and fourth brewing. The flavor instead drifts to a fresher, more floral sensation. I found myself brewing a fifth cup, so it is a long-lasting leaf.

This tea is very “comfortable” and balanced. It is not aggressive or uniquely flavored; instead, it has a broad range or crossover (between roasted and floral tones) that draws me in. I think this is a tea to be enjoyed routinely, as a good foundation against which to understand others.

Searching for Hints of Cocoa

Oh no, my favorite tea is sold out! :( Now what do I do? I guess that a new search for that perfect cocoa headiness in a yunnan gold begins.

The owners of Floating Leaves (who carried my favorite) just returned from their buying trip to Taiwan, and they’ve brought back a new yunnan gold and are mailing me a sample today. I’ve also just ordered samples and small amounts of various golden yunnans from three different vendors. The month of June is going to be a grand tasting and comparison experience for me – seems like a good kickoff for summertime!

I will, of course, post tea-tasting notes here.

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the other golden yunnans in my collection. I really like the peppery notes in many of them, and they all have a naturally sweet flavor that appeals to me, but none have the heavy cocoa fragrance that I really loved in the Floating Leaves Yunnan Gold.

As always, I’m open for suggestions. Please post here if you know of a golden yunnan with lots of cocoa overtones. :)