Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Winter Green

At our Japanese tea tasting over the weekend, we introduced something most people haven't heard too much about: aged Japanese gyokuro. Yes, a green tea that has been "aged" and it's not even Chinese. It's also not a new practice, Japanese connoisseurs and tea merchants often save their gyokuro harvest for up to a year before they will drink it. While we always look forward to drinking fresh gyokuro in the spring, we've been buying extra and storing some on the advice of Japanese tea friends. When properly stored, many green teas can last up to a year without dropping in quality and freshness but gyokuro is purposefully stored to improve the quality and the tasting experience. The tea is supposed to mellow and become even sweeter. The flavors are better balanced and even the texture is supposed to improve. We have a couple questions that we hope to answer with our own experiments: How long can gyokuro be stored and when does it peak? At what point in time does aging no longer improve the tea? Will the gyokuro eventually go stale like other green teas? What's the longest gyokuro has been successfully aged?
Our gyokuro (pine grade) comes from Uji in the Kyoto prefecture. It was harvested in the Spring of 2009 so we've had it for about a year and half. The broken leaves are rolled into little, slender stalks. The color is a rich, glossy green with bluish highlights. The aroma is soft with a hint of cocoa.

The most frequently asked questions at the tasting event centered around water temperatures and brewing times. We've addressed this a couple times on this blog but I'm happy to reiterate some basic points.Especially since I've been hearing about a popular tea guide on the internet that advises brewing green tea at 170 - 180 Fahrenheit for up to a minute... do not do this.
water cooler
Any guide that just has a general brewing temp. for all green tea, regardless of type is useless. Longjin, bilochun, sencha, gyokuro (to name a few) all have different requirements to achieve their distinctive flavors. For example: Chinese LongJin can handle a flash rinse at 185 Fahrenheit but then the water temperature is lowered dramatically (by about 30 degrees) for the actual infusion. Gyokuro, even one that's been aged like ours, requires very low temperature brewing from the start and doesn't get a rinse. If you brew a Japanese green tea at 180F, you are cooking the leaves. You might as well invite friends over for soup instead of tea. Also, the "tea guide" I was shown didn't even go into leaf and water ratios. I'm guessing the writer uses very little tea in a large amount of water and then a long steep time to pull out as much flavor as possible. Generalities like this just leads to mediocre tea, avoid them and take the time to practice and experiment for yourself. It's not hard to memorize the different requirements of tea; the knowledge will come naturally with experience. Okay, rant over; back to the tea.
  • For the gyokuro, we brewed with water at 130-140 Fahrenheit.
  • I used my small gyokuro pot (made of tokoname clay) that holds 90ml and about a tablespoon of tea leaf. 
  • Traditionally, water used for brewing sencha or gyokuro is brought to a boil first even though we use a lower temp. The boiled water is used to heat up the brewing vessel and cups. I transferred the water from the teapot to a water cooler bowl and added the dry leaf. The heat from the teapot brought out the delicate, nutty aroma of the leaf. It's very important to preheat the teaware because they can pull a lot of heat away from the water for brewing, especially water that's already a low temperature. After a little wait, my water was sufficiently cool enough to use (transferring water from vessel to vessel cools it down considerably, it doesn't take long until your ready to brew).  
  •  Gyokuro leaves are delicate and should be handled gently. For the first brew, I used a fine but steady stream and started pouring from the edge of the pot. Slowly, I made my way around the rim of the teapot and until the pot was filled to the brim. This way the leaves are introduced to water indirectly and they swirl gently around the pot, opening up without getting bruised.
  • I waited 30 seconds before decanting the first infusion and poured it directly into the tea cups using a gentle stop and pour action. (This method is described in a previous post on brewing sencha)
  •  The second infusion takes 10 seconds longer and the water can be a few degrees hotter but not much more than that. I noticed the leaf didn't fully expand even after the second infusion.
  • The third cup is optional and usually the weakest infusion even while using hotter water. I added another 15 seconds to the brewing time. Much of the delicate flavors are released with the first two brews and and I tasted less umami. It was still enjoyable but I knew that was the end of the experience.
While the leaves become a bright, saturated green when they unfurl in the water, the tea itself is quite pale with a yellow-green hue. However, it holds a surprising amount of body with a soft, chocolaty finish. The first sip is a light touch and then the umami starts to blossom and triggers the regions of the mouth that produce saliva. The sweetness follows the savory elements. The idea is to sip and savor this tea slowly so that you can experience the subtle shifts in flavor. It's almost difficult to do because the tea is very smooth and travels easily down the throat. Minute leaf bits are suspended in the infusion like dust motes in air and add to the satiny texture. Not a trace of bitterness or astringent quality, it was also missing the grassy note of a fresh gyokuro. I ate some of the leaves themselves and they tasted pretty fresh.
Even though it's been below freezing in New York and Toki likes to keep the windows open, I haven't experienced the internal cooling sensation that usually accompanies green teas. So far, I haven't gotten the usual chills and I'm happy to discover a green tea I can drink in the dead of winter without any discomfort. I'm curious to do a side by side comparison tasting of this gyokuro and the next harvest in 2011.

Aged gyokuro... worth the wait so far.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dragon and Phoenix

I finally brought my dragon & phoenix gaiwan to the Tearoom for show & tell. This was the super ornate, hand painted one I found at a Hong Kong teashop; balked at the price; went home to New York without; then had reverse buyer's remorse and made Michael order it for me. It's been languishing in the back of my tea cabinet while we focused on setting up the new tearoom. I was happy to rediscover this lovely piece last week:

I love the lush details of the dragon with the gold outline of it's jaws, clean white fangs and every scale was added by hand. Even the background hasn't been spared as a closer look shows a tight random pattern surrounding the mythical beasts and flowers. It's richly colored and psychedelic yet also elegant.

When I received the gaiwan, Winnie also handed me this:
At first I thought it was very flimsy puer knife. Turns out, all the gold trim on the lid, cup and saucer was painted and left matte. The "knife" is used like a scraper to bring out the traditional shine of the gold. The blade is agate and polishes up the gold paint. I had not counted on that and Winnie just gave a shrug and said "That's how it's done, get scraping." Seriously, she seemed more surprised that I didn't know this fact about new gaiwans. I also realized just how much gold was incorporated into the artwork, like the thin line that traces the dragon's spine or the flecks in the Phoenix feathers. Michael was entertained by my frustration and said with an evil grin, "Imagine how much more this would have cost you if the artists had to do this part. It's going to take you hours but you'll save money." Several "Dexter" episodes later and aching fingers, I managed to give the gold details a soft, buttery glow.

I am a little scared of using this gaiwan. It's even thinner than the ones we sell at The Tea Gallery and there is only the slightest flare along the rim. There's more risk of chipping or just outright dropping it while I'm decanting tea. I do intend to use it but I'm also happy enough to just see it displayed.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Now on Flickr

Yumcha and Toki are teaming up and sharing our photos on
We just started the '21 Howard" page to document the daily life of our tearoom in pictures. Please visit and let us know what you think as we add a little bit each day to our photo diary!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Red Hot

As we're hitting winter's stride in NY, I've been relying on more red (black) teas to get me through the biting cold and sunless mornings. I'm not a morning person and I choose the extra 15 minutes of sleep time over breakfast and tea before I leave home. Fortunately, I work in a tearoom and the promise of good, hot tea is what drags my bleary-eyed self in these days.This morning I made myself the Shizuoka Red, a red tea from Japan that we recently discovered. I love the floral and malty notes of this tea and there's something delicate about it's structure that separates it from the more traditionally robust red teas. The rich, coppery color of the brew gives me a cozy feeling and actually whets my appetite.

The broken, oxidized leaves of this tea resemble a Chinese red tea like Keemum. I could see bluish highlights on the mahogany covered leaves. I also spotted some very slender stems. Their lighter color made them easy to pick out against the dark leaf.

  Native red teas are somewhat rare in modern day Japan. I heard they were more prevalent during less abundant times as it was easier to store and save than the more fragile green teas. Nowadays, the most common red teas on the Japanese market are from other parts of the world. We had sampled a few red teas in the past but they were pale imitations of richer, fruitier Chinese reds. Our opinion changed when we first tried the Shizuoke Red. Beautifully balanced with a natural sweetness, it stood up to our scrutiny and we discovered something novel yet pleasantly familiar at the same time.
  I used 4 grams in the medium gaiwan (90cc). A teapot with a built in strainer would be fine too. In fact, because the leaves are so broken up, a gaiwan isn't the best brewing vessel. It's easier for the broken bits to slip out and a strainer would be helpful. I was careful about how big I made the opening between the lid and bowl when I poured out the tea and used a separate strainer to catch escaping leaf bits. 
Since this is a Japanese tea, I decided not rinse the leaf and steeped the first infusion for 10 seconds. Toki was also in the office so I decanted the tea into a pitcher and served him a cup. The taste reminded him of a Darjeeling or Oriental Beauty. There is a familiar sweetness with a touch of malt and honey that we also find in those teas. I found more fruit than flowers in my cup. If I could describe a tea's "personality", I'd say it had a sunny nature. The body was smooth and slender, no trace of tannins. I let the second steep sit a bit longer, about 30 seconds. The color and flavor deepened with more malt and maintained it's smoothness. Even with the 3rd steep, there wasn't the usual tannic quality and astringency that comes with red teas. The taste softened dramatically after the fourth steep and like other Japanese teas, didn't carry much stamina for more than 4 cups. I'm still drinking this tea more than any other red tea this season, partly because I feel it warrants more experimentation with brewing times and leaf to water ratios. If anyone else is drinking this tea, I would love to hear how they are doing it. With it's refined sweetness, the addition of sugar or milk would overwhelm this tea's nature.
Fall is my favorite time of year and these past couple months I've been using a vintage cream pitcher from Japan because of its red maple motif. The matching colors and elegant styling is perfect for serving the Shizuoka Red. While I love traditional fairness pitchers, a small, antique creamer does the same job and adds something unique to your tea table. Also, this piece had been separated from the rest of the set long ago so it only cost me $15.00 at the flea market. Old, pretty and very affordable... my favorite combination. 

Shizuoka Red and a vintage creamer... a nice way to add some refinement to a casual morning at the office.