Monday, December 28, 2009

Post Holiday Glow

With most of the holiday season behind us, I'm looking forward to spending the new year with some new teapots I picked up in our travels. Here are a few that found their way home with me:

The sweet yellow speckles and oval shape reminded me of a bird's egg turned into a teapot. It's about the size of chicken's egg too.

The red clay and attention to detail on this tree stump pot make it appear timeless. Winnie owns a similar version done by the same artisan.

Here's a simple geometric shape, unadorned with a lovely satin sheen.

The restrained bamboo theme in an uncommon color attracted me to this particular pot in a room full of Yixing pots.

I also picked up some new porcelain

as well as some old porcelain.

Of course I brought back tea, plenty of tea..
Puer and roasted TiKwanYin
High mountain oolongs from Taiwan
I'm looking forward to the coming months with so much to learn and share.

Have a Happy New Year!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Hundred Year Tree - Young vs. Aged

More and more of our friends have been asking about aged oolongs. Specifically aged teas from the WuYi Cliff regions. Why do we hold older teas in such high regard and what is the difference in taste between a recently harvested cliff tea and it's older version? What does one look for in an aged oolong? How many years is the best vintage? The questions go on and really the best way to answer is to have a tasting...

Of course, it helps to have a teamaster on hand but not necessary.

Michael decided to bring out some of the Hundred Year Tree he'd been aging since 2003 from storage. When sampling older vintages, it's a great idea to brew a recent harvest as well. In this case, the 2008. This gives you a way to compare the tea against itself and taste the differences between them. Another point for consistency was the fact that the 2003 has been under Michael's care since it was first harvested. This means we don't have to worry about improper storage and mystery origins that could also affect flavor. Both years are available on our website in a sampler pack so you can do your own tasting:
We used porcelain gaiwans and cups for both teas to keep the flavors clean and uninfluenced by yixing teapots.
The dried leaves of both the 2003 and 2008 were quite large and there wasn't any visible difference in size or color. It was the fragrance of those leaves that give off the first hint of change. The 2008 had the beautiful spiced aroma interlaced with delicate florals that we come to expect in WuYi oolongs. But the aroma almost seems like a starting point when compared to the 2003. A foundation that the 2003 takes and builds upon. There's more layers of some exotic spice and dried fall fruits. I smell a touch of cedar.
Michael measured out 6 grams of each on the scale.
The differences become more pronounced when Michael adds boiling water and rinses the leaves. The heat and water intensify the fragrance of both, now Winnie smells dates and a plummy sweetness in the 2003.
We know from experience that the younger tea will have the lighter body and flavor so we start with the 2008. With the 6 year difference between the two teas, there should be a notable difference in taste but also chaqi (cha-chi). What's best described as the energy of the tea. While flavors and aromas change and develop complexity as a tea matures, what connoisseurs really look forward to in aged tea is the qi. Drinkers often describe feelings of relaxation and physical warmth. From my own experience, I have felt a wide range of symptoms. Usually starting with a dampness in my normally dry hands, my core starts to get warm and yet my neck feels cooler. My shoulders relax, my face gets quite rosy and and I can feel a pleasant tingling running up and down my spine. Practitioners of Chinese Medicine will often recommend aged oolongs and puers to those with poor blood circulation like me. Especially in winter when their natural warming properties protect me from chills.

A strong chaqi exists in young teas as well if the leaves are harvested from centuries old tea trees. That's why a young tea like the 2008 can still have a physical effect on me. The taste is also delightful. The infusions are rich and sweet. There's a nice citrus note playing in the front of of the mouth. The first 3 cups have high floral notes that I taste and smell all at once. They fade slowly with subsequent steeps and reveal the mineral core of the Hundred Year Tree.

The color remains vibrant even after the 6th infusion. I drink the Hundred Year Tree often so the effect of it's chaqi aren't as intense as it used to be. But my usually cold hands are warm and damp. I feel relaxed but alert.
After the 6th cup, Michael refills the gaiwan and puts it aside for a long steep. It's now time for the 2003.
The changeis apparent even before the first sip. The color of the infusions is a deeper reddish orange. The heady aroma from the gaiwan reaches across the table to me. The taste is a bolder declaration of what a Hundred Year Tree can become. The floral notes of it's youth have been replaced with mature fruit and muskier overtones. While the 2008 had great texture and spread evenly across the front of the palate, 2003 broadens that reach. It hits the back corners of the mouth with a plummy sourness that turned mouth wateringly sweet. I taste a little aged tobacco note in the back of the throat.
By the 4th cup, the chaqi really starts to take over. I lose focus and my tasting notes past the 4th cup are a jumble of sentence fragments. We all lose track of the number of infusions. Everyone's elbows are on the table as our bodies relaxed and the spines loosen up. Michael gets a faraway look in his eyes and I slowly but surely lose sight of my earlier mission (something about a comparison tasting and keeping accurate notes). My brain refuses to hold on to facts and I just want to drift into the cloud of bliss floating above me. I don't even know where Winnie has gone to or when she even left the table.
Michael keeps brewing but now's its more for the pleasure of making tea than a lesson in aged oolong. As the winter night fills up our windows, the porcelain littering our tea table takes on a soft glow. He brings back the 2008 that's been left to steep this entire time. He decants the 7th infusion and pours some into my cup. It's a revelation, sharp and light. I'm brought back to the present having learned something after all.

Monday, December 14, 2009


We're back from our trip, jet-lagged and mostly happy to be home. Found some great teas and we'll be posting our discoveries on our website in a few days. I've got a ton of photos to sort through and I can't wait to share my experiences with everyone. Taiwan was beautiful and Hong Kong felt like a second home.

Here's a few pics from our journey while I get back into the groove of things.
Our last morning in Taiwan, the view from my window.

The fresh, honest face of the Camellia Sinensis flower.

A tea tasting, one of many...

Enjoying some tea against the backdrop of the Hong Kong night.

Hong Kong egg tarts go great with tea.

Yet another tea tasting, this time some heavy roasted TiKwanYin.

And no trip would be complete without some beautiful antique teapots to admire.

More to come...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Greetings from Taiwan

Yumcha here, blogging from Taroko. This is the first time I've had internet access since we crossed into the mountains of Taiwan. I'm losing battery power and my travel companions are impatient to get back on the road and go find some teas. It's been a great trip so far and I wish I could go into more details but my photos will have to do the talking for me since I have to keep moving...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Last Weekend

This is the last weekend to purchase teas on our online store!
At least until we get back from China which isn't til the 14th of December. Once again, sorry for the inconvenience. Please get your orders in before Monday the16th, since it will be another month before you'll be able to order again. Visitors will still be able to navigate the site but unable to complete purchases

Meanwhile, we're still working out our travel plans. The tea fields of Taiwan are on the itinerary! Also, hoping to visit a hot spring or two while we're there.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Travel Plans

Hello beautiful tea people!
Just a little bit of news for our internet friends: The Tea Gallery TEAm will be heading to Hong Kong in a couple weeks. We're all terribly excited and impatient to leave the cold weather behind us. But we have some days to go before our plane takes off. Our travel plans are still being worked on and I'll post any new details I get.

Unfortunately, this means that out little online shop will not be running from Nov. 18th to Dec. 12 since we have no one to handle the orders and shipping for us. So please order before that date so you're not left without tea while we're away. To make it up to you, we promise to share our findings and update our site with new tea finds as quickly as possible. I know it's unusual to close down an online store for any amount of time but we really don't think we can let anyone else handle the daily affairs of our little gallery. Our apologies for the inconvenience this may cause to our good friends and patrons. (Visitors will still be able to navigate the site but unable to complete purchases.)

I, Yumcha, also promise to update this blog with notes and photos of our travels.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Vintage Tea Set

I think the porcelain gods were with me last weekend. While poking around one of those "stuffed to rafters" vintage shops in upstate NY, this relatively pristine tea set was found in the back next to some Bakelite bracelets and a couple of tarnished tins. For an astonishingly small sum (I tried to hide my giddiness in front of the proprietor) I was able to take a little bit of history home.

I don't have Michael's eye when it comes to dating old teaware but I had no problem figuring out the age when I turned the pieces over:
While a "Made in OCCUPIED Japan" stamp is pretty obnoxious reminder of a terrible time with bad memories for many, it's useful as a "time stamp" that tells me the items were made between 1945 - 1952. Right after WWII, during the several years Japan was under US control.

Made for export, the tea set seems to be going through a little identity crisis. The teapot's round shape and spout has a Western feel but then it's paired with the traditional bamboo handle. I find it beautiful, right down to it's rusted metal hooks.
It's well made with nice thin walls, there's even a built in strainer for the loose tea leaves.

I was more attracted to the covered cups than the teapot. There were only two that were found but the set may have originally come with more. Still, I was pretty pleased to find both with their lids and only some minor damage to the rims.
The artwork is simple on both cups and teapot. The painting of the horse is a little on the cartoonish side but I find a childish grace to the effort. The lids on the cups is slightly larger than the one for the teapot. The cup itself has a nice flare to the rim and it rests perfectly against my bottom lip. The striped foot adds elegance to the wide body and from above the teacup seems to float above the table.
I hope this has encouraged you to go and look for your own lucky finds. Maybe we'll cross paths at the next flea market...

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A "Classic" Afternoon

Yesterday gave us our first chilly preview of fall. It was a good opportunity to make ourselves some heavily roasted oolong and stay warm. We decided on our Classic Roast Iron Bodhisattva. We've received a lot of questions about this tea and it's about time I did a post about our most popular oolong. Most were about brewing methods and water temperature.
I'll try to include information that answers the most common questions we get.
While this is the tea that Michael uses for his ChiuJoa GongFu Cha, it's flavorful enough to withstand even a western style brewing method with little leaf, lots of water and longer steeping time. Michael is away for the week, so Winnie decided to brew in the basic GongFu style that anyone can do.
Right now, we're drinking and selling the 2009 Spring Harvest. Because of the heavy roasting, this oolong has a very long shelf life so long as it is stored in an airtight container, away from light and heat. Michael will usually reserve some of the harvest for himself so he can age the tea for later enjoyment. Aging is possible due to the high firing process the leaves go through. The heat stabilizes the tea oils and compounds. Once it's been stored for a few years, the roasted character mellows and the flavors become more complex. It's a softer taste with fewer floral notes but a more mature profile. Also, the cha-qi will strengthen over time and drinking a ten year aged TiKwanYin has had me blissed out and dreamy.

Now we that we have the tea, we need a teapot:
This Yixing clay pot is from the seventies. It can hold about 2oz - 60cc of liquid. It's TINY. It fits perfectly in my hand and I have small hands. Pots of this style are well crafted and beautiful to look at but the thin walls can crack if exposed to to extreme temperature change. This is rare but when you have something this nice , why take chances?
Take the time to start with very warm water (120 degrees), fill the teapot and make sure the outer walls are thoroughly soaked. Empty the teapot and repeat once more with hot water
(175 degrees). After the teapot has been emptied again, you can proceed to use boiling water to heat up the pot before adding the tea leaves.
Once the teapot is heated through and emptied, Winnie pours in the tea. She doesn't stop until the pot is three quarters full. With so much tea, infusions are going to be very short to prevent bitterness and oversteeping. The first several steeps will be poured out almost as quickly as the water was poured in.
Hot water is poured first along the outer rim and circles it's way into the pot. Winnie pours it out as soon as she's put down the kettle and replaced the lid. This is the tea rinse and is reserved in the fairness pitcher.
We can't all have Winnie's delicate bone structure. But there are ways of moving and serving tea that create a graceful atmosphere. Every person who's ever made tea for me has their own "style" that comes through.
The rinse is poured back over the outside of the teapot. Winnie calls it "feeding the pot". The Yixing clay develops a rich patina from years of soaking up the tea. Most of our readers know this but I think it's important enough to mention again. Some people still toss out the rinse not believing it's good for anything. Bathing your teapot with the rinse is an important part of maintaining and properly aging the teapot.
Another good shot of Winnie's hand position as she pours out the tea. Her fingers are curled around the handle, mimicking the curves of the teapot and creating a nice rhythm. In my lessons with Michael in the traditional ChiuJao GongFu Cha method, I was made aware of how my pinky finger would often stick straight out and apart from the rest of my hand while I brewed tea. A little thing but one that betrayed tension in my movements and exposed my
inexperience. It seems like a minor detail most people wouldn't notice but your guests may pick up a sense of discomfort at a subconscious level. Afterward, they may wonder why they didn't feel entirely relaxed during the tea session. Keep your movements small and fluid. Notice your fingers, wrists, elbows and shoulders. Keep your back straight but not rigid
Maybe you don't care about appearance so long as you can make a good cup of tea. Or maybe, one day, you will make tea for a master... and they will notice everything.
Because there is so much leaf packed into the pot, it's important to give the teapot time to let as much of the infusion drain out. Find an appropriate fairness pitcher or porcelain cup to rest the teapot against. The circumference of the opening should be small enough to keep the lid secure against the pot. While the water navigates the labyrinth of twisted leaf to pour out of the spout, the tea's finish should be perfuming the mouth and tasting sweeter on the tongue.

The first couple of steeps gives us an autumn hue. I think of sunsets when I see this color. Subsequent steeps get richer and darker as we move to heart of the tea.
As Winnie brews, the leaves expand and start to push out of the pot. There's just enough tea to fill two little cups.

The afternoon wore on, and each infusion took a little longer than the last to brew. Finally, Winnie upended the pot one last time that day. There was a little light left in the sky and Winnie fancied a walk in the crisp air.
I hope this has answered some questions, although maybe I'll have created more. Either way, it's always great to hear from other tea people and I'll do my best to respond to any comments left on this post.