letting tea settle

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It is the natural inclination to act on your excitement when receiving tea in the mail by opening the package immediately and sitting down to steep it.  If you happen to feel mildly surprised or disappointed that the tea is not “performing” as you had hoped, try letting it rest for a few weeks or more, then steeping it again.  You will likely be rewarded.

Just as people can often feel a little out of sorts after moving homes or travelling long distances, tea can take some time to re-orient and settle after being jostled over miles of ground travel or pressurized at 30,000 feet during air transport.
I noticed this strongly with my recent shipment of Asian Beauty, which after five weeks of settling in my home safe, now offers a rich, smooth, round body and soft mouth feel that were, shall we say, “struggling” when I first received it.
People whose passion is the study of tea will tell you that tea requires careful handling and rest when being moved from one storage space to another, even within the same town or village. Plants are extremely sensitive to change, and just as a person can suffer jet lag or mild disorientation when traveling or moving homes, tea can experience “shock” when being transported or changing venues, and is best left alone for a while to find its equilibrium.
I have experienced this with several teas, and noticed that some teas can take a few months   of “regrouping” to reach their fullest potential, particularly when the tea has travelled from one country to another.
If you are willing to be patient and let your tea get over its jet lag, you will often be repaid with a bright, smooth tea that provides the resilience it has developed, as well as the rest and comfort as it has been given.

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tea book reading list #1

The response to the growing demand for information from eager English-speaking tea connoisseurs in the U.S. inspires this post. Bon Teavant Market carries some great books, and there are some here that we do not carry because they may be out of print or very freely available elsewhere.  Regardless, here is a first-installment list of tea books that are well worth a read as well as a couple of books that will increase the depth of feeling and awareness of the tea connoisseur:

The Ultimate Guide to Chinese Tea  (Bret Hinsch) We believe this is possibly the best introductory book out on Chinese-style tea appreciation. Bret Hinsch is a Harvard-educated Asian Studies scholar who has lived and taught in Taiwan for more than fifteen years. Disappointed in what is available on Chinese tea in English, Hinsch researched Chinese teas and tea connoisseurship by surveying a vast amount of information written in Chinese. His book is already out of print, but you can find used copies or an e-book version. This book is so good, it is almost worth purchasing an e-book reader in order to absorb all the great, articulately written information on tea production, appreciation, brewing, and the like. We give it highest marks for both the content and the clarity of delivery. Thank you for your contribution, Bret!!
The Time of Tea (Dominique Pasqualini & Bruno Suet) This French author-photographer duo published a timeless two-volume set that is as beautiful to the eye and the touch as the content is fascinating. One volume is filled with rustically reproduced color photographs of tea culture around the world, and the other volume is a treatise on tea appreciation. This double-volume set is out of print, but there is talk of it being republished in the near future. There are only a handful of copies available…you know where. Get it while you can.
The Classic of Tea (Lu Yu) The first treatise on tea culture in China first published in the eighth century, this classic work informs tea lovers the world over how to consider and participate in tea ritual and practice.
Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea From East to West (Beatrice Hohenegger)
Steeped in History: The Art of Tea (Beatrice Hohenegger) These two books by Beatrice Hohenegger really compliment each other and should not be missed by the tea historian interested in how tea came to the West. Full of interesting facts, Liquid Jade reveals some of the darker secrets of tea’s history. Steeped in History is a companion volume to the exhibition curated by Hohenegger at UCLA’s Fowler Museum in late 2009 and includes discussion and images of fascinating artifacts from various Chinese dynasties and from Europe. Here is an interview with Hohenegger by Bon Teavant in 2009.
The Way of Tea (Aaron Fisher)- This is a beautifully written and thoughtful book about tea appreciation from a more spiritual perspective. Written by Aaron Fisher (aka “Wu De”), a tea aficionado living in Miao Li, Taiwan.
The Book of Tea (Okakura Kakuzo) This 20th century classic on tea culture from a Japanese perspective is a gem that should not be missed. The content of this book has recently been re-packaged and published by Bruce Richardson and is available at Bon Teavant Market.
Culinary Tea (Cynthia Gold): What a fine collection of recipes and information on the historical and contemporary uses of tea as food. Cynthia Gold inspires not only the reader to try tea in new ways as an ingredient in dishes, but also invites chefs around the world to reignite the passion for tea as food and to take it in new directions.  As such, Cynthia contributes much to the growing information on tea and tea culture around the world. Here is a more in-dephth review of Culinary Tea by Bon Teavant.
The Tea Dictionary (James Norwood Pratt) This newly minted tea dictionary is a manageable volume of information provided as a quick reference to teas and terms used in the world of tea appreciation and industry. The hefty price suggests that you are receiving a distilled inventory of terms that require curation for the professional or avid tea lover. Signed copies are available from Bon Teavant Market’s tea books section. You can find a video interview of JNP here.
The Art of Tea (Magazine) Published by Wu Shing Press in Taiwan, this magazine, which is published at indiscriminate intervals, is well worth perusing for hours and hours. Back issues are available on a variety of topics, including puerh tea and yixing teaware–information that is not always so easy to find in English elsewhere (but can be found here).
Wabi-Sabi (Leonard Koren) This 1994 classic volume explains the complex concept of wabi or wabi sabi, which I will not try to distill on this page, other than to tell you that this is the concept that infuses Japanese tea culture and frankly, all tea culture to some degree. To understand wabi is to absorb and digest the art of fine tea and the duality inherent in life itself.
 
The Secret Life of Plants (Peter Tomkins & Christopher Bird) This book is not specifically about tea but about the way plants interact with humans, and should not be missed by those who want to increase their enjoyment of Camellia sinensis on a new level. Scientific studies illuminate the powerful ways in which plants respond to human thought, intention, and actions. This book is revelatory for any lover of plants, and tea is certainly our favorite…
There are so many more tea books that deserve attention, and you can consider this a first installment to our growing bibliography of tea books that we love and want to share. We want to shout out to some of the best tea authors (and their books) of our times and of times past. You may also visit the tea books area of Bon Teavant Market to find books that we believe are worth reading (and re-reading).

tea picnic season

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In Tang dynasty China as well as in Victorian England, taking tea outside was de rigeur, as well as a marvelous way to share some ebullient times and fine teas with great friends and colleagues.  Japanese tea ceremony also celebrates the natural world, but even the most austere and engaging tea room is no match for Mother Nature.

Arnas1.jpgWe have all seen images of those romantic days when folks joined together to sing, laugh, recite poetry, make music, and share philosophies by soft flowing streams and blue mirror lakes, all the while sipping tea.

Spring called up these images, and conspired with memories of last October’s Wuwo tea ceremony to get excited about creating an outdoor tea. So on a sunny Saturday afternoon, friends Rita Stanikunaite and Arnas Palaima joined me for the first tea picnic of the season in my hometown in N. California, where streams, waterfalls and redwoods converge to create the ideal tea picnic site. The natural tapestry of wild flowers, towering trees, flashing streams, and rich flowing waterfalls spurred by spring rains made the perfect backdrop to an amazing tea gathering.

Here are some tips for you to consider in creating your own tea picnic or outdoor tea gathering:

  • Bring a thermos of filtered, water which is boiled just before leaving for your hike or picnic.  Use a large thermos–you’ll need it to rinse cups & heat teaware besides just brewing tea.. (Sometimes more IS more.)
  • Bring a tea that requires cooler brewing temperatures–often green, white and delicate oolongs work best.  For our picnic, we chose a winter bao zhong, and it was spectacular!  Now that spring teas are newly arrived, you may want to celebrate the event by choosing new spring teas.
  • PicnicTeaware2.jpgBring teaware:  gaiwan or yixing teapot, cups for each person, serving vessel, and cup coasters. It is fun to bring special tea ware reserved for special occasions.  Pack it carefully or use a tea travel set.
  • Bring a nice mat, blanket, or pretty piece of fabric to sit on and create the space.
  • Find a place that inspires you with its beauty, and light, and which is not heavily visited. It is especially inspiring to have tea by a body of water–stream, waterfall, pond, lake, etc.
  • Bring some delicately flavored snacks. ( I brought a lightly sweetened polenta honey cake and fresh organic anjou pears for color and delicate taste.
  • Bring friends, a date, a colleague, or your family.  Or just head out on the trail on your own.  It’s all good!

We can slow down and enjoy the seasons and its teas.

single estate, single bush teas

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When you buy a tea blend, much effort might have gone into providing a tea with a stable flavor profile from year to year. The teas that go into the blend sometimes come from different harvests and farms, and also from different countries. When you buy a major label brand tea, for example, the tea blenders know that you want to have the same taste experience from year to year. They take great pains to blend a tea that will provide this for you.

Contrarily, many tea connoisseurs value teas that are not blended, but come from one particular harvest, which means they come from the same country and farm as well. Teas such as this can change in taste pretty dramatically, not only from season to season, but even from one day’s harvest to the next. What is offered from season to season and harvest to harvest has its own characteristics that cannot be duplicated, and for some of us, that is the point!

If you are such a tea person, you might be searching for “single estate” teas. These are teas that come from one tea garden.  The tea may come from different harvests (generally in the same season) , but the tea in your bag comes from the same farm. It is also possible to find “single harvest teas”, which come from a particular day’s picking.  Tasting a tea that is plucked on Thursday will necessarily taste slightly different than the tea that is plucked on Saturday.  It is quite educational to have the opportunity to taste teas plucked and processed on different days. They can be dramatically different in character, even when processed by the same farmer or tea master.
Then, there are “single trunk” or “single bush” teas. These are teas that often come from older, more mature, and “famous” tea trees, particularly Wuyi teas or Puerh teas coming from “ancient trees” in Yunnan, where tea originated.  In this case the tea in your bag comes from just one tree or bush. This is rare, indeed, and of course, the harvest from just one tree or bush will provide just a small amount of tea and so is more rare and difficult to obtain.

As a tea seller, I have had the opportunity to try teas from one harvest to the next, and the effort to buy the same tea twice can be frustrating. It has happened, for example, that I try to buy more of a harvest only to receive several pounds of tea that is a pale cousin to the tea I have been selling. In this case, I often have to eat the cost of my purchase. Even though the tea might be from the same farm and the same season, it is not at all the same tea, and my own standards won’t allow me to sell a tea that I don’t wholeheartedly believe in.

What means so much to me as a tea seller is the feedback I receive from my customers, who have come to trust in the quality of teas sold through Bon Teavant. Thanks for your feedback, which keeps me alert not only to great new harvests but careful of teas that, while coming from the same farm and the same season, might not be the same harvest and therefore not quite make the cut.

high mountain taiwanese oolongs

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Bon Teavant is truly inspired by the amazing qualities of Taiwanese high mountain oolongs. From the floral and fruity aromas of Alishan and Da Yu Ling to the mineral notes of Shan Lin Xi, there is something so special about these teas and we love to share them.

We feature the high mountain oolongs of Naivetea, Floating Leaves, and our in-house offerings will grow with time as well.

charcoal roasted teas

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A great tea master once told me that the best tea processing is the processing that cannot be tasted.  In the case of charcoal-roasted teas, I would tend to agree. Some people might really like to taste the charcoal, but I like to taste a rounded, balanced, full-bodied tea with sweet notes that add to the tea, rather than a mouth full of charcoal.  Just as when one grills meat over charcoal, the objective is to heighten the flavor of the meat, not to taste charcoal or, worse, lighter fluid.

Charcoal-roasted teas have a very distinctive character that is usually quickly recognizable. When the tea is both carefully roasted and brewed optimally, the roasting adds a rich carmelized sweet note that heightens the flavor of the tea and rounds out or balances other notes in the tea. When charcoal roasting (or brewing) is done carelessly, what is left is the flavor of the charcoal which overwhelms the taste of what otherwise might have been a marvelous tea.

Teas that lend themselves to charcoal roasting include Taiwanese Dong Dings, Wuyi varietals grown in China or Taiwan, and Ti Kuan Yin varietals grown in China or Taiwan. These teas are typically brewed in hotter water (190-200ºF), but I notice that if I brew them in slightly cooler water (175-185ºF), the sweeter notes become more dominant, the tea has a smoother mouthfeel, and the charcoal roasting is not as pronounced.

Bon Teavant carries a traditionally harvested and crafted Charcoal Roasted Dong Ding which sometimes has a little more charcoal flavor than I like, so I brew it just a hair cooler and longer, which diminishes the charcoal flavor and still creates a rich, smooth, roasty cup of tea with a terrifically smooth mouth feel. If you are a person who likes to taste the charcoal, that is there for you also. Either way, this special tea provides an extremely satisfying cup that is distinctive and memorable.

professional tea cupping

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There is a common protocol used by tea professionals to judge teas which is called “cupping”.  When visiting a tea farmer or wholesaler in Asia, for example, the person who is selling tea will put out several white porcelain cups and several plates of tea.  They will then weigh four to five grams of tea, and put it into each of the cups.  They then pour near boiling water at the same temperature into each of the cups, which contain the same amount of tea. A timer will be set for five minutes, and when the five minutes is up, the buyer then begins sampling the teas, using a white porcelain spoon to dip into the cups, smell the aroma, and also serve him/herself some tea into the sampling cup.

By using the same weight, water temperature and steeping duration, all of the teas are treated exactly alike. While teas are naturally grossly over-steeped with near boiling water, (which is counter intuitive to making a great cup of tea), this method of employing extremes brings out the characteristics of the teas to the highest degree, allowing the tea professional to quickly assess both the strengths and weaknesses of the tea.

Generally the buyer will be sampling one kind of tea and therefore judging many different options of the same tea.  For example, (s)he will be tasting five or six different Lishan teas or Asian Beauty teas (if in Taiwan). From time to time, a seller will also include a sample that is a different kind of tea to the others.

If you want to learn the ins and outs of cupping, hop on over to Seattle this weekend to check out the tea cupping workshops offered by Suzette Hammond at the Northwest Tea Festival.

tea poem: a shared tea ritual

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There are three primary tea traditions that influence Western society at present: Chinese (including Taiwanese), Japanese, and British.  From these, other tea traditions have emerged, including Moorish, Persian, Russian and Indian, and what I call “fusion tea”, which is the creation of a tea experience that might borrow from traditional tea cultures, but ultimately offers its own unique expression of tea or tea rites, rituals and customs. When you create your own tea ritual, you may want to borrow aspects of traditional tea rituals practiced by Chinese, Japanese, British, or any other tea culture.

Here is A SHARED TEA RITUAL, which you can “practice” with a friend:

Tea Poem Ritual:

•    Invite a creative friend to tea.  Tell him or her that you are going to create a tea poem together.
•    Provide a special piece of paper, maybe Japanese rice paper or a watercolor paper.
•    Put the paper and one colored pen on the table in your designated “tearoom”.  (This can be in your kitchen or dining room, or on the floor of a sunroom or even in an office.
•    Bring your favorite tea to the table and make whatever kind of tea you would like to have. Pour (or whisk, if Japanese matcha tea) a cup or bowl of tea for yourself and for your friend.
•    Enjoy a first sip of tea together. Invite your guest to write the title of the poem on the paper provided.  This means your guest begins the poem.
•    Have your guest then hand the paper to you. You will take a sip of tea and then write the first line of the poem.  Return the paper to your friend.
•    Continue to take turns writing a line of the poem, one after the other, until you have decided that your poem or your tea is finished.  Give the poem to your guest as a gift, along with a small bag of the tea that you shared with him or her.

how experts judge teas

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How do experts judge teas? By “cupping”.  That’s what it is called when experts line up a series of white porcelain cups, drop a standardized amount of tea (usually 3 grams) into each of them, then pour boiling hot water over the tea and let it sit for exactly five minutes.

Yes, five minutes each–whether a green, black, oolong or white tea. For most teas, this standardized infusion will render the leaves steeped to or beyond their full potential, drawing out both the strengths and the weaknesses of the teas.

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Following this, the tea buyer will submerge a white porcelain spoon into an infused tea, then sniff the spoon to take in the aroma of the tea. After that, the spoon is used to allocate a small amount of tea into his or her personal tea cup for tasting.  The spoon is then rinsed in hot water before sampling the next tea in line to ensure that no residue of the previously tested tea will influence the taste of the next.

This process can and usually does take hours of sipping, discussing, waiting, laughing, and weighing (both teas and opinions).  It’s all quite fun, until one realizes that the tea is stronger than the tea drinker.  Buyers might even return the next day to try final-selection teas with a fresh palate to be sure of the purchase.

On a recent trip to Taiwan, I found it at first quite difficult to judge teas this way.  They all tasted terrible to me when steeped for five minutes in boiling water.  But watching expert tea buyers cupping teas and asking them many questions helped me to understand what they were looking for in the sample brews.

As in other areas of life, one generally must make compromises when selecting teas.  One infusion might have a floral aroma to knock your socks off, but a bit of a harsh bite to the taste buds. Another might have a very full-bodied flavor but not have as great an aroma. Still others have their strengths and weaknesses. It must be very rare indeed that a tea expert has that “ah ha!” sentiment when finding the “perfect” tea.

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What many tea buyers look for in a tea is balance. The various notes of the tea harmonize with eachother, without any particular aspect of the tea overpowering the others.  They might also be looking for the archetypal qualities of certain tea varietals to be present.  It might be a great tasting Phoenix oolong, but does it have that honey finish for which it is famous?  Does the Lishan have that buttery, light mouth feel that is so sought after by connoisseurs of tea? Does the Ti Kuan Yin offer that “whoosh” that comes off one’s face with the delicate, almost ethereal finish?

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Judges often cup more than a dozen teas at one time, and each person has his or her own way of marking which ones should be pursued further. Some people move the actual cups forward or backward, others make mental notes, others make notes on paper.  When the contest has narrowed to only two or three teas, the tea buyer might ask the seller to steep the teas in a gaiwan, and as a person would do for himself at home.  This way the tea buyer gets a sense of what customers will actually taste.

What you finally receive in your cup as a customer is a bit of the palate of the tea buyer, the gifts of the tea farmer and craftspeople, and ultimately, the character of the tea.

culinary tea with cynthia gold

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Culinary Tea by Cynthia Gold is a favorite book of Bon Teavant, who interviewed Gold at the Boston Park Plaza, where she is employed as Tea Sommelier. Culinary Tea is not only very elegantly designed, but filled with more than 100 recipes using tea as a prime feature, and tea information that tea lovers will gobble up or sip page by fascinating page for hours with delight.

With this book in your library you don’t have to be a trained chef to create a Vegetable Tart with an Assam tea crust,  for example, nor recreate the wheel to prepare a Fresh Tea Vinaigrette on your dinner salad, not to mention the delectible Flourless Keemun-Cherry Chocolate Torte to top off your meal. Are you salivating yet?  If not, the gorgeous photos (both color and black and white) will help you along.

The book is very well organized, with Part One offering valuable information and insights into many aspects of tea from tea storage to the cultural roots of culinary tea.  Part Two serves up recipes and techniques for cooking with tea, and is sorted into Starters, Entrees, Desserts, and Tea Beverages (including cocktails). The book also covers information on pairing teas for drinking with different foods.

Many readers will appreciate the further categorization of each segment, for example, Entrees are grouped into Vegetarian, Seafood, Poultry, and Meat dishes. If you happen to be vegetarian, this book will not disappoint.  The vast majority of dishes in this book are meatless, and the great information on tea history and culture is worth the cost, even if you don’t cook.

According to Cynthia, “In each culture, there is a wonderful tradition of cooking with tea, but for some reason, these historic dishes are looked at as something very distinct and tend not to be replicated, to not go through modern variations within those cultures; so to me, those dishes are beautiful as-is, but they also should be inspiration for a wide variety of other techniques and uses.”  In Culinary Tea, Gold offers the results of her inspiration, with a wide variety of dishes and even a series of tea cocktails.

If you are simply a tea lover searching for hard-to-find information on how tea is used as food by different cultures throughout history, Culinary Tea is a great reference.  The book also features a number of stunning color and black and white images of the dishes as well as of tea farms, tea ware, and tea growing regions around the world.

Check it out and feed your ravenous appetite for inspiration, beauty, inventiveness and, of course, the ravishing deliciousness that is Tea.