Friday, February 20, 2015

Lifting Shu with Sheng

Last Sunday to soothe a stomach ache, I chose the shu route and ended up brewing four different shus.  I also wanted to try some unloved shus in yixing before I finally give them up for adoption.  I was a tad hopeful as some wet stored aged sheng do perform better in yixing. But, but brewing shus you don't care for in a yixing pot really does not make it any better. White Tuo- I'm gonna find you a new loving home.

If yixing is not going to improve a shu, well- we will have to resort to more direct means.  I'm a big fan of sheng/shu blends like the Dayi 7452 and the uber-cheap Dehong that TeaDB James had fun with.  But if you've got lots of shu which didn't get pressed with some token sheng, you can still do your own blending either in the teapot or even in the cup.  In the above photo, you will spot one lonely cup of sheng. Actually blog photos can be quite misleading- there's two more supporting teapots and many cups besides this tidy fish plate to get four brews going simultaneously. (Also that yixing gaiwan ended up being a fake yixing but it's a decent gaiwan so I won't start a fight.)

I sometimes keep a sheng brew around to lighten up a shu.   Ever since I get my kicks blending hongcha and oolong for my own Russian Caravan I've been more keen to experiment.  For me, it's more about enjoying the process rather than unlocking some magic combo.  Mostly, a smidgeon of sheng dynamism will make your shu a little lighter and tastier.    Just as you won't use the best oolong for Russian Caravan,  you can employ so-so shengs into good use.

The sheng pictured above is a Changtai 2006 65th Anniversary Beeng- a pretty decent beeng deserving of being brewed on it's own and no means a beeng which should be relegated to just shu lifting duty. I tend to use whatever sheng I brewed up earlier instead of overthinking the sheng selection as the sheng tends to get drowned out by shu.  I've tried mixing the tea leaves but you don't have as much control or flexibility to see how a shu will improve and to determine a working proportion.  Also you don't have to have a separate pot for the control brew without the sheng.  
Sometimes one can down more tea than intended and in some cases you don't know the potency of a tea until it's much too late.  I ended up loading on so much caffeine that running was the only viable way not to pop out of the roof.  There's reliable research that caffeine in-take(here and here) an hour before workout is beneficial and leads to decreased muscle fatigue.  The caffeine helped noticeably enough that I'm going to schedule running sessions after tea and drink to my hearts content without worrying about over doing it.

One of my favorite runs is on the Berkeley Marina where you have ready views to San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.  Early in the year we get green grasses and a profusion of invasive oxalis blooming yellow. But for most of the year, the grass is golden.

When one runs with the bay wind,  you can taste the momentary freedom from one's sorrows and burdens. Sometimes when tea does not carry you to the clouds, you have to carry the tea.

Sunday, February 15, 2015


Happy belated Valentines dear reader. I hope that you enjoyed a few sparks mandated by such a holiday. If not, take solace that joyous moments of love tend to happen at un-appointed hours and such love need not be limited between mere romantic partners. I have a great many secret and not so secret loves and to love I've found to be altogether a fine human endeavor.

Of the more healthier and wholesome loves in the light side of my heart lives pears right next to hongchas and blue cheese.  Today while fruit shopping, I happily came upon a luscious pile of late late harvest Comice.  Out of the dozen pear varieties one often gets in California,  my heart literally races when I see Taylor's Gold- a variety so finicky to grow that you scarcely find this russeted brown beauty in the markets. Taylor's Gold's floral aromatics are utterly intoxicating and anyone whose had the pleasure of a ripe and juicy specimen are prone to senseless gushing. However there are some stoics like my husband who are strangely immune or even against such sensuous fruit and will go running back to their Bartletts and Boscs.  When you can't get a hold of this most magical variety,  your next best option is Doyenne du Comice which unsurprisingly gave mutation to Taylor's Gold.  

In deconstructing my love of pears,  I tried to brew up sheng today which matches closest to a Comice. The best Comice can exude a heady wine-like fragrance of complex fermentation. Peter Blackburne-Maze writes that the Doyenne du Comice is "most deliciously flavored and juicy to the point of indecency".   Such sensuality belongs more in the realm of oolongs than old man puerh but I try.

The 2006 Changtai 65th anniversary is all sugar and juice but no underlying complexity - more like a simple Anjou.  The 2004 Changtai Ancient teapot is more complex but tad too aged to conjure up ripe white flesh. It was a vain exercise then to connect two disparate loves.

I had meant to brew up the 1930's liu bao all week but was thwarted by a series of unfortunate events. First two of my tastebuds became simultaneously enflamed,  then my husband and I got stomach flu, and now it's allergies kicking up in high gear in the unseasonably warm weather.  I've been awaiting ideal conditions but I may just have to go for it.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Pair of Xiao Xiao Xi Shis

I've been searching high and low for a reasonable yixing to brew Su's teas.  Yixing teapot buying always fills me with a sense of dread. First I know with 100% certainty that I'll chip the spout or finial given time.  Second I fear I'll end up with something wonky, dribbly, or fake with my inability to spend more than two figures on a teapot.
To ease my shopping pain and fear or chipping, Su recommended a set of ten mini Xi Shis in a rainbow of yixing clays from a Malaysian shop that were beyond adorable.  If I smash a few, I'd be sad but  I'll have backups to last me at least a decade.  If my husband had gotten me something like this, I would be the happiest tea wife in the realm.

Out of all the classic forms, I am a huge fan of Xi Shis even before I knew it was fashioned after a famous beauty(Xi Shi)'s breast. No historical record exists of whether or not the teapot was modeled after her right breast or left breast but the bodacious Xi Shi probably was a creature of extreme symmetry. And most likely the potter did not have such privileged access anyway and had to just imagine it all.

Most of us started life happily suckling mother's milk and so it's natural such a shape should subconsciously evoke fond feelings.  I love natural shapes without hard edges so even without a boob and nipple motif, I would have chosen Xi Shis anyway.  The more I stared at Su's recommendation, I had a fuzzy sense of familiarity.  And in a most bizarre twist of coincidence, I actually had two of those very pots hiding in my tea closet- a dead match in size, silhouette, color, and potter's mark.

Long long ago I bought these mini Xi Shi teapots on my honeymoon in Korea.  They were about 5000W or ~$4 each. I remember being super excited because I'm always on the lookout for small token gifts for friends while traveling. I dragged my husband to pretty much every ceramics shop in Insadong trying to buy more of these but the two happened to be the only two in the entire area. (I was warmed by the thought at least I knew a good thing when I saw one and I don't have to regret that I didn't buy more.)  I thought back then they were not teapots but ink droppers for use in brush calligraphy because they dispense so little water.  

I brought them out last week late at night and was giddy to discover they are surprisingly workable little pots.  You can not imagine how ecstatic I was that I almost woke up my soundly snoring husband.  The little guys are a bit fiddly in the way that most little pots tend to be if they have one unfiltered hole that can get easily clogged and let too much tea crumbs out. But if you are used to them like I am, they are alright.   So thanks to Su, I have rediscovered two yixing teapots in my closet.  I'm so glad I mistakenly thought they were decorative all these years because otherwise they would have been chipped and useless by now.

I've been cheerfully brewing with these teensy 45ml pots and I almost want to buy up the other eight colors- just to reunite the family so to speak.  They cost ten times as much now so I might save my money for an adult sized pot.  Su tells me 120ml is a good size to bring out the true flavor of puerh so my search still continues.  Also Su wisely advises me to brew the same tea in the same consistent way to gauge aging- same teapot, same water, same tea to water ratio.  I'll need multiples of the same teapot to carry me through a few decades once I find one I like.  The search continues...

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Blending Russian Caravan Tea

In the last pages of my favorite travelogue- Tent Life in Siberia, George Keenan writes his team's progress was much hindered for about 1000 miles as the road was clogged by endless horse caravans quarter of mile to a mile long carrying hundreds of hide-bound boxes of tea.  The China tea had journeyed across the Gobi- he writes such tea caravans left Irkutsk daily for Nizhni Novgorod.

"Russian Caravan" is a historic blend that was delivered by and named after such tea caravans from China to czarist Russia. The often cited camel caravans must have been for the segment of the journey across Mongolia - that would be the double humped Bactrian camel if you need a visual aid.  I had my first cup of Russian Caravan from a blue Twinings bag in college.  Only recently at work, I've gotten into the habit of blending my own Russian Caravan in the mornings. Drinking straight up Lapsang Souchong daily has dulled my palate and one needs variety. 

Commercially available Russian Caravan is not as consistent as Earl Grey and blends vary wildly by vendor.  Most often I've seen Lapsang Souchong added to other hongcha- often Keemun or Yunnan Gold and even Assam.  Although the maltiness of Assam pairs well with LS, it's the least authentic of the recipes as the Caravan teas were historically Chinese in origin.  Sometimes even oolong is added.  I've also seen blends where even LS is left out.  

As you well know, it's never a good idea to drink any LS - blend or otherwise- from a teabag or from any commercially mass available source.  The tar smoke will kill you.  You'd have to make own your blend if you wanted quality Zhengshan Xiaozhong in your Russian Caravan. The joy of pinching together a blend right before brewing allows one to match the blend to the exact mood.  Cold dark mornings- you can go for more maltier blend with lower grade LS and dian hong.  In the afternoons, I tend to add more oolong for a lighter sweeter taste to finer grade AA+ LS with quality Darjeeling. On the spot blending is super fun.

On the Northern California coast, you can visit the remnants of a Russian Settlement at Fort Ross.  The Russians were here to hunt otter- one of the few goods the Chinese coveted.  In order for Russians to trade for Chinese teas, porcelain and silk, the Pacific Northwest otter population was wiped out and still today you won't see otters north of Monterrey Bay.  It's sad but if you've ever touched an otter pelt, you will know why.  Even-though the idea of an otter pelt is evil as otters are an endangered species and impossibly cuddly- after caressing the sample pelt at the museum, I instantly wanted such a luxurious scrap of fur for myself.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Tea Plans for a Seaside Journey

When one feels a bit run down in the winter, we Northern Californians often make a ready getaway to the raw beauty of the Pacific coast.  To chase away the January blues, my husband booked an airbnb beach house with a full kitchen so I enthusiastically stuffed a cooler full of sausages, duck eggs, salumi, pork loin, soft cheeses along with a hamper loaded with a full head of pineapple, ginger bread cookies, chocolate cookie, two kinds of dried figs, pistachios, various snackage kits, along with a half a dozen aged shengs and obligatory LS.  My head was massively plumped up with various eating and brewing plans.  What could be more romantic and relaxing than a pork laden picnic basket by the seaside?

My plans however received a cruel kick in the nuts from the gods of the sharing economy.  The rented house exuded a strong scent of mold, detergent, funk and  patchouli so unpleasant my husband and I had an immediate allergic reaction; it was clear neither of us could be inside the house without feeling ill.  Due to the cancellation policy, the owner was willing only to release $155 out of the $350 total bill.   Friends- I have to tell you that it was having to deal with various puerh vendors and tea mishaps and that gave me the mental reserve to push through and receive a full refund plus an airbnb voucher.  Actually in the back of my mind, I was secretly planning to funnel that money into my teaware fund if I was able to reclaim it since my husband had already given up on the $200. 

We hastily transferred to the only inn in town.  Although my husband procured the largest suite in the establishment, Captain Davenport's Retreat had three love seats but only one coffee maker and nary an icebox to keep my sausages chilled.  I was so stressed over the earlier incident I unpacked my magic eraser and spent a good twelve minutes scrubbing coffee smudges off the filter basket.  It's totally worth it to remove the coffee taste and odors- I was able to make many reasonable herbal dandelion brews without any coffee flavor.  Serious tea was not meant to be on the coffee maker only due to inadequate water temperature.  Next time, I won't be so woefully unprepared and will travel with my portable stove and teapot.

During breakfast next morning, I grudgingly ordered the standard English Breakfast which turned out to be a bag of Bigelow- at least the management truthfully labeled them as "Cut Leaf Teas" on the menu so I didn't have to get my hopes up.  After a few sips I was firmly in regret city- the tea tasted terrible. I noted the exact same unpleasant dried anchovy profile I suffered from using hard water last month in Virginia.  Can't do much about bad municipal water at the restaurant and vowed never to buy tea around these parts ever again.   So on the second morning even after my serious tirade about water hardness and poor tea quality the day before,  my husband confidently orders black tea while I give him all sorts of hairy eyeballs without effect.  After the waitress leaves, he says with no amount of sass, "I'm not a proprietor of a tea blog and this Earl Grey suits me just  fine".

Despite the tea plans left in a ditch, the seaside town of Davenport had much to offer. Although I didn't quite meet any hobbits in the woods,  those cypress groves gave you a most delicious Middle Earth feeling that I had to photoshop Bilbo in.