December 02, 2016

Tea Party: A Color, Punch Out, and Play Set

Have you noticed that the coloring book genre has expanded to include coloring books for grownups?  I got into the activity with gifts from my sister-in-law and books courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing. Even youth coloring books have changed; simple line drawings are being replaced by more complex scenes. As a parent to young children who enjoy arts and crafts, I don't mind that children's coloring books are more intricate. If we are coloring together the activity is more engaging for me. Now enter artist, writer, and teacher Margaret Peot with her Tea Party: A Color, Punch Out, and Play Set published by Pomegranate Kids. This kit incorporates coloring and dramatic play with a tea theme. How perfect is this activity for me and my family? This is a rhetorical question.

Pomegranate Kids provided me with a boxed set. My son was excited to create a stage with me to display during Thanksgiving. He chose the English Manor House Tea and the Castle tea pot, cup, and serving plate.  Peot's Tea Party play set is a great collaborative activity. We had to make several decisions before we could color. Which stage should we chose? Which serving ware? What colors, and should we use markers or colored pencils? We selected markers. It's my experience that it's easier for children to color with fat markers. Who would color which parts of the stage and serving ware? At no point did these choices become stressful. The design of the box and informational brochure within set the stage for a happy experience. Our musical selections also helped. Thanks, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash.

After completing the stage and selected tea ware - we did not color all the white space - we displayed the items on the dining table. We did not set the stage with any of the paper teatime treats. We had several real desserts on the table: chocolate peanut butter tart, apple crisp, and a raspberry pistachio tart. The paired tea was Lupicia's black tea blend, La Belle Epoque.

There are two stages and seven cardstock pages of teaware and treats remaining in the boxed set. Another clever feature of this set is that you can mix and match stages and teaware. I foresee many more tea parties this winter. If you have a young child in your life and are looking for a collaborative, creative activity, I recommend Margaret Peot's Tea Party play set.

Tea Party: A Color, Punch Out, and Play Set provided by Pomegranate Kids.

November 24, 2016

Puerhshop - 2007 Menghai Yunhai Puerh

2007 Menghai Yunhai Puerh, screenshot from Puerhshop
Don't judge a book by its cover. This is a familiar idiom often applied figuratively in social situations and literally when deciding which book to buy when all you have to consider is the book jacket. This idiom is also true for tea. I was the recipient of several puerhs from Liquid Proust aka Andrew Richardson. One of the puerhs was a ball of 2007 Menghai Yunhai. The ball was wrapped loosely in paper. It was not dried out, there was give when I applied pressure to the ball. The smell of the ball was not promising. It had musty and dusty odors. The age was the most exciting thing about this ball. It's the oldest puerh I've ever had in my tea stash. I drank this tea with one of my ITEI tea school instructors, Christine TN Wong. My apologies for not having more photographs. Going into the tasting session I did not intend to publish my notes here and also it is difficult to photograph an instructional tasting session as it is occurring.

Dry Leaf Assessment
My ball weighed 6.62 grams. The Puerhshop website lists the weight as 5 grams. The leaf aroma was dusty, musty, with slight mushroom scent. The ball was not brittle. The leaf color was dark though note the reddish streaks in the top photo. After a rinse, I infused the ball in a 120-125mL gaiwan in filtered tap water at 212F at 45s, 60s, and 75s.

Infused Tea Leaves
The ball unfurled to reveal leaves of at least 1 inch in length. The leaves were consistently inky and dark. The leaves smelled of root vegetables and tubers such as beets and yams as well as peat and smoke.

Sensory Evaluation
The first infusion yielded a dark orange red liquor. The tea had depth, it stuck to the cheeks and roof of my mouth. Like a good wine, the liquor had thick "legs" in the gaiwan. The taste was full of lots of earth and soil. Also it was sweet, the sweetness of roasted tubers and root vegetables, and carob chips. As the tea cooled, the flavor was detectable in my throat. A bit chalky note emerged, too.

The second infusion produced a coffee black liquor. It was much thicker liquor than from the first infusion. The flavor profile shifted producing tart, dark fruit. The chalkiness remained, like a baking chocolate. The liquor was round and balanced, overall delicious. There were no sharp edges. The tea became creamy as it cooled and revealed a slight nuttiness. The roasted root flavors were not as pronounced. The earth and soil flavors dominated the end note.

I did not drink the third infusion immediately. I was talking with Christine and the liquor cooled off. The bright, robust flavors in the second infusion were not as evident. Having said that, the flavors lingered on the roof and in the back of my mouth, not my cheeks. It coated the back of my mouth and top of my throat. Christine described this coating effect as a push or force and it reflects the intensity of the aftertaste. One really exciting feature of this infusion is that I identified a smell I first detected in the second infusion. The infused leaves smell like the preparation of banana porridge. This is a childhood smell, and I love (and miss) it!

Shou puerh is still not my first choice of tea but with each good experience, my appreciation grows.

November 22, 2016

Sneak Peek: UNYtea Chou Shi

My first order with UNYtea contains my first fixing teapot, simple and small, and two dancong oolongs. I ordered the Mi Lan Xiang and Jeffrey kindly added a sample of another dancong, the Chou Shi. Dancong are strip style oolongs sourced from Guangdong Province. I don't know if either of the dancongs I now have are true phoenix teas. The Chou Shi is not yet available in the store and is a new to me tea. Chou Shi has brilliant emerald and deep forest green leaves.

Jeffrey said to prepare the Chou Shi like any other dancong oolong with suggested steeping times of 15s, 30s, 45s, 60s for the 4 gram sample. Honestly, I don't have much experience with dancong oolongs so I was glad for the suggested steep times. During the session, I adjusted infusion time and temperature down to reduce bitterness. The first, second, sixth, and seventh infusions were the most enjoyable. I tasted the floral and vegetal notes associated with a tieguanyin and Taiwanese gao shan oolongs. Thirty second infusions at a lower temperature which was the case for the sixth steep yielded a smooth, floral, sweet, vegetal liquor. At this point in the session, Jeffrey's description was spot on: "a cross between a TGY and a light Baozhong."

I steeped the leaves nine times but the eighth infusion was the last one with noticeable flavors and aromas. The tea had a drying effect on the front and back end with a bitter melon flavor. I have not eaten this fruit but I imagine the liquor from the eighth steep is what bitter melon tastes like. Also, the tea left my lips feeling silky which is a nice benefit on a blustery day like today.

For the dancong aficionados out there, have you drunk Chou Shi?

P.S. My infusion time and temperature were: 15s/195F x2, 30s/195F, 30s/185F, 45s/185F, 30s/185F x3, 30s/195F.

November 04, 2016

World Atlas of Tea, a Book Review

An alternate title for this blog post might be "Not Your Typical Book Review". A book review is typically written in essay form and adheres to the following pattern: summarizes the content, analyzes the content, and recommends (or not) the content. I could do this quickly and note that in four parts, Kris Smith provides an overview of Camellia sinensis, its cultivation, harvesting and processing, and history; a guide to steeping tea; a primer on tea blending and mixology; and a tour of tea producing countries, the regions therein, and the tea types common to each region. The content in World Atlas of Tea is what you will find in many other tea books with the possible exception of the tea blending and mixology chapter but what makes Krisi Smith's different is the topic of this blog post which was inspired by the post Elements of an A+ Picture Book written by Bethan Woollvin for This Picture Book Life.

Around the world of tea

Immediately I know that this book will discuss teas grown around the world, and indeed it seems to do so. Tea culture originated in China, and for this reason, China is often the tea producing country first discussed in most books. In World Atlas of Tea, the chapter on tea producing countries begins with Africa followed in order by the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East, the Far East, and South America. The book's subtitle explicitly lets the reader know the content of the book -- "from leaf to cup". Krisi Smith describes the plant, its varieties, its harvesting and processing methods, and preparation styles. Finally, the photo is evocative of many aspects of tea agriculture. There is a certain fetishizing of hand plucked tea grown on small single farms so I appreciate the cover photograph of a machine harvested garden. The garden does not appear to be a particularly high altitude but there are hills planted with tea as well as mountains in the distance which might also be planted with tea. The fog or rolling mist is also an evocative elements of the photograph. We get a certain sense for the importance of terroir in tea cultivation. Finally, because the cover image is of a landscape and not one depicting high grade loose leaf teas or specialty tea ware, the book appeals to a wider audience.

Related to the atlas concept, the book includes a diagram of historic tea trade over land and by ocean. The trade with the Americas is missing but this visual helps to understand the immensity of the impact of tea.

Visual display of information

As much as I enjoy the printed word, I am a visual learner. Illustrations, diagrams, and maps help me to fix lots of detailed and complex processes. (Have you read Edward Tufte's Envisioning Information or The Visual Display of Quantitative Information?) One of my favorite illustrations is the explanation of tea processing. Another is the regional map; the Africa map is shown in the second image in this post.

Deepening engagement with tea culture

Another type of visualization used in this book is photography. Many tea books have excellent photographs. The reason I call out the photographs in this book is the subject matter of the pictures. I don't think I'd ever seen underneath a Japanese green tea shade structure or Masai women serving tea outdoors. For those of us will not have first hand experience of a gyokuro harvest or of preparing milky tea in Kenya, these photographs provide more depth to our engagement with tea.

Beyond rural places and boutique spaces

Do you spend lots of time gazing at photographs that depict modern, minimalist, nonindustrial tea spaces? I do, and I enjoy these photos. What about jaw-dropping mountainous or sloping landscapes with scant evidence of human activity besides the presence of tea plants? I like these types of photographs, too, but variety is healthful. We rarely see photos of industrialized tea production on social media but it's part of the history of our favorite beverage. The caption for the black and white image above is: "The busy packaging hall of an English tea-trading company in 1932. As we can see here, this was work carried out mainly women." I suppose industrial packaging is now done by machine.

One of my favorite photographs in World Atlas of Tea shows a rail line running in the midst of a tea garden with urban residential housing in the near background. Did you know that tea is grown in urban areas in Japan?

World Atlas of Tea could be improved with photographs of tea leaves and liquor. A map of Taiwan and its tea producing regions is noticeably absent. The teas listed in the section of tea types grown in China does not include all the types and understandably does not include all the varieties in each type. Finally, and this particular point might only be applicable if one intends to use this book as a reference, the index could have been better prepared.

Do I recommend World Atlas of Tea by Krisi Smith? Yes. I think it would make a good addition to your tea library.

Review copy and images courtesy of Firefly Books.

November 02, 2016

Cupping Smith Teamaker's 1st Flush Darjeeling Tumsong

Technically one uses a cupping set for a comparative tasting but I the Tumsong was the only first flush Darjeeling I have in my tea stash. I do have a second flush Darjeeling, also from Smith Teamaker, the No. 17 Steinthal. The protocol I used is the one outlined in Tea: History, Terroirs, and Varieties, the textbook for my tea studies with ITEI, which I describe below.

1. Weigh the tea and add it to the infusion cup. I measured 3 grams of loose tea.
2. Pour hot water on the leaves and cover the cup. I used 200F water since the Darjeeling is a first flush and this greener.
3. Infuse the leaves for three minutes. I steeped the leaves three times: 3 minutes, 3 minutes 30 seconds, and 4 minutes.
4. Tip the covered cup into the tasting bowl. Drain completely, then flip over the cup to dislodge the leaves onto the lid.
5. Smell the infused leaves, then place the lid upside down on the infusion cup to display them.
6. Smell the liquor.
7. Sip the liquor. You can use a spoon or drink directly from the tasting bowl. I've used a spoon in the past but this time I sipped directly from the bowl. It's definitely encouraged to slurp the tea!
8. Make your notes on smell, taste, color, texture, etc. Also, enjoy the tea!

The infused leaves smelled like green stems with floral and stone fruit notes. The liquor from the first infusion was a deep honey color, amber with a sweet smell which carried through to the taste. Accompanying the sweetness was a pleasant green astringency, a thigh mouthfeel, and a lingering stone fruit taste. With a second infusion, the color of the liquor deepened but it was less sweet and fruity. The green astringency was still there though it had spun off into a dryness on the tongue and fruity film on my top row of teeth. The end note like gnawing on the pit of a stone fruit. The third and final infusion was lighter in color and thinner in flavor and texture. The green astringency was mostly gone but happily the dry fruitiness remained. I cupped this tea twice and am sharing notes from my second session. Out of a 2 ounce bag I have used approximately 6 grams so fortunately for me I have another 50 grams of this Darjeeling or at least 16 more cuppings. The fact that I performed this calculation should tell you that I am looking forward to drinking more of it.
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