July 20, 2017

Favorite Tea Ware - Anna Mariani of The Tea Squirrel

As a tea drinker, and I am sure this is true for you, I adore teaware, from the chasen to the yixing teapot. Everyone has their favorites! I designed this series as an opportunity for tea drinkers to showcase the very special tea objects in their personal collections. Today's selections are brought to you by Anna Mariani of The Tea Squirrel. Anna takes a minimalist approach to her teaware collection. To accommodate her lifestyle, her collection is composed of a "few essential and versatile items that don't go out of fashion."


The very first time I used a gaiwan was at the Chinese garden in Portland, OR, one the most authentic Chinese gardens outside of China. At the beautiful teahouse overlooking the serene pond, sitting by the open patio doors, I tried my hand at gong fu cha. It was a beautifully sunny summer day and I couldn’t take my eyes off the reflection of the pavilions and bridges, trees and the sky in the pond. It was like being in a painting. It felt really special, we had tea and mooncakes. I guess that was my rite of passage as far as my tea journey is concerned.

I bought my gaiwan in San Francisco at Red Blossom Tea Co in Chinatown. It’s called the spring gaiwan, it’s made of very thin white porcelain, so thin that it is almost transparent when held against the light. I was shown it in comparison to a cheap gaiwan and the difference was incredible. My gaiwan is definitely the most used item in my collection. I love how interactive a gaiwan is and how much control it gives you over the resulting brew.

“The Italian Teacup” aka The Beginning of My Tea Journey

This teacup is not part of my tea collection, but it’s an essential part of my tea journey. It’s one of a six-piece tea set which belonged to my grandmother. I fell in love with tea as a child. I would spend my afternoons at my grandmother's house and tea time was a daily ritual. It was not officially called "tea time" (it was called "merenda", the Italian word for "afternoon snack" or “afternoon break”) but it was definitely a ritual which I remember looking forward to every day. She would serve black tea (I think it was an English Breakfast blend or Earl Grey) in these fine porcelain cups. There was always something sweet to eat. Sometimes it was a cake she had lovingly baked, sometimes a croissant from the nearby bakery. The very same cup served as a measuring cup for baking her signature cake, “the teacup cake” (“la torta della tazzina” in Italian), the most delicious sponge cake flavored with freshly grated lemon zest.

Tea Pet

My lucky charm and low-maintenance tea companion is a squirrel tea pet, as you might have guessed from my blog name. How did a squirrel become my spirit animal? That’s a great question! Years ago, when I was living and studying in Vienna, Austria, my German language skills definitely needed improvement. One day, I was talking to my boyfriend (now husband) and was telling him how surprised I was because I had seen a squirrel right in my backyard. Vienna is full of beautiful parks and it’s not rare to catch a glimpse of wildlife. But European squirrels are very different from their American cousins. They are shy and won’t approach humans hoping to get food. I was really surprised to see one. Unfortunately, my sentence didn’t come out right. I had confused two words in German, the word for squirrel and the word for unicorn. I basically told him I had seen a little unicorn in my backyard. That’s how the squirrel found me ;-) I suppose I could have been “the tea unicorn” too...but I like my tea squirrel better!

Glass Serving Pitcher

I think serving pitchers are the most underrated tea ware items. When brewing tea the gong fu way, they are essential. If you pour from the gaiwan directly into the tasting cups, someone is going to get a lighter brew, someone is going to get the last pour, which means a stronger brew. I believe in equal opportunities for all ;-) There’s a reason why the Chinese call it the “Fairness Cup”! I love this glass serving pitcher I bought at Asha Tea House in San Francisco. It’s the perfect size and I can see the colors of my tea. I can even use it as a brewing vessel if necessary, like when I used it to brew Tai Ping Hou Kui, those leaves are so long they would never fit in a gaiwan!

A white gaiwan is one of my essential favorites, too! Anna's squirrel is a unique tea pet in terms of the material (wood, not clay) and the animal (it's a squirrel, not a pig or other zodiac animal). I wonder what animal will find me for tea? Thank you for sharing your minimal approach to tea ware, Anna.

July 14, 2017

TeaVivre Organic Hangzhou Tian Mu Qing Ding

One of the first tasks of tasting Chinese teas, for me, is to decode the information contained in a tea's name. In this case, Tianmu is a mountain located in Hangzhou City. The city is part of Zhejiang, a province south of the Yang Jiang River, known for the production of Long Jing, Anji Bai Cha, and Huiming on its montane plantations, according to Gascoyne et al. (2014). Tian Mu Qing Ding is also known as Tian Mu Yun Wu. Qing ding translates to love and I must say I rather enjoyed this green tea. TeaVivre provided a sample of the organic version of this tea for my review.

I infused 3.12 grams in 6 ounces of 185F water for 3 mins with an additional minute for subsequent steeps up to 5 minutes. The dry leaves are very hairy (they are leaves not buds; the buds are revealed as the leaves unfurl). The first infusion was a remarkable clear, shiny, pale yellow green liquor. The tea smelled and tasted sweet. There was a crisp vegetal note, too, as well as a sweet nuttiness. The liquor was smooth, almost velvety, and immediately cooling. July 7th was a very humid day.

On the second infusion the leaves had opened fully so the pluck style was visible. This reported picking style for this tea is one bud with one leaf or one bud with two leaves. I also observed single leaves and one bud with three leaves. All the leaves were small. The liquor was a light golden yellow with a subdued sweetness. A dry, grassy character had emerged and the nutty note had strengthened. The vegetal flavor had not disappeared but it was more starchy than sweet. I detected toasted sesame seeds especially on the tail note.

The third and final infusion was the most savory. The nutty flavor had evolved into toasted sunflowers seeds. There was the last vestige of sweetness on the tail note. TeaVivre has consistently good teas, and this Tian Mu Qing Ding is no exception. I would drink it hot or cold. In fact, I am cold steeping a few grams as I type this review.

The Organic Hangzhou Tian Mu Qing Ding reviewed in this post was provided by TeaVivre.

July 07, 2017

In Pursuit of Tea Tasting Session

On May 6, 1967, Canadian long-distance runner Maureen Wilton ran the Toronto Marathon in 3:15:23. This was the approximate length of the tea session hosted by Sebastian Beckwith of In Pursuit of Tea. I was joined by Jee of Oh, How Civilized, organizer extraordinaire, and Sara of Tea Happiness. There was minimal pain and lots of glorious feeling. We all got tea drunk though we experienced it at different times and to varying degrees. Sebastian was generous with his teas and his knowledge. We also learned by osmosis, absorbing technique by watching him prepare the teas. We drank a tea from each of the major tea types - white, green, yellow, oolong, black, puer (sheng) (we did not drink any hei chas) roaming around the world's tea producing regions.

I arrived to the In Pursuit studio hot and sweaty after a 13-block walk on a typical NYC summer day. Sebastian offered iced tea - a sencha on nitro and a black tea. I chose the sencha then and would chose the black tea later when iced tea was offered again. The iced green tea was creamy and floral, and unbelievably refreshing. After the first round of iced teas, Sebastian infused consecutively two Darjeelings. The first was a 1st Flush Oaks Estate that had ginger and green pepper notes and the second was another 1st Flush but from Muscatel Valley. Apt to its name, this tea had muscatel notes. It had a drying effect and was less peppery than the Oaks Darjeeling.

The service of the fifth tea felt like it took a page out of a James Bond movie. The Watanake, the highest grade of ingredient matcha, was prepared in a cocktail shaker and served over a single, large ice. Magic. We switched back to black tea with a Nepali tea. I don't have the correct spelling of the area and the tea is not listed on the In Pursuit website. This tea was multifaceted: smooth, creamy, chocolate nose, molten lava cake smell (Sara said: the crispy top of a brownie), sweet taste, and fruity like a jam. The empty cup smelled of warm sugar.

This black tea was followed by a tea almost at the opposite end of the tea spectrum, a yellow tea, specifically an Anhui yellow. It was savory and lingered on my palate. At this point, we were offered iced teas again and I chose the black. It was tasted like a tart, dry stout. Next up was a Taiwanese oolong, a 2015 tieguanyin from Alishan that was charcoal roasted in the last six months. It approximates a Muzha style tieguanyin but it's not from that region. I told Sebastian that when I first started drinking oolongs, I drank a lot of dark tieguanyins but that this style is hard to find now. He said that the contemporary palate is for a green, floral tieguanyin. We stayed on the darker side with the next four teas. The Aged White Peony was fruit forward with apricot and grape skin flavors. The second infusion of this tea was even hairier than the first. Yes, hairier, like the skin hairs on fruit.

The Daxue Snow Mountain 2009 puer started off light, astringent, and dirty but evolved to be thicker,  creamier, and fruitier. It was at this point that the tea drunkenness set in. Following on the puer was another white, an Aged Menghai White pressed in the shape of Hello Kitty! The first infusion was full bodied while the second lightened up.

The final tea was a Da Hong Pao (not pictured), a class Wuyi tea. Unbeknownst to us, Sebastian had saved the first rinse. He served it at the end. I felt like a pillow had landed on my tongue or maybe my tongue had landed on a pillow or maybe my tongue was the pillow. It doesn't matter. It was a perfect end to an epic tea session.

June 30, 2017

Teas Unique Korean Hwang Cha

Do you remember the tea conversation I referred to in yesterday's review of Korean teas from Teas Unique? Well, not only did it catalyze yesterday's review but it also made me realize that I know very little about Korean tea cultivation and production. Curiously, the Korean teas I just reviewed taste like Chinese style teas. The Mt. Jiri Sejak green tea is similar to a Dong Shan and the Boseong Sejak Hwang Cha is similar to a dianhong. I wanted to explore further the qualities of the hwang cha so infused it gong fu style except I used a professional tea cupping set instead of a gaiwan.

Infusion Parameters
Four consecutive cups of tea were prepared using 3.5 grams of dry leaf in a 4 ounce professional cupping set. I used 195-200F water for 30s, 60s, 90s, and 3m infusions.

Infusion 1
The flavors were cocoa, yam/sweet potato, and maple with a medium-bodied liquor.

Infusion 2
The flavors from the first infusion carried over with the addition of woody and fruity notes.

Infusion 3
The liquor had lightened in terms of color, flavor, and body.

Infusion 4
The initial maple sweetness gave way to a milder honey sweetness. The cocoa flavor was still present.

Infusion 1 + Infusion 2
After tasting each of the four infusions, I combined my two favorite cups, the 30s and 60s second liquors, which yielded a delicious tea with all the flavors, a lingering woody taste, and a cooling tail note.

Before heading to the garden, I combined the liquor remaining from all the infusions. This combination made me realize that the Teas Unique Korean Sejak Hwang Cha would be best prepared western style steeping approximately 1 tablespoon of dry leaf in 6-8 ounces of water for 3-5 minutes.

In addition to the Korean teas offered by Teas Unique Korean, I have reviewed Le Palais des Th├ęs Grand Cru Jukro and Arbor Teas Woojeon.

June 29, 2017

Teas Unique Korean Teas and Chocolate

A recent discussion over tea about Korean tea inspired me to post my review of three Korean teas by Teas Unique. I drank the whole leaf green and black teas soon after receiving them from Teas Unique. However, my review is based on tasting notes from a later cupping of these teas. Teas Unique was founded by Page and Jeanne Kaufman in 2010 and is based in the state of Georgia.  USDA certified organic teas from Korea are imported by the Kaufmans and packaged in the U.S.  Briefly, my cupping parameters for the whole leaf teas were 2.2 grams each infused in 180F (green) and 195F (black) water for 3 minutes then 3 minutes 30 seconds. Note that the company recommends steeping 1 teaspoon (which is under 2 grams) in 6 ounces of water for 2 minutes.

Korean Mt. Jiri Sejak (Second Pluck) 2016 Organic Single Estate Green Tea

The Teas Unique website as well as the tea pouch provides much information about each tea. This green tea was plucked around April 18, 2016 corresponding to the time before the first spring rain from a single estate on Mt. Jiri, Samsin Village, Hwagae District, Hadong County, Gyeongnam Province, Korea. The grade is second pluck meaning young leaves. I found two leaves and a bud plucks among my infused leaves. The leaves were pan heated by hand.

The dry leaves smelled like grass and hay. The leaves were slightly curled and of consistent length of approximately half an inch. The infused leaves smelled very savory. The yellow green liquor was thick and savory with a sweet tail note. The tea had a long finish that coated my tongue and palate. The second infusion lost much of its savoriness to a sweet vegetal flavor and a minimally fruity tail note. The infused leaves were beautiful.

Korean Boseong Sejak Hwang Cha (Lightly Oxidized) 2016 Organic Single Estate Whole Leaf Tea

Another second pluck tea only two days later than the green tea but this time black tea was harvested in Unrim Village, Gyeombaek District, Boseong County, Jeonnam Province, Korea. The leaves were lightly oxidized and roasted.

The long slightly twisted leaves of this hwang cha smelled of cocoa and fruit. The infused leaves also smelled of cocoa but instead of fruit, I detected a heavy sweetness. The smell of the dry and infused leaves promised a much fuller liquor than was experienced. The tea tasted of cocoa but it was light bodied. The liquor was smooth with no briskness or astringency though there was a slight drying effect. The second infusion seemed to be just a smidgen fuller bodied with fading cocoa and sweet notes. The infused leaves were broken in appearance.

Korean Jeju Island Second Flush 2016 Organic Single Estate Green Tea Powder (Matcha)

A July 25, 2016 harvest of young leaves from Mt. Halla, in Seonheul Village, Jeju Island, Koreawas steamed, roasted, and milled with a ceramic ball.

The color of this powdered green tea was not the typical vibrant emerald green of (Japanese) matcha. Some of the other powdered green teas sold by Teas Unique are closer in terms of color to a good quality Japanese matcha. I deviated from the instructions and used less than 6 ounces of water to whisk 1 teaspoon of the powder. Of the three teas, this one was the least successful in terms of taste, though it produced a fine froth.

Matchacolate Roasted Green Tea Matcha White Chocolate Bar

As with the whole leaf teas, I sampled the chocolate bar soon after receiving it and again recently. I preferred my initial tasting of the bar. Most recently, it has retained its enjoyable hojicha flavor, but a slightly chalky texture has replaced the earlier creaminess and sweetness from the white chocolate base.

Of this batch of tea products I've presented here, I would recommend the green and black loose leaf teas. The Mt. Jiri Sejak green tea is reminiscent of a savory, vegetal Chinese green tea. The Boseong Hwang Cha is lighter, simpler version of a Chinese dianhong. I think there is potential to make a richer cup of the hwang cha using different steeping parameters!

Teas and chocolate provided by Teas Unique.
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