New year in Portland

A belated Chinese new year to everyone, and sincere wishes that the year of the dragon be a year of good tea for all of you!

I spent my new year in Portland, OR, which is more or less a caricature of what one might think of as a hippie northwest city. It’s a wonderful place, if you don’t mind the six months of rain in the winter, and the scenery is truly beautiful, as is true of pretty much the entire northwest coast.

It also is the home to some famous, mainstream tea companies, most notably Tazo, Stash, and the Tao of Tea.  The city’s offering in better, higher end teas, however, is a bit disappointing, at least from what I have found previously and given the context. I’ve visited a few teahouses in the city, all pretty mediocre, and nothing too interesting beyond what you might find in any run of the mill teahouse in the US. Given the concentration of tea companies in Portland, you’d think there will be more, better tea in this city, of all places.

Running a tea blog, however, has its perks, and one of them is that you get in touch with all sorts of people who lurk and who will let you know they’re in a certain place once you’ve gotten to know them. So while I was in Portland I met up with Abx, whose blog is defunct but who is still drinking tea, at a place called Serenity Arts. The shop is not much – it is located in the same building as an Asian market, and the decor is what you’d expect in a place like that. However, it has that all-important ingredient to the making of a good teahouse – an owner who cares about what she’s drinking.

I met up with Abx at the store, where he clearly knows the owner fairly well.  They were already drinking, but since I hadn’t eaten yet, we had a quick meal at the pretty decent Korean restaurant next door (Portland is full of good Korean places) before going back for some tea. The store can’t really be said to specialize in any particular type of tea, and given its location and clientele, it’s probably difficult to do so, but the owner does seem to take some care in sourcing her stuff, and some of the teas that they sell are things that are harder to find in the US normally – loose, aged puerh (raw and cooked), some pretty decent dancong, etc. Despite its location, or perhaps because of it, it offers up goods that you might not be able to find in one of the more famous places in the city, at prices more reasonable than others.

We must’ve had at least half a dozen tea, while chatting with the owner who was brewing the whole time and some of the other clients who dropped in and out. It is clear, having sat there for a few hours, that the store has good tea from time to time. However, they are not offered generally, but rather sold to familiar clients who are willing (and able) to pay the higher prices that such teas demand. What I liked about it though is that she generally refrained from any overt sales pitch, or overly flowery language in describing a tea. I appreciate the no-nonsense approach to drinking tea, and if I were living in Portland, I can see myself going to this store often.

As I was starting to think about leaving, the owner picked up a ziploc bag with some dark leaves in it, and said she’d brew this one – a 1960s liu’an, she claims, that was given to her by some relative or other. I was initially skeptical, since these claims of old tea are often questionable, but once she brewed it, it was pretty clear that this is a spectacular tea – fragrant, lively, still retaining the freshness of the liu’an base of green tea, while having added on a heavy dose of the aged tea taste that is typical of this genre. Oftentimes liu’an can be quite plain and boring, but this one is anything but. We probably drank 15 rounds of it, and the tea was not at all giving up yet. I had to go, but didn’t really want to.

 

PhotobucketLiu’an in action

So if you ever go to Portland and want to fish for some tea, stop by here. Abx also told me that there’s a new place that opened recently, but I thought Serenity Arts might have more interesting things. I think I was probably right.

An opening party

Today I went with Aaron Fisher to Jingmei Tang, Wushing Publications’ teahouse, so to speak. They’re not normally open, but only for events. There’s an event today — the opening of a 1920s (or is it 1930s?) jian of liu’an that they found in some Chinese medicine shop.

So we went there at 2pm sharp. Everybody was already there, and the prize was there too, sitting in the middle of the room. Now, liu’an is a tea that is generally packaged in baskets. When they first come out, they’re basically green tea steamed into the basket — sort of like liubao, although liubao usually comes from Guangxi, and liu’an comes from the Huizhou area, near Huangshan, the same places that give us Qimen, but NOT the same place that gives us liu’an guapian, the loose green tea (that’s farther to the west and has nothing to do with Huizhou). The most famous brands of these is the Sunyishun, and this is what we’re opening today.

Before we went on with the opening (and drinking) though, we first drank the 1930s liu’an that they opened a month or two back and featured in the current Chinese issue of Puerh Teapot.

The bamboo leaf is part of the wrapping of the original basket, and in some cases you brew the bamboo leaf along with the tea (depending on preference, really). The bamboo leaf itself is so old and mixed with the tea for so long that it has taken on medicinal quality. So has the tea. Sitting across me was a gentleman whose family originally was in the medicine business. He said back in the day, teas like this were used as medicine for certain ailments. I can believe him.

So Aaron did the honours in our corner of the room and brewed. The liquor is very much looking like a liu’an

It tastes like a good liu’an, mellow, medicinal, good and obvious qi, but in a pleasant way, and generally a pleasure to drink.

But you don’t want me to babble on about this, so on to the video. This is Lu Lizhen, another one of the Taiwan tea experts, who was doing the honours. Zhou Yu did some introductions and background info for the tea in question.

And in case you want to see pictures of the jian of tea in detail

There are ten stacks of tea in this bundled together, each stack consisting of six baskets. The small writing on the canes that hold the baskets together says “Xin’an Sunyishun zihao jianxuan yuqian shangshang yinzhen”, which means, “Top grade (literally top top) silver needles selected by Sunyishun company of Xin’an”, with Xin’an the older name for the Huizhou area.

So of course we drank this too… stronger, more lively, and more aggressive. The tea’s been kept in excellent condition, and the finish of the tea even has a hint of that greenness that you find in younger teas. I even came home with a sample of it…. which is worth quite a bit, considering the whole ball of tea, 60 baskets in all, is said to be something like $400,000 USD.

Aaron and I stayed behind to drink some more tea with the owner of Wushing Publications, a good tieluohan and an extremely good shuijingui, both of them Wuyi varietals. It was a pretty good outing.

A busy tea day

Today was a busy day (yesterday internet died again). I first went out to get some tea for Action Jackson, who has a tea mule waiting for me to bring back stuff from Taiwan. I was on my way to get her some aged baozhongs, when, along the street, I saw a sign saying “Antique and Famous Masters Teapots, 6th Floor!” with some truly dubious looking pots in poorly taken photos next to the sign. Hmmm

What the heck, I had time, I thought, so I went upstairs to the 6th floor. It looked a little creepy. I thought about leaving. Then I saw the teapot sign…. the door was open, so I figured it’s not a bad idea to peek. Taiwan has a lot of scams going on, so I was a little worried about getting sucked into one. Inside that little office were a few shelves full of pots, and an older guy just walking around. I entered, and he greeted me and started talking pots.

This place was pretty interesting. There were, by my estimate, about 200 pots of various shapes and sizes on the shelves in that place. Every one of them had a little sign in front of it, listing the approximate age, the seal (or signature) and whatever else info there is. Most looked like credible zhuni pots. Many looked old, some very much so. They’re clean, well kept, and obviously in good hands. The only question is…. are they real?

The man claims he’s been collecting pots for about 20+ years. Makes sense. The 80s was when Taiwanese went nuts collecting yixing pots. What happened to puerh in the past few years happened to yixing pots in the 80s. Then, of course, the market went bust and prices of many of the older pots dropped dramatically. Tea probably won’t suffer as bad a fate, since it’s perishable and will continue to be consumed, whereas pots aren’t. Nevertheless… it is entirely possible that somebody’s sitting on a big stash of older pots.

The craft of many of these pots obviously look good. Some are very good, and have intricate details and fantastic calligraphy. Some have very rough finishes, especially on the inside, which I learned from another source is quite typical of older pots — it was not usual for them to make picture perfect finishes inside back in the day; it just wasn’t done. So you had a lot of what one might consider a rough finish now on the inside (outside all look good). I didn’t bother inquiring about prices, but some had prices on those labels and they ranged from what seems like a hundred or two all the way up to a few thousand. Age of pots range from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) to 1970s.

I didn’t have much time there, only spent about an hour chatting with the owner, and looking through an incredible array of pots. The guy obviously wants to talk, and isn’t particularly pushy or anything. He clearly loves his stuff… and kept showing me pot after pot. Unfortunately I ran out of time and had to go (I still had to buy the tea and then rendevous with the tea mule). I will most likely go back to this place though.

The buying of the tea was itself fairly uneventful. I did drink some 20 years old cooked puerh mixed with osmanthus. That was interesting.

After dropping off the goods with the tea mule, I had to meet with two people — and we chose Wisteria as our meeting place. I haven’t gone there since I arrived in Taiwan, and figured it’s time to go. Their original location is under renovation. This is a branch of sorts.

Wisteria is mostly a place for you to drink tea (unless you want to buy stuff there). The way it works is this: you go in, you sit down, and you look at the tea menu (there are a few snacks, but no real food). Everybody has to order something… or at least, everybody has to order one serving of tea or its equivilent. So, for the three of us, we had to get three servings of something. I leafed through the menu. For a Taiwan oolong, say, one serving would cost 350NT. So for three of us getting something of that calibre… that’s 1050 NT or thereabouts.

Then I flipped to the back where the good stuff (Tongqing, Red Label, etc) are… for three-four people, a serving of a 30s Sun Yi Shun is…. 1980 NT.

Is this a no-brainer or what?

I suggested we go with the SYS. The other rationale is that it was near dinner time… and drinking something as green as a gaoshan oolong right before dinner is potentially suicidal.

The tea is as I remember a SYS to be…. nice, medicinal, mellow, had a soft kind of qi, easy on the body…. very durable. Nice tea, even if not mind blowing. People in Hong Kong told me to try to find them in Taiwan, as they think it might still be reasonably priced there for what they are. Either way though…. good tea needs good company. It always makes a tea more enjoyable :)

A rather eventful day, tea or otherwise

I started my day early with a breakfast at Lin Heung Lau in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong. One of the old style Hong Kong “Teahouses”, it’s a place where you go very early in the morning, sit there for a few hours while reading the paper, order a few dim sums and eating them at a leisurely pace (very very slow — you do not order a whole bunch and chow them down and head out. That’s not the point). You meet people you know and talk to them. You chat with the waiters. You enjoy the tea while you’re there.

This is our remnants (the steamers were taken away by the time I took the picture). Yes, the things on the dish are remains of what were chicken feet. The tea is wet stored puerh. The other people at the table we do not know, but some of the met up with each other, evidently friends of some sort, and were chatting, but they didn’t come together and it was obvious that they didn’t plan on meeting at the place. It’s really a neighbourhood place where people just go and meet others who they know anyway. We saw lots of “Gong Hey Fat Choy” greetings from various people to one another. It was very interesting to go today, and I think I will go again, although I might bring my own tea next time. By the way, the little card on the table says “Table reserved for staff meal — 10:45am”

(Not tea related, but interesting nonetheless) Then after lunch, in a mall, there were teams of lion-dancing people who came to the mall to perform. There’s a website that explains all this in more detail than I should post here, and you can look at it here. There are links at the bottom of the page (don’t ask me about the website’s design) that will lead to more information on this subject. You can, of course, also read the wikipedia article here.

I did take a video of the dancing being performed. Basically, stores put up a bundle of vegetables and a red envelope (with money inside) and hang it somewhere from their door. The lion will stop at every door where such a bundle is hanged, and will do more or less the following in the video that I took:

This wasn’t a particularly energetic version of a lion dance, but it serves the purpose of showing you sort of what you can see. It’s better live, and it’s also better if there are two lions (or even more). This is in the Southern Lion style (explained in more detail in the website I linked to). Quite an unexpected surprise and I spent some time watching them before moving on.

Moving on to tea tasting with K, a friend I met last time when I was in Hong Kong. He had some Zhongcha brand Traditional Character cake, and he wanted to compare it to the samples I had (from YP)… and we did.

YP:

K:

YP left, K right

The verdict is that YP’s is a little better in terms of aroma…. and K’s is slightly smoother. His was probably a little wetter stored, while YP’s was probably stored a little better. They were both quite good, and very, very nice to drink. It just goes down so smooth and sweet. The difference, if drunk separately, wouldn’t be very obvious. His was also compressed a little more (mine has been separated into pieces through traveling). I think it made somewhat of a difference. The colour of the liquor, however, is quite different, and the difference stayed throughout. The darker didn’t necessarily mean it was more flavourful, however. It was just darker. It was really interesting to see how the colour was so different yet the taste was not.

We also had some other stuff, but relatively unremarkable. There was some 15 years old liu an… barely drinkable. I don’t know if I should buy any liu an given the long aging you need before the tea is anywhere near good.

Tea tasting with a lot of people

Today was a big event…. tea tasting with L, J, and Bearsbearsbears.  We met up before lunch, had two teas (one Menghai Bada Shan, one Zhongcha Bada Shan) and then got some food, after which we headed over to L’s friend, G, to try some teas.

G is an odd person.  He lives on top of a dual use building, with a nice view.  When we got there, his wife/companion was still in her pyjamas, drinking some tea, and I think G wasn’t even really up yet.  It’s a fairly big place, with a big coffee table that is filled with teaware that dominates the room.

We sat down, and soon we were underway.  The first tea we tried was a 1980s Tongqing Hao, which was really mediocre and wet to the hilt.  It was wet, wet, wet.  This is the sort of wet stored tea that leaves a nasty feeling in your throat.

Then we had a 50 years old 1000 taels tea.  It was nice.  It was not great, but not bad.  I enjoyed it.  Nothing too much to write home about — I’ve had better.

Then it was a newer tea.  G proclaims proudly that he doesn’t own any tea that is produced after 2000.  He seems to have bought, or is about to buy, a lot of this following cake we’re going to taste.  The tea is wrapped in the Zhongcha wrapper from the old days, of the original Yellow Label design.  This is a newer tea, looks quite young, and when he asked me how old I think it is, I gave the honest answer of 3-5 years.  He said “no!” and told me how none of the teas he has is younger than 7 years old, blah blah blah… so we brewed this one up.  It was, at most, about 5 years old.  It first only tasted mildly like the Lincang stuff I’ve had before, and the first infusion was quite nice, but as we went further along the tea got worse (rougher, more bitter, etc) and less interesting, and also more and more like Lincang stuff (Mengku, Fengqing, etc).  Lincang stuff of about 5 years aging should be pretty cheap, as they are produced in large quantities and prices simply aren’t high for this area.  He said he might be buying this cake for 250 RMB a piece or so.  I think it’s a ripoff, but I had to just smile and nod and say it’s not that expensive.  The guy doesn’t like to take no for an answer.

Then it was a cooked brick from the 80s.  While it’s entirely ok and mellow, it was a cooked brick, and one should not expect too much from a cooked brick.

In between all these, we had a conversation about how I am a PhD student studying history, and he showed us a 100 years old tea, supposedly.  It looks rather unremarkable, and he wasnt’ about to let us try it.  He also showed us what looked like a real Songpin Hao, but he wasn’t going to let us try that either.  So…. all in all, we didn’t have many interesting teas today.  They were all broadly similar, and really not that exciting.

After that, we went to tea shopping at the Tianshan market.  BBB thinks he’s coming back for the teaware, while I just looked at all the puerh stores.  We tried three teas total, all at my request… the first was a Haiwan Laotongzhi, which, oddly enough, tastes much nicer than I imagined.  The second and third were both “old tree”.  The first was a “Yiwu” that didn’t really taste like Yiwu.  It was cheap too… makes you wonder, doesn’t it?  I suspect it might be summer leaves masquerading as big tree leaves…. makes the tea look nice but really not that flavourful.  It looks better than it tasted.  The second was similar… more intense, but half the price.  Still not that interesting, and I think I can find stuff that is better, even if for a higher price…

All in all, a long day of drinking tea (and which got me a little uncomfortable as I started feeling the effects of it through dinner).  We ended the day with a drink at a bar, and I tried, for the first time, a Chivas Regal Royal Salute.  I was tasting it like a tea… smooth, sweet (it’s relative), with a nice aftertaste, and really quite pleasant.  I think I like it better than the JW Blue Label.  But ok, this is a digression.