Imperial Tribute Harvest Purple Tip Pu Er: A Few Cakes for Sale

Exciting news for pu er lovers: Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong has agreed to sell a handful of the exquisite, rare purple tip pu er cakes we blogged about recently. He also has a small amount of the same tea in loose-leaf form that he's offering for sale by the ounce. More details in our online store and in the new Pu Er Edition of our newsletter, Tea Readings.

While the tea is sheng (unfinished), it's delicious to drink now, but Roy believes it will age spectacularly. Either way, if you decide to sample this remarkable tea it will be a memorable experience that establishes a new benchmark for your expectations of pu er. If you'd like us to prepare the tea for you, make a reservation for an Imperial Tea Service featuring the loose-leaf tea brewed in the neutral environment of a porcelain gaiwan. Call in advance for pricing and to ensure availability. And for those of you lucky enough to taste Imperial Tribute Harvest Purple Tip Pu Er, please return to the blog and leave a comment sharing your impressions!

We're also pleased to share a couple of photos of one of the ancient trees that provided leaves for the Imperial Tribute Harvest Purple Tip Pu Er:

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Potsticker Bulletin! Special Event in the Ferry Building February 28

Potsticker lovers have spoken and our celebrated homemade guo tie (potstickers) will return to the Ferry Building teahouse Saturday, February 28, from 9:30 AM-1:30 PM. Grace and Roy Fong will be at the teahouse personally cooking and serving these savory, Beijing-style treats, so if you're in the Bay Area be sure to stop by, say hello, and enjoy some of our delicious home cooking.
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Just in Time for the Weekend

A nice nod from UrbanDaddy's Weekender today: a recommendation to "stop in Imperial Tea Court for noodles imported from Taiwan, steamed Prather Ranch pork buns, dumplings and baked spring rolls. Then order another round—you know, for double happiness."

We couldn't have said it better ourselves! Hope to see you soon in one of our teahouses...this weekend or any time!

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Making tea!

How much tea should I use, how long should I steep it and how many cups of tea can I make with this? All legitimate questions with no cut and dry answers as far as I am concerned. In the beginning stages of your love affair, it would be wise to learn all there is about the other party and if he or she is predictable, all the better! However, once you get beyond circling each other, emotions take over and things happen and the relationship takes its own course.

Well I am talking about tea here; to make it to the next level, you have to get away from slavish measuring and predictability and rely on your intuition. The reason that almost everyone can make the same cup of tea differently is because no one is paying attention to the little things that add up: how much tea to use, how long, what temperature, etc., are only the start. It is the other little things that people don’t know or think about: how the tea should be placed in your pot or gaiwan, how the water should be poured to influence the way the leaves move and unfurl on each steeping, when to release heat and when to hold the heat in to gain just a little more flavor. What type of water works better with what tea and how does weather, moods, conversations and friends change your tea?

If you are like me, all this thinking makes my head hurt! Instead, I relax and let my inner self do the work. Intuition takes over and I automatically make adjustments without consciously thinking about what to do next. No step by step for me, that is just too complicated! Rather, be aware of all the issues that can affect your cup and let your inner self go. Eventually, you will make the connection and mindlessly make those small adjustments without having to think, and when you get there, your “gong fu” is building and before you know it, you will be wondering why you’d have to measure in the first place!
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Two Pu Erhs That (Not Much) Money CAN Buy

In these tough economic times it's more important than ever to be able to relax with a good cup of tea, so we're introducing a couple of full-sized shou (finished) pu erh cakes that are ready to drink and make a pleasant brew at an affordable price. While the cost of exceptional and rare pu erh remains high, the deflation of China's pu erh price bubble means many quality teas are cheaper than in recent years. We're pleased to be able to offer these two cakes personally selected by Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong.

The 2007 Spring Tip Pu Erh Bing Cha features small, early leaf buds and abundant golden tips. It has a mild, sweet taste with only subtle hints of earthiness. The liquor is a rich reddish brown. For best results steep a generous quantity of leaves in near-boiling water with a slightly longer than average brew time. Exact quantity and time depend on the vessel you use to brew. In my six-ounce gaiwan I used three heaping tablespoons of tea and steeped for 3-4 minutes. Adjust quantity and time to taste; it's hard to push this mellow tea over the edge to bitterness. $35 per 375-gram cake.

The 2007 Pu Erh Bing Cha is the type of finished cake many residents of Yunnan, the home province of pu erh, turn to as their everyday beverage. The leaves are picked later than the Spring Tip, meaning they're larger and heartier. The flavor is less sweet and a bit more earthy and robust, with a darker brown brew that can develop a bitter edge when it's oversteeped. In my gaiwan I used about three level teaspoons of tea, and brewed for about three minutes. As always, experiment and adjust to suit your own preference. $25 per 375-gram cake.

Between the two my personal preference is the Spring Tip, but you won't be disappointed in either of these teas given the price. By the way, Chinese consider aged and finished pu erh to be the most warming of the various types of tea, so winter is the perfect season to warm up with a cup of this delicious, traditional beverage.
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Just for Fun: The Online Tea Translator

Confused by the myriad possibilities for romanizing the names of Chinese teas—not to mention the different names Chinese use for the same or similar teas? There's a website for that! Check out Babelcarp. As the FAQ warns, Babelcarp is Camellia sinensis-centric. For example, it doesn't index Indian teas or other Chinese herbs that may be infused. However, for beginning to sort out cross-cultural complexities associated with the names of Chinese teas it's a great start that we're eager to share.
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Kyoto Journal Interviews Roy Fong on Pu Erh

The newest edition of Kyoto Journal is all about tea, and includes an interview with Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong on pu erh. While the full article isn't online, here's a brief excerpt:

"Unlike any other tea, pu-er is designed to be aged for years after it's picked, and is regarded almost as a living being, with personality. It displays one set of characteristics when young and continues to mature and change as time passes; as with people, the environment in which it 'grows up' affects the way it matures. This unique characteristic inspires passion and attachment to pu-er unmatched by any other tea in the world."

We'll soon be selling copies of this very special issue of Kyoto Journal in our teahouses and online. We'll post details here in the blog as soon as it's available. Meanwhile, as always, check out for a great selection of both loose and cake varieties of pu erh.

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Imperial Tea Court: "Best Finch-Free Tea House"

We were pleased once again last year to win a top honor in the Bay Area Guardian's "Best of the Bay 2008" awards, where we were called out as "Best Finch-Free Teahouse" (recognizing the fact that the signature birds from our Chinatown location aren't permitted in the Ferry Building). The citation notes, "Imperial Tea Court...continues to be San Francisco's pre-eminent teahouse," and gives a special nod to our "almost 200 varieties of tea, ranging from basic blends for neophytes to ultrarare aged pu-erhs for aficionados."

"It's not for nothing that the Imperial Tea Court is the tea vendor of choice for many local high-end restaurants and hotels," the Guardian commented.

We're blushing! We're committed to living up to the praise in 2009 and beyond...and we look forward to competing for another award later this year.

Speaking of pu erh, Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong was quoted and referenced several times in a February 13 article in World Tea News, "Puer Market Crash Creates Opportunity." Have a look to learn more about the current state of the pu erh market.

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A Pu Erh That Money Can't Buy

zi ya pu erh tea
brewing the zi ya pu erh in a gaiwanzi ya pu erh cake

One afternoon recently when things were slow at the teahouse Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong reached into his bag and pulled out an amazing treasure, an incredibly rare pu erh cake made from the scarce tips and leaves of a centuries-old grove of wild tea trees in the remote highlands of Yunnan Province, miles from the nearest road. As Roy explained, these aren’t just any leaves, they’re the exquisite zi ya (purple tips) described by Lu Yu, China’s revered “Sage of Tea,” who lived during the Tang Dynasty over 1,000 years ago. Lu Yu called tea made from zi ya the best under heaven.

The tips, which resemble miniature bamboo shoots, have a purple color because they’re packed with so many nutrients and essential oils the elderly tree has stored and concentrated over the centuries. In Roy’s cake they were mixed with small green and gold leaves that yielded the most beautiful tea any of us have ever seen.

But the astonishing visual impression was just the beginning. Nothing could prepare us for the aroma and flavor of this tea the way Roy prepared it. Although it’s a sheng (green) pu erh there’s not a hint of the metallic tang or tannic harshness of a typical unfinished cake. The aroma is sweet, like nectar, while the taste is powerfully fruity, almost like drinking juice. The high levels of essential oils result in a thick, chewy viscosity that gives the young tea uncommon substance. And the aftertaste is uncanny; I’d swear I was still tasting it hours later.

It’s a unique tea and Roy brewed it with a technique I’d never seen before. He made it in a gaiwan with near-boiling water, but then left the top off while it steeped for slightly over a minute, in order to help the tea cool quickly. He explained that this is the secret to bringing out the tea’s sweetness. And he said that if we like the tea now, we should taste it after the cake ages a decade or so. At that point it will truly be off the charts.

Roy obtained a few zi ya cakes through his deep connections in the Chinese tea industry. The cake we got to taste is a relic of tea art with a direct lineage back to the time of Lu Yu. Probably nothing like it will be produced again in modern China, and Roy isn’t selling his cakes, he’s saving them for the kids…and grandchildren. Those of us at the teahouse that afternoon were incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to try this extraordinary tea. Now we have another reason to keep in touch with Roy for the next 20 years, in hopes of having a chance to taste it after it ages! Meanwhile, we can share its beauty with the Imperial Tea family: we used a photo of the cake as the background for the header on this blog!

Although Roy isn't planning to sell the zi ya, Imperial Tea Court has a wide-ranging selection of top quality pu erh in both loose and cake styles. We also sell lots of great gaiwans. Check out our online store!

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Potsticker Pandemonium

potstickers at Imperial Tea Court San Francisco
Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong selling potstickers at Imperial Tea Court San Francisco
Tonight's Potsticker Event at the Ferry Building teahouse was a big success, although unfortunately we sold out of potstickers with an hour left to go (luckily there were enough steamed buns and spring rolls to keep feeding the hungry crowds). Lesson learned for next time! It was great seeing old friends again. We hope you stop back by the teahouse soon. To see more photos, visit the Imperial Tea Court Virtual Teahouse on Facebook.
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Potstickers TODAY at the Ferry Building

It's time for our Homemade Potsticker Event! If you're in the Bay Area you don't want to miss this fun special. This evening from 5-8 PM Grace and Roy Fong will be in the Ferry Building teahouse making homemade Beijing-style potstickers (guo tie)and chatting with customers. Potstickers taste great with our new harvest of Roy's hand-fired Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin...or try them Cantonese-style with Imperial Pu Erh. We look forward to seeing you tonight at the teahouse!
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Teapot Tips: Tie One On

a zhu ni yi xing teapot featuring a red string hand-tied by Grace Fong

After you season your new teapot there's one last thing you may want to do before you start brewing tea: tie a (usually red) string to connect the handle to the lid, using traditional Chinese decorative knots. While the strings are attractive, they're also functional. They help keep the lid from falling off and possibly breaking, and they also serve as a tiny hot pad, insulating a space on the lid to make it easier to hold the hot lid down with a finger while pouring.

Here in the teahouse the strings serve an additional purpose: with so many pots to keep track of, we use different color strings as a reminder of which tea a given pot is seasoned with. For example, an oolong pot for green oolong will have a green string; the same model of pot reserved for darker tea, such as Wu Yi Yan Cha, has a brown string.

Grace Fong ties most of our teapot strings, and we're planning to capture her technique on video before long. Meanwhile, we found a step-by-step explanation of string-tying online that we'd like to share. Give it a try! It's the perfect finish for your yi xing teapot!

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Valentine Potsticker Event at the Ferry Building

If you love a great potsticker and can make it to San Francisco this Friday night (February 13), don't miss our Homemade Potsticker Event! Grace and Roy Fong will be at the Ferry Building Teahouse in person, making and serving potstickers from 5:00-8:00 PM. It's a perfect way to wrap up the week and kick off the Valentine's Day weekend.

Potstickers, guo tie in Mandarin, are similar to dumplings except that instead of being steamed or boiled, they're pan-fried on the bottom while the top steams. Like other Chinese food containing wheat they originated in Northern China but have now spread across the country and around the world.

You'll love our fresh, handmade potstickers, so mark your calendar for Friday night. We look forward to seeing you then at the Ferry Building!

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Talking About Teapots

yi xing teapot at Imperial Tea Court San FranciscoSerious tea lovers love their teapots almost as much as tea itself. I recently got a new pot and seasoned it this weekend. In case you’re wondering exactly how to treat your new yi xing treasure, here’s Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong’s advice:
  • First, decide which tea your pot will be dedicated to. Especially with highly porous and absorbent yi xing clay, it’s best to use a separate pot for each type of tea. That way the pot reinforces, rather than conflicts with, your goal of making great tea. But actually this is putting the cart before the horse, as every pot is best suited to certain varieties of tea. But more on that in a future post.
  • Take a generous-sized pan and fill it with enough cold water to submerge your new pot. Place the pot and lid in the water, with the lid removed from the pot and knob-end down, and ideally not touching the pot. The goal is to maximize the exposure of clay surfaces to the liquid in the pan.
  • Warm the pan on medium heat until it’s steaming but not boiling. The reason you don’t want it to boil it is that could rock the pot or lid, possibly causing them to chip. You don’t want to do that to a new pot! When the water approaches boiling turn down the heat to the lowest setting to keep it just below a boil.
  • Let the pot “cook” in the hot water for an hour or two to expand and open up its pores. You’ll probably notice lots of tiny bubbles emerging from the pot’s surface. That’s what you want to see!
  • After the pot has steamed awhile, toss a couple of generous handfuls of the appropriate type of tea (e.g., green oolong, high-fired oolong, pu erh) into the water. Use tea as close as possible to the quality of the tea you’ll actually brew. Add boiling water from a kettle as necessary to keep the water level above the top of the pot, but again, try to keep the water just below boiling temperature. Let the pot stew in the tea broth for at least a couple of hours.
  • Finally, turn off the heat and let the entire mixture, including your pot, cool to room temperature. I usually do this step overnight. When it’s cool, carefully fish out the pot and lid and remove any stray leaves, but don’t rinse. Invert them on a paper towel to dry (you can use a cloth towel, but the strong tea mixture is likely to stain). When they’re completely dry, buff with a soft cloth to polish and remove any residue. Your new pot is on its way to a beautiful patina!

Answering a question we often hear in the teahouse, yi xing is pronounced approximately "ee shing." It's a city in eastern China near Suzhou that's endowed with rich deposits of a special type of clay that's ideal for teapots—they've been made in the area for hundreds of years. More posts on teapots coming soon!

Check out Imperial Tea Court's selection of yi xing pots in a wide variety of sizes, styles, and price points.

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The Imperial Tea Bath

Imperial Tea Court's Imperial Tea Bath

I put our new Imperial Tea Bath sachets to the test last night. Here's my report:

I turned on the hot tap and tossed in a sachet. When the water reached the appropriate level I turned it off and waited about half an hour for the bath to cool to a comfortable temperature, allowing the sachet to steep. Although I have a large tub and the sachets don't seem too big, the water soon turned a rich golden color, similar to great cup of tea. The room filled with a pleasant, mint-accented herbal aroma. The green tea and herbs inside the sachet swelled up to fill the unbleached, loosely woven cloth sack that holds them.

Between the pleasant scent and the warm water the bath was really relaxing and time flew (warning: don't take an Imperial Tea Bath when you're in a rush!). I left the sachet in the bath, continuing to steep, the whole time. After soaking awhile I used it in lieu of a washcloth and soap for a light scrubbing.

Before I knew it I'd been in my Imperial Tea Bath for an hour. This is subjective, but it didn't seem to dry my skin as much as a comparable soap-and-water bath. Also, as Roy predicted based on his experience, afterwards I slept like a rock. I'm eager to get some sachets for the guest room--I think an Imperial Tea Bath would feel great after a long trip. And I'm looking forward to the next opportunity to indulge myself!

No doubt the legendary beauty Concubine Yang was onto something. Try an Imperial Tea Bath yourself and leave a comment here on the blog with your impressions. You can find Imperial Tea Bath sachets in our teahouses or in our online store.

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Roy Fong Talks Pu Erh

Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong discussed pu erh tea with San Francisco Examiner columnist Deborah Parker Wong in a recent article. He talked about the heritage of this variety of camellia sinensis and characteristics of good quality pu erh.

At Imperial Tea Court we carry wide selections of loose leaf and cake pu erh, both sheng cha (green) and shou cha (finished). In addition, we have an assortment of high-quality yi xing teapots for traditional gong fu preparation that's well suited to this variety of tea.

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New in Our Teahouses: Dessert!

Imperial Tea Court San Francisco dessert plate We just introduced a small dessert menu in our teahouses for those days when you're looking for something sweet to end the meal or simply a tasty afternoon snack. Ever since Marco Polo Italian and Chinese food have been simpatico. We love Ciao Bella's authentic Italian-style gelato and sorbetto and we're pleased to carry a few of our favorite flavors: Lychee/Coconut gelato, Mango gelato, Blood Orange sorbetto, and special this month, Rose Petal Champagne sorbetto.

You can order by the scoop or in one of our dessert combos. Cookies & Cream gives you a scoop each of Lychee/Coconut, Mango, and Blood Orange, along with six of our homemade cookies and your choice of iced or hot tea (the cookies are also available a la carte). Or try our exotic Valentine Special, two scoops of Rose Petal Champage plus a beautiful rose-scented blossoming flower tea, Valentine Rose, served in a glass teapot that highlights this tea's dramatic presentation.

Stop by soon and try one of our tasty, refreshing new desserts! And this month only at our Ferry Building teahouse, tell your server you read about the new dessert specials on the Camellia Sinensis blog and receive a 10% discount on all dessert prices!

We look forward to seeing you soon at the teahouse.

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