Seasons of Tea: Summer

This coming Sunday marks the summer solstice here in the Northern hemisphere. After that, the sun slowly retreats toward the horizon and days grow shorter. It's a dramatic change of season, the end of spring's urgent spurt of growth and the beginning of a new phase of maturation. In the tea world it's time to change focus from the delightful young green shoots of spring to the flowers of summer: more robust and floral oolongs, which develop flavor and character from ripening in abundant summer sunshine, as well as jasmine teas, which can't be scented until the jasmine blooms.

Here in the teahouse we live by the seasons of tea, so we're also shifting our focus. Though it's always a bit sad to say farewell to frisky spring teas we greeted with such enthusiasm just a couple of months ago, we're excited about welcoming the next generation, some of the most popular and delicious members of the camellia sinensis family. In a preview of coming attractions, the 2009 edition of our signature Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin will soon be in transit. Roy needs to hand-fire this tea to finish it, so it probably won't be ready for sale until he returns from China in August.

This year Roy has acquired several varieties of yan cha, the storied oolongs of the Wu Yi Shan region in northwestern Fujian Province. Wu Yi oolongs are renowned for the intriguing collision of oolong's classic floral notes with an austere mineral quality that originates in the dramatic rocky terrain where these teas evolved, and which gives them their name (yan cha can be translated as "cliff tea"). As in an improbable but successful marriage the two disparate elements, floral and mineral, balance one another and highlight the other's best traits, with the whole exceeding the sum of the parts. There are over 100 yan cha varieties; it would be easy to spend a lifetime immersed in this fascinating and diverse strain of tea.

We've always been pleased to offer yan cha in the teahouse, but this year Roy is bringing in two varieties we haven't sold before: Fo Shou (Buddha Palm) and Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe). Originally Da Hong Pao referred only to four small, ancient tea bushes that to this day cling perilously to a sheer cliff in Wu Yi. Their tea was so prized that an official tossed his XXL red robe over them to claim them for the emperor. Today, tea from descendants of the original bushes is sold as Da Hong Pao. Because of the fame of the original bushes this type of Da Hong Pao is often expensive but of mediocre quality, so Roy has been reluctant to buy it. However, with repeated requests from customers he continued the hunt for a Da Hong Pao worthy of the name and has at last found one he's proud to serve.

Joining these new yan cha are two returning favorites: Shui Xian (Water Sprite) and Tie Luohan (Iron Arhat). If you appreciate fine yan cha you'll want to sample the 2009 editions of all of these superb oolongs in the coming weeks.

More exciting news: oolong tea goes with an yi xing teapot like a hand in a glove, so you'll be pleased to know that around the time the new oolongs are here we'll also be receiving some new pots Roy commissioned from highly regarded artists he knows in Yi Xing. A teapot's quality is determined by many factors, especially the clay and the skill of the artist--two increasingly scarce resources. Mediocre pots with high prices trading off the fame of Yi Xing abound. While fine pots in the class of those Roy imports don't come cheap, they're an investment and a lifetime tea companion. While we anxiously wait for the new pots we'll be talking more about yi xing ware here on the blog.

Finally, it wouldn't be summer without the bold bouquet of jasmine tea, and if you're a jasmine lover you'll be happy to know that the 2009 edition of Imperial Jasmine Pearls is arriving soon. Classic jasmine tea takes a more grassy or vegetal green tea variety that provides structure and adds a powerful floral layer in the form of extravagantly fragrant jasmine blossoms. The two are literally piled together to infuse the jasmine aroma into the tea leaves, then the blossoms are removed before the tea goes to market. A challenge is that the young green tea is picked weeks before jasmine blooms; fine jasmine tea reaches across seasons to unite a downy spring tea with lush summer flowers. In the interim, our green tea pearls are carefully hand-wrapped to keep them fresh and dry so they can absorb as much of the jasmine scent as possible when the time comes (the wrapping process is pictured above). You may remember, Roy talked about selecting the base green tea in a post from China back in April. Soon you'll get to taste the results of Roy's matchmaking!

Stay tuned to the blog for more details on all of the new summer products as release dates approach.