The latest issue of Kyoto Journal, all about tea, that we mentioned last month is now available at our teahouses and in our online store. In one of over a dozen tea-related articles, Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong is interviewed about puerh. He recalls, "When I was little, drinking aged puerh tea was a matter of course. Good aged puerhs were abundant and affordable, so whether you were in a restaurant or at home, puerh tea was served."
Tea, teaware, and tea culture are all discussed in this 96-page periodical that will intrigue any tea lover. You can preview the issue at the Kyoto Journal web site.
We at Imperial Tea Court love fine yi xing teaware, but this time of year, with the spring green tea harvest approaching, our thoughts turn to gaiwans. The gaiwan (literally "covered bowl") has a noble place in Chinese culture: it's elegant, pragmatic, and impartial (most gaiwans are either porcelain or glazed stoneware, meaning they're nonabsorbent and don't inflect the flavor of the pure brewed leaves). Gaiwans have evolved a bit over the centuries, but the modern version consists of three components: the body, or bowl; a lid that rests slightly inside the rim of the body; and a saucer.
As teaware, gaiwans have many advantages. The wide mouth makes it easy to check the progress of your brew and admire its color. It also gives you maximum flexibility to control temperature: leave the lid on to seal in as much heat as possible, or lift it for faster cooling. You can dip the lid into the bowl to stir the steeping leaves, ensuring an even brew and also facilitating heat loss. And, when the tea is ready to drink, the lid is a convenient way to strain off the leaves, whether you drink directly from the gaiwan or pour into a pitcher for sharing. The saucer is handy, too. Not only does it provide the usual function of buying forgiveness when we're a bit sloppy, but it also insulates the hot bowl, making it easier to drink or pour without burning your fingers.
There are several things to consider when choosing a gaiwan. First, like many kinds of teaware, it's intimate and tactile, meant to be held, so it should simply fit and feel comfortable in your hands. The size, weight, and surface texture, all should be pleasing. This is a highly personal judgment that can't be prescribed. The visual impression should be satisfying as well, but regardless of the exterior design it's nice for the interior to be white, the better to observe the brew.
The next thing to think about is what the gaiwan is made from. You can find gaiwans in a range of prices made from either porcelain (high-fired and vitreous, typically translucent) or stoneware (high-fired, partially vitrified, slightly absorbent unless glazed; yi xing ware is a type of unglazed stoneware). Unless you want to dedicate your gaiwan to a single type of tea as you would an yi xing teapot, select a porcelain or glazed stoneware one. The material dictates another vital gaiwan characteristic, its ability to retain or lose heat. Intuitively, the thinner the body the faster the contents cool. Heat loss can be desirable for highly temperature-sensitive teas (green tea, for example) that become bitter if "cooked" too long in hot water. With its vitreous nature porcelain loses heat fastest--sometimes too fast if your tea requires a long steeping time or you're in a chilly environment.
At Imperial Tea Court we offer a wide range of gaiwans to meet every need. In our teahouses we use the sturdy, versatile Standard White Gaiwan. If you fancy porcelain, we have beautiful choices such as the Royal Blossom, pictured above. If you enjoy watching leaves steep you might like our Glass Gaiwan. For those who want the best of both worlds, the convenience of the gaiwan design coupled with the tradition and flavor-enhancing characteristics of yi xing ware, our Ming Style Hand-Painted Yi Xing Gaiwan will stylishly meet your needs. And if your tastes are truly Imperial, Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong even has a couple of rare jade gaiwans stashed away in the warehouse (email us for more info).
Whatever your gaiwan preference, the 2009 green tea will start arriving from China next month, so dust off your old gaiwan or select the perfect new one and get ready to enjoy the incomparable, once-a-year pleasure of fresh spring tea.
Interestingly, the cake is already starting to evolve. The first time I tasted it a couple of months ago the fruit flavor was so intense it was almost like drinking juice. All the fruit is still there, but it's becoming more concentrated and subdued, similar to how a grape turns into a raisin. Like before, we brewed the leaves three or four times and the tea didn't lose flavor. While we were talking it cooled to room temperature in our cups, but the tea remained just as delicious as when it was hot. In fact, the cool tea was incredibly crisp and refreshing, something that would taste fantastic on a hot summer afternoon. Roy said it would make the world's greatest iced tea!
Roy compares pu er to a living being: unique, temperamental, always changing. It's fascinating to watch (taste) this young tea grow up. I'm going to make it a point to bump into Roy more often...and always check that computer bag!
If they're done right, freshly hand-pulled noodles have a delicious chewy texture and the pleasing irregularity of a hand-crafted product. In addition to tea, Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong loves a great hand-pulled noodle, so we make ours with Giusto organic flour and the special filtered water we use in our teahouses. You can order a bowl on its own or with a variety of other dishes and toppings on the menu. For the perfect combination, add a pot of Imperial Pu Er. Our hand-pulled noodles are only available in the Berkeley location.
After reading about hand-pulled noodles for awhile my mouth was watering, so I headed to Berkeley for a big bowl. In the picture above you can see Ivy pulling the noodles for my order!
Spicy Beef Noodles is one of our most popular menu items. I make it with an authentic Sichuan-style spicy oil sauce that I learned when I lived in Chongqing. It's different from what other places call beef noodles. If you like spicy, Sichuan-style food you should try it!
This teapot is made from high-quality purple sand clay, high-fired. It makes a good sound when you rub the top on the rim. It pours smoothly and when you hold it, it feels comfortable and balanced. I like the design, with an inscribed poem and plum blossoms, and the flat top and round body. It's a good size for four people. You can use it for either pu er or oolong tea.
There's something really special about Yunnan that makes the tea from there so amazing. I like this tea's character of malty and fruity and sweet. The leaves are so beautiful, and it has an incredible smell. It gives you a buzz that just feels good. It's very different from other green tea. To get the full effect, I like to brew this tea in a gaiwan.
Oolong is my favorite tea to drink every day. I like our Imperial Wu Yi Yan Cha because I like strong tea. Yan Cha, from Fujian Province, is good with spicy food or strong flavors. When I can, I prefer to brew it in an yi xing teapot, rather than a gaiwan, for the most flavor.
I like these cakes because they're just starting to change color, they have some age on them now. They have a nice peachy, plum-like flavor and you can brew them many times. I also like the way they're pressed, the old fashioned way, with stones, not machine-pressed. Because they're not pressed too tightly air can circulate and they'll age well. And these cakes are made with lots of tips. Wild 2003 cakes, not too expensive. How could they not be my favorites?
PS: If you're in California another good reason to shop our sale this month is that state sales tax increases on April 1. No fooling!
So far so good in Yunnan. The weather report is favorable. The harvest has started in some places and I have some exploratory orders for new green teas that I plan to introduce this year. The report from central China is also good, with production expected to increase. The temperature has reached 18 degrees C (64 degrees F) and the harvest is starting in the next week or so. Unfortunately, famous and rare teas are still in high demand so prices are expected to remain high. Eastern China has experienced an extended period of rain (almost 20 days) which may affect aromatics and flavor. Currently the weather is sunny with temperatures up to around 20 degrees C (68 degrees F). The harvest is expected to start around March 20. I will be there to oversee our Lotus Heart and Imperial Dragon Well harvest.
Produce is sourced locally, as are many of the other ingredients. Our meat comes from Prather Ranch, a fellow Ferry Building Marketplace merchant known for its high quality. We order some of our noodles from Taiwan, while others are made to order in the Berkeley teahouse using organic flour from Giusto’s. All the cooking in our teahouses is done in organic tea seed oil, which we import from China. If you like this delicious, healthy oil, we also sell it.
The Berkeley teahouse has a larger selection of dim sum thanks to its bigger kitchen. Most notably, in Berkeley we offer hand-pulled noodles, along with several varieties of made-to-order wontons, potstickers, dumplings, steamed buns, and green onion pancakes. If you have a bigger appetite the menu also includes soup, stir-fried dishes, and braises.
At the Ferry Building teahouse the dim sum menu includes steamed buns filled with pork or greens; a variety of succulent dumplings and wontons; and handmade spring rolls that are baked, never fried. There's also an entree menu of homemade braised beef, pork, and curry tofu stews, as well as noodle dishes.
Roy is working on a list of suggested teas for each dish. For example, he recommends Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin with our Teahouse Spicy Noodles, Imperial Jasmine Pearls with the Dim Sum Sampler, and Imperial Pu Er with our famous Beijing-style beef noodles. Our teahouses aren't just for tea! Stop by soon and try the dim sum for yourself.
We have two sets to choose from. Each includes a glazed ceramic teapot with matching cups; one is black, the other white. Each color has a different design; the white pot is somewhat larger than the black one. If you get a set leave a comment here on the blog with your impressions!
I’m thinking about the seasons of tea because here in March we’re on the threshold of the most dramatic change in the tea year, when the dormant plants reinvigorate and produce the first delicious shoots of 2009. Before the month is out the green tea harvest will be underway in southerly Yunnan (the best tea there grows around 22 degrees latitude) and eastern China (many of the most famous green teas, such as dragon well and bi luo chun, grow around 30-32 degrees latitude). Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong will be leaving shortly to supervise the harvest and select the finest spring teas for our teahouses.
Here in San Francisco winter is damp, dark, and chilly. More often than not, the “staff teapot” at the teahouse is yi xing (to retain heat and add depth of flavor) and we’re drinking a warming, aged pu er such as Imperial or Special Reserve. The earthy complexity of these teas seems like the perfect complement to the season when tea plants are resting and taking in nutrients after a long year of producing leaves.
A month from now everything will change. The sun will come out, days will be longer than nights, and tea plants will be bursting with fresh growth. Delicate green teas full of the powerful vigor of new life will entice the palate, suddenly making winter favorites seem tired and lugubrious. Light, elegant porcelain gaiwans become the teaware of choice. Later in spring, as the season matures, more green tea choices appear, with robust leaves packed with chlorophyll in response to long days full of sunshine.
I love green tea season, but it only lasts a short time - that's part of why it's so precious. Summer’s heat and intense sun (paradoxically accompanied by slowly shortening days) nurture varieties with larger, tougher leaves that have an astonishing fruit and floral essence, such as the delightful spectrum of oolongs. By mid-summer you’ll find us drinking Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin from an oolong-friendly zhu ni teapot. As the season evolves into autumn we’ll move to Wu Yi Yan Cha and return to zi sha teaware.
Among all the seasons of tea the advent of green tea season is the most dramatic and, after a long, cold winter, the most welcome! Stay tuned here on the blog for updates on weather in China and reports on the 2009 green tea outlook. And dust off your gaiwans, because the new spring teas are just around the corner.
According to Roy:
Yunnan: just starting to rain. Last year's weather was too wet and it affected the tea (too much moisture produces tea with low aromatics), so last year's Yunnan tea in general was not as good. This year's weather is a bit too dry, which will affect total yield and production, but if the weather pattern continues and maybe there's a bit more rainfall, we should enjoy good production. Also, the economic situation and the pu er tea "crash" mean more choices and farmers are ready to do better work in order to attract customers. We are in contact with our farmers and are expecting a good year from Yunnan. Our production is expected to start around March 15 or so.
Hangzhou and Eastern China: raining with cold weather. This is good: rain nurtures the tea and the quality of the harvest should be good unless it gets excessively rainy. Last year there was a last-minute frost that was devastating to the harvest; it killed off the freshly sprouted leaves and caused both yield and quality issues. Barring the same conditions we hope to have a good dragonwell harvest again this year (we lucked out last year: while neighboring farms were devastated, we had a very good harvest of Lotus Heart, in fact, one of the best of the last few years). Good green tea yields from the Fujian and Eastern China area mean good base material for our jasmine teas. Fujian and oolong tea harvest starts in another 2-3 weeks and is not expected to reach full production until mid-April.
Roy is leaving for China shortly to supervise the harvest and will be reporting more soon. We'll keep you posted!
We'd like to share Roy's reply for anyone else who may be confused on this point:
I read the line where the author wrote, "brewing in zi sha vessels will imbue green oolongs and green teas with a very unpleasant undertone." I find that interesting since millions of people for a few hundred years have employed zi sha teapots to make their tea and not many have discovered this issue. I do not doubt that the author may have had a problem but that is not a case made. Many reasons can contribute to his/her issue. Yi xing teapot connoisseurs agree in general that certain density clays work better for high-aromatic oolong. The end result is a combination of tea, pot, water, and techniques. I am afraid that I object to the author's "it ain't working, end of story" way of addressing this issue. Zi sha isn't the problem, the person making the tea may be the problem.
Roy's answer says it all, but to elaborate a bit for anyone who may have experienced a problem and wondered about it, here are three common reasons tea properly brewed in a zi sha pot may have disappointed. First, if you used this type of pot for a delicate spring green tea such as a dragonwell, bi luo chun, or many other varieties, the pot may be holding too much heat, effectively "cooking" your tea into bitterness or blandness. While there's a long historical precedent for using yi xing ware with green teas (many excellent green teas grow near the town of Yi Xing), our preference is to brew these teas in a porcelain gaiwan where it's easier to control the temperature.
Second, your pot may be the problem. Inferior quality pots can reek of clay, firing, or industrial oils. Before you buy a pot push your nose inside and take a deep whiff. You shouldn't smell anything. In addition, it's a good idea to take the time to cook your pot in tea prior to the first use, to remove any residual odors. If you drink quality tea you should invest in a quality pot; it will last a lifetime, continuing to improve with age. High quality zi sha clay is rare and expensive. A nice pot will cost $100 or more, whether you buy it in the US or China. Don't cut corners when you're ready to acquire a pot.
Third, it's essential to maintain your pot correctly. One of the characteristics of zi sha that makes it ideal for tea is its absorbent nature. That means good "teapot hygiene" is critical. A common mistake is to keep a teapot in the kitchen, where it absorbs cooking odors and aerosolized grease. Store your pot in a clean, neutral environment and never wash it in anything except water or tea. I've seen advice to clean teapots in soap, bleach, all kinds of things. Don't go there! When you finish brewing tea remove the leaves, rinse the pot with warm water, gently buff the surface dry with a soft cotton cloth, and invert the pot resting on the lid to help the inside air-dry (inadequately dried pots can develop bacteria).
If you're lucky enough to have a nice zi sha teapot match it to the right type of tea, brew the tea thoughtfully, and treat your pot with respect and it will reward you with delicious tea for many years to come. If you haven't acquired a great pot yet, we can help! We also have an excellent selection of gaiwans if you prefer that brewing style.
The original Wu Jing teapot
As it happens, we sell a modern version of the Wu Jing pot, executed in excellent quality zi sha clay by the highly regarded ceramic artist Zhou Xiao Qin. She faithfully included the little loop on her pot, too. If you're ever fortunate enough to own one of these pots you really must tie a string on it!
Zhou Xiao Qin's rendition of the Wu Jing pot
If you have a more contemporary sensibility, Zhou Xiao Qin also made a version of the Wu Jing pot with a handle on the side instead of the historically accurate bridge handle. If you prefer this design you're in good company: it's Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong's everyday teapot for pu er! He says that with regular use the highly absorbent clay quickly turns a glossy dark brown, and he also likes the generous bowl shape that gives large pu er leaves lots of room to unfurl and interact with the water.
Zhou Xiao Qin's adaptation of the Wu Jing pot with a side handle
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- Purple-Tip Pu Er Update
- Hand-Pulled Noodles
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