Checking Out Beijing's Tibetan Tea Fad

After leaving beautiful Wuyi Shan I traveled to Beijing to visit my ailing friend Mr. Yang Wu. Mr. Yang has defied all the doctors' predictions, fighting cancer for 6 years! This is a guy with an iron will who simply won't give in to fate.

One of the things he does for health is to drink "Tibetan Style" tea. The tea comes in a bamboo mat rolled into a tube. Inside the tube is some rather rough-looking tea that you break off and boil in a big pot. Lots of the Beijing rich and famous believe in the reputed health properties of this tea. The tea is interesting but the flavor is certainly not meant to be gourmet.

Mr. Yang pointed me to a hotel that sells Tibetan tea bricks. The entire hotel is decorated with tea bricks! Well, after hearing him describe it, what's a tea lover to do but rush right over. I went to the hotel for lunch. The food was good, the tea is ok, and the concept is interesting. I just wish that the folks who use the tea-lined conference room would drink tea instead of smoke. In a space covered by tea bricks I can smell nothing but stale cigarettes!

I am off to Lijiang, in Yunnan, for a couple of days of R and R. Once you get to Lijiang, all the minor sufferings of your life seem less significant. The beautiful mountains of Lijiang can relieve you of weariness like nothing else.
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More Photos from Xiamen

At the show I met tea enthusiasts from Argentina, Mexico, and China's Jiangxi Province

At the show I met tea enthusiasts from Argentina, Mexico, and China's Jiangxi Province

Samples of Fujian's Wuyi Yan Cha being prepared for cupping

Samples of Fujian's renowned Wuyi Yan Cha being prepared for cupping

Xiamen Tea's custom, stainless steel cupping table

Xiamen Tea's custom, stainless steel cupping table

Mr. Wang, CEO of Xiamen Tea Import/Export Corp., personally gave a presentation on his company

Mr. Wang, CEO of Xiamen Tea Import/Export Corp., personally gave a presentation on his company

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Xiamen International Tea Fair

After I recovered from giving my speech and the inevitable big dinner that followed, I walked the show to meet some of the people who weren't able to attend the Forum. There was a large crowd, but I was received warmly. When the doors finally closed we VIPs were invited to one more dinner, to celebrate a successful day.

The next day we visited the Xiamen Tea Import/Export Corporation. We toured the factory, including their laboratory dedicated to testing for pesticides. We were then treated to a Powerpoint presentation on Xiamen Tea's current status and future outlook. Mr. Wang, the CEO, personally gave the presentation. He has turned the company around from the brink of bankruptcy to a current yearly profit of over 1 billion yuan - more than 150 million US dollars!

The Xiamen International Tea Fair is held in conjunction with other fairs for coffee, vegetarian, and Buddhist items, in exhibition halls that are all connected to one another. This made the show seem even larger and more diverse. After a final walk-through, I departed for Wuyi Shan to make arrangements for my tea tour next April.
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Photos from Xiamen

The speakers panel for the International Tea Forum

A view into the audience waiting to hear our pearls of wisdom

We VIPs even ate our meals on stage

I felt like a delegate to the UN with my big leather chair, nameplate, and simultaneous translation headset

My dinner companions at one of the banquets were members of Sri Lanka's Tea Board

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VIP Treatment in Xiamen

I'm writing from Xiamen, where I was invited to give a speech about my insights into the US tea market. After a long flight, I was greeted at the airport by two young volunteers with a big sign and a bouquet of flowers. Needless to say, the sight of the cheerful young women with flowers immediately gave me a positive view of the city and the trade fair where I'm speaking.

Upon arriving at the hotel I was treated to dinner. I could barely keep my eyes open after over 40 hours without sleep and thankfully, the volunteers soon took pity on the old guy and left early. I all but fainted from exhaustion, and before I knew it, it was 7 o'clock in the morning. I was supposed to meet one of the volunteers, Shirley, at 8:20 so I could participate in the opening ceremony at 9. Being a VIP means you have to arrive early, then sit in the VIP room and wait to be guided to the ceremony. It's an oddly helpless feeling. I would have preferred getting more sleep and then walking to the conference on my own!

Finally it was time for us speakers, along with Xiamen's leading government officials, to walk on stage. There were fiery speeches and then with a big bang a bunch of confetti rained down and the Second Xiamen International Tea Fair was underway! After the opening, we VIPs toured the expo and then assembled for lunch. A big meal is never far away when you're a guest of the Chinese!

The lunch dragged on with lots of toasts with bad wine. Then we were put into another VIP room to prepare for the tea forum. Each speaker had about 30 minutes, followed by Q&A. The hosts provided simutanious translation in English and Chinese. They asked me to give my remarks in English, so I met with the interpreter to clarify some of my points, and then at last, the show was on.

A friend told me to make a Powerpoint presentation and I confidently responded that since the speakers were a bunch of old goats like me, there probably wasn't a projector available. But what do you know, onstage was a state-of-the-art AV system, including a huge screen. One of the other old goats actually did do a Powerpoint! I hate it when others are right again, and I'm glad that the rest of the old goats were just like me and simply spoke from notes.

I was the final speaker and after several fact-filled but somewhat boring performances, I kept my talk brief and to my shock, it seemed to go over well - if only because I wrapped up before the audience expected. In any case, the Forum was attended by a lot of pros, including growers, exporters, and wholesalers, as well as authors and other food and beverage authorities. As a result we had a great Q&A session. I was surprised by some familiar Northern California faces, including Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers and Cecilia Chang of Mandarin Restaurant. At 92 Cecilia looks like my younger sister! I don't think she's aged a day in 30 years!

The Forum was supposed to end by 5:30; at 6:30 we finally had to tell the audience it was time to go home. They reluctantly started to leave, but not until the newspaper and TV folks had a go at all of us. I ran out of business cards and just as I was ready to make my escape, a couple of tea shop owners from Argentina invited me to come speak in their country! So I guess my speech went better than I feared.

The next couple of days are open, so I can spend time at the show and visit some of the tea businesses here in this important port of departure for Fujian tea. I met a lot of local business owners at the Forum and many were anxious to chat. I warned them that I only drink the best tea and a lot of it - but since no one backed down, the next few days are looking busy. After the conference winds down I'm heading for Wuyi Shan to finalize arrangements for my next tea tour, in April 2012.
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Roy's Speech at the International Tea Industry Forum

This week Roy was a featured speaker at the Xiamen International Tea Fair's International Tea Industry Forum in China. Here's are the anecdotes and insights he shared with attendees:

Building a Market for Tea in the USA

Hello, my name is Roy Fong; my Chinese name is 方光祥. I was born in Hong Kong 56 years ago. My family immigrated to San Francisco when I was only 13 years old. About 30 years ago I had the good fortune to land in the world of tea, and since then tea has help me “grow up,” made me a better person, and even more unexpectedly, given my family and me a rather comfortable living.

Tea has brought many surprises into my life, including accolades that I never expected and in some cases surely don’t deserve. My tea business has been featured by the New York Times, Gourmet Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the South China Morning Post, to name a few. From a little boy leaving his home for an uncertain future in America to one of the many success stories that happens every day in the US, I’ve had a long journey and tea has been an excellent companion.

Tea in America has also come a long way. Thanks to the British colonial rulers, Americans have been drinking tea for 300 years. Taxes on tea were one of the reasons for the American Revolution. As a result, to this day tea is no longer taxed in the US. 120 years ago, in 1890, the average American drank 1.5 pounds of tea per year. Today Americans are famous for Starbucks and average tea consumption has fallen to less than half a pound per person per year. The good news is that the numbers are starting to grow, and I’m pleased if I’ve been able to play a small role in changing Americans’ attitudes toward tea.

Before I could change the way others thought about tea, I had to fall in love with tea myself. I had this good fortune when I was in my twenties, on a vacation in Hong Kong. At that time I wasn’t in the food and beverage industry, I was driving a tow truck. That is to say, I didn’t enter the tea business from a position of privilege or influence. I wasn’t an insider – and maybe that’s one reason that I was able to see new opportunities in what most people assumed was a mature market. One day during my vacation I happened to be wandering around Sheung Wan when I smelled an incredible aroma that instantly took me back to my childhood – the odor of fresh oolong tea roasting over charcoal. I went into the shop and started chatting with the owner. When I finally left the teashop that day I didn’t immediately realize that my life was changed forever, but I certainly knew that I wanted to learn everything possible about tea.

At first tea was only my hobby, but soon I started importing tea from China and selling to restaurants in San Francisco’s Chinatown. As my business grew, I had the opportunity to make connections throughout China’s tea-growing regions. I visited tea farms and factories all across the country, slowly building my knowledge of both traditional and modern tea varieties, cultivation and harvest, and processing techniques. I was very fortunate to be exposed to China’s tea industry at that time in history, because so much has changed now.

During my travels in China the tea I was learning about and enjoying myself usually wasn’t the same tea I was selling to Chinatown restaurants. I wished there was a way to share my love of China’s finest, artisanal tea with the American market. It was that dream that led me to expand my business into retail by opening Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco in 1993. My wife and I found a storefront on the edge of Chinatown and had traditional teahouse furniture and decor built in China and shipped to California. We worked day and night to create our vision of a classic Chinese teahouse where we could sell great tea and teaware and educate Americans about our love of Chinese tea and tea culture.

The word “education” is all-important here. America is a nation of first-generation tea drinkers. At this stage of America's tea revolution you must be a teacher of tea to succeed at selling tea as anything except a low-priced commodity. So when we opened Imperial Tea Court, my wife or I or one of our trained staff members was always on hand to demonstrate best practices, discuss variety and provenance, and educate customers that tea is much more than a small paper bag full of brown powder. A teaching approach was one of the “secret ingredients” that helped our business catch the attention of people of influence, who in turn told others – and soon our little teahouse became a phenomenon with customers on six of the seven continents.

If you’re skeptical that American attitudes toward tea can be changed on a large scale, here are a couple of examples of how something similar has happened with other products. Look at wine. Today everyone knows that northern California, where I live, produces some of the best wine in the world, but not until the 1960s did California growers start planting more sophisticated varieties of grapes and then labeling the wine accordingly, instead of just calling it red or white. That’s when attitudes toward California wine began to change. When I was growing up in San Francisco, I was so traumatized by bad wine that I didn’t touch a bottle of California wine again until I was 40 years old! How times have changed! The US has now achieved 17 years of continuous growth in wine sales and for the first time, passed the French in total wine consumption. Total sales of table wine in the US are 330 million cases and still growing. It’s safe to say that with changes in production and marketing, California wine has secured a permanent place on dinner tables in America and around the world.

Or how about another beverage, coffee. In the years I’ve lived in the US I’ve seen coffee transformed from a cheap commodity that people use to stay awake, into a status symbol, gourmet item, and social tool for connecting with others. Coffee is everywhere; millions of Americans can’t start the day without a cup and it’s an $18 billion business in the US. In 2010 there were 24,000 coffee shops across the United States, with 50% of their customers drinking premium-priced “specialty coffees” such as cappuccino, latte, or iced coffee. And by the way, coffee consumption has continued to grow even during the US economic downturn. And it’s important to remember that the US imports almost all of its coffee. The only state where coffee grows is Hawaii.

As you can see, American consumers can exceed expectations and the potential for growth is huge! With the right approach, the market is open to changing old habits and attitudes. So let’s talk tea. Here’s an encouraging statistic. In 1989, total US tea sales were under $2 billion. Today, the total is around $10 billion. Tea sales have increased enormously in the last 20 years and there are now over 3,000 specialty tea shops in America. If tea follows the example of coffee, the customer base for good quality and specialty tea in America will only continue to grow!

We are all aware of the economic difficulties globally and the US has been hit hard. However, the tea industry has fared better than many other businesses. According to the US Tea Association, in 2010 (a year with a weak economy), tea imports increased 10%, to a record 274 million pounds.

As with table wine and specialty coffee, tea’s image in the minds of consumers is undergoing a dramatic transformation. If you visit almost any American supermarket you’ll find a wide variety of teas being offered. Tea has expanded its share of coveted shelf space, which is proof of its popularity and profit potential. So-called “RTD” (ready to drink) tea in bottles, organically grown tea, and high quality “specialty” tea are increasingly intriguing the American consumer. Also, with health care so expensive, many Americans want to adopt healthier lifestyles. Supported by lots of scientific research, tea is seen as a healthy, natural option and interest in healthy living is motivating many Americans to learn more about tea.

America's Tea Renaissance has not only created one of the world's top tea markets in terms of both dollar value and growth potential, it has also fostered what I'm sure is the most innovative, exciting, and varied tea scenes anywhere in the world today - outside of the homeland of tea, China herself. All the world's tea traditions are welcome in America, from Japanese chanoyu to Russian samovars to Indian chai and English scones in the afternoon. No matter what kind of tea you have to sell, Americans will buy it. But because the US is not yet a tea-consuming society, Americans must be taught how to prepare and enjoy tea.

In these uncertain times, society craves tea’s ability to both stimulate and soothe, to engage the mind as well as the body, and to provide an experience that’s both refreshing and aesthetic. No other beverage can provide so many dimensions of satisfaction, and that’s why I believe the ancient beverage tea is a product that seems destined for success in the modern world. I’m excited about the future of tea in the US and I look forward to all of us working together to create a bright and profitable future in the US and the world beyond.

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Roy Is Featured Speaker at the Xiamen International Tea Fair

Roy heads back to China this week as a featured speaker at the Xiamen International Tea Fair's International Tea Industry Forum. He's one of a small panel of tea experts invited to address the group. The annual conference and exposition begins on Thursday, October 20.

Roy's topic will be "Building a Market for Tea in the USA." We'll be posting his speech here on the blog later this week. Located in Fujian Province, one of China's most important tea centers, Xiamen is renowned as the original port of departure for tea exports to Western countries.
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Latest Staff Picks

Wilai at the Ferry Building store is currently drinking the Organic Jade Oolong. She likes green oolong. For her, this tea is flowery but not over the top. It’s a great every day drinking tea. She also likes it because it is organic, new, and super affordable!

Wilai is originally from Bangkok, Thailand. She has officially been converted to a tea drinker after working at the Imperial Tea Court!
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Enjoy the Moon Festival!

In case you forgot to mark your calendar, today is Zhong Qiu, the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival. It's the night when families get together to eat mooncakes, drink tea, and admire the full moon. Tonight Winnie Yu stopped by the teahouse to share mooncakes and Topaz Puerh with Roy and his family. It's an unusually fog-free night in San Francisco, which allowed the harvest moon to shine brightly on this year's event.
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Experimenting with tea

I just brewed some tea today and it didn’t taste the same as usual. In fact it was a little bit harsh. Yes, it is possible to ruin the tea by brewing it improperly. Have you ever come to the tea house and love the tea you are drinking, but then try to brew it at home and it doesn’t quite taste the same?
Brewing tea is very subjective. Different people like their teas stronger or weaker. The taste of your tea depends on a lot of factors:  amount of tea leaves, water temperature, brewing time, water quality, method to prepare your tea, etc. 
When you are brewing a new tea, you may need to brew it a few times before you get it exactly right. At Imperial Tea Court, we always list the recommended tea brewing instructions on the tea you buy. Use it as a guide. You can always adjust the water temperature and steeping time when brewing the tea. 
Personally, I like my teas on the lighter side with a lot of aroma. I typically lower the water temperature. I also have combined the first and second brew in the same teapot. I find this sometimes gives the tea more complexity, especially for green teas. Experimenting with tea is fun.
The 2011 Spring Harvest Imperial Green is one of the most forgiving green teas. You can brew it improperly but, it is hard to ruin. Many of the puerh teas are very forgiving as well. The best advice is practice, practice, practice and then of course ENJOY!
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Roy Finalizes Tea Tour Agenda in April

Roy has moved his next tea tour to the spring of 2012. It's set to depart on April 16 and visit Shanghai, Hangzhou, Fuzhou, Wu Yi Shan, and Beijing, with five-star accommodations in every city. The cost is $4,999 per person, including all hotels, meals, transportation, and round-trip airfare to China from San Francisco. 

Space is limited, so email us if you're interested. A detailed itinerary is available on request. 
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Tea Tour Update: Nine Bend Stream!

Roy has just updated the tea tour itinerary with another once-in-a-lifetime experience, a leisurely bamboo raft ride down Jiu Qu Xi, the nine-bend stream in Wu Yi Shan celebrated for centuries by artists, poets, and tea lovers. Not surprisingly, it's also a Unesco World Heritage Site. As you drift down the famous river you can admire Wu Yi's signature steep cliffs, dotted with caves once occupied by a mysterious prehistoric culture, and smell the fragrant oolong bushes that line the waterway. A trip along Jiu Qu Xi will deepen your understanding of the unique Wu Yi environment that creates one of the world's most enchanting teas, and touch the heart of anyone moved by nature's extraordinary harmony.

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Roy's Plans for a 2011 Tea Tour Start to Firm Up

Roy has drafted an itinerary for a 2011 Tea Tour focusing on Zhejiang and Fujian Provinces, the home of some of China's most spectacular oolong and green tea producing regions. Traveling with Roy into increasingly rare pockets of traditional China and leveraging his almost 30 years of experiences and relationships, the tour offers tea lovers a view of China that cannot be duplicated, even with a private tour guide. Those who have accompanied Roy in the past agree that it's an extraordinary opportunity to expand your horizons and change your perceptions of the world.

While dates aren't final, the trip will be in the latter half of September. It will begin and end in major cities, but tea-oriented destinations include three days in the Hangzhou region, where we'll pick and process green tea and then enjoy the incomparable pleasure of drinking newly made tea while drifting in a Dragon Boat on tranquil West Lake, relaxing as musicians play Chinese classical music.

Next the scene will shift to Fujian where there will be a stopover in the capital, Fuzhou, to visit the province's premier Buddhist temple, Yongquan Si, and savor a vegetarian feast in the temple's fine restaurant. Then the trip will climax in Wu Yi Shan, home of the renowned oolong varieties known as yan cha. We'll take a long hike scrambling through tea fields and rice paddies to reach a rustic old tea farm whose homestead incorporates a centuries-old temple. There we'll drink farm-fresh oolong tea by the bowl and fortify with a home-cooked meal of just-harvested ingredients before climbing up to the tea fields to pick yan cha. Later we'll help bring our tea down the mountain to the processing facility, where Roy will give a tutorial in producing oolong.

More details will be available later this month. Send an email if you'd like to learn more.
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Come visit the tea house

I moved from Boston to San Francisco in May 1997.  The owner of the coffee and tea house I used to frequent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, recommended that I check out Imperial Tea Court as soon as I arrived.  He thought I would enjoy the place.  Who knew that 14 years later I would be a regular and still be enjoying the wide variety of amazing teas and food!
Since 1997, the Imperial Tea Court has opened two new tea houses and closed the original tea house in Chinatown.  Being a San Francisco city dweller, I spend most of my time at the Ferry Building location and had only been to the Berkeley location two times before my visit today.  I love the Berkeley space with the outdoor garden, but find that I don’t often venture over the Bay Bridge.
Today was a beautiful summer day and definitely an enjoyable experience.  The patio was warm and sunny, but I chose to sit just inside.  I tasted the Imperial "Milky" Green Oolong tea upon recommendation from Michael.  This oolong tea is from Taiwan.  It is silky and creamy with the typical oolong characteristics—ah so sweet!  I kept steeping it at least 7-10 times.  I find that usually steeping number 4 or 5 seems to be my favorite. 
The Ferry Building and Berkeley tea houses have two different menus.  I was anxious to try some food in Berkeley.  I tried the green onion pancakes, noodles, and soup.  I recently returned from traveling in China.  I can honestly say that this pancake tasted better than the pancakes there.  It was a little bit thicker than what I found in China, and not greasy.  I knew the ingredients at the Imperial Tea Court were only the finest.  Roy told me the pancakes are made from organic flour, wild tea seed oil, organic scallions, and sea salt.  It was really nice to taste something that reminded me of my travels but had a nicer twist. 
If you haven’t visited the Berkeley tea house, you are in for a special treat when you try the noodles.  They are made to order!  The noodles are made from organic wheat flour, and are similar to what you would find in northwestern China around Xian.  They are served al dente style and definitely have a chewy sweetness about them.  There are several meat and vegetarian options.  I tried the cabbage with scallions, swiss chard, and tofu.  They are spiced up with chili, but perfectly seasoned for my taste buds. 
I also was privy to the Beijing style soup.  It is made with organic Napa cabbage, tofu, and noodles.  It’s got a very light broth and is perfect for a warm Berkeley day when you don’t want something heavy. 
I happened to be there when the chef was eating and also got some samples of left over steamed buns he was frying for himself.  The buns are typically eaten in China for breakfast or lunch.  I guess if there are some still remaining by the late afternoon or evening, it’s time to cut them into slices and fry them up.  They are really sweet, crunchy, and delicious.  Next time, I might have to try them fresh.
Stop by at either tea house.  Some new white and puerh teas are arriving soon!
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Update from Takada San: 2011 Japanese Spring Green Tea

Takada san's covered green tea fields
aim to reproduce the deeply shadowed
valleys where green tea is grown near Kyoto.
This year, the technique also added extra
protection from radiation. Top: covered
tea fields. Center: gyokuro growing
under cover. Bottom: Kabuse Sencha
 Roy's friend Takada san, a tea farmer in Southern Japan, recently sent an update about the latest effects of the Japanese nuclear disaster on the 2011 spring green tea harvest in his region:

I can send you more information about our nuclear problem. As to the security of the new tea leaves, Uji is far from the Fukushima nuclear plant, over 800 km. We don't have a problem here. Analysis of Uji tea showed no radioactivity in fresh tea leaves from Uji.

Most of our tea is growing under the cover, which is called Kabuse Sencha. This makes it safer than most of the sencha in Shizuoka. On the sencha mountain in west Shizuoka they had 70 Bq/kg of radiation in the fresh leaves. It is still under the threshhold of 500 Bq/kg, so this tea is OK for drinking.

Roy has reserved a small quantity of Takada san's most exclusive gyokuro, grown, picked, and processed using traditional methods, for the Imperial Tea Court teahouses. Takada san also had bad news about 300 Japanese green tea seedlings he was arranging to have shipped to Roy's California tea farm. The original lot became diseased, so the nursery is starting to grow new plants from scratch. The new seedlings won't ship until autumn.
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Vicarious Tea Travel

Our friend and teahouse regular Diane is taking a hiatus from the workaday world to tour the tea regions of India and Yunnan. Her in-depth blog posts are fascinating reading - best enjoyed with a few cups of tea. Check out Diane's adventures in her Tea Journeys blog.
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Crouching Bunny Hidden Eggs: Easter at the Tea Farm

It was a warm, sunny day at the tea farm yesterday when a few friends drove up to help Roy pot 600 oolong seedlings he brought from Taiwan. There were six varieties in the batch; Roy continues to experiment to find tea that fares well in California growing conditions. There was a setback when testing revealed that water from the property's well has a pH around 8.5. Like other camellias, Camellia sinensis thrive in acid conditions, preferring a pH closer to 6. For now Roy is hand-modifying water for the young plants to achieve the desired acidity, while he investigates other water solutions for long-term growing operations.

At the farm, spring is in full flower. Rose bushes and wisteria are covered with blossoms, while almond trees are already bending from the weight of what will become next fall's crop. As you approach the house along the drive bordering the orchard, jackrabbits crouch amid the tall grass and wildflowers lining the road, betrayed by enormous pairs of ears that look pastel pink in the sunlight. Just as the car draws alongside, they spring from their lairs and take deeper cover behind the almond trees.

In the pond, the koi have grown several inches over the winter. It's still a little too early for tadpoles to be swarming in the shallows. Nearby, the killdeer that tirelessly guarded his mate's nest last year patrols the same territory. Red-winged blackbirds perch along the fenceposts. A pair of Brewer's blackbirds built a nest deep in a large shrub near the patio behind the house. As we sat outdoors drinking tea we watched the male make repeated trips into the bush to feed his nesting mate, whose silhouette was visible amid the thick undergrowth.

When the huge potting task was complete, Grace whipped up a simple but satisfying country feast of chicken barbequed on the outdoor grill, savory noodles, and fresh oranges from nearby groves. We ate under the wisteria-shaded pergola, cooled by a breeze redolent of spring flowers and fresh-cut grass. Then we tasted several of the new teas Roy brought from his latest trip to China. It turned out to be a productive day on a small slice of rural paradise.
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Twitter Question on Fertilizing

Twitter follower @Oolonggirl asked, "How often do you fertilize the tea plants?" Roy replies:

For spring harvest we do it once during the fall, after trimming. If we plan on picking a fall harvest, we fertilize after spring. For my tea farm in California I am not yet sure what we will do. The decision is farm specific; you decide what to do based on the land, varietal, and how much the tea is harvested. In general, fertilization is required to replenish the plant's energy so it can grow new leaves.
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Cherry Blossom and Bamboo Season in Japan

Roy's friend the Japanese tea farmer Takada san sent some beautiful photos of this year's cherry blossoms in Japan that we wanted to share. He commented, "We can enjoy a lot of cherry trees along the river. We feel a big happiness watching them and getting the spring wind. I will go to my bamboo forest to get bamboo shoots and bring them to my friends." When I asked Roy how to prepare fresh young bamboo shoots he tossed off a couple of recipes:

I dug out bamboo shoots from one of the tea farms I visited while I was in China. I feel sorry for those who have never tasted fresh bamboo shoots. You slice them up and stir fry with pork and make a pork stew, or the Shanghai soup with their ham and fatty pork. Yum yum!

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Celebrate the Season with Our Rabbit Teapot

Whether you're celebrating Easter, the outstanding tea harvest in the Year of the Rabbit, or both, our unique Rabbit Yi Xing Teapot is the perfect choice. Hand-crafted from top-quality reddish brown yi xing clay, this excellent pot has the clean lines and substantial heft that distinguish fine yi xing ware from the ordinary. The smooth, rounded body encourages leaf expansion, making this pot perfect for your favorite yan cha or tie guan yin. The handle incorporates an elegant classic dragon emblem, but it's the tiny bunny crouching on the knob that makes this teapot one-of-a-kind and utterly irresistible.

If you're shopping for a gift, people born in the Year of the Rabbit are known for their love of beautiful objects. You can't go wrong with a fine teapot that will deliver a lifetime of well brewed tea and only gain value as it develops patina. The pot is medium-sized, perfect for serving 2-4 people. Note that the actual color is closer to what's shown in the detail photo of the lid.

The Rabbit Teapot wasn't mass-produced, so we only have one. Put our bunny in your Easter basket for just $198. If you're interested, email us.
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A Refreshing Trip to Shan Lin Xi Leads to a Promising Harvest

I arrived in Taiwan and was met by my friend Mr. Chang. This is the last leg of my trip before returning home. I was exhausted, feeling battered and abused by China's extreme prices and the seemingly unconcerned attitudes of the tea people I deal with. For example, Mr. Chen, a tea grower, told me: "Mr. Fong, I will give you a great price, only 500 yuan per kilo, a better price than anyone else I sell to!" When I told him we purchased that tea for 35 percent less last year, he shrugged and said, "That's the price." No one is surprised if prices go up every year; it is just a fact of life. Didn't anyone tell these people there's a recession going on?

Anyway, after a brief discussion about teaware at Mr. Chang's office, I retired to the hotel to lick my wounds. After an overnight break, I traveled to Nantou via Taiwan's high-speed train, which shortens what used to be a drive of about three hours to a little over half an hour. My friend Shing Wen picked me up at the train station and up the mountain I went. First, I visited a tea seedling factory to see what they have and get some pointers on how best to grow our own. Next I went to Shing Wen's tea factory to sample all the oolongs her family collected for me to cup. I was very encouraged by the samples. Normally I would have bought some of them, but since they're this good despite being from lower altitudes, I decided to take a chance and wait for the higher altitude tea. This year's more consistent weather and later harvest are likely to produce one of the better harvests in recent years.

I decided to go up to the mountain to see how close we are to harvest before making a final decision, so we drove to the Shan Lin Xi area where I've procured some excellent oolongs in the past. The scenic two-hour drive started to ease some of the pain from high prices and the "escape" from China. When I arrived at the garden at around 1 PM, the fields were still covered by rolling fog. However, the plants and their young buds are looking good. I estimate another week or two before full production begins.
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One Last Stop in Fang Cun, Then On to Taiwan

I arrived in Guangzhou via China's bullet train. It only took two hours to get there from Changsha, Hunan. The ride was quiet and comfortable. I was all smiles when I got off the train with my box of dragonwell and luggage, only to find that there were no baggage carts and no porters in sight. In a mild panic, I started to pull my laptop bag and suitcase in one hand while trying to drag the 40-pound carton of tea towards the exit. A young kid bounded by and said, "Hey ye ye, can I help you with that!" ! I was shocked to be called ye ye (gramps); I thought you had to be really old to be called that, but with my gray hair, I must have looked ancient to him. I glared at him and said I can manage. One of the most stupid things I've done in a long time, should have let the kid drag the box out!

By the time I got to the exit and found my driver, I was dripping with perspiration. I didn't know a human being was capable of leaking so much! I was not in a very good state of mind when I get to my friend Mr. Lin's store in the wholesale tea market in Fang Cun, Guangzhou. I met Mr. Lin years ago when he ran a small store in Fang Cun selling Fujian tea. Now his business has grown into a huge three-store building with customers all over the world. Total sales reached 106 million yuan last year. I didn't do the math to convert that into US dollars, but it is a LOT!

I make a point of visiting him from time to time since his company carries almost everything under the sun, and if for whatever reason he doesn't carry it, we can find it all in Fang Cun, the largest wholesale/retail tea market in the world. I wanted to cup Mr. Lin's selections against my own and compare his prices to what I got from my sources. Its a great way to sum up my trip and make sure that I've made sound decisions. I have to say that I am pretty happy with my selections so far. I think we can look forward to a late but good tea harvest in 2011, the best in many years.

Tomorrow I take off for Taiwan. Since direct flights began travelers no longer have to fly to a different location, such as Hong Kong or Korea, before flying into Taiwan. That saves not only money but almost a day of traveling. I love it! Lower altitude oolongs from Taiwan are already available. I want to go up to Shan Lin Xi to see what's up. I will report again when I escape from China and its extreme prices!
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Update from Takada San on Japanese Tea and Radiation

Roy’s friend the Japanese tea farmer Takada san responded to questions about the safety of Japanese tea as well as the 2011 harvest. Due to widespread interest in the situation in Japan, Roy is sharing Takada san’s comments.
The biggest Japanese tea area is Shizuoka. The distance from Fukushima to my sencha mountain in west Shizuoka is 500 km. The oldest tea area is around Kyoto. The distance from Fukushima to Tokyo is 300 km and from Tokyo to Kyoto is another 500 km, so my town’s Uji tea is a total of 800 km from the nuclear plants. Another tea area, Kagoshima, is 1600 km from Fukushima. My tea is almost 70 percent Uji, 10 percent Shizuoka, and 20 percent Kagoshima, so I can supply safe tea. Picking in the south area, Kagoshima, starts next week. The middle area, Shizuoka, starts at the end of April, and our Uji area starts at the beginning of May. As for matcha, it’s better to save it until after the summer. It is necessary to keep it several months to give it time to ferment.

The gyokuro I sent you last year is from the famous Ioka garden area. The gyokuro this year looks very good, but you have to book it before picking because the quantity is very small. Last year’s gyokuro was also high quality, with a balanced taste. When you say kukicha, we have two types: from gyokuro leaves or from sencha leaves. Gyokuro kukicha is very sweet, while sencha kukicha is fruity and a bit sour.

Roy told Takada san:
I hope to help spread the word about the highest quality Japanese tea to Americans. Currently, there are people who charge a tremendous amount of money for not-so-great quality tea. I believe this kind of thing gives a bad name to the product. When I return from China and the new harvest arrives in the U.S., I plan to start a series of tea tasting classes to benefit disaster relief in Japan. I would also like to prebook a few kilos of the best gyokuro and other teas, as you suggested. A lot of my customers continue to ask about how the radiation is or is not affecting tea in Japan.
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Photos from Hunan: Tea Classes at the University of Agriculture

Hunan University of Agriculture Tea Program students and their handiwork

The tea curriculum is very hands-on

A discussion around the tea-rolling machine

Everyone wants to try their hand at the sha qing machine, where leaves are cooked through to arrest oxidation

A plot of students' seedlings, all raised by students from cuttings taken from the university's experimental plots

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Possible Tea Exchange Program with Hunan University of Agriculture

After a full day of cupping yesterday I went to the hotel and collapsed. If I turn down dinner and stay in my room all night you know I'm tired! It took a full night to recover from the cupping marathon. This morning I decided to skip climbing to the next tea farm for a few days. Instead, I visited Hunan's famous University of Agriculture; their tea program rivals the one at Zhejiang University. I also wanted to look at the varietals they have in experimental plots and see how they raise their cuttings and other horticultural details.

When I visited Professor Wang in the tea department, he was holding a production class. Students are encouraged to pick, produce, and present their own tea harvest. I saw a bunch of enthusiastic young men and women fighting to get their hands on the tea. I only wish that I had such a source of human treasures back home!

I raised the idea with Professor Wang of bringing Americans here for an intensive two-week class at the university. He was very interested. We talked about an exchange program where professors could come to California and help establish my tea farm and hold classes there, while U.S. students come here to China. I am exploring a curriculum that includes planting and production as well as tea culture and tasting.
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Changsha Surprise: An Interesting Tan Yang Confounds Expectations

You know you're getting old when you turn down food and partying. I had a full day of cupping tea here in Changsha's Hunan Tea Import/Export Corp. After the first hour or so I lost count and was only going through the motions with most the the tea. I always said you're never too old to learn something new and don't make up your mind until you learn the truth, etc., but after a couple of hours of non-stop cupping I was more than ready to jettison any tea I thought might be inferior due to past experience. After cupping some interesting Yunnan black teas, next up were 10 or 15 black teas from Fujian.

The current economic boom has caused some strange tea phenomena. A few years ago, the puerh craze seemed unstoppable, with even "mom and pop" breaking open their cookie jars to buy puerh as prices skyrocketed. Then the craze was over, largely because of too much bad and phony puerh coming on the market; prices began to return to sane levels. However, if you know the Chinese, one wave is simply not enough. The current craze is for Wuyi yan cha, which are also known for their aging properties. Prices for yan cha have doubled and doubled again. If you think this is insane, there's more: prices for Fujian black teas have been on the rise for several years, with the cost of 金骏眉 (jin jun mei, a type of black tea) selling for as much as 10,000 yuan per pound.

The teas cupped that morning were a selection of 坦洋 (tan yang) and 白琳 (bai lin). They're interesting enough black teas, but with good Yunnan and Qimen available, why bother? Well, Yunnan black and Qimen are not what they used to be, and while I could hear myself sneering at the Fujian blacks in front of me, I went through the motions anyway. All of a sudden and to my surprise, a tan yang jumped out! It wasn't fermented enough for my taste (I think most of the modern black tea from China has this shortcoming) and it ain't supposed to be that good no matter what anyone says, right? Wrong! This tan yang was fruity and floral with a light reddish liquor. The tea was finely sorted with a large amount of golden tips. I decided to buy some and admonished myself for becoming so arrogant as to forget my own sayings...
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Photos from Zhejiang: Tea & Shaoxing Wine

Shaoxing-style dinner

Shaoxing wine jug with a Monkey King motif.

Jugs of Shaoxing wine are sealed with mud to age.

Wild tea grows along the path up to the tea fields where our Snow Water Dragon Tips is picked.

When the tea is sorted, broken leaves are removed by hand.

Final sorting of our Snow Water Dragon Tips.

Freshly picked Snow Water Dragon Tips in the withering stage.

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Celebrating a Great Year for Long Jing with Shaoxing Wine

We have had a tremendous long jing harvest this year! I think this is likely the best harvest in 10 years or so. This year's tea was harvested on April 2, three days before the Qing Ming Festival on the fifth. Long jing picked before Qing Ming is deemed most valuable. After having been stored in paper packets in lined urns, the tea is ready to go. This year's Imperial Dragon Well has already been shipped via express mail and should arrive in a few days. I am carrying the Lotus Heart with me because I just can't let it out of my sight. I will be back on the 19th and then its long jing time!

As to other green teas, due to consistently cold weather this year's harvest of high-altitude green tea has been delayed. What is available is off-the-chart expensive and disappointing. After a couple of days cupping bad tea, I had enough. What do you do when you can't find good tea? You drink wine, of course! Chinese imitations of Western wine still need a LOT of help, so I went looking for wine that the Chinese are good at, Shaoxing rice wine. I toured the famous Shaoxing Wine Factory in Zhejiang Province, around two hours from where long jing is grown, and was delighted to be treated to a tour of the factory floor and some of the impressive lineup of Shaoxing wine at the Kuaijishan Shaoxing Wine Co. I had an opportunity to taste Shaoxing wine ranging from newly brewed to 100 years old. Then I had a wonderful Shaoxing-style dinner. Don't think my tea trips are just about tea!
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How to Store Puerh

More than two years ago we started the Virtual Teahouse on Facebook as a place where tea lovers could find one another and share their passion for Camellia sinensis sinensis. Today we're excited to see over 400 members chatting, asking questions, uploading photos, taking our What Tea Are You? quiz, and more!

Yesterday in the Virtual Teahouse, a member asked for advice on storing puerh cakes. In case you're wondering the same thing, here's what we recommend:

Puerh is easy to store. Leave the paper wrappings on but remove any cellophane, plastic, etc., that might impede air flow. An unsealed cardboard box or paper bag is a good container. It's okay to store all your cakes together. Put them somewhere with good air flow, no dirt or dust, out of direct sunlight, not in the bathroom (too humid) or kitchen (could absorb odors from cooking). A drawer or closet shelf is ideal - the same sort of place you might age a nice bottle of wine. Of course, make sure there aren't mothballs, cedar, or other aromatic substances in the vicinity. Dry tea leaves readily absorb outside aromas.

Roy strongly cautions against storing puerh in a damp, moldy cave-like environment. This type of atmosphere fosters the growth of aggressive mold and mildew that consume the tea's nutrients, leaving primarily harsh-tasting ligneous material. After a relatively short period of storage under such conditions, your tea could irrevocably lose the sweetness and clarity that are hallmarks of well aged puerh.

If you do spot a bit of powdery white mold on your cake, brush it off immediately. Remove the cake from the paper wrapper and place it in direct sunlight for a few days until it dries out and there are no more signs of fungal growth.

It's fun to taste your cakes every few months to see how the aging process is coming along and understand the ways the tea evolves over time. Slowly the flavors will concentrate and mellow out. Labels are a good idea if you don't read Chinese because it's easy to forget which cake is which over the years! Be patient: the most successful aging process happens slowly over a decade or more. As with many other aspects of tea culture, trying to rush will only compromise the outcome.
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Another Message from Mr. Takada

Roy received another message from his friend Takada san, a tea farmer in Uji, Japan, who is spearheading some relief efforts for victims of the country's triple catastrophe:

A big thanks to all of the countries that are worrying about our crying Japan. I continue my support to the victims through tea activity, especially with foreign people, because I have several friends in the destroyed towns. It is difficult for people who are living in broken houses to get support from the government. It is too easy for officials to forget about them. Because I know the faces of friends, it is more useful to send food and life kits to them individually. I told you about our project with Berlin Kendo Team. Is there any possibility to make a similar support effort from the US after you come back from China?

On a separate topic, Takada san had good news for Roy's tea farming project:

It’s very lucky that you contacted me with your tea garden project. In fact, I supported the idea to make a tea garden in France last year. It is not so easy but I know a company that invented a new method to grow plants from seedlings. I will send you the newest information.

Roy replied: We would love to help start a fund drive. I will start as soon as I get back home. I have posted your story on our blog and have been getting good responses. As for the tea seedlings, I have received a permit from the Department of Agriculture to import all camellia plants. I do need a health or sanitary certificate from Japan if you are able to provide me with plants. I have 23 acres of land here in California that I love. I hope you will visit one day.
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Gong Fu Cha: 7 Steps Before You Brew Tea

The following discussion of gong fu cha technique was adapted from training materials Roy prepared for Imperial Tea Court staff. 
Gong Fu Cha 1.0
In Chinese, gong fu means making an increased or focused effort and suggests the high skill level that eventually results from this hard work. You can say “I am going to put in more gong fu to be a better person” or “I will use more gong fu to be better at my goal.” Gong fu cha means making an effort to achieve proficiency at learning, understanding, and presenting tea. In any endeavor, when you’re ready to show off your gong fu technique, first put yourself into a relaxed and focused mindset. For gong fu cha, take a few gentle breaths, relax, and if possible remove metal objects such as jewelry from your hands and arms (metal opposes tea’s wood element). Then proceed through the steps outlined below. Don’t rush: the journey is as important as reaching the destination!

1. If you are making gong fu cha for someone you don’t know, introduce yourself and thank your guest for the opportunity to practice your gong fu cha with them. You can also apologize in advance for the unavoidable shortcomings in your presentation.

2. Introduce the teaware you will be using. Identify each item by name and explain its function. You can demonstrate how each piece is used and tell why it’s included in the presentation.

3. Present the tea you will serve and talk about where it came from, its history, and why it’s unique. I also like to explain a little about how the tea is processed. For example, an oolong from Li Shan has a gentle, silky texture and a unique vegetal undertone compared to the more robust presence of tea from Shan Lin Xi. A Wuyi oolong is both more oxidized and more high-fired than a jade tie guan yin from Anxi.

4. Now it’s time to focus on one of the most important elements in a successful gong fu cha presentation: water. Discuss details of the water, such as its source (for example, filtered or bottled) and why you chose it, as well as brewing temperature. If you have previous experiences with water variables, share them with your guests as you start to heat the water. Be sure to bring the temperature slightly above the desired brewing level to account for cooling.

5. Next, use some of the hot water to rinse the cups, pots, and pitchers. Physically, rinsing cleans the teaware and warms it up so it doesn’t cool the tea too quickly. Mentally, you are focusing your attention on making tea; it’s as if you were washing away distractions and negative feelings and cleansing your heart.

6. Now it’s time to explain how you intend to brew the tea. Discuss the yi xing teapot you’ve chosen today, and you can talk a bit about yi xing in general if you and your guests both feel the need. Explain the strategic placement of leaves in the pot. Tell how you will use the water and your pouring technique. Few people understand the significance of how you pour water into the pot for each steeping. How to use the water’s force to strategically move the leaves and make each leaf brew evenly is rarely considered, much less mastered. It will be an important part of your gong fu!

7. It’s time to let the water and your tea meet for the first time, an event commonly referred to as tea rinsing. I call it 温润泡 (wen run pao), “warm and moisten.” Covering the tea with hot water and immediately pouring the water off helps remove broken bits of leaf from the pot and washes off dust, soot, and other impurities, but most importantly, it moistens the tea and releases aromatics. The aroma tells the tea’s story: how much oxidation and firing, whether it’s aged or simply stale, what flavors are likely to dominate. This information helps you decide how to brew the tea so that you can bring out the elements you and your guests enjoy most. Pass the teapot around and have your guests savor the aroma to get a better idea of their impressions and which elements they find most intriguing.

8. Finally, you’re ready for the first steeping of your tea. However, before you go there, I suggest that you fully absorb the preceding seven lessons. When you have taken them to heart, it will be time for Gong Fu Cha 2.0.
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Messages from Japan: Tea Can Play a Role in Healing

Takada san's truck loaded with relief supplies
Roy began communicating with his friend Takada san, the tea farmer in Japan who grows Imperial Gyokuro, a few days after last month’s Japanese catastrophe. Takada san is in Uji, in the south near Kyoto, far from the area devasted by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, so he and his family weren’t in immediate danger. However, like all Japanese, they have been deeply affected. With the eyes and hearts of the world on Japan now, Roy wanted to share Takada san’s moving messages and his hope that tea can play a small role in comforting those who are suffering most.

On March 16 Takada wrote:
We have been afraid of another new earthquake these nights. Nobody knows when and where it happen and when it will finish. All TV programs showed only news of the terrible disaster the whole day and night. On March 11 I was working on my computer and watching TV at 14:46 in the afternoon. Then TV said a big earthquake is coming in a few seconds in several prefectures (this announcement system is very good to help people to get a safe position quickly).

After the earthquake came, TV showed the danger area for a tsunami. They predicted 2-10 meters height within a few minutes. The TV staff were shouting to escape to a high position after cutting off fire and electricity. It seemed like watching a movie. After three hours many cities located on the Pacific were missing whole their facing. TV news showed us many terrible towns. Now over 10,000 people are missing and it will be increase more. I am very lucky I was here in the Kansai area. We have no damage. In fact I have business in the North in June. If this happened when I was staying there, I would have been in a very dangerous situation.

I really thank you and all the friends who sent me messages. The Takada family is fine and thinking to send something to support the victims. After the Kobe earthquake I took my tea friends to open a green tea table in the park for the people who lost their houses. They enjoyed the green tea a lot after the terrible experience. It was useful to get vitamins from the green tea because they could not get any vegetables. I hope Japanese people help each other very quickly to return to peaceful days again. We feel a big thanks for the quick support from many countries. We will have the cherry season soon after a big cry. Fortunately the tea area is not damaged and I hope we can send the new tea, same as before.

Now our island got a skull stamp from the world owing to the big trouble of the nuclear power plants. The earthquake, huge deluge, nuclear accident - we are getting a triple disaster. I worry about gossip in the world now. Maybe they are afraid of touching our products.

He recently followed up:
This is my short story of the last week. For a week I was busy with my work to collect support goods for the people who lost their houses and families. I have a kendo friend in Berlin who has many students in his training hall. He made a support campaign for Japan with many kendo people around Berlin. He collected a very large amount of money as their donation. He asked me to change the money to useful goods, like food, life kits (light, batteries, candles, warm cloths, sweets, etc.) and send them to the destroyed cities. After two weeks there are still some villages where they cannot get enough support from the government.

So I went shopping in many places to get all of the items which are very necessary for the victims’ daily life and survival now. I packed nearly 50 cartons with the flags of Germany and Japan and delivered items very carefully. Even now the transportation is still not in a good condition. I was very glad to do this work. I did some charity activity after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and I am happy to finish this delivery on Monday and Wednesday. In the picture, you can see my small truck full of survival kits. I will continue this kind of support to this area, because it might take a long time to recover the villages. My town office is starting to look for families here with empty rooms to welcome students who lost their houses, schools, and their own families. We Takada family are also thinking about this possibility.

Now I have another idea with my partner in Berlin. I will send this poster and message labels to any tea shop that sells Japanese tea. The owner can start a Japan Week as an event for charity. Our motto is as follows: "Please drink Japanese tea and think together for Japan." Then their customers can write down some small messages to Japanese people on the labels. After this campaign I will get a lot of labels from abroad. I will put the labels on tea bags and send them to the people who are starting a new life in a simple house. They can see many messages from many countries. They will feel a big energy from abroad with a strong fragrance of shincha. The tea can be a bridge for these people.

This is one of my ideas for tea people. I can send you the poster and the labels in the new tea season if it is useful for your tea shop. We welcome good news anytime. Only good news brings us a good taste of meals and tea. We have such a bitter situation now. We need another clean campaign, "safe tea Japan."

When he returns from China Roy will be working with Takada san to plan a Japan relief event.

Takada san's poster and label
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