Breaking A Puerh Bing Cha ("Cake Puerh")

As with most "cake"Puerhs, the amount of tea used is rather difficult to measure since you will have to break off a part of the cake to make the tea and it is almost impossible to get exactly the amount you want. If you're someone who just kind of goes with the flow, then adjust steeping time and temperature according to the amount of tea. You can easily adapt and it will work just fine. However, most people want some kind of structure to follow, so will recommend three methods to break up the cake.
He Kai Shan "Green" Puerh - Bing Cha

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September Successes at The Farm

This week marked the completion of another critical step toward actual production at the Tea Farm. With years of continuous infrastructure problems, it's been impossible to put plants in the ground. Broken water lines and problems with the wells, struggles to install the solar power system and the persistence of the Central Valley's hot, dry summers have been constant challenges. In previous posts we've shown how we're now harvesting the sun for power. Today we can happily announce completion of the "nursery" for our infant tea plants.

Greenhouse - Southwestern Exposure

We've replaced the original clear plastic siding with a single sheet of opaque white plastic and then a covering layer of black solar netting to further help with naturally reducing interior temps when it's 100+ outside but also keeping it cozy when the mercury drops. You can see how these layers have been strapped to the the ground with cables so that the wild winter winds can't rip it away.

Adding the new plastic covering

A cooling system of mist and fans maintains the interior humidity, providing the young tea plants with their preferred tropical climate. A complex system of fans, misters and automated monitors will keep the humidity a stable minimum of 40%.
Inside the greenhouse

Custom built hydroponic trays will soon house thousands of new cuttings.
Tea & Bamboo
Along with the tea, we're also testing strains of jasmine, bamboo and olive trees.

We now anticipate an Grand Celebration by next Fall with a BBQ and general festivities.
So, stay tuned!
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Imperial Gaiwan Collection Update

You may have noticed that we recommend using gaiwan preparation for almost every tea we offer. While it may take some practice to hold properly and strain without spilling, we think that you will come to love this classic piece of teaware.

That is one reason we invest so much in providing fine gaiwans made of lovely bone china and decorated with designs inspired by the royal Chinese courts. 

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This is my final day at the factory. With our Yin Hao and Jasmine Pearls taking seven days to finish scenting, I simply ran out of time.  (Multiple scenting with fresh flowers every day.)

I inspected last night's pile of scented tea this morning and cupped them after the flowers are removed from the tea and I am happy with the progress. I am also smart enough to leave so the real pros in the factory can finish the work without me peering over their shoulders.

I will be on a plane back home tomorrow and the thought of an airport and 12 hours of flying sound good. There's a limit than an overweight, 57-year-old body can take . . .
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Picking Fresh Jasmine Flowers

In the throes of jasmine harvest, the intense heat of summer and the humidity of monsoon season, the delicate beauty of the fragrance of this delicate white flower will be absorbed by and preserved in the tea.

A fully opened, white jasmine flower of the specific varietal used to scent tea is puffy when fully opened.

The flowers are picked by hand in the early morning hours before they open. In that way, the most intense "release" of their perfume is saved for the tea.

 I had to laugh when I discovered some stray bean plants growing in the jasmine field.

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Wholesale Jasmine Market

Continued good weather allowed jasmine production on our own farm to progress forward. However, the price of fresh jasmine flowers also continued to climb this year so I thought I go and check out the wholesale jasmine market to see what's up.

The pictures shows the frantic and often chaotic pace that takes place everyday.

Standing amongst tons of fresh jasmine flowers along with hundreds of screaming individuals is like listening to beautifully played classical music while you're riding out a storm outdoors!

If you're bored and want a change of pace, you should come and check this out . . .

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Jasmine Flower Harvest

This trip to China was specifically to be on site for the jasmine flower harvest and to supervise the scenting of our jasmine teas with the fresh blossoms. But the weather did not cooperate with my flight plans. 

After ten days of continued on and off rain, jasmine production practically ground to a halt. Factories typically do not accept flowers during the rain due to excess moisture content. They prefer to wait until warm, sunny days where flowers develop the maximum amount of fragrance. So I tried to make the best of things and took the opportunity to get all my personal business done elsewhere.
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Tea Farm Update - Solar Power Now In Place

At the base of the hill where rows of tea will grow now stands a solar installation powerful enough to service the lower well for the existing ten-acre almond grove and the filtration and circulation for the lower pond. Producing 1800 watts per second, this is only the first phase. The second phase, when in place, will provide for the upper well and greenhouse - running the cooling fans, water pumps, filters and all other essential resources to support the nursery for new tea plants.

Then, with water and power in place, the ground can be prepared to receive the varietals that have been selected for the first test field.

Stay tuned for more news from Esparto!
Setting the supports for solar panels

The framework

Completed installation of Phase 1 - 1800 watts per second

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Prefer Pu'erh?

We recently received a head's up about this wonderful article and wanted to share:

I can't wake up without Pu'er tea. I like mine from the Imperial Tea Court in Berkeley. It's a fermented black tea. I like it because it feels gentle on my stomach but it's pretty caffeine-rich, so it's nice in the mornings. It tastes really, really earthy, almost chocolatey. Sometimes I add a sliver of fresh ginger root to the pot to sweeten it.

 Quote from Fanny Singer

It would be a challenge to devise a more epicurean upbringing than Fanny Singer's. Her father is importer, winemaker and restaurateur Stephen Singer. Her mother is legendary chef Alice Waters, who celebrates the 40th anniversary of her restaurant, Chez Panisse, this year.

Ms. Singer was born in Chez Panisse's 12th year, and her life among its chefs inspired a children's book ("Fanny at Chez Panisse"), a café (Café Fanny in Berkeley, Calif.) and a granola blend (Café Fanny granola, for sale at select gourmet stores).

Now three years into an art history Ph.D. at King's College, Cambridge, the 27-year-old shared how she adapts her Berkeley upbringing to cramped British student housing.

I'm living in a delightful hostel called King's Parade across from King's College chapel. I share a minuscule kitchen with about eight people. It's a 2-by-5-meter rectangle with an electric stove, electric oven, scant counter space, the requisite microwave (which I've never used) and a toaster. We've jerry-rigged all kinds of ways to eat in my room.                 . . . . .   Read Entire Article

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Keemun Quandry

It has been my practice on every Spring harvest trip to China to re-cup all the samples I acquired  before I depart for home. In the past, I have almost never had a change of heart from the original cupping to the final cupping. This year is the first time I have experienced a change of heart!

 When I re-cupped the Keemun samples I helped make I was torn between accepting them for what they are or rejecting them. Even though I like the teas produced and find them to be interesting, the old timer tea buyer in me tells me that these are NOT traditional Keemuns. These are teas that the new Chinese consumers want. And if you've never had a great traditionally produced Keemun, you would tend to agree and be happy with the new flavor profile.

 The trouble is that I KNOW what a traditional Keemun is supposed to be like.  And now I don't know what to do - accept and enjoy the elements of the teas for what they are or reject and keep trying to find a provider who is following the old traditions?

 I am really having a difficult time wrestling with this issue. I wish some of you out there can chime in and let me know what your thoughts are?

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Tai Ping Hou Kui Factory

After lunch, I visited the Anhui Yunxi tea factory. This factory owns its own organic tea farm and produces many fine organic green teas. Here I was able to watch how a semi-automated  (as opposed to traditional hand-made and much more expensive) Tai Ping Hou Kui (what we called Taiping Monkey King). I hope you like the video I am posting.

Tai Ping Hou Kui, Semi-Automated Production from Babette Donaldson on Vimeo.
Tai Ping Hou Kui, Semi-Automated Production

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Producing a supurb Keemun - 2013 Harvest

I returned to the factory to cup last night’s production, and would like to think that my involvement was beneficial. After cupping the first batch of last night’s production I was just floored by how good it turned out.

The aim for this batch was to retain floral notes without the excessive bitter astringency commonly associated with today’s lower “fermented” Keemuns. After long discussions with the factory's head tea maker, Mr. Li, we decided to give this batch of excellent material a longer withering period and then use the standard oxidation time for the rest of the production. It work out just exquisitely, final cupping shows nice rich floral notes with no grassy bitterness.

I am still amazed on how floral a black tea like this can get! I took the entire production of forty kilos. The factory will be sorting out all unqualified leaves and will pack the tea tomorrow for shipment. I will give my final OK when I return for one more cupping to confirm acceptance. I can’t wait to share this tea with anyone that will listen to me!

Empty Fermentation Trough

Empty Fermentation Chamber - Interior

This second batch was aimed towards producing a "traditional" keemun black tea. This batch was given more time both in the "fermentation" trough and the "fermentation" chamber. The process was watched VERY carefully to make sure no over-fermentation occurred. The aim is to produce a deep red liquor with the trademark "keemun" sweetness and unique fragrance. The mouth-feel must be smooth and the sweet finish must be long lasting.

This morning's cupping showed excellent results. I asked for one final charcoal firing to reduce moisture to 6% and to further heighten the aromatics. The final firing helped seal in the flavor. Tea fired correctly can remain fresh tasting for much longer period of time. Charcoal firing is the preferred method when performed with skill. Otherwise, this is where your favorite Keemun takes on that annoying smokiness that often exhibited with a lot of the Keemuns produced. I asked the factory to finish firing and sorting by tomorrow morning when I return for a final cupping before departing to Fuzhou for this year’s Jasmine tea planning with my people there.
Sorting the tea by hand, selecting only the finest leaves, removing leaves of lesser quality.

After cuppings, I agreed to go to lunch but with NO ONE who smokes! This time, my head of gray hair helped me. Since most of them are younger, they deferred to the old guys who may have a heart attack (I use the heart attack scenario to full effect whenever I can).
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Birdcage Lamps in a Chinese Tea Room

I often hear from those of you who remember our original Imperial Tea Court in Chinatown that you  will never forget the birdcages. So this string of birdcages as lamps caught my idea and reminded me of happy and challenging days when we were just beginning our life in tea in San Francisco.

Bird cage lamps in a Chinese tearoom.
This is for all you customers who have been loyal for twenty-something years.
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More About Keemun Production

I had totally forgotten why I haven't been huffing it to the factories the last few years. I always thought that I am getting old and soft and surly. It was easier to have the factory bring all the samples to be cupped to my hotel or my office and I would cup the samples and give instructions then re-cup the next day.

Well yesterday, I got excited by a sample at Mr. Shao Hui's office, so I left the hotel at 7 am and got to the factory at 9, ready to give em hell. I started the day cupping all of last night's production. I have to say that I was so disappointed I was ready to walk off! 
Fresh Leaves - Withering on Bamboo Mats

But fresh picked leaves started to arrive and the factory start to hum into action. I started looking over everyone's shoulder and I’m sure I was being a general pest and thorn in everyone's side. After all, who needs someone from far away telling you what to do? I am sure they've got moms and dads and may be a wife or two that does a good job at home!

Anyway, lunchtime came along rather quickly and the factory bosses and their entourage invited me to lunch and off we went. Memories of one of the few things I no longer enjoy came rushing back. It was the damn drinking and smoking! Being a resident of California where smoking is almost a sin against God himself, so I've been pampered for the last few years. I've forgotten how annoying it is to be the only non-smoker surrounded by a group of chimneys! I was glad that lunch was done eventually.

By the time we returned to the factory, the fresh leaves that arrived in the morning were now being oxidized in the "fermenting trough". This is a concrete trough with controlled, warmed air to accelerate the oxidation process. Since there's not much I could do during this phase of the process, we went to look at other factories to see what they had to offer. 
Fermenting Trough

We sped through four different factories in the Keemun County and there just not very many teas offered that interested me. The new so-called "market demands" are driving black tea to be harvested earlier so that more tippy leaves can be produced. Since Chinese consumers are new black tea drinkers, their expectation is different than a western consumer who is much more familiar with the typical style of black tea that produce a deep red liquor with less regard for leaf appearance.

The Chinese consumer today wants a good-looking leaf that produces lighter and more golden color liquor with more a floral note but requires lighter oxidation to achieve. They are willing to pay top dollar. The drawback is that lower oxidization can produce a green grassy-like astringency that I despise. The raw bitterness lingers way too long and destroys any hope of smooth texture and mouth-feel. I decided to get back to the factory to see what's up.

Fermentation Chamber In Operation

While we were away, the production continued. The next step is the "fermentation chamber" where the tea is loaded on bamboo trays and the chamber is kept at 25 to 28 degrees C with 90 percent humidity (Sorry, no pictures since I would like to keep my camera working a bit longer). 
Hand Rolling In a Heated Wok
Once that is done the tea is then hand rolled and shaped in a wok heated with charcoal fire. Then it is dried and sorted. 

It is now 11:30 pm at night and I have just gotten back from the factory. I am very encouraged by some of the production from today. I left final instructions for the workers to finish up so I can come in to re-cup tomorrow morning, if all goes according to plan, I will be sending some home, remember, we want floral notes but we also want a smooth cup with that typical honey sweet tone, if I am successful tomorrow, I'll let you be the judge to see if I have done it.

I know now why I kind of quietly moved away from working at the factory level. Some of it is certainly because I appreciate other peoples' hard work and really don't want to make it more difficult by being a constant pain in the ass. I'll also admit that I'm no longer 35 so I'm getting a bit soft! But seriously, it ain't the hard work or the long hours, it's those nine other nut jobs that wants to smoke a pack of cigarette each over a great meal while drinking gut rotting liquor with the windows closed! 

I guess if it’s all easy everyone would be doing it right? 

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Exciting Keemun News

I did as much as I could in Zhejiang, but after several days of running around and marathon cuppings, I have not found much to keep me here in Hangzhou. 

It seems that every year, no matter how promising, the weather always turns and messes things up. I guess Mother Nature is not very happy with us humans who are messing with her formula by over-polluting.

This year's harvest started off well with a warm winter and early harvest. But then nature decided to turn and bring in cooler temperatures which damaged some tea and caused a limited harvest. With only a few exceptions, I found this year's tea all exhibited that annoying bitter raw greenish astringency that I hate. With a heavy heart I departed for the Anhui province. I have complained so bitterly for so long about my farmer's Keemun Black Tea that he invited me to visit the factory and to "DIY--do it yourself"!

I arrived after a four-hour car ride from Hangzhou to the City of Huang Shan, my friend Mr. Shao Hui greeted me at his impressive tea facility. He served me a Keemun Xiang Luo in his office. Let me tell you, my heart skipped a beat or two because this Keemun has the signature sweet finish and that unique Keemun fragrance that is not found very often these days. More importantly, it didn't have that under-oxidized raw green astringency you would find in modern day black teas.

Some tea merchants try to tell their customers that this is the new correct black tea where lighter fermentation allows more floral notes to be shown. That may be true and good to them. But for us older guys who have seen what true black tea is suppose to be, that theory just doesn't cut it. Well this tea is as close as I have found to that true standard in many years.

I drank that Keemun right from the glass continuously until they chased me out of the office for dinner. I am convinced part of the equation that makes the tea exceptional is the excellent water here in Huang Shan. But when the tea is processed correctly, it is just good. There's no doubt about it. When it is good you know it.

Huang Shan Old Street

After dinner, I did my customary walk-about where I visit local tea houses to see what is being offered and how they serve their teas. Sampling local delicacies and talking to the locals who knows what's up since they live there is a very important part of my approach. I did not discover any outstanding teas but did find some awesome tea 
biscuits. They were handmade by a local teahouse who boasted a lineage of over a 160 years of tea making. Their prices are ultra high (over a $100 for an oz. of this year's first harvested Keemun!).
Teahouse owner serving $100/oz. Keemun

My hopes are high and suddenly I don't feel so tired. I am scheduled to leave early to go the Keemun area to give the factory much more trouble than they've bargain for. I havn't been so fired up for a long time!

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2013 Harvest - Dragon Well

What are some of the issues about buying tea directly from the sources?

Your everyday tea merchant worries about production or procurement issues from foreign sources. We also have to be tuned into marketing issues and the current trends so we’re not left with overstocked products that may go out of date or fall out of popularity. We must also be aware of political issues.

I, for one, did not believe in the so call anti-corruption efforts currently going on in China. After all, corruption has been like the air we breathe. It's everywhere and can’t be avoided! At least that’s the attitude of most people I meet here. But I’ve observed a new, guarded optimism even though most people would say, let’s not get our hopes up too high.

Since I have arrived almost a week ago, I have to admit that, at least at face value, there are minor changes. The high priced restaurants generally frequented by elite officials and rich folks are not only easy to get into now, but their business is downright slow. And in some cases - restaurants almost empty! The prices of luxury items like expensive Mao Tai wine have dropped in price due to the authorities order not allowing Mao Tai to be served at official functions. Officials are being encourage to “save”.

One of the luxury items is definitely Long Ching or Dragon Well tea. The prices for high quality “Ming Qian” or before “Qing Ming” Dragon Well have dropped in the general market. On the other hand, the ultra-high quality teas that are not available to the public have maintained their ultra-high prices. In at least one instance, a farmer was actually able to raise his price due to high quality in spite of the fluctuating weather condition from early warm spring and then the sudden drop in temperature followed by excessive rain.

Google Maps - Meijiawu, Hangzhou, Zeijiang, China

Our Meijiawu tea farm, (near Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China) has been producing our best quality Dragon Well for almost twenty years. It has been no exception to price increases over the last few years. In addition, buyers are sometimes forced to accept lower quality and high prices due to the increased demand!

This year, armed with my new-found courage learned from the general atmosphere, I inspected our harvest and found that it was about equal to last year’s production. Although the quality of the harvest was very good, there was certainly room to improve. Last year, due to high demand, the farmers in Meijiawu were in no mood to do anymore than they already have done for me, respecting our long relationship. This year, the production of our entire two grades of Dragon Well, the Lotus Heart and the Imperial Dragon Well grades equaled to 20 Kg. I had a long meeting with my farmer, Mr. Ye, and told him that I am not paying the same amount or they would have to double their efforts to increase the quality to keep their high price point. I successfully negotiated that Mr. Ye to re-sort the entire production by hand. This reduced the harvest by 5 Kg, sorting out some of the less quality leaves that would have been included previously.

I am pleased to report that I am happier with this year’s harvest of Dragon Well than the pass few years and I will be sending them home via FedEx rather than waiting for freight shipping so you can taste the remarkable results. Watch for our announcement of the arrival very soon!

Preliminary cupping of more than forty other green teas have been disappointing and I have rejected everything other than our premium quality Dragon Well.

More soon, 

Note:  Technical difficulties (camera breaking) prevented us from adding photos to this post. Roy is getting another camera and going back up the mountain to the farm to take more pictures for the next post.
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Things Are Changing In China

Strange as it may sound, there are some things I miss from the olden days of Communism in China -- where once you are connected to the right people you'd get things done. Where small gifts or just your friendship is worth something. Where some people are quietly proud of what they do and continue to do a good job regardless of there being no reward for doing a good job. The rest of the folks are told to do their job a certain way and they do it that way with a lack of motivation -- but just to pass the time. You know what to expect back in those good old days. 

Now, everyone is free to do whatever they want and are now able to own many things that are not even in the thinking formula back then (like cell phone and color TVs to say a few. Who doesn't have them now?) The new-found riches cause prices to jump unreasonably and, in fact, if it’s not expensive, it ain’t worth buying.

The quality, in general, is less than in the days of Communism because demand is so great and everyone is free to sell and try to confuse their clients instead of just telling it like it is as before. In the olden days, a standard actually meant something. For example, K101 is a specific standard for Tie Guan Yin. There were specific requirements in order for the tea to be called that. Those numbers mean less now and, instead of one enterprise being allow to produce it, everyone is doing it with their own standard. It’s a mess if you asked me . . . 

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Roy Fong Speaks at The Commonwealth Club

On the evening of Monday, March 11, 2013, Roy spoke to the prestigious Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Fortunately, for those of us who couldn't be there, we have the next best thing. You can hear the entire one-hour talk plus Q&A by going to the page (link below) and clicking on the "Play Now" link in the audio box to the right of the title, "Roy Fong: The Great Teas of China".

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Tea Festival Speakers

Roy Fong welcomes some of the most beloved tea educators to the 
2nd Annual S.F. International Tea Festival

Roy Fong, James Norwood Pratt, Michael Spillane, Rona Tison  

The S.F. tea festival offered a rare opportunity to speak directly with some of "tea's" most respected representatives.  Each spoke to packed rooms or sold-out focused tastings, filled with tea lovers thirsty for the experience. 

For the first time, Roy offered his, Full Cycle of Gong Fu, as well as one of his most popular topics, Great Teas of China.  Rona Tison, Sr. Vice President of Ito en, taught a similar class, Great Teas of Japan and Michael Spillane, President of G.S. Haly Company, conducted an hour seminar on the history of tea in the U.S. 

Other speakers, not pictured above were Devan Shah of International Tea Importers and Frank Hadley Murphy, author of "The Spirit of Tea". 

Roy Fong and Devan Shah

Frank Hadley Murphy

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Update on the new tea plants

The new cuttings seem to be thriving. Here are a few signs of new growth. Three of the varietals I've been pampering show good results.

The glow of green on the stem pushes out the new leaf and bud.

Several new buds appeared on the same day.

Once they were over the shock of being transplanted, the growth has been rapid. There's new green growth developing every day.

I have some older plants in pots that are better established and also pushing out new growth. I'll bring them to the Tea Festival on March 10th. I'll have them with me at the information booth.

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2nd Annual San Francisco Tea Festival


It's That Time Again . . . . .


The 2nd San Francisco International Tea Festival

Hosted by Roy Fong

Sunday, March 10, 2013     at    The Ferry Building

Advance ticket purchase is recommended.

Join our speakers for a series of talks:  
  • Roy Fong
  • James Norwood Pratt
  • Rona Tison
  • Devan Shah
  • Frank Hadley Murphy

Visit with our exhibitors for non-stop tastings of their featured teas and related products: 
  • Imperial Tea Court
  • Chado
  • Harney & Sons Fine Teas
  • Ito En
  • The Meaning of Tea
  • Glenburn Teas - Direct
  • Red Circle Teas
  • Fox & Moon Tea
  • Pure Puer Tea
  • Sky Tea
  • Mountain Tea
  • Teatime Trading Company
  • Sencha Naturals
  • Bruce Cost Gingerale (tea infused)
  • Alegio Chocolate (superbly pairs with tea)

Demonsrations by The Urasenke Foundation

Small Group Tastings presented by: 
  • Chado
  • Wild Tea Qi
  • Jade Mountain Tea
  • The Meaning of Tea
  • Sky Tea
  • Glenburn Estate 
  • . . . .  and more
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Spring At The Tea Farm

News from Roy's tea farm project has been a little lean over the last year with far more effort going into building the infrastructure than putting roots in the ground. New irrigation pumps, new water supplies, solar panels and soil preparation have taken center stage.

During this time, there have been several varietals grown experimentally. None have yet proven to make the transition to our soil and climate.

On one of our unusually warm February days, I was there for the arrival of four new varietals. The hill that will eventually become a field of tea was green and glistening in the bright sun. Rabbits skittered across the dirt road leading between the main buildings and the greenhouse. Three hundred bare-root tea plants had just arrived and needed to be planted immediately in a specially prepared tray in the greenhouse where they could be closely supervised.

Each of them was planted by hand in soil that had been blended and amended to meet the critical PH balance needed by tea. Roy took the day off from slaving over a hot tea kettle to get his hands in the dirt.

Every day brings us a little closer to seeing Roy's dream of a demonstration tea garden here in Northern California come true!
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