May 26, 2012

Tea Urchin

Today it's my pleasure to write about some samples I received from the generous hands of blog friends and operators of Tea Urchin, Eugene and Belle.  They're currently based in Shanghai and from the impressive breadth of their blog content they're indisputable examples of the new breed of online tea vendors who fearlessly launch themselves into the tea garden trenches, bent on sourcing the best teas as directly as possible and gathering a girthy and transparent wealth of knowledge for their customers (and themselves) in the hopes of further advancing the progress of tea connoisseurship in the non-Asian world.  As far as I'm concerned, there's pretty much unlimited room in the market for vendors of this stripe--the more educated consumers become, the more the market for great tea grows.  In my experience they all tend to be pretty nice people, too!

From what I can tell, the "online tea vendor" moniker is synonymous with "free sample-giver"--from the free samples that most sellers include with orders to care packages like the one Eugene and Belle sent me, it's a wonder vendors don't give away all their stock in seven-gram increments!  Yet, there is always the promise of turning a free sample recipient into a long-term customer...

Autumn 2011 Gua Feng Zhai

Pictured in-focus above is the Autumn 2011 Gua Feng Zhai sheng pu-erh offered by Tea Urchin; it's been a while since I've partaken in any autumn pu-erh (I think maybe some 2007 XZH was the last autumn tea I'd tried before this one).  Plopping a nice chunk into my warmed aged sheng tea pot (don't worry, it'll be just fine) my nose was greeted by that familiar new sheng aroma--grassy with some strained rustic elements and a sinewy back bone.  Let me again state that I'm not a young sheng pu-erh tasting expert or even an aficionado, though experiences like this are always enjoyable and illuminating opportunities.  I know there's more than one bump-on-a-log online who'll grumble that autumn pu-erh isn't worth drinking, but this shit tastes pretty good to me!  Naturally, it's tasting very green and energetic but there's plenty of bitterness lurking in that "oops I let it sit five seconds too long before pouring out" zone, and there's some nice progression happening across the infusions.  How does it compare to other Gua Feng Zhai examples?  Beats the hell out of me, but what's in my cup certainly meets my criteria for what constitutes "good" young sheng!

Summer 2011 Lao Man E
Comparatively, this summer 2011 Lao Man E is less floral and fragrant and visibly more amber in the cup.  While I appreciate bright, energetic teas, my daily drinking these days tends to favor teas with broader characteristics--instead of a punchy young flavor, this tea offers a bit more of a sampler of different earth tones, which seem to complement bitterness more naturally.  I do agree with the Tea Urchin description, though, that this summer tea is surprisingly less bitter than other spring teas I've tried from Bulang.  I'm guessing you'll find even more sticks-in-the-mud declaring summer pu-erh not worth drinking or aging, but if I were going to drink a young sheng pu-erh on a daily basis, it would probably be something more like this.  Keep in mind, I'm the kind of rotten tomato who's inclined to believe that anyone with less than roundabout 30 years of personal pu-erh aging and drinking experience is probably unqualified to make statements about how a particular brand new pu-erh will age.  Rather than desperately rationalizing that the tea we already bought is definitely or will definitely turn into something great, we'd probably be better served by buying and drinking something we already think tastes good, loving it without conditions that it improve at a later date (I'm also now accepting applications as a marriage counselor)! We've all heard that one before, though, right?  If I had more discretionary income, I'd probably be buying one or more of every new pressing made by my favorite vendors, so my savings can at least be thankful that these days I have to focus not on speculative purchases but rather on the teas I drink daily...

Like yan cha!  While my pu-erh purchases are quite cautious, my yan cha stockpile is in a constant state of danger, and I'm always on the lookout for well-roasted teas.  I also received some Da Hong Pao, Rou Gui and Tie Luo Han from Belle and Eugene, all of which are reasonably priced and seem to be traditionally processed.  I can think of few currently-available Tie Luo Han examples that fit what's become ideal in my mind--at it's best, Tie Luo Han is almost not even there--there isn't any high lingering aroma or buzzing mouth activity; it's more of a "feel" tea that can quietly offer an awful lot that other yan cha can't.  Good on Tea Urchin for offering one that's roughly priced at a yan cha "daily drinking" level.  While my 2012 pu-erh purchases are likely to be about as minimal as they were in 2011, I suspect I'll be visiting Tea Urchin for yan cha before too much more time passes.  Thanks again to Belle and Eugene for the opportunity and delicious teas--I'm sure we'll be seeing more and more great Tea Urchin offerings in the near future.

February 22, 2012


Not a lot of blog posting always, though, a lot of steady tea drinking.  I've been thinking a lot recently about the phases we go through as tea aficionados.  First, it's a lot of wide-eyed enthusiasm with a desire to try every tea we come across or hear about.  After we learn a bit more and get better at differentiating between vendor fluff, hype, myths that have been repeated enough times that most people believe they're actually true...and something closer to the actual reality of the tea-producing and consuming world, we tend to mellow out a little bit.  Meaning, we are a little more cautious about purchases and a continually growing body of personal experience guides both our decisions and our assessment of teas we drink.  This seems to be where disillusionment sometimes starts to enter the picture--some people seem to start thinking that most tea out there is total shit when in reality part of what's going on is that the optimistic outlook and lack of experience that was present early on naturally tapers and similar teas don't seem as rosy as they originally did.  Rather than heading down a cynic's path, I've started thinking that maybe this point of the evolution isn't such a disappointment or bad thing but should be celebrated as a nice place to be.

I think it's natural that for most of us, tea obsession will relax a bit as time goes on and only a small fraction of us will continue diving deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.  Stéphane of Tea Masters is someone who immediately springs to mind--he and his impressive back catalog of writing and shared tea experience are proof that careful attention, contemplation and discipline will continuously reveal insight and rewards of all kinds.  In reality, though, I think most of us have other interests or obligations that preclude the amount of commitment required to nurture such a passion.  It seems especially true and demonstrable amongst tea bloggers as well that a flurry of early activity often gives way to long (even indefinite) periods of inactivity and silence.  To me, this isn't a bad thing!  Tea blogging for me has never been about trying to amass a multitude of followers, and quietness makes more sense than churning out endless reviews that begin to blur together--you can only express the same particulars of taste, complaints, and preferences you've developed as a tea lover so many times before it starts sounding like a broken record.  How many times do I need to say I wish there were more and heavier charcoal roasted yan cha and dong ding oolongs out there before I never need to say it again?  I think I'm there already!  I'm a bigger fan of the Robbie Robertson approach to blogging; wait until you feel you've got something to say...if you've tapped the wellspring of insight and can post every other day, then great!  If not, the bookends of silence will only make the quality of your observations stand out more!

Lately my tea life has continued in the same trajectory it's been going for a while.  I make gong fu tea as part of a daily routine, finding joy in the fact that I'm taking about an hour to do something relatively quiet and contemplative, but never really encroaching on the other things I'm doing (which right now includes the bottomless time-pit of writing, demoing and recording another studio album).  The different teas I drink are fewer and further between, but they mostly fit my personal tastes so drinking them is always pleasurable and I do it so often that I really get to know each tea across numerous sessions and the host of variables that always accompany each encounter.  I've realized that one of my favorite aspects of this long-term and low-maintenance tea lifestyle is using and seasoning different yixing pots.  I continue to occasionally purchase pots and feel more and more that getting to know a pot is just like getting to know a tea, and that the more you use one, the better you understand it and the more intuitive your relationship with the pot becomes.  This plan basically consists of getting a pot and using the shit out of it for a few months at a time.  I can usually tell if I want to keep using a pot after a few sessions, but there's a lot to be learned and to experience as you keep using a pot.  The duan ni pot I have pictured here is only a few months old, but I've used it so much with yan cha and roasted Taiwan oolong that the patina is already getting quite noticeable--an evolution that's one of the most fun aspects of using one or two pots a lot.  There's something about tea stains that just make a pot look better, especially when it reminds you of the relationship and experience you've shared with the object. 

Using a new pot extensively does mean that the older pots don't get quite as much use.  My favorite yan cha pot, for example, hasn't seen much use for a few months.  Recently upon returning to it, though, I was reminded of the many aesthetic and practical reasons why it's one of my favorites and, consequently, how much I like or don't like some of my more recent yixing acquisitions.  Though there's a lot to learn from trying a lot of different teapots (and goodness knows I've used a few), ultimately having good go-to pots is most important.  For this and other reasons I'm again reminded that I'm a regular tea drinker first and an yixing collector second, and that it's again time to clear out some of the less-used pots in my collection.  Yixing pots aren't meant to sit unused in a collection; they're functional, and especially the very old ones have already seen so many owners that it's foolish of me to presume that I should be the last--even if I keep them for the rest of my days.  That, and being an independent musician isn't cheap!  Good news for those of you who've recently asked about teaware sales--I'll be setting free a number of different pots of varying ages and prices, listed on the perennially-popular Teaware for Sale page.  There are two new ones up there already--more to come over the next week or so (updated Feb. 24), so check back if you're interested.  Here's hoping you're enjoying wherever you are in your own personal tea journey...

January 18, 2012

Once in a Blue Moon...

we get some snow in Seattle.  This cup of Tie Luo Han didn't stay hot very long!  Happy tea-drinking; I'm off to seek out a winter wonderland in Discovery Park!