Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Beyond the Binary: Getting Closer to Tea by Mical Lewis

Before coming to J-Tea, I was a black-tea-served-English-style kind of girl. I was a votress at the temple of Earl Grey and a devotee of English Breakfast (both served with milk and probably made from a bag: gasp!). I inherited this preference from my father who, being an avid Anglophile, would bring a hot cup of Bigelow's Constant Comment tea with milk to me in my bed if I was having trouble waking up. I have probably had black tea with my breakfast for as long as I can remember.

As I grew older, tea became my main coping mechanism for dealing with life. If I was feeling ungrounded, I'd make a cup of tea. If I was feeling particularly content, I'd curl up with a cup of tea and a good book. If one of my friends had something they wanted to discuss, I'd make us cups of tea before sitting down to talk. However, as much as I found solace in tea, I always felt that there was a missing piece in my understanding of tea. I wanted a deeper and more spiritual connection to my beverage of choice. Of course I knew that tea was a big deal in Asian countries, but I just assumed that their rituals and theories were out of my league.

With this background, you can probably imagine what kinds of assumptions I brought with me when I got hired at J-Tea and what kinds of surprises were in store for me. The first surprise awaiting me was the lack of any sort of organized, cohesive system for learning about the teas. Part of this is that my boss and teacher isn't a terribly linear person, but I am also convinced that tea isn't terribly linear either. Tea and its world is more of an interconnected web than a progression. Sure, there are linear elements to it, but for the most part there is nothing hard and fast about tea. Tea is the constantly changing interplay between many variables. The farther into tea you get, the more you realize that you don't really know anything about tea.

Another surprise was how important it is to occupy the present moment when you're dealing with tea. Whether you're making it, selling it, tasting it or even just talking about it, things will always go more smoothly if you're grounded in the present. Granted, life is generally better if you're able to stay in the present moment, but tea is an excellent context in which to learn how to do that.

When I came to J-Tea, my eyes were opened to a brand-new universe of tea methods, tools, tastes and varieties. I am still partial to my old way of doing things (much to Josh's dismay) but I feel that what I have learned has given me a new appreciation for tea itself, but also everything that goes into making tea.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Year of the Dragon

Chinese Lunar New Year is the most important holiday of the year in China, Taiwan, and several other Asian countries. What does this holiday represent? According to the 12 animal zodiac chart, 2012 is the Year of the Dragon. Dragon years are known for bringing most fortune. This is a big deal! So much so that soon-to-be parents plan their birth schedules around it. In 2000, the last Dragon Year, 202,000 more babies were born in Taiwan than during the previous year according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. It is a very popular year to have babies, get married, or start a business.

Dragons are considered to have characteristics of being the strongest, the smartest, and the luckiest. The "long" of oolong tea literally means dragon. Oolong is one of the great teas that is finally receiving long-deserved attention. Oolong consumption is on the rise and we are predicting that 2012 will be the year of oolong. But moving beyond the oolong, ultimately to have even greater oolong, I am proposing instead for the year of the Yi Xing teapot.

Chinese New Year is a time to give gifts. One of the gifts that is most commonly given in Taiwan is tea. Tea is a great gift for many reasons. One is that it is an experiential gift, meaning that it is something that one gets to enjoy with the senses. Chinese New Year is a time when families get together. It's a time when people migrate to their hometowns. Huge cities such as Taipei empty as hordes of people make their way to their hometown. While living in Taiwan, I found that this time of year often made me more homesick than Western holidays. Some years were great and I was incorporated into the fold and made to feel like family. One of the places this happened was at the Kung Fu school. The Master made sure to invite all of his foreign students to the evening's feast. Typically, there's a large feast on the evening before the Chinese New Year on the last day of the year. In Shandong, it's traditional to eat dumplings at midnight--this is believed to bring great fortune in the coming year.

The first day of the new year is called Day One. On this day, you will hear everyone walking around saying, "Congratulations, congratulations." To understand this, we have to look at the origin of the holiday. In ancient times, it was believed that a beast comes out on New Year's Eve to eat people. When people emerged from their homes uneaten, on the first day, congratulations are given for victory and rebirth. Legend has it that the beast is afraid of red and today red is still an important color during this holiday. Red banners are plastered on doorways in triplets on either side and atop the doorway. Black Chinese characters in bold brush strokes contrast the bright red paper. My friends told me about how they experienced the New Year holiday when they were younger: "As a child, the new red clothes made us feel so good. We would eat a well prepared meal meaning an array of quality, an abundance, and prepared with care and insight And it was one of the few days of the year when you would wear new clothes. It was so great for us because it was one of the few times in a year when we felt like we had everything we could need." Today, however, many people exist in a perpetual state of abundance. My friends observe a difference in their children during the holiday, "This is day when you have everything, are given more, and somehow it's not enough."

Friday, January 20, 2012

Hold the Sugar by Katie L. Chamberlain

I grew up in the South, where sweet tea reigns supreme. Here, pitchers of sun tea bask on back decks in the steamy summer months. Iced tea accompanies most meals and when dining out, one should assume that the tea will be sweet unless otherwise specified. In the South, tea, by definition, means iced black tea (probably bags of Lipton or Luzianne) heavily embellished with sugar. This saccharine liquid masquerading as tea never appealed me. Early in life, I steered clear of tea despite its presence at every family meal. Of course, this is not unlike claiming a sweeping distaste for salad after consuming only pale, wilted iceberg. Often, it's simply a matter of exposure and a willingness to move beyond the familiar and open up to new sensory experiences.
Tea opened up to me in a manner similar to wine and microbrews after I relocated to the Pacific Northwest. Previously unknown categories were slowly revealed: oolong, Iron Goddess, and more recently, puer and aged tea. Along the way, I dabbled briefly in herbals and yerba maté (often mistakenly referred to as ‘tea’). My food interests—or sometimes obsessions—often follow closely on the heels of a related writing assignment. Some stick, others prove to be merely passing phases. In the case of tea, other factors intervened. When my relationship with Josh became more serious, so did my relationship with tea.
As it turns out, tea offers the subtle nuances in taste that make craft beer and wine so engaging. Yet tea intoxicates in an entirely different manner—and is more suited to regular and sustained consumption. Tea brewing also holds a high aesthetic appeal. It’s a slow and grounding process that suggests—and rewards—attention to the present moment. Beyond the deep categorical explorations that tea invites, the individual infusions are dynamic. Each infusion is a variation on a theme. I still find this remarkable given the utter simplicity of its elements: leaves, water, fire, and pot. Hold the sugar—tea offers a world of complexity and sweetness in its simplicity.

My grandmother’s ceramic teapot, brimming with sweet black tea, accompanied our family meals for decades, the cracked-then-repaired lid a testament to its endurance.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Meet Our New Contributors

In this new year, we are excited to add new voices to The Oolong Tea Times. Ultimately, we hope to bring our readers closer to the experience of tea. To this end, I have enlisted my talented staff to create blog posts that will be of high entertainment value, high quality, and regular in release and frequency.

We've only just begun on our journey of tea. It is our hope that through the process of writing, our collective voices will allow us to document the learning process. We hope to solidify the fragmented moments that comprise this process and distill it into words to create a story of tea.

The following is a brief introduction of our contributors (visit the “About” page to learn more).

Katie Chamberlain is my wife. She signed onto the newsletter project when I put a ring on it, which was in August of 2011. Katie is a professional writer, meaning she writes for money. She is also an editor. Everything she touches in the form of wordage turns to gold. Katie has helped me with many a newsletter. Her writing is clean and informative. Katie will play the role of contributing editor.

Jonathan Manley is a coffee expert reformed. An appreciator of the aesthetic experience, the process of making tea does not elude him. Jonathan is a strong proponent for tea rather than coffee as a daily beverage. Jonathan brings an alternative perspective that will add to the force of tea's resurgence in American culture.

Mical Lewis is a master of the word. Mical's prose drips like droplets of Eastern Beauty from her fingertips as she spins magical webs of tarot and tea. She is in charge of all things magical.

And me, well, I should be good for a post or two. All in all, with this tea team, I am lathered with anticipation for a variety of perky posts. In the words of some tea guy... “There is no I in team, but there is a tea in team.”

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tea Beer Featured in China Daily News

The headline reads: Josh fell in love with Taiwan's tea and went back to America to open a tea house. (China Daily News)
The interview was conducted at the Asia Pacific Oolong Tea Symposium in Tainan, Taiwan.  

愛上台灣茶 Josh回美開茶藝館 

 因為愛喝台灣烏龍茶,Josh Chamberlain回美後不但開了間茶藝館,還把茶葉批發賣給當地啤酒廠釀製成「四季春啤酒」。(記者施春瑛攝)
曾經在台灣待六年、並在成大唸研究所的美國人 Josh Chamberlain,在台期間因為愛上台灣烏龍茶,回美後不但在家鄉奧勒岡開了間茶藝館;甚至還批發台灣四季春烏龍茶給美國當地啤酒廠,釀製獨特的「四季春啤酒」,這次他到台灣來參加亞太烏龍茶文化論壇,還特地帶了兩瓶四季春啤酒來與愛茶同好分享。
說得一口流利中文的 Josh Chamberlain,他有個中文名字叫「陳博倫」。 Josh說,十二年前他大學畢業後,因為對中國功夫有興趣,特地到台灣來學習,待一年後他又回到美國。
回到美國後,認識一個媽媽是台灣人的友人,那朋友告訴他台南是個好地方,生活步調也很適合他。 Josh聽了很心動,就又來到台灣,選擇居住在台南,這次為了證明自己不是來台「鬼混」,還去成大唸了國際企業管理研究所,花了四年的時間完成學業。
因已經習慣喝台灣茶, Josh回美國時就帶了台灣烏龍茶回去,當地的茶藝館覺得烏龍茶很有特色就向他購買,於是他開始了茶葉批發的工作,把所有的積蓄都投入去購買茶葉。
近幾年來,因茶葉批發生意做得不錯,四年前 Josh在奧勒岡州的猶吉尼市開了間茶藝館,他說,客人以美國人最多,偶爾也會有台灣人去光顧。

2011/09/27 19:09

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Aroma: Drinking is Just to Make Sure

Many criteria are involved when evaluating a tea’s quality and deeper nature. Even before the tea is consumed, aroma and color offer a preview, or an initial impression of its character. If one does not see the tea as it’s prepared, aroma will introduce the tea. Aroma permeates the atmosphere and has the ability to waft outward from the brewing station and entice from afar.
First impressions are important, and in terms of sensory evaluation, aroma is big. According to Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s The Flavor Bible, “Aroma is thought to be responsible for as much as 80% or more of flavor.” This may explain the popularity of scented teas such as jasmine pearls and Earl Grey. Such teas employ the floral sweetness of jasmine and bergamot to induce distinctive aromas. However, this sometimes involves artificial agents. Spend more time with tea and its complex aromatic nature will slowly reveal itself.

Oolong teas are incredibly aromatic and driven by real flavors. By “real,” I mean that upon experiencing these aromas, there is no sensation of the artificial. The aroma may be strong but it will not overpower. In fact, the aroma of an oolong is often an amalgam of several elements, tightly layered. A scented tea, in contrast, is often singular. Often, the aroma of oolong is similar to that of flowers, fruits, or other vegetal elements from the Earth. In effect, a tea’s aromatic portrait references it’s agricultural origins. In this way, experiencing oolong’s aroma, simply and deeply, offers an opportunity to connect with nature.

Use your nose!
Learn More: Traditional Gong Fu aroma cups are designed to help unlock a tea’s scent. Tall and cylindrical, the aroma cup holds the scent in denser concentration. The cup’s high walls protect the scent, and the sharper interior edges at the base further heighten the aroma. Read more about aroma cups here: Aroma cups post

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Eastern Beauty

Eastern beauty, specialty of Taiwan, is a favorite of more than just a few.

Below the baby leaves
Tender buds 
Raw material for ikebana
That aroma
Each one of these, the stem with the tender bud, in some cases a white needle, the leaves, it looks like a little tree

You look so cute, little leaves
You have fur on your back, just like me
Even if you won't let me sleep
Thanks again, one last steep

Thursday, January 05, 2012


I recently had the pleasure of paying my second visit ever to Trident Booksellers and Cafe in Boulder, Colorado.  This is an excellent shop featuring great coffee, high quality tea, and books.  In many coffee shops, tea is an afterthought.  At Trident, this is not the case as revealed through a conversation with the owner, Mike Smith.  He noted that for a little bit more per cup, you can go from having tea that's considered acceptable to tea that many would consider fantastic.  Mike mentioned that he learned this from Gaetano Kazuo Maida.  Tano is a tea educator and the executive director of Tea Arts Institute (TAI), an organization dedicated to making the traditions of tea accessible.   Thank you Tano for turning people onto great tea!  And thank you Mike for receiving the message.  So many people pass up good tea because of the bottom line.  

This photo was taken on a sunny day in May.  Outdoor seating is also available in the back, where there are sandboxes for children and adults interested in sand play.

This is the super cool barrista station.  Notice the white thermos in the middle of the photo?  People drinking from a teapot can refill the pot for additional infusions here.

The brick walls creates a feeling of comfort at Trident.  Front door seen through the reflection.
The Trident wall of tea.  Good stuff!  Oops, my flash was caught in this one.
Mike took the time to sit down with me and cup several Indian and Himalayan teas.  Here is the Darjeeling first flush that we very much enjoyed.  It is very green and has peachy undertones.   It reminds me of the white peony tea, known as Hairy Monkey, that J-TEA previously carried.  Overall, I learned a great deal about tea on this visit.  Next time you are in Boulder, or if you live in the area be sure to stop in for some tea or coffee.  

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Number 28: Four Seasons Time Capsule Rediscovered

This story is a simple one. I had been living in Taiwan for several years and it was time to return to the U.S. I began my transition from Taiwanese resident to American tea importer. In hopes of preserving the vestiges of my Taiwan experience, I employed clever tactics to ease the cultural transition. My creative juices must have really been flowing. As a means of saving space, I loaded the bulk order of my tea collection into 100-gram vacuum-sealed packages and placed them into previously empty tea tins that I was sending to myself. There were perhaps 3,000 tins altogether. Because I was sending myself the tins as sea freight, weight was not an issue. This was my rationale for the endeavor.
Loading the tins was easy. It just took a bit of time. I filled the green tins with 100 grams of vacuum-sealed bags of tea as fast as they were handed to me. This task took a few hours. I remember traveling on my scooter with many unwieldy items during that time, among them large boxes of tea tins. It was dangerous, at best, when the tins were empty, but clearly perilous on the way back with a heavier load. I had packaged 24 pounds of tea into the tins. It wasn’t until I was on the way back that I realized I would need sturdier box to protect the tins from damage during shipping.
My elder Kung Fu brother pointed the way down the avenue that led to a wooden box maker. Was I wrong in noticing a slight tremble in my Kung Fu brother’s voice as he said, “Do your best.” I explained to the box maker that I would need eight wooden boxes made to protect my tea tins. He agreed to do it and I thanked him, leaving only the dimensions of the boxes.
Flash forward to September 2011 in Eugene, Oregon. Earlier this week I discovered one of the green tins at the teahouse, a relic from my farewell shipment in 2004. To my surprise, it contained a bag of vacuum-sealed tea. This is the last tea remaining from the tin shipment, making it an accidental tea capsule of sorts.
In 2004, I packaged three types of tea into the green tins as I prepared to relocate from Taiwan. First, a green Iron Goddess of Mercy from the Mainland; this is the best of that particular genre that I have ever experienced. Second, the An Xi Iron Goddess of Mercy, purchased at rock-bottom pricing from a tea merchant’s basement. As we prepared the tins for shipping, an experienced packager looked over his shoulder at me and said, “Old tea…This is good tea! Wow, it has a sweet fragrance.” Finally, a green oolong designated as Number 28. This oolong would later be added to J-Tea’s Eight Treasures collection (“Green Oolong”) AKA “The Emerald” in our iced tea series.
On a recent evening, I opened the green tin and the burst of Four Seasons oolong aroma filled my nose. It was the #28 Four Seasons Green Oolong. It has aged, but slowly and I would not yet designate it as aged tea. It remains remarkably floral with soft buttery notes. Though I admit I had hoped to discover a cache of Iron Goddess, learning about how a tea changes over time is a pretty cool experience.