Thursday, April 26, 2012

Travel Notes from Taiwan: Serendipity and Tea in Jiu Fen 九份 (Part 1) by Josh and Katie

Portrait of Jiu Fen by Ch'ng Kiah Kiean 
Serendipity led us to Jiu Fen, an old gold mining town at the base of Keelung Mountain north of Taipei. Our trip began in Tainan, but we quickly realized our friends were consumed with preparations for the Oolong Conference the following week. We decided that the best thing to do might be to leave town. Later that day, a new tea friend invited us to brewing demonstration in Taipei. I found a name card for an old teahouse in Jiu Fen that someone had previously recommended to me. I am not sure precisely where or when this name card came into my possession. But, nonetheless, it was there and the teahouse manager’s name scribbled on top. I showed the card to a tea friend who said, “Ah, she is a very friendly person. If you choose to go, be sure and let me know so that I can contact this person. She will be a good host.” In this way, our trip north unfolded, one piece at a time.

The next morning we boarded a bus bound for Taipei, which is actually quite comfortable and almost as quiet as traveling in Switzerland. A few hours later, we pulled into the Taipei bus station, which is now part of a multi story intricate transportation hub connecting the high speed rail, local trains, buses, and subway system. This sleek system leaves one wondering where America has gone wrong with its public transportation options. As soon as we arrived at the bus station, we took a short walking tour of the station, including an underground mall that extends six floors below ground. (In Taipei, space is extremely limited. As a result, one can either go down or up. For an entire semester, I attended a Mandarin Chinese class on the seventh floor, underground. This is not recommended for the claustrophobic.)
Creative food cart in the Creative Park
We boarded a local train to take us to the Creative Park. It was here that we planned to attend a free tea service, fashioned after the tea events of old. The Creative Park pulsed with activity: families meandered through outdoor art exhibits and teenagers restlessly waited in line for a rock concert. The tea tasting, however, proved to be a very low key affair in a secluded pavillion. We were introduced to an authentic Dong Ding tea and enjoyed sipping tea with new friends. The hosts brewed the tea light so that it was sweet; which makes tea more appealing to a wide audience. 

Later, we ventured to another section of town and enjoyed dumplings and cucumber salad from one of Taiwan's most famous dumpling houses. Here, the multi-lingual staff cheerfully hosts guests from all over the world. At least 15 chefs, all clad in white, bustled about in the steam-filled kitchen preparing the dumplings. They were soft and light--little pillows filled with a burst ginger and delicate greens. The food here is truly outstanding and it’s a shame that I did not get more pictures to drool over. 

As evening approached, we decided to spend the night in Jiu Fen. Luckily the manager of the tea shop, Miss Zhang, was able to secure us a room for the night. This was no small feat, given our late notice and the fact it was a holiday. We were lucky!  

Our host instructed us to take the bus to Jiu Fen and then call the hotel owner as soon as we arrived at the local 7-11. This seemed straightforward, but soon it became obvious that not that many locals travel to Jiu Fen by bus. After finding the right bus, which was a small trick, we were off. It was an old bus, bearing little resemblance to the modern vehicle that carried us swiftly to Taipei earlier that day. Every time we hit a small bump, the shocks would screetch and shimmy. It was like riding on an old boxspring mattress. We bounced through road improvement: Screetch, Screetch, Screetch. We hit potholes: SCREETCH, SCREETCH, SCREETCH. This went on for a while at which point I realized that some nostalgic part of me has grown fond of such experiences over the years. We inched slowly out of Taipei, making stops seemingly every 50 feet. Clearly, this was an incremental journey, and suddenly it occurred to us that neither one of us knew where we were going or how long it would take. 

Finally at one stop, the driver refused to take any more passengers. “No more local service,” he said, explaining that we were heading onto the freeway. After closing the doors and heading up the freeway on ramp, we were zooming over the nicely paved freeway, and the bus was quiet, except for the occasional grinding of gears and the roaring sound of the aged engine working to catapult the bus at a speed that seemed just a little too fast for this old bus. But this also somehow felt familiar. Going to this place for the first time, with only a vague idea of how far it was, it seemed as though I had lost track of time all together. Although the total travel time was probably around an hour, since I didn't know when we would reach the point marking our final destination, it seemed that minutes were lasting longer, and that time was moving at a slower speed than normal. But it was dark and soon we began passing through cool little towns that had a totally different vibe and culture. One of the great things about Taiwan is that it has maintained a great deal of regional diversity.

Jiu Fen's welcoming committee was ever so thoughtful.

As we climbed into the mountains for the final ascent the excitement continued to build. The bus lurched around tight turns creating an even higher pitch. Climbing the through the curves in the dark, the view unfolded to epic proportions. Misty hills, far away temples set ablaze by lighting and soon Katie questioned the existence of a 7-11 in such a setting.

Stay tuned for Part 2…

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

First Haikuesday

We declare First Haikuesday a success.  One of the problems has been deciding how we are going to spell my favorite new holiday that happens every Tuesday.  I like Haikuesday, because the u e combo transitions like Tuesday to make it a more complete representation of the combination word spawned after haikus became popular on Tuesday at the teahouse.

Mical Lewis created this event, so we are kicking this series of haikus on J-Tea's first Haikuesday off with Mical's submission.  We will then follow with all of the other haikus received today.  Thank you to all of you who participated for your thoughtful choice of words.

Clattering strainers,
unfurling green in white round.
A cup of J-Tea.
-Mical Lewis

Where did my tea go?
I have hidden it from you.
-Mark Lewis

Three empty vessels
awaiting to be filled.
Tea and breath are one.

Silence, tea unfurls
Mind quiets, heart opening
emptiness is full

Hard day of grey clouds.
A tea for stupidity,
red water clarity.
-Lucy Kingsley

In need of a break.
Taking time out of the day.
Tea deliciousnes

Focuses the mind
Envelopes the sense of taste
Experience tea

Best tea bar in town
Twenty-seventh and Friendly
Great staff at J-Tea.

Hiking Spencer's Butte
See the valley creation
Wish I had some tea
-Jeremy Swanburg

Jack Daniels not good...
To keep your mind clear and crisp.
Got to get J-TEA!
-Christine Ratchinsky-Hentze

From far, mounded fields
The leaves surrender to us
Hot tea soothes my soul
-Mark Lewis

Tea has much to say,
Brewing in a gung fu way,
Pleasantly surprised.
-Josh Chamberlain

Puer cake in the mail
A gift good enough to drink
or to age for years.

I had tea today
It is my morning routine
Sometimes at night too.
-Maddie Norman

If you missed it this week, join us next week.  Remember Tuesday is Haikuesday at J-Tea.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Tightly Rolled: It's About Expansion

One of the things that I am often explaining to people new to tightly rolled oolong is that the tea expands so much--to about four times the original size after steeping. I often say that a little bit goes a long way.

In Taiwan oolong tea production has evolved over the years. One of the ways I've learned about this is through drinking aged oolongs. With the aged teas the roll is not as tight as the rolled teas of today because innovations in processing equipment have created the ability to make tighter and tighter tea balls. This tea is different than gunpowder tea. In Chinese it is referred to as Qiuo Xing or ball shaped oolong.

Why is tea rolled? The functional aspects for rolling tea are that it travels better and the freshness is sealed in. Not enough can be said about this. The aging process is slowed down and this is what you want to gain from processing. Processing of tea is, in a sense, a chance to capture a particular flavor. By rolling the tea and rolling it tight, and by roasting on the outside, around the outside... this allows for us to experience the freshness as the round bud blooms into the dancing leaf.  

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Happy Haikusday! - by Resident Literati, Mical Lewis

Teapot by Li You Ren
Calling all poets! Introducing Haikeusday at J-Tea…Bring a tea-themed haiku to the teahouse and get $1 off hot or iced tea by the cup on Tuesdays. We will also post your literary offerings on our Facebook Page.

A haiku is a Japanese poetic form that dates back to the 1600s and has a complex history and detailed technical aspects, but for our purposes this is what you need to know:

Haikus consist of 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively and usually contain a juxtaposition of two images. Here are some examples:

the first cold shower
even the monkey seems to want
a little coat of straw
          – Basho (1644-1694) 

Haikus are short and
sometimes don't make any sense:

They can be serious or funny and they don't have to be masterpieces, but they absolutely must be related to tea. Bring us your Haikus next Haikusday (April 24) and join the fun!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Teapot Love

What is an Yixing teapot, but a direct connection to tea? It’s a vessel within which is infused some of the best tea you've been able to get your hands on. Rinsing the leaves, infusion after infusion, holding onto the knowledge that these leaves are adding to the overall quality of infusions that you will have the opportunity to infuse again and again until, at last, you part with the pot. And, it is in this way that we are all connected to the moment. Again, I get to use this teapot. Oh, how I adore you! You are so good to me. I will take care of you and your walls will enrich my tea. So, the romantic idea of the teapot is born.

What is an Yixing teapot, but the skin of unglazed clay? Fired at high temperatures. My fingerprints will stain you. Wash it off with boiling water. The tea stains it and leaves droplets. Wash it off with boiling water, just for uniformity. Done brewing tea? Make one more infusion, for the pot. Pour it over. Is this staining your pot? My little pot loves this. Do I always do it? No, this is just some playful behavior. Sometimes after heating the pot, and rinsing the leaves, I will use this excess water to wash over the yixing for fun. This teapot will change a lot over time. The more you use it, the better it gets. The more you use it, the more you like it.   

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

About J-TEA

     Below is part of a blurb created to introduce J-TEA to be a vendor at events. We are looking forward to introducing the mobile tea cart soon. We named the cart "Thea", after the great amino acid in tea known as L-Theanine. L-Theanine's effect is calming and centering.

Originally, the content read:
     "Josh Chamberlain founded J-Tea International in 2004 while he was living in Taiwan as an MBA student at the National Cheng Kung University.  In August 2005, Chamberlain returned to his hometown, Eugene, Oregon, and opened a retail space in the Friendly Street neighborhood in August 2007. He is dedicated to returning to Taiwan frequently to bring his customers the best and freshest teas, imported directly from small farms. Chamberlain’s intimate knowledge of the tea world and his close relationships with Taiwanese tea farmers and purveyors ensure the high quality of his products..."

Upon rereading this intro, I was struck with one thought... Boring. So I changed it to the following.
     J-TEA was nothing but a hope for Josh Chamberlain in 2004 while he was living in Taiwan as a student. Josh had a vision. Spending several years in Taiwan allowed him the opportunity to learn about tea from tea masters and tea experts and brought him into the fold of Taiwanese society. The tea spoke to him and let him know that others would greatly enjoy a similar experience with tea that he was lucky enough to enjoy. And so the story began. In time, J-TEA manifested into a teahouse in Eugene's Friendly Street neighborhood where many weary travelers of this modern world's battered landscape can pull up to the tea bar and feel the relaxing effects of any number of the carefully selected teas that J-TEA provides. Josh frequently visits the tea farms and studies with traditional tea teachers in his continual quest for tea knowledge.

Brewing tea at Jiu Fen's beautiful tea house balcony.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Staff Picks

Inspired by the creative tea descriptions written by our amazing tea staff, I added some photos of the various teas they describe.  In this series, there are three photos per tea.  The first is the dry tea leaf, the second is the tea soup or brewed tea.  For the tea soup we tried to include at least two infusions, if not three.  The final photo is the tea leaf after it was steeped.  All but two photos were taken by Andrew Hess.

Jonathan chose the Li Shan 2008, stating:

"This tea will obliterate your conception of black tea.  It's malty, smoky, slightly fruity, spicy, delicate and terribly smooth. Reminds me of a haunted house!"

The Li Shan Black tea 2008 is made by picking a summer harvest of the high mountain tea and letting it oxidize more fully.  Back in 2008, this was a less common practice than it is today.  As this practice was discovered and improved upon, the popularity of hong oolong began to rise. 
The tea water is rich and red, sweet like fruit. 

and the Twisted Leaf Formosa, stating:
"A great introduction into the world of Formosa. Rose-petal aroma, up front honey sweetness and
nice malty backbone. It's a delicate and multi-layered tea able to conjure up balmy summer feelings even in the darkest winters."  Dark winters indeed, and Eugene, Oregon sure has seen its share of those.   

This Formosa Oolong is processed in the twisted leaf style in which the leaves are rolled, but not in a bag, so that the leaves do not roll into tight balls.  
Possibly, it is this sunny red that calls out like a beacon, lighting the way for the day's next sunrise.
Formosa Oolong... also known as Eastern Beauty, Oriental Beauty, Silver tipped Oolong, Bai Hao Oolong, Dong Fang Mei Ren,  and Pong Hong Te to name a few.  
Of the An Xi Iron Goddess, Mical says, "Drink this when you're cranky and feel your heart open."
This is an example of traditional oxidation and roast for An Xi Goddess.
Heart opening goodness.
We often recommend this tea for people that like heavy flavors, such as coffee.

and of the Li Shan Charcoal Roast Autumn 2009 she writes:
"This tea tastes like fall: hints of wood smoke and sugars like you'd find in roasted root vegetables.  Wrap this tea around you when you're cold."

Charcoal roasting adds full body mouth feel that is both bold and delicate.