Outings: Valley Brook Tea in Dupont Circle

Recently, Nazanin over at Tea Thoughts told me about a new tea house that had opened in the Dupont Circle neighborhood called Valley Brook Tea and I knew I had to check it out. I work nearby, so I’m around there frequently and when I looked and saw that they had coffee-shop-style hours, starting at 7 a.m., I realized that this was a place that I could stop before work, especially if I left early enough to allow some time to sit and enjoy my tea. So I stopped by before work last week to check it out and see if maybe it was somewhere I wanted to go for a special treat during my work day on my birthday.

Well, it definitely was. I had a lovely time spending a half an hour sipping tea and chatting with owner Yunhan about their teas, tea culture, and how he probably has Teavana to thank for even being able to open a business like this. It’s a converted Starbucks, which is apparent, but Yunhan says he has plenty of people come in who say that they don’t drink coffee, but love tea. I was particularly pleased to see them get a little write up in the Washington Post’s Weekend section in their article on places to get a good cup of tea (which also includes Ching Ching Cha, which I have visited before).

I returned a week later for my birthday in the middle of the day, armed with an hour to spend and another tea friend, Peter. Once again, it was raining, and I found myself reaching for the yancha. While I had tried their Jin Mudan the first time I visited, this time I wanted to try their Rou Gui, after having Yunhan talk it up to me while we were chatting the week before. Interestingly, it was less sweet than I usually think of Rou Gui tasting (I also find cinnamon to taste sweet), but it was still spicy and delicious, and the cup aroma was a deep, roasted sweetness. An hour of tea and talk, with Peter and Yunhan was delightful and the perfect interlude for my birthday.

The shop itself is an interesting space. I need to return on a sunny day to see how the round alcove in the front is in proper light because I have a hunch it will not only be gorgeous, but also a lovely place to take some photos. The store is a converted Starbucks, which is obvious from its setup. The counter with treats and a tea bar is right up front as you walk in, with a small seating area to one side, and a staircase to a larger upstairs room. The upstairs room has a large communal table, a few free-standing tables, and a few half-booth tables with outlets set into the benches. There is also a seat with comfy chairs. It’s a nice space to sip and chat, sip and think, or sip and work. Unlike Ching Ching Cha, it has a decidedly modern and unfussy feel. It seems like it would be decidedly un-daunting to a tea newbie, especially since Yunhan is always willing to help show you how to use a gaiwan.

The teas are served either pourover, into a sharing pitcher for drinking in the shop or in a to-go cup, or else for $2 extra, are served in a gaiwan with a 1-L carafe of water. The teas themselves are fantastic (caveat: I’ve only tried two and both were yancha), and it’s nice to be able to visit a tea shop and drink a cup of tea with the person who sources them and can tell you about the specific regions and villages they’re from. They also sell their tea, and it seems they have an online shop, so non-DC-area residents can try them. I’m certainly going to go back and try them all.

Now, I was being sociable and not trying to take too much time out to take photos, but the other striking thing about Valley Brook is their beautiful collection of teaware for sale. They have shelves of beautiful enameled and handmade teaware as you walk in, just opposite the counter where you order, and more small things right next to the register. they even have a collection of statuettes of people doing yoga that are like little yogi tea pets, in honor of the yoga studio that is kitty-corner to the shop across the intersection of P St. and 21st. I thought that was a clever little nod to the fact that they’re not just there to serve dedicated tea nerds like my friends and me, but also to bring quality tea to anyone who stops by, even if it’s just for a cup of tea after yoga class.

And if they get caught up in a conversation with Yunhan and start a new love of traditional Chinese tea culture? Well, that has to be even better than Teavana.

NB: I will disclose that Yunhan remembered my birthday and gifted Peter and I with bodhi leaf tea strainers as a small gift, but I was not paid for this post and all thoughts are my own.

Tuesday Tasting: Anji Bai Cha from Yunnan Sourcing

Today’s Tuesday Tasting is the Anji Bai Cha from Yunnan Sourcing. I first found this tea when I was researching an historical tea video and I found out that the tea called “Anji Bai Cha” in a primary source about Song Dynasty tribute tea actually referred to a green tea, despite the name “Bai Cha” meaning white tea. I learned that this prized cultivar was lost until the 1980s when a bush was discovered that was believed to be the same cultivar as the tea prized by the Emperor Huizong who wrote a vivid Treatise on Tea that described the practice of preparing tribute tea in the Song Dynasty. The tea was called “Bai Cha” because the raw leaves are so pale, and only turn green when they are heated to stop the oxidation process. So I bought some at Yunnan Sourcing to try, even though I knew I wouldn’t be pressing, roasting, and grinding it to prepare true Song-Dynasty-style tea.

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The first thing I noticed about this tea is the needle-y leaves. They are long and skinny, like the needles of a Douglass fir or white pine. I decided to steep it in gaiwan, gongfu style, but have since determined that it might be better to steep this tea in a method that is more suited to delicate green teas. But here, I will describe my gongfu tasting.

I used 5 grams in a 150-ml gaiwan with 170F water. From the dry leaf, I got some powerful vegetal aromas. I rinsed it and sniffed the wet leaf. The wet leaf aroma was sweet, herbal, and with a floral component that I guessed as sakura. It reminded me a lot of a Japanese sencha with sugared sakura leaves and dried sakura blossoms. I then steeped it starting with five seconds and increasing in five second increments.

 

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After the first steeping, the gaiwan lid smelled green and creamy while the wet leaf smelled of asparagus. The liquor was a pale jade color with a warm, sweet aroma. The mouthfeel was juicy with light brightness, and more of that sakura flavor. It got thicker and sweeter as it cooled off while I sipped. The second steeping was stronger, with stronger green aromas from the lid and sakura and asparagus aromas from the leaf. The liquor was still a pale jade, but had a spicy aroma that I guessed as clove. The mouthfeel was thicker, but still juicy and not cloying or syrupy, with tart, green flavors, like purslane.

The third steeping gave tarter aromas on the lid and nuttier on the leaf. The liquor had developed that clove or allspice aroma and the flavor was similar to the previous steeping. The fourth steeping had green floral aromas on the leaves and spicy aromas on the liquor with a slightly sweeter flavor. By the fifth steeping, the flavor had started to fade, and the aromas had gone somewhat spinach-y. The sixth steeping brought back that floral asparagus aroma with a lighter, but still present flavor. By the seventh steeping, I decided to steep it out for a minute and determined that the tea was done.

The spent leaves are only slightly lighter in color than the dry leaf, and still have a vivid spring green color. They are quite small, narrow leaves and have a deep crease down the center that is characteristic of the cultivar. While I thoroughly enjoyed this tea in gaiwan, join me this coming weekend for a video in which I share a session with steeped in a more traditional style for a green tea.

Tuesday Tasting: Mystery Oolong from Yunnan Sourcing

This Tuesday’s tasting is a tea I found in my tea cupboard that I cannot link to because I don’t know precisely which tea it is! I know it came from Yunnan Sourcing, in my oolong tea subscription box, and was from Autumn 2018, but beyond that, I have only what I can glean from my eyes, nose, and tongue because I accidentally cut off most of the label when I opened the packet.

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You can see that it is a rolled oolong that has a bit of roast and oxidation on it. The leaves are obviously rolled, but super tightly like some oolongs. I used 5g in a 120-ml gaiwan and steeped it at 190F. I rinsed and then steeped, starting with 15 seconds and increased each steeping by five seconds (except for the seventh and the ninth).

From the dry leaf, I got aromas of pipe tobacco, roasted nuts, and a faint bit of woodsmoke. After the rinse, the wet leaf smelled creamy, with notes of caramel and leather, and just a little cannabis. After the first steeping, the lid of the gaiwan smelled of toasted hazelnuts while the wet leaf smelled of spent firewood. The liquor was a medium amber-gold color and smelled of tobacco. It had a creamy mouthfeel with flavors of browned butter and a maple syrup aftertaste. The empty cup had the aroma of vanilla and wood.

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The second steeping gave a slightly richer color liquor that had more roasted aromas coming through. The lid and leaf both smelled of charcoal while the liquor still smelled of tobacco. The flavor had a bit more tartness or tannin with a bit of mineral dryness and a sweet finish. The mouthfeel was custardy and I got sandalwood on the finish. The third steeping had more sweetness still, with the same roasted and tobacco aromas.

On the fourth steeping, I noticed a cedar smoke aroma. The flavors were much lighter and I noticed I was feeling some body warmth. By the fifth steeping, the aroma seemed to be fading, along with the flavor, but I still noticed a biscuit flavor and a very smooth finish. The sixth steeping brought out charred flavors: charred meat on the aroma and a charred oak flavor, like a whisky. The seventh steeping I actually only steeped for maybe 20 seconds because I forgot to wait for it to steep before straining it. I got more of a meaty flavor, almost like a stew from this steeping.

By the eighth steeping, it seemed pretty done, though I still got that characteristic tobacco aroma, so I did a ninth and final steeping for 90 seconds, which gave the last bits of a smoky, meaty aroma and left me feeling a bit jittery.

Oddly enough, the spent leaf was a deep green color, not brown like the dry leaf and roast would suggest. It was the color of pickled grape leaves. They were still quite shriveled and upon inspecting them closer, there were no fully intact leaves. A final sniff of the leaves brought out aromas of spinach or kale and a light marine aroma.

Perhaps in the future, I would be able to actually identify a tea from such a tasting. Any guesses?

Tea Review: Craftedleaf Teas

NB: This sample set was sent to me for the cost of shipping for review, but all opinions are my own.

Recently, someone from Craftedleaf Teas got in touch with me and offered me a chance to try some of their teas for just the cost of shipping. Honestly, I was on the fence about getting more review samples, but I’d seen a few other friends on Instagram raving about their Bilochun and I was intrigued by their Lapsang Souchong, so I accepted. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen me tasting them over the last few weeks, and you may have caught my recent video where I tasted one of their teas, but I thought I should organize my complete thoughts into a longer-form review here.

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First of all, their website is rather gorgeous, and relatively easy to navigate. Every listing gives the full information for the tea, along with instructions for brewing gongfu style and Western style, which is nice, particularly if you’re like me and lose the little packet of instructions that were included in the box! It’s nice because the instructions are obviously tailored to each tea, rather than just giving the same instructions for everything.

I received the Fullhouse Sample Set, which retails for $23 and includes 10 grams each of six different teas, two oolongs, a green, a white, a raw pu’er, and a black. Shipping from Hong Kong to the US was $8, and it arrived twelve calendar days after I placed the order. They also included a 5-gram sample of another dark tea. Looking at the prices, Craftedleaf tea is not as inexpensive as a place like Yunnan Sourcing, but they’re not outrageously expensive, especially for quality tea. Plus, the extra information on the website and the sense of curation suggests a higher-touch experience. Interestingly enough, the founders of the company both come from the two regions of China that lay claim to the origins of gongfu brewing. I particularly appreciate that they are able to use language on their site to express their careful curation, without resorting to calling themselves “luxury.”

When my tea arrived (much sooner than I expected), I broke into the box almost immediately. The seven sleek, white envelopes were carefully packed along with a little book of paper slips containing the information and brewing parameters suggested for each tea. While I jumped on the Bilochun right away, it didn’t take me long to try every tea, sometimes brewing more than one per day (something I haven’t done since before I got pregnant last year). I’ve now tasted all the teas at least once, and some more than that.

Tasting Notes:

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Spring 2019 Dong Ting Lake Bilochun: Because this was the first tea I tasted, I tasted it three ways. I first brewed it gongfu style, using 5g, as suggested; then, I tried it Western style with 3g; finally, I brewed it grandpa-style, by simply putting the remaining 2g into a mug and sipping on it throughout the day. This is a remarkably delicate tea, with a sweet fragrance and mild liquor. It doesn’t get bitter or unpleasant, even brewed for a long time. And I was able to re-steep it even when I brewed it Western style.

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2017 Ba Da Shan Wild Tree Raw Puerh: This tea, I steeped using Marco’s ten-step tasting process that I outlined in my last video. It is a remarkably well-balanced tea, with the aromatic complexity I expect from a sheng, but without the bitterness you might fear from one so young. And, wow, I got some serious energy off this one, even after just one steeping.

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Spring 2019 Wuyi Golden Horse Eyebrow: This was the extra sample that was included in my order and I’m so glad they included it. This was an absolutely fascinating tea. The damp leaves after the first steeping smelled of rich, black pumpernickel bread, and the tea itself had that flavor at first. But then, over later steepings, the most glorious sweet rose scent and flavor came through. Of all the teas I received, this is probably the most likely that I would buy for myself (once I’ve gone through my stash!).

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Spring 2019 Song Dynasty Old Bush Milan Dancong Oolong: This was the most disappointing of the bunch. Despite the description, I found the roast on this to be too heavy. I love Phoenix Oolongs and I was sad that the roast seemed to obscure a lot of the honey and orchid flavors, to my tastes. But it was still enjoyable, especially if you like a smokier tea.

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Spring 2019 Golden Tip Lapsang Souchong: This was the one that both excited me and worried me. My only experience with Lapsang has been the smoked Western-style variety and I am not a fan. I felt a little thrill of contrary joy when a tea sommelier on a podcast I listened to recently called it “bro tea” because I felt somewhat vindicated. But I know that Lapsang, as a category, is well-loved, even among tea connoisseurs. So I was eager to try this one. And it did not disappoint. It has a pronounced caramel sweetness and a rich body, but with bitter notes more akin to really good chocolate than an astringent tea. I even got a bit of pine aroma from the leaves after the last couple of steepings. And I got a bit of energy off it.

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Spring 2019 Organic Wild Baimudan: I may have come to a realization — I don’t think I actually like Baimudan. Now, what does this have to do with this tea? Well, this is probably the most enjoyable Baimudan I’ve ever had. It was a balance of flowers and hay, without too many off flavors, and a pleasant thickness in the mouth without being cloying or syrupy. And yet, I personally found it only okay. But my conclusion is that if I didn’t like this Baimudan, I probably just don’t prefer the tea as a type, because this was a good Baimudan.

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Spring 2019 Premium Anxi Tieguanyin: Tieguanyin is one of my favorite teas, which is why it is odd that I saved this one for last. Perhaps I didn’t want to color my opinion of the rest of the samples if this one turned out to be disappointing. Well, I needn’t have worried. This is an exemplary TGY. It has an unctuous, creamy liquor with a fragrant floral aroma and flavor, the creaminess punctuated by a citrus brightness that is really quite enjoyable. And look at those leaves! They’re huge, and hardly a stem among them.

So those are my honest thoughts on the Fullhouse Sample Set. One thing that struck me throughout my tastings was that every tea seemed very thoughtfully selected. They all had complexity and interest, even those that weren’t my favorites. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to investigate this company that I might not have otherwise found.

In my Cupboard: Investigating the Gaiwan

As my Instagram followers may know, I have a varied collection of teaware from around the world, in many different styles. I’ve decided to start a series where I talk a little bit about the different styles of teaware I use, their history, and how I use them.

When I wrote my tea primer, the third “level” was the use of the gaiwan to brew tea using a technique called “gong fu cha,” or “tea with great skill.” In modern times, the use of the gaiwan of a brewing vessel, from which the tea is decanted into serving vessels, is taken largely for granted, but offhand comments of people on Reddit, as well as what I’ve seen on historical dramas, suggested to me that the gaiwan was originally used as a brewing and drinking vessel. Intrigued, I decided to do some digging and explore how the use of the gaiwan has changed over its history.

One of the seminal works on Chinese tea preparation is Lu Yu’s Classic of Tea (or Tea Classic), and yet this work makes no mention of the gaiwan, instead describing a method of preparing tea by whisking powdered tea in a tea bowl. It is believed that the gaiwan was developed during the Ming Dynasty. It’s not known exactly when the gaiwan began to be used, but it was a regular part of teaware in the early 18th century. Sadly, this means that the depictions of gaiwan that delighted me in the Yuan dynasty courts of Empress Ki were probably an anachronism.

The blog Tea Guardian offers this pictorial history of the gaiwan, which shows a vessel that is recognizable as our modern gaiwan, which dates to the early 18th century, though predecessor lidded bowls also exist. In a post on using the gaiwan as a cup, the article states that the Manchurians began using the gaiwan as a brewing and drinking vessel. They favored green and jasmine-scented green teas, which are brewed at a lower temperature, and can be easily drunk from the gaiwan before the tea steeps long enough to become unpleasant. Other sources suggest that this would have been an early form of tea cupping, where the tea is sipped throughout the steeping process in order to determine at what point the tea is to the drinker’s taste.

Armed with some research, I resolved to try drinking from the gaiwan. I chose a gaiwan with a deep saucer, and the tallest one I own, in order to  adhere to the suggestions in the post above. And I chose a Longjing tea, which was a favorite of the Qing Dynasty, when the gaiwan arose for certain. Drinking from a gaiwan is similar to drinking grandpa-style, though the smaller quantity of tea makes it easier to finish a cup of tea before it overbrews. There is a unique sense of both informality and ceremony in it, as the tea is not carefully timed, but the ritual of tilting and holding the lid, and carefully holding the cup by the saucer rather than touching any part of the bowl itself feels special. It is oddly one of my favorite ways to drink tea at my desk now.

And if the depiction in my favorite drama is anachronistic, I do still feel a bit like a fancy court lady.