In my post on tea and travel, I mentioned that I didn’t need to pack any gongfucha essentials because if I needed my gongfucha “fix,” I could visit West China Tea House in Austin, run by the tea community great Sohan of the Tea House Ghost YouTube channel. Well, I didn’t just visit once, but twice! It’s a gorgeous space in an unassuming building off of I-35 and I had a blast.
The first visit was on a Wednesday evening, around 6pm, with a friend. We sat at the communal table, where you can have tea served by one of their tea-arts-trained staff for $5 a pot. We had Ben make us tea and he shared some of his favorites with us: the Sticky Rice Sheng Puer, the Haunted Plum 1992 Oolong, and the Ultra Violet Red Tea. The sense of community is palpable and my friend and I were able to both catch up with each other, as well as make new friends at the table. We met Sohan’s wife Lindsay and their baby, Lark, and just generally had a blast. Plus, I got to taste three new-to-me teas that I immediately turned around and ordered for my own collection so I could recreate my tea house session at home, at least in theory.
The communal tea table itself bears mentioning. It is a beautiful piece in dark wood, designed by a well-known tea practitioner in California and perfect for communal gongfucha. Despite practicing gongfucha for over five years, I feel like sitting at this table truly helped me understand the essential community aspect of tea. The semi-circular ledge of the table makes it easy for the host to reach all the guests from the central seat, creating a seamless tea experience that allowed the tea to be a centerpiece or an accompaniment to conversation as the session went on.
Of course, I did not get to meet Sohan that evening, as he was teaching a class the whole time. So I had to return. I went back on a Saturday afternoon, when the tea house was quiet and Sohan had just finished an Instagram Live. We immediately sat down and were able to converse like old friends, over copious rounds of teas, from oolongs to heicha. Every session was a revelation of the style of tea, and of course included stories from Sohan about sourcing each tea. I had mentioned that I had never had a truly memorable Dancong and of course was treated to an excellent one. I felt so special, treated to teas picked just for me from Sohan’s collection.
And of course, we talked. We talked about tea and tea houses. We talked about history and tea culture. We talked about our children and about life in general. We talked like it was college and we were staying up drinking until the wee hours of the morning. We spent three hours drinking tea and talking and I only left to make it back to my room before an event I had that evening. I could have easily spent all day at the shop drinking tea and talking with Sohan, Bernabe, and Montsho.
I will definitely be returning to West China Tea House the next time I visit Austin, but until then, I’ll be replenishing my own collection with teas from their site to help capture that thought and care Sohan puts into choosing his teas in my own personal practice.
Well, I’m going to get a little sappy right now. Last month, we were asked about our best tea-related gift that we’ve already received and I talked about my fantastic pure silver teapot that I got for my first birthday as a mother from my own mother. But this month, I’m going to go a bit more sentimental. You see, in reality, the greatest tea-related gift I’ve gotten is the amazing virtual (and occasionally in-person) circle of tea friends I’ve made over the last few years.
The last seven months of isolation have really highlighted this, as I haven’t felt so isolated, if only because I’m talking to people almost more often. I mentioned it before, when I was heartened in the early days of COVID because of the great increase in live sessions and virtual tea events that popped up, nearly overnight, like mushrooms. But as this has dragged on, it has become very apparent to me that, as much as I miss our in-person gatherings, the virtual friend group I’ve made through a mutual love of tea has been instrumental in helping me with my mental health.
I’ve gushed about new jobs, bemoaned family issues, listened to struggles with health, and shared personal and family milestones. I’ve seen friends through the loss of family members and the welcoming of new ones (furry and otherwise). I’ve even seen friends launch new businesses and projects that I have wholeheartedly supported. The sense of community, particularly for a weird introvert like me, as been essential to my well-being.
So I think the best gift I could receive would be to be able to have a big party, like the eleventy-first birthday party from The Lord of the Rings, with everyone around at tables, having tea and just generally enjoying the company that we’ve shared virtually for so long. Of course, in the age of travel restrictions and tightening budgets, this is as much a fantasy as the hobbity inspiration, but a girl can dream.
And what a dream it is. We could set up long tables, brew copious amounts of tea. Perhaps we’d have a gongfu station (like a carving station, but better!) where people could sit around a big tea table and share in a gongfu session, while others could enjoy a British-style low tea with tiny pastries and finger sandwiches. And of course, some of us would merely opt for a good solid mug of something comforting, and a hearty meal with lots of mushrooms! But maybe we’d skip the pipeweed…
In the meantime, I’m going to content myself with the latest in Nazanin’s excellent series of holiday countdown boxes. Opening a little gift everyday has been that much more fun being able to imagine Nazanin’s face as the selected each gift. And it reminds me of the gift of amazing tea friends.
NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating with me, please read my collaboration information for more details.
Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share your perfect tea for autumn. And, well, while I’ve talked about my love of hojicha in the autumn before, I have to say that this autumn, I’m all about yancha once more.
Last year, I got my first traditional clay pot, a Da Hong Pao Chaozhou pot from Bitterleaf Teas. I actually bought it for an historical video (I told myself), but it has come be one of my favorite pieces. But since I seasoned it with yancha, I found myself ignoring it more and more as the weather got warming and I was less drawn to the rich, nutty, roasted flavors of what is probably my favorite of my favorite teas. Now, as the days grow shorter and the mornings cooler, I find I want that warm, comforting roasted flavor.
Yancha is rock oolong tea from the Wuyi mountains in China. It’s typically roasted, and can have aromas of fragrant woods, flowers, or even fruit, with a pronounced minerality in the flavor, call the “rock taste.” The naming of the teas and the (likely-apocryphal) stories behind many of those names lends a sense of romance and whimsy to a tea that hardly needs the help. While I had had yanchas in the past, it was when I got my Chaozhou pot and knew I wanted to use it to recreate Yuan Mei’s introduction to Wuyi oolongs that I really started appreciating all yancha had to offer.
Now, this particular tea is from one of my favorite, Wuyi-focused tea companies (although I have a couple right now — if you’re in DC, definitely check out Valley Brook Tea in Dupont Circle!) and one that I discovered when I first started focusing on yancha: Old Ways Tea. Over the last year, I’ve gotten to know many of their teas quite well. While I’m not a fan of the packaging waste, I like that their teas are conveniently packaged to try just a little (or share with friends!). If I were in the mood to write a “gift guide,” I might mention that the traditional 5-8g packages would make excellent stocking stuffers.
Anyway, this tea is their Lao Cong Shui Xian, or Old Tree Shui Xian. The leaves are appropriately gnarled and large, like the roots of an old tree, and the flavor is warm and complex. I get a strong roast note, but in a fragrant way, like sandalwood or incense, and a sweetness that reminds me of maple syrup. The whole effect is like autumn in a cup, or seven. Of course, the autumnal color palette of the seasoned clay doesn’t hurt the effect. It reminds me of crisp winds and falling leaves, misty mornings, and the smell of smoke in the distance. It’s close and cozy without being stifling or cloying. And after a long, hot summer of cold-brewed green teas, I’m ready for it again.
NB: I don’t rightly know if this is a tea that I purchased or if it is one of the gifts that Phil tends to tuck into my orders from them, but I was not provided any particular incentive to feature it here. If you are interested in collaborating with me, please read my collaboration information for more details.
Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share if you enjoy coffee or if you are strictly a tea/tisane person. Of course, if you’ve followed my Instagram for a while, you’ll know that, before I had Elliot, we used to go to our favorite coffee shop, Vigilante Coffee, every weekend where I had my weekly coffee drink. You see, I also love coffee, but sadly it doesn’t love me back. I find that if I have plain black coffee, it upsets my stomach, and even if I have a drink with milk, it’s not great on my digestion.
But like many things in my life, sometimes it’s worth it to risk it for a cup of something delicious. About three years ago, my spouse Dan and I took advantage of a mid-week holiday to go to the weekly coffee cupping at Vigilante’s roastery in Hyattsville, where we had the opportunity to not only learn about coffee cupping technique, but also to try four of their excellent single-origin coffees, including two that Cup of Excellence coffees. Dan loves that Vigilante generally roasts their coffees lighter than the popular nationwide coffee chains, and I… well, I just love tasting things. Tea, whisky, wine, coffee. If it tastes good, I’m going to be there.
In fact, if you happened to be around when Dan and I tried to start a food blog, you’ll remember our post about cupping at Vigilante. Now, due to other factors at play in our lives during the end of 2017 and into 2018, we didn’t manage to continue the blog for long, but we did continue visiting Vigilante Coffee. I even managed a visit two days before I went into the hospital to give birth to Elliot! Their coffee is not only carefully sourced in partnership with farmers around the world, but the care they take in roasting it shines through in the elegant and complex flavors. I’m not usually a fan of acidic coffee, but their coffees have this characteristic brightness that isn’t unpleasant.
Sadly, we moved away from Vigilante last year and, while we were visiting a local cafe that serves their coffee for a while, the pandemic brought that to an end. Dan has started getting their coffee subscription delivered as we’ve moved towards getting more and more of our local food delivered, but I haven’t been able to indulge in a barista drink for a while. My go-to was a flat white, which has the most velvety milk texture, going beautifully with their espresso.
But for now, I’ll mostly enjoy the delightful aromas whenever Dan makes his morning coffee and hope to get my flat white again soon.
Last month, I decided to start a posting series called “Difficult History,” in which I examine the darker corners of Western tea culture and its connections to colonialism, imperialism, and slavery. But before I dive deeper into the historical context of the dark side of tea, I thought it was important to examine the current state of the tea industry, since history is continuous and these historical origins have led to the injustices perpetuated today. To that end, I scheduled some time to sit down with Henrietta Lovell of the The Rare Tea Company to discuss how the modern tea industry perpetuates some of the same injustices that we think of as blots on history.
Of course, I’ve talked about Henrietta before in my review of her book, Infused, and as I’ve sipped my way through the offerings of The Rare Tea Company (full disclosure: their Earl Grey is my favorite Earl Grey and I am endeavoring to get all my Earl-Grey-loving friends hooked on it), but I had never had a chance to chat directly with her, other than a few brief exchanges on Instagram. But when I messaged her to ask if I could quote her Story in my post on injustice in tea, she suggested we meet over FaceTime to talk further and I rather leapt at the opportunity. We “met” in the morning for me, and the afternoon for her. I had just poured my second cup of tea of the day, the single-origin English breakfast from the Rare Tea Company because, yes, I am that guy, and she tried to make me jealous with a shot of the gorgeous Danish bakery in which she was sitting.
She started our conversation by pointing out that more than 90% of the tea in North American and Europe is bought and sold primarily by seven companies, which act as brokers for smaller vendors down the line. These companies even own many of the industrial tea gardens from which a large portion of our tea is sourced. This helps smaller companies because the brokerage companies act as a sort of a bank — they assume the primary financial risk of buying up the tea, and the smaller companies can simply purchase what they need to sell, rather than assuming the risk of buying an entire harvest from a large-scale farm. But because of this, the brokerage firms can drive down the wage that farmers earn from their tea, leading to widespread poverty in tea-producing communities in India, Sri Lanka, and the tea-producing African countries, like Kenya and Malawi.
As she had previously said in her Instagram Story, the average life expectancy of people living and working in these tea-producing communities is only about their 40s, with few seeing their 50s. They’re experiencing a lack of access to education, medical care, or even clean water. And initiatives like Fair Trade, Henrietta says, only work to improve the system within this status quo of the brokers setting the prices: “They’re there to make sure we’re not total [jerks].” And it’s not helping. Tea prices are dropping and conditions are getting worse.
Part of the problem is that young people are moving away from drinking commodity tea. She compares it to the issues happening in the dairy industry: as young people move towards plant-based diets, milk prices are dropping, and farmers are finding it harder and harder to move the inventory they have. And that leads to dairy farming communities experiencing serious hardship. “It’s not just cows that are suffering; it’s whole communities,” she says. And in the same way, it is necessary to find a way to make tea sustainable, not just for the planet, but for the people who produce it.
Henrietta’s solution is direct trade, rather than Fair Trade. By dealing directly with farmers, she and The Rare Tea Company not only have the opportunity to visit gardens and deal directly with farmers, so they can see the conditions in which the workers live rather than dealing with a faceless broker, but they can also give the farmers the advantage of being able to sell an interest in an entire harvest and negotiate their own prices, ahead of production. This involves some risk to her company, but it gives the farmers security and provides her company with high-quality tea produced by farmers who are paid a wage that they had a say in negotiating.
That’s not to say it is all unicorns and rainbows. There is still the problem of people expecting cheap tea. The Rare Tea Company, and other direct-trade tea sellers, tend to charge more for their tea than you would see at the grocery store, and many of their large orders come from businesses that don’t want to pay more for a better cup of tea. But Henrietta is heartened by the amount of interest consumers have started taking in the companies from which they are buying. She says that she can see that, rather than searching for a product, finding the product page, and immediately making a purchase or else leaving, consumers now are taking upwards of ten or twenty minutes looking at mission statements and information about the ethics and sustainability of their purchase. It’s something that gives her hope for the future, despite being called a Pollyanna whose company would never make it in the past.
But the pandemic is not making this easier. In addition to the disruptions to tea production itself — India and Nepal had no first flush this year, while China has lower output from their spring harvests, in part due to the difficulty in getting temporary migrant workers to do the picking — the entire model of the company representatives visiting farmers directly to buy new harvests has been disrupted. Plus, a large portion of The Rare Tea Company’s business comes from the hospitality industry, which has been devastated by the drop in travel. If a hotel was hesitant to serve a more expensive cup of tea in the past, they probably will not be more willing to take that risk now. But she is adapting. By using social media apps and tasting samples that are sent through the mail, Henrietta is able to keep in touch with her farmers, tour gardens virtually, and select teas to buy. And she remains optimistic that the continuing shift of public opinion towards paying attention to where your tea comes from will put pressure on other companies to adopt a more transparent, equitable business model.
In her ideal tea economy, Henrietta explains, rather than brokers acting as a go-between, tea sellers and tea producers work together. Farmers would work directly with the sellers. Right now, often the farmers and the sellers have no idea what the other is getting for the tea, and the brokers can drive up their profits either by driving up the selling price when there is high demand, or by driving down the price paid to farmers when there is low demand and selling prices drop. If sellers work directly with farmers, not only is there more transparency, but the broker profits are removed from the equation. But it does mean more risk for sellers, as farmers are given a guaranteed order at a set price and for a set quantity.
And Henrietta has seen these risks. Her small group of Rare Tea Company employees, including herself, have taken 20% salary cuts this year to make sure they can fulfill their financial obligations to their farmers. She also helps manage the Rare Charity, which works to provide educational opportunities for those living in these tea-producing communities. It all comes down to her personal philosophy: “There’s more to a successful business than a profitable business.”
So that is where we are in the world of tea. Many of the brands that you may think of are probably working with these large brokerage companies, especially if you are buying Fair Trade rather than direct trade. There are smaller companies out there who are moving to a direct trade model, but the cultural issue of direct trade and economically-sustainable tea being considered “posh” is part of the problem. Just as we’ve started looking at avoiding companies like Amazon or Walmart, those of us with the means to choose can vote with our dollars as one way of encouraging the tea industry to follow in the footsteps of those who are concerned with mitigating these inequalities.
NB: Nothing to disclose. The tea mentioned was purchased by me and I was not paid or incentivized to write this post. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.
It is no secret that I love old things. I originally envisioned this blog as a vintage blog, before my love of beauty and later tea took center stage. And over the last year, my Historical Tea Sessions have been some of my favorite videos to research and create. And I think one of my favorite things about this project is connecting with historical figures who seem to have shared my own intrigue with new and different teas.
In my Baisao video, I mention how the old tea seller writes of his get-togethers with a friend who brings him a new tea and how intensely interested he is in that experience, while in my video on Abigail Adams, I talked about how her husband John wrote in his letters about sending her new teas to try that he encountered on his travels. This idea of sharing tea with loved ones and fellow tea-lovers transcending the boundaries of time and geography fills me with a unique warmth. Similarly, I’ve found my own little worldwide community of tea-lovers in the present day with whom to share new and interesting teas we’ve found.
And I think one of the most interesting new things I’ve learned through my tea community was that white teas outside of Fuding in China are definitely worth checking out. It started with Chado Tea House reaching out to me and offering me some teas for review. I chose one based on an upcoming literary tea session, but the other, I took their suggestion to try their Colombian white tea, simply because it just sounded so intriguing. I was unaware that tea was grown in Colombia, and to have it be a white tea, rather than a commodity black tea was curiouser and curiouser.
When it arrived, it was an extremely generous quarter pound of tea, in a massive bag to contain the large and fluffy leaves. It had the fluff level of a really nice Bai Mudan. I decided to pretend I was a professional tea taster and sit down to this in my cupping set, steeped with boiling water (as I do almost all of my white teas), for a few minutes at a time. Now, this isn’t a comprehensive tasting note post, as I want to try this gongfu style before sharing my official thoughts, but right away I was struck by how different this was from Chinese white tea. It almost reminded me of Taiwanese teas, with its smooth mouthfeel and subtle sweetness. Keep an eye out for full tasting notes in the future.
And then I saw a post from Jin and Tea about the Benifuki Japanese white tea from UNYtea that I’ve seen pop up throughout my social feeds and decided that it was finally time to give that a try. And, once again, I was met with a delightfully different white tea that expanded my concept of what a white tea is. As much as I bemoan the constant stream of new and interesting things that lead me to have such a bursting tea cabinet, social media is a wealth of inspiration to keep tea drinking interesting and new. And it reminds me of a modern-day equivalent to John Adams’ gifts to his wife or Baisao’s visiting friend. So let’s all keep in touch and keep our tea community alive for the next several hundred years!
NB: The Colombian white tea was sent to me free of charge in exchange for featuring. All thoughts are my own. If you’re interested in collaborating with me, please read my contact and collaboration information.
Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the question is “What is your favorite tea company and what was the first tea you had from them?” And, of course, I’m putting my own spin on things. I had to think long and hard about this one because I love so many tea companies and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. I’d obviously prefer not to play favorites. But in the interest of playing along with the prompt, I thought I would talk about my favorite tea business, one that has been with me the longest in my tea journey: Teaism.
I honestly don’t remember when I first went to Teaism. Looking at their history, it looks like they opened in 1996, and I distinctly remember going there when I was in college and home for the summers. But I also remember that those were not my first visits to the tea house, so I likely have been patronizing Teaism nearly as long as they’ve been open. As far as the first tea I tried there, it was probably Dragonwell or Moroccan Mint, but the first tea that I have a distinct memory of trying was their Anxi oolong, which is a type of Mao Xie, or “hairy crab,” which they’ve chosen to label as simple “Anxi” on their menu to avoid confusion and laughing. The Anxi oolong is a lightly oxidized, rolled oolong, with that light, floral-creamy flavor that I associated with oolongs for a long time (before I realized that I’ve been drinking Wuyi oolong practically since birth at our favorite Chinese restaurant!). I had it when I went downtown on a weekend morning to visit some museums and wanted to have a bit of breakfast first, so I stopped at Teaism.
At the time, I was living in Prince George’s County, MD, and the green line that took me down to Pennsylvania Ave., which is a short walk from the National Mall, takes me right next to the Penn Quarter location of Teaism. I ordered a waffle and a pot of tea and took both down into their very quiet downstairs dining area, where I could enjoy the ambiance and watch the koi in their indoor pond. I’ve always loved koi, and watching them reminds me of my childhood.
But I’ve had so many teas and so much delicious food at Teaism over the years. It has been the site of dates and interviews, as well as quiet moments by myself. I’ve always loved eating in cafes and restaurants by myself, and the particular atmosphere at Teaism makes it even more enjoyable. I think my favorite is to sit near a window in the somewhat crowded, but paradoxically private upstairs room at the Dupont Circle location with a pot of tea, gazing out the window at the city below, alone with my thoughts, yet in a room full of people.
When I got my job in downtown DC, after years of working in the suburbs, Teaism was a familiar face in a new routine. On mornings when I was rushed or slept late or simply didn’t feel like making my own breakfast, I would stop for breakfast and some tea. They always treat their teas with care, whether you are sipping in the restaurant or taking it to go, your paper cup containing hot water and a little dumpling of tea leaves that plump up in the water as they expand to fill the hand-filled bag. I’ve even taken these leaves and had a second tea session in my gaiwan at the office after my walk!
Sadly, as a restaurant, they are feeling the pain of virus-related closures and disruptions. Their owner, Michelle, has been active on Instagram, highlighting her own daily tea practice, as well as keeping us informed about online orders and how they’re trying to support their employees. So recently, I decided to place a small order of some Japanese teas from them. Because I missed my trip to Yame, I decided to get some gyokuro.
And the other morning, I just felt off. So I brewed up a shiboridashi full of gyokuro and went out to my garden to gather roses. I sat and sipped an intensely calming cup of green tea while I processed roses to arrange. And at the end of it, I had a beautiful little arrangement and an uplifted spirit from this little moment of calm and beauty in my day, just like I used to feel from visiting the Teaism shop. I’ve had limited experience with gyokuro, but this one was a beautiful balance of umami, brightness, and a bitterness that melted into sweetness in the mouth.
If you feel like supporting Teaism, please consider shopping at their online store or contributing to their employee relief fund. Also, consider adding cilantro, scallions, and ginger to your scrambled eggs, like they do. It’s amazing.
Today starts “Tea Together Tuesday”, hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish! Each Tuesday in May, we’re writing, filming, or otherwise posting about a prompt to share our tea time with our tea community. It’s particularly important in the age of social distancing — and a reminder that we can be physically distanced without being socially isolated!
So what is it about this tea that makes it my closest candidate for a daily drinker? Well, first of all, it’s oolong. Oolong is definitely my favorite style of tea. And while I’ve waxed rhapsodic in the past about how Da Hong Pao is my favorite tea, it does not fit as many of my moods as this tea. It’s not heavily roasted, so it doesn’t have that autumn-and-winter, sit-by-the-fire coziness that sometimes feels out of place in the warmer months. It’s oxidized, so it doesn’t have that bright, light greenness that feels too cooling in the colder months. It has a beautiful rich texture and honey flavor to it that is delightful on its own, but doesn’t clash with many flavors that I could pair with it.
I think the one thing I would want to experiment with is whether or not it cold brews well (although, I’ve cold-brewed similar teas with great success) and to see how it pairs with alcohol (the honey aroma suggests that bourbon would be its perfect match). But ultimately, what I do with my tea is steep it in hot water and drink it. And this tea excels at being put in hot water and drunk. I’ve brewed it carefully and carelessly, and it takes fully boiling water, so there’s no need for a fancy kettle.
But perhaps the best argument for choosing this as my forever tea is that, after finishing a sample of it from Wang Family Tea, I turned around and immediately bought 75 more grams of it. For someone with a perpetually bursting tea cabinet and a tendency to never buy more than the smallest amount offered of any tea so I can have variety, that is high praise. If I ever pare down my tea cabinet to just my essentials, this will certainly be on the shelf, perhaps in its own fancy canister.
NB: The original sample of this tea was sent as a free sample with a purchase, but I have since repurchased even more. If you’re interested in collaborating with me, please read my contact and collaboration information.