On My Bookshelf: Infused: Adventures in Tea

Everyone and their brother in the tea social media universe has become enamoured of Henrietta Lovell’s new book Infused: Adventures in Tea. So of course I need to add to the chorus of her praises here with my own thoughts on this fun little book. It is an ambitious work, blending memoir and tea education into a work that reminds me more of some books on yogic philosophy that I read years ago than a typical tea primer. Henrietta has led an amazing life as “The Tea Lady” and this book is foremost a collection of her experiences in tea.

IMG_0679

She starts at her home, where she discusses her “bed tea,” that first cup of tea in the morning, preferably drunk in bed. From there, we circle the globe, meeting tea producers and tea consumers the world over. It is perhaps worth noting that the chapters follow the teas that her company, The Rare Tea Company, sells, which is perhaps a brilliant marketing strategy because as I read the book, I became enchanted by the stories she tells and wanted to try the teas. So I can now make myself a cup of her White Silver Tips as my own cup of bed tea and have a little ponder about this delightful little book.

I think the thing that makes this book so utterly enjoyable is that you get a clear sense of Henrietta’s personality in her writing style. She is a classic British lady (English, mostly, and Scottish when it suits her) with a love of tea and red lipstick. How could I resist? While I have not had the pleasure of meeting her in person, as she had not yet made plans to come to Washington, D.C., on her tour, friends who have met her insist she is exactly like you would imagine from the book. As an avid reader of fiction, it is charming to believe that one of these characters from a book I loved might be walking around in my world. As she travels the globe investigating tea and other plants, she often gives her guests in each chapter the starring role, but there is enough personal anecdote to feel like you’re in the room with Henrietta as she regales you with stories of her life.

And while I’ve mentioned that the book serves as an excellent advertisement for her company’s teas, it doesn’t come off as artificial. The desire to try her teas is so strong precisely because she gives the teas and farmers the stage, letting them present themselves, rather than sounding like a salesperson. By punctuating her chapters with recipes, she entices you to try her tea, though she always writes to allow that you may order the same variety of tea elsewhere. And her final appendix on making a good cup of tea is approachable to anyone with an interest in tea, not just the expert or connoissieur. While she herself uses a gaiwan and often drinks tea gongfu style with tea masters, she does not demand it of her reader, nor does she presume to educate on these forms. Her book is about the leaf, first and foremost.

Perhaps the highest praise I can personally give this book is that her immersive prose has convinced me to give a second chance to a tea I have for years thought I despised: rooibos. Her chapter on the farmer who grows Rare Tea Company’s Wild Rooibos is excellent and her description of the complex flavor of the infusion made me second guess my own convictions. And the conviction that I dislike rooibos has long been my most firmly-held. But upon tasting Rare Tea Company’s Wild Rooibos, prepared using the method in Henrietta’s book, I found a warm cup that rivaled the complexity of my favorite whiskies.

So those are my thoughts on this lovely book. It is certainly one I would recommend to any tea lover, or as a gift to anyone with even a passing interest in tea. I am already wondering who among my friends and family might receive a copy for the holidays.

NB: I purchased everything mentioned in this post with my own money and was provided no incentive to review or feature them.

Tuesday Tasting: Storm King Tea Bai Mudan

This Tuesday, I’m finishing off the last of a tea that came as part of a sampler I purchased on Amazon last year from Storm King Tea. I’ve featured other teas from them over the last year, but, as I’ve written before, I’ve had a bit of a difficult relationship with Bai Mudan, or white peony. So I thought it might be a good idea to sit down and actually do a full, detailed tasting to see what I get. Plus, I had the packet out for my matcha experiments, and I had just enough leaf leftover for a gongfu session.

IMG_0647

I brewed 5.5 grams in my 120-ml gaiwan with 180F water. I started on an empty stomach, but the session ended up stretching all day, so I had some food starting with bread and butter after the first infusion.

The dry leaf is a mix of olive-green-to-brown leaves and silvery fuzzy buds. There is an aroma of sweetgrass and fresh hay from the dry leaf. After a rinse, I get an intense white floral aroma off the leaves, which I interpreted as jasmine. I steeped the tea ten times, starting with ten seconds and increasing by five seconds each subsequent steeping.

The aroma of the first steeping was floral from the gaiwan lid with something a bit deeper, and cannabis-like from the leaf itself. The liquor was a medium apricot gold color with a fruity aroma. It had a light juicy mouthfeel and tasted of tannin and fruit, like persimmons, with a creamy undertone. During the second steeping, some apricot fruity aromas joined the floral aromas, with more fruity tannin on the flavors. The second steeping was the only one that almost skewed a bit harsh, tasting a bit like perfume.

By the third steeping, it had calmed down and the floral aromas dominated. It had a less dry mouthfeel and went back to juicy. There was a little tingle on the tongue, similar to what I experience from infusions of very good medicinal herbs. I noticed the aromas had faded a bit on the fourth infusion, and some fresh, raw peachy flavors came through.

I thought the fifth infusion would be the last, but from the fifth through the tenth infusion, this tea held remarkably steady. I did note that the sixth infusion had an aroma that was very similar to “white tea” scented things, particularly one of the GapScents from the 90s (was it “Cloud” or “Heaven” that had green tea as a note?). There was no unpleasant astringency. But by the tenth infusion, while the aroma was still lovely, the flavor was pretty much done. Not bad for a white tea I bought off Amazon on a whim.

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.

IMG_0331

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:

IMG_0033

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.

IMG_0060

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.

IMG_0234

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!).

IMG_0198

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.

IMG_0329

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.

IMG_0295

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.

IMG_0334

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.

Getting Started with Tea and Amazon Prime, part two: Tasting Teas from Teavivre

So last week, I shared some of my favorite teaware purchases on Amazon Prime as a way of helping someone get started with loose-leaf tea more easily and accessibly. In that post, I mentioned that I’ve also bought some quality loose-leaf teas off Amazon recently from Teavivre. Teavivre is a company that sells teas from China and is pretty consistently ranked in the top 10 among the User’s Choice Vendor List on Reddit’s Tea subreddit, r/tea. Since they have an Amazon storefront, with options available through Prime, they’re also really, really convenient, especially if you’re impatient like me.

Now, a note about shipping: Most of the vendors I use charge shipping, and shipping can add up, especially when you’re sourcing teas directly from the country of origin. If you have a hard time getting over paying almost as much for your tea again for shipping, it would help to read this post. One thing to note about buying items through Prime with “free shipping” is that they will probably be priced higher than the same item on Teavivre’s own site because companies work shipping prices into their item prices when they decide to offer free shipping. In fact, I’ve bought matcha from one site that had low prices and charged a lot for shipping, only to find that, ultimately, if I bought a couple of things, it was much more economical to buy from them than from a site with free shipping. And the matcha was excellent. But I do like free Prime shipping when I just want to try one thing and don’t feel like putting together a large order. It’s about your shopping and drinking habits. Anyway, on to the tea. I’ve chosen to try one each of black, green, oolong, and white teas to review here, so you can get a sense of what they offer. I didn’t get a puerh because I’m still working through the samples I got from white2tea a while ago!

Organic Bai Mu Dan White Peony white tea: This was the first tea I tried, and I actually showcased it in a sunrise tea session video a while ago. I’d never tried a white peony before, but it had a pretty standard non-silver-needle white tea profile, if a little straw-y for my tastes. It brews up nicely in gongfu and lasts for at least five infusions. This is a very fluffy tea and will probably seem like a lot of leaf if you measure your tea by weight.

Tieguanyin oolong tea: I’ve spoken at length about my love of oolongs, and Tieguanyin is one of my favorites. This is a great example of this style of oolong, still quite green and light, but with a satisfying slight creaminess and honey-floral character that I adore. I got 100g of this and it’s my go-to, can’t-decide-what-kind-of-tea-to-make, I-need-a-nice-cuppa-to-perk-me-up tea.

Premium Tai Ping Hou Kui green tea: I got this tea simply because I keep seeing “the green tea with the big leaves” on Instagram and I wanted to try it for the novelty. But it’s quickly become one of my favorite teas for a lazy, warm morning. I don’t know how much I’ll drink once the weather (finally) cools off, but it’s pretty much what you’ll find me drinking on work-from-home days and weekends. I just put 2.5g in my double-walled tumbler and drink it farmer-style, and it’s a delightful classic Chinese green tea. It’s a bit light in flavor, but it has distinct notes of grass, green leafy vegetables, and just a tiny touch of the sea.

Yunnan Dian Hong Golden Tip black tea: Wow, I saved the best for last here. With the aforementioned weather cooldown, I’m finding myself more drawn to black teas, and I was curious to try a Dian Hong. This Dian Hong is absolutely wonderful, with notes of dried fruit and syrup. It doesn’t get too tannic or bitey, and I just find it a lovely mellow tea to sip on a rainy or cool morning.

So that’s my round-up of some teas I’ve tried at Teavivre, all purchased through Amazon. Do note that I wasn’t given any incentive to write this post, nor are any links affiliate. I hope you’ll consider them a way to get started with some great teas without needing to navigate all the different tea vendors out there. Of course, once you find teas you like, definitely branch out and see how different vendors’ offerings differ, but the beginning shouldn’t be daunting. I hope this helps at least one person feel a bit less intimidated by loose-leaf tea!

Tea Review: White2Tea Tea Reviews, the Black and the White

NB: I received these products for review for free from the company, but all opinions are my own. More about my review sample policies here.

I’m going to take a break from recapping Scotland today to continue my reviews of the generous PR samples that I received from White2Tea recently. Today, I’m going to talk about the two full-sized products they sent me. I was absolutely delighted to see that Paul included both a full-sized brick of their ChocoBrick White Tea, and their A&P Black Tea. I tasted both teas by using the recommended brewing methods from White2Tea, as well as brewing the ways I like to enjoy tea.

ChocoBrick White Tea: This is a large-leafed, sun-dried Yunnan white tea that has been compressed into a 100g brick that is scored for easy breaking into nine portions. So each portion is about 11g. This is a little much for my 150ml gaiwan, but I did persevere to taste it first in gaiwan. This takes a bit to get going, so the first steep or two were light, but eventually, it brews a very richly-flavored, floral cup of tea. It’s quite pleasant, although I felt like I was wasting too much of the potential of the tea steeping in gaiwan. So I tried it grandpa-style in my large china tea cup and enjoyed that just as much. Honestly, I don’t think I would repurchase this simply because I think it is scored into portions that are too big. Each block can provide so much flavor that I felt like, even steeping grandpa-style over an entire day, I was probably wasting much of the tea’s potential. And the brick is not easy to break except along the scores. So I will probably save the rest of this tea to enjoy with friends, when I’m brewing for more than myself.

A&P Black Tea: This tea somewhat exemplifies what I think of when I think of White2Tea: an interesting tea, pressed into a cake, and named after a deep literary reference (in this case a short story by John Updike). This is a deep, full-bodied Yunnan Dianhong black tea that has been pressed into a traditional large bing cake. The tea pick that Paul included in the order came in handy for this one. I find it easy to pick off a portion of tea suitable for any style and size of brewing vessel. I did enjoy this in gaiwan, but thought the rich mouthfeel, raisin-y flavors, and round tannins suited a western style of brew as well. I also brewed this up one morning when I just wanted a cuppa black tea, without much attention or care for the leaf, and found it just as delightful. I would buy this again.

All-in-all, I was impressed with these two offerings from White2Tea, but now it is time to move on to their bread-and-butter, the Pu’er teas. Stay tuned for after the Scotland recap finishes for those reviews!

Tea Review: My First What-Cha Tea Haul

About a month ago, I posted an unboxing of a tea order from What-Cha. I was inspired (enabled) to order after an extended conversation on Facebook about white tea and jasmine pearl tea, and considered asking if he wanted to join me in an order so we could make the free shipping minimum more easily. And then I looked at my basket and I had already made free shipping. Oops. But of course, I was running low on some things, and I wanted to try some things, so while it was maybe a bit more of a “haul” than I usually indulge in, I went with it. I looked up some reviews and saw that the company, based across the pond from me, usually took a couple weeks to ship, so I promptly decided to forget about it until it showed up as a pleasant surprise. And then it showed up a week later, which was an even more pleasant surprise.

DSCN0169

I was immediately touched by the handwritten note tucked in by Alastair from What-Cha. Not only does he have beautiful handwriting, but it really made me feel like the order was given a bit of a personal touch. I wondered if the samples and mystery tea in my order were selected based on considering the other things I’d ordered, rather than just tossing in whatever they had a crate of. So far, I’ve tasted almost all of the teas included, so I thought I’d share my thoughts.

Sticky Rice oolong: This was the first tea I tried from the order and it was actually the free sample they provided. It is a rolled oolong that smells of sticky rice (or popcorn, to me). And it really does smell like popcorn. I brewed it in gaiwan and shared my first impression on my Instagram Story and anyone who caught that knows that I found the popcorn scent completely enchanting. It has a nice flavor, mellow and characteristically oolong. It’s a fun little tea.

Tie Guan Yin heavy roast oolong: This is a pretty representative Tie Guan Yin oolong. It brews up into a heady tea with notes of wood, cannabis, and oak in the nose and a creamy smokiness in the flavor that I really enjoyed. I also brewed this in gaiwan and it does well there.

Yunnan Jingmai light roast oolong: I first tried this on my birthday. I bought it because I wanted to try an oolong that was rolled into what they call “Dragon Balls.” It’s basically a little ball of tea leaves, about 3/4″ in diameter. It seems like it would be a good amount for a standard tea pot, but I found that using one dragon ball in my little gongfu set produced a brew that sent me bouncing off the walls of my office. So I cut one dragon ball in half and use it for two brewing sessions. And this does give you a session. I can easily get ten steepings out of this, starting at 30 seconds and going up to a minute with no flagging in the flavor coming out of the tea. I tend to stop steeping out of exhaustion (or over-caffeination) than out of depletion of the tea itself. I find this tea also benefits from a bit of a rinse, as the first cup is otherwise a bit insipid until the dragon ball softens and opens up a bit.

Sencha of the Summer Sun: This is a standard, lovely Japanese green tea. I’ve actually taken to drinking it from my English bone china tea-for-one set instead of faffing about with my kyushu set because it just handles suboptimal conditions so perfectly without becoming bitter or unpleasant. It’s a sunny little tea and, though not ground-breaking, perfectly enjoyable.

Jasmine green tea pearls: I have only tried this one once, so I don’t have a lot of notes on it, but this is a lovely jasmine tea. It is jasmine-scented, rather than flavored with jasmine petals, but the scenting is not heavy-handed and it makes a delightful cuppa.

Silver Needle white tea: This is such an amazing tea. I will admit that I had never tried white tea before. It all seemed rather a gimmick to me and I didn’t really know that there would be much difference between white and green tea. Well, there is. First of all, the leaves themselves do look like large pine needles, and have a soft, delicate, velvety texture. I just want to pet the leaves before I even steep them. But if I can bring myself to steep them, they yield a brew that is not as subtle as I was expecting, and very, very floral. It almost tastes as though they have jasmine or magnolia scent added to them, even though they don’t. I brew this in my gongfu set for 1-3 minutes and get several steepings out of it.

The last tea is the Mystery Tea that I selected. I was curious what would come of it, so I selected the option that let them give me anything: green, oolong, or black. I ended up getting a kukicha tea that looks interesting, but that I haven’t tried quite yet. I suppose I shall have to report back when I have tasted it, but I will likely post it on my Instagram, rather than taking up blog space. Please do follow my Instagram and check out my Stories for tea reviews and first impressions.

NB: I purchased of these teas with my own money and was not offered any compensation for writing this review.