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Updated: 1 hour 8 min ago

Tillerman Tea Oolongs

Fri, 08/18/2017 - 19:01

I am starting this tea review with a shout out to David Campbell of Tillerman Tea. I haven't met David but I had heard good things about him and his company so I was pleased when he reached out to me to taste his teas. I accepted and began to drink them as soon as they arrived. However, I was not able to review them in a timely manner as other parts of my life crowded out this type of activity. I was surprised then when David contacted me again with an offer of a second batch of oolongs. By including this story here I do not mean to imply that other tea companies are not similarly generous. If anything, it is a reminder to myself to be more generous with my acknowledgements of tea companies who make my passion for tea possible.

Dong Ding Winter 2016

This review is about that first batch of oolongs: Oriental Beauty 2016, Dong Ding Winter 2016, and Cuifeng Gaoshan Spring 2017. It was easy to drink and assess the Oriental Beauty and even the Cuifeng which I don't think I had drunk before. The challenging tea for me was the Dong Ding. I've been drinking a Dong Ding or Tung Ting from a local vendor and Tillerman's version did not taste the same. The dry leaf was aromatic but this quality did not translate into the liquor. I thought I had mislabelled the teas during my tasting so I infused a new cup (albeit with less leaf) but the results were similar: a mild flavored liquor. One of the first questions I asked myself was: what is the quintessential flavor profile of a Dong Ding? Also, does this profile change with season? I also wondered about plucking style because when I thought I had mislabelled the Dong Ding and the Cuifeng, a quick confirmation would have been to study the leaves, but assuming oolongs are plucked with a bud and three leaves, that approach would not have been helpful, or would it? Does the bud and three leaves pluck apply to all oolongs? I think there were other questions but the three I've just mentioned were the most outstanding ones. I did not conduct extensive research but I consulted by go-to tea book titled Tea by Kevin Gascoyne et al., my ITEI lecture notes, and read around the internet. According to Gascoyne et al., the liquor of Dong Ding smells "powerful[ly]...of lilac, vanilla and clover honey" while its aroma is of "narcissus and peony...against a background of ripe peach and butter". These tasting notes were echoed on various websites even for winter harvest Dong Ding. I don't know how to explain my experience of this tea.

Cuifeng Gaoshan Spring 2017

Where the Dong Ding was mellow, the Cuifeng Gaoshan was intensely aromatic and flavorful. Tillerman's Cuifeng was harvested from Li Shan. This mountain range is the tallest tea mountain in Taiwan at 6,550 to 7,900 feet. I won't use Gascoyne et al.'s tasting notes here; instead, I will use mine.  I prepared this tea twice. Once with 3 grams in preheated cups with 195F for 3 minutes and a second time with 2 grams keeping the other parameters the same. The lemon-green colored liquor was floral and savory where the dry leaves were creamy. The liquor was medium-bodied at a minimum with a creamy mouthfeel. Sweet and savory notes were present and pronounced on the middle of my palate. A lemon note emerged as the liquor cooled. My notes for the second session are quire similar. The liquor was floral and creamy though not as thick as the tea made with 3 grams. The flavors lingered in my mid-palate and in my cheeks with a citrus tail note. The depth of flavor increased as the liquor cooled.

Oriental Beauty 2016

I don't need to note that this tea is a summer harvest, right? Oriental Beauty may not have have geographically protected status but it definitely can't be harvested outside of summer which is when the leafhoppers bite its leaves catalyzing the release of that desirably aromatic hormone. This OB has a medium presence of buds with leaves of fairly uniform size colored in various shades of brown. The dry leaves smelled of dried cherry and grape must and the infused leaves only got better with honey, herb, fruit, and warm spicy notes. The taste of the liquor was consistent with smell of the infused leaves. It was a complex, many-splendoured cup of tea.

Tillerman's Oriental Beauty is such a classic where the term indicates a very good experience. Given the richness of the Cuifeng Gaoshan, this green oolong would be suitable for colder months as well as for warmer months. Too, you could prepare it hot with more leaf and iced or cold steeped with less leaf. One of lessons I have learned from drinking tea is the individuality of one's palate so although I found the mild nature of the Dong Ding confounding, you might find it a palate pleaser.

Thank you again to Tillerman Tea for the oolongs for review.

Favorite Tea Ware - Philip Aba of ZeroZen Artlab

Thu, 08/17/2017 - 15:01
As a tea drinker, and I am sure this is true for you, I adore teaware, from the chasen to the yixing teapot. Everyone has their favorites! I designed this series as an opportunity for tea drinkers to showcase the very special tea objects in their personal collections. Today's selections are brought to you by Phillip Aba ZeroZen Artlab. Phillip is a prolific photographer on Instagram at ZeroZen Artlab. Phillip started his life with tea drinking from teabags as a boy. Without the influence of parents, he "fell in love with Asian culture" as a boy. His first epiphanic experience with "the real good stuff" was with Sencha. The photos and stories below are courtesy of Phillip Aba. 

I owned much more on teaware in the past but sold some of it to a good tea friend. The reason? - In my tea development I made some major mistakes choosing way to big tea vessels in the past around 200-240ml. Some might think "That's not big!" but the more you dig into Gongfu cha the more you realize it's way to big. Now my teaware I daily use is mostly around 110-120ml which is perfect and those are my favorite ones.

125ml Petr Novák teapot

When it comes to teaware I deeply love European artists because they are majorly inspired by Korean or Taiwanese rustic earthy ways of creating teaware. Speaking of it Petr Novák from the Czech Republic is my absolute hero when it comes to this certain type of teapots & co. My most beloved 125ml teapot is made by his skillful hands - what I love the most about it is its ancient rustic tree bark look. Nowadays it is quite hard to get hold on his stuff because it is sold within seconds. I hope I can get another one of this style one day. This unglazed one nearly screamed "Wuyi Yancha" to me and I never regret this choice. The stony texture of the clay suits this type of Oolong perfectly.

110ml Andrzej Bero pot

Next in the row is Andrzej Bero from Poland. I do not even own a Japanese Kyusu anymore because I felt so much in love with the ones he creates. This round shaped 110ml pot is glazed inside/outside and I use it for all kinds of green Taiwanese High Mountain Oolongs and also Chinese Tie Guan Yin. The feel of the handle and the handling of the pot itself is just flawless.

130ml Andrzej Bero pot

Next one of Bero is my beloved Korean and Japanese greens dedicated 130ml pot. It got a stronger thicker handle and a bit of a Korean type of pottery look I really love. This one is also glazed inside.

120ml Jiří Duchek teapot

Before we jump to the Chinese art of pottery there is one last European hero I discovered at last Jiří Duchek also from the Czech Republic. I only own one teapot and a lovely feather cup of him but I absolutely adore and love his work to the bits. This 120ml pear shaped tea pot smashed its purpose of being raw Sheng used with all its might into my face because this is what I use it for and it seems like this type of clay was made for it. Raw Sheng tastes pure, perfect and so well rounded and placed within this pot - it's like a miracle. This pot like most I own is unglazed. It is good to have 1-2 unglazed ones you can use for anything but I really love it to dedicate a certain teapot to just one type of tea. Because over the time you really can taste and scent the difference which evolves within this pots. The Yancha pots scent more stony and pu-erh pots more herbal and field flowery.

Li Changquan Nixing teapot

Now let's jump to the Chinese territory of Craftsmanship. Here my most used and absolute hero is this fine Nixing teapot made by an artist called Li Changquan. Beside Yixing, Jianshui, Chaozhou and Jingdezhen porcelain Nixing is one of the famous types of pottery material in China. This type of clay is normally dedicated to Heicha like Liu Bao but in my opinion it is one of the best material to be used for raw or aged Sheng. I use this small 118ml unglazed Nixing pot for aged Sheng and again it is like if it was made for it. If I could recommend the perfect vessel for Pu-erh it would be Nixing for aged and raw and Jianshui for all types of Pu.

Chaozhou 120ml teapot

Next in row is my beloved Chaozhou 120ml teapot. This type of clay is located in the same region as Dancong Oolong is grown. So most of the time it is praised to be the best for this type of Oolong and I can say that's freakin right. In this case it seems and feels like the circle finally closed and everything is in exact perfect balance and harmony. If you fell in love with Dancong's as I do there are only two options first Chaozhou and second Jianshui - nothing else. Beside the great craftsmanship I really love the wide open lid which makes it very easy to pour the tea in and watch it unfold.

120ml Benshan Lv Ni style Yixing pot

The last one is a Yixing in a very unusual shape. I really love the silky soft feel of this fine craftsmanship and those lovely carved Chinese ideographs. This 120ml Yixing pot is a type of Benshan Lv Ni and dedicated to Chinese greens only. This type of Yixing works like a charm for green teas.

Cups and utensils

Beside the pots I love to collect and use different types of cups. From those named European artists to Jingdezhen - glass or celadon - For my personal use I like bigger cups but when it comes to photo sessions or drinking with my wife I use smaller cups in pairs.

Last but not least my most used utensils are those coaster, scoops and this stainless steal strainer to keep all the dusty stuff out of my tea. So that's it for now. This isn't my whole collection but my most loved and used ones. And I am 100% sure this isn't the end of my collection at all. If you love tea you never can resist to fall in love all over again and again...and again.

ZeroZen's favorites were an introduction to teapot makers; I'd only known of Petr Novák. I also learned the names of different styles of teapots. I can see why the objects he shared with us are his "most loved and used ones"! What do you think about ZeroZen's favorite tea ware? Thank you to ZeroZen for contributing to this series.

United States of Tea - Minto Island Tea Company

Wed, 08/16/2017 - 15:01
Minto Island Tea Company tea plot in flush (all images courtesy of MITC)My story of Minto Island Tea Company begins with my husband. His best friend is from Salem, Oregon. His best friend’s parents still live there. His best friend’s mother knows of my love of tea. She purchased two teas from Minto Island Tea Company, based in Salem, and mailed them to me when I lived in Virginia last year. The Steamed Green Tea and the Black Tea were harvested in August 2016. I first drank them in November 2016. I finished the black tea first. I drank the last portion of the green tea earlier this year. The black tea was very good; I drank all of it very quickly. The green tea was also very good but I’m a fan of teas with a chocolate and dark fruit profile. The green tea always started out mildly sweet and vegetal, but later infusions, especially when the leaf proportion was higher, yielded a more robust cup. I checked Minto Island Tea Company’s website while writing this post and new teas have not been added to the inventory, yet. In February of this year, I reached out to the company for an interview as part of this emerging series on U.S. based tea growers. My thanks to Elizabeth Miller for speaking with me about her family’s tea business.

Camellia sinensis propagation in the shadehouseOrigin of Minto Island Tea Company

Minto Island Tea Company is part of Minto Island Growers (MIG), a direct-to- market vegetable business formed about 10 years ago by Elizabeth Miller and her husband, Chris Jenkins. The produce company has several components including a farm stand and community supported agriculture (CSA). MIG grew out of land farmed by Elizabeth’s family since the 1970s. (In addition to the farmland in Salem, her family, going back to her grandfather, owned land in Willamette Valley and Eastern Oregon. The tea company began as a half-acre tea plot planted in the late 1980s by her father, Rob Miller, and his partner, John Vendeland. The tea plot was a research venture; John had the plant materials and he and Rob experimented with various cultivars to determine which ones had flavors that would be worthwhile planting out in bigger blocks. Elizabeth became familiar with the tea plot as a child so when she Chris became interested in tea farming she already knew that these cultivars had thrived in Oregon for over 20 years. She and Chris had been harvesting and processing tea on a small scale when people began to reach out to them in significant numbers with requests to purchase their tea and to visit the farm. This enthusiastic response spurred them to apply for a Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) from the USDA to expand their operations. With funding from the VAPG program, the small tea plot became Minto Island Tea Company. Elizabeth and Chris scaled up their tea production to sell at a public farmer’s market in Portland, a farm stand, and on the web. The farm team planted 12 acres in 2016. The original half-acre plot is the only field that is currently producing tea. In addition, it functions as a propagation site. Also, it hosts a mix of cultivars so teas made from this plot are blends. Elizabeth and Chris would like to propagate individual cultivars of Camellia sinensis on the new 12 acres. When I spoke to Elizabeth earlier this year, she said their goal for the end of 2017 was to plant a total of 20 acres but have recently decided "10 acres is a more reasonable goal."

The Cultivars

What’s growing on Minto Island? Yabukita, Yamatomidori and Okumidori originally from Japan. Some cultivars from South Carolina as well as from Hawaii. C. s. var. assamica as well as unnamed cultivars of C. s. var. sinensis. Elizabeth and Chris would like to focus on green tea cultivars from Japan and/or on cultivars from regions with a similar climate to Japan. They both love Japanese green teas. Although they are interested in “honor[ing] and respect[ing]” Japanese green tea methods, the cultivars growing in Salem are “becoming an Oregon tea.” Over the past 20 years, they, along with Rob Miller and John Vendeland, have planted and replicated blocks of seeds from over 200 varietals across microclimate, soil, drainage, and other variables.

Farm Team Roles

Both Elizabeth and Chris are plant lovers. Chris brings professional plant expertise — he worked for Rana Creek, an ecological design firm — but Elizabeth has an active interest in plants, too. Chris and her father (Rob) and Rob’s coworker, Jill, primarily focus on propagation and field culture while Elizabeth co-wrote the VAP Grant as well oversees marketing, administration, and communications. The tea company is a “family affair”. Elizabeth grew up on and participated in this family farm; she “can drive all the tractors”. Their daughter smells teas during cupping sessions and Elizabeth hopes her daughter will have a passion for tea. She said, there is “really nothing better than working with plants, if that’s what you love.”

Withering tea leavesConsumer Tastes

One of the goals for their 10 acres is to produce more tea to meet demand for a customer base interested in lower price point niche products likes kombucha. They have also identified black and green teas as the two most popular tea types. As a result, they would like to cultivate more Assamica but have not found the appropriate plant materials. They are also interested in making senchas. Coincidentally, several Japanese tea farmers on a tour of the Northwest as well as a young farmer form Uni visited Minto Island Tea. They hope to visit the young farmer who offered to show them how to process and steam sencha.

Good, Early Advice

She has been inspired by her father to be innovative and to not be “paralyzed by history and traditions of tea.” Her father has always said, more or less, “don’t be afraid of what you don’t know.” Also, early consumers of their tea encouraged them to take the next steps to expand their company. They abandoned the illusion of “a perfect tea” for a goal to make unique teas from 20-year-old tea plants growing in certified organic conditions in Oregon.

Last summer's teasPredictions for Tea Culture in the U.S.

The economics of tea production in the U.S. is challenging. It it difficult to compete with India, China, Taiwan in terms of scale and a large workforce skilled in picking and handcrafting techniques. However, there are opportunities in terms of incorporating tea into kombucha or beer. They want to pursue handcrafted teas but have found it difficult for black teas in particular. Elizabeth noted that it is “hard to get to the level of oxidation for black [tea] by hand.” Elizabeth predicts tea will remain a niche industry with potential and pointed to the evolution of Pinot Noir in Oregon. Elizabeth has an evocative way of describing the relationship between people and plants, something of deep personal and professional interest to me. She spoke passionately about humans “deep craving to interact with plants, to know the story of the plants they are consuming”. Minto Island Tea Company can fulfill this need. She is dreaming of a beautiful teahouse to host tea drinkers and to strengthen their connection to the farm.