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Beyond the Leaf

  • I’ve written about Mr. Lin Rui Fu before and don’t hide my admiration for him. As a guy from a Midwestern, blue-collar family, I relate to his hard-work, high-quality, no-nonsense approach. Most Chinese tea makers and traders have an ornate room with a tea table and fine tea ware to entertain their guests (and I have no problem with this aesthetic). Mr. Lin has a small, spartan tea room resembling the office of the local auto mechanic.

    Mr. Lin in his tea fields

    His tea is some of the best quality oolong tea I have come across. Growing at a high altitude of 2,400 feet, the tea plants are perfectly manicured lines wrapped around the mountains. The tea, the fields, and the factory are all immaculate and the homemade food upstairs is my favorite. Below is a comparison of our current teas from him which highlight basic Anxi tea styles.

    Golden Dawn Oolong Tea

    (Gongfu steeping - 6 grams | 6 oz water | 195°F | Rinse 5 sec. | Steep 30 sec | Repeat)

    More commonly known as Huang Jin Gui, the locals call this tea “Huang Dan” (Yellow/Morning-Dawn). To be properly understood, it should be appreciated for the way it yields. This tea is pristinely clean and light and seems to digest like light rain on ready soil. The most prominent aspects of the flavor are its dark mineral notes, acting more like rests in a good beat - felt rather than noticed. Huang Jin Gui is famous for its aroma which is clean, lightly floral, and pleasantly lacks any thickness of perfume or broth. This cup of tea goes down easy, doesn’t linger long, and seems to always take the path of least resistance. It’s an everyman’s everyday tea and doesn’t require you to pay attention to it to be appreciated.It’s not the tea I bring out to impress my friends, but I drink a lot of it, especially in the morning.

     

     Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong Tea

    (Gongfu steeping - 6 grams | 6 oz water | 195°F | Rinse 5 sec. | Steep 30 sec | Repeat)

    Ti Kwan Yin, a classic Chinese oolong tea, translates as “Iron Goddess of Mercy” - and such great names are always worth noting. This is a traditional version with a moderate amount of baking in the final step of processing. Ti Kwan Yin and Huang Jin Gui are both named after the tea plant cultivar used to make the tea and are often processed in similar ways. However, each possesses unique attributes, and the thick tea leaves of Ti Kwan Yin tend to give it a fuller and more pronounced flavor and mouthfeel, where Huang Jin Gui tends to highlight the aroma. The dark color of the liquor can be misleading as it is surprisingly light in body and floral in character. The baking brings out depth more than toastiness – a warm familiarity in the gut rather than frills and fancy on the palette. This cup of tea is not too fussy when you steep it, either, and stays knowable and dependable on each visit. It’s not a tea to get in the way of a moment, but a tea you wanted to be there.

     

    Huang Jin Gui Full Roast Oolong Tea

    (Gongfu steeping - 6 grams | 6 oz water | 195°F | Rinse 5 sec. | Steep 30 sec | Repeat)

    Sometimes the best way to judge the quality is to hold it in your hands. The finer details of craftsmanship tend to reveal themselves at these moments. Though this tea is the same tea plant cultivar as our Golden Dawn Oolong, the similarities end there. As stated in the name, this tea gets the traditional baking that brings out depth by sending the flavor into the body rather than up into the nasal cavities like “green” oolong tend to do. It has a full body and oily mouthfeel that allows those dark, sugary flavors to linger. The aroma is stacked, but stays surprisingly floral instead of charcoal-like, which is the sign of skilled baking by Mr. Lin. There’s a certain comfort in this cup of tea - like the old country music lyric “sometimes this old farm feels like a long-lost friend.” If you don’t have an old farm, this tea gets you similar sentiments - a loyal companion to everyday life.

    -Michael

     

     

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  • Tea & COVID-19

    CLICK HERE TO READ THE TEASOURCE POLICY STATEMENT FOR COVID-19

    FAQ 

    • All of the tea (and herbals) that TeaSource presently sells are from pre-2020 tea harvests, before the Covid 19 virus.

    • Tea is safe.

    • From the CDC website: … “In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures.”
    • When importing tea, the very shortest transit time is about 3 weeks (which would involve air transport in unheated storage compartments), up to 4 months by sea.
    • Here is the relevant link from the CDC website: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/faq.html

    • From the FDA:

    • “There is no evidence to suggest that food produced in the United States or imported from countries affected by COVID-19 can transmit COVID-19.”
    • Here is the relevant link from the FDA website:
    • https://www.fda.gov/emergency-preparedness-and-response/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19-frequently-asked-questions#food

    • The last step of tea manufacture is called firing, where the leaf is exposed to very high temperatures, which would kill any bacteria or enzymes (or virus) on the leaves.

    • From the U.S. Tea Association:
    • "The teas we (i.e. American tea sellers) retail now were produced and shipped last year prior to the beginning of the crisis in China. Additionally, tea is finished in hot ovens and is brewed in hot water that would destroy any microorganism, including a virus.”

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  • CLICK HERE TO READ FAQ ABOUT TEA & COVID-19

    TeaSource is open and shipping orders.

    As part of the food supply chain in America, TeaSource is considered part of critical infra-structure and our warehouse & order fulfillment facility are exempt from closure. While we remain operational, however, we will adhere explicitly to the safety procedures directed by the CDC and the state of Minnesota for the safety of our employees and customers. Our employees’ health and safety will always be our primary concern. This means work stations that are more than six-feet apart, any work with tea will only be done by gloved employees, no congregating during breaks, and extensive hand-washing and sanitation measures. We will not be allowing anyone into our facility that is not a permanent employee. Further, for the members of our team that can effectively work from home, they have now been temporarily assigned to stay home until further notice.
    We have instituted a volunteer leave option for all of our employees. Should any member of our team choose to stay home during this emergency period they have that option – using their ESST (Earned Sick & Safe Time) or PTO (Paid Time Off) time as compensation. No one who chooses voluntary leave will be in jeopardy of losing their job.

    Our Retail Stores

    We have made some adjustments in hours and service. Our retail stores are dual-licensed and inspected as food stores and restaurants. We still sell bulk tea and accessories. We no longer provide sit-down service, but we still sell to-go cups of tea.
    Our retail stores hours are the same for all 3 stores:
    Open: Friday and Saturday 12pm - 5pm
    Closed: Sunday-Thursday

    What does all of this mean for you?

    We will do our very best to maintain the service that our valued customers have come to expect from us. However, under these new restraints and protocols the timing and processing of queries, orders, and samples will be affected. We will always try to meet our existing standards on customer response and order fulfillment; but going forward responses and orders may be delayed. This is subject to change, but we will try to get orders out as fast as possible.

    The best way to contact us during this time is through email:
    General questions: office@teasource.com
    Wholesale questions: wholesale@teasource.com
    Web order questions: orders@teasource.com

    Thanks, and good wishes to all of our customers & suppliers as we all work together through these challenging times.

    Bill Waddington
    TeaSource Owner

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  • Comparative Cupping: Sheng Puers

    Here’s a quick comparison of the three most recent sheng puer arrivals. Each was steeped in 150ml gaiwan with 8 grams of tea, 15 second rinse, and then 20 second steeps (with close-to-boiling water each time).

    This is the softest of the three. It was made by Mr. Yang Xiu Hai, the same gentleman who made our 2018 Yiwu Sheng Puer, though this one comes from the Menghai region. It’s light and fruity – reminds me of those mornings where breakfast was a quick bowl of instant peaches and cream oatmeal (with hoppy beer added to your oatmeal – not that I’ve ever done that…). There are small mineral and bitter elements that service the cup like pinches of salt to the cookie dough recipe. The mouthfeel is soft and smooth and memories of grapefruit in the exhale. This tea has an important quality that our typical assessments have no words for - it just feels good to drink. Some teas feel good because they taste good. Some teas feel good because they are ritualistic or nostalgic. All these are good reasons to drink those teas. But I swear there is an objective measure for teas that just plain feel good. This tea is gentle and present. The most important things rise to the top without saying much at all. Like a sad song without lyrics, you just know.

    This is the most complex of the teas mentioned here. It was made by Mr. Zhao Tian, who lives on the famous tea producing mountain of Nan Nuo Shan (see blog post for more about him). The steeped aroma of this one is a bit damp and fishy, maybe gamey. If you haven’t had much puer tea before, you may not find it pleasant. But as it cools, the aroma sweetens up like apricots. Puer teas can have a “wildness” to their character that’s just difficult to describe other than…wild. When I attempt to describe it, I often say off-putting things like those above, but they are terms of endearment. Those untamed savory/charcoal-like flavors get balanced with familiars like hops and grains. The mouthfeel has a granite-like texture (without all the weight that implies) and there’s a certain electrical intensity to the cup (not quite bitter, not quite astringent) that seems to be uniquely present in some puer teas. It starts out light, but intensifies through the second and third steeps. Even the 4th and 5th steeps are still very present while becoming more subtle. It is not sweet, it is not soft, it is not simple, but still very easy to drink. Like a good riddle, it lacks many affirmatives, but you enjoy it none the less.

    This tea is the strongest of the bunch and the most affordable (those two attributes have no inherent connection). It was made by Mr. Liu Zhao Quan, a tea-school classmate of our mutual friend Mr. Tang. This tea has a notable sharpness, which is not bad, but it will make its presence known. It can easily be controlled by reducing the amount of leaf used or limiting steep times, but I wouldn’t shy away from the challenge if you’re willing. The floral/bitter/charcoal flavors flex their muscles early with a full and oily mouthfeel. It’s a good performance, but it can overpower if you’re not careful. The tea is warming and travels to the gut quickly, which lasts much longer than the aftertaste in the mouth. These are admirable qualities for an inexpensive puer and I highly recommend it as an everyday tea. The landscape on this one flattens out sooner than the others mentioned here, but you can still easily get 4-5 steeps. Those last rounds have a gentler, melon-like sweetness that makes for a pleasant finish, but it signals that the house lights are about to come on and the show is over.

    Shop All Puer Tea

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  • The Thing About Puer Tea

    Puer cakes being wrapped in bamboo "tongs" in Kunming, Yunnan

    To be fair, puer tea can be difficult. The flavors and aromas don’t lend themselves to the obvious charms of sugars and salts. It’s not mysterious in a mystical sense, but quality information is elusive and this tea doesn’t fit neatly into a commoditized category like black tea or green tea. Its simplicity adds to its complexity, hence the trouble with giving it a firm definition.

    Drinking puer with Mr. Zhao at his home in Nan Nuo Mountain in Yunnan

    But I’m going to attempt to give it a working definition anyways. I will not address what it tastes like - it’s enough just to respond to “what is puer tea”? The below explanation assumes you have some understanding of how tea is made. I lack the skill to summarize without these assumptions.

    Freshly picked "Yunnan Big Leaf" tea for making puer
     

    All puer is made using the Yunnan-grown assamica leaf. If it is made with the small leaf Camellia sinensis, it is generally not considered puer.

    A small village in the town of Jing Mai, Yunnan

    All puer tea comes from Yunnan, particularly the southwest areas of Lincang, Xishuangbanna, and Puer (hence the name). Even if the tea making process is the same, but if the tea material is not from Yunnan (particularly those three areas), it is not considered puer tea.

    Sheng puer mao cha (loose leaf tea) from Mr. Zhao's spring 2019 lot

    To be brief, puer tea comes in two very different styles: sheng puer (raw) and shu puer (ripe). Sheng puer is a simple non-oxidized tea whose finished product will change naturally over time. Shu puer starts out as sheng puer, but goes through one more deliberate and accelerated “post fermentation” process to speed up this change into a matter of weeks as opposed to years. However, these two styles of tea couldn't be more different.

    Shu puer in the first stage of the post fermentation process

    Sheng puer is a simple tea to make and goes through some similar processes as other tea, but there are two essential distinctions. The “kill-green” step is not as thorough as green tea, leaving the elements for oxidation somewhat intact. Also, puer tea is always finished by air drying, not machine drying, so the moisture loss is always imperfect. These two facts are critical. It preserves the elements of change within the leaf that become apparent with age.

    The liquor of a 1988 sheng puer from Ms. Zhao

    Both styles of puer tea can be drunk immediately after they’re made or can be aged indefinitely. There is no minimum age to define puer tea. However, the qualities of sheng puer will change considerably over the course of years. The change in shu puer is less dramatic.

    Puer cakes in a special room for long-term storage

    When aging puer tea, the environmental conditions during storage can vary widely and will have a signature impact on how it changes. It’s not uncommon for puer tea to be sent to Guangdong or Hong Kong to be stored in its warm and humid climate, which will cause the changes to be faster and more intense. Yunnan is cooler and dryer and so the pace of change is slower and more subtle. There is no universally agreed upon method of which storage is better. They are just different.

     Small, medium, and large tea trees from Mr. Zhao's fields in Nan Nuo Shan

     

    Because of puer tea’s simplicity, the small details – the mountain, the tea tree, the season, the weather conditions – all play a pivotal role. It’s not hard for the puer tea enthusiast to get lost in the minutia of these details – and like baseball statistics when I was a kid; they are fun to get lost in. But it’s best not to take them too seriously. Statistics don’t always guarantee performance.

    Traditional pressing stones for tea cakes

    If you’re still reading, I hope this brings puer tea a little more into focus. This is not an official definition of puer. I am not qualified to give one. Any of the above parameters can and are being disputed by someone. It doesn’t matter. Always let the tea speak for itself.

    -Michael

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  • Here’s a compare and contrast of three Chinese green teas we received in 2019:

    Wuling Mountains in Hunan Province, China

    Each steep was 8 grams tea, 5 ounces of 180 degree water, steeped 30 seconds in a gaiwan. Normally I would not make the tea this strong, but for the purpose of this multi-steep evaluation I wanted to pull out more elements quicker. There’s no strict rule about how many grams to put in the gaiwan or how long/hot to steep it (I’m sure some of you disagree), but I would dial it back a bit based on my own preferences.

    Gu Zhang Mao Jian - Buy this tea

    Attractive looking, tightly twisted, dark green leaf. The steeped aroma is that garden-like vegetal floral that I’m a big fan of (because I garden). The cup is a dark, deep, vegetal flavor, sharp, and a savory broth that’s not too soupy. It has an oily mouthfeel and a slight, pleasant bitterness. The body and mouthfeel are sustained through second and third steeps, but the bitterness starts to take a back seat to more floral flavors and an undefined sweetness. It warms up the body more than most Chinese greens. A very full experience. Touches all bases.

    Dragonwell Superior - Buy this tea

    Those iconic flat, little, yellow-green leaves are in high demand in the tea world. Its unique qualities are well on display here. The cup is grassy with a strong nutty flavor and lots of little nooks and crannies for nuances like a little floral here, a little bitter there, maybe a brussel sprout over here. It continues to distinguish itself as it refuses to diminish through the second and third steeps. The edges do soften a little with the nutty quality giving way to more floral flavors. Its presence lingers strong in the mouth for as long as you wish.

    Wuling Mountain Yunwu - Buy this tea

    This is classic Chinese green tea! Its dull green leaves are twisted and curled.  The cup is a combination of leafy greens, chicken broth, and flowers. The soft mouthfeel makes the liquor go down easy and is largely forgiving of any bitterness. The body and flavor of this tea fade quicker than the Gu Zhang Mao Jian and Dragonwell, but it’s an excellent value and the aroma is first class!

    -Michael Lannier

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