Shop Review: Mootz Run Tea Shop and Petali Teas

The Columbus tea scene is pretty limited (well, the commercial tea scene anyway) considering that we claim to be the cultural and foodie capitol of the Midwest. There are only one or two shops I am willing to stop by in Columbus on a regular basis, but I feel as though I am pretty well connected with the private Columbus tea scene. Imagine my surprise when I learned that almost no one has heard of Petali Teas or Mootz Run Tea Shop before. It’s a crime that no one in Columbus seems to know about it, but it’s not surprising at the same time.

  1. This shop is located in the middle of nowhere. The first time we drove up, I thought for sure that the barn in the middle of the corn fields was some elaborate scheme to murder people who obsessively search for tea in the Columbus area.
  2. Mootz Run Tea Shop sells Petali teas. What? Why not just call it Petali Tea Shop? They seem to be the same company as far as I can tell.
  3. The owner doesn’t seem to be that active on social media. I’ve seen a post or two on the Facebook group, but that’s not where the Columbus tea freaks hang. That’s really not even where most of the national teaple hang. They sell on Amazon, but they don’t seem to market to the cool internet teaple, like reddit and Steepster.
  4. The hours are atrocious–Friday and Saturday from 11 to 5. I get that it’s a small shop, so you have to weigh cost vs. customer traffic. But that leaves just 6 hours a week for a Columbus resident to visit, and there’s too much going on in Columbus on Saturdays to want to leave.

But for all the criticisms, this shop makes up for it in everything else. Driving up to the shop for the first time makes you wonder if you’re in the right place, but after the first time, it’s quite literally a breath of fresh air. The wind is blowing through the gentle slopes of grass, corn, or snow, depending on the season. The shop itself looks like it’s a converted barn next to a lovely Victorian house that I want to move into. There’s even a cat sitting by the garden gate for crying out loud.

Fat orange cat sighting!

It’s pretty obvious that the owner either knows a decorator or should have been one. The shop is stunningly beautiful. Light streams in through the many windows and bounces off the high, white ceilings. Looking at my pictures, they don’t really do the place justice. Someone is apparently a fan of plants and animals, which matches up so well with people who love tea. The leaves and vines mingle with the teaware in the bright sunlight and make me feel so warm and fuzzy. I wonder what a couple of cozy armchairs with some kettles for brewing tea would do to a place like that. It’s certainly a room I want to hang out in.

As I said before, there isn’t a huge tea scene in Columbus. If you want to buy a gaiwan or a nice steeper, you’re pretty much stuck with buying off the internet. I’ve gotten a yixing swan set and a nice elephant tea spoon here, which is pretty incredible considering many teashops in the US are English style. In fact, the shop seems to be well balanced between Indian, Asian, and English tea traditions, with English taking the lead because one must, of course, cater to customer preference. They also seem to have some unique sources for teaware, as I haven’t seen many of these on Ali or ebay.

And why not add a little activism to your tea? This shop is a big supporter of elephant approved teas and merchandise. These teas are grown on plantations that participate in reducing human-elephant conflict in India. Are you telling me that I can buy an elephant spoon AND support the conservation of elephants? Elephants are one of my favorite animals; sign me up!

I thought this tea bar to make your own creations was a really interesting touch. But since I am forever the introvert, I am too antisocial to ask how it works.

Okay, on to the teas! Price wise, things are weird. Teas are priced by volume instead of weight. This is great if you prefer the blends that contain heavy fillers, but it kind of sucks if you want something light, like the Hua Shan Yellow. It might just be a great way to price up teas they feel are more expensive. They certainly don’t skimp on the tin-filling, so no worries there. You have to be careful whenever you open a new tin, as the teas will spill out everywhere! Petali also offers discounts for returning customers that bring in their tins and punch cards. I feel their prices are pretty fair.

Petali definitely favors flavored blends. While I personally don’t care for the majority of flavored tea, I do have some favorites. Many of the teas in here I actually can’t stand the smell of, but I can’t fault them at all on personal tastes. However, each time I have been here, I have been able to walk away with 3-4 teas. They are usually dessert blends; my favorites have been Mexican Wedding Cookie, Maple Crème Brulée, and Brown Sugar Bread Pudding. Some of the blends that I’ve had are pretty light on the tea, heavy on flavor, off the wall, but still pretty good, like Choco Coco Toasted Oolong and Honey Polenta Oolong. You can see here in my haul shot that I continued with the dessert theme. The Pumpkin smells scrumptious! Also, I thought the tin labels were a very nice touch.

The wall itself is very well organized, with separate, color coded sections for the different tea types, and different canisters for plain teas versus blends. All the information is printed on the front label, including ingredients, and you’re invited to take all the tins off the wall to sniff at your leisure.

The oolong section. Can we all take a moment to appreciate what a terrible photographer I can be?

From the looks of things, Petali tends to favor Indian for the plain teas (though I imagine they also use them for the blends a lot too). They have some Chinese oolongs, but the spotlight is on their unflavored Darjeelings. They do carry some Nepalese teas, which is pretty rare for a shop, and they also have some things that I’ve only seen “real teaple” get, like puerh stuffed in oranges and wrapped in bamboo!

But for all this innovation and creativity, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if this area were to experience a good Laoshan, Dianhong, or Ai Lao from China. What about a good Jin Xuan or Shan Lin Xi from Taiwan? A sencha or gyokuro from Japan? These, to me, are the best of the tea world, and it would be nice to see them in shops now and then. They don’t even really need flavoring, but imagine what fantastic bases they would make!

Since many of my readers (all one or two of you) aren’t in the Columbus area, you can see some, but not all, of the teas made in this beautiful little shop in the middle of nowhere on Amazon. Another silly thing they do is separate their shops by merchandise type, so you may have to dig a bit.

Happy teaing!

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Review: White2Tea’s 2011 Fuding Aged White

I feel like celebrating. I got a new pot for my birthday. Milche’s latest blood tests came back much improved. It’s been way too long since I’ve done a tea review, so let’s throw one up here!

Silver Pot

I love my new pot. The turtle at the top is what really sold me on it. I’ve named him, and the entire pot by extension, Ralph, after the pet Florida softshell turtle I had in high school. Ralph is made of silver, which is supposed to affect the flavor of the brew. I haven’t noticed anything overtly different, but I’ll have to do a side by side review sometime. In case you were wondering, he comes from Yunnan Sourcing.

Ralph, king of the oolongs
All hail Ralph, king of the oolongs!

And the teapet? His name is Terrence, and he’s actually pretty cool. Terrence is the first (and probably last–there are only so many teapets a person can own) of my color changing teapets. Here’s a video of Terrence in action. He came from a random seller on eBay.

I have a sample of White2Tea’s 2011 Fuding Aged White Tea that I want to try before I place my order for 200 of their A&P cakes (okay, not literally 200 cakes, but A&P is so very good). I don’t have much experience with white tea. I’ve tried my grocery store’s okay brand, What-Cha’s incredible Kenya “Rhino” White, and some unidentified white squares that Liquid Proust is selling offsite that are pure honey. So far, I’ve been very satisfied with my white journey. But aged white? I’m not so sure.

2011 Fuding
Milche wants to celebrate her good blood test results too.

This isn’t the prettiest sample, but then again we don’t drink tea for the looks. If I raked up a bunch of leaves in my front yard, pressed them tightly together, and left them to rot for a year outside, this sample is how I would imagine those leaves to look. The picture of the whole cake on the website looks better, so maybe I just got a bad section.

Wet 2011 Fuding

There was some question as to what temperature I should brew at, so I brewed about 9g in my 160ml pot, going back and forth between 200º and 212ºF. Brew times started at a couple of seconds and increased as the tea died. I think the last steep, which is the one pictured, ended up being about 5 minutes. I’ll give you a little spoiler at this point: I enjoyed this tea at both temperatures, so it didn’t matter. The leaves brewed into a stunning red, a color I wasn’t expecting from the leaves.

2011 Fuding Brew

The tea starts out medicinal. I didn’t really understand that description when people used it for white tea, but I certainly do now. It proves that even when a description is relatable, it sometimes won’t make sense until you actually experience it for yourself. I also got a lot of autumnal leaf pile flavor. To be honest, I didn’t really enjoy the first three steeps of this tea at all.

Like the clouds parting after a storm, the flavor began to open up and become pleasant and warm at the fourth steep. The transformation began with some cinnamon and a touch of honey, though autumnal leaf pile was still the predominating flavor.

It was a freezing cold day, so the brew cooled quickly. At that point, I got a hint of green apple skin, which is a first for me in any kind of tea—pretty impressive! As much as I would like to think that it is my palate adjusting to detect the finer points of a brew, in preparation for my become some sort of tea tasting superhero,  it’s probably just the tea being awesome.

As the leaf mellows out and begins to die, it keeps surprising me with other flavors: vanilla, honey, and dried flowers.

I think my White2Tea doomcart just got a little more expensive.

Happy teaing!

2011 Fuding

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Getting Started with Brewing Loose Leaf Tea Western Style

I want to approach brewing as many people new to the world of tea approach it. Very few people go from drinking tea bags to gongfu style. If you’ve gotten a full setup based on my last education post, Getting Started with Loose Leaf, you already have a mug, an infuser, some tea leaves, and a way to heat your water.

Now what?

A Note on Standards

They’re bull crap. I can give you some guidelines on where to start, but it’s ultimately your palate you’re aiming to please. The high priest or the premiere sommelier of tea can tell you to steep all black teas at 212 degrees, but if you prefer them at 205, brew them at 205 and enjoy without guilt. Be unapologetic in your preferred tastes! This is actually pretty decent advice for life as well. I feel like I could go on an entire philosophical rant about this, so I’ll just leave it at that.

But the suggestions I am going to give here are good places to start if you’re unsure of how you like your tea. Feel free to make adjustments as necessary. As a matter of fact, I encourage you to play around with temperatures and steeping times. Though you can get a general sense of what certain types of teas will do with you play with steeping temperatures and times, teas can sometimes surprise you and improve outside of traditional parameters.

Brewing Parameters

Each tea type has different optimal brewing methods to bring out “the best” of their flavors, but these are highly subjective. It’s possible to turn a tea from “meh” to “wow” just by adjusting how you’ve steeped it. Brewing a tea for hotter or longer can give the brew a stronger flavor, bring out more bitterness or astringency, or highlight different flavors. Shorter or lower temperature steeps subdue certain flavors, reduce bitterness and astringency, and highlight other flavors. Even the material, size and shape of the vessel you’re brewing in can affect the taste of a tea, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The reason I’m being so vague in is because each tea is going to react differently. It’s best to play around and find out for yourself.

Amount

So you have your tea leaves, and your preferred infuser is all set up in your mug and ready to go. How much leaf should you put in your infuser? If you have a small infuser, like the snappy spoon or a noveltea infuser, the decision is already made for you. Fill it up about half way to allow for room for the leaves to grow as they rehydrate. There’s not a lot of room for experimentation with these types of infusers. Otherwise, start with a teaspoon per 6-8 ounces. I like my tea to be a bit stronger, so I will usually do 1.5–2 teaspoons per 6 ounces.

Heating the Water

If you have a kettle that tells you the temperature of the water, congratulations! You can skip this section. If you’re using a less precise method, such as a stovetop or a microwave, and you don’t have a thermometer, you’re going to have to make a guess. And that’s okay if you’re just starting out and deciding if you even want to be a tea drinker. But once you’re hooked, I recommend at least getting a thermometer—a kettle if the bug has really bitten you.

Anyway, if you’re using a microwave or a stovetop and you don’t yet have a thermometer of some sort, it’s easiest to start from boiling. Then take the water off the heat (or out of the microwave) and wait for it to cool some. The amount of time to wait for it to cool is obviously going to vary greatly depending on what vessel you’re holding the water in, but you’ll want to wait 1-3 minutes for it to cool down. I know that newbies especially are obsessed with “getting it right” when first starting out, but going by feel and instinct is really the best thing for you (she says as she sits down next to her electric kettle that has a continuous reading of the temperature of the water). It’s how the Chinese did it for centuries before electricity.

Times and Temperatures

So here are the temperatures and times I am recommending for these teas. For the ten millionth time, feel free to adjust these to your taste. I find that sometimes I even go outside these parameters based on how a tea looks. Greener teas tend to prefer the lower and shorter end of the spectrum while darker teas tend to prefer the higher and longer. For second steeps and beyond, I use the same temperature and add 30 seconds to a minute to the steep time. And use your nose! The aroma will tell you when the leaves are ready to be pulled.

I’ll definitely go into greater detail about each type of tea in a later post. For now, we just want to get you steeping!

  • Black: 205º-212ºF for 2.5-4 minutes
  • Green: 140º-170º for 1.5-3 minutes
  • Oolong: 180º-195º for 2-4 minutes
  • White: 160º -180º for 1.5-2.5 minutes
  • Mate: 190º -205º for 3-4 minutes
  • Puerh: 180º -212º for .5-3 minutes
  • Rooibos: 212º for 4 minutes
  • Herbal: 212º for 4 minutes

There are other teas, like yellow and purple teas, but the beginner is unlikely to casually run across those. And don’t forget that you can always look up the suggested brew time and temperature on the vendor’s website to see what they recommend.

Now enjoy your tea until the next post comes along!

Happy teaing!

Northwest Tea Festival 2016!

You know how you go on vacation, and it’s difficult to get back into the swing of things? Ever since my trip to the Northwest Tea Festival in Seattle, I’ve had trouble adjusting to regular life: regular sleeping and eating schedules, job schedules, and certainly blog writing. Hopefully you’ll forgive me for waiting an entire month before posting about this trip.

Seattle was an incredible opportunity for me because it was my first time traveling alone. My husband was stuck at home for work reasons while I got to make the decisions on where to go, when to go, how long I should stay, and how to get there. While I’m usually involved in some way in making most of these decisions when we travel together, there was just something different about not even having to consider someone else’s input. There was something thrilling about being in a completely strange place on my own, with the closest person I knew over a thousand miles away. If you’ve never traveled on your own, I recommend you try it at least once in your life.

Seattle Skyline

Of course, one is never truly alone in the tea community; you’ll “know” people in cities all over the world from r/tea, steepster, or wherever you hang out. I think there were a good 5 or 6 teaple I knew either living nearby or visiting for the festival. You’ll have to forgive the quality of these pictures; I learned some lessons after being overwhelmed at all the action going on here!

The tea festival wasn’t what I was expecting. I’m used to those enormous gift shows in Atlanta, with rows upon rows of vendors offering up sales pitches and samples. This was more like a small town gathering, a festival, if you will, of people coming together to celebrate this hot leaf juice. The best part of the festival for me was seeing how people combine their love of tea with their artistic expressions, such as the steampunk tea booth with tea sold in test tubes by a man dressed as the Mad Hatter or the weekend-long gongfu session from the stunning tea table with Crimson Lotus.

Steam Punk Tea
Loved all the creativity of this booth in particular. I wish I hadn’t been so distracted that I didn’t remember to get their name.

 

Crimson Lotus Table
I can’t imagine having to cart this thing around! It made this booth extra popular though. This was one of the rare moments there were seats available!

My tea collection is getting a bit large for my taste, so I exercised restraint in my tea haul. The unsmoked lapsang from Phoenix Teas stood out among the three billion samples I tried while there. I had heard that Crimson Lotus Tea’s 2012 Bulang Gushu was the ultimate in shou puerh, so it was the perfect opportunity to pick up a sample without having to pay shipping. Floating Leaves Tea had too many good samples to name, so I picked up some house oolong and gyokuro, one of my favorites.

Tea Haul
My total tea haul from the Northwest Tea Festival

At the end of the day, in case I wasn’t feeling caffeinated enough, I stopped by Floating Leaves Tea (the store) and sat down with Noah for a couple of hours (turns out I even kept him past closing, poor guy). I ended up accidentally adding some Shanlinxi to my stash from that conversation.

If it’s something you have the opportunity to do, I’d recommend attending tea events, even if they are just in your area. It’s a convivial experience, getting together with a bunch of strangers and leaving friends because you already have this one thing in common.

Maybe I’ll even see you there.

Happy teaing!

 

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Getting Started with Loose Leaf Tea

Okay, you’ve been drinking some bagged tea for a while now, and you’re tired of the same stale flavors. Maybe you’ve been told that you need to lay off the coffee. Maybe you’re just interested in something new and different. Regardless of your reasons, you’re ready to start venturing into the world of loose leaf tea. What supplies do you need? How much is it going to cost? What is the absolute cheapest way to get started?

When I first wanted to get into espresso, I learned that if I wanted good espresso, I was going to have to drop a good $1000-$5000 for a setup. The threshold for a neophyte looking for a quality, well-crafted beverage was pretty much impassable to anyone on a budget. If I’m patient enough, I can probably get a prosumer setup for under $1000, but I’m still working on it. Anyway…back to tea.

The great thing about tea is that you can get started for less than $10 and have an advanced setup for less than $100. There are also plenty of opportunities to spend thousands of dollars, as there are in any industry, if that is your wish.

Tea Leaves

The tricky part about getting tea leaves is getting the balance right between quality and ease of availability. Price tends to vary wildly at all levels of availability and quality, so I left that out of the mix.

Grocery Stores:

Packaged Tea at Market District

Easily accessible, lower end quality (depending on your store)

Usually, you’ll find a few loose leaf brands in your grocery store, and don’t forget to check the bulk section. Brands like Twinings, Republic of Tea, and Rishi sell loose leaf tea in grocery stores. Davidson’s sells lovely loose leaf teas in the bulk section of our local Giant Eagle Market Districts. As you can see, I am fortunate enough to live close to one of these Market Districts, with their entire aisle dedicated to packaged teas and bulk loose leaf tea bar.

Loose Leaf Tea at Market District

Brick and Mortar Tea Stores and Coffee Shops:

Not quite as easily accessible, medium quality

If you live in a somewhat larger city, you may have a dedicated tea shop or tea room that sells loose leaf tea. Much of the tea that I have had in places like these are miles above what I have tried from bagged tea, but still nowhere near the best I’ve had. I’ve never had Starbucks or Teavana loose leaf teas, so I can’t speak to those. But I can say that most private tea shops sell from the same wholesaler. These aren’t the best and highest quality teas I have ever tried, but they are a good opportunity to look, smell, and try a variety of teas that I would have never otherwise given a second thought. And they are still miles above those tea bags you may have been drinking.

Places like this might be a good place to start. I would name some names, but it would only be helpful for those who have traveled in my little section of the United States. Try typing “tea” into Google Maps and see what shops pop up.

Online Dealers:

More difficult to access*, low to high quality

I say that online teas are more difficult to access because the sheer number of vendors available online, their varying quality, and their dizzying array of choices tend to make the newcomer freeze with fear and give up. If you can help it, I wouldn’t start with an online vendor if I were you. If you aren’t sure what kinds of teas you like and from what regions, it can be difficult to choose which teas to buy without spending well, well over $100. For some guidance on navigating these sites, see my post about Teamail Day. There are very few online vendors I have tried myself, but I have loved them all: Yunnan Sourcing, Taiwan Tea Crafts, Beautiful Taiwan Tea Company, Soleil Tea, and Liquid Proust Teas.

Infusers

I’m going to skip brewing vessels for now. It gets too complicated too quickly. Are you brewing Eastern or Western style? How many people are usually sitting down to drink? What kind of tea are you brewing? I’m keeping it simple in this post because this is meant to be for those just starting out. Leave out the pots and kyusus and gaiwans for now. Brew tea directly in your mug. Everyone owns a mug or can get one for very cheap.

Noveltea Infusers

I know it’s a lot of fun to have infusers that look like “manateas,” sloths, rubber duckies, and fish, but these infusers are generally too small to allow the tea leaves to expand. If the tea leaves can’t expand, the water doesn’t flow between them properly. If the water can’t flow, you’re choking the flavor out of the tea.

infuser
Source: wikipedia.com

If you absolutely must have a little infuser, I recommend these little snappy spoons. You fill up the bottom half, leaving enough room in the top half for the leaves to grow. They are easier to clean than the balls on the chains, since you can just snap them open and closed over the trash and then under running water. You can get them for $2 at IKEA. I wouldn’t use these for full, high grade loose leaf tea though. I typically keep these on hand for when I drink CTC blends, or leaves that look like little crushed balls.

Mugs with Built-In Filters

I used these for quite a while, and I still sometimes do. These are the ceramic mugs with the lids and the ceramic filters that all stack into one piece. These are great for larger leaf teas, but you’re going to need a backup plan if you drink CTC tea. I don’t use them as much anymore because I either want to brew with an easy gaiwan or I want a huge mug of tea (for which I use my filter). Still, even in my “more advanced state,” I find plenty of use for these. I got these particular mugs at a local Chinese grocery store.

mugs

Tea Baskets

My favorite infuser is this Rishi tea basket. I’m actually brewing some Jin Jun Mei right now with it. I’ve seen this same style of filter made under several names, but I just happened to get one by Rishi. You can use this thing with practically any size mug or pot, and it allows for plenty of leaf growing room, even for those rolled oolongs that seem to expand to infinity. I’ve used this thing with all kinds of tea, from large leaf to CTC, flavored to non-flavored, and I’ve been satisfied with everything I’ve made from it.

Heating Method

This can be the most expensive area to drop cash on for this hobby if you’re just starting out. I would start with something cheap or free if you aren’t sure you’re going to keep up with it. Otherwise, try to get the highest level that you want right now so you don’t have to pay each step up the ladder that you go.

Microwave

Well, it’s free, but it’s not the best method. It’s incredibly easy to overheat the water for your tea. Black tea can tolerate boiling water pretty consistently, but many people prefer greens, whites, and even some puerhs at lower temperatures. You might want to invest in a thermometer if you’re going to go this route, or you might end up with some oversteeped, overheated leaves. Still, it’s how I started. It’s no surprise I didn’t like any other tea but black, though.

Stove

I’ve actually never made water for tea on the stove top. From what I’ve been told, it’s easier to get a consistent temperature throughout the entire body of water, and it’s easier to take it off the stove the second it starts to boil. This sounds to me like a better way of preparing your tea, but it still gets dicey trying to hit those 180º temps for green teas without a thermometer.

Kettle

This is my preferred method for heating water. If you get a variable temperature kettle, you know exactly how warm or hot the water is—no guessing! I’ll do a post on different kettles soon, with their pros and cons, but for now, I’m loving my Bonavita variable temp gooseneck electric kettle. You might think that you have to drop $100 or more for a nice kettle, but if you’re patient on eBay, you can pick up a used, but perfectly decent, model for half that, or even less. Places like Craigslist and consignment shops are also good places to look.

Tea Community

This post is meant for those just starting their journey into loose leaf tea. There is still quite a way to move up from the techniques, gadgets, teas, and sources I’ve talked about here. Don’t forget to reach out to the community for help, or continue to read this blog as I create more posts!

Happy Teaing!

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Cooking with Tea: Smoky Tofu Bowl

I had all these grand plans for this blog. I wanted to start from a tea neophyte’s point of view and work my way to where I am now. Then I wanted to do all these research articles to cultivate not only my own tea journey, but those taking it with me as well.

But then life kicked in. I’ve had a lot of after-work projects with strict deadlines due lately, in addition to my ten year marriage anniversary and preparing to go to Seattle for the Northwest Tea Festival. So I have to resort to doing the lower impact posts for right now: teamail, reviews, and things that don’t require a lot of background research. These are already experienced and photographed, so all I have to do is write them up from my notes.

But I will get back on track, most likely after I get back from Seattle and do the write-ups from that trip. The main goal of this blog is supposed to be for starting your own tea journey, but while life is taking over, I’m afraid it’s going to have to be a collection of what is easy to write up for now. Oolong Owl’s sous vide salmon recipe was just recently posted, so I thought I would make this week a theme.

With that in mind, I want to tell you about my experiment in cooking with tea! I acquired some Lapsang Souchong from Petali Teas and some Russian Caravan from Margaret’s Fine Imports. It turns out that I’m not that crazy about drinking smoky teas, but I still wanted to find a way to use the leaves I had left. It turns out that smoky teas are excellent for cooking protein. One of these days, I would like to do a slow-cooked roast with a smoky tea, but I haven’t yet worked up the bravery to do so.

Prepping the Tofu

Tofu

Tofu is a great cheap protein to experiment with. I’ve never worked with any other tofu except for the extra firm, which has the closest texture to meat and seems to be the best for cubing and mixing with other ingredients. It’s packed in water, so prepping it becomes all about drying it out before letting it soak up the tea. Some fancy schmancy people own a tofu press, but I just don’t eat tofu often enough to spend money for it. I instead cut the tofu into smaller bricks, gently squeeze out as much water as I can, wrap them in paper towels, and let them sit in the fridge for a bit.

Infusing the Tea into the Tofu

The next step is infusing the tea into the tofu. Now that the tofu is dry, it should be ready to suck up that tea goodness. I did a particularly strong brew of both teas with a long steeping time: 2 tablespoons per cup of water steeped for 4-5 minutes. I want this tea strong enough to stand up on its own and walk out the door.

After poking a few holes in the tofu with a fork, I put the tofu into bowls and poured the tea over it. If you have one of those chicken flavor injectors, you might want to try injecting some tea directly into the tofu. Then I put lids on and put them in the fridge for a couple of days.

smoky-comparison
Bessie (on the left) is voting for the Lapsang Souchong. Fred (on the right) is voting for the Russian Caravan. Who will win?

Cooking the Tofu

The very first time I tried tofu, it was at a cooking class at work. The recommended baking tofu to give it nice, crispy edges, so I’ve always done that to my tofu. I bake at 350ºF for 45 minutes if I’m doing two packages. I’m not sure how long to bake if you only have one package, but the edges should be a light, crispy brown. Remove from the oven and cut into 1-2 inch cubes.

Making the Meal

Normally, I would place all the tofu into the big pan to start the stir fry dish, but I wanted to compare the flavor differences between the Russian Caravan and Lapsang Souchong. So I put some sesame oil into two small pans and fried them up a little to crisp them up a little more.

After that, it’s throw whatever you want into a big pan and cook it up. I use carrots, celery, garlic, onion, black beans, cauliflower, water chestnuts, and Trader Joe’s Frozen Rice Medley. Depending on what else I have in the fridge, I sometimes add fresh spinach, kale, or dark salad mix of some sort. The great part about this dish is that you can add pretty much any vegetables that are about to go bad!

Don’t forget to add your preferred seasonings: salt, pepper, teriyaki or soy sauce, red peppers, whatever…

smoky-comparison-2

Comparing the Tea

So I brewed Petali’s Lapsang Souchong and Margaret’s Russian Caravan side by side to do a little comparing and contrasting. All I can say now is that I want BBQ. I’m seriously thinking about doing a slow cooked carnitas recipe involving one of these teas.

The leaves of both teas offer up a hint as to the flavor: the lapsang is camphor-smelling, while the caravan is sweeter, more like a BBQ sauce.

smoky-comparison-3

Lapsang Souchong

The smoky smell is strong with this one, but as usual, it doesn’t come out as strongly in the flavor. That’s not to say that it isn’t a strong smoky flavor, because it is. The camphor smell is reflected in the flavor of the tea, along with a menthol flavor.

It kind of reminds me of Carmex, which I kind of don’t mind, but after a while, it starts to lessen the experience overall. Perhaps menthol is not the flavor for me.

After I swallow, it leaves a little tickle in the back of the throat like I just inhaled a little too much smoke at the campfire. I imagine some people might find that unpleasant, but I think it makes the experience more authentic.

Russian Caravan

I lack the vocabulary to describe the difference in the smoky flavor. It’s just different. Maybe a different kind of wood was used for the smoking? It’s still very prevalent, but definitely not as strong as the Lapsang. There’s no camphor flavor or menthol, for which I am grateful.

The flavor of the tea is sweeter, which reflects the smell. There’s a bit more astringency to the tea itself, and it’s leaving a bit of dryness on the back of the palate. It’s like having a BBQ party instead of a campfire.

Tofu Comparison

I found that the difference in the tofu flavors was subtle, but ultimately reflected the differences in the tea brews. The teas lended a nice, smoky flavor to the tofu, with the Lapsang giving a camphor smoke taste, and the Russian Caravan supplying more of a BBQ pit taste. Personally, I preferred the Russian Caravan.

I’ll definitely be keeping these around to be cooking with some meat!

Happy teaing!

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Laoshan Showdown: Yunnan Sourcing vs. Verdant

Some people spend time with their families on Labor Day. Some people drink a lot of chocolatey teas and do a lot of typing. Can you guess which I am?

Intro to Laoshans

Cats at the bar
A behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like if you drink tea and have cats at the same time.

Last week, I did a post on comparing Verdant’s regular and reserve grade Laoshans, and as you can see from my last post, I just got a shipment of blacks in from Yunnan Sourcing, which included both grades of their new Laoshans. Normally I wouldn’t buy both grades from two companies like this, but as Laoshans are my favorite, I thought it would be a good idea to really dig into the differences between grades and companies.

For those who don’t know, Laoshan teas are grown in the Laoshan region of China. I’ve seen greens and oolongs produced in that region (I have an oolong sample I can’t wait to try, but I wasn’t wild about the green), but blacks are my favorite from Laoshan. The typical flavor profile for a Laoshan black is cocoa to chocolate, dark to light breads, and yeasty. It’s about as close as you can get to a dessert without adding flavorings.

A Note on Bias

The great thing about being new to the world of tea is that I am coming in with my own set of expectations. I don’t really care if the tea community has something against an owner or marketing techniques. You can tell me that the tea comes from trees that were blessed by Jesus himself and then stored in the emperor’s private cave in jars made from the first yixing pots out of the famous Dragon Kiln, and I’m still going to be judging it on its flavor:value:feeling ratio.

That being said, accidental bias is still a thing. So I will be tasting all four teas: Yunnan Sourcing for the first time and Verdant as a refresher. Then I’ll do a blind taste of all four.

Prepping for the Showdown

I thought I had a lot of teaware until I started this experiment. Then I realized I don’t have enough gaiwans or enough identical cups to do a fair color comparison while brewing all these teas simultaneously. Though it isn’t ideal, I am going to have to brew these up one at a time.

While this is a lovely excuse to have to go out and get more teaware, I am going to see how often I run into this problem before going gaiwan shopping.

Dry Leaf Comparison

Laoshan Dry Leaf Comparison

Visually, all four of these look pretty identical. There is some slight color variation, but the difference is so slight that it’s hardly worth noting. The real difference in dry leaf comes from the smell. I didn’t know that these companies sourced from different farmers when first began this test. I actually suspected that they came from the same location. But it’s immediately apparent from the scent of the leaves that these are NOT from the same farm. A little research as I am writing this up reveals that Verdant comes from the He family farm, and Yunnan Sourcing comes from the Liang family farm.

YS Classic vs. YS Imperial

YS Laoshan Comparison

The classic version smells a little like Hershey’s chocolate, maybe with a touch of raisin and a nutty, Halloween candy sort of scent. The Imperial grade is even sweeter, and it smells EXACTLY like the bottom of a Halloween candy bucket the night after a humid Florida evening of trick-or-treating.

YS Classic vs. Verdant Classic

Comparing Classic Laoshans

The smell of these dry leaves is almost identical, but the Yunnan Sourcing smells just a touch stronger.

YS Imperial vs. Verdant Reserve

Comparing the Higher Grades

This comparison had the most distinct difference in aroma. Verdant is a dark cocoa butter where Yunnan Sourcing is that sugary Halloween candy. If I breathe in the Yunnan Sourcing first, my nostrils are so washed out with the Halloween scent that the Verdant no longer smells sweet at all to me.

Yunnan Sourcing

Brew Colors
Notice the distinct difference in the brews’ colors. Interesting.

Classic Laoshan

Once brewed, the wet leaves lose their Halloweeny smell, for which I am grateful. Trashy American chocolate isn’t really my thing in either tea or food form. The aroma is more like a burnt chocolate pudding, a scent I can definitely get behind. I’m one of those people that actually enjoys eating the skin off of a cooling chocolate pudding.

The brew is a bit thin, lacking in body and depth, for a black tea. There is a light cocoa flavor, a sugary sweetness, and a hint of yeasty sourness. That hint of Halloween candy is back on the finish. As the brew cools, it gets sweeter. There is also some slight astringency on the back of the palate.

Subsequent steepings reveal a bright, yeasty honey flavor with a wash of cocoa on the finish. Though it’s still on the astringent side, the brew definitely thickens and sweetens as it cools. I’m still getting that Halloween candy flavor out the nose.

Though this tea is perfectly pleasant, I know I’ve had better Laoshans than this.

Yunnan Sourcing has this to say about the Classic: “Our Classic grade, although not as small and fine as its Imperial counterpart, it is more robust in taste and has more of a dark chocolate bite to it. It is very smooth with a golden yellow tea soup that is viscous and soupy.”

I could not disagree with this assessment more.

Imperial Laoshan

The brew to this smells more appealing after the Classic version—more like a chocolate biscuit. The wet leaves almost smell like a hot cereal with cocoa. There’s something almost liquor smelling about the brewing leaves that leaves me a little dizzy with anticipation. I’ve never had the Godiva chocolate liquor, but it’s how I would imagine it to smell.

The cocoa flavor is much more pronounced than in the YS Classic.; it comes out of my nose as I breathe out. The dark chocolate flavor becomes sugary as it cools, and the flavor turns a little bready. I’m getting chocolate croissant feelings from this tea. There’s a bit of astringency that brews out in subsequent steeps, and any bitterness is like that of a dark chocolate rather than a bitter black tea; it’s very faint.

Yunnan Sourcing has this to say about the Imperial: “The taste is sweet and voluminous with notes of cane sugar, chocolate and baked yams.  The Classic Laoshan Black we offer is also excellent with a more robust taste and a little more of the dark chocolate bite to it.  I recommend getting a little of each grade to start and then decide for yourself which you like best!”

I’ve already weighed in on the fact that I don’t agree with their assessment between Classic and Imperial. I didn’t really get much sweet potato from these, and even if I somehow missed it, it’s definitely nothing like you would get from a Yunnan black. I pretty much only agree with the chocolate and sugarcane notes.

Verdant Rehash and Comparison

Laoshan Comparison Brew and Leaf

As I pointed out in my post on reviewers, taste is determined by a lot of different factors. So I did a quick rehash of the Verdant teas not only so they would be fresh in my mind, but also in case there was something in my mood or environment affecting how I am tasting the tea today.

Classic Laoshan

This has a very pronounced bready taste, but it isn’t like the dark bread of the Verdant Reserve. It’s more like a chocolate biscuit. There’s much more yeast and much less cocoa flavor than the two higher graded Laoshans.

Reserve Laoshan

This is definitely a very, very dark yeasty bread with a dark chocolate. The brew comes out much darker and redder than the other teas on the first steep.

Comparing this brew to the YS Imperial, the chocolate notes are more pronounced, and the brew is smoother without the astringency.

Blind Tasting and Final Rankings

Blind Tasting
Side note: These brews were sitting a while, and 3 out of 4 got cloudy. The same one that stayed clear in the Verdant post from earlier is the one that Is clear this time. Does anyone know why they get cloudy?

I was thinking at this point that I had a pretty good idea where my rankings were, but it’s always a good thing to eliminate bias when doing a taste test. I assigned each tea a number 1-4 and mixed them up so I no longer knew which leaf was which.

I managed to correctly identify each tea, so I’m definitely not imagining the differences in taste. Here are my final rankings:

Tied for 1st and 2nd Place: Verdant Reserve and Yunnan Sourcing Imperial

3rd Place: Verdant Classic

4th Place: Yunnan Sourcing Classic

Bonus Neophyte Round

As I’ve mentioned before, my husband isn’t really into tea. I always give him sips of what I am drinking, and he usually responds with, “Tastes like tea.” I left the brews in the bubble cups out until he stumbled out of bed. The brews were cold, but that hardly mattered to him. There were no identifying marks on the teas; only I knew which was which. I had him rank them, and though he said he had some trouble distinguishing between the four, his final rankings were similar to mine:

  1. Yunnan Sourcing Imperial
  2. Verdant Reserve
  3. Verdant Classic
  4. Yunnan Sourcing Classic

Final Impressions

I like to weigh cost vs. flavor, so let’s look at the rankings again with price per gram (note that these are bullets and not numbers…I’m not subliminally ranking 1st and 2nd:

  • Verdant Reserve: $0.30 per gram
  • Yunnan Sourcing Imperial: $0.19 per gram
  • Verdant Classic: $0.18 per gram
  • Yunnan Sourcing Classic: $0.12 per gram

 

In my opinion, this makes things pretty clear. Flavor wise alone, I would say Verdant Reserve just barely nudges out Yunnan Sourcing Imperial. But if you add in the price differential, I would say the final, final rankings are thus:

  1. Yunnan Sourcing Imperial Grade Laoshan Black
  2. Verdant 2016 Reserve Spring Laoshan Black
  3. Verdant Spring 2016 Laoshan Black
  4. Yunnan Sourcing Classic Grade Laoshan Black

 

I should note that I re-steeped all the used leaves western style separately throughout the day so I could get an impression of each tea on its own without a comparison. All of the teas were lovely on their own, with sweet, chocolate notes just like they should have. It’s only on sitting down and comparing them that I can find flaws and distinct weaknesses. So take from these reviews what you will. Whether you prefer the sound of a certain flavor profile I’ve described or you want the absolute cheapest tea possible, it’s going to be a pleasant experience.

Happy teaing!

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Teamail Day: A Beginner’s Guide to Yunnan Sourcing

This post is written specifically for yunnansourcing.com, but it really applies to any overseas tea site that has ten thousand teas to choose from.

I got my first HUGE shipment of Yunnan Sourcing in last week—all black teas, which excites me to no end. There’s something addictive about teamail; it’s like Christmas that can come at any time of the year. And don’t get me started on the smell—so tasty.

Milche with Shipment
My mail guy likes to take days off and lie about it on tracking, so this is actually three teamails that arrived on the same day: Yunnan Sourcing and 2 eBays.

This shipment has been making its way to me for the last two months because it was big enough to need boat shipment instead of an e-packet. My first piece of advice to you: don’t do that. No matter how patient you think you are, 2 months crawls by. As you can see, I got some teaware as well, which is what made the shipment heavy enough to need boat shipping. Don’t do that; separate your teaware and tea into separate shipments. (I should note  that the green pitcher and the kettle were ebay purchases that came in on the same day. They aren’t from Yunnan Sourcing.)

YS Shipment
SOO many black teas! Green pitcher and kettle from eBay.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m still relatively new to the world of “advanced tea drinking.” I started out on reddit, so I have seen all 300,000 posts relating to “Where do I get high quality teas?,” which all seemed to be answered with “Yunnan Sourcing.” I remember thinking to myself, “Great! You’ve made it easy for me!”

. . . until I actually visited Yunnan Sourcing. There are hundreds of teas on the site, all named after regions that are pretty much meaningless to a new person who isn’t familiar with what regions and tea types taste like. So I want to cover a few thoughts into the steps I took to getting brave enough to do an order from YS.

  1. Don’t shop at Yunnan Sourcing at first.

Personally, I wasn’t ready to shop at Yunnan Sourcing when I first heard about it. I didn’t know what I liked yet, and it would have cost a billion dollars to try a sample of everything I hadn’t tried yet.

  1. Get at least a general idea of the kind of teas you like.

Between tea trades, buying from stores, buying stash sales on reddit and Steepster, know what kinds of teas and flavors you’re into. Use the teas you currently own to trade out small quantities of other flavors to diversify your collection. Keep an eye on r/teasales for sites that have sales, and stick to buying teas at 25g or less. Don’t be afraid to connect with the community and offer to trade what you have for what you’re interested in trying. r/teaexchange is less active, but still a good resource for looking into.

  1. Concentrate on one tea type at a time and wait for a sale.

YS seems to have a sale every 15 minutes, usually on certain tea types. Since Chinese blacks are my favorites, I waited until their black teas went on sale. It greatly narrowed the field I had to look at to decide on purchases.

  1. Trust the general flavor profiles on the site at the very least.

Once I had my focus on black teas, I went ahead and opened every black tea on the site and looked through the flavor profile. I already knew that I can’t really pick out fruit flavors, and I hate citrus, so I avoided anything that mentioned those. Sites that use common language tend to be more accurate (tastes like minerals, malt, chocolate, red fruits) than sites that tend to use beautiful marketing language (tastes like fresh baked croissant with amish butter and spring honey flavored with the first blueberries of the season).

  1. If you’re still overwhelmed by your choices, try yunnansourcing.us.

Shipping is faster because it’s within the US, and there is less to choose from. The reduced inventory might make it easier for anyone that’s overwhelmed.

And don’t hesitate to reach out to the tea community for trading and advice. They really are an amazing group of people. They’re happy to help anyone that isn’t trying to leech free tea!

Happy teaing!

BONUS: Teaware Picture!

I love Yunnan Sourcing for teaware. It’s cheap, and so nice!

YS Teaware
There’s a fish in my pitcher! Also a great matching easy gaiwan and cup set from YS with a cake breaking tray.

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Review: Verdant Tea 2016 Laoshan and Reserve Laoshan Black

Laoshan vs. Laoshan Reserve

I have a special place in my heart for Verdant Tea. Their 5 for $5 deal for first time buyers is a great deal, especially as it comes with a $5 off your next order. I will say that I didn’t enjoy all 5 teas, but their Laoshan black sample opened my eyes to what Chinese black tea (which, by the way, is called red tea to the Chinese) can really be.

For those who’ve only ever had black tea from bags or even from most tea stores, you’re probably used to the drying, bitter, malty notes that aren’t without a charm of their own—the Indian blacks. It’s what casual-tea-drinking Americans consider the foundation of what tea is supposed to taste like. I drank and adored these teas from my first Lipton iced tea as a child, to my discovery of Twinings English breakfast with milk and sugar in my teens, to the loose leaf peachy black I discovered at Churchill’s Fine Teas in Cincinnati a year ago.

In this timeline of tea discovery, I believed that tea was tea-flavored, and if you wanted it to taste like something other than tea, you had to add flavors to it. Enter my sample of Verdant’s 2015 Autumn Laoshan black. My adventures in Chinese blacks from that point on showed me that black teas can taste malty, fruity, sinfully chocolatey, and even sweet potatoey.

Since that first sip, I’ve dedicated more than half of my precious cabinet space to discovering what black teas can really taste like. And since Verdant had a sale on all the tea from the He family, I get the perfect opportunity to compare the different Laoshan black teas. For today, I’m sticking with the 2016 regular and reserve Laoshan Black.

The Spring 2016 Laoshan black is currently going for $4.50 for 25g. For one of my favorite teas, I’d say that’s a pretty decent price. The reserve version, when it wasn’t sold out, went for $7.50 for 25g, which is quite a price hike. When these teas were released for the season, the most common question I heard was, “Is it worth the extra money to get the reserve?” That’s what today is all about.

Laoshan Dry Leaf Comparison
Comparing Reserve dry leaf on the left with Regular on the right.

Comparing the dry leaf, I’m not noticing too much of a difference. The leaf of the regular might be a tiny bit bigger, or maybe a tiny bit thicker on average than the reserve, but that may be because I am trying to find some discernable difference between them.

2016 Reserve Laoshan Black

Reserve Laoshan

The aroma of the dry leaves is stronger than the regular, sweet and chocolatey with a bit of a bread scent. I brewed about 4g in 50ml at 205ºF, ranging from 10 seconds to 3 minutes, and the color brewed into a nice dark, golden honey color that smelled of earth, yams, and chocolate. It’s a dark, seductive kind of flavor that comes up the palate and out the nose. There’s also a very slight bitterness and peppery flavor on the finish.

The cocoa and sweet potato notes are highlighted more on subsequent steeps, but caramel and honey are also introduced after steep 4. After a while, I started to lose counts of the steepings, but I got a little dark honey bread flavor toward the end.

It seems a pretty forgiving tea; even brewing at boiling and steeping for what seemed like forever only brought out darker flavors, but that’s pretty typical of a tea like this.

Looking at Verdant’s tasting notes, I feel as though they pretty accurately represented the flavor: cocoa, sweet potato, cranberry, graham cracker. I can never find fruit flavors in black tea, so I don’t find that particularly surprising.

2016 Laoshan Black

Pondy joins tea time
Pond cat sits at the bar and politely wonders why she cannot eat Carl the Carp.

The less-often seen Pond cat has decided to join me for the rest of this tasting. She’s about five years old and is much less sociable than Milche, so don’t let the adorable triangle nose fool you. I’m the only one allowed to touch her, and she usually follows me around the house with Swim Fan-like obsession. She started off as Amelia Bedelia after my favorite childhood book series, but that morphed into Amelia Pond from Doctor Who, to finally just “Pond.”

Anyway, breathing in the dry leaf yields some differences from the Reserve. There’s the predominating aroma of cocoa, of course, but there’s an underlying sourness that reminds me of very dark brown honey wheat bread. There’s something yeasty about the smell. This aroma is reflected in the brew, as it has a bready chocolate scent.

2016 Laoshan
Carl the Carp is entranced at the golden color of the Laoshan. He’s such an indulgent tea pet.

The first steep definitely yields a less-sweet flavor, more like a gassy, yeasty dark bread with hardly any chocolate. This changes in subsequent steeps to a chocolate honey bread. Perhaps if they made a pain au chocolat out of a dark wheat flour and drizzled a bit of honey on top, that is what this would taste like. Stephen, my non-tea-drinking husband, took a sip and proclaimed that it tasted like a dark chocolate beer, so we’re pretty close in agreement.

Verdant’s tasting notes describe this tea as cocoa, malt, toasted grain, citrus, cherry, vanilla, and honey. Seems I did get some of the same things they did.

Comparing the Two Flavors

To compare the two teas, the regular is brighter colored than the reserve in terms of flavor, and less earthy. There is less chocolate, and no sweet potato in the regular brew. The brighter flavors are more like honey. The reserve brew definitely lacks the brighter flavors and goes deeper into the dark realms of sinful, dark, dark chocolate.

Wet Leaf and Brew Comparison
Both of these brews are cool, so I’m not sure why the reserve clouded up and the regular didn’t.

They were both fantastic teas, to be sure, but I preferred the reserve black. However, that difference in price tag may mean that I’ll be sticking to the regular Laoshan, or at least getting smaller batches of the reserve.

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Review: Rice Ripened Loose Pu-erh Pyramid Tea Bag

It’s a bright green, sweltering morning, the kind that can only dawn after a summer torrent the night before. It’s been a difficult summer for your Cocker Spaniel, Sparky, since he got a yeast infection on his feet last week, so you want to treat him to a nice walk in the woods behind your house.

Now, you might have a different dog with a different name in your fantasy. I don’t even particularly like Cocker Spaniels, at least American Cockers, but there’s a specific reason why I’ve chosen this particular dog.

It was a pretty violent storm last night, and the trail behind your house is soaked and covered in little pieces of dark, wet bark. You explore the trails for about two hours and head home just as Sparky is beginning to tire and the sun is beginning to grow unbearably hot.

You bring Sparky into the mudroom, and you can smell his yeasty feet all the way from his position on the grimy tiles. You crouch down on the ground and pick up his front paw, separating his pads so you can see through the matted hair clumps between his toes to the villi-like growths on the foot leather. You lean in, ignoring the overwhelming cloud of wet corn chip scent that envelopes your face and shoves its way down your nostrils. You stick out your tongue and gently lick Sparky’s yeasty, wet foot pad, much to his bewilderment.

Teavivre Rice Puerh

That’s what this tea tasted like. After a good 15 second rinse, I brewed this bag for about 5 minutes in boiling water. Honestly, I think the recommended 9-12 minutes’ steeping time is overkill; it’s not as though I am going to impart some new exciting flavor in that extra 5 to 8 minutes.

I think it was the rice that made that yeasty, corn chippy scent and flavor. I could kind of see how the smell was related to rice, but it just tended toward the side of dog feet smell. Even my coworker, sitting three feet away from me, commented on how this tea smelled like dog feet. It tasted much like it smelled: heavy on the ricey, yeasty flavor, but add in some wet wood flavor and just a hint of fishbone from the shou.

And yet, despite this disgusting description, I still drank the entire cup. I’m not sure what this says about me and my palate. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed this tea, but it was a certain sort of experience.

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