Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mystery Dong Ding Tea

How many times has it happened that you've tried an amazing tea, but you don't know what it is?

One of my lindy and blues dancing friends said that a friend of hers gave her some tea from Taiwan, and that it was really good and she thought I'd like to try it. It's pictured on the right. The only markings on the container are five traditional Chinese characters, Dong Ding (凍頂), Oolong (烏龍), Tea (茶)...it's clear what this is!

I've had mixed experiences with unmarked canisters; if anything I think that the unmarked ones tend to be lower quality because companies selling the best tea want to be identified by name. This one is not only an exception, but it's by far my favorite unmarked "mystery" tea yet.

The brewing and the review:

I confess that I do not often brew "properly" (i.e. gong fu style: although I do this on occasion and am aware that it often produces better results, I can be a bit lazy). I brewed this tea the most common way I brew teas--in a mug (about 12 oz.) using a Finum (M) infuser basket. I used very little leaf (much less than 1 teaspoon--which unfurled to the rather large quantity on the left, filling the infuser about halfway) and the results were extraordinary.

1st Infusion (3 min, 190 degrees): intensely aromatic and floral, with bold presence of lilac, orchid, honey, and cinnamon. Full-bodied, and mildly sweet with nothing I'd describe as bitterness or astringency, only a hint of pleasant tingling sensation after drinking it and and a lingering warm quality.

2nd Infusion (5 min, a little over 190 degrees): the floral tones are present but weaker...now the honey is dominant in the aroma, still some cinnamon, and there is also a suggestion of fresh parsley that was absent in the first brewing. I found this infusion just as smooth as the first, and even more full-bodied--perhaps due to the longer steeping.

I suspect this would do for a third brewing in the mug; maybe next time. Bottom line? Good stuff...and especially amazing how strong a cup I was able to get out of such little leaf. I noticed that even after the leaves expand, I was using only a little over half what I normally use to make Dong Ding.

Why don't these outfits label their canisters with a brand name or something that could be used to identify them to locate it for future reference? If anyone recognizes the canister though, I'd be grateful to know what this is both so that I can give due credit, and also so that I can get some more of it once this supply runs out!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tea and Courtesy

This post was inspired by Tea V's blog post titled Cup of Tea & Courtesy.

I think a lot about the factors that contribute to either courteous or disrespectful behavior, both on an individual and group level. We all know certain circumstances in which it's easy to be respectful (with people we like, when everything is going well), and others in which it is more of a challenge (when we are under stress, or when we interact with others who are being disrespectful towards us).

I've often thought about what I can do to help both myself and others be respectful. In spite of the fact that I want to be respectful at all times, I find I regularly fall short of this ideal. I'm always searching for ways I can help myself deal gracefully with the most difficult situations.

Human contact is very important--eye contact and touch can help a great deal. There's a fascinating NY Times article about the importance of touch in both communication and relaxation. I think that the absence of these nonverbal connections partly explains why people are likely to be disrespectful when interacting on internet forums and over email.

How can tea help?

The act of holding a warm cup of tea is comforting and puts you at ease. There's even some scientific evidence that holding a warm cup can make you more likely to act generously. The mindful act of slowly drinking hot tea I also find to calm the mind and body...putting one in a mindset in which it's easier to be courteous of others. Maybe tea can make it a little bit easier for us to move closer to that ideal of being respectful of all people at all times.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tea Blogging vs. Tea Community Websites

What's the difference between reviewing teas on a tea blog, and on an interactive tea community website? Here I am thinking both of interactive tea-rating/reviewing or microblogging sites like RateTea or Steepster, and discussion forums like the Leafbox Tea Forums, TeaChat, or the TeaViews Forums. I've found that all of these sites have something in common:

  • Reviews and discussion on community websites tend to be relatively brief.

  • Because community websites display different users' reviews or dialogue on the same page, the reviews tend to take on a more similar style and structure, as each user is influenced by reading the other reviews or comments.

Tea blogs, on the other hand, are very diverse. Each blogger develops their own style, even when interacting regularly with other bloggers. Some blogs focus mostly on reviews, others on news, gadgets, travel, and many combine reviews with other topics. The reviews range from paragraph-long posts to detailed, multiple-page reviews. Some are without pictures, and others include high-resolution photos of the loose tea, brewed tea, and sometimes the used tea leaves. Bloggers writing about compressed teas like Pu-erh often discuss and sometimes even photograph the process of breaking the tea apart. Some people even make video blogs; some bloggers use video exclusively while others combine video with text.

In summary, tea blogs have in common, relative to tea community websites:
  • Reviews and discussion on tea blogs tend to be longer, more detailed, and more involved/deeper.

  • Tea blogs tend to be more diverse in style and content than tea community sites.

  • Tea blogs cover a broader range of tea-related topics and experiences, even when reviewing a specific tea.

This isn't "better" or "worse" than what happens on tea community sites...it's just different. Personally, I see value both in interactive websites and tea blogs. Interactive websites encourage more casual activity, make it easier to get involved, and get people interacting with each other immediately. Tea blogs tend to delve into more depth, develop more slowly, have more diversity in their content and style, and are ultimately more empowering to the person writing. I think both have a purpose.

How can tea blogs and community websites work together?

As someone who designed and runs a tea community site, RateTea, I'm a little bit worried that tea community websites might draw people in and discourage them from blogging. I've seen a pattern elsewhere on the web where people discover a new, easy-to-use site and stop blogging or stop blogging as often. I want to encourage the opposite: I want to use RateTea as a vehicle to encourage and promote tea blogging. I think something wonderful and beautiful happens when people write about a topic in depth and start participating in a community of active writers, and I want to nurture and promote these communities. This is behind the latest new feature of RateTea, which I highlight in the recent newsletter: Profile Pics & Linking to Tea Blogs.

I am hoping that bloggers can post brief reviews on RateTea, linking them to more detailed reviews on a tea blog. I am also hoping RateTea can appeal to and reach a broader, more casual audience that may not know about these tea blogs, and may not know as much about tea, but through exploring the site can discover the rich community of tea bloggers out there, and through doing so can take their understanding and appreciation of tea to a new level. Possibly, some will be encouraged to create tea blogs of their own!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Good Catalog Descriptions of Tea

There is a degree to which almost every company (not just in tea) "talks up" their product in marketing. However, some companies are more egregiously over-the-top in doing it than others. As someone who greatly appreciates honesty in all aspects of life, I pay a lot of attention to how tea companies write about their products, and I think critically about whether or not they are being honest in their descriptions. And I reward companies that consistently provide honest, useful descriptions with my loyalty as a customer.

What makes a good description?

I think a good commercial description of a tea:

  • is brief.

  • contains useful information about what flavors, aromas, and other qualities to expect in the tea.

  • may mention or reference brewing instructions.

  • may contain information about the tea's origins and how it is produced (e.g. is a green tea pan-fired or steamed? is it grown from a particular cultivar? etc.)

  • may compare the tea to familiar varieties of tea in positive or negative ways ("similar to a Keemun" or "without the grassy and vegetal tones characterizing some sencha").

  • avoids weasel words (I am an active editor on wikipedia and I love the concept of Weasel words--if you're not familiar with the concept, I would recommend reading that page because it provides a great way to quickly distinguish b.s. from well-researched material).

Example of a Good Description:

Let's look at Upton Tea Import's TM20: Himalayan BOP. This is an inexpensive (125g for $4.20) broken-leaf black tea that is a blend from various regions in and around Darjeeling. Personally, I love it and think it offers great value. (my review) Upton's description:

For those seeking a Darjeeling-like tea at a very attractive price. The liquor is light amber. A brief infusion yields a flavorful cup with a distinctively high-grown character. Excellent for iced tea.

This is what I'd say is a good commercial description. It's brief and provides useful information: "Darjeeling-like" is very informative, "brief infusion" communicates that this tea infuses quickly (and implies that you don't want to let it steep too long--which is true--this tea becomes unpleasantly bitter and astringent if steeped too long), the cup is indeed a light amber color, and the tea has a high-grown character, makes good iced tea, and has an attractive price.

What Not to Say - Weasel Words in Commercial Descriptions:

Since I just praised Upton, and since they are my favorite company, I think it's fair for me to give them a bit of a hard time too. Let's look at their TA98: Mothola Estate White Tea.

Crafted entirely from the tips of the Assamica tea plant, this rare selection is on par with the most exquisite white teas. The flavor is smooth and sweet as one expects from a quality white tea, but a surprising malty nuance adds a delightful complexity. Highly recommended.

This description has a lot of useful information--it's made entirely from tips, made of the Assamica cultivar, its flavor is smooth and sweet, and it has a malty nuance (interesting and worth mention because one wouldn't expect this from a white tea). But the "Highly recommended" reads like a weasel word -- Recommended by whom, by Upton? Does this mean their other teas are only weakly recommended? This seems silly. And "is on par with the most exquisite white teas"...what exactly is the "most exquisite"? Taste is so subjective and I think it's best to refrain from making sweeping statements. For example, I notice that many tea drinkers strongly prefer silver needle white tea over shou mei, but there are those (such as myself) who would take shou mei any day.

I'm singling Upton out a bit unfairly here...mainly because I want to keep this post as positive as possible. =) I think Upton's descriptions are consistently honest and informative and that's one reason I like them as a company. However, if you scan commercial descriptions of various companies, you find language like this all the time, and sometimes significantly worse. "You'll love this tea..." and variants of that phrase are quite common. How does the writer know what I'll love? A major weasel word is the word "renowned" or "famous" to refer to an estate or tea garden, or sometimes a particular tea. And another weasel word: "rare". If a tea is limited production, a one-time single batch, why not state how much of it was produced? If it's not, there's no basis to claim it's "rare". If it has won an award, why not state that? But if it hasn't, but your own personal team of tasters selected it for its qualities, isn't that more informative than just saying it's good? Thinking about these things enable us to identify honesty (and dishonesty) in commercial descriptions.

The description of one of Upton's teas (TD70, since discontinued) contains the phrase:

...one of the best we have cupped this season...

I think this is better...it's not claiming that the tea is the best out there, it's just saying--hey, we tried a bunch of teas and we really liked this one. There's nothing wrong with subjectivity in taste...I think most people want to buy from tea companies that employ people who put effort and their own subjective judgment into tasting teas.

I'd be curious to hear other people's opinions / experiences with commercial descriptions. Does anyone have any more likes / dislikes to contribute?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Three Unusually Good Inexpensive Teas

In the world of high-quality loose tea, it's often true that you get what you pay for. I've often tasted several grades of the same tea and noticed the increasing complexity corresponding to appropriate increasing price--and it's also important to mention that many of the higher-priced teas lack unpleasant characteristics present in their cheaper counterparts.

But it's also true that there are deals out there. Today I'll share three teas that I personally think are unusually high in quality relative to how inexpensive they are. If you're price-sensitive but still want to try something really good, I'd recommend checking out these offerings.

Upton Tea Import's Se Chung Oolong:

Se Chung was a bit of an enigma to me; it has been tricky to figure out exactly what it was, and I'd still like to find more reliable sources to back up the page I wrote on Se Chung. (Thanks to the many forum participants who informed this article.) From trying a few se chungs, they can be quite diverse. This particular one is a greener oolong, strong and bold in flavor, complex in aroma, and the leaves can be infused many times. I like this far better than any Tie Guan Yin I've tried in a similar (or considerably higher) price range. Detailed review of Upton's Se Chung. At $4.90 for 100g, this tea is an absolute steal.

Hampstead Tea's Darjeeling (from Makaibari Estate):

This is a lighter, gentle Darjeeling, not a first-flush but with a noticeable first-flush character. It's also fair trade and organic certified--and beyond this, it's a biodynamic plantation (which includes in this case the fact that most of the area of the estate is left as wild forest). But even setting these things aside, I think this tea competes with considerably more expensive teas on its flavor and aroma alone. The aroma is very pleasing and has a lot of things going on. Detailed review. I'm not sure if it has an official price but I've seen it for sale in stores and online retailers for as low as $4 for a 125g canister; typical price is closer to $8 but it's still a great deal.

Ten Ren's Pouchong 3rd Grade:

This is by no means a top-notch Pouchong / Bao Zhong. It has a number of subtle qualities that connoisseurs and everyday tea-drinkers alike will most likely object to--a fishy quality, a certain harshness. But it's hard to find inexpensive pouchongs, and this one is the only one I've found in this price range that's worth trying. It has a honey-like sweetness, a floral quality, and yet has a pleasant bite to it, and I find it quite enjoyable to drink. Detailed review. 4oz. for $7.00; I actually bought it in Chicago for less than this in the Ten Ren store but the prices may have gone up since then.

Always looking for more ideas!

I'm always looking for more teas that people think are an exceptionally good deal, so if you have anything you know of, please let me know!