more on tea
Yeah, so after I posted a long time on trying to find tea houses, I found a list on the web, in chinese, of what seemed to be a pretty intense list of tea shops on the web. After doing a bit of research to eliminate the boba shops I vowed to visit them all. So that sort of turned into the Times article that just came out (my first! Whoppee! etc.), and because of various things I wasn't, er, permitted to post on anthing related to the article before it came out - but now that it has, I wanted to add some things that are, er, a bit too direct and impolite for, er, general publication. That I think are important. Because I've been severely obsessed for about 3 months, and I want to share the fruits of my obsessiveness.
So, tea buying:
Ten Ren sucks major ass. This was my first stop for tea, and the tea shop that most people are familiar with, and I liked the teas enough, but after visiting other shops and tasting the same varieties elsewhere, I realized that Ten Ren's teas ranged from good-ish to terrible, and all were severely overpriced. Their $120 teas were barely the quality of other places $30 teas. I still like their Ten Wu, and their Dragonwell is good enough for cheap, but largely, that stuff is rank. Their Pouchong - which, at other places, is sweet and slightly bitter and pure - tastes like rotten tobacco. Their Tung Ting - which is otherwise a very nice tea - is actually undrinkable. Ick. I've actually thrown 10 bucks worth away.
In Chinatown, right by the original Ten Ren, there is a Wing Hop Fung. Lots of teas. Big mail order service. Also *terrible*. They store their teas in *glass*. This is like storing your red wine uncorked. Sunlight destroys.
Good places: Ten Li in Fountain Valley, that I have spoken of before.
Dat Sun Ginseng in Little Saigon, for the Dragonwell. Incredible Dragonwell. Christ. Paid $120 a ib for it. ($13 bucks worth has lasted two months of occasional drinking and is still going.) Completely worth it.
Chado Tea House is an interesting case. They get the most press. They are British/Indian tastes. Their Darjeelings, fer example, are the goddamn best I've ever had. I mean, beautiful, complicated, everything, challenges cabernets, wow, christ. And the black Chinese teas - especially the Keemun - which is stuff that the Chinese don't drink and make largely for export, I'm told - are excellent. But their Chinese green teas and oolongs are pretty sucky. They're picked for a kind of bland sweetness and nuttiness that brings them closer to the British/Indian tea-taste, and completely don't have the whole vegetal-bitter-green/sweet growing thing.
So, my favorite: Valley Tea and Coffee at Atlantic and Valley. Quick story. I'm buying my gaiwan at the shop. I ask the woman selling me if she knows a good tea shop. "Ask my dad," she says, and points over at the old guy wrapping up my gaiwan.
The old guy looks me up and down. Then he turns and looks at my companion - white - very suspiciously, and turns back to me.
"Try the supermarket," he says, pointing to the Ranch 99 across the mall. "They have teas."
I frown. "Ick. Those teas are terrible."
He pauses a while. "Errr, try the Ten Ren over there." He points.
I frown. "Uhh, I don't really, trust them. I don't think they know their stuff."
The girl giggles at me. The old guy nods curtly and grabs a business card and draws me a little map. "All right, go here. They have good tea."
"Is this where you get your tea?"
"No," he says, "I fly to Taiwan every year for my tea. But this place is good."
That's how I found Valley Tea.
They have absolutely kick-ass Pouchong - beautiful - and exceedingly good High Mountain Oolong for doing a gong fu service in a yi-xing pot. But beware - this is a Taiwanese place. So the Taiwanese teas are good, but the mainland-style teas are - at least the ones I've tried - iffish. Especially their Ti Guan Yin, which is crappy.
The high grades are worth it. And if you are nice to the lady, she'll go in the back and fetch the latest shipment, instead of giving you what's in the cans in the front.
Oh - last note - LA water is the death of tea.
So, a few things:
Two things cause excessive bitterness and astringency with green tea:
1. Too high temperature. (Particularly causes astringency)
2. Too long steeping. (Steeping for 3 minutes will kill it. Most green teas, steep one to two minutes.)
When I started trying the 1-2 minute steepings, I kept making too weak tea. Problem there was that it kept getting too weak. You have to get used to using a hell of a lot more tea leaves than you might be used to.
Typical black tea: 1 tsp of tea leaves in, say, 7 oz of water, steeped for 3 minutes at 100 C.
Typical green tea: 1 tsp of tea leaves in, say, 4 oz of water, steeped for 1 minute at 70 C.
Green bag tea comes out bitter often - it's far worse than black bag tea.
But, final note: have you had green tea from the hand of someone who knows what they're doing? My first experiences with Chinese and Japanese tea were almost shocking, until I got used to it and started to savor it. In particular, some (but not all) Chinese tea tastes at first really terrifically bitter, with a long and lingering aftertaste that expands into sweetness. Others start quite sweet and bitter simultaneously. But a high bitterness component is part of the relish. Properly done, the stuff is intense.
But it shouldn't hurt.
The easiest tea to start learning with is, I found, a decent dragonwell. Don't be afraid to use a lot of leaves (when the leaves are large, I can end up using a tablespoon, since it's very loosely packed.) And, even with a teapot, you can keep tasting. When I'm making a new tea in a teapot, when I get into the range, I keep pouring bits out into a warmed cup and tasting it to check the flavor.
re: Thi N.`
The first and best time I ever had green tea was in a tea ceremony performed for me by a Japanese girlfriend when I was a teen. I never had tea so nice again.
I find that if I do the short steep time but use lots of leaves it seems to be very caffeinated and my hair stands on end and vibrates. Does green tea have a higher caffeine content? Or just hit you in a different way?
I've read that green tea has more caffeine than black tea -- that the less processing the leaves have received, the more caffeine in the cup. But I've also seen some articles that say the opposite. (I'm dubious sometimes that the latter writers have actually done their homework. People tend to assume that black tea is 'stronger' because the flavor and color are more assertive.)
In my experience, the most potent cup of tea I've ever had was a good Shou Mei -- minimally processed sun dried leaves. It was quite a jolt.
I've also read that there are chemicals in tea (missing in coffee) that mitigate the effects of caffeine, so coffee gives you more of a boost per unit of caffeine. But I don't know the details.
Thanks so much for your article and your post! I was getting ready to post a message here asking for good sources of mainland China tea, and opened up the paper that day to find your article. What a gift!
I agree about Ten Ren. The better I get to know tea, the less impressed I am with their teas. I do go to WIng Hop Fung to shop sometimes, but I've also been skeptical about their teas. I generally only buy the metal cannisters from them.
For some reason, the red and yellow cylindrical cans of Keemun have become hard to find. There's a little tea & ginseng store on the next cross street that has it pretty consistently. Do you know why that might have become scarce? I'm partial to that tea in the morning.
You know, recently Chado has started carrying some varieties of Chinese tea I've never seen there before -- or anywhere else in the US for that matter. But I haven't shopped the SG valley yet.
Any suggestions on where to get good PRC teas? I'm running out of the green teas I brought back from China. I have this fabulous Huang Shan green that looks like long pine needles until it's brewed, when it opens up to whole leaves. I'm saving some to show to the folks in tea stores, but I think I'm going to have to ask my friends to bring me back some from China.
And yes, LA water is the death of good tea. I'm too lazy to brew with bottled water most of the time but every time I do, I'm amazed at the difference. Makes you wonder about what other flavors it's killing when we cook...
Wow, thanks for the great insights (here and in the Times), Thi. A few quick questions from a total tea novice:
1) Assuming that I'm not going to move somewhere else just for better tap water, what's the next best solution? Bottled flat mineral (i.e., harder) water? Brita-filtered or distilled (i.e., softer) water? Arrowhead deliveries?
2) A few months ago I had some great chrysanthemum tea (with the pretty floating yellow flowers and all) at one of the dim sum palaces ... is it possible to pull this off at home? And if so, where can I get it?
3) Any good guides (an online resource, ideally) for how long to steep different kinds of teas and at what temperatures? I know, for example, that boiling-hot water works well for some teas but just kills some others.
4) Know any good place to get South American boldo tea? Had this in Sao Paulo and it rocked my world...
5) Any tips for the tea list at Hugo's in WeHo? I notice they have something like 6 pages of teas on the menu ... I tried the Rooibos (from the place on Fairfax) there and it was incredible; when I made my own Rooibos at home it was just OK; made me wonder what I was doing wrong ...
Happy weekend all!
Coupla links for you... first, the FAQ for rec.food.drink.tea (http://www.enteract.com/~robchr/tea/faq.html) covers brewing technique, water, types, etc etc etc... very helpful.
Additionally, this site (http://www.catteacorner.com/links.htm) has excellent links to online tea shops where you can find some of the more obscure varietals -- i've met with fairly good success buying online, so it's worth a shot if it's something you can't find around here.
Personally, I use Brita-filtered water, which works well enough for me. Remember, though, NOT to use the Brita water that's sitting in your fridge, but allow it to filter through then immediately use the water in the kettle. The problem with using water that's sat in the fridge for a while is that it's become significantly deoxygenated from sitting still. Water that's been freshly filtered still is well oxygenated and will produce better brew.
I once read that if you take water that's been sitting around and de-oxigenated, and pour it back and forth between two pitchers/cups/vessels, the action re-oxigenates the water. I never tried it since I usually set aside time to filter water. But since the subject has been brought up, I'm reminded of it. Has anyone tried this, and does it work?
Yeah, I'm with Sashae on the Brita. I tried bottled, and I think I like freshly-filtered Brita water more.
Second note: avoidance of food smells. Filter the Brita away from food smells, keep the Brita away from food smells. I think the charcoal soaks up food smells, and when the water's dripping through it's in some weird state to really pick up food smells, because if I filter it in the kitchen and I haven't taken the garbage out the tea is dominated by this weird round degenerating lychee-ish flavor that knocks everything else out.
All my obsessions have been with Darjeeling/Assam/Ceylon and with Chinese greens and oolongs, so I know little about these other teas you mention.
Green: 70 C
Oolong: 80-90 C
Black: Boiling or just below, depending on the variety.
(Watch the water. At 70 c, you get little bubbles on the bottom and little bubbles on the top. At 80 C, you get some streams/fountains of bubbles. Chinese call this "string of pearls." But clearly below a full boil. Play around. It becomes obvious quickly.)
Basically, the more fermented, the higher the temp. Some greens, like Shou Mei, are very pale and unfermented, so I use 60 C. Oolongs particularly you can judge by the color. The browner, the higher the temp. This is not quite completely accurate, but the best guide for a first pass.
Chado does a very nice job telling you how long to brew its Indian/British style teas, but kind of messes up the greens.
Imperial Tea Court is a little overpriced, but their catalog really runs through every variety of chinese tea and gives you a brewing temperature and time per varietal. This is really great. I trust their temperatures, but their times are a little bit, er, Westernized? I am surely not as great a tea master as the guy running Imperial Tea Court, but I've had better success brewing it the way the ladies running the Ten Li and Valley Tea shops taught me - larger amounts of tea (1-2 teaspoons for each 4 oz of water) for shorter times (1 minute to 2 minutes) with 4-6 steepings.
I say: play around. After about a month, I could make better tea than any of the tearooms like Chado. The best tea I've had comes from the hands of the ladies running tea shops. Theory to explain this: at Chado, the master tea person has selected the tea, but business is booming, so they've hired lots of servers and trained them, vaguely, how to make tea. At Ten Li (where I was taught to make tea), there's just one tea obsessed lady who selects the tea, buys it, and brews stuff with her own hand(free) for customers looking to buy. Master chef/line chef analogue, I suppose.
Oh - if the tea doesn't taste as good at home, how are you storing it? Airtight, cool, and light-proof.
re: Thi N.
Also - on chrysanthamums.
Ten Ren has cheap chrysanthemums, Chado has expensive and really nice fresher dried ones. A nice combo is to toss a bud in with some cheap-ish Dragonwell tea - the tea is high bitter and nutty and the chrys's are sweet. But not with the finer Dragonwells... the delicacy is totally overhelmed by the sweetness and floralness of chrys.
I used to be much more inth chrys tea, but lately have been grooving in the intense pure bitternesses and green sweetnesses of Chinese greens and oolongs. Chrysanthemum takes away from the backbone, linger, and development of the tea.
Nice in the evenings with a book, though.
re: Thi N.
Actually, Thi's temperatures on this thread are in Celsius, while the temperatures in the Times are in Fahrenheit and rounded to the nearest 5 degrees. I checked with my handy converter and found that:
70 C = 158 F,
80 C = 176 F, and
90 C = 194 F.
All pretty close to the mark. I suppose it would have helped if the Times included degrees F, but then, I don't think anyone reading it in this area would assume it's any other format than degrees F.
I tried out a few Bi Lo Chuns. Haven't found a good one yet - suspect because it's a mainland thing and all the places I've found that I liked were Taiwanese.
Except - maybe - Dat Sun Ginseng. The ones who had the great pure Dragonwell in Little Saigon. Dragonwell is a mainland tea, yes? I didn't try their Bi Lo's. Next time I'm there, I will.
If you happen to check it out, please let me know how they are.
Hey Doug -
an idea on the rooibos: I typically brew the rooibos blend, the one with dried flowers and found it *must* steep for at least 15 minutes for the flavor and aroma to develop. Its hard to hold off, especially when that unbelievable fragrance is permeating my entire apartment, but it's worth it. Wait. You'll be inexpressibly happy.
for the chrys tea: You can find chrys tea at any 99 ranch market, T.S. Emporium (Chinese one-stop shopping), and probably Ten Ren, though I've never looked for it there. I'd recommend some sort of strainer, since the flowers are floaty. Otherwise you'll spend time spitting out petals.
this tea gives me a massive migraine if it isn't brewed with other medicinal herbs. However, my cousins, parents, and other members of my enormous family consume chrys constantly. They drink it for general health improvement, or seasonally. Apparently, there is a Chinese medicine philosophy, (one that I *so* do not comprehend) that believes that chrys tea helps relieve "hot ailments". So it is suitable for summer drinking and supposedly improves acne or other skin issues.
Oh - and if you go to Ten Li - the teas are very variable there. Ask the lady how old the stuff is. She goes to Taiwan and brings back stuff, then lets it sit around. So the stuff I bought from her the week after she came back from Taiwan was the best tea I've ever had, and other times...