Bouncing B/SCUIT #1: Tea

This is about how it started (though I've edited and added to this page since its original version):

I have been asked by a few friends to put up some sort of page with a continuing report on what I'm doing. I don't know how comprehensive this can be, but I'll do what I can.

It Was Saturday; We Did Evil Things to Tea

This afternoon (July 3), several of us converged on the new Imperial Tea Court at the Great Wall Shopping Mall (itself quite new, and only about 1/4 occupied) in Kent, Washington. I should probably explain a bit about Chinese tea-drinking protocol so this will make more sense, eh?

Many Chinese people drink tea by pouring hot water over tea leaves in a teapot, waiting a bit, straining the result, and drinking it. Nothing unusual about that. Sometimes, however, some people perform what amounts to a relatively informal tea ceremony, sometimes referred to as Gong Fu tea (...or Lao Ren ("old man") tea, unless I'm confusing two separate items). There are, as of this writing, only two traditional Chinese tea houses in the United States, at least as far as I'm aware. They are both Imperial Tea Court, and are owned by Roy and Grace Fong. One is in San Francisco, at 1411 Powell Street. The other is the one I mentioned in the previous paragraph. It is being managed by Justin Burke.

I'm not going to get into grossout detail here, partly because it's past my bedtime and partly because I'm vastly inexpert; what I want to do instead is tell you what happens to the tea, which is about as follows:

We drank a green (and very delicate) oolong, a "monkey-picked" tekuanyin, a rather old (but still remarkable) Yunnan yin-hao, a very new Yunnan yin-hao that was more delicate than the old one and even sweeter, and a Dong Ding (that used to be "Tung Ting"; I think it's named after a famous lake) that was brought by Scott Searer and was likewise remarkable. We also tasted a wee bit of a pu-erh that Justin and Joshua (who work there) had been drinking. This all took us from about 1pm until almost 7. I'll explain about pu-erh later.

(Note added in proof) Here's a photo of Justin and Roy, taken at the Tea Institute, in China. If you want to see a bigger version, click it.

I don't have a photo of Joshua yet.

We talked about many things, including the tea, the 8 colors of Light-Emitting Diodes that Scott Scidmore had brought (verily even including white, which is rather new), the possibility of my making some gaiwans out of the translucent porcelain I've been playing with, how to make sure you get enough vitamin B-12 if you are a vegan, and so on -- the usual stuff. It was entirely pleasant. (I'd show you a photo of Scott and the light-emitting diodes, but I haven't got one.) I'm sure we got plenty of antioxidant goodness from the tea.

...Which reminds me: if you've heard that bit about pouring off the water after 30 or 60 seconds to get rid of the caffeine, don't believe it for a moment. It's arrant hogwash. Horsepucky. Caffeine is NOT a surface contaminant of the leaves!! (The Yunnan yin- hao doesn't even get soft until after several steepings, for example.) This is not rocket science, you know. You can easily test it.

I said I'd tell you about pu-erh, so I should do that. There are various classes of tea, including the whites and greens, which are minimally processed; the oolongs and their relatives; a few teas that don't classify quite as easily; and the blacks. Most of the tea we drink in the US and places like England is black. It is grown primarily in China, India, and Sri Lanka. It has many variations. (I particularly like a few of the Indian ones and the ones from Yunnan, in China, but that's neither here nor there.)

As an aside, perhaps I should mention the fact that I was once told that the Darjeeling region of India exports about four times as much tea as it could possibly grow. (People really know the name, and will buy tea that bears the name...) Estate Darjeelings, if you haven't encountered them, tend to be much lighter, more citrusy, and somehow greener or more vegetal than the blends I grew up with. I like them all, but while I might put tiny amounts of honey and cream into a really dark Darjeeling blend, the only modification I would think of with an estate Darjeeling would be the thinnest possible slice of lemon floating on the top, ...and I'd only do that about once a year. Why mess with something so delicate?

There is one other type of tea, which can be made as a green or allowed to oxidize a little more so that it becomes an oolong, but is then aged in caves for a while (if my information is accurate), and acquires a distinctive earthy taste. It won't quite fall into any other category, so it has one of its own. This is pu-erh, bonay, bolay, etc. (Depends on where it comes from -- this kind of tea is made in several regions, another thing that distinguishes it from a lot of other teas, most of which are distinctly regional.)

While I'm at it, I should dispose of the word "fermentation" -- tea is NOT fermented, it is oxidized. The oxidation process takes very little time, certainly not long enough for any fermentation to occur. (Fermentation involves microorganisms, which must first grow as some kind of culture, and can only then work their magic. An hour or even a long afternoon just isn't long enough.) On the other hand, several years in a cave certainly is long enough, and I am willing to bet that pu-erh tea owes some of its flavor to actual fermentation, yet another thing that distinguishes it from other tea.

Different types and grades of pu-erh have different fragrances when they are dry, and different fragrances and flavors as tea, but all of them share a certain earthy quality, and the common ones are usually very good as accompaniments to dim-sum or other food. A few are aged for very long periods, and are quite expensive, but a fair number are rather cheap, and readily available. They don't taste any the worse for being cheap, either... at least, some of them don't. The worst are apparently fairly awful, but I've been lucky, and have encountered nothing worse than ordinary.

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