New Horizons

Well, as I mentioned in the recent Tea Geek newsletter (which you can sign up for here), I mentioned that Saturday was my last day at the Perennial Tea Room. We’ve parted on good terms, and I’ll still be doing classes there. However, that leaves me free to do more with Tea Geek.

Part of this love-fest of newness, is a new kind of entry that I hope to have every so often on this blog. I’m going to do an occasional series of interviews of people in the tea world. And, since the most popular post on my blog is the one about Aaron’s tea tasting (and because he was the first to respond to my requests for an interview), I’ve included the interview with Aaron Armstrong of Team Tea below:

TG: What’s your favorite tea?

AA: The worst tea I can find. The more bad tea I try, the more I appreciate a good one.

TG: How did you start on the path to tea geekdom? Briefly describe your history of tea exploration.

AA: I have always enjoyed tea, but didn’t always know what it was. I began truly enjoying tea after I was introduced to a tea ceremony master in Japan. One of the kindest, most gracious, most generous people I have ever met. Tea isn’t about flavor or aroma, it is about who you drink it with. Well, I guess after that it is about flavor and aroma, but only then (^^).

TG: What aspect of tea do you find most fascinating?

AA: The shear enormity of it. One silly plant and so many varied delicious teas.

TG: Who have you learned the most from?

AA: I have had help from many. This is a difficult question, because each person has something different to share.

TG: What tea resource (book, website, person, etc.) would you recommend for a tea novice?

AA: Floating Leaves Tea in Seattle, Washington

TG: And what’s your own favorite tea resource, potentially for more advanced tea geeks?

AA: The tea.

TG: What does tea mean to you?

AA: It is what one puts into it. It can be a flavor, a feeling, a person, a community. To me it is friends enjoying one another’s company.

TG: Name your biggest pet peeve in the realm of tea and tea drinking.

AA: That some people think that there is a “RIGHT” way to drink tea. There is a wrong way, but there is no right way.

TG: If you could let everyone in the world know or understand one thing about tea, what would it be?

AA: It is just a beverage.

TG: What’s the craziest/weirdest/most obsessive thing you’ve ever done in pursuit of your love of tea?

AA: I carried a cast iron Furou (the cauldron and fire pit set for preparing
maccha) on the plane back from Japan? Is that crazy? It was quite heavy…

Thanks, Aaron!

Photos from ‘Learning A New Brewing Style’

The Great Tuna [ed. note:  now mysteriously revealed to be called “Chris”], who was present at the tasting where I learned the new Japanese cold brewing style, sent me these photos he took. I post them with his permission (click on them to enlarge):

Japanese Tea Tasting

This is Aaron shaking the teapot into the little cups. I believe this is a hot brew because of how much liquid is in the cups. (We did two cold brews and two hot of each set of leaves.)

Japanese Tea Tasting

In the above photo you can see several aspects of the tasting. On the left you can see how tiny the teapot is. In the lower-right you can see a typical gongfu tasting cup, next to one of Aaron’s cups with just a tiny amount of white glaze in the bottom, and a tinier amount of tea. That’s about how much we got from the cold brews. In the center of the table, we had four senchas brewing and we’d go back to them over time to see how they’d developed. The large bowl between the spoon rinsing stations was our slop bowl.

Japanese Tea Tasting

This is a closeup of the four senchas, the spoon rinsing bowls, and the slop bowl. For those who haven’t experienced this kind of brewing, the leaves are put in a bowl with water, and a spoon is used to dip out a little into your own tasting cup. Between dips, the spoon is rinsed in a cup of clean water. That way people can share spoons and drink out of the same bowl while not sharing their germs and not cross-contaminating tea flavors.

Learning A New Brewing Style

Just when I thought I was starting to know something about tea, along comes Aaron Armstrong of Team Tea to show me that the vast expanses of things I don’t know yet is even vaster (more vast?) than I’d thought. He showed me a way of brewing tea that I’d never heard of, let alone experienced, and it was certainly something to experience.

He learned this method of cold brewing in Japan (he wasn’t sure how to translate the Japanese name for the method, so I’m just going to call it “Japanese cold brewing”). He used a tiny unglazed clay yokode kyusu (side-handle teapot) smaller than his fist. In it, he placed a small amount of sencha–lovely, very fresh, and straight from the farmer–but less than you’d use for a gongfu brewing and more than you might for a British-style brewing.

Then he did the crazy thing that caught my attention. He added room-temperature water. And about the same volume as that of the tea. Think about that for a second and let it blow away some of your preconceptions about tea brewing: he used a 1:1 tea-to-leaf ratio, and room-temperature water. After four or five minutes, he poured it out.

I suppose I should clarify. “Pour” is used very loosely here. He shook out a handful of drops for each of the five guests into some of the tiniest cups I’ve seen. If you think of the smallest gongfu cups you’ve seen, you’re starting to get the right size in mind. Bigger than an actual thimble, but not by much. The leaves in the kyusu had absorbed almost all of the water. In fact, the first time ’round, he showed us that the leaves on top still hadn’t really absorbed much water–they were still a bit dry.

So, there I am with my thimble holding maybe eight drops of liquid in the bottom. Like a good tea taster, I check the color. It’s a jade green that’s ever-so-slightly cloudy. Not dissimilar to what you’d expect from a good sencha. I check the fragrance. BAM! That tiny little cup is giving off as much fragrance as an English teacup full of green tea.

Then I tasted it. The fragrance was a mere shadow of the flavor. I think my head must have exploded or something because for a moment I had this sensation of flavor that I can only describe as dense in the space where my head had been. If you could distill an entire eight-cup Brown Betty teapot’s worth of sencha into eight drops without changing or diminishing the flavor at all, you might get something like this. And the strange thing was, it was so incredibly sweet without any unpleasant bitterness or astringency.

That, and the flavor kept on coming. Two hours later I could still taste it (or the amalgam of the six or seven teas we tried that way). Aaron did two cold brewings of each–water poured on the side so that the leaves floated on top first, then water poured on top the second time–and then a regular brewing with hot water a couple of times.

Even if you don’t have a kyusu, you can use a gaiwan or any kind of small container. Aaron told us that the clay was more dense than used in yixing pots, which are much more porous, so glazed teaware is fine to use. Whatever you use, give this brewing a try with a high-end Japanese green tea like sencha, guricha, or gyokuro. My next experiment will be with a delicate Chinese green like biluochun or a maofeng.


Cute Tea Story

I was recently catching up on my blog reading and read the rest of Corax’s series on his trip to Taiwan and China. In particular one post struck me. It was actually one paragraph in that post that stood out amongst all of the other fascinating tea information:

Ms Yu’s tiny daughter, perhaps three years old, ran into the room, hurled herself into her mother’s arms, chattered away in Chinese, and then set about brewing an infusion of the tea herself. I marveled as she expertly manipulated the gaiwan (her mother handling the kettle of hot water), poured the tea into the sharing pitcher, and then poured out several cups of the tea, including one for herself. Ms Yu asked her if she knew what this tea was: ‘Da Hong Pao!’ said the little girl with emphasis, and everyone laughed. She watched me with huge dark eyes, then ran out of the room, returning with a tiny packet of fisted wu long cha. ‘Tie Guan Yin,’ she announced with a smile, and pressed it into my hand. Could I have been any more charmed? And: is this the fifth generation of the same family’s tea work, getting an early start?

How many three-year-olds in North America know the difference between Da Hong Pao (大红袍) and Tie Guan Yin (Simplified: 铁观音; Traditional: 鐵觀音)?  How many could actually brew tea, let along perform gongfucha for guests?  I continue to be amazed at how integrated tea is in most world cultures, and how little we’re aware of it here.

Traveling With Tea Story Contest!

Hey, Tea Geeks everywhere! I’ve decided to have a little contest to go along with my next class. Here’s the deal:

Traveling With Tea Story Contest

Win a Tea Geek t-shirt! All you need to do is write a true story of a particularly good or particularly bad experience with tea while traveling. Make us laugh, make us cry, make us smile or make us groan! Whatever you do, keep it short–no more than 500 words per entry. Only one entry per person per category.

To enter, simply drop off your story with your name, address, phone number and category (“Good Experience” or “Bad Experience”) at the Perennial Tea Room by 6:00pm August 18th, 2007. Entries can also be emailed to–same information required, same deadline.

Finalists will be judged at the “Traveling With Tea” class at the Perennial Tea Room the following week. No purchase necessary, and you don’t need to be present to win. We’ll contact the winners of both categories by the end of the month so they can choose their shirt.

Now get writing! There are two Tea Geek T-Shirts at stake!

Upcoming classes

I’ve just confirmed that Tuesday, 21 August, I’ll be teaching a tea class called “Traveling with Tea” at the Perennial Tea Room in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Also, I’ll be teaching a series of introductory classes to the world of tea at the Phinney Neighborhood Center in north Seattle. Be sure to sign up for the Tea Geek newsletter to get the full information when it’s ready!

Another Successful Class: The World of Tea

Last night Tea Geek put on a class at the Perennial Tea Room. It was the first real-life offering of “The World of Tea.” I had offered it previously on Second Life, but had to change the format because in a virtual world it’s hard to do taste comparisons.

Anyway, it was quite successful. We sold out the seats, and it was a good audience. The feedback was great overall, with the only “negative” being expressed was that several folks wanted to know more about the basic types of tea. The shop sold a bunch of stuff afterwards (good for them!) and about half of the attendees signed up for my mailing list (good for me!).

Maybe next time I’ll do less tea culture and history, and more about the actual tea processing. Unfortunately, if we’re tasting based on geography, we’re going to be drinking black tea. China, Japan, and Taiwan are the only places were non-black tea is made and exported in any kind of quantity. Or maybe just look at China.

I don’t know–I’m open to suggestions. Please leave a comment if you think any of these ideas are particularly interesting to you. Thanks!

Where to Start?

Sometimes, after a particularly intense geek-out, I’m asked how long I’ve studied tea. (If you’re curious, I’ve been drinking tea regularly since a trip to London in 1988 and the first class about tea I attended was in 1993 or 1994). Many new to the vastness of the world of tea are daunted by the sheer variety and everything there is to learn about it.

Here, then, is my checklist for what to try if you’re just getting started. It’ll give you a survey of some of the famous teas from the major growing regions. Ask your local tea shop for brewing advice on each, as they will probably know the peculiarities of the teas that they sell. Get a sample, or whatever their minimum quantity is. Brew them up and pay attention to the flavor. Take notes–it’ll help you differentiate them better, and help you explain what you like and don’t like when you go back to buy more.


  • a green (Longjing, aka Dragonwell is a good choice)
  • an oolong (my favorite is Tieguanyin, also spelled Ti kwan yin, or some variation on the Iron Goddess of Compassion)
  • a black (either Yunnan or Keemun; something that’s labeled “tippy” or “golden” are generally top quality)
  • a white (Bai Hao Yin Zhen, aka Silver Needles)
  • a puer (ask for help on this one–or check out some great Puer Resources to educate yourself a little)


Teas from India are almost all black tea, so for your India sampler, explore by region.

  • Darjeeling (go for something with a particular estate name–e.g. Makaibari Estate–and go for the Second Flush if available)
  • Assam (again, estate names are good; flush is less important)
  • Nilgiri (I’m particularly fond of Havukal Estate, but explore to your heart’s content)


  • Baozhong (a lightly-oxidized oolong). This is sometimes called “pouchong,” the old transliteration from Chinese. The Wenshan region, especially around Pinglin, is famous for this tea.
  • Bai Hao, aka Oriental Beauty (a darkly-oxidized oolong). This will give you a nice contrast, and is another famous Taiwan tea.


  • Sencha (the most famous and common of Japanese greens)
  • Matcha (a powdered green tea used in the tea ceremony of Japan)
  • Genmaicha (an interesting and popular green tea with toasted rice)

Other Countries

  • Pick a couple of so-called “Ceylon teas” (Ceylon is the old name for Sri Lanka and the tea industry hasn’t caught up yet). Go for individual estate names, or teas from different regions. Perhaps the most famous region here is Uva. Generally, the higher the altitude it’s grown at the better.
  • Same with Kenya–try a couple. Kenya produces a great deal of bulk tea used in blends, tea bags, etc. and can sometimes have a very strong flavor.

Happy tasting!

My Independence Day Toys

Although I entitled this post My Independence Day Toys, it’s a lie. One of my new toys I got July 6th, the other I got the day after. But I figure it’s close enough, and I might run out of interesting ways to name articles when I get new stuff. Regardless, I have a couple of geeky bits of equipment that I wanted to share.My hot water kettle and heater

First, I got a set of things that I’m not sure how to name. I might call it a “kettle” and a “warmer” although the Chinese characters would translate to something more like “fire pot” or “hot pot” (火壺) and “stove” (爐). Anyway, it’s a stand with an alcohol burner on which I can put the matching pot filled with water and it’ll keep it hot for me. Great for long gongfu tea sessions! (By the way, if you have a good name for this collection of items, leave it in the comments. My source wasn’t sure of the best way to say it in English.)

The interesting thing about the alcohol burner is that there’s no wick–the whole thing is made of clay. The bit that acts as the traditional fiber wick is like sandstone and porous enough to wick the denatured alcohol out of the base and burn with a gentle blue flame. Mmmm. Nice. (I did try it out, and while it’s good for keeping the water hot, it’s not very good at heating the water–the stove or my electric kettle is better for that.)

Pre-weighted tea scaleMy other new toy is a pre-weighted tea balance. Tea professionals often use scales like this to weigh out the perfect amount of tea for the standard brewing cup (it’s an item I like to call the “toothy cup” because the edge has a serrated section that allows you to strain the tea between cup and lid).

This scale was made in India and came to the United States via Germany. Industry standard is 2.25 grams per 6 oz. of water and this is a lovely and elegant way of weighing out dry leaf for demonstrations, classes, and so forth. And between classes, it can hang from my fireplace mantle as a decoration (though I probably should check with my partner, Loren, before I leave yet more teaware hanging around…) Anyway, I love both the long tea-trade tradition the scales represent, as well as their combination of usefulness and beauty.

Lemon-y Goodness (Goddess?)

Recently, we tasted an oolong at the teashop where I work part-time.  It was a tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy), made from the varietal of the same name.  The supplier’s sample described it as being “fruity.”  Well, they were dead on.  We tasted it next to our Master’s Choice Tie Guan Yin and it was like tasting two different teas.  Our regular TGY was what I’ve come to expect–round, lush, and richly floral like an orchid or gardenia.

The sample, though, was sure fruity.  It was like someone had poured lemonade into the cup instead of tea.

Had I just tried the cup without having brewed it, I would have guessed that it was either flavored, or that it was something like a lemon myrtle tisane.  It was wonderful and smooth and refreshing…but not at all what I’d expect from a TGY.

We are, by the way, bringing it in under the name “Emerald Goddess” if you’d like to pick some up.  Although it’s not arrived yet (as of 6 July 2007), you could call the Perennial Tea Room at 888-448-4054 and ask to be informed when it comes in.   I know I will…it’s at least worth a couple of ounces for a novelty tea if you don’t fall in love with it.