I stopped by Denong for a tasting and got a bonus sample of their 2019 black tea. One of the aspects that makes this extra interesting is that this is tea from a drought year (2017 was a drought year too). This was harsh for tea farmers in drought regions because of reduced yield. Sadly, even robust old trees died in fires in Yunnan impacting puerh and Kenyan tea growers were only operating for half the week because there was not enough tea to harvest. This is why you’ll see less product and higher prices.
It saddens me that these beautiful tea plants and the people in the industry have suffered. Nature has a way of creating beauty out of chaos though. The drought causes the plants to work harder and results in more concentrated flavor. The leaf becomes very small and flat (as opposed to in a monsoon or rainy season where it plumps up) and because of that you get deeper, richer flavor.
The dry leaves are dark and twig like. The wet leaves smell rich and deep like hot fresh biscuits and a little bit of walking in the forest with moss on the ground minus the damp or mildew smell.
The first steep was light, like a briefly dunked tea biscuit. It had a bit of sweet syrup taste a little bit like maple syrup. I steeped for only 30 seconds with minimal tannin bitterness.
The second steep smelled even sweeter, coated my tongue, and reminded me of how some books smell. I'm not talking about the extremely new ones, or the ones that have gotten old and musty, but the in-between, well-read, well-kept books. Perhaps it's where the books are stored or the type of paper they're made of, but that's what this tea reminded me of on the second steep. Tea and books - they go well together. (So do tea and cats, but if a tea smelled like a cat I'd be concerned.)
The third step was the thickest and most flavorful yet.
As this was a black tea sample I wasn't sure if it was going to stand up to a fourth steeping, but I thought I'd give it a shot. It held up. The flavor did start to back away and say goodbye, but it was still present. The tea coated my tongue for another round adding onto the previous rounds for a satisfying mouthfeel and taste. This fourth steep was still very soft and mild from a tannin standpoint. A little less sweet and biscuit-like than previous steeps, but worth doing.
I’m always amazed at how much work and how many people are involved in bringing me my cup of tea. I respect all of that coordinated effort. If you are interested in trying a tea from a drought year, bear in mind the smaller yield which may be reflected in the price. If you have had one of these teas, let the tea community know on Tea Deviant Facebook or Twitter which tea you’ve had and what you thought of it.
This is just touching on the impact of drought. I may go further into this subject and how it changes things for the industry and the consumer, if there is interest.
For more on making a great cup of tea check out these posts:
Does your Tea Taste Like Crap? We can Fix That
Are You Having a Tea Crisis?
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Expected tea is an event to look forward to; unexpected tea is a surprise joy.
I had heard from a couple of people that Denong had opened a teahouse in the area. I had first experienced their tea at the Los Angeles International Tea Festival. They specialize in puerh tea and what I tasted at the fest was lovely and memorable. I made a mental note to visit their shop. Weeks later on a holiday I was exploring in the area I heard it was in. I thought why not at least see where it is even though they won’t be open. [Note - if you are not familiar with puerh you may want to start with this post.
The shop is subtly placed, discovered by aligned chance or with focused intent. The sign on the door said ‘open’. I thought, “no way, they must have left the sign flipped”. Then I noticed the door was cracked open too. I couldn’t see anyone inside, but entered anyway. I am very glad I did. Jeffrey came out to greet me. I had picked the perfect time for a first experience as there was no one else there this late on a holiday night.
The space is spacious and open while feeling welcoming and intimate. It is a live room with a good dose of ping, so I am curious to experience the music of it at a busy time. The beautiful wood furniture is minimalist and elegant. The cabinets are filled with teaware, art and tea including a puerh cake from 1996. I didn’t look through all of it though. I thought I’d save myself some treasures for the next time I visit. There are pictures on the walls of the company founder, workers, the tea gardens and other tea houses that tell a story of Denong’s evolution.
The menu is of two parts - the main menu listing: Raw selections, Ripe selections, Famous Mountain list and their single, unique black tea; and the recent harvest menu. Jeffrey told me that list will eventually move to the main menu when a new harvest menu arrives. Prices listed are for a tasting and for a cake of the tea. There is even a Reserve & Vintage tasting session available.
I described to Jeffrey some of the flavors/notes I was interested in at the moment (much like describing wine): minerally, some earthiness but not mushroom-y, and a bit of sweetness. He suggested three teas to me and I chose Commemorative Edition 2016 from the Raw menu.
While the kettle was boiling Jeffrey walked me over to a wall of photos and gave me a brief rundown of Denong’s history and highlights. We talked a lot about the lack of information about tea. How a consumer must become self-educated to be able to acquire quality tea, which is one of my goals. He said the he himself had gone through a rough time trying to acquire quality tea, even becoming ill at one point from poor quality tea. This is particularly important with puerh as it is the only tea that can be aged. If aged properly puerh has health benefits and even becomes an investment worth a hefty amount of dosh. If processed or stored improperly, instead of the beneficial enzymes puerh is prized for, unhealthy bacteria can invade the tea.
One of the elements I appreciate about Denong is that the company is part of the whole process. They own tea gardens and there is no mystery step between those and where the tea is sold. That is gold! To know where the tea you are drinking is grown, how it is grown, how it is harvested, even to the cleanliness of the facility in which it is processed and stored - every step through to your drinking of it. It is a rare thing.
Jeffrey described how employees who work directly with the tea change clothes multiple times a day (I believe he said 3 times a shift) and he showed me a picture of them wearing masks and hair coverings and gloves - all intended to keep unwanted smells and contaminants from the tea.
The experience of having the tea was enhanced by beautiful teaware and a focused reverential serving. It looked like there was a galaxy at the bottom of the gorgeous glass cup. I got the feeling that here you could meditate while having your tea, or as I did, have a great conversation about the notes and the joy of it. It is very cool to be served tea by someone who knows so much about it and has a clear passion for it without pretense. Jeffrey was great!
Spring water was used and the tea given a quick rinse, but considering Denong’s practices this was probably one of the cleanest puerhs I have ever had. There were 5 steepings and as the tea opened up I went from feeling like I was walking through a forest after a light rain to sitting on rocks that have been washed by ocean tides. The notes of earthiness, minerality and sweetness all hit at different times.
Jeffrey put the leaves in a biodegradable container for me as I suspected they had more flavor to give (I did some more steepings that night). I love that. I look forward to working my way through their menu.
If you love puerh or want to start exploring it you can check out my earlier puerh post - A Puerh Primer and visit Denong online or at one of their locations in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong or in the US - one location in Pasadena with another coming to the westside of LA in 2019!
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There are two Blue Moons this year. My friend and I set our alarms for 5am this past January 31st to step out and groggily try to view the even rarer Super Blue Blood Moon – the first to be seen from the US since 1866. The next one will be in 2037 so it seemed worth it to try and catch this one. So there we were, two women in our pajamas on the sidewalk in the blackness of early morning that looks like night trying to take a picture through binoculars with an iphone of a moon that kind of looked like a floating orange. It was very cool though. NASA’s pictures do it far more justice but here is one of ours.
When I posted the pics on twitter I noticed posts about Blue Moon Tea from Adagio Teas. They have an herbal blend called Bella Luna Blue that they only sell on the day of a blue moon. It is also blue in color when brewed. Very intriguing. Then, as there is another Blue Moon (though not Blue Blood Moon) March 31st, Adagio reached out to me about this unique tea. I love all that synchronicity! (the next seasonal blue moon will be on August 22 2021!) I gladly took the opportunity for a new tea experience so here we are. The ingredient of this blend that gives it such a beautiful indigo blue color is pea flower. The other elements of this blend are lemongrass and natural blueberry flavor.
SCENT – The dry leaves have a sweet blueberry dessert-like scent with the lemongrass walking around in the background. The pea flower doesn’t seem to add much scent. The steeped tea is also sweet smelling, like a blueberry cobbler.
TASTE – Pea flower by itself is pretty mild. I tasted some of the dried flowers alone and they clearly had some of the blueberry flavor on them but were very innocuous underneath that. Some compare pea flower taste to an earthy green tea, but I feel it reminds me more of barley tea. In combination with the lemongrass and blueberry flavor the tea is well blended with all the flavors holding hands in harmony. I like it both unsweetened and sweetened with a bit of honey. The honey brought out the blueberry flavor more.
We took pictures of the tea in a few different vessels with light from above and from behind, with more or less tea and sometimes there were multiple colors visible including purples and deep pinks like a wild sunset captured in a glass.
Then I started playing with the wet leaves. Many artists paint with tea, so it isn’t novel necessarily, but it is fun. This tea reminded me of watercolors. I couldn’t resist splattering and writing with it. I fully believe in playing with your tea and getting creative with the ways even steeped leaves can be used.
Bonus: I was also able to get more than one steeping out of a round of leaves. Satisfying.
You can get this lovely Bella Luna Blue tea on the day of the next Blue Moon, March 31st 2018, from Adagio Teas. I encourage you to set your alarm, grab a friend, bring some binoculars and go out into the night to gaze skyward for this rare experience!
I was unaware of the fading of traditional tea drinking culture in Japan. Apparently it is mainly the older generations that drink traditional tea with younger ones going for sweet RTD beverages. You can read more about this interesting challenge to the Japanese tea trade here: http://www.tching.com/2018/02/japanese-tea-farm-fighting-japans-biggest-problem-age-part-one/ It is wild to think the 8th largest producer of tea, Japan, is losing their own tea drinkers.
When the CEO of Japanese Green Tea, Kei Nishida, asked me to try his company’s newest teas I anticipated that the quality would be good as in my past experience. It is the story of how these teas came about that makes them doubly interesting. The Arahataen Tea Farm is where the tea for Japanese Green Tea In is grown. This tea farm partnered with a local High School for a year teaching tea farming, production and business. Another goal of the partnership was to discover a new way to engage young people and get them interested in drinking tea. Nice! Like businesses listening to their customers this company decided to court a new customer base by actually working with some of their demographic to create a tea product targeted to their preferences.
By defining commonalities among drinks popular with the teen crowd prototypes were created then tested among all the High Schools in the region. Sweet and sour were the most popular tastes across the popular drinks analyzed. There was also a desire for something easy to make that didn’t require a tea pot as most of the students did not have one at home.
The result was a powdered green tea mix including light amounts of natural sugar and locally sourced lemon that can be made equally easily with hot or cold water. A second blend was made using mikan, which is called the Japanese tangerine, instead of lemon. Even though lesser quality tea is often used in powdered versions the decision was made to use high quality tea for these creations. The tea in question is grown using what is called the Chagasuba method. This method of tea growing uses sugar cane and other beneficial natural elements to cover the roots adding nutrients to the soil, preserving moisture and warmth. This results in a natural sweetness to the tea itself aside from the sugar added to these blends.
I sat down with a fellow tea lover, Elexis, to taste these creations and this what we experienced:
Green Tea with Mikan
I used the suggested 2 tsp. of powder to 7 oz. hot water
SCENT – Super fragrant, fruity nose, almost flowery; Scent of the green tea is mild but still present; Initial thought on the fruit was citrus but hard to get specific on likely because neither of us had ever had this particular type of orange
TASTE – Unlike any green tea I’ve ever had; A surprisingly mild, friendly, high end taste with a gentle balanced sweetness. The tea taste is there but it’s like it is holding hands with the mikan and allowing the fruit to step forward. The mildness of the sweetness was a pleasant surprise. To many western palates it may not be sweet enough which is easily remedied by adding a sweetener of choice, but it is cool that it doesn’t start off mega-sweet so the drinker has that choice. The mikan orange reminded me of San Pellegrino’s Aranciata Rossa made with Italian oranges and blood oranges.
I was advised by Kei that when the tea is made with hot water some prefer using 1.5 tsp. per 7 oz. water instead of the 2 tsp. I used the 2 tsp. and I and my friend Elexis (who kept saying “I really like this!”) both thought it was great that way.
Green Tea with Lemon
SCENT – Clearly lemon; Less fragrant than the Mikan, but inviting; Sharp, fresh real lemon scent (not at all like strong lemon scented cleaners or anything like that, more like the explosion of scent from peeling a lemon by hand releasing the real lemon oil)
TASTE – Mild though the pleasing bitter bite of the lemon is present; I would consider using the 1.5 tsp. per 7 oz. water as opposed to 2 tsp. in hot water version more because of flavor profile than sweetness level. The lemon tastes stronger than the tea to us here. Still it is a mildly sweet, instant gratification option for green tea goodness on the go.
Ingredients: Lemon (or mikan), green tea, Sugar, Dextrin and Sucralose
According to Kei sugar is less than 5% of the entire tea
You can find these teas here:
Thanks to Kei at Japanese Green Tea for providing the tea for this adventure
UPDATE: in 2021 I I was asked to become an affiliate for Japanese Green Tea Co. Always impressed with their products, I was happy to be an affiliate. If you use my discount code, teadeviant you get 10% off your order and I receive a small commission.
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