As promised, dear readers, I'm back on the subject of teas. Those of you who are fearful of being induced to part with more of your hard-earned pesos may want to skip this column.
This time I'm going to tell you about two of my favorites. The first is well-known: ti kuan yin, a.k.a. Iron Goddess. I was introduced to this delight on my very first foray into the realm of high-end teas, when I visited Aroma. During our tasting session, Haymen, the proprietor, served us up a delicious Iron Goddess, which was possibly my favorite tea of the whole session. Unfortunately, it was also the most expensive; I recall it being in the range of a dollar a gram, which at the time was extremely expensive for tea. Very regretfully, I declined to purchase any, explaining that it was beyond my budget.
I did purchase some $200 worth of tea that day—as I've explained previously, while that seems extravagant, it was more than a year's supply. I could tell that Haymen and his wife Ying were pleasantly surprised by the amount I spent. Haymen gifted me with the Piao I Perfect Infusion Tea Pot, which has been my preferred brewing method ever since. As we were packing up to go, Ying proffered a small package as an additional thank you for my purchase: about 25 grams of the sublime Iron Goddess.
Now, that's what's known as building customer relations! I'm not at all a frequent visitor of their establishment (it's been years, and I'm really due for another trip), but the number of customers I've referred to them has paid them back tenfold, I'm sure.
(Those of you involved with customer-oriented businesses, keep this in mind.)
Ti kuan yin comes in a variety of grades and at least two different forms, most commonly as tightly furled pearls, each about the size of a kernel of unpopped popcorn. A scant, level teaspoon of those in the infuser is quite sufficient, and good easily for four or more brewings. It's quite amazing; every time I brew it I don't believe I put anywhere enough tea in the pot, but the leaves swell up astonishingly. This is a tea where a very little bit goes a very long way. It also takes a substantial brew: 5–7 min. with 90°C water is a common recommendation, and it's really not too much. This produces a remarkably delicate beverage; Iron Goddess does not let go of its flavor easily.
I suggest you skip the cheap stuff and spend as much as you can afford; it will be worth it. I haven't tried it, but I suspect the "under the table" ti kwan yin from Aroma will be spectacular.
Currently, my staple ti kwan yin comes from TeaSource (a small chain of independent tea stores in the Minneapolis area that also does mail-order) in the form of small bricks (top illustration). It's one of the favorites in my cabinet, and less than half a brick carries me all day in my infuser. It's looser than the pearls, so it takes less brewing; 3–5 min. is sufficient. Compared to some of the teas I've mentioned in the past it's a little spendy (~$2/day) but it's a lovely indulgence and you can always buy modest amounts if you want to be frugal.
Rare in the West
Last spring, TeaSource also introduced me to something brand new: "dark tea." It's a category of tea that's been essentially unknown in the West; when I bought a brick, the clerk said they were the only U.S. source for it at that time. What caught my attention was that it looked much like a pu erh (below) but tasted very different. It was not smoky but complicated, tasting both rich and light at the same time.
It looked like a pu erh and brewed and behaved like a pu erh, demanding boiling water and welcoming multiple pours that changed from cup to cup, but it wasn't a pu erh. Most curious.
On my next visit, enlightenment was forthcoming. Dark tea is not a variety of pu erh; pu erh is a variety of dark tea! Pu erh is a regional designation, indicating dark teas that are prepared in or near Pu Erh county in China. Other dark teas come from other regions; the dark teas that TeaSource carries are primarily from Anhua County, I believe.
If you're intrigued by the idea of pu erhs from my last tea column but put off by their often heavy and smoky flavors, you might give these anhua dark teas a try. I've bought few, starting with that "Fu Cha Whole Leaf Brick" that was bargain-priced and, in my opinion, worth many times what I paid for it—what's pictured on the right-hand side in the photograph above are the remnants of what had been a fairly substantial brick, on top of the card that came with it. I drank a lot of this! None of the ones I've tried taste like pu erhs; if I tried to categorize them, I would say they have the floral quality of oolongs, but they're deeper and richer.
Unfortunately, I can't locate these teas on TeaSource's website. I don't know if they don't sell them by mail or if I simply haven't searched properly.
[Ed. Note: I spoke to Bill Waddington, the owner of TeaSource, and he freely acknowledges that the dark teas on his "old and creaky" website (which they're now in the process of revising) are not in the right place—most of them are hiding under Shop for Tea > Black Teas > China Teas > Hunan. Here's a link.]
Next time, more on the art and indulgence of tea-drinking from your effete, intellectual columnist.
Regular columnist Ctein has been doing a year-end catchup on off-topic columns, having stayed too much on topic for months on end.
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
A book of interest today:
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
steveH: "Since the last tea post, I've been enjoying a silver needle and a jasmine black dragon pearl tea using the Piao i. Thought they were expensive, but a little goes a very long way. Very nice, and thanks to Ctein for pointing them out."
Ben: "I heard Bill on NPR a while ago, and he was talking about dark teas. We've been meaning to order some but haven't yet...I think we will now! Thanks for the recommendations."
Martin Doonan: "While I have absolutely no interest in tea drinking (I really don't like the stuff, apart from occassional Japanese brews), I'm finding this whole series fascinating. Who'd have thunk there was so much to tea!?"
Bill Waddington, owner, TeaSource: "Hi Ctein, what a wonderful article and photos, written with accuracy, clarity and panache. I don't always see that in articles about tea. And you are right, Dark Tea is an amazing thing. I first found Dark Tea about 10 years ago while wandering around a wholesale tea market in western China, and at first I thought it was puer. However, the old Chinese gentleman at the display table emphatically pointed to the tea bricks on his table and said, 'No puer! Dark tea!' And that was the extent of his English. I spent the next 10 years learning about Dark Tea. Another cool thing about this tea is it was deliberately designed/manufactured around 1300 years ago to be an everyman/inexpensive tea—so it's always affordable.
"Also great writing about TKY and oolong. Strongly suggest folks try out Taiwan oolongs also. They are doing some amazing things.
"I'm new to the blog, so I apologize for the length of this comment. But what wonderful articles etc. I'll be browsing for awhile. Thanks to all involved."