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Journal

Marching right along, it’s my sensory pleasure to introduce one of my personal favorite tea types–Charcoal Roasted Dong-Ding.  Charcoal roasted Dong-Ding has become about as crucial to my everyday survival as Wuyi Yan Cha oolongs, and that’s saying something!  Although we’ve recently had some really nice “contemporary”-style Dong Ding oolongs, I’ve still been hoping to get hold of some more traditionally roasted (with charcoal, rather than a baking machine) tea.  Though both methods will caramelize a tea’s sweetness, a well-done charcoal roast adds both a note of roast as well as a dynamic connection with the earth that just isn’t there when a machine is used–surely traditional Chinese medicine would favor traditional charcoal roasting because it adds the element of fire to the tea processing, which contributes balance.  Unfortunately even machine roasting isn’t very fashionable right now and judges are choosing greener and greener teas as competition winners.  Combine this with the fact that charcoal roasting is a difficult skill that is being passed down to fewer and fewer tea masters and you can see how a good traditional Dong Ding is becoming harder to find and more expensive. 

Let me tell you–it’s worth it.  This tea is an excellent example of a lighter charcoal-roasted Dong-Ding: the charcoal note is present in the tea flavor, but it doesn’t dominate.  The tea’s natural floral notes are still preserved but are made slightly acidic by the roast–the lively acidity is evident in the cup where the tea liquor starts out light orange but darkens quickly as it cools down and interacts with the air.  The brewed leaves don’t quite pop open as completely as green oolong, which is another sign of a healthy charcoal roast.  

It’s too bad that charcoal roasted Taiwanese oolongs are becoming more difficult to find abroad–it’s hard to understand how both green oolong and traditional oolong can’t just coexist equally on their respective merits, but popularity ultimately determines the availability of a tea.  For now, at least, we can appreciate the best of both worlds!

Elliot

Here we have an even more unusual tea to continue with our selection of new Taiwanese oolongs.  Yes, you read the title correctly–this tea is billed as Taiwanese Big Red Robe.  But just how close is this tea to Fujian’s most famous rock oolong?


My first question encountering this tea was “Which tea plant cultivar was used?”  After all, even in mainland China, there’s quite a bit of disagreement as to which plant actually constitutes Da Hong Pao.  Our tea source revealed that the Taiwanese farmer who produced this tea actually used Buddha Hand leaves but processed them in the Da Hong Pao style.  I’m not exactly sure what this means, since I can’t call to mind any other examples of Da Hong Pao coming from Taiwan, so it might be that the producer chose the mother of all marketing buzzwords to get people interested in her experimental tea.

Despite its tenuous claims to the title of “Da Hong Pao” this tea is certainly an exceptional experiment.  Though its name conjures ideas of roasted rock oolong, in reality it’s closer to the Red Jinxuan we last featured.  I’d describe this tea as even closer to a black tea–the liquor is a deep crimson color and the leaves are even darker green with much more red present.  Compared with the Jinxuan, the liquor has a more present astringency in the finish, toward the back of the mouth.  What really surprised me in comparison with the Jinxuan was this tea’s up-front fruity note.  Now knowing it’s from the Buddha Hand cultivar, it’s easier to understand, but even for Buddha Hand this is almost a punch-like fruitiness.  Apparently the processing includes organic treatment like our Oriental Beauty and Red Jinxuan, so perhaps there is also some leaf hopper effect happening as well.

This is an extremely interesting tea unlike any I’ve tasted before–we have a very limited quantity, so please stop by soon if you’re interested in trying it out.

Elliot

Our next two teas are major departures from what’s become the Taiwanese oolong norm.  First is this Red Jinxuan…oolong?  It’s probably accurate to call it an oolong–probably more accurate is the appellation “Hong Shui” which refers to an older style of oolong processing that emphasizes high oxidation and lower roasting.  The party line is that this type of oolong processing has fallen out of fashion, but over the past couple of years I’ve been seeing more and more hong shui oolongs showing up online and at domestic Taiwan oolong suppliers.  
If you hang around Miro Tea, you’ve probably already seen or tried a Jinxuan oolong or two–it’s become a popular cultivar in Taiwan for its yield and robust, creamy body.  This one’s very different from the pellet-rolled, green examples we’ve had so far.  The leaf shape is almost like Baozhong, but it’s pretty clear that the oxidation level is much higher.  The large, twisted leaves are almost black with a bit of light frost on the edges. 

According to our source, Drew, this tea is completely organically grown, like Oriental Beauty, and the leaf hopper insects’ bites impart a sweetness into the end flavor.  Tasting the tea, I found it to be unlike the other Hong Shui oolongs I’ve tried.  It has an astounding mellowness–there is really no astringency to speak of, and the thick body coats the mouth almost immediately.  The flavor develops more after swallowing–it’s not as up front as some teas.  The wet leaves are full of grainy notes and, when inspected, are fairly uniformly dark green (as opposed to our Oriental Beauty, which has that iridescence to it).  Still, there is a bit of redness on the stems and leaf edges that show the very high oxidation that this tea underwent.  With its mellowness and closeness in characteristics to black teas, I think this is a tea that might go down well with fans of our China Vintage Special black tea.

Elliot

Before we continue with the final three new-new-longs, it’s time for a quick introduction of three we’ve been remiss in mentioning.  These teas, also supplied by Drew, have been enjoyed by Miro customers since mid-November.  They include two Dong-Ding oolongs and a High Mountain Baozhong.

The first Dong-Ding is called “Xiao Ban Tian,” and it’s the greener of the two.  This tea is an excellent option for those interested in branching out from our Lishan and Alishan oolongs; it’s floral and full-bodied with less of a vegetal note than the Alishan and a bit more of a light fruity note than the Lishan.  As you can see in the above picture, the tightly-balled leaves have a nice coat of down, indicating they were plucked quite young.  As processing fashions change, I’m hard-pressed to identify what exactly defines a Dong-Ding as a Dong-Ding–I usually expect them to be more oxidized and roasted, but this is a solid high mountain oolong.  According to Drew, “Dong-Ding” can be fairly applied to any teas from the Lugu region, which clears up the confusion on the appellation but still leaves us unsure what to expect a Dong-Ding to taste like until we actually try it!

The second Dong-Ding is from a mountain called Shan Lin Xi, one of the three most famous Taiwanese mountains.  Its processing is more what I’d expect for a Dong-Ding–the leaves have received a light machine roast, visibly darkening their color just a tad.  The liquor is still pure like the Xiao Ban Tian, but the roast accentuates the fruity note.  Since we’ve been serving it, this tea has become even more exciting–it won the gold medal in the bi-annual Lugu Tea Competition.  Lucky for us, we got ahold of our stock before the competition–gold medal winners increase drastically in price and supply becomes instantly scarce!

Finally there’s our new High Mountain Baozhong.  Baozhong is a classic Taiwanese tea–famed for both its loose, stripe-rolled appearance and its unparalleled floral notes.  This organic Baozhong is totally au natural–it’s quite stemmy, which adds a little rustic element to its appeal. 

The flavor, though, is classic Baozhong; lighter than pellet-rolled high mountain oolong, but with a floral nose that goes on and on.  Baozhong is another great alternative to the standard high mountain teas, and it’s also quite enjoyable iced.

Join us next time for another of our brand new teas–a traditional Charcoal-Roasted Dong-Ding!
Elliot
Tea farm at the base of Alishan Mountain

Next in our series on Taiwanese winter oolongs at Miro Tea, we are going to introduce you to the man  behind the teas, my good friend Drew.  It is Drew who helps me locate the best oolongs of each season and makes sure we are always well-stocked with the highest quality Taiwanese oolongs that are most representative of each category.  I met Drew on my first day in college and to this day, he’s the friend who doesn’t let me live down certain events in my life that he had the fortune/misfortune to witness.  We should all be so lucky to have such a good friend.  In my first post, I had mentioned how a good friend was responsible for introducing me to what great tea was all about.  Well, that good friend was Drew.  He had already been studying and learning about teas long before I even met him and by the time we met, he demonstrated to me the variety of teas that existed outside of my limited knowledge of tea, at time, and introduced to me the concept of artisan teas, direct farmer sourcing and gung fu tea preparation. In my mind, the idea of Miro Tea was born the moment he served me that first cup of gorgeous delicious tea.

Since our college days, Drew left Seattle for warmer climates and settled down in Taiwan with his lovely wife Joyce, where they’ve established an envious life of teaching, exploring, and writing, as well as lots and lots of biking across the Taiwanese countryside.

I never considered how conducive the terrain and landscape of Taiwan was for cycling until I learned of Drew’s cycling endeavors and from reading his blog, Taiwan in Cycles.  There, he chronicles all his excursions and the very rich cycling culture in Taiwan,  all the while taking lots of photos of the people, locales, bikes and of course, tea!  Some of the tea related rides that he’s written about are his Nantou trip, Ali Mountain, and my favorite piece on the Lugu tea district and it’s prestigious bi-annual tea competition.

And so it is during these bike rides that Drew ventures out to the Taiwanese mountainsides and discovers some of the obscure but talented tea growers whose teas we enjoy at Miro Tea.  We’re so lucky to have him as our exclusive liason to help us insure that our customers have access to some of the most exceptional teas that Taiwan has to offer.  He’s been generous by allowing us to access his long developed relationships with the tea farmers and has become our “feet on the street” or in this case, “wheels on the mountain” for premium quality, yet reasonably priced Taiwanese Oolongs. With his friendly disposition, sense of curiosity, and utmost respect for the farmers, he’s been able to establish great relationships with many of the local tea growers from each of the major tea growing regions.

Handmade Tea Baskets

One thing that people often misunderstand is the process of gaining access to teas grown by small tea farmers. It’s not as simple as picking up a phone or knocking on a door.  Cultural rules dictate and respect for the farmers must be acknowledged.  Relationships based on personal interactions and trust are established over time.  Thankfully, Drew is the person that we trust to develop that special relationship for us in Taiwan.

Teas in Taiwan are usually hand plucked by the family members who own and cultivate the tea farms

When selecting teas, Drew knows the characteristics of a truly premium oolong and starts by looking for only hand-made, organically-grown Oolongs that are typically cultivated at a high elevation.  This ensures that care was taken in making the tea and it further increases the chances that the cultivated oolong tea will be delicious. Also, Drew and I share a very similar palate for oolong teas, which allows me to put my full trust in his selections, enabling us to get premium oolong teas to our store and customers in very short order.

Fresh tea leaves being spread out to wilt in the sun before the bruising and rolling process.
The photos shown on this post were all taken by Drew this winter on Ali and Dong Ding Mountain.  We’ll be sure to post more photos of the tea farms as we get them from Drew.  Be sure to check our blog again for the final three oolong tasting posts, which will be posted in the coming weeks.  Cheers! 
Certain teas are almost always identified by one easy-to-remember umbrella name, like Dragonwell or Tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy).  There may be a more specific appellation to describe the tea plant cultivar or specific growing location, but the common name is always there.  Today’s tea definitely doesn’t fall into that category–alternately known as Bai Hao, Dongfang Mei Ren, Oriental Beauty and Fancy Formosa, it can be tough to tell just which name is “correct.”
What’s indisputable, though, is that Oriental Beauty (we’re using its most common English handle) is a Taiwanese oolong like very few others.  Looking at the tea’s close-up portrait above, you might even mistake it for a Darjeeling with its silvery tips and the leaves’ rusty hue.  Indeed, the resemblance is remarkable (though a true tea sleuth would likely point to the presence of stems and the by-and-large unbroken condition of the leaves as evidence that it’s not Darjeeling).  Still, the comparison rings true in some ways–the reddish color of the leaves gives away this tea’s high oxidation–it’s sometimes as high as 80%, which is treading mighty close to black tea territory.  It’s also often unroasted and dried using an extended withering process.  Perhaps most interestingly, Oriental Beauty producers actually encourage a parasitic “leaf hopper” insect to bite the tea leaves–the insects’ saliva produces a chemical response in the leaves that is absolutely crucial to achieving its hallmark flavor characteristics. 

Like out High Mt. Alishan, it’s been quite a while since we’ve had a new Oriental Beauty oolong.  Compared to other years’ harvests, I think this tea is on the lighter side–it’s more delicate and subtle rather than robust or verging on malty.  This subtlety allows the tea’s floral aspects to come out more than usual–the aroma has much more of a flowery scent, though the primary flavor is still fruity/honey notes.  Drinking my first cup, I was immediately struck by some astringency at the front of my mouth, which actually complemented the tea’s sweet finish quite well.  This tea’s special processing makes for really interesting-looking wet leaves, with an almost iridescent quality to the oxidized patches, which often cover most of an entire leaf.  We recommend a slightly longer (4 minutes for a large pot or mug) steeping to fully develop this oolong’s body.

Elliot

Introducing our next “new”-long, this is a High Mountain Alishan oolong.  It’s been a while since we’ve had a fresh Alishan (our last one was the darker “Snowy” Alishan).  It’s nice to have another option for those seeking a classic green high mountain alternative to our popular Lishan.

What’s the difference? Well, for starters the teas come from different mountains–Mt. Li in North/Central Taiwan, and Mt. Ali in Southwestern Taiwan, respectively.  If push comes to shove, Lishan is probably the most famous tea-producing mountain in Taiwan (at least, the teas grown in the Da Yu Ling area of Lishan command some of the highest prices to be found on the island), but both mountains have distinctive characters.  To my palate, Alishan oolongs tend to be just a bit bolder in flavor–bright and forthright but occasionally finicky when it comes to brewing without making a slightly bitter cup.

This fresh batch exhibits typical Alishan characteristics–it’s nice and floral and even has a tiny bit of a vegetal note, which may appeal to some green oolong aficionados.  Despite its exceedingly green profile, it’s easy to see the standard level of edge-of-the-leaf high mountain oolong oxidation.  The leaves open up nicely during steeping to reveal just how well-treated a truly hand-harvested tea can be.  Try it side-by-side with our Lishan to see how they compare!

Elliot

Although we’ve been quiet on the blogosphere, there are a lot of things happening at Miro Tea, not least of which include a lot of cool events and fun changes around the store.  On the tea end, things have been exciting.  Our source in Taiwan has supplied us with a clutch of really impressive teas–both classic Taiwan oolongs as well as some very interesting and more unusual teas, some of which I’ve never even heard of before!  As we introduce the new teas to the staff, first impressions are as important as ever–to one of our more poetic team members, the fresh oolongs have become known as “new-longs!”  Over the next few weeks we’ll be featuring these on the blog with tasting notes and descriptions.  Of course, they’ll be available in the store by the cup and pot on our enduringly-popular seasonal oolong menu, and if you get in early enough you might be able to snag a few ounces to take home!

For starters, our Oxidized Buddha Hand oolong has been restocked, and this time it’s a winter harvest.  This was probably my favorite of the last batch of oolongs we received from Taiwan.  Buddha Hand (pinyin Fo Shou) oolong has personally intrigued me for quite a while with its enormous leaves and inimitable fruity notes.  This tea is quite a pleasure to drink because the higher oxidation (which tends to bring out fruity or generally sweet notes) has amplified the Buddha Palm cultivar’s natural flavor profile into a rich autumnal (forgive the strange word choice, but it just seems to fit the way this tea tastes) fruity-floral combination.  Compared with our “Green” Buddha Hand oolong (which, at the time of this writing, is still in stock), the body is a fair bit thicker.  Although this tea may not develop quite as much over repeated brews, the oxidized taste is endearing and so unlike most Taiwanese oolongs that it doesn’t really matter–it’s nice to just bask in the unique flavor.

Some tea leaves are called “big” because of their length, but the immensity of this cultivar’s leaves is really noticeable in the astounding breadth as shown by the gargantuan example above.  You can also see the bruised edges that have contributed to the oxidized nature of this oolong.  I’m excited that we get to prolong the magic of this tea by carrying another season’s harvest–we too often have to say “goodbye” to interesting teas too soon!

Stay tuned–we’ve got even more noteworthy teas on the horizon.  We’ll be continuing next post with our first green High Mountain Alishan Oolong in over a year.

Elliot