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Journal

Check out this recent Wall Street Journal article regarding the famous Wuyi Yan Cha Da Hong Pao. The gist is that Da Hong Pao prices have recently skyrocketed in China because shops and individual people have been speculating with the tea–purchasing it for the purposes of investment. This article is illuminating for a number of reasons; some are obvious and some are not so obvious.


For starters, it reminds us Western tea fans that tea really isn’t “our” beverage–when it comes to Chinese tea, domestic demand almost always trumps exportability. In this case, the market has (rather unrealistically) decided that there’s enough demand for Da Hong Pao that 1000% price increases accurately value the tea. As the article makes clear, though, this price is unsustainable and vendors aren’t able to sell much of the oolong at current inflated prices. Moreover, it’s pretty interesting to see how integral tea is to Chinese culture. What do you invest in when real estate and stocks are unstable and high-risk? How about a rare tea? It’s funny to think about as an American, but this sort of thing (including the 2007 pu-erh market bubble) indicates that some Chinese view tea as a viable form of investment–however, the pacing of this surge also seems to suggest that any potential profit has already been made and that the late-comers are stuck with some (hopefully delicious) unsellably expensive tea.

From another angle, this article is a good reminder that no matter how fun a hobby tea can be, it’s still ultimately a commodity and is subject to even the most basic economic principles of supply and demand. For those of us who don’t reside in China, it’s easy to feel toyed-with when the price increases are piled onto our already marked-up tea prices. Additionally, when a tea’s value achieves such a status, on come the fakes–you can bet there are hundreds of kilos of cheap Shui Xian being sold as “real” Da Hong Pao. Another bad sign for us consumers. What to do? It’s still the best policy to buy from vendors you trust who have as long a history as possible and a close relationship with their tea producers–one of the reasons we count ourselves lucky to partner with Seven Cups, who I’ve just now seen has its own article on the same subject!

Finally, this article provides yet more evidence that there’s a lot more going into your tea cup than just a few leaves from a bush somewhere in the far East. It can be pretty interesting and bewildering to dive down the rabbit hole and find out just how much is going on before the hot water hits the leaves in front of you.

Elliot

There’s no denying that fall is now upon us–as we say goodbye to those hot summer days (or in our case here in Seattle, give up on this year’s summer ever actually happening), it’s natural for our tea tastes to shift a little bit. Those vegetal green teas and light, floral oolongs that were thirst-quenching during summer months may not seem quite as comforting when the weather starts cooling off and daylight hours wane. Wuyi oolongs to the rescue! These oolongs are traditionally higher-oxidized and much more roasted than your typical green Tieguanyin and High Mountain Taiwanese oolongs, which means their pure floral notes are rounded–a bit fruitier and accompanied by a robust roasted note, which makes them perfect for cold weather! Coincidentally, these teas are traditionally given a period of several months to rest after processing to allow the flavors to blend successfully, which means they’re drinkable right when fall comes around!

We’ve just received this year’s harvest of five different Wuyi rock oolongs–Da Hong Pao, Tie Luo Han, Rou Gui, Old Bush Shui Xian and Shui Jin Gui. Like last year, we sourced these teas with a whole lot of help and legwork from our good friends at Seven Cups tea. It’s exciting to get these teas because of the change in season, but also because it gives us a chance to compare a second season of tea with last year’s harvest. The above shot (photos by Jeannie) of our new Da Hong Pao’s luscious leaves tells the story pretty well–the leaves are dark brown with a few rusty edges, a sign of plenty of careful oxidation and roasting. In the cup it’s dark reddish amber, which is another great sign. Tasting these teas, I was really excited to notice plenty of fire taste–the roasting is still pretty apparent, and that’s the way I like my Wuyi rock oolongs. With a heavier roast, the tea’s quality is less susceptible to deterioration (if it’s well-stored, of course), and its characteristics will continue to develop as time passes.


Since we still have a small quantity of a few of last year’s Wuyi oolongs, we’ve also had an opportunity to compare what a year does to a similar tea. Tasting last year’s Old Bush Shui Xian, I was really surprised how much the roasting flavor has mellowed in a year’s time (considering we haven’t stored the tea specifically for aging). The gentle floral notes and mineral aftertaste are more prominent and the roast lingers in the background. The 2010 counterpart, on the other hand, is quite robust with up-front roasting and floral notes that are more apparent in the nose after swallowing. Most interesting, though, is that it’s possible (even easy) to draw a clear connection between this year’s tea and last year’s, despite the obvious differences. Likewise, the Da Hong Pao’s incomparable high acidic notes, Tie Luo Han’s rich broadness, and Rou Gui’s fruity/spiciness all are apparent, there’s just more of an element of fire in the mix.

Everyone has their own tastes for oolong. Right now, these teas taste perfect to me. They’ve been in my cup almost every day since they arrived (a very good sign!). As they mellow out in the next few months, though, I think they’ll become even more accessible and balanced, which is one of my favorite things about Wuyi oolongs–they’re always drinkable, but they’re also always changing.


Greetings, patient readers! I’ve had precious little tea news to report for a long stretch; unfortunately, managing day-to-day store operations takes precedence over fun blogging projects, and we’ve been quite busy in the store preparing for the holidays and attending to our loyal customers. This news, though, is too tasty to keep under wraps: With the help of Seven Cups we’ve recently acquired a selection of five top-quality Chinese Wuyi oolongs, which we are now featuring in a special seasonal menu in the store–and just in time for this spate of extremely cold days!

High-quality and authentic Wuyi oolongs can be difficult to come by, which is why Seven Cups’ sourcing skills (they literally personally source all of the teas they carry, traveling to each province of origin and purchasing teas from the tea masters who produce them) are much appreciated–these are great teas.

If you’re not familiar with Wuyi oolongs, here’s a brief introduction from way-back. Generally, these are stripe-rolled, roasted Chinese oolongs. Most are named after the cultivar, or genetic “type” of tea plant that they come from. My goals with bringing our customers these teas are first to replace our out-of-stock Wuyi offerings, and second to offer a broad range of teas that exhibit the potential quality Wuyi oolongs can aspire to, as well as the differences between different tea cultivars and processing, with special emphasis on roast level. So, without further ado, here are some brief impressions on our new teas.

Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe) pronounced DAH hung POW
The most widely-acclaimed Wuyi oolong is also the most often-faked. Because of its international popularity, authentic Da Hong Pao is almost always one of the most expensive Wuyi teas, but its popularity is earned. This Da Hong Pao blends the tea’s unique acidity with a really smooth body, making it a little less bright but more balanced than some other examples. The roasting is on the lighter side of medium, with plenty of room for the tea’s floral and buttery aspects to shine, and the rich mouthfeel marches along nicely through the infusions. Da Hong Pao is the standard by which all other Wuyi oolongs are measured, so trying a good one like this is “required tasting,” both so you can understand the ideal characteristics of these teas, but also so you can understand what makes the other cultivars different. Most importantly, though, if your only Wuyi experience has been low-grade, over-roasted generic Wuyi oolong with the words “Da Hong Pao” slapped on the box for the purposes of extra profit, get ready to have your eyes opened!

Lao Cong Shui Xian (Old Bush Water Sprite) pronounced LAOW CHONG SHWAY see-en
Shui Xian is the most widely-cultivated Wuyi oolong (not sure why, but I assume it’s because of the plant’s hardiness and yield); it’s even popular enough that it’s also cultivated in Taiwan and Feng Huang in Guangdong province. This particular Shui Xian is grown toward the center of the Wuyi reserve and it comes from plants that are over 30 years old. This means the roots have had plenty of time to penetrate the rich soil and receive a well-rounded nutrient supply. This tea offers one of the higher roast levels of the five, but I’d still say it occupies the “medium” range of the spectrum. Shui Xian offers a really balanced flavor with equal measures of flowers, fruits and a wee bit of spice. On first tasting, this is near the top of my list for favorites, and it’s one of the better values of the five. I really enjoyed the thick mouthfeel, and there were some interesting changes from infusion to infusion.

Rou Gui (Cinnamon/Cassia Aroma) pronounced ROW GWAY
Rou Gui is another very popular cultivar, and one of the most distinct-tasting ones at that. Like the name implies, this tea tends to be spicy. I was really impressed by this tea’s medium roasting; many Rou Gui I’ve tried tend to be heavily roasted. To my tastes, a medium roast compliments the dark spice notes more elegantly, although I do have to say I’d prefer heavy roasting to a light roast. This tea has a good, strong tea base, and is honestly probably my favorite Rou Gui I’ve ever tried.

Shui Jin Gui (Golden Marine Turtle) pronounced SHWAY jin GWAY
Shui Jin Gui is one of my favorite Wuyi cultivars; in my experience it tends to be medium-light roasted, silky smooth, with a pure flavor that makes me want to keep drinking and drinking. In the past week, this tea has already become a favorite with some of our regulars–it’s complex, mellow, and the lightly toasty aroma is remarkably chocolatey. In the cup, it’s one of the lighter of the teas, but I think a lighter roasting is appropriate for a tea with such a nice, darkly floral character.

Tie Luo Han (Iron Warrior Monk) pronounced TEE-eh luh-wo HAHN
Finally, we have this light-roast Tie Luo Han. Although the roasting level is denoted as “light,” after tasting this tea a few times I’d place it more on the medium level, although it’s certainly not as heavy a roast as this tea traditionally receives. I’ve been really surprised by this tea’s flavor, which strongly reminds me of the sort of spiced apple desserts that are a hallmark of fall and winter American cuisine. The lighter roasting really showcases this fruitiness, whereas a high roasting would probably obscure this element and completely alter the character of the tea. This tea might win the award for most complex of the selection as well.

I hope you’ll take the opportunity to stop in and try a few of these teas–In China, winter is traditionally viewed as the best time to drink these warming, roasty teas, and I find myself agreeing more and more with every sip!

Welcome to 2009! To finish off the recent series of Wuyi Yen Cha posts, I’ve got tasting notes for our Rou Gui (which we call Wuyi Cassia). I’ll do my best to keep this post a little less long-winded than the Da Hong Pao tasting notes, but sometimes nerdy tea enthusiasm exceeds my restraint! As I mentioned in the introductory post, Rou Gui is both a “tea type” and a genetically unique cultivar of the tea plant. Although Rou Gui isn’t one of the four famous Wuyi oolong cultivars (known in Chinese as the Si Da Ming Cong–Da Hong Pao, Shui Jin Gui, Tie Lo Han and Bai Ji Guan), it is certainly one of the more common varieties and is often served at restaurants alongside Shui Xian as a popular table tea. In spite of its popularity, it’s still very much possible to find premium examples that stand up to elite gong fu grades of the Si Da Ming Cong.


The dry leaves aren’t too different in appearance from those of the Da Hong Pao–nice big, whole leaves. They’re perhaps a bit darker with a little more contrast between the frosting and leaf color. Smelling the leaves after the first infusion, I notice that the roast seems a bit more dominant than with the Da Hong Pao. Similarly to the other tea, though, the roast in the aroma diminishes after a couple of infusions. If I had to use one word to contrast this tea with the Da Hong Pao, I’d use “darker.” The heavier roast is immediately apparent, and the characteristic Rou Gui flavor takes slightly more effort to appreciate. It’s there, though–“Rou Gui” is often translated as cinnamon or cassia–as the roasting character diminishes over the 2nd and 3rd infusions, a delightfully dark spiciness emerges. This tea’s acidity is nowhere near as pronounced as the Da Hong Pao’s is, and the body tends to be a bit fuller as well. Later infusions produce a balanced but fading combination of roast and spice, with the expected astringency getting my mouth watering. Compared with the Da Hong Pao’s high and penetrating notes, this Rou Gui’s full, round and dark bottom makes for a pleasant contrast.


Examining the spent leaves shows some similarities with the Da Hong Pao–leaves alternate between very dark to slightly greener, but there are many large examples to be found. Our staff’s reaction has been split between these two teas–to me, that’s a sign that they’re both good! Personally, my tastes gravitate a bit toward the slightly lighter roast (you can see below that the Rou Gui’s leaves are more blistered than the Da Hong Pao’s), but the full body and darkness of the Rou Gui makes for an excellent and comforting winter warmer!


Elliot

At long last, I’m here to present tasting notes for our two new Wuyi Yen Cha. I started introducing this tea in an earlier post, so I’ll only add a bit more info with regards to its origins. As I mentioned in that earlier post, Da Hong Pao is both a “finished” tea type and a genetically unique cultivar of tea plant. However, the history and origins of the Da Hong Pao cultivar are labyrinthine and hotly-debated. Guang at Hou De Asian Art has written two extremely illuminating articles about the origins of the Da Hong Pao cultivar (Part 1, Part 2), so I won’t go too in depth regarding the history. Suffice to say that, yet again, there are plenty of tea merchants in China who are willing to pass off cheaper, often inferior Wuyi oolongs as “Da Hong Pao” and selling them to ill-informed customers at much higher prices than they deserve. This problem is compounded by the fact that many skilled Yen Cha tea masters have different opinions about which cultivar is proper for making a Da Hong Pao. This makes Da Hong Pao shopping very difficult for consumers, especially in the West. After trying as many “Da Hong Paos” as possible, I’m beginning to gain a modest understanding of Da Hong Pao’s unique flavor profile. To me, Da Hong Pao is typified by a fruity, floral flavor that comes across as very “high,” and acidic (i.e. lively and stimulating in the mouth). Of course, these characteristics can vary based on the innumerable other factors involved in processing, but the best Da Hong Paos I’ve tried all seemed to exhibit this flavor while the others tasted like overly-roasted generic Yen Cha. Outside of searching for Da Hong Pao’s unique flavor, choosing a good example is a matter of meeting the criteria that all Yen Cha should meet–balance between roasting and tea flavor, mouthfeel and body, and aftertaste.


Enough tea geeking–let’s move on to the task at hand: tasting our new Da Hong Pao! As you can see in the above picture, the leaves are large, complete, and dark in color with a light frosting. Large, complete leaves is a good sign–it means the tea has been handled with care and will be much more forgiving when brewing (broken leaves make strong, astringent and bitter tea much more easily). After loading up the gaiwan and pouring off the first quick infusion, the leaves smell incredible–the roast comes through first in the aroma, with a gentle, warm charcoal note which is followed (especially if you inhale deeply) by a pointed touch of flowers. As the infusions wear on, the roasted aroma backs off quite a bit–by the second and third infusions, the floral and caramel notes begin to rival and overpower the roasted ones. The flavor of the initial infusions is less dominated by the roast. At the first brief steep, it’s nice and light, with a bit of acidity edging in. Later, the acidity comes into its own, combining both aspects of fruit and flowers in a way that is unique to Da Hong Pao.

The final infusions begin to taper off in strength at just the right time–right when you’re ready for the tea to back off. As you can see in the picture the infused leaves are a sight to see! Even with multiple infusions, the leaves of a good Yen Cha will retain their stripe-rolled shape, never fully unfurling without help. The unfurled leaf on the left is MONSTROUS. By far the largest leaf I’ve found in so far in the entire batch–it measured 4 inches! Also of note is the difference in coloration–this tea’s heavy oxidation leaves some of the leaves greener while some take on a darker, brownish color. As you can see in the final picture of the gaiwan, by the end of a brewing session, the leaves are positively overflowing. In my experience, a lot of leaves is the best way to ensure a long session with a Yen Cha, but short steeps are a must. If you only want a couple of good steeps out of your tea, reducing the leaf weight and lengthening the infusion time will also provide very good results with this tea.


Finally, I’ll draw attention to this close-up picture of one unfurled leaf. In the macro picture (please excuse my camera’s quality) you’ll see some bubble-like blisters on the surface of the leaf. This sort of appearance is evidence of the tea’s roasting level–lighter-roasted Yen Cha will show pretty much no bubbles on the leaf surface, while “traditional” Yen Cha will sometimes be covered in such blisters. If flavor alone isn’t enough to accurately reveal to you the tea’s roast level, inspecting a nice whole leaf is usually pretty reliable. “Traditional,” (in the parlance of Wuyi Yen Cha) means heavy roasting. As I understand it, most Yen Cha used to be heavily roasted, and lighter and lighter roasts have only more recently come into fashion. Today, “tradional” connotes a high roast. If the tea’s good, though, you should be able to taste and smell much more than just charcoal without trying too hard! I would consider this Da Hong Pao to be a Traditional-style Yen Cha, though its firing wasn’t extreme. Hopefully sometime in the future we’ll be able to offer a lightly-baked Da Hong Pao–the difference can be very educational and can be illuminating for entry-level Yen Cha drinkers who might think all Wuyi oolongs taste the same! Stay tuned for tasting notes for our Wuyi Rou Gui and, more importantly, have a happy new year!


Elliot

Although we’re featuring botanicals this month, I can’t help but feature a couple of new arrivals to our tea menu–two Wuyi Yen Cha. I discussed this oolong type in a previous article, back when we had a serviceable but not outstanding example to provide our customers. Now, we’ve got two outstanding Wuyi oolongs and each deserves its own tasting notes.

As I noted in the introductory article, Wuyi is a mountain and nature reserve in Northern Fujian Province, China. “Yen Cha” means “rock,” “crag,” or “cliff” “tea,” since the area is known for its precipitous mountain cliffs and many of the most famous tea bushes were first discovered clinging to the edges of the rocks. This first tea I’ll be writing up is known as Da Hong Pao, or “Big Red Robe.” If there is one flagship Wuyi Yen Cha, it’s got to be Da Hong Pao–this tea is one of the Chinese 10 Famous Teas and certainly has the most worldwide recognition of all the Yen Cha. Because of its reputation, Da Hong Pao is often subject to falsification. Tea wholesalers will often sell low-grade, extremely high-roast Yen Cha under the name “Da Hong Pao” just to capitalize on the tea’s reputation. This sort of practice can ruin the beginning tea enthusiast’s experience with Yen Cha–a lot of tea drinkers think all Yen Cha taste the same (extremely roasted) and aren’t worthy of attention as a serious tea. The fact is, Da Hong Pao has a characteristic flavor and mouthfeel, so long as the producer is skilled enough at making the tea. This is mostly because “Da Hong Pao” is not only a specific tea (as in beverage), it’s also a genetically unique cultivar of tea bush that is reproduced asexually by planting cuttings from a parent plant. The same is true of Rou Gui (known at Miro Tea as “Wuyi Cassia”), our second new Yen Cha. Rou Gui is a less famous Yen Cha, but it is very popular in China as a solid Yen Cha choice. Rou Gui is so-named because of its cinnamon-like cassia aroma and flavor, which are more pronounced in higher grades.

Sitting down to taste our two new Yen Cha was a real pleasure, since they both exhibit the classic characteristics of high-quality Yen Cha but definitely taste distinct from one another. In addition to offering tasting impressions for these two teas, I hope these posts will serve as aids for brewing Yen Cha gong fu style; they can be tempermental, especially when used for multiple steepings, but a couple steps will greatly improve your drinking experience. The first step is to “stuff the pot.” As you can see in this picture, my tiny (90 ml) gaiwan is about 3/4 full of leaf (over 5 grams worth!). This is a crucial step; for one thing, Yen Cha leaves are not especially tightly-rolled, so they look bigger than, say, a pellet rolled oolong, when in actuality the weight is lower. Secondly, packing the leaf in will make the tea last many more infusions. The second big step is using very short infusions. When I prepare Yen Cha, the first 4 infusions are generally instantaneous–as soon as the water has filled the pot or gaiwan and the lid is on, I begin pouring. Because there is so much leaf, there’s a danger of oversteeping. If you keep the first few infusions short, you’ll be able to really appreciate the changing character of the tea from steep to steep. After the first four infusions, I’ll generally increase the infusion time by about 10 seconds per go, up to about 45 seconds, then by 15 seconds for two more, and a couple extra long infusions to see if the tea has any juice left. The third tip is to use a pot or gaiwan that retains heat very well–this porcelain gaiwan is a good device for accurately conveying the flavor of this yen cha, but a nice thick, high-fired Yixing clay pot will keep the temperature high, allowing the water (as close to boiling as possible) to extract as much flavor as possible, which is key during later infusions. Following these three principles (which differ quite a bit from more standard gong fu practices) has really helped me get more mileage and enjoyment out of my Yen Cha, and goodness knows I drink a lot of Yen Cha.

The flavor you should expect from a good Yen Cha brewed in this fashion should present a balance between the tea’s roasting level (which varies from tea to tea) and the flavors of the tea leaves themselves, which also varies from cultivar to cultivar, but ranges from fruity to flowery to creamy to spicy, depending on the Yen Cha. Mouthfeel is usually pretty thick and a bit of mouth-watering astringency (due to the teas’ roasting) generally starts to mount in later infusions, and many Yen Cha possess a pleasant and active acidity that tends to sparkle on the tongue. Really good Yen Cha will also exhibit what the Chinese call “hui gan,” which is literally untranslatable, but roughly means something like “returning aftertaste.” That is, the tea’s flavor remains in your mouth after drinking, and is often enhanced with your breathing.

I’ll be back soon with my impressions on our new Da Hong Pao and Rou Gui!

Elliot

Oolong teas from the Wuyi mountain region of Northern Fujian province, China, are generally known as “Yen Cha” or “Yan Cha,” which means “rock” or “crag” tea, in reference to the famous mountains, crags, and rock cliffs where the tea plants traditionally grow. They are renowned for their unique characters, rarity, and accessibility. In fact, the most famous Wuyi Rock Tea–Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe)–is currently one of two oolong teas on the China Ten Famous Tea list. In fact, the Wuyi region has such a rich tea production history that it has its own “famous tea” list, the Si Da Ming Cong, which refers to the four most famous Wuyi teas (as both cultivars and finished teas). They are Da Hong Pao, Shui Jin Gui (Golden Marine Turtle), Tieluohan (Iron Warrior Monk), and Bai Ji Guan (White Rooster’s Crest). Two of the other most well-known Wuyi Rock Teas are Shui Xian (Water Sprite) and Rou Gui (Cassia Bark). Oolong production in the Wuyi mountain region is so dominant that it makes up about 80% of the region’s output. Black teas (like the famous Lapsang Souchang) make up 14% and the rare but sometimes high-quality green Wuyi teas make up only 6%.

As with most famous teas, the highest quality Wuyi teas place equal importance on the cultivars that the leaves come from and the processing methods used to produce them (for a very interesting two-part article about the history of the Da Hong Pao cultivar, read Guang Lee’s excellent two part article on the Hou De blog: Part 1, Part 2). In reference to my introductory oolong entry, Wuyi oolongs are typified by their oxidation and roasting; in general they are highly-oxidized and roasted with medium- to high-fire for long periods of time, giving them a characteristic roasted, warming flavor. Premium Wuyi oolongs offer a balance between this roasting character and delicate floral, herbal, fruity, and other aromas and flavors that unfold with each steeping. Lower-grade Wuyi oolongs tend to be dominated by the roasted character due to low quality leaves or unskilled roasting abilities, so it may be difficult to tell the difference between different types. If you’ve tried a few Wuyi oolongs and are of the opinion that they all taste the same, rest assured that this is not the case and there are Wuyis out there that can really blow your expectations away and justify their reputation!

To offer an example of a Wuyi oolong, I’ve shared pictures of a nice mid-grade Da Hong Pao that we sell at Miro Tea. In this first picture (click to enlarge), you can see that the leaves have been rolled into long, curly shapes. This is called “stripe rolling,” and is typical of most (if not all) Wuyi oolongs. Another thing to notice is the color–because of their high oxidation and roasting, Wuyi oolongs often exhibit much darker coloration than other oolongs. At a quick glance, the color appears black, but if you look closer, you can see dark green, brown, and reddish colors as well, especially depending on the lighting conditions. High-grade oolongs usually consist of quite large leaves, so this oolong’s mix of medium-large and a few broken leaves is a good indication of its medium-grade.

After infusion, some of this Da Hong Pao’s trademark characteristics are revealed. The tea’s liquor is a dark amber, which is again typical of Wuyi oolongs in general. The leaves have slightly unfurled to reveal their original size, as well as the variation of color that can often take place in one leaf. Wuyi teas are often so tightly stripe-rolled that they remain so even after several infusions. If you’re brewing a Wuyi in a small pot or gaiwan gong fu style, make sure to leave enough room for the leaves to unfurl as much as they can; if they’re too cramped, they won’t expand and release all of their flavors evenly (or at all).

Wuyi oolongs are such a unique treat that it’s worthwhile to seek out excellent examples of the teas you’re interested in. At Miro this spring (after Wuyi harvests come in), we’ll be offering a high-grade Da Hong Pao and a more affordable mid-grade selection to represent this diverse and famous region.