Spirit Tea

Earth Humanity Heaven

An uncommon selection of handmade teas, each reflecting a unique moment in space and time.

Yunnan Tea Journey Day 1: Kunming

I've been telling people this isn't a business trip, nor is it a vacation. Many tea drinkers must feel it. Yunnan has tantalized me for years. If anything, the trip feels most like a pilgrimage. Yunnan is the cradle of tea, where humanity first made use of the tea plant, it is also its biological origin. There are trees in this province reported to be thousands of years old. Wild forest groves with canopy-high buds and heirloom species of Camellia found nowhere else on the planet.

There's also a mystery to Yunnan—there are many languages spoken here. It's primarily a rural province, many regions didn't have print currency until the 1960s. It's also one of the poorest. There's endless questions of "authenticity" surrounding its products, especially Pu'Er, which has fought counterfeiting since its resurgence. With twenty six recognized ethnicities Yunnan is far and away China's most diverse province. Tucked under the Tibetan Plateau to the north (the name Yunnan means 'South of the Clouds'), Myanmar to the west, and with Laos and Vietnam to the south it is the literal end of China. To truly taste Yunnan tea, you have to go.

I landed in the province's capital Kunming last night after about 20 hours of travel from Chicago. I stepped out of the airport into a cool, misty rainfall. It stormed through the night and into the next morning. Our ragtag tour group assembled in the lobby that afternoon: a collection of professionals, scholars, producers and the tea curious compiling our resources to properly see the region. Our tour is guided by Seven Cups' sagacious Zhuping Hodge.


We went to the Old Town for bowls of Crossing the Bridge noodles, an iconic local dish. Then made our way to Pinyuan, a Pu'er tea house whose courtyard footprint dates back to the Ming Dynasty. It has since been painstakingly restored to its original specifications. A calligraphy scroll hangs in the store which says "The whole house is full of jade and gold." I ask Guo, a young local tea business owner (and regular) who the artist is. "We usually don't tell people this" he says, "But it's Peng Yiluan" First Lady of China. 

In the teahouse, our friend Dong Li plies us with a selection of Yunnan lots: a Lin Cang Old Tree black, Jing Gu Shu Pu'Er 2014, and a 1997 Sheng Pu'er Yung De. A Yunnan coffee also sneaks its way in. Mr. Chen is there, a traveling lecturer, microbiologist, botanist and one of the first minds behind the revitalization of Pu'er culture. He watches as tea is poured and patiently answers our questions about sunlight, fermentation, caffeine and mao cha. As with all things in tea, it only breeds more questions. That's ok because he'll be joining us on the tour.

We walk through the old town at sunset. It's warmer now, with the same heavy aroma—a mixture of incense, gasoline and frying meat. The market stalls are alive. We browse shops and walk through a lane of flower sellers. These are some of the most vigorous succulents I've ever seen. Over dinner, we eat the customarily behemoth assortment of local dishes. The twelve of us take turns introducing ourselves and we talk about the trip—the rest of which veers headfirst into the forests and mountains, rivers and lakes. We fill ourselves up on bamboo shoots, orchid root, sticky rice and get drunk toasting cheap beer and rice liquor. We haven't seen a tea field and it's already starting to feel like a homecoming.

 

-TC

Killing Earl Grey

At S P I R I T, we often disparage the perfectly normal tea types that happen to lie outside of our ethos. Flavored teas, teas that are blends with non-tea ingredients and even (for a different reason) scented teas. Most major tea companies make their millions selling just what I've described. But few titles escape the fury of our lips so often as Earl Grey.

Most of its legend is nonsense. And, for what it's worth, orientalist. According to the most popular legend, white savior Charles, 2nd Earl Grey, saved a hapless mandarin's son from drowning during his time in China. The mandarin was so grateful that he sent a shipload of black tea to England, blended with Bergamot for flavor and preservation in the long overseas voyage. In addition to the fact that Charles Grey never went to China, bergamot doesn't grow in China and a mandarin would never have the financial resources to charter a trade ship to England—the whole story reeks of Western exceptionalism.

And if you've ever seen an actual bergamot in your life or even know what one is, I commend you. The worst part of earl grey is, it is always artificial. Unfortunately, someone didn't just juice fresh bergamot over your tea leaves. That was done with chemical oils.  Most tea companies use these chemical additives which come in giant plastic containers with warning labels printed over the sides. When a little oil leaks over the lid it stains the label and the plastic permanently. 

Some of these companies have labeled it "Natural Earl Grey flavor" or "Natural Bergamot flavor" but nothing could be more misleading or untrue. 

So when most people taste black teas like our Qi Lan, which we've affectionately dubbed "true earl grey", which express strong citrus character—without the aid of chemicals or flavorings, only the natural beauty of the leaf and the land and people behind it—people either find it "light" (compared to the lab engineered synthetic flavoring they're accustomed to) or are amazed to learn that the leaf can possess such naturally beautiful characteristics. Tasting and appreciating a leaf for its simple, understated beauties is a process that takes patience. 

As you can see, we get a little irked when it comes to public lies of the tea industry like this. Not just because it hurts our young business, but because we believe passionately in what we do—and that tea is first and foremost a story of the earth. 

But that's why we're here. To drink tea with you.

Iced Tea - How to make - Best Practices

So it is May now of 2016 and its time to start talking iced tea! 

But first a quick rant about the current state of Iced Tea in the USA dining scene: 

Traditionally in the United States Tea is consumed in large batch brew machines with an exceptionally low grade of Assamica typically derived from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Southern India, Kenya, or Argentina.   

Typically the dry leaf appears like dust as the leaves have been curated by machines in a style known as Crush Tear Curl.  The resulting brew is brisk, strong, and very dark in appearance.  

This type of tea is very typical in restaurants from the low end to the high end and is almost entirely flavorless and lifeless. 

Sadly, Iced Tea is often evaluated in terms of its apperance in the cup, and not so much the taste, aroma, or body.  :( 

Traditional Iced Tea in the USA - colorful yet lifeless in terms of taste, aroma, and body.

Traditional Iced Tea in the USA - colorful yet lifeless in terms of taste, aroma, and body.

But Damnit! We aim to change all of that - from a sourcing perspective we focus on a blend of cultivars typically from Fujian China such as in our Sunstone Iced Tea or alternatively we throw in some tea derived from Yunnan China.  The resulting brew is full bodied, nuanced, and full of aroma.  

We are steering our customers away from batch brew methods to help create more flavor and taste in the cup -  here are three methods we typically use: 

How to make Flash Brew Iced Tea: 

In the Tea industry what we deem a flash brew is essentially a concentrate that is brewed at normal strength with half the amount of water and then poured over ice. In this way you have a proper amount of astringency that balances out the rest of the cup.  

 Recipe for making Flash Brew Iced Tea  (12oz.)

Step 1:  Measure out 5g of Tea

Step 2:  Add tea to brewing vessle

Step 3:  Add 150g of water at proper temp  

Step 4: Pour over a full cup of Ice

How to make Cold Brew Tea: 

 

Step 1: measure out 20g of Tea per Liter

Step 2: add filtered water into the vessel you are steeping

Step 3: wait 12 hours for Green Tea, and Oolong Tea,  24 hours for black tea and white tea

How to make shaken Iced Tea: 

Shaken Iced Tea - How to Make

Shaken Iced Tea - How to Make

 

Step 1:  Follow steps necessary for making concentrate but instead pour into a shaker filled with 1/3 ice.  

Step 2: shake until bottom of shaker is cold  

Step 3: pour into a cup with 1/3 filled with ice

 

 

 

Ali Shan Tea - A Journey into Tribal Tea Growing Territory - part 1

As many of you know Taylor and I recently went on a sourcing trip to Taiwan to source teas less common here in the States.  Mile for mile Taiwan offers some of the most unique tea growers, terroirs, and traditions surrounding tea.  In todays travelogue we will dive into Ali Shan

But first, a super abridged history of Taiwan: 

Less known perhaps here in the west is that Taiwan has changed hands many times and has many remnants left on its tea culture there.  Originally the sea levels were about 150m less than they are today and this formed a land bridge across the Taiwan straight into Fujian, China. Evidence dates back about 30,000 years showing evidence of the first migrations.  In the 1500's the Kingdom of Spain established a port in northwestern Taiwan, and soon after the Dutch setup a fort to establish better trade routes with the Japanese and Chinese mainland.  

The Dutch and aboriginal tribes ousted the Spanish colony in 1630 and the Dutch assumed control with the locals.  

In the mid 1600's the Ming Dynasty in China was overwhelmed by opposing forces and crossed the Taiwan strait into Taiwan with their armies. They swiftly ousted the Dutch from power and soon assumed power over the island. 

In 1895 following the treaty of the Japanese victory in the first Sino - Japanese war the Japanese took possession of the Island.   The period of Japanese rule had three phases - it began as a time of oppression and paternalistic crackdown, the second phase was to assimilate all Taiwanese peoples as free subjects in a period known as Doka, and finally a third phase which attempted to make the Taiwanese official royal subjects of the Japanese emperor.  

After World War 2 under the conditions of surrender Taiwan once again returned to China rule. 

This is all necessary background for understanding the complexities of the Taiwanese Tea industry and its many facets. 

Let's dive into Ali Shan! So Ali Shan is technically a national park - or a self described - 'Scenic Area,'  it takes about 2 hours just to get from the base to the upper reaches of the mountain where our Anaiza Ali Shan comes from. 

Traditional tribal outfit for a male 

Traditional tribal outfit for a male 

When we arrived in the village where the tribe we source from is based we are greeted by these greeters. 

The garden we source from is  the 2nd highest garden on Ali Shan - and this year was particularly strange. This is the first time in her family's history that they did not harvest until May in 2016. 

Here is a few of the garden at the top: 

1600m Elevation Garden we source Ali Shan from

1600m Elevation Garden we source Ali Shan from

After visiting the garden we went down a ways to see one of the Tea Master's at work doing the meticulous rolling process for the Ali Shan.  The honey aroma in the air was so enchanting. 

They roll the tea 7 times before the final drying. 

This garden where we source from is organic and the little white papers are sticky papers where the bugs get stuck to when they normally bite the leaves.  Organic is a hot topic in Taiwan right now. 

There is also some people planting coffee in Ali Shan - the coffee is quite expensive and goes for $17 per lb.  

We are actually releasing a tea that is grown in this garden under the shading of coffee trees.  It's called the Huanna Small Leaf - more details to come. 

We saw many aspects of Taiwanese tea culture from the spiritually motivated, to 5 generations of proud farmers, but this one of the most interesting.  The tribal indigenous history of Taiwan as briefly highlighted earlier is one of the most compelling pieces of history from the very early days of the country.  

More in depth articles will soon be coming out describing more of the growing process, terroir, and cultivars the gardens we work with are engaged in.  

Until next time - Peace from Taiwan!