Spirit Tea

Earth Humanity Heaven

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

Yunnan Tea Journey Day 2: Pu'er

Our first taste of Chinese traffic. Pulling out of Kunming early this morning we ran into two lanes of nearly stopped highway traffic. One canvas-covered truck had veered off the road completely, a few workers were unloading cargo from it. Drivers paced the line of stopped trucks and cars, smoking cigarettes. Our driver turned off the air because it was only blowing road fumes into our van.

It took hours to escape the length of Kunming, a city of 7 million. Five and six-of-a-kind high rises in every direction, with more being built. The other thing we noticed, once we started moving again, were the vast sweeps of greenhouses, some extending to the horizon—flower producers. Slowly, the land changed. High rises were replaced by mountains, hoop houses by rice and lotus paddies. Soon we were winding through mountain roads half a mile above sea level. The mist obscured jagged peaks, the sky threatened rain all day.

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At the Tropic of Cancer, we stopped at a rest stop. The scent of blossoming trees pummeled me as soon as I walked out of the car. We ate another customary massive lunch. This place had bundles of freshly-picked greens in a fridge where customers could walk up and point at which they'd like. The vegetarian in me appreciated this. We ordered a (literal) bunch of bananas and persimmon from a small market stall on our way out. 

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We checked into our hotel in Ning'Er before making our way to see a Qing Dynasty era customs house. Because of traffic and delays we were losing daylight and proceeded straight to our last stop: Na Ke Li village.

The village was one of the important stops on the Tea Horse Road. The millennia-old several thousand-mile long series of paths that connected Myanmar, Sichuan, Tibet, Bengal and Pu'Er. The village seems to have stood still in time. An old footpath leads through the center of the village and up into the mountains. The village belongs to the indigenous Hani people, who call the surrounding region home.

Mr. Chen (Ke Ke) gives us a brief lecture on the tea horse road, which took the region's famed Pu'Er fermented tea, pressed into cake and brick form, out of the green hinterlands of Yunnan into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, more than two miles above sea level, to parts further—including Assam. The road was incredibly perilous. Raiders, mudslides and impassable snow and elevation meant the journey took six months to a year to complete (if it could be completed). These brave porters hauled bricks of tea to the city in the clouds, where it was a staple part of Tibetans diet (lacking vegetables). In turn, Tibetans traded the Chinese horses, which they desperately needed to rebel the nomad hordes to the north.

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We walked through the village, across a bridge where we came to a courtyard under blossoming trees. There was lighting equipment and cameras set up around an open-air restaurant. Apparently they were filming a commercial. A few of the Hani men and women were in full traditional garb. Before we knew what was happening, we were invited to sit—at the table—in the commercial. We pantomimed eating (then actually ate) and the Hani girls took selfies with Michael and I. Everyone was laughing, which must have looked great in the commercial.

Afterwards, Michael and I noticed some Pu'er bricks and stoneware gaiwans sitting on shelves in the back of the restaurant. He inquired if they were for sale and the restaurant owner, a friend of Zhuping's, who was ecstatic that we had showed up, insisted we each take a gaiwan as her gift. We adamantly refused, at least without paying, but they insisted and we insisted on giving them both some yuan and USD.

Afterwards, we crept along a stone path up the hill, near the village mill where a man was slicing cured meats and grilling in the open air. We were invited to stay for dinner, where bottomless local Sheng (called "Sun-dried green" here) Pu'Er and clear corn liquor was served, alongside a dinner of pickled cabbage, traditional chicken soup, charred beef, bamboo shoots and bean curd.  

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Just as we were wrapping up dinner and trading conversation a hard rain began to patter against the bamboo roof and down the footstones of the trail. We ran through the Yunnan deluge down the Tea Horse trail to our bus, positively soaked. For still not having visited a tea farmer, we are learning so much more—why tea is here, who the people are behind its care and about the beautiful, rainy mountain lands it sprung from. 

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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 the 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. 

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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