Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 Hwagae Uricha (Tongecha) at the Probuzeny Slon Teahouse

Visiting Brno, Czech republic, I'm once again sitting in one of my favorite tea-rooms here, mentioned several times on this blog – the Probuzeny Slon teahouse. At the moment, I am enjoying last infusions of a wonderful and unusual tea, one of those I wanted to try since the moment I first heard about it.

This tea is Hwagae Uricha (Tongecha), a Korean yellow tea produced by master Cho Yun Suk and imported by Teamountain. Quite an unusual Balhyocha for me, as it isn't loose – instead, this tea is pressed into the shape of a 100 gram ball and its appearance may be reminiscent of Pu-erh.

It's taste and smell is amazing – if someone would give me these dry leaves just to smell without seeing it, I would be tempted to say it's dark chocolate. Its taste is similar – wonderfully chocolate-like and sweet and it doesn't seem to get any bitterness even after long steeping times. As I gradually prepared numerous infusions, its smell and taste evolved, revealing more spicy tones, fruit, nuts, flowers and several other fragrances, making each infusion different.

Another thing worth mentioning – after a day of wandering through the winter city, this tea was exactly what I needed. As soon as I came to the teahouse and took the first sip, my body felt regenerated – and, immediately, warmed.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to take a photo of its dry leaves, which were still in a pressed form. After the session, though, the leaves are beautiful – quite small, whole and ranging from dark-green to dark-brown in color.

This post isn't going to be any longer. I just felt the need to share this unusual tea-experience – at least like this.

Monday, December 26, 2011

2011 Tsubokiri Gyokuro by Marukyu Koyamaen

First of all, I would like to apologize – this blog was on an unexplained hiatus since the end of September. Among things that kept me busy is the fact that I have moved to a beautiful little village near Bratislava – this way, I can still keep close to the city, while the pluses are obvious – a garden, nature, calmness... drinking tea here during the warmer months is definitely going to be a wonderful experience. Then came Christmas and all things related to it – pleasant, but time-consuming.

I bought this Gyokuro back in November and enjoyed it a few times since then. As the package already indicates, it isn't a part of Uji's famous Marukyu Koyamaen's standard offering – Tsubokiri is a seasonal collection of teas released after Kuchikiri no Gi ceremony in October and sold only during October and November. Luckily, I was able to get one package of such Gyuokuro from Bratislava's store.

I've already talked about traditional storage and ripening of high-grade Japanese teas as well as the Kuchikiri no Gi ceremony last year with Horaido teas. Personally, I'm looking forward to such teas a lot every year – spring offering of Shincha is definitely amazing amazing, but autumn is my favorite season of Japanese tea; season when some of the best teas are released to the market.

These dark-green leaves are slightly more fragmented, short and reminiscent of short needles (or pins), indicating a medium-deep steaming (chumushi). Quite typically for many Uji-style Gyokuro teas, their appearance is a bit less shiny than that of high-grade Sencha.

Smell of these leaves is a joy; sweet, noble, deep and, at the same time, still notably fresh. As they are placed into the preheated Shiboridashi, more and more tones keep showing up – tones I would expect from a really good traditional Uji Gyokuro and, especially, one from Marukyu Koyamaen, as their Gyokuro teas seem to be characteristic enough to be distinguished from other producers (hard to explain, though).

As with all higher-grade Gyokuro, I've chosen the traditional way of preparation – big amount of leaves, small volume of lukewarm water and long steeping times.

This gives me three interesting infusions, first of which is greenish-yellow in color, just slightly opaque and very aromatic. Its taste is heavy, rich and full of nuances; milky, sweet tones and umami, pine-like forest freshness and ripe fruit. The aftertaste is long and mouthfilling, very deep and sweet without traces of bitterness. This taste really is noble and special – this is one of those teas that you can feel in your mouth hours after you've finished drinking it – maybe even all day long. Similarly most traditional Gyokuros stored until autumn, Tsubokiri has a significant body-warming effect as well as a vivid awakening one, waking up the senses and enhancing mind's ability to focus. And with such a tea, it is definitely important to completely focus on the session itself.

The second infusion, prepared with slightly hotter water and shorter brewing time, is greener in color and more transparent. Now, the taste is a little lighter than before, though still very deep and sweet; the milky tone, umami and sweetness are accompanied by more pronounced, sharper note of fruit (especially grapes and pears) and a very slight spiciness. The aftertaste, though, is still predominantly sweet and milky – and, seemingly, even vivider and longer than that of the first infusion.

One more brew is prepared – while this one may be the lightest and not that deep at all compared to its predecessors, it appears to be a very pleasant refreshment after two very heavy infusions. This one is sharper, lighter and somehow fresher, with shorter aftertaste and tones of nuts, spices and fruit.

Uji has been my favorite tea-producing area for years and this tea once again proved to remind me why I am so fond of it. A traditional, ripened Gyokuro of this kind is a tea worth special opportunities – at least in my eyes.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

This Autumn

As you may have noticed, this blog hasn't been very active since the second half of September - I am very busy at the moment. Please accept this humble apology and stay patient - I will resume posting as soon as possible, hopefully by the end of this month or the beginning of November. Many blog-related things await me in the near future - another trip to Brno and its charming tearooms, possible visit to Vienna (any suggestions for interesting tea places worth paying a visit there?) as well as many new exceptional teas to try.
Until then, I hope you all have the most wonderful and colorful autumn.

Friday, September 23, 2011

2011 Kagoshima Sencha Asanoka Kirishima

This is the second of two fresh Japanese Teamountain tea I've ordered from – while I've been familiar with Ureshino Kamairi Tamaryokucha as it is a stable part of TM offering, this one is completely new. It looked very promising from the beginning and I was personally looking forward to tasting it a lot - now, after quite a few of sessions with this unusual tea, I have finally managed to take some photos and transform thoughts into notes.

First thing that caught my attention was the description of this tea itself – hand-picked, Asamushi (light-steamed) Sencha grown in former Makizono town near Kirishima mountain in Kagoshima, Kyushu by quite a well-known producer Mr. Nishi, whose teas are often participating in various competitions. Moreover, this tea is made of Asanoka cultivar – one of the newer, less common varietals cultivated in southern Japan. Asanoka is said to be a crossbreed of Yabukita and some Chinese cultivar from Jiangxi and is characterized by its mildness and umami, therefore being suitable for production of shaded teas – I remember seeing Kabusecha made of this varietal, but this is probably the first Asanoka Sencha I've ever came across.

Packed in a beautiful white bag typical for most high-grade Teamountain Japanese teas, these shiny, dark-green leaves are a little bit more fragmented than usual light-steamed teas, though there is a lot of beautiful, long and narrow needles among them as well. Their smell is very soft, fresh and sweet, reminding me of young peas – that kind of mild, fresh and lively sweetness.

When placed into the preheated Shiboridashi, this smell gets stronger, sweeter and deeper, being slightly reminiscent of shaded teas, such as Kabusecha and Gyokuro.

The first infusion is completely transparent and beautifully jade-green; its smell is light, fruity and noble while its taste is full of umami, creamy sweetness, milkiness and freshness. It seems like this Sencha stands out of all the fresh Japanese teas I've tried out so far this year – it's very mild and full at the same time and has a vivid umami base very similar to that of young peas – both in smell and, even more pronouncedly, on tongue. This Sencha truly has some characteristics typical more for Gyokuro than Sencha; the already mentioned umami and deep sweetness, among others. Its aftertaste is long, light and yet mouthfilling, quite milky and fresh. Also notable, this tea has a non-negligible effect on mind and body, but not too strong – it slightly awakens the senses and makes mind focused, though, at least in my case, it isn't the suitable-for-work kind of focus – rather than that this tea seems to make mind better focused on the tea itself, somehow even enhancing the session.

The second infusion is brewed with slightly hotter water for only five seconds and is still very transparent, more yellowish-green and sharper in taste, fruity and still sweet. The creamy and milky tones are a bit weakened and covered by new tones reminiscent of fresh, wild strawberries and white grapes, together with once again dominant note of young peas and umami. The aftertaste is longer, sharper and more mouth-filling that that of its predecessor, now being more typical Sencha-like rather than having similarities to shaded teas.

The third infusion emits vivid green color with slight jade-like undertones. Its taste is milder than that of the second brew, though it also partially lacks the vivid umami and milky sweetness, now being dominantly fruity and a little bit spicy. Its taste is refreshing and, literally, very green, while the aftertaste is a bit shorter and less pronounced than before, also mainly fruity and sharp.

The last infusion is still beautifully green in color and completely transparent, while its taste is comprised of woody, sharp and slightly astringent tones with only a short aftertaste – still very enjoyable and refreshing, though.

So far, it seems like this unusual Sencha has become my personal favorite among all the 2011 Japanese teas I've tasted so far. While I can't say that the other teas were of any significantly lower quality, this one just stands out, being different and unconventional. There are, though, still a lot of teas to try; considering the fact that this is obviously a strong year for Japanese tea, there still is a high chance I will come across, at least, equally interesting and likable teas – I can't wait for it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

2011 Ureshino Kamairi Tamaryokucha

I've been traveling quite a lot during the second half of august and, luckily for me, had enough time to drink teas at such amazing places as a meadow inside a pine forest, surrounded only by green hills and a couple of good friends. Originally, I intended to take some photos of these sessions and share them on this blog, but I ended up just enjoying these moments and surroundings, documenting them only with my own eyes and mind. Looking back, I think it was a good decision.

Meanwhile, new teas arrived – thanks to their preciseness, started offering some fresh Teamountain teas to Slovak tea-lovers almost immediately after they were listed available on TM website.

This year, Teamountain's Japanese teas arrived significantly later than usual – caused mainly by the Earthquake and its consequences and the fact that big part of their offering used to consist of Shizuoka teas from Mr. Katahira's farm, which, unfortunately, they decided not to sell this year. However, first wave of these teas is finally here and, so far, it seems like it really was worth the wait.

This Kamairicha from Ureshino has been a stable part of Teamountain offering for quite a few years and it's the most basic Tamaryokucha they offer – this being said, it still is a high-grade, hand-roasted tea made of Yabukita cultivar.

Its dry leaves are a bit less uniform than those of competition grades of this type of tea; even though, they are good-looking, curly and vivid green in color. They emit a strong smell, which is soft, fresh and a bit nutty.

The first infusion is light green in color, transparent and very aromatic. Its taste is similar to the smell in a way that it is vivid and soft at the same time, being milky, fruity, very nutty and sweet with fine umami tone. Almonds and sweetness are the dominant tones in aftertaste, which isn't long, but very pleasant nonetheless. This brew also seems to have nice, gentle awakening effect on mind, making it calm, simple and yet sharp, just as the tea itself.

The second infusion is poured off immediately as the water touches the leaves and is lively green and a bit opaque. Being more mouth-filling and pronounced than the previous brew, it's dominated by notes of fruity sweetness and umami, followed by unusually fresh, cooling feel on tongue and a roasty, nutty touch in aftertaste, which is now longer and sharper.

Similar intensive green color shows up as the third infusion is prepared, now a bit less sweet and more refreshing and sharp, reminding me of freshly picked young green apples. The nutty tones of almonds and hazelnuts as well as the previously vivid umami are still detectable, though they now seem to be quite covered over by the fruity, fresh character.

One more infusion is prepared with freshly boiled water, cooled only for a very short amount of time. It shows the complete departure of former sweetness and milkiness, being sharp, refreshing and a bit astringent. The aftertaste is simple, having the same pronounced character as this infusion's taste.

Judging from this humble, pleasant Kamairicha, this is a promising year for Ureshino. I'm looking forward to encountering other teas from this region soon – hopefully also the competition grades of Tamaryokucha, which I really grew quite keen of during the last season.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Within Today's Leaves

As I have already mentioned a couple of time on this blog, I am not much of an avid Puerh drinker, consuming it only occasionally. However and considering this fact, I seem to have an unusual luck to find unintentional things while disassembling the cakes - (maybe) surprisingly, especially the "high-end" ones.
This definitely is neither the first nor the last bug for me to find in a good Sheng Puerh. The initial, maybe a second-long reaction of my brain is usually obnoxiousness (I've never really been on the best terms with bugs); just then, however, I realize the exact opposite, the positive side of such find. Can tea get any closer to nature and can it be any purer from any kinds of chemicals and pesticides than this, attracting (and, unfortunately, taking) so much life even during its processing stages?
From this point of view, finding bugs within pressed cakes is a good sign and, at least for me, possibly better than any shiny "Organic" sticker on the packaging.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

2011 Kim Jong Yeol's Balhyocha Noeul Hyanggi “Sunset”

Today's weather isn't exactly green. The sky is cloudy, air quite breezy and it occasionally rains – somehow, it feels like this is the day I've been awaiting to open this special tea.

This season, Teamountain offers two yellow teas made by tea master Kim Jong Yeol (and it seems like one made by Kim Shin Ho is on the way as well), named poetically “Sunrise” and “Sunset”. I purchased Sunset on my visit to Brno's Sklenena Louka teahouse, owner of which also told me her impressions of these teas – while Sunrise is more chocolate-like and dark, Sunset is supposed to be more spicy and somehow reminiscent of Taiwanese Bai Hao oolong. While I haven't bought both of these teas and, therefore, will not be able to compare them in a similar way, I'd very much looked forward to trying Sunset on its own.

The origin of this fermented tea is Yonggang-Ri, Hwagae-myeon, Gyeongnam, it was picked during the second week of May and is made of wild, approximately 20 years old tea bushes.

This simple, yet beautiful packaging is opened and immediately releases intensive, deep smell of meadow flowers, honey and cinnamon. In terms of appearance, Wuyi Yancha is the first thing that comes to my mind; these leaves are dark with shades of black and brown, curly and mostly unbroken. When placed into the preheated teapot, their aroma intensifies even more, now being even sweeter and revealing a slightly roasty, bread-like note.

The first infusion is brewed with freshly boiled water and is orange-golden in color, still retaining the deep smell of dry leaves. Its taste is equally deep and sweet, offering countless tones, both those already revealed in smell as well as many new – dried fruit, particularly apricots, honey, flowers, cinnamon-like spiciness and very subtle, refined roast. Immediately after the first sip, this tea feels strong – not in a way of being over-brewed or too harsh (the exact opposite is true – this tea is very mild and noble), but it seems to have strong, warming and yet calming energy, which is impossible not to notice. This infusion also has expectably long and vivid aftertaste, filling the throat with subtle deep sweetness.

The second infusion is slightly darker orange in color, very transparent and very aromatic. Honey, fruit, meadow flowers and cinnamon remain the main tones, though they now seem to have a bit different mouthfeel – even deeper and smoother. There isn't a single trace of bitterness in this brew, instead, it fills mouth with various tones of ripe and dried fruit, seemingly alternating and complementing each other. The aftertaste of this infusion is more pronounced and even warmer than that of the first brew, evolving over time and becoming sweeter and sweeter.

The third infusion returns to the lighter orange-golden color of the first one, though its taste remains similar to the second brew, being very fruity, sweet and slightly spicy, now revealing a new tone as well – citrus-like juiciness, which overtakes the aftertaste as well – a bit like warm orange or lime with honey.

This citrus-like note gradually becomes dominant in the fourth, fifth and sixth infusions, though most of the other fruity and sweet tones remain present as well – just not as dominant as before, now they seem to be hidden under the main citrusey nuances. All of these brews retain the significantly warm, calming energy, detectable primarily in the long aftertaste.

With its clear, deep character and warm, remarkably soothing energy, this Balhyocha makes a simple session feel like a very special, important occasion. Its lyrical name Sunset seems to be very well chosen – it really has power to create the atmosphere of a calm, silent evening on a meadow inside a wild forest, watching the sun going down slowly; all that in a single cup, even in the heart of a city.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

New Companion

This is the little Black Magda kyusu made by Petr Novak I've talked about in my previous post. It holds about 120ml of water and I intend to use it mostly for Korean tea. And, after the first recently finished session with Gyeun Farm Saejak, I can already tell that this pot seems to fit these teas wonderfully, just as I imagined.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

One Afternoon at Brno's Glass Meadow

Staying in Brno, Czech republic for a while now again, I met with some friends and visited yet another of the city's amazing teahouses - one called Sklenena Louka ("Glass Meadow"), or, in shortened and simplified version, just Sklenenka.

sorry for the blurry photos - taken by phone camera

This teahouse sources its teas from two of my most favorite Czech vendors, LongFeng and Teamountain. This time, I was especially aimed for a group of particular teas, recently imported by Martin Spimr's Teamountain - fresh Korean teas made by two famous teamasters, Kim Jong Yeol and Kim Shin Ho.

I ordered Kim Shin Ho's Saejak Samtae, tea which exceeded the high expectations I had for it. Sweet, smooth, fresh and almost impossible to over-brew, this green tea had an amazing effect on body, harmonizing it in a way that left my mind calm, clear and yet sharp.

Originally, I was planning to buy two different Korean teas made by Kim Jong Yeol for my home consumption as well; this idea was, however, quickly dismissed when I saw brand new pieces of Petr Novak's pottery unladen on a nearby table. Among these pots was a little Black Magda-glazed kyusu, completely fitting the idea of my dream-teapot for Korean teas... and I suddenly knew one of the teas will have to wait.

In the end, I was leaving this magical place with new teapot, a pack of fresh Balhyocha and the aftertaste of Kim Shin Ho's Saejak still present in my throat. All this together with the opportunity to chat with some long-unseen dear friends over a cup of great tea - beautiful day.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

2011 Zencha Nakai's Organic Uji Sencha Matsu

It's already been some time since this tea arrived to my place; more than three weeks, to be accurate. Since then, various things continuously prevented me from writing about it, most commonly those related to weather – for me, the best occasion on which to enjoy a good fresh green tea is a sunny, warm day, but the last week and a few more days before it somehow lacked this kind of weather almost completely. If there was a warm, sunny and free day, I usually haven't stayed at home and went somewhere out (such as the FesTEAval) and, therefore, the days left for me when I had time to stay at home and write about tea were usually those filled with cold air, rain, dark clouds and lack of natural light, during which I mostly weren't in mood for anything green and rather switched to roasted oolongs and puerh.

Today, finally, sun decided to shine a bit and the temperature is noticeably higher as well. There is an advantage of all the time I kept waiting for the right occasion to write about this tea – since it arrived, I've tasted it quite a lot of times (though mostly only as a quick morning session without that much time to concentrate on the tea itself), which helped me to make up my mind about this not-so-usual Sencha.

This light steamed Sencha comes from Mr. Michio Nakai's farm located in my favorite region, Uji, Kyoto and is certified organic. In Zencha's offering, it is the middle grade of Uji Sencha. Its leaves are a bit shorter and more broken than those of usual Asamushi teas, but still quite nice and shiny. Their smell is very fresh, very sweet and unusually nutty and creamy, much more than most Uji Sencha teas. There is also a slight hint of roastiness; overall, aroma of this tea unexpectedly reminds me of fresh Long Jing quite a lot.

The first infusion is yellowish-green in color and has a mild sweet smell and full, balanced taste, again different from what I'm used to find in most Uji teas – this one is much more bread-like, nutty and roasty, while still being very sweet. In this case, however, it isn't the typical Gyokuro-like, umami related sweetness, but instead something very reminiscent of sweet pastry or even freshly baked cookies. Just as smell, this tea's taste reminds me a bit of Chinese Long Jing while still bearing some typical Uji notes – very interesting combination of different characters. Aftertaste of this infusion is long and mouth-filling, mostly nutty, vivid and yet quite refined.

The second infusion is brewed with a bit hotter water for just a few seconds, resulting in much greener brew, which is now a little bit opaque. Its taste is basically very similar to that of the first infusion, though it now has a bit more fresh, “green” note of sharpness, making the taste of this brew more refreshing. The aftertaste is also a bit sharper and greener, but still very sweet and subtle.

Once again a little hotter water is used for the now mostly yellow third infusion, enhancing the already dominant bread-like, sweet taste and smell. The aftertaste is even stronger and longer-lasting than that of the previous infusion, now being quite crispy, sweet and slightly astringent, though not in any unpleasant way.

One more infusion is made of these leaves; this time, the taste is mostly woodsy, roasty and a bit astringent with less profound aftertaste – nicely finishing the session.

This tea is definitely different in an interesting way. While the vast amount of Uji greens tend to be on the deep, umami side of taste, this one, with its bread-like roasty character, is a nice, unconventional change – and still, it has the typical feeling of a good, traditional Ujicha.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bratislava's FesTEAval 2011

Warning: picture spam ahead!
Today, Bratislava's (and, as far as I know, Slovakia's) only and still quite young tea festival took place in Medicka zahrada (Medic garden) public park in downtown, organized by a summer tea-house which is settled in this garden. FesTEAval, described as a festival of Slovak tea culture and Slovak tea-houses, took place last year at the same place, though it was said to be the 0-th year; this was therefore the first official year of this promising festival, which I hope will become an annual tradition in our city. I attended last year and it already had a great atmosphere, so I really was looking forward to seeing what will the 2011 event bring.

Compared to last year, the weather was almost ideal for such an outdoor event - sunny and just a bit windy. Last year, it was accompanied by heavy rain, so everything had to take place inside, inside the big tent of the summer teahouse. There weren't many visitors this year, though I would say it was more than the last year - still, the festival is only at the beginning of its path. On the other hand, the atmosphere wouldn't ever be so personal and friendly with much higher visitor rate - this really was somehow a plus for me, as I don't really fancy big crowds very much.

Avra Kehdabra - new literary teahouse from Bratislava, one of my favorites

The unique thing on this event is that it tries to cover up and connect all teahouses across Slovakia, allowing them to present their teas, teaware and tea-serving customs to the visiting people, all of them at the same place - and all for free. Even though only a small fraction of teahouses really arrived, mostly those from Bratislava (I believe it isn't easy to travel to the capital from the other end of country just for one-day-long, small event), the offering was quite diverse - thanks to this, I was able to visit different stands of different teahouses, both those well known which I visit frequently, as well as some which I've never heard about until now - all this under the blue sky, shaded only by the garden's old green trees.

Avra Kehdabra served really nice Sencha Houkouen from Shizuoka - last year's pick, though as the package was opened just now, still very nicely preserved and refreshing.

Another part of FesTEAval was taking place inside the tent - various lectures and discussions about tea accompanied by tastings of teas that were the theme of every lecture - Japanese greens and Sado ceremony, Chinese teas and Gong-fu ceremony, Darjeeling and Puerh.

Japanese teas - we tasted four different teas, "typical representatives" of the main categories - Sencha, Kabuse, Gyokuro and Tamaryokucha - most of which were from Teamountain.

Teaware for sale - outside the tent, mostly used teaware from various sources, countries and producers was offered for quite an interesting prices (including some Petr Novak pieces, which were especially tempting).

Tea-related decoration on the garden's walls - some of you may recognize three of my photos, obviously downloaded from my blog without me knowing - it's impossible to be mad at them, though :-) even though it really was surprising and sort of funny to see these photos here.

Once again, I was able to experience a whole day in company of great tea, great mood and great people - a big thank you to everyone who contributed to this event. FesTEAval is a great idea and I hope and believe it will get even better next summer, hopefully also attracting much more visitors.