Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Kitchen

MTR guises under a variety of names—The speakeasy, At 21, The Tea Room, Salon, The Mandarin's—and just about everything else bestowed upon this magnetic space form the series of creative guests that rotate through our door.

The radical metamorphosis of MTR before my eyes finally inspired me to take some time for extreme reflection, thus causing a mini-hiatus from posting. Firstt and foremost, it made me so thankful for all of your kind support. This gave me the confidence to step back and analyze the ethos of our community. What I saw was all of your ardent belief in what we do, and finding—even though I am already smitten—that the magic and power of tea and its practice continues to grow in power and might.

The Mandarin's Tea Room was set up with one idea, which I harvested from the depths of history. In old Western Culture, an idea of artistic ‘residency’ is well known. Drawn to the nucleus—a special place—creative minds congregate, open to equally inspire and be inspired. The same arrangements exist in Asia, too. We call them ‘resident artist.’ Deliberate to MTR’s name, the Mandarin people exemplified this, where their trailblazing society vastly improved culture, art, and life style by believing in inclusive collaboration. The importance of this idea not only beamed from the host, but the resident’s energy breading new light into any space. We function with this at our core. When our community opens its arms to visitors, inspiration from these meeting creates dialog and breeds fresh ideas—both humble and uplifting.

Tea is our constant, always lubricating the elevating conversation. The achievement to a higher practice in tea mirrors the creativity, friendship, and artistic acumen of everyone involved
Thus, I am proud to share the confluence of these factors in MTR’s newest work of art: The Kitchen, Urban Grow Lab, by J.J. Kitchen. True to our values, it is the culmination of creativity, a strengthening friendship, and manifestation of everything that we love.

As tea has taught us, connoisseurship is a lonely place. We seek the nuance, beauty, and quality in everything we drink. No one would pretend to understand tea and have only ever tasted cheap tea bags. Well, the same specificity of excellence can be applied to studying the wonderful details present in many facets of our life.

The same scholarship can be applied to cannabis. Throw away everything you may have smelled in the way of street weed, urban blunts, or any of the other unappetizing aromas and lifestyles associated to this herb. This is no better than Lipton’s connoisseurship to tea. Similarly, I always hated marijuana’s smell—stinging, intruding, reminiscent of old dirty sneaker, you name it—which assaulted my nostrils in various forms of bad.

These degrading examples reminded me of the many bad tea choices that are available on the market. I remember trying low quality red teas that were always uninteresting, bland, and had now lively verve. They lacked exciting stamina that I now understand in great tea.

What I have learned is connoisseurship is a continuing quest to understanding perfection. I took what I have learned from identifying what makes certain tea cultivars normal or exceptional, and have learned to apply the same scope to cannabis.

In essence, please excuse my absence. However, understand that MTR’s creative wheels are always turning; due in huge part to The MTR’s tightknit community where like-minded individuals aspire to true connoisseurship.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Legal Nomads

Jodi Ettenberg in Meknes, Morocco

Live your life fully!
Thanks Jodi for the inspiration.


Saturday, June 01, 2013

Yixing 2013

Last time I did a collection check was in 2007.... Been too long.
Private collection from ROC to Culture Revolution period. Mainly 1970's Factory 1 masters.

Enjoy the Summer!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Prayers & New Beginnings

Remembering 2 years ago yesterday.... A past that we are still healing, but an opening for new hopes, dreams and gatherings.

Congratulations to Ippodo Tea Company NYC. A nearly 300 years old dream for American tea lovers.

Photos Courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/wrongfucha/

Friday, March 08, 2013

Cigar and Tea



High Fired Anxi Tikwanyin Fall 2012. Two grades, paring with a 2004 Muralla.
Thank You Steepingaround for the introduction.

2012 Guoyan Raw Puerh.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


As you may know, I started this blog as a tea journal, a visual (and vivid I hope) diary of what I have learned from tea masters, farmers, judges, vendors, students, friends and fellow lovers of the leaf. The blog has documented my wide-ranging tea journey since 2006; it has helped me to understand the ever-changing world of tea.

Compared to the teas of Korea and Japan, which stay true their original traditions (e.g. Japanese tea ceremony has not changed much since China’s Tang Dynasty) Chinese tea is always refining itself. The process, new varietal, marketing and packaging of Chinese teas always evolves. I see this change as good, it brings new ideas and new products to the fore -- it improves and elevates a great tradition.

Anxi Xiping Original Mother Bush from 1736

Of course, these changes result in products that in themselves become not only popular, but stand the test of time, becoming their own “tradition”. Green Tikwanyin tea developed in Anxi has been a staple for hundreds of years in China’s Fujian province. Before the 1950s, the Southern Chinese learned and mastered the aging of puerh tea, and still do to great acclaim. 

Just like any other lucrative product, once there is demand, people want to cash-in on a popular trend. And just as the opium trade was for colonial Britain, worldwide popularity of great tea has not been spared this "gold rush".

Since 2000, green Tikwanyin has been the choice gift for officials and corporate clients in China. The price of high-grade Tikwanyin from Anxi Xiping is higher than almost any other newly harvested Chinese tea. A competition grade of Tikwanyin can easily fetch US$1000 per pound, if not more. Other Chinese teas such as LongJing from Lion’s Peak, Raw Puerh from Yiwu and JinJanMei from Wuyi were not spared by this gold rush. Unfortunately, quality suffered immensely during this "tea revolution".

Tea has always been a balance between “body”, “aroma” and “Cha-Qi”. It’s a “zero sum” game – the more you get of one, the less you get of the other. But there has been a lack of understanding in the traditional cutting, processing, and production of these teas in the tea markets. The great emphasis on an initial high-aroma beverage sacrifices a tea that actually tastes good and whose aroma lasts to the end. What’s more, processing these teas in such a lopsided way can be detrimental to health.

People who have been drinking “nuclear”green Tikwanyin and “Oolong-Puerh” since 2004 can testify these ill effects. Those who have been drinking these teas over the long term may experience low blood sugar, light headaches, a pale complexion, stomach problems, cold hands/feet and frequent visits to the bathroom. In fact, I call this type of puerh “Oolong-Pu” (Oolong can mean "careless" or "silly" in Cantonese) because "silly-puerh" production disregards the crucial technique developed, tested and proven over time.

Most western puerh collectors might have some “silly-puerh” in their possession. These caches will go stale in less then 8 years. To quote a Tea Chat member regarding to this subject, “I would be very interested to hear some experiences with oolong pu'erh that we could come across. I feel that a lot of us buying younger pu'erh are buying to age, and if it doesn't age well then I feel that's an important discussion we should be having as consumers.

This is definitely a legitimate concern since the original product is what matters most, and too often that original product has already been compromised.

I discussed this issue with my very first tea master on my recent trip (fall 2012) to Anxi Fujian. Over the past eight years, we would talk on the phone at every harvesting time to consider the vicissitudes of the Tikwanyin world. Being a national tea judge, Master Huang has the authority to determine who will be the "Tea King" each year in Anxi, a very powerful position. She explained the problem, "I am seeing traditional tea masters giving up the traditional way of processing and turning towards the modern trend. Most of them just blindly follow the profit, and simply do it the way they believe the customer likes it. It’s less work, quicker turn-around time, and a higher profit margin." “But,” she said,  “there is a problem to this trend -- people are getting sick, turning green, literally!" Most vendors in the wholesale market will not even drink this brew, “They spit it out, it just kills your stomach.”

Back at the Anxi Tea Institute, Master Huang and her own master sat us down and discussed how this tea problem might be solved. As we talked, students performed a “tea ceremony”.  Then Master Huang took us to her laboratory to make her case. We tested aged Tikwanyin from the 1980s to present (mostly maocha) keenly observing the differences in terroir and the processing methods. After this tasting we all concurred -- change is fine, but producers must go back to traditional methods of processing or else the idea of great, real, and balanced tea will be lost.

On leaving Anxi, I gave my tea master a bag of high-fired Tikwanyin. She was over overjoyed – indeed the old tradition lives on, it’s just hard to find. She laughed, “How funny that it takes a Chinese tea lover in the U.S. to give me a genuine Gong Fu Cha!”

Subsequently, I gave a lecture, in broken Mandarin, to her class of students on the importance of Chinese tea history and traditions. For these students, I am hoping that they can see that China’s tea future, especially in this province, lies in its past. Perhaps one of them will produce a Gong Fu Cha that she can bring to me in the U.S. one day.

As for Oolong-Puerh, little can be done. In three, perhaps five years, novice tea collectors will start to notice their leaves turning stale instead of aging beautifully. Time will tell them -- tradition always matters. The tea will never lie.

A Quote Courtesy of Tea Chat Member

A great read regarding this subject from a Tea Spirit that I admired:

Reminiscing the Year of the Dragon....

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Sweet Taste of Bitterness

Camellia Sinensis is an evergreen plant which is bitter by nature. I am sure no one likes bitterness in the beginning. A child will spit out healthy steamed vegetables due to their bitter flavors. It is just a natural instinct, animals will not eat bitter plants since most of it might be poisonous. It is a way of survival.  So why do the Chinese love tea? I guess it's because of tradition, a culture which runs deep in ancient ethos. The ideology of hardship in the beginning and prosperity at the end that could apply to everything in Chinese Culture. The Sweet Taste of Bitterness.

In our modern world, society has created luxury and abundance. A detachment of nature and a nurturing of personal egos. We have the choice of selecting things that we fancy, meanwhile rejecting the taste that is foreign to us. We hate things that are unknown to us and destroy ideas that we dislike. Most often, I am puzzled by decaffeinated coffee, non-alcoholic beer and smokeless cigars. The only conclusion that I could have is we are spoiled; we can like a certain trait of a thing and reject the rest of it? Same as loving a person for a particular trait but trying to change the rest to meet your expectations? 

I have been consistently defending tea or trying explain to clients that tea is bitter. It's just one part of its complex character. What defines good or lesser tea is if the bitterness changes and how it changes once you drink it. Some tea changes from bitter to honey, to sweet plums, or to mint. Some changes your idea of life... that will be another topic. 
To bore you all, here are some interesting comparison on bitterness from searching the University of the internet:

Bitterness in wine is elicited primarily by flavonoid phenols, which are bitter and astringent, and by ethanol. Monomeric flavonoid phenols are primarily bitter but as the molecular weight increases upon polymerization, astringency increases more rapidly than bitterness. The chiral difference between the two wine flavan-3-ol monomers produces a significant difference in temporal perception of bitterness: (-)-epicatechin is significantly more bitter and had significantly longer duration of bitterness than (+)-catechin. Ethanol enhances bitterness intensity and duration, whereas varying wine pH has little or no effect on perceived bitterness. Whereas PROP status had no significant effect on temporal perception of bitterness or astringency, subjects with low salivary flow rates took longer to reach maximum bitterness and astringency intensity and reported longer persistence of both attributes than high-flow subjects.

Bitterness is sometimes a negative, but omnipresent, aspect of the beverage.  At low levels, bitterness helps tame coffee acidity and adds another favorable dimension to the brew.  However, at high levels, a bitter coffee compound can overpower the other components present in coffee producing an undesirable effect.  Bitter coffee results from the interaction of certain compounds with the circumvallate papillae on the back of the tongue.  Astringency, on the other hand is caused by compounds that can precipitate salivary proteins on the tongue. Consumers will often mistakenly attribute astringency and any other potent characteristic of the coffee to the bitterness.   Therefore, this article will discuss those compounds that are responsible for contributing to the bitterness of the coffee and those compounds that cause astringency in the coffee.

Why Does Coffee Taste Bitter?
Various coffee scientists have made the following observations concerning bitter coffee, which were presented in a review article by McCamey:

The perceived bitter taste in the mouth from coffee is correlated to the extent of extraction.  The extent of extraction is dependent upon the roast, the mineral content of the water, water temperature, time, grind size, and brewing procedure. 

  • Bitterness is reduced in coffee brewed with either soft or hard water relative to distilled water (Voilley et al., 251).
  • Bitterness is correlated with the total dissolved solids of a coffee.
  • Perceived coffee bitterness is lower when coffee is brewed hot than when cooler water is used. This is hypothesized to be due to the heightened aromatics released in hot coffee, which counteract the bitterness (Voilley et al., Eval., 287).
  • Coffee bitterness is decreased by the addition of sucrose, sodium chloride, or citric acid. Hydrocolloids, in general, were found to decrease the perception of coffee bitterness (Pangborn, 161).
  • Robusta coffee contains higher levels of both caffeine and chlorogenic acids, which are partly responsible for bitterness and astringency in coffee.
  • Several investigators have found that the processing of coffee (wet or dry processing) does not affect the perceived bitterness of coffee even though the overall flavor profile is significantly different (Clarke and Macrae; and Clifford and Wilson).
  • Caffeine has a distinct bitter taste and has a test threshold of only 75-155 mg/L (60-200 mg/L found by Clarke). However, Voilley considers caffeine to only account for around 10% of the perceived bitterness in coffee.
  • Hardwick found that the bitterness of caffeine is weakened when polyphenols are introduced.
  • Maier reported that the sourness of coffee was diminished by increased bitterness.
  • Astringent and metallic tastes in coffee have been attributed to dicaffeoylquinic acids, but not the monocaffeoylquinic acids (Ohiokpehai et al., 177).
  • Trigonelline is perceived as bitter at concentrations of 0.25%, whereas chlorogenic acids necessitate a concentration of 0.4% at pH of 5 to be perceived as bitter (Ordynsky, 206). Trigonelline degradation is proportional to roast degree. Its byproducts include pyridines, which are said to contribute a roasty aroma to the coffee.
  • Quinic acid--a degradation product of chlorogenic acids--is present at twenty times its threshold value and is partly responsible for the perceived bitterness in coffee (McCamey, 176).
  • Furfuryl alcohol is thought to contribute a burnt and bitter taste to coffee (Shibamoto et al., 311).
The bitterness from cigars is not from aging but instead from the fermentation process.  Most tobacco leaves are naturally sour so to soften the bitterness and reduce the tobacco's acidity, Cuban tobacco leaves are cured in two fermentation stages.  After fermentation, the tobacco will contain less tar, nicotine, have a balanced colour and be less sour. However, it's possible that some tobacco leaves require more time than others to properly ferment and may still be bitter when it is selected for cigar production.  Don't worry, even though this bitterness can be a common occurence, long-term aging can reduce it and improve your cigar(s) taste. Cohiba cigars don't have a bitter taste because Cohiba tobacco is put through an extra fermentation process which refines the tobacco even further and makes it truly premium. Also, using a cigar punch can increase the bitter flavour because your saliva can mix with the tobacco and create a strong tobacco residue that builds up in the small punch opening.  This will cause a strong, sharp, bitter taste the more the cigar is smoked.  Fortunately, this can be corrected by not smoking the cigar too quickly.  By slowing down your smoking pace, there will be less tobacco/saliva residue buildup at the head of the cigar.

TEA (Camellia Sinensis)
Tea contains catechins, a type of antioxidant. In a freshly picked tea leaf, catechins can compose up to 30% of the dry weight. Catechins are highest in concentration in white and green teas, while black tea has substantially fewer due to its oxidative preparation. Research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has suggested the levels of antioxidants in green and black tea do not differ greatly, as green tea has an oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) of 1253 and black tea an ORAC of 1128 (measured in μmol TE/100 g). Antioxidant content, measured by the lag time for oxidation of cholesterol, is improved by the cold water steeping of varieties of tea.

Tea also contains L-theanine, and its consumption is strongly associated with a calm but alert and focused, relatively productive (alpha wave dominant), mental state in humans. This mental state is also common to meditative practic. L-theanine, and the stimulant caffeine at about 3% of its dry weight, translating to between 30 mg and 90 mg per 8 oz (250 ml) cup depending on type, brand, and brewing method. A small amounts of theobromine and theophylline.  also contains in tea. Due to modern environmental pollution, fluoride and aluminium have also been found to occur in tea, with certain types of brick tea made from old leaves and stems having the highest levels. This occurs due to the tea plant's high sensitivity to and absorption of environmental pollutants. Although tea contains various types of polyphenols and tannin, it does not contain tannic acid. Tannic acid is not an appropriate standard for any type of tannin analysis because of its poorly defined composition.
Catechins have a broad range of physiological functions and act as the main taste ingredient of green tea. Although catechins show a strong bitterness, the bitter taste receptor for catechins has not been fully understood. The objective of this study was to identify the receptor for the major green tea catechins such as (-)-epicatechin (EC), (-)-epicatechin gallate (ECg), (-)-epigallocatechin (EGC), and (-)-epigallocatechin gallate (EGCg). By the cell-based assay using cultured cells expressing human bitter taste receptor, a clear response of hTAS2R39-expressing cells was observed to 300μM of either ECg or EGCg, which elicit a strong bitterness in humans. The response of hTAS2R39-expressing cells to ECg was the strongest among the tested catechins, followed by EGCg. Because the cellular response to EC and EGC is much weaker than those of ECg and EGCg, galloyl groups was strongly supposed to be involved in the bitter intensity. This finding is similar to the observations of taste intensity obtained from a human sensory study. Our results suggest the participation of hTAS2R39 in the detection of catechins in humans, indicating the possibility that bitterness of tea catechins can be evaluated by using cells expressing hTAS2R39

Dietary phytonutrients found in vegetables and fruit appear to lower the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Studies on the mechanisms of chemoprotection have focused on the biological activity of plant-based phenols and polyphenols, flavonoids, isoflavones, terpenes, and glucosinolates. Enhancing the phytonutrient content of plant foods through selective breeding or genetic improvement is a potent dietary option for disease prevention. However, most, if not all, of these bioactive compounds are bitter, acrid, or astringent and therefore aversive to the consumer. Some have long been viewed as plant-based toxins. As a result, the food industry routinely removes these compounds from plant foods through selective breeding and a variety of debittering processes. This poses a dilemma for the designers of functional foods because increasing the content of bitter phytonutrients for health may be wholly incompatible with consumer acceptance. Studies on phytonutrients and health ought to take sensory factors and food preferences into account.

I need a scientist or chemist in the house....
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