Puerh Tea

Crimson Lotus Tea goes to the Vancouver Tea Festival November 05 2013

This last weekend my wife Lamu and I went to Canada for the first Vancouver Tea Festival . We’re still quite new to the tea world and have been taking every opportunity to steep ourselves. We first volunteered at the Northwest Tea Festival this October. It was a rewarding experience. We got the opportunity to meet with a lot of other tea vendors and experts. We decided to make every effort to attend the Vancouver Tea Festival as well. I’ve chatted with the director, Del Tamborini, on facebook a few times and he highly encouraged us to make the trip.

Vancouver is very close to Seattle. You can drive there in under 3 hours. There is just one major hurdle and that is the border crossing. It is a wild and unpredictable element in an otherwise short trip. The border is made even more exciting given Lamu’s changing immigration status. We’ve been going through the process of obtaining her green card. Our trip to Vancouver hinged on her being accepted and receiving her green card in time. This last Saturday was the tea festival and on Friday we were eagerly awaiting the postman’s arrival. Sadly, he did not bring us her green card. What he did bring was paperwork announcing the imminent arrival of her green card. What a tease! We decided to pack our bags and head up to the border and see what would happen with this paperwork.

The Canadian border guards were not as convinced as we were on the legitimacy of this paperwork and after a small wait they sent us back to the American side. They explained that they didn’t want Lamu to get stuck in Canada. I completely agreed with their concern. Quick U-Turn back to the American side and we were greeted with the friendliest border guard I have ever met. This American border guard assured us that the paperwork we had was more than sufficient for re-entry into America and that we were more than welcome to head up to Vancouver for the festival. We could rest easy knowing that both of us would be assured quick and easy passage back home. We got back in the line for the Canadian side and they let us through. We were more than simply excited. Lamu has been wanting to visit Canada for a long time. Being able to visit with the excuse of attending a tea festival was an added bonus.

We woke up super early and got to the tea festival in plenty of time. It was a good thing that we did. The festival was packed! Packed beyond packed would be a good description. Being one of the first in line let us meander while the crowds were still attempting to get in the door. I was immediately drawn to The Chinese Tea Shop’s booth. [ http://www.thechineseteashop.com/ ] This is my kind of tea! Brewed gongfu style with quality leaves. I met Daniel Liu and his wife and sampled some of their puerh. I had heard about this tea shop before we got to the festival and it was on our list of places to check out in Vancouver. We made plans to visit their store Sunday afternoon.

As the crowds thickened I admired Daniel practicing his tea master craft surrounded by so large a crowd. I began to recognize the difficulty that puerh tea has in a festival environment. Puerh and gongfucha is a ritual that cannot be encapsulated in a 30 second tasting window. When I have guests over for tea tastings it often extends into multiple hours. Puerh itself is not something that can be summed up in a brief description or a half ounce tasting. Puerh needs to be explored to see the true beauty these leaves have to offer.

The other hurdle that puerh has in a festival setting is the overabundance of highly blended teas. For the tea drinker who has never tasted puerh before, and who very well may be looking for what puerh has to offer, it will be hard to notice puerh amongst the intensity of flavor available from blended teas. Everything seems like a pumpkin chai vanilla green tea elderflower jasmine explosion! It’s like listening to music only from a subwoofer. Bass is great, but you need a balance. I don’t really have anything against blended teas, I just feel that they can’t compare to individual leaves of real quality. That is the experience that I am searching for and want to introduce to those who haven’t experienced it before.

On Sunday afternoon we went to Daniel Liu’s shop in Vancouver’s Chinatown and had a chance to discuss the event. He also recognized the difficulty of truly showcasing puerh in a festival environment. It’s an interesting problem that I’ll have to think about before we start attending tea festivals as vendors. We spent a good deal of time chatting with Daniel in his shop. I had a lot of questions about puerh storage for aging and he very patiently answered each of them. His shop really is a fantastic place and should be visited if you’re in Vancouver. He has an amazing collection of puerh and Yixing teapots.


Daniel Liu of The Chinese Tea Shop, Vancouver BC; © Crimson Lotus Tea 2013

Daniel let us sample a few of his teas. We started with a Shou Puerh from Menghai Factory that was about 10 years old. It was a good puerh, but it was made magical by the teapot he chose to brew it in. This amazing little pot was over 200 years old. What an amazing experience tasting tea brewed in something with such a long life. It truly felt like drinking history. My active imagination envisioned the countless teas brewed in that little pot and the conversations shared amongst friends over the centuries.


This teapot was brewing tea when George Washington was still alive! © Crimson Lotus Tea 2013

We then shared a Phoenix Oolong in another teapot with a similar lengthy heritage. It was floral and pleasant. Lamu loved it. For me it reminded me that I really like Shou Puerh. The third tea we tasted was a Sheng Puerh from the mid 90’s naturally stored in Guangdong. It brewed darker than I would have thought for being still relatively young. It had a bitterness, but it was perfectly balanced with a sweetness and pleasant aftertaste. What I remembered the most was the ChaQi. It hit me fast and moved quickly up my face, over my forehead, and to the top of my big bald head. I’m not sure I’ve quite experienced it like that before. It was interesting.

Before Lamu and I left she fell in love with a fat little piglet tea pet. We didn’t have a tea pet yet and were waiting for the right one. This cute little guy wanted to come home with us, so we obliged him. Tea pets, if you don’t know, are often made with the same clay as the Yixing tea pots. They are porous and will absorb the tea oils in the same way. Each time I make Shou Puerh I will pour a little bit on his little fat belly. We decided to call him “xiǎo yóu dù” [小油肚]. That means “Little Fat Belly” in Chinese.


What a contented little piggy awaiting his puerh bath © Crimson Lotus Tea 2013

While in Vancouver, Lamu and I, took every opportunity to sample the local Chinese cuisine as well. We had some delicious dimsum at Kirin in downtown Vancouver. [http://www.kirinrestaurants.com/] I know that puerh tea is often served with dimsum in Hong Kong restaurants, but I have not experienced it first hand. The dimsum restaurants in Seattle do not offer it as an option. I have been curious how puerh is prepared in a restaurant setting. I asked the waiter if we could have puerh tea with our meal and he said of course. Then walking to the kitchen he yelled “POLAAAAAY!!”. I was confused for a minute until I remembered that puerh tea is called “Po Li” in Hong Kong.


Simple and efficient Hong Kong restaurant style puerh © Crimson Lotus Tea 2013

The Po Li/Puerh tea arrived quickly in a simple white porcelain British style teapot. There were very few leaves inside. The waiter said they only use about a single tablespoon of loose leaf puerh per pot. He had no clue about the age of the puerh, or which factory it might have come from. It was definitely a Shou Puerh. I tried some and it was a very light brew. It tasted like puerh brewed gongfu style after a lot of steepings. However each subsequent cup I poured was darker and darker until the end of the pot that revealed the rich deep earthy puerh flavor I love so much. I was pretty surprised at that. It was like doing it the gongfu way in reverse. I found the experience quite enjoyable. I will certainly be experimenting with that method of brewing puerh at home. It’s really amazing to me how much flavor you can get out of so few puerh leaves. Puerh can be so generous.

After Lamu and I had explored as much of Chinatown as we had the energy for and had collected a large box of assorted humbow to eat while waiting in the border lines we began the southerly journey back to the good ol’ United States. We were happy with the weekend and the tea experiences we were offered and feeling good about the trip. Then we got to the border and our Uncle Sam Approved Certified Assured No Problems Re-Entry documents were denied. As it turns out the Canadian side was right, and the border guard on the US side gave us some really bad advice. The paperwork we had was certainly NOT sufficient for re-entry into the US. After some discussion the guard said with a smirk “Well, we’re not going to deport your wife today!” Then he sent us inside to await their decision.

After some waiting, and talking, and explaining, and re-explaining, and cajoling, and fingerprinting, and background checking, and humbow eating we were allowed re-entry into the United States. It was a good thing we had some good Chinese food to eat while we were waiting. I have now spent a decent amount of time in immigration offices on both sides of the border, and I have to say that the Canadian side is much nicer; especially the restrooms. Why is that? Anyway, bullet dodged, Lamu was allowed to return home with me. As we approached home we were talking about the adventure and the poor advice given to us by the misinformed government agent and we realized that had he been properly informed we wouldn’t have gone to Canada and would have missed out on a fantastic weekend of tea. So Mr Misinformed Border Guard, we thank you!