Saturday, July 9, 2011

Best visit, best hosts, Best Tea House

The other side of the store is just as full of interest
After many gracious and educational email notes, I finally hopped in my car for a long-awaited day trip north to meet Michael Fung, proprietor of the Richmond B.C. branch of The Best Tea House.  It couldn't have been a more enjoyable trip.  Even our cold, dreary Northwest weather cooperated and filled the day with sunshine.  After a delicious lunch, where I also had the pleasure of meeting Michael's wife, Patricia, we headed to the tea shop.  I was eager to see it and was not disappointed.  Although the square footage is small, its filled with more tea and teaware than I ever would have imagined.  Every square inch of shelving holds a treasure, all neatly arranged and interspersed with small, healthy potted plants (a nice touch, thanks to Patricia's way with plants).  Instead of feeling overcrowded or overwhelming, perusing the shelves was more like an exciting treasure hunt, with baskets and stacks of enticing goodies tucked in among the beautiful teaware and tea, not unlike the candy store analogy that MarshalN has used for his own favorite tea shop (although I didn't get to go in the back and dig through huge boxes of mysterious tea packages, lucky guy).

One thing I hadn't expected to see was the great selection of yixing teapots!  They ranged from modestly priced to rare antiques.  It was a real treat to examine them all.  Michael took the time to show me all the really special ones he kept in one of the locked cases.  Of his more moderately priced ones, he told me most were manufactured in the 1980's when good yixing clay was still readily available.  As many of you know, a serious tea habit often leads to new addictions in the form of collecting good teaware.  My yixing collection, while still very small, is slowly but surely starting to grow.  I've been wanting to find a good quality yixing that's well-suited for aged puerh, and there couldn't have been a better opportunity.  Michael pulled out several from his collection that he felt would suit my needs, all of them made from the very dark purplish variety of zisha clay.  I'm thrilled with my new yixing!  It's a great little pot and I've been diligently using it every day now.  Hopefully I'll get around to dedicating a blog post about my experience with it.


No visit to a good tea shop is complete without sampling some tea, and Michael treated me very well, starting with a session of the renowned 88 Green.  I watched carefully as he prepared and brewed it, learning a great deal just from that, but the best tip (well, one of the best) was watching him pry leaves from the cake with the puerh pick.  So THAT'S how you do it!  I'm embarrassed to say how many times I've drawn blood trying to work the pick in from the side.  Nice to know that puerh drinking doesn't have to be such a bloody sport!  :)

"Always two rinses," Michael said, although he was always quick to point out (in his typically humble way) that this is just the way he does things and not some kind of "expert rule."  With well-aged puerh he rinses once (just in-and-out with the water) and then puts the lid on the yixing to let the leaves sit inside the warm moist cavity for a minute or two before giving it a second quick rinse.  This allows the old leaves to swell and rehydrate, he explained, preparing them to give their best.  I've tried this a few times since our meeting and I must say it really makes a difference.  With younger sheng he doesn't do the "letting it sit in the yixing" part.  In fact, he doesn't use a yixing for younger sheng, at all.  If the puerh is ten years or younger he brews it with a gaiwan.  He also mentioned he likes to match the age of the yixing with the age of the tea, although he gave a big laugh when he said this, again noting it was just the way he liked to do things and not a rule you have to follow for good tea.


The 88 Green was marvelous.  Full and rich, flavorful and active.  I noticed whenever he reboiled the water (every few steepings) he would add fresh water to the kettle.  "Keeps the water active and alive," he said.  Yet another tip I've put to good use since our visit that has had noticeable results.  I asked him all the big water questions -- what kind of water did he use?  What about additives like bamboo charcoal or minerals?  etc.  But I'm coming to find that the matter of water really just boils down (oy, pun..) to one's own individual location and tastes.  He had worked out the best water for his style of brewing and region, and while he had a few suggestions for me it's really up to me to find what's available in my area and what tastes best to me.  I guess I knew this already, but there's always the hope for that One True Answer (the perennial slippery slope).  But I'm inspired once again to do more water experiments now that my palate is more experienced (also, no small thanks to Mattcha's recent and very informative series on water, starting here).  

seat of honor
After the 88 Green he asked what I'd like to try next (and no, I didn't blurt out "Blue Mark!" although I can't promise it didn't cross my mind).  Not long ago I picked up a 2006 Ban Zhang cake from him and have been trying to perfect my brewing of it, seeing if I could bring out more sweetness while taming some of that assertive bitterness.  He suggested it would be informative for me to sample an older Ban Zhang tea to learn what a bit more age would do, so next he prepared something he called the 2001 Bok Choy (which I don't believe is for sale), named so for the picture of a bok choy in the center of the wrapper.  But the power of suggestion got hold of me and soon I was tasting distant hints of bok choy in the tea, which drew a hearty laugh from Michael and a comment on my "good imagination!"  I so love the good humor of tea people!   :)   The Bok Choy was undoubtedly my favorite tea of the visit.  Both bitter and plenty sweet, with the most incredible aroma, and considerably more put-together than my 2006 cake, which is still very much like a feisty young boy.  As we talked about the characteristics of Ban Zhang teas Michael made a great analogy.  He likened the mouth activity of Ban Zhang to the cha cha, whereas the experience of a Yi Wu tea is more like a waltz.  With Ban Zhang teas you get different flavors and sensations coming at you quickly, changing abruptly in the mouth, here-there-and-back-again, making for a lively tea experience.  With a Yi Wu tea the flavors and activity also change and develop but with more smooth transitioning, leading more of an "ahhhhh, nice" reaction than an "oh! oh! wow!"  Both good, just different.

all the goodies I came home with

Being the fragrance lover I am, I asked Michael if he ever used an aroma cup.  "Never for puerh," he said, but he does when tasting oolongs.  I was surprised to hear this and was puzzling over it when he handed me the freshly emptied fairness pitcher, which puzzled me even more!  I had no clue what I was supposed to do with it or why he was even handing it to me.  Noting my cluelessness (hard not to miss!) he showed me how to hold the pitcher under my nose to take in the aromas.  Like other things I learned from him this day I've been incorporating this into my practice at home, as well.  Enjoying aroma in this way has a lot of advantages over the aroma cup.  No fussing with little cups (which always used to burn my fingers) and you get to enjoy those heavenly evaporative fragrances throughout the whole session and not just one time at the start.  Yes, there's always the yixing lid to offer some of this, but using the fairness pitcher in this way is superior I think, in that the shape of the pitcher naturally funnels the aromas in a particular direction, especially if you hold the cup like Michael showed me (I'm kicking myself now that I didn't get a photo of this, sorry).  Essentially, the pitcher is held nearly sideways by the handle, with the handle below and the opening held just under the nose.  It takes a bit of practice to locate the upward flow of aroma and hold it under your nose just right, but once its there its full of reward.  The 2001 Bok Choy was truly amazing when appreciated this way (and all the other ways, too)!

Michael and Patricia Fung, valued friends :)
What a wonderful visit this was!  I think we were all surprised to look at the clock and find several hours had ticked away in what seemed like a much shorter time.  It was a particularly notable day for me, being the first time I've shared tea with someone so knowledgeable about puerh.  I haven't mentioned Patricia much, but she was present as well, offering her valuable insights from a lifetime of immersion in tea culture, as well as her immensely enjoyable company.  I'm so happy to have made tea friends such as these, and I look forward to many more visits.  :)

13 comments:

  1. Sounds like an amazing way to spend the day. Glad to see a fresh post from you. What's the cake that you bought?

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  2. Hi Anonymous, and thank you :) The cake is the 97 Feng Qing (or 97 Green), said to be a younger generation of the 88 Green. Only time will tell, eh?

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  3. It sounds like they only carry higher end teas. Is that what they mostly sell?

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  4. Hi CloudMountain,
    They sell affordable teas as well, but those are not listed on their website. The bowl of wild-grown silver tips pictured above were $25/100g. I brewed some this morning -- mmmm :) The brick and some of the tuos were very reasonable, too. All under $50 (except for the two Xiaguan tuos from 83 -- not cheap, but very good! I'm hoping to do a blog entry on those soon)

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  5. I had Read about your Whole trip and also read the best Tea House on your Trip. You had shared such an nice tea house things with us.

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  6. This was such a fun read. It did transport me, allowing me to vicariously believe that I was at the tea table too, trying different teas.

    Looking forward to reading about you're new tea pot.

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  7. Now you need to make a trip to Asia!

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  8. herbal tea, skua -- thanks for stopping by. Makes me wish there was the technology to host some sort of online tea session with you all.

    MarshalN -- You've named my number one wish! (by the way, really enjoying your re-tasting posts. fascinating)

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  9. This Tea House have a lots of Teapot. All Sized teapots are decorated beautifully in whole Tea house. I am really very gad after seen this beautiful tea house.

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  10. Ohh my God. You have great collection of Tea Cups and Mugs. I like them all. I want to buy Cups and Pots like you have. Good to see this.

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  11. I have read on your whole trip and also read the "tea house" best on your journey. May involve such things nice tea house with us.

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  12. what's their web site?

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  13. I usually try to embed links in the text of my blog posts. If you click on "The Best Tea House" in the first sentence of the post above it should take you to the website. But if that doesn't work for some reason, the website address is http://www.bestteaonline.com/

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