25 July 2012

Bailin Gongfu, Again

Maybe one of the reasons I love tea so deeply is because I just love it- all of it. Unlike everything else in my life, it's effortless for me to approach it with an open, nonjudgmental mind, and with very few exceptions (hello, Bi Luo), I always find something in a particular tea that makes me want to keep drinking it.

Some teas, though, do rise above the rest. I think this is because of a purely emotional reaction or attachment to the taste, or the content in which I'm exposed to it. I am extremely lucky to work in tea, and to do so with a pair of tea masters (even though they would both probably cringe if I called them that- and I do, too, but there is no better term). Many of the mindblowing teas I've experienced in the past two years have been prepared and handed to me by one of them.

Their approaches to making tea are quite different: one methodical, one intuitive. I was thinking about this today while drinking this year's spring harvest of Bailin Gongfu, a traditional-style fine Chinese black tea from Fujian, studded with silky, golden buds. Right around last year's harvest of this tea, I went out to visit one of them. The day before I left for the trip, one made me Bailin here; and while out there, on a hike in Muir Woods, the other had packed me a thermos of that same Bailin. (I know, I'm lucky.)

It seemed more than a coincidence. In both instances- a quiet early morning moment off a downtown Manhattan street of brick and concrete, and the sylvan depths of an old growth forest on the Pacific Ocean- the rich, roasted chocolate and apricot-pit sweetness transcended the beauty of the place.

Even today, sitting at home on my old couch, the Bailin sings through two, three, four infusions. This tea is so of the place it's made and of the place it's consumed. The locations and maker may shift, as will the taste, subtly, but it's always right for where you're drinking it.

22 July 2012

Tableside Tea

I have an old friend who I only get to see every few years. It's more his fault than mine, because he lives in Berlin.

But when we do get to spend time together, we quickly get down to business: how many meals can we squeeze into a day? Besides the obvious benefit of eating well, it's always reassuring that gluttony extends well beyond American borders.
Smoked apple tea with thyme
Humans like to indulge. It's genetic. Sure, so is hunting down and devouring a mastodon- but try to tell me you can't imagine some caveperson carving the discarded tusk and charging 15 rocks for an aromatherapy back scratch. The preponderance of fleas alone would make it worth the price.

So dropping $100 for lunch at Eleven Madison Park (11 Madison Park), on a Monday isn't even a choice. It's a requirement.

The food was beyond description; I'm not even going to touch the meal other than to say it's arguably the finest restaurant in Manhattan. Go, then you can fight me about it.

What truly floored me was the tableside tea service. I have to disclose that I work with Eleven Madison to provide the teas, so I'm hardly an unbiased drinker. But the level that they've taken it to is unlike any other restaurant in the country: the tea menu is extensive, but thoughtfully balanced, and more importantly, you can have it prepared with a gaiwan, through multiple infusions.

I know and adore all the teas offered, but I went with one I rarely get to taste- the 1994 Orange Stamp Bingcha- a sheng, or green, pu-erh.

Yes, it was so good that I asked if I could take the leaves home with me (and I unabashedly did). But what stayed with me far longer has been the thought that this level of tea service is possible in the West.

But people need to demand it. Just imagine how incredible your tea tastes at home, when you're focusing on those little leaves and how to treat them as well as you can so that they relinquish every last bit of fragrance and flavor that the tea producer has painstakingly preserved. Why can't every high-end restaurant pay the same amount of attention? It's done with each ingredient, the wines, the coffee- it's time it happened with the tea.

10 July 2012

Tieguanyin in Hot Places

I've been on my annual summer trip recently, in the Appalachian Mountains. It is green and gorgeous and so lovely to see trees instead of people and buildings- as well as my only chance of the year to scamper around a roof.

Tea, as usual, comes along for the ride. This was the first time I can say that I've prepared it on a construction site in above-100° temperatures, and I'm happy to say it might taste even better this way. The light, sweet floral notes of this greenish Tieguanyin seemed to match the landscape- and it may have cooled me down a little bit. As soon as I fully recover from the sunstroke I'll let you know.

photos by Colin Bell