Thursday, November 7, 2019

Northwest Tea Festival 2019

The 12th annual Northwest Tea Festival was held on September 28th and 29th in Seattle Center's Exhibition Hall.  This was the festival's third year in this location and they seem to have settled in nicely with a much improved flow of traffic through the ticket lines and around vendor booths, of which there were more than ever.  Hooray!

The Northwest Tea Festival Tea Bar hosted by Charles and Laurie Dawson 

The Tea Bar offers festival attendees the opportunity to experience a brief tea tasting, typically of two teas for comparison.  Children are welcome at the tea bar and usually get something fun to take home.

During my drop-in session we tasted weirdly shaped teas: a Dian Hong Ball and  Shou Puerh Cube.

Last year, the Tea Bar introduced a Tea Tutorial Table where attendees can drop in for slower-paced tea tastings presented by festival volunteers.  This year they also introduced a Tea Guest Table where knowledgeable tea enthusiasts held scheduled tastings and demonstrations.  Though I missed out on some other great sessions, I was able to drop in for Russian tea presented by Laurie Dawson.

This year's festival was host to 59 exhibitors representing a broad range of tea-related products and services from around the world.  In addition to tea samples and unique wares that festival attendees can always look forward to, many of the vendors this year also offered seated tea tastings and demonstrations.  

[A tasting of Dark Depths shou puerh with Crimson Lotus]

[A tasting of freshly ground single-cultivar matcha to celebrate kuchikiri with LEAF Co. Ltd.  Kuchikiri is the cutting of the seal on the jars where matcha is stored after production to rest and mature until autumn.]

[Tea ceremony presented by Yabunouchi School Instructor Chiaki Ito hosted by Sugimoto Tea]

[A tasting and comparison of white and green teas with Miro Tea]

[Japanese Green Tea Company]

[Friends of Fire]

[Artist Tom Hill]

[Wendy Ann Creations]

Day One

Fu Zhuan Dark Tea - A Tea Tasting Adventure with Char Gascho (Oolong Owl)

Char Gascho is a Pacific Northwest-based tea blogger, writer, and member of The Tea Bloggers Roundtable.

Char introduced us to two examples of Fu Zhuan Cha, also known as Fu Tea or Fu Brick Tea.  Fu Zhuan is a type of heicha or dark tea produced in China's Hunan Province and is a one of the oldest post-fermented teas.  One of its most defining features is the jinhua or "golden flower", a potentially probiotic fungus called eurotium cristatum that appears on the leaves.  Though Fu Zhuan is not a deeply complex tea, it often improves with age.  Note that this is not a celiac-friendly tea as wheat flour is sometimes used to help promote the growth of jinhua.

Bitterleaf Teas 2000 Fu Zhuan Brick

2018 Fu Zhuan Brick (vendor unknown)

An Immersive Tasting of Rare and Unusual Teas, Contemporary and Classic with Kevin Gascoyne (Camellia Sinensis)

Kevin Gascoyne has over 30 years of experience in the tea industry as a tea taster and part owner of Camellia Sinensis Teahouse for 20 years, as a tea buyer in India for 26 years, and as a partner and director of the Tea Studio in India.  He is also an accomplished author, having most recently released the 3rd edition of his award-winning book, Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties.

This immersive tasting event was first introduced during World Tea Expo 2019 in Las Vegas.  While this was an abbreviated session due to the limitations of the venue, we were still able learn about and experience teas most of us may not encounter again.

For this session, we tasted 6 unique teas which were prepared using 10 grams of tea in 400 ml water, similar to the proportions used with gaiwan preparation.  As each tea was prepared and consumed first before Kevin would share the name and background, we were essentially "tasting in the dark" which allowed us to approach each tea with no preconceptions.

Wei Shan Huang Cha (Yellow Tea, China) 

This tea went out of production many years ago and the knowledge to make it was nearly lost to time.  Fortunately, the process was recently rediscovered and new tea is being produced.

Samcholing Bhutan (Green Tea, Bhutan)

This tea was grown and produced by an all-women cooperative in Samcholing village.  Tea plants were gifted to the King of Bhutan in 1950 and seeds were taken in the 1990s to start what is now a productive 43-acre tea farm.

Mi Lan Xiang (Oolong, China)

This Mi Lan Xiang Dancong oolong was produced from the leaves of a single 150 year old tree.

Nadeshiko (Dark Tea, Japan)

Yamabuki Nadeshiko is a post-fermented tea produced with Aspergillis awamori, the black koji mold also used to make Awamori rice wine.

Toufen 1963 (Oolong, Taiwan)

An oolong from Northwest Taiwan that has been aging since 1963.  Thus far, the oldest tea I've tasted.

Darjeeling Single Ghanni Jungpana EX6 (Black Tea, India) 

A Darjeeling produced from a micro lot of young leaves of AV2 clonal EX6, picked very early (ghanni/before first flush harvest).

Tea Blogger Roundtable moderated by Cinnabar Wright (Phoenix Tea)

It was an honor to once again sit on a panel with Char Gascho (Oolong Owl), Geoffrey Norman (Steep Stories of the Lazy Literatus) and Cinnabar Wright (Gongfu Girl).  Thanks to veryone who attended for your questions and the lively discussion!

Advanced Pu-erh Tasting with Linda Louie (Bana Tea Company)

Linda Louie, owner of Bana Tea Company is an experienced tea educator and student of acclaimed tea master and pu-erh expert, Vesper Chan.

Linda guided us through a tasting of four distinct pu-erh teas.  Rather than describing flavor notes, we were encouraged to experience tea more deeply, noting the texture (smoothness, thickness), mouth feel, our body's response as we drank each tea, and the gan (huigan) which is the minty sensation in the mouth after the tea is swallowed.

During the tasting session we also learned about pu-erh packed into dried mandarin shells, a practice that is hundreds of years old.  It is believed that the boiled peels are beneficial for the upper respiratory tract.  There are several varieties of citrus used for this purpose.  Small green mandarin are picked in mid-July and very citrusy.  Larger red mandarin are picked in September and among the sweetest of the citrus.  Xinhui mandarin grown in Yunnan are considered the best due to the the convergence of salt water and river water that feeds the soil where they grow.  When preparing tea stored in citrus, break it open by pressing inward to crack the shell.  The the ideal serving proportion is 2/5 citrus peel and 3/5 tea leaves.  

To prepare each teas for this session, Linda warmed the gaiwan with hot water, pouring out the water before adding the tea leaves, then covering and giving the gaiwan a gentle shake.  This last step helps to release the full aroma of the dry leaves.

2018 A Thousand Years of Anticipation Raw Pu-erh Tea Cake (Baiying Mountain, Lincang County, Yunnan Province)

Baiying Mountain is home to ancient tea trees, some of which are around 2,800 years old.  This tea by Vesper Chan was produced using leaves from 500 to 1,000 year old tea trees.  Prepared using 195° F water, this tea was very smooth and warmed all the way to the stomach.

2001 Original Aroma from Wood Dry-Stored Raw Pu-erh Tea Cake (Mengku Mountain, Lincang County, Yunnan Province)

Dry storage is a relatively new process pioneered by Vesper Chan in the early 1990's.  Until then, pu-erh in Hong Kong was aged in humid basements.  This tea was smooth, smoky, and mossy, warming in the chest and head.

1996 Wet-Stored Raw Pu-erh Loose Leaf (Xishuangbanna, Yunnan)

This tea was produced in Xishuangbanna and then wet-stored in Hong Kong.  Pu-erh storage can be customized to the desired results, sometimes starting with wet-storage to accelerate its development before moving into dry-storage.  This tea was mossy and sweet and warming all the way down.  

1990s Ripe Puerh Tea Brick (Xishuangbanna, Yunnan)

This was an older example of pu-erh aged in Hong Kong.  The taste and aroma was sweet and mossy.

Day Two

The Real Deal: Tasting "Fake" vs "Real" Iconic Teas with Rie Tulali (Tea Curious)

Rie is a tea educator and founder of Tea Curious.

In this session we had the opportunity to taste and compare several examples of teas with with prized origins, only some of which were authentic.  We learned that there is a spectrum of authenticity when it comes to tea.  The only way to be 100% sure of its authenticity is if you took the leaf to processing yourself.  Building a flavor library will help to build experience with tea.

Taiwan High Mountain Oolong

Taiwan High Mountain Oolong is one of the most faked teas.  To be considered authentic, the tea plants should grow at or above 1,200 meters.  Lower elevation teas have an up-front, simple flavor and thinner texture while higher elevation teas produce pectin to protect the plants, resulting in a more buttery body.  The demand for high mountain tea exceeds the supply, so some of the tea on the market comes from lower elevation plants or is sourced from other countries like Vietnam and Indonesia.

With Rie's guidance, we looked at three examples of High Mountain Oolong, comparing the color and shape of the dry leaf and the taste and aroma of the infusion.  Good tea will feel heavier than it looks.  Rolling extracts volatiles from the leaf and better made teas retain the oils in the leaf.

Sample #1 (front-right in the first photo, right in the second photo)
The dry leaf aroma was buttery and the leaves appeared darker, unfurling quickly in water.  The infusion had a floral and nutty aroma and taste.  This example is a low elevation tea and is sold for approximately $40/lb.  

Sample #2 (middle in both photos)
The dry leaf aroma was floral and nutty and the leaves unfurled slower than Sample #1.  The infusion had a floral, green, and nutty aroma with a nutty taste.  This example is a borderline authentic tea, grown at 1100m in Alishan and sells for approximately $160/lb.

Sample #3 (back-left in the first photo, left in the second photo)
The dry leaf aroma was light and rich with notes of spinach and nuts and the leaves unfurled much more slowly than the first two samples.  The infusion had a thick, buttery texture with notes of spice cake.  This is an authentic tea grown at 1600m and sells for $450/lb.  


Darjeeling and Nepal have nearly identical terroirs and leaves from plants grown in Nepal are sometimes brought to Darjeeling for processing as Darjeeling tea.  We compared examples of white and black Darjeeling teas with white and black Nepali teas.  Many in this session felt the results were very similar.

Rie also shared a buyer's tip for looking for quality in white teas.  Boiling water expresses the flaws in tea.  The better the tea, the better it will stand up to boiling water. 

Darjeeling White Tea - Light and savory with muscatel notes

Nepal White Tea - Floral with fruity notes

Nepal Black Tea - Roasty aroma with a lightly rich and roasty taste

Darjeeling Black Tea - Light muscatel

The Book of Tea and the Beautiful Foolishness of Things with Bruce Richardson (Elmwood Inn Fine Teas)

Bruce Richardson is co-owner of Elmwood Inn and Fine Teas and Benjamin Press.  He is also an author, contributing editor for a number of respected tea magazines, and tea master for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum.

Bruce is an authority on The Book of Tea and its author Okakura Kakuzo (Okakura Tenshin).  He recently released an expanded edition of The Book of Tea which includes the story of Okakura's life, how it ties in with The Book of Tea, and how he and his writings have influenced art and artists.  In this presentation, we learned about the life and influence of author, art historian, and art critic Okakura Kakuzo.


As a result of the Perry Expedition, in 1853 Japan ended over 200 years of isolation and opened its ports to foreign trade.  On a separate, but related topic, by 1890 40% of tea in the United States was imported from Japan, with green tea and oolong traveling from Yokohama to the States in 18 days by steamship.  The Port of Yokohama had become a major hub for foreign trade and businesses like the silk shop owned by Okakura Kakuzo's father.  He sent his son to western school to learn English and Okakura continued on to study at Tokyo Imperial University.  It was there he became an assistant to Professor Ernest Fenollosa, acting as an interpreter for his Philosophy classes.  Fenollosa was also an art historian and collector and Okakura would take him to temples, shrines, and art galleries to study traditional Japanese art.  At this time, Japanese traditional arts were falling by the wayside in the enthusiasm to adopt western culture and artwork that was seen as old-fashioned was being tossed away or left to decay.  Fenollosa and Okakura, both strong advocates for the preservation of traditional art, began buying and shipping pieces to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts which, to this day, has the largest collection of Japanese art in the United States.

Okakura Kakuzo went on to found the Tokyo School of Fine Arts before moving to Boston and becoming the first head of the Museum of Fine Arts Asian art division.  He had written two books, all in English, before releasing The Book of Tea in 1906 with a dedication to John La Farge.  This third book has never been out of print.


John La Farge, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Georgia O'Keefe, and Frank Lloyd Wright are among the many notables who were influenced by Okakura's work.

Bruce shared the heartfelt note to Okakura in the forward of John La Farge's book, An Artist's Letters From Japan and spoke of how the lasting friendship between Okakura and avid arts patron, Isabella Stewart Gardner began with a letter of introduction from La Farge.

Georgia O'Keefe was a devotee of The Book of Tea and you can see this reflected in her art and in her life. She invoked the spirit of tea ceremony in "her constant manner, her humility, her exactness, her utterly respectful exactness." (Christine Patten, author of Miss O'Keefe)

Frank Lloyd Wright first received The Book of Tea as a gift from a Japanese ambassador and Okakura's writings were said to have greatly influenced his work.  Wright was able to see  Ho-o-den (Phoenix Palace) under construction during the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  This small scale replica of Hoo-do (Phoenix Hall), the main building of Byodo-in was made possible through Okakura's detailed illustrations of the famous temple located in Uji, Japan.  The structure and layout of Ho-o-den would inspire Wright to explore a new direction in his art, incorporating what he called the "elimination of the insignificant".  This influence is especially apparent in his early Prairie House designs.

[Ho-o-den - Chicago]

[Hoo-do, Uji]

[A Prairie Style House - Frank Lloyd Wright]

Sights to See

Locations that may be of interest to fans of Okakura Kazuko include Rokkakudo, Okakura's retreat in Kitaibaraki in Ibaraki Prefecture, and Tenshin-en (Garden of the Heart of Heaven), named after Okakura and located at the Boston  Museum of Fine Arts.  Rokkakudo was swept away in the 2011 tsunami and was rebuilt and open to the public only one year later.

Cooking with Matcha with Kiyomi (Sei Mee Tea)

At the Sei Mee Tea booth, Kiyomi presented several recipes that either add or substitute another ingredient with matcha.

We had the opportunity to taste samples from each recipe (Matcha Greek Spread, Matcha Smokey Almonds, Matcha Italian Dip, and Matcha Hummus) as Kiyomi explained how it was prepared and we received a copy of the recipes to take home.  All the food was delicious and I am especially impressed by how much the addition of matcha improved the flavor of hummus, which I already enjoy.

The Surprising History of India's Deep Chai Culture with Elyse Petersen (Tealet)

Elyse Petersen is a food scientist and founder of Tealet which specializes in direct trade with small farms and growers.

Cinnamara Tea Garden was one of the first tea gardens established in Assam and the first to be established by an Indian, Maniram Dewan.  All other tea plantations in India were British or European. 

Plantation tea was originally grown for export.  When the market slumped toward the end of the 19th century, the British began a marketing campaign to promote tea drinking within India.  Until then, Indians generally only used tea as an ayurvedic (holistic) medicine and certainly never considered drinking tea with milk and sugar.  The Tea Cess Committee, established in 1903 and becoming the less ambiguously named Indian Tea Market Expansion Committee in 1937, began a lengthy and successful propaganda campaign to convince Indians to drink chai.   Some of the latter propaganda ads brazenly used swadeshi which was a term popularized by Ghandi, who also spoke out strongly against chai, to promote independence through domestic production and boycott foreign (British) goods.  The term chaiwala (chai wallah), the person who makes and serves masala chai, came from the British marketing campaign.

Part of the Cinnamara Tea Garden would become the Tocklai Tea Research Institute and chai became the official national beverage of India in 2013 on the 212th birth anniversary of Maniram Dewan.

Elyse also shared some promising information about small, independent farms in India and the development of new types of tea.  Some of these growers seem to be inspired toward innovation and creating their own gongfu style of tea preparation.

Thanks to all the volunteers and everyone behind the scenes, behind the booths, and behind the microphones for making this festival a success!  I'm ready for Northwest Tea Festival 2020!

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