Nuts About Coconut!

On one of our weekly paths to and fro, the kids and I drive past a sign that advertises “Cherries, Coconuts, Fruts.” No, that is not a typo on my part. The hand-painted-on-cardboard sign is wrong. Yet, it has provided the kids and I a steady topic of conversation from “what is a frut, mommy?” to “why don’t they change it?” I love to hear my kids giggle and passing that sign always inspires a giggle.

Then, there comes the inevitable, “Can’t we stop to buy a coconut?” I wish I could pinpoint the moment when coconut became the flavor-of-the-day for my kids. Coconut spread on toast, coconut milk, coconut in cookies or granola bars… they love coconut. The only time they weren’t thrilled with coconut was at the bagel shop when they picked up tetra-paks of coconut water. I managed to drink it for them (because I can’t stand waste), but I really couldn’t blame them. Blech!

Imagine the excitement then when I announced that Compassion Tea would soon be carrying a new tea… Coconut Oolong! Although this oolong, like all other oolongs, has caffeine, this has become an early-in-the-day-only treat for the kids. As we would say if we were still in the Netherlands… LEKKER!

I first tried the coconut oolong at Ed and Wendy’s house when we were all gathered for a Compassion Tea director’s meeting. Chris and Anne were taking us through the intricacies of cupping. Think wine tasting only with tea. First, you inspect the leaves, notice their color, smell, are they curled or cut, rolled or shaped. Then the tea is steeped for the proper amount of time. In a flick of the wrist, the leaves are left on the cup lid and the third step is to inspect the infused leaves asking yourself what has happened to them in the steeping process. How much have they uncurled? If the curl or roll is still fairly tight, you can probably get another couple of infusions out of them. Having done that, it’s time to look at the liquor, the tea itself. Cupping your hands over the cup, take a deep breath. Note the nose. My favorite part comes next! Remember your mom telling you not to slurp? Well, in tea tasting, slurping is necessary! Breathing in, slurp up some tea, let it roll around on your tongue before you exhale and swallow. The full flavor of the tea should hit and linger. Like wine, you can then assess whether the tea has tannins, how it finishes, and eventually what it takes like cooled off.

When Chris and Anne announced the coconut oolong, there was an audible collection of breath, one of those oooooooo moments you might hear from a crowd expecting an amazing magic trick. The excitement filled the air. As we cupped our way through this tasting, the excitement grew. My notes indicated that the leaves had “beautiful curls” and were “consistent in color.” Both dry and steeped, the leaves gave off a rich, chestnutty aroma with a hint of a floral bouquet too subtle to completely identify. But, it is the lingering notes of coconut that make this tea truly marvelous. All of the Compassion Tea directors were making notes and rating the teas we tasted over the weekend. Wendy steered us to a quick way of marking the teas we wanted to carry… smiley faces. How funny it was to watch all 8 of us furiously scribbling smiley faces with hearts and extra smiles in our notes!

I didn’t know much about oolong tea going into this experience. Here is a little of what I’ve learned. Oolong is primarily produced in China and Taiwan, although India and other tea producing regions are beginning to produce it too. Like green, black and white teas, oolong comes from the camellia sinensis plant; the difference is in the oxidation process.

The Coconut Oolong is a tea blend. It’s base is a Taiwanese tea called Bao Zhong flavored with a creamy and smooth coconut flavoring. The Bao Zhong teas are known for their floral character, which comes from a unique natural process. Any time a tea leaf is bruised or cut in any way, it exposes the enzymes in the leaf to oxygen thereby beginning the oxidation process which gives the different teas their unique qualities. In the case of oolong tea, there is a green leaf hopper bug that visits the camellia sinensis plants and nibbles on the tea leaves. Those little nibbles begin the oxidation process before the leaves are even harvested. Once the bugs have left the tea garden, heading for another, the tea leafs, usually a bud and two leafs, are plucked, withered and dried, sometimes steamed, sometimes roasted, often rolled or shaped into pearls, and then finished off before heading to your tea pot.

I should note that we also tasted and are adding Jade Cloud – an organic Fair Trade green tea, West Cape Chai – an organic Fair Trade rooibos that includes ginger, star anise, clove, fennel, cinnamon, cardamom, peppermint, black pepper, and ramon nut (a coffee-like flavor) to create a warm and spicy happiness, and the Bai Hao oolong without the coconut flavoring. Stay tuned! I intend to mix the West Cape Chai with some half-and-half and a splash of rum. I’ll tell you how it goes!

Advertisements

Inspiring Pu’ erh

Anne and Chris watch as Didi pours another infusion of her family’s pu ‘erh tea during the World Tea Expo held in Las Vegas in June.

The team gained insight into what Chris describes as “a meditative way of life that weaves the calming effects of tea into the building of relationship.”

“I was sitting in the hospitality room at the hotel, sipping wine, relaxing, and keeping to myself,” reminisced Lee Kennedy recently as he retold of an amazing experience he and the other founders of Compassion Tea Company had at the World Tea Expo held in June in Las Vegas. “And then Anne walked in and started doing what Anne does best,” he continued, sitting back in his patio chair. The people around the table chuckled because we all know what Anne does best; she’s a master at creating relationship where there is none.

Anne Kennedy, Lee’s wife, picked up the thread of the story. “There was an Asian man sitting near my husband and we started chatting.” And in the course of the conversation, they realized they were both there for tea. As Anne relayed some information she had just learned, the man became increasingly excited. As it turned out, the man was Professor Kanzo Sakata from the Laboratory of Molecular Bio-catalysts, Institute for Chemical Research, at Kyoto University in Japan. He specializes in the development of floral aroma during the production and processing of oolong and black teas. He works with the Japanese government to assist Japanese tea makers improve the quality of their teas, and Dr. Sakata was the one who had studied the impact of a certain leafhopper insect on the leaves used to make oolong teas; his published study was exactly what Anne was relaying. Immediately, a bond was formed.

With Dr. Sakata was a Chinese student named Didi Liu. A foremost expert on pu’ erh (pronounced poo air) teas, Didi was leading a class in these teas at the expo the next day, and she urged Anne and the other Compassion Tea directors to attend. The group of directors consisting of Lee and Anne, Chris and Jack Faherty, and Ed and Wendy Bjurstrom also met Didi’s parents who own a tea garden and a tea production business in the Yunnan region of China. The Liu’s purchased the land for their garden when they saw tourists trampling hundreds–of- years-old tea trees. Their tea garden contains tea trees that are roughly 800 years old and this age lends great flavor and value to the pu’ erh tea they produce.

The following day, the Compassion Tea directors headed to Didi’s seminar but found it sold-out and closed. Disappointed, the team strolled off to other parts of the expo. Later, they saw Didi again in the hotel hospitality room and shared their disappointment. Didi, also disappointed her new friends had been unable to attend the class, offered to serve the team tea.

What ensued turned out to be the highlight of the expo for the entire team. Joined by Dr. Sakata and Jane Pettigrew (an English tea guru who leads many seminars on tea), the team spent the next hour and a half in near silence punctuated by commentary about the pu’ erh tea and the ceremony itself. Didi’s mother prepared the water and cups in the background while Didi quietly and gracefully led the team through multiple cuppings and infusions of her family’s own pu’ erh tea. The cups she used had been designed by her mother especially for the ceremony of tasting pu ‘erh tea. The team described the ceremony as “purposeful,” “delicate,” and “gentle”… each participant receiving a thimble-full of tea to taste after each infusion. Chris remarked at her amazement that one serving of tea leaves could change and develop so markedly through multiple infusions, the leaves offering new colors and flavors with each steeping. Truly, they were in the presence of a great pu’ erh tea.

At the end of the ceremony, Didi presented each couple with their own cake of pu ‘erh tea from her parents’ garden and pressed in the ancient tradition by a stone weight. She instructed them to save the cakes for 5, 7, and 10 years, sampling one at each milestone. Pu ‘erh tea, because of the microbes introduced into the tea, ferments with age; like a fine wine, this is what gives the tea it’s uniquely dark, earthy color and flavor. The team views these teas as priceless.

During that hour and a half, the team gained insight into what Chris describes as “a meditative way of life that weaves the calming effects of tea into the building of relationship.” As Chris described the Chinese culture as humble and private, Lee remarked, “It was a true privilege. The ceremony gave me an added respect for tea and I feel a stronger connection to the roots of tea.”

The team felt that in sharing her tea and the ancient ceremony, Didi had shared herself, had built a relational bond, and had passed on an ancient art form. They spoke of the privilege, the contrast between our fast-paced American culture and the purpose of the timeless ceremony connected to the past and connecting them to their new friend. They spoke of the “fullness of being together,” of sharing, of passing the tea cup, of relationship building… all things we at Compassion Tea knew tea could mean for people and part of the reasoning behind our mantra, “Share Tea, Save Lives.” Tea brings people together, inspires meditation and communion and relationship, and provides a platform for revealing the true self.

As the sun sank behind the LA hills, and the chill of evening settled around us, Anne concluded, “I believe it was God’s little treat for us.”