A few years ago, I stopped in at Todd & Holland, tea merchants. I just needed to grab some customizable tea bags. I ran into Bill Todd, and we started talking about his recent trip to China. He related a story about how he had to stay over a few days extra, and so ended up spontaneously going into the mountains in northern Taiwan for an unplanned visit with a tea master who handcrafts Black Iron High Mt. Ali Shan: this is an oolong (semi-black) and is the most remarkable vegetable beverage I’d had in a while. Bill brewed a pot, and it was full and deep, with the herbaciousness of green teas as well as the more nuanced and finished qualities of a good black. It has a “heaviness” on the tongue, but it’s still very light and fresh to the taste.
Bill had me sample it in three different cups: first a small white wide-mouthed ceramic cup, then a standard 6 oz. Jena glass cup with handle (my usual tea cup), then a Yixing clay cup. Damn, if the tea didn’t taste slightly different in each cup. I suggested that perhaps it was the size of the cup mouth that shaped the aroma as it hit the nose, or the angle of the cup lip that channeled the brew upon the tongue, but Bill felt it was the actual material of the cup that made the most difference. I can’t explain it, but there was a definite difference between the taste of the same tea coming from different cups.
I was so caught up in the tasting of Black Iron, that I completely forgot the customizable tea bags I had stopped by to get; but I did pick up a small pouch of Black Iron, which, at $240 a pound, will have to last a while. Bill told me that this tea will stand up to eight infusions (!); he also pointed out that the Chinese usually dump the first infusion (the only one most Westerners drink), considering it a “wash” to simply start the tea leaves unfurling to give forth their goodness in further infusions. He hand-carried several kilos of Black Iron back from Taiwan, and when it’s gone, that’s it for this growing season.
If you’ve never been to Todd& Holland, it’s worth a trip, even if you’re a coffee drinker.
Are you a tea enthusiast? Tell us about your favorite kinds of tea.