As a postscript (and less caloric end) to Limsterfest, 7 of us braved the crowds from the North Beach festival on a Saturday afternoon and enjoyed a tea tasting and a last visit with Limster.
We sampled 13 teas that spanned from white teas to oolongs to green teas to fermented black teas, all from China and many from Imperial Tea's special suppliers. Although Imperial Tea does offer preset tasting menus, we thought it would be more fun to pick our own selections. The staff is very helpful and
seemed amused by our many selections.
Most of the teas blossomed over 4 and even 5 steepings. An early pour might have a more noticeable fragance, a later pour a less tannic and richer flavor. We had trouble distinguishing among the first five cups we were served and passing around the table, but over time, as the table became crowded with gaiwans
(Chinese tea cups), we became experts at distinguishing the imperial gold oolong from the aged pu errh by looking at the leaves and the liquids.
1. We began with Bi Luo Chun, a delicate green tea. Their website describes this tea as "one of China's Ten Famous Teas, the name Bi Luo Chun may be translated
as green spring snail, suggesting both the tiny spirals of its delicately hand rolled leaves and the season of its production." The Bi Luo Chun held up well
throughout the afternoon. It had a bright green rolled leaf, which made it easy to distinguish from the oolongs. Refreshing and almost perky.
2 & 3. We followed this with two oolongs, the famous Monkey-Picked Ti Kwan Yin, which is no longer picked by monkeys but is grown in Fujian province, where the
Limster family hails from; and the Imperial Gold Oolong, which at $180 a pound was among our more expensive choices. Oolong can be an acquired taste; its
semi-fermented nutty character doesn't appeal to everyone and is quite distinct from black teas. Derek and Doodad both picked the Imperial Gold as their favorite. Kim Cooper, upon smelling the Ti Kwan Yin, said its aroma could almost "make you believe in reincarnation."
4 & 5. We also enjoyed two white teas, with the airy, delicate, and floral quality that is characteristic of good whites. The White Peony is a tea court special, like drinking a lightly perfumed water, dancing on the palate without leaving a strong taste. (As you can tell, I like this one.) The Imperial Silver Needle with Jasmine was a crowd pleaser and only got better with each pour. The silver needles make it much lighter than typical jasmine blends, often made with green tea.
6, 7, & 8. We wanted to explore the rich variety of green teas, so we began with a Long Jing Dragon Well, the famous tea from Hangzhou province and considered
one of the finest and priciest teas in the world. Kim pronounced the washed dragonwell aroma like "pork loin." We also had a cup of Liu An Gua Pian, the so-called melon slice tea from Anhui province, and the aptly named Dragon Whiskers, which was notable mostly because it looked sufficiently different from the other teas that we could tell it apart.
The melon slice we called "pork loin with chutney"; this is a fine green tea for people who don't think they like green tea. It's mild without any bitterness and was lovely without any dominating flavors in repeated steepings.
9. The Imperial Superior Yunnan was served gong fu style (see below), a rich reddish black tea that mellowed with each successive pour. This tea was steeped 1 to 3 minutes, the longest brewing of the teas we tasted. The first pour was tannic, even chalky, the next better. The third pour was the charm, and this tea held its body on the fourth as well. I'm a fan of Yunnan black teas, but while I liked this blend, I was unimpressed. It lacked the maltiness and syrupy quality of a full-bodied Assam.
10. We threw in a cup of Genmaicha, the Japanese blend of green tea (often sencha) with roasted rice and popcorn. Derek and Doodad really liked this. It has a delicous roasted barley flavor and goes well with food, and lacks the bitterness that can be characteristic of green teas. Genmaicha is easy to find in any supermarket with a Japanese section; since only a little of it is tea, it's inexpensive, even at finer tea providers.
11, 12, & 13. We finished off with several more black teas, including Keemun Mao Feng and the distinctive smoky notes of Lapsang Souchong and an 20-year aged Pu Errh from Yunnan. This is where the chowhounds split down the middle.
Kim waxed rhapsodic over the aroma of the Lapsang, which had a "woodsy" quality. Lighter than many inferior Lapsangs, where the smokiness tends to dominate, it was also remarkably inexpensive at $25 per pound. The server winced when I asked her for milk and told me they only had condensed milk; still it would have been delicious. Kim told us that lapsang souchongs were carried from Asia in pouches on camels, and the aroma was sometimes described as "pine smoke and camel sweat."
The Pu Errh was variously described as "loamy," "earthy," like "soil." P-U-er, pronounced Doodad and Derek, who went back to the genmaicha for relief. Kim, Shocker, and Limster all thought it was delicious. I found the bouquet a little overwhelming; a 20 year old pu errh is like an aged Stilton. The leaves were black against a bright red brew.
Keemuns can be very light for black teas, and this one was no exception. However it was a lovely tea; Joyce commented that lesser Keemuns don't have this much
We ordered a few snacks including bowls of delicious roasted chestnuts, mysteriously green and addictive pumpkin seeds, and quite wonderful almonds with a spice I could not place dusted on their shells. Even better, Derek stopped at a Chinese bakery and brought us an assortment of custard tarts and small bean cakes, all of which complemented the teas without dominating the flavors.
A gaiwan (Chinese tea cup for one, with a lid to hold the tea leaves while you sip and a saucer) costs $3 for the regular teas, $5 for a premium tea. Almost all of our selections were premium teas.
Gong fu service is also available, for $8 per person at a minimum of 2 people. This is worthwhile just for its showy aspects--the tongs, the ceremonial washing of tea and xiching teapots with not quite boiling water, pouring the steeped tea into a separate container so it doesn't become bitter, and finally served in tiny cups and (a tea court touch) on small square wooden saucers.
We enjoyed this whole adventure for $13 each, including a generous tip (but not including Derek's pastries). Kim said one of the teas was like "afternoon
sunlight." An apt description and a very civilized way to spend a Saturday.
Imperial Tea Court
1411 Powell Street (at Broadway)
San Francisco, CA 94133