The vendor profile for Teamasters is a part of our Taiwanese Tea Vendor Series, covering a number of Taiwanese-tea specialized vendors that sell to the west.
Based in Taiwan, a French ex-patriate Stephane Erler founded and runs Teamasters. Now one of the oldest online vendors and tea bloggers Teamasters was originally conceived as a tea blog in 2004. Stephane has been steadily consistent throughout the years in creating new content (his output now totals over 1,500 blog posts!). The Teamasters blog has been immensely helpful in my own personal tea education as well as the creation of this site! Now Stephane in addition to his day-job as a western-facing vendor is regularly invited to events around the globe to speak about tea topics and Taiwanese oolongs.
Stephane’s blog focuses on a variety of topics with dedicated posts to many different topics, the majority centered around Taiwanese oolongs (with the occasional excursion to pu’erh). Teamasters has a section dedicated to gong-fu tea which has slowly expanded over the years into something quite substantial. He also writes individual blog posts dedicated to each tea he personally sells. Having lived in Taiwan for 17 years with consistent access to Taiwanese tea authorities (Teaparker especially) Stephane offers some really great insight when it comes to studying the history of the Taiwanese tea industry and some of the innovations that have occurred. To this day, Stephane is one of the most consistent tea bloggers and informational sources on the internet!
As a vendor, Teamasters tends to veer towards the pricier side of things with very good and very clean teas. With a diverse lineup of teas that encompass a good chunk of the Taiwanese tea lineup, Teamasters can be seen largely as a curator of premium Taiwanese teas (in other words, it is extremely difficult to select a bad tea from Teamasters selection). It’s also worth nothing that Stephane doesn’t use a modern shopping cart/online checkout system, so to make an order you email him directly and ask for a price list before placing your order with him directly.
Editor’s Note: Stephane has consciously worked on adding more budget options and currently has a Winter Baozhong on sale available for $17.50/150g ($3.30/oz). This is a very affordable option for Baozhong (avg. $7.28/oz).
- Floating Leaves vs. Tea From Taiwan vs. Teamasters Teachat Thread
- Shan Li Xi Spring 2013 [TeaDB Episode 30], Oriental Beauty Summer 2013 [TeaDB Episode 31], Shan Li Xi Hung Shui 2011 [TeaDB Episode 32]
Stephane, you’ve been in Taiwan for 17 years now and are one of the longest standing tea bloggers and online vendors both for Taiwanese teas and teas in general. Can you explain a little about how/when/why you decided to source tea and how Teamasters got started?
When I arrived in Taiwan, I loved to drink oolong prepared by experienced brewers. But somehow, I was never able to achieve the same delicious results as them. Due to this frustration, about 11 years ago I started taking tea classes with Teaparker (a journalist and book writer with over 30 books about tea, teaware, etc.). Half a year later, I quit my job as a financial controller to take care of my baby son and started tea blogging when he was one. I was so happy with the pleasures I was discovering in tea that I wanted to share this with others.
After a year of blogging, I realized that I had many readers who were interested by my experience and the teas I was drinking. So I started to sell a small selection of tea and teaware on my blog. My wife and I had a second baby and this part time occupation let me stay at home to take care of my children and studying tea in greater depth.
In your Teamasters blog you focus alot on the spirituality and Chaxi of tea. What do you look for when you are looking to select a tea to purchase or source? What impact does your view on spirituality and Chaxi (as opposed to simply taste) have on how you choose tea?
I am surprised you find a lot of spirituality in my blog! I have touched on meditation once or twice (in over 1500 articles). It’s better to remain matter of fact when you want to understand a tea objectively. Spirituality may make things more obscure, which is why I recommend caution in linking tea and spirituality.
You are right that I focus on the Chaxi, the tea play. (A heavier word more loaded with spirituality would be tea ceremony). Having a Chaxi is to dedicate your time, attention and all your senses to brewing your leaves the best you can during a limited time. Usually people multitask and drink tea while doing other things. During a Chaxi, the preparation of tea is part of the fun and becomes a way to express yourself creatively.
If tea becomes your sole focus and takes much more importance than other beverages, then its quality must be top notch. First, the tea has to be what it says it is. Second, the flavors should be natural, clean and the taste should be pleasant and long lasting. Third, tea quality is also reflected in how it evolves over time: selecting teas that have the best potential to improve with age (another example) is also an important factor.
Which teas do you drink on a regular basis?
The teas on my selection are the teas that I drink regularly. I don’t drink Da Yu Ling every day. I like to keep exceptional teas for special days.
What are your thoughts on what’s been termed as “nuclear green” oolongs, especially for high-mountain teas. It seems like both Chinese Tieguanyin and alot of Taiwanese oolongs have moved heavily in this direction. Is this a trend that is here to stay?
The lower the oxidation, the less work for the producer! And since green tea is the most common tea in China, it’s natural that many consumers should want to drink oolongs that resemble green teas. In the past roasting was a way to retain the freshness of the teas for their long travels. Nowadays, shipping by air has reduced delivery times and sellers store lightly-oxidized teas in freezers to preserve their freshness! The result is that the tea smells great when you open the pack. Unfortunately, this kind of freshness disappears quickly and leaves slow drinkers frustrated. The taste is also often astringent and doesn’t feel good on the stomach.
Drinkers who focus on quality learn to move away from these “nuclear green” Oolongs. The color of a good high-mountain Taiwanese oolong should be a light, fresh yellow, not green.
BREWING & ORDERING TEA
From your blog it seems like you brew in competition style, or a style similar to competition style alot (boiling water, 15 cl vessel, low amounts of leaf – typically 3 g, long steep – typically 6 minutes). Is there any reason for this? What is your philosophy on how to brew tea/brewing parameters etc.?
Competition style brewing is the most objective way to brew a tea that you don’t know. With just three grams, boiling water and a six minutes steeping time in a 15 cl porcelain vessel, the tea will release most of its flavors and will tell you what it contains. You don’t need to be an expert to judge which tea is best if you brew two teas side by side with this method. Good teas are teas that remain good under the most difficult circumstances, when the water is hottest and the brewing time long. That’s why this method helps to select great leaves.
The better the tea, the longer you can brew it. And with longer brews, you get more flavors out, which is why you need fewer leaves. On the contrary, if you have low quality leaves that turn astringent or bitter, the best way to brew them is to use lots of leaves and use short brewing times (Editor: This is a notable and significant deviation from many other school’s of thought).
The objective for all tea fans is to enjoy great teas at a reasonable cost. Sampling many teas to find the right one costs time and money. A good tea source helps solve lots of quality problems. This then allows you to focus on a technique that uses fewer leaves for excellent results.
Editor’s Note: This last point sums up Stephane’s vendor philosophy well. Teamasters is a curated, and high-quality selection. The opposite of this would be vendors that offer a far more vast selection, Yunnan Sourcing, Dragon Tea House, or even TTC. This is not a particular criticism towards any of the vendors above, simply an observation. Another example of a more curated vendor is White 2 Tea.
If you were just looking to get into tea, specifically Taiwanese tea and had allotted ~$75 to spend on Teamasters. What teas would you include in that order?
For $75.50 USD including shipping, I would recommend the following tea samples from my selection:
Fresh, unroasted Oolongs from different cultivars, elevation, seasons, shape and mountains:
- Spring 2013 Organic Baozhong from Wenshan (20 gr sample)
- Winter 2012 Jinxuan Oolong from Alishan (25 gr)
- Winter 2012 Luanze Oolong ‘fruity’ from Alishan (25 gr)
- Spring 2013 Luanze Oolong from Shan Lin Shi (1200 m) (25 gr)
- Spring 2013 Luanze Oolong from Yiguang shan, (25 gr)
Editor’s Note: Luanze and Chin-hsin are different classifications of the same oolong cultivar. This cultivar is generally considered to be the premium standard for most high-quality Taiwanese oolongs (with the notable exceptions of Oriental Beauty & Tieguanyin).
Roasted Oolongs from different cultivars and mountains:
- Spring 2013 Hungshui Oolong from Yiguang shan (25 gr)
- Spring 2013 Jade Hungshui Oolong from Zhushan (25 gr)
A Taiwanese organic red (black) tea made with an Oolong cultivar:
- Spring 2013 Da Yeh Oolong Red tea (25 gr)
Editor’s Note: One nice thing about Stephane’s selection is the small sample size. This allows you to sample widely. It should also be noted that he offers good discounts on his 150g quantities for teas.
Editor’s Note #2: It’s also interesting to note that these teas exclude most of Teamasters very high-elevation (2000m+) premium offerings.
Stephane’s Response: The reason for excluding these top Oolongs is because the list is for someone who is “starting to go into tea”. For a beginner, it’s not necessarily to start so high in quality. It’s best to practice with more affordable teas and keep the best for later. (You also don’t start a wine class with tasting a Chateau Mouton Rothschild!). Alishan and Shan Lin Shi will do more than fine!
Any specific advice you would give this friend?
When you get into tea, you want to explore various teas to find which flavors, aromas you like best. I recommend to start with the same white porcelain gaiwan to brew all your teas. Find good water with little mineral content (it should taste a little sweet). And boil it until small bubbles form at the surface of the water. Always brew tea with this open, boiling water.
When is the ideal time to order Taiwanese tea? What about drinking it? A lot of vendors hype up the spring and winter harvests. Is there merit behind this or is this merely a marketing ploy?
Green tea should preferably be purchased in spring and drunk in summer. High-quality Taiwanese tea should be quite stable over time. Unroasted oolongs are best drunk when it’s warm, and roasted oolongs (and red) feel best when it’s cold. Fall season also feels very suitable for pu’erh.
Spring has the finest fragrances, while winter has a very nice mellow taste. Summer and fall seasons produce Oolongs with rougher aromas. Sometimes I select nicely done oolongs from summer or fall, though. They are cheaper and can be well suited to make roasted oolong and/or strongly oxidized teas. The exception is Oriental Beauty: an early summer oolong made with buds bitten by tea jassids (insect that bites Oriental Beauty tea leaves). Early summer is the best season to make this particular oolong.