The Art of BEEing: On approach

My bees seem to like catnip…  Lucky (maybe) for me it’s become established in a difficult corner of the garden which isn’t of much use except for feeding bees and catching some incredible back lighting.


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The Art of BEEing: Of smells and summer

In mid April I left for a business trip to China (punctuated by the bees swarming the day before I left) and when I got home 3 weeks later the last vestiges of spring had turned to summer in the desert.  My hive notes from the transition…

11 May 2017 2 weeks turned into a bit over 3, and when I came back there were no bees in the second hive and a full contingent in the first.  There was a bit of an almost fermenting odor when I opened the hive today, but didn’t see anything obvious causing it.  My first thought was foulbrood but no sign of scales or larve problems, though brood is a bit scarce as is stored food. Saw lots of empty cells in the deep brood box with some bees diving headfirst into them, as well as a few pollen cells.  The medium brood box above it had good stores in the upper corners of the central frames, as well as some eggs, larve, and capped brood areas, but not nearly as much of any of them as I would have preferred to have seen.  There were also multiple capped queen cells.  I did see an unmarked queen wandering around, so unsure if this was the old queen with the paint worn off, there was a supercedure, the old queen died, the old  queen ended up departing in a subsequent smaller swarm, if I have 2 queens, or if this queen is an early hatchling from the group of cups.  The honey super had significant bee activity and a couple of frames with sections fully drawn out and capped, but as far as I could tell it was just sugar water inside.  Maybe they have found a hummingbird feeder to rob? Are they simply moving it up from the brood box?   If it is indeed sugar water than I have no reason not to go ahead and slap the feeder on top and focus on getting comb drawn this year, and I didn’t try and taste any to see.   The bees were acting normally.  Desert buckwheat is in bloom still, the creosote bloom is starting to wrap up, but the cactus bloom is starting and I did see some honeybees diving into the pollen this year.  The first mimosa blossom is also open, as is the (relatively useless) lantana.  I do at least have some lavender blooms in front and back,  cilantro and thyme are in good bloom, and a few other garden plants are staring to bloom.
13 May 2017 I went back in and conducted a full inspection of the brood, all larvae looked normal, cappings were not sunken, I sacrificed a couple of capped brood for a rope test that came out negative.  Since there wasn’t really anything in the bottom brood box and the bees were getting annoyed I left it alone, but I did take a bit more time to try and identify the smell.  The best way I can describe it is an overripe sourdough starter mixed with brewing sludge.  Yeasty, slightly acidic, a bit of a not quite malty undertone, and a bit of alcohol.  I’m confident enough that it wasn’t foulbrood that I went ahead and made a vented box for the Chinese feeder and installed it as well as a gallon of 1:1 sugar water.
16 May 2017 Peeked into the hive to check the feeder today, no visible decrease in volume of sugar water but there were a handful of bees wandering around on the “dining cone” and one drinking, so it has been found and is being used, if only lightly….
18 May 2017 I’ve noted the bees increasing the range at which they become defensively inquisitive. Since I came back, I’ve had bees issue defensive warnings / gaining my attention several times – while sitting on the back porch, cutting grass, pulling weeds, ..   Usually I have been active within the field of vision of the front of the hive, but the back porch was a shielded case and it was after sitting there for several minutes. What generally happens is one or two bees approach rapidly, circle around my head, go away a few feet, come back with a close head flyby,  then generally hang around a few inches away.  I had one get tangled in my hair when I wasn’t wearing a hat, but I was able to bat it away before it could sting.  Otherwise I’ve been able to just walk away into the house and they disappear a few feet from the door.  Unsure of the cause.
19 May 2017 I noticed that the seeping water valve they had preferred as a water source last year was no longer seeping, so perhaps the attention I was getting was based on a lack of water.  To try and remedy that I set up a small bucket with some access means (a few rocks and twigs) and put it under one of the unused sprinkler drip heads and reactivated that head.  Now the bucket gets filled every time the sprinkler runs.  I’ll need to monitor it and see if they start using it and if I need to adjust the flow, but hopefully it helps.  I’ve noticed the honeybees don’t seem to be able to feed on the orange lantana, but the blue has flowers that are just a touch less deep and they are occasionally on them.  Also, the mimosa tree is starting to bloom.
21 May 2017 Added a standard dose of sugarwater (4 cups water / 4 cups sugar) to the feeder.  The bees do seem to be using the new feeder, and while the access is a bit limited relative to the other design the simplicity and lid more than make up for it.  There was a reasonable amount of condensation on the feeder lid when I opened it, and as the summer progresses I think having the lid will greatly reduce the likelihood of building up a “taffy layer” like happened last year.  “The smell” was still present, but maybe a touch less sour smelling than previously.  I’m giving them at least another undisturbed week before I go back in for another check. After feeding, I watched the bees for a bit and although one guard bee kept circling me with the occasional headbutt the others went about their business.  Most were bringing back deep orange pollen, I’d say 3 of 4 arrivals were pollen bearing.

This evening I tried to give them some extra shade.  I made a big pillowcase from some white canvas and slipped it over the clear plastic windblock I installed prior to the winter, it’s long enough to fold over onto the top of the hive where I secured it with the bricks.  I added some grommets at the bottom and tied a loop of rope around it to give some resistance to air getting under it and blowing it off.  I also put a trimmed palm frond in front of the entrance to shade the front from the late afternoon / evening exposure.  As anticipated, the bees were rather aggressive from the heat and I had a good contingent trying to get me to leave while I was working, glad I opted for the full suit. My main concern is the fabric getting loose and causing issues or somehow pulling or knocking the top off.

28 May 2017 Went out to top up the feeder and noticed the consumption has slowed down as well as what looked to be a couple of spots of mold on the sugar water surface.  Decided to hold off on topping up and let the bees finish what’s there, then I’ll pull the feeder and clean it.    Otherwise bees seemed normal, the dirty sock smell wasn’t really present in the general beehive smell when I had it open, and traffic at the entrance was good.  They seem to like the shade devices I gave them and have been much more pleasant to be around after I installed them.  I did notice only a few bees had pollen on their return, and most of those were not carrying much.
3 June 2017 Removed nearly empty feeder, cleaned, and replaced.  Added a standard dose of sugarwater.  Probably 15-20 drowned bees present when I took off the access cover, a few more than the other feeder but seems acceptable given all the other advantages.  The mold had increased, seemed to be a mix of green  brown, and pink tones on the surface of the sugarwater and on the edges where the level had dropped  It didn’t seem to bother the bees.  I wiped it all down with idophor after a hot soapy wash and multiple rinses, we’ll see if it returns (probably will, may well come from the bees themselves…).  The bees were generally docile and seemed normal, a few minutes observation showed very little pollen coming back.  The mimosa is in full bloom.
6 June 2017 Went to top off the feeder and found it had been all consumed.  Refilled with a standard dose.
8 June 2017 Topped off the feeder with a standard dose – looks like about half of the prior feeding had been comsumed.
11 June 2017 Today was the first mild day in a while (already have had several days over 100 deg F) so took the opportunity for a hive inspection.  The feeder was almost empty, no signs of mold observed.  The honey super has several frames filled and capped with sugarwater, with no preference being shown for either the wooden frames with black Pierco foundation or the white all plastic Pierco frames, and more comb is being drawn.  That’s the primary reason I’ve got the super on at the moment, so happy with that progress.

Every frame in the top brood box now has at least some comb draw on it (the outer frame on either side is just starting to get comb on it’s inner side), I took a good look at the frames on the west side and was happy with what I saw.  Good stores of pollen, honey (which looks like honey, not just sugarwater – probably mimosa), and signs of an active queen (eggs, larvae, and capped brood, all in good patterns).  I saw no signs of any pests, and no ants (surprising to me as they are out in full force)

I was planning on doing a full inspection but the bees were starting to get fairly agitated (a good thunk while getting the queen excluder off seemed to have been a defensive alarm) and the wind was starting to pick up, so I glanced down the opening I had created in the top brood box via the removed frames and saw what appeared to be a good amount of activity in the bottom brood box and called it done at that point.   All in all I’m happy with what I saw, though I did have to remove a fair amount of burr comb (particularly on the queen excluder) and the bees had propolized closed several of the vent holes for the feeder.  I topped off the feeder with a standard dose and probably will not go deeply in again for several more weeks.

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Real Life Review: Dial “Up-Dux” Ceiling to Attic vent

In the California desert there are two primary ways to cool down a house: closed loop air conditioning and open loop swamp cooling.  A central air conditioning unit works by using electricity to compress a refrigerant fluid, typically outside the house, which is then sent under high pressure to a heat exchanger located inside the house, where it passes through an expansion device to a lower pressure.  The refrigerant cools down from the expansion process, and through the heat exchanger cools the warm indoor air. The inside air never contacts the outside air directly, and cooled inside air is moved through the house via ducting and a blower unit.  The warmed refrigerant then goes back outside the house where it is compressed again and repeats the cycle.

Swamp cooling (aka evaporative cooling) works in a more direct method.  A large pad of absorbent material is located at the inlet of a blower.  Water is sprayed on the top of the pad, and as very dry outside air is pulled through the pad by the blower some of the water evaporates into the air.  This cools and humidifies the air, which the blower then blows into the house.  As one might expect, though, if the house is closed up tightly there is no place for this cooler and more humid air to go, so a means to exhaust the same amount of air as the blower brings in needs to be available. When this is the case the system works efficiently and can keep a house comfortably cool with much less energy usage than an air conditioning system.  When it is not the case the blower works inefficiently against a higher house pressure and the house not only remains warm but also becomes potentially uncomfortably humid.

I have both systems installed.  My preference is to use the swamp cooler as much as practical, but there are times when conditions are such as make it a secondary choice – such as when air quality is bad from either dust or smoke, or on the rare days when a burst of monsoon humidity hits the area.  As the system currently stands, I have to manually turn the cooler on and off several times a day.  I run it on low speed with water off overnight when the outside temperature of cool desert nights is lower than the inside temperature so I can cold-soak the house with “free” outside air, then turn it off when I go to work, then when I get home it goes back on with the fan on high and water on to cool down the heat buildup from the day, then once the temperature either gets cool enough or the outside temperature starts to drop close to the house temperature I turn it off until it’s cool enough to start cold soaking again.  While I would like to automate this process, I’m not comfortable with leaving several windows wide open during the day while I’m away from the house, particularly since if the swamp cooler isn’t running then the house will just heat up that much faster from the hot daytime air, which may well kick on the air conditioner that I have set to turn on if the house gets too hot.

Enter the Up-Dux.    The concept is fairly simple: cut a hole in the ceiling so air can blow out of the room, into the attic, and then eventually vent out of the attic.  As a side benefit, this also helps to cool the attic, which then helps to reduce the amount of heat coming through the ceiling into the rooms below.  Since there are various good reasons to keep the hole closed when the cooler isn’t running, what the Up-Dux basically consists of is a metal liner for the hole with a lightweight lid on it.  It works on a very simple principle: the cover is counterbalanced by a small spring so it only takes a small amount of force to open it, but is still heavy enough to close by itself.  When the swamp cooler blower starts, the pressure inside the house becomes higher than the pressure in the attic, causing the lid to open.  Once that happens air begins to flow through the hole and its momentum pushes the lid more open until the point is reached where the force exerted by the air on the lid is equal to the force exerted by the weight of the lid on the air.  As pressure decreases (by, for example, opening a window, or the blower turning off) the lid closes to rebalance, as it increases (closing a window or turning the blower back on) it will open to rebalance. It’s a purely mechanical “dumb” system, and it’s very well suited to exhausting a swamp cooler when no one is around to open or close windows and doors. As an added safety feature there are two spring loaded dampers held in place by plastic pins which, in the event of a fire, melt and release the dampers to close off the vent.

So far so good. In theory it’s a great idea, but the question that naturally follows is how much air does one exhaust?  The manufacturer has a guideline recommending one up-dux vent per 900 CFM of cooler capacity, or more simply putting one in each normal size room and two in larger areas.  For my application that would come out to approximately 7 vents.  Not a huge number, but at about $45 each it’s outside the range of a trival cost.  So I opted to get one as trial and see how it worked.

The unit itself comes fully assembled and ready to pop into an appropriately sized hole (a bit over 11 inches by 11 inches).  Cutting a hole in the ceiling is a somewhat messy job, but one saving factor is that it’s designed to be installed from the room below rather than having to go up and do it from the attic.  In my case, I had an attic access panel with sufficient space so I was able to pull the panel and do the installation on my workbench. The unit is relatively lightweight, and the mounting method is 4 metal tabs which are folded over the ceiling material, then small screws are screwed through the side of the duct into the tabs before closing off the bottom with a plastic grate assembly.  A thin piece of plastic is provided with the unit to slide into the grate to block it off to reduce heat loss in the winter, but my guess is I’ll make a foam cover of some nature so there is a bit more insulation. I then put the panel with the vent back up and turned on the swamp cooler with no other ventilation in the house (e.g. doors and windows all closed).  As designed, the up-dux opened fully, and as I opened and closed windows and doors the up-dux responded.

With the trial successfully completed, I decided to step into adding more one at a time.  I’m not looking for an optimum installation with only the up-dux as my venting option, but to provide enough venting that when I am not home to open additional vents there is still a reasonable venting capability.  My guess is I’ll need another one or two.

All in all I’ve found the up-dux pretty much does what it advertises.  Quality control is a bit iffy – on the first one I bought there was about an inch where the piece of foam weather stripping which the lid rests on was too short, and on the second one, one of the corners of the duct had either not been assembled or come loose in shipping. Relatively minor issues, but for a unit that at $45 I feel is already at least 2x overpriced I would have expected relative perfection.

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Stations along my tea journey

I began drinking tea at some indefinable moment in my youth. Iced tea (unsweetened) was a staple beverage in our household, quite often made as “sun tea” in the warmer months by putting a 2 or 3 gallon glass jar of water with a handful of Lipton tea bags outside in the morning and ignoring it for the better part of the day. My memory recalls that being a beverage for everyone, whereas “hot tea” and coffee were reserved as forms of “adult beverages” and I in my teens before I had my first cup of either of those. Although Lipton remained our house brand for both hot and iced tea, I developed a preference for Twinings “Irish Breakfast” which has remained to this day – when I find myself presented with a selection of tea bags to pick from that is the one I look for first. During my last two years of high school some of the more technically minded students found our way to the physics lab every morning for a relatively unstructured “association” – the details of just how we organizationally managed to do that escape me now – which in memory seems to have resolved around drinking copious quantities of tea and setting up physics experiments typically involving lasers, fire, or high pressure air.

I believe my first exposure to loose tea was when I was living in Germany and a good friend whom I often visited had a couple of types in her room, and at some point in the evening would always pull them out and make a pot of one or the other. It didn’t taste like anything I had ever had, and I suddenly found myself introduced to the wider world of teas, in particular green tea. I had probably already had it at some point before while at a Chinese restaurant given the ubiquitous custom of green tea being served with a meal, but I had never before sat down and appreciated it on it’s own. Sensing she had a potential convert on her hands, my friend led me into a tea store while we were out shopping one day. The store was memorably simple with it’s name “Der Teeladen” (The Teastore), but it made a deep impression as it was the first time I had ever been in a store where the walls were lined with a seemingly unending selection of loose leaf teas. I was hooked, though on my return to the pre-web US I found it difficult to find loose leaf teas and was back to dunking bags in cups.

A few years later I was visiting another friend in Portland who was dating a barista, and one afternoon he suggested we go out for a coffee. She wasn’t overly enthused having just gotten off her shift at the local coffeeshop we would have been aiming for, and suggested going for tea as an alternative. We found our way to an eclectic tea shop where we were presented with a tea list in the way some restaurants present wine lists. While I was struggling for a choice, the waitress, with the full confidence of a sommelier, took charge and guided me to a small cast iron pot of an exceptional tea. Looking back, I can recrate nearly every nuance of that afternoon with the notable, and critical, exception of what that tea was.

The I ended up in Japan. It was a short notice business trip filling I for a colleague who was suddenly unable to go and my first to Asia, and I landed with no real expectations of what to expect. Among the many experiences of that trip, one that stands out was a day spent in a conference room at the facility I was visiting. Just prior to my arrival they had had an issue with part of the system I was there to observe, and they needed a day or two to get that repaired before they were ready for my visit. Although I would have been perfectly happy to have been waived of for the day and had a chance to do some exploring on my own, the company I was visiting seemed to consider it critically important that I was on-site and looked after during the delay. Their idea of how to do this was to setup a conference room with a video projector showing a seemingly endless loop of trade show promotional videos about their company and products, with a secretary stopping in every half hour or so to see how I was doing. On her second or third time she brought a tray with a flask of hot water, a bowl, a little bamboo whisk, and a green powder. I must have looked suitably confused as she came back in a few minutes later with another bowl and more powder and demonstrated to me how to make a cup of matcha, then demonstrated how to drink it. After that she brought different types of teas with each visit, and in the process gave me my first introduction to Japanese tea. Matcha seemed too cumbersome to me, but I was hooked on the other teas. Not knowing the details I waded into a grocery store the night before I returned home and bought a few packages of what seemed to be mid-grade tea, then stopped by a dollar store for a basic teapot with a strainer like the secretary had used. Thus began my experience with loose leaf brewing….

Since then I have persisted in my casual exploration of tea of all types. While living in England I developed an appreciation for Yorkshire hard water blend – not so much from any nuance of flavor, but from the effort they had gone to blend teas to have the same end flavor with different water types. When living in Japan I made further explorations into the details of what I was drinking, and made my first foray into actually visiting a tea growing area and walking amongst the tea bushes, as well as glimpsed a formal tea ceremony taking place in a pavilion at a park I was visiting.

But it was in China that I gained a true appreciation for tea. Everywhere else I have been, tea has been subjected to a near mythical association with time and temperature. Tea X “steep for 30 seconds in 180 degree water” or tea Y “use 2 grams in a mesh infuser per cup and freshly boild water, then steep for 3-5 minutes” or other guidance along those lines. On my first day in the office in China, one of my colleagues asked if I would like some tea. What he brought me was a paper cup with hot water and a generous pinch of tea leaves in it – certainly not what I was expecting. I asked for a strainer, and instead he instructed me in the art of using teeth and tongue to filter out the leaves while drinking. To my surprise, once finished he topped off my cup, and even after several cups the tea still had plenty of taste and aroma, and when we had finished he took the cups and dumped the leaves into a plastic strainer over a bucket sitting in the corner of the office. This was tea at it’s most basic. A few days later I attended a teahouse with some other colleagues where we enjoyed the more formal “gongfu” style of tea drinking, where a large quantity of tea is brewed for a short time in a very small pot and served in tiny cups. Unlike the near monastic environment of a Japanese tea ceremony, this was a fairly lively occasion as the attributes of the tea were discussed in deceptively great detail, the leaves were sniffed, drips happened during pouring, etc.. – it was like a wine tasting rather than communion.

When visiting a tea producer in Longjin village, I was surprised when they offered a tasting by simply adding a pinch of leaves to a small glass and topping off with hot water. If there was anywhere I would have anticipated would make a big deal of brewing the tea this was it, but instead it seemed casual, almost careless. Only later did I realize they were focused on selling the combination of taste, aroma, and appearance of the tea – and a simple glass is the best way to allow a customer to experience those qualities.

Most noticeable of all, however, was the “other” drinking of tea. Nearly every desk in the office had at least one tin of tea on it, and a hot water tap was never overly far away. While some colleagues had variations on teapots at their desks, the majority of them used what are generally referred to as “tea bottles”. These are basically water bottles with a strainer on top and provide the unconstrained space for the tea leaves to expand and move, yet also keep the leaves separate while drinking. What is most notable about this method though is that the same leaves may well be used for most of a day. It is not a “steep and remove” system, but a continuous brewing system. As the bottle empties, more water is added to top it off, and if the tea starts to loose too much flavor or aroma the old leaves are tossed out and more added. This is tea as a basic beverage – in some ways akin to the sun tea of my youth, in other ways very different. Gone are the constraints of time and temperature, as well as material, size, and shape of the vessels used. This is tea for tea, and not tea for ceremony. It just took me a few years to return to this point.

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Book Review: Puer Tea

Puer Tea
Zhang, Jinghong
University of Washington Press, 2013

I had heard about and occasionally tasted puer tea (also pu-erh), but I was interested in learning more about it, particularly after having had a very good one while recently in China. There are several books on the market relating to the tea, but I wasn’t interested in it’s health benefits or a coffee table book with pictures of tea leaves taking up 90 % of a page. When I came across this book, it jumped out at me as the one I was looking for. Published as part of the University of Washington’s Studies in Anthropology & Environment series, it seeks to provide a comprehensive overview of the role that puer tea plays in the places where it is grown, processed, and consumed. In addition, there is a focus on the interpersonal and community impacts within and around the industry.

Taking the form of a collection of chapters consisting of several individual pieces, each of which could easily have been a journal article, the author discusses her experiences as she encountered the tea and began to take a closer interest in it, then moves on to it’s history, how it’s processed, and how it has impacted the local economy where it is produced, based on her observations of staying in one of the producing towns during several parts of the tea. There are discussions of various factors that impact the quality and production of the tea as well as the development of the modern market for it and how that led to a boom and bust in 2007. Finally, the author moves on to the topic of consumer desires for an authentic product, but that simple desire leads to a much larger discussion on what authenticity actually means for a product that is valued precisely because of it’s constantly changing and developing profile.

Although a bit dry at times, it is a very satisfying read for someone who is interested in going a bit beyond the surface of this facet of the Chinese tea industry.

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The Art of BEEing: The China Feeder

Recently I was in China on a business trip and happened to come across another beekeeper in the office there. He no longer had any bees of his own since he was living in an urban apartment, but he had grown up in the countryside in a beekeeping family and had worked with bees since he was a young child. While chatting with him, the topic of feeders came up and I told him about the one I made last year to get around some of the weaknesses I had observed in other designs. He looked at me oddly, then asked why I didn’t just buy one. The next day he came in with a website printout of the feeders his extended family still use and an offer to order one for me, which I happily accepted.

When the feeder arrived at my hotel a few days later I was surprised by it’s simplicity. Designed to use over an inner cover with a round hole, it is a food grade plastic box just smaller than the flat area of a typical inner cover. In the center there is a raised conical structure that opens to a hole roughly 1 1/8 inch in diameter, and the surface of this feature have molded ridges so the bees have something to walk on. A clear cap, also with ridges, sits over the cone with a reasonable bee space between them. Topping it all off is a lid to help keep debris out and other insects out and evaporation losses down. As an unexpected side benefit, the box provided a protected space within my suitcase on the way home for a few other, more fragile, items I purchased while there.


I couldn’t wait to get home and try it out, particularly as the summer feeding season is fast approaching in the desert. Since my hive needs ventilation in the scorching summer, I couldn’t use a regular inner cover as it was designed for, so I created a ventilated base with standoffs to hold the feeder and allow access while maintaining as much ventilation area as possible, including most of the area under the actual feeder. I then added a few blocks to help locate the feeder and hold it in place, and finally built a “mini-super” surround for the feeder.

Once on the hive I added half a gallon of sugarwater, and when I checked back a few hours later the bees had found their way up to it with no real issues, though it did look a bit crowded to me at the relatively small entrance . All in all it holds about a gallon and a half with no seams to worry about leaking, and the lid helps to reduce the evaporation losses and effects of feeding in the desert. In the cooler feeding seasons I probably will go back to a standard inner cover as I am slightly concerned about the possibility of condensation on the plastic with the vented base.

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Book Review: The China Tea Book

The China Tea Book

Jialin, Luo

Earthaware Editions, 2012

While in Shanghai I found myself in an international bookstore browsing the selection of books on tea in either of the languages I can read.  I found several, but none of them really seemed worth paying the rather inflated prices being charged for them, particularly as most were published in the US.  I decided to put the money I had planned on spending on a book for more tea, and delay purchasing books until I was back at home.

The China Tea Book turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.  Although mainly a coffee table volume featuring glossy paper and a large number of photos, the book does include a good summary of the various types of tea in China – Green, Oolong, Black, and Pu-erh – including details on some of the more well-known teas of each type along with brewing suggestions.  It then progresses into a discussion of Chinese tea culture, briefly touching on the background and traditions of the ceremonies associated with formal tea drinking as well as highlighting aspects which can be used to tie the formal tradition into less formal settings.

Read over the course of an evening (and multiple cups of tea), I found myself drawn into the book and wishing I was back among the tea markets in Shanghai so I could sample some of the more intriguing varieties I read about.  This isn’t a textbook on tea culture, nor would it bring much to anyone well versed in Chinese Tea, but to someone looking for an introduction to the varieties of Chinese tea this book provides a beautiful first step.

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