Archive for November, 2010

Bearing with Boring Ol’ Barley

Sometimes the Asian need to separate themselves – besides by large bodies of water – takes on epically stupid proportions. The worst of which concerns an herbal “tea” that goes by three completely different names. And it’s not even an uncommon infusion. The target of ire is roasted barley.

Koreans call it “boricha”, the Chinese call it “maicha”, and the Japanese know it as “mugicha”. I don’t think I’ve encountered so disparate a naming scheme in my life. Okay, if linguistics is a factor, fine, I’ll accept that. But I don’t think so. After all, the word for “tea” doesn’t deviate much between the three languages. It’s universally referred to as “cha”. So what makes bori-mugi-mai-cha so damn special? I decided to investigate.

Barley is used for many purposes; the most common being culinary. As a drink, it’s sold year-round in Japan, and marketed as a summer season cooler in Korea. Barely mixed with chicory is marketed as a coffee substitute. It is also one of the principle ingredients in beer. Mmmmmm…beer.

What were we talking about? Oh yeah, barley.

I had to try this multitasking grain for myself. On the same Uwajimaya trip where I picked up Mamaki, I ran into scores of barley tea offerings. That settled the “rarity” debate. In typical “poor bastard” fashion, I went with the cheapest and largest I could find; a huge-arse package with at least thirty barley bags in it. Awesomely tacky? You betcha.

The individual bags were a pyramid design, closely resembling the ones put out by PG Tips. (Think British Lipton). Inside the bag were a ton of barley seeds.  On closer inspection of the mesh, they looked like popcorn seeds; smelled like it too. The aroma was roasty like coffee beans but also possessed a buttery quality.

Steeping it was a mild chore. I dunked it into a normal, boring 12oz cup without thinking of the sheer size of the bag. It took up half the mug, easily. I also lacked the foresight to cover the cup initially. This was easily (and stupidly) rectified by putting a tea tin over it. However, I almost spoiled the batch of Lapsang Souchong inside. If one can spoil Lapsang.

The liquor darkened to a woody brown with a roasty aroma that reminded me of coffee/almond ice cream, but without the sweetness factor. Taste-wise, it was something else. I could see why it was marketed as a coffee substitute, for that was the closest thing I compared it to. My brother/roommate had the same opinion.

In short, was it worth the severe name disparity between three major Asian countries?  I don’t think so, but then again, I’m probably making a big deal over nothing. I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to monikers. On the inside, I’m yelling, “Friggin’ pick one!” On the outside, I’m sipping from a cup on a couch.

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Friday, November 26th, 2010 Steep Stories No Comments

A Tropical Tisane Trip

A peculiar little leaf came to my attention on a search for another herb. I saw it mentioned in passing as a comparison. It and one other were used as taster notes. Sometimes I hate obscure taster notes – I try to avoid them – but in this case, it caught my intellectual fancy. The herbals in question were Hawaiian in origin. One was called Ko’oko’alau (a.k.a. genus Bidens), the other – and more pronounceable – was Mamaki (Pipturus albidus). The latter was mentioned as a close, islander cousin to stinging nettle.

I didn’t think I would be able to locate them locally, so I turned to online sources. It was almost impossible to find unblended products of either. And the solo options were in the neighborhood of $30 a pound. Why is everything in Hawaii so rapin’ expensive?! (Calming down…)

A difficult decision lay ahead of me; I had to give up on one of these herbs. Naturally, the unpronounceable one went by the wayside, and I focused my efforts on Mamaki. The search wouldn’t take long.

On a trip to Uwajimaya – think Asian Supermarket Disneyland – to browse the vast tea hall, I stopped by the customer service desk to inquire about Mamaki. At first, the just-shy-of-post-adolescent teller stared at me blankly. Before he could sputter out an “I dunno”, I saw my quarry on the shelf behind him. The label read “Hawaiian Chai” – a Mamaki/stevia blend.

Close enough, I thought.

Brewing would be a minor challenge. I wanted to know what Mamaki tasted like by itself, but I had to contend with the blended stevia as well. Having purchased the “sweet leaf” before, I knew what their consistency was like. Mamaki leaves – on the other hand – were larger, fanned-out and veiny. Perhaps a simple self-separation was in order.

The leaf apartheid worked. The stevia in the loose leaf jumble had settled to the bottom of the bag. Mamaki leaves took the top like large, green forest faery wings. I took out about 2 teaspoons of leaves and steeped them in boiling water for five minutes.

The infusion colored to a dirty amber, reminiscent of pond water. It didn’t look very thirst-quenching. Steam pluming from the cup was all nettle to the nose. That settled a bit on taste. Sure, it had the vegetal component of its spinachy cousin, yet somehow transcended its familial trappings into something gentler. I quite liked it, not in a “beaming-smile” sorta way, but a half-grimace did creep through. It even worked well when I put it with the stevia leaf.

This is why I love hunting down new herbs. Is it time consuming? Oh god, yes. But on those special occasions, one is rewarded with a flavor they would’ve never encountered without a gander. So far, my searches have turned up (mostly) successes. Mamaki got a pass.

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Wednesday, November 24th, 2010 Steep Stories 30 Comments

Coffaux: Concocting a Fake Coffee (First Phase)

My troubling history with coffee goes back to the Spring of ’03. Why does everything bad happen in the Spring?! I dunno. Digression…segueing back to the point of this entry…

I had just started working the night shift as a way to make ends meet whilst finishing my last semester at college. Financial aid – or as I like to call it, beer money – had dried up; that and I was on academic probation. (See: beer hyphenate.) Working almost-full-time seemed like a “great” way to dig myself out of the antidepressant-fueled hole of academia. Hospitality industry, even better!

However, my delicate (read: outta shape) frame wasn’t up to the task of braving the nocturn. Up to that point, the only poison I put in my body on irregular occasions was bad but affordable beer; Hi-Life, Milwaukie’s “Beast”…Forgive me, I was young and naïve. The logical conclusion was caffeine, yet this was nearly two years before my love affair with tea blossomed. I started off with coffee.

That didn’t last long, I assure you. On a particularly difficult night shift – running on three hours of sleep – I made the mistake of double-brewing the pot. Too much of a good thing is bad. Too much of a mediocre, miasmic tar is worse. I almost vomited twice, nearly crapped my pants once, and felt generally sick for three days after that shift.

From then on, I steered clear of coffee unless I had no other choice. Not that all coffee was bad, just bad for me. Then I tried my hand at chamomile, which definitely wasn’t conducive to a successful night shift. And, thankfully, in ’04, I discovered tea – my caffeinated savior. But I always wondered what I missed out on had I continued down the espresso express way.

By then, it was too late, but rumblings on the Net reached my ears; mentions of a “faux” coffee made of dandelion root. I looked up various blogs on the subject. Apparently, roasted dandelion root was used as a common substitute for coffee. Not only that, but it was also healthy – something to do with liver detox.

I asked my dad, a religious coffee drinker, if he’d ever heard of such a thing. He said he tasted several different coffee substitutes. None of them were worth the effort. “Coffee is coffee. Why would you want to have something ‘like’ coffee?” It was a good question. I didn’t have a good answer for him.

Regardless, I charged forth in my quest unimpeded. In the hippie wilds of Southeast Portland, I found an herbal shop that held my target. Once locating some roasted dandelion root, the cute, short-haired hipster teller also directed me to their “actual” faux-coffee blend called “Herbal Flash”. Simpy put, it was chicory root mixed with dandelion. I smelled the contents; shades of maple, pine, molasses, and…wood came to mind.

I bought both.

When I got home, I pleaded with my brother for the use of his French press. If I was going to brew something like coffee, I might as well do it somewhat right. I figured the culprit to start with was the Herbal Flash “coffaux”. The best bet seemed to be boiling water and a ten-minute steep, like one would treat any strong herb such as ginger.

The liquid blackened, not just colored. Blackened. It looked like coffee, even “blubbed” like it as we pressed the “French” out of it. Ten minutes passed with ease. I gave some to my step-dad, to my brother, and I took the entrails.

It didn’t taste like coffee.

I was more reminded of pungently sweet molasses that’d been roasted in conjunction with a caramel apple well past its prime. Plus, that “wood” smell I detected in the dry root pieces carried through in the taste. I expected to see my tongue covered in maple-lathered splinters. Definitely not coffee or pleasant.

Now it was time to troubleshoot the dandelion. I was convinced it was the source of all the woodsiness in the Herbal Flash blend, but perhaps it wouldn’t be so rough if left to its own devices. The root possessed the fragrance of bark and vanilla shrouded in leaf – dry-seeming but not unpleasant.

Brewing the tisane – and, believe me, it was a tisane – took some trial and error. The first time around, I simply gave it a ten-minute steep. The liquor ended up brass-colored but transparent. Like a root-based tisane would. Definitely not a substitute for coffee.

On the flavor front, it fared only a little better. As expected, it had woodiness in spades, but at least the infusion turned out complimentary – as opposed to its combination with chicory. The root taste was mildly astringent but not overpowering. I didn’t feel like I was licking a rough-hewn tree. Not my favorite but not a sink-tosser.

A fifteen-minute steep yielded similar results. The root darkened a bit more to a rusty brown, the flavor deepened to something more roasty, yet the feeling invoked still wasn’t coffee-esque. And with that, I gave up.

In closing…

I haven’t called it quits completely on this Sisyphean task, merely a union break. There are still a couple of ingredients and approaches I have yet to try. These first two options didn’t live up to the “coffaux” promise, but I think I may know what I did wrong. A return to the herbal shop hasn’t happened yet because…well…I’m lazy. It will happen, though. Tomorrow. Maybe.

Let’s change the subject.

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Monday, November 22nd, 2010 Beverage Blog 2 Comments

Tea-Beer, Too: The Chocolate Puerh Stout

After the slam-dunk that was the strawberry tea-beer, I was eager to try other combinations. The particular flavor I craved was chocolate. Teas with that flavor profile were a gamble, but chocolate beers fared better odds.  The hunt was on.

Luckily, I didn’t have to look that far for the right tea. On a random run to Whole Foods, I spotted a Chocolate Puerh put out by Numi. In my tea journey, I had since graduated from “ye olde teabag”, but there were a few companies I returned to for a quality product. Numi was one of them, principally for their organic emphasis. Yes, organic does make a difference in taste. That and their Chocolate Puerh used no chocolate flavoring.

Ingredients were thus: “Organic Puerh, Organic Cocoa Powder, Organic Vanilla, Organic Theo Chocolate Cocoa Nibs, Organic Rooibos, Organic Orange Peel, Organic Nutmeg, Organic Cinnamon”…or so sayeth their site. Point being, they captured the essence of chocolate perfectly. Sweetener wasn’t even needed to invoke that sensation.

To my surprise, I actually had a harder time finding a chocolate beer. Whereas finding the tea took mere seconds, the right beer took – oh – a few minutes. I know; such a chore. Not that time was of the essence or anything.

I settled on a Chocolate Stout put out by Bison Brewing. It, too, was labeled as an organic product. This was perfect. Not only might I land a like-flavored tea-beer, but hippies would approve. That has always ever been my goal! (Er…not really.)

I quickly rushed home to begin the alco-alchemy.

A troubling thought surfaced when I started steeping the tea. The Chocolate Puerh bag contained roughly a teaspoon of tea/herb. That wouldn’t be enough to brew a proper concentrate. I could’ve gone with two teabags, but I was worried about flavor strength. I didn’t want the tea to dominate over the stout. Some might think, “How could a puerh tea supersede a stout in flavor?” To which I’d merely shake my head. Puerh brews strong…even as teabag fannings.

At the time, I had very few black teas at my disposal. The darkest I could find was a Ceylon blend put out by Smith Teamaker; their Kandy mix. Ceylon’s usually didn’t brew that dark, but I was desperate and it seemed robust enough. I added a tablespoon of that to the fray.

To my surprise, even with the smaller amount than usual, the tea brewed up quite dark. A dry, chocolaty scent emanated from the steam. Although, to be honest, it looked rather gruesome as it colored; like some kind of fecal swamp.

After roughly five minutes, the tea was done doing its thing. It was time to add the beer to the brew. The Bison was a thick stout, especially for beer from a bottle.  I couldn’t even see through it, and the rich, foamy head resembled that of a nitro on tap. Perhaps a thicker puerh concentrate wasn’t a bad idea after all.

I added the tea muck to the beer bulk. It was amazing to see a beverage blacken even more; like looking at an event horizon taking form in a pint glass. Concentrated cocoa evil. I betrayed a wicked smile. Usually, when a paler beverage is added to a stout – such as with a Black and Tan – they instantly divide into two layers. That was not the case here.  Both seemed to mix favorably.

Applying a spoon to the concoction to stir proved a bit of a chore. The foam, which had frothed more with the tea inclusion, clung to the utensil as if trying to swallow it whole. Demons couldn’t have conceived of a more fantastically devilish effect.

As for taste, it completely lived up to the promised namesakes of both. The cocoa-nib-laden puerh blended with the stout for a flavor that was on the favorable side of dark chocolate. It wasn’t as sweet as I would’ve thought, but chocolate worth its weight in wonderful isn’t. I was now two-for-two in my tea-beer trek. I still preferred the strawberry mix better, yet this definitely earned a savory silver medal.

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Friday, November 19th, 2010 Beverage Blog, Steep Stories 4 Comments

Food Fusion Fail

Having a “what-does-this-button-do?” reaction to the world is no way to live, but sometimes – just sometimes – it livens things up. I’m generally a pretty safe (to the point of cowardly) person. Risk-taking is not a part of my dossier. However, every once in a while, in my own little way, I step out of the packing-corn-laden box to try something new. Usually, it involves food.

About a year ago, a “test” of sorts was inspired by a random Facebook conversation with Mr. Wind-Up Bird. The lucky S.O.B was living in Japan at the time and bragged – in status-update form – that he was having some yuzu-flavored tea-in-a-jar. Naturally, my ears perked at this. I had tea-in-a-jar before. A trip to the Stash Tea Store garnered an impulse buy of some pomegranate Korean Jar Tea.

The concept behind jarred tea alone was fascinating. In essence, it was a gelatin, syrupy-sweet, glob of pure carb-crash that one simply mixed in with hot water. As I understood it, most jarred teas were thinly-sliced fruit pieces (or whatever namesake flavor was used) combined with honey. I rather enjoyed the pomegranate one but hadn’t had the urge to try others. Yujacha – the Korean name for yuzu-fruit jarred tea – peaked my interest. Of course, anything involving small citrus fruit had that effect.

Photo from Wikipedia

Photo from Wikipedia

I jokingly responded to Wind-Up Bird’s update by daring him to use the citron tea as a topping for green tea ice cream, or I would beat him to it. He responded with a chuckle (I think? I couldn’t tell. It’s Facebook), said it sounded delicious, but gave me the proverbial “have at it”.

And so I did.

My first and only stop was at a Korean supermarket within car-shot of my work. I knew they carried a wide assortment of jarred teas, and I was confident they’d have yujacha as well. I searched up and down the aisles for a good fifteen minutes. Nothing. Dejected, I settled on some saenggang cha – honey ginger tea. It looked about the same color.

After I found the green tea ice cream, I left. My wallet was hurting. All of this for a dare I made…to myself.

First, I decided to try the honey ginger tea by itself. I took a teaspoon of the jelly, added it to a 12oz cup of boiled water, then stirred. I was mildly disgusted with the fact that small flakes of ginger existed within the honey-laden concoction. They didn’t dissipate as readily as the honey either, rather, the yellow-ish tendrils swam as I stirred like blonde hair follicles. Quite revolting.

I took a sip, and – to my “not surprise” – it tasted like ginger but with a creamy texture. The liquid was a bit on the viscous side, proof that the honey still put up a fight against the hot water. The flavor wasn’t bad, it was just…well…ginger-y. Not exactly my favorite of tisanes. I doubted it would mix well with the green tea ice cream, but a dare was a dare – even self-motivated ones.

Green tea ice cream is a love-it or hate-it affair. A lot of people can’t stand the taste of it. And it’s not a complicated creation. Someone took normal (possibly vanilla) ice cream and whipped it to hell with some matcha (powdered green tea). The result is a dessert that Dr. Seuss would be proud of, and it tastes like frozen sweet grass. I like the stuff, but it’s an acquired taste.

I had a fair idea what a ginger green tea tasted like. Tazo made one, and – boy – did it taste like burning! A tad strong on the ginger aspect; great aftertaste, though. From past experience as a tea reviewer, I knew that ginger only blended well if it was done faintly. A light ginger presence went a long way. The same was true in cooking with ginger, in my opinion. According to Ayurvedic practices, ginger was a “hot” herb, which explained why it always gave me heartburn if I had too much. I wondered how well it would mix with something cold.

In short, I thought it mixed quite well at first. The grassy-sweet flavor of the green tea meshed magnificently with the honeyfied ginger. The flakes of the herb even acted as a welcomed garnish. Problem was, a few bites down, the “hot” herb made short work of the ice cream. The concoction melted into a yellow-green, amorphous mass in the bowl. After a few minutes, it was nothing more than sweet milk soup. I couldn’t stand the texture of it then.

In summary, this food risk was a mixed bag. I didn’t faint, vomit, or lose an appendage. But I did have a craving for a lukewarm glass of water. Badly.

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Wednesday, November 17th, 2010 Steep Stories No Comments

Social Graces of the Sky

Photo by Ian Burt

Photo by Ian Burt

Picture if you will a hectic afternoon of changing flights. We’ve all been there. Playing airline tag is a necessary evil in the game of speedy commute. The goal of an airport is to herd sardi-…I mean, “patrons” to the correct winged can. Then they launch said can into the elements to bump and jostle until the final destination is reached. It’s a tedious, long, frustrating, and overall uncomfortable experience. One of the few joys – for a solitary male, anyway – is sitting next to attractive girl.

In this, I have the worst luck. I pray to whatever lust demon happens to be in charge of such matters, but almost every time I get stuck with the “just-shy-of-too-obese-for-the-plane” guy or the twitchy woman with a horse’s maw.  I wasn’t particularly thrilled about the flight I was getting on. It was a departure from Billings, Montana with a changeover in Seattle, Washington. I love me some Montanan women, but they’re not the ones sardine-ing themselves on Horizon flights.

I found myself in Billings waiting for the clock to chime with the load-up warning. Also in the waiting was a rather striking fortysomething gal who had “BikerMomma” written all over her – auburn hair, square jaw. The epitome of badass beauty. If it weren’t for clothing in the way, I would’ve guessed she was adorned with tattoos.

There were a few other scattered specimens waiting for the flying bucket to board; a couple of blondes, a college girl or two. Things were looking up this flight. The time came to crowd onto the metallic seagull before I could muse on it any further.

My side of the row was a two-seater – one aisle, one window – mine was the aisle. Two rows behind me was BikerMomma occupying a window seat all by her lonesome. Damn, there went that imaginary opportunity. All I could do was sit, wait, and see if my fellow occupant was of the aesthetically pleasing variety.

The first person on was a rather sweaty mouth-breather of a business man. The second, some corpulent “thing” that I couldn’t discern a gender for. Fifth through tenth? Nothing. Fifteenth? Cute brunette, four aisles up. Damn! The suspense was killing me. Then came a platinum, bottle blonde girl in a pink ski coat. Jackpot!…I hoped.

“‘Scuse me,” she said in the cutest, squeakiest voice ever.

I got up to let her through, all the while trying to contain my elation. The feeling didn’t last long, however. Someone tapped my shoulder soon after PinkCoatGirl sat. I could’ve groaned.

“Yes?” I said tightly.

A somewhat hippie-ish man with week-old facial scruff said, “Hey, I was wondering if you and I could switch seats. You see, my dad is over there.” He pointed to an older gent in the aisle seat on the other side of me. “I really want to sit next to him.”

Crap. I had to think a moment. Do I do the right thing here? What is the right thing to do? How often do I get to sit next to a hot chick? Never?! Would it really matter to him if he was close to his dad? What, was his dad senile or something? He looked fine to me.

As all these questions played ping-pong in my brainpan, the PinkCoatGirl was looking at me intently. HippieSon also awaited my answer. His father…was staring blankly at the fold-out table.

I shook my head, “No…sorry.”

Dejected, HippieSon said, “That’s alright.”

“I’ll switch with you,” chimed a young-ish guy in the window seat next to HippieSon’s pop.

“Great, thanks!”

I looked to see where HippieSon had been sitting; it was the aisle seat next to BikerMomma.

For the rest of the flight, the PinkCoatGirl never said more than five words to me. And those five were extracted with great difficulty. All the while, two aisles back, the young-ish guy and BikerMomma were flirting and laughing the entire flight. What did I learn?

Biker chicks are awesome. Blondes in ski coats don’t talk much. Never get between the bond of father and son. And always fly Horizon; they serve good beer.

So, fellas, what would you have done differently?

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Monday, November 15th, 2010 Musings 6 Comments

My First Illegal Tea

There is an unassuming leaf from a high-altitude South American country that turned 1970s America upside-down. It wasn’t the leaf itself that was the problem, but rather what was in the leaf. At first, this principle alkaloid was extracted for medicinal purposes. That is, until it was determined – like everything else – it was habit forming. While the leaf itself was “mostly harmless”, what could be extracted from several leaves ruined lives. But try telling that to the upper half of an entire continent.

The consumption of the coca leaf in and around the Andes region dates back nearly three thousand years. Earliest reported case of consumption was around 500 A.D. Exhumed mummies even had traces of the leaves on them. Its primary function was to alleviate altitude sickness and promote alertness. By the 16th century, coca was introduced to Europe as a cognitive supplement, popularly in the form of cocawine. That spearheaded further extraction of the primary alkaloid – cocaine – into other related products in later centuries; including a certain beloved soft drink.

Of course, the rest is history. Cocaine – or fancifully known in scientific circles as benzoylmethylecgonine (I can’t even say it right) – was made illegal and with good reason. In its raw form, it was addictive and damaging. The coca leaf was banned in the U.S. and other United Nations countries. Aside from portions South America that generally didn’t see what all the fuss was about.

Which brings us to the present…or rather…to me…

In an unassuming hotel on an unassuming May day, a cheaply-vested curmudgeon (me) was working the front desk. Occasionally, a friendly – and by all MILF regulations, “hawt!” – woman in her late thirties would come down to get her mail. She sometimes regaled the poor-seeming staff with her recent globetrotting excursions. Her latest was a stint in Guatamala to build a hospital. Such a humanitarian.

While I was speaking with her, the subject of Machu Picchu, Peru came up. She mentioned that she visited there at one point. I drilled her with a few questions. (But honestly, that wasn’t the only “drilling” I was thinking of. Sue me, I’m male.) She said it was breathtaking.

I said, “I would love to go there and drink mate de coca [coca leaf tea]. Y’know, for ‘altitude sickness’.” I exaggerated with douche-y air-quotes.

“Oh, I have some of that,” she replied.

“Wait, wha-?”

“Oh yeah, I’ve got a few bags of it,” she continued. “Would you like some?”

I nodded an emphatic “Hell YES!”

The next day, two teabags of Guatamalan-packaged mate de coca and three of some black tea were in my possession.

It took me about a month, though, to muster up the nerve to try it. There never seemed to be a good reason or rhyme. Plus, I wanted to photograph the momentous occasion; my first “illegal” tea. No, I wasn’t worried about getting high off the stuff. After all, I knew it took almost a garbage bag-worth of coca leaf to produce one gram of cocaine. Frankly, I just didn’t know what to expect. The time finally arrived after – of all things – a bedbug scare.

I am the unfortunate owner of a very loving, very cuddly, but very hairy cat. The two disadvantages to this are thus: (1) She is always shedding. Always. Regardless of season. (2) She is prone to visitors of the insectoid kind.

My brother/roommate called me one night while I was at work claiming he found a bedbug on my fuzzy missus. He also relayed what I had to do to secure my room, since she always slept there. Instructions included doing laundry, taking a steam iron to all mattresses, delousing my comforter in the dryer, and vacuuming thoroughly. It was going to be a long night.

When I got off shift, I told him I’d get started right after a warm cup of tea. At first, I aimed to imbibe something caffeinated, but – while I love my tea – it didn’t pack the necessary wallop I would need for the task ahead. Then my eyes darted to the teabags. It was as good a time as any to find out how much of a punch coca packed.

Coca leaf is loaded with alkaloids. Two fo the principle ones are the titular cocaine (as mentioned above), and another interesting stimulant – nicotine. If anything was going to keep me awake, it would be this tea. I brewed it up.

For the purposes of examination, I tore open the bag to get a better look at the contents. Par for course for a teabag-cut herbal, the leaves were mere fannings. Color-wise, they resembled yerba mate, sort of a sandy green.

On splashdown, the steam that emanated from the fannings was most abbhorrent. It smelled like bongwater. I sincerely hoped this wasn’t a sign of the beverage to come. Er…not that I know what bongwater tastes like or anything. Heh…heh…

I had no real brewing instructions to go on with the coca, so I went with a typical default for any herbal tea; boiling water, six-minute steep. It colored up rather quickly to a soupy green that looked very close to a stinging nettle or yerba mate infusion. To an innocent bystander, the beverage resembled a relaxing herbal “tea” like chamomile.

At first, I thought as much. I sat down in a couch and took my first dreaded sip. I didn’t die, break out into hives or shakes, nor did I start chewing at my clothing. The liquor tasted almost exactly like yerba mate by way of a lemony herb with an unusually sweet finish. On the forefront, it was bitter and leafy, but it settled into what – for all intense and purposes – seemed like a perfectly cozy cup of tea.

Then there was a shift…

My thought process exactly: Hrm, this isn’t so bad. It’s a bit vegetal but sweet. It’s also kind of relaxieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEHEHEHEHEHEEEEE!

I didn’t see it coming. The experience is hard to describe, so I’ll merely hold up this poorly-drawn, poorly-photographed representation to give you a better idea.

That’s how I felt. To say I was awake would be like comparing a comatose monkey with a three-toed sloth. Does that make sense? Not really. But that echoes my feelings on the matter. I didn’t feel caffeinated, alert or high. I felt like I could seamlessly walk through walls, vibrating the entire way.

Until five in the morning

In that period of time, I vacuumed and steamed both mattresses, washed all blankets and clothes, swept, and straightened. The biggest achievement was my closet. I reorganized it. All of it. It went from a pile of clothes to categorized and itemized stacks. Given more time, I probably could’ve cataloged them by purchase year. I didn’t just feel awesome. I was Awesome-personified!

Except for the inevitable crash. The surge of productivity downgraded to something I hadn’t expected – rampant paranoia. Once the basic de-bedbugging was done, I sat down at the computer and began looking up more information on coca leaf. Big mistake.

In my digging, I learned that the benzoylmethylecgonine not only stayed in your system, but it could produce a positive reading on drug tests. And remained that way for up to ninety days. The leaf only contained trace amounts of the controversial component, but – like poppy seed muffins – it could change a life. I read testimonials about soldiers discharged for positive urinalyses after consuming the drink. I started freaking out.

An hour later, I quelled my fears with a cup of chamomile. The neurotic inner monologue receded to a dull hum, and I settled into an (albeit fitful) sleep. My dreams were also something else…too bad I don’t remember them. I think one involved sentient cheeseburgers.

Photo by Mark T. Sedita

Photo by Mark T. Sedita

I tried mate de coca one other time, and the stimulant results were less erratic. In the end, while the cognitive alertness aspect was indeed badass, I determined that acquiring more wasn’t worth the risk. Even the taste didn’t warrant future pursuit. I’m sure it’s beneficial in many ways, but there are better (tasting) herbals out there. And that’s all I have to say about that…

…Uh…Yer Honor.

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Friday, November 12th, 2010 Steep Stories 5 Comments

Makin’ a Maple Bacon Tea Latte

I’m allergic to pork.

Pig’s meat and I don’t get along. I learned this the hard way as anyone would – while eating a sandwich. Maybe some might learn of so traumatic a food sensitivity via pizza or a hot dog, but mine was triggered by bad batch of organic, free-range deli ham. Yes, very manly. This occurrence made everything – with the exception of Irish rashers (because they’re blessed by leprechauns) – off limits.

Of course, as fate would have it, love of bacon reached meta-memetic proportions on the “Internets” and various other media. So exaggerated was this bacony adulation, that numerous unrelated products started hitting the market; bacon vodka, bacon clothing, bacon-flavored desserts. None of these caught my eye, and still I wallowed in my allergy.

Until a tea caught my eye.

A little company called 52Teas came up with a Maple Bacon Black Tea. Wha?! Ingredients for this magnificent monstrosity included an Assam/Nilgiri black tea base, imitation bacon pieces, and maple/bacon flavors. No actual bacon…which meant I could have it! Alas, due to the model of the site, the tea sold out rather quickly. It came up again in circulation, and – fueled by nerdy curiosity – I instantly bought some. (My review of that chimeric beast can be found HERE.)

(Note: The product is now a permanent staple at the 52Teas offshoot site; Man Teas.)

While I thought it was lacking in certain areas, generally I liked it. On a particularly experimental day, I added a dash of Lapsang Souchong (a pine-smoked black tea) to the maply mix. The result was pure morning manliness, but something was still missing. It was a good breakfast cup but wasn’t quite “breakfast in a cup”. My geeky gears started turning.

In the same months that I received the bacon tea, I also played around with tea lattes; inspired by the London Fog, an Earl Grey concoction. I’d tested out various combinations, but none of them were very – y’know – manly. Lattes were the subjects of soccer moms, poets, and pansies. It didn’t help that I loved them, especially in tea form. Not manly.

The answer was a Maple Bacon Tea Latte. Ingredients would be thus: Tea (Maple Bacon/Lapsang Souchong blend), milk (obviously), vanilla syrup, vanilla extract, stevia, and maple syrup. The Gods themselves could not imagine so blissfull a concoction. (Maybe…)

First Step: Brewing the tea. Both Lapsang Souchong and flavored black teas of an Indian origin were rather resilient to long steep times. For the purposes of manliness, dark and slightly bitter were the way to go. Four-to-five minutes would be the ideal steep time; 2 tsp worth in 8oz of boiled water to brew a perfect concentrate.

Second Step: Heating and frothing the milk. This could be touchy without a cappuccino machine…which I didn’t have. I opted for nuking the milk for a minute – coincided with the last minute of the tea concentrate’s infusion – then used a milk frother.

Third Step: Adding the syrups/sweeteners to the milk. I suppose this could be done after frothing the milk, but I chose to do it during. A dash of stevia (Shush! Stevia is MANLY!), a hint of vanilla extract, and generous splashes of maple and vanilla syrup. Cleanliness is key, depending on the sticky condition one can tolerate with their frother afterwards. Stickiness is not manly…er…sometimes.

(Note: According to a May entry of The Consumerist, Torani has a bacon-flavored syrup. So if you want extra baconiness, substitute the vanilla syrup with this.)

Fourth (and Final) Step: Fusing the tea concentrate with the miasmic milk. This is pretty self-explanatory. I added the sweet/syrupy milk to the tea, then stirred. The result was, well, a latte by its very definition.

I also chose to add cinnamon as a garnish on top. Why? Because cinnamon is MANLY! I dare you to disagree! (Ahem.) And, there ya have it. Pure breakfast in a cup. When I first tried it, I was blown away. I even guinea-pigged my brother into sipping it, and he agreed. By description alone, most people I told the idea to expressed revulsion at the concept. Hopefully, this little tale and tutorial convinces you – fair reader – otherwise.

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Wednesday, November 10th, 2010 Steep Stories 2 Comments

Going Greek Mountain

The existence of Greek Mountain Tea (Sideritis syriaca) came to my attention on a perusal of the David’s Tea website. The exotic-looking plant had shown up in review samples, but I was too late in acquiring some. I almost made a purchase of it from David’s until I looked at the shipping charge. They were a Canadian company. Needless to say, it was out of my budget.

The back-up option was to hunt down a local provider. I scoured my usual tea spots. None seemed to know what it was. I even hit up Greek people I knew. For some reason, they hadn’t heard of it either.  At a Greek-owned nightclub, I asked the owner.  He wracked his brain for a bit, then said, “Oh yes, veddy good tea. Veddy good!” Then he recommended a Greek deli/mart that might have it.

That deli ended up being Foti’s, a popular lunch spot in NE Portland. Half of the shop was sectioned off for Greek market products. On one of the shelves – next to the sage – was my target.

I took it home and instantly began experimenting. First, I tried it steeped like any normal tea/tisane. This yielded a pale yellow cup with a light citrus taste, but it didn’t leave much of an impression. Then I perused the internet for other recommendations. Apparently, it was so resilient an herb that a good brew had to be decocted (i.e. boiled) for ten minutes in a pot. I should’ve know this, since the review site forum had mentioned as much.

While I did possess a pot in which to do the boiling, I didn’t have much of a desire to.  Main reason? I was afraid of the stove. I know…I know…shut it. However, I did have something in my possession that would work. A cheap, plastic electric tea kettle that continuously boiled water. My sister gave it as a Christmas present the year prior. I was in business.

After a ten-minute boil, the brew had reached the desired amber I’d seen in many a photo. It was also scalding hot due to the repeated boiling of the water. I actually required an ice cube to make it drinkable. But once it was ready…oh dear Lord…

The flavor was a unique mélange of honey, lemon, and mint. There was also something wildernessy about the taste, like one had stepped onto a Mediterranean field and instantly found a hot tub. It had a lot in common with chamomile on the initial taste, then settled into something more akin to lemon verbena; but without the vegetal note.

One recommendation I read noted that the drink was not complete without honey. Not just any honey, though. Only Greek honey would do. This led to a return trip to Foti’s Deli.

I hoped the honey was worth the trouble. The stuff cost me twelve bucks. That was expensive, even for honey. For twelve dollars, the bees used to make it better be endangered. The back of the bottle mentioned that Greek honey differed from other types because of the flowers that bees cultivated. Honey was – after all – just bee puke, so it wasn’t difficult to surmise that bee puke was different from plant-to-plant, country-to-country. But enough about that.

They were right. Greek honey was the missing element for this already-almost perfect beverage. It added a creamy, sweet element to the natural citrus lean of the stubborn herb.

I ended up making several other trips to Foti’s, and – for awhile – it was my go-to sleepy-time drink. I don’t know why I lost interest in it. Part of that may have been due to the one time I ended up with a bad batch. Still, it’s an amazing herbal infusion that apparently also keeps you from getting sick. Or so says someone’s Greek mother.

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Monday, November 8th, 2010 Steep Stories 3 Comments

The Strawberry Tea-Beer Experiment

I have two loves in this world. Er, well, two “drinking” kinds of love. Tea (the one that’s good for me) and beer (obviously not good for me). What I always wanted to do was combine the two together somehow. Sure, I could have gone about the herculean homebrewing task of adding tea leaves to malt and barley, but I’m nowhere near that ambitious. There had to be a lazier way to do it. I had an idea, and all I needed were like-flavored ingredients. Two years ago, I decided to find them.

As luck would have it, this task didn’t take too long. Several years ago, I had a rather loud strawberry-laden blend from Stash; their Chanakara Red Berry Roobios. On the beer front, I encountered an equally berry-fueled beer at the North American Organic Brewers Festival. Samuel Smith’s Organic Strawberry Ale. I knew how to acquire the first but was hard-pressed on locating the latter. By happenstance, I found it at a local Whole Foods. This shouldn’t have surprised me.


Now came the task of combining the two. In my mind’s eye, I thought the best way would be to cold-brew the “tea”. That process was simple enough; brew a heated concentrate (4 tsp in 16oz of boiled water) and fill a glass with ice.

The second step was even simpler. Divide the iced tisane between two pint glasses – halfway with each – then pour the beer over both.


The end result of the cold-brewed tea-beer tasted like…well…watered down beer. With ice in it. I even tested the combination on my stepdad, who – up ‘til then – was hovering around the alcoholic alchemy with eager eyes. His opinion matched my own. Something was “off”. I was almost there, but not quite.

Around this time, I’d forgotten about the re-steeped roobios concentrate. I had brewed it for a sleepy-time tea after the experiment. I also had about 4oz of the strawberry ale left as well. Had to finish that, too. I mean, you don’t waste good beer. Then I had an epiphany.

I combined the hot tea with the cold beer.

It was like liquid magic. I never thought to use hot tea because I feared it would take from the beer’s natural foamy texture. The complete opposite happened. The juxtaposed elements and temperatures actually gave the beer greater head, especially after a stir or two. The flavor also didn’t diminish. The naturally bitter ale complimented the nut-sweet rooibos, and both strawberry characteristics combined perfectly. End result was bitter on the foretaste, smooth and berry-filled in the middle, and finished with a crisp aftertaste.


Laziness had paid off…and inspired other combinations. Some more successful than others. But I’ll get to that at a later date.

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Saturday, November 6th, 2010 Beverage Blog, Steep Stories No Comments

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