Archive for May, 2011

Smoked Lapsang Porter – A (Manly) Tea-Beer Experiment

Back in April, a few of us in the Tea Twitterverse bestowed the rank of “manliest tea” (oft-considered a contradiction) on Lapsang Souchong. We even postulated on effects said smoked tea had on the unwitting imbiber. The Chuck Norissian dialogue that ensued was also the source of inspiration for my first foray into “tea fiction” – The Legend of Lapsang. I won’t pretend it was a good story by any manly measure, but it got the point across.

Lapsang Souchong – in Fukienese, “smoky sub-variety” – is a black tea from Mount Wuyi, Fujian province, China. The region is mostly known for producing high-grade, high-altitude oolongs. The black tea is made from the “Bohea” leaf cultivar, but its true uniqueness comes from the way it’s processed during drying. There are several origin stories of how this technique came about; whichever one is true, the effect is the same. The tea leaves are placed on pinewood fires and smoked. The result is a tea with a smell of hickory and a taste of campfire. In short, a very MANLY taste…but enough of the Tea 101.

I was inspired by a post made by the “teaviants” over at The Tea Blag to do an experiment with Lapsang Souchong and alcohol – my fifth of this sort. I had fused tea concentrates with beer on a few occasions and even wrote about two of the most successful attempts. I’m not sure what brought about this brainfart, but it was high-time to do another. For this round, I meant to combine a smoked porter with the infamous smoked tea.

Finding the beer I needed didn’t take long thanks to the Almighty Google. Stone Brewing was an op out of my old haunt of San Diego, CA. I never visited their actual HQ, but their products were quite known to me – particularly the delicious Arrogant Bastard ale. Among their wares was a Smoked Porter, and they described it as, “dark, smooth and complex, with rich chocolate and coffee flavors balanced by a subtle smokiness.” Sounded like a perfect match for what I had in mind.

I brewed the concentrate like I always did for tea-beers and/or iced tea – 2 tsp. worth of leaves in 8oz of water, Russian zavarka-style. The porter was kept on ice until the tea had about five minutes of steep under its leather-scented belt. It didn’t quite darken as much as I thought it would; Lapsang Souchong usually took on the color of crimson and “quantum singularity”. One could see their soul practically disappear into the brew. I wondered if it’d be strong enough to handle the porter.

Lastly, I whipped out a pint glass and poured the Stone Smoked Porter into half of it. When the tea was done fermenting its death brew, I plopped my ailing/aging Teavana steeper cup above the pint glass to drain. (Sidenote: That very steeper committed seppuku a week later.) Alchemy commenced as the contents collided. The void-black liquor didn’t water down or dissipate at all on splashdown. It was like staring into an alcoholic abyss.

To my surprise, the mixture didn’t bubble up on contact like with other tea-beer fusions. The porter’s foamy head remained as thick and even as it had before the tea inclusion. The concoction did threaten to envelop the spoon I used to stir the drink o’ damnation. I felt like an apothecary over a cauldron in some long-winded sci-fantasy novel.

Now, to taste…

The first thing I noticed when I put lips to glass was how lukewarm it was. Tea-beer experiences of past attempts yielded a brew with an average temperature of 150F-160F. That was one of the best parts of the combination, a warm beer that was still foamy and nowhere-near-flat. While this certainly wasn’t flat, it was maybe room temperature at best. Not exactly a bad thing. Dark beers were great at room temperature.

Secondly, the palette and palate; it was as black as night. I expected the porter to dominate the tea addition by a fair margin. Holy Hell, was I ever wrong! The mahogany, robust chocolaty notes of the porter were present only – and I do mean, only – on the initial sip. The rest – from top note to finish – tasted like charcoal, brimstone aftermath, death-by-Armageddon, post-war campfire, and nuclear fallout…with a floral finish.

I cocked an eyebrow, then the other. I think I twitched a little. My throat felt cold “burning”. The sensation trailed down to my stomach. Gurgling could be heard and felt. Some semblance of unrest was a-brewing deep within my abdomen. I pictured smoke-billowing hellhounds wreaking havoc on my intestines. I asked myself, Do I need to take a dump?

Before answering the questionable call of the wild, I coaxed my brother into trying the hellish hybrid. He sipped, he pursed his lips, and he pondered. Then he froze.

“It tastes like…ash,” he said flatly.

And after that second opinion, I entertained the “number two” that demanded my immediate attention. Once that was done, I came to the conclusion that this was perhaps too much manliness for one drink to possess. Either that or my sensibilities were far too delicate to handle the sheer potency of so firestormy a fusion. From a connoisseur’s critical tongue, it tasted awful. From a testosteronal standpoint, it was a necessary trial by fire.

I will say this. After finishing the last of the pint, I did feel like I could wrestle a bear. Unfortunately, one was not present. There was, however, a Saint Bernard puppy nearby. Close enough.

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Saturday, May 28th, 2011 Beverage Blog, Steep Stories No Comments

Wine Review: Jackson-Triggs Proprietors’ Reserve 2007 Vidal Icewine

Last weekend I felt like I was in college again. While I wasn’t an outstanding debauch in my early twenties, there were occurrences of not-so-well-mannered behavior. Such instances could easily (and often were) blamed on alcohol. What else was there to do in a city like Reno? Not much.

Since then, however – perhaps as a result of age or (shudder) maturity – I’ve slowed down some. My libation rituals were now the relaxed sort, and more importantly, the drinks had to taste good. Maybe it was the threat of an impending Rapture, or mockery toward the claim, but this last weekend…I partied. Hard.

Being in my mid-thirtysomethings has allowed me to develop certain, how shall we say, “expected refinements”. Beverages of the “whoo!” sort had to possess some redeeming palate quality. Crafted beers were better than macrobrews. Aged scotches were better than young. That sort of thing. All of that went out the window after the first Irish Car Bomb.

There was one glimmer of partial snobbery during the proceedings, though. A friend at Rapture Party #2 had in their possession a type of wine that was on my to-drink list. One that I learned of through a tea blend, no less; the much-touted Canadian ice wine.

Ice wine – as I understand it – is made from grapes that are harvested while they’re still frozen on the vine. While the grape itself is not frozen, the water within is, lending to a higher concentration of sugars from the grape…uh…juice to be pressed. The process of extracting said “must” requires delicacy.

First attempts at using frozen grapes for wine production date back as early as Roman times. However, it is believed that the first “eiswein” wasn’t produced until the 1790s. First recorded cases sprang up in 1830. Many found it to their liking, but further creation was a rare occurrence in Germany mainly due to labor intensiveness. The invention of the pneumatic bladder press (circa 1960s-ish) made production of ice wine on a larger scale more practical; Canada followed suit much later in the 1980s

The one my friend had picked up was from the Niagara Estate, part of the Jackson-Triggs family of wineries. It was an ’07 vintage and dubbed a “proprietors’ reserve”. I had no idea what that meant. I assumed it was fancy wino talk for “this-shit’s-expensive”.  Vidal was the varietal of grape used – a white wine hybrid between Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano, also used for Cognac) and Rayon d’Or (a rare grape that shared a name with a racehorse. No joke.) Said hybrid is mentioned as being well-suited to the icing process.

The liquor was gold-to-amber in appearance with a very “port”-like aroma – extremely pungent in its sweetness. It looked like no white wine I’ve ever encountered. If anything, on sight alone, it had the consistency of a flat pilsner but with a much better aroma. To the taste, wow…just wow. Sugar punched my tongue into submission, threatening a diabetic liquid coma. And that was just the sipdown.

Once the blunt introduction (and metaphoric cavity) subsided, it transitioned into a honey-textured, mango-rich top note that lingered on well into a creamy finish. This wasn’t white wine. Hell, this wasn’t even dessert wine. I know what this reminded me of. Mead. Straight, sweet, kick-your-arse mead – the kind waxed poetic in fantasy novels and Dark Age bar settings.

Before I knew it, I had polished off two-thirds of the bottle. I felt extremely guilty for doing so. The female friend that had provided it said she was just glad I enjoyed it as much as I did. This required further study and further sip-age. Return dips to the ice wine trough, though, were way out of budget. Until I possess the necessary funds to justify this expensive palate pleaser, I’ll settle with ordinary Vidal.

But…damn…that was good.

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Wednesday, May 25th, 2011 Beverage Blog 2 Comments

Knowing Shiloh – A Pre-Rapture Review of “The Christ Clone Trilogy”

In 1995, prior to graduating high school, I still held out hope of being a big-time sci-fi author before I hit my twenties. I had plenty of ideas in my mental vault, but the one that stuck out the most came to me a half a year prior. End-time talk was big back then – it being the last decade of the millennium and all – and, thus, my mind turned towards ideas of the apocalyptic sort.

In short, the idea was this: Imagine if a shadowy organization took blood samples from the Crown of Thorns and nails used to during the Crucifixion, then created a clone of Jesus Christ. When he came of age, they would pass him off as the Second Coming. The cloning would also trigger the events leading up to Armageddon.

Most folks liked the idea. My Dad even said, “You better hop on that quick.” Others thought it sounded similar to a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode premise. In typical fashion, I put the idea on the backburner. I was too busy being a teenager and figured I had plenty of time to flesh it out.

In 1998, someone beat me to it as my own father predicted. An author named James Beauseigneur released The Christ Clone Trilogy. The synopsis was near-identical to the one I was toying with. I was pissed. Luckily, I had revised the idea enough and took emphasis off the clone character. Eventually, I removed the clone bit altogether. Still…I was dejected. Beyond world building and character synopses, I never started it.

I lamented this vocally on a 2008 Myspace blog entry, which I later ported to this website. As chance would have it, the blog post – Stories I’m Glad I Never Wrote – became my most popular one to date. My website wasn’t even officially “live” yet. The sci-fi netzine – io9 – even spotlighted it; the exposure led to over 720 hits in a 24-hour period. (Hey, when you’re a nobody, that’s a lot.)

In the post, I mentioned my Christ clone idea in passing and said that some “dicksmack” snatched it out from under me. One of the replies happened to be from the author himself. It read: “Don’t know that anyone ever called me a dicksmack before.”

Pride is one thing, grace is another. No one stole the idea from me. He came up with it squarely on his own. My lazy-arse just never acted on it. I zapped off an apology to the author, published a retraction to the insult, and edited the original post. It was the least I could do. Beauseigneur actually took it with great humor and did something I never would’ve expected. He offered to send me the trilogy.

Who was I to turn down free books?! I wholeheartedly agreed. They arrived – I shit you not – a couple of days before Christmas. He even signed and inscribed each book. The first inscription, however, had me stumped. It read: “May you come to know and live in Shiloh.”

Huh? Wasn’t that a hotel chain?

I didn’t dig into the first book – In His Image – until August of ’09. At a family reunion I was attending, I asked my very Christian uncle what “Shiloh” was. The reference had him stumped as well. A perusal of a “Godepedia” turned up several things. The two definitions that sounded promising were a reference to a place in Israel where the Ark of the Covenant was said to reside, and the second was a definition – “he who is to be sent” – usually a reference to the Second Coming.

Being the slow reader that I am, I only made it through a third of the first book before putting it down. A whole year would pass before I touched again. Two things were at play here. One, I found the dialogue a little stilted, but the second reason was a bit more complicated. I was…humbled. This guy I didn’t even know had sent me free books after I insulted him, and he did a much better job with a similar story idea than I ever could. It was a sobering experience.

I plowed through the rest of the trilogy in the winter of ’10. Aside from long-winded character expositions (i.e. tendencies toward monologuing) and a somewhat slow start to the first book, I had to hand it to Mr. Beauseigneur. This was a well-crafted trilogy.

Without giving too much away, the premise is this: A reporter is called upon by an atheistic professor to join a crew sent to Italy. Their goal? To analyze the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. Carbon dating had already proven it a hoax, but living cells are found on the fabric. Said atheist prof (with help) takes the living cells for further study. Out of those, he fashions himself a cloned son whom he names Christopher Goodman. From there, apocalyptic events begin to unfold.

James Beauseigneur does a wonderful job at providing a valid sci-fi twist to the Shroud of Turin’s possible authenticity. Another masterstroke is his way of correlating events in Revelation to terrestrial occurrences in the real world. When the Rapture actually happens, instead of having people simply vanish, he opts instead for unexplained deaths. Millions of people around the world dropped like fruit flies. Government agencies and media sources blamed the mysterious deaths on a mysterious (and as-of-yet-unforeseen) disease. An extremely topical subject even today.

There are even bits of humor peppered throughout. My favorite being the name origin of the Wormwood comet in Revelation. I won’t spoil it, but here’s a hint:

After a languid, hundred-page setup, the story really finds its thriller pace and sticks to it. The narrative rivals The DaVinci Code in pacing and progress. Annotations are also provided – for the reader’s curiosity – when obscure references surface. The level of research the author must’ve conducted to craft this is mind-boggling. I don’t know if I would’ve ever had the patience.

By the third book, it almost seems like Beauseigneur ran out of real-world/terrestrial explanations for apocalyptic events. I can’t blame him. How can one find a practical means of explaining away Abaddon. (No, I won’t go into detail about what that is.) Even when the story goes full-throttle into Fundamentalist territory, the author never loses sight of its accessibility. He also pulled few punches regarding the more gruesome end-time events.

To sum up, compared to other apoca-fiction out there – yes, I’m looking at you Left Behind – this was a worthwhile read. The author does his damnedest to appeal to…well…even the Damned. It reads like a taut, well-researched, oft-technical thriller in the vein of Tom Clancy or Dan Brown. Only less formulaic. Those that have done Revelation-related research before might guess some of the twists and turns before they happen, but the reveals are refreshing nonetheless. For those of us that aren’t “Raptured”, it’s good tribulation reading.

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Friday, May 20th, 2011 Musings No Comments

From Opium to Oolong – Tea from Thailand

When I thought of Thailand in terms of tea, the only ones that came to mind were Thai sweet tea and Boba (or “bubble”) tea. The former of which was a glass of sugar with a little bit of tea in it; the latter I hated beyond measure. (Tapioca belonged in pudding…not tea.) As a result, it was easy to dismiss Thai tea culture as something only spoken of in giggle-fitted whispers.

A travel blog posted by Leafjoy corrected my preconceived notions by relating a rather interesting story. Apparently, in Northern Thailand – a place that’d become a tribal melting pot – they grew their own tea. Chiang Rai province was infamous for it’s old cash crop standby – poppies, the primary ingredient for opium. That had since changed to more orthodox offerings such as fruit and tea plants. The entry arched my “Tea WANT!” eyebrow. I hate it when it arches.

Courtesy of Leafjoy.com

I figured that acquiring some in recent months would be a distant and unlikely possibility, but serendipity had other things in store. On my Smith Teamaker jaunt to pick up the new Mao Feng Gin, I ran into Steven Smith himself.

“I have something you have to try,” he said.

He brought out a green bag adorned in Asiatic lettering and poured out some blue-green, balled oolong-ish leaves. The “blue tea” – as he called it – was given to him as a sample from a business contact in Canada. Said contact was curious if Smith wanted to carry it. In turn, he was curious what I thought of it. Neither of us were quite sure what the “blue tea” moniker meant, though. Steven also didn’t have any other details for me other than the tea itself and the growing region (Doi Tung). I thanked him profusely and went home to do a little digging and brewing.

The blue tea search left me quite stumped, however. I could find no mention of blue tea other than a listing on the Mariage Frères site for an “Opium Hill” tea. It looked the same as the sample I received from Smith. Unfortunately, their information on it – other than being of Thai origin – was sparse.

Dejected, I did what any tea geek would do in that situation. I turned to a more well-versed and aptly-named Tea Geek. He informed me that blue tea (or “qingcha”) was another given name for wulong/oolong. It was a blanket category for all semi-oxidized teas because of the blue-ish hue they take on after drying. It was a bit of a misnomer, much like the Western “black tea” label.

The leaves for this were “tricksy” in their appearance. On sight alone, they looked like any normal green-style oolong I came across. The semi-oxidized, blue-green color, and the ball-fisted rolling technique were not too different from Chinese or Taiwanese oolongs. If I didn’t know any better, I would say I was looking at a Bai Hao/Oriental Beauty – a light-roasted one at that. What informed me that I was dealing with something completely different was the aroma. I smelled berries; rather, three distinct ones – strawberries, grapes, and blueberries – fused together. It was like wrapping a Fruit Roll-Up around one’s nose.

Given the entirely new experience on sight and smell, there was no specific brewing template to go by. A good default with an aromatic, light-roasted oolong was multiple infusions in a gaiwan with 190F water. Basically, gongfu-style but less formal. I did exactly that with four steeps – two at thirty seconds, two at forty – 1 tsp. worth of leaf-balls.

First infusion (thirty seconds): I’ll be honest, it sorta smelled like pondwater. The liquor also looked river-green. The taste, however – while possessing a vegetal forefront – transitioned to a wonderfully floral body and a subtle fruit finish.

Second infusion (thirty seconds): This time the liquor took on a brighter color and a more aromatic scent – buttery like lotus blossoms. The floral character also echoed in the taste but with something more akin to jasmine. That could’ve been the somewhat dry forefront. The mid-body was more melon-like this time, very even in comparison to the first. What little aftertaste there was passed by with a smooth texture.

Third infusion (forty seconds): Same visual palette but with an indiscernible nose. It was neither an earthy or floral scent but rather something “clean”. In sharp contrast, the taste took on the berry notes I detected in the dry, fisted leaves. Very prevalent in the middle. Again, the aftertaste tapered off pleasantly.

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): The liquor color had lightened significantly to a pale yellow, more in line with some spring flush green teas. The taste still had plenty to offer, though. It alternated between fruity, creamy and floral – like a grape that’d been dipped in honey-vanilla and wrapped in petals for warmth. The finish possessed more of a vegetal kick, signifying that it was almost at the end of its yield.

This Thai goodie didn’t fade, though, until about infusion #7, much to my surprise. The flavor remained pretty even throughout, no major detractions from its original smoothness. That and it never took on the metallic astringency of an over-brewed Ti Kwan Yin.

While the initial steam aroma was off-putting on the first infusion, this was a very reliable introductory oolong. I’m not sure it would hold up in a taste-test against a good Wu Yi or Ali Shan, but right out of the starting gate, I’d say Thailand is off to a damn good start. This was the Shiraz of oolongs.

Special Thanks to:

Smith Teamaker – For providing the sample, and for terrific tea talk as always. I always feel at home there.

Michael J. Coffey (purveyor of TeaGeek.net) – For having the world’s most magnificently ironic name name ever, and for clearing up the “blue” debacle. He’s a fountain of tea knowledge.

Leafjoy – For their informative tea blog and for giving me permission to use one of their photographs.

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Friday, May 13th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

Beer Review: Elysian Avatar Jasmine IPA

Quick summary: Horrible morning at work, malaise of a mood all afternoon, and a desire to nap ‘til doomsday cometh. This was not the outlook any self-respecting geek was supposed to have on May 4th – or as I found out later, Star Wars Day. Livening and levity were needed. Two things usually work to accomplish this – sex and beer. One is a non-issue (as in, there is “none”), the latter required…movement. (I’m referring to getting up to go get beer.)

There was no beer in the house aside from my brother’s stash, and I didn’t want to mooch off of him like a tool. Plus, if I was going to travel to find beer, I figured I might as well make it an interesting selection. That is, beyond our usual mainstays of IPAs and stouts. At the five-o’-clock hour, I finally decided to embark on a beersade. (Like a crusade only…well…beer-ish.) Fast food would be picked up on the way as well. Can’t have catharsis without beer and bad-for-you food.

The beer portion of my neighborhood Fred Meyer is like a libation library. The microbrew section alone took up one aisle, and a second aisle was reserved for the sh*t beer. (Yes, Pabst is in that category, you silly hipster-bunnies.) It didn’t take long for me to find my target. In true form, it was an IPA, but it was a different sort of hoppy mistress.

At a miniature brewfest in June, I chatted up a lady brewer-rep about unlikely flavor combinations. Being a tea nerd, my ideas swung toward the botanical. One I suggested was a jasmine-flavored IPA. The brew-gal shook her head.

“It’s been done,” she said.

“By who?!” I demanded. Er…politely. Even though I forgot the “m” in “whom”.

“Elysian Brewing.”

Never heard of it. Apparently, it was a well-known Seattle outfit that sprung up in 1995 – my graduating year. For a short stint, they were partnered with a Universal Studios/Dreamworks/Sega venture called Gameworks, but went their own way in 2002. Beyond that, their history was fairly straightforward. No rising from the ashes, phoenix-style, or anything. To their credit, they had a unique naming scheme for their wares, and Avatar Jasmine IPA was at the top of the list.

According to the beer bio, it was made with Glacier and Amarillo hops,  and dried jasmine flowers were added during the boil. I was a bit disappointed that – for a Washington brewery – they didn’t use close-to-home Cascade hops, but that was beersnobbery kicking it. (They are the best hops in the world, after all.)

I gave it a pour.

I was impressed with the visual palette of the beverage itself. It was a dense amber-colored beast with bubbles rising from the bottom of the glass to fuse with the abundantly thick, foamy head. The aroma given off by the white, fizzy layer was somewhere in between a doppelbock and a standard IPA – both crisp and bitter. But then again, a lot of beers leave that impression on first whiff.

The flavor was an altogether different experience. To the tongue, it started off as any other IPA – bitter, hoppy forefront and all – but then transitioned to something expected and unexpected. The predicted dry, floral character appeared on the front. However, the body revealed shades of citrus and an unidentifiable sweetness. The latter also carried over to the aftertaste, which was where the jasmine presence lingered the strongest. Imagine if a Belgian-style wheat was drowned in hops, then had its bubbly grave sprinkled with lotus blossoms. Something along those lines.

In short, I was impressed. And more importantly, it gave me a “happy”. Whatever proverbial cloud that hung over me all sunny day dissipated with a floral swig. Was it a buzz? You betcha. And a well earned one, too. It appealed to my tea and beer geek sensibilities – a tough twosome to pull off.

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Thursday, May 5th, 2011 Beverage Blog No Comments

Mao Feng Gin

Smith Teamaker is slowly becoming my Cheers. It’s the place I go where my name is known, where I’m greeted with a smile, and share a witticism or two about/over tea. It’s a bit of a jaunt from my little ‘burb but worthwhile every time. On one such stop through, I made it a point to try out their Bai Hao Oolong and see if they could answer a pressing question. (“Was Bai Hao Oolong from Taiwan or Fujian Province, China? Seriously, the question’d been bugging me for months.)

I asked the taster room hostess if she knew the answer to my Bai Hao dilemma. She didn’t, but she retreated to the back to talk to one of their master blenders – Tony Tellin. I’d had conversations with Tony before. Great guy. I owe my oolong graduation – from mug to gaiwan – to him. Changed my brewing life, that little lidded cup did. But anyway…

He came out and immediately sidetracked my train of thought with an announcement. A new gin-infused prototype tea was ready. A couple of months back, he allowed me to sample a test-run of some Ti Kwan “Gin” – an oolong soaked in Tanqueray gin for an extended period of time, then re-dried. (My impression of that can be found HERE.) I loved the stuff and found that the natural floral/mineral foretaste complimented the newly-juniper’d body. Tony still felt that the winy top note wasn’t strong enough. Further experimenting was needed.

This time around, he played around with some Mao Feng green tea dipped in Sapphire gin. I assumed he was referring to Bombay Sapphire, but I’m not a gin connoisseur by any stretch. He brewed me a pot, while I smelled the bag. Oh boy, was it stronger on the nostrils than the oolong test! The taste was also stronger. The usual nutty/vegetal front was almost immediately pushed aside by a jolting juniper berry note that lasted to a tapered finish.

While I sampled that, my aforementioned Bai Hao, and later a pot of 1st Flush Darjeeling, he answered my initial query about Taiwanese/Chinese confusion. Bai Hao was Taiwanese, and the Chinese version used Taiwanese techniques. Relieved, enlightened and in dire need of…a different kind of relieving, I made my exit soon after.

Word came over the Twitter pipeline a week later that the final Mao Feng Gin was ready. I had just ended a rather trying day of errand-running, and a hot pot o’ tea sounded like the perfect decompressor. The drive was relatively painless, and I was there in no time for a pre-funk pot o’ Darjeeling. Tony came out a moment later with a 1oz. bag – a warm bag at that. This stuff was literally “hot off the press”. He told me to wait about four hours before sampling it.

I tore into it the next day.

The dry leaves were long, curly and dark green like a standard Mao Feng. The differences on sight were subtle. A part of me thought the leaves were a darker palette than their usual un-“ginned” counterparts; like those included in Smith’s own Mao Feng Shui. The true difference came in the smell. Gin has a very pungent aroma that screams juniper berries and gasoline, and some of that was present in the aroma. First whiff revealed a prologue of buttered/salted veggies but – like the prototype – was immediately pushed aside by a straight juniper-ish tang. It was also a surprisingly damp scent.

I wasn’t quite sure of the best way to brew this. I referred to Smith’s instructions for the Mao Feng Shui as a springboard. They recommended a three-minute steep in 190F water. That seemed a bit high of a temperature, but other Mao Feng brew tips echoed their notes. Even I dared steeps at 180F with Mao Fengs of yesterbrew. I stuck to their approach to the letter – 1 tsp worth in 8oz.

The liquor infused to a pale green with a leafy and berry-ish nose. Unlike with the prototype, it didn’t have the immediate vegetal kick on first sip. The juniper note also didn’t bust the door down, berry guns blazing. Instead, it was smooth yet grassy before transitioning into a citrus-berry-sweet body. The finish possessed an unusual texture – equal parts creamy and swift. In comparison to the Mao Feng Shui, I would have to say I enjoyed this more. The addition of a juniper berry/lemony note gave it a character I found similar to an early spring Long Jing with a hint of lemongrass and almonds. A second infusion brewed up quite well in color, but didn’t have as strong of a gin presence except in the aftertaste; still quite enjoyable, though.

This marks the third of Tony’s gin-infused experiments I’ve tried in a two-month period. While the Ti Kwan “Gin” idea was discarded – and I lament it – I can see how Mao Feng was the stronger candidate. It was a lighter green tea that could easily be improved upon. Mao Feng-style greens were never my favorite; too vegetal for my tastes. But the additional gin-basting gave it that extra oomph to push it into Long Jing/tamaryokucha favorability. I look forward to whatever Tony concocts next.

I’m holding out hope for a Bai Hao Oolong/Gewürztraminer pairing, but that’s just me.

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Wednesday, May 4th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

Rock, “Paper Towns”, Scissors…Dynamite

When I was a kid, a common way to end a stalemate on any given issue was with the tried-and-true “Rock-Paper-Scissors” method. The game was the best tiebreaker our mushy, five-year-old minds could muster at the time. Of course, like with anything, variants on the original formula were bound to surface – mainly as a way of circumventing defeat. The most common in my neighborhood was “Rock-Paper-Scissors-Dynamite”. Needless to say, Dynamite trumped the other three by a fair margin.

It was cheating, but it was lazy, elegant cheating. And – by proxy – became an indirect philosophy I’d follow throughout my young adult life. Why take the assured path to success when you could circumvent it entirely, or not play at all?

In 1994, I had three high schools under my belt in three years’ time. I was a part of no extracurricular activities. I could count my best friends on one hand. And my greatest achievement up until then was having no picture in any yearbook. At all. My grades were poor, I never did homework, and teachers often didn’t know my name. I was less than a geek, less than a nerd; I was invisible and proud of it.

I remember one instance when I was walking down Senior Hall with a friend – minding my own gloom – when I heard a squeaky voice to my left.

“Hi! My name’s Jenny,” she said chipperly. She was seated on the floor, kinda cute, and her hand was extended. It was a simple and sympathetic gesture.

My response?

“You’re worthy enough to shake my comb,” I said flatly. I was standing above her, glowering, and my worn black comb was in my hand. It was a mean-spirited, unsympathetic gesture.

She recoiled her hand in disgust, and I continued on my way with a smirk.

That pretty much summed up how I dealt with most situations. Save for a notable exception – a youth fraternity I was a part of – I wanted little to do with high school as possible. I felt (or at least hoped) there were better days ahead. Not to say that opportunities to advance my station never emerged, I believed that I possessed some “geek cred” if my profile remained low.

Funny thing happened in later years, though. While I refused to admit it, I was drawn to things that reminded me of high school. A song would chime in on the radio – Pearl Jam’s “Evenflow’, perhaps – and my eyes would glaze over nostalgically. In 1998, a little movie called Can’t Hardly Wait was released. It was the first of a string of teen comedies that would glut the movie market for the next half-decade. I loved the stupid flick.

The dilemma only got worse from there. I hunted down movies from my childhood, songs that made me choke-up (Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”, anyone?), or any media that brought on a vague, yesteryear tug. What was weird about this was I should’ve had no attachment to my early teen years. Especially not high school. I had no defining memories to speak of. The whole travail was a blur. That didn’t stop me from reminiscing on a make-believe could’ve-been. I even wrote stories about it. Not very good ones, but they were jotted.

All this culminated a few weeks back with the acquisition of a library card. There was an author I’d meant to sample the wares of, a man-child my age by the name of John Green. I followed the adventures of him and his brother, Hank, on YouTube. They were efficient and proficient vloggers that covered subjects ranging from nerd culture to the elimination of – as they called it – “worldsuck”.

When John Green mentioned he was a writer of young adult literature, my curiosity led me to a mandatory perusal of the Almighty Wiki to learn more. Of the four novels to his credit, one particularly caught my eye – Paper Towns, the story of a girl’s disappearance and the clues she left a boy who liked her. It sounded like Goonies meets Road Trip with sprinklings of The Adventures of Pete & Pete thrown in for good measure.

Unfortunately, this meant sifting through the “Teen” section of the library. I was…oh…sixteen years outta high school. And the time I went to look for the book, I was sporting a not-creepy-at-all! five-o’-clock shadow. I justified the venture by telling myself, “The author is my age. The author is my age.” Luckily, I didn’t have to spend too long in there. The Gs were right by the entrance. I was in and out in two minutes.

(Sidenote: I did notice that not too far from “Green” was another name I would’ve never associated with “young adult literature”. William Gibson’s Neuromancer was a mere two subsections down. Now, I did read that book when I was in high school, but I would be hard-pressed to call it teen lit. Just sayin’.)

Normally, I’m a slow reader, but I plowed through Paper Towns in two days. Unheard of for me, even if it is teen reading. I owe that mainly to Green’s conversational prose. The story is simple enough – boy likes girl, girl sneaks into boy’s house, boy and girl go on an all-night caper, girl vanishes, leaves clues for boy…okay, maybe not so simple. I guess he kept it captivating enough to hold even my attention span at bay.

Simply put, the story is told from the POV of Quentin Jacobsen. No other way to label him except to say he’s the Marty Stu of the story – the author made manifest as a teenager. Quentin – or “Q”, as he’s known – has a childhood crush on the girl next door (as they often do). Said girl, Margo Roth Spiegelman, is best described as the “manic pixie” archetype. Everyone’s seen this character in one fashion or another. The most prominent examples I can think of are Kate Winslet from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Natalie Portman from Garden State. They’re interesting characters but cut from the same mold. But I digress.

Q learns that Margo has disappeared. According to her parents, this happened often and she always left clues to her whereabouts. This time, though, she only left clues for Q. With the help of his two best friends, he begins to understand that the Margo he thought he knew may have barely scratched the surface. And for some reason, this story hit me like a brick sh*thouse.

Q may have been a Marty Stu/author-in-protatonist’s-clothing character, but I could relate to him. Margo may have been a manic pixie, but I’ve known girls like her. Plus, the stage Green built to let his characters roam was a new one. In teen stories of prior readings/viewings, the dorky protagonists were inhibited by (and about) their lack of status. Not the case with Paper Towns. If it weren’t for the teeny-bopper treasure hunt put before them, Q and his “crue” would’ve gladly sailed through their senior year playing videogames and B.S.-ing. I’ve never seen any author explore that angle. Well, no one American, anyway.

In an odd way, I found parallels between some of the scenarios in Paper Towns to another unlikely story of teen angst – an anime based on a novel, no less. The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi is told from the perspective of a cynical teen (Kyon) who begrudgingly accepts his monotonous life for what it is. A small part of him desires an interesting change, but only a smidge.

His “world” is shaken with the arrival of a student that valiantly declares she wants nothing to do with “ordinary humans”. Her life goal is to prove the existence of extraterrestrials, time travelers, and ESPers (people with mental abilities). The eccentric yet beautiful oddball is Suzumiya Haruhi. Through a series of events Kyon can’t quite explain, he is thrust into her oft-foiled efforts to prove the mysteries of the universe. He also learns that Haruhi herself is one such mystery – one capable of unraveling the fabric of existence by her very whim.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. That sounds nothing like Paper Towns. Hear me out. Quentin bears similarity to Kyon in the fact that he is somewhat content with the cards he’s been dealt. A part of him does desire a shift in paradigm, but he’s too unmotivated to exact that change. Kyon, likewise – albeit more nihilistically – is accepting of his lot in life and sees change as an inconvenience.

When their prospective worldviews are tested by women [it’s always by women], both are reluctant at first to surf the tide. They do their damnedest to prevent change from occurring. However, that li’l part of them that thirsts for excitement takes over eventually. With a bat of a lash, they’re hooked.

I draw this parallel because both pieces – diametrically opposed genres, though they are – spoke to the part of me that sacrificed a casual high school experience for anonymity. Unlike those two lucky protagonists, I never had a manic pixie muse to challenge my reverent redundancy. The desire to seek out literature and movies that speak to that inner pubescent is proof of that. I guess I’m making up for lost time, encapsulating it as best I can in whatever medium I can.

If you – fair reader – aren’t familiar with the works of John Green, I seriously recommend checking him out. And by extension, seek out the anime or light novel versions of the Suzumiya Haruhi series. They are deceptively simple on the surface, but will breathe life to a part of you long thought dormant. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a fart joke to laugh at.

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Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011 Musings No Comments

American Tea (F*CK Yeah!)

“Amerikuh” – land of the free, home of the Braves.

Er, I mean, brave. Yep, that’s the ticket. Although, given our predilection for sports worship, I suppose both would apply.

Our plot of land across the Atlantic pond is known for many things – revolution, industry, questionable fashion sense, food that can kill you, and monopolies. However, one thing has eluded us for so many years, and the country as a whole doesn’t seem to mind. Blame that on one incident three hundred years ago where we threw a perfectly good batch of [something] over a perfectly good harbor. (Then promptly switched to coffee.) Yeah, that’s right. Most Americans simply don’t give a s**t about tea.

Oh sure, the South siphons sweetened iced tea by the keg, but they do so without regard to quality. If it blackens quickly and can hold up to sugar, nobody cares. A-MURR-ica’s mainstay morning beverage was and is coffee. Tea took a distant backseat, forever labeled as a drink for retired women in red hats and little girls with teddy bears.

That didn’t stop some industrious types from giving tea growth a try, though. With a full-fledged Tea Renaissance underway in the States in recent years, it seems as good a time as any to highlight some efforts to make it a cash crop. Some are old hands, some are new. All are as American as apple pie (which -incidentally – is a British innovation from the 1300s, but no matter…)

Earliest attempts to cultivate Camellia sinensis in the U.S. date back to 1744. Seeds were imported from China and planted in Georgia and South Carolina. Both states were deemed ideal environments for cultivation, but their respective climates were erratic. The first successful crop was reported in 1772, but it wasn’t triumphant enough to justify forming an industry around it. The labor intensiveness required was astronomical. Supply versus demand at its finest.

The Charleston Tea Plantation

In 1888, Dr. Charles Shepard founded a tea garden in Summerville, South Carolina called the Pinehurst Tea Plantation. The venture sold American-grown tea until his death in 1915. The garden fell into disrepair soon after and the plants grew wild for nearly five decades. In 1963, the Lipton folks acquired the garden and transferred many of the plants to an old potato farm on Wadmalaw Island. Their reason for the venture was to offset dubious political situations in Third World countries where most orthodox teas were grown.

The guinea pig operation remained in Lipton hands until 1987 when it was acquired by a former tea taster and another gentleman. They sidestepped the labor costs by using a converted tobacco picker to harvest the two leaves and buds necessary for tea. They sold their wares via mail order and through the Sam’s Club chain. Both teas put out by the plantation were American Classic and Sam’s Choice. The former of which also went on to be a Walmart “signature blend” and the official tea of the White House (an honor it still holds).

In 2003, the plantation was sold to the Bigelows (the Constant Comment folks). The doors reopened in 2006. Originally, American Classic was blended with other black teas. Reason? Not enough tea was produced at the plantation to create a “single estate” batch. That no longer seems to be the case.

The Charleston Tea Plantation now puts out a wide range of solely South Carolina-grown wares, including green tea and a revamped American Classic offering. I’ve had the pleasure of trying this and their Governor Gray blend, a redux of the old Earl Grey formula (with a proper A-MURR-ican spelling).

My opinion on American Classic can be found HERE.

My thoughts on Governor’s Gray can be found HERE.

More information on the plantation can be found HERE.

Sakuma Bros.

Funny story. Three years ago – roughly around the time I learned of the Charleston Tea Plantation – I made a jaunt to Foxfire Teas with my mother. I’m not exactly sure what sparked the conversation, but I chatted with the co-founder about ideal tea growing land. I argued that only the Atlantic Southwest had the right conditions tailored for tea; I also lamented that tea couldn’t grow in Oregon.

The guy at the desk shook his head. “Yeah, it can.”

“How? We’re not subtropical,” I said.

“See that tree?” He pointed at an unassuming shrub by the shop’s front door. “That’s a tea plant.”

Mind. Blown.

I went home and gave it some further thought. Oregon – and, by extension, Washington – had a similar environment to Japan. Both territories even shared similar flora. Japan had grown its own tea for centuries. It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that Oregon and Washington could as well.

And, lo and behold, it was a fourth generation Japanese American outfit that proved it was possible. Sakuma Bros., Inc. has been in the fruit and berry trade – in one fashion or another – since 1915. Within the last ten years or so they ventured into tea growing. Nearly 5 acres of land are devoted to tea. Three types are produced at their Skagit Valley farm – a green, a white, and an oolong. Of the three, I purchased – and loved – the white tea they put out.

My impressions of their Sun Dried White Tea can be found HERE.

For more information on Sakuma Tea, go HERE.

Hawaii-Grown

While not technically the U.S. mainland – and not an official state until 1959 – it still counts for the purposes of this write-up as A-MURRca, gash-durrnit!

Believe it or not, tea was actually grown and sold commercially from the Hawaiian islands as early as 1892. Reasons for it ceasing are a mystery, but it likely had something to do with American tea consumption (i.e. didn’t exist). That didn’t stop the Lipton Empire from looking into it, however, before defaulting on Latin American countries as their tea back-up.

Yeah, real stable economies there, Big L.

At the turn of the 21st century, though, a horticulturalist partnered with the University of Hawaii at Manoa to research tea cultivation on the islands. A strain of tea plant was found to flourish. Around the same time, independent farmers in Hawaii were growing their own tea from different varietals. Reason being, sugarcane in Hawaii took a nosedive with the advent of corn syrup (yay, fructose!), and tea was seen as a hopeful alternative.

Farmers banded together into their own collective called the Hawaiian Tea Society in 2004. By 2008, the land devoted to growing tea had tripled. A delegation of various growers, producers and retailers made a splash at the 2010 World Tea Expo in Las Vegas. I wish I’d gone.

Five months ago, through a tea swap with a Steepster friend, I was able to get a hold of some Hawaii-grown black tea put out by Samovar. The stuff retailed for $25 an ounce (!!!), and she’d imparted to me at least a quarter of that. It was highly unusual but almost worth the price of sipping.

My thoughts on that can be found HERE.

A List of Hawaii-Grown Tea Retailers (That I Know of)

Samovar – Carries the Hawaii-Grown Black I tried, as well as an oolong.

Narien Teas – Carries a Hawaii-grown green called Kilinoe.

Mauna Kea Tea – Grower and seller of single estate green tea and oolong.

Tea Hawaii – While not a direct seller of tea, these folks own their own garden and offer tours of it. They are also the producers of Samovar’s Hawaii-Grown Black (also called Mauka Black).

(Note: There are likely more that I’ve missed.)

Conclusion

Both tea appreciation and industry are still in their infancy in the U.S. Regardless, active and passionate efforts are being made to correct this. The results I’ve sipped so far have been spectacular, and – for the most part – affordable. I look at it this way: There’s a bit of an “anything-you-do-I-can-do-better” philosophy at play here – one I agree with.

Some would say that the best the U.S. has to offer still doesn’t compare to the tried-and-true tea practices of the Old World. To that I say, look how far we’ve come in only a hundred years? Looks to me like we’re doin’ purty good. Our D-student can beat up your A-student.

F**k yeah.

Sunday, May 1st, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

I work for tea money.

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