Archive for June, 2011

Attack of the Coffee Clones

“Ersatz” is a German word that roughly translates to “substitute or replacement”.  English speakers adopted it to refer to an inferior copy of something else. The original definition, however, does not indicate that the duplicate need be inferior – merely alike. My first exposure to the word arrived in two different ways the same year – one while reading a textbook (and falling asleep), the other used by a very glib and verbose friend of mine (who made me fall asleep). Of all the scholastically snobby traits I’ve developed, the use of “ersatz” never entered my lexicon. (Although, I still use “lexicon” regularly.)

The unique word was recently adopted by an outfit in Bellefonte, PA., called the Coffee Trade Company. In a “charmingly anachronistic” fashion (their words), they developed a coffee substitute that differed from others on the market. Most coffee subs I’ve encountered contain some combination of three ingredients – barley, chicory, and dandelion root. The last of which is often used as the primary.

On an attempt to find a coffee clone I liked, I experimented with a dandelion/chicory blend and straight roasted dandelion root. The results were underwhelming. On a later brew-up, I tried a Japanese barley tisane (mugicha) and found it quite delightful. While I didn’t experiment with blending any further, I readily assumed that those three were the magic ingredients for creating the perfect “coffaux”.

Ersatz went a completely different route, sidestepping the barley and dandelion entirely. They kept the chicory – likely for coloring purposes – but used roasted peas and roasted ri-…wait, did I read that right? Roasted rice?

Drat.

If it hasn’t been made apparent, I’m not a fan of rice as a tea additive. Genmaicha – the premier rice-blended green tea – is my least favorite. There’s only been one rice-flavored anything I ever favored drinking, a sticky rice pu-erh, and actual rice wasn’t included. In my palate opinion, rice can only be eaten, not steeped. And, yes, I’m fully aware that I’m in the minority.

To Ersatz’s credit, the blend smelled wonderful. It was equal parts toasty, roasty, earthy, woody, and…well…manly. There was a rough, wildernessy feel to the aroma, like coffee on a campground. Rice was not the dominant presence, nor was the tangy chicory. I hoped that carried through in the taste.

Brewing instructions were dead simple. It was a large teabag, and the ingredients were strong herbals. Great care wasn’t necessary. All I had to do was dunk the bag in a cup of boiled water for three-to-five minutes, and I was done. I tested the bag out at a full five minutes.

The result was a cherry-wood-to-dark-brown liquor with a strong “cooked trail mix” aroma. In all honesty, it didn’t smell like coffee. The smell sort of reminded me of barley but with less emphasis on the roasted characteristics. To the taste, it started out well enough, imparting a toasted/herbal profile but quickly translated into something I didn’t favor. There was the rice, I thought to myself. Two-thirds of the blend was wonderful and almost coffee-like, but the rice-reared finish was off-putting.

Not willing to admit defeat, I dared a second brew-up – this time at the three-minute mark. The liquor infused to the same deep brown but slightly lighter. The aroma was just as toasty as the lengthier infusion but a bit gentler on the nose. The flavor was a welcomed relief. All roasty/toasty beverage, no rice; if there was a rice presence, it was thankfully muted. Toasted veggies, smoked herbs, and an urge to go hiking were the only impressions imparted. The real joy came with the inclusion of milk and stevia. Now that was where it reminded me of coffee. Any faint rice-recoil was permanently subdued by the addition of dairy and sweet things.

I would be hard-pressed to call this end-all/say-all substitute for coffee. Having talked to my fair share of goths, hipsters, clock-punchers, and wired hackers, they will never give up their coffee. Ever. The flavor only leaves a faint impression of the blunt-force wake-up bean. That said, I could see a coffee drinker enjoying it as a nightcap. I certainly did.

But now I have a strange desire to write beatnik poetry…about clones. Why is that?

To buy Ersatz Coffee, go HERE.

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Thursday, June 23rd, 2011 Beverage Blog, Steep Stories 2 Comments

Smells Like Pure Nirvana

In Buddhist thought, nirvana is defined as “freedom from suffering”. That doesn’t just mean pain, but rather freedom from the game of life (or “samsara”). It also signifies freedom from the endless cycle of death and rebirth – the ultimate goal for attaining spiritual oneness with all things. The word was also the name of an overrated grunge band from the early 90s that somehow became the voice of “my generation”. Their music symbolized freedom of a different sort.

While nirvana no longer holds the same connotation thanks to that rock-‘n-roll inception, it does still hold significance. Being a thirtysomething with a dubious lot in life, I try to find peace wherever I can get it, preferably not in a harmful and addictive way. Well…one out of two ain’t bad. Oolong may be good for me, but it’s also really addictive. Funny, since I started off hating oolongs.inflatable water slides

Ever since learning to brew the semi-oxidized teas in a gaiwan, they’ve become habit forming. Oh, I still prefer my matchas, white teas, and Yunnan golds over ‘em, but I could drink oolongs all day. All. Day. White teas are like Cavendish pipe tobacco. Oolongs are menthol cigarettes.

Thus far my favorites have all come from the isle of Taiwan (or Formosa to the old school sort). Some Chinese ones have proven themselves worthy of multiple sips, but they don’t hold a candle to a high-altitude Bai Hao or Alishan. That said, there was one region that I hadn’t tried oolongs from, even though I’d heard scant mentions of them – Darjeeling. A random message from East Pacific Tea Co. changed all that.

In appearance, their Pure Nirvana bore a striking resemblance to just about every Darjeeling first and second flush OP I’ve ever seen. The color palette ran the gamut from tippy gold to roasted, dark brown. If I was looking at this blind, I would’ve guessed it was an Indian black tea or a Formosa oolong. The aroma was also inviting with its clean, grape-spice profile – almost like a white tea but deeper.

Brewing instructions recommended a steep of three-to-five minutes in 195F water. I agreed with the temperature but not the prep. If it was an oolong, there was only one way I could do it. You guessed it, in a gaiwan.  I used 1 heaping teaspoon of leaves , did four successive steeps – first two for thirty seconds, the last for forty – and jotted down my opinions of each. I hoped there were shifts in flavor between them like its Chinese counterparts.

First infusion (thirty seconds):  “Holy whoah!” was my first reaction to the scent of this pale, amber-colored infusion. That grape lean I detected on a dry whiff had doubled after brewing. It smelled like a first flush Darjeeling with a muscatel lean. Taste reflected that as well. The only major difference was the roasty finish, reminiscent of other oolongs.

Second infusion (thirty seconds):  The liquor was darker this time, taking on a copperish-gold palette. The aroma was deeper on the spice with a slightly nutty trail-off. This echoed as well in the taste with a tamale-esque forefront, followed by a fruity body and a faint astringency on the aftertaste.

Third infusion (forty seconds): Straight amber infusion this time ‘round with a more balanced spice-grape aroma. One nostril note didn’t dominate over the other. The flavor was also more even, if a little more subdued. Heavier fruit taste on the finish, though, and almost no dryness/bitterness.

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): While more bitter than the other three steeps, this was perhaps my favorite. Everything just seemed louder and lovelier from the scent to the flavor. There was also an earthier tone to it, which truly made it an oolong in my eyes.

Pure Nirvana kept its strength for at least three infusions later, never letting up on its muscatel profile for a moment. After a rather long work week, it was truly a pleasure to experience this wonderful oolong. I stayed at home in my pajamas, sipping the day away like some fat, thirtysomething Buddha. And I was happier for it.inflatable water slides

For more information on East Pacific Tea Company, go HERE.

To buy Pure Nirvana, go HERE.

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Tuesday, June 21st, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

“Thé”-ater: Tea Time at the Movies

My mother is an idea gal – always has been. The part that’s most frustrating – especially for me, the eldest of her brood – is that she is right 90% of the time. I think she missed her calling as the head of a newspaper, the magnate of an advertising agency or the moderator for a think tank. Her braingems should be bottled and sold on the black market for six figures. I say this because…well…she’s the reason this entry exists.

One phrase from her, just one phrase: “You should do movie reviews with tea.”

At first I scoffed at the idea, but then I tossed it around in my head (over a cup of tea). I thought back to the last few summer movies I’d seen, mulled over my opinions but also what teas I felt like drinking after them. Surprisingly, finding matches didn’t take that long.

Here are my thoughts:

Thor

I was not excited for this movie at all when I first saw the trailer. It resembled Flash Gordon by way of Iron Man – cheesy but visceral. The choice for director also made my brow furrow. What did Kenneth Branagh know about directing a comic book movie?! Granted, he could easily pull off “EPIC!” if he had, too…but a Space Viking movie? Secondly, it was Thor. I don’t know anyone that cares about the wing-helmeted thunder god.

What gave me some measure of hope was the writer who penned the script. I was already a fan of J. Michael Straczynski from his five-year magnum opus, Babylon 5. He also had extensive experience as a comic book writer. If anyone could make the foundation translate to cinema, he could. And, boy, did he.

The combination of tongue-in-cheek, fish-outta-water, and Shakespearean posturing made this one of the most entertaining trips to the multiplex in some time. Marvel really knows how to dial up the “FUN” factor for an intro to summer. In hindsight, nothing much appeared to happen, but I look back on it fondly.

Tea Match: “Golden-Tipped Assam”

Assams tend to be thick, malty teas usually used as the base for wake-up breakfast blends. Tippier Assams – I’ve found – possess a honey-like texture to them, similar to a Golden Yunnan. That smooth sweetness along with the burly malt bite are a good compliment to a movie featuring a golden-haired, muscle-bound god with a ridiculously large hammer.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

The first Pirates of the Caribbean did the impossible; it was a well-crafted and witty movie inspired by a theme-park ride and single-handedly brought back the swashbuckler. To that, I say, “Bravo.” Unfortunately, that movie had siblings. Snot-nosed, whiny, fat, bloated siblings. The two follow-ups were a complete and utter mess. They were well executed, special effects were top-notch, but the story (or what passed for one) was pure seagull splatter. I was not looking forward to a fourth outing.

On a whim, I caught a late showing of On Stranger Tides and found myself…not hating it. Oh, it was still as drivel-ish as her two predecessors, it looked cheaper than it was, and making Cap’n Jack Sparrow a protagonist was a horrible idea, but it at least tried to match the medium scale and old-school feel of the first one. I won’t see it again, but it didn’t leave a poor taste in my mouth.

Tea Match: “Kombucha”

No, I don’t mean the bacterially-cultured “mushroom tea”. Kombu is the Japanese word for “kelp or seaweed”. I personally haven’t had it, but I’ve eaten the key ingredient. Kelp has a very sweetly vegetal, salty profile, and I assume the same could be said for its infused namesake. Unfortunately, it shares the name with another “tea” that utilizes steeped bacteria…and tastes like iced vinegar. Seeing a fourth Pirates movie was exactly like that name/flavor confusion – a well-meaning but unfortunately-named oddity.

Kung Fu Panda 2

The first Kung Fu Panda was lightning in a f**king bottle. It succeeded with what it set out to do – tell a story of a kung fu fanboy given the opportunity to be martial arts legend. That premise alone is every chop-socky geek’s wet dream. The fact that it also stayed true to the trappings of the martial arts genre helped it to transcend its Dreamworks label. Thankfully, it was also successful with mainstream audiences. (It starred a panda; this was a given.)

A sequel was inevitable, and Dreamworks was hit-or-miss with animated follow-ups. I hoped they’d learned their lesson from the last three Shrek movies. In my opinion, they succeeded. KP2 continues where its predecessor left off and explores its protagonist’s background – one that is steeped in prophecy and folklore. I even got a little man-teary towards the end, a good sign.

Tea Match: “Keemun Hao Ya B (with cream and sugar)”

Keemun is a Chinese black (or “red”) tea with an interesting flavor profile. It is almost as malty as an Assam, but also possesses shades of sweetness and smokiness. If done right, it brews to a bold crimson and – when sipped slowly – imparts its nuances gradually. Hoa Ya is a grade known for its silver tippy buds and delicate delivery. The “B” sub-variety tends to be a tad more rough around the edges – as is Kung Fu Panda 2 in comparison to its predecessor. But it takes cream and sugar well, making it more palatable for the kiddies.

X-Men: First Class

Like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, X-Men suffered from a severe case of Sh**ty-Sequelitis. Well, third time’s a charm, according to the Powers That Be. However, to justify the existence of yet another prequel after the disastrous Wolverine movie, some major liberties had to be taken. In a brilliant move, they adopted a typical comic book motif to do this. They ret-conned and pretended the last two X-movies never existed.

For the most part, the maneuver paid off. While none of the secondary ensemble characters do much in the movie other than look badass or attractive, the dynamic between a young, brash Charles Xavier and a hot-headed (but suave) Erik Lensherr – soon-to-be Professor X and Magneto, respectively – is surprisingly well-crafted. There are plot-holes abound, special effects misfires, and some dreadful acting from a certain blonde that makes Keanu look nuanced. All said, it holds up well. Time will tell if it’s as memorable as the first two.

Tea Match: “English Breakfast (with a blended Keemun/Assam base)”

There is no set recipe for English Breakfast; the only adherence that must be made is to its strength. The blend should zing! you awake in a matter of sips. Tasting good is optional. I’ve heard some schools of thought state that Keemun is the preferred foundation, while others say Assam. What is agreed upon is that it must have an ensemble of ingredients that jolt the drinker upright. EB does this, and so does the new X.

Super 8

MOAR LENSFLARE!!!”…seems to be the battle-cry of writer-director-producer-mindf**ker, J.J. Abrams. I’m not sure when this cinematographic calling card began, but it was most apparent in his reboot of the Star Trek franchise. In Super 8, he tones the flare down a bit but keeps just enough to give the movie a retro feel – as was his intention. This pays homage to the Steven Spielberg sci-fi flicks he grew up with and it shows.

All the ingredients are there: Unseen monster from space? Check. Comedy relief in the form of a high-voiced fat kid? Check. Shadowy military conspiracy? Check. Coming of age romance? Check. Mix and serve. If it had one major flaw – and it’s a doozie – it’s that the movie has no real identity. The strongest parts were the Spielbergian/kiddie character scenes. Everything else seemed “meh” by comparison. This could’ve been a true 80s sci-fi send-up if it weren’t so schizophrenic.

Tea Match: “Matcha-Iri Genmaicha”

I love matcha (Japanese powdered tea), but I loathe genmaicha (Japanese “poor man’s” tea…blended with rice). Put the two together, and you have something that I begrudgingly enjoy. The nuttiness of the rice is downplayed by the kelp-like sweetness of the matcha. The blend is even better if the green tea base is a higher-grade sencha rather than crude banchatian xiao cheng. This is as conflicted a blend as the elements of Super 8 are. Parts work, parts don’t. The experience is watchable/drinkable, pretty to look at, but – in the end – forgettable.

To conclude, I had way too much fun doing this. My mother’s brain wins again. The summer’s still young, and I can’t wait to ponder what brews up well with other blockbusters. I wonder if I could sneak a teapot into the theater. Hrm. Probably a subject for another blog.

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Wednesday, June 15th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

I Swoon for Icewine (Tea)

Icewine – or eiswein – is an interesting German peculiarity that appeared on the scene some three hundred years ago. Simply put, white wine grapes were plucked in the middle of winter while the juices inside were still frozen. The sugars within were more concentrated as a result. Creating a batch was a labor-intensive process that wasn’t streamlined until the 1960s. Twenty years later, vineyards in Canada collectively said, “Hey, we’re cold as S**T up here. We can totally make this stuff!” And so they did.

Two years ago, the existence of icewine came to my attention by – of all things – a tea blend I happened by in my usual searches for orthodox beverages. What really impressed me was that it was a white tea/grape fusion; I could think of no more magical a combination. But I was lifted from my reverie with a geeky pang – an urge to look up (and eventually try) actual icewine. I’d never heard of such a libation before.

Two weeks ago, an opportunity to try the dessert wine presented itself at – of all things – a Rapture party. From the first sip on, I was hooked. It tasted like mead only sweeter and more nectar-y. Before I knew it, I’d downed the 16(-ish?)oz. bottle. Solo. Even the one glass that the bottle’s owner didn’t finish. Habit-forming? Understatement.

Unfortunately, having icewine everyday didn’t seem like a healthy prospect in the long run – either for my wallet or my liver. As luck would have it, though, a teashop owner in Ontario – dubbed All Things Tea – presented me with an interesting alternative. An icewine white tea blend. My odd little journey had come full circle.

According to All Things Tea, the ingredients for their white blend were Bai Mu Dan (White Peony), Ontario Icewine, and a touch of Reisling. This differed from other icewine/white blends I read about in that there were no grapes, botanicals or flavoring agents included. I was actually relieved to hear that. While White Peony had a lot of flavor to it, when blended, a subtler scenting process was more complimentary. And by whiff alone, I could tell a devil’s deal was struck.

I can’t say that I smelled much of a white tea presence to this batch, but it certainly lived up to its moniker. It boasted its white wine fragrance loudly and proudly. Notes of sour grape, honey, and a mid-point sweetness clobbered my nostrils as I put nose to bag. Given my experience with actual icewine, I had hoped for exactly that type of bluntness with the blend.

Brewing instructions on the bag recommended 1 heaping teaspoon per 6oz. cup of steaming water and a two-minute wait. I tended to aim for an 8oz. cup o’ tea, so I measured off 1 tablespoon instead and went with a 165F water temperature. After splashdown, I steeped the leaves for a good two-and-a-half minutes. It was White Peony; it could take it.

The liquor brewed to an uncanny deep gold. It looked exactly like white wine, save for a slightly lighter palette. The aroma was both sweet and sour, reminding me a bit of lychee. However, the citrus tone was backed up by a smooth texture that completed the wine-like comparison. Some of the natural grape-iness of the White Peony also made its presence known in the finish.

I found this blend’s true calling when I dabbled with ice and a pint glass. After brewing a concentrate of 2 tbsn. of Peony in 8oz. of hot water, I filled a tall glass with ice, then poured the contents over it and stirred. The lovely gold from the heated brew didn’t dissipate one bit – if anything, it shimmered more. On the lips, it truly reminded me of icewine thanks to a honey-ish lean I hadn’t detected in the hot tea version. After a couple of savored sips, I tested out a dash of stevia. No surprise, it sweetened well, too. This is the perfect iced white for summer. What a shock. All the wine taste with none of the headache.

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Wednesday, June 8th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

I work for tea money.

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