Archive for October, 2011

Making Time for “A Tea Reader”: A [NOT] Book Review

I am a slow reader by design. It takes me an inordinate amount of time to dive into a book. Most can devour a hundred pages in an hour (I would guess?); I can only manage thirty-three. I think that’s my record to date. Attempts to speed read were always met with failure. Suggestions to pursue a career in editing went ignored for this very reason. The time it would take for me to read, let alone edit, a book could be measured in seasons.

Mooched from the Blog of Patrick Rothfuss

Mooched from the Blog of Patrick Rothfuss

That said, I still enjoy leisure reading but don’t do enough of it in my spare time. The times that I do, however, have been chronicled on my website. While not exactly professional literary critiques, they provide my thoughts in as succinct a manner as I am capable (which might not be saying much).

A call went out by a very talented tea blogger – Katrina Avila Munichiello- in my “TeaTwit” circle to review a book she was putting out called A Tea Reader. The concept was genius in its simplicity. It’s a collection of vignettes and short stories – spanning centuries – about how tea inspires. As the books tagline (and, by proxy, the author) states: “This is not a book about tea. This is a book about people.”

I was beyond elated and honored to be chosen to review the book in advance of its official release. And I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little jealous that Mrs. Munichiello beat me to such wonderful idea. She succeeded where many of us tea writers only daydream…er…over a cup of tea. The approach she chose to take for the narrative was also inspired.

Now I just had to find time to read it. Several factors hindered the timeliness of my perusal. One: The aforementioned slow reading pace. Two: A very active “oooo shiny!” gland. And three: Georgia.

I’ve mentioned the last one in passing before. My cat – like many of her ilk – is not one to be easily ignored. She makes this point abundantly clear during feeding time. However, she also voices her displeasure in creative ways when something else holds my attention other than her. Y’know…like a girlfriend. A very…hairy…girlfriend.

Note: This photo wasn't staged. Seriously

Note: This photo wasn't staged. Seriously.

In the case of book reading, “G” will stroll in front of the book while I’m reading it. Attempts to shoo her away are interpreted as play time. Even when I relocate to someplace she wouldn’t normally go – like the couch in the living room – she’s only a step or two behind me emitting her usual growl-purr.

I found moderate success with the couch camping, though. It was easy to position myself in such a way she couldn’t interrupt. Eventually, her tiny little mind forgot what she came there to do. The couch also offered up an opportunity to successfully put myself in tea-reading mode. If there was one thing I learned, this book had to be read with tea a-brewin’.

But there was a second obstacle – the damn dog.

Note: This wasn't staged either.

Yes, folks, there is also a dog in the mix – a very large, year-and-change-old Saint Bernard named Abacus. He belongs to my brother. Every time I brew tea – and I mean every time – he is instantly drawn to my electric kettle. Add a gaiwan to the mix, and he’s enraptured. I can’t really fathom why. Maybe he just really likes oolong a lot. Dunno.

Those were obstacles to my reading Zen that I could not prevent. The preventable ones were the major problem. I blame the Internet. All of it. As one entity. I don’t blame myself. Okay…maybe a little.

Before I knew it, two months rolled by. Here I was, a week past the release date of the book…and I’d only made it halfway through. It wasn’t as if another book had taken its place; I had read nothing for the whole of Fall. I lamented my reviewer FAIL.

Then a thought occurred to me – not so much as a metaphoric light bulb but as a very cheery glowworm. This book was tailor made for distractedly slow readers such as myself. Let me explain: The beauty of anthologies is that they can be devoured a piece at a time. A reader can pick it up and put it down at their own pace, even the molasses ones like myself.

A Tea Reader is even more suited to this than the average anthology because the average vignette is, maybe four-to-five pages – essays, really. Tightly written ones, too, for the easily spacey. I didn’t really have that problem, though. The different viewpoints were ultimately fascinating. Particular standouts (for me so far) were: “I Don’t Drink Tea” (the tale of a coffee drinker’s denial), “The Mistri-Sahib” (about a Scottish engineer in India, what’s not to love?), and “Immersion” (about a woman’s first flight with gongfu).

Each thematic section is divided into “steeps” rather than books or acts, providing one with a figurative tea expression to go along with the read. The author herself provides commentary to bridge each steep with her own thoughts. Her tone is relaxing and concise, marking the perfect lead-in for stories “steeped” (har-har) in the esoteric and evocative.

Which brings me to the book’s one principle flaw…if it can even be called that.

This is not a book for the uninitiated, and by that I mean non-tea drinkers. Tea appreciation has its own language – its own lexicon, if you will. And this book is imbued with it. Part of that is due to the inclusion of older essays as well as new and their dispersion throughout. The author does her best to include footnotes to some of the more obscure terminology, but at times it can be jarring. I, however, didn’t really find this to be a flaw.

As I said earlier, this is a book that screams, “Read me with a cup of tea, damn it!” To not do so would fail to capture the full effect, as far as I’m concerned. What’s the point of reading a book about people inspired by tea if you aren’t reading while drinking tea? That’s like going to a baseball game without a foam finger on one hand. Can’t be done.

In summary, I’m at the “glass-half-full” point of the book, and I’m loving every self-styled-slow minute of it. I start a new vignette with a cup of tea when I have a spare minute between distractions and pet mayhem. I hope to do a follow-up commentary on it once I’ve finally reached the end, but I still felt I had to put something to “paper” in appreciation. Just as these contributors and their maven did…all over an inspired cup of tea.

For more information on the book, go HERE.

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Monday, October 31st, 2011 Reviews, Steep Stories No Comments

Fortune and the Goddess

This week I was accused of writing soft-core tea porn. Last I check, I had no soft-core tea porn in my repertoire. If I’m going to be accused of something, it damn well better be true. So…here’s some soft-core tea porn to make it true.

He was a Scotsman and a botanist. Strange occurrences followed him like flies to food. “Trouble” was his modus operandi, but nothing from his homeland compared to this. Being chased by a dragon mounted by a beautiful Chinese woman; this was entirely new to him. And all over a bag of seeds.

Robert Fortune’s “humble native merchant” disguise hadn’t worked as well as he hoped. Being run down by a mythical creature was proof of that. It was just his luck that the one garden he chose to steal tea seeds from happened to belong to some famous sorceress – a normally even-tempered sorceress. Apparently, she didn’t take to kindly to thievery. Stern resolve lined her face as she directed her dragon mount forward – fire pluming from its serpentine maw.

The last flaming blast had singed his fake, raven-haired queue. The ponytail smelled like burnt dog. He barely survived the last fireball directed at his person. Never had he run so long and hard in his life. After hours of this chase, he was close to the breaking point. His lungs burned.

Nary a few moments later, he ran out of breath. Fortune could go no further. He collapsed in a heap at the shore of a solitary lake. Moonlight basked the eerily calm water in an ethereal, pale-white glow. Night-blooming jasmine and lotus blossoms dotted the aquatic surface.

Odd, he thought to himself while panting. Sipalika is not native to China. It’s from Ceylon.

He heard a low rumble behind him. The dragon had coiled to the ground a mere few feet from him. The sorceress dismounted the now-docile wyrm’s head. She looked at him quizzically – fury dissipating from her face. It was an oddly “knowing” look, as if she was reading his very soul.

“Those flowers were a gift from the goddess Indra,” she said softly. “They normally don’t grow on water, but these were a special breed. Spiritually-imbued.”

The tired botanist sat up, “You practically kill me. Now you want to talk flora?”

“You stole from me. It is only natural you be hunted down, foreigner,” the sorceress stated firmly. “But now…you fascinate me.”

“How so?

“You went through a lot of trouble to steal my sacred tea seeds,” she said.

“I didn’t know they were sacred,” he replied hurriedly. “You want ‘em back, here. Just don’t kill me.”

“Oh, I’m not going to kill you, foreigner,” she giggled. It was strangely melodic to his ears. “It’s far too late for that.”

“Too…late?”

“Too late,” she repeated, undoing the sash that held her white robes in place. They spilled off her like a garment waterfall, revealing skin as pale and shimmering as moonlight. Fortune nearly thought she emitted her own glow. It was quite possible. She did own a dragon.

She pointed her slender index finger at him and twirled it slowly. Before he knew it, his own merchant disguise was gone, leaving him clad only in skivvies. The sight of them made the sorceress titter. The sound was hypnotic to him. Fortune desired that laugh for all eternity; there was serenity in her mockery of his foreign undergarments.

“Ao Bing, be a dear and warm the lake,” she ordered the dragon.

With a loud harrumph, the dragon uncoiled and slowly slithered to the lakebed. He parted his scaly lips only slightly, just enough to let flecks of flame part his mouth. Ao Bing kept this up until steam rose from the body of water. The steam – to Fortune’s nose – smelled of flowers, butter, and…peace. If the latter part could have a smell.

The nameless sorceress slowly waded through the water. Her naked form glistening in the rising steam, like a shroud of spirits providing a transparent nightgown. She took water with both hands and spilled it over her face and hair, letting the droplets caress her porcelain – almost ageless – frame. She was like a goddess statue made human – if “human” was the right word.

“Aren’t you going to join me, foreigner?” she beckoned.

Reason dictated that he make a run for it. Alas, after hearing her tantalizing laughter, he was no longer subject to reason. He did as he was told.

“Ah-ah,” she tisk-tisked. “Your remaining garb.”

The drawers dropped on command.

He waded nowhere near as gracefully as she did. In fact, he splashed and tromped his way into the water – eagerness and nervousness guiding his feet. This caused her to laugh even further until he clumsily reached her position. She pressed her tiny bosom to his chest and wrapped her arms around his neck. Her breath was like warm silk to his nostrils – her touch, pure softness.

“Long ago, I was known as Miao Shan,” she began. “I was human once. Make me feel human again…then I’ll let you go.”

Fortune pressed his lips to hers as his hands dutifully explored every inch of her. The more he touched her, the more he longed to remain in her embrace. This was no ordinary woman, nor a typical being. He had no other words to describe her other than “goddess”. When his hands failed to grasp her essence, his mouth took over. His tongue was humbled by the flesh it caressed, it curled around her as if in worship.

The once-Miao Shan returned the favor in kind, bestowing his unworthy form with pleasure by way of simple touch. Every flick of her finger sent waves of warmth throughout his body, like acu-pressure points of pure ecstasy. It was almost too much to bear. A mere mortal like him wasn’t worthy of her; he could barely keep up.

Before he knew it, he was one with her. The feeling was like being one with nature – a feeling akin to Buddhist attainment only more primal. They writhed together as one being in the water, causing ripples to flow out from their pressed bodies. Steam still rose, floating blossoms bobbed in the water, and the chill night air contrasted the heat within.

They crescendoed together, and then the world fell silent. Fortune found himself floating to shore, arm-and-arm with this unknown woman. When they hit the pebbled surface, reality return. She parted from his embrace and whispered “thank you” in his ear – in a long-lost dialect. He stretched out a hand as if to grasp her, but she was too far away now. His vision blurred. And before he knew it, he was asleep.

***

“Boss!”

Tap-tap.

“Boss!”

A shrill voice brought Robert Fortune back to the waking world. Sun beamed down through the canopy of trees. One of his Chinese assistants was poking him with a stick. His first reaction was to cover his vitals, but he suddenly realized he was fully clothed.

“Enough, Shin,” he grumbled. “I’m awake!”

“Oh, thank goodness!” the assistant sighed. “We were worried sick. You were gone all night. What happened to you?”

“I was…” he paused. They would never believe him. He looked down at his hands. In a simple cloth was a gaiwan – a lidded cup for pouring tea. On it, etched in blue marble, was the figure of a woman standing atop a green dragon. He held the cup up to his eyes and fixed his gaze on the image.

“Where’d you get that Guan Yin cup, boss?”

“Guan Yin?” he asked.

“Yeah, the Bodhisattva of Compassion,” Shin explained. “That’s her on the cup. Fancy, too. Where’d you get it?”

“I…don’t know.”

“That must have been some tea you had,” Shin chuckled.

“I guess so,” Fortune replied to no one in particular.

He parted the lid from the gaiwan. In it were spent oolong leaves that smelled of lotus, earth, spice, and something else. It was her scent. He could never forget it.

He clutched the cup to his breast, eyes closed, wishing that night had never ended.

Image "Mooched" from Chan Teas

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Thursday, October 27th, 2011 Prose, Steep Stories No Comments

Tea Time in Real Life

Ever since I picked up tea as a hobby, there has been an inherent problem. No one else was really into it. My real life friends humored my off-kilter pursuit, and even came to me for recommendations, but – for the most part – it was a geek-ish lean that was entirely solitary. If it weren’t for social media outlets like Tea Trade or Twitter, my tea talk would’ve descended into monologues and murmurs. While connecting with friends of the leaf from far-flung locations had its appeal, the more tangible social connection was missing.

Photo by Jennifer Stewart

Photo by Jennifer Stewart

Enter an unassuming, mild-mannered guy named David Galli.

I had associated with him a bit on Twitter. Our palates for Chinese black teas were about the same. I hadn’t made the connection that he was a fellow Portlander until a couple of months into our tea talk. Around the same time, I also associated with a fledgling group-to-be called The Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance. Turns out that David was the founder/”Head Cheerleader” of the group. Yes, I know. I’m slow.

At around the same time, when I finally put two-and-two together, a promoter friend of mine also linked me to the Alliance and another tea enthusiast. Well, that settled it. I had to meet this self-proclaimed Head Cheerleader. A meeting of the steeps was already in the works, as David had contacted me about a greet-up and exchange of teas/thoughts. We agreed upon Smith Teamaker as our destination, since he’d never been. I was looking forward to going there with someone other than…er…myself.

We were treated like philosopher kings by the co-owner and Tea MC alike. Among the many wares we got to sample was a black tea blended with Douglas Fir tips. It tasted like concentrated Christmas. I so desperately wanted some. Unfortunately, it was only available through Eddie Bauer. Yes, the retail chain. The “Good Morning” blend – as she called it – also came paired with another tea; the packaging looked like a tea fancier’s happy meal. It was that awesome.

At the end of our sipping, the co-owner gave us a brief tour of the operation. Out of the two years I’d frequented there, I never wondered what their Wonka factory looked like. It was spectacular. They even had a break room with its own koi pond. It was the best kept secret in Portland, I thought. (Except that I outed it just now…oops.)

Duly sated and overly-caffeinated, David and I agreed on another meet-and-greet for an unspecified time in the future. The insecure side of me thought I had “regurgitated” my tea talk rather than conversed – like years of pent-up hobby-ing was brought to the forefront in one sitting. It was also oddly refreshing to encounter someone who had me stumped on tea trivia. Example: I hadn’t realized how uninformed I was about oolongs from Wuyi Shan. He had acquired more tea knowledge in a year than I had in three.

Roughly four days after that successful meet-up, plans were made for yet another. This time, it was to involve a slightly larger group – an informal gathering of like-minded folks interested in a fledgling tea group. The location? Smith Teamaker again. I had no argument with this.

I was the first to arrive. Traffic had actually been on my side on the trek there. The Tea MC (Tiffany) waved a “hello” and wondered how many others were destined to show. I honestly had no idea. My exact reply was, “Somewhere between three…and five?”

The second to show was Danyeke, a friend of the same promoter folks I mentioned earlier – a fellow writer and a female Lapsang Souchong drinker. David arrived soon after. A well-rounded Renaissance gent – Kevin – showed up some ten-to-twenty minutes later. Another kindly guy also made a brief appearance but ducked out to get back to work. Tea MC Tiff started us off with a unique taster flight. By unique, I mean it included two single estate Assams…and a PINOT NOIR BARREL-AGED BLACK TEA!

(Left to Right) Me, Danyeke, David, and Kevin

(Left to Right) Me, Danyeke, David, and Kevin

(Sidenote: Yes, it was as awesome as it sounds. Yes, there will be a review forthcoming.)

Our second dig-in was of Smith’s Yunnan Dian Hong, Brahmin’s Choice, a Darjeeling first flush (Marybong estate), and a Keemun Hao Ya B. All brewed to the peak of smoky perfection. These were also the first teas of my day…and technically, they were also breakfast.

We ended up staying at Smith’s for two hours – waxing poetic about tea, astrology, origin stories, fiction, nonfiction, and different countries. It was more well-rounded and camaraderie-filled than any tea outing I experienced up to that point. Rarely was there a moment of awkward pause.  Again, the insecure part of me hoped I wasn’t too bombastic a blowhard in real life as I was often considered online. But rarely did I feel that way.

Tea is – by its very existence – a beverage of contemplation, but there is a social element to it as well. I hadn’t really experienced that. For once, I wasn’t the lone steeper in the room…and it was quite wonderful.

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Thursday, October 27th, 2011 Steep Stories 2 Comments

Smoked Assam-ness

It may come as a shock to some people, but there actually is more to Stash Tea than the 20 ct. boxes one finds at the supermarket. One look at the website will provide evidence of this. They actually possess one of the most extensive specialty tea lines I’ve come across. That and their single estate columns (yes, plural) provide an extensive roster of places I’d never even heard of. Granted, some of those are pricy as all purgatory, but the fact remains that they’re there.

I was lucky on a random Wednesday in September to have both a gift certificate given to me for my birthday and a very easy drive to their brick-‘n-mortar store. That’s right. Their headquarters is in my neck of the woods. Twenty-minute drive – tops.

My goal that afternoon was their Fancy Golden Tippy Hao Ya; it was a peculiar Yunnan-grown beast with a Keemun grade for some reason…and it had “gold” in the title. Their Rwandan White was also calling my name. When I moved from one to the other, though, I came across something I didn’t expect. Three words: Smoked Assam Oolong.

No three words cried out to me with greater urgency than that.

Someone had brought this to my attention as a blog comment a while back. On one of my many loving tirades about Lapsang Souchong, a random commenter mentioned a Smoked Assam from Grey’s Tea. It caught my fancy, but only for a little while. My attention span – I guess – was particularly thin that day. What gave me pause was the mention on the Stash bag that this was the only oolong produced in Assam, India. That made me think that both Grey’s and the one I was buying were one in the same.

A random Google perusal confirmed my theory a bit. The only smoked oolong to come out of Assam was produced by the Mothola estate – the same wacky geniuses that produced the Assam White from Canton Tea Co. I adored so much. I could find no notes on the estate itself, but there was passing mention of the smoking process used. Unlike, say, Lapsang Souchong or houjicha (which I hate), this oolong was smoked over oak wood. The result was an oolong differing greatly from other roasted varieties.

And differ, it did. Appearance-wise, the leaves resembled Da Hong Pao in shape and size, but the variation in color was strikingly different. Instead of being blue or jet black, the pieces ranged from charcoal dark to tippy gold. Yes! GooooOOOOoooold! As for aroma, it earned its “Smoked” moniker with ease, albeit not as pungently as Lapsang Souchong. The feeling of campfire was indeed there, but it ended on a – how to put it – roasted fruit note? Odd, I know.

I was torn on the best approach to use with this. A primal part of me yelled, “Steep the s**t out of it like Lapsang!” While a more sensible, inward gent urged me to go for a gongfu preparation. Against my better judgment, I consulted my inner arbiter and went with both. First the gongfu prep for pretention, then Western-style for the wild side.

The first called for water heated to about 190F, a gaiwan, 2 tsp. worth of smoky leaves, and four successive infusions – the first two at thirty seconds, the last two at forty. In sharp contrast, the Western approach called for merely a filter, a mug, and a three-minute steep.

First infusion (thirty seconds): Holy PEAT! It smelled like whiskey that’d been lit on fire, except for that whole “turpentine” part. The liquor was a pale-to-medium gold, nowhere near betraying the strength of scent that befell me. The flavor had a woody, burnt front that settled into an odd earthiness. A peculiar start so far.

Second infusion (thirty seconds): The liquor was even more deeply entrenched in gold now. That made me happy on a feverish level. The aroma was just as peat-fiery as the first infusion. On sip, the foretaste was just as pungent on delivery but gave way to a mild fruitiness on finish. Very mild behind the initial inferno.

Third infusion (forty seconds): Not much of a color change here, it was still prospecting the gold palette proudly – content in its Midas magnificence. However, a new dimension to the smell reminded me of burnt leather. The taste was bit more inviting in its crisp, lightly smoky, and strangely silky delivery.

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): This was the shiniest of the gold-lacquered liquors. The cup also had the boldest whiskey aroma. The taste differed due to its compromise between smoke and earth. It reminded me of Mark T. Wendell’s Hu-Kwa – a gentle Taiwanese smoked black. I felt like I was blowing smoke rings out of my clear cup.

New infusion, Western-style (three minutes): I was very surprised by the results of this. The cup brewed bright amber – more like a black tea than an oolong. The scent wafting from the cup was still smoky, but there was something else there. Something…plum-like? No subtlety here; the flavor went from fire-whiskey to flaming saddles in two seconds, followed by a burnt apple top note, and finishing with a pipe tobacco sensation. Clearly, the Western approach was not for the sensitive of palate. Well, unless the drinker was Russian.

Verdict? The first time I tried this, I was quite taken aback. Sure, I was a regular Lapsang Souchong drinker, but this was something else entirely. The oak-firing process produced a tea that was initially subtle on the nose but packed a wallop on taste. It was like being punched in the face, then kissed afterwards. On the second – and “official” try – I had my bearings in brewing this properly. Gaiwan is the only way to go. Anything cruder would result in a brew that tastes like burning. Unless you like that sorta thing. I say try it out if given the opportunity, especially if you have stones of steel.

For more info on Stash Tea’s Smoked Assam Oolong, go HERE.

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Wednesday, October 19th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

The Gold Debacle

Perhaps it is because I have a near-glandular reaction to all things shiny, or perhaps it’s something more visceral. Whatever the case may be, I love teas with the world “Gold” in them. It wasn’t something I was particular aiming for, but more of an epiphany I had over one particular type of tea.

I received a sample of Zen Tara Tea’s Golden Yunnan Special. Looking at it was like beholding beige-like brilliance…and like honey-lathered lightning had hit my tongue. At first, I thought it was possibly a fluke, but then I visited a teashop local to me – the Jasmine Pearl – and picked up some of their Golden Needles. The reaction was just about the same – honey-pepper-nectar-gasm. From that point on, I had a favorite black tea.

Naturally, I wondered if other teas with the word “Gold” were equally as perfect for my palate. The next on the list was the Fujian-grown Golden Monkey – often heralded as the black tea equivalent to Bai Hao Yinzhen (Silver Needle), a distinction I’d disagree with. While having a similar gold-like, tippy presence as the Yunnan variety, the leaves were smaller and curlier. However, they did impart a similar nectar-like flavor, if not as eye-glazing. Okay, second time was the charm; this was definitely not a fluke. Maybe it was an irregularity.

On a random perusal, I ran across a product dubbed a “Golden Assam”. Perhaps it was a Photoshop trick, but the merchandise photo made it look just as shiny as a Yunnan Gold (or Jin Cha). A fellow tea colleague – Michael J. Coffey, ever the steep scientist – urged me to reel in my expectations. According to one of his Assamese contacts (yes, the man has contacts), gold tips are often added for visual flare but have no effect on taste. Much like cornflowers being added to some inferior Earl Greys.

A random tea outing with a gold-haired friend confirmed my “findings”. Their gold-tipped Assam did indeed have some honey texture to go along with the requisite malt. I even ordered another pot of Yunnan Gold just for taste comparison. While the latter was better, the Assam did hold its own.

Some doubts did enter my mind about the “gold standard” when I revisited gold-tipped Assams in the form of a Khongea estate offering. It was really good – malty, hearty, slightly smoky, all those manly adjectives. But it didn’t possess that ‘gasmic “oomph” of the prior golds. Maybe Coffey had a point.

The conversation was revisited, this time with Assam-lover, Ken Macbeth, in tow. It even inspired this write-up from Ken regarding the price one pays for the appearance of a loose leaf batch. MJC even reiterated that while there is likely a flavor I’m subjective to in Yunnan Golds – or to the “golding” process in general – that doesn’t make it universally better. At the time of the conversation, I refused to believe it.

Then I taste-tested two teas from Canton Tea Co. One was a black tea from Fujian (my favorite Chinese province) called Bai Lin Gong Fu. It looked and smelled like a black tea – like a Dian Hong (regular Yunnan black) only tippier. The taste, though…wow. It made me tip my head back in Homer-esque reverie, tongue splayed.

A few months later, I received another sample from Canton for their Superior Bai Lin Gong Fu. I wondered how the heck they could top the regular kind, but – apparently – what made it superior was the appearance. The entire batch was GOOOOooooooOOOOoooold! However…I noted in my review of it, that – while I did love it – I preferred the regular Bai Lin. The honey-nectar presence was there, but it simply didn’t top the silky magnificence of its darker kin.

Superior vs. Inferior (?)

My journey came practically full circle with a revisit to The Jasmine Pearl. The owners – Chuck and Heather – were a very patient couple in dealing with me. They had mentioned in passing that a new shipment was coming in for some Golden Needles, straight from Yunnan, and that it was even better than their last one. Perfect timing since I ran out of my stores of their last batch. They urged me to be patient, though. Deliveries from China were known to be slow.

That didn’t stop me from calling them repeatedly.

Me: “Is it there yet?”

Them: “No.”

Geoff: “How ‘bout now?”

Them: “No.”

Me: [pause] “Now?”

Them: “No.”

Me: “Are we there yet?”

Them: “What?”

Me: “What?”

(Okay, I made that last part up.)

A month ago, I stopped in to childishly ask one more time. Rays of heaven parted when they confirmed with an emphatic “Yes!” that it, indeed, had arrived. There was a problem, though. This was nowhere near as gold-tippy as the last batch. It smelled wonderful – like tiramisu, chocolate, and forest – but the peppery aspect was all but gone. I bought it anyway and did a side-by-side comparison with another Golden Needle I had on hand.

Gold Vs. (Mostly) Gold

Gold vs. (Mostly) Gold

Yep, definitely darker.

Then came the taste-test.

Oh wow.

Oh my…wow…

Oh wowie-wowie-wow-wow.

I rated the last Golden Needles they had a ten out of ten. This was an eleven. It was then that I begrudgingly admitted that there was something to the processing. Here it was, a darker Golden Yunnan, and I liked it better than any of its shinier kin. Fine, I’ll admit it now. The “golding” process doesn’t necessary make it better, but there is still something to it in terms of Chinese black teas. I’m standing by my Yunnan Goldies, even the ones that are rougher around the edges.

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Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 Steep Stories 1 Comment

I BofA’d Your Netflix in Thailand

A typical Thursday night – for me, anyway – goes like this: (1) Get off work at 11PM. (2) If plans weren’t made, head home. (3) Get out of monkey suit/work uniform. (4) Feed cat. (5) Binge on the Internet ‘til some ungodly hour in the morning. It’s not an ideal or healthy routine, but it’s something…for now.

I decided to throw a wrench in that cycle by adding an old friend to the mix – Netflix. In the Before Time – when movies and streaming were still one option – I was an avid devourer. Nowadays, I leeched off of other people’s Netflix whims. What I missed was a steady supply of anime and Bollywood musicals a mere keystroke away. So, I rejoined via a 30-day free trial.

And that’s where the trouble began.

The day after a night of streaming anime, my cell phone buzzed me awake. At 10AM. I didn’t get to sleep until 7AM. The interruption of slumber was unappreciated. It was from Bank of America, or rather…their fraud department. My account had been locked out due to some recent suspicious activity.

After a two-hour power nap, I logged onto the BofA website to see what they were talking about. Lo and behold, it was locked out. Every time I tried to access my account info, it asked me to click on some fraud website for details. It was all mighty cloak-and-dagger, kinda suspicious, and extra cheesy.

Sidenote: Some of you may be wondering why I even have a Bank of America account. The reason is this – it wasn’t my choice. It’s a credit card I’ve had since college. Before being a BofA card, it was MBNA. Of course, after the ’08 ecomonic crash, that company was gobbled up by the precariously-footed financial giant. Hence the reason why I have no choice but to bank with them. Unlike some of the horror stories, though, I really haven’t had too many problems with them. Well, until recently.

I finally broke down and called the shadowy BofA “fraud protection” number. A perky woman (and, for once, not outsourced Indian) answered. She explained that the suspicious activity on my card was listed as a Netflix charge. Wait…that didn’t sound right. How could my card be charged if I was doing a free trial? Some quizzing on mine and her part ensued to verify the account, then said card was reactivated. However, the website access remained locked.

The next night, I called the regular customer service number to find out why the online option was unavailable to me. They confirmed that my account was indeed active but had no explanation for the website lock. Any attempt to address it couldn’t be made until regular business hours. On Monday. Lastly, the customer service rep informed me that Netflix had tried to charge my card, not once, but three times. Three simultaneous attempts at authorization led to the transaction being labeled as “suspicious”. I could understand that. Why would a “free” trial require three attempted authorizations?!

Groaning, I called Netflix. The barely-pubescent teller confirmed that there were, indeed, three attempted authorizations on my card. Two of them were for – get this – ZERO dollars. The last was for two dollars MORE than what a standard monthly fee was for streaming content. Pube-teller reassured me that the auth-attempt would fall off after two business days. So…by Tuesday.

And all while this was happening, I received an emergency notification from Google saying my e-mail had been compromised. Someone tried to access it. In Thailand.

What have I learned?

Absolutely nothing. After finishing this post, I’m going back to watching anime on Netflix streaming – all the while munching on BofA-bought Taco Bell while keeping my Gmail open. I have a routine to uphold, after all.

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Sunday, October 16th, 2011 Musings 3 Comments

Plan W: The Quest for the Green Dragon

It started as any epic quest does…in a teashop.

Okay, maybe your epic quests don’t start there, but mine certainly do. The Call to adventure was made simply enough in passing by a certain master tea blender for a small batch op I frequented irregularly. So subtle was this Call that I didn’t even catch on to it until months after. And it only became a “Call” once I decided to…um…call it such. You know what…this isn’t making much sense so far.

Put simply, the blender told me that some of their Jasmine Silver Tip green tea was being used in – of all things – mead, and it was available in S.E. Portland at a place called The Green Dragon. It made my ears perk. Then, for some reason, I forgot about it.

Fast-forward to the second week of August: A friend of mine and I finally decided to make a brewery jaunt down to the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge. Problem is, he didn’t get off until 6PM, and the brewery closed at 9. It was going to be tight.

Since I had some time to kill, I wandered the strip mall closest to where my friend – we’ll call him NinjaSpecs – lived. My first stop was at a deli for a humongoid sammich. Not a sandwich…sammich. While there, I watched a blonde storm out on her douchey-looking boyfriend. I wondered if he demanded her to make sammiches like that.

After that, I got a text from NinjaSpecs saying he would be slightly delayed, but said to meet at the parking lot of a nearby Fred Meyer (a grocery store). Before that, I perused the aisles of a Whole Foods and found – completely by serendipity’s grace – a bottle of Japanese Sencha IPA. That’s right, a green tea-infused India Pale Ale. This delayed day was perking up nicely – like the women in sundresses I noticed on the way there.

Once I arrived at Fred Meyer, I got another text. This time, NinjaSpecs changed the delay even further due to traffic. Perfectly understandable. I spend the duration laughing inwardly at the book aisle in the grocery store. I saw two books that had the same type of cover – a midriff-bare girl with a wolf in snow. Was this a new “genre”? Whatever the phenomenon, I was strangely okay with it.

NinjaSpecs finally arrived at 7:45PM. We both lamented that we wouldn’t make the Gorge jaunt before the brewery/goal closed. We needed a Plan B. So, off we went to his place to scour the Internets for other breweries we hadn’t been to. You – fair reader – have absolutely no idea how difficult a task this was. Between the two of us, we had notched off forty-five brewpubs in Portland and the surrounding county. We weren’t even sure if there were any more neither of us had tried.

By sheer happenstance, we found one on the Oregon Brewers Guild site. It was in Northeast, but heck with it! We were desperate for an alternative. Thanks to my trustee (if slightly out-of-date) Garmin, we made it to “that” side of town. The brewery looked packed to the gills. We hoped for the best.

On the walk there, we both caught a whiff of something horrid yet…herbal? We recognized that sent – a foul combination of patchouli and puke. Somehow we had arrived on the hippie side of NE. Undeterred, we continued on through the haze of “organic” death and reached the pub. The smell only grew more intense. We proceeded to enter…

And were stopped by a perky, pigtailed brunette who said, “That’ll be a five-dollar cover charge.”

I scowled, “What? Why?”

She continued, “There’s a concert going on.”

I would never have called the wannabe Grateful Dead bulls**t playing inside a “concert”. I raged, I rotated on the ball of my foot, I returned to my car – NinjaSpecs in close agreement with my malaise.

Plan C.

We looked to the bar down a block from the hippie-swamped brewery. It, too, was packed. Our only refuge was to go further inland to Southeast. All other brewery plans had failed; I had no more back-ups.

That was when NinjaSpecs spoke up, “It’s time to invoke Plan W.”

What is Plan W, you may ask?

Plan W is what you skip ahead to when every other f**king plan you came up with before has failed. Instead of even coming up with a plan, you just go with your gut. Plan W is existentialism incarnate; it is the antithesis of a plan. And that’s what makes it so awesome.

We ended up on some road, and right before us, the dog-lacquered sign of a brewery came into view. So majestic was the invocation of Plan W that I ended up finding a parking spot right in front of the brewery. We entered, we ordered pints, we sat. Both of us ordered the same thing – a stout on nitro.

NinjaSpecs took a sip first and cocked his head to the side. I had a similar reaction. Overall, the texture of the dark ale was good, but something was off about it. Something about the initial sip didn’t sit right.

NinjaSpecs vocalized the peculiarity with, “That nitro stout has an off front to it…like a day-shift stripper.” Then proceeded to pay close attention to two girls at a table next to us playing Carcassonne. When I inquired about what he was paying attention to, all he managed was, “You don’t understand?! It’s girls. In a bar. Playing Carcassonne!”

Any argument I could’ve had was invalid.

As soon as our foul pints were downed, we hopped back into the car for our next jaunt. We racked our brains over where to go next. One suggestion was to simply walk up and down the street looking for whichever place was the shiniest. That almost won over until a thought entered my mind – something about a “Call”.

I said, “We could go to this place I heard about called The Green Dragon.”

“Where is it?” NinjaSpecs asked.

“Dunno,” I answered.

“What’s so good about it?”

“They have green tea mead,” I countered.

“Drive.”

The next half-hour or so was an exercise in comic futility. We circled the same five-by-five-block radius at least a half-dozen times. It was getting so bad, we were almost of the opinion the place didn’t exist. On the third go-around, we ran across another brewery I had past several times – a place specializing in barrel-aged sour ales. Freakin’ sold.

NinjaSpecs ordered a Belgian-styled Kriek, while I had a glass of ale that was brewed with Cabernet-Sauvignon grapes. It was tart, as sour as they touted, and mag-friggin’-nificent. I piped up, pondering if we should get another. My partner-in-crime wisely reminded me that we wouldn’t be leaving the place if we had another. Their s**t was strong.

So, we left and continued our journey on foot. We could’ve easily stayed in the car with how little progress we made. That and we passed (and commented) on the same bar four times. It was red, shanty-like, and decked out in barb wire. We dubbed it “The Pirate Bar” and went inside. It was just our luck that we found the ONE bar that played country music in SE Portland. That and they only took cash.

We each nursed whatever crap beers they had on tap before asking the bartender where The Green Dragon was located. He pulled up directions on his iPhone and showed it to NinjaSpecs – who slumped his shoulders and snickered.

He laughed, “We were right f**king there!”

Lo and behold, we were. Merely a block over, adjacent to the sour ale brewery was a small neon sign in the shape of a…wait for it…

A GREEN DRAGON!

Upon entering, we were amazed at how spacious it was. Crowds dotted the place inside and out, and the clientele were a mixed bunch – some hippie, some hipster, some geek, and all drunk. It felt like an equalizer. Neither of us paid attention to the other dozens of beers they had on tap and went straight for the jasmine green tea mead. To our even further glee, we found out that the brewery that made it was attached to The Green Dragon. That and it was one neither of us – both brew-versed – had heard of. How had this escaped our notice for so long?!

Both of us were already three or four beers in – understandably hazy – but we remembered that first sip from our transparent chalices. The foggy, bright green liquor with the medium-foamed surface greeted our mouths with a velvety rush. Pure ambrosia flooded our already-foggy frames of mind. Sighs of relief and groans of victory exited our collective maws. Our quest was ended, and it was bloody well worth every wrong turn.

Plan W for the WIN.

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Friday, October 7th, 2011 Beverage Blog 2 Comments

“Fred & Red” Test Strip 2

My cousin did another test strip for our potential comic – Fred & Red. He’s still working out the kinks in his style. I…um…I’m just writing words when he tells me to.

Click to Enlarge

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Wednesday, October 5th, 2011 Webcomics No Comments

Graduating to Guru-ship

A week or so back, two relatives passed on a pair of Craigslist ads. They were “casting calls” of sorts – a survey company looking for tea gurus and tea fans for paid interviews. As in, they would reimburse the interviewee for his/her time for pontificating about tea on camera. It took me a day or two to sleep on it, but I eventually bit. The problem I had was that there were two ads to possibly answer. One was looking for “tea fans” with a loyalty to a particular brand or type. The other ad was asking for gurus – tea vendors, teashop owners, and major enthusiasts.

I had absolutely no clue which category I fit in.

First there was the loyalty issue. While there were some vendors I favored above all others, there wasn’t a particular one that stood out in my mind. Part of that was the way my mind worked. (Or didn’t work.) I can’t even do Top Ten lists for fear of leaving something out. Second was the implication of the word “fan”. Some small part of me felt like I’d graduated from fanning…and by extension, leaf fannings.

That left the “guru” ad. I knew it was a long shot because of their emphasis on tea industry professionals, but I felt I could play up the “enthusiast” angle. After all, I had four blogs and four hundred teas tried to my dossier. Granted, I still considered myself an amateur appreciator of the leaf, but I was an experienced amateur, damn it. I answered the tea guru ad.

And waited.

The ensuing period of time was akin to waiting for a phone call back from a potential job or date. On some days, I would literally wait by the phone. At work, I would often sneak a peek at my “other business” e-mail to see if there were any new chimes. It was sheer agony.

The time of the deadline came and went, and I received no call or e-mail. I wasn’t too surprised. The guru bit was a stretch, and I knew it. That wasn’t what bothered me. What had me riled was: Where the heck was I on the tea community totem?

My tea appreciation began in 2005; I became a tea reviewer in 2008, and I started my own website devoted solely to writing around the same time. In 2009, I jumped on the Twitter bandwagon and cavorted with other likeminded tea souls – vendors and sippers alike. In mid-2011, I joined Teatra.de to mirror the “Steep Stories” category of my website to broaden its audience and see where it took me.

That’s six years of palate appreciation. In that time, I’ve also guest-blogged for a major vendor and was even recognized by the only plantation in Great Britain. Some circles valued my opinion, some didn’t. Of course, there were far more experienced people out there. I’m no Norwood Pratt, Pettigrew, Harney, Coffey or Goodwyn, but I liked to think I’d carved out a bit of a niche. Not enough for “guru” niche, though.

It begs the question: What qualifies someone to be a guru? Are there set standards in place that determine this? Do you have to be a certified “tea sommelier” first before you can join those ranks, or do you need some practical experience in the tea vendor trenches?

By extension, how does one become a tea sommelier? That moniker is a wine term reserved for people that can identify brand, type, year and grape varietal on a blind taste-test. Is the same thing even possible with tea? I don’t know about you, fair reader, but I certainly can’t. (I mistook a Wuyi oolong for a Rose Congou once.) And what forms of certification are considered the Gold Standard for the industry? I can name at least five tea sommelier certification classes off the top of my head.

I suppose the biggest (and possibly only) conclusion I came away with was that I’ve got a long way to go still. I’ll enjoy my cup of whatever as I see fit in the meantime, sipping away noisily. Content in my amateur appreciation – label or no.

Monday, October 3rd, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

I work for tea money.

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