Ceylon

The Revenge of Finbarr’s Persian Princess in 1910

This review is actually a sequel of sorts. To read its predecessor – for context – go HERE.

Don’t you hate it when you wake up in the morning and end up in another time period? So do I. As far as I know, it’s only happened once – today. I found myself awake at the ungodly hour of 7AM after hearing a loud gagging noise coming from my cat. That was usually the early warning sign of an impending (and rather messy) hairball.

After dealing with that little nuisance, I figured I might as well stay up and get some water boiling. It felt like an oolong morning, so – naturally – I went for the gaiwan. Pot and apparatus at the ready, I proceeded to plug the kettle in.

And…nothing happened. I pressed a button – still nothing. I gave the thing a good punch. And…

A flash of light transported me, my plastic tea kettle, my gaiwan, and my pajama’d self to somewhere straight out of a Jules Vernian nightmare.

A “geared” world at sunrise greeted me. Airships dotted the sky, hovering about almost aimlessly. The ground below them was rattled with structures of varying shades of copper and rust. My immediate attention, though, was directed at an Irishman pointing a revolver at me.

His beard wasn’t just red – it was magenta. His attire was so flamboyant that even a metrosexual leprechaun would’ve blushed. What topped off the dandy’s appearance was a crown perched ever-so-slightly to one side of his head. He flashed a welcoming grin as he cocked the brass-plated pistol.

“Welcome to 1910, Mr. Literatus,” the Irishman lilted.

“Looks more like the 1890s,” I replied, backing away slightly.

Something pointy prevented me from backstepping any further.

“Ah-ah-ah,” a feminine voice from behind me warned. “Stay put, my dear.”

I turned my head as I raised my hands in the air. The mysterious woman behind me was shrouded by purpble robes. A bejeweled dagger was the “pointy thing” that gave me pause.

“Perhaps some introductions are in order,” the Irishman said. “I am Finbarr. This is Persian Princess.”

“She doesn’t have a name?” I wondered aloud.

“None that you need to know,” the woman said, giving a light poke with the pointy.

“And Finbarr…you don’t mean the fairy king of the Daoine Sidhe, do you?” I asked.

“No, that’s my cousin,” the Irish dandy corrected. “Finn Bheara.”

“Confusing.”

“More than a little,” Finbarr shrugged.

“Wait a minute,” I said with rising frustration. “Finbarr…Persian Prin-…THE DEVOTEA SENT YOU!!!”

At that moment, a slightly transparent, disembodied head appeared out of thin air.

“What he said,” Finbarr agreed as the disembodied Devotea winked out of existence.

“Then why are you here? Why am I here!?” I demanded.

“Truth be told, we’re seeing if our namesake blends actually hold up,” Finbarr explained.

“We want to make sure he’s doing us justice,” the Persian woman practically purred.

“And who told you that kidnapping reviewers was the way to do it?” I asked again.

“Petersham, of course,” Finbarr said delightfully.

“Of course,” I repeated flatly, rolling my eyes.

A table with a tea set, three bags, brewing equipment and a tea kettle miraculously appeared amidst sparkles and smoke. It was an odd thing to say that this was becoming far too routine for me. I perused the different ounce bags. One was labeled “1910”, another “Finbarr’s Revenge”, and a purple bag read “Persian Princess” embroidered in gold trim.

I put down the gaiwan and plastic tea kettle I’d forgotten I was still holding. “Well…let’s get this over with.”

The first I went for was the English Breakfast variant – the 1910.

“It’s a blend of Ceylon, Indian teas, an-“

“I know what it is,” I interrupted.

The dry leaves were both burly with malt and fruit-sweet on the nose, giving the impression that the blend consisted of Assam, Keemun, and a low-altitude Dimbulla Ceylon. It’s a credit to the blender that the leaves all looked the same, creating the illusion of single origin orthodoxy.

The liquor brewed lighter than I expected – a full-bodied bronze rather than the usual English Breakfast copper. The color may have been because of a Yunnan sourcing for the Chinese black in the blend, rather than Keemun. The smell was exquisitely smoky, really not sure how that happened. This was an incredibly smooth morning cup – no bitterness, dryness or kickback.

“Deceptively smooth and quite invigorating,” I said with approval.

“Next is my namesake,” Finbarr gestured toward the second set-up.

I couldn’t tell what went in this, but my best guess was Assam and low-altitude Ceylon. The smell was straight, burly malt (like the 1910) with no other deviation. One would think they were having a straight-up Assam on whiff. I actually decided upon a full pot of it.

The liquor brewed bold copper with the same manly malty aroma as the dry leaves. On taste, though, it was oddly forgiving. Instead of punching the tongue with its chewy presence, it shook hands first, imparting a floral forefront before the introduction of the malty middle. Here, the Ceylon and Assam worked quite well together. And – boy! – did it wake me up.

“This stuff actually gives you the courtesy of a reach-around before punching you in the junk,” I commented.

“Rightly said!” Finbarr guffawed, patting me on the back – hard.

The Persian Princess gave a loud – and disgusted – sigh. Speaking of which, it was time for her blend. She didn’t bother speaking up about it, though.

The thing that really surprised me about this blend was how sweet it smelled. There was some requisite malt, but a woody and sweet underpinning crept up in the fragrance. I’m pretty sure the teas used were Assam and Yunnan, but – as with the other Devotea blends – one can never be too sure.

The resulting brew-up was an amber-colored liquor with a smooth, Ceylon-ish aroma – floral. On taste, the deceptive sweetness came back packaged with a strong, malty intro. Then it did the oddest thing by smoothing out completely – like an actual princess with a feigned, even-keel temperament. The best part? No bitterness to speak of and only mild astringency.

“Strong but not bitter,” I said briefly. “Like an actual princess should be.”

She still said nothing.

“Can I go now?”

Finbarr looked confused, “Go where?”

“Home? To 2012? My 2012.”

“Oh, lad,” Finbarr laughed, but there was mischievous shift in it. “This is your home now.”

“…What?”

“Aye, the trip’s one-way only.”

“…Why?”

“Revenge,” the Persian Princess finally spoke.

One would think a man whisked out of space and time would do something brave – like, say, fight off both of his assailants. Not the case, here. I took off running as fast as my slippered feet could carry me. Like a little bitch. I did make sure my beeline to…nowhere put me in contact with my trusty gaiwan and kettle, though.

Both of my kidnappers were in hot pursuit. Denizens of this steampunkish realm observed the spectacle with some amusement. I supposed they didn’t get many men in sleep attire – brandishing tea equipment – running down their streets. I ducked down an alleyway, hoping to lose the blend-named pair. As my luck would have it, though, it dead-ended at a bonfire surrounded by this realm’s version of the homeless.

“Nowhere to run now, eh laddy?” Finbarr said with a pant.

The Persian Princess glided in front of the Irishman, dagger drawn and eyes fixed. I did the only thing a man-bitch could do – I let out a full-bodied scream. In my ensuing panic, I lost my grip on the plastic kettle. It fell into the makeshift hobo fire. Then something…well…terribly inappropriate happened.

A blood curdling scream resonated from the flames. The discarded kettle fumed, smoked, melted and contorted into something hideous. The only comparison I could make was a demonic vagina.

It floated in the air, wailing loudly. Finbarr and Persian Princess halted their advance, but the vagrants around the fire fled in terror, providing me ample time to think.

That shouldn’t be possible, I thought. Unless…

“A dream!” I said out loud.

I looked down at my one remaining tea apparatus – my trusty gaiwan. If Leo had a spinning top as an anchor in Inception, then this lidded cup was mine. Turning around, I walked straight into the bonfire. I expected to feel warmth and…uh…”burning”. Instead, I was back in my kitchen – still pajama’d, still tired, but fully tea’d.

Epilogue

“Well, that could’ve gone better,” Finbarr said, scratching his head.

“His time will come,” the Persian Princess said, disrobing her covered head. A porcelain, Asian woman’s face turned toward the Irishman. “At least we know his weakness now.”

“You’re one stubborn woman, Ms. Guan Yin,” he remarked.

“Take the tea away from a man, then he is just a man,” she said to no one in particular. “Take the teacup from a man, then he is merely a boy…in hot water.”

The End (?)

To Purchase The Devotea’s Teas (1910, Finbarr’s Revenge, and Persian Princess):

In the U.S., go HERE.

In the U.K., go HERE.

In Australia, go HERE.

(No actual tea equipment was harmed in the making of this review.)

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Wednesday, June 20th, 2012 Prose, Steep Stories No Comments

Putting the “Noir” in Black

Pinot Noir – meaning “pine black” in French – is a type of grape closely associated with the Burgundy region of France. It also has the claim to fame of being a very ancient grape, only a couple of strains removed from Vitis sylvestris. (I.e. Pinot is to it what dogs are to wolves.) As everyone knows, it is typically used in the production of a very burly red wine. It’s tough to grow but great to drink.

I, personally, don’t care for the stuff, opting instead for its equally burly (but less tannic) Italian cousin, Sangiovese. However, there is one thing that grabs my attention, and it’s anything that has been flavored with Pinot. I have no clue why this is, it just grabs my fancy. Case in point: I once tried a stout ale that’d been aged in a Pinot Noir barrel. The drink took on all the characteristics one loved in red wine…without any of the negatives. That and there was the flavor of the main ingredient.

So, you can imagine my glee when I found out – from the owner, no less – that Smith Teamaker was playing around with a Pinot Noir barrel-aged black tea. The kind folks at Adalsheim Vineyard in Oregon’s Pinot-rich Dundee/Newberg area gifted my favorite tea op with a just-used barrel for just such an experiment. To date, I had tried three of Smith’s alcohol-scented tea experiments. All were one shade of wonderful or another – my fave being their whiskey Ceylon – and I hoped this one was worthy of the pantheon.

Aside from the touted wine barrel, the leaves used were from the Dimbulla and Uva regions of Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Some Nuwara Eliya was also sprinkled in for good measure, but their presence was minor. I’m guessing Smith was aiming for a darker black tea with a floral character that could go toe-to-toe with the winy residuals.

The leaves were long-cut, twisty, dirt-brown to soot-black with an occasional golden piece that made its way into the fray. The aroma was all grape. I can’t think off the top of my head what Pinot Noir smells like –  other than berry-flavored battery acid – but the batch certainly had the grape thing down pat.

There were no set brewing instructions for this, given that it was an experimental batch at best, but I figured a typical black tea approach was in order. I used 1 tsp of leaves in 8oz. of boiled water, steeped for four minutes. Usually, I would only go three, but I wanted to get all the bang out of the barreled beauty.

The liquor brewed gold-ringed amber with a nose that betrayed no subtlety. It was a bold, somewhat sour, very grapy wine front with an after-whiff of flowers. That same impression showed through in the taste with a front that was dominated with winy notes – like a tongue touched by crimson – and was immediately followed up by the mid-malt and floral impression of the Ceylon base. As far as delivery mechanisms went, the use of a Ceylon as opposed to an Assam or a Keemun might’ve been the right one. No kidding aside, this was a wine fancier’s “hair of the dog” without any of the headache or inebriation.

Without exaggeration, this was their best alcohol-scented “teaxperiment” to date. While I enjoyed the whiskey and gin tryouts that preceded it, this was the one with the strongest liquor impression. This is the perfect morning cup for a Pinot-drenched palate. Now, maybe if I beg enough, I could get them to do a Sangiovese barrel-aged Keemun Hao Ya. Guan Yin willing…it’ll happen.

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Thursday, November 17th, 2011 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

White Petals and Whiskey Barrels

In the fall of ’09, I ventured to a relatively new special-“tea” outfit created by former Stash/Tazo front man, Steven Smith. The aptly named op was called Smith Teamaker, and I instantly fell in love with the place. Their bricks-and-mortar store was…an actual bricks-and-mortar building. The tasting room was atmospheric, welcoming, earthy, and cozy – reminding me of a wine-tasting room. I had every intention of returning.

And at one point, I did with family in tow. Then time somehow got the better of me. I neglected the one place I saw myself frequenting. Heck, I envisioned coming in at least once a week – a la Norm Peterson from Cheers – buying a pot and sipping a way the morning. The reality, though, was that it would be over a year before I ventured in again.

Sometime in the summer of ’10, I “LIKED” them on Facebook, so as to keep tabs on special events and goings-on. Their hours of operation usually clashed with my schedule – such as it was – but I stalked their statuses from the e-bushes like a tea-creeper. An imperative visit surfaced in the form of a new tea in early December.  One of their master blenders – Tony Tellin – had concocted a Whiskey Tea.

A bit of a digression: I’m not much of a hard liquor fan, but when it comes to that smoky, battery-acidic drink, my Irish roots come forth. I have a latent taste for the stuff. I blame Scotland and my first single malt from Edradour.

If I can’t handle or locate the actual stuff, there are passable substitutes in the form of oak-aged ales and liquors. The process is simple. After a batch of whiskey is made, the oak barrels used to ferment them still retain a bit of the scent and flavor. Put something else in it, and chances are a trace amount of that flavor will grab hold. Just look at bourbon-casked beers or barleywines.

Well, good ol’ Tony decided to try this out with tea. The process was similar to how jasmine green teas were created. Traditional scenting for green teas and/or blacks meant letting the tea age and rest for a couple of months with the added ingredients. That way, it took on the flavor before separating. Example: Rose Congou Keemun rested with rose petals, osmanthus oolongs rested with osmanthus petals, lotus greens rested with lotus petals, etc.

How Smith Teamaker got a hold of a Rogue whiskey barrel, I know not. But they did so after a batch of whiskey was made, and then added black tea leaves to the barrel and sat on it for a spell. Occasionally, they’d open it up – cup it – and see if it was ready. The idea was that some of the whiskey oak scent would be absorbed by the tea leaves.

It wasn’t like combining tea and liquors was a new thing, especially with whiskey. 52Teas had a Golden Yunnan Whiskey Sour (that I have yet to try), their offshoot – Man Teas – had a beer-flavored one, and Red Leaf Tea had a whole line of wine-flavored teas. What made Smith’s different was the process. No flavoring agents were added, just the scent from the barrel it was kept in.

I figured this was a good gift for three people – my dad (a “tea”-totaler), my stepdad (for novel-“tea” sake)…and myself. The only way to make the trek work was to go prior to a work shift. As convenience would have it, Smith’s teashop was located northwest of downtown. I was working downtown at a gallery. They opened a full two hours before I was due. The Thursday following the Whiskey Tea discovery, I rousted myself early for the quest.

I arrived right at their opening time. A kindly gent asked if I needed help with anything. I inquired about the Whiskey Tea. He apologized and said they were sold out. I “B’AWWWWW”-ed. But only on the inside. The man did bring forth a bag, however, of what they had left. My eyes glittered like an excited anime character. Gleefully, I asked if I could sample a pot, and he said, “Sure.”

Turned out the guy that was helping me was the blender of the tea in question. This led to a series of questions regarding the process (by me), scribbles in my notepad, and random pictures of the tea in its potted habitat.  Tony took all my tea geekery in stride and good humor.

The part that had me most excited about the tea – besides its novel scenting process – was that Tony revealed that a Nuwara Eliya Ceylon black tea base was used; my absolute favorite growing region in Sri Lanka. I don’t know what it was about that region, perhaps the altitude, but they produced some of the best – most floral – black teas I’ve ever had. I have Smith to blame for my fascination with Ceylons from there. Even while walking up to the teashop, I was secretly hoping the foundation was a Nuwara Eliya.

Happily, I can report that the whiskey-infused tea lived up to my rather vivid imagination. The liquor brewed a bold amber with a woody/winy aroma. The flavor was smoky on the forefront, but not forest-fiery like Lapsang or Russian Caravan.  The middle betrayed its Sri Lankan high-altitude roots with a floral lean – light and feathery with little astringency. It was the aftertaste where the whiskey-scenting was most prominent. The woodiness came through with a wine-whisky tang that wasn’t too bitey but still readily apparent. Tony described it as “toasty”; I would agree.

After he left me to nurse my sumptuous pot, Steve Smith himself popped in. He remembered me from my first visit, and my esoteric series of questions from that time (for which I apologized). I think he remembered that I was also squirrel-like in my attention span, for he directed me to a new product line I hadn’t been aware of – ready-to-drink Smith blends, three total.

The ready-to-drink teas were unique to Smith Teamaker because of the process used to make them – a technique they dubbed “fruitsmithing”. I loved the term. Layman short version: Fruit pieces were cut up and steeped in cold water, creating a juice-like base. Hot tea was then infused with the mix and cold-brewed again. Afterwards, cane sugar, lemon juice, apple juice and natural flavors were added. At least, that’s how I understood it.

One key fact I came away with – and the point Smith wanted to hit home – was that no citric acid was used in the brewing. I was no expert on the subject, but I had never heard of an iced tea NOT having citric acid for storage purposes.

These were my impressions:

No. 15 Honeybush – This was a rooibos/honeybush blend infused with raspberries.  I already adored the nut-sweet one-two punch that rooibos and honeybush delivered when blended together.  Efforts to ice it myself proved worthwhile as well. But I had never paired it with fruit before. They succeeded for the most part in yielding what they intended. It tasted as the moniker sounded, honey-like with a berry-ish lean. If I had any complaint, it was that I expected stronger. Other than that, good but just shy of great.

No. 6 Black Cap – Smith mentioned that whenever there was a taste-test, this came out the clear favorite on average. I can see why. It’s a strong blend, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Smith’s Kandy blend (a Ceylon base *glee!*) has been paired with Oregon blackberries for this one. And – lemme tell ya – it shows. Unlike the Honeybush, this one screams BERRY! Lightly sweetened as it is, it could pass for fruit punch but without the fructose guilt. Quite outstanding but not as good as…

No. 71 White Petal – I’ve sung praises about this one for well over a week now. A full review is pending on Teaviews as I write this. Since I’m kinda lazy, I’ll simply reiterate my Steepster notes on it: “I sampled this and immediately picked up a bottle. That’s how much I loved it. I finally cracked it open while at work. I’ve had pear-flavored white teas before, but never paired with apples. The flavor lived up to my wildest imagination…and that’s pretty vivid. Pear dominated the foretaste, while apple and mildly-astringent Bai Mu Dan dominated the middle. The aftertaste was toasty, almost Riesling-like. This is an iced tea I’d pour into a wine glass to ‘fit in’ at a party full of sommeliers. Looks the same and almost tastes the same. Simply awesome.”

Heftily caffeinated and mostly-sated, I finally parted ways with the shop and strolled to work – happy with having sampled some wonderful wares. I returned a week later when a new batch of the whiskey blend came in. I hope the two father figures find it to their liking. I certainly did. Now…I just need to find a new excuse to “Norm” it to Smith’s again for another hot cuppa-somethin’.

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Thursday, December 23rd, 2010 Steep Stories No Comments

I work for tea money.

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