manly

Beerendipity in a Mormon City

Sometimes the Fates want me to drink beer. There, I said it. Every once in awhile the cosmic cards align allowing me the chance to imbibe something I haven’t before. This was one of those times. It was the tail end of my vacation in Wyoming – a time of lament. A wonderful respite from reality was going to end the next day. A relative passed along a parting gift – a bottle of Wasatch Pumpkin Seasonal.

I wasn’t much into pumpkin ales. The last one I tried in Portland had left me with a week-long stomach ache. After that, I was fully convinced that pumpkin is something only meant for pie…and nothing else. Imagine my surprise when the seasonal not only turned out decent, but also delectable! And for the next hour, I spent time on the couch nursing it like a Zen-filled beer Buddha.

What I found peculiar was that the edge of the bottle read: “Bottled and brewed in Salt Lake City, UT.” Color me ignorant, but I was always under the impression that SLC was Mormon country. I did what any self-deprecating beer snob would do – I took to Twitter and mentioned trying the beer. A funny thing happened, the brewery’s Twitter page responded back.

I replied that I was only going to be in Salt Lake City for a two-hour layover on my way back to Portland. Squatters chimed in on this lively Twitversation by reminding me they had a restaurant in the airport. See what I mean? Fates.

My arrival into SLC was not heralded by angels, but I did catch a glimpse of several women that could’ve passed for angels. Whatever was in the water in Mormon country, I wanted it by the friggin’ growler. The first question I asked the gate attendant was where Squatters was. She looked at me a bit dumbfounded, but pointed me in the right direction.

One thing I noticed upon reaching their restaurant outlet-type-thingy was how crowded it was. Apparently, they’re a big deal out in Utah – like McMenamins is to Portland. Secondly, they had a very attractive clientele – young, hip, and bathed. While I’m usually clean-cut, I’d been traveling late at night; I looked rather disheveled. And I was wearing a “Pot Head” t-shirt. (For the record, it was a teapot.)

First order of business was to…uh…order a sampler. The server brought it in a timely fashion – as they should for the newly thirsty. Initially, I was disappointed that there wasn’t an IPA among the six samples. (I’m a Portlander, IPAs are like beer candy to us.) That nitpick didn’t last long, though. Their oatmeal stout and American pale more than made up for the lack of IPA. However, that wasn’t the particular standout. Dare I say it, my favorite of the bunch was a pilsner!

Most who know me have a fair idea of what my beer palate is – I’m pretty vocal about it. I tend toward hoppy, dark, cask-conditioned and barrel-aged beers. That leaves no room for lagers, pilsners, most Belgians, and piss-tasting domestics. But there was something special about their Provo Girl Pilsner. Maybe it was the model they used for the bottle’s insignia, or maybe it was something about the beer itself, but for a split second, I wanted to marry a girl from Provo.

Once I finished the sampler – and a bourbon-onion burger from Heaven – I realized I still had forty-five minutes to kill. To any traveler, that translates to, “Time for ‘MOAR BEER’!” And…that’s exactly what I did. On top of their custom drafts, they also carried bottled beers from their sister brewery, Wasatch. Custom-made bottled blends were also available. Since I was mainly in a straight-from-the-tap mood, I zeroed in on the one I hadn’t tried yet – a porter. For the life of me, I can’t remember what it was called. All I know is that it was a seasonal, and it was quite burly for its type. I like burly…in a totally hetero way.

Duly fuzzy and fully sated, I returned to the Delta gate to wait for my flight. Sometimes serendipity works in my favor. Beerendipity definitely works in my “flavor”.

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Friday, September 28th, 2012 Beverage Blog 4 Comments

Tea Like Leather

It’ll probably help to picture the voice of Sam Elliott narrating this as one reads further. I found that to be the quickest way to get through it. Of course, I picture Sam Elliott narrating everything I write. Because…well…he’s Sam F**king Elliott. Anyway, let’s begin.

The rain was falling pretty hard; the chill in the air could cut right through your pores. Traffic was a mean mistress – construction on the road, an even meaner spouse. The destination was near, but I was always a turn or two away. There’s a message there…somewhere.

I was meeting Dave and crew for our now-weekly round of brew. Such meet-ups were becoming a favorable addition to the grinding schedule I kept. This time we were notching off ol’ Foxfire Teas – a place I hadn’t been back to since…come to think of it, I don’t remember when. I recall it being a pleasant enough place, just difficult to get to. For some reason, it seemed worse now. Parking was a near disaster.

On the walk there, I saw an unusual site – a striking blonde woman in knee-high boots smoking a curved briar pipe. Whatever sour mood I had drifted away at that pleasant dichotomy. I almost wanted to ask her if she was puffing Cavendish but thought better against it.

When I finally found the right door, Dave was already there yacking it up with the owner. I came barreling in out of the cold, bitchin’ about the parking. Hardly the makings of a good re-introduction to a vendor. I said my “howdy”-s and bee-lined to the menu. First thing to catch my eye were the “Sun Dried Buds” in the pu-erh section. I asked the owner for a whiff, and he kindly obliged. Lemon and wilderness greeted my thankful nostrils.

Several sniffs and a cup of four-year-aged Chinese black later, Dave and I were introduced to something entirely different. The owner described it as a Yunnan black tea with a slightly different character called “Imperial Feng Qinch”. The taster notes on the menu compared it to leather. Dave was captivated while I shied from it in favor of a white. That said, I still stole a sip. Ten minutes later, I was driving home with a 1oz. bag of the stuff.

I didn’t brave the brew until a week later. The leaves were so thin and gold one would think they were prospecting for slivery veins in the Sierra Nevadas. The aroma was all pepper, prairie, and bootstraps. I don’t even wanna know how they managed so rustic a presentation. All that remained was to subject it to…my style o’ brewin’.

More often than not, if the leaves look delicate, I treat ‘em as such – like a lady. Having already experienced the bite on this missus, I knew it needed steadier grip. I opted for 1 heaping teaspoon in 8oz. of boiled water. And instead of my usual paltry three-minute infusion, I went with a full five. If she was as tough as thought she was, she could take it.

The soup brewed to the color of rusted copper, but with a glimmer of sunshine to it. Steam rising from the mouth invoked feelings of sun-parched earth, sagebrush, rawhide, and farm country. The taste was dry and smoky on intro and graciously followed that up much-touted leather. A curtsy of malt ended the whole show.

This was one deceptive beauty. Needle-like gold leaves did not make for a thin, gentle brew. This was made to wake you up with the morning dew – preferably after sleeping outdoors. I still have no idea what “Feng Qing” means, and I don’t feel I need to look it up. As far as I’m concerned, it’s like feng shui…

Only for men.

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Monday, November 21st, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

Awesome Assam is Awesome!

Teas from the northeastern state of India called Assam are known for many things. First and foremost are their robust and malty characteristics. Second (and this is one I’ve noticed) is their lean towards – how to put it – tiramisu sweetness. Very odd. Part of their unique character comes from the varietal of tea plant used – one that is actually native to the region. Unlike Darjeeling, which uses Chinese cultivars, Assam has its own native bush, the Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Until the British came along, this shrub was only used for Ayurvedic purposes.

To me and a few others in my tea circle, Assams hold the honor of being the second manliest type of tea in existence. First place, of course, goes to the pine-smoked monstrosity that is Lapsang Souchong. I have since sampled quite a few single estate offerings – some better than others – and all have put a spring in my step thanks to the s**tstorm of caffeine they impart. But no one told me…

That there was a white Assam out there.

White teas are my muse. They started me on the path of tea exploration; they continue to haunt and heighten it. I have tried whites from China, Sri Lanka, Darjeeling, and even here in the Pacific Northwest. All were one shade of awesome or another, but I had never had a white Assam.

It’s white buffalo-esque existence came to my attention upon visiting a local tea shop. I was perusing the vast array of loose leaf whites when I came across it. So shocked was I that I could barely form the words, “I’ll get an ounce of this.”

The teller said, “That’ll be $15.”

Like a Tex Avery cartoon, my jaw dropped. I ended up leaving with just my do-it-yourself teabags. My quest was at an end by way of moth-wallet.

A year later, I received a white tea variety pack from Canton Tea Co. They always treated me super well. Of the unique teas in the batch, I expected the Darjeeling white, the Silver Needle, and the White Peony. (I adored all of ‘em.) Quietly tucked away in the mailbag, though, was something I wasn’t expecting. Scrawled in Asiatic-looking script were the words “Assam White”.

I shrieked. My brother/roommate jumped at the sound. His dog looked at me quizzically. My cat’s tail bristled in alarm. I tried to explain the significance of this one shiny, silver bag of “Awesome”…but it all came out like geeky sputters.

I brewed it up the next day.

The dry leaves looked like Silver Needle white tea by way of lawn-clippings – small, reed-like, and light green. The aroma also didn’t give off anything particularly extraordinary. It smelled like grass with a bit of a melon-mint profile – white tea-ish but not uncharacteristic. As a result, I brewed it up as I would any normal white tea; 1 heaping teaspoon in 8oz. of 165F water for three minutes. Big mistake.

I basically brewed…water. It had no character to speak of whatsoever. This being made from the same burly leaf Assam blacks were, though, I knew I’d done something wrong. I did it again, but this time I dialed the temperature on my water kettle to 180F. This was pushing it, but it was for science, damn it!

The results were pure…well..awesome.

Okay, if you want specifics, the liquor brewed to a transparent gold with a strong nose of parsley, sage, rosemary and F**KING AWESOME!!! It had the character of other white teas but with some of the malt that made Assam blacks so delectable. It was like someone said, “Melon meet Malt. Now…FIGHT TO THE DEATH!” Imagine a Viking in a tu-tu, and you’ll get the idea. Sure, he’s wearing a tu-tu, but you wouldn’t call him a sissy. This was no sissy white tea.

Further proof of its lack of sissy-ness arrived by steep five. Yeah, you heard right. Steep f**king five. This pitbull puppy of a tea lasted five infusions without letting go of its flavor. I only ran into one other white tea that lasted that long, and that was from the U.S. of A. Most taper off by steep three.

Canton Tea Co. mentions that this white tea is from the Mothola tea estate, one of the only estates in Assam to produce white teas. In other words, this was a rare pleasure indeed, and that sort of explains the high price tag for Assam whites in general. Still, considering how much bang you get for that buck (five steeps!), I’d say fork it over. This was not a white tea for wimps…even though I am one.

To buy Canton Tea’s Assam White, go HERE! (If you dare…)

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Thursday, August 4th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, to taste…

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

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

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

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

“It tastes like…ash,” he said flatly.

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

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

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

The Legend of Lapsang

The following story is not to be taken as fact, nor as an allusion to the real origin story of the namesake tea. It is a screwball (and possibly epic or stupid) yarn concocted after a lengthy conversation over Twitter…and copious amounts of caffeine. I wrote it in one night, twelve hours (and six pints of tea) straight. Errors may be present. To some of you, I apologize in advance. To the rest of you…”BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!” Um, ahem. Enjoy.

The novice journeyed for days to reach the meeting hall where the Council of 34 convened over all things tea-related. The bicycle he rode whirred with the clockworks powering it, anticipating the stop ahead. Why he traveled in so antiquated a ‘mobile was the subject of much derision in his circle. Common answer? “I lost a bet at sci-fi convention.” And stuck with the steampunk gizmo, he was.

He was adorned in his best, amber-colored uniform. Musket to his back, rapier sheathed to his right; he was proficient in neither.  Yet both were required ornaments for the Order he was a part of. To be a Tea Musketeer meant looking the part. “All for one, and tea for all!” was the credo. One he only loosely followed by. While he was a champion of the loose leaf, there were times – in secret – for the sake of convenience he dipped a teabag for a beverage on the go.

And like so many times before, he was caught in the act.

“That is neither the steed nor steep fit for that uniform,” said a strong but soft Aussie voice behind him.

Names were not used in the Order, but monikers were commonplace. Many called this man The Herbalist, mainly for the elaborate gardens worldwide he was caretaker to. He was known to be a mild-mannered man, slow to anger, and scholastically wise in the ways of the steep. But none dared cross him. All remembered The Great Teabag Burn of ’87…and his part in it.

“A-a thousand apologies,” said the novice, chucking the contents of his travel mug. Bag and all.

“Don’t waste a cup, either,” The Herbalist whispered with a smile.

The bespectacled man was likewise dressed in Musketeer amber. Whoever selected that as the Order’s color needed a serious talking-to. Rumor had it that the company tailor based the palette off the first cup of tea he had that day. Much to everyone’s dismay, it was a Darjeeling first flush. Great tea…bad uniform color.

The Herbalist’s steed was an unimposing mare -chestnut brown with white points. He chose not to stick out unless he absolutely had to. Such an approach suited him well. When an impression was needed – but unexpected – he made his presence known. He was an easy friend but one to fear. And the man never stopped smiling. Knowingly.

Further down the road, both caught eye of a lone gent in “similar” amber-colored clothing but custom-made differently. His uniform coat was cut and adorned like a troubadour’s traveling cloak, the usual feathered hat was exchanged for a fedora, his boots were stouter, and instead of pants he wore pantaloons. In place of a musket was a guitar; in place of a rapier, a knife sheath and a satchel for mustard. Musketeers didn’t call him The Bard for nothing.

The Bard traveled without a steed, preferring his feet to aid his wanderlust. And wander, he did. Part of his role in the Order was to spread the word to men across the world that tea was as manly as breathing. In certain parts of Northern and/or Eastern Europe, he got his point across wearing Viking horns. Sometimes he forgot to remove them once he hit Asia Major, which – in turn – caused confusion.

He appeared lost in thought, humming some unknown tune as the duo approached. The Herbalist put a finger to his lips, directed at the novice. Riding up beside The Bard, he slapped him hard on the back. That awoke the minstrel from his reverie so effectively that he accidentally drew his mustard bottle instead of a proper weapon in response.

The Herbalist guffawed. The novice stifled his laughter. Humorous, though it was, he dared not mock a senior Musketeer – especially not The Bard, who was quick of wit and knife.

“I’m afraid you won’t find us appetizing, no matter what condiment you use,” The Herbalist said.

“Anything’s a weapon if it is thrown true,” The Bard retorted, adjusting his hat.

“Truer words were never mustarded,” the novice offered with a nervous laugh.

Both simply looked at him quizzically. He thought he heard crickets and a cough.

“Mustered…I mean…nevermind,” the novice sighed.

“So, hes the wordsmith,” The Bard said to the older Musketeer.

“He has no title as of yet,” spoke The Herbalist in his place. “But his cup is true. Most of the time.”

“And he was the third one sent to represent the Order at the Council of 34?” The Bard asked.

Sick of being referred to in the third person, the novice chimed in, “I volunteered since others refused.”

The Bard scoffed, “Our brethren are scared of it, too.”

The Herbalist nodded. “So it would seem. If the reports are true, we all should be.”

“You’ve had it, I assume?” The Bard asked. His lilting voice cracked a little at the ‘it’.

“I have,” The Herbalist said flatly. “Increased my chest hair count. Tenfold.”

“That’s not so bad,” The Bard shooed. “First time I tried it, I woke up in another country.”

“My first had me yelling obscenities at strangers. Doctors thought I had Tourette’s . The Order’s Scribe finally told me that was a common side effect, and that Tourette’s was borne from the stuff.”

“Um…excuse me,” the novice interrupted. “What are we talking about?”

The Bard looked at him, dumfounded. “Do you even know why we’re here?”

“Some issue about a tea?”

“Not just any tea,” The Herbalist corrected. “The most dangerous tea known to mankind. The stuff can blow up an asteroid.”

The novice chuckled at that, but The Herbalist’s face was a mask of intensity.

The Herbalist continued, “The only thing harder on the Moh scale than carborundum is this tea.”

“Don’t forget about The Scribe’s third testicle,” The Bard interjected.

“That too,” The Herbalist eye-rolled

“Not to mention it causes women’s breasts within a ten-mile radius to increase three sizes,” came a young-ish voice from behind them. “Of course, I kinda like that part.”

The source of the voice originated from a brass chariot pulled by two grizzly-polar bear hybrids. Within the chariot were two twentysomething males – one plainly dressed with a blonde woman under each arm, the other in a Victorian suit with a leather bound book cradled in his right hand. A keg could be seen in the rear seat of the chariot. It bore an immaculate, etched sign that read: “Da Hong Pao”.

Stories of the Acolytes of the Iron Goddess were widespread. Two men traveling the world in excess, quoting from the Book of Oolong, and leaving a path of destruction and broken hearts in their wake; one in charge of his own duchy and earldom (with successful tea gardens in each territory), the other a purveyor of various brothels from Turkey to Tucson, Arizona. Occasionally, their “business” ventures crossed paths. Said partnership had yet to be outmatched.

One was simply known as Duke; his lothario compatriot, Pain. The Bard often referred to them in passing with a light-hearted sneer. A friendly rivalry existed in spreading the word of tea and manliness. In some ways, their methods – while uncouth at times – fared with better results. The ensuing property damage (and pregnancy scares), though, sometimes undermined their efforts. Membership to the Tea Musketeers had been rejected – mainly for insurance reasons – but they were often brought in as “consultants”.

It was Duke who spoke. “And let’s not forget that heroin was once made of it before being deemed ‘too potent’.”

“Or that even J.J. Cale was too scared to write a song about it, changed the title to ‘Cocaine’,” The Bard lamented.

Or that the Opium Wars were fought over it. The other name was deemed too long.” The Herbalist volunteered.

Pain stood from his women-sandwiched seat, “Remember the Acolyte who drank it? Boom! Tasted its fire, sang with a voice like Barry White…killed thirteen. Cause of death? Fainting.”

“The Bonfire Debacle,” The Bard said, nodding solemnly. “Two of our Order died that day. May they rest in peace.”

WHAT TEA?!” screamed the novice.

“It cannot be named,” warned The Herbalist. “To do so would cause the aura of the one who utters it to self-destruct. They’d live, but others might not.”

“Only the sacred hall of the Council of 34 is protected from its might,” said Duke. “Legend has it that the Council hall was where the first batch was made. Someone divided by zero and…there it was.”

“Yep, time-space continuum nearly collapsed,” agreed Pain, once more sitting, propping an arm around each of his damsels. “Practically swallowed the Universe whole. Council was born that day, too. Kept the tea world in check ever since.”

“Various representatives from many tea groups around the world – consolidated and cooperative,” The Herbalist added.

“Well, cooperative most of the time,” The Bard countered. “The Overseer’s a temperamental old coot. Some say he’s over ten thousand years old and not even human, alive when The Tea That Shall Not Be Named first came into being.”

The Herbalist looked to the sky, “Speaking of which, sun’s starting to fall. The Overseer’s big on punctuality when holding Council.”

All five pressed on with their various means of transport. Duke and Pain held the rear, instigating the occasional bellow from their unholy bear-mounts. The novice stiffened his back at each roar. No one appeared to notice. A fear of bears was perfectly natural…even when the bears in question weren’t.

An hour and a half passed, and a chrome-colored, saucer-shaped structure came into view. Mounted atop the oddly-discus building were four curled spires – jet black and ominous. They were situated at the four “corners” of the temple. It reminded the novice of a Frisbee with spikes. This was the great hall of the Council of 34 – a ten thousand-year-old tribute to tea throughout the ages. The fact that it looked like the lair of a supervillain hadn’t escaped anyone’s notice.

The Bard was the most vocal critic of the hall, “You’d think the Overseer would brighten it up a bit. Maybe a little aqua-blue?”

Duke overheard the minstrel’s grumblings and shot back with, “You’re not…serious, are you?”

“Primer?”

“Much better,” Duke approved.

They arrived at an imposing, Asian dragon-carved gate. The Dragonwell Door stood as a sentinel to the great hall’s inner chamber. The design was that of a whirlpool with three serpentine dragons circling an invisible drain, each one joined by the tail and mouth. It was supposed to symbolize tea appreciation throughout the centuries. Instead, it looked like the downward spiral of a very deep tea cup – the drinker pulled further in by the dragons. Nothing was more alluring – or awesome – than dragons, according to Pain.

To the novice’s surprise, the dragons appeared to move when the door rumbled. It wasn’t his imagination. As if on invisible tracks, the three dragons began to “swim” in reverse, irising (or unfurling?) as the ancient door unlocked. Once the great wyrms were at a distance, the grand gateway parted open to let the travelers enter. They were apparently the last to arrive.

From within the spacious domed building, statues of marble, obsidian, and other unidentifiable minerals lined the walls – legendary figures of tea’s past. The novice recognized Wu Long, the Zen Buddhist Eisai, and even the 2nd Earl of Grey. Duke saluted the latter statue. The novice didn’t know why. Among the statues, various figures – clad in robes of their respective orders – stood next to the statues. He recognized, maybe, two of them – The Picardian Priesthood and the Mad Hatters Hive Mind.

(Sidenote: There were female orders – such as the Tea Trolley – that had tried to gain acceptance within the Council of 34. But given the feminine stigma placed upon tea to begin with, all attempts were denied. With the masculinity of tea under constant attack, only the brotherhoods were granted access.)

“No women are allowed within these walls, Acolytes of the Iron Goddess,” came a high-pitched, nasal voice from the shadows. A diminutive figure in white-and-gold robes pointed at Duke and Pain.

Pain paled a bit, Duke shot him a glance. The two blondes in their company recoiled at the voice. The two young men dismounted their bear-chariot and shooed the girls out the gate before it closed.  They promptly took their places near one of the statues.

The three Tea Musketeers did likewise. The Herbalist ushered them to a spot by a statue of a man with a dog. The Bard told the novice that it was an Irishman named “Sencha mac Ailella”. No one knew for sure if he was directly connected to the Japanese green tea, but apparently important enough in the tea world to have a statue. An amazing feat. For an Irishman.

All eyes were on the white-gold-robed figure positioned at the center of the meeting hall. A single tile, the one he stood on, hummed with life and hovered upward. With a motion from a single, slender finger, the tile stayed suspended ten feet in the air. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind who the Overseer was.

“Minister Norris,” the Overseer commanded. “You will present your case to the Council.”

“Thank you, Overseer,” was the calm reply from a broad-shouldered, open-robed man at the other side of the room.

Had the novice heard that correctly? Surely, it couldn’t be…

Minister Norris pulled back his hood. Indeed it was the Terror of Texas, perma-fifteen-o’-clock shadow and all. Just staring at him caused beads of sweat to pool on the novice’s brow. His eyes were steely resolve, his clasped hands were veined, calloused and battle-worn. And only known to a select few…he was a tea drinker. He represented no order, no brotherhood, and no collective. His position on the Council wasn’t honorary but earned; and the title of Minister of Tea Manliness was his and his alone.

The Bard had extolled about the man in great detail, for he desired his seat once he ever did retire. There was no greater cause in the Council than the promotion of masculini-“tea”. And Chuck Norris was the proverbial fist of that operation. Rumor had it that it was a particular tea that gave him his power, but no one knew what that was.

“Friends, colleagues, and tolerables,” he began. “You all know me. You all know what I stand for. You also know why we are here. In the last five decades, something has secretly been changing the face of the world as we know it. Both the Exxon Valdez and the recent BP spills were not caused by oil, but rather another crude substance. Both were a means of preventing smog caused by said liquid. In the last year, NASA launched a space shuttle, testing out a new fuel system. They accidentally sent it to Mars. No word yet on what happened to the crew. Even more recently, the no-fly zone over several countries in the Middle-East were enforced through the consumption of a mysterious drink.

“The crude, the fuel, the no-fly zone,” Norris cleared his throat. “All were caused by one tea…Lapsang Souchong.”

A veritable gasp resounded throughout the meeting hall. Tremors and commotions of dozens of dialed-down voices filled the dome. The Bard was arguing with a red-robed figure to his right, while The Herbalist leaned up against the leg of Sencha’s statued dog – fingers clasped to mouth, lips pursed in thought. The novice didn’t know what to do, until…

“Silence!!!” bellowed the Overseer. “Minister Norris, pray continue.”

“Yes, Overseer. My fellow tea drinkers, we’ve known of this tea for millennia. It has survived throughout the ages, spoken of only in hushed tones, never given name by we of the ‘tea’-lite. Those not in the know speak its name freely and frequently. They give it power. A force that even I cannot surpass.”

“I don’t believe it!” cried the novice. He meant to say it to himself, but the words came out of their own accord. Both The Herbalist and Bard glared at him.

Minister Norris merely smiled, “I wish that were true, but there is one thing you must know about me. It is Lapsang Souchong that is the source of my power.”

The dull commotion in the room crescendo-ed to fevered protest. Shouts of heresy even rousted The Herbalist from his contemplation.  At the far end of the room, Pain and Duke joined in the verbal carnage. Cries of “Silence!” from the Overseer were deafened by the frenzied, robed mob.

Only one dared a voice of opposition to the crowd. A mocha-skinned man, chiseled by the tea gods themselves, disrobed and stood by Chuck Norris’s side. “He speaks the truth!”

Many knew him merely as Old Spice Guy. He had a name, but it didn’t matter here. The position of Deacon of Diamonds was held by him. In many ways, he was better with words than the venerable Norris. In the world of wordplay, he was the undisputed king. He took over the mantle of Deaconship after Sam Elliott and Morgan Freeman retired.

“Friends, settle down and hear the words from my magnificent mouth,” Old Spice Guy continued. “It doesn’t matter where Minister Norris received his godly powers but how he uses them. I – too – was touched by the titillating tendrils of that smoky-sweet beverage so long ago. Old Spice scientists discovered me after I had imbibed it and realized how much manlier it made me smell and sound. Tests were also administered in households with pets. It was conclusive: The lovely Lapsang eliminated any and all odors simply by opening the tin.”

“My mother was a Lapsang Souchong drinker,” said a raspy-voiced man with a shorn scalp. It was Bruce Willis. “Since then, I’ve never had need of hair.”

“On deh set of mah moovee,” chimed the thickly-accented Arnold Schwarzenegger (to Bruce’s left). “Special effecks veren’t needed to make mah skull metallic. Mah skeleton really eez metal! Thanks to Lapsunng Soochong. The supah-secret last round of the Meester Yooniverse competition was drinkeen eet.”

This time the Overseer took over, “But for all the good done by that cursed drink, look at the evil it has wrought tenfold. Two continents were destroyed by its very inception. My people wiped from the face of the Earth. Only I remain – the last Lemurian. It took centuries to convince the world that a simple village in China created it from pinesmoke. The Council figured that most would ignore a drink from so humble an origin, but that is no longer the case.

“Up ‘til now, all we’ve had to contend with are the clones of the original batch. Their power is significantly diminished, resulting in only mild ripples in the status-quo of the tea world. Someone is threatening that balance. There is an entity out there that seeks to divide by zero yet again – risking the very fabric of our reality – in order to create a new flush of Lapsang Souchong. The destruction…could be the end of tea as we know it. Manly or not, this tea cannot be created or recreated.”

There were general mumbles of agreement from the gathered assembly.

“Pardon, sir, but I’m gonna hafta disagree.”

“Sam Elliott? Is that you?” asked Old Spice Guy.

“Nope. Close, though.”

A flash of light struck the center of the chamber. The ground shook with thunderous ferocity, statues shuttered, and smoke plumed from the impact point. The Minister, Deacon, and two action celebrities were thrown from their respective places. Only the Overseer held steady on his floating tile, but his hood had flown back…

Revealing the face of a blonde-haired, hook-nosed woman in alien-esque sunglasses.

“Lady…Gaga?” the novice sputtered and stared.

The Herbalist shrugged, “Not surprising, really. She’s a man. And a tea drinker.”

“And not human,” The Bard interjected.

The novice shrugged in reluctant agreement.

From the impact crater, sparks cackled and smoke rose. The room filled with a familiar fragrance – equal parts chocolate, hickory smoke, campfire, flowers and death. It was the smell of Lapsang Souchong – “smoked tea”, the manliest and most dangerous drink in existence. And the mysterious figure was bathed in its scent.

It took the novice only a moment to realize that the smoke was not smoke at all, but rather steam rising from within and around the huge silhouette of a man-thing in front of them. The creature’s aura emanated the cursed tea. As it came into the light, its appearance shocked the masses. It – or rather, “he” – was covered in brown fur from head-to-toe. He held a shovel in his gigantic left paw. As far as clothing went, he only wore faded blue jeans with a leather belt held in place by a brass buckle.  A beige forest ranger’s hat sat atop his large head. One word was etched into the front of it – “Smokey”.

“I-I’ve heard stories about him,” The Bard said with a quiver in his lilting voice. “Rumor has it that some idiot camper left a mug of tea in a forest. Trees burst into flame. A feral bear cub happened by the mug, and – miraculously – it became, well, him. No one knew what tea it was.”

“We do now,” said The Herbalist, rapier drawn. The blade crackled with lightning.

The Bard followed suit, brandishing knives that appeared from out of nowhere. From across the room, Duke and Pain could be seen reading from the leather bound Book of Oolong. An apparition coalesced into being at their summons, taking the form of an ironclad woman with two curved blades.

From the center of the room, “Ah-nuld” sprang to his feet, his eyes glowing red; his expression like that of a stern machine. His hands morphed into two abnormally large Gatling guns. Bruce Willis, likewise, took a stance with two Desert Eagles brought to bear on the…uh…bear. Minister Norris dropped his robes and donned his trusty wide-brimmed cowboy hat.

“You’re no ranger,” Norris growled.

“Horse, come forth!” bellowed Old Spice Guy as a gargantuan Pegasus/unicorn hybrid manifested at his words. Its fur and mane burned of a radiant blue fire; its eyes, diamonds.

Overseer Gaga clasped his/her/its hands together, spoke something unintelligible (in what sounded like Swedish), and a large ball of red flame appeared above her head.  Gaga held the fireball in “their” hands for a time, floating off the hover-tile. With a scream, the blonde she-man let the ball fly.

“Take that, monster!” the Overseer shouted.

Old Spice Guy also responded. He pointed at the ranger man-bear, and the blue-fired uni-Pegasus flew to intercept – corn point lowered. It “nay”-ed with a hideous screech as it closed in.

Smokey placed both hands on the base of the shovel; the blade in front of his face. Calmly, eyes closed, he raised the shovel above his head. When both the fireball and fire-horse were within inches of him, he opened them again. Time seemed to slow, sound muted, and visual space rippled as he brought the shovel stick down. And hard. A shockwave expanded from the shovel, blanketed in the same aural smoke that surrounded the man-bear.

The fire-horse and fireball were extinguished instantly.

The thirty-four robed Council members flew back as the shockwave passed through them. None were harmed, just dazed. The novice felt around his person and was relieved that all body parts were accounted for. The Bard and The Herbalist were dizzied by the wave but still on their feet with weapons drawn.

Gaga stared at the bear, face whiter than usual.

“Don’t you know Lapsang Souchong puts out fires?” Smokey asked in his mild-mannered, Elliottine drawl. “Cancels it out.”

“What are you doing here, you…dazzling beast?” Old Spice Guy demanded…oddly.

“Isn’t it obvious?”  the man-bear countered. “The world needs more Lapsang. I need more Lapsang – newer, better, smokier – even if I have to destroy a continent or two to do it.”

“It’s your life force,” Norris sneered.

“Bingo,” Smokey winked and pointed.

“I veel crush yoooo!” shouted the gun-armed Austrian behind Chuck Norris.

Arnold’s Gatling barrel-hands spun to life, revving with heat, and with a thunder-clapping FOOM!-FOOM!-FOOM!, he unloaded spent-uranium shells at the humble-looking assailant. The man-bear in turn sighed, brought his shovel up, and spun it counter-clockwise. The more he twirled, the faster it spun. The bullets whizzed off their intended path when they connected with the propelled shovel. Statues, pieces of ceiling, and even a robe-clad Council member (or several) fell prey to the stray rounds.

The Governator ceased firing when he heard the screams of casualties. In a blur of motion, Smokey was in front of him. And with a loud clang of the flat end of the shovel, Arnold was down. His eyes went from red to glassy-blue.

Gunfire erupted from behind the bear’s position. Willis had used Arnold’s bombastic attack to get behind the threat. Both Eagles poised, he fired round after round into Smokey’s back. The man-bear actually seemed surprised at each hit.

“Magic nullifier bullets, motherfucker,” Bruce one-lined and continued firing.

Each time a null-bullet struck true, the wound glowed. After the umpteenth round, the bear looked like he’d had enough. Not out of weakness, but rather visible annoyance. At first he was kneeling with a glow-dotted back, the next he was in front of Bruce. With one sidestep.

Smokey sighed while face-to-face with the bald action star. “I always liked you.”

“Ah shit,” Bruce opined.

With a clank! of the shovel, “Die Hard” was down.

The novice looked around. The action stars were decommissioned, Old Spice Guy was whining about his ashen horse, “Lady” Gaga was still frozen in fear, and Chuck Norris merely stood there, taking it all in. Other Council Members didn’t intervene, nor did they look like they could.

Then Norris looked at him.

“Kid, if you’re going to do anything, now’s the time,” he said with a nod.

Right! the novice thought to himself.

The rookie Tea Musketeer stepped forward – dropping his musket and rifle – and withdrew a small pouch, a briar pipe, and a kitchen torch.

The Herbalist grinned. His rapier glowed with arcs of energy. “Looks like it’s our turn, eh?”

The Bard shrugged. “Dunno what we can do against that thing, but I’m ready.” He had three knives in one hand, arranged like a deck of cards, and the bottle of mustard in the other.

“You two upstarts ready?” The Herbalist asked the Acolytes.

“Fuck yeah!” they said in unison. Their “Iron Goddess” automaton raised its swords in recognition.

“Get to it!” Norris commanded, charging at the bear with a flying scissor kick.

Smokey turned to intercept Chuck’s foot with the shovel blade. As he did so, Duke and Pain’s Iron Goddess golem advanced on him, plunging her blades down on his shoulders. One connected, the other missed. The man-bear roared in pain and fury.

The Herbalist brought his arc-rapier down, and a bolt flew from the blade. A long tendril of pure, white lightning coiled around the struggling guy-grizzly. It singed his fur as The Herbalist pulled the rapier back, tightening the lasso.

Now it was The Bard’s turn. He uncorked the mustard bottle and lathered the three knifes with the condiment. On touchdown, the blades glowed magma-yellow in his gloved hand. After dropping the mustard, he gingerly removed one blade from his hand by the hilt then flung it at ol’ Smokey. He repeated with each knife. One struck the man-bear’s foot, one missed, and the last hit him square in the eye. The roars of fury transitioned to high-pitched wails of agony.

The bear went berserk.

With his one free hand, he pulled against the lightning lasso. In doing this, The Herbalist slid forward. Smokey brought the shovel up, and struck at the Iron Goddess’s torso repeatedly. Dents formed in her abdomen as sparks flew from the repeated bashes. With each hit to the golem, and each pull of the energy rope, the man-bear regained his footing. His smoke-aura strengthened.

Norris looked at the novice again. He, too, had a pouch, a pipe and a Zippo. “Now, kid!”

“Y-yessir!”

Both Musketeer and Minister plucked small batches of black leaves from their pouches.  They pressed the contents into their respective pipes, and with their torches, lit them. The novice watched as smoke billowed forth from the mouthpiece of the briar. With that smoke, he began to write.

The words that formed weren’t in English or any language known to humankind. The markings were sigils of a bygone alphabet of a long lost time. Years had passed since the novice had smoke-written anything in Old Lemurian. He wasn’t sure he remembered how, until this moment. It was just like riding a stupid steampunk bicycle; you never forgot how, no matter how much you wanted to.

Norris’s scripting was far better than his, but the words were the same. He hoped his were effective. Once he dotted the ancient “I”-s and crossed the ancient “T”-s, he puckered his lips and blew. The long-forgotten words flared with life, and flew on the wind toward the berserking bear.

The two glowing sigil-sentences struck Smokey, and he flared with blinding light. The smoke aura around his body turned white, glowing in unison with the Lemurian sigils. The man-bear convulsed, reared back, and struggled against the binding smoke.

“You can’t do this!” he roared. “I need it! I nee-“

Chuck Norris stood in front of him, arms akimbo. Smokey froze in his frenzy.

“Only we can prevent you,” Norris said softly as his beard glowed white.

From the aura around his facial hair, a fist formed.  Smokey looked down on the beard-fist as if accepting his fate. He closed his deceptively gentle eyes. The spirit punch hit the man-beast square in the jaw. And he shattered into a dazzling debris of fur, smoke, shovel steel, denim and ranger beige.

Lady Gaga came to from her stupor and surveyed the damage. Over half of the statues in the great hall were rubble. Twelve Councilors were dead or dematerialized. The rest were in some state of wounded or wellness. Arnold and Bruce also awoke from their shovel-induced slumbers. Old Spice Guy said a small prayer for his lost steed then stilled his diamond tears.

“Minister Norris,” the Overseer began. “I am leaving the Council in your care. Clearly, I’ve outlived my usefulness to this world. My race has diminished…and I should follow.” Gaga removed the now-tattered, white-gold robe and handed it to him. “You are now Overseer Norris. Govern well.”

The torch had passed, and he/she/it simply vanished.

Overseer Norris stared at them for a moment then looked up at the remains of the Council. The novice, The Bard, The Herbalist, the two Acolytes, Arnold, Bruce and Old Spice Guy stood to either side of him. The other Councilors retreated through the Dragonwell Door. Only those nine were all that was left of the Council of 34.

“You all fought well,” Chuck said.

“What was that you did back there?” Duke asked.

“Epic Beard Fist?” Pain offered as a guess.

Norris shook his head. “Nope, just a little trick I picked up.”

The Herbalist studied him. “And you’re a smoke-writer.”

“I prefer ‘Lapsang Laureate’,” the new Overseer returned.

“Wait…what’s that?” Pain said, scratching his head.

“The Laureates of Lapsang are a somewhat secret order of scholars and writers who protect the original Lemurian recipe of Lapsang Souchong. They also prevent said recipe from falling into the wrong hands.”

It was the novice who explained.

“And you’re one of them,” The Bard pointed.

“Was,” the novice corrected. His face reddened. “They…kicked me out. For being too lazy.”

“Not surprised,” said The Herbalist, arms folded. “Teabags.”

“Leave him alone,” The Bard said, slapping his back. Hard. “I think he’s earned his keep.”

“Indeed,” Norris agreed. “You’re welcome at Council, anytime.”

He surveyed the damage again.

“Might choose better digs, though.”

***Epilogue***

The three Tea Musketeers parted ways with the new Overseer and his equally-famous ilk in the morning. A little worse for wear save for The Herbalist. The Iron Goddess Acolytes were kind enough to share the contents of their Da Hong Pao keg the night prior. Turned out it was whiskey-infused Da Hong Pao. All partook except for The Herbalist, who viewed the desecration of Red Robe oolong as a travesty. The Acolytes had left earlier in the morn – courtesans in tow – slurring something about “finding Teasus”. No one knew who they were talking about.

While back on the road, The Bard had an epiphany.

“It occurred to me that you still don’t have a title, dear novice,” he said sing-songedly.

“I have a name, why not just use that?”

“And that is?” the minstrel asked.

“Martin,” was the reply. “Martin Stuart. But most folks call me Marty Stu.”

The Bard made a face of disgust. “No, too droll. Songs can’t be sung of Marty Stu.” He said Martin’s name with effeminate emphasis. “How about, ‘The Laureate’?”

“Oh yes, wildly creative,” The Herbalist said dryly.

“You can do better?

“Teabagger.”

“God no!” Marty and The Bard said in unison.

“Then Literatus,” The Herbalist answered again. “The Lazy Literatus.”

“Um, that doesn’t quite send a good message,” Marty replied warily.

“You think I wanted ‘The Herbalist’? I wanted ‘The Devotea’.”

“The Order’s higher-ups thought it was too, what’s the word?” The Bard patted his chin. “Punny! That’s it, punny.”

“Whatever, Lahikma Joe,” The Herbalist mumbled. “What does that even mean?”

“It’s poetic!” The Bard protested. “And they would’ve gone for it, too… if I had more time to convince them.”

“Can we wait on the name until we get back to HQ?” Marty requested meekly.

“Oh alright.” The Bard folded his arms, pouting. “But you’re not off the hook yet.”

“What a beautiful sunrise,” Marty said, looking ahead (and changing the subject).

“You know what we have to say at sunrise, don’t you?” The Herbalist chided with a wink and a nudge.

“Oh please, no. Not that,” The Bard whined.

“All for one!” Marty shouted, rapier drawn.

“Come on, guys. Plea-”

“And tea for all!” The Herbalist finished.

“Huzzah,” The Bard muttered with a finger twirl.

“And teabags for none,” The Herbalist added.

“Except whe-” started Marty.

“TEABAGS FOR NONE!”

***Credits***

If you weren’t plainly aware, the four principle characters (i.e. the non-celebrities) were based on actual people. They were the ones mentioned in the footnote that contributed greatly – albeit unwittingly – to the inspiration of this cheeseball yarn. Here they are:

The Devotea (i.e. “The Herbalist”) is a dear Twitter friend with an extensive list of accomplishments. Among them, he is a Youtube vlogger, a blogger, a blender, and a published author. You can find his vlogs HERE and read his diatribes HERE.

Lahikmajoe (“The Bard”) – another Twitter friend is an acoustic musician, writer and teacher; a veritable renaissance man like his counterpart here. You can read about his tea and travels HERE.

DukeOfEarl and Tea_Pain (“Duke and Pain: Acolytes of the Iron Goddess”) are founders of The Tea Blag. Arguably, the funniest tea review blog on “teh Internets”. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little envious of their prowess with prose. They are just as nuts as I made their fictional counterparts. Don’t believe me? Follow them on Twitter. Then watch your brain melt.

To those of you who made it through the entire story, I say “Thank you”. To the rest who thought it was pure dung, I say “Sorry”. (Although, I regret nothing.)

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Sunday, April 10th, 2011 Prose, Steep Stories 4 Comments

I work for tea money.

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