Smith Teamaker

Monday Morning Tea Errands

Mondays - for me - usually go something like this: (1) Get off work at 7AM. (2) Head home. (3) Crawl out of work uniform and smother into pajamas. (4) Crank the electric blanket on high and fire up the ol’ Netflix…until I fall asleep. Pretty routine for a night-worker to not want the word “productivity” encroaching on sleep. Yesterday (read: Monday) morning, however, I had to be up and about. And, oddly enough, I was glad of it. These were tea-related errands - my favorite kind - some I had been shirking for one reason or another, others that recently fell into my lap.

This is a breakdown of how that all turned out.

First Errand: Smith HQ

I received an e-mail a week prior from Mrs. Teamaker herself saying there was a package waiting for me at Smith’s. Curiosity baited, I said I would be in that following Monday. An impatient part of me wanted to go in a lot sooner, but I was still fighting the monkey flu from Hades. Waiting until I was more cogent and less - er - phlegmy seemed the better strategy.

Being the punctual not-so-little sprite that I am, I showed up right when the doors opened. My Smith trip this time was threefold. I needed a light-load of caffeine for further errands ahead; for which some White Petal was required. Second, I needed to pick up some chamomile. Sleep was a rare commodity these days, for some reason. Of all the teas in my arsenal, none were straight chamomile. Third, I had to pick up said surprise package.

Smith himself and Tea MC Tiff were on hand when I got there. Steve then lugged over a black back with the company logo on it. Not sure what I did to deserve it, but I manblushed and accepted. After that, I shot the breeze with the Tea MC for an hour over my pot o’ Petal before venturing on to the next task.

Second Errand: Paper Zone

I was in dire need of little plastic baggies in which to carry samples. As far as I knew, only one place clear on the other side of the river carried ‘em. The reason I needed ‘em was simple: Tea swaps. I needed something to ship the leaves in. Dollar Tree sandwich bags - my usual back-up - just screamed, “I’m a cheap-ass!” So close to the holidays, I wanted the delivery presentations to come to be more presentable.

As soon as I entered, a chipper-ish floor person greeted me. I fumbled and studdered my request, and the gal bee-lined to a small aisle near the back. Not only did they have the bags I was looking for, they had different sizes. And the best part? Buying a hundred of them didn’t break the bank. I was in and out in five minutes.

Paper Zone, if you were a girl…I’d marry you on the spot.

Third Errand: Stash Tea Store

Only one place on the Westside carried the next item on my list at a decent price. When I’m at work, I try to rely on loose leaf teas as much as possible. However, I don’t have the luxury of bringing all my brewing equipment with me. A gaiwan simply doesn’t work to well when you’re constantly moving about. As much as it would make some of you, fair tea-readers, cringe…I rely on do-it-yourself teabags. The Japanese foldy kind.

Shut up, they’re awesome.

I can easily store any tea I need for that day, brim a coffee cup with boiling water, and dunk that bad boy. Instant tea-happy. You go with what you can due to time constraints. The nearest place for me to get them is - and has always been - the Stash Tea Store. I’m so glad it’s in my neck o’ the woods.

Funny thing happened, though. As I was ready to check-out at the counter, I asked the aproned teller a question he wasn’t quite prepared for. Although, he initially said something to the contrary.

“I have a strange question,” I started.

“You’d be surprised what I hear,” he said with a smirk.

“Can I take a picture inside?”

“Nope,” he said curtly.

“Oh.”

“Vendors don’t approve of it,” the teller said flatly. “You can take a picture of that wall.”

He pointed at a colorful mural.

“Ah, that’s okay,” I declined.

“Why did you want to?” he asked me in return.

“I’m a blogger,” I replied.

“Uh…huh…” he nodded slowly.

I gave a polite nod and left - inwardly chuckling at the irony that I took a picture with Stash’s former owner in his own shop a mere two hours prior.

Fourth Errand: Post Office

Having acquired the sample bags I wanted, I returned home and began preparing packages. There were seven teas I needed to divvy up between two lovely lady bloggers that showered me with teaffectious awesomeness prior. Returning the favor in as bountiful a way as possible was mandatory. The new bags worked like a charm. Preparing the samples took no time at all. What worried me was the post office.

It was the holidays, and - as expected - traffic was a mess, thanks to last-minute shoppers. I half-expected the line at the local USPS to be equally as hellish. Indeed, when I got there, a line was clear to the door. A funny thing happened, though.

It actually moved. I barely had time to finish addressing the packages before I found my place in the cattle-call of people. For once, the post office was moving - dare I say it - efficiently. Maybe some Power That Be sensed that my caffeine reserves were fading. I was grumbling to myself, after all. Yet I was at the counter in fifteen-to-twenty minutes with nary a curse word parted from my lips.

I returned home accomplished, then went about my delayed post-graveyard shift routine. Jammies and ‘lectric blanky were primed, alarm was set, NyQuil was imbibed…and I was off to dreamland. If this had been any more whimsical a day, I would’ve counted teacups to sleep.

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Tuesday, December 20th, 2011 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

From Opium to Oolong - Tea from Thailand

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

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

Courtesy of Leafjoy.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Thanks to:

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

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

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

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Friday, May 13th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

Mao Feng Gin

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tore into it the next day.

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, May 4th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

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

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