tea

“Tea Beer Fest” – The Teabeer Trilogy, Book 3

For Book 1 of The Teabeer Trilogy, go HERE.

For Book 2, go HERE.

It began with a photograph.

Back in August, J-TEA International posted a photo of spent leaves from three different types of tea. I chimed in on Google+ with my guesses: Silver Needle, Yunnan Golden Tips, and Long Jing (Dragonwell). Josh Chamberlain, J-TEA’s purveyor, informed me that my choices were spot-on. Apparently, I had a talent for spotting spent leaves.

I’ll add that to my resume.

What I didn’t realize was that this was a contest J-TEA was putting on, and that there’d be swag coming my way. About a week later, I received a J-TEA “tea”-shirt, some ’09 Li Shan black tea, and a tea tin with the company logo. Awesome. But it was the last thing that really grabbed my attention.

Josh had included a handwritten note informing me of an event in late-October happening at 16 Tons called “Tea Beer Fest“. And if I wanted to come down to participate, he’d put my drunk arse up for the night. I arranged for back-to-back days off from work the next day.

Two months went by without much incident, besides the usual teaing, working and writing. The week of the event, though, I was almost-literally swimming in teabeer. First was a birthday party at The Green Dragon, second was the Rogue release of a barrel-aged Lapsang Souchong porter. I’d gone almost a year without any teabeer, but then my pint ranneth over.

Finally, the day of the event came, and I made the drive down to Eugene, OR. My first stop was – naturally and obligatorily – J-TEA. I spent the better part of two hours talking shop with the owner, Josh. In the interim, I consumed a 1982 Gui Hua aged oolong, an ’08 Chen Yi Hao sheng pu-erh (which tasted like grapes!!!), and a Taiwanese Rou Gui variant. By the end of it all, I was sufficiently tea drunk…before getting actual drunk.

Afterwards, Josh gave me an impromptu tour of his operation. The highlight of which was the burgeoning garden of Sochi cultivar tea plants he had growing in the shop’s backyard. Never before had I been so excited about baby plants. What am I, 90-years-old? Yeah, probably.

We also had a brief conversation about Tie Guan Yin. I confessed that it wasn’t one of my favorite oolongs. Josh insisted that I simply hadn’t had the right one, and mentioned something about a Taiwanese/Chinese Tie Guan Yin blend that I needed to try sometime. The thought scared me a little.

Following an impromptu meal at a taqueria, Josh and I moseyed over to 16 Tons. A mere fifteen minutes after Tea Beer Fest’s start time, and it was already hoppin’.

I beelined for a menu, and examined the wares. Of the fourteen teabeers on display, I was surprised that I’d already notched off four of them. One just within the last week – Buckman‘s Rooibos Red.

That said, there were plenty to still choose from, including two made with J-TEA’s teas – Viking Braggot Company‘s Chai Dunkelweiss and Oakshire Brewing‘s 2013 Frederic’s Lost Arm. I’d already tried the Lost Arm from prior years, but this was my first time trying it as a straight, un-barreled saison. While those were definitely on my beerdar, I was transfixed by one particular beer as my first taster.

Walking Man‘s Lap Sang – a Scotch-style ale.

Ho-ly shite. It was amazing. Smoke on the front, kilt party in the back. It was like a zombie Highlander lit on fire in my mouth. One of my favorite styles of ales combined with one of my favorite kinds of tea. It wasn’t quite the mangasm that Rogue’s Lapsang Souchong porter was, but it was definitely nudging on that territory.

My next favorite was the Viking Chai. Apparently, Viking wasn’t a typical brewery. Their specialty was braggots. Why I’d never heard of a braggot up until that night is beyond me. When I talked with the brewers, they said it was their first attempt at a dunkel. Well, good on ya, boys. It was superb. Dark and spicy.

The bronze medal went to a brewery that I only discovered last month completely by accident – Base Camp Brewing‘s Meridiwitea. A tea-infused version of their Meridiwit, brewed with an emerald oolong from…somewhere. It tasted like lemons, hops, herbs, and wilderness. Y’know, like an actual base camp, I would guess.

The new batch of Oakshire’s Frederic was a close fourth for me. It would’ve been tops had it been like the barrel-aged version. As it stands, it was an extremely solid oolong saison, much stronger on the tea flavor than batches of yesterbrew. I had a chance to yack with the brewer – Matt Van Wyk – and he duly informed me that a new Pinot barrel-aged version was on the way by next summer. I’m counting the days.

Josh, of course, was pinting the Frederic like a proud papa.

You would’ve, too, had you provided one of the main ingredients.

Five hours went by in a blur. I’d expected to merely yack with Josh the entire time, but I ended up doing my fair share of drunken networking. Brewers, tea aficionados, and Eugenite regulars were all in attendance. I was also elated to finally meet 16 Tons’ owner, Mike Coplin, for the first time.

Sometime within the teabeer-fueled haze, Josh and I got to discussing the bourbon barrel he’d acquired. Thus far, it was resting in his teashop…but with no tea in it. He still wasn’t sure what tea he wanted to age in the damn thing. Somehow, in the reverie, we both came to a consensus that a cooked pu-erh would be the likely candidate for the experiment.

10PM arrived far too fast. The event had ended, and Josh and I retired back to his place. The “party” wasn’t over yet, though. We polished off half a growler of more Viking Chai, and at least two bowls of potato chips. Okay, nevermind, I polished two bowls of potato chips.

Not sure how this happened, but Josh got it into his head to brew some tea. Remember that Taiwanese/Chinese Tie Guan Yin I mentioned earlier? Well, he remembered, and brewed it up on the spot. We went through I don’t know how many cups. It managed to sober me up before I turned in for the night.

The following morning, I felt like I’d wrestled a very small bear. I honestly thought I was going to fare far worse. Oolong and aspirin worked double-time to prevent me from feeling nauseous. Other than a mild headache and a slight case of vertigo, I was ready to face the day.

Before parting ways, Josh hosted one last tea session. This time, it was a greener-style Ali Shan oolong. My favorite mountain.  I could think of no better tea to have before heading out on the road.

When I got home, I crashed. Hard. For three hours. I rousted around 6PM and hopped online to see if there was any commotion. Then I saw that J-TEA had posted this picture on their Facebook.

Oh, dear lord, what had I done?

A bourbon barrel-aged pu-erh was in the making, and I’d been a part of the initial beer-drenched brainstorm for it. I’m not used to being a part of tea history in the making. Even by proxy. Just…WOW! I hoped it would turn out majestic.

And with that, my teabeer week came to a close. I felt like I’d been put through the ringer, but it seemed…well…epic. No other word for it. Another saga for the archives.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot.

J-TEA Josh also passed on some Russian-grown tea for me to play with.

But that’s another story.

Fin

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Friday, October 25th, 2013 Beverage Blog 3 Comments

F**k Flavored Matcha

First, let me go on record by saying: “I am not against flavored tea!”

As a well-versed/rehearsed Earl Grey drinker, I can’t say I’m above a little dash of something extra. Some of the best teas I’ve tried have fallen under the “flavor”-ful moniker. Granted, I’m more prone to traditional(-ish?) approaches to scenting teas rather than the addition of gobs of extract. (And if it’s aged in an alcohol barrel, I’m all over that shit.) However, there is one recent abomination that I have to draw the line on.

Flavored matcha.

I noticed the trend back in the fervor of my reviewing days. It seemed like something that would be a passing gimmick. The first I ever ran across was a strawberry-flavored matcha. It was…vaguely strawberry-ish, and even possessed strawberry seeds in the powder. Did I prefer it to regular matcha…oh heck, no. The second one I tried was a blueberry matcha, and it had no flavor at all.

But it got worse.

In the ensuing year, other flavors began cropping up. Caramel, banana, lavender, cheesecake (!!!), chocolate, vanilla derp-dee-derp and…maple syrup?! That was the final straw. Maple syrup-flavored anything is a gateway drug – one that leads to bacon. Yes, folks, you heard this prediction here first. We are a mere flavor agent away from having a bacon matcha!!!

Granted, to some of you, that doesn’t seem like a bad thing…but ask yourself this: Do you really want green tea with your bacon?

That is my limit. I can’t take it anymore. Matcha is a ceremonial beverage, one that induces a feeling of calm when it’s prepared. It doesn’t necessarily have to be prepared correctly – just to the drinker’s liking. As long as it is still matcha, then I have no qualm. But I’m putting my snobby foot down at flavoring the damn thing.

Tea leaves are universally known for being able to pick up flavor from either (a) the surrounding environment or (b) surrounding ingredients. Rose-scenting, jasmine-scenting, osthmanthus-scenting, masala-ladening – these are all very common and ancient practices. But have you heard someone say, “Do you know what this powdered green tea needs? Cheese. It needs cheese.” The closest thing we have to natural dairy tea is milk oolong, and it should bloody well stay that way!

I’m willing to give a pass on the existence of matcha blends, though. Case in point: Green tea powder blended with goji berry or acai. Those fruits can best be had in powdered form, anyway. Even better? Matcha blended with actual useful herbs like Gymnema sylvestre (the “sugar-destroyer” herb) or lemongrass. Those work! I’ve had ‘em.

In the end, I guess I just want one thing that’s left untouched. One thing that is still sacred and sucrose-less. If I have to, I’ll horde the good stuff to make sure that it remains pure. Because some powders are worth saving.

Fuck flavored matcha.

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Monday, October 15th, 2012 Steep Stories 1 Comment

Meeting a Tea Moment

Sometimes – just sometimes – Twitter is steeped in awesome. A fellow tea blogger – Jen of An International Tea Moment – reached out to the Twit-o’-Sphere to see if there were any decent tearooms in Portland. Another fellow tea blogger – Nicole of Tea For Me Please – directed her to me. Because…apparently, I’m the go-to guy for Portland tea-binging. I passed along some suggestions and inquired about what was bringing her to my corner of the ‘burb. Tea Moment Jen replied that she was in town on a business trip and had a smidge of time to track down some good tea.

Naturally, I calmly and professionally suggested we should meet up.

She obliged, and we traded contact info to see if it was in the cards. We agreed that Tea Chai Te was a good enough place for a hypothetical meet-and-greet. I hadn’t been there in well over a year.

The next day, while awaiting the possible tea-chime, I started my “morning” with a Nilgiri green and cereal. It was far stronger than I anticipated, leaving me practically bouncing off the walls. (Er…in my mind.) Roughly around noon, Tea Moment Jen texted informing me that she was on her way from the airport to Tea Chai Te. I took off like a bat outta hell, outright ignoring certain traffic laws.

Tea Chai Te is a curious little tearoom situated in Portland’s Pearl District – right off of NW 23rd, or “Trendy”-Third as the locals call it. It’s urban to the core, small, but oozes adorability. Early on in my tea exploration, I was a frequenter of the place. Somehow, though, my visits became fewer and far between. Probably because I had tea dates there that didn’t go so well.

I arrived in roughly fifteen-ish minutes – record time for such a trek – and found Tea Moment Jen sitting in a corner with soup and teapot. I scissored my way past a couple of hipsters and clumsily introduced myself. She did likewise with far better poise. I excused myself for a moment to order a pint of something dark.

First question out of her mouth (like any good tea geek) was, “What did you order?”

“The Zhen Qu Gold Buds,” I replied.

Her eyes widened. “That’s what I ordered!”

Badass, I thought.

How was Tea Moment Jen in person? Just as elegant and eloquent as her blog indicates her to be. We discussed everything under the sun from favorite teas, Russia, how we got into tea, to how awesome Jo Johnson is, to tea vendors we liked. The conversation ran the entire tea-ish gamut. I was talking a mile a minute like a hyper-caffeinated motormouth.

After about an hour, though, we had to part ways. I left feeling accomplished, enlightened, and…bouncy. (Damn you, Zhen Qu!) While brief, the outing was beautiful and badassery-incarnate. Another blogger friend notched off the “tea-in-real-life” list.

Kindly ignore my obvious bed-hair.

Kindly ignore my obvious bed-hair.

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Wednesday, October 10th, 2012 Steep Stories No Comments

Defending a Discerning Palate

Source: Cute Overload. Submitter: Maureen K.

Source: Cute Overload. Submitter: Maureen K.

A few nights back, I had a dream where I was asked by a vendor in Darjeeling to review some of their products. The box that came in the mail was huge; there were at least fifty 100g bags in it, along with other various Indian-ish tea apparati. The first bag I took out was by some estate I’d never heard of. When I tore it open, a foul, earthy smell invaded my nostrils – like poorly cooked puerh only worse. On the inside, instead of leaves, I found beige furballs and brown clumps.

I was known to be an experimental drinker, but even this weirded me out. The ingredients listed on the package mentioned squirrel, venison, animal droppings, and molded leaves. With a shrug, I brewed it up…and tasted the worst muck that ever befell my tongue. Yes, even worse than overbrewed genmaicha or anything with copious amounts of lavender. I woke up after the first taste.

And that was my first tea nightmare ever.

What does that have to do with discerning palates? Probably nothing; possibly everything. What it did do was finally compel me to make a more legitimate response to a blog post by fellow “Beast of Brewdom”, Ken (aka. Lahikmajoe) – a collaboration with another Twitizen, Radhika/Levis517. The dilemma that was posed was how the social celebration of tea was lost the moment people ascribed pomp and circumstance to it, plus the cost therein – i.e. snobbery.

Source: Yunnan Sourcing

Source: Yunnan Sourcing

At first, I was completely on board with Radhika’s well-versed argument in the post. In developing a fancy-schmancy culture around something so simple as dead-‘n-dried leaves in hot water, some of the inclusivity is lost. I will fully admit that I sometimes take a ridiculous amount of pride in having a favorite pu-erh mountain. (It’s Nan Nuo Shan, by the way.) But does it really matter if there’s no one to share this joy with over a cup of Nan Nuo sheng?

You’re damn right, it does.

When I first started this nerdy persuit – and, yes, it is nerdy – I was mainly sticking to the teabag fringes with the likes of cheap Moroccan Mint or a blueberry-flavored white. Heck, when I worked nights, my beverage of choice was a bag o’ Stash Orange Spiced Black in a paper coffee cup, boiled to s**t, and mixed with sugar and French vanilla creamer. Why? Because it tasted like an orange creamsicle. Sophiscated? Not in the slightest.

As my tastes changed, so did my leanings. I started off hating pu-erh, then I had some of the aged stuff. Darjeeling was a name I met with derision, now I can’t resist its earthspice aroma. Oolongs used to tasted like roasted, metal feet but now impart a sense of peace I haven’t felt in any other beverage. Japanese green teas hinted at a world populated by spinach that spewed fire, now it embodies vegetal sweetness personified. And none of that would’ve happened had I not heightened my brow a bit.

A funny thing, though. As snooty as my tea tastes became, my approach hadn’t. I never considered myself better than the average teabagger at Starbucks. Nor did I cringe (too much) when someone mentioned their favorite tea flavor was “cheesecake”. Granted, I do wince a bit when my brother takes a Lipton over a Golden Bi Luo, but I don’t throw a huff about it. Much.

In short, yes, tea snobbery is alive and well. It is as drowned in ritual as any fancy ball…but it’s a party everyone is invited to. The tea folks I’ve met are like Quakers; they’ll extol the virtues of the leaf, welcome you to the fray, but they won’t force you to join, or turn a nose up at you if you don’t. None of the social importance is lost on us. We want to talk about tea with non-tea drinkers, preferably over a cup of tea. I mean, it’s a beverage that’s been around for millennia, how could we not geek out over it?

What I’m trying to say is, I would like what’s in my cup to taste good. I would like it to have a story to tell. And, lastly, I would like to tell it to someone. I think that’s what this little blog of mine (and every other tea blog) is about. So, come on in; I’ll warm the kettle.  Pick a tea. A good tea.

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Monday, May 21st, 2012 Steep Stories 2 Comments

Guan Yins,Tigers and Lords, Oh My!

For context, READ THIS FIRST

For once, I thought I’d get a full night’s sleep. The work week had been murder, and for some odd reason, I couldn’t stay in bed for more than six hours. Well, this time I had an excuse. A loud roar jolted me from sleep. When I opened my eyes, standing in front of me was the Bodhisattva of Compassion herself – Guan Yin – standing atop a rubber ducky (???). And she looked pissed.

How did she get in my room? Wait…where was my room?! I was greeted by blackness all around me as I sat straight up. The only occupants in this void/nullspace were me (still in bed), the ducky-perched Chinese goddess, and a third shadowy figure.

“Are you the one they call the Lazy Clitoris?” the bodhisattva asked.

“That’s…Literatus,” I corrected her.  “Ma’am.”

“Silence!” she snapped.

“But you asked me to speak,” I reminded her.

She did not take my dry comment well, bringing a lightning bolt down within an inch of my bed. The smell of ozone wafted once the crackling ceased. I didn’t even know she had that ability.

“You have wronged me greatly,” Guan Yin said, lowering her duck.

“Is this about the story?”

“Of course, it is!” her voice boomed and echoed.

“But it was all true,” I replied.

“True or not, you have sullied my name,” she said. “And now, you must make reparations.”

“Why are you on a duck?” I had to ask.

“My dragon – Ao Bing – is…on vacation,” she replied, flustered.

“But why a duck?”

“A mutual interested party provided him,” she said, motioning for the shadowy figure to step forward.

A youthful man in dated formal attire approached in a carriage…pulled by two very imposing Bengal tigers. His attire was a mix-and-match of Victorian and Georgian influences, his cravat was flashy, and his top hat seemed to glow with its own aura. The man’s visage bore a striking resemblance to American actor, James Franco.

The Faux-Franco bowed in my direction, “Viscount Petersham, at your service.”

I cocked an eyebrow, “Petersham?”

“Yes?”

“Who is Peter, and why is he a sham?” I asked with a half-smile.

He simply looked at me for a moment, then spoke, “Oh! That was an attempt at humor. How precious.”

“And why are you here?” I asked of him again. “Wherever here is?”

“The lovely Bodhisattva and I have come to an arrangement,” the viscount explained. “One that involves you.”

“What for and why me?”

“My, you’re annoying quizzical,” Petersham sighed. “You wronged her and an associate of mine. She brought you to this ‘space between spaces’ where you will be subjected to a Trial by Tea.”

“Trial by-”

Tea!” Guan Yin finished for me. “If you pass, you live. If you fail…”

As if on cue, one of the Bengals roared. I gulped. No one wanted to die in their pajamas, especially not out-of-season Santa Claus pajamas.

“The idea, my good chap, is this,” the viscount said, dismounting from his grand tiger-chariot. “There are two teas in my repertoire that need testing. One was tailored specifically to me, the other – well – named for my feline friends over there.”

“So…what do I have to do?” I queried.

“Simply try them,” Petersham said with a grin.

“And if I don’t like them?”

“That won’t be possible.”

“Get on with it,” the goddess said impatiently.

“Yes, m’dear,” he said with a roll of the eyes.

He stretched out his hand. A platter, a teapot, a metallic kettle, two transparent 8-ounce teacups, and an hourglass perched above his hand.

“How did you-?” I started.

“I’m a dead man with two pet tigers,” Petersham stated flatly. “What can’t I do?”

“Fair point,” I nodded.

“Now, how do you take your tea, lad?” he asked.

Me? A lad? I look older than him! I said inwardly.

“1 teaspoon of leaves, boiling water, three-minute steep,” I replied.

“Only three minutes?!” Petersham looked aghast. “What are you, some kind of dandy?”

“You asked,” I shrugged – an odd question coming from a man with a lisp.

He sighed dramatically. “Very well.”

With a wave of a few fingers from his other hand, steam rose from the kettle – bubbling was heard from within. I wondered where the water had come from, but this was a magic void. Wondering was pointless. The kettle, then, poured the water itself into the pot. I guessed the leaves were already housed within. The hourglass flipped itself over independently and remained suspended in mid-air.

Three minutes passed by with awkward silence. Guan Yin had dismounted the rubber ducky and crouched down to pat the head of one of the tigers. It bellowed a loud purr in response. Petersham made unique use of a snuff box in the interim.

When the hourglass ran its last grain of sand, there was a loud chime. The tigers perked up in alarm. The source seemed to resound from all over. Petersham was unperturbed by it, gingerly waving a finger, and levitating the pot.

The liquor that poured into the clear cup was an even copper with a light gold ring on the periphery. It was a lovely looking beverage. I put cup to lips. On introduction, there was a bit of a citrus bite, followed by a slight tannic lean in the middle. Then it snapped at the top note with a presence of peppers, allspice, honey and Keemun sweetness. So many different flavors were at play – all vying for steeping supremacy.

“Damn,” I said with approval.

“Poetic, isn’t he?” Guan Yin said dryly.

The viscount, however, appeared overjoyed. “And, now, the Two Tigers blend.”

He repeated the same songless dance with a new set of “tea”-quipment. Water boiled, apparatuses flew about, and another clear cup was magically filled. The smell of the rising steam was strong on the nostrils.

The liquor had brewed only a slightly deeper copper than Petersham’s namesake blend with a very even and sweet aroma. Malt was also there but understated. Flavor-wise, it possessed a very crisp forefront, which transitioned to a strangely floral middle. It tapered off nicely without much lingering bitterness.

“A strong morning cup, for sure, but one polite enough to call you a cab afterwards,” I said.

The viscount looked puzzled. “I don’t quite follow.”

“It’s a sex reference,” Guan Yin growled, arms akimbo. “He does that.”

Again, Petersham was un-phased. “Splendid! You passed!”

“All I did was like the teas,” I said.

“That’s all that was needed,” Petersham said, clasping my shoulders. “You live to drink another day.”

With that, the youthful – and possibly immortal – lord retook the reigns of his tiger mounts, bid a gloved farewell with a “toodleloo ” of his left fingers, and rode off into the darkness. The cups of tea and brewing equipment, however, remained suspended in place – hovering. All that remained were me, the tea, an ill-tempered goddess, and a rubber ducky.

“Okay…” I started. “I passed. Guess that means I get to go now?”

“No,” she said.

“No?” I gulped – voice a little higher.

“You get to live, yes,” Guan Yin agreed. “But I get to determine the ‘where’.”

I said nothing, but my gaze narrowed.

“Here in the void,” she said with arms outstretched. “This suits you perfectly.”

“So, it’s like that, then,” I said, taking the cup with the Petersham blend.

“It’s like that,” she repeated.

I also grabbed the cup of the Two Tigers blend. “You’ve never read my work, have you?”

“You work?” she chuckled.

“I’ll take that as a ‘no’.”

I held out both transparent cups so she could clearly see them. At first, she appeared puzzled…but then her eyes widened. I bore a toothy grin as I poured the contents of one cup into the other.

“NO!” she screamed.

“You forget, Bodhisattva,” I began. “When I blend, I don’t think of the consequences. And when I drink…”

One of the cups began to glow. The copper liquid bubbled and churned from other. Out of thin air, a third cup appeared. No, not a cup. A mug. I moved the three together. The shape looked…oddly (but appropriately) phallic.

“This. Is. MY CUPPA!!!” I bellowed, taking a swig.

Both blends combined tasted like all the things that men are made off – earth and smoke with an astringent stubbornness that couldn’t be quelled. I relished in the power. This was true tiger’s blood.

Cracks and fissures of glowing light pierced the pocket void-realm. The “ceiling”/sky/whatever flaked and crumbled. Shadows retreated and the intruding rays of luminescence penetrated ever-inward. Guan Yin screamed as her handiwork unraveled in mere moments. Without a means to retaliate, she retreated to the solace of the rubber ducky and made a hasty retreat.

As the last of the shadows receded, I found myself back in my haphazard room. All was in shambles, but it was the mess I had made – not the goddess. My bed was as I left it. Yet I still held the combined, phallic-looking tri-teacup.

“This isn’t over, Clitoris,” boomed a disembodied woman’s voice. “Those blends were his, and he still owns you until you finish.”

“His? He who? Finish what?” I asked the ceiling.

There was no response, only the echoes of tittering laughter.

“That’s LiterATus!” I corrected…to no one in particular.

What had she meant by being owned? Who was I indebted to? Who owned and/or made those blends? Not Petersham, he said they were commissioned. Then whom?

The realization hit me when I looked down at my computer.

The rubber ducky? Petersham? I inhaled sharply. HIM?!

I was in someone’s debt, someone for whom I owed a writing project. So long as it went incomplete, he owned my soul. Without further thought, I fired up the computer and went to writing. Shivering all the while, imagining his eyes (and ducky) were looming over me.

Acknowledgements:

Thanks are owed to Jackie, one of the co-pilots of Tea Trade, for passing the two Devotea blends my way.

Thanks, also, to The Devotea himself – Robert Godden – for making them. They were superb. (As if there was ever a doubt. One of these days, I’ll have to pick his brain for the recipes.)

You can buy the Lord Petersham blend HERE.

You can buy the Two Tigers blend HERE.

And, lastly, thanks to Jason Norman (my cousin) for helping me out with some last-minute Photoshopping. Much obliged.

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Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012 Prose, Steep Stories No Comments

The Tea Trolley

“What is it?” asked a passerby.

“What does it look like?” said a grizzly, overalled Brit sitting on a bench.

“A train,” was the American’s curious response. “Not like any I’ve ever seen.”

“That’s because it’s not a train,” the Brit said gruffly. “It’s a trolley.”

And indeed it was. A curious contraption to boot; instead of cars and compartments, it was three brass trays synced together with various clockwork gears and turbines. If one were staring at it from afar, they would’ve seen a go-cart or a push-table. But no, it was an actual trolley of weird and rare design. Like a table on railroad tracks. People milled about, all with teacups in their hands, some in their nicest finery, others in their pajamas. it was a bizarre sight to the newly-arrived American.

“What are they doing?”

“Tribute, I think.” It wasn’t a question.

The American left the gnarled Brit to his sitting and approached the crowd. Various women and men – some in Victorian attire, others in modern garb, and others still yet identifiable – were crowded around the odd locomotive.

Then, as if by some invisible chime, they raised their teacups to the sky. Not a word was spoken. Any murmuring ceased. The American was at a loss, for he didn’t have a cup to raise…nor a reason to raise it. He was confused by the entire display.

“Here,” came a sing-songy voice from behind him. “I have an extra.”

A slender, middle-aged woman in a bonnet and a sweater adorned with the British flag had her hand outstretched. Funny, since she didn’t sound British. He accepted the cup gently and graciously.

“What is this for?” he asked.

“That?” she said with a giggle. “It’s for the tea trolley.”

That is a tea trolley?!” he exclaimed with a furrowed brow.  “Isn’t it…”

“Rather large?” she offered. “Oh yes. Wouldn’t have it any other way. How else can you have tea if you can’t travel?”

“So…it’s a trolley…in the shape of a trolley.”

“You catch on quick,” she said wryly.

“Why this display then?”

She sighed, “Because the tea trolley has ceased its run. All these people were once her passengers.”

“A eulogy,” the American said.

“No, a celebration,” she laughed. “Eulogies are far too dour.”

“Were you a passenger?”

“I better have been,” she said. “I invented it.”

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude, Mrs…”

“Milly.”

“Mrs. Milly?”

“Just Milly,” she smiled.

The former passengers still had their cups raised. None seemed to be tiring with their arms outstretched, or if they were fatigued, they didn’t show it. Probably couldn’t.

“Well, are you going to join in?” she nudged.

“Should I?” he asked nervously. “I mean…I was never a passenger.”

“Don’t be silly,” she assured him.

With that, he reluctantly raised his dainty cup.

“You already are.” Her voice trailed on the wind with an echo.

The American looked behind him…but she was gone.

Author’s Note: Mildred P., a.k.a. @MildewPea (on Twitter) – or simply Milly – was one of the first people I ever talked to when I joined the site o’ Twits back in 2009. She was almost TOO wholesome and incredibly witty. It took all my gumption just to keep up with her.

One of the fun little games played on Twitter was the addition of “#TheTeaTrolley”…and me being the idiot I am, I thought it was an actual trolley. I never let on that I had no clue what a tea trolley even was, but I still considered myself a happy passenger.

R.I.P. Milly, you taught me how a Tea Twit should conduct themselves. Here’s a cup to ya.

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Tuesday, January 24th, 2012 Prose, Steep Stories No Comments

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

Hark! I Herald Booze Blends

I’ve noticed a particular trend lately – one that I fully encourage and support. Nay, I salute it! Tea and alcohol, while completely opposite beverages on the Sin-o-Meter, pair exceptionally well. Whether it be tea-infused alcohol or alcohol-scented tea, the combination of both bring an added dimension of badass that I fully back. The high-points for me in this new blend-trend have been recorded for posterity on this here site…and waxed non-poetically over the Twitterverse.

Of all the combinations, I ran into a yerba maté variant only once – that being an India Pale Ale brewed with yerba maté leaves. Well, someone finally went the opposite route and used yerba maté as a base for scenting. I had associated with Caleb Brown – purveyor of Handmade Tea – over Twitter for a few months but had never tried any of his wares. His tea business model was a unique one – offering subscriptions to his one-blend-a-month formula. It was a similar approach employed by 52Teas but with more of a personal touch.

Caleb does all the blending himself, and includes the blending ingredients in separate tins for perusal. In addition to that, he sends a personally-stamped letter (for authenticity, I guess?), and films an accompanying video about the tea. That’s a lot of effort for one blend, which is probably why he only does one a month.

December’s offering – dubbed “Hark!” for the impending holiday season – was a yerba maté medley comprised of Vietnamese cinnamon and whole leaf peppermint. The real grab, though (and the reason he contacted me), was what he did with the maté base. He hand-smoked it over whiskey oak chips.

So. Much. Awesome.

Upon opening the tin, the first thing I noted was how strong the peppermint aroma was. That didn’t come as a surprise, but I was worried about it dominating the other elements. There was a smoky presence to the scent as well, which showed in the introduction and after-whiff. Cinnamon was…well…it was understated, and that was fine by me.

The logo-stamped letter came with brewing instructions for the blend, something I greatly appreciated. The recommended approach was the use of up-to-212F water and an infusion time of five minutes. That was about right, given the strong herbals at play here. I measured out a teaspoon and used one 8oz. cup at the time recommended.

The liquor brewed a foggy gold with a boldly minty cloud wafting from the cup. So much for the peppermint being understated. On taste, the first thing to hit me was the feeling of peat smoke – an excellent start. That was followed up by a middle entirely monopolized by the mint. Nothing else had a chance to shine through. However, once that faded a bit, the smokiness returned with a fervor lined with a spicy-sweetness imparted by the cinnamon. Said sweetness had remained as an undercurrent until the right reveal. A very Keemun-like aftertaste; no complaint here.

For s**ts and giggles, I brewed up the whiskey-smoked yerba maté sample by itself. I would’ve been just as happy drinking that as with the fully-blended Hark!. The best part was that it didn’t taste like yerba maté, which – in my opinion – has the flavor of splinters. All that said, this was a festively naughty blend with just the right amount cool cleanliness (thanks to the mint). Like a gentleman’s club lined with holiday décor.

But it does beg the question I want to pose to the “teanut” gallery. What is the consensus regarding the marriage of tea and alcohol? What tea-totalers out there would drink something that’s flavored or scented with beer, wine or liquor? Would an alcohol connoisseur drink something with tea as the added ingredient? And, by proxy, would they drink tea with that same profile?

I straddle the fence of both sides like a village idiot – elixir in hand.

To subscribe to Handmade Tea, go HERE.

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Monday, December 12th, 2011 Steep Stories No 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

Very Well, Give Him Tea Cake

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

I received an e-mail some two months back from Canton Tea Co. wondering if I had interest in reviewing a new sheng (raw) pu-erh. Far be it from me to refuse such an offer, I nodded (and typed) an emphatic, “Yes!” The only question would be where to put the review. I contribute to three different sites and keep my own blog for musings and unique teas. As I was pondering this, the tea arrived a short week after.

Canton Tea Co. described this as a sheng pu-erh made of “just-pressed” maocha (unfinished pu-erh leaves), and that it was privately commissioned by them from a small tea farm in Yunnan. That’s right: A custom-made pu-erh. I guess this was Canton’s way of saying: “We have a tea cake named after us, what are you doing with your life?”

Ah yes, the term “tea cake”, I almost forgot to get to that. For those in the pu-erh know, post-fermented and/or aged teas are often compressed into different shapes. These forms are almost always cake-shaped. “Beencha” (or “bingcha”, depending on your pinyin) literally means “tea cake”. Personally, I think the pressed pu-erhs look more like Frisbees…but I don’t think there’s a fancy Mandarin word for that (but I’m sure someone will prove me wrong).

But I digress.

While I was pondering where to put a write-up for this tea, I decided to take a sliver of it to work. I found most shengs could take a Western brew-up pretty well – even allowing three steeps. The flavor I expected was the usual rustic, earthy, and somewhat winy lean of raw pu-erhs past. That was not the case here. In fact, it was rather light, fruity and floral – kind of like un-pressed maocha, but not as brusque. Perhaps I should’ve read the fine print on Canton’s custom tea.

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

Not only was it a sheng beengcha specially made for Canton Tea Co., it was also one of the youngest pu-erhs I’ve ever come across. The stuff was plucked, pressed and packed in the spring…of this year! Up to this point, the youngest sheng I had tried was at least three years old. That would explain the green tea-ish flutteriness I felt on the tongue. That settled the inner debate of where to put the write-up. Youngest pu-erh ever? Custom-commissioned? Yeah, that’s unique.

Now I had to give it a more thorough, worthwhile look-through.  Canton also mentioned in the tea’s profile that the leaves were of the “Arbor” varietal – a wide-leafed cultivar often used for pu-erh. They were also labeled Grade 6 and above. I had absolutely no idea what that meant.  What I did know was that the leaves looked like a sliver of tree bark in their pressed form – wonderfully sweet and floral tree bark.

Brewing instructions on the Canton site recommended a gongfu prep using a 3-4g chunk (a teaspoon) in 203F water and a first infusion of twenty seconds. They also mentioned that it could infuse up to six times. I already knew it could hold up to Western prep rather well, but I wanted to see how a gongfu go-ahead would fair. Instead of twenty seconds for the first steep, though, I went with thirty. I also followed that up with three more infusions – another at thirty seconds and the last two at forty.

First infusion (thirty seconds):  The liquor brewed pale (but crisp) yellow with a wonderful aroma of tangerine blossoms – sweet and citrusy. It reminded me quite a bit of a white tea I had from the same varietal. The taste was smooth, lightly citrusy as well, and only mildly grassy on finish.

Second infusion (thirty seconds): A bit of a deeper yellow-gold liquor this time around, and the scent had more of a floral presence. Also in the aroma was a distinct feeling of “smoke” – not sure how that got there. The flavor began with a clean introduction that emboldened to a lemongrassy top note before trailing off pleasantly into Mao Jian green tea territory.

Third infusion (forty seconds): The liquor color hadn’t changed, but the smell was dominated by lemons and flowers – faintly, of course, but still there. Flavor-wise, it delivered a crisp smack of citrus, then smoothed out to a completely green tea-like palate delivery. Pu-erh? What pu-erh?

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): This hadn’t weakened in either color or scent; the yellows and lemongrassiness still reigned supreme. The taste was still crisp, and there was no change to the spry citrus mouth-feel. On the finish, I got some of the residual, pu-erh-ish mustiness.

Photo by Davis Doherty

Photo by Davis Doherty

Beyond the four I wrote about, this could’ve easily gone on for another three infusions. Any brewing beatdown I gave the leaves, it took with steeped stoicism. Much like a loose sheng pu-erh I wrote about last week. Canton Tea Co. was spot-on in their belief that this was a perfect introductory pu-erh for the uninitiated. It lacks some of the feeling of “old” that its mature cuppa compatriots possess. It’s the perfect gateway to the world of aged teas, and I bet it could age well on its own. If I had a pu-erh cellar – and if I believed I could live past fifty – I would experiment. You’ll just have to take my word (and theirs) for it in the meantime.

To purchase the 2011 Canton Tea Co Special Puerh, go HERE.

(Title “inspired” by Eddie Izzard, watch and laugh.)

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Sunday, November 20th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

I work for tea money.

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