tea

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

Four-Eyed No-Horned Flightless Purple Tea Drinker

Tea is a major cash crop in Kenya. Some of that is owed to Lipton. Thanks to Big L – and others like it – the entire country could be looked upon as one big tea garden dotted with a few cities and wildlife preserves. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but – truthfully – Kenya produces a lot of tea. Unfortunately, most of it shows up in cheap-o blends for mass consumption.

Lately, though, there’s been a push to highlight the single estate offerings Kenya provides. Almost as if the country collectively said, “Hey! Over here! There’s more to us than Lipton!” I can proudly say I’ve tried three or four – a Kenyan white matcha (bizarre but beautiful), a whole leaf black (meh), and an English Breakfast variant (tres yum). But the real stand out – at least in the last year or so – has been the development of a new leaf cultivar dubbed “Purple Tea”.

Photo by the Tea Research of Kenya

Photo by the Tea Research of Kenya

The new clonal strain – dubbed TRFK 306/1 – was developed for its health properties as well as its potential resistance to pests. Its most noteworthy molecular component is a flavonoid called anthocyanin – the component directly responsible for giving the leaf its purplish hue. Anthocyanin was purported to be an antioxidant powerhouse (a topic still debated), but the actual food value was questionable. By itself, the flavonoid was considered odorless and flavorless.

Science-y talk aside, I was hooked on sipping the damn leaf six months ago. It was instantly added to my “Tea WANT!” list. Problem was no one carried it. Part of that was its recent introduction. Most tea vendors weren’t aware of it until the World Tea Expo this year. Some that I talked to that were intrigued by it chose not to pick it up. Of all the ones I encountered, there were only two: The Royal Tea of Kenya (the parent group providing it, a wholesaler) and Butiki Teas. I chose to go through the latter in acquiring it. Would it taste good? Hell, I’d be the judge of that.

The leaves – or rather, leaf fragments – had the appearance of black tea fannings. They weren’t quite CTC-cut small, but were definitely flirting with the granular grade. There wasn’t much of a purple sheen to them, not that I was expecting one. In fact, I found it odd that there was a sharp contrast between green and black, no in-betweens.  I figured these would be fully oxidized when I got ‘em. As for scent, I was reminded of sweetened trail mix and Japanese (or Guatamalan)-grown black tea – floral, somewhat dry, and lightly sweet.

Brewing instructions called for a ½ teaspoon of leaves in 8oz. of 160F water infused for three-to-five minutes. That was as sencha-like an approach as I’d ever heard of. Those instructions came from the Royal Tea of Kenya page itself, but I was in the mood to experiment. Heck, Butiki’s site encouraged experiment. So, I decided to try three different infusions – one at the recommended 160F, one at 180F, and one at boiling. All at the three-minute mark, save for the last one where I’d do the full five.

First try (160F, three minutes): The liquor brewed up clear with a tinged droplet of green giving a slight impression of “tea”. The aroma had a roasted nutty impression, again supporting the sencha comparison. That was dispelled on taste when I was greeted with a grape front, a creamy-textured top note and a faintly vegetal finish. It had a lot in common with a Mao Jian.

Second try (180F, three minutes): The hotter temp yielded a pale, foggy amber brew reminiscent of steeped nettle leaf or guayusa. The aroma was sweet and almond-like with a trail of artichoke. As for the flavor, this was a tough one to discern. The front was fruit sweet and crescendoed on an even greater grape note than the prior attempt. Whereas the trail-off had none of the former’s vegetal lean; the nearest comparison I could find would be a Taiwanese (Formosa) oolong. Not surprising since this was an oolong-ish approach.

Last try (boiled to awesomeness, five minutes of EXTREME!): The liquor took on a bronze-ish lean for this last bit o’ crazy. Oddly enough, it was difficult to pinpoint an exact aroma, though. The only word that came to mind was, “TOAST!” But maybe that was because I was hungry. Butiki was right that the brew took on a bit more astringency with the more brazen temp, but I didn’t find it off-putting.  The foretaste possessed a roasted fruit feeling on tongue-down, which transitioned in the weirdest of ways.

Usually, when I sense the…uh…”movement” of flavor from one note to the next, it’s a subtle feeling – not so, here. There was a faint echo of – and I know this sounds weird – cream-covered strawberries on interim, like I was riding a yogurtine go-cart from one taster note to the next. This alternated from roastiness…to “yogurt-cart”…to fruit…to “yogurt-cart” again …to finish. Unorthodox? Just a tad. But obviously my favorite of the three infusions.

In closing, I have no clue if this would make me run as fast as Kenyans – or even get me out of my chair – but what it did do was deliver on taste. At the end of the day, when all the health benefits and science-y technobabble’s been spouted, that’s all you need. Butiki’s founder also mentioned in passing that there existed a white tea version of this experimental leaf.

And I’ll be the first in line to guinea pig for it.

To purchase Butiki Teas Purple Tea of Kenya, go HERE.

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Wednesday, November 9th, 2011 Steep Stories 2 Comments

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

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

Mooched from the Blog of Patrick Rothfuss

Mooched from the Blog of Patrick Rothfuss

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

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

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

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

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

Note: This photo wasn't staged. Seriously

Note: This photo wasn't staged. Seriously.

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

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

But there was a second obstacle – the damn dog.

Note: This wasn't staged either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information on the book, go HERE.

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

Fortune and the Goddess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How so?

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

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

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

“Too…late?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The drawers dropped on command.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“Boss!”

Tap-tap.

“Boss!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Guan Yin?” he asked.

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

“I…don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

Image "Mooched" from Chan Teas

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

Damn You, Damiana

Damiana (or Turnera diffusa) is a shrub native to parts of Texas and just about every Spanish-speaking country south of that. Many Central and South American countries regarded it for its relaxing effects. However, it was Mexico that recognized it for another – less chaste – use. And no one had told my parents.

My mother and stepdad were on a cruise to Mexico. While in Cabo San Lucas, they came upon a vendor hocking an herbal “tea”. He explained that his herbal product had a list of purported health properties attached to it, including: Treatment for headaches, treatment for diabetes, and a tonic effect on the muscles and nervous system. Also in the fine print was another, more infamous use.

When they got back to the U.S., my mother proudly called me up to tell me what she picked up for me. She knew I had a thing for trying out new teas and tisanes, and – God bless her – her heart was in the right place. However…um…well, here’s how the conversation went:

Mom: “We picked up this tea for you in Cabo. It’s a cactus tea!”

Me: “That’s great!…Wait…it’s not ‘damiana’, is it?”

Mom: “That’s it.”

Me: “Mom…that’s an aphrodisiac.”

Mom: [long pause] “Oh…well, you don’t have to drink it for that.”

They stayed with my brother and I on a visit to drop off their wares. My mother let my stepdad do the “honors” of handing me said herb. His exact words were, “Here’s your boner tea. Enjoy.” Just like that.

A few months after that, a friend of mine also made a trip to Cabo. I had related the tale regarding the damiana to him, and – being the way he is – he texted me: “I picked you up some more damiana.”

I didn’t receive this second stash of sex tea until a tea party a few weeks back. I actually had the other bag of damiana with me in the hopes of giving it away. What use did I have for it? I wasn’t dating anyone. The moment I started unloading the bag of teas I had for said party, my friend handed me the damiana he bought for me.

It was from the same damn farmer my mother had purchased hers.

I guess there was no escaping the stuff. It wasn’t like I hadn’t tried damiana before. As I’ve related before, I had taste-tested it plenty of times over the course of years. I had blended it with gingko, lemon verbena, and other anti-inflammatory herbs for a “prostate” tea. (What? I’m a male in my 30s, I worry about this sorta thing.) While I didn’t remember liking it all that much by itself, I didn’t remember hating it either.  This stuff was straight from the source, wild-harvested even. I guess a second go-around was in order.

The appearance was strikingly similar to quite a few other green-leaning herbs. There were leaf bits ranging from green to brown along with stems and twigs. I likened it to tulsi, only (obviously) greener. What really surprised me was the sweet/mint aroma it possessed. The last time I whiffed this stuff, it did not possess that profile. I expected herbaceous, and I got…fruit sweetness with a hint of spearmint. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all; maybe there was something to this wild-harvesting thing.

I didn’t adhere to any particular brewing instructions for this. Damiana blends past only required about a five-minute steep time in boiling water – roughly a teaspoon of herb per cup. I went a little stronger with a heaping teaspoon in 8oz. of boiled water for five minutes.

The liquor brewed up green-gold, almost jade-like with an aroma that made an eyebrow cock. It smelled like weed. What was it with Spanish-speaking country herbs smelling like weed?! Yerba mate smelled like it, guayusa kinda smelled like it, mate de coca definitely smelled like it. This at least had a nettle-ish lean to differentiate it from the druggie rabble. That’s not to say it was a good scent; it was just very herbal – questionably so.

As for flavor, it opened up with a spinachy front that caused my tongue to curl. Not unpalatable, just alarming. Mamaki and nettle leaf had a similar affect on me. That transitioned to an uphill top note of citrus and something bittersweet. The finish was both grassy and silky at the same time.

What was really worth noting was the immediate side effect upon imbibing. This stuff went straight to my skull like a brusque Assam. A couple of sips in and my frontal lobe went, “WTF?! Is that caffeine or something else?! Help, I need an adult!” Or something to that effect. There was no way to test out any…er…aphrodisiac results, but if the “woosh!” to my brain was any indication, it did increase blood flow.

I can’t say this is an herbal I would have on a regular basis. Sure, it’s pleasant enough on its own, but not habit-forming in the slightest. It tastes like something someone would take for its apparent health benefits. Like St. John’s Wort…only randy. It was exactly as I remembered it, but there was something to be said for getting it directly from a farmer. The sweeter profile was testament to that.

If I am ever in a situation where it’s “services” are required, though, it’s good to know that I have plenty on hand for just such an emergency. Ladies, I’m single.

(As if that’s a surprise.)

Photo by Kenneth Lu

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Thursday, September 22nd, 2011 Steep Stories 1 Comment

Clarch! #1: “Blending Tea and Dating”

This one is for the fellas.

About three years ago, I received an invite to go to a bar trivia night in downtown Portland. I usually got the call when a group of friends required a “guy-that-knows-useless-shit”; that was me. Need  someone that knows the composer for the “Death of Optimus Prime” scene in the ’86 animated Transformers: The Movie? I’m your man. I am a fountain of frivolous knowledge.

Our track record this night was fairly steady. I was contributing answers to about a third of the more non sequitur questions – a little off my game but not too badly. A question came up that I wasn’t expecting, one that I thought I instantly had in the bag.

The Q/A emcee asked, “What group of people has better sex? Coffee drinkers or tea drinkers?”

Slam-friggin’-dunk.

My primary geek hobby – tea – started because of sex. There were at least three-to-four blends and tisanes I knew of that were beneficial for…er…”blood flow”. That and normal tea was a primary ingredient in many male enhancement products. (Don’t ask me how I know that.) Tea also made for a great conversation starter; plus, the rest of the world drank tea. It was a given.

The answer? Coffee drinkers.

I cost us the game.

How could I have been so wrong? All my perusals – scholastic and palate-related – pointed to tea as being the clear victor. How could the swill of Satan be the better boffing brew? The question plagued me on the drive home.

It hit me when I was in the shower the next day.

First off, tea was not a ubiquitous beverage in the United States, not since we dumped crates of it over a perfectly good harbor. Coffee dates were considered the universal icebreaker, almost to the point of cliché. If a guy wanted to get to know a potential…um…playmate, there were only two viable routes – coffee and alcohol. In some cases, both if the conversation went really well.

I looked back at my track record with tea dates. The first one I ever went on was with a girl from Craigslist. She was older than me by a month. Other than showing complete uninterested in me, she also related how she answered an ad to be an old man’s “sugarbaby”. In short, it was a bust.

The next – oh – several attempts ended one of two ways. The less common occurrence was that we hit it off in terms of conversation, trading barbs like old friends. But that was it, “friends”. Either one didn’t feel that mandatory “oomph” or the other – or both. The outing was so completely non-threatening and informal that any tension from the event was rendered impotent.

The more common outcome? The girl never showed up. Seriously.

A last attempt at a tea date was in March. I considered it the make-or-break for this anti-Friend Zone field test. In theory, tea dates should work, especially if one had some knowledge of the beverage prior. It was classy. Girls dug classy…right? Well, apparently not.

While it may be a sad conclusion – and one that most bros of brewdom don’t want to hear – tea dates don’t work. At least in my experience. It might be just an American conundrum; it may even be that I’m no good at dating in general. The simple summation is that tea and dating are a one-way ticket aboard the HMS Platonic.  That isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t ways around that.

Just because you, fellow steeper, have this one peculiar hobby doesn’t mean you have to be ashamed of it. You can mention it in passing on a normal-ish date. Once an actual rapport and/or relationship are established, then you can let her into your wulong-rich world. A second – more lowbrow – approach would be to find establishments that serve tea-infused alcohol drinks. In my neck of the woods, I know of five. Can you think of a better gateway to “Awesome!”? I can’t.

I’m almost certain this entry will garner some amount of, “You’re wrong! My wife and I are the exception.” In statistics, you would be known as an “outlier”. For you to be an exception, there first has to be a general rule. Of course, I could be completely wrong on this. So, please, do relate your success stories if you have them. Prove me wrong, I beg of you.

And while you’re at it, kindly tell me where you’ve parked your unicorn.

Awesome Doodles by Aaron Grayson

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Monday, September 19th, 2011 Clargh!, Steep Stories 7 Comments

Trippin’ on Moonlight

Some weeks back, I got a message from my cousin. He made an outright demand for “ADVENTURE!” Yes, in all caps. At first, he had a hankering to go to the Oregon Coast, particularly a brewery (or two) we had stopped at before. I suggested something a little more approachable – an idea we’d discussed in passing, the Columbia Gorge. There was a brewery on the Washington side of the river we had yet to hit. He jumped on that idea like it was a trampoline.

Photo by Bruce Berrien

Before leaving for parts un-sober, we grabbed burritos for lunch and did a quick run to Starbucks. My cuz happened to be the customer of the month at this place. They even had his picture framed, knew him by name, and cracked barbs with him like he was Norm from Cheers. So, both he and the baristas kinda looked at me funny when I only asked for hot water rather than tea or coffee. Like a true pretentious douche, I brought my own tea leaves in a do-it-yourself baggy. Worse still, I was all shifty about it.

Once we hit the highway – and I’d timed the coffee cup steep at three minutes (yes, I do that) – I took a sip of the contents.  I’m not sure what happened, but I had a full-body euphoric reaction. It was like a lazy man’s outta body experience…’cept no one went anywhere.

My cousin looked over and said, “Jesus, man, you look like you had an orgasm.”

In a tea-ist – almost spiritual (and less messy) – sorta way, I did. The tea in question was a second flush Darjeeling that was sent to me by a Twitter friend in Darjeeling – one Benoy Thapa of Thunderbolt Tea. Who is he? Probably one of the nicest fellows I’ve ever e-met. That and the only motorcycle-riding, tea-field-diving, ponytail-donning, camera-weilding family man/tea vendor I’ve heard about. It was thanks to him that I was finally exposed to real Darjeeling tea in the first place – not just the dust found in teabags.

He sent me a peculiar tea from the Castleton tea estate. Said garden was named for a building in the neighboring city of Kurseong that looked like a castle. The fields were first planted in 1885 by a Brit named Dr. Charles Graham. At present, the estate is 70% British-owned and quite known for its Chinese varietals that produce a world-renowned second flush product.

The one I had in my possession – and the one that caused the full-bodied teagasm – was a different sort of offering. Unlike the other OPs produced, this was technically an oolong. I even asked my Thunderbolt contact what type it was and he confirmed it, saying that was the information he received from the current owner.

This was unlike any other second flush Darjeeling I’d encountered. Okay, I’ve said that on other occasions, but I really mean it this time! The leaves were the color of…um…forest? Yes, a veritable bouquet of colors you’d associate with that image – root brown, soil yellow, canopied tree green, and sun gold. I had a little trouble finding a comparison. Its anomalous aroma didn’t help, either. The scent brought feelings of fresh water streams, wild berries, lemons and honey. I know, this is sounding more metaphoric than olfactory; I’m sorry. This was difficult to pin down.

There weren’t any specific brewing instructions for this on the Thunderbolt site. Mr. Thapa – as mentioned above – said this was an oolong. Granted, during the trial sip, I went lowbrow with a coffee mug. This time, though, I figured the best way would be to give it a traditional oolong send-off. And I bought a new gaiwan for the occasion. (It’s a he, and his name is Guy-1.) I heated some water to just under a boil, and prepped four successive infusions – two at thirty seconds, two at forty – with 1 heaping teaspoon of leaves.

First infusion (thirty seconds): The liquor brewed light amber with a malty nose. (Very Indian.) The flavor possessed an herbaceous front that transitioned creamily to a vanilla-dipped grape crescendo before tapering off gently. A damn good start, if I do say so.

Second infusion (thirty seconds): The soup infused to a prime-gold color with an amber-ish periphery. It was lighter but also…shinier. As for taste, the initial sip was crisper than before, followed by a bolder middle profile kicking with lemon and apple. Very cider-like, except – y’know – without the fizz or mind-numbing parts.

Third infusion (forty seconds): Yep, still gold. However, the steam aroma changed its tune to something creamy and sweet – like actual vanilla was in there. That didn’t quite translate to taste, but it was still wonderful with a floral aspect appearing alongside the citrusy lean.

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): This was the lightest of the four infusions, but it was also the most obviously “oolong” of ‘em. The foretaste was still crisp, yet there was a rougher, mineral-like transition to the muscatel middle. I likened it to a Formosa Alishan.

Two more steeps followed the initial four, but I didn’t take notes on them. Needless to say, they were nifty. While it held up to a gongfu(-ish) approach quite well, I think the Western way gave it a one-time punch of perfection. Like a liquid rendition of a one-night stand. That isn’t to say the four short steeps weren’t awesome; they just weren’t dipped in awesome like the A-MURR-ican mega-steep.

As luck would have it, I had an opportunity through another vendor to try the first flush Moonlight. I liked it quite a bit, but it had nowhere near the nuance of the summertime cup that nearly road-tripped my tongue to tea-ish ecstasy. Without exaggeration or pontification, this was the best darned Darjeeling I have ever had. Worth a howl or two.

To buy Thunderbolt Tea’s Castleton Moonlight (2011 2nd Flush) go HERE.

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Wednesday, September 14th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

Missing the Forest for the Teas

Photo by Rick Gutleber

Photo by Rick Gutleber

Yet again, I journeyed to Hawaii. Okay, not literally but at least in tea form. I hope to get to those damn islands someday, but when your wallet’s a moth-colony, you have to settle on a cup of tropical tea instead. This marks the third Hawaiian-grown tea I’ve sampled. The first was a black tea that was wonderful, if unusual; the second was an oolong that lent well to a gaiwan/gongfu approach – loudly fruity, too. The existence of a Hawaiian-grown white, however, reached me a bit late.

Independent growers Eva Lee and Chiu Long of the Volcano Village estate grew tea plants at an elevation of 4,000ft., deep within the rainforest at the base of Mt. Kilauea. Both were also behind the big push for forming Hawaii’s first tea farming collective – The Hawaii Tea Society. While they offered four different types of tea, the Forest White was actually one they grew, dried and rolled themselves.

I saw rumblings about the Kilauea Forest White on Steepster. Many were singing its praises, but it wasn’t available for regular purchase. In the following months, I learned that KTeas – an internet-based “virtual tearoom” (as they call themselves) – had acquired some for sale. The titular “K” of that vendor op had a good eye for good tea and apparently scored some. Via Twitter, I “nudge-nudge-wink-wink”-ed about possibly reviewing it in the near-future.

Surprisingly, she remembered that nudge and – in no time at all – the Kilauea Forest White was in my possession. Yet another checkmark notched on my “Tea WANT!” list. (They’re falling like flies, I swear.)

The leaves for this were larger than most white teas I’ve beheld, ranging from light greens to dark purples in spectrum. It didn’t even smell like a white tea on first sniff, yielding an aroma of peppers, spice and charred earth. First impression, for me, would’ve been that this was a green tea – an unorthodox one at that.  However, the leaves did have the mandatory downy fur that embodied most quality whites.

Brewing instructions on the sample bag recommended 3g of leaves (roughly a teaspoon) per serving. I assumed that meant an 8oz cup. Also puzzling was how one could measure out a teaspoon when the leaves were so bloody large. What really confused me further was the brewing temperature they recommended – 208F.

Now, sometimes I’m a bit of a simpleton in the steeping department, but I know for a fact that white teas generally require a lighter steep. Sure, there are some that can take boiling water – Assam, Darjeeling, and Ceylon whites come to mind – but rule o’ thumb is to administer a light touch. That and this stuff was pricy; I didn’t have a lot of it, either. Screw up a brew, and that’s two dollars down the drain. Literally. The KTeas site mirrored the prep with a three-minute steep.

Oh well, I risked it.

Even with the boiling water and lengthier infusion, the liquor only brewed to a pale gold typical of white teas. The aroma echoed another American-borne white I had – the Sakuma Bros. Sun Dried White. It was equal parts sweet, buttery, and grapy. Like a Bai Mu Dan by way of a Bai Hao oolong. As for flavor, the first thing to note was the fruity kick; it channeled tropical fruit and basalt on “tongue”-down. The middle was where it kept some of its white tea trappings – the nuttiness, melony lean, and floral texture – while the finish tapered with pleasant grassiness and a creamy trail-off.

I dared a second infusion at an undetermined steep time. In the interim, I surfed the web for cat pictures that made me giggle…and nearly forgot about the tea. When I came back, the liquor had darkened to amber-gold with a mango-sweet aroma, which was weird. This time ‘round, the flavor started with a creamy texture laced with fruitiness, transitioning to a top note of sour citrus that faintly reminded me of…bergamot? Quite bizarre but awesome.

It lasted one more indeterminate, “faint fruit” infusion before fading. I’ve gotta hand it to the grower, this is one badass leaf. It can take a boiled beating and yield some fabulous results. Even more surprising was the level of caffeine. This is not your usual, fluttery, cup o’ wussy white. I made the mistake of sipping this at midnight and have the jitters to prove it. Tread lightly with this not-so-light white…but do enjoy. I  certainly did.

To purchase the KTeas Kilauea Forest White Tea, go HERE.

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Friday, September 9th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

Iran So Far for…Tea

Some time ago, I made a necessary pit stop to The Jasmine Pearl, a teashop owned by a very nice couple in Northeast Portland. I had been in before, and they were one of the few places I could pick up Yunnan-grown “Golden Needles” at a decent price. It was the perfect black tea, the shop was perfectly close, and I was perfectly broke; it worked itself out.

While conversing with the owners over a cup of GABA oolong, they made mention of a friend in Iran who was bringing back some Persian-grown tea. I thought they had said “pearls tea” at first. My ears burned when they corrected me.  My “Tea WANT!” list wasn’t entirely in dire need of new additions, but the idea of tea from a growing region I wasn’t familiar with peaked my interest. Up to that point, all I knew about Persian tea was the way they served it – steeped in enough sugar to make a Southern belle blush.


When I returned home, I immediately went to digging up information about Iran’s tea history. My occidental notions of a backward country in the middle of the desert surrounded by rugs and dervishes were “a tad” inaccurate. Iran actually had a rather rich tea history, thanks to its close proximity to China – one that pre-dated European interest by a good 200 years. The town of Lahijan in the north even had their own Robert Fortune-type character. The biggest irony was that he stole seedlings from the British in India…who – in turn – had originally stolen from the Chinese.

Cultivation in Gilan province began roughly around 1900, while the first modern tea factory was built some thirty-ish years later. To this day, Iran alone produces 60,000 tons of black tea a year. The biggest tragedy, though, is that the U.S. sees nary a leaf of it. If it isn’t readily apparent to you, fair reader, relations between the United States and Iran are piss-poor at best. Reasons for this are quite valid, and I won’t go into any of that here. This is a tea blog, not a political soapbox.

It’s not entirely impossible to acquire Iranian-grown tea as an American, but chances are one would have to turn to an international site. And strong though my tea itch was, international shipping charges did much to quell the urge. That, however, didn’t stop me from posting several whiny forum queries wondering where I could acquire some without having to pound at an embargo.

Enter TeaGeek.net. Yet again.

Again, Michael J. Coffey – that sleuth of the steep – chimed in with a proverbial, “I got what’choo NEED!” (Yes, I can even hear him pounding the pavement with a pimp cane while saying that.)

Available exclusively to TeaGeek members was a tea gained through mysterious methods dubbed “Treasure of Persia”.  He mentioned he’d received it in an unnamed plastic bag, and the route used to obtain it made some drug deals pale by comparison. That made this one-off sample all the more interesting.

The leaves for this were jet black, long, wide, and oozing with malt-scent. The aroma reminded me of chocolate covered berries mixed with dry smoke.  In appearance, they resembled another TeaGeek score – the old-woman-handmade Georgian tea I had. They even smelled alike. For a moment there, I wondered if a fast one had been pulled on us.  On close inspection, though, there were subtle differences. The cut of the Persian leaves were smaller, the rolling method seemed different, and the leaves weren’t as tippy as the Georgian. Strikingly similar, but still different beasts.

There weren’t any established brewing instructions for this, so I had to go with what I was familiar with. Like the Georgian, this looked strong enough to take a four-minute steep, but I wasn’t sure what leaf amount to use. I went balls-in with a tablespoon-worth steeped in 8oz of boiling water for the allotted four.

The result was an amber-ish liquor with a dry and smoky nose, not unlike Russian Caravan or a subtle Taiwanese Lapsang Souchong. They certainly had my attention with whiff alone. On taste, the impression shifted ever-so-awesomely to a sip with a nutty forefront. That was quickly followed up with a fruity segue to a malty middle. As far as the finish was concerned, it was all Cavendish smokiness that tapered off handsomely.

Do you know how this tea made me feel? Like I was sitting on a weather-worn rock bedazzled in jewels, silks, and gold-trimmed whatevers while Disney-esque Jasmine-like maidens fanned large feathers at me. Oh, and there was an elephant for shade because…well…all Persian fantasies require an elephant. This didn’t even need to be sweetened to death in the typical Persian tea style, but I’m sure the approach would work wonders. A very outstanding cup of U.S.-embargoed hotness.

For more information from the TeaGeek, go HERE.

The inspiration for the “punny” title of this blog can be found HERE. Don’t watch if you have no cheesy sense of humor.

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Tuesday, September 6th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

From Georgia with Love

I just can’t seem to get away from “Georgia”. It truly is a name that follows me wherever I go. I have friends that live in that accursedly hot state. My cat bears the name (one I didn’t give her). And women I try to avoid like the plague – but still haunt me – bear the moniker. The word is everywhere…and it all stemmed from a country’s particular love of a particular Saint George. What a way to start a tea entry, eh?

The country of Georgia has a very assorted, sordid, and peculiar history…none of which I’ll cover here due to self-imposed length-constraints and laziness. Suffice to say, it’s unique, its people are unique, and the region has a unique sub-history in the pantheon of tea cultivation. Tea was first grown and produced in the 1890s. The country possessed an ideal climate for Camellia sinensis (the tea plant to you noobs), and modernized farming practices made it a viable crop.

Given that Georgia was part of the greater Russian Empire at the time, it certainly needed to be viable. Russians downed tea as if it were caffeinated vodka. A ready supply from someplace nearby was a necessity. And for awhile, the Georgian tea industry thrived…until a certain neighboring nuclear power plant went critical. You all know which one.

Photo by Bo Nielsen

Photo by Bo Nielsen

And there went the Georgian tea industry. Okay, that’s a bit of a dramatic generalization. Some of it also had to do with the mass production methods used in the ‘80s that cut back on quality. (Think: Nilgiri CTC-grade, only worse.) However, the meltdown didn’t help.

That didn’t stop individual farmers from continuing the art of handmade tea. Several areas – including the village of Nagobileui in Western Georgia – were upwind of the doomed power plant. Therefore…no radioactive-“tea”. (*Badam-tish*) In 2003, many of these tea families formed into their own collective, dubbed The Tea Producer Famers’ Association. Their goal: The promotion of Caucasus Tea. Their requirement of members: The tea has to be handmade. No machinery.

One of the founders – Natela Gujabidze – first started plucking tea leaves with her mother-in-law at the tender age of 17. She later worked in Soviet tea fields for 15 years. In 1977, she traveled to China to learn more about the nuances of tea production. The way she plucks, withers, and dries the ’em result in leaves with their own character. They are long, strand-like, gold-tipped, and oozing with aroma. How do I know this? Well…against all odds, I was able to score some.

The Natela-named GOPA was made available exclusively to TeaGeek members courtesy of Michael J. Coffey – probably one of the most resourceful tea educators I’ve e-talked to. Before he mentioned it, Georgian-made tea hadn’t even been on my “Tea WANT” radar. I buried my nose in the in the bag when it arrived in the mail and whiffed grapes, smoke, earth and caramel. This promised to be an interesting cup of somethin’ special. Or so I hoped.

I asked Sir Coffey [He of the Ironic Surnames} the best way to brew this; he said to brew it like any other black tea. A trial run with a unique and rare beverage called for some patience and precision. On my first attempts with it, I went with my Darjeeling-ish approach – 1 heaping teaspoon in 8oz. of water for three minutes.

The liquor I ended up with was far lighter than I expected from a former Russian territory. The tea infused to straight amber. If I was spotting it without context, I would’ve guessed I was looking at a cup of oolong at most. The scent even made it difficult to discern blindly. It was rich with different (yet still subtle) fruit notes. Taste-wise, I detected very little dryness or bitterness; neither were present on forefront or finish. Citrus and a mysterious nuttiness came through in the middle. Interesting, indeed.

Now that I knew that worked, I had to play with it a little. Given how light it turned out at the three-minute mark, I dared an extra one for s**ts-‘n-giggles. At four, the liquor was darker – beige-to-tawny-brown with a gold-trim to it, a very bright cup. The aroma this time matched some high-altitude Ceylons I’ve tried with a floral front and a little kick of astringency. That sensation was followed up with a delicate, slightly fruit-sweet middle and a finish of…malt?

Malt?! Seriously! Sure, there are plenty of black teas that have a malty character to them, but none actually finish on that note. Especially one as light as this.

Epilogue: This was worth the hurdles it took to acquire it. Even if the whole attempt was like a scene out of some drug deal. This fix was totally worth it. I wish Natela another hundred years of success. Someone give the ol’ gal an immortality pill, please?!

Special thanks to Michael J. Coffey of TeaGeek.net for the member sample. For more information on his site…er…just go to it. (Seriously, he has a self-made tea encyclopedia there.) Or follow his musings HERE.

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Thursday, September 1st, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

I work for tea money.

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