Tea Pairing with Job Hunting

The idea for this entry was suggested by my mother, as great ideas often are. It never occurred to me to pair tea with job hunting until she posed the idea after reading my tea-fueled rant. This reflection has – in no way – any science to back it up, just anecdotal “evidence”. Trial and error, hypotheses, and conjectures also played a key role in the missive. Oh, and oolong. Lots and lots of oolong.

Let’s begin.

Getting Started

As an unemployed person, one of the most difficult tasks is literally getting out of bed. Let’s face it, joblessness is depressing. Why does someone want to get started when it feels like their world is ending? The key is a self-fueled kick in the pants.

I’ve personally found that having a morning routine helps to motivate one away from the comfort of a ‘lectric blanky. Getting your day going as if you already have a job puts you in the right frame of mind to look for one. Shaving helps, too (for either gender). And for the love of God, put pants on!

Possible Tea Pairing:

Caffeine is required – lots of it. You need something that’ll give you an extra oomph! My personal recommendation is Assam. Better yet? Assam with some Lapsang Souchong sprinkled in. Nothing says, “Wake the f**k up!” like a caffeinated kick o’ campfire.

Writing a Resume and Cover Letter

If you – fair reader – are anything like me, you hate writing about yourself in a clinical manner. The urge to self-deprecate is a strong one. Same with wanting to sell yourself short. Some have a magical grasp of inflating their accomplishments; I am not one of them. Plus, I’m not very good at summarizing my abilities and accolades (whatever they are) concisely.

The importance is to consult others that have some expertise in these areas – people who’ve either submitted several times, or have a surefire approach. I’ve learned that submitting a resume or cover letter blindly, without having someone looking it over, is like turning in an obituary.

However, you don’t want to be too wired while you’re doing it. I’ve found that these two exercises require a lot of patience, or rather “calm wakefulness”.

Possible Tea Pairing:

I’m taking a page right out of Lindsey Goodwin’s recommendations by saying the best tea for writing is oolong. Sure, it’s caffeinated. And – depending on the sourcing – it can be strong. Yet I feel it truly gives someone a time-released dose of wake-up-call. Enough to instill a sense of focus. I turn to a good oolong – gongfu-ishly-styled – when I’m in the middle of a writing project. And believe me…resumes are a project.

Pounding the Pavement

As much as I hate to admit it, networking is the lifeblood of the job search. Talking to people, keeping your ears open, going from shop-to-shop, doing informational interviews, and putting yourself out there are mandatory. Ever hear that phrase, “It’s who you know…”

I’ll be damned if it ain’t correct.

Possible Tea Pairing:

Anything aged. In my experienced, teas – whether they’re oolongs, pu-erhs, black teas, or whites – that have at least five years on ‘em are eerily soothing. Sometimes they might actually taste as old as they are, but one thing can’t be denied. They make your brain feel like it’s sitting on a park bench feeding pigeons. Even when you’re doing something as socially uncomfortable as talking to people.

Just resist the urge to yell, “Get off my lawn!”

Interview Hell

Congrats! You’ve made it to an actual interview. Someone has taken the time out of their busy schedule to interrogate you for thirty minutes to an hour. But you don’t want to come across as a complete tool. (Unless they’re looking for someone useful.)

There are tips and guides aplenty on how to prepare for an interview. I’ve personally found that dressing to the nines doesn’t hurt your prospects. Where I’ve tended to fail, though, is in the verbal delivery. You don’t want to talk too fast or sound too deliberate. That and you want to have answers to questions prepared – in your mind, anyway. (Note: Do not bring cue cards.)

Some unorthodox methods for confidence and relaxation I’ve heard are: (1) Doing push-ups before an interview. Sound – if odd – advice from my brother. (2) Giving yourself an affirmation speech in the mirror. I do this. (3) Talking to someone before you leave for the interview. I’ve found that parents help. (4) Having a theme song. Okay, I made that last one up. Still, that’d be pretty sweet.

Possible Tea Pairng:

Gotta go green or white here. I made the mistake of having a pint of Earl Grey before an interview. At a tearoom, no less. The result? I was a motormouth, talking a mile a minute. My posture was equally off-putting – hunched over, feet tamping nervously. In other words, the less caffeine, the better. If you want to split the difference – a heartily brewed Bai Mu Dan should do the trick.

Rinse and Repeat

Your day is done. You’ve talked to people, made the rounds, applied for new jobs, and now all you want to do is relax. A cup o’ something herbal will work wonders. Pat yourself on the back…because guess what?

You get to do the whole thing again tomorrow.


I’d like to thank my mother for this idea. Do me a favor and like her career advice page on Facebook – Careers/College Not By Chance – HERE. She is an invaluable resource.

Much obliged.

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Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012 Steep Stories 63 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 1 Comment

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

Regarding Rooibos (A Pure Matcha – Red Matcha Review)

Rooibos is like the O’Doule’s of the tea world, mainly for the reason that it’s not really “tea” in the traditional sense. Anything tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant; all true teas, that is. Anything else is considered a tisane or herbal infusion. The South African plant gained some measure of recognition as a hearty herbal substitute for black tea. That and – over the course of centuries – it also was used for various medicinal pursuits – gastrointestinal concerns, headaches, colds, zombie plague…you name it. (Okay, I made the last part up.)

The red-brown, needle-like concoction also has a close relative known as honeybush that has a decidedly sweeter taste. Nowadays, both are used as the base for many fruit blends on the market. Rooibos and honeybush also combine well together. Traditionally, rooibos is oxidized in a fashion similar to black tea, but there also exists an unoxidized (i.e. steamed) version – green rooibos – which also happens to be my favorite. Imagine my cocked-eyebrowed surprise when someone championed a rooibos matcha as a product.

I love matcha. The Japanese powdered form of green tea is my go-to morning drink. I use it in place of multivitamins because – in essence – I’m getting a powerhouse-worth consuming an entire tea leaf. Another happy side-effect is the added caffeine and the extra boost in fiber. Sometimes, though, the caffeine can be a hindrance. I one time did a search for herbal substitutes but came up empty. Pure Matcha came to my attention via the bastion of aggregated “information” – Twitter. After a quick dialogue (and some whimpering on my part) they were kind enough to impart a sample for review.

Pure Matcha purports that their primary powder cultivator resides in Aichi Prefecture, Japan. They mention that it is one of the two major producing regions for premium ceremonial-grade matcha; the other being Uji Prefecture. I already knew about Uji, but I was unaware of Aichi. The only other matcha region I knew of was Izu in Shizuoka Prefecture, where most of the Japan’s sencha is grown. There was no information about whether their Red Matcha (the rooibos variant) was made in Japan, but I figured it was.

The rooibos powder itself was finely-ground and almost looked stone pulverized. I doubted it was, given the consistency of rooibos needles and the great care required to grind it down. Whatever the process, the result was a powder with a faded, pinkish hue and the requisite nut-sweet smell that was a rooibos “staple”.

Pure Matcha recommended that – since rooibos powder had a different consistency – to utilize a blender for preparation. While my brother had a blender, I didn’t want to bother with the clean-up. I took an old miso soup bowl that I always used for matcha, boiled some water, and used a chasen (bamboo whisk) for the first test. The red-brown liquid frothed up quite nicely at first, even imparting a happy fizzing noise. The bubbles dissipated soon after, though.

To the taste, and to my relief, I can say it was all rooibos. The only major change was in the texture. Along with the usual nut-sweet profile associated with the little legume was a thicker consistency. It was both slightly chalky but fluffy – a very odd combination. I did a re-whisk with a milk frother to see if that turned up anything different. Aside from a shift in texture more to the chalky, the taste was the same.

Safely said, this was a unique and quite excellent take on an old South African cape-grown cup. I’m not really sure which is the better method, though. Steeping normal rooibos yields a nutty, sweet, dark cup and you get more of it. However, the powdered form yields an even denser brew with even more of that natural sweetness. For sake of laziness, time and prep, I’d say Red Matcha wins by a hair. I would strongly recommend it.

PS ~ If I had one gripe (and it’s a small one) it’s that there isn’t a GREEN rooibos matcha out there. Pure Matcha, get on it. You’d make this lazy, tea-swigging writer very happy.

For more information on Pure Matcha, go HERE.

To purchase Red Matcha, go HERE.

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Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011 Steep Stories 6 Comments

Mellow Marshmallow

When most of us think of marshmallows, we think of the doughy, puffy cylinders of white “WIN” that grace campfires and Graham crackers. It wouldn’t occur to us that there is a plant of the same name, and that it is loosely tied to that most artificial of all sweet snacks. And even stranger still, it was used as an herbal remedy for sore throats. Not what you think of with that sweet confection, eh?

How the dessert and the plant (Althea officinalis) came to share the same name is sketchy. One sound theory presents that a mucilage concoction from the plant – sweetened with honey – was the great-granddaddy of the dextrose-laden dessert o’ death. Evidence is flimsy on this, however.

I first heard of the plant in the only way a geek can – in a movie. My cousin insisted I give the comedy, Grandma’s Boy, a view. He swore by its campy genius; I merely swore.  Watching it was pure torture on all required senses. Granted, there were some humorous moments, but they were few and torturously far between. Until an odd character came into the fray.

The protagonist’s boss – Mr. Cheezle – was the New Age-y sort, played to near-perfection by Kevin Nealon of Saturday Night Live fame. During the first (or was it second?) encounter with the character, at one point in the conversation, he offered a group some “marshmallow tea”. That furrowed my brow.

I didn’t think on it again until a friend’s lovely Latin-borne wife took a rather well-lit cell phone picture of a tea she brewed.

Two lovely leaves were steeped in a transparent cup, yielding a soft, yellow-green liquor. My palate? Whetted.

On a visit to the couple’s house, she kindly showed me the source of the steep. In her backyard. The marshmallow leaves she used weren’t from a vendor or dried source, they were fresh! All of my infusions up to that point were with dried herbs. I knew one could use a fresh source, but the rules for brewing would differ. She imparted two branches for me to experiment with. What deal with a deity my friend had to make to land her, I know not. But I was happy to reap the benefits – by way of plants, both illegal and/or exotic – by proxy.

The next night, I began playing with the leaves. From what I read, fresh herbs and roots required a full, continuous boil. They couldn’t just steep alone. To decoct them properly, one needed a lengthy cook. The friend’s photo showed two leaves in an 8oz cup. I used about 32oz of water and multiplied the number of leaves accordingly – eight…-ish. (I suck at math.)

My first attempted decoct was for ten minutes. The steam wafting from the cup smelled like cooked asparagus. The infusion colored beautifully to a green-gold liquor that shined in the light via a clear beer mug.  The surprise was the flavor. I found it tasted rather light, buttery, very similar to a chamomile-verbena cross but more vegetal.  The mellowness of it bothered me.

A second attempt at fifteen minutes led to a darker brew, but the taste was about the same – incredibly subtle. To my surprise, though, it took various sweeteners rather well. With a name like “marshmallow”, I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. Honey worked best of all.

To conclude, I liked it quite a bit. I’m a sucker for herbal infusions, even those with a medicinal lean. And while I can’t attest to its throat-relieving properties, it does act as a good relaxer. Sometimes after a tough day, that’s all one needs. I hope to explore it in dried form in the future to see how that measures up.

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Saturday, December 11th, 2010 Steep Stories 1 Comment

Bearing with Boring Ol’ Barley

Sometimes the Asian need to separate themselves – besides by large bodies of water – takes on epically stupid proportions. The worst of which concerns an herbal “tea” that goes by three completely different names. And it’s not even an uncommon infusion. The target of ire is roasted barley.

Koreans call it “boricha”, the Chinese call it “maicha”, and the Japanese know it as “mugicha”. I don’t think I’ve encountered so disparate a naming scheme in my life. Okay, if linguistics is a factor, fine, I’ll accept that. But I don’t think so. After all, the word for “tea” doesn’t deviate much between the three languages. It’s universally referred to as “cha”. So what makes bori-mugi-mai-cha so damn special? I decided to investigate.

Barley is used for many purposes; the most common being culinary. As a drink, it’s sold year-round in Japan, and marketed as a summer season cooler in Korea. Barely mixed with chicory is marketed as a coffee substitute. It is also one of the principle ingredients in beer. Mmmmmm…beer.

What were we talking about? Oh yeah, barley.

I had to try this multitasking grain for myself. On the same Uwajimaya trip where I picked up Mamaki, I ran into scores of barley tea offerings. That settled the “rarity” debate. In typical “poor bastard” fashion, I went with the cheapest and largest I could find; a huge-arse package with at least thirty barley bags in it. Awesomely tacky? You betcha.

The individual bags were a pyramid design, closely resembling the ones put out by PG Tips. (Think British Lipton). Inside the bag were a ton of barley seeds.  On closer inspection of the mesh, they looked like popcorn seeds; smelled like it too. The aroma was roasty like coffee beans but also possessed a buttery quality.

Steeping it was a mild chore. I dunked it into a normal, boring 12oz cup without thinking of the sheer size of the bag. It took up half the mug, easily. I also lacked the foresight to cover the cup initially. This was easily (and stupidly) rectified by putting a tea tin over it. However, I almost spoiled the batch of Lapsang Souchong inside. If one can spoil Lapsang.

The liquor darkened to a woody brown with a roasty aroma that reminded me of coffee/almond ice cream, but without the sweetness factor. Taste-wise, it was something else. I could see why it was marketed as a coffee substitute, for that was the closest thing I compared it to. My brother/roommate had the same opinion.

In short, was it worth the severe name disparity between three major Asian countries?  I don’t think so, but then again, I’m probably making a big deal over nothing. I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to monikers. On the inside, I’m yelling, “Friggin’ pick one!” On the outside, I’m sipping from a cup on a couch.

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Friday, November 26th, 2010 Steep Stories Comments Off on Bearing with Boring Ol’ Barley

A Tropical Tisane Trip

A peculiar little leaf came to my attention on a search for another herb. I saw it mentioned in passing as a comparison. It and one other were used as taster notes. Sometimes I hate obscure taster notes – I try to avoid them – but in this case, it caught my intellectual fancy. The herbals in question were Hawaiian in origin. One was called Ko’oko’alau (a.k.a. genus Bidens), the other – and more pronounceable – was Mamaki (Pipturus albidus). The latter was mentioned as a close, islander cousin to stinging nettle.

I didn’t think I would be able to locate them locally, so I turned to online sources. It was almost impossible to find unblended products of either. And the solo options were in the neighborhood of $30 a pound. Why is everything in Hawaii so rapin’ expensive?! (Calming down…)

A difficult decision lay ahead of me; I had to give up on one of these herbs. Naturally, the unpronounceable one went by the wayside, and I focused my efforts on Mamaki. The search wouldn’t take long.

On a trip to Uwajimaya – think Asian Supermarket Disneyland – to browse the vast tea hall, I stopped by the customer service desk to inquire about Mamaki. At first, the just-shy-of-post-adolescent teller stared at me blankly. Before he could sputter out an “I dunno”, I saw my quarry on the shelf behind him. The label read “Hawaiian Chai” – a Mamaki/stevia blend.

Close enough, I thought.

Brewing would be a minor challenge. I wanted to know what Mamaki tasted like by itself, but I had to contend with the blended stevia as well. Having purchased the “sweet leaf” before, I knew what their consistency was like. Mamaki leaves – on the other hand – were larger, fanned-out and veiny. Perhaps a simple self-separation was in order.

The leaf apartheid worked. The stevia in the loose leaf jumble had settled to the bottom of the bag. Mamaki leaves took the top like large, green forest faery wings. I took out about 2 teaspoons of leaves and steeped them in boiling water for five minutes.

The infusion colored to a dirty amber, reminiscent of pond water. It didn’t look very thirst-quenching. Steam pluming from the cup was all nettle to the nose. That settled a bit on taste. Sure, it had the vegetal component of its spinachy cousin, yet somehow transcended its familial trappings into something gentler. I quite liked it, not in a “beaming-smile” sorta way, but a half-grimace did creep through. It even worked well when I put it with the stevia leaf.

This is why I love hunting down new herbs. Is it time consuming? Oh god, yes. But on those special occasions, one is rewarded with a flavor they would’ve never encountered without a gander. So far, my searches have turned up (mostly) successes. Mamaki got a pass.

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Wednesday, November 24th, 2010 Steep Stories 212 Comments

Coffaux: Concocting a Fake Coffee (First Phase)

My troubling history with coffee goes back to the Spring of ’03. Why does everything bad happen in the Spring?! I dunno. Digression…segueing back to the point of this entry…

I had just started working the night shift as a way to make ends meet whilst finishing my last semester at college. Financial aid – or as I like to call it, beer money – had dried up; that and I was on academic probation. (See: beer hyphenate.) Working almost-full-time seemed like a “great” way to dig myself out of the antidepressant-fueled hole of academia. Hospitality industry, even better!

However, my delicate (read: outta shape) frame wasn’t up to the task of braving the nocturn. Up to that point, the only poison I put in my body on irregular occasions was bad but affordable beer; Hi-Life, Milwaukie’s “Beast”…Forgive me, I was young and naïve. The logical conclusion was caffeine, yet this was nearly two years before my love affair with tea blossomed. I started off with coffee.

That didn’t last long, I assure you. On a particularly difficult night shift – running on three hours of sleep – I made the mistake of double-brewing the pot. Too much of a good thing is bad. Too much of a mediocre, miasmic tar is worse. I almost vomited twice, nearly crapped my pants once, and felt generally sick for three days after that shift.

From then on, I steered clear of coffee unless I had no other choice. Not that all coffee was bad, just bad for me. Then I tried my hand at chamomile, which definitely wasn’t conducive to a successful night shift. And, thankfully, in ’04, I discovered tea – my caffeinated savior. But I always wondered what I missed out on had I continued down the espresso express way.

By then, it was too late, but rumblings on the Net reached my ears; mentions of a “faux” coffee made of dandelion root. I looked up various blogs on the subject. Apparently, roasted dandelion root was used as a common substitute for coffee. Not only that, but it was also healthy – something to do with liver detox.

I asked my dad, a religious coffee drinker, if he’d ever heard of such a thing. He said he tasted several different coffee substitutes. None of them were worth the effort. “Coffee is coffee. Why would you want to have something ‘like’ coffee?” It was a good question. I didn’t have a good answer for him.

Regardless, I charged forth in my quest unimpeded. In the hippie wilds of Southeast Portland, I found an herbal shop that held my target. Once locating some roasted dandelion root, the cute, short-haired hipster teller also directed me to their “actual” faux-coffee blend called “Herbal Flash”. Simpy put, it was chicory root mixed with dandelion. I smelled the contents; shades of maple, pine, molasses, and…wood came to mind.

I bought both.

When I got home, I pleaded with my brother for the use of his French press. If I was going to brew something like coffee, I might as well do it somewhat right. I figured the culprit to start with was the Herbal Flash “coffaux”. The best bet seemed to be boiling water and a ten-minute steep, like one would treat any strong herb such as ginger.

The liquid blackened, not just colored. Blackened. It looked like coffee, even “blubbed” like it as we pressed the “French” out of it. Ten minutes passed with ease. I gave some to my step-dad, to my brother, and I took the entrails.

It didn’t taste like coffee.

I was more reminded of pungently sweet molasses that’d been roasted in conjunction with a caramel apple well past its prime. Plus, that “wood” smell I detected in the dry root pieces carried through in the taste. I expected to see my tongue covered in maple-lathered splinters. Definitely not coffee or pleasant.

Now it was time to troubleshoot the dandelion. I was convinced it was the source of all the woodsiness in the Herbal Flash blend, but perhaps it wouldn’t be so rough if left to its own devices. The root possessed the fragrance of bark and vanilla shrouded in leaf – dry-seeming but not unpleasant.

Brewing the tisane – and, believe me, it was a tisane – took some trial and error. The first time around, I simply gave it a ten-minute steep. The liquor ended up brass-colored but transparent. Like a root-based tisane would. Definitely not a substitute for coffee.

On the flavor front, it fared only a little better. As expected, it had woodiness in spades, but at least the infusion turned out complimentary – as opposed to its combination with chicory. The root taste was mildly astringent but not overpowering. I didn’t feel like I was licking a rough-hewn tree. Not my favorite but not a sink-tosser.

A fifteen-minute steep yielded similar results. The root darkened a bit more to a rusty brown, the flavor deepened to something more roasty, yet the feeling invoked still wasn’t coffee-esque. And with that, I gave up.

In closing…

I haven’t called it quits completely on this Sisyphean task, merely a union break. There are still a couple of ingredients and approaches I have yet to try. These first two options didn’t live up to the “coffaux” promise, but I think I may know what I did wrong. A return to the herbal shop hasn’t happened yet because…well…I’m lazy. It will happen, though. Tomorrow. Maybe.

Let’s change the subject.

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Monday, November 22nd, 2010 Beverage Blog 83 Comments

My First Illegal Tea

There is an unassuming leaf from a high-altitude South American country that turned 1970s America upside-down. It wasn’t the leaf itself that was the problem, but rather what was in the leaf. At first, this principle alkaloid was extracted for medicinal purposes. That is, until it was determined – like everything else – it was habit forming. While the leaf itself was “mostly harmless”, what could be extracted from several leaves ruined lives. But try telling that to the upper half of an entire continent.

The consumption of the coca leaf in and around the Andes region dates back nearly three thousand years. Earliest reported case of consumption was around 500 A.D. Exhumed mummies even had traces of the leaves on them. Its primary function was to alleviate altitude sickness and promote alertness. By the 16th century, coca was introduced to Europe as a cognitive supplement, popularly in the form of cocawine. That spearheaded further extraction of the primary alkaloid – cocaine – into other related products in later centuries; including a certain beloved soft drink.

Of course, the rest is history. Cocaine – or fancifully known in scientific circles as benzoylmethylecgonine (I can’t even say it right) – was made illegal and with good reason. In its raw form, it was addictive and damaging. The coca leaf was banned in the U.S. and other United Nations countries. Aside from portions South America that generally didn’t see what all the fuss was about.

Which brings us to the present…or rather…to me…

In an unassuming hotel on an unassuming May day, a cheaply-vested curmudgeon (me) was working the front desk. Occasionally, a friendly – and by all MILF regulations, “hawt!” – woman in her late thirties would come down to get her mail. She sometimes regaled the poor-seeming staff with her recent globetrotting excursions. Her latest was a stint in Guatamala to build a hospital. Such a humanitarian.

While I was speaking with her, the subject of Machu Picchu, Peru came up. She mentioned that she visited there at one point. I drilled her with a few questions. (But honestly, that wasn’t the only “drilling” I was thinking of. Sue me, I’m male.) She said it was breathtaking.

I said, “I would love to go there and drink mate de coca [coca leaf tea]. Y’know, for ‘altitude sickness’.” I exaggerated with douche-y air-quotes.

“Oh, I have some of that,” she replied.

“Wait, wha-?”

“Oh yeah, I’ve got a few bags of it,” she continued. “Would you like some?”

I nodded an emphatic “Hell YES!”

The next day, two teabags of Guatamalan-packaged mate de coca and three of some black tea were in my possession.

It took me about a month, though, to muster up the nerve to try it. There never seemed to be a good reason or rhyme. Plus, I wanted to photograph the momentous occasion; my first “illegal” tea. No, I wasn’t worried about getting high off the stuff. After all, I knew it took almost a garbage bag-worth of coca leaf to produce one gram of cocaine. Frankly, I just didn’t know what to expect. The time finally arrived after – of all things – a bedbug scare.

I am the unfortunate owner of a very loving, very cuddly, but very hairy cat. The two disadvantages to this are thus: (1) She is always shedding. Always. Regardless of season. (2) She is prone to visitors of the insectoid kind.

My brother/roommate called me one night while I was at work claiming he found a bedbug on my fuzzy missus. He also relayed what I had to do to secure my room, since she always slept there. Instructions included doing laundry, taking a steam iron to all mattresses, delousing my comforter in the dryer, and vacuuming thoroughly. It was going to be a long night.

When I got off shift, I told him I’d get started right after a warm cup of tea. At first, I aimed to imbibe something caffeinated, but – while I love my tea – it didn’t pack the necessary wallop I would need for the task ahead. Then my eyes darted to the teabags. It was as good a time as any to find out how much of a punch coca packed.

Coca leaf is loaded with alkaloids. Two fo the principle ones are the titular cocaine (as mentioned above), and another interesting stimulant – nicotine. If anything was going to keep me awake, it would be this tea. I brewed it up.

For the purposes of examination, I tore open the bag to get a better look at the contents. Par for course for a teabag-cut herbal, the leaves were mere fannings. Color-wise, they resembled yerba mate, sort of a sandy green.

On splashdown, the steam that emanated from the fannings was most abbhorrent. It smelled like bongwater. I sincerely hoped this wasn’t a sign of the beverage to come. Er…not that I know what bongwater tastes like or anything. Heh…heh…

I had no real brewing instructions to go on with the coca, so I went with a typical default for any herbal tea; boiling water, six-minute steep. It colored up rather quickly to a soupy green that looked very close to a stinging nettle or yerba mate infusion. To an innocent bystander, the beverage resembled a relaxing herbal “tea” like chamomile.

At first, I thought as much. I sat down in a couch and took my first dreaded sip. I didn’t die, break out into hives or shakes, nor did I start chewing at my clothing. The liquor tasted almost exactly like yerba mate by way of a lemony herb with an unusually sweet finish. On the forefront, it was bitter and leafy, but it settled into what – for all intense and purposes – seemed like a perfectly cozy cup of tea.

Then there was a shift…

My thought process exactly: Hrm, this isn’t so bad. It’s a bit vegetal but sweet. It’s also kind of relaxieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEHEHEHEHEHEEEEE!

I didn’t see it coming. The experience is hard to describe, so I’ll merely hold up this poorly-drawn, poorly-photographed representation to give you a better idea.

That’s how I felt. To say I was awake would be like comparing a comatose monkey with a three-toed sloth. Does that make sense? Not really. But that echoes my feelings on the matter. I didn’t feel caffeinated, alert or high. I felt like I could seamlessly walk through walls, vibrating the entire way.

Until five in the morning

In that period of time, I vacuumed and steamed both mattresses, washed all blankets and clothes, swept, and straightened. The biggest achievement was my closet. I reorganized it. All of it. It went from a pile of clothes to categorized and itemized stacks. Given more time, I probably could’ve cataloged them by purchase year. I didn’t just feel awesome. I was Awesome-personified!

Except for the inevitable crash. The surge of productivity downgraded to something I hadn’t expected – rampant paranoia. Once the basic de-bedbugging was done, I sat down at the computer and began looking up more information on coca leaf. Big mistake.

In my digging, I learned that the benzoylmethylecgonine not only stayed in your system, but it could produce a positive reading on drug tests. And remained that way for up to ninety days. The leaf only contained trace amounts of the controversial component, but – like poppy seed muffins – it could change a life. I read testimonials about soldiers discharged for positive urinalyses after consuming the drink. I started freaking out.

An hour later, I quelled my fears with a cup of chamomile. The neurotic inner monologue receded to a dull hum, and I settled into an (albeit fitful) sleep. My dreams were also something else…too bad I don’t remember them. I think one involved sentient cheeseburgers.

Photo by Mark T. Sedita

Photo by Mark T. Sedita

I tried mate de coca one other time, and the stimulant results were less erratic. In the end, while the cognitive alertness aspect was indeed badass, I determined that acquiring more wasn’t worth the risk. Even the taste didn’t warrant future pursuit. I’m sure it’s beneficial in many ways, but there are better (tasting) herbals out there. And that’s all I have to say about that…

…Uh…Yer Honor.

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Friday, November 12th, 2010 Steep Stories 5 Comments

Going Greek Mountain

The existence of Greek Mountain Tea (Sideritis syriaca) came to my attention on a perusal of the David’s Tea website. The exotic-looking plant had shown up in review samples, but I was too late in acquiring some. I almost made a purchase of it from David’s until I looked at the shipping charge. They were a Canadian company. Needless to say, it was out of my budget.

The back-up option was to hunt down a local provider. I scoured my usual tea spots. None seemed to know what it was. I even hit up Greek people I knew. For some reason, they hadn’t heard of it either.  At a Greek-owned nightclub, I asked the owner.  He wracked his brain for a bit, then said, “Oh yes, veddy good tea. Veddy good!” Then he recommended a Greek deli/mart that might have it.

That deli ended up being Foti’s, a popular lunch spot in NE Portland. Half of the shop was sectioned off for Greek market products. On one of the shelves – next to the sage – was my target.

I took it home and instantly began experimenting. First, I tried it steeped like any normal tea/tisane. This yielded a pale yellow cup with a light citrus taste, but it didn’t leave much of an impression. Then I perused the internet for other recommendations. Apparently, it was so resilient an herb that a good brew had to be decocted (i.e. boiled) for ten minutes in a pot. I should’ve know this, since the review site forum had mentioned as much.

While I did possess a pot in which to do the boiling, I didn’t have much of a desire to.  Main reason? I was afraid of the stove. I know…I know…shut it. However, I did have something in my possession that would work. A cheap, plastic electric tea kettle that continuously boiled water. My sister gave it as a Christmas present the year prior. I was in business.

After a ten-minute boil, the brew had reached the desired amber I’d seen in many a photo. It was also scalding hot due to the repeated boiling of the water. I actually required an ice cube to make it drinkable. But once it was ready…oh dear Lord…

The flavor was a unique mélange of honey, lemon, and mint. There was also something wildernessy about the taste, like one had stepped onto a Mediterranean field and instantly found a hot tub. It had a lot in common with chamomile on the initial taste, then settled into something more akin to lemon verbena; but without the vegetal note.

One recommendation I read noted that the drink was not complete without honey. Not just any honey, though. Only Greek honey would do. This led to a return trip to Foti’s Deli.

I hoped the honey was worth the trouble. The stuff cost me twelve bucks. That was expensive, even for honey. For twelve dollars, the bees used to make it better be endangered. The back of the bottle mentioned that Greek honey differed from other types because of the flowers that bees cultivated. Honey was – after all – just bee puke, so it wasn’t difficult to surmise that bee puke was different from plant-to-plant, country-to-country. But enough about that.

They were right. Greek honey was the missing element for this already-almost perfect beverage. It added a creamy, sweet element to the natural citrus lean of the stubborn herb.

I ended up making several other trips to Foti’s, and – for awhile – it was my go-to sleepy-time drink. I don’t know why I lost interest in it. Part of that may have been due to the one time I ended up with a bad batch. Still, it’s an amazing herbal infusion that apparently also keeps you from getting sick. Or so says someone’s Greek mother.

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Monday, November 8th, 2010 Steep Stories 3 Comments

I work for tea money.


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