white tea

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.

Acknowledgements

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 No Comments

My First Tea Fest

I hemmed and hawed for weeks about whether or not I would actually go to the Northwest Tea Festival this year. Thankfully, my poor impulse control got the better of me, and – boy! – am I glad it did. To miss this tea-binge-o’-thon would’ve been act of idiocy. I present to you – fine tea reader(s?) – my disorganized and picture heavy coverage of Day #1 of said festival o’ the leaf.

(NOTE: This coverage will not include the workshops that were offered because…er…I couldn’t afford them. Being poor sucks. The end.)

Getting There

Washington, I hate you.

Seattle, I hate you more.

Not only were their cops on every exit along the highway getting there, but once I made it to Seattle proper, the roads turned into some other dimension. I swear, it was like the roads in Seattle were designed by someone on barbiturates. Same could also be said for the Seattle Center, which was difficult to navigate through. If it weren’t for signs pointing to the event, I would never have found it.

The Tasting Booths

I guess I’ll get my one gripe out of the way early. The way they organized the private tasting this year was downright awful. Patrons were only allowed two tasting tickets per day. Keep in mind that the event was only for two days – total. Granted, they likely did this as a way to funnel taster traffic. The event was crowded. Still, there had to be a better way to handle it.

Luckily, most of the focused tastings were featuring teas I already knew about extensively. There were two that I felt I had to do, though.

The first tasting was a 2012 Ice Island Pu-erh hosted by Guitian (Becky) Li – a certified tea master. As she told the large group of fifteen, the leaves for this beengcha were picked from high elevation, ancient tea trees – some as old as five hundred years. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an aged version.

That said, the tea itself displayed differing characteristics per steep – starting off grassy and sweet for the first two, and transitioning to a more winy presence in the successive infusions. I could only imagine what this pu-erh would be like given five years to age. Guitian handled the crowd like a seasoned pro.

On an unrelated note, before the tasting even began, I disrupted the proceedings when I realized I’d lost my teacup in another room. I made a mad-dash from one booth to the next to retrieve it – pants almost falling down.

The second tasting I attended later in the day was put on by Brett Boynton, co-owner of the Phoenix Tea Shop in Burien, WA. I had wanted to meet this guy for months ever since we traded tea barbs over Twitter. That and he had a fantastic tea blog I checked in on regularly.

He was just as quirky and irreverent in person as he was online. And I truly thought the way he handled a crowd of newbie tasters was the stuff of legend. Keep your eye out, you will hear about the “Burien Tea Ceremony” someday. Hint: It involves jokes. Lots of jokes.

The teas he featured were ones I had tried from their shop before – Korean green teas. Jungjak and Daejak, respectively. But it was a treat to see him doing the prep work for them. Like his partner in tea-crime, Cinnabar Gongfu, he’s a character.

Vendors

The first vendors I explored – in true “comfort zone”-y fashion – were the ones run by people I already knew. First up, The Jasmine Pearl Tea Merchants. Yes, I know, I hang out at their Portland shop all the time. I happened by their booth on several rotations – perhaps too much. However, I tried to hang back because they were slammed with visitors the entire day.

My main reason for hovering, though, was the unveiling of two new blends which used A-MURR-ican-grown tea as a base. They struck a deal with the Sakuma Bros. to use their white tea and new (experimental) black tea for locally-sourced blends. Oddly enough, I preferred the black blend over the white blend; strange because I liked the white tea by itself better than the black. Both were well put together, though.

Right next to the JP folks was the Phoenix Tea House booth, and it was equally as crowded. However, I did manage to scissor my way through to mooch a bit of their Ali Shan and copious amounts of their hei cha (post-fermented tea). Particularly worthy of note was a hei cha that was blended and bricked with rose petals. It was strangely sweet on the front, which is a trait I never associated with hei cha – at all.

Cinnabar Gongfu noted that she was skeptical about them because they were pressed into heart-shapes. (The name for them was “Rose Hei Cha Hearts”, after all). I didn’t come back to buy one until later, but they had unfortunately run out of ‘em within the first couple of hours. Not surprising. However, I did settle on a bit of bricked hei cha…which I’m having right now as I write this.

Of the new tea vendors I knew nothing about, first on my sip-list was an outfit out of…er…someplace in Washington called Snow Lotus Fine Teas. It was owned and operated by Lavina Rao, and she was presiding over the tasting at their booth. The one I took notice of was their Yunnan black – dubbed Honey Orchid. It was a malty beast of a Dian Hong. Naturally, I loved it.

After visiting their website, they are officially an outfit I have to try more stuff from. A lot of their offerings fall into my quirky taste of unique. Their black and white tea selections are phenomenal.

Teahouse Kuan Yin is based in Seattle proper, and I have no clue why I hadn’t heard of them until now. Guess I’ve been under a rock or something. They had a unique tea for the tryin’, which they dubbed “Taiwanese Assam”. It was from the Assamica varietal and reminded me of…well…just that, but with a bit of a Ruby 18 characteristic for good measure. I almost bought some, but it was only available in 2-oz. bags. I was on a budget.

There were plenty of other great vendors that were represented – especially some big-named ones – but I only wanted to cover the unique“teas” here for good measure. You understand, right reader? Good.

Presentations

I had one goal in mind when attending this festival and that was to finally meet James Norwood Pratt – the proverbial rock star of the modern-day tea renaissance. Others have touted his books and personal appearances, but I had yet to experience them for myself. How could I truly be a tea nerd without picking that man’s brain.

His informal lecture was on the subject of “The Tea Renaissance” in the U.S. and the different factors that led to it. He also reflected upon the dour state of the American tea industry after World War II and lamented the existence of mass-produced, low-quality teabags. What I found particularly interesting was the light he shed on white tea popularity in the U.S.

I had not been aware that white tea experienced a boom in the late-90s thanks in no small part to…Britney Spears. You heard right. Apparently, she was a regular customer at Chado – a popular tearoom in L.A. Somehow, someway, it got out that her personal trainer recommended that she only drink white tea for the higher antioxidants. Teeny-boppers the world over demanded white tea en masse soon after. Naturally, that made me rethink my entire white tea obsession.

He closed off the presentation with a Q-and-A. The only question I could think of for him was one that was un-tea-related. I raised my hand.

I asked, “Is it possible to get a picture with you?”

Laughing, Pratt replied, “You’ll have to ask my wife.”

“I’m his wife,” came a voice behind me.

Well-played, Team Pratt. Well-played.

Right after Norwood Pratt’s presentation was an interesting seminar on pu-erh, presided over by Jeffrey McIntosh of McIntosh Tea. He is a pu-erh specialist that spent several years learning from different tea masters in China. One of the facts he elaborated on that I hadn’t known was the varietal of tea tree used for pu-erh teas. The large leaf Yunnan tea tree varietal was Assamica! Okay, that doesn’t mean anything to most people, but my mind was blown. I stayed long enough to try some Wild Arbor pu-erh but had to depart for a tasting soon after.

Which brings me to…

Meet-and-Greets

I’ll bring this winded entry to a close with an excuse to show off a bunch of pictures with blurbs. Why? Because I’m a dork. Deal with it.

As mentioned above, my primary goal for the NW Tea Fest was to get a photo with James Norwood Pratt. I ended up also walking away with his latest edition of The Ultimate Tea Lovers Treasury. Of course, I also got him to sign it, and – like a true fanboy – made a cheesy grin when the snapshot was taken. He was an absolute pleasure to meet. I want to be just like him when I grow up. (For the record, I’m 36.)

After meeting JNP, I finally had to meet Devan Shah, the purveyor of the Chado Tearoom. I’d heard his name bandied about in tea circles, but honestly hadn’t been familiar with Chado until this festival. I must say, I was impressed with some of his wares. That and he was kind enough to oblige a photo.

This one was a two-for. Chuck – The Jasmine Pearl’s co-owner – had informed me that Richard Sakuma (of Sakuma Bros.) was going to be on hand at their booth. I had wanted to meet him for over a year after having tried their Sun Dried White Tea. The man was humble and good-natured and put up with my many questions with wonderful patience. I absolutely needed a picture with him and JP’s Chuck.

It wouldn’t be a trip to Seattle unless I caught up with the city’s resident “Tea Geek” – Michael J. Coffey. Strangely enough, he spotted me before I noticed him. He was donned in a lab coat and a TeaGeek.net nametag. We traded barbs and posed in front of a tea plant because…well…tea plant!

On one of my many pass-throughs of the Phoenix Teahouse booth, I demanded a photo-op with the owners Brett and Cinnabar. Both bloggers have my dream job.

I also caught up with fellow Portland teapal, David Galli of Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance outdoors.

I finally met Chris Shaw of Contemporary Clay. His various teaware creations were on display at different teashops I’d frequented. Really genial guy.

And last, but certainly not least, I had shwarma for the first time. The Avengers are right; it tastes like EPIC. How could I not draw this to a close with shwarma?!

 

In short, a spectacular day of hyper-caffeination.

After I made my fond farewells to everyone at the fest, JP Chuck had said, “Don’t fall asleep at the wheel.”

“I WON’T!” I said…happily hopping out the door.

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Sunday, October 7th, 2012 Steep Stories No Comments

Solomon’s Purple White Seal of Approval

Whenever I go on impromptu tea quests, they’re usually solo. When they’re not, they’re usually my idea. This particular jaunt was not only not my idea but one triggered by a blog response. A week or so prior, I posted a bit of tea meta-fiction surrounding my tasting notes of Korean teas from Hankook. A fellow writer/editor friend – whom I’ll refer to as “K” – chimed in with a simple question.

“What are your thoughts on Korean seal tea?” she asked.

I stupidly replied with, “Are you referring to Solomon’s seal tea or…actual seal (lol)? The former is an actual Korean tisane, but I’ve never had it.”

Truth is, I actually had to look it up. Someone outside my usual tea circles had stumped me with a tisane I hadn’t heard of. Oddly enough, though, I was familiar with the Solomon’s seal plant. I learned of it when I did some cursory research on the “Seal of Solomon”, a symbol used often in anime for summoning demons.

In the biblical pseudographical text known as the Testament of Solomon, King Solomon (son of David) was given a ring by the archangel Michael. It was in the shape of a circumscribed hexagram and possessed the seal of God. The ring itself was known as the Seal of Solomon. The circled, six-pointed star has often been used in popular media as a demonic or magical summoning tool.

I have no clue how, but the name “Solomon’s seal” was also ascribed to a genus of plants called Polygonatum. The root of the P. sibiricum varietal – native to East Asia – was utilized in the herbal tisane, dubbed dungulle by Koreans. Many health properties are associated with the herb, but most are topical.

A week later, I met up with K and we journeyed to H Mart – a local Korean grocery store I mentioned in passing. I had only been there once or twice to pick up some Korean jarred “tea” for various experiments. Whether or not we would find the mysterious Solomon’s seal tisane was questionable.

We marveled at the various herbal infusions on hand in the tea aisle. Corn tea, peanut tea, pimple te-…Wait…pimple solution tea? There was actually a pimple-specific herbal infusion on display. Both of us had to snap a photo of the absurdity.

Not too long after that, K located her prey. It actually did exist – a 20ct. box of the stuff from some company called Dong Suh. I was so intrigued by it that I had to buy some for myself.

After that outing, I dropped K downtown so that I could notch off the second leg of my little tea quest. This was not on anyone’s suggestion, rather one made purely by accident. The day prior, I arrived downtown far too early for a wedding. I had three hours to kill, and decided to burn two of those at The TeaZone & Camellia Lounge.

My original “plan” had been to simply sustain myself with a bagel and decaf Earl Grey, but my dumbass perused the menu further. The moment I opened that menu, I knew I was doomed. At the top of the “White Tea” section was something I’d heard mention of but never thought I’d see. Kenyan Purple Silver Needle – the white tea version of the “Purple” varietal I had tried so long ago.

Damn it, I thought to myself.

I tried to pry a sample of the stuff from the barista, but he politely refused. I even dropped my “blog” as an excuse. That didn’t work, either. (Truthfully, it never seems to work.)

The day after – once I dropped K off – I was only a block away from TeaZone. I had no other excuse to resist my poor impulse control. I picked up an ounce.

I brewed both that night. Results:

Kenyan Purple Silver Needle White Tea

The leaves looked very much like Bai Hao Yinzhen, only smaller. Unlike the Kenyan White Whisper, the rolled leaves were nowhere near as plump or downy-firred. In appearance, it resembled a Rwandan white I tried, only lighter in color. It also bore a striking resemblance to some Ceylon Silver Tips I’d come across. As for the aroma, it was herbaceous, fresh, mildly minty with shades of unsweetened pomegranate.

The liquor brewed to a vibrant yellow, which is the minimum expectation of a good white (in my opinion). The aroma was all melons and leafy herbs – nuanced but nowhere near vegetal. Taste-wise, it could go toe-to-toe with even the most high-profile of Ceylon whites. Premium Yinzhen would give it a run for its money, but it would at least put forth a strong case. It almost tied with White Whisper in subtle excellence.

Korean Solomon’s Seal

I had to rely upon a tea bag, so the contents of it weren’t going to be the most visually striking. They were fannings; I could tell. There was an aroma, however – a roasty, nutty scent that reminded me a lot of dandelion root and/or chicory.

The liquor brewed rusted amber, pretty typical of a hearty root-based tisane. What surprised me was how closely it mimicked the aroma of…Frosted Mini-Wheats(?!). Yes, even the inherent sweetness. It’s not every day that I drink a tisane at night that smells like a breakfast cereal. The flavor deviated only slightly from the olfactory comparison, imparting a sensation similar to barley and/or buckwheat. It flirted with genmai territory but thankfully withdrew, keeping well with the realm of “good”. In short, I approved.

It had been awhile since I was caught by surprise by someone else’s tea leanings. Good to know that I can be put off my guard like that. Proof that my snobby armor can still be dented rather easily.

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Monday, September 10th, 2012 Steep Stories 1 Comment

You Think You Know Yunnan?

Oh, hi.

You’re still here. Damn…have you been waiting long? Two months? Really?! Ummm…

Yeah, I had…uh…Carpal-depress-‘o-flu. It’s contagious. I’d stay back if I were you. Now where were we…January? Ah, yes.

To say it’s been a rough Winter is an understatement. I spent three weeks of it on my second bout with “Le Plague”. This put an even greater delay on my tea reviewing schedule – even well beyond the usual procrastination. One can’t really judge a drink when they can neither taste or smell. However, there were some strong contenders that braved the challenge.

Along with my usual morning matcha routine, I also attempted to drink copious amounts of white tea. I figured, if I couldn’t taste anything anyway, a good white tea won’t really matter. Most people can’t taste the stuff anyway unless they over-brew it. I can…but I’m “sensitive”.

There were three Yunnan white teas I had at my disposal. One was a rougher white known as Yue Guang Bai. Loosely translated, it means “Moonlight White”. The process for making it is slightly different than other white teas. Instead of being dried like other teas, it instead goes through a process (I’ve heard) that is similar to maocha (proto-pu-erh). It shows in the initial taste – rough, leafy and slightly earthy.

The second on hand was a favorite of mine – sun-dried buds from the Ya Bao (Arbor) varietal. The stuff reminded me of a Greek Mountain herbal infusion on smell and sip. As for the buds, they always looked very un-tea-like, but – man! – could they take a beating! I could boil the heck out of ‘em and still get three infusions-worth.

And speaking of boiling. Good ol’ Chuck – the husband half of The Jasmine Pearl Tea Merchants – corrected me on an assumption I held that only Fujian-produced Silver Needles were the best. He brought forth one that was produced in Yunnan, looked exactly like the Fuding/Fujian stuff, and smelled five times better. As in, the leaves actually had a smell. Citrus, as a matter of fact.

So what is an indecisive sick boy to do when he can barely taste anything through his congestion? How does he choose which white tea to go for? Answer: He doesn’t. He mixes the three together.

The result was…well…I couldn’t tell you exactly what it tasted like because I couldn’t really discern much past my clogged palate. What I can tell ya was that I did taste it? Quite a bit! That says something about the strength of these Yunnan whites. What’s even better? When I brewed ‘em up in a pot, I used boiling water. This doubled their taste output.

I only did a pot of all three once, and I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t try it again. Perhaps, now that my nasals are clear, I’ll revisit the unprofessional blend. As it stands, though, Yunnan whites are quite the powerhouse to the palate. Even a sickly one.

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Wednesday, March 21st, 2012 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

Awesome Assam is Awesome!

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

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

That there was a white Assam out there.

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

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

The teller said, “That’ll be $15.”

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

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

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

I brewed it up the next day.

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

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

The results were pure…well..awesome.

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, August 4th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

I Swoon for Icewine (Tea)

Icewine – or eiswein – is an interesting German peculiarity that appeared on the scene some three hundred years ago. Simply put, white wine grapes were plucked in the middle of winter while the juices inside were still frozen. The sugars within were more concentrated as a result. Creating a batch was a labor-intensive process that wasn’t streamlined until the 1960s. Twenty years later, vineyards in Canada collectively said, “Hey, we’re cold as S**T up here. We can totally make this stuff!” And so they did.

Two years ago, the existence of icewine came to my attention by – of all things – a tea blend I happened by in my usual searches for orthodox beverages. What really impressed me was that it was a white tea/grape fusion; I could think of no more magical a combination. But I was lifted from my reverie with a geeky pang – an urge to look up (and eventually try) actual icewine. I’d never heard of such a libation before.

Two weeks ago, an opportunity to try the dessert wine presented itself at – of all things – a Rapture party. From the first sip on, I was hooked. It tasted like mead only sweeter and more nectar-y. Before I knew it, I’d downed the 16(-ish?)oz. bottle. Solo. Even the one glass that the bottle’s owner didn’t finish. Habit-forming? Understatement.

Unfortunately, having icewine everyday didn’t seem like a healthy prospect in the long run – either for my wallet or my liver. As luck would have it, though, a teashop owner in Ontario – dubbed All Things Tea – presented me with an interesting alternative. An icewine white tea blend. My odd little journey had come full circle.

According to All Things Tea, the ingredients for their white blend were Bai Mu Dan (White Peony), Ontario Icewine, and a touch of Reisling. This differed from other icewine/white blends I read about in that there were no grapes, botanicals or flavoring agents included. I was actually relieved to hear that. While White Peony had a lot of flavor to it, when blended, a subtler scenting process was more complimentary. And by whiff alone, I could tell a devil’s deal was struck.

I can’t say that I smelled much of a white tea presence to this batch, but it certainly lived up to its moniker. It boasted its white wine fragrance loudly and proudly. Notes of sour grape, honey, and a mid-point sweetness clobbered my nostrils as I put nose to bag. Given my experience with actual icewine, I had hoped for exactly that type of bluntness with the blend.

Brewing instructions on the bag recommended 1 heaping teaspoon per 6oz. cup of steaming water and a two-minute wait. I tended to aim for an 8oz. cup o’ tea, so I measured off 1 tablespoon instead and went with a 165F water temperature. After splashdown, I steeped the leaves for a good two-and-a-half minutes. It was White Peony; it could take it.

The liquor brewed to an uncanny deep gold. It looked exactly like white wine, save for a slightly lighter palette. The aroma was both sweet and sour, reminding me a bit of lychee. However, the citrus tone was backed up by a smooth texture that completed the wine-like comparison. Some of the natural grape-iness of the White Peony also made its presence known in the finish.

I found this blend’s true calling when I dabbled with ice and a pint glass. After brewing a concentrate of 2 tbsn. of Peony in 8oz. of hot water, I filled a tall glass with ice, then poured the contents over it and stirred. The lovely gold from the heated brew didn’t dissipate one bit – if anything, it shimmered more. On the lips, it truly reminded me of icewine thanks to a honey-ish lean I hadn’t detected in the hot tea version. After a couple of savored sips, I tested out a dash of stevia. No surprise, it sweetened well, too. This is the perfect iced white for summer. What a shock. All the wine taste with none of the headache.

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Wednesday, June 8th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

White Petals and Whiskey Barrels

In the fall of ’09, I ventured to a relatively new special-“tea” outfit created by former Stash/Tazo front man, Steven Smith. The aptly named op was called Smith Teamaker, and I instantly fell in love with the place. Their bricks-and-mortar store was…an actual bricks-and-mortar building. The tasting room was atmospheric, welcoming, earthy, and cozy – reminding me of a wine-tasting room. I had every intention of returning.

And at one point, I did with family in tow. Then time somehow got the better of me. I neglected the one place I saw myself frequenting. Heck, I envisioned coming in at least once a week – a la Norm Peterson from Cheers – buying a pot and sipping a way the morning. The reality, though, was that it would be over a year before I ventured in again.

Sometime in the summer of ’10, I “LIKED” them on Facebook, so as to keep tabs on special events and goings-on. Their hours of operation usually clashed with my schedule – such as it was – but I stalked their statuses from the e-bushes like a tea-creeper. An imperative visit surfaced in the form of a new tea in early December.  One of their master blenders – Tony Tellin – had concocted a Whiskey Tea.

A bit of a digression: I’m not much of a hard liquor fan, but when it comes to that smoky, battery-acidic drink, my Irish roots come forth. I have a latent taste for the stuff. I blame Scotland and my first single malt from Edradour.

If I can’t handle or locate the actual stuff, there are passable substitutes in the form of oak-aged ales and liquors. The process is simple. After a batch of whiskey is made, the oak barrels used to ferment them still retain a bit of the scent and flavor. Put something else in it, and chances are a trace amount of that flavor will grab hold. Just look at bourbon-casked beers or barleywines.

Well, good ol’ Tony decided to try this out with tea. The process was similar to how jasmine green teas were created. Traditional scenting for green teas and/or blacks meant letting the tea age and rest for a couple of months with the added ingredients. That way, it took on the flavor before separating. Example: Rose Congou Keemun rested with rose petals, osmanthus oolongs rested with osmanthus petals, lotus greens rested with lotus petals, etc.

How Smith Teamaker got a hold of a Rogue whiskey barrel, I know not. But they did so after a batch of whiskey was made, and then added black tea leaves to the barrel and sat on it for a spell. Occasionally, they’d open it up – cup it – and see if it was ready. The idea was that some of the whiskey oak scent would be absorbed by the tea leaves.

It wasn’t like combining tea and liquors was a new thing, especially with whiskey. 52Teas had a Golden Yunnan Whiskey Sour (that I have yet to try), their offshoot – Man Teas – had a beer-flavored one, and Red Leaf Tea had a whole line of wine-flavored teas. What made Smith’s different was the process. No flavoring agents were added, just the scent from the barrel it was kept in.

I figured this was a good gift for three people – my dad (a “tea”-totaler), my stepdad (for novel-“tea” sake)…and myself. The only way to make the trek work was to go prior to a work shift. As convenience would have it, Smith’s teashop was located northwest of downtown. I was working downtown at a gallery. They opened a full two hours before I was due. The Thursday following the Whiskey Tea discovery, I rousted myself early for the quest.

I arrived right at their opening time. A kindly gent asked if I needed help with anything. I inquired about the Whiskey Tea. He apologized and said they were sold out. I “B’AWWWWW”-ed. But only on the inside. The man did bring forth a bag, however, of what they had left. My eyes glittered like an excited anime character. Gleefully, I asked if I could sample a pot, and he said, “Sure.”

Turned out the guy that was helping me was the blender of the tea in question. This led to a series of questions regarding the process (by me), scribbles in my notepad, and random pictures of the tea in its potted habitat.  Tony took all my tea geekery in stride and good humor.

The part that had me most excited about the tea – besides its novel scenting process – was that Tony revealed that a Nuwara Eliya Ceylon black tea base was used; my absolute favorite growing region in Sri Lanka. I don’t know what it was about that region, perhaps the altitude, but they produced some of the best – most floral – black teas I’ve ever had. I have Smith to blame for my fascination with Ceylons from there. Even while walking up to the teashop, I was secretly hoping the foundation was a Nuwara Eliya.

Happily, I can report that the whiskey-infused tea lived up to my rather vivid imagination. The liquor brewed a bold amber with a woody/winy aroma. The flavor was smoky on the forefront, but not forest-fiery like Lapsang or Russian Caravan.  The middle betrayed its Sri Lankan high-altitude roots with a floral lean – light and feathery with little astringency. It was the aftertaste where the whiskey-scenting was most prominent. The woodiness came through with a wine-whisky tang that wasn’t too bitey but still readily apparent. Tony described it as “toasty”; I would agree.

After he left me to nurse my sumptuous pot, Steve Smith himself popped in. He remembered me from my first visit, and my esoteric series of questions from that time (for which I apologized). I think he remembered that I was also squirrel-like in my attention span, for he directed me to a new product line I hadn’t been aware of – ready-to-drink Smith blends, three total.

The ready-to-drink teas were unique to Smith Teamaker because of the process used to make them – a technique they dubbed “fruitsmithing”. I loved the term. Layman short version: Fruit pieces were cut up and steeped in cold water, creating a juice-like base. Hot tea was then infused with the mix and cold-brewed again. Afterwards, cane sugar, lemon juice, apple juice and natural flavors were added. At least, that’s how I understood it.

One key fact I came away with – and the point Smith wanted to hit home – was that no citric acid was used in the brewing. I was no expert on the subject, but I had never heard of an iced tea NOT having citric acid for storage purposes.

These were my impressions:

No. 15 Honeybush – This was a rooibos/honeybush blend infused with raspberries.  I already adored the nut-sweet one-two punch that rooibos and honeybush delivered when blended together.  Efforts to ice it myself proved worthwhile as well. But I had never paired it with fruit before. They succeeded for the most part in yielding what they intended. It tasted as the moniker sounded, honey-like with a berry-ish lean. If I had any complaint, it was that I expected stronger. Other than that, good but just shy of great.

No. 6 Black Cap – Smith mentioned that whenever there was a taste-test, this came out the clear favorite on average. I can see why. It’s a strong blend, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Smith’s Kandy blend (a Ceylon base *glee!*) has been paired with Oregon blackberries for this one. And – lemme tell ya – it shows. Unlike the Honeybush, this one screams BERRY! Lightly sweetened as it is, it could pass for fruit punch but without the fructose guilt. Quite outstanding but not as good as…

No. 71 White Petal – I’ve sung praises about this one for well over a week now. A full review is pending on Teaviews as I write this. Since I’m kinda lazy, I’ll simply reiterate my Steepster notes on it: “I sampled this and immediately picked up a bottle. That’s how much I loved it. I finally cracked it open while at work. I’ve had pear-flavored white teas before, but never paired with apples. The flavor lived up to my wildest imagination…and that’s pretty vivid. Pear dominated the foretaste, while apple and mildly-astringent Bai Mu Dan dominated the middle. The aftertaste was toasty, almost Riesling-like. This is an iced tea I’d pour into a wine glass to ‘fit in’ at a party full of sommeliers. Looks the same and almost tastes the same. Simply awesome.”

Heftily caffeinated and mostly-sated, I finally parted ways with the shop and strolled to work – happy with having sampled some wonderful wares. I returned a week later when a new batch of the whiskey blend came in. I hope the two father figures find it to their liking. I certainly did. Now…I just need to find a new excuse to “Norm” it to Smith’s again for another hot cuppa-somethin’.

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Thursday, December 23rd, 2010 Steep Stories No Comments

I work for tea money.

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