Yunnan

Tech Fails & Travails #2: Darjeeling & Housekeeping

Blogger’s note: This is a companion piece. To read it’s sibling for further understanding first, go HERE.

Sunday was to be the day.

The day that I would change out one computer to a newer one. That didn’t go quite as planned. Inevitably, I stuck with the old one to get work done. I had two blogs I wanted to write: one revolving around tea and job hunting, the other…a- about the complacency of the porn industry, put as a nursery rhyme. Yes, really.

However, the only writing I ended up finishing was a tea review for a fabulous Turzum estate Darjeeling put out by Thunderbolt Tea. Seriously, it was perfect. Put simply, it was like a Yunnan Jin Cha and a Taiwanese Ruby 18 made sweet-sweet love and produced a cocoa-flavored Indian offspring. (Er…I left that out of the actual review.) I had three pints of the stuff over the course of the day, and it remained strong throughout each steep – even in terms of caffeine.

After giving up on one attempt with the new computer set-up, I hooked up the old one long enough to attend a “meet-up” of sorts. TeaGeek.net (aka. Michael J. Coffey) was hosting a meet-up via Google+’s “Hangout” function to discuss Dan Cong oolongs. I wanted to attend since a blog of mine on the very subject posted the week prior.

My first attempt to connect via phone succeeded, but the sound was garbled. Whole chunks of speech from the various participants simply didn’t show up. To correct this, I also connected on my computer. However, this created an echo effect toward the other members in the Hangout. I tried to mute my phone, but the volume wouldn’t turn off all the way. To correct this little fluke, I logged off and tried to again. My phone registered the Hangout as having ended. That was simply not the case since my computer was still logged in! I gave it at least ten tried before finally giving up.

I was pissed. Tech fail after tech fail had me all red-faced and gritted teeth. I needed an outlet, something to act as meditation. But I couldn’t relax, the three pints of strong Darjeeling wouldn’t let me. Movement, something that required movement!

I know! I thought to myself. I’ll clean the f**king house. ALL of it!

I vacuumed the living room, emptied the dishwasher, dried and folded towels, took out the trash, swept around the litter box, and cleared off the kitchen counters. Once all that was done, I braved my room. My private man-space hadn’t been gutted and cleaned since…uh…The Before Time. Actually, in real terms, not since the mate de coca/flea plague incident of 2010. So, two years. Wow.

Through fits of curses and grunts – manly high-pitched grunts, mind you – I raised the bed, took out old boxes, washed the sheets/comforter, tossed old files, and removed old shoes. How so much stuff had accumulated in my ever-so-small space was beyond me. Over the course of three hours-to-four hours, I practically deloused the place. Hopped up on Darjeeling-fueled determination.

By the time I was finished, I looked at the clock. 7PM. I hadn’t even showered or changed out of my pajamas. That and I had to pick up my brother/roommate and his girlfriend from the airport. I did one last vacuum-run of the kitchen, checked on laundry, then rushed into the bathroom like a military cadet. I was out the door in fifteen minutes. At the airport in twenty. (It was usually a thirty-minute drive.)

All tasks completed, and bad mood abated, I returned to my comfy, pajama-clad self. The thought entered my head to make a Joy’s Teaspoon Lemon Zest latte. I whipped out my IKEA-made milk-frother, but promptly remembered that it had no batteries. I asked my brother for some AAs…and found they didn’t fit. I asked for AAAs. Those were too small. My brother gave it a try with the AAs – he fit ‘em in perfectly.

I gave up on technology for the night, settling in with a teabag of mint instead.

The animals were so scared, their eyes glowed in defense.

The animals were so scared, their eyes glowed in defense.

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Monday, October 22nd, 2012 Steep Stories No Comments

Meeting a Tea Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Zhen Qu Gold Buds,” I replied.

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

Badass, I thought.

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

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

Kindly ignore my obvious bed-hair.

Kindly ignore my obvious bed-hair.

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Wednesday, October 10th, 2012 Steep Stories No Comments

Tea, Flutes, and Yellow-Hatted Hoffmans

The Lan Su Chinese Garden is one of those places in Portland that’s a must see, if only for its attention to detail and authenticity. The entire structure is comprised of the garden proper, several period-specific buildings, a Koi pond, and a two-story tearoom toward the back – all taking up an entire city block. It is an awesome sight to behold. And the whole thing was constructed by artisans from Portland’s sister city in China, Suzhou.

This summer, I had the opportunity to partake of the garden on three occasions. One was a simple outing to show it off to relatives. The second was a wedding steeped in kickassitude. And the last wa an invitation I received from my friend HappyJ to partake of tea and…flute music?

That wouldn’t necessarily be a reason I would usually go into Portland proper, but I figured, “Why not?” How often to I make trips out to see music? (Answer: Never.) The musician in this case was a flautist by the name of Gary Stroutsos – whose music is steeped in Native American tradition. He was already starting his set by the time we got there. What we weren’t expecting was how crowded it was going to be.

The space the garden had allocated to him couldn’t seat very many, but every chair on the interior was occupied. HappyJ and I had to settle for outdoor seating at first, which was fine. It gave us an opportunity to hear the music while at the same time taking in the sounds of waterfalls. On occasion, we would even comment on what we were seeing or hearing.

Any attempts to talk, however, were greeted with a puckered, “Shhhh!” from a man seated across from us. I have no other way of describing him, except to say that he looked like Dustin Hoffman (a la Rainman) in a yellow hat.

After he shushed us, though, he continued to carry on muted conversations with his wife. A meditative hypocrite, splendid. I could’ve sworn he was heckling us, too.

Luckily, he and his gaggle of New Age-y senior citizens left relatively early. That and the Garden volunteers added extra seating on the interior – allowing us to hear what Stroutsos had to say. It turned out that he was a very genial guy with a quick wit about him. If there’s one thing I appreciate in musicians, it’s a sense of humor. He even serenaded a baby. That’s just spectacular.

Once the flautist set was over, HappyJ and I retired to the tearoom. Without exaggeration, it is the nicest tearoom in Portland. Too bad it has one of the most longest names in existence. Could I think of a better one? No. “Tower of Cosmic Reflection” does fit it to a “tea”.

HappyJ sipped an old-growth sheng pu-erh, whereas I went with something I hadn’t tried before (as is my nature). They possessed a 2005 Yunnan Jin that’d been pressed into a beengcha cake. Yunnan Gold? Aged? Cake? Four of my favorite words. And it was exquisite to the taste – honey-like, peppery, and with a subtle winy note on the end.

We parted ways shortly after. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday unless rare, casked ales was involved. I went home far too caffeinated – to the point of being called tea-drunk. Case in point:

I said this to my sister, “I need to tell you something.”

My sister looked up and said, “What?”

“I’m not your ‘holla-back’ girl,” I replied with a giggle.

I was cut off of tea for the rest of the night.

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Thursday, September 27th, 2012 Steep Stories No Comments

The Revenge of Finbarr’s Persian Princess in 1910

This review is actually a sequel of sorts. To read its predecessor – for context – go HERE.

Don’t you hate it when you wake up in the morning and end up in another time period? So do I. As far as I know, it’s only happened once – today. I found myself awake at the ungodly hour of 7AM after hearing a loud gagging noise coming from my cat. That was usually the early warning sign of an impending (and rather messy) hairball.

After dealing with that little nuisance, I figured I might as well stay up and get some water boiling. It felt like an oolong morning, so – naturally – I went for the gaiwan. Pot and apparatus at the ready, I proceeded to plug the kettle in.

And…nothing happened. I pressed a button – still nothing. I gave the thing a good punch. And…

A flash of light transported me, my plastic tea kettle, my gaiwan, and my pajama’d self to somewhere straight out of a Jules Vernian nightmare.

A “geared” world at sunrise greeted me. Airships dotted the sky, hovering about almost aimlessly. The ground below them was rattled with structures of varying shades of copper and rust. My immediate attention, though, was directed at an Irishman pointing a revolver at me.

His beard wasn’t just red – it was magenta. His attire was so flamboyant that even a metrosexual leprechaun would’ve blushed. What topped off the dandy’s appearance was a crown perched ever-so-slightly to one side of his head. He flashed a welcoming grin as he cocked the brass-plated pistol.

“Welcome to 1910, Mr. Literatus,” the Irishman lilted.

“Looks more like the 1890s,” I replied, backing away slightly.

Something pointy prevented me from backstepping any further.

“Ah-ah-ah,” a feminine voice from behind me warned. “Stay put, my dear.”

I turned my head as I raised my hands in the air. The mysterious woman behind me was shrouded by purpble robes. A bejeweled dagger was the “pointy thing” that gave me pause.

“Perhaps some introductions are in order,” the Irishman said. “I am Finbarr. This is Persian Princess.”

“She doesn’t have a name?” I wondered aloud.

“None that you need to know,” the woman said, giving a light poke with the pointy.

“And Finbarr…you don’t mean the fairy king of the Daoine Sidhe, do you?” I asked.

“No, that’s my cousin,” the Irish dandy corrected. “Finn Bheara.”

“Confusing.”

“More than a little,” Finbarr shrugged.

“Wait a minute,” I said with rising frustration. “Finbarr…Persian Prin-…THE DEVOTEA SENT YOU!!!”

At that moment, a slightly transparent, disembodied head appeared out of thin air.

“What he said,” Finbarr agreed as the disembodied Devotea winked out of existence.

“Then why are you here? Why am I here!?” I demanded.

“Truth be told, we’re seeing if our namesake blends actually hold up,” Finbarr explained.

“We want to make sure he’s doing us justice,” the Persian woman practically purred.

“And who told you that kidnapping reviewers was the way to do it?” I asked again.

“Petersham, of course,” Finbarr said delightfully.

“Of course,” I repeated flatly, rolling my eyes.

A table with a tea set, three bags, brewing equipment and a tea kettle miraculously appeared amidst sparkles and smoke. It was an odd thing to say that this was becoming far too routine for me. I perused the different ounce bags. One was labeled “1910”, another “Finbarr’s Revenge”, and a purple bag read “Persian Princess” embroidered in gold trim.

I put down the gaiwan and plastic tea kettle I’d forgotten I was still holding. “Well…let’s get this over with.”

The first I went for was the English Breakfast variant – the 1910.

“It’s a blend of Ceylon, Indian teas, an-“

“I know what it is,” I interrupted.

The dry leaves were both burly with malt and fruit-sweet on the nose, giving the impression that the blend consisted of Assam, Keemun, and a low-altitude Dimbulla Ceylon. It’s a credit to the blender that the leaves all looked the same, creating the illusion of single origin orthodoxy.

The liquor brewed lighter than I expected – a full-bodied bronze rather than the usual English Breakfast copper. The color may have been because of a Yunnan sourcing for the Chinese black in the blend, rather than Keemun. The smell was exquisitely smoky, really not sure how that happened. This was an incredibly smooth morning cup – no bitterness, dryness or kickback.

“Deceptively smooth and quite invigorating,” I said with approval.

“Next is my namesake,” Finbarr gestured toward the second set-up.

I couldn’t tell what went in this, but my best guess was Assam and low-altitude Ceylon. The smell was straight, burly malt (like the 1910) with no other deviation. One would think they were having a straight-up Assam on whiff. I actually decided upon a full pot of it.

The liquor brewed bold copper with the same manly malty aroma as the dry leaves. On taste, though, it was oddly forgiving. Instead of punching the tongue with its chewy presence, it shook hands first, imparting a floral forefront before the introduction of the malty middle. Here, the Ceylon and Assam worked quite well together. And – boy! – did it wake me up.

“This stuff actually gives you the courtesy of a reach-around before punching you in the junk,” I commented.

“Rightly said!” Finbarr guffawed, patting me on the back – hard.

The Persian Princess gave a loud – and disgusted – sigh. Speaking of which, it was time for her blend. She didn’t bother speaking up about it, though.

The thing that really surprised me about this blend was how sweet it smelled. There was some requisite malt, but a woody and sweet underpinning crept up in the fragrance. I’m pretty sure the teas used were Assam and Yunnan, but – as with the other Devotea blends – one can never be too sure.

The resulting brew-up was an amber-colored liquor with a smooth, Ceylon-ish aroma – floral. On taste, the deceptive sweetness came back packaged with a strong, malty intro. Then it did the oddest thing by smoothing out completely – like an actual princess with a feigned, even-keel temperament. The best part? No bitterness to speak of and only mild astringency.

“Strong but not bitter,” I said briefly. “Like an actual princess should be.”

She still said nothing.

“Can I go now?”

Finbarr looked confused, “Go where?”

“Home? To 2012? My 2012.”

“Oh, lad,” Finbarr laughed, but there was mischievous shift in it. “This is your home now.”

“…What?”

“Aye, the trip’s one-way only.”

“…Why?”

“Revenge,” the Persian Princess finally spoke.

One would think a man whisked out of space and time would do something brave – like, say, fight off both of his assailants. Not the case, here. I took off running as fast as my slippered feet could carry me. Like a little bitch. I did make sure my beeline to…nowhere put me in contact with my trusty gaiwan and kettle, though.

Both of my kidnappers were in hot pursuit. Denizens of this steampunkish realm observed the spectacle with some amusement. I supposed they didn’t get many men in sleep attire – brandishing tea equipment – running down their streets. I ducked down an alleyway, hoping to lose the blend-named pair. As my luck would have it, though, it dead-ended at a bonfire surrounded by this realm’s version of the homeless.

“Nowhere to run now, eh laddy?” Finbarr said with a pant.

The Persian Princess glided in front of the Irishman, dagger drawn and eyes fixed. I did the only thing a man-bitch could do – I let out a full-bodied scream. In my ensuing panic, I lost my grip on the plastic kettle. It fell into the makeshift hobo fire. Then something…well…terribly inappropriate happened.

A blood curdling scream resonated from the flames. The discarded kettle fumed, smoked, melted and contorted into something hideous. The only comparison I could make was a demonic vagina.

It floated in the air, wailing loudly. Finbarr and Persian Princess halted their advance, but the vagrants around the fire fled in terror, providing me ample time to think.

That shouldn’t be possible, I thought. Unless…

“A dream!” I said out loud.

I looked down at my one remaining tea apparatus – my trusty gaiwan. If Leo had a spinning top as an anchor in Inception, then this lidded cup was mine. Turning around, I walked straight into the bonfire. I expected to feel warmth and…uh…”burning”. Instead, I was back in my kitchen – still pajama’d, still tired, but fully tea’d.

Epilogue

“Well, that could’ve gone better,” Finbarr said, scratching his head.

“His time will come,” the Persian Princess said, disrobing her covered head. A porcelain, Asian woman’s face turned toward the Irishman. “At least we know his weakness now.”

“You’re one stubborn woman, Ms. Guan Yin,” he remarked.

“Take the tea away from a man, then he is just a man,” she said to no one in particular. “Take the teacup from a man, then he is merely a boy…in hot water.”

The End (?)

To Purchase The Devotea’s Teas (1910, Finbarr’s Revenge, and Persian Princess):

In the U.S., go HERE.

In the U.K., go HERE.

In Australia, go HERE.

(No actual tea equipment was harmed in the making of this review.)

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Wednesday, June 20th, 2012 Prose, Steep Stories No Comments

Guan Yins,Tigers and Lords, Oh My!

For context, READ THIS FIRST

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

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

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

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

“Silence!” she snapped.

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

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

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

“Is this about the story?”

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

“But it was all true,” I replied.

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

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

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

“But why a duck?”

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

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

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

I cocked an eyebrow, “Petersham?”

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

“What for and why me?”

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

“Trial by-”

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

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

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

“So…what do I have to do?” I queried.

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

“And if I don’t like them?”

“That won’t be possible.”

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

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

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

“How did you-?” I started.

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

“Fair point,” I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

He sighed dramatically. “Very well.”

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

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

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

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

“Damn,” I said with approval.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” she said.

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

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

I said nothing, but my gaze narrowed.

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

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

“It’s like that,” she repeated.

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

“You work?” she chuckled.

“I’ll take that as a ‘no’.”

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

“NO!” she screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgements:

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

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

You can buy the Lord Petersham blend HERE.

You can buy the Two Tigers blend HERE.

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

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

Very Well, Give Him Tea Cake

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Davis Doherty

Photo by Davis Doherty

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

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

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

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Sunday, November 20th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

Pwned by Purple Pu-Erh

I remember when I first tried pu-erh; I couldn’t stand it. The black muck someone pushed in front of me didn’t seem like tea. It had the consistency of thin oil and the smell of sardines. This wasn’t something I could fathom anyone drinking. I was even more surprised to learn that there were pu-erh enthusiasts, and that it could be aged like wine. Prices sometimes rose in the thousands. “That does it,” I said to myself. “That will be my snobbery capper.” The moment I started worrying about the age of my tea would be the moment I’d stop drinking it.

That changed in a matter of years.

Now that I was completely far gone in my pursuit of aged teas, most raw pu-erhs (and all cooked pu-erhs) made before 2009 were met with skepticism. It was the winy note produced by the older ones; for some reason the youngling Yunnans lacked it. Even with that unwritten rule established, I was still a sucker for something unique. Even if it was new.

In this case, not only was it young…but it was produced this year. That made it no older than most Long Jings (a spring-harvested green). Along with some Kenyan Purple Tea (which I loved), Butiki Teas also sent me a rare sheng (read: raw) pu-erh that was dubbed “Wild Purple Buds”. The tea trees for this sheng pu-erh grew at an elevation of 6,000 ft., and naturally possess a higher level of anthocyanin (a flavonoid), which gave the leaves their purplish hue. Unlike the new Kenyan strain that was tailored to produce more anthocyanin, the leaves from this Yunnan cultivar already had it. Likeliest of reasons for this naturally-occuring…uh…”purple”-ing might’ve been the UV radiation exposure due to the higher elevation.

According to Butiki, the leaves for this uniquely young pu-erh were harvested from ancient tea trees (Da Ye, perhaps?) by the Wa tribe. From what I read, there are only 350,000 Wa living in China. They are predominately a rural culture living out of bamboo houses, and they still practice a form of slash-and-burn agriculture. Historically they are known for two bits of infamy – headhunting and their involvement in the opium trade. Most reside along the border of Thailand and Myanmar.

I found this mountaineering tribe far too interesting for my own good. Trying a tea from a former opiate-fueled, headhunting culture? Yeah that screamed “Awesome!” (Not a politically correct thing to say, I know.) It was time to give this purple beast a brew-up.

The dried leaves weren’t that purple to the eye, but there was a semblance of their fresher days in the red-brown palette on display. If I squinted, I could make out a purple leaf piece or two. They were also prettier than their more aged kin, looking more like wild leaves than – say – compost.  Like with the Kenyan Purple, there wasn’t much of an aroma to speak of. What I could discern – if I tried – was a mild, wilderness berry-ish scent with a tinge of leafy smokiness. Definitely a sheng pu-erh.

Butiki Teas’ brewing instructions recommended a water temp of up-to-212F and twenty different infusions at three seconds or more – 1 level teaspoon of leaves per cup. I honestly didn’t have that kind of time. The first infusion I went for would be  three seconds, but the last two – for note-taking’s sake – would be at my usual thirty-to-forty seconds approach. I also middle-grounded the temperature at 200F.

First infusion (ten seconds…accidental): I meant to do this for only three seconds (per the instructions), but I was having technical difficulties with the camera. That shot the three-second mark up to ten seconds. What resulted was a white tea-ish, pale yellow liquor with a grapy/grassy nose. First sip tasted like a smoker Silver Needle.

Second infusion (thirty seconds): It was the same clear liquor but with a more of a juniper aroma. The taste was slightly smokier, and I could see what Bukiti meant about the presence of oak. Still very white tea-like, though. Was this really supposed to be a pu-erh?

Third infusion (thirty seconds): What the heck? The liquor was still clear, but the aroma…what a change! I detected hints of strawberry and vanilla. The flavor echoed this – fruit-filled, creamy and sweet. Trailing close behind was a peaty finish. Very strange.

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): As expected, no change in the color. However, the same could not be said for the aroma; it was like blueberry-scented white wine. Flavor, though? Okay, forget the blueberry. That damn strawberry cream spiel was still going strong. How was that happening with so clear a cup? I dunno…

I think this tea was trolling me.

Fifth infusion (forty seconds): Still zero change in color. The wet, spent leaves in the gaiwan smelled like boiled artichoke hearts. The liquor itself was now fully reminiscent of a strawberry-cream-flavored white tea. I should know, I’ve had ’em. Taste-wise, though, it possessed only a faint fruit presence, a nutty top note, and a wood-smoked leafy finish.

To conserve time while note-taking, I actually poured the remaining contents of each of the five infusions into one cup. Only when they were combined did they taste anything remotely like sheng pu-erh. Well, a pu-erh that’d been blended with whiskey-dipped peat moss.

I’d gone five rounds with this pu-erh, and it still had all its strength – taunting me with its deceptively clear liquid. I ran out of the time I allotted myself in reviewing it and decided upon an intermission. There was someplace I had to be. However…

When I returned, I intended to go all in with the same leaves – Texas Hold ‘Em-style – in one last cuppa cage match. This time I opted for a Western Assam approach; five-minute brew time, boiling water temp. That would surely kill it. If not, I was fresh out of ideas.

Sixth infusion (five minutes): FIGHT! The liquor was still clear-to-pale yellow. The aroma was almost straight leaf, only more prairie-like. It tasted like the lewd embrace between a lemon and a maple leaf. Not fair! Where was it getting its resilience?!

SEVENTH! infusion (lost track o’ time): Now it was showing signs of fading. The flavor had receded to something more akin to a Bai Mu Dan – nutty, lightly fruity, and somewhat earthy. I may have sipped its remaining life, but the leaves still looked up at me. Always taunting.

This was one tough sheng pu-erh. It even stood steadfast where most Assams would’ve waved a white [tea] flag. There was just no killing it. I had been owned, pwned, schooled, defeated, beaten and broken by a purple leaf. And the fight tasted fantastic.

To purchase Wild Purple Buds Pu-Erh from Butiki Teas, go HERE.

Addendum: The brewing instructions per the Butiki site says to use 1 level tablespoon, not teaspoon.

(For a definition of “pwned” for ye “n00bs”, go HERE.)

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Wednesday, November 16th, 2011 Steep Stories No Comments

Tea Time in Real Life

Ever since I picked up tea as a hobby, there has been an inherent problem. No one else was really into it. My real life friends humored my off-kilter pursuit, and even came to me for recommendations, but – for the most part – it was a geek-ish lean that was entirely solitary. If it weren’t for social media outlets like Tea Trade or Twitter, my tea talk would’ve descended into monologues and murmurs. While connecting with friends of the leaf from far-flung locations had its appeal, the more tangible social connection was missing.

Photo by Jennifer Stewart

Photo by Jennifer Stewart

Enter an unassuming, mild-mannered guy named David Galli.

I had associated with him a bit on Twitter. Our palates for Chinese black teas were about the same. I hadn’t made the connection that he was a fellow Portlander until a couple of months into our tea talk. Around the same time, I also associated with a fledgling group-to-be called The Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance. Turns out that David was the founder/”Head Cheerleader” of the group. Yes, I know. I’m slow.

At around the same time, when I finally put two-and-two together, a promoter friend of mine also linked me to the Alliance and another tea enthusiast. Well, that settled it. I had to meet this self-proclaimed Head Cheerleader. A meeting of the steeps was already in the works, as David had contacted me about a greet-up and exchange of teas/thoughts. We agreed upon Smith Teamaker as our destination, since he’d never been. I was looking forward to going there with someone other than…er…myself.

We were treated like philosopher kings by the co-owner and Tea MC alike. Among the many wares we got to sample was a black tea blended with Douglas Fir tips. It tasted like concentrated Christmas. I so desperately wanted some. Unfortunately, it was only available through Eddie Bauer. Yes, the retail chain. The “Good Morning” blend – as she called it – also came paired with another tea; the packaging looked like a tea fancier’s happy meal. It was that awesome.

At the end of our sipping, the co-owner gave us a brief tour of the operation. Out of the two years I’d frequented there, I never wondered what their Wonka factory looked like. It was spectacular. They even had a break room with its own koi pond. It was the best kept secret in Portland, I thought. (Except that I outed it just now…oops.)

Duly sated and overly-caffeinated, David and I agreed on another meet-and-greet for an unspecified time in the future. The insecure side of me thought I had “regurgitated” my tea talk rather than conversed – like years of pent-up hobby-ing was brought to the forefront in one sitting. It was also oddly refreshing to encounter someone who had me stumped on tea trivia. Example: I hadn’t realized how uninformed I was about oolongs from Wuyi Shan. He had acquired more tea knowledge in a year than I had in three.

Roughly four days after that successful meet-up, plans were made for yet another. This time, it was to involve a slightly larger group – an informal gathering of like-minded folks interested in a fledgling tea group. The location? Smith Teamaker again. I had no argument with this.

I was the first to arrive. Traffic had actually been on my side on the trek there. The Tea MC (Tiffany) waved a “hello” and wondered how many others were destined to show. I honestly had no idea. My exact reply was, “Somewhere between three…and five?”

The second to show was Danyeke, a friend of the same promoter folks I mentioned earlier – a fellow writer and a female Lapsang Souchong drinker. David arrived soon after. A well-rounded Renaissance gent – Kevin – showed up some ten-to-twenty minutes later. Another kindly guy also made a brief appearance but ducked out to get back to work. Tea MC Tiff started us off with a unique taster flight. By unique, I mean it included two single estate Assams…and a PINOT NOIR BARREL-AGED BLACK TEA!

(Left to Right) Me, Danyeke, David, and Kevin

(Left to Right) Me, Danyeke, David, and Kevin

(Sidenote: Yes, it was as awesome as it sounds. Yes, there will be a review forthcoming.)

Our second dig-in was of Smith’s Yunnan Dian Hong, Brahmin’s Choice, a Darjeeling first flush (Marybong estate), and a Keemun Hao Ya B. All brewed to the peak of smoky perfection. These were also the first teas of my day…and technically, they were also breakfast.

We ended up staying at Smith’s for two hours – waxing poetic about tea, astrology, origin stories, fiction, nonfiction, and different countries. It was more well-rounded and camaraderie-filled than any tea outing I experienced up to that point. Rarely was there a moment of awkward pause.  Again, the insecure part of me hoped I wasn’t too bombastic a blowhard in real life as I was often considered online. But rarely did I feel that way.

Tea is – by its very existence – a beverage of contemplation, but there is a social element to it as well. I hadn’t really experienced that. For once, I wasn’t the lone steeper in the room…and it was quite wonderful.

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Thursday, October 27th, 2011 Steep Stories 2 Comments

The Gold Debacle

Perhaps it is because I have a near-glandular reaction to all things shiny, or perhaps it’s something more visceral. Whatever the case may be, I love teas with the world “Gold” in them. It wasn’t something I was particular aiming for, but more of an epiphany I had over one particular type of tea.

I received a sample of Zen Tara Tea’s Golden Yunnan Special. Looking at it was like beholding beige-like brilliance…and like honey-lathered lightning had hit my tongue. At first, I thought it was possibly a fluke, but then I visited a teashop local to me – the Jasmine Pearl – and picked up some of their Golden Needles. The reaction was just about the same – honey-pepper-nectar-gasm. From that point on, I had a favorite black tea.

Naturally, I wondered if other teas with the word “Gold” were equally as perfect for my palate. The next on the list was the Fujian-grown Golden Monkey – often heralded as the black tea equivalent to Bai Hao Yinzhen (Silver Needle), a distinction I’d disagree with. While having a similar gold-like, tippy presence as the Yunnan variety, the leaves were smaller and curlier. However, they did impart a similar nectar-like flavor, if not as eye-glazing. Okay, second time was the charm; this was definitely not a fluke. Maybe it was an irregularity.

On a random perusal, I ran across a product dubbed a “Golden Assam”. Perhaps it was a Photoshop trick, but the merchandise photo made it look just as shiny as a Yunnan Gold (or Jin Cha). A fellow tea colleague – Michael J. Coffey, ever the steep scientist – urged me to reel in my expectations. According to one of his Assamese contacts (yes, the man has contacts), gold tips are often added for visual flare but have no effect on taste. Much like cornflowers being added to some inferior Earl Greys.

A random tea outing with a gold-haired friend confirmed my “findings”. Their gold-tipped Assam did indeed have some honey texture to go along with the requisite malt. I even ordered another pot of Yunnan Gold just for taste comparison. While the latter was better, the Assam did hold its own.

Some doubts did enter my mind about the “gold standard” when I revisited gold-tipped Assams in the form of a Khongea estate offering. It was really good – malty, hearty, slightly smoky, all those manly adjectives. But it didn’t possess that ‘gasmic “oomph” of the prior golds. Maybe Coffey had a point.

The conversation was revisited, this time with Assam-lover, Ken Macbeth, in tow. It even inspired this write-up from Ken regarding the price one pays for the appearance of a loose leaf batch. MJC even reiterated that while there is likely a flavor I’m subjective to in Yunnan Golds – or to the “golding” process in general – that doesn’t make it universally better. At the time of the conversation, I refused to believe it.

Then I taste-tested two teas from Canton Tea Co. One was a black tea from Fujian (my favorite Chinese province) called Bai Lin Gong Fu. It looked and smelled like a black tea – like a Dian Hong (regular Yunnan black) only tippier. The taste, though…wow. It made me tip my head back in Homer-esque reverie, tongue splayed.

A few months later, I received another sample from Canton for their Superior Bai Lin Gong Fu. I wondered how the heck they could top the regular kind, but – apparently – what made it superior was the appearance. The entire batch was GOOOOooooooOOOOoooold! However…I noted in my review of it, that – while I did love it – I preferred the regular Bai Lin. The honey-nectar presence was there, but it simply didn’t top the silky magnificence of its darker kin.

Superior vs. Inferior (?)

My journey came practically full circle with a revisit to The Jasmine Pearl. The owners – Chuck and Heather – were a very patient couple in dealing with me. They had mentioned in passing that a new shipment was coming in for some Golden Needles, straight from Yunnan, and that it was even better than their last one. Perfect timing since I ran out of my stores of their last batch. They urged me to be patient, though. Deliveries from China were known to be slow.

That didn’t stop me from calling them repeatedly.

Me: “Is it there yet?”

Them: “No.”

Geoff: “How ‘bout now?”

Them: “No.”

Me: [pause] “Now?”

Them: “No.”

Me: “Are we there yet?”

Them: “What?”

Me: “What?”

(Okay, I made that last part up.)

A month ago, I stopped in to childishly ask one more time. Rays of heaven parted when they confirmed with an emphatic “Yes!” that it, indeed, had arrived. There was a problem, though. This was nowhere near as gold-tippy as the last batch. It smelled wonderful – like tiramisu, chocolate, and forest – but the peppery aspect was all but gone. I bought it anyway and did a side-by-side comparison with another Golden Needle I had on hand.

Gold Vs. (Mostly) Gold

Gold vs. (Mostly) Gold

Yep, definitely darker.

Then came the taste-test.

Oh wow.

Oh my…wow…

Oh wowie-wowie-wow-wow.

I rated the last Golden Needles they had a ten out of ten. This was an eleven. It was then that I begrudgingly admitted that there was something to the processing. Here it was, a darker Golden Yunnan, and I liked it better than any of its shinier kin. Fine, I’ll admit it now. The “golding” process doesn’t necessary make it better, but there is still something to it in terms of Chinese black teas. I’m standing by my Yunnan Goldies, even the ones that are rougher around the edges.

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Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 Steep Stories 1 Comment

I work for tea money.

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