Friday, April 11, 2014


{ That's some jade there, all right. }  
Jade Oolong, (Premium) by Green Hill Tea.

My students wanted to know what "jaded" meant. Of course, I knew the basic meaning: to be tired, cynical, unenthusiastic. But going to the more obvious meaning, it means a faded green, a pale echo of the bright color we see in our mind when we imagine that color.

Green Hill does not identify the source of their Jade Oolong, other than to say it's a high-mountain (2200 feet) crop from China. Generally speaking, I like to know where a tea is from, because I'm still learning and want to educate my palette as I taste. 

So in this case, I rely entirely upon my observations. I infuse with water just below boiling. Unfortunately,  here at work, I rely upon an electric kettle of filtered water, rather than my Japanese white charcoal setup I have at home. 

Dry, the leaves are tight and richly green, and quite fragrant. Wet, they take on a seaweed aroma, not unpleasant, which reminds me of the scent of the seashore. I depend on my sense of smell for my first introduction to a tea, and this is . . . okay, but not an unadorned delight. So this tea is not all about the aroma of the wet leaves, then. Good to know.

The wet leaves are a characteristic Chinese oolong: large leaves, which have readily opened up in the first steeping. So not very tightly twisted. Quite a bit of complete leaf, some broken, very little stem.

FIRST STEEPING. The liquor is -- wait for it -- a pale, jade green. You didn't see that coming at all, did you. The tea is good, quite good. It's a straight shooter, with a moderate vegetal quality, a flowery high range, and very little at the bottom of the register. Smooth, but with a hint of drying, a touch of an edge, which sharpens the senses. This tea wants you to stop and pay attention to it, rather than sitting good-naturedly and minding its own business. I enjoy its smoothness, and the huigan, or aftertaste (one of the few Chinese words I easily remember, so I use it often) holds in the mouth for minutes. Again, quite a straight shooter. The flavor of the tea and the huigan are closely linked, and I do not get a wide variety of flavors that develop in my mouth and nose over time. Though the tea liquor itself is green, it doesn't taste green, if you catch my meaning. It tastes golden-orange: mellow, a hint of brightness, burnished, open, not overpowering.

SECOND STEEPING. On the second steeping, I went rather long, with a moderate amount of leaf. The appearance of the cup is still a clean, pale green, as transparent as you would hope it would be. The cutting edge of the tea has arrived, and the vegetal note is more pronounced. This is not an especially assertive tea, so if you want a tea so strong you can stand a spoon up in it, you'd be better off with a meaty assam or an opinionated Ceylon mix. But even here, the smoothness and laid-back quality of the first steeping is long gone. This oolong is balanced between the acidic brightness, the slight dryness, and the overarching floral smoothness. Nicely done.

SO WHAT ARE THESE OBSERVATIONS ALL ABOUT? you may ask. I want to remember what I drink. I want to remember what I think when I'm cupping tea. Flavor and aroma are tightly bound to memory and place, and I want to capture some of my life I pass through it. This moment is green oolong, lightly sharp flavor, blue sky, end of winter, bare trees, deadlines I need to meet, anxiety I'm holding down, beloved by family, enjoying my teaching job, quiet moment in the midst of some familiar struggles, needing more sleep, wishing I were traveling, enjoying Shakespeare's "As You Like It," and trying to get back to work captioning. In other words, pretty much a normal morning, with a lovely cup of tea worthy of attention, rather than just let slip by unnoticed and unmarked.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

New Lipton's Commercial: #BeMoreTea + Kermit the Frog?!

I love the Muppets. I grew up watching Sesame Street, and of course the eponymous TV show that came out when I was in my early teens. In a parallel universe, a Steven Knoerr is manning Lovable, Furry Old Grover, even as we speak.

And he's probably drinking Lipton's, too, trying to #BeMoreTea.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

ADAGIO TEAS: "Sencha Premier" is a touch of summer

{ Robert Mullenix, each by name }  

"Oh, that's lovely. That's my favorite so far." This from the principal of my school, as I shared with her a small cup of Sencha Premier, provided by Adagio Teas. Alas, I'm reviewing the last of my stash.

Crisp, deep green leaves when dry. When wet the leaves resemble cut spinach, though of a paler hue. Look at the deep, forest hues in the painting above by my hero and closest friend, Robert Mullenix. The leaves themselves carry that forest underbrush color; and the liquor is, in contrast, the rich golden straw color you can see on the leaves above: yellowish with a hint of orange.

I tend to steep a lot of leaves for short periods, following what I understand of the old gongfu method of preparing tea. I've steeped this tea about four times-- very short steeps, lots of leaf, high temperature (instead of the low 140C you might usually expect for a brew like this if steeped for longer periods). Only the faintest bitterness on the first steeping, and then from then on it was smooth sailing. The second steeping was the richest, with a sensuous energy that made me bounce (calmly and with great decorum) around the office, high energy and lots of focus, enjoying the tea high without any jitteriness.

I did have to go to the bathroom a lot today, though. (TMI? I thought so.) I think I must be one of the best-hydrated people on the planet, though.

Aside from all the purple prose above (I am writing a book, you know), I want to say how much I enjoy this stuff. It's bright, and even months after it's plucking, it's still kicking. Typically, a green tea has a pretty short shelf life, but Adagio did a good job with packaging, which keeps the tea in fairly good condition. None of the flat, uninspired insipidity you'd expect from a green in mid-January.

I hate Winter in Illinois. I look outside the window, and it's been a shifting slate sky all day, reflected in the snow below. Having something that looks and tastes green and reminds me of Summer, and sun, and all things hot . . . well, it's brilliant. And if it can keep me awake through the dismality of this Arctic Vortex thing, well, all the better. I'd rather be hibernating. But instead of that, I'll settle for this. For now. Until I move where the sun is always shining.

Meanwhile, go to Robert's website, and pop over to Adagio to pick up one of their tea gizmos (intenuiTEA), which I use when in the office for all my loose-leaf tea. I was initially reluctant to try such a thing, but it's really pretty ingenious, and I'm glad I've made the leap.

I hope you are all surviving this horrid winter, and please keep warm with a good cup.

{ This is me, thinking of brighter pastures }  

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

confessions of a tea blogger (i've been tagged)

{ Laura Marie Meyers, will you please stay indoors for a change? }  

I HAVE BEEN SHAMED into writing on The 39 Steeps again by a certain tea blogger (Cinnabar, I'm lookin' at you). Baby, it's cold outside, so I'm stuck inside with two increasingly inert children, so I'll play.

confessions of a tea blogger

  1. First, let's start with how you were introduced and fell in love with the wonderful beverage of tea. At University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, a couple of events came together. I was near the delightful Walnut Street Tea Company, at a time I was struggling badly with asthma symptoms. Walnut Street had Darjeeling. They had oolong. They had Russian Caravan. They had the basics, which introduced me to the world beyond Lipton's. And I discovered that, for whatever reason, the constant tightness in my chest from asthma eased somewhat when I drank tea, even though coffee had no such effect. It didn't stop me from drinking coffee (that came much later), but it did feed my curiosity and convince me that perhaps tea could be interesting.
  2. What was the very first tea blend that you ever tried? Constant Comment, by Bigelow. it was enjoyable, and part of discovering that tea wasn't disgusting. At that time, I drank coffee and tea in all their flavored varieties, particularly in one of UI students' favorite restaurants, the Courier Café. I spent many, many hours there, drinking Chocolate Soufflé or Hazelnut Delight coffee blends. And there, I first sat across a table from Suzanne Virginia Gonzalez, who would one day become my wife. I had never believed in love at first sight, even while I was experiencing it myself. Only in retrospect did I realize that she had me from the get-go. Now our four-year-old daughter is interrupting every other sentence, and I'm trying to write around her snowed-in craziness. What does that have to do with tea? Well, tea was there, and I was there, and Suzanne was there. And lurve was there.
  3. When did you start your tea blog, and what was your hope for creating it? I live for those moments when I experience something new. No, let me rephrase that: something enjoyable and new. A poke in the eye with a red-hot spork would be new, but it's not on my bucket list. That being said, I had shifted my drinking habits from coffee to tea at some point, and I found on Facebook a delightful group of tea drinkers, titled "A Cup of Tea Solves Everything." While I don't quite agree with the aforementioned sentiment, I did enjoy the opportunity to discuss tea with my friends. As a sort of online journal, I started writing reviews there as a way of keeping track of what I was learning about tea, so I could go back and buy more of what I loved, and also to help other readers with their tea journeys. At one point, the group was shut down for a week or so, and I panicked: All my reviews were gone! When it came back online, I made a blog, copied-and-pasted as many of my reviews as I could find, and The 39 Steeps was born. From there, it took on a life of its own.
  4. List one thing most rewarding about your blog and one thing most discouraging. I was quite surprised that anyone would even read a blog written by me, being such a narrow niche interest, and because I am just some guy with an enjoyment of tea and a computer. Most disappointing was that once you start a blog, you have to keep the blog running, and that proved difficult when I ran into some personal difficulties and suffered from "major depression," which makes regular writing difficult if not impossible. I hate disappointing people, and disappearing for months and years at a time on a blog is truly a self-defeating cycle that only makes it harder to write.
  5. What type of tea are you most likely to be caught sipping on? I live, love, and breathe fist-flush Darjeeling. The complexity and brightness are incomparable. That being said, as my tastes change over time, I'm finding myself drawn to impossibly complex high-mountain oolongs from China and Taiwan, or puerh when I can afford it, or many other single-estate, orthodox teas.
  6. Favourite tea latte to indulge in? Well, I don't, sorry. I don't have an espresso maker at home (because I'm a recovering coffee addict, and it makes me into a crazy person to drink it), and drinking tea out of the home is almost always a losing proposition. I do like Thai iced tea, though, if that counts.
  7. Favourite treat to pair with your tea? Silence and a book.
  8. If there was one place in the world that you could explore the tea culture, where would it be and why? Taiwan. They have the craziest, most intense tea culture in the world, and I'd love to sample it. But I'm most likely to actually visit the Himalayas, Nepal and Darjeeling, because that's the center of my tea experience and the focus of years and probably a thousand gallons of tea drinking.
  9. Any tea time rituals you have that you'd like to share? I love, love gongfu, Chinese style. As I see it, there are three predominant tea-drinking cultures in the world. There are others, but they are less well known and acknowledged. The British tea seems to me to be focused on the accoutrements and social aspects of tea, with a focus on doilies and who gets to pour from what type of teapot more than a focus on the actual tea itself, which is often flavored with milk and sugar to cover up the bitterness of the oversteeped tea. The Japanese have elevated tea drinking into a religion, and the act of making tea--the careful attention to every motion, every breath, every aesthetic aspect of the experience--can bring one into a meditative state conducive to living deeply. Chinese gongfu, on the other hand, is often messy, noisy, and terribly pragmatic. The 197 steps they take to make a cup of tea are there not for social, nor meditative, reasons; they're there to make the best freaking cup of tea they possibly can. And if it takes 17 gallons of boiling water out of a zisha clay kettle over a fire made out of expensive Japanese white charcoal, filtered with the tears of unicorns, into a teapot designed specifically for this tea and this tea alone, then they'll do it. For the tea. How could I not fall in love with that?
  10. Time of day you enjoy drinking tea the most: morning, noon, night, or any time? I find myself making tea whenever I can get a quiet moment to myself. It's best when other people are around, so I can share discoveries with them. Now that I'm a high school Literature teacher, I have been sharing with other teachers and my students, which makes everything taste better. In a way, drinking tea has been much like teaching Beowulf: unlocking the fun and beauty for people who otherwise would go away without knowing the good stuff is out there, just waiting for us to delight in it.
  11. What's one thing you wish for tea in the future? Two things, or maybe three. I wish for an American audience for the good stuff, which will make it possible for me to actually go out of my house and get a decent cup of tea. Since TeaGschwendner went belly up in my area, I can't find a cup of tea worth drinking that's within easy driving distance. Second, I wish for better, more sustainable growing practices, which are careful of our stewardship of the environment and the welfare of the people involved in producing the tea we drink so happily. And thirdly, I WANT MORE TEA! Running low in my cabinet is the pits, and it makes me feel bad when I don't have it in my budget to go buy the stuff I want. 

SORRY! I just don't have someone to tag. I'm like that, I'm afraid. Thank you for reading, and I hope to have more content to pop up on this baby every once in a while.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Shakespeare's Tea Caddy, If Shakespeare Drank Tea, Which He Did Not.

{ Tea Caddy from Shakespeare's Very Own Mulberry Tree. }

Shakespeare did not drink tea.

No, no, I kid you not. Unless you believe conspiracy theories that make the writers of his plays into Roger Bacon, or Francis Bacon, or Kevin Bacon, we know a man named William Shakespeare died in 1616. The United Kingdom never saw tea until 1658, and it wasn't until 1665 that the East India Company started importing it to the UK.

NEVERTHELESS, once upon a time, a certain Shakespeare fellow planted a mulberry tree. A century or so later, the Most Reverend Francis Gastrell purchased New Place at Stratford-Upon-Avon and was so overwhelmed by annoying fanboys wanting to see the tree that he decided to chop it down and burn the corpse. Of the tree, that is. (On a side note, in a fit of pique, Gastrell destroyed Shakespeare's home because he didn't like the taxes on it. Quite a piece of work, eh?)

But wait! Brilliant entrepreneurs instead got hold of the mulberry's remains, chopped it into craft-sized pieces, and they started making tchotchkes out of the wood, which they began selling to tourists. To this day, Stratford-Upon-Avon maintains is mercantile charm.

{ Paraphernalia, Just Like Mom Used To Make }

According to The Daily Mail,

A tea caddy carved from a mulberry tree may have been planted by Shakespeare himself has gone under the hammer for £13,000 at auction. The antique - which features a tiny carved bust of the Bard - was whittled out of wood recovered from the famous tree planted outside the playwright's home.

Apparently, Shakespeare planted the tree because landowners were getting in on UK silk production--yet another replacement for import from China that the Emperor was not happy about.

So if you like your Shakespeare, you like your tea, and you like your history: well, too bad you didn't get there first and buy the caddy to add to your collection!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Brothers K and the ingenuiTEA gadget

{ "ingenuiTEA, with Russian novel and office window,"
media mixed with afternoon sunlight, 2013 } 

As many of you have surmised from my last post several weeks ago, I am now a teacher of English literature. And I have an office that is not embedded in my home, which is a giant plus for me, forcing me out of my cave and into the wide world. I find it a bit exhausting, because PEOPLE. You've perhaps noticed that I avoid taking pictures, because I don't have some cool macro lens, and my knowledge of photography is limited to . . . well, the above. But it's a moment I caught, with sunlight, tea, and Russian literature combining pleasingly.

Because I'm in an office, I've been casting about for a way to make tea that isn't completely hopeless.

I'll tell you about the tea later. Today I'll focus on the ingenuiTEA, which is available through my friends at Adagio Teas.

Happily, there are many tea gadgets out there, ranging from amusing tea balls, to mini French presses, to cast-iron tetsubin with mesh baskets for the tea to float about in. This is a testimony to the growing tea culture in the US and elsewhere, and it behooves us to take advantage of these fun accouterments to our tea-drinking experience.

The ingenuiTEA is one of several similar devices, sold by a number of online tea marketers, which are a boon to the office-working tea drinker. The device above is made of clear plastic, and it has a removable mesh strainer for easy cleaning. It invariably makes the students and staff ooh and ahh over how cute it is. The ladies, that is. The young guys do not ooh and ahh over anything, but they do try to ask me questions about tea so that they don't have to discuss 19th-century Russian literature.

I brought the ingenuiTEA and a Darjeeling oolong to class recently, and I gave the students a point on their test if they could guess where it came from. Several of them got it right, just by sheer luck.

Adagio's device is an open container into which I can pour my boiling water, and the tea leaves have plenty of open space to steep. Once they're ready, I place it on top of a cup, and a cleverly hidden lever inside opens a sluice through which the tea pours into the cup below. I've discovered how much my cup will take, so I don't overflow as much anymore and endanger my computer hardware.

I like gongfu cha, and I also like convenience when I'm at work. This thing sits at that sweet spot, where I don't have to bring in a complex set of teaware to get a decent cup of tea, and it takes what seems like a rather complex system I have at home and simplifies it for the workplace, where mucking about with six or seven different implements just isn't practical.

It won't replace my precious purple-clay teapots or my gaiwan and tea table, but it's just right for making a cup of tea that honestly tastes almost the same (particularly because I use good water that I've purified using Japanese white charcoal, as well as decent tea), and it makes my afternoons much better.

If you haven't experimented with such a device, please drop by their website and try one out.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Tomorrow I Teach

{ World's Smallest Teapot

Today I am a man, but tomorrow I am also a teacher. I shall be instructing on Literature and Composition for prep school students at my son's school, Valeo Academy, while still running my small business, Chicago Captioning.

Though my mental process are being impaired mightily while I write this (!) by the boisterousness (!!) of my two children, and I apologize for any appalling mistakes you may find, I can say I'll continue writing here, and I'll be using my knowledge of tea (such as it is) to help my students become more aware of their senses and writing about them, along with Beowulf and The Brothers Karamazov.

Wish me well as I bounce, Tiggerishly, into the world of English Lit., while keeping my other plates spinning. And keep dropping in to The 39 Steeps to see what we're doing. I might even have a precocious prep school student write a guest piece or two here from time to time.