Friday, October 2, 2015


{ Takanori Aiba's Treehouse Bonsai,
a creation of an insane person of the highest caliber }
If one were to look in the sidebar of the humble 39 Steeps tea blog, one might see 39 Steeps Radio, featuring one (1) sole, lonely transmission: a conversation between me and the lovely Imen Shan, owner of Tea Habitat, who specializes in the fabled and elusive dan cong oolong. If you read her website, Tea Obsession, you will find she's an insane person, in the best possible way.

{ Pancho Villa was also
an insane person of note }
And were you to peruse this lonely radio program of one episode, you might find it was made years ago. It's taken me this long to gather the gumption to write anything about this special tea.

But I've finally hit my wall with waiting around for some muse of tea who will enable me to write about something above me, so to hell with it. Readers, now you shall be able to read my musings about something I am manifestly unable to write about adequately, so buckle your seat belts as I strap on my bandolier of purple prose and my machine gun of superlatives, Pancho Villa style, and start shooting my mouth off.


update update update
(Whoops! I hit "Go!" on this by accident, before I was ready to publish. So stay tuned for the rest of the article about this astonishing tea.)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Twigs and Leaves: 2015 Hojicha, Phoenix Tea

{ Sticks Framing a Lake, Andy Goldsworthy }  
"Tastes like bark."

"No, tastes like water."

Yesterday I wrote on Facebook, "Watching my Valeo students, who are my new 39 Steeps Tea Club, rush up for high-end ‪#‎tea‬ from Phoenix Tea is akin to witnessing a cow being eaten by piranhas. They're enjoying themselves, learning to drink the good stuff, and being alarming, all at the same time."

My students, who are Young in the Ways of Tea, are meandering toward the observation that the Hojicha carried by Phoenix Tea (and which is happily affordable) makes them think of a life connected to nature—like a walk outside, like the smell the forest air takes on after a rain. Or maybe just before a rain? Well, something to do with a rain, anyway.

Hojicha, as my more attentive students now know, is made from the stems of the tea plants whose leaves have already been plucked. The Japanese, who don't have endless land upon which to grow their tea, have developed a frugal system in which they don't waste anything they can brew.

What little I could get of the tea—after the tea sharks had had their way with it—was an easy pleasure. It's been awhile since I've made tea for my students, so I'm rusty, and this tea was a good one to start with. Woodsy, surprisingly smooth, and good for teenagers who had no idea what they were tasting. I chose this tea because, being affordable, I wasn't as anxious about screwing it up while I get my tea chops under me again.

I'm trying to relax as I write this, focusing on those few tea friends I know who would read this, like I did when I first started writing tea reviews. Somehow the knowledge that strangers have read this blog close to a quarter million times is a trifle intimidating. So back to basics. I'll pretend I'm back in the Facebook group, discussing what I think about this or that.

{ Miss Twiggy }
I'd buy the twiggy hojicha again. It's inexpensive enough that it's easy to experiment and play around with, while being sufficiently highbrow to feel like I'm giving the students and my fellow teachers something interesting to dig into.

When I'm sharing tea, you see, I'm not just providing a service; I'm trying to wake myself up—and not with the caffeine alone. Because I tend toward pretty serious depression, I value that which will make me aware that I'm alive, pull me out of my funk, get me past the listlessness, and let me have some enjoyment in the moment I happen to be in. Good music does this. (Today I was listening to a combination of Ralph Vaughan Williams and medieval stuff from Spain.) So does time talking to some very few of my friends. So does spending time with my lovely Suzanne. Surprisingly, so does teaching English literature. When I can dig in, delve into my interests and share them with someone else, I feel like I'm touching a live wire. And if a cup of golden-brown leaf juice can help me do that—well, fantastic.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

{ The 39 Steeps tea blog's stately progression }  
Hi, all!

It's been awhile since last I wrote here, and awhile before that, and so on. I'm regularly irregular, it seems.

I've been teaching at Valeo Academy, and over the last year my students—including, surprisingly, a number of high school boys—have taken an interest in the tea I have been drinking.

So last term, they drank, and drank, and drank my tea, sampling and discovering why the Good Stuff is, in fact, the good stuff. And they drank my tea until I completely ran through my dragon's hoard of Camellia sinensis leaves. Fie!

And a few of the students came up with the wise idea to actually cough up some money to help me buy more tea. Thus, The 39 Steeps Tea Club is born. Though anyone at Valeo can sample the tea, the kids who added some money to the till get bragging rights as founding members, and they get to drink anything I have, until I run out of tea again.

Our first tranche of tea has been generously provided for us by Cinnabar (Virginia Wright), the author of Gongfu Girl and numerous other writing outlets; and Brett Boynton of Black Dragon Tea Bar blog. Together they are the proprietors of Phoenix Tea Shop, which has been around for about five years at this writing, since 2010. When I contacted Cinnabar via Facebook, I told her my budget and asked her to come up with an unflavored tea care package for my students. And wow, did she and Brett provide.

In the days to come, I'll begin showcasing tea again on the blog, hurray and heaven be praised! I know I take a circuitous route to writing here, so we'll see how this goes. Thank you for your patronage. And thank you, Phoenix Tea Shop, for providing my students and me some delicious teas.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A tea barista is born!

{ A typical tea barista,
hopped up on caffeine and English literature }  
This term, I've become my English students' tea barista. I've shared with them puerh, introduced glorious oolong, and let them get to know beautiful red teas (by which I mean, black teas, but I wanted to avoid the alliteration). I get the kids jazzed up on caffeine and L-theanine, talk poetry and literature, then send them on their merrier way. I'm told their gym classes are livelier with less-lethargic students.

It all started with a student whom I'll call, "Nadia," because that's her first name. She was not feeling well, and she begged for a bit of tea to soothe her aching throat. And, being the accommodating sort, I wanted to help. My schedule was inconvenient, and I couldn't stay away from my classroom to make her tea, so I walked my tea table over and plopped it on the edge of my big teacher's desk at the head of the room.

I made Nadia some flowery stuff I hadn't drunk and didn't want to drink, but which I thought she might enjoy. And enjoy it she did. Then I saw how some other students had procured teacups from somewhere, and they were sharing the rest of her pot. Hm, something I hadn't expected.

Now, the students had heretofore watched me drinking my good tea, and they were interested, but I hadn't really shared the stuff before. It had always been made already in my office, and then I would bring it to class in a pot for serving to myself during class. But now: Tea was right there, in front of them, on a cool bamboo tea tray with a lot of funky accoutrements. And I had a beeng of puerh, which I wanted to try out.

That fateful day, I cracked open the puerh, and a bunch of tea appreciators were born. My friends at Jas-eTea (pronounced, \ˈja-zē ˈtē\, if I'm not mistaken) and at Yunnan Sourcing had recently sent me a pirate's treasure trove, an embarrassment of riches, a veritable Smaug's horde. Puerh in several varieties, and dan cong oolongs, and blacks, and reds, and I don't know what all. I started with a nice, ripe puerh.

"Oh, you won't like this," I shared in an aside to some of the boys, who seemed interested, "because it's manly man tea, and you don't have enough testosterone to drink it." The trap was set.

{ A Burmese tiger trap also serves to catch teens' attention }
"No, really. I mean, you obviously like the flowery tea, but you wouldn't want to drink this puerh, which often reminds people of tobacco, and rubber tires, and smoke, and leather, that kind of thing. It's like nothing you've ever had, and you can't enjoy it."

"No, we can drink it! Please, let us try some." Much sniffing of tea. "It smells great. I'll drink it." Deep basso rumbles from the cool kid in class. "I'm sure I'll like it."

"Fine, you can try it, but if your idea of tea is foofy chocolate-strawberry-souffle tea-like beverage, you're going to be disappointed."

The snare thus set, I pulled a yixing pot from its box, set out the Taiwanese sniffing cup sets, and started heating up the water. With intense focus, the guys—at this point, the girls were still uninterested—watched as I opened up the beeng of puerh, carefully stabbed into it to divide out the leaves without breaking them, and plopped them into the tiny warmed pot. Sniff, sniff. The kids got a whiff of tobacco, of subtle smoky vanilla, and that interesting hay barn aroma that makes you feel like you're in the healthful outdoors.

Pour, pour. I show the guys the whole crazy rigamarole of the sniffing cup inside the drinking cup, the flipping of the cups, catching the aroma of the tea. All the while, I explain where puerh comes from (Yunnan, of course), the way it's double-fermented, the idea of its aging, the puerh boom of the '90s, what gongfu is, and so on. The tea is served.

Flip, flip; Sniff, sniff; drink, drink. Sharp interest. They like it. I give more information. "Did you know . . . " that young men at university are the fastest-growing group of tea drinkers, and they and bond traders like it because it helps them focus without getting jittery? It's a productivity hack, you know. And though lots of people tout puerh for its health and weight benefits, I just drink it for the feeling of elevation, relaxation, and the enjoyment of my senses opening up. And being a tea appreciator involves being observant, which this class is all about. And you might just be the only high school students in Illinois drinking puerh tea with their instructor this afternoon. Interesting, huh? "Did you know . . ."

And that was about four months or so ago. Tea every day. The girls are now equally interested, and the students are collectively the worst bunch of tea beggars I've ever encountered. I should put out a tip jar. They write the "Tea of the Day" on the board when I have something interesting to share. The girls like the greens and the dan cong oolongs, and my original set of puerh drinkers remain fiercely loyal to that compressed tea. And when my students begged me to teach them about tea (in an attempt to get me off track), I gave them a whole lecture on the story of Keemun tea and English Breakfast, a list of the Ten Great Teas of China, and had them take a test on it, for credit.

So what's all this about then? Tea is a metaphor, a means to teach the art of observation and enjoyment. Reading Dostoyevsky, or Wallace, or Faulkner, or cummings, or the Word of God; or listening to piano works by Ravel; or drinking tea. Observing, enjoying, processing, organizing, writing. It all comes together, and I hope my students learn something about how to really enjoy life in the quiet, small things. I know that, through the experience, I certainly have. Being an English teacher–barista and sharing from my tea hoard has become one of my great joys.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Brother, Can You Spare $1700?

It's Christmas, and so my mind turns to ways my reader can make my life even better. And so I present the Confluence Topographic tea table, which you can buy for me at for only $1700. But act quickly, because the artist only created 100 of these babies.

Nothing matches sharing a cup of tea with loved ones on a picturesque lookout overlooking undulating mountains, winding rivers, and calming lakes. Confluence gives you a miniature version of the experience.

Confluence is a wooden tea tray that serves up to 6 persons. Carved out of Birch plywood, it creates a beautiful landscape like form. The layers of the ply accentuate the undulating landscape through their alternating dark and light seams. A large central reservoir is created by the terrain. Excess tea will naturally flow towards the reservoir and form a miniature lake. As the tea gathers, the level gradually rises just like a lake does when it rains.

The tray has been processed on both sides such that a thin layer remains. The underside of the tray is as mesmerizing as the top. Supported on just four points, it visually floats above any surface.

Must, must, must have.

Yep, just $1700. Christmas, anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Cask of Puerh

A FEW WEEKS AGO, my charming, bloody-minded freshmen and sophomores at Valeo Academy cackled with glee at Montresor's antic vengeance over the wine-clotted soul of his frenemy, Fortunato. That is to say, I taught "The Cask of Amontillado," by Edgar Allen Poe: and while doing so, I thought of you, my dear reader. So before I explain why, will you take a moment to click on the caption of the image below and go to the (I promise you, short) story, which you will be able to read in next to no time?

{ E. A. Poe }

Friday, November 7, 2014

Budda Teas: Yerba Maté

{ Indonesian Hotei sculpture }  

yerba maté

Yerba maté is not a tea, but that doesn't mean I'm not allowed to enjoy or write about it. I don't think Happy Buddha would have minded me taking a foray away from Camellia sinensis for a change of pace.

Buddha Teas sells mid-range, commercial-grade teas that seem well designed for the burgeoning American tea-drinking market. They're prepared in organic-looking teabags which are individually sealed for freshness.

Most Americans have never heard of maté, but being happy to experiment, they would probably like what they find. Yerba is caffeinated, rather hip (being Ché Guevara's favorite drink when he wasn't killing people while looking dashing), and containing some good nutrients.

But that's not why we drink it. We drink it because it's interesting and it tastes good.

Buddha Teas does not publish information about where they source their teas and other infusions, which means there's no way to identify the drinks' provenance. But because the market for yerba maté has not been developed in the West to the degree that coffees and teas have been, this is par for the course.

what is this stuff, and why should I care?

Maté derives from the leaves of a South American, evergreen holly tree, Ilex paraguariensis. It's been a staple in South America for—well, forever, it seems.

The Axe (pronounced aché) people of Paraguay first discovered yerba's invigorating qualities. The Axe did not fare well in their interactions with westerners, and their lands have been shrunk down to less than 50 km in a mere two reservations in Paraguay, and they have experienced privations, massacres, and enslavement; along with being confined to reservations away from their ancestral lands. It was during this disastrous period of interaction with outsiders (from the mid-1600s to present) that the Axe shared Ilex paraguariensis, and its popularity spread throughout South America and beyond.

Americans are largely unaware of the ubiquity of yerba maté south of our border. Rich families were known to keep a maté girl on staff, whose job it was to keep the water coming. There's quite an involved process to making an infusion of maté, involving gourds and special drinking straws, which I won't go into here, because it's beyond the scope of the drink I have before me.

{ For the life of me,
I don't know how people can find
vicious murderers cute. }  
I love maté. I was first introduced to this about 20 years ago in a trendy café in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, at the University of Illinois. A lady was drinking from a shiny silver straw and a chased-silver gourd. I'd never seen nor heard of anything like this before, and I of course had to know more. Yerba maté, I was told. The shop even had the mate, the gourd, and the bombilla straw, which I played with as the shopkeeper kept the hot water coming. Charming, and a completely new flavor.

My kind mother-in-law purchased a mate gourd for me with its bombilla, but I find I can't get the hang of the slightly gourdesque flavor that I've not yet successfully driven from the instrument, alas. So I'll make my maté in a china gaiwan, from which I can easily scrub the aromas so they don't affect subsequent steepings. For this experiment, I'm using my usual teacup, a Russian podstakannik and its glass, for the maté. Not exactly kosher, but who's to know? The result is not nearly as strong as a South American's experience, which I've found to be a bit much for my wimpy tastebuds.

the cup

Buddha Teas sells their yerba maté in its roasted, rather than green, form. Their roast style is quite light, making for a quite airy cup. Pale green in color, lightly fragrant, the brew is remarkably unlike the more heavily roasted stuff I'm used to.

The teabag (matébag?) is kept freshly in its packaging, though I don't know how long it was in other
packaging until finally deposited into its bag and sealed. Boiling water, about 5 minutes steeping time (longer than what I would allow for a similar amount of tea, but because there are no tannins to deal with, bitterness is not an issue).

The end result is a young flavor, green, light, like flowers on water. If you haven't tasted yerba maté before, I don't know how to describe it to you other than this: It's similar enough to tea to make you compare them, but different enough that the flavor profile is surprising and unexpected. Clarify much? I thought not.

I think I'd like the brew more if it had been stronger, sharper, more biting, more complex. The flavors are pleasing, though, and ones I was happily familiar with from earlier experiences with maté. The presentation of maté given by Buddha Teas is similar to that of a white tea, with aroma and lightness being the primary characteristics.

Thank you, Buddha Teas, for giving me an experience of your yerba maté. I wish you well in your business!