Sunday, November 27, 2011

TEA CONVERSION RATE: 1 in 7 billion. A personal record!

{ Radar and Thumbelina: Two other record holders }  
I've been drinking tea with growing seriousness for over 20 years. (Of course, readers of this blog may argue whether seriousness is a term that can be used to describe me at all, but we'll have to argue about that later.) In all that time, I've never, ever, converted someone to becoming a tea drinker. It's been strictly inside-baseball, preaching to the choir, kicking at open doors, biting the wax tadpole.

{ "I love flower tea!"
Kate gushes embarrassingly }
But my record is now officially 1 in 7 billion. My sister-- my annoying, bratty, smart-aleck sister-- has blogged about how she loves flower tea. "Loves," she captions, and she even uses an exclamation point under the photo she helpfully supplied. Not unlike certain feminine fans of Justin Bieber, who love him to, like, eleventy!!11!!!!

Throughout the years, Kate has mocked my tea obsession in earnest. But she "loves" flower tea? Bwa-ha-ha! Please go over to her blog and cause her to repent her Snidely Whiplash routine whenever I talk tea, and because she has publicly outed herself as a tea drinker-- nay, luuuuuver.

{ Kate Prouty Hearts Justin Beaver }

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Something Beautiful: Happy Birthday, Karen Wray

{  Karen Wray, "Purple Iris," 20" x 20", oil on canvas }  

I have talented siblings. My older sister, Karen Wray, lives in Los Alamos, NM, and she creates quite beautiful regional art, focusing on local (hopefully nonradioactive) flora; haunting landscapes from the area in which she lives; and gorgeous, photorealistic representations of basset hounds in tutus, or playing the guitar, or dancing flamenco. She sells her work and that of other local artists at her studio, Karen Wray Fine Art Gallery. If you ever get to the greater Santa Fe area, look her up. Los Alamos Laboratory and the town that supports it are about a half hour or so from SF. You can also buy her work online at her website, which includes pricing and so on.

Karen is 10 years older than I am, and I'm happy she did not kill me when she had the chance. She had the unfortunate job of babysitting me when I was a kid, and I remember saying to her so often, the moment my parents closed the front door as they left, "You're not my Mom. I don't have to listen to you." From that point on, it was war.

But eventually we grew out of it. In college sometime. She moved to Los Alamos, and as a family, we fell in love with this lovely region, so different from the Southwest suburbs of Chicago. "Look! Non-flat rock things! Non-gray skies! The color brown! It's a dry heat!"

{ Karen Wray, "Summer Thunderclouds," 18" x 24", oil on canvas }  
Karen opened her gallery a couple years ago, and she's been filling it with works by talented friends of hers from the pretty vibrant Los Alamos arts community.

You know, I never imagined Karen would end up as a painter when I was a kid. She worked at the lab, doing horrible number-crunching work as a budget analyst or something like that. When she left her position at the lab because the rheumatoid arthritis she struggles with became too much of a problem, she reinvented herself as an artist. She's faced so many medical procedures, operations, pharmaceutical regimes, therapies, and so on; and yet, she doesn't complain about it. She doesn't whine, or act self-pitying, or let herself off the hook for living a full and happy life with her dogs, her husband Bill, her beautiful home, and her paint. And her dogs. Really, she's a superhero to me, and one of the most brave, admirable, smart, and tenacious women you'd ever meet. I miss her, and New Mexico is a long way away.

Karen, happy birthday! XOXO

(And thank you in advance for not suing me because I posted your pictures without your permission.)

NOT Karen Wray's Painting.
I'm just sayin', they'd be a cash cow!

Something Beautiful: Teaboard by Mirko Randová

La Voie du Thé, a French-language tea blog, features a lovely tea table today, which was created by ceramicist Mirko Randová. Just beautiful to look at, no? Hit the link above and look at the table (lovingly photographed) from a variety of angles. Look at how the circular holes are echoed in the surface design. The artist can be contacted here.

Monday, November 21, 2011

End of Days Predicted as Coffee Becomes Rare and Expensive

{ Fear! Fire! Foes! Awake! The Zombies Are Nigh! }  
At Forbes online magazine, tech writer Alex Knapp (Repent! the End of Cheap Coffee Is Nigh!) is in a dead panic. And by dead panic, I mean that he's having nightmares of a slow-zombie apocalypse slouching toward his cubicle to be born. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, Alex; for it tolls for thee, the rest of the coffee-drinking world, and thus, civilization as we know it.

(Strangely enough, IMDb has no record of any movie entitled, Dead Panic. With all those zombie apocalypsi (fast or slow), sparkly vampires, and other delightfully sexy undead creature features, why has no one written a direct-to-DVD thriller with that name? I blame the exquisitely marbled Michael Moore, who would make a great entree in Dead Panic.)

What was I talking about? Oh, yes, a zombie apocalypse brought on by "peak coffee." Alex's nightmares began when he read an article by Zak Stone, editor of The Daily Good. Stone starts by discussing the high-end coffee market, where at Intelligentsia Coffee, in Venice, California, their baristas and "coffee groupies" sound just like tea drinkers displaying their obsessive-compulsive side. They have a "Slow Bar," where they do coffee in much the same way as my tea-drinking friends and I.

The idea of the Slow Bar is to “give the customer an experience that expands their idea of what coffee is,” says Charles Babinski, who trains the staff in different brewing techniques and hosts educational events for customers. It’s a place where customers can sit down and ask questions about coffee, but it’s “not meant to be beating people over the heads with education as much as just creating different coffee experiences.”

See? Doesn't that sound just like us? And here, we've been thinking that coffee swillers just slam their way through their vente cinnamon chokeaccinos without noticing the subtle nuances or using language such as the following: “Lychee, persimmon and botanical notes bring a weightlessness to the muscular and expansive Tegu. Marmalade and sweet herbs float in the background while the finish hangs onto a hint of spice.” Doesn't that sound like something Wojciech Bońkowski might have written on his blog, Polish Wine Guide, which-- name aside-- discusses tea with his rare and discerning palate?

Stone notes that for those willing to spend $5 or $6 for a cup of coffee, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. But for those unfortunate enough not to be willing to spend that kind of dough, they're likely to find that the cost of coffee is going to skyrocket to the point that they'll have to either cut back how much they drink or live with lower-quality stuff than they're used to. Increasing demand plus decreasing production volume equals extinction-level event. We're all gonna die.

Consider: What would Western civilization be without coffee? Would Bach have written those finger-tangling toccatas and fugues without a caffeine buzz to keep him going? Would Picasso have spent his life creating art objects like, Still Life from One Angle at a Time, Thank You Very Much? Would the sainted Steven Jobs have discovered the secret to making sleek, shiny objects that can hypnotize mass audiences into giving him all their savings?

I doubt it.

{ Peak Coffee: Batten Down the Hatches }  
Stone points to anthropogenic climate change (predictably) and not enough high-mountain acreage as the culprits for the decreasing supply of high-quality arabica beans. What he doesn't take into account are the possibilities that the decrease in volume may be a temporary aberration, or that human ingenuity may allow us to develop new cultivars in much the same way that the chocolate or tea geniuses have done. Or that people may just switch to drinking other beverages entirely, so there may be hope, after all. Nevertheless, short-term supply problems may trigger the zombie apocalypse predicted by jittery fanboys.

At the exact moment that rare beans are becoming all the rage, all beans are becoming rarer. The price of a cup of coffee—whether it be a $6 pour-over, a $2.50 dark roast at Starbucks, or a $1.50 mug of diner swill—is being driven up by a complex combination of weather events, pest and fungus outbreaks, speculation on commodities exchanges, an unstable labor market in the developing world, and an unprecedented thirst for good coffee among a growing global middle class. The problem, in simple economic terms, is that supply has gone down and demand has gone up.

Now, tea drinkers deal with some similarly troubling reports. A couple seasons ago, the Taiwanese dealt with horrible landslides that killed many, because the high-mountain Li Shan tea farms had increased in number and acreage to the point that the topsoil could not withstand a terrible storm. A burgeoning Chinese middle class is starting to demand coffee and tea (as well as other luxury items), which puts pressure on international markets. Unsustainable farming practices endanger some Indian tea-growing plantations' ability to produce high-quality leaves over the long term. And don't even get me started on the fake aged puerh phenomenon. And so on.

The upshot is that the very, very high-end Chinese teas are kept in-country for the consumption of Chinese millionaires and Party members; wonderful-enough-to-satisfy-everyone-else teas are still widely accessible, especially through the wonder of the Internet, for those willing to spend a premium; and cheap teas will probably follow in the path of coffee and have some kind of temporary spike in price (along with other comestibles), until markets react and come to a new equilibrium.

But until that point, when I'm around coffee drinkers, I'll still watch my back.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Kate writes about "Fictional Food" and other nonsense

{ Kate Prouty Flute Studio takes no prisoners }  

My younger sister, Kate, writes something like a blog, Some of This May Be True. It's better than mine, though, because she's funny, and she swears a lot. Plus, she writes about food, which is a broader subject than that of tea, and the topic tends toward a whole-life approach to writing. Perhaps I'll write about food-life on this blog more, and then ALL HER BLOG TRAFFIC BELONG TO ME. (The skull-and-flutebones picture above is the logo she created for her flute studio. It gives you a good idea of what kind of person we're dealing with, here.)

But she knows bally-all about tea, so that's one point for me, I suppose.

I hereby commit copyright infringement by copying a goodly chunk (with a picture) from her blog, a post entitled, "Clean Eating vs. Sloth: My Dilemma." Within the post, she mentions how she wants to write a series about this journey from sloth and despair to . . . whatever is one slot above that, I suppose. I hasten to say, a sluggard is quite unlikely to create an actual series about anything. Instead, I predict she'll write maybe one or two more posts about it before she gives it up. If you want, you could go over there and give her some encouragement to keep writing. Or to hang up the writing thing entirely and just stick to Shutting Up and Playing Her Stupid Flute, Already.

P.S.: I've made some typo corrections on her blog post, just to keep your eyes from bleeding. You're welcome.

4: FICTIONAL food. This is stuff that bears no resemblance to food, but is still marketed as edible. Cheetos. Fruit roll-ups. Kool-Aid. Pretty much anything with a cartoon character on the label falls into this category. 
I rarely branch into the Fictional Food category, because even at my most slothful, I realize that this is unacceptable. It's like trying to tell yourself that it's ok to eat Play-Doh because it's nontoxic. Crayons in tacos! Newspaper smoothies! Um. Don't think so.

UPDATE: For Alex Zorach (who was kind enough to comment below), here's a product I think might just be a great Christmas gift.

{ Alex Z., call your office. }

Sunday, November 13, 2011

My new tea timer: The 10,000-year clock

As some of you may remember, I have appalling time sense. To me, a day is as a thousand years, a thousand years is as a day, and the three minutes it takes to make a typical cup of Darjeeling is an incalculable duration that my interior time-sense can make nothing of. So I've always got to keep counting in my head, or I have to employ a timekeeper to ensure I don't under- or oversteep a tea I'm working with.

BUT what will I do 10,000 years from now? I mean, once the Singularity has meshed us with computers, and we are living an incomprehensibly long life with all the tea browsing sites we could ever want just downloading into our brains, how will I keep track of tea-steeping time then? I must assume that digital watches will have gone out of style, and that living for thousands of years will make our routines like keeping tight schedules seem quaint and out of date. So what about tea, then?

Well, I have just the answer. I've decided upon the 10,000-year clock as my tea timer of choice, if only for pure aesthetic reasons. It's beautiful, designed to be so, so that people deep in the future would have reason to wind it up and keep it going for another century or so, even after all memory of us has vanished from the earth. (Except for the grudge the cockroaches will probably still be carrying about us.) 

"And what is this 10,000-year clock," you might ask? Well, first, it's gigantic, and it's buried in a mountain to keep it safe and sound. It takes two people to wind it up. and it's designed to be functionally beautiful and make us think about what the world might be like in the deep future, so we take better care of things now.

{ finally, a worthy tea timer }  
If your heart does not ring at the thought of your Space Darjeeling being carefully timed by such a lovely timepiece as this (the small-scale mockup of the real thing), then there is no help for you.

Lu Yu would approve. For those of us who can't keep count, that is.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"Honey, I poisoned the kids!"

{ An Evil Bee Walks into a Bar* }  
Bears love honey
And I'm a Pooh bear
So I do care
So I do care

Why do you people insist on drinking honey with your tea? Are you mad? First, it masks the flavor of the tea so thoroughly, it's nigh impossible to discern the actual leaves you're drinking from. Second, if you have to sweeten your tea, you're doing it wrong. And third, well, I can't think of anything, but just don't!

Oh, yes. Third: "Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn't Honey." Apparently, it's poisonous and evil, China's little way of saying, "Hello," to their friends on the other side of the world. They microfilter their honey to hide its origin, so people don't know what they're getting. And what they're getting is honey chock full of illegal antibiotics and heavy metals. If the honey you're buying doesn't have natural pollen in it, it's not honey, per se, but something else.

"In my judgment, it is pretty safe to assume that any ultra-filtered honey on store shelves is Chinese honey and it's even safer to assume that it entered the country uninspected and in violation of federal law," he added.


"We are well aware of the tricks being used by some brokers to sell honey that originated in China and laundering it in a second country by filtering out the pollen and other adulterants," said Wenger, whose firm markets 55 million pounds of honey annually under its Busy Bee brand, store brands, club stores and food service.

"The brokers know that if there's an absence of all pollen in the raw honey we won't buy it, we won't touch it, because without pollen we have no way to verify its origin."

Trader Joe's has safe honey, it seems, so buy from them. Local producers may be selling good stuff, but you'd have to verify that. But most of the other stuff is junk.

And so, to lighten the mood, I've found some honey that has not been proven to poison anyone. Sweet Honey on the Rock, singing, "There Were No Mirrors in My Nana's House," which I find haunting and lovely, a perfect lullaby for babies and angry bees.

* Evil Bee picture was created by Director/Animator Stefan Nadelman, who created this Evil Bee video, with music by Menomena.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Tea Is Sometimes All About the Crazy.

Mike Tyson Hearts Tea and Cannoli. And Human Ears.  
Dorri Olds at OpenSalon writes about an encounter she had with a peculiar Earl Grey drinker she served at an Italian restaurant in which she served as a waitress. Quite a charming article, entitled, "Compassion and a Cannoli."
When I put the tea and pastry down, his posture changed. He’d sit up a little straighter, hold his head a little higher. He’d pick up the tea cup and put it right under his nose and inhale deeply. His face lost its tension. He’d pull the teabag out of the cup and place it in his spoon. He’d wrap the white string around and lift the spoon three times, forcing a few drops of tea into the cup. He’d set down the spoon with teabag on his napkin. He’d curl his hands around the warm cup. He’d then switch over to the cannoli. He was the only customer who used a knife and fork. Everybody else just picked a cannoli up like a hot dog.

When searching for images, I found a video with Mike Tyson drinking tea and eating cannoli. Odd enough to merit a link, I suppose.

You're welcome.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Drink Cheap Wine . . . and Tea?

Pablo Picasso, "The Bottle of Wine," c1925  

Gentle readers, I would ask you to read the following article from Slate online magazine: "Drink Cheap Wine: I Mean, Really Cheap." Here's a sample:

Ernest Gallo, who, along with his brother Julio, popularized wine among the American masses, understood the psychology of wine better than anyone. He used to pour two glasses of wine for potential buyers, telling them that one sold for 5 cents, and the other for 10. According to Gallo, his guinea pigs invariably chose the more expensive option. What they didn’t know was that the two wines were exactly the same. Researchers have recently reproduced Gallo’s results, proving that our appreciation of a wine depends on how much we think it costs. If you can break yourself of this psychological quirk—or have your spouse lie to you about the cost of your wine—you’ll save a small fortune.

Interesting, no? Basically, they're saying that "everyday wine" is usually pretty consistent within a brand, and that it's typically serviceable, unless you happen to be a dedicated oenophile. And maybe even then.

So what about tea, O Wise? Would you drink what we often term, "bog-quality swill," without being embarrassed by it? Or do you need the "high-quality" imprimatur from such geniuses as the writers at The 39 Steeps?

Personally, I've found that I can drink even Lipton's and make a fair-to-middlin' cup. If I get to open the plastic wrapper, and if the tea is newly purchased, and if I am extremely careful about steeping time. With Tazo at Starbucks, I've had no such luck, because the temperature at which the tea is steeped at is too low, in my opinion, to make anything but a rather flat, insipid cup of tea. (The paper cups may have something to do with that effect, also, at least psychologically. A nice, solid ceramic teacup makes me think what's inside it is better than what's inside a paper cup with a plastic lid.)

I don't think the tea market and the coffee or wine markets are equivalent, however. Americans are accustomed to a higher-quality product with their coffee and wine, and they associate tea with what you drink when you're sick, or something that tastes execrable.

Please respond in the comments. What "bog-quality" teas will you drink, and why? Or do you stick to only the highest and bestest stuff?

Review: RARE TEA REPUBLIC, Phoobsering Special Oolong, 2011

Madame Dugazon Awaiting Tea and L'Amour  
I have only just heard of a new company, Rare Tea Republic. Their website says they focus on small-parcel, single-estate, fresh tea.

Their Phoobsering Special Oolong Organic, which comes from the Phoobsering Estate in Darjeeling, India. Interestingly, the package I received from them gives the plucking date, April 1, 2011. This is precisely the kind of information I'm looking for when purchasing a tea. I want to know who, what, where, when, how and probably the why of any serious tea. Even the best tea, if it's been sitting in a bin too long, will degrade to the point where you'd be better off drinking cheaper but fresher stuff (not counting puerhs or certain oolongs, which benefit from age).

So what do we know about Phoobsering? It's high: 6000 feet (though I hasten to stay, I used to live with my sister in Los Alamos, NM, which is at 7200 feet; However, Los Alamos is covered in nuclear weapons labs, not green tea plantations, so there's that.) It's one of the major estates in India, and has been around from the beginning of tea cultivation in Darjeeling, and it ranges from about 3000 to 6000 feet. Apparently, the Special Oolong Organic is from their higher slopes, which means it should have benefited from the harsher, colder winters, which help intensify the flavor of high-grown Darjeelings.

The April date indicates a first-flush tea, so you would expect it to be lighter in body and flavor, and also a bit less complex than the leaves from the same plant a little later in the season. First-flush Darjeelings are very much in vogue in Germany (and other European countries, I suppose, as well, though I don't know which ones), but it hasn't caught on in the United States as much. We're a coffee-swilling country; so something light, delicate, and subtle as a first-flush Darj. is typically not to our taste.

The directions given by the tea procurer call for 3 tsp per cup at 190F. Pfshaw! We are the makers of manners, and prudish customs bow before great tea drinkers! And me, too. I decided to take their "oolong" designation seriously and make the tea gongfu style: lots of leaf, lots of short steepings.

1st steeping: 92C, 50s
Light, not surprisingly. No trace of bitterness. Highly fragrant, as you'd hope from a Darjeeling. Tastes much like a beautiful-quality Darjeeling, but I can't really grab hold of how processing it as a Darjeeling sets it apart from other Darjeelings sufficiently to make much difference.

2nd steeping: 92C, 40s
More body. The cup is a rich amber, as most 1st-flush Darjeelings tend to be. Slight hint of a bite to the cup-- which is something I prize in a Darjeeling. (For I like my tea, cheese, wine, and women opinionated.) The complexity is starting to develop on the palate. Tastes rather green, a touch sweet-vegetal.

My second-tea-taster-in-house, Gregory, says it's good. And he's no slouch when it comes to high-quality teas, even though he's 9 years old. But now he's escaped his homework/tea tasting to play Legos, so I'm on my own.

3rd steeping: Just off the boil, 55s
Strong amber color to the cup, perfectly clear to the bottom. The leaves have unfurled entirely, with quite a bit of the two-leaves-and-a-bud. A bit more breakage on the leaves than I would expect. Leaves quite uniformly light-forest green. Buds floating about. There's a sort of faint but hot spiciness to the aroma of the wet leaves, underneath the sweetness. It's not a particularly floral tea, but the allusive aroma is so very attractive. Happily, the cup closely follows the aroma (which is not typically the case). The flavor unfurls in the mouth in waves, as one breathes. The huigan, which is what you sense mainly by the aroma coming up through the sinus passages, is pleasing, direct, strong in the middle register but without much at the high or low end. Because it's a light tea with a resonant middle register, if it were an opera singer, I'd classify this as a light mezzo-soprano, a jeunes dugazon, which is like unto a young mother, just past the first blush of youth but not yet into her full maturity. Lovely, light, a bit inexperienced, not overly complicated or carrying too much baggage.

4th steeping: Just off the boil, 1 min
My wife is making coffee in the kitchen, where I make my tasting today. SO . . . that means the tea currently steeping may just have a delightfully beany aroma, a strong, black, smokiness, and whatnot. I may have to evacuate to even sense the tea at all. As a side note: Any tea shop that also sells coffee will have to contend with this, and they'll have to choose robust teas that will stand out among the coffee scents, which are much more pervasive.

The tea is still going strong, and a bit of mineral flavor is starting to make itself felt. The flavor is a bit uninflected, without many complex overtones. Again, this is fairly typical of first-flush Darjeelings. If you are looking for overwhelming complexity, go for those second-flushes.

5th steeping: Just off the boil, 3 min
Well, at this point, the tea has lost its punchy interest; that is, it's still worth drinking, but there's nothing much to be added by further description. Subsequent steepings, if any, will most likely be the same, just progressively less so as the flavor fades into insubstantiality.

Overall Impressions
As a first-flush Darjeeling, it's lovely, and it survived a number of steepings. That being said, I don't quite understand this tea as an oolong. Perhaps the vintage needs a few seasons of rest to develop and come into its true character; or perhaps a light roast may help to bring out something hidden in its quality. Now, because I chose not to follow their directions, I missed the opportunity to have all the layers of flavor on top of one another like some complicated Austrian torte. However, I would rather drink my tea the way I read books: in chapters, with a story developing over time.

THANK YOU, Rare Tea Republic, for this first opportunity to get to know your tea. I do hope you'll continue to provide these higher-end teas and help with convincing Americans that tea can be amazing. This has been a good first impression of your work, and I'm grateful for your generosity.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Where are my monkeys?

"I hate Chris Giddings," says Abominable.  
Chris Giddings, author of the Tea Guy blog, has punctured yet another dearly held belief: that monkeys pick monkey-picked tea, hence the name. Next, he'll probably tell me that Rudolph and Hermey the orthodontic elf didn't pull the Abominble Snow Monster's teeth out and save the day. Curse you, Chris Giddings!*

*And, no, I know this is a myth. Give me some credit, people!

Hobbes Searches for a Proper Englishman's Lapsang

Hobbes Puzzles over Lapsang
Is "Hobbes," author of The Half-Dipper blog, the best tea writer extant? Perhaps, though I have a few others in my must-read category. Unlike me, Hobbes actually puts pictures of real tea on his blog, instead of bits of pop culture or images tangentially related to Camellia sinensis. I do so because I am no photographer, and I cannot approach the beauties of a well-laid tea tray or capture the subtlety of the meniscus at the edge of a lovely cup of hongcha in a purple-clay cup.

And thus, back to Hobbes. He is an instructor at an eminent U.K. university, and I've delighted in learning much of what little I know about puerh from him. Last year, I participated in a tea tasting he hosted, for which I am still grateful.

Today, Hobbes is talking lapsang souchong. As my readers would know (and I invite you to look in my blog here), I had never enjoyed lapsang souchong until a tea friend, George Zhang from Green Hill Tea, converted me with the Bohea Lapsang  he told me came from the Wuyi Mountain reserve, and of which no other than Norwood Pratt himself said,

"I bet I know that Bohea you love--it's from the Jiang Family back in the Wuyi Nature Reserve if I'm thinking of the right stuff--simply the world's best."

Now, Hobbes is searching for a proper Englishman's lapsang, and finds some samples he's interested in. For him, this is a quest not unlike the endless longing for, "The Lost Chord," which Arthur Sullivan described in his tone-poem, composed in 1877. Do listen to the piece while reading Hobbes's article. I've had experiences like this myself: longing for a flavor or aroma only found in my childhood, inextricably linked to my memories of Grandma's cupboard, or Grandpa Allison's pipes, or Clear Lake afternoons. The longing for a golden past is a very English pastime, I believe, which is why Hobbes makes reference to his love for Tolkien (the sentimentalist di tutti sentimentalists, when it comes to his longing for an untouched Shire). But even a poor American such as myself can indulge thus and come away pining for that lost fjord.

I asked in his comments section something like, "So what makes a proper Englishman's lapsang anyway, you tea-swilling Brit?" Well, I asked with a bit more grace than that, but I'm still puzzled. I always thought Brits drank low-quality tea dressed up with pine smoke to cover the deficiencies of the leaves themselves. (But of Americans' tea palates, the less said the better, so no offense meant.) I searched his the archives, and I found the answer here. A sample quote:

This is a delicious hongcha, but it is not lapsang souchong.  Yes, I know that it was plucked by the thighs of young virgins from the finest tea-bushes in the Wuyi mountain range, and then was gently passed over the combusting branches of pine trees through which ambrosial scents whisper throughout the long, spring evenings.  It is an excellent "Zhengshan Xiaozhong".  It is first-class hongcha.
However, it is not lapsang souchong, as English culture has long appreciated it.  This is not to say that English culture has been raised on inferior product - merely that this particular variety is too light, not sufficiently pine-like, not sufficiently sweet-smokey, to be an Englishman's lapsang.

If you've never had the opportunity to read Hobbes's blog, please enjoy a wander through his archives at your earliest convenience. His knowledge of puerh is extensive, and he makes that difficult-to-understand corner of the tea world a bit more accessible. I'm glad to see him writing also about lapsang souchong, which can be an amazing tea when done right.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Tale of the Fairy Great-Grand-Godmother

My, what a big pumpkin you have, Grandma.
My sister and I blog together on Sibling Ribaldry. It's not about tea, though I do cross-post some things. BUT, tea people being the eclectic, zany, and caffeinated people you are, I thought you might appreciate a bit of madness.

I wrote a fairy story, "The Tale of the Fairy Great-Grand-Godmother." It's in fairy tale form, but it's factually true. And then it starts to get weird as the fairy tale starts to seep out into reality. Here's how it starts. Once you read this, please go to the blog and read on, especially to see the Google Chat conversation between my sister and me concerning the fairy tale I had just written.

Sibling Ribaldry. It's where all the cool kids go to slowly and inexorably lose their minds.

Once upon a time, two children were lost in the greenwood.  Well, not so much "lost" as, "told to stay outside and stop watching so much TV already."

They grew up. Or so they said. But the adventure did not end quite yet.

One day, while sitting at their "computers," using Google chat, they accidentally invoked a supernatural being of mischievous mien and unfathomable intent, which has been interfering with the two children in subtle and not-so-subtle ways ever since. And here is how it went.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

New Find: Red Circle Tea blog

Red Circle Tea
Today I discovered something new: a blog entitled, Red Circle Tea: Tea aficianados who travel through Asia.

New to me, anyway. I wish I were a tea aficianado who traveled Asia (and the Himalayas, and, well, anywhere, really). So I have found another source through which to live vicariously. [Edit out self-pitying nonsense here.]

The article that caught my eye is entitled, "The dish not made," about traveling to China and being unable to find bamboo sticks in which a traditional Chinese dish is cooked. The writer (I haven't delved deeply enough into the blog yet to figure out who is who) was told by her Chinese teacher that the Chinese diaspora, when they return home, will often find that their favorite dishes are now difficult or impossible to find, because the cuisine is changing so rapidly. But no bamboo sticks?! I'll let the author tell her story.

“Yes! This is a Chinese dish,very traditional and they serve it all over China, of course, and it’s delicious!”  “You know,” she continued,“ my country changes so fast, from one year to the next.  We don’t have the underground metro, then one day, all of a sudden, we do! And food changes too. Steamed Bamaboo is a common dish, but the Chinese here ,if they were born in China, have been “out”- they have not been back in 10, 20, 30 years, they don’t remember their country’s cuisine. Many were born here. They only know what they learn and eat here, even if they speak Chinese. It doesn’t surprise me you can’t find bamboo. Most people don’t know about it.”
I sipped my tea and reflected on this.  It redefined Chinese American life for me all over again. I imagined American-born Chinese learning about their cultural roots from a distance and how one stays connected to that from across an ocean. Well, I surmised, you do the best you can with what you’ve got.
“Anyhow,” she finished “It’s out of season. Try the spring next year.” And with a start, I realized, so they DO have bamboo sticks! It’s just the wrong season! Haha!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Unqualified but not disqualified

Winged Victory. Just do it, already!
One of my favorite bloggers is a fellow with the French-sounding name, Chris Guillebeau, who writes The Art of Nonconformity. He has a book by the same name, which I encourage you to pick up at Amazon. He talks about his near-perfect lack of credentials, which nevertheless has not kept him from living a life of world travel, a life of living-outside-the-cubicle.

Guillebeau challenges me, because I'm constantly attempting to pull myself out of ruts, caused by being depressed, by being anxious, by feeling stuck or powerless to change my circumstances. Do you ever feel this way? Like your life is really not enough? That you're not giving your wife or kids enough great memories to carry them into their lives? Do you ever wonder, "What would life be like if...."? Guillebeau asks that question, then goes on to answer it for himself.

But what if you don't feel credentialed enough? What if you don't have "what it takes," whatever that is, to really break free and live that life-worth-living? How does one jump over the wall, crash through the troops, strike down that giant? Everybody's life is a hero struggle (as James Joyce beautifully captures in his Ulysses), and I've got my own mountains to climb, starting with that stupid first step.

I want to travel the world, taking my wife and children to China for the pre-Ming tea-picking; to climb the Himalayas and drink tea that is one-day-old fresh. I want to see the Harbin Snow and Ice Festival. I want to return to Europe and breathe Alpine air again. But I feel stuck, because to do all that, I need to reconfigure my business and life arrangements. And this takes a lot of courage and hard work. And, frankly, sometimes I don't feel up to it. The cares and worries of this world are pretty heavy burdens that seem to get me off of my goals, out of sorts with my real self, and into a funk.

And so: Tea. I like to drink tea. I don't have any tea qualifications. I'm not a tea master, nor have I studied under great Taiwanese Tea Masters, as has Stefane. I'm not a certified tea sommelier working with upscale restaurants and hotels to demonstrate to the foodie world how to enjoy great, vintage teas from around the world.

All I've got is the ability to type 90 wpm, a nose and a mouth, and a lively interest. And the ability to speak English fluently.

Guillebeau reminds me that somehow, even one such as I can break out of the mediocre into living the more abundant life. Jesus promised it to us, and I want it. Though I don't really know yet how to become the globetrotting life-drinker I want to be, I will put my faith out there that it can still happen, and I won't give up. I may be unqualified for that life, but I'm not disqualified from the race.

(Please visit Chris G.'s blog, The Art of Nonconformity, if any of this resonates with you.)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Lainie Takes Tea at the Lockwood

Lainie's Tea Service. Jealous, much?
Lainie Petersen, host of the Lainie Sips tea blog, has a bullet-pointed review of her recent afternoon tea at the Palmer House Hilton's Lockwood restaurant in Chicago. For me, the money quote:

Tea: The high point of the service was the excellent tea from Rare Tea Cellar. Unfortunately, the online menu doesn't offer a full list of teas (and completely eliminates its selection of herbal infusions). My Aged Keemun was delicious and my companion's English Breakfast Tea was simply superb. You can't go wrong with Rod Markus's wonderful teas....

Aged Keemun? In a teahouse? In the U.S.?! I've friends in the U.K. who go to tony establishments for tea and report that they have to make do with much less.

For those who don't already know, Rod Markus runs the Rare Tea Cellar, and his love for tea is acting as a transformative influence in Chicago's foodie scene.

I'll have to head over there sometime, put in some earplugs, and enjoy some tea and scones.

(Above picture via The Examiner, credit to Lainie Petersen.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Jetsons FAIL: No tea robots yet?!

Dashed Expectations
This morning, I awake without having had enough sleep. Children stirring at awkward moments during my sleep cycle brought about a spot of insomnia, which has left me groggy and unwilling to de-slackify myself. And this post will no doubt be rife with odd repetitions of unusual words (a tic I have to edit whenever I write), badly drawn analogies, and unconscious alliteration. Be merciful, O gods of grammar. I blame Hanna-Barbera studios.

There Is a Monster at the End of this Post
And so, along with the conspicuous absence of flying cars, which The Jetsons assured me I'd be driving right about now, I'm wondering, "Where my tea robot at?"

And there is no good answer for this. Using the wonder of Google, I've searched high and low, and I've found no robot that will make me a pot of decent tea in the morning, when I most need the help. Because I cannot outsource my tea-making to India, I have to do it myself. This is unfortunate.

I have found some devices, however, which may fit the bill, however imprecisely. They don't look like Rosie, the robotic housekeeper from The Jetsons, unfortunately. With all that stimulus money floating around, why has none of it been spent on this obvious requirement for the awareness-impaired?

Yeah, I don't think so.
Some of the devices designed to automate the tea process seem a bit arcane, like something belonging in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory. I pity the purchaser of the item to the left, which doesn't appear to simplify or automate the process, which begs the question. The Wicked Witch of the West might enjoy using it, though, because it would go so well with her décor, along with a couple of throw-rugs and some window treatments.

"Time for lunch . . . in a cup!"

But what about this thing? The Swan Teasmade (in white, which looks very futuristic, like something from Wall-e). It has a blue, backlit clock; a timer; and a flashy-light-thing, the purpose of which I suppose is to wake you up gently, without a jarring alarm to contend with. I've been told the Teasmade products in the past may not have had the elegance of an iPad or a Disney production; and that they made execrable, bog-quality tea fit only for swilling down in a semi-conscious state. Nevertheless, it seems to be the closest thing to a real tea robot, and I may have to invest in one. Any port in a storm, eh?

Do you think they come in Yixing?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What I Missed: The Northwest Tea Festival

The Plane Left Without Me.
Well, I live in Chicagoland, which means I was nowhere near the movable feast of U.S. teadom, which manifested last weekend at the Northwest Tea Festival. Everybody who is anybody was there. (Please note, I was not there. QED.)

I haven't found much in the blogging world about it (other than notes that it was coming and that it had gone). If you know of any good roundups or notes about it, please pop a link into the comments, and I'll be sure to post them in an update.

Phoenix Tea (a combined effort between Cinnabar Gongfu and Brett at Black Dragon Tea Bar) give a quick rundown with some pictures.

Looking over the program, I can see I've missed an opportunity to learn something and enjoy some teas I've never heard of. Blech. Maybe next year!

Teapotting Is teh AWESOME

Andy Goldsworthy Hearts Planking.

I watched the opening to the first episode of the U.S. version of The Office this morning and discovered a phenomenon called, "planking," which to my astonishment is an Internet meme that has taken hold of the world. It involves people lying down. On things. Like a plank of wood. And posting pictures of themselves lying down on things like a plank of wood. BRILLIANT!


A variant on this theme is something called, "teapotting." Oh, yes, my friends. The old ballad, "I'm a Little Teapot" now has an Internet meme of its own, and you, too, can participate. All you have to do is become a teapot in some unusual venue, snap a photo, and poof! You are now a hipster.

And here, you thought the Internet was for stupid people. 

Please do not try this at home.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Iguana Tea: from the Sleep Talkin' Man

Tea for the Cold-Blooded
"Pay homage to toast. Prostrate yourself in front of it: hot, crunchy bread slice thingy. We shall celebrate with tea! Iguana tea."

Homage to Toast

(Lizard teapot found here.)

Tea for Today tastes some Turkish tea, Western-style

Dr. Who's steampunk samovar
Marlena, who hosts the Tea for Today blog, intersperses tea tasting notes with pictures of faraway places (which often bear no relation to the teas themselves, but reflect her wide traveling experiences and are just lovely to look at), along with other tea facts.

This week she tasted some Turkish tea from two vendors, but she made it Western-style (1 tsp, boiling water, 3 minutes). Traditionally, Turks make their tea with a samovar and all the delightful complexities that go with that. One of these days, I need to buy me one of those contraptions.

Marlena makes the following interesting statement:
As sometimes happens, the taste of the tea follows directly in the foorsteps of the aroma, which to me, is one indication of a good tea. 
While, obviously, there are a million ways to measure a good or great tea, the aroma is particularly useful. The tongue can only identify five flavors-- sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami; but the human nose can identify tens of thousands of different, nuanced aromas. Interestingly, women in general have a stronger sense of smell than men, and their sense of smell is most highly developed during ovulation (if you'll pardon a bit of TMI with your breakfast). So, ladies, drink that comfort tea when you need it, and take good notes of what you're drinking.

Also, dogs have about 10 times the olfactory receptors that humans have. If I had a wish (other than for world peace, blah blah blah), I'd want to have a dog's ability to smell. Can you imagine the nuances of aroma and flavor you'd be able to discover in your favorite teas?

(Doctor Who steampunk Dalek comes from sculptor Alex Holden. I don't think it's actually a samovar, but who's counting?)

[Updated to fix horrid typos. Bleh.]

Sunday, October 2, 2011

BearsBlog finds two Taiwanese oolongs to be... consistent.

Bear Discerning Fine Differences
among Taiwanese Teas
Bears Blog asks, who has the better San Lin Xi oolong from 2011: A source in Taizhong or Floating Leaves?

Takeaway: Taiwanese have their tea crafting down to an art that yields very consistent results. Judging gaoshan tea competitions must be rather difficult!

From what I understand, the Taiwanese may have the world's most sophisticated, upscale tea culture-- and certainly, being filled with businessmen willing to drop a thousand or two dollars on a pot of tea may effectively bring about such fine-tuned discernment that they can easily tell the differences between vintage teas that would elude us Westerners.

Go to Bears Blog for LOTS more to augment your tea education.

Picture of Pooh Bear originally found here.

Tasting Notes: Huang Jin Gui Wu Long, Canton Tea Co.

Though I've been in hiatus, I've been taking some tea notes along the way, which I can share with you now that I'm back up and running.

Tasting notes on Huang Jin Gui Wu Long, from Canton Tea Company

Steeping 1: 25s, all about scent.

Beautiful, golden liquor, with a distinctly fruit-floral aroma that eluded me until I read the liner notes, which stated that this tea is reminiscent and named after the osmanthus flower for both its color and scent. And, yes, this does somewhat remind me of osmanthus-infused oolongs, which I've tasted a number of times in the past.

Steeping 2: 20s, with attitude
The second steeping is quite often the best when drinking oolongs: the leaves have been awakened, but they still retain the potency and have not been diminished in any measurable way. When tasting a tea such as this, it's important to remember that the tea changes in the pot as you drink, revealing a changing character as it breathes. This tea definitely wakes up with the second steeping, and the fruity flavor is accompanied by an astringency that makes the golden infusion take on a brightness on the tongue. Quite delicious. If I were to give this tea a musical label, I would say she is a mezzo-soprano, with plenty of high (but not overly high) notes and a powerful middle register. There is little to no bitterness, and I can't discern any distinguishing low notes (which one would usually associate with, say, an Assam or other black teas). It's quite strong and bright, like hot sunlight filtered through a latticework screen.

Steeping 3 and onward: 20s, 45s, &c
[Author's note: I didn't take notes on the third steeping and onward, being that my life frequently interferes with a properly meditative environment for tea-taking. That being said, the third steeping was delightful, though thinning, stretching out a bit. True to form, that second steeping was the highlight of the gongfu session, and from then on I fought to keep the pot hot enough to extract the flavors from the tea. I was able to get about six pots of tea from this, until I got busy enough that I was unable to continue. The tea outlasted my life's ability to sit still in one place long enough.]

I love how teas can taste like so many things: osmanthus flower aroma, in this case, even though an osmanthus never came in contact with these leaves. If only people realized how teas are like roses, with more varieties and subtleties than a single person can experience in a lifetime.

Lovely tea, Canton Tea. Thanks!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Tea and Snoopy

Every time I set my microwave's timer (sorry, I don't have a Wicked-Witch-of-the-West hourglass) for three minutes-- a good length of time for many black teas-- I hear the rhythm of The Royal Guardsmen, singing, "It's Sopwith Camel Time." [Timer], [3], [0], [0], [Timer].

"And this is relevant to my tea-drinking experience how?" I hear you asking. Well, when one drinks some sophisticated tea using one's best gongfu, and some goofy number from the '60s is ringing in one's head, it rather colors the experience. And because I think it just about every time I make tea. Can't help it. Could be worse, I suppose.

Walker compares dan congs

That's Dan Cong, not King Kong.
Okay, let's remember, the words sound sort of like "don song," not a rhyme with "King Kong."  Walker Tea Review (who's been very busy making videos while I've been on hiatus) reviews two dan congs teas. Walker's got an awesome new intro music mix now, to boot!

Dan cong oolongs are as different and varied as American barbecue recipes, and so a review of only two of them might be a bit too limited. That being said, there are so few of them on the market in the US that it's good to start to think about them at all.  Jason Walker knows his tea, as I'm sure all of you know, and he does such a good job letting you see how to prepare and discern teas. In a way, he's a tea educator more than a tea evangelist. Thanks, Jason.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

It's Time to Wake Up the Ol' Bear

Sleepers, awake!
Well, fellow tea travelers, it's time to wake up and start writing again. Maybe a cup of tea would help.

Thank you for sticking around and being patient while I reorganize my life. Blogging and intense introspection may go together, but perhaps not when I'm writing about tea. I've been working on my business, working on my family life, and working on me. Though I've been drinking tea, it's been in a rather desultory fashion, without spending the time or energy that such an obsession deserves. A bit of ti quan yin here, a splash of sencha there, some pu-erh in between, and of course Darjeeling to keep me honest.

Primarily, I've been reworking my daytime business, Chicago Captioning. Making a new website (can you believe it, still in progress), remaking relationships with clients, and thinking through the entire enterprise. You'd be surprised how much of your time a small business can take. But full steam ahead! Who knows, someday I might even take a vacation.

So we're open for tea. If any of you have any teas you want me to rant about, please do let me know. As always, I'll be honest when I like something and when I don't.  And readers, if you have any recommendations for me, please pop them into the comments section, and I'll be sure to look them up.

I appreciate all my reader(s), and I look forward to being part of your conversations again. Most of the content going forward will be tea oriented, but I will slip in a few other ideas along the way, as the mood strikes. Let the posting begin!

Very sincerely,