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.