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!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Golden Tips Tea, Mankota Exotic Assam 2014: "Oh, that's good. Shut up."

{ "Celtic Gold," by Gea Austen, via DeviantArt }  

"Oh, that's good. Shut up."

When I steeped the Golden Tips "Mankota Exotic Assam," which is from the Mankota tea estate in Assam, India, I was not expecting terribly much. That is to say, I don't typically get excited by Assam teas, because I'm more of a light-and-bright Darjeeling drinker.

The aroma came to me in my office, wafted by my desk fan. Meaty, like beef soup, deep and dark to match the color of the transparent brown liquor. Float a sauteed onion and some carrots in there, and you could serve it for dinner.

Until you hit the taste. Bright yet rich, and as I said, beefy, a touch of a nutty quality, with a pleasing sharpness you wouldn't ordinarily expect with that flavor palette. Fairly simple in its overall manner, yet entirely pleasant.

I followed the packaging directions, 1 tsp, boiling water, 3.5 minutes. Typically I'd try a gongfu presentation, but when I haven't met the tea before, I prefer to follow the instructions of those who know something about it. And if it ain't Baroque, don't fix it. I increased the time to 4.5 minutes for the second steeping, allowing it more time to develop. As always, I try to allow the tea to sit a couple moments before drinking so it can "bloom," to borrow a term from the coffee types. Those first few moments make a big difference to me, causing more complexity to develop in the cup before a tasting.

For my taste, even though I am inclined to ignore Assam teas as a general rule because of the heaviness in the taste coloration, this Mankota by Golden Tips has a light brightness that offsets it and makes it more of a self-drinker. It's not asking for any additional milk or sugar, which is a bit unusual for these heavier-styled teas. It's enjoyable and well worth the time for a couple steepings.

GOLDEN TIPS, a company I've just discovered, has quite an impressive array of India teas from Darjeeling, Assam, Nilgiri, Sikkim, Kangra, and Nepal, each fastidiously marked to establish flush, exact date of picking, and so on. Really nice to see such a variety of high-end teas available for anyone to buy, curated by a company in business since the early parts of the last century. Thank you, GT, for your gift of tea!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

"A Painful Pot," creepy dragon teapot sculpture by Johnson Tsang

{ Johnson Tsang, "A Painful Pot" }  
Johnson Tsang's sculpture, "A Painful Pot," caught my eye today. A Chinese dragon crushes a vessel, not unlike a boa constrictor making a meal. The malevolent serpent clutches the deformed pot, its claws sinking into the bulging material. A snarling, spitting creature's mouth serves as the spout for an unusual teapot design.

Because this object has no handle, the serpent would likely burn your hand on contact if you were so foolish as to try to pour. This sculpture in the vague shape of a teapot suggests none of the tranquil comfort one expects from a good cup of tea. It's an image of devouring supernature red in tooth and claw; cruel, fiery death; a cold, suffocating embrace.

This is not Grandma's teapot. Unless, of course, your grandmother held no sentimental expectations of well-behaved crockery.

Please visit Johnson Tsang's website for lovely photos of his ceramics studio. Lots of cool, creepy stuff there.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Song of the Second Cup

{ Calibrè sells caffeine }

Today I sit at Calibrè with a cup of their Yunnan. It's a coffee shop, so they don't specialize in tea. That being said, the folks here will actually stop and serve a decent run of gongfu, and they even let me come in with my own tea and serve it (so long as I shared some of my stash with them!).

Their Yunnan, which comes from Intelligentsia, is not half bad. It has that lovely balance of smooth and bite, with characteristic aroma, which I read comes from the Da Yeh varietal particular to Yunnan. I don't know anything about varietals, so this is useful to learn.

The first cup from the chahai was a bit sharp, with more bite than I wanted. But the second cup! The complex layers of flavor were suddenly approachable, with fruit and spice balanced nicely. I understand that as the tea cools, some tannins become insoluble, and they are thus unable to affect the taste. (Thank you, Nigel Melican!)

The practical upside is that flavors are hidden behind the dominant bitterness until the tea has had the chance to cool a touch, and then they're revealed as those tannins fall out of the flavor palette. And thus, to my taste, the second cup is golden. I need to remember to let my teas sit a bit, maturing in the cup, before sipping, for the greatest effect. This works with most black teas, including those from China and Darjeeling, and some oolongs. (Well, I imagine the chemistry is the same with all teas; but teas with a strongly bitter front end would benefit most from this practice.)

SO WAIT A MINUTE if you think your tea is too strong, or black, or bitter to be drunk without sugar and cream. That way you can train your tongue to enjoy the complex flavors in the tea (uninhibited by cream and sugar, which hide the true nature of the cup).

Happy cupping!

--The Management

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Calibrè Coffee: A Touch of Gongfu

{ Calibrè Coffee does gongfu }  

Winter 2013–2014 is over, and the snows are over and past. Now I can wear shorts again and sit, enjoying the solitude of my own thoughts and a bit of gongfu at Calibrè Coffee, here in Barrington Hills, Illinois.

Calibrè is a nice little coffee shop in an outdoors mall in Barrington Hills, which my wife and I discovered while walking off a particularly filling sushi dinner nearby. The shop is too easy to miss, its signage blending into the surrounding buildings; but once inside, it's hard to miss the attention the staff gives customers.

This is a place that focuses on coffee. They treat the brew with quite a lot of care, attention given to single-origin beans and the French Press, V60, and Chemex delivery systems. Suzanne (who can still drink coffee) assures me the V60 Ethiopian she had recently--or whatever that was--was crisp and clear, beautifully done. The pour-over method is slow, thoughtful, and a pleasure to watch.

And when Ben, the manager, brought out the Tieguanyin and the simple, white porcelain gaiwan, I was sold. You have to understand: Here in the Western suburbs of Chicago, now that Teegschwendner closed their shop, decent tea is hard to find. Sure, I can drive an hour to the southwest to Dekalb, but my area is empty.

But Calibrè Coffee the rescue, and I'm delighted. They have exactly two teas worth drinking--Tieguanyin and a baozhong--but with a staff who can wield a giawan and handle a gongfu flight, it's a joy. I can sit, and sit, and write, and read, and think, and Ben and Diane make the experience a happy one.

On a basic level, gongfu is, of course, simply about lots of leaf and a series of short steeps, using decent Chinese teas that can handle that preparation style. Add some style points for good water, pressure on the leaves, right temperature, good timing, and you've got a good six, seven cups out of a gaiwan carefully prepared. 

As I type here at the wide marble-ish table, Ben keeps 'em coming, cup after cup of beautifully amber tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy), highly fragrant stuff from Intelligentsia, where they source their coffees. 

I introduced the staff here to Thunderbolt Tea's Darjeeling recently, and who knows? Perhaps this place will soon be one of those outposts of tea culture I'm looking for. Until then, I'll happily drink my oolong, grade papers or write in my book, and enjoy the live music and my own company.

Thank you, Ben, for being willing to spend the time to actually do tea. It's all about care, about thoughtfulness, about being a great host. I'm grateful.

Friday, April 11, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 27, 2014

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

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

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

Thursday, January 30, 2014

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

{ Robert Mullenix, each by name }  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

{ This is me, thinking of brighter pastures }  

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

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

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

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

confessions of a tea blogger

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

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