Monday, January 28, 2019

Thanks, Mom! (2018 Vahdam, Okayti Premium Darjeeling Spring Black Tea)

Christmas, 1983 or so. My mother engineered a Christmas to remember. Kate and I were as always excited about the holiday, because at our house, we CELEBRATED. My parents' room was locked for the entire month of December, and my mom and dad would wink and make the "I have a secret" sign we used (thumb against nose twice, bumping hands together twice in a complicated gesture I'm powerless to describe properly). Christmas morning came, and Santa arrived. Schwinn 10-speed bikes for both of us, plus the 100 or so other gifts scattered through the house.

Every year is like this. My June birthday month has been renamed "Stevuary," because the party starts on the first day of the month, and continues on and past the 23rd. Each year, my mom tries to give gifts that are perfect. (Yes, Dad gives gifts, too. But no one I know can hold a candle to Mom, who makes it her life's business.) We never know who is going to be the recipient of pure perfection, but it's always at least one of us. One year, it was the expensive Russian teacups (podstakanniki, which I was informed by one of my former Russian students that I've been boldly mispronouncing for years, and the which I can't force my mouth around no matter how hard I try to copy her accent.) Another year, a sibling's difficult bill would be paid. A special gold head joint for our budding flutist. And on. And on. My parents were not wealthy people, but we always felt rich because somehow price never seemed to be an issue. Santa would come, the tree was surrounded with a knee-high drift of presents marked, "From SC," in my mother's graceful, old-school script.

This year, Mom had a health scare. When she was young, she had an undiagnosed cough that doctors treated with codeine and other palliatives. She coughed her way through high school, got better, and never thought much about it again. Then a couple years ago she found out she had cancer, and it would be treated with surgery and radiation. Unknown to us, the radiation that would save her life from the dreaded C word would also burn her lungs, reducing their function drastically. Eventually, she ended up on oxygen with fairly limited mobility. This means no more trips to the mall. And right about Christmas, Mom's breathing eroded to the point where she could barely talk for the coughing. (She was holding out against going to the doctor, convinced that what turned out to be a bronchial infection on top of her lung disease was going to land her in the hospital. Happy ending: She got meds and was soon well after the holiday season was over.)

And yet. Christmas must go on.

Mom has discovered the Internet.

Now, saying that makes my mom sound like a n00b. Yeah, nope. She's a pro. She broke the Internet making the best Christmas ever.

The last couple of years, as you may have noticed (those two of you who still know this blog exists), I've been too busy with real life, and not inspired enough to really write about brown leaf juice. How many more Simpsons references and high art images must I come up with every time I drink a cup of tea? Instead, I've been working on a novel (and, yes, there is tea in it, though I'm editing it out because only real tea-holics would appreciate such focus on gaiwans and gongfu), and on teaching literature, and helping my brother resurrect his very excellent business. So as a consequence of changing priorities, I'd rather run out of good tea. I was living in a tea desert. I was on one of the outer rings of Saturn, so far as tea was concerned. I was tea-ed out. I had no fu in my gongfu. I was an ex-tea-er.

Then December rolled around, and Mom found something new: TeaGschwendner's tea advent calendar. Hung on my classroom wall, I would open one each morning, and the students would pick among the stash what to drink for the day. I had to remember some of my high school German to describe to the kids what was inside each packet, or I could simply cut them open (the packets, not the students) and let the kids sniff and decide. Most of the teas were flavored, and so not my bag at all, but it's slowly converting the kids to the Good Stuff.

And then Christmas rolled around. Unbeknownst to me, Mom had spent weeks reading my old tea blog, finding which teas I had loved the best, and then going online to read all my friends' blogs to get their opinions on what the best Darjeelings were, and where to find them; and how to get her hands on dan cong oolong; and fancy greens; and a full pound of high-end Assam for day-to-day drinking. This lady is thorough when she does her homework.

Such a ridiculous, amazing Christmas. Mom bought presents like they were going out of style--not terribly expensive, but perfect for each of us. (Or were they? Price never seems to be the point; Mom gives gifts that are correct, and if that's five cents or five hundred dollars, it doesn't seem to enter into the calculations for any of us.) She celebrated Christmas like it was going to be her last one with us. The kind of gift giving I remember from when I was little. An embarrassment of riches.

And, no, I don't mean the tea.

. . .

Vahdam Tea (an Oprah Best Thing) distributes Darjeelings, among other things. This morning my wife made me the Okayti Premium Darjeeling Spring Black Tea: Single Estate, Private Reserve.

Golden-brown liquor, as one would expect from a Darj. But the flavor: sparkling, with something that reminds one of cherries, perhaps--fruity, to be sure, but only in the sense that it reminds me of fruit. Done correctly (as Suzanne did, saints be praised!), the tea is fragrant, able to grab my attention from a full five feet away. The aroma closely aligns with the flavor of the tea itself, which is not always the case. Gentle but bright, not too sharp, and utterly enjoyable. It is for moments like this that I drink tea, and read great literature, and write, and think, and study the Bible, and talk about what I love. It's the times that make me feel awake after a long winter slumber, that make it all springtime inside without its cleaning.

Thank you, friend(s) who remember this blog. Go grab some Darjeeling and let me know what you've been drinking lately.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Phoenix Tea Sindano Fedha (Silver Needle): Kenya

"Mr. Knoerr, may I have some more?" The tallest boy in the school, good at sports, loud and energetic, wants a second tiny cup of Kenyan white tea. The room is unusually quiet today, because Caleb's friends have somehow convinced him to stay mostly silent—a feat I find astonishing and which I could repeat. He wrote his request on a piece of paper and handed it to me before accepting a refill.

Throughout my adult life, I've resigned myself to being alone in my interests, listening to 20th-century classical music, and reading books no one has read and no one has any interest in reading. So it comes as a continual surprise that my students want to share in (and demand, in fact) the most esoteric of my interests, tea.

Earlier in my blog, I wrote many times that the reason Americans don't drink tea is that they don't know what they're missing. We Americans, like everyone else on the planet, like the good stuff in life, when we know it exists and that it's worth the effort. Back in the '70s, when I was growing up, TV commercials (remember those?) sold Folgers coffee with flavor crystals, which brand my parents had in big canisters in the fridge. It was predictable, and it was better than whatever sludge came before, I guess.

But then the '90s happened, and Starbucks and microbreweries changed the way we drank. Coffee went from a cup of Joe to a double-mocha Venti Josephus; and Stroh's went by the wayside for Hop Zombie I.P.A. When we take some time and observe, we can really enjoy things once in a while.

(Here's a quick report on a Kenyan Silver Needle tea from Phoenix Tea. I had it awhile back, and I'm only now completing this write-up. Pardon, everyone who ever lived, for being so tardy!)

Steep 1
Pale, transparent gold
5 min steep, for fun
bright, sharp-edged at this extreme end of taste; light and floral with less
lactonic, milky hint under the brightness

Steep 2
Almost a chocolate first note, milky, white chocolate, a bit floral, vanilla, strong. "Yeah, it's different." "It smells like girls." High note of lilac, perhaps. Drying,

High-quality white tea, buds perfect,

Students line up for a white tea from Kenya, coming back for seconds.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Original bottle of Chanel No. 5 }  
"Oh, it's so fragrant."

The aroma coming off the pot of freshly steeped First-flush Darjeeling provided by Phoenix Tea is, well, breathtaking. Floral, fruity, multilayered—the scent coming from the carafe is worth the price of admission.

According to The Fifth Sense website, the psychology of smell is worth exploring, because this sense triggers the brain's limbic system, which processes "mood, memory, behavior, and emotion." An extended quote:
{ Cherry Blossoms,  Japan }
Smell and Memory 
The sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses. Those with full olfactory function may be able to think of smells that evoke particular memories; the scent of an orchard in blossom conjuring up recollections of a childhood picnic, for example. This can often happen spontaneously, with a smell acting as a trigger in recalling a long-forgotten event or experience. Marcel Proust, in his ‘Remembrance of all Things Past’, wrote that a bite of a madeleine vividly recalled childhood memories of his aunt giving him the very same cake before going to mass on a Sunday. 
Smell and Emotion 
In addition to being the sense most closely linked to memory, smell is also highly emotive. The perfume industry is built around this connection, with perfumers developing fragrances that seek to convey a vast array of emotions and feelings; from desire to power, vitality to relaxation.
Parfumiers get it. Purveyors of fine teas get it, too. One may observe that our attraction to tea reflects this connection, as well. Drinking a cup of tea can bring about a state of hygge, the Dutch term for a sense of warm, comfy well-being—perhaps partially because of the presence of subtle relaxants (L-theanine, theobromine, theophylline), and most certainly the result of aromas that stimulate that part of the brain that influences memories and behaviors.

{ L'amour des Trois Oranges, Sergei Prokofiev }
Simply put: If you smell something that strongly evokes relaxing moments in your life, it may lead to a resurgence of relaxed behaviors and and habits of mind that will temporarily override or influence the present mood of tension, or striving, or frustration. It works on Thanksgiving, of course: the smells of turkey, and pumpkin pie, cranberry with oranges, and green Jell-O with weird salad things floating in it—all these fire up the neurons, with thick myelin sheaths leading the mind down paths not accessed since the last time you smelled these particular aromas. Habits quickly reassert themselves, and the smells of hearth and home become part of the structure, the mechanism by which the comfiness of home invades your personality so quickly and draws you into its embrace.

Today I drink a cup of tea with my students, sharing the pleasure of something new. The first steeping is, alas, slightly oversteeped, leading to a slightly bitter experience. Now, Darjeeling teas are like a particularly high-maintenance friend: If treated correctly, the friend is nothing but pleasure and delight; but if not given the proper care, bitterness and insipidity result.

Nevertheless, the aroma coming from the leaded-crystal carafe I use evokes a thousand happy cups of Darjeeling past, bringing with it a sense of balance and well-being that I associate with a relaxing cup—without having had anything to drink yet. Clearly, I'm highly suggestible, but nevertheless the observations above hold true: I feel like I've had a great cup of something delicious, happy, exciting, relaxing, delightful, and not a drop has passed my lips. Sharp and bright, lush and complex, a walk down a path with hidden gardens over a high wall. What is it I'm smelling? How can it be so evocative?

All that from a cup of leaf juice. Astonishing, isn't it?

{ Santa's zeppelin and angels have something to do with tea, I promise. }  

For Phoenix Tea's offerings, please go to their website. The proprietors know what they're doing, and they are happy to provide guidance if you need help making purchasing decisions. Only a few weeks are left before Christmas, so please consider giving a gift that can evoke memory and delight. Your loved ones will thank you, and hopefully during next year they'll remember with fondness the warmth of your love and friendship, as they sip your gift of tea.

Friday, October 2, 2015


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

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

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


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

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Twigs and Leaves: 2015 Hojicha, Phoenix Tea

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

"No, tastes like water."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A tea barista is born!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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