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.