(Photos by John H. White/Sun-Times)
Not a shabby way to start the week. Yesterday morning — for me, not only a Monday but one after working long days all weekend — I enjoyed the company of fellow tea lovers around a table in the opulent Palm Court of Chicago’s grand dame Drake Hotel. The event was a curious little gathering called Tea Extravaganza 2009, a title that sounds more like a convention center expo than the intimate gathering of 12 tea lovers that it was. And the agenda was simple: taste some of the finest teas around.
The event was organized by Chas Kroll, a tea master as certified by the very organization he created, the American Tea Masters Association. A former techie and tea company owner, the San Diego-based Kroll now trains budding and aspiring tea masters, three of whom were in attendance yesterday. Soft-spoken, warm and lovingly addled, Kroll led the group (most of whom paid $120 a day for the pleasure) through Chinese-style tastings from a menu of 14 of his favorite teas.
It’s not as if these were teas that are inordinately difficult to come by. (He did originally have on the menu a 1949 cave-aged pu-erh direct from the cellar where they’ve been sleeping for 56 years; however, he removed it from the menu at the last minute citing “ethical problems” with its supplier. Pu-erhs are dicey commodities, don’t cha know.) There were a few from Tea Gschwendner, a couple from Keiko, several from PeLi. But it was refreshing to attend a tasting that had no overall agenda. There were no sales pitches, no commercial constraints. Just tea lovers coming together to ooh and ahh.
In four chatty hours, we got through only six teas — just greens and whites. (Alas, I could not return today for the yellow and the oolongs.) The ones that danced across my tongue:
Keiko’s Kabuse Genmaicha — It’s your basic brown rice tea with a twist: the rice kernels are dusted with “virgin” matcha powder before blending. The result is a fantastic green color in the cup, albeit slightly cloudy. The toasty, starchy taste is even, with a determined sweetness underneath. I was wishing for tempura.
PeLi’s Super King White Peony (Bai Mu Dan) — I’m a white guy who loves his white teas, and this beauty is so fresh and breezy I felt as if I was in a fabric softener commercial. An aroma of sweet flowers and cinnamon precedes one of the most delightful mouthfeels I’ve experienced: silky smooth, a sensation like but not actually oily. Delicate floral flavor. Yummy.
PeLi’s Top Melon Slice (Liu Gua Pian) — If you look at my notes from this one, you’d think I hated it. I scratched down horrible words — “metallic,” “dusty,” “body odor” — struggling and stretching to match the language to the sensation. I still can’t describe how intriguing this was. It smelled like sandalwood. It looked like dew. It tasted of salt and wood and smoke and orchids. It was wondrous and confusing. As Woody Allen said, “I can’t stand the tension. I hope it lasts.”
Thanks for the entré, Chas. Nice to meet all o' y’all.