Saturday, January 30, 2010

First tastes of the Chicago Tea Garden

Right around resolution time early this month, several friends mentioned their desire to explore tea a bit more. Mind you, these are each hardcore coffee addicts. One of these was my friend and gym buddy Kevin, so I invited him and his partner over for a tea tasting to see if we could find something that appealed to his bean-stained palette.

On a lovely afternoon-evening, we poured through eight teas, keeping to the blacks and whites he's thus far found to his liking. (Green tea is a hard first step for many folks. More on that in a later discussion perhaps.) Successful blacks included a favorite Dian Hong (love me some China breakfast!) and my old stand-by, TG's basic Keemun. Kevin also took to another pillar in my cabinet, TG's South India White. Richard, to my delight, even fell in love with the acquired taste of pu-erh, which I wasn't expecting from a newbie.

But the "oh my Gods" were uttered after sipping two new teas — teas that were half of my urge to host a tasting, just to have a formal excuse to steep them. I've mentioned earlier the upcoming venture of fellow Chicago tea blogger Tony Gebely, who's about to launch his own tea company, the Chicago Tea Garden (the site's not quite ready yet, but mark that link). He sent out some samples as an official "here I come" — they came in plain brown boxes with a wonderful stamp on the outside reading, "Your Tea Is Here!" — and they're, as expected, amazing teas. Both samples come from the collection of revered tea taster and buyer David Lee Hoffman (subject of "All in This Tea"). Gebely says Hoffman has been between assignments recently, during which time he's amassed his own stockpile of his favorite stuff. It's this treasure trove Gebely and his partner, Erin Murphy, are plumbing for much of the Chicago Tea Garden's offerings.

We tasted the Golden Li Buo, a Yunnan black tea that's one of the prettiest I've seen. Golden is no catchy name; the tea in the canister looks like rolled squash blossoms, tight spirals of dusty yellow and brown. The resulting brew deserves a string of superlatives. It's creamy, for certain, but with a brisk closure to it. There's a lot of vanilla. I had made some lemon scones as part of our tasting spread, and the tea made the otherwise subtle lemon absolutely explode in the mouth. The color is golden, too, lightening from dark amber to butterscotch as it's resteeped. Ab fab, and I will be pestering my banker and poor Tony to keep me supplied.

Also sampled was CTG's "competition grade" Tie Guan Yin, a particularly fine version of the fabled oolong. On first short steeps, this was a remarkably subtle but engaging tea. A clear, light-green liquor tastes exactly like honeysuckle. Talk about tasting summer in the middle of winter! I scribbled "buttery" as a note, too, but my memory chastises me for that somehow. Very floral, and those notes only expand as the tea resteeps and as it cools. A knockout in any competition, no doubt.

Good luck, Tony! Though with teas like these, you won't need it.

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