Sunday, January 31, 2010

Chado in the Loop

I enjoyed another demonstration of the Japanese tea ceremony today at a special new year's event (OK, a few weeks late, big whoop) by Urasenke Chicago at the Japanese Information Center. The local Urasenke chapter is a loose gathering of tea teachers, folks (mostly women, it seems) who teach willing students the meticulous but beautiful method of chado.

This demo was much like the one I first experienced in Honolulu, though there the audience consisted of me and one other couple. Here, the crowd was a couple dozen gathered around the teahouse at the JIC, so we couldn't be in the structure itself. Three women (in some gorgeous kimonos, I must say) shuffled through the ceremony, one of them serving the other two as guests. The teahouse is pretty cool, a surprising sight built as it is right in the middle of the JIC's carpeted offices on the 10th floor of a downtown skyscraper. It's authentic and quite lovely, even though it's lit from above by panes of fluorescent light. The alcove was stocked with items addressing the new-year ritual — an about-to-burst camellia bud in a bamboo vase, a tall and flowing willow branch, plus a scroll featuring a hopeful wintertime message: "The beautiful phoenix dances in the scarlet dawn light." The teaware included some beautiful blue-and-white porcelain featuring depictions of new year's treasures.

The sweet offered before the matcha tea was extraordinary, and homemade by some UC members. A traditional new year's sweet, it featured a white rice flour disc folded over a pink one, with lightly sweetened bean paste and miso in the middle, plus two strips of burdock root (!) that I think might have been pickled. Reminded me of this shop in NYC.

Thanks to the UC folks for a fun afternoon (and a great lunch)!

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.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A summer cocktail for the winter blues

We're approaching the roughest part of winter here in Chicago — rough not necessarily because the weather is colder or snowier, but because we're not even close to the end yet. Serious winter chill clings to Chicago well into "spring," and I've seen plenty of Easter dresses fluffing from underneath heavy parkas on the steps of the church across the street from our place. T.S. Eliot has Chicago in mind when he observed the cruelty of April.

So it's about this time of year I begin turning to various tricks to keep my mind in a sunny spot. We risk the electric meter by blazing the lights in the house. I load the iPod with two able winter combatants: a lengthy playlist of reggae music (heavy on the Toots!) and a mix called "Africa Hot" of some African and Africa-inspired tunes. We also take breaks from winter soups and stews for the occasional citrusy salad (it is, after all, the citrus time of year). Same for beverages: enough black tea and whiskeys. I've really taken to a squeeze of lemon over ice and a light pour of Zen green tea liqueur. It's become my favorite cocktail this month, with a twist. Tastes like June. Tastes like I'm about to break a sweat touring the fields full of second flush. Tastes like something we'd drink on the lawn at Ravinia for one of their summer concerts.

Mind over meteorology, my friends.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

'Til we found a tea of green ...'

Here's a fitting post as an addendum to our Tuesday Tea Tunes. If you like tea, and you're a bit of a Beatles fan, then you need to have your tea inside your own yellow submarine ...

Dig it! It's a kitschy tea infuser, dishwasher-safe, etc.

Buy one here. Full speed ahead, Mr. Barkley! (Thanks, Misha!)

Tuesday tea tunes: Snake charming

I'm going downstairs right now for some chai, served hot ...

Friday, January 22, 2010

Starbucks, Jamba reading the tea leaves

Two national beverage chains are turning a focus on tea:

1. Starbucks has offered Tazo teas for years, in plain ol’ CTC bags. Last week, the mega-chain quietly made the transition with Tazo to offering whole-leaf sachets instead, for sale and brewing. The blends stay the same (Awake, Zen, China Green Tips, Chai, etc.), with two more added — Vanilla Rooibos and Orange Blossom — and one gone (Berryblossom White, which was utterly underwhelming).

Say what you will about Starbucks, but Tazo teas are pretty good (their bottled offerings are still in my top 5) and, well, the places are convenient simply because they’re everywhere.

Here’s an interview with Michael DeLaCruz, Starbucks manager of research and development, which includes a few mildly intriguing insights, such as — in these hard economic times — “The premium tea segment of the tea industry is continuing to see growth, whereas other areas are not.”

2. Jamba Juice, which snubbed its hot drinks a couple of years ago (to my great dismay), is jumping back into the hot stuff, adding a line of Mighty Leaf-based drinks and teas beginning March 1. The lineup includes three blended tea lattes, plus a hot chocolate, as well as six Mighty Leaf bagged teas: Breakfast, Earl Grey, Green Dragon, African Nectar and Detox Infusion. They’ll also make a Chillicious Chai Smoothie. Not everyone will get them: the company has 742 stores, and the hot drinks are coming to 340 of them.

Jamba experimented with hot drinks back around 2006, test-marketing some great drinks in Chicago and Seattle. They had a scrumptious ginger-tea things with fresh apple juice that I was ordering throughout the winter — it was delicious. In 2007, Jamba CEO Paul Clayton explained, “Our research said it was well received, but in the end we didn’t sell any.” We’ll see how they do this time around. March seems like an odd time of year to debut hot teas, but here’s to ’em.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

'Only the Sun's descendants understand'

Henrik Ibsen, believe it or not, wrote comedies as well as the serious plays he's best known for. In the simply titled "Love's Comedy," he offers this nice lil' exchange:

[Rises as if to make a speech.]
In the remotest east there grows a plant;
And the sun's cousin's garden is its haunt--

Ah, it's the tea-plant!

Yes. ... It has its home in fabled lands serene;
Thousands of miles of desert lie between;--
Fill up, Lind! -- So. -- Now in a tea-oration,
I'll show of tea and Love the true relation.
[The guests cluster round him.]
It has its home in the romantic land;
Alas, Love's home is also in Romance,
Only the Sun's descendants understand
The herb's right cultivation and advance.
With Love it is not otherwise than so.
Blood of the Sun along the veins must flow
If Love indeed therein is to strike root,
And burgeon into blossom, into fruit.

The oration continues for some time ...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Russian tea and the overthrow of the tzar

Two things fueled my daydream this morning. First, we've been knocking around the idea of a north European cruise this summer, one that docks in St. Petersburg for a couple of days. I've longed for many years to set foot there. First and a half, I've also been reading Trotsky and a bio lately. Second, several storefronts have gone empty in the strip near my train station, including a longtime greasy spoon that, frankly, won't be missed (a greasy spoon can't have that greasy-spoon charm if it's 1. bad and 2. not cheap). So I boarded the train in a semi-daze, thinking about the heady, shadowy tea shop I'd open in its place — a slightly smoky place full of chin-stroking intellectuals all gathered around the shop's central feature: an enormous samovar. C'mon, this neighborhood's full of Russians! The samovar, of course, would have to figure into the name, of course, so the dream evaporated in a brow-furrowing copyright battle ...

Recently in yon Petersburg/Leningrad/Petrograd/Petersburg again, the city held its fourth Samovar Festival, a "four-day tea-drinking fiesta." The cruise is worthless to me now. But here's a heckuva video reporting on the event, complete with plenty of burly men properly lighting a samovar ...

Many years ago, Russian politics brewed around the samovar, as this letter from Trotsky describes:

Tuesday tea tunes: Playing spoons

I had planned to post something else entirely today, but while searching for it I stumbled across this entertaining and innovative use of a teaspoon ...

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dialing up some new tea apps

I've been enjoying a few fun, free tea-related iPhone apps recently, in addition to my others:

Teavana has a great new app. I hesitate to promote an app that is created solely to market a particular brand, but (a) it's a good brand and (b) the app rocks. In addition to offering a direct portal to the company's catalog and store locations, it also contains a lovely tea timer (pictured, complete with Asian music and graphics of tea leaves slowly falling to the bottom of the glass) and a nifty Tea Blender that allows you to create your own blends (from Teavana ingredients).

One of my favorite shops, Tea Gschwendner, also has a new app with tea news, catalog access and more — but it's all in German. Ratten!

My Tea Timer has become my go-to steep watcher. On launch, it gives you a brief bit of tea trivia, then it allows you to program your own tea times — and save them in a regular list and a list of favorites. As someone who has a mind like a steel sieve, I've found this indispensable for mastering tricky steep times for delicate teas. Now I no longer have to remember which pu-erh is best at 30 seconds on first steep and which is best for 75 seconds on second water. I simply punch in my time, give it a name (" 'S' Puerh 1st") and get it right every time. There's a sizable library of alarm sounds, too, though I'm not sure what tea lover is going to choose "referee whistle."

Japanese Tea is an app that I don't understand, yet I keep playing with it. It's a game, the object of which is to select the proper values of certain variables (type of tea, amount, taste and water temperature) in order to make the perfect cup of tea. The judge of all this is an adorably grumpy-looking "Grandmaster" who, let me tell you, is difficult to please. I'm still not sure what I'm supposed to be aiming for with the various sliding scales and slot machine-type aspects of the game, but I have managed to please the old man on a couple of occasions and improve my "chado score."

Sunday, January 17, 2010

It's a national official declared proclaimed holiday!

At one newspaper I worked for once upon a few moons ago, I maintained a calendar in the lifestyles section of weird and manufactured holidays. January, for instance, is National Bath Safety Month, National Clean Up Your Computer Month, Oatmeal Month and National Thyroid Awareness Month, among countless other oddities. We have just concluded Cuckoo Dancing Week; next week is Universal Letter Writing Week and National Fresh Squeezed Juice Week. Today is Bald Eagle Appreciation Day, and tomorrow is Thesaurus Day. Who declares these things, I've no idea. Sometimes they're created by greeting card companies or marketing firms, and more often than you'd care to think they are introduced as proclamations that eat up the precious time of councils, legislatures even the Congress.

January, for our purposes here, is also National Hot Tea Month. (For those keeping score at home, June is National Iced Tea Month. When the revolution comes, we're switching them.) Press releases have fluttered out in recent weeks, attempting to draw attention to tea by touting its health benefits. I don't drink tea because it's healthy; that is merely a fabulous bonus. Nor do I really ever wish to discuss in too much detail the wonder of flavonoids or theanine or any of modern society's left-brained interest in our simple, ancient beverage. Some even use the occasion to go citing statistics and prescribing tea as medicine.

What this means to you as a fellow lover of tea is, well, absolutely nothing. But if you must be instructed when to pay attention to an item or product, you could do worse than to troll this list of 31 Ways to Celebrate Hot Tea Month, full of some curious, creative and not-so-health-obsessed suggestions on how to fritter away these precious days of the annual tea holiday (though, sorry, No. 31 is a sales pitch).

Happy Tea-mas! Or Kwan-tea! Or Tea-giving! (Ooh, like that one ...)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: Blue and gold

You probably won't find me singing a hymn to Lipton on this blog, but here's a lovely instrumental that does just that. Sounds like summer and a tall glass of iced tea, and I needed that on this wintry morn ...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Monkey business

These old British commercials were amusing enough to make me drink PG Tips ... almost. While poking around for information on a nice monkey-picked tea I got for Christmas, I ran into Al & Monkey again ..

Friday, January 8, 2010

Pining for a cuppa Twinings?

On my desk today: a tea cup ... with the Twinings logo ... and the autograph of Stephen Twining, 10th generation of the famous British tea dynasty. A lovely surprise! t2 reader Adam M. (that's his mother posing with Stephen, above) happened upon Stephen signing swag last week at Epcot Center, in the tea shop within the London area.

"After dinner, Mom - the Salada drinker - wanted to stop at the tea shop in London in the countries. It's the one place she always hits when she goes .... This year they had artisans in a few of the countries, and Stephen Twining was the guy in London. He had a bunch of tea girls lining up the stuff to sign and others giving out samples of Twinings. Which got my mother all excited."

Twining is a cheerful sort, very knowledgeable about the family biz, with an excellent idea of what makes a great tea day. I've always enjoyed Twinings' English Afternoon blend, brighter and livelier than a breakfast blend. Would love to share a pot with him someday. Here he is talking tea ...

Thanks, Adam!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Wouldn't you like to be a (hot) Pepper, too?

Driving by the Tulsa Twelfth Night bonfire, circa 2002.

Every Jan. 6, Epiphany, in Tulsa, Okla., where I used to live, people pile their spent Christmas trees in a city park — a mound of dry evergreenery sometimes reaching 10-12 stories — and then light a match. They burn 'em in a giant, gnarly red bonfire. It's a celebration of Twelfth Night, with throngs of people gathered 'round, usually warming themselves appreciatively on a frigid night. I always loved the idea that this funky new-year baptism/orgy of pagan fire was sponsored by the municipal government in Oral Roberts' hometown.

You'd think there'd be a lot of pipin' hot coffee and such served at such an event, but the only warm beverage peddled from a cart at Tulsa's Twelfth Night is an unusual creation: hot Dr Pepper. I know, sounds revolting. Hot Coke, for instance — I've tried it, absolutely God-awful. But whatever the secret ingredient of Dr Pepper really is, it works well warmed up. The trick, though: you have to add lemon. The soda-maker's official recipe calls for a mug o' Dr Pepper heated (on the stove or the microwave) to 180 degrees and poured over a slice or two of lemon added.

Try it. Trust me. As a friend of mine loves to say, we can't hide from our white-trash heritage. This is a mulled wine for the American masses.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Monday, January 4, 2010

A recipe for daily life

"In the world of tea each movement in the making of tea has nobility and meaningfulness. The mundane, trivial acts of setting a fire, boiling some water, and making a bowl of tea are lifted to the level of an art form. ... In the way of tea this type of transformation is not restricted just to the making or serving of tea, but it can spill over into all of one's daily actions and transform the entire day."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New year tea resolutions

Happy new year, all! Here's hoping your new calendar turned on as hedonistic and slothful a note as ours did. We had a nice, long weekend of cooking and take-out (stew and yakisoba), breads and baking (monkey bread and a cherry upside-down cake!), drinks and debauchery (Washington state syrah and midnight muscato), all six "Thin Man" films and plenty of awesome tea. I broke in my new yixing pot with a hunk of a simple pu-erh — a beautiful square brick that brews up dark, hearty and with a beautiful color, at once gold and crimson. My fave.

Some tea resolutions for 2010?

  1. I've always been lazy about brewing times, and I pay the price for it fairly often. I've tried various tea-timer iPhone apps, but I'm settling with the Clock feature's basic stopwatch. (Though I confess: I like the My Tea Timer app, which allows you to program favorites with a name and a certain steeping time, like "S pu-erh, 2nd steep," etc.)
  2. I need to hone my gongfu skills. Tea service, that is, not martial arts.
  3. As I close in on a year here at t2, I plan to make this experience a bit more ... holistic. More tweeting, more Steeping, hopefully more video. All the usual hopes of a blogger with a full-time day job. Sigh. I keep drinking green tea in hopes I'll sweat money, but alas.