Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tuesday tea tunes: River song

Ahhhhhhhh. The "Tea Song of the Xiang River" ...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Seeking SXSW asylum at Austin's Tea Embassy

Back from last week's SXSW music mayhem in Austin, Texas (read my findings here). The best part about the whole trip was the weather, cloudy and in the 70s most of the time, my favorite. They're talking snow flurries here in Chicago tonight. Eliot had it wrong: March is the cruelest month.

Visited a capital tea shop in Austin: the Tea Embassy. In a small, historic home on the northwest edge of downtown, the Tea Embassy enjoys a naturally cozy configuration. One front room is a shop with tea and teaware; another front room is a simply but smartly furnished sitting room; beyond that is a room with cafe tables; next to that is the tasting counter and the wall of tea tins. I couldn't help but linger, not only because I was weary from hiking between SXSW shows but because one of the "tea mabassadors," Tim, was nice enough to chat about tea while I revived myself with a sample of a simple but sturdy Bi Luo Chun.

The Tea Embassy is the first place I've found teas from Georgia (country, not state). They've got three: Georgian Caravan (too Lapsang-smoky for me), Georgian Beauty and Georgian Village ("from Nagobilevi, a Georgian village set up in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains near the Black Sea"). I bought some of the latter; it's the first tea of 2011 that's challenged my taste buds, offering the expected solidity of an artisan black tea but with some surprises my brain is still computing (citrus? no, banana? maybe graham cracker? definitely honey).

They also boast an unusually large Rooibos menu, for those who dig the other bush.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tuesday tea tunes: A vicar in a tea-tea

OK, last instrumental for a while, I promise. This is just so light and lovely — and from a Swiss prog-rock band from the ’70s, no less. But until the guitar solo starts about a minute-and-a-half in, it establishes itself as a delicate lounge number from about two decades previous. I once co-wrote a book about lounge music, so I can't help myself: enjoy "More Tea, Vicar?" from Mainhorse ...

(Pardon the headline pun, Smiths fans.)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Tasting my way into the Rishi Tea line

Rishi Tea was recently in Chicago, offering a tea tasting at the Metropolis Roasting Garage (an airy warehouse space in Andersonville where they roast the coffee beans). Metropolis, often cited as the city's best coffee house — and thankfully in my 'hood — started selling and steeping Rishi's teas a while back. Hallelujah.

Already a big fan of their China Breakfast — a superb, all-Yunnan black beauty — I was happy to have some one-stop shopping of their other flavors. The organic and fair-trade green jasmine raised my eyebrows, and I'm not always a jasmine kind of guy. Two flavored oolongs are worth noting, too, for different reasons. The plum oolong is surprisingly awesome — a sure-footed oolong with mild oxidation and a tangy but light fruit flavor and a crisp finish. I'm going to try this after a meal, either with dessert or in place of it (or between courses? it's kind of a great palate cleanser). Rishi's new coconut oolong, however — ick. Tastes exactly like licking a freshly oiled sunbather, and not in a good way.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tuesday tea tunes: A breezy evening

I've been on a light, house-y instrumental kick with these lately. Hope you don't mind. Here's a breezy rhythm that made me think of warmer climes (ahhhhh) called "Evening Tea" by Anse Source ...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

More tea cocktails

In contrast to my previous post about the poetry of tea temperance, here are a few notes about tea cocktails:

• Absolut Vodka, I'm pleased to see, has maintained its interest in tea infusions. I wrote a while back about the temporary and regional issue of Absolut Boston, a vodka flavored with black tea and elderflower. The Swedes have gone international with those flavors now plus a few more. Absolut Wild Tea keeps the tea and elderflower and adds apple and citrus. Bring on the cocktail recipes!

• In fact, here's one. Punches are all the rage in the world of mixology this season, and Lainie Sips recently posted a delicious-sounding punch recipe that utilizes Absolut Wild Tea underneath some oolong and gin (which almost always pair nicely). Book your spring party now.

• I tried a jerry-rigged version of this New York magazine "marTEAni" recipe recently. Without the time to make the Earl Grey-infused Tanqueray, I simply combined a bit of leftover, cold Earl Grey with another brand of gin on-hand. The two marteanis were still fabulous. I think.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A lull in a Japanese China shop

Like other tea folks, we've been watching the news, incredible photos and scary video from the earthquake aftermath in Japan with great sadness. The one person I know in Japan ... was in New Orleans when the quake hit (his family back in Japan is safe, whew). This photo, however, of a Tokyo ceramics shop owner assessing the damage — dig those beautiful tea bowls — especially hurt ...

On a lighter note, New York Post travel editor David Landsel has been tweeting from inside Tokyo DisneySea, where 30,000 visitors who remain trapped in the parks have been treated to tea, cookies, chocolates and pork buns, he said. "What a bizarre (and wonderful) place to be trapped!" he wrote.

Want to donate to or help the recovery? Some suggestions and links. There's also this group.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Tea's wild health claims ... from the 1700s

Another amusing antique find has been Peter Motteux's "A Poem Upon Tea" published in London in 1712 (the title page lists publication's location in London as "Shakespear's Head," ha). Those of you reading these blogs in search of absolute proof that tea's many health claims — at least a half dozen new ones (or contradictions) daily — can hopefully rest easier knowing that tea has always been the subject of boastful and usually unsubstantiated assurances for mind and body.

Motteux's poem rambles through such claims over about a dozen pages, hailing the beverage as "healing Tea, the only Liquid Gold!" before promising, "Tea cures at once the Body and the Mind." Of particular interest to Motteux is tea's ability to keep one awake — either so he can continue writing or the reader might be less inclined to nod off — and he sells the idea of tea-drinking to students "doz'd with Study," saying tea "drives the Slumbers from your yielding Brows." I love this conclusion: "It lengthens Life, while thus it shortens Sleep."

His lengthy prose introduction to his own poem is where he really makes his case, though, casting tea against alcohol, specifically wine, and debating the virtues of both:

It has the Balm and Comfort of a Cordial, without the Headiness of our strong Spirits; and chears the Heart, without disordering the Head; a Seasonable Relief against those pernicious Acquisitions of this Age! ... drank with Pleasure, and continued with Safety. It strengthens the Feet of the Old, and settles the Heads of the Young ...

What a miracle brew we enjoy, indeed.

A better poem of the same title, Nahum Tate's "A Poem Upon Tea," which appeared in Ireland a bit earlier, makes a similar case for tea-fueled temperance:

To Bacchus when our Griefs repair for Ease,
The Remedy proves worse than the Disease;
Where Reason we must lose to keep the Round,
And drinking others Healths, our Own confound:
Whilst TEA, our Sorrows safely to beguile,
Sobriety and Mirth does reconcile:
For to this Nectar we the Blessing owe,
To grow more Wise, as we more chearful grow.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Description of Ceylon picking and firing from 1888

Some more of my digging through antique ephemera produced this, from an 1888 edition of Good Housekeeping magazine (the second sentence of which and others are of interest to those who were piqued by my previous post about tea adulteration) ...


Tea is getting to be a great product of Ceylon and the export is already 10 million pounds. It is claimed in behalf of this tea that it is cleaner than Chinese or Japanese tea, which is manipulated and adulterated until its quality is considerably deteriorated. In Ceylon, coolies pick the tea leaves, which are spread on trays to wither under cover for about a day. The withered leaf is then placed in a rolling machine, driven by power, and rolled for an hour, and during the process the leaves become a moist and twisted mass, out of which the expressed juice freely rolls. The leaves are then placed in trays to ferment or oxydize, during which process they change from a green to a copper color. The subsequent flavor and strength of the tea depend, to a great extent, on the fermentation, which is a chemical process, the success of which is due to the weather.

Firing is the next process. The tea is thinly spread on trays and placed either on charcoal stoves or in large iron drying machines, and at the end of half an hour it is thoroughly crisp and dried and has become tea. The tea is then sized by being passed through sieves of different mesh, giving the varieties of Broken Pekoe, Pekoe, Souchong, Congou and Dust. The first mentioned, which consists chiefly of the opening bud of the leaf, gives the strongest tea; so strong that the other teas are mixed with it. The tea is again slightly fired to drive off any suspicion of moisture, and packed while warm in lead lined boxes.

Ceylon tea may now be bought in the American market. It is extolled for its strength and flavor, and it is said that two pounds of it will go farther than three pounds of Chinese or Japanese tea. It is said to have a fragrance that is peculiarly its own.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tuesday tea tunes: Oh, tea boy...!

Desperate for a cup of tea during a meeting last week, I made do with Lipton and styrofoam. Alas, it was not brought to me by the "Lipton Service Boy" a la this blippy, almost 8-bit instrumental from Eero Johannes ...

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The rainbow connection to tea flavors

Something that's been the subject of our local tea meetup lately: the aroma wheel. Introduced in a recent discussion at Adagio Teas, the aroma wheel is a staple of oenophiles — a set of concentric adjectives that help you get at just what flavor you're trying to describe. In the center are broader terms (woody, nutty, fruity, floral), surrounded by a middle ring of more detailed terms (woody leads to resinous, phenolic and burned), surrounded by a larger rim of even more precise adjectives.

At the Nada teahouse this weekend, for instance, we were given samples of their buckwheat tea. Many of us followed the wheel through "woody" toward the "burnt toast," "coffee" and "oak" flavors. "Tea masquerading as coffee," someone said.

Some of the terms make sense in the world of wine but seem strange in the teahouse — microbiological, sweaty, horsey, asparagus, banana — but it's still a helpful kickstart for those of us, even writers, occasionally flailing for the precise word. I myself, unfortunately, have had a "wet dog" tea.

Download a copy of the wheel here.
(Thanks, Fatenah!)

Our Nada: A clean, well-lighted place

Splendid new teahouse discovery, via the Chicago Tea Lovers Meetup group!

Nada Tea & Coffee House is one of those places I've been meaning to visit for a couple of years, and the Meetup group finally gave me the excuse/opportunity to head in that direction. What a splendid afternoon we had — not just because we were chatty and warm as the wind howled and the snow swirled outside. Nada's the real deal, a narrow spot neatly paneled in bamboo (the place is smoothly designed by renowned architect Douglas Garofalo) and offering a fine menu of Japanese teas and some food.

What grabbed me right away was when I saw co-owner Hiro behind the counter whipping up a bowl of matcha. No matcha-flavored beverages, no pre-made matcha — just quality powder frothed with a bamboo whisk by a well-trained fellow from Japan. Hallelujah. They offer a few twists on this preparation, too — in a mug with whipped cream, Matcha Viennese, etc. — but nothing outlandish.

Tea samplers presented some simple, quality teas, and I had a superb hojicha, which was a perfect mate to the Oyakodon rice bowl. Others enjoyed some wonderful looking traditional soups, with plump udon noodles, and sandwiches. I took home a couple of scones: meh.

The joy of the place was in its simplicity and quality. It's just a good teahouse. The name says "tea & coffee," but I can't imagine who'd come in here for coffee.

"Nada," by the way, does not mean "nothing" here as it does in Spanish, we learned (so forgive my Hemingway allusion in the title of this post). The teahouse is named for a district in the city of Kobe famous for its sake.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Have tea with Prince William and Kate Middleton

If you're counting the days till the royal wedding, you know there's been plenty of tea-related merchandising around the event. I couldn't help but share these Prince William and Kate greetings cards — which come with tea bags, showing the caricatured couple reclining on the rim of your tea cup — available here ...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tuesday tea tunes: Take tea

After winning a BRIT award for best British group as a member of the re-formed Take That earlier this month, singer Robbie Williams told reporters, "I can't wait to get back to the flat, hug the wife and have a cup of tea and biscuits." Sounds like a celebration.

Here's one of his solo songs, "Coffee, Tea and Sympathy" ...