Friday, February 6, 2015

Confessions of a tea blogger

Seattle-area tea maven Cinnabar tagged me with this ongoing social-media escapade a year ago, and I'm just now getting around to it (shameful!). Following her contribution, I'll answer the same round of questions about how this whole venture got under way oh so many moons ago.

1. How you were introduced to and fell in love with the wonderful beverage of tea?

The introduction, I suppose, can be explored in No. 2 below. The falling in love came much later, and much harder. I was serving a fellowship at Columbia University back in 2000-2001. Outside the main campus gates, at 116th and Broadway, was a shop/cafe called Tealuxe. It's a Boston chain that at the time had dipped its leaves into the Manhattan market (today, the only Tealuxe shops are in Harvard Square and Providence, R.I.). I was 30, but found myself back in an undergrad groove — needing someplace besides my cramped apartment to study and take in occasional nourishment. That Tealuxe shop was perfect in myriad ways. The interior was cozy and good for hunkering with books. They served nifty snacks, mostly easy sandwich-things crisped in a hot press (the PB-'n-honey on wheat, gawd, makes my mouth water still at only the thought of it). And it was the first real tea shop I patronized, one with dozens of drawers behind the counter containing a vast variety. That's when I first learned of life beyond Lipton, and where I started tasting the rainbow, as it were. (An earlier post rambled on about this, too.)

2. What was the very first tea blend that you ever tried?

The snoot in me demands that I begin by noting that I like my whiskey blended and my tea straight. Numerous well-crafted blends have taken my fancy — if you're going to blend and/or flavor tea, do it like TWG — and, as noted below, I start most days with a breakfasty blend of some sort. But I'm happiest with a single-source tea from a good estate. That said, my origin story is dreadfully typical: I first drank tea as a youngster with my mom, and it was good ol' Constant Comment. The world abounds with such stories, and I'm proud to be one of them. Who knows how old I was, but it occurred at a time in life when I actually wanted to have a conversation with one of my parents, so I'm thinking post-driver's license and pre-college. It wasn't a regular ritual, but it was a nice way we developed to check in with each other (well, for her to check in with me) — the occasional shared cups of that steamy, spicy treat (still a sentimental fave) and bit of gab. That has to be the first association with tea as a facilitator of pause, a generator of respite, a conduit of commune-ication. Thanks, Mom.

3. When did you start your tea blog & what was your hope for creating it?

This blog began in April 2009. I was a writer who needed an outlet other than the topic dictated by my profession, but mostly I sought to officiate an exploration of what turned out to be a superb tea city. We'd moved to Chicago a few years earlier, knowing damn little about the place. Smack in the middle of the arctic Midwest, I expected little of its tea offerings. But even a cursory investigation of shops indicated I'd set the bar way too low. Once I'd cast about online and discovered that blogging about tea was actually a thing, I thought, why not. With much to taste in town, I set up the blog basically as a way to give myself assignments, to provide some officialdom to the excuse of trying out more shops. One of the best moves I ever made. Exploring tea in Chicago enriched my life, no bones about it.

I also knew from the beginning I didn't want to review teas, at least not as the overt mission of the blog. My day job exhausted my critical faculties, but mostly I thought (and still do) that foregrounding them in the experience of tea suffers said experience. Train the palate, keep it sharp, sure. But tea is about so many other things, things well beyond thumbs pointing up or down.

4. List one thing most rewarding about your blog & one thing most discouraging.

I simply set out to taste some great tea — I hadn't even thought about the cool people I'd meet in the process. That was the more rewarding experience. Keeping up this silly lil' blog proffered my some absurd credentials, which led me into the circles of stupendous other teafolk such as bright (intellectually and spiritually) Lainie Petersen, wickedly funny Steven Knoerr, and veritable tea master and now fellow Left Coaster Tony Gebely. Our occasional get-togethers were marathon affairs, often with creative themes, always rich in tastes and talk, and I miss them.

Discouraging? Only that there's so much tea to discuss and so little time. I'm just another well-meaning blogger who's tired of apologizing for my long dry spells here.

5. What type of tea are you most likely to be caught sipping on?

For many years, I've started most mornings with the organic Dianhong from, of all places, World Market. Just a great China Breakfast blend with enough oomph to start the day. They've just discontinued it, and my world is askew. So I've switched to alternating between the Irish Breakfast and the superior Scottish Breakfast from a good shop here in San Diego, Point Loma Tea. Afternoon choices depend on mood. Usually a Darjeeling or, if I'm flush, my beloved Keemun. Sometimes something green, especially if I'm still working; sometimes the great white from Tea Gschwendner. Occasionally (more and more these days) an oolong, if I've the space to do it right and the time to enjoy and resteep.

6. Favourite tea latte to indulge in?

I'm not sure I've ever had a tea latte. I can probably count on one or two hands the number of times I've put milk of any kind into my tea — discounting Chai, of course. And I wouldn't go near that bubble stuff with a 10-foot straw.

7. Favourite treat to pair with your tea?

Depends on the tea, the time of day. Some pairings are standard. I can't fully enjoy occasional morning oatmeal without a stout cup of Barry's. If I brew a strong green, like Gunpowder, I love pairing it with a dark chocolate. Keemun works so well with savory snacks — the best of which is something Lainie turned me onto a while back, for which I will never be able to thank her sufficiently: peanut butter and bacon sandwiches. If I'm served a last supper, it must be that.

8. If there was one place in the world where you could explore the tea culture, where would it be & why?

So many lands to choose from. Of course, I'd love to explore East Asia and India. I've had the luxury of investigating Hawaii's burgeoning tea culture, and I spent a heavenly week doing nothing but drinking tea in London. My dream voyage, however, would be a long trek across Russia. I'd like to start at the Chinese border somehow, drinking some tea prepared in ancient ways — with a little butter and salt, perhaps, chipped right off the brick. Then journey through both time and distance heading west, experiencing the country's rich tea culture from dark, shocking samovar brews all the way to Euro-posh afternoon tea in St. Petersburg. That sounds effing heavenly to me.

9. Any teatime rituals you have that you’d like to share?

Nothing major, except in the afternoons when I really need the pause. I've written of it before: to force myself to stop working, stop distracting myself, I simply take off my glasses.

10. Time of day you enjoy drinking tea the most: morning, noon, night or anytime?

As above, morning and afternoon, every day. The occasional herbal at night. I favor a Dublin toddy (black tea — usually decaf at a late hour — with lemon, ginger, cinnamon, plus whiskey or brandy) before bed, especially this time of year.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The kettle is cool, long boil the kettle

Dearest readers: Months since my last entry, and I should apologize. But I won't. In fact, I'll stop doing that. A blog's a blog, and only the professionals with paychecks keep it up. For the rest of us: life happens, the tea goes cold. We put the kettle back to boiling, we resteep the good stuff. The circle of life, etc. etc. etc.

Suffice to say, I'm a grad student, I'm busy. I'll step this back — no more illusions of weekly posting, which has resulted in diluting the quality of content in the last year or so — and I'll write when I can. I'll write when I have something good. Don't want to shut it down, by any means. Just let the kettle cool.

In the meantime, enjoy some of my greatest hits:

I've visited so many great shops around the country — in Tulsa, in Texas, in Iowa, in Los Angeles, throughout Chicago (Nada, Big Jones, Julius Meinl, Billy Corgan's place, and the amazing Green Teaist, plus endless trips to Dream About Tea and Tea Gschwendner), and a lovely new one here in north San Diego County — as well as some spiffy shops around the world: London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, even Buenos Aires.

Speaking of travel: I posted and posted and posted and posted and posted and posted from my star-studded London tea trip, and also posted and posted and published and followed up about my tea trip to Hawaii.

I've blended tea into my work life as a pop music critic — talking tea with Morrissey, Billy Corgan, and Brendan Benson — and mixed it in with my personal life as a lush — making highballs, toddies, and cocktails. I've even blathered about my garden, including my tea plant.

I've written a lot about tea writing, from Laura Childs' delightful mystery novels (and some others'), plus moments with Kakuzo, Douglas Adams, Barbery, Chekhov, Burroughs, Neal Stephenson, my friend Mark Brown, and, of course, Proust. Not to mention the occasional great tea book or two or three. That's not "weak tea"; it's more than "a pinch for the pot."

We've shared some tranquil tea moments — learning to do nothing, learning not to see, learning to stop multitasking — and paying more attention to the big, hairy now.

And, of course, all those songs. Someday a mix shall come.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: This Bird has flown

I posted this years ago, but the link seems to have perished. This bluesy tune crossed my path again recently, amid an afternoon of pining for Chicago's music scene, and it's worth repeating: the great Andrew Bird, "Tea and Thorazine."

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: 'Cup of Tea'

Brian Vander Ark was always a gracious interview when I was on the beat (once, twice), and his band, the Verve Pipe, always possessed a melodic and strong structural talent that lifted them above other grunge-tinged, ’90s-born bands. This song's about the taste metaphor rather than the beverage itself, but somehow it just feels good in an autumn-approaches kind of way ...

Friday, September 19, 2014

Home of the brazier

Dig these beautiful braziers and more from this blog post (part of a series of instruction and experimental study) about learning to love the way tea was originally fired. Covet, much.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

New shop find: Leaf & Kettle

Found another great tea shop, drank some more superb teas — this time north of San Diego in Del Mar, Calif. The local tea-meetup gathered at Leaf & Kettle to learn about this excellent independent shop and to sample some of their offerings. It was one of those nights when the social chemistry sparked a bit (unusual for meetups), the shop impressed, and the tea absolutely wowed.

Leaf & Kettle has been open in a fancy outdoor mall for a couple of years. It's a classic, simple shop built around a tea bar, behind which are a few dozen stainless steel urns full of teas. Their alluring inventory is available online.

Jenna, the manager, poured three teas for our group. First, the organic Kagoshima Sencha, an aromatic spring green from Japan. The first cup was typically vegetal, even grassy (in that good Sencha way). The surprise was the second cup, produced with a counterintuitive shorter steep, which produced more bang for the buck, as it were. One of those teas that seems so light but really packs a wallop.

Next was the stunner: their Hunan Honey Black. Dry, it smells like brandy and freshly baked honey buns. In the cup, it's a rich black tea with a dessert finish — not uncomfortably sweet, not at all off-putting — tasting of chocolate-covered graham cookies. I say that with some irony, because those exact treats were on our table; this tasting note, however, was jotted down before eating one, which I did while enjoying the second steep (which really brought the unsweetened cacao flavor to the fore). The pairing was supreme.

The closer was a tea cocktail of sorts: she mixed an oolong and a fruit herbal (she also added some sliced fresh strawberries) over ice in a cocktail shaker, shook, and poured into glasses with ice and fresh mint sprigs. Very tasty, smooth, refreshing — if you go for the iced stuff. We asked for a second steep of the oolong by itself, Formosa Silk, which was an earthy delight — milky, buttery, a hint of sauteed mushrooms maybe. Had to buy some of that, eager to pair it with dinner.

It is a wonderful feeling, particularly after relocating to a new city, to find that tea shop that connects, that seems to offer just what your palette craves. Leaf & Kettle, hurrah, does so without the come-on of so many tea start-ups. Just a smart, classy joint.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: 'Texas Tea'

The phrase "Texas tea" refers either to petroleum gushing from a well or to a better-known cocktail cribbed from Yankees. Nonetheless, I've found this fresh electronic track by Deadbeat to be great brewing music ...

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tuesday tea TV: 'My Proper Tea'

This is the best thing I've seen in a while. The performance-sync is spot-on, the rap is righteous, and I totally agree: nothing fires me to hip-hop-angry levels quite like improper tea prep. Enjoy Brit comic Doc Brown rhyming about, yegods, milk-first madness ...

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Buenos Aires: Yerba mate from the source

Academic pursuits recently afforded me the opportunity to cross the equator for the first time. Five days scheduled in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I was excited about (a) seeing water drain the other way around, (b) steak, steak, and more steak, and (c) drinking mate at the source.

You'd think the latter would be easy to find — particularly given stats claiming that "every man, woman, and child" consumes 11 pounds of mate annually — but you'd be wrong. While mate is consumed widely by Argentines, I found that to be largely a private endeavour. Try to find mate served in a restaurant or shop, and you do a lot of walking with nothing to show for it.

Mate is not something I've written much about on this blog. That's largely because the first time I tried a quality dose of it, I wound up with the worst headache I've ever had. Was it the mate? I steered clear, just in case. Since then, I've dabbled amid the trend without getting too excited about it.

Yerba mate has been celebrated as having all the kick of coffee with all the health benefits of tea. (Like most infusion-related health claims, these have yet to be seriously studied.) It's made from the leaves of a holly tree from the South American rainforest. The dried leaves are steeped, like tea, in hot (not boiling) water.

In Argentina, the custom is to steep the mate in a cured gourd and sip the infusion from a bombilla, a metal straw with a filtered submerged end. It looks like a bowl of grassy soup, and the flavor is very vegetative, like a strong white tea blended with sage and geranium.

After some serious hunting throughout Buenos Aires, at the 11th hour I found a restaurant that served mate — but only in the afternoons, after opening at 1 p.m. (or close to it, such is the Buenos Aires easy-go), and only in winter (which it was in August). Cumana, at Rodriguez Pena 1149 (east of one seriously interesting and beautiful bookstore, where I bought a book about mate, even though it's in Spanish, which I don't read), is a good traveler's find: affordable menu, good food, casual atmosphere, and snacky portions. Cumana serves a thermos of mate, with sides of bread or biscuits. The above description stands, and the caffeinated stimulation is significant. I enjoyed a gourdful prior to my departing flight, a 10-hour trek on which I expected no sleep, so mas mate!

A final photo: The family of Juan Carlos Pallarols has been turning out the finest silver ware in Buenos Aires for generations — which is saying something in a country that's name is taken from the Latin word for silver. They made the silver death mask for Evita Peron, and each president of Argentina receives a ceremonial staff made here. I walked to see his shop one morning (closed, alas), and the window display featured these sterling mate gourds. The next time I try mate, I'd like it to be out of this ...

Friday, September 5, 2014

Remembering John D. Harney

I'm late in celebrating the life of John D. Harney, founder of Harney & Sons, who passed away early in the summer.

An early "missionary of tea," Harney bought a small tea company as a savvy business move and turned it into the spearhead of America's tea renaissance in the 1980s. "All we wanted to do was get out there and convert — sort of like St. John with his gospel of tea," he said in an interview, as quoted in his NYTimes obit. "That’s what I consider myself."

Tea writer Bruce Richardson elaborates more personally in his appreciation piece, describing in detail how the missionary fervor came over Harney in his pursuits.

I enjoyed a brief afternoon chat with Harney years ago. He was immanently affable, humorous, and wise. He even read my tea leaves. You can read that old post here.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Do's, don'ts: going out, staying in

An acquaintance writes for Chicagoist and pointed me to this link, a story about how restaurants ruin a simple cup of tea.

One can read this as ever-so justified invective against careless restauranteurs, but one can also take much from its list for our own personal prep. The egregious errors ticked off in the story are as important to be cognizant of at home.

The water temperature issue — burning the tea — is easily managed, though so few do. Green and whites benefit from cooler water. If you don't have an electric kettle that delivers just the right temp, a simple thermometer can set your water straight. I fell in love with a coffee shop on campus not only because they have pretty good tea and selection but because during an early visit one of the baristas asked if I'd like her to put an ice cube in the cup over the tea to cool the water from the instant-boil tap. Not a perfect solution, bu better than nothing — and it showed knowledge and care.

Also, I've become something of an obnoxious evangelist against tea balls and novelty tea steepers. I know, I've posted pics of more than a few of the latter, admiring their design. But the things are really dreadful for tea. If someone finally breaks away from bags only to cram loose-leaf tea into a cramped mesh ball, they don't notice that much difference in taste. Let the tea be. Dream About Tea, a superb shop listed at the end of the story, serves several teas naked in the cup — no bag, no ball, no pouch, just tea leaves directly in the cup. Because good tea sinks.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: 'Tea and Toast'

Lucy Spraggan, a singer on the British "X Factor" show, wrote this moving narrative about the simple things in a couple's life ...

Monday, September 1, 2014

What I drank during my summer vacation

Didn't intend to take the whole summer off, just kinda happened, as life does.

Places I drank tea this summer:
— On my patio, staring into the canyon, decompressing after a strenuous but revitalizing school year. Keemuns and Yunnans and Earl Grey, oh my.
— The Tea Lounge in the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas. Not exactly an afternoon tea kinda town, but what a fantastic spread.
— The courthouse during jury duty. Swill, of course.
— Numerous spots in Buenos Aires. Tea and mate. More to come on that.
— At brunch ... after my wedding!
— Lakeside, in Idaho, in the dang-beautiful middle o' nowhere. Smoky souchong as autumn peeked in.

So, yes, back to brewing and blogging ... Thanks for sticking with me!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Tea tramp

Charlie Chaplin enjoying a tea break during filming, surrounded by nymphs of some sort.

Just because.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Kettle's on, soup's on

Every now and then, I run into posted recipes for tea soup. The variations are myriad, but the best ones, in my experience, center on green tea and salmon.

This is the one that crossed my path recently, a quickie from Samovar which trims away some of the traditional Japanese ingredients in favor of a few extra steamed veggies. The one that's always worked for me is this one: blanching some veggies, poaching the salmon, then steeping the tea in the broth. A little matcha for presentation is a fine idea.

Of note: there's also an old meat-fish-and-potatoes soup colloquially referred to as Fisherman's Tea, though tea is not an ingredient.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

All you need is tea

John and Yoko met in May 1968, a spring romance. Lennon was a regular tea drinker. One of my favorite details of the film "Two of Us" features Jared Harris, as Lennon, making tea for Aidan Quinn, as Paul. (Superb, underappreciated film, a speculative narrative. Check it out.)

A few years ago, Yoko wrote a lovely remembrance of "John Lennon: The Teamaker," including this little turnabout:

“Yoko, Yoko, you’re supposed to first put the tea bags in, and then the hot water.” John took the role of the teamaker, for being English. So I gave up doing it. It was nice to be up in the middle of the night, when there’s no sound in the house, and sip the tea John would make.

One night, however, John came up with “I was talking to Aunt Mimi this afternoon and she says you are supposed to put the hot water in first. Then the tea bag. I could swear she taught me to put the tea bag in first, but…”

“So all this time, we were doing it wrong?”


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Tuesday tea TV: A very. Serious. Movie.

In what looks to be at least partially and unintentionally hilarious, yet another biopic of Rikyu has been made. Based on the 2008 novel Rikyu ni Tazuneyo by Kenichi Yamamoto, "Ask This of Rikyu" retells the tale of the teamaster from fish shop to the palace to ritual suicide.

Here's the trailer, which defies the basic tenets of teaism with exaggerated drama, a thundering symphonic score, and many furrowed brows ...

Monday, May 12, 2014

Crafty projects to dye for

Years ago, I monkeyed with tea-dying fabrics — with varying results. At first, I couldn't figure out what the attraction was to taking a nice, white piece of muslin and turning it, well, dingy brown. Then I learned how to get a little more creative.

Two things changed my outcomes: using a resist to make patterns, and using different liquids.

The resist: Dye the fabric, but beforehand apply a compound in words or patterns that will block the dye, leaving the pattern in the fabric's original color. Some instructions suggest using Elmer's glue; it's often not as easy to remove in the end as is suggested. I've used wax before — I used some beeswax I had on hand in a work bench, but you can buy wax sticks for this purpose, seen here. Crayons work, too, and look here for a nifty technique using bleach to white-out patterns.

As to the other liquids, nearly all tea-dying instructions you'll find discuss the practice in terms of black tea. (And use something inexpensive, of course. Don't waste your fine keemun on the drapes!) I suspect, however, that green tea would provide interesting, if subtle, results, too. I also suspect — having had the misfortune of spilling some on a carpet once — that strong herbals such as hibiscus would also work well. The trick: play around with different dyes on the same fabric. One project I enjoyed a while back: I dyed a set of white napkins with tea, but then I dyed their edges (an inch or two, by suspending them into the liquid with clothespins) with coffee, so there was a nice tea tint to the whole napkin plus ribbons of darker brown at the edges.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Tea in the pot — in the garden

At long last, I'm growing tea.

Unable to find the special varietals created for San Diego's particular climate, I ordered a Sochi tea plant from Nichols Garden Nursery up in Oregon. It arrived in splendid condition, a small plant well-established (a foot tall) and moist.

This Camellia sinensis Sochi variety originates, yes, where the Winter Olympics just took place — and one of the northernmost, historic tea-growing regions of Russia. This strain was developed to be especially winter-hardy, which I won't require in southern California, but we'll see how it does.

I've planted her in a firm mound within a half wine barrel salvaged from some debris on this property. I mixed some sphagnum moss, hopefully to aid in holding moisture in the soil (crucial here, especially during last week's awful spell of hot, dry wind). I've rigged a watering system throughout the garden, and it'll feed a dripping irrigation spout at the base of the plant, as well as a fogger I hope to run in the mornings. She'll have dappled shade from a nearby Scotch pine, and some late afternoon sun.

This is a hobby venture, not necessarily a productive one. I can't imagine I'd actually harvest and process any leaves — perhaps on a one-cup basis! Given the opportunity of this wonderful garden, I simply had to try to grow the plant that, on the other end of its life cycle, is so instrumental to my daily life. We shall see.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Smoke and sweetness

Magazine recommendation: Imbibe. It's a well-made, well-edited bimonthly for discriminating lushes like myself, but it doesn't skimp on the coffee and tea features.

The latest March/April edition features two items of note. First, there's a great profile of Steven Smith, the founder of two of the country's most influential tea brands, Stash and Tazo. It's a smart profile of the entrepreneur and his latest, sourced-tea venture.

Second, with the issue's focus on the Pacific northwest, there's a crazy cocktail recipe tacked onto a short feature about Clear Creek Distillery's liqueur made from Douglas fir trees. The cocktail — which sounds insane, great, and insanely great — is called Smoke Signals: bourbon, lemon and orange juices, the fir liqueur, plus a "lapsang souchong tea syrup" (which is just a half cup of the tea, sweetened).

I've used lapsang souchong to add smoke to meats and stews. It's so much better and more effective than liquid smoke. An actual simple syrup made with the piney tea would open up new avenues for flavoring, say, ice cream, apple, anything with maple, maybe subbing for some of the Karo in a pecan pie...?