Monday, August 31, 2009

Everything really is 'All in This Tea'

This film, "All in This Tea," showed up again this weekend on the Sundance channel. It's a fine documentary about David Lee Hoffman, a pioneer in tasting tea and bringing the good stuff to America. Hoffman's one of those amazing guys who can slurp a hundred cups of tea in one round and read ’em each like books. He knows the farmers have the best tea, and he walks into villages in China where they all gather and shove bags of tea in his face. He's a walking, talking tea detector.

The film is by Les Blank, a documentarian with a very hands-off style. He's a pro at profiling interesting people and ferreting out the magic in what they do, simply by watching them do it. (Apropos of nothing, he made a mind-blowing documentary years ago about rock pianoman Leon Russell, which Russell refuses to allow him to release. It's that good. I saw it when Blank screened it on my college campus.) Lots of good tea info, interesting footage of China's tea backroads, and a most curious person. It only shows up on the Sundance schedule every so often, so keep a lookout.

Here's more video — this from the studious Samovar site in San Francisco — of Hoffman doing his thing ...

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Danke schoen, bitter

Celestial Seasonings is trumpeting a new line of green teas that "cracks the bitterness code." In order to "eliminate the bitterness sometimes associated with green tea," they've cut it with white young white leaves to make it smoother, with fewer tannins. Says the press release, "These new recipes will delight current green tea users, and will also allow those who have been turned off by green tea's sometimes bitter flavor to enjoy the health benefits and great taste of our new formulas."

To which I say: what the hell's so wrong with bitter?

I wonder sometimes if one of the reasons more Americans begin turning to tea is because of the overall lack of bitter tastes in our diet. We do have five taste senses, after all — bitter, sweet, sour, salt and the elusive umami. American cooking certainly loves the sweet and salty. Why do we shy so much from bitter? How a cocktail comes alive with the balance of a dash of bitters. Olives, beer, coffee, all bitter. I value the bitterness lurking in green teas. To a degree, of course. There's no better contrast for chocolate, in my experience, not to mention the wide flavor palettes of Asian food. Why would we want to eliminate a natural element of tea, anyway?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Happy birthday to tea

A perfectly civilized afternoon — strolling the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute (wish this exhibit were back, but these teapots are always lovely to covet), then afternoon tea at the Four Seasons. Happy birthday to me!

Tea at the Four Seasons is a cozy affair. We snagged one of the tables with comfy chairs and loveseats in a lamplit corner. A selection of finger sandwiches came first, five kinds (even a special batch for one gluten-allergic member of our group). Then sweets: tiny, crispy scones; cookies and miniature cake slices; cheesecake bites and chocolate treats. Being the birthday boy, I got an extra lump o' mousse on a chocolate cracker with, get this, a creme brulee center. Oh yeah. Thank heavens I was with my gym buddy. We each had different teas: the orchid oolong (the winner at the table, really smooth and flavored with a hint of coconut, delish!), an orange tea, the mint, and I had the Ceylon Yalt (nice and stout, and maltier than expected, great accompaniment for the chow).

Half the reason I wanted to try the Four Seasons tea experience was because I'd heard about their Castle Cairn pots — the tilting teapots. A remarkably simple and clever design, allegedly first created a century ago by a Scottish earl, they feature a chamber high in the back of the pot where you pile the tea leaves. Add water to the pot, and it doesn't quite reach the leaves — until you rest the pot on its back, causing the water to flow over the leaves and steep. When brewing is done, tilt the pot up to rest at an angle, letting the water drain from the tea. Then sit it upright and pour. It works perfectly, preventing bitterness from the tea sitting in the water and allowing easy second and third steepings. I chatted the manager into ordering one for me, though you can get them online in various spots.

My b-day gift from my beloved was a new video camera, replacing our dead Flip, so naturally ...

The afternoon couldn't have been lovelier. An autumnal day (another one, in August, yeesh), sunny and breezy. Great art, good friends, a leisurely afternoon of conversation in fine surroundings. Every day should be like that. Thanks, boys!

Friday, August 28, 2009

A bit of a hike

Photo via Panoramio

I can't decide if I want to take the cross-Canada train next year and hike up to this place, or if I just want to sell everything I have (big whoop) and make the owners an offer. It's the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, located way offroad in the Canadian Rockies west of Calgary. The current proprietors just celebrated 50 years in business, too.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: Deluxe edition (Brendan Benson)

A little backstory: Brendan Benson's first album, "One Mississippi," hit in 1996, a great power-pop year. Half of it written by Jason Falkner (Jellyfish, the Grays, now turning Beatles tunes into lullabies on CD), it opened with a short, jaunty tune called "Tea":

Tea - Brendan Benson

I interviewed Benson last week — ahead of his Chicago show pushing his first solo album since his few years with Jack White in the Raconteurs, a fine return to form titled "My Old, Familiar Friend" — and couldn't help notice the tea cup in the foreground of his latest promotional photo (above). So he really must be a tea guy. So I had to ask him another batch of questions, which he answered after the Chicago gig:

t2. How often do you drink tea? Loyal to tea, or also a coffee drinker?
bb. I drink tea in phases nowadays. I also love a good cup of coffee. Both are hard to come by unless you make them yourself.

t2. What do you drink? What's your fallback tea, the kind you can always rely on? What's the best cup of tea you've ever had?
bb. I prefer black tea. Barry's is a favorite, but I'll settle for PG tips or Tetley. I bring boxes home from the UK because it's better for some reason. The best tea I've ever had was that which my grandpa made. There are many factors involved in making a good cup of tea, and he had all of them down, it seems.

t2. Was there any particular epiphany that led you to tea?
bb. I grew up drinking tea. When I was little, my mom made me tea that was mostly milk, and so I developed a taste for it.

t2. How does tea fit into the (mythical?) rock 'n' roll lifestyle? Does it stimulate the songwriting?
bb. Definitely. It's a kind of buzz. Unlike coffee which is just stimulating, tea is a real high. Physically and mentally.

t2. Why did you pick the song "Tea" to be track 1 on your debut album?
bb. It sounded good there.

t2. What's the story behind it? Who were you trying to have tea with?
bb. It's just a light-hearted song about an interlude between two people.

7. Probably my favorite song on the debut album is "House in Virginia." Simple, beautiful, great sensory detail. Who was Emma, and how did she come to have such fine taste in teacups?
bb. She was my girlfriend for many years. We both liked to drink tea and were interested in the custom and history about it. Always in search of the perfect teacup.

House In Virginia - Brendan Benson

Monday, August 24, 2009

'My standby, summer and winter'

Watched Roger Federer, the tennisbot, shut down Novak Djokovic at the Cincinnati Masters tourney yesterday. Sigh. You've beaten Pete's record, Roger, and you've just had twins. Run along now. Let the human players have the court back, please.

Ah well. Enjoy some refreshing iced tea while you watch the U.S. Open ...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

How to make a tea chest bass

If only we lived in a country where old tea chests could be found in the garbage. In America, I'm guessing a genuine wooden tea chest — the big shipping crates, not the boxes they present the bags with in restaurants — could only be found in an antique shop, costing probably $800. If you did, you could make something with it, like a table or a unique storage piece. Or, as described in the video above, you could do what Paul McCartney might have done back when he was in a skiffle band: you could make a bass out of it. (If only Emmet Otter had thought of this ...)

Once you're done, here's two guys in their kitchen (pity the neighbors here) dishing out a Ramones song and showing how to really play the thing ...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Tea at the pub

Fellow Chicago tea lovers: Just back from afternoon tea on this autumnal August afternoon (60s? really?) with the Chicago Area Tea Lovers Meetup group. The Celtic Knot Public House in Evanston puts out a fairly nice spread. The tea's average — though I liked the stout Irish Barry's — with sandwiches, scones and sweets. A fine respite for chat with (hopefully) new friends.

Fellow anywhere tea lovers: This particular meetup is organized by Lainie Petersen, the queen bee tea blogger around here. Lainie writes her own blog and regular tea reports for the Exmainer. Both are great sources of information, as well as reviews by a seasoned palate.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I don't love L.A., but ...

We've been contemplating a trip to L.A. this fall for two reasons. First, Paul Reubens is reviving "The Pee-Wee herman Show" on stage in Hollywood in November, complete with the original Miss Yvonne. Woot! (The secret word is: oolong)

Secondly, the Fowler Museum at UCLA just opened an exhibit called "Steeped in History: The Art of Tea." A fine report on the exhibit hit the L.A. Times today; in the same edition is this interesting story about a fantastic tea shop ... in a strip mall. The owner specializes in incredibly rare, single-tree teas, including some amazing oolong. (Aaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh!) Good stuff.

Road trip, anyone?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: 'Getcha cups up! Getcha cups up!'

This is both ridiculous and sublime. It's a little preachy in the middle, but hey: Yo, yo, M-Tea-V raps!

Sippin Some Tea (Album Track) - Grits

Monday, August 17, 2009

What do you see in the tea blot?

Photo from Austin Kleon

“Tea is for when I want to smoothly sail through the day. Coffee is for when I want to hack through the jungle.”

Love that. So says Austin Kleon, a Texas-based artist who creates a whole line of "tea bag drawings." He wakes up, has a cup of tea — when he fells like sailing, that is, instead of hacking — then pulls the tea bag from his cup and drops it onto a fresh white index card. The resulting Rorschach-like stains stimulate his imagination — he titles them, as if he's finding shapes and creatures in the cloud formations, and calls them art. "You could show the tea stain to 100 different people, and they’d see 100 different images," he says in this interview. Often he even uses the blob of brown as the starter dough for a drawing — blob as island, blob as dancing fat kid, blob as ferocious monster, etc., like so ...

Photo from Austin Kleon

... or as the basis for an entire cartoon, like the image above (my favorite, very teaku-like), or this one:

Photo from Austin Kleon

See a full array of tea-bag doodles here on Kleon's blog. Enjoy them with a steamy cup of that's cool.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Very proper tea-making tips

Golly, the black-and-white world was neat and tidy. "It's not everyone who can make a good cup of tea!" White lab coats, hopefully, are not required ...

You know, the narrator here mentions that "tea leaves will absorb all kinds of aromas," and thus advises air-tight storage, etc. He's speaking of dry leaves, of course — but as someone mentioned this week at a tea tasting, wet leaves from the pot can be dropped into a cup and set in the fridge for the same purpose. The tea actually absorbs odors, just like your stale box of Arm & Hammer.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tea Extravaganza 2009

(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.

Tuesday tea tunes: 'I like making my own tea'

This is one of my favorite songs, period. After Men at Work ("Who Can It Be Now?" etc.), Colin Hay became your basic singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar. He reappeared on some people's radar when he sang this song in an episode of "Scrubs" a few years ago. It's beautiful, sweet, wise and, hey, he likes a little lapsang souchong ...

Beautiful World - Colin Hay

Monday, August 10, 2009

Teaku No. 2

sunroom is cloudy
breathing breezes, steaming pot
pavement and pu-erh

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The drink of hearth and home

Here's a passage that knocked me out today, a quotation within the book The True History of Tea, which I'm still slurping my way through. It's not prose that whistles like a kettle, let me tell you, but it's pretty good history and provides great context. And every now and then a zinger comes along. I just thought this was the most eloquent explanation I'd heard of the contrast between coffee drinking and tea drinking. It's from a 1998 book, Coffee: The Epic of a Commodity, by a German newspaperman named Heinrich Eduard Jacob. He writes:

We must not forget that coffee made its appearance as an antidote, when individuals and the nation were given to gross excess in the consumption of alcoholic liquors. But in England it remained a foreigner. It had cultivated an excitability and an acuteness which were not, in the long run, accordant with the English character. "A man's house is his castle." Coffee ran counter to this family isolation of the Briton. It was not a family beverage; it made people talkative and disputatious, even though in a sublime fashion. It made them critical and analytical. It could work wonders, but it could not produce comfort. It did not promote sitting in a circle round the hearth, while the burning logs crackled and were gradually reduced to ashes.

Nice. See, that's not just a beverage in your cup. It's canon and culture!

Tea in Hawaii: A volcanic brew

Eva Lee of Tea Hawaii, sampling some of her shade-grown teas on the big island of Hawaii.

Continuing my account of my visits to tea sites in Hawaii ...

The big island of Hawaii was not someplace I expected to find quality tea. This is origin of Kona coffee, after all. But before a vacation there with the spouse, my research into what to do to entertain ourselves kept turning up mentions of new tea farms and boutique growers (in addition to the tea ceremony demo in Honolulu I wrote about). It's not a new idea: Tea was introduced to Hawaii in 1887 but, over the years, farmers' fits and starts with the plant failed to produce a commodity-level product. Still, the Big Island's rich, volcanic soil and moody microclimates mirror many of the places where tea thrives — the slopes of China, the forests of India. Around the turn of this century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several state agencies gave interested tea growers in Hawaii a leg up in starting small-scale tea operations.

One of those intrepid new growers is Eva Lee. Like most of the island's new tea farmers, she does not have a background in argiculture or horticulture. She's an artist. She explained how it all started as she poured tea in her open-air studio in the jungle outside Volcano Village, just a mile or two from the steaming Kiluea Crater.

"The people behind the programs weren't as interested in turning tea into a big cash commodity for Hawaii. They wanted people who would experiment and play, develop something new and interesting," Lee said, between pours. "My husband and I knew virtually nothing about growing tea before we started. We were interested in starting something new that would have meaning to us, and we contacted Dr. Francis Zee [of the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo], who was really trying to get it going here. He was skeptical, but when I mentioned that Chiu [Leong, her husband] was a potter, the door went wide open. He didn't want to turn to farmers for this, because they wouldn't take the risks artists would."

Lee walked me through the grounds around her house and studio. Her first tea plantings were out front ("the mother block"), near a makeshift koi pond. Out back, under the shade of the island jungle, she's got several dozen plants. Most were planted five to seven years ago and are just now hitting their stride. Growing in the forest, she says, "has been a huge gift. The soil is all natural, and native, and the mulch is plentiful. It's great acidic soil, thanks to the volcano."

Inside her studio — filled with shelves of Chiu's pottery and photographs — are a few tea treasures, too. She showed off an authentic Chinese rolling table, where tea leaves get rolled after withering, and a granite matcha grinder that a friend of hers backpacked out of the wilds of China tea country.

She moved gracefully through a chado ceremony for me and another guest, sampling several teas of her own and from a neighboring grower. First, a black tea by Mike Riley, a woodworker across the road, then some oolongs from her own gardens, doing business under the name Tea Hawaii. Her Mauka Black from spring 2008 is impressive — gnarled black leaves, a light liquor and hazlenutty aroma, then a very confident but level black tea taste, with a slightly herbal finish. I found later, drinking some samples I took home with me, that it's dynamite with savory foods.

To read more about Eva's efforts as well as some other tea growers I visited on the big island, with info and links to them, see this story I wrote for the Sun-Times.

Many of the Hawaii teas are still hard to come by, because they're not distributed off-island yet or because the yields simply aren't quite ready. But just this June, Florida-based Narien Teas became the first mainland retailer to offer Hawaii-grown tea. They're shipping shade-grown teas from Eliah Halpenny's Big Island Tea, another small estate just down the road from Volcano Village. So far, they've got Halpenny's limited-edition spring-harvest Kilinoe Tea, a fresh green tea, at $9 for five grams. Hawaii teas also got a brief shout-out last week in the NYTimes.

Finally, if you find yourself in Hawaii sipping caffeinated bevs, try the coffee, too. And the Kona coffee truly is great stuff, but I more highly recommend the Ka'u brew instead. It's an upstart on the island but is winning some major awards, and it's so freakin' smooth you won't believe it.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Summer, summer, summer (sangria!)

Glory be, summer heat has finally come to Chicago (after a peculiar season of bizarrely cool temps). Why? Because Lollapalooza is in Grant Park. Can't have that rock festival without breaking a few heat records. I'm on house arrest for work this weekend, reorganizing the tea cabinet and trying different tea cocktails with ice, ice, baby.

Here's a fave, courtesy the Mighty Leaf blog. They make a kinda cool line of teas called the Sangria Tea Collection. This is a perfectly plucky way to employ one of them:

White Tea Sangria
1 bottle of dry white wine
3/4 cup Peach Schnapps
18 oz. brewed Mighty Leaf White Orchard Tea (2 pouches)
1/4 cup sugar
4 peaches, cubed
1/2 honeydew, cubed

Stir first 4 ingredients in large pitcher until sugar dissolves. Add peaches and honeydew. Chill for a couple of hours. Serve in wine glasses and spoon fruit over sangria in each glass. Makes 6-7 glasses.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

I say Hi, you say goodbye

Was saddened this week to see that one of my favorite tea shops (and favorite logos) in Chicago, Hi Tea, is now an empty storefront. Shows how often I make it to the South Loop. It was a groovy spot with a great tea selection and excellent veggie and vegan chow. Then again, they kept totally unpredictable hours and were hidden on a side street, under the L tracks, with zero foot traffic. Here's hoping they reopen elsewhere.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: Me for you and you for me

They don't write ’em like this anymore ...

Tea For Two - Blossom Dearie

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Mint tea by the sea

Cooling and calming down tonight with some mint tea. Early to bed, 'cause I'm early to rise. Cheering the spouse through a half marathon at dawn. But the mint reminded me of this cooling, calming video about one kick-arse cafe in Tangier and the semi-legendary sweet mint tea they've been serving on terraced patios since 1921: