Sunday, May 30, 2010

Tea and tobacco — smokin'!

(awesome pic by Tony)

It really is a lot like tea. I keep mine in a hardwood box handed down to me by my father. It's got a nice jar I put the leaves in to keep them fresh. Like tea, the more the whole leaf is cut and dried, the less flavorful and more bitter it becomes. And I prefer the flavor of the plain leaf — no added aromatics required.

I'm speaking of tobacco, specifically for pipes. I was a cigarette smoker as a youth, but let it go easily. Cigars make me queasy. Good quality pipe tobacco, though, ideally paired with a comfy chair and a glass of port (gawd, I am such an old man) is a heavenly moment.

Recently, one of our fellow Chicago-based tea bloggers wrote to us: "I was drinking some pu-erh the other day, and noticed that, again, I had likened a pu-erh to tobacco. It occurred to me that it might be fun to have a tobacconist taste pu-erh and tell us what he or she thought." Last Saturday, three of us met at Iwan Ries tobacco shop, the oldest family business in Chicago, hunkered down in a conference room with certified tobacconist Ron Carroll and swapped pu-erhs and pipes.

The pu-erh came from Tony Gebely of the Chicago Tea Garden, big bell-shaped discs of old and recent tea, one of which was called "camouflage" pu-erh because the two shades of green whorled around the cake looked like camo gear.

Ron was game: He and his wife had discovered real tea years ago during some extensive travel in China. "I've often joked that when they outlaw tobacco, I'll pursue the 'other leaf.'" he said. Ron also supplied a tin of great tobacco — from the Chicagoland Pipe Collectors Club Selection, a variety appropriately called Samovar. The label describes it saying, "Warm, spiritually satisfying, this dark, full Oriental Mixture is redolent with exotic Syrian Latakia. Soothing a sa cup of rich Russian tea."

And it was. Once we got a few pipes smoldering, the pu-erhs had to sweat to compete with the flavors and scents. But the coupling was not bad, especially with the final aged tea (I think it was a 1990), which really opened up and waltzed around the tongue with the hardcore smoke taste. A great afternoon, and a very butch tea party.

Tony (left), the tea guy smokes a pipe,
and Ron (right), the tobacconist pinches some tea.

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