Friday, January 28, 2011

Tasting teas 'exported' from China, India shops

I haven't been to the tea lands yet, but my friends have. In fact, somehow I stumbled into this tea karma: I have one friend who makes semi-regular excursions to India, and another who travels occasionally all over China. Both recently sent me some teas they bought in each locale. Here's a run-down of a few wonderful teas we Yanks don't get to taste that often:


First, there's Brad. Good ol' Brad. I could tell you some stories about Brad. I'll keep it to this pertinent one, however. In fact, I'll let him tell it. He wrote:

I was in Beijing and went to an official Tea Store run by the government. It was a great experience, albeit a sales call. They went through a bunch of teas, how to make it and how to drink it as well as their "health benefits." I love the fermented ginseng oolong. Probably my favorite. ... They also had a great story on how the lychee tea was developed for a "princess" in Beijing. She loved lychees and the emperor would have them carted in fresh from the south everyday. But in the winter she couldn't get them, so the scientists of the time figure out how to ferment the lychee juice with tea so she could still enjoy the flavor, stay happy and in turn keep the emperor happy. All in all, I probably tried 8 different teas over a couple hours with a good story on each of them.

The ginseng oolong he mentions is one strange tea. It looks like the droppings of a rodent that lives on a diet of very green grass. Each leaf seems rolled up and fermented on its own, resulting in dusky green pellets. Pouring a spoonful into the pot sounds like you're adding kibble for the dog. As they steep, they don't unravel. They make a nice light-green brew with a dry, dusty scent, but they remain little pellets at the bottom of the pot.

Flavorwise, the ginseng oolong gets even weirder — but not unpleasant. It's naturally sweet — very sweet — with a round, herbal taste, not unlike chamomile. I only found the ginseng in the scent, though the tea seems fairly energizing. A wild one.

The lychee black he sent is another eye-opener. The rosy scent of the lychee fruit charges out of the pot and cup; I mean, it really comes after you. It's perfumey, like Tea Rose, though despite its bold introduction it doesn't hog the cup. The black tea has its own brass, presenting flavors of raisins and rose hips. A beautiful caramel color, too.


Denise, Denise, sender of postcards, inhaler of grapes. Denise spent a year in India some time ago doing mission work — the real kind, the get down into amazing levels of poverty kind — and goes back once in a while. Dolly's Tea Shop is something of a word-of-mouth institution in Calcutta, an apparently splendid shop overseen by Dolly Roy, a woman who knows a lot about tea. (Read about her here and here.)

Some of Denise's photos from Dolly's ...

Denise sent more of Dolly's delicious Darjeelings, including a "Muscatel Clonal" that's pretty superb. This time of year, I'm hardly ever drinking the champagne of teas, and its trademark musk is a rushing sense memory.

The real surprise was a shiny, silver mylar bag makred from Balmer Lawrie & Co., with a label that read only, "Contents: Tea." The company's website makes it sound like a dreadful, gigantic government food factory. The tea, though, might be my favorite of this particular batch. It smells exactly like ... fresh peanut butter! The brew is a walnut color, the flavor is a little nutty; it's got a tang to it, like a Darjeeling. Whatever the style or blend, it's crazy tasty.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Soft yielding minds sipping elemental tea

For when the Fair in all her pride expire,
To their first elements their souls retire:
The sprites of fiery termagants in flame
Mount up, and take a Salamander's name.
Soft yielding minds to water glide away,
And sip, with Nymphs, their elemental tea.
— Alexander Pope, "The Rape of the Lock"

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A succulent garden — in teaware

I forget how I came across this site (did someone tweet it?) and its instructions for making a succulent garden out of teacups, but I finally tackled the project this weekend.

A trip to the neighborhood garden center — a refreshingly different experience when you have to crunch through the snow to get there — produced 7-8 tiny succulents and cacti, which I planted in spare teacups (extras, cast-offs, one of my favorites with a broken handle, a small pot missing its lid, etc.). Ideally, succulents need flawless drainage, but my drill was not up to the task of piercing porcelain; that may have to wait. Nonetheless, here's the menagerie gathered on a small lamp table in the sunroom ...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tuesday tea tunes: A Sensible solution

Captain Sensible, aka Ray Burns, co-founded the Damned and then went off on his own in the early ’80s, writing and recording cheeky, quirky alt-rock songs just this side of Jonathan Richman. Here's his lament about the state of his kitchen in "A Nice Cup of Tea":

Monday, January 24, 2011

Tea shirt: An old pun is new again

I tweeted this daily T-shirt deal recently; I hope some of you got in on the action. My tea shirt arrived last week ...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Stay warm with cinnamon tea

A friend's tales of travel recently reminded me of a tasty cold-weather tea treat: canela tea. On a hiking trip in Ecuador, he paused along a trail and chewed leaves right off a fragrant, red cinnamon tree; higher on the peak, his guide boiled water and served tin mugs of canela (cinnamon) tea. These were the same mountain paths once explored by Columbus and his followers; they were as desperate to find spices like this as they were to find gold.

This is an herbal infusion, of course, though it's not unheard of to include some black tea. Canela tea is about as simple as things get: boil water, throw in cinnamon sticks, simmer till it's good and brown. Sweeten to taste. Easy peasy. (Don't try ground cinnamon, no matter how well you think you can filter the results. Also, if you want to take it up a notch, hit the specialty market for "Mexican cinnamon" or "canela," which will be looser and not as tightly curled as the American spice-rack variety and thus will steep better.)

Here's a better, more considered approach from Sunset magazine: As above, boil water, add cinnamon sticks, simmer. Remove from heat, remove the sticks. Stir in honey and a wee bit of almond extract. Ladle into mugs, garnish with more cinnamon sticks. Highly recommended: amending each mug with tequila. Enjoy around a patio fire pit.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Slowly, reverently

Drink your tea slowly and reverently — as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.
— Buddhist Monk Nat Hahn

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tuesday tea tunes: Rumours of a tea song

Before they scored hits with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac was a formidable blues band. Here's an instrumental from the "Kiln House" LP called "Earl Gray" [sic, maybe] ...

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Being resolute: Goals for the new year

I'm a little late, but here are my tea resolutions for the new year ...

1. Resteep.
I'm terrible about tossing perfectly good, not-quite-spent tea leaves. Not every tea is up for multiple infusions, but many will deliver at least one more pot. Sometimes the flavor even changes as you go, softening overall but revealing hidden subtleties. So I resolve to boil one more kettle whenever possible.

Question for readers: How do you save tea leaves for more steeping?

2. Live a life beyond Keemun.
If I had my druthers, I'd probably drink nothing but Keemun every single afternoon. Often that's exactly what happens. It's my go-to variety, and I just love it, from every brand and garden. It gives me less to write about, though, and I'm sure you're weary of hearing me acclaim it. So I resolve to push myself into other provinces.

3. Pester Steepster until they release a mobile app.
I resolve to harangue the people behind Steepster until they complete a task that even my neighborhood Mexican market has been able to do: write and release an app for mobile updating. Steepster is so exciting and cool, but since I don't drink tea in front of a computer each time, and since I utilize my mobile moments to keep up with the seven social media streams I manage personally and professionally (this is getting ridiculous), I'd actually use the service if they had an iPhone or, dare I suggest, iPad app. Which they've been saying since I first logged on was coming, someday, maybe. I hold out zero hope my pleas will produce any results, however, given that the most recent blog post from Steepster's creators basically says they're too busy with other projects to manage the site properly and hope we understand. Great.

4. Post more, yadda yadda.
Every blogger resolves it every year. Be more consistent, regular, frequent. Easier resolved than accomplished when this is a hobby. Then again, this sin't a news or even reviews site. It's just a celebration. My metrics show you're out there, but you're not all out there every day. Which is fine. Drop in anytime.

I'm at least going to read my email and tweet, though, every day. Really. You watch. You'll see.

5. But also: post less.
Then again, I also resolve to schedule and savor more tea moments just for myself, experiences I don't write about. Like experiencing art, this tea loving we do is a purely subjective thing. It's important to pull the curtain on the audience once in a while and remind ourselves why we pursue what we pursue.

Friday, January 14, 2011

From the earth, in earthen vessels

When you know wonderful people, life can only be wonderful. Donna P. is a dear pal from Tulsa, Okla., a potter who throws clay at that city's Brady Artists Studio along with Mel Cornshucker and many others.

Donna was kind enough to make me some teaware for Christmas: a small, shallow tea bowl with striking curly-q designs, and two sturdy clay cups, each in her trademark style featuring natural earth tones with ribbons of a turquoise hue. Here they are pictured with some matcha I enjoyed recently:

Big blessings to you, Ms. D. Come visit and enjoy all-you-can-drink tea!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Will the next mayor of Chicago drink tea?

Launching and running a tea business seems like a benevolent action that could only generate positive press — unless (a) you're running for mayor of Chicago and (b) your business tanks.

Former senator and U.S. ambassador Carol Moseley Braun is one of the hopefuls seeking to replace retiring Richard M. Daley as Chicago's mayor next month. I've considered her as a candidate not only based on her record but, admittedly, also because she's a tea lover. She likes to take afternoon tea at the Four Seasons here, and in 2005 she launched her own tea and spice company, Ambassador Organics.

Braun was an ambassador in New Zealand from 1999 to 2001. Perhaps she experienced the country's fledgling tea industry — now producing some tasty oolongs — and got inspired. But, alas, Ambassador apparently has not fared well. When you're up for public office, you release your tax returns. Braun's show the company has lost at least $365,000. Not great news for someone seeking to manage a city with a $6 billion annual budget, though navigating the emerging markets for tea might not be directly comparable to making sense of Chicago's fiscal labyrinth.

It's a shame, because Ambassador sources only organic, biodynamic and fair-trade teas. "I founded my small business not in a downtown office, but in a South Side neighborhood, guided by the same principles and values that I fought for in government," Braun said recently. I've only tasted a hibiscus herbal blend, but I remember it was as snappy as Braun's personality.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Climate change is diluting Assam tea

Eegad — I've thought casually about this before, but here's a good story about how climate change is affecting tea production in the Assam region. As you know, you can't grow tea just anywhere; it's pretty finicky about its conditions. With rainfall totals dropping and temperature rising, yields are getting smaller. And it's no better in Darjeeling.

It gets worse: This report (and this one) claims that climate change is even make Assam tea less potent. If you drink Assam, no doubt you do so because of its strong, bright flavor. The unsettled climate seems to be diluting it.

You know what that means. Prices will only go up.

Perhaps it's a delicious irony that the right's radicals, who deny the facts of climate change, named their new party after a possibly endangered plant.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Teaku No. 10

This morning's tea
makes yesterday

— Tankô