Saturday, June 30, 2012

Happy harai

On a bright June moonlit night during harai, the sacred music
and white robes both ripple outwards. How cool it is!
— Teika

Friday, June 29, 2012

The feeling is frayed and Day-Glo, too

A couple of years ago, a popular Internet forward was links to photos of various alcoholic beverages and cocktails — as crystallized and viewed under an electron microscope. The images (still online, of course) were usually colorful and sometimes breathtaking. Great wallpaper, anyway.

Someone finally applied the same lens to caffeine. So here's an up-close and personal look at the substance with which we're already otherwise f-f-f-familiar ...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tuesday tea tunes: Holo-tea with Hatsune Miku

Last week, I was at a visual communication conference in Utah, presenting some of my research into virtual pop stars. (Quick version of long story: If you saw the Tupac hologram this spring, they've been doing much more interesting stuff like that in Japan for years.) One, in particular, is a Japanese vocaloid called Hatsune Miku. Of course, someone has written a tea-related song for her (a few, in fact). It's an unusually mid-tempo, alt-rock strummer called "Mint Tea" ...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Bitch session on the road

My old nemesis: Mr. Coffee.

Traveling this week, staying in three different hotels. Two in Iowa, one in Utah. A decent cup of tea will not be had, I know, even with the good stuff I brought along. But my how I try.

In every room, the proprietors have "conveniently" placed a Mr. Coffee. Cursed little things. They always reek of the black. So I scrub, and I wipe, and I rinse. My bancha still tastes like bean.

(They made a Mrs. Tea once, in the mid-’90s. Cute thing, with a real teapot under the drip. But really, drip is not the best way to steep your tea.)

Usually, it's the available water that ruins the experience. I grab a bottle when I can, but can't always. The third circle of hell is a cup of tea made with hotel tap. Mmmm, calci-riffic!

The fifth circle: The restaurant bag basket. The lukewarm water. That stainless-steel pitcher with the lid that never quite fits right and a volume somehow less than the corresponding cup. At least it's not one of those glass bulbs with the black plastic neck (the Hottle, shudder) ...

God, I'm spoiled. Despite all this kvetching, I'm having a wonderful trip ... ;-)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tuesday tea tunes: Just Before June, in June

Always a sucker for young gents who scrawl things on their guitars, here's a YouTube trio called Just Before June singing "The Tea Song" — "We don't have milk and sugar / just each other's company ..."

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Ideas and sensations: Happy Bloomsday!

Today is Bloomsday, June 16, the day the action of James Joyce's Ulysses takes place. Here's a tea moment from chapter 1:

Buck Mulligan frowned quickly and said:
-- What? Where? I can't remember anything. I remember only ideas and sensations. Why? What happened in the name of God?
-- You were making tea, Stephen said, and I went across the landing to get more hot water. Your mother and some visitor came out of the drawingroom. She asked you who was in your room.
-- Yes? Buck Mulligan said. What did I say? I forget.
-- You said, Stephen answered, O, it's only Dedalus whose mother is beastly dead.
A flush which made him seem younger and more engaging rose to Buck Mulligan's cheek.
-- Did I say that? he asked. Well? What harm is that?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock presents: tea

We recently watched "Marnie," a 1964 Alfred Hitchcock thriller (well, it's not very thrilling, really). It's a fairly tedious psyche-drama. But I have to share this scene from the middle of the film. Start the video below and skip ahead to about 6:00.

Sean Connery's Mark Rutland is bringing his captured bride home for tea with his father and sister. The script ably utilizes tea as a means of quickly drawing the characters.

The fuddy-duddy old man likes his "strong, please, no milk, two lumps of sugar," then goes on about insisting on keeping quality tea on hand. Connery, trying to break away from Bond and in full leering mode, says to his sister, "You take yours with lemon, don't you, Lil?" Himself, he calls for "Strong with a dash of rum for me," which dad disdains as "spinster's tea," adding, "Mucking up tea with strong drink. There's something sneaky about it, eh?"

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tea + beer

Suddenly my in-box is frothy with news of different attempts to combine tea and beer. If that sounds like your cup of ale, here are some of the watered/tea'd-down summertime combinations:

• The now-venerable Great Lakes Brewery in Toronto has its Green Tea Ale, which is reportedly big on the actual tea flavor but gets medium reviews.

• Coors, of all places, now has its own blend: Coors Light Iced T. Says the WSJ: "The citrus-like, iced tea-flavored beer will have roughly 4% alcohol content but no caffeine." So the point of drinking this would be ...?

• A more innovative and promising idea is fermenting on the other side of the world: the Yeastie Boys in New Zealand have created a trophy-winning "Gunnamatta" India Pale Ale, using Earl Grey tea leaves (from fellow Wellington business t Leaf T) instead of hops — so the tea is an integral part of the brew and not a mere flavor additive. As one of the brewmeisters says, "I just got fed up with chocolate and coffee beers being the trend du jour and thought it was time to put tea into the limelight." Amen, brother. Alas, Yeastie products aren't exactly easy to find over here.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tuesday tea tunes: Atmosphere

Found this grouping of tea-related music on Soundcloud. Three tracks of blissful atmospheric music — the kind perfect for a gongfu ceremony, perhaps — and one oddly placed pop song:

Friday, June 8, 2012

Suzushi (coolness)

The rush-thatched roof looks cool;
even from the bridge one can make out the aroma of tea.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Margaret, what is the tea master?!

Korean tea, Korean tea, Korean tea!

Everywhere I go now, tea people are yammering about Korean tea. I've had Korean greens a few times before, but nothing's really knocked me out. Someone in Seoul, however, must have coughed up the dough for an image consultant and a marketing campaign, because the buzz about Korean teas is boiling over. In conjunction, Korea just sent an enormous delegation to the World Tea Expo last weekend in Las Vegas, so expect to have more news m*a*s*hed in your face.

Even the label of the sample packet I just tried touts "the up-and-coming tea growing district of Seogwang." When I stopped at Tea Gschwendner recently to stock up (my cupboard must always contain some of their south India white and a lot of their Keemun), I got the Korean sales pitch. So I took a sample of their new South Korea Seogwang Sencha (not in their catalog yet). It's a fine sencha, nothing to blog in capital letters about. It improves noticeably with a hotter brew (go for 190 degrees instead of the usual cooler temperatures for greens), showing off a firm balance between astringency and fruitiness. I'd drink it again. OK?!

Bonus: Searching for information about it did lead me to one of my favorite discoveries of the year, however: die Tea Queen! Apparently, my beloved Gschwendner has this (unofficial? official?) spokes...person, a Dame Edna-ish sort who makes some pretty hilarious promotional videos using their teas. It's all in German, mind you, but the hilarity of this one making Earl Grey muffins is barely topped by the following "man"-on-the-street video featuring some clearly uncomfortable Germans taste-testing the Seogwang Sencha ...

Of course, we're talking South Korea here. One can only imagine the bilge-water likely served up as tea in poor North Korea.

Background: Korea has a tea culture more than 2,000 years old (there's a decent primer here), so it's not as if the teas there are brand-new. I've seen a few things about their particular ceremony, darye, and I remember once wanting to fly to Seoul immediately because they have a tea museum called the Beautiful Tea Museum. In most of my tea histories, Korea is mentioned merely in passing ("China and Korea," "Japan and Korea"), except this bit from Mair & Hoh's The True History of Tea:

In Korea, where tea more or less disappeared with the great purge of Buddhism toward the end of the Koryo dynasty in the 14th century, the beverage experienced a remarkable 20th-century renaissance with the great Korean nationalist, Buddhist monk and tea master Hyodang Choi Beom-Sul (1904-79), who, building on the work of the 19th-century monk Cho-Ui, reawakened the Korean people's interest in tea. "Like Cho-Ui ... he left behind him a growing community of people, reaching beyond Buddhism, devoted to practicing the Way of Tea as a means of spiritual refreshment, a source of community, a sign of peace," writes his biographer Brother Anthony.
Refreshment, community, peace. That's pretty much why I'm here. You?

(Sorry about the obscure title reference. Margaret Cho joke. Couldn't resist.)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Tuesday tea tunes: No, not Hot Tuna

I'm about to write a master's thesis on virtual pop stars. Long story. But here's a homemade example — someone's Wii Music/Rock Band creation, a "band" called Hot Tea featuring Oolong on vocals, Ceyon and Earl Grey on guitars, bassist Darjeeling, drummer Keemun and, of course, Lapsang Souchong on timbales.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Queen's jubilee, and ol' cousin Norm

Video from yesterday's Thames parade — celebrating the queen's jubilee, 60 years on the throne —is splendid. I celebrated quietly with a spot of tea, and I finally polished my good English silver pot. A few Chicagoans have put out Union Jacks in place of or in addition to their stars-and-stripes this weekend. Jolly good.

While taking jubilee tea, I thumbed back through some notes, books and research. Norman Hartnell, the famed London fashion designer in the mid-20th century — and the man who designed Queen Elizabeth's wedding and coronation gowns — was a second cousin to me. The Hartnell house was one of the longest-running in British fashion history, and Normie's costumes were lavish, to say the least. He loved embroidery, embellishments and jewels jewels jewels. One of his first wedding gowns, worn by the bride of Lord Weymouth, was swathed in silver and gold netting and was described as "the eighth wonder of the world." He loved to tell his clients, "I despise simplicity. It is the negation of all that is beautiful."

Hartnell was appointed official dressmaker to the royal family in 1938. He made Elizabeth's wedding dress in 1947, and her coronation gown (pictured above, in Norman's sketch and as Elizabeth exits her carriage) in 1953. Everything he created for the royals was certainly fit for a queen, but he had to walk a fine line. A queen's clothes have to be regal, yes; they also have to be both not trendy and not obsolete. "The Queen doesn't want to set the style," he said. "She wants to be comfortable." Then again, take a look at the clothes he designed for regular gals — like this video of models posing awkwardly in his spring ’38 collection — and decide how much he really knew about comfort.

In Windsor Forest, Hartnell had a country home (and a mink farm!) where "all sorts of people would roll up for drinks, lunch or tea," according to one biographer. In London, his favorite spot for afternoon tea was Claridge's, in Mayfair, where he had a favorite table near the door. (Today, for some reason, the tea menu at the Doubletree Hotel in Cambridge claims to be "inspired by Norman Hartnell and Lord Byron," which is, for so many reasons, an amusing pairing.) I visited Claridge's on my London tea trip a couple of years ago. I also stopped by the Bruton Street building where Hartnell's fashion house thrived for so many years. It's been nicely restored, and his name is still on it.

Here's to you, Sir Normie. Someday I'll get over there and finally write my book about you.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Lay off the Hoff, man!

Speaking of David Lee Hoffman, the great contemporary tea explorer has run into a kerfuffle with his California neighbors. Despite residing in live-and-let-live Marin County, Hoffman's compound uses some innovative recycling techniques for his waste (garden and human) involving worms. Folks are concerned about the possible runoff.

“I wanted to show that there are distinctive nonpolluting ways to live on the planet,” Hoffman explained to The New York Times recently over tea and chapatis made from his heirloom wheat. “In my mind, I thought I could demonstrate to the county that these systems work. ... I did what I felt was right. My love of the planet is greater than my fear of the law.”

You can voice your support for Hoffman's endeavors by signing this petition, encouraging the county to work with him instead of against him. Read more at Hoffman's site.

Hoffman's Phoenix Collection has supplied some great teas to the Chicago Tea Garden, which just announced its impending closing, and his life's work in dealing tea (read a good summary here) is the subject of a fine Les Blank documentary, "All in This Tea," which is still available as a streaming offering on Netflix.

RIP Chicago Tea Garden

Sad to report that the Chicago Tea Garden — a fine business by superb people supplying a delicious line of quality teas — has announced its end. Begun three years ago by blogger Tony Gebely, CTG has purveyed some of my favorite teas, often raved about here, including Zealong (a unique South Pacific oolong) and a fabulous Golden Li Buo from David Lee Hoffman's stock.

The only good news out of this is that he's having a clearance sale, starting at 30 percent off. Check the site now before it's all gone.