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.