Several weeks ago, I made a trip to Smith Teamaker’s to try out some new tea concoctions they were working on. Tony Tellin, the lead blender was already doing a pouring of their new Masala Chai ON NITRO! . . . and I stuck around to try something else that was not yet on the market. He and a few other staff members had informed me that they partnered with Tyler Malek – owner of Salt & Straw, a local ice creamery – to create a new oolong blend.

This was fascinating to me on two levels. One, when I thought of Salt & Straw, I didn’t think of “tea”. All I thought of were long lines.

Note: Not the actual line (but close).

Note: Not the actual line (but close).

Really long lines. The place was almost too popular a spot in Portland.

That said, somehow/someway both Tony ‘n Tyler got together and concocted this . . .

oolong ice cream box

. . . and dubbed it – fittingly enough – Oolong Ice Cream. The first in a limited edition line of teas called The Maker’s Series.

I asked Tony how the blend was made, and the explanation just about made my eyes glaze over. He, literally, had to explain it to me twice and send me an e-mail so I could get the process all down.

at the lab

First, they sourced a Jin Xuan milk oolong from Nantou county, Taiwan. Milk oolongs from that region were rather dicey. While “officially” they were supposed to have a naturally milky/silky taste due to temperature changes during the harvest period, the Taiwanese had been known to milk-steam the leaves prior to drying/rolling. It was a minor cheat, but a cheat nonetheless. However, Tony assured me this stuff was the real deal.

Next, they dry-scented the oolong leaves with bourbon vanilla bean for one month. After that, Marcona almonds were cut and sifted, then the dust from the cuttings were reserved for later. White jasmine blossoms were conditioned and sifted. Indian sarsaparilla root was also sifted.

Last but not least was Tyler Malek’s addition – making sugar candy. Cane sugar was melted and poured over bourbon vanilla dust from the original sifting. Sea salt was added, then the concoction was left to stand and solidify. The candy was, then, cracked and sifted to about the size of ball-fisted oolong leaves, and – finally – blended with the almond dust from way at the beginning.

In short, a lot of work went into this. A less ambitious blender would’ve just added ice cream flavoring and called it a day. The result was a beautiful blend that looked (and smelled) similar to ice cream – as was intended. Before I left, Tony gifted me with a few sachets to play with.

oolong ice cream sachet

From within the sachet, the leaves looked predominately . . . well . . . oolong. The jasmine blossoms rounded out the palette with their yellowness. But for the most part, this was all oolong. All ball-fisted green meteorites of glory. It was difficult to see that anything had been done to them at all, save for the addition of flowers. The aroma gave a different impression. No joke, it smelled like a root beer float laden with buttermilk ice cream.

For the first test, I brewed this Western-style(ish) in the sachet . . . with the gaiwan. I used boiled water (cooled for three minutes), then steeped it for three minutes.

oolong ice cream western

The result was a pale yellow liquor with an aroma of sweetened butter and vanilla. On taste, there was a crisp vanilla smack on the tongue, followed by a popcorny massage in the middle, which then curtsied with a sweet-flower outro. I seriously wanted this as an actual ice cream. Or rather, probably not. I would down this by the pint – nightly.

Next up, I de-sachet the leafy bits and decided to gongfu ‘em. I was interested to see if three short infusions yielded different results given the elements at play.

oolong ice cream loose

After cutting open the sachet, I got a better look at the leaves and other components. The flakes of almonds and vanilla beans were more clear to the eye, now. And the aroma seemed somehow . . . freed. More floral, but also more creamy.

First infusion (thirty seconds): More aromatic and floral on the front, followed – very distantly – by the vanilla cream sweetness that was added. Like a regular Ali Shan that’d been dipped in honey.

Second infusion (thirty seconds): More crisp than the first infusion, but also sweeter. The vanilla-nut dual punch comes through far stronger than the milky Jin Xuan oolong, which takes an only partial backseat (but still gives directions).

Third infusion (forty-five seconds): Oh wow, creamiest of the three! All the butternut-vanilla-ness came out in one wallop on first sip. Not as strongly floral as brewed Western-style, but retaining all the bits that gave it that ice creamy moniker.

oolong ice cream gongfu

But I wasn’t done, yet. I still had four more sachets, and a thought kept nagging me: What would this taste like as a latte? Around the same time, someone on Instagram mused about what it would taste like iced. That got me wondering as well. And, so, I made a trip down to Smith HQ to find out. Luckily, I was able to convince the staff to humor the odd request for both preparations.

First up, the latte.

oolong ice cream latte

Two sachets were used along with 1 tsp. of sugar, half-‘n-half and 2% milk. The result was . . . well . . . perfection! This tasted exactly like melted ice cream. And I was all-too-familiar with that taste, having left many a bowl of ice cream unattended after scooping. The creaminess was more pronounced in this form.

And lastly, the iced tea.

oolong ice cream iced

Simple prep: Pint glass, two sachets brewed as a concentrate, poured over ice. Done. This was perhaps the weakest form. None of the vanilla, almonds, or sweet aspects showed through as prominently. The dominant notes were – oddly enough – the oolong aromatics and the floral jasmine. Those took point with some residual sweetness on the back-end.

It took me about a month to get to this writing. The limited edition boxes they prepped for this blend sold out within two weeks after pressing. That revelation almost made me regret going through so many sachets, brewing this up every which way. But only “almost”.

Yeah, I’d stand in line for this.

Okay, learning time.

Everyone knows about black tea, green tea, oolong, and so on . . . but I’m sure there are some newbies passing by this article that don’t know what pu-erh is. Well, I’ll tell you, but I’ll keep it brief. In short, it’s heicha (dark tea). Or rather, tea that’s meant to be aged. The leaves are processed in such a way that they’re only “mostly dead”.

miraclemax

Meaning, they still go through an enzymatic change (i.e. fermentation) well after processing and pressing. Pu-erh, specifically refers to aged teas from Yunnan province, China. Like champagne, pu-erh is not pu-erh if it doesn’t hail from this province. All pu-erhs are dark teas, but not all dark teas are pu-erh. Got that? No?

Well, read this article I did for Teaity, then. It goes into a bit more detail. And I won’t even get into the difference between raw (sheng) and ripe (shou). Let’s just say I usually only deal in raw, naturally-aged pu-erh, and that’s what I’m specifically sticking with here.

To date, the oldest raw pu-erh I’d sipped was eighteen years old. I had yet to pass the two-decade mark. People have told me what it was like, but I had yet to experience it for myself. What was even odder? No one could give me a definitive answer as to what the taste profile was for really old pu-erh. There was a consensus that pu-erhs between ten and twenty years of age took on a wine-like note. But older than that, opinions got less . . . lucid . . .

The only words I heard in common between all the old pu-erh connoisseurs out there were “old” and “clean”. That was a similar reaction held by fellow weird tea drinker, Greg “Norbu Tea” Glancy. He got in a few old old pu-erhs that I took notice of, and kindly provided me with some cake chisels to play with.

old pu

So, I decided to give two(or more)-decade-old pu-erhs my fair shake. Full disclosure: I’m not a pu-erh expert by any stretch. Hell, I don’t even know what it means when a pu-erh has a “Green Mark” or a “Yellow Mark”. For all I know, they could be martial arts belts. I can think of several people more qualified to deal with the nuances of really old pu-erh. (And a lot of Russians.) But I’m going to give it the old college try.

1990s Loose Sheng

The late-90s pu-erh leaves definitely looked their part. They looked every bit their two decades of age, old, ash-colored and earth-smelling. There was a bit of dust to the aroma, but it wasn’t unpleasant. It was like a “discovering-an-old-cupboard” smell.

1990s loose sheng

I brewed the leaves gongfu-style, and – given the age of the leaves – did a ten-second pre-wash before dipping into actual, drinkable brews. However, given that it was me, I drank the pre-wash anyway. Why let a cup go to waste?

The result was a pleasantly dark crimson liquor from each short steep, and an aroma of “ancient” from each cup. That same sensation reflected in the taste. The earth notes were strong but gentle, like getting a massage from a certified body builder. It wasn’t as dusty as I was expecting on first sip, either. Just pleasant. Yes, there was that requisite taste of “old tea”, but it was a calming one. This put me quite at ease.

loose sheng gong fu

Now onto the cakes . . .

True story, when I went to brew up both of the old cakes, I lost track of which was which. Couldn’t tell ‘em apart by sight or smell. So, I had to do a re-brew on the first one. Not that I minded.

1990s CNNP Green Mark

Green Mark loose cake

The chisels of the 1990s sheng cake were dark brown but loosely packed. It was easy to break pieces off of them. The aroma the chunk gave off was less “old” and more “vintage”. It was a fragrance that was hard to pin down. My nose could only tell my brain that the smell was “all-knowing”, if that makes sense.

Green Mark brewed

I gongfu’d three infusions, and each one (at around thirty seconds) brewed up pitch dark. Like a ripe pu-erh, but that’s where the similarity ended. The aroma was all earth, moss and mint. On taste, it conveyed that same earthiness, but with the added benefit of third-eye-opening depth. The intro was sage-y (both plant and scholar), like a Yunnan white tea, which transitioned to a forest floor-like sensation on the tongue. That trailed off to an herbaceous (if fungal) finish that just whispered, “Yum” . . . if creepily/seductively.

1980s CNNP Yellow Mark

The final cake piece was also the oldest, dating back to sometime during the Reagan administration. Not sure which one. The pressed leaves were as dark, brown and earth-toned as the 90s cake, but the smell was older and cleaner. In fact, that seemed to be a running theme here – “old and clean”. Like that old Outkast song “So Fresh, So Clean”, only . . . y’know . . . retired. Point being! It smelled like something I wanted to drink.

1980s Yellow Mark

I gongfu’d it like the other two. Each successive infusion was darker than the other, leading to a pond of rust-brown almost-blackness in the last (third) cup. The first sip was like drinking distilled cedar; there was a definite coniferal note on the forefront. That transitioned to the requisite pu-erh earthiness, but with the added benefit of “something” toasty and tongue-numbing. An odd sensation of inner body warmth lingered in substitution of a cohesive aftertaste. If you could taste the inside of your soul’s face, I’m sure it’s something like this.

1980s Yellow Mark brewed

I tried all of these over the course of a week. On one day off, I had this ambitious notion of notching ‘em all off in one day. Problem was, after just one session with one of these teas, my tongue was too damn slap-happy to move on to the next one. It’s like being stoned, only you’re not as hungry. And you smell better.

In conclusion: If you’re new to pu-erh, start off young and work your way up. If you only care about wine-like flavors, anything around the ten-year mark is a good bet. If you’re ready for old and clean teas that’ll make you feel the inside of your soul’s face, then you’re ready for the two-decade “marks”.

The Road to Eugene Is Paved in Tea – Teashop Adventure Week

June was a shitty month.

Between two deaths in the family, a work-related back injury, and a two-week bout of influenza to cap things off, I think it’s safe to say it was the shittiest month I’ve had in nearly a decade. There were small bouts of cheer, however. And one of them came in the form of a text message.

Josh Chamberlain of J-TEA International sent me the following, “When can you come down to Eugene to try all of our iced teas?”

Eugene was about two hours away from Portland, but . . . Fuck it, I thought. I needed a distraction. What better diversion than a day trip. For tea. There were worse reasons. I made it there in record time, got to the store in roughly an hour and a half. Unheard of.

The storefront was just as I remembered it.

JTEA storefront

I didn’t remember there being as much shading, or as many places to site, but it was as welcoming as my last trip. If I ever considered bailing from Portland permanently (and believe me, I have), I would consider Eugene – if only for this one teashop.

The moment I stepped in, Josh came out and had his on-hand lackey – Andrew – start with the pouring. Their process for iced tea differed from other tea shops. They took the tea concentrate, filled a cocktail shaker with ice, and then . . . shook vigorously. The result a was bold tea with a thick, frothy head. And, depending on the recipe, compote was added. My first iced tea out of the starting gate was their Logan Black – Eugene Breakfast concentrate with loganberry compote. It looked like a beer.

Logan Black

Tasted like an iced tea, but with a burlier, fruitier taste. Like berries with a manly musk . . . and chest hair? No, that sounds weird. It was just so unbelievably refreshing. The heat wave and undue June stress just washed away.

And that was only one of six iced teas I tried.

various iced teas

By the end of the range I was already a-buzzin’. The Rhubarboolong concoction was probably my favorite, seconded by the Marion Black. Because . . . freakin’ marionberries!

Next, we moved on to some new teas that were coming out of their respective bourbon barrels. In the teashop proper, there were (I think?) four used bourbon barrels lined up against the wall. The two new additions to the drunken tea family were a bourbon barrel-aged Ceylon, and a greener, light-roast oolong hit with the same treatment.

The small cut of the Ceylon leaves really picked up the bourbon notes well. Almost too well. The leaf aroma was sweet and liquor-y. The same was definitely the case for the taste.

Bourbon Ceylon

Just . . . “Whoah!”

The greener oolong had an interesting story to it. Apparently, when Josh and Co. got the barrel, it still had a little bit o’ bourbon left in it. (Wettest. Barrel. Ever?) Instead of clearing it out, Josh ordered his crew to dump the oolong in anyway. After a month or so of aging, he did a re-roast to dissipate the alcohol. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of that process being used, but this was the first where a barrel was involved.

Bourbon Oolong

The results spoke for themselves. Oolongs were tough to age in barrels. They didn’t pick up on scents very easily, likely due to their rolling technique or the semi-oxidation. One either had to age them longer – three months or so – or do something more drastic. In this case, drastic worked. It picked up on the bourbon, but still maintained its buttery/oolong-y profile.

The final treat of the visit was a special one. Josh had two mini-tea gardens he’d been cultivating over the last couple of years. A few Russian cultivars toward the back of the shop, a Korean cultivar hedge at the front, and a few from his house. For shits and giggles, he decided – this year – prep a mini-batch of black tea from those various bushes.

Eugene

Once he was done plucking, he subjected them to a drying process. However, because the amount was so small, he couldn’t use a conventional roaster or bamboo tray. He simply put his home stove on a low setting and waited for a set amount of time, then ding! Ready.

The result was something akin to a Wuyi cliff tea both in sight and character.

Eugene Grown

The liquor brewed light, but the aroma was straight roastiness. That was reflected in the taste as well. If I was coming at this blind, I would’ve thought I was imbibing a Da Hong Pao, except . . . yknow . . . good. (Sorry, not a fan of Da Hong Pao.) It was different from his other black tea efforts, no Taiwanese-ish sweetness. But it was still damn fine in its own right.

By 3PM, Josh said, “Well . . . I don’t think I have anything else to show ya.”

I looked at my phone and realized I’d just killed three hours having who-knows-how-many gallons of tea. With a wave, I bid my farewells and promised another visit in the not-so-distance future. June may have been a shitty month, but with teashop adventures like that one . . . I coped.

The road ahead is paved in tea, and I have my swimsuit donned.

Smith Tea . . . ON NITRO! – Teashop Adventure Week

On nitro!

Two words that I greatly missed from my beer-drinking days. From what I heard from a master brewer once, the process of pumping a beer keg full of nitrous oxide was to mimic the character of cask conditioning. The result was a normal-textured, full-bodied beverage with a full, thick head of foam – differing from the fizzy head of modern conditioning techniques. Sure, a regular Irish stout was good, but an Irish stout on nitro was really where it was at.

It was one of those sacrifices I was going to have to live with . . . or so I thought.

Roughly a month ago, Tony Tellin, head tea blender at Smith Teamaker noticed me nursing a pot of Darjeeling in their shop. He came out to give greetings, and also to invite me back to their “lab”. Yes, they have a lab.

Smith Lab

He wanted my opinion on a rather fizzy red beverage. It was “like” a regular iced tea, but the texture was entirely different. There were shades of vanilla, something nut-sweet, and . . . strawberries. A part of my brain – six months dormant now – wriggled a little, thinking, Is that a beer?

Tony answered my quizzical look with a description, “It’s our new Strawberry Honeybush Sparkling Iced Tea.” He then went on to explain how they used actual vanilla beans, steeped actual strawberries for a lengthy period of time, and brewed a condensed batch of honeybush. And the best part? Nitrous oxide. Yes, it was an iced tea on nitro!

That particular concoction was sent off to Portland’s own Stumptown Coffee per a new partnership. However, Tony assured me that there were a few other, similar recipes in the pipeline, and that he’d keep me posted on their progress. Along with another partnership project with a local ice creamery, Salt & Straw. I was familiar with both operations, but didn’t feel “Portlandian” enough to frequent either. That thought aside, I appreciated that Tony wanted to keep me in the loop.

Weeks went by with only a word or two exchanged between the two of us. Then one evening last week, Tony zapped me an e-mail, wondering if I had time that following Friday to stop by. I had already intended to drop in for a new masala chai iced tea they were test-driving, anyway. So, I zapped off a polite, “Hell yeah!”

The next day, I walked into the shop. The teaman at the counter, Aaron, looked at me and said, “Just go right on back.” As if I was expected. Awesome, I thought.

When I peeked in, Tony was already in mid-conversation with a group of other passersby, talking about their new masala chai iced tea. It, too, was on nitro! And served in a mother-f’ing beaker!

chai

 

 

Because . . . lab.

Also present was their in-house homebrewer named Joe. Because . . . of course his name was Joe. I think it’s like a Portland bylaw that all homebrewers need to change their name to Joe. And grow a beard.

While Tony was explaining the process, my eyes honed in on a beautiful red and black pint.

pint!

I took a whiff and smelled . . . berries and crisp blackness. Tony noticed my distraction and segued into a description of that concoction. It was their Brahmin blend (an English Breakfast-inspired creation), brewed as a concentrate, and added to fresh-brewed blackberries – a process they called “fruitsmithing”.

Tony Tellin

Tony Tellin

I sipped a sample of the blackberry Brahmin first, and it was exactly what you’d think based on the name. An iced tea made from berries that could benchpress a house after a raging kegger. Tony also mentioned that it was his “favorite”. Not too surprised there.

The masala chai variant was a simpler recipe – spiced tea blend brewed concentrated, with ginger juice added, and then pumped with CO2 and N2O. The combination was what gave it the epic head of foam on the pour.

Between the two, it was hard for me to choose a favorite. The ginger-heavy iced masala chai was a good every-time-‘o-day drink, but the blackberry Brahmin just appealed to the part of me that was a fan of all things MAN! All it needed to complete the ideal macho-tea-geek scenario was to be served by an owlbear.

(Look it up.)

Throughout the hour, various patrons were escorted into the lab to hear the spiel on the new creations. All the while, I hung back and sipped more than my fair share of all of them. Including a nice sparkling rooibos/marionberry fusion served in a wine glass.

Rooibos Marionberry

As the iced tea event ended, then Tony presented me with a small paper plate. It smelled of vanilla-drenched butterscotch ice cream. But it was an oolong . . . with a few other things. It was their new blend, fittingly named . . .  Oolong Ice Cream.

Oolong Ice Cream

Taiwanese Jin Xuan milk oolong blended with vanilla and a few other bells and whistles. Brewed Western-style, it tasted like . . . well . . . an oolong that’d been drenched in ice cream. Seriously, I had difficulty pinpointing nuances. Especially amidst my Charlie Bucket-ish grin.

I had every intention of simply mooching the plate. But I was stopped.

Sample mooching

Yes, this picture was totally staged.

However, Tony did part with a few sachets for me to play around with for a future write-up. I will definitely be going into that tea in further detai. In closing . . . I left all a-buzz and bubbly. (Bluzzably?) Like a Roald Dahl-esque child character that’d imbibed one too many fizzy lifting drinks . . .

ON NITRO!!!

blackberry brahmin

The T Project Grand Opening – Teashop Adventure Week

Several months ago, I stopped through Northeast Portland to stay a spell at Tea Bar. And it was . . . crowded. As a self-professed introvert, I don’t do well in crowds. If I’m with peers, I mind them less. But if alone, crowds feel suffocating. While I was happy that Tea Bar was doing well, the sheer volume beautiful twentysomethings enjoying their lattes was panic-inducing to my olden heart. My plan was to grab my usual Lapsang Latte and go.

Then, toward the back, I saw a familiar face – Mizuba Tea’s Lauren Purvis was conversing with someone. Someone I knew! I thought. And I bee-lined for them . . . totally not thinking that I was interrupting a professional conversation . . . which I was.

The woman Lauren was speaking with was Teri Gelber, a soon-to-be teashop owner.

Image mooched from tprojectshop.com

Image mooched from tprojectshop.com

I had never heard of the new op, and I usually had a pretty good bead on the pulse of Portland’s tea scene, but I’d been hermitic of late – admittedly. Before parting ways, I exchanged information with Teri, and told her to keep me up to date on her progress. I’ll admit, I promptly forgot about it. I suck at networking.

Fast-forward to early June, and I received an e-mail and a notice from Teri about her shop’s pre-opening party. The shop in question was to be called T Project, located in Portland’s trendy Pearl District.

T Project

While her focus was primarily themed blends, she was also going to be carrying matcha and matcha brewing tools – hence her conversation with Lauren. The grand opening was the 12th of that month, but prior to that, there was an invite-only opening gala of sorts. For press and other “important” types. To date, I’d only attended . . . no teashop grand openings. None. At all. Huh, how surprising.

I RSVP’d, responded to Teri’s e-mail, and awaited the day. June 11th rolled around, and I got there early. Highly unlike me. Lauren was already setting up in the brewing corner. I did what I always did, said “Hi” without much regard to my surroundings.

lauren

The shop itself possessed a beautiful interior. There was a wooden counter/brewing station to the back left, quaint seating past that, and various teaware on display throughout. The collection of matcha bowls (chawan), in the seating area, was particularly enticing. Lauren’s own brother, Austin Danson, had one of his homemade bowls on display.

matcha bowls

In short order, though, as the time for the actual party rolled around, other guests started to arrive. Make that, a lot of guests. Within mere minutes, the place was . . . crowded.

crowded

Luckily, there were folks in attendance that I knew, including fellow Portlandian tea blogger, Steph W. of Steph’s Cup of Tea. I lasted, maybe, another hour after that, though In the interim, I was able to acquire two of Teri’s blends for peaceful sipping – sans crowds – Golden Years and I Feel Love. The first was a Yunnan black tea blended with chrysanthemums; the other was an Indian black tea blend with herbs, and scented with bergamot. (The latter had me at “bergamot”.)

Golden Years

Golden Years was a unique looking blend. Simple in execution, yet complex in aromatic delivery. The Yunnan Dian Hong used as the base contributed an earthy and malty foundation for the gently floral presence that came in the after-whiff. The snow chrysanthemum bulbs used for the blend were small, gold, and contributed a subtle yet stubborn scent that added to the experience.

Golden Years loose

For brewing, I approached this with a light touch – one teaspoon in a standard gaiwan filled with boiled water, steeped for three minutes.

Golden Years brewed

The result was typically copper liquor with . . . the single burliest floral scent I’ve ever come across. It was like I was sniffing the musk of a ‘roided flower after its daily cross-training routine. Not a bad scent, just very strong. The taste was equally as manly. The Dian Hong – to my shock – did not take point on first sip. The snow chrysanthemum floral beatdown came first, followed by the black tea’s earthy astringency. This was like having tea time with a retired boxer . . . or with Bee Arthur . . . and I’m strangely okay either of those scenarios.

Bea

(Blogger’s note: It would seem – at the time of this writing – Golden Years has been changed to not include chrysanthemums. Just straight Yunnan black tea. Still a great tea, though.)

 

I Feel Love

The optimistically titled “I Feel Love” was one of the busier blends I’ve had in years. It contained an unknown mix of Indian black teas as the base and was rounded out by orange peel, lemon myrtle, lemon verbena, roses, lavender and bergamot oil. The result was a hearty-seeming black tea in theory, but the blended pieces were small and didn’t overpower the base. The aroma was also mostly pleasant, alternating between the various spectra of citrus. (Lavender was thankfully muted.)

I Feel Love loose

There came a morning when I had a craving for bergamot anything, and I gave this a brew-up. I went with a standard Western approach – boiled water, 1 tsp. of leaves in a 6oz. gaiwan and a three-minute steep. I could tell this was Assam-heavy, so I chose to lighten it up a li’l bit.

I Feel Love brewed

The liquor brewed bold copper (as expected) with a strangely black tea heavy aroma. I say “strangely” because a lot of busier blends lead with the herbal scents first. This was a malty miasma followed by a citrus back-whiff – very welcome. The opposite was true for the taste. The introduction was all citrus, followed by black tea tannins, and ending on a floral note. Lavender – again – was thankfully understated.

Just from those two examples, I’d say T Project is off to a pretty decent start. I wish Teri all the success in the world. Yes, even . . . *sigh * . . . the crowds.

Sometimes, I think the ancient Chinese are trolling us from beyond their ancestral graves. How else do you explain an oolong that is – essentially – a poop joke?

poop troll

Yashi Xiang (Duck Shit Fragrance) Dan Cong is an oolong hailing from Guangdong province, China. I first learned of it from fellow weird tea friend, Greg “Norbu Tea” Glancy. (As in, he’s into weird teas, like me; not that he – himself – is weird . . . like me. I don’t think?) I spotted a conversation on Twitter that he was having with a client, and caught wind of the words “duck shit”. That made my inner eleven-year-old perk up.

Image owned by Steve Cribbs

Image owned by Steve Cribbs

He didn’t have any of the stuff, but I filed that bit of tea knowledge away for future use. Roughly two years later, I was contacted by Paul “Two Dog Tea Blog” Murray. The message read, “I should probably send you some tea, shouldn’t I?” (Or something to that effect.) I had no idea I was someone folks had to send tea to . . . but okay.

He was one of my favorite types of folks, a tea blogger that decided to make the plunge into selling tea. His focus: Unique pu-erhs and – if necessity dictated – odd oolongs and black teas.

The name of his op? White 2 Tea. I had no idea what that stood for, and I forgot to ask. All I knew was that he had a wicked sense of humor, and that he was based in Beijing, China. That and his branding kicked ass. Case in point: This was the label for his Yashi Xiang Dan Cong.

duck shit label

I want that duck (with turd) as a tea pet.

The funny thing about this “Duck Shit” oolong is that it didn’t look like duck shit. I even did an image search for comparative reference. (I will spare you – fine readers – of that visual experience.) Nope, the leaves were definitely not reminiscent of water fowl’s . . . uh . . . foul. I could’ve spared myself that delightful search if I’d just read the product notes.

duck shit loose

The yashi referred to the fragrance of the leaves, not the appearance of them. I also found this decidedly odd because – having been a precocious child once – I remember what duckscrement smelled like. Up close. This was not the same.

The leaves were large and spindly, resembling a large leaf Yunnan hong cha rather than an oolong. There were even gold-tipped bits to the leaves, which further confused the issue. The supposed fowl feces-inspired aroma was actually . . . floral and buttery. So, I’m chalking this naming scheme to being a rather ancient joke pulled on unsuspecting buyers. And bloggers with way too much time on their hands.

Measuring the leaves out for brewing was a chore, due to the average leaf size. Neither a teaspoon nor a tablespoon could cut it. In the end, I had to guesstimate a gaiwan’s brew of about a small half-handful, and then boiled the water. I utilized as close to a gongfu-style prep as possible.

duck shit brewed

All three infusions brewed up to a warm medium-amber liquor with the same floral aroma on the dry leaves. Whereas most Dan Congs exhibited a requisite tartness on the first sip, this had a crisp introduction, followed closely by a bit of astringency, and trailed off to a creamy/minerally nuanced tug-‘o-war. Further infusions deepened with notes of apricot . . . but still subtle. All steeps had a lingering sweetness on aftertaste. No notes of poo.

Not really sure how to end this, appropriately. As far as ancient poop jokes go, this was delicious. I was already a massive fan of Dan Congs, but now I was positively overflowing with good will toward them. All negative emotions flushed away.

Hehe . . . duck shit . . . okay, that’s funny.

Daffy disapproved

Whiskey Smoked Tea – The Tea-Totaler Trilogy, Part 3

This is a parable about poor impulse control. I was having a conversation with Mizuba Tea’s Lauren Purvis about experiments regarding matcha, smoke and wine. She asked me if I’d seen a recent article posted by The Japanese Tea Sommelier. I’d heard of this blogger before, but hadn’t had a chance to visit his site, yet. Tea For Me Please had featured him on her blog once. The blogger himself was a certified tea sommelier – originally hailing from France, now living in Japan – that both wrote about Japanese teas and helped source them for the company, Thes du Japon.

florent.weugue

Florent Weugue – The Japanese Tea Sommelier

I gave the blog a looksy upon her suggestion. The article she had pointed out was about a Japanese black tea (kocha) that’d been smoked over chips of whiskey barrel oak. I read every description of it with rapt attention. Black tea . . . from Japan . . . smoked over whiskey oak. What was this magical stuff, and why didn’t I have it?!

Mere minutes after reading it, I bought it. Then messaged Lauren and blamed her for “making” me do it. The package arrived a couple of weeks later.

The leaves looked like brown chips and flakes shaved off spent firewood, and smelled kind of like it, too. However, instead of just possessing the scent of hickory and campfire – like Lapsangs of yesterbrew – this had new elements to it. I was a whiskey drinker at one time, and I know peat moss when I smell it. And it was there – subtle, but there. There was also a tremendously woody bend to the aroma, much like an oak-smoked oolong I tried from Assam.

loose leaves

Instructions said to brew this for only one minute with boiled water to start, and then progress upward with further infusions. I did exactly that. Japanese teas – green or otherwise – were known to be touchy.

At only a minute, the liquor brewed bright red, but I was surprised at how light it still was – like an under-brewed Keemun, in appearance. The aroma was anything but light, imparting an oak-smoked tendril of awesome up my nostrils like a manly handshake. It was like my nose was wearing its own smoking jacket in the private room of a whiskey bar, wearing a monocle.

Brewed

Further infusions with added time also deepened in flavor. Drinking it was like upping a workout regimen, adding more weights or an extra incline. Each sip was like a power squat. I think my mouth now has muscles. The smokiest was the final Western-style infusion. Any subtlety this had pretty much vanished after two minutes; straight ashen pipe tobacco. A very well-deserved addition to the smoked tea pantheon.

To the point where I’m now spreading the gospel of this process to other tea makers I know – to see if their impulse control is as poor as mine.

packaging

Epilogue

That concludes this little series on teetotaling with tea. So far, it’s been six months since “going dry” from actual alcohol. And, as you (fair reader) can clearly see . . . with teas like these, who needs missing hubcaps and dead brain cells.

I’m totally okay to drive.

Booze Tea for Boob Teapots – The Tea-Totaler Trilogy, Part 2

Around the year, 490 BCE, in the ancient Chinese kingdom of Yue, there was once a beautiful woman who was offered as tribute to an invading king. The woman was so marveled for her beauty, it was said that fish would forget how to swim if she passed by a pond. Her name was Xi Shi, and she was considered one of the “Four Beauties” of ancient China.

Xi Shi

Poems and stories have been written about her. Some industrious individual even sought to make pottery inspired by her very physical form. Well . . . part of her form, anyway. Okay, the perv settled on designing a teapot around her boob. The areola, to be precise.

The Xi Shi design is a classic one utilized for yixing clay teapots, and I learned of this on my last visit to J-TEA International. Owner Josh Chamberlain, while I was interviewing him for an article, showed me his collection of yixing teapots for sale. He regaled me with the ancient tale. Somehow, he knew I’d appreciate it.

And appreciated it, I really did. Not just for pervy reasons. I wanted that damn pot. Several months later, I got that damn pot, and one other.

boob pots

I was already expecting the Xi Shi pot, but I had no idea what the second one was. What did this have to do with anything? Why was it there? Josh couldn’t remember, either, but he assured me that it was also a boob pot of some sort. I checked the name of the product on his site: Red Yi Xing Melon Pot.

Ha! Melons . . . I chuckled inwardly. Yep, definitely another boob pot.

He also included another tea from his barrel-aged line to play around with – a loose cooked pu-erh that was aged in a rum barrel for about a month. It wasn’t available for purchase, yet, but he wanted to get my input on it. I had already set my sights on using one of the boob pots for another of his barrel-aged teas – Drunken Dragon – a three-month, bourbon barrel-aged oolong. This way, I could now play with two teas with both pots.

prep

The Drunken Dragon looked and smelled a lot like its predecessor – Bourbon Oolong. The charcoal-roasted, ball-fisted leaves ranged from dark green to beige-brown. What was different about this batch – in comparison to prior ones – was the smell. There was a deeper, liquor-like smell; likely from the added two months to the barrel aging. That and there was an almost chocolaty sensation on the back whiff. Very titillating.

The Rum Pu-Erh couldn’t have been more different from its bourbon barrel-aged brethren. Sure, the notes of earth, dust and malt were present. It was the same five-year-aged cooked stuff from the Bourbon Barrel Pu-Erh. However, the use of a rum barrel sweetened it quite a bit. It didn’t quite smell like straight rum, but the one-month scenting process gave it an odd cotton candy-ish aromatic vibe. Well . . . cotton candy dipped in liquor, anyway.

J-TEA had no specific recommendations for which type of tea belonged with which pot. There was a passing mention that the “Melon” pot was best for greener oolongs, but that was it. I used that as my barometer, and decided to brew a teaspoon of Rum Pu-Erh in the Xi Shi pot. The Melon pot was broken in with a teaspoon of Drunken Dragon. For both teas, I settled on a gongfu brewing approach – for ease more than anything.

Mulan

Small confession: I had no idea how to use these yixing pots. I should’ve consulted more knowledgeable tea friends in their uses, but – in my zeal – I forgot to. I was already halfway through brewing when I remembered this little oversight. Someone even informed me that I had to “season” the pots before use. I had no idea what that meant, and it sounded like “work”. I wasn’t in the mood to work. Day off and all.

It, also, didn’t occur to me that a clay pot would be piping hot when hot water was added. Nor did I remember how to hold it properly. I did remember a tea vendor holding just the handle, and placed a finger on the lid for support. When I did this the Xi Shi – and attempted to pour – nothing came out. I was, apparently, blocking the little nipple hole at the top. Once I removed my finger from it, liquid poured freely . . . everywhere.

spillage

Eventually, I (sorta) got the hang of it.

The Rum Pu-Erh brewed beautifully dark, and the aroma was both earthy and sweet. All three infusions I test drove with the pot turned up exactly what I hoped for. Earth, sweetness, and a touch of gasoline on the aftertaste resulted. The second infusion was the deepest, whereas the third was more nuanced.

pu-erh

The Melon pot was a different story . . .

Pouring that thing was like trying to use a urinal while drunk. No matter how well I aimed the damn spigot, I made a mess. On the second infusion, I tried to pour a bit more gingerly – same problem. By the third infusion, I figured out that – unlike the Xi Shi pot – I was required to plug the nipple hole with my finger. That concentrated the pour, making the aim of the tea stream flow true. (And, yes, I made it through that entire paragraph without chuckling.)oolong spillage

 

The three infusions of Drunken Dragon all brewed amber with an aroma of butter and oak. It was a much stronger yield of liquor notes this time around, compared to its predecessor. Just as I thought it would be. Bourbon showed up right in the top note, once the roasty introduction gave it some wiggle room. That, then, trailed off into the taster note territory usually reserved for desserts. Or boobs. Or both.

oolong

I can’t say I left this experience a more enlightened tea gentleman than I was before. Like with actual breasts, I had no clue what I was doing. But I’ll be damned if those barrel-aged teas didn’t give me the necessary liquid courage to give it the ol’ college try. Like actual women, one had to treat these teapots with delicacy . . .

boobs

And caution.

Cheating at Tea-Totaling – The Tea-Totaler Trilogy, Part 1

In December of last year, I gave up drinking. The reason? A missing hubcap.

poor car

I hit a curb while driving a wee bit sauced. No idea where said hubcap went. My theory’s Narnia.

My poor car was the impetus for what (originally) began as a year-long dry-spell experiment. However, in the ensuing six months, life turned out . . . rather awesome. Not sure what happened, and I’m not sure I owe it to sobriety or something else. Life kinda kicked ass. That and having that extra money in my khaki pants was rather nice.

I will confess, though, that I have been cheating a bit. I’ll explain . . .

In November of last year, I did a DIY experiment – aging black tea in a bourbon barrel. I pulled the stuff out after week, declared it “almost” a success, and did it a second time for much longer. That one wasn’t as much of a success. However, my trials and errors caught the attention of this smiling mad scientist – one TJ Williams, one-half of The Tea Kings.

TJ Williams

“I have a lab.” *evil cackle*

February of this year rolled around, and I looked at his company’s website and saw – in bold letters: Cask Aged Dian Hong”. They had aged a bunch of Yunnan black tea leaves in a 1-liter micro-barrel for a period of time. Said micro-barrel had previously housed . . . Appleton Estates spiced rum.

I messaged him about it, “Spiced rum barrel-aged Dian Hong?! Whaaaaaaaaa?!”

He confirmed it, rather proudly. I mentioned in passing that I had done something similar with a bourbon micro-barrel. He responded with, “T’was my inspiration.”

This marks the third time one of my weird blogs had let to a vendor’s future experiments. Shortly after that dialogue, I received both the Cask Aged Dian Hong, and another one – a bourbon barrel-aged Tie Guan Yin. The latter had been aged in a micro-barrel for two weeks, the barrel once being home to Johnny Walker Red.

(Bloggers Note: No alcohol is imparted on tea leaves. Just the scent of what was in the barrel. I swear.)

before brewing

The Tie Guan Yin Red Label leaves looked like many other mid-oxidized, ball-fisted oolongs of its type, but the smell was definitely altered by the bourbon barrel-ing. Along with the usual butter-flower aroma was a presence of peat on the after-whiff. Not strong, but definitely there; adding a dimension of delicious wrong-doing.

The Casked Dian Hong was a surprise and a half. The leaves were smaller-cut than the usual Yunnan black teas I ran into – leaf pieces ranging from brown to gold. What stood out, though, was the smell. Holy booze-gods, the moment I opened the can, straight rum pummeled my nostrils. Not as strong as the alcohol itself, but definitely as sweet and creamy. And that was only after a week of barrel-aging.

For the oolong, I went with a gongfu (or rather, gongfoolish) approach, but with the Dian Hong, I did the usual western-style brew. Both were brewed with boiling water. It was early morning, and I wanted to bleed whatever essence I could out of them.

After three successive infusions – at around thirty-to-forty-five seconds each – the barrel-aged Tie Guan Yin brewed light green with a subtle, herbal aroma.

Tie Guan Yin

No liquor note on the whiff to speak of. It wasn’t until I sipped each one that I witnessed the barrel contribution. Funnily enough, the oolong began with the subtle, liquor-scented note before transitioning to the usual Tie Guan Yin bells-‘n-whistles of butter and minerals.

As for the Casked Dian Hong . . .

Gaaaaaaaaahhhhhh! Before this, I’d only had one other rum barrel-aged tea. I don’t know what it is about rum, or even traces of rum, but the notes compliment well with tea’s natural, oxidized profile. Yunnan Dian Hongs tend to be on the earthier side anyway with trace sweetness layered throughout (in my experience). It seems only natural that those notes would play well with a malty, sweet, chewy . . . pirate-y rum.

Casked Dian Hong

To make a long description short(er), the rum and black tea paired perfectly here. The intro taste was like that of a liquor-filled chocolate, while the rest was like burnt oakwood-smoked ‘s’mores. Soooo much sweetness, sooooo much awesome. I could find something more sophisticated here, but I don’ wanna.

After brewing

Interesting sidenote: In future brewing sessions with both of these, the longer I steeped them for, the more pronounced the liquor note. It was like the scenting process was born to make love to tea tannins. Or something.

Epilogue

Many months later, I encountered TJ at World Tea Expo 2015. He passed along another rendition of their Cask Aged Dian Hong, but this time it’d aged in the barrel for two weeks rather than one. I decided to do a side-by-side tasting of both versions. The results? (Beyond this cheesy tea haiku.)

side-by-side-rum - TeakuTuesday

The longer-aged stuff tasted the same as the shorter, but with more of the spice and oak imparted due to the longer wait-time. I could drink it all day. Both of them. At the same time. Double-fisting.

If this is cheating at sobriety, then screw the rules.

Pocket Oolongs and After-Parties – World Tea Expo, Day 3

I tried to sleep in. Really, I did.

But the anticipation of the last day of World Tea Expo activities loomed at the forefront of my brain. By 8AM, I gave up and rousted from my cousin’s couch (where I’d been sleeping for two days quite comfortably), and went about waking up. Starting off with a swift kick o’ caffeine from an Ito-En matcha shot . . . IN A CAN!

 matcha shot

I both love and hate to admit it. I sometimes love easy fixes in cans. It’s a very American sensibility.

Around 9AM, I arrived at the Long Beach Convention Center in my tiny rental car. Before the show floor opened, I hung out in the press room, sifting through social media crap. Amidst my zoning, I noticed Ricardo Caicedo of My Japanese Green Tea had entered. Unlike last year, I spent more than five seconds talking to him. Really knowledgeable and humble guy – a veritable encyclopedia of Japanese tea esoterica.

While we were yacking, I also noticed that Charissa “The Oolong Owl” Gascho had entered – a fellow blogger whom I had yet to talk to at length. Charissa’s blog was probably one of the most unique in the tea community because she hand-wove her own mascots – tea owls. And they were amazing. (Someday, I will have one for my very own! Just you wait!)

After some nudging, I was able to convince the two of them to join me at The Finest Brew booth once the floor opened. Unfortunately, I had my times wrong, and we waited by the door – albeit awkwardly – for about twenty minutes. In that time, Nicole “Tea For Me Please” Martin also joined our waiting party.

Once the Expo floor doors opened, our quartet spilled in and bee-lined for The Finest Brew. The booth folks roped in their Tea MC, “Gee”, and we got to sampling. In the span of ten minutes, our quartet swelled to . . . over double that.

 

The Finest Brew

Photo by The Finest Brew. Left to Right(ish): Charissa Gascho, Nicole Martin, Me, Rachel Carter, TJ Williams, Rachel Carter, Chris Giddings, Ricardo Caicedo, Nicole Schwartz and Gee

The reason? Well, Gee had made a promise. If Nicole Martin won the Best Social Media Reach award from the night prior, he would break out the aged oolongs he kept in his pockets. True to his word, he broke ‘em out, both Tie Guan Yins – aged twenty-plus years.

pocket oolong

Before all of us could sip it, though, Nicole had to do the honors first. She nearly buckled (and chuckled) under our searing stares of anticipation.

Photo by Nicole Schwartz

Photo by Nicole Schwartz

Then we dug in. The oolongs were transcendental – toasty, medicinal, floral, aromatic, multidimensional. Just . . . gah. Before I could get more oolong-dazed, I departed to check out the Wize Monkey booth.

The day before, they promised to have their coffee leaf “Earl Grey” variant available for tasting. That and I promised Naomi “Joy’s Teaspoon” Rosen that I’d meet her there. I had tried a green version of coffee leaf tea a year ago and didn’t care for it much. However, the Wize Monkey boys featured a semi-oxidized version that I found quite tasty. With bergamot oil dashed on the leaves . . . well . . .

coffee tea leaf

My inner Earl was quite happy. Naomi was quite satisfied with their version blended with jasmine. It had “Joy” written all over it.

Following that, I intercepted Nicole Martin again, and followed her to the event area where an ITTC cupping was about to take place. Several international growers and wholesalers were displaying their wares for the tasting. There was a Dan Cong oolong, a Darjeeling oolong, a sencha, and one black tea. But not just any black tea . . . Doke Black Fusion, 2015 Second Flush, with a backstory explained by Rajiv Lochan himself.

 

Me and Rajiv Lochan

Me and Rajiv Lochan

Still one of my favorite teas presented by one of my favorite tea people; I think I smuggled, like, five cups of the stuff just in that one tasting.

2PM rolled around, and it was time for me to take a brief hiatus from the World Tea festivities. I had promised my cousin we would hang out in Orange County for a bit, and I owed him a dinner for putting me up for three days. The next three-to-four hours were spent bumming around a comic book shop, waxing nostalgic, and eating fancy fish.

Cousinly geekery sated, I was back on the road for the final leg of my World Tea Expo journey – the inevitable Tealet Beach House After-Party.

TJ Williams

Photo by TJ “World Tea Podcast” Williams

When I arrived, the place was packed. The beach house was filled to the brim with people – a veritable cornucopia of cuppa professionals. It was a who’s-who of tealebrities. James Norwood Pratt and his son Sterling were there. Tony and Katie Gebely were in attendance. Nigel Melican was instilling sage advice. And – through it all – Team Tealet (of course) were presiding over the menagerie. It was sensory overload.

I lasted about a half-hour before I meandered to the backyard to grab some air. It was around that time that Jason McDonald (of The Great Mississippi Tea Company) was starting his second tea seed germination workshop.

germination

I’ll confess to only half-paying attention because I was drafted to dance around to keep the porch light from shutting down. (It was on a motion sensor.)

Demonstration concluded, I socialized a bit with Tony “World of Tea” Gebely. He even broke out a special Fujian all-bud black tea (Meizhan cultivar) from his personal stash for some of us to try.

Dian Hong

It was, indeed, something special. Although, I wished I’d brought my own stash of bourbon barrel-aged Dian Hong as a counterpoint. Oh well.

Tea drunk and (only slightly) teetering, I went out to the backyard again. The only people out there were Michael “JoJo Tea” Ortiz and a tea grower from Georgia (whose name escapes me). They were retelling their tea origin stories. Michael was just about to begin his when Natasha Nesic came out to bid adieu. I regretted that I barely talked to her this Expo. (Next year.)

Michael was about to continue his tea story when I heard my phone ping.

It was a Facebook message from Nicole Martin, it read: “Please help me.”

I said to Michael, “I really want to hear the rest of this, but I have to rescue Nicole.”

(For THAT story, go HERE.)

Nicole and I returned from that little adventure largely unscathed. By then, the gathering out in the backyard had swollen to a gaggle. Nicole recounted her bus stop horror story, and the conversation eventually segued to other things. Somewhere down the line, Nicole mentioned that a tea vendor had one time referred to her as “Tea Lady Nicole” on social media.

I remarked, “’Tea Lady Nicole’? That sounds like the name of an Irish folk song.”

And then . . . to everyone’s amazement (or horror) . . . I began to sing.

Tea Lady Nicole

(For the full lyrics, go HERE.)

Sterling Pratt backed me up on the chorus. It sounded far too eerily perfect. Nicole was full-body blushing. Mission: Accomplished. Then we were told to keep our voices down by the hostess.

Toward the end of the party, I ventured up to the loft upstairs. It was the unit being rented by Chris “Teaity Tea-Guy” Giddings and Nicole “AmazonV” Schwartz. I had heard a few people were having a mini-party up there, and decided to take a look. When I got up there, though, no one was there – save one.

Nicole Schwartz was the only one there; in her room – door open – on her bed, in her pajamas, reading a book. She looked up in surprise. The whole time, I was thinking, I used to watch movies that started like this. On Cinemax. Late at night.

I turned to see myself out, but Nicole S. convinced me to stay and chat for a spell. Nothing happened, I swear. All we did was talk about past Dungeons & Dragons exploits from yester-campaigns. Seriously, that was it. I behaved myself.

Other folks from the party downstairs weren’t too sure. Throughout our conversation, various people came to check on us, and make sure I was being a gentleman. And I was! . . . uh . . . yer honor.

What finally pulled me away from the gaming conversation was the promise of Phil Tea. What is that? I hear you – fair reader – not asking. Well, I’ll tell you.

 

Photo by Naomi Rosen

Photo by Naomi Rosen

Phil “World Tea House” Holmans had processed some green tea at the Doke Tea Estate in Bihar, India. And he was finally test-driving it. Damn, it was quite good. For a tea that was produced via shits-and-giggles.

1AM chimed and my eyelids weighed heavy. I bid farewell to the beach house tea party that was still in progress. On my drive back to my cousin’s place, I was informed that I missed out on an epic game of Cards Against Humanity . . . and later heard that the party continued its caffeine-induced reverie until 5 in the morning.

I slept soundly that night.

The day after, it was off to the airport. My carry-on bag was nothing but tea swag. My travel mug? Filled with Doke Black Fusion.

tea swag

This was my third World Tea Expo . . . but it was the first where I felt I was part of a greater industry. Part of a greater, international community. Three weeks have passed since those magical three days, and I’m still in awe of it. My passion for this stupid little beverage made from stupid little leaves, poured into stupid little cups has not wavered. If anything, my appreciation has only widened.

Your move, World Tea Expo 2016. See you in Vegas.