Yaupon is a species of holly native to the southeastern United States. It is a close cousin to two other holly species – guayusa and yerba mate – and, like those, it is also caffeinated. It was used as a common ingredient by several Native American tribes in an herbal concoction called asi – or “black drink”. Said tisane was an important part of male-only purification rituals.

In 1696, a Quaker merchant – Jonathan Dickinson – observed this ritual firsthand among the Ais people of pre-statehood Florida. The ritual included an unfortunate result . . . vomiting. Since then, European settlers incorrectly assumed that it was the primary herb that induced the reverse peristaltic reaction. And, so, the plant was given the unfortunate delineation – Ilex vomitoria.

A book was even written about the subject.

Black Drink

For years after learning of this “black drink”, I was fascinated by it. Yet no one had bothered to try and cultivate it, yet. Aside from some random YouTube videos describing it tasting like yerba mate, I found no one selling the stuff. Unless I wanted to go to Florida and pick it myself, there was no way I was going to try it. Perhaps folks didn’t think they could market something called “vomitoria”. Wonder why?

That all changed around 2012. Small outfits started cropping up touting this “new, American caffeinated herb”. Perhaps it was due to yerba mate’s rise in popularity, or the insurgent arrival of guayusa on the herbal infusion market. Whatever the reason, it was finally here.

I didn’t get my first chance to try it until World Tea Expo 2014. A company out of Florida called Yaupon Asi Tea had a booth. Available for tasting were some of their blends and their flagship cut yaupon. I remember it tasting a lot like guayusa, which was a good thing. (I wasn’t the biggest fan of yerba mate.)

After the Expo, I got in touch with them to acquire some for a comparison. Among their many wares, they carried both a whole leaf version of yaupon and a cut leaf variant. The whole leaf version was there because it was the more traditional presentation of the herb. A side-by-side tasting intrigued me.

Yaupon

Several months later (er, just yesterday) I finally sat down and gave ‘em a whirl.

The whole leaf yaupon had an appearance of – well – whole leaves that were freshly picked and oxidized. I was quite surprised to see a purplish hue to some of the leaves – likely due to an abundance of the chemical, anthocyanin, also found in Kenyan purple tea. As for aroma, there wasn’t much of one besides a dry, forest-bedding-like presence.

The cut leaf version was a markedly different beast with needle-like parts along with the requisite leaf parts. The color of the leaves was greener with some purple strewn about. The aroma was also more minty, sweet and welcoming. It reminded me strongly of guayusa in this form.

For brewing, the directions on the Yaupon Asi Tea site were fairly straightforward. They recommended a standard herbal approach – boiling water, five-minute steep. I did exactly that to both.

The whole leaf yaupon came out practically clear in the cup.

whole leaf first try

Even more so than a white tea, at least those had a yellow tinge to the liquor. There was a bit of a flavor change, but one had to search for it. It reminded me of tangy olive leaves and a bit like mint. Some residual sweetness showed up on the finish, but – like the rest – it was mild.

This required a second attempt with moar leaves at a longer steep time. Seven minutes sounded about right.

whole leaf second try

Vast improvement. Some color showed up in the liquor, and the flavor – while still subtle – was sweet and spry.

The cut leaf version was . . .

cut leaf

Woooonderfuuuuullllll.

The liquor was a deep amber-green – giving off a sweet, almost artichoke-y aroma. On taste, it opened with a sweet and herbaceous kick – similar to guayusa – dried out a little in the middle like yerba mate, but ended with straight creaminess on the back. It was far more layered than either of its holly cousins. And, dang, if I didn’t bolt upright from a caffeine kick or three.

I liked both versions quite a bit and for different reasons. The whole leaf yaupon worked as a late-afternoon pick-me-up, whereas the cut leaf was a balls-to-the-walls get-your-ass-outta-bed morning beverage to the core. For overall flavor experience, if I was pressed, I’d choose the cut leaf as an everyday beverage. Sure, the whole leaf is more traditional, but I’m not really a traditional kinda guy.

All said, I was glad to have yet another two tastes of ‘Merica in my cup(s) – sans vomiting.

yaupon finale

Roughly four years ago, I wrote about a unique Hawaiian herb often used for herbal infusions. It was called Mamaki, but its science-y delineation was Pipturus albidus. The herb was a cousin of stinging nettle, and I felt some of those traits showed up in the taste. However, the product I had was blended with stevia, so my attempts at separating them may have been faulty.

In the same article, I made mention of another herb (or rather, set of herbs) collectively referred to as Ko’oko’olau (genus Bidens). They were often heralded for their purported health properties, and – like Mamaki – were used for tisanes. I never thought I’d get a crack at Ko’oko’olau until an opportunity came…from an old coworker.

Said coworker returned from a stint to Hawaii with her boyfriend. While there, they also spent time with her boyfriend’s brother…who just happened to be the co-founder of Mamaki Native Hawaiian Herbal Tea. They leased land (ahupuaʻa) in the district of Punaluʻu through the Kamehameha school district.

Kamehameha

Yes, I thought that, too.

The goal of the school district – regarding the land – was to promote Hawaiian sustainability, but they only took in a few farmers at a time. And only if there was a clear goal in mind.

garden

Well, tea is a clear enough goal to me.

I met up with my former coworker a week before my birthday, and she presented me with several sample bags from the farm. I was expecting the requisite Mamaki blends, but was shocked to discover a humble sammich bag with felt writing. It read: “Ko’oko’olau”. I just about leapt out of my own brain. It was from the farmer’s personal stash. Four years had passed, and the elusive herb came to me.

Alas, in the hustle and bustle of Fall, I completely forgot brew it up. It wasn’t until the ol’ coworker inquired about the tisanes a couple of months later, my memory finally jogged. She asked me if I had tried them yet.

I replied with, “Uh…trying them right now as a matter of fact.”

*Cue nervous laughter*

Then hastily got to brewing.

First up was the Ko’oko’olau.

dry ko'oko'olau

The herbal mix was mainly leaf parts and twigs, but what I found surprising was how oxidized they looked. They were so brown that I wondered if they’d been roasted to speed up the drying. That was something I felt wasn’t done enough with herbs – oxidation. I always wondered if the flavor profile on some herbs would be more robust.

I wasn’t sure what the proper brewing technique was for this, so I went with a default tisane approach: 1 tsp., a 6oz. steeper cup of boiled water, and a five-minute wait.

Ko'oko'olau

The resulting liquor was a light crimson, similar to a Darjeeling black – only more rustic. There wasn’t much of an aroma, but it was pleasant and slightly sweet. The taste outright slapped me with excellence. It was like a Japanese sencha had an extramarital affair with lemon verbena…and invited a gingersnap cookie to film the proceedings. Expectedly herbaceous, but sweet and calming.

While I was on a roll, I figured I would fire up the kettle for some of the farm’s flagship Mamaki. I was initially disappointed to notice that the loose leaves were practically fannings.

dry mamaki

Not only would straining be difficult, but I had no clue how the flavor would turn out. The smaller the leave particles, the more surface are for flavor yield – true – but I was skeptical. Optimistically so, though.

The brewing guide for this one was also a little bizarre. Per the MNHHT site, they recommended bringing 8 cups of water to a boil, adding a tablespoon of herb to it, and letting the boil continue for another five minutes. Once the boil was done, they suggested letting the concoction steep for another fifteen. Preferable results also came from overnight infusions.

Those instructions barely made me flinch. I sounded very similar to the way Greek Mountain “tea” was brewed. Bring it, I challenged.

Mamaki

I’ll be darned if they don’t know what they’re talking about. The liquor brewed just as dark as the Ko’oko’olau with a nettle-ish aroma. However, the true test of its character was on taste. Unlike the whole leaf Mamaki I tried years ago, this was creamy and sweet. It was more akin to guayusa or Yaupon holly than it was stinging nettle. The aftertaste was layered and felt like a blanket of…niceness in its lingering velvety yumminess.

As to favorites, though, gotta go with the Ko’oko’olau. It was something I wish I had more of. Mamaki was only a hair behind in flavorful experience. According to the Almighty Wiki, the genus Bidens family of plants are threatened by habitat loss. Now more than ever, attempts to promote farming sustainability are crucial. If only to put more delicious herbs in my cup.

I picked a helluva month to quit drinkin’.

helluva day

Okay, not “quit”, per se, but definitely a self-imposed sabbatical toward beer. A beerbatical, if you will. Over the last couple of years, I’d naval-gazed my relationship with alcohol. Sure, I didn’t overdue it often, but questionable decisions had been made. That and it was no longer as “social” a beverage as it once was.

I hung out with maybe five other dudes who drank – never all at once. That’s not a party; that’s a Family Guy episode. And I won’t even go into the missing hubcap on my car.

As a result of this catharsis, I decided a break was in order. I wish I’d known what was ahead of me before I did so. Work drama, matters of the heart, and other familiar growing pains manifested in rapid succession. Good things were happening, true, but they were automatically offset by a perpetual feeling of being kneed in the groin.

I needed an outlet – a social one.

Enter the Portland Tea MeetUp group.

Portland Tea Meet-Up

Tea – the beverage that never steered me wrong. I drank it often, but I was rarely social with it. Sure, I was social online about my tea consumption, but rarely in real life. There was a burgeoning tea community present in Portland, but I stuck to its periphery like some kind of creeper with a cup. I thought it high time to change that.

As luck would have it, a meet-up was scheduled for this weekend. The reason? Freaking tubas!!! In Downtown Portland, situated at Pioneer Square, was a holiday tuba concert. Tubas…playing Christmas carols. And we would drink tea during it.

Everything about that sounded amazing.

The biggest issue for me? Finding the perfect tea to bring. The internal struggle didn’t last long. I chose the best black tea I’d had all year.

Doke Black Fusion

Black Fusion, Autumn Flush 2014, from the Doke Tea Estate.

Yes, I’m aware I’ve already written about it. There’s even a Batman Brews video floating around extolling its virtues. But that was only the first flush version. The one I had in my possession now was the autumn flush. And it was perfect.

Like the first flush, there were notes of nuts, spice and malt – betraying it’s assamica heritage – but for the autumnal crop, there was an added nuance. I didn’t quite put my finger on it until the day I brewed it for the tuba gathering. There was a strong sensation I had while tasting it that reminded me of honey. The autumn flush was sweeter and more textured than the first.

*Sigh* Oh yeah…back to the meet-up.

Almost seeing tubas

I was almost late to the gathering. Traffic was a particularly artful brand of “SUCK!” that day, and I had a prior engagement on the other side of town. Along with my expected road rage was a feeling of…dread. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t socialized with tea before, but rather that I wasn’t particularly good at it. I’m a bit of a geek, can’t help it.

Luckily, so were they. The moment I arrived, I felt like I was in like company. Three folks brought canisters of chai. One particular gent was rockin’ two travel carafes. One held a high-oxidized Taiwanese oolong; the other, a seven-year-aged purple varietal pu-erh. I partook of both.

The purple varietal…oh my.

Purple varietal

Another of the group members brought cups and homemade banana bread for the sharing. It went perfectly with…well…everything. Particularly with the tea.

And in the background, tubas played. The square was jam-packed with people, however. I think I caught a glimpse of, maybe, one tuba – two at the most – until the crowd dispersed. If I had one complaint about the performance, it was that the carols they chose were too down-tempo. If you’re rockin’ a gosh-durned tuba, you must have bombastic carols in your rotation. “Little Drummer Boy”, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, etcetera. While the concert was nice, it faded into background noise over conversations of tea and general geekery.

I did have moments of occasional social faux pas, though, particularly when I uttered the line, “I am a man, and the world is my toilet!” Yes, I was sober. Tea drunk, maybe…but sober.

In closing, I think I could get used to this “tea socializing” thing.

clank

Next time, I’ll work on the tact.

Three years ago, I posed a theory about tea and dating, wherein I said that neither the two should blend. After failing at such attempts several times, I considered myself an informed (if bitter) expert on the subject. Granted, there was some…outlying evidence to the contrary; for me it was a no-no. But then I saw an old couple.

I was in a random tearoom, enjoying a sandwich and Silver Needle, and a man in his late twenties arrived with an elderly couple – his parents. Their names, I overheard, were – and I’m not joking – Pearl and Earl. Just hearing their names made my heart sigh.

sigh

That’s what I wanted. To skip the travails and rigmarole of dating and go straight to the “old-couple-in-a-tearoom” phase. I wanted to find the Pearl to my Earl.

Years later, I believed I found the candidate. She was one of my coworkers, and she was British. I’d written about her before. Twice, even. She was beautiful, but didn’t seem aware of it. She possessed wit, but was subtle about it. And she was charming…but needlessly downplayed it.

In short order, I thought, I might like her.

We hung out at a coffee shop once over the summer. Both of us ordered tea. She went with the Jasmine Pearls; I went with an Earl Grey. Sparks didn’t exactly fly. Conversation was strained but friendly. I considered it a failure, but a quiet one.

A few months later, she texted me, “Do you want to grab tea sometime next week?”

I responded with a, “Sure!”…but I had no plan in mind.

One arrived the following day when I learned of a coffee shop called The Red E. They were one of the few places in Portland that served cascara – a tisane made from the husks of coffee cherries. Mizuba Tea’s Lauren had told me about it. I posed this idea to the British girl, and she was game.

Red E

The cascara reminded me of hibiscus, only more subdued on the tartness. And, boy, was it ever caffeinated. I suppose it helped because our conversation was far more animated than our previous outing. We seemed more comfortable around each other, and conversed like two old friends.

Yep, I like her, I thought to myself.

In the ensuing weeks, she informed members of our work team that she was homesick, and set on returning to the UK. I was saddened to hear it, but figured I better make the most of it. I aimed to spend as much time with her as our schedules would allot.

Our third outing was one we both suggested to each other – The Fly Awake Tea Garden. A couple in Northeast Portland had converted their garage and driveway into a tearoom, herbal shop and herb garden. It was amazing.

fly awake

We sipped one of the best examples of artisan chai we ever beheld, and were treated to a yixing pot of Da Hong Pao by one of the owners. All the while, we traded barbs, shared stories, and laughed. I could’ve listened to that laugh for the rest of my life.

Whoah, I really like her, I mused.

For our penultimate outing, we were finally able to make it to a place we’d wanted to hunt down for ages. She had mentioned that Pix Patisserie served Earl Grey truffles, and I was craving the idea of them ever since. One random (if late) night, we finally dove into them. Or at least, I did. (She wasn’t fond of Earl Grey anything.)

Earl Grey truffles

At first, I couldn’t taste the bergamot. That and there were so many other flavors vying for attention. By the second truffle, I could easily weed out the bergamot base and savored it. Just as I savored her company.

As we walked back to my car, having lost track of time, I realized, Damn, I’m in love with her. How inconvenient.

Our final tea-ish outing was a jaunt to one of my new favorite spots, Tea Bar. She ordered their matcha latte, while I stuck with my new mainstay – their Lapsang latte. They prepped the milk in such a way that the foam formed hearts at the top of the cups.

heart lattes

Right then, I almost told her how I felt…but I held it in.

After all, what was the point? She was leaving, and it was fairly clear the feelings were nowhere near reciprocal. Why push the envelope?

As I write this, she’s on a plane back east.

But I did come to one conclusion. She may have not been the Pearl to my Earl, but I was now open to the idea of finding her. After our repeated tea outings, I realized I rather enjoyed having a partner-in-crime on these little jaunts. My rule needed to be changed. While it still held true that tea and dating didn’t work, the same could not be said for tea and relationships.

Other beverages are temporary. Coffee, beer and wine buzzes are fleeting. They’re necessary only in reminding us that we still have a heartbeat. Tea, though? Tea is a journey. From that first cup to the last. It is a story waiting to be told. And when told with another, it is pure time-released bliss.

There’s a man I know who owns a teashop in Eugene, OR. I’ve probably mentioned him from time to time. He met a girl who came into his teashop. Over the course of time, they got to know each other. Then one day, before he knew it, they were married, and later had a son.

That is what I needed to hold out for. Tea wasn’t for everyone, just as tea and dating weren’t for everyone. It was the perfect way to weed out the wrong ones. I just had to hold out for the right one…

The Pearl to my Earl.

old couple

Image mooched from Dante Mag.

After covering more barrel-aged teas than I ever thought possible, it was only a matter of time before an idea struck me. It wasn’t actually my idea, though. The lead blender at Smith Teamaker suggested several years ago, “Why don’t you try it yourself? Get a barrel and just roll with it.” Not his exact words, but the idea stuck.

When visiting a friend up in Seattle, I brought up this notion. I also lamented that acquiring a large bourbon barrel – and finding someplace to put it – was a near impossibility. My friend said, “Well, they do make micro-barrels.” The idea blossomed into a kernel.

A few years later, I was perusing the Bootleg Botanicals Facebook page. They were starting up a new line of alcohol infusion kits. The new line included 3-liter micro-barrels for aging. In the comments section, I inquired about procuring a used one for experimental purposes – at whatever fee. Ryan Belshee – the co-owner – gave me the titular reply of, “Lemme see what I can do.”

Less than a week later, he came back to me with confirmation that he could acquire a used 1-liter barrel. It had been used for aging bourbon. The next obstacle was finding the right tea to put in it.

I mentioned my percolating idea to Norbu Tea’s Greg Glancy. The notion of a bourbon barrel-aged anything intrigued him. He offered up some of his back-stock for the experiment. Plenty of his wares sounded enticing, but in the end, I chose his 2012 harvest Ye Sheng Hong Cha as my guinea pig.

loose tea

Upon receiving the tea, I immediately dug in to confirm whether or not it would complement a bourbon note. The resulting brew was wood-sweet (like a Keemun), Earthy (like a sheng pu-erh) and malty (like a second flush Assam). Unlike any other Yunnan Dian Hong I’d tried. Might’ve been due to it’s uh…wild-ness…

Taz

Or something.

Ryan Belshee contacted me a week or so later informing me of the micro-barrel’s arrival. We arranged a day to play around with it. The micro-barrel was – for lack of a better word – adorable.

Teeny barrel and tea

Far smaller than I thought it would be. We determined that roughly 200 grams of tea leaves would fit inside. The real challenge was how. The micro-barrel’s original bunghole (yes, that’s what it’s called) was extremely small. We needed an opening that was roughly eleven-or-so inches in diameter.

Luckily, Ryan had a drill on site with that size of bit. After making a large enough opening, we journeyed to a brewery supply store and picked up a plug for the bunghole. (*snicker*) Then, it was time.

pouring tea

The 200g pile o’ leaves were poured into the barrel and duly plugged.

I guesstimated that the aging process would only take about two weeks. Most companies I’d encountered usually barrel-aged their teas for a month and a half. Given the smaller size of this barrel, I figured it would be done aging in half that time.

Roughly two days went by when Ryan imparted some advice. “Don’t you think you should tap the barrel to see how the tea is doing?”

“Nah,” I replied, “should be fine.”

“Just humor me.”

“Okay(?).”

The next morning, I did so. Due to some of the residual moister in the barrel, the dry leaves had become more pliable. This worried me a little. Following that, I brewed ‘em up for a taste-test.

first cupping

Whoah, I thought. In only two days, the flavor had changed. The tea was noticeably oaky and had taken on a bit of the liquor sweetness. Not peaty, just sweet.

I got back in touch with Ryan and said, “Change of plans. We’re tapping this in a week; not two.” The moisture and rapid flavor change worried me.

Two days later, I tapped the barrel again. This time, I brewed the contents and the untampered tea leaves side-by-side. Just to see how much it was changing.

side by side

The barrel-aged version differed from the original in its…almost tiramisu-ish quality. Both retained the same sweetness and woody taste, but the barreled rendition had more of it. It was noticeably more molasses-like.

That Sunday, I did the final tapping with the Bootleg Botanicals team. We laid out a tray, covered it in tinfoil, and spread the barrel-aged leaves on it.

laying it on a platter

Melanie Belshee (Ryan’s wife) pre-heated their stove at the lowest setting, and then turned it off. The tray of leaves was placed inside to quicken the drying process. Whatever residual moisture remained would vanish quickly with very little flavor loss, or so I hoped.

Once finished we did a side-by-side cupping of the original Ye Sheng Hong Cha, and it’s “Wild Bourbon Black, Mark-1” sibling.

Final side by side

While all the taster notes I mentioned earlier were there, all three of us agreed that there wasn’t enough of a liquor note to justify the laborious process. The flavor had changed considerably. It was sweeter, smoothed-out, and more layered. But nothing about it screamed “bourbon”, save for the smell of the dry leaves.

It was time for Mark-II.

Mark II

For a second attempt, we decided to take another 200 grams of leaves…and spritz them with actual bourbon, prior to placing it in the barrel.

Mark II spritz

The hope was that it would dry out the leaves and prevent any moisture from collecting. Not that there was much moisture left in the barrel, anyway. I taste-tested it a couple of days after, and the results were…”off”.

I couldn’t explain why, but the flavor was muddled – schizophrenic, even. Like it couldn’t tell if it was tea or liquor anymore.

A few days later, I gave it another go. Things had considerably improved. It had a lot in common with the Mark-I, but the flavor was considerably dryer – more astringent and lingering. Similar to a dry Riesling, if I wanted to reach for a comparison.

As of…well…today, Wild Yunnan Black, Mark-II is still in the barrel. I haven’t dared do a final tapping, seeing what it’ll do as time passes. Thus far, the flavor hasn’t changed much. It’s still wood-sweet, oaky, dry…and only subtly liquor-like.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I may have jumped the gun with Mark-I. Perhaps, the ideal process was what I originally had in mind – a two-week aging cycle with a partially-moist barrel, followed by a good drying. These two experiments weren’t failures by any stretch, but not complete successes, either.

Oh well, if at first you don’t succeed…

drink and drink

Drink and drink again.

This all started back in the Spring…with Instagram. I was still fairly new to the site, and had one specific goal for it – make my blog pictures look prettier. I was a crappy photographer at best; a passable one at worst. Never did I expect to actually use it to network. Social or otherwise.

Sometime that season, I was “followed” by an outfit that caught my eye, simply dubbed Tea Bar.

tea bar logo

It was exactly as it implied, a soon-to-be bar focused on tea in North Portland. I was intrigued and started interacting with the outfit. As far as I was concerned, Portland needed more tea bars.

Shortly after that, a young woman friend requested me on Facebook. Women never add me on Facebook. (Unless I’m related to them.) Her default picture depicted her sunbathing in Mexico. My initial thought was, Fake profile. I’d dealt with Facespam before.

Before I inched toward the “Deny” tab, I looked at her employment stats. She was the owner of Tea Bar, Erica Indira Swanson. That caused me to arch an eyebrow or two. The woman looked old enough to be my niece. Soon enough, though, she confirmed it. Either tea entrepreneurs were getting younger…or I was finally an old top hat in the tea community.

top hat

Erica messaged me seeking advice about what to carry on the Tea Bar menu. While I hardly considered myself a professional anything, I agreed to occasionally give my teacups worth of insight. We agreed upon a meet-up at a tea place downtown to discuss this further.

Despite her age, she was professional and optimistic in person – personable and radiating enthusiasm. I…came across as a guy talking about his comic book collection. Logistics of tea were discussed, but I couldn’t help thinking I was geeking out a little too much over tea. Even down to our choices of beverage while talking.

I had selected some Nan Nuo sheng pu-erh and a first flush Chamong Darjeeling for taste comparison. Just because.

Tea Zone Outing

While we kept in touch, I didn’t see her again until the Fall. It was a particularly busy summer. In the interim, I kept tabs on Tea Bar’s development. The look Erica had in mind was one of – what I would describe as – comfortable minimalism in aesthetic. The proposed interior was inviting but not too busy; modern but not urban. It reminded me of an art gallery I used to work for.

Rendering by Abby Dougherty

Rendering by Abby Dougherty.

In September, I finally set out to see the progress for myself. Erica agreed to meet up to show me around. The interior was about two-thirds the way done. Her pictures of the development were great.

her view

Mine were…um…

my view

We’ll just stick with hers.

Of the helpful pointers I could give her were potential tea-related contacts in the Portland area. Over the ensuing months, I had encountered both Lauren Danson from Mizuba Tea and Nick Lozito from Misty Peak Teas. Tea Bar needed a matcha and a pu-erh. I pushed for those to be added to the menu, and “softly” facilitated contact with them.

A couple of months after that, Erica contacted me to finally taste-test their proposed menu. Said meet-up was the weekend before their opening day. I had never sat in on product testing before. As a blogger, this was well out of my paradigm. I usually product tested at home. In my pajamas. Shower optional.

When I arrived, there was a group of them discussing finer business-related minutiae.

Conference

Mizuba Lauren showed up as well. I was the oldest one in the room by a good fifteen years. Dear lord, I was an old top hat in the tea community, now. All I needed was a monocle.

Of the items tried, the highlights were no surprise to anyone.

We started off with some 2014 sheng from Misty Peak.

Misty Peak Pu-erh

It was just as I remembered it – fruity, floral and forgiving.

Second off was a trial whisking of Mizuba’s matcha.

Mizuba Matcha

After three tries, an ideal technique was agreed upon. It was a frothy, green blanket of awesome.

Those highlights aside, there was one thing I wasn’t expecting. One particular item on the menu that solidified my continued patronage. And I found out about it by accident as the group were playing with the milk steamer.

“You should have a Lapsang Souchong latte on the menu,” I suggested, half-joking.

“Oh, we are,” Erica replied.

My eyes widened.

“You want to try one?” she offered.

YES!!!” I think it was the first time I ever shouted in all-caps.

“Sweetened or unsweetened?”

UNSWEETENED!

It was…it was…*sigh*

Lapsang Latte

Glorious.

Like…William-Wallace-leading-an-army-of-Scotsmen-on-the-fields-of-Sterling glorious.

braveheart

And with that, I was sold on this place. The comfy bar stool, the farm-direct rari-teas, the smiling faces, the apparent camaraderie. This new haven, this Tea Bar had potential. And I was happy to see it grow from the bleachers.

As of today – Monday, Dec. 1st, 2014 – Tea Bar has opened its doors. I wish Erica and her crew much success.

Photo by Justin Bond.

Photo by Justin Bond.

It’s been a weird and busy month.

In the span of three weeks, I had driver’s license difficulties, car troubles, multiple projects, and some minor financial headaches. Yet all of these things didn’t affect my mood any. Reason being? My Mum had my back.

As if it wasn’t quite obvious, I’m a total momma’s boy. If I’m ever in a jam – and on months like this one, quite often – she’s the first person I turn to. The woman is there for me, and doesn’t bat a lash at some of the…uh…weirder requests I’ve made. Case in point…

For a couple of days, I was without a car. Mine was overdue for a visit to my mechanic due to a service engine light. And the only available chauffeur…was Mum. She even picked me up from a work party. One that got a little silly.

man boobs

Yes, that is me trying to pretend I have large breasts. No, I will not say how much alcohol was involved.

After two weeks of her assistance, I felt it was high time to compensate her for her troubles. Luckily, we both had a similar addiction. That being tea, of course. Because of me, she had developed a love for Smith Teamaker’s brick-‘n-mortar shop. Lord Bergamot was her poison of choice, while I ventured for whatever was new.

This trip – I will confess – wasn’t entirely selfless. I had intended to jaunt to the shop to try Smith’s new Smoked Chai. The process used to create the thing was manliness personified.

smoked tea

Image mooched from Smith Teamaker’s Instagram

Sarsaparilla was cold-soaked in water, bourbon and vanilla. Then the concoction was blended with dry hickory chips, which were (naturally) lit on fire! The smoke was then channeled through a bamboo tray full of whole leaf, tippy Assam. And once all was said, done and burnt, the fusion was rolled in spices.

The resulting brew tasted like receiving a hug from a ginger beer-drunk bear that’d emerged from a chimney. Smoke touched off the flavor, followed by a warm ginger-y blanket of awesome, and trailed off like a smooth root beer. I remember draining my two-person pot in less than ten minutes.

smoked chai

After a two-hour stint, I cashed us out, and then treated Mum to lunch. She acquiesced to my last request, which was to follow me down to my mechanic – Dimitri’s Auto Service in Milwaukie, OR. It was a heckuva request.

That Monday, as we waited for my car’s eventual return to mobility, we grabbed breakfast at an eatery dubbed, “The Bomber Restaurant”. There was an actual B-17G bomber in front of it. My testosterone wept with glee.

bomber

The breakfast was pretty darn good, too.

Moral of this story?

Let your mother take care of you, even when you’re an adult, and always take care of her in return.

And most importantly…real men take their mothers to tea.

mother and son

Photo by Tiffany Talbott.

Over the course of the summer, I saw repeated updates that frustrated the hell out of me. Tea drinkers, far and wide – from California to New York – were taste-testing a new, Oregon-grown oolong. The folks behind Minto Island Growers had finally soft-launched their own outfit, dubbed Oregon Tea Crafters. They commissioned a gentleman by the name of Balez Oh’Hops Hanger to do the processing.

Here it was, an Oregon-grown and processed tea…and I was the last person to try it. Even new Portlandian transpants were trying it before me. This had to be rectified with due swiftness, and in September, I planned a trip to the source – Minto Island Growers HQ in Salem, OR.

1 old plot

The garden was just as I remembered it from my visit the year prior. It was a garden; it was pretty. One could kill hours just wandering its wilds. A few things had changed, however. Aside from the 1989-planted, half-acre plot of tea bushes of yore, next to the Minto market stand was a brand new tea plot.

new plot

What made it different from the old plot was fact that it was cultivar-specific. The one from 25 years ago was a test-plot to see if tea plants could grow in the Pacific Northwest. Whereas the new one focused on which cultivars thrived better than others. It was an exciting development to my phone-affixed eyes.

After an informal walk-through of the new plot, I picked up the oolong and green tea, took a photo of the old tea plot…

Oregon Tea Crafters

Then made my way back home.

Upon my return, though, I realized I had made an error. The half-ounce bags I picked up…?

same green

…Were the same exact tea. I’d failed to fetch the oolong.

God. Damn. It.

So! At the end of the week, I went back to Minto Island and fetched it. The last oolong bag, no less. A week or so passed, and then…another Minto-related update appeared in my various social media feeds.

Image mooched from J-TEA's Oolong Times blog

Image mooched from J-TEA’s Oolong Times blog

That’s right. Team J-TEA made a Minto trip over the summer, harvested some leaves and was putting out a Version 3.0 of their Minto Island Black Tea. Of course, I had to get a hold of some – just to complete the trifecta – but I wasn’t making a third trip out to Salem. That and a Eugene trip to J-TEA HQ were not in the cards. I went the wholly-boring (and entirely lazy) route of ordering it online.

After all that effort, how did all three teas fare?

Oregon Tea Crafters Green Tea

Oregon green tea

I remembered learning that this one was wok-fired, much in the same way Chinese green teas were, but the flavor profile turned out far different. It reminded me of a Darjeeling green tea in delivery – crisp, smooth and not very grassy. With just a bit of a fruit finish.

Oregon Tea Crafters Oolong

Oregon oolong

It took me a little bit to pin down what this reminded me of. The dry leaf scent reminded me of a Nilgiri at first, but when brewed, the character changed. Approached from a gong fu angle, it was very similar to a higher-altitude, greener-style Ali Shan – if slightly lighter in body. Aromatic with a floral underpinning.

J-TEA Oregon Grown Minto Island Black

J-Tea

This was far different from the first and second versions of Minto black that came before. The leaves were more oxidized, the aroma was subtler, and the leaf-rolling technique was different. Part of this was because of the later leaf-plucking. Version 2.0 (in 2013) was plucked in May, while this was prepared in mid-summer. And it showed.

While a bit of the Taiwanese influence was still present in its sweet taste, a woodier/mintier character took point this time ‘round. The overall experience was akin to a far subtler Dian Hong, rather than a bug-bitten Taiwanese Ali Shan black. That said, it was as forgiving as ever, putting up with whatever brewing punishment I dished out. Ten-minute steeps and all.

Which tea did I like best?

For taste? Going with the oolong. For ease, effectiveness and overall experience, though? Going with the black tea. Any tea that I don’t have to think too hard on brewing in the mornings is a clear favorite. That and Team J-TEA’s had three years to toy with their technique.

Worth the trips – plural?

Always.

tea plants

While it has never been expressly stated, it’s common knowledge that I don’t usually write about tea blends. If and when I do, it’s usually if they have a story behind them. About a year ago, Stacy Lim of Butiki Teas had urged me to try some of theirs, but I was hesitant. Then she explained the story about one such blend.

I was hooked.

Back in December of 2012, Stacy was contacted by Sally Taylor – the daughter of James Taylor and Carly Simon. She proposed that a tea blend be donated to a rather ambitious artistic project. The venture was called Consenses. Its goal was to gather 130 artists from several different mediums and have them build upon each others inspiration with new creations. Think of a weird amalgamation of “Pay It Forward” and a game of “Telephone”. One artist would come up with one piece, another (perhaps a writer) would follow that up with a piece inspired by the prior. Rinse and repeat.

Butiki Teas contributing branch was thus:

graph

Image mooched from Consenses’ Indiegogo.

She was tasked with coming up with a blend inspired by a painting featuring two creatures. Even more daunting than that? The one following her up – doing a story based on her blend – was Wes Craven.

Yes, that Wes Craven.

wes craven

To top it all off, she only had a week to prepare it. Blending the right ingredients usually took months of trials. After a few attempts, she had come up with a combination – Long Jing (representing past expectations), strawberries (symbolizing new beginnings) and butter toffee (for hope). Ginger rounded out the blend, I guess, for sass. The blend was dubbed “With Open Eyes”.

leaves

The result was a not-too-pungent bouquet of green and bold red with an aroma of berries and wine. At least, that’s what I thought. The problem with using any sort of berry for a tea blend – strawberry or otherwise – is that dried fruits don’t really contribute much flavor. They contribute some, but not enough to be noticeable.

Flavoring is required to create a bolder profile. Luckily, the natural flavoring used for this blend was vegan-sourced. It was the one time I was happy to see the word “vegan” in anything. Reason being, some natural flavorings come from rather…uh…disgusting sources. Case in point, some strawberry flavorings comes from the anal glands of this poor li’l bastard.

beaver

That’s right, if you have something with strawberry flavoring, and it’s not vegan…you’re probably ingesting beaver butts. You’re welcome.

Relief aside, the blend smelled wonderful, and I was happy to see that the green tea base used was Long Jing. Not a cheap tea to use. For brewing, I went with the recommendation on the sample bag: 1 teaspoon in 8oz. of 180F heated water. Steep time – two minutes, thirty seconds.

The result was a light green liquor with a pleasant aroma of berries and cream. Ginger was nowhere to be found in the aromatics, but that was alright. In all likelihood, it was roundhouse-kicked by the toffee. I was okay with that.

Butiki brewed

As for taste, well, it did exactly as promised. Long Jing’s winy notes took point, followed closely by a strawberry-rich middle, and a creamy finish. It did taste like new beginnings.

In August of 2014, the Consenses gallery finally opened up in Martha’s Vineyard.

gallery

Butiki’s blend was front and center, next to the other pieces in its artistic branch. The Wes Craven story it inspired was called “The Man Who Vanished”. I hope to someday encounter it.

I had received the blend to try back in April of 2014. Butiki Teas announced they were closing their virtual doors in October of that same year. I didn’t dip into “With Open Eyes” until later that same month. By then, it had completely sold out, which wasn’t a surprise to me. I just wish I had told this story sooner.

In any case, I raise a toast to the Butiki family, to all they’ve done for the tea community at large, and the stories they’ve left behind. May they greet their new beginnings with open eyes…

…And without beaver butts.

Ever hear the one about the young American wanderer who traveled Asia in search of meaning? Okay, that sounds like a lot of people. But this story has a twist. There was this guy who gallivanted about from place to place – from India to study with Yogis, to learning meditation further Eastward. The journey took the young man to Yiwu Mountain, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province, China – the supposed birthplace of tea, and one of the main stops on the ancient “Tea Horse Road”.

He read somewhere that there was a man, who knew a little bit of English, that could teach him about pu-erh tea practices. However, he had difficulty finding the place. After several attempts of asking for directions, he found a local – around his age – drinking tea by himself. Following a brief conversation, the tea drinker pointed the American to the right path.

Once at the top of a hill, the American was greeted by a large dog, one that was not too fond of his presence. Dejected, he turned back around and encountered the tea drinker again. He led the American to his family farm, and both spent the better part of twelve hours drinking his autumn harvest.

Bin dude

And before the American knew it, years had passed.

The American in this tale was Nicholas Lozito; the tea drinker on the side of the road was the inheritor of the Bin family tea garden. And that years-long friendship led Nicholas to form Misty Peak Teas – a farm direct online sheng pu-erh distributor.

I first encountered Nicholas at the Tealet potluck back in August. Before making his acquaintance, I had read their profile on the Bin family, but I’d completely spaced that their distributor was located in Portland. Some childlike pleading at the party led me to acquire one of the family’s 2014 Rolled Pu-Erhs.

I fondly referred to them as “pu-erh balls”.

ball

They were awesome. And, when brewed, they were out of this world.

Rolled Puer

For a pu-erh so young, there was a fruit note to the taste. Usually, that flavor profile didn’t set in until a few years of aging had passed. I needed more.

Nicholas had left a standing invite to have tea at his place. Although a month would pass before I could swing it, I finally took him up on that offer. On some random weekday, I sat with him at his awesome tea table!!!

Tea Table

And we drank.

A lot.

2013

He guided me through the Bin family offerings gradually. The family had been at the tea game for several generations. The youngest learned from his father, who in turn learned from his father…and so on and so forth. Tea trees on the Bin family farm were at least 500 years old.

We first starting with the 2013 harvest, then the 2012, and on through to the 2010. With each preceding year, the flavor deepened, matured, and took on characteristics of wine and sweet bread. They were already on par with the best Nan Nuo Mountain pu-erhs I coveted close to my man-breast. But the real treat was yet to come…

Good and caffeinated as I was, apparently we weren’t done yet. Before I could even blink, Nicholas brought out something very rare. It was a large (and very weighty) zhuan cha from 1998. Only two were known to exist, and the second sold at auction in Hong Kong for thousands of dollars. It smelled like date sugar. In all my years, I had never encountered straight tea leaves – compressed or not, aged or not – that smelled like straight sweetness.

1998

Chiseling a chunk off, Nicholas brewed it up. The flavor matched the fragrance…and transcended it. The sensation went beyond flavor. One or two sips in, and I was on another plane. Plane of existence? 747? Hell if I know. All I remember is how it felt. There aren’t many teas that deliver that kind of experience. Scratch that…this was the first to do something this oddly profound.

And yet we still weren’t done.

The capper to the evening was tea leaves put in a pot of water. Difference was, this pot was only half full – a concentrate level – and it was set to a continuous boil.

rolling boil

Nicholas had asked me if I had done something like this, prepared a pu-erh concentrate almost-Russian-style and drank it. I meekly admitted that I hadn’t. Keep in mind, I was already well into tea drunk at this point; feeling the Universe and s**t.

By cup two of the rolling boil stuff, I wasn’t just feeling the Universe…I was downright groping it. There is tea drunk, and then there’s tea stoned. I felt like a Buddhist on a bender.

We parted ways after about two hours. It seriously felt like longer, but in the best possible way. As I drove home, I listened to Philosophy Talk on NPR. When I went to bed, I did so feeling one of the best buzzes of my life.

It was like I could feel my brain cells hugging each other. What’s weirder is that I woke up with that feeling. I went to work that morning the calmest I’d ever been. All that from a bunch of leaves given to an American wanderer, who talked to a tea drinker on the side of the road. And in turn, he offered it to a mouthy blogger.

The Universe is nifty.

Misty Peak