Bitter Gourds and No-Pants Awards – World Tea Expo, Day 2

The day wasn’t off to the best of starts. I had to be up at 5:30 for a site tour . . . or so I thought. The day prior, I had agreed to a tour of the QTrade Teas and Herbs facility. Alas, I had my days wrong. The tour was for the next day. Tired ol’ me showed up at 7:30AM, and confused many an employee. Oh well . . . I snapped a picture of the interior anyway.

QTrade

After that tired mishap, I ventured back to the Long Beach Convention Center. I arrived far too late for two focused tastings I wanted to partake in. Both were oolong-related. That and my stomach was growling at me.

I looked at the World Tea Expo schedule booklet and decided upon another focused tasting to purchase. Wize Monkey – the coffee tea leaf guys – were doing a demonstration in a couple of hours. Well, that sounded nifty. I approached the counter to buy it . . . and . . .

Credit card declined.

Apparently, even after giving my bank a travel notice, they still thought a charge from “World Tea Expo” sounded suspicious and put a fraud notice on the card. I seethed. Thankfully, I had a cup of Assam to take my frustrations out on.

My stomach growled in frustration, again. Luckily, I ran into Jo “Scandalous/Gift of Tea” Johnson, who graciously imparted a red bean moon cake for me to munch on. That appeased me for about a half hour, and then my tummy demanded more.

I wandered the halls like a veritable zombie until I heard my name from one of the rooms. Kathy Robson – Gary’s wife and co-owner of Red Lodge Books & Tea – peaked out of a Tea & Dessert Pairing demo, hosted by Roger Wemischner. They had leftovers and were urging passersby to partake. My breakfast was a fabulous peach mousse with marigold flowers.

Photo by Rachel Carter

Photo by Rachel Carter

Tummy satisfied, I found that it was time for the Expo floor to open. I wasn’t sure if there were any vendor booths I needed to hit, but I decided to poke around, anyway. Maybe there were a few hidden gems I missed during my first survey. Tea For Me Please‘s Nicole Martin also joined me (again) in my wanderings.

Amidst our meanderings, we happened by a North American Tea Championship demo. Several vendors were hawking some of their winning wares for the tasting. Distracted patrons were allowed to taste, ponder, and place a token for whichever winners they considered a favorite. My favorite was . . . drum roll . . .

QTrade Fujian Green Needle

Fitting, eh? I missed the facility tour, but their green tea was my top choice. Serendipity, I love thee.

Once buzzed off of that minor event, we happened by a tea booth. Chris “Teaity Tea-Guy” Giddings was parked at the tasting tables, and he admitted to having been there for two hours. The company was one I hadn’t heard of before – The Finest Brew – owned by two Sri Lankan brothers. The sommelier doing all the tea prep was dubbed “Gee” because . . . well . . . of course he was.

Gee had us sip a range of their black teas – two fascinating ones from Fujian province, China. As well as a couple of Sri Lankan offerings that were just majestic. But my eyes eventually turned toward (what I thought was) a strangely shaped heicha tea log.

bitter gourd

Well, it wasn’t a tea log, nor was it heicha. Gee explained that it was the husk of a bitter gourd vegetable, and the contents within was twelve-year-aged oolong. Then he offered to brew some up. If I wasn’t tea drunk before . . . I was after.

Two hours went by.

In passing, we mentioned that Nicole was up for a “Best Social Media” award at the upcoming World Tea Awards that night. Gee said for us to swing by their booth the next day, for he had some special oolongs in his pockets for the occasion – if she won. Oolongs that were over twenty years old, no less. And, thus, the term “pocket oolong” was born.

Once we could pry away from The Finest Brew booth, Chris, Nicole and I made the mad dash for the panel we were supposed to be on – the third annual Tea Bloggers Roundtable.

By Katrina

Photo by Katrina Munichiello; Left to Right – Nicole Martin, Rachel Carter, Jen Piccotti, Me, Chris Giddings, Naomi Rosen, Jo Johnson, and Gary Robson.

 

It was my second time being on the panel. Gary “Tea with Gary” Robson was this year’s moderator, and was – per our online agreement – adorned in a kilt. Subjects put before the panel ranged from our individual blogger identities, what worked for us, how we (attempted) to garner traffic, and best practices. Nicole “AmazonV” Schwartz live-tweeted the proceedings. The turnout was fair, and the engagement was good.

Following that, we dipped into a celebratory cupping of some Scottish grown tea I brought. Gary was particularly festive about it.

Kilt

I, later, made the run to the U.S. League of Tea Growers. I remember attending the first annual meeting three years. The fledgling organization had come a long way since then. They were sounding all official-like, now. I even had the pleasure of meeting a tea grower from Texas I never knew of – Josephie Dean Jackson of the East Texas Tea Company. Very charming and enthusiastic woman; I was excited to see what her progress would be in the coming years.

The Expo day finished with reasonable smiles, and it was time for the main event. An awards dinner . . . on a giant boat.

BOAT!

This year’s World Tea Awards took place on the Queen Mary, parked on the port of Long Beach. I’d never been to an awards dinner before. I had no idea what to expect, or who would win what. Rachel “I Heart Teas” Carter had booked our entire blogger group a table. Sitting at the nicely decorated table, overlooking the nicely decorated room, I felt like, “Huh, maybe there is something to this blogging thing.”

Then I saw Gary wearing his formal kilt and re-evaluated that thought.

The stand-out at our table, though, was Jo, who wore a bedazzled “Tea Bloggers Roundtable” shirt to the proceedings.

Jo

Way to represent.

The event itself was quite a deal. Dinner was decent. (I ate all my vegetables.) But the real treat was this.

Nicole

Photo by Rachel Carter. Subject: Nicole Martin

 

Nicole Martin won for Best Social Media Reach. One of our own had won a tea industry award. You know that feeling you get when your team wins a major sporting event? It was something like that. I nearly cried tears – actual manly tears. It couldn’t have happened to a lovelier human being, too.

Once the pomp and circumstance concluded, it was on to revelry. People mingled. Some drank (a lot), and others (like us) got our photos taken. Sometimes as Avengers . . .

Teavengers

Left to Right – Natasha Nesic, Rachel Carter, Me, Naomi Rosen, Nicole Martin, and Sterling Pratt.

As one does at formal events.

Two very intoxicated, older Australian women even dragged me to the photo booth, and one groped me in a not-so-appropriate place.

Batman shocked

So. Not. Okay.

By 11:30, my reserves finally tapped out. I was running on fumes. A few of my fellow bloggers had the displeasure of seeing me when I was tired and cranky . . . and driving. That said, it was easily the most rewarding day at Expo.

Pants optional.

Photo by Naomi Rosen

Photo by Naomi Rosen

A Business Trip with Benefits – World Tea Expo 2015, Day 1

Arriving at the Long Beach Convention Center, and seeing that sign, was like coming home again.

World Tea Expo Sign

This was to be my third World Tea Expo in a row. The first year was a three-day whirlwind of awesomeness. The second was like a quickie, followed by a long-distance relationship. This year took on an entirely different form. This was a business trip . . . with benefits.

Within minutes of entering, I encountered people in my tea blogging sphere. This was just within the first hour.

Photo by Gary Robson

Photo by Gary Robson; Left to Right – Jen Piccotti, Jo Johnson, Tony Gebely, Katie Gebely, Me, Chris Giddings

. . . And true to Murphy’s law, my camera kept dying right when important things happened – such as meet-ups. Therefore, I had to mooch moments from other people who had the forethought to bring a decent phone, camera or – in one special case – a battery pack.

A particularly noteworthy pleasure was finally getting to meet Katrina Munichiello – an author/editor I truly respected. She was just as nerdy as the rest of us, and a pure delight to boot. Even I violated my usual selfie embargo to be snapped with her, Nicole “AmazonV” Schwartz, and Rachel “I Heart Teas” Carter.

Katrina

Photo by Katrina Munichiello; Left to Right – Me, Rachel Carter, Nicole Schwartz, and Katrina.

After who-knows-how-long of playing catch-up, I finally hit the Expo floor. My first mission was to see a familiar face. I learned through the tweet-o-sphere that one of my favorite Oregon outfits – Chariteas – had a booth. Per my World Tea News write-up, she was now wholesaling Indonesian teas from one garden – two blacks, one white, and one . . . that was absolutely delicious . . . but I couldn’t quite identify it. It was called Grey Dragon.

Chariteas Grey Dragon

It almost needed its own category.

In my floor wanderings, I also encountered Nicole “Tea For Me Please” Martin, who soon became the Maverick to my Goose. If there were folks I needed to talk to; I followed her. If she was in search of something shiny and weird; she followed me. In that first day, we encountered Columbian grown tea, coffee leaf “tea”, and Laotian grown tea. (I’ll get to all of those in greater detail at a later date.)

We also encountered random friends in our wanderings. There was so much to take in that we both said, “Oh yeah, we have a panel to be on in ten minutes.”

Amplify Your Business - Rachel

Photo by Rachel Carter; Left to Right – Nicole Martin, Me, Jo Johnson, Jen Piccotti

Jen “An International Tea Moment” Piccotti had organized four of us boggers for a panel dubbed “Amplifying Your Business Voice Through Tea Bloggers”. It was a serious panel. I’d never been on a serious panel before. No, it didn’t stay serious for very long. Fellow panelists included Jen, Nicole M, myself, and the venerable Jo “Scandalous Tea” Johnson. The goal of the panel was to illustrate how tea vendors could best use tea bloggers to get the word out on their wares. I was surprised by the ample turnout.

And I was even more surprised that – mid-panel – I’d forgotten Jen’s name.

Photo by Nicole Schwartz; "Derp" by Me.

Photo by Nicole Schwartz; “Derp” by Me.

Oops.

Once the Expo-ing leg of the day was done, I moseyed over to the Tealet beach house rental for a focused tasting. Elyse Petersn and Rie Tulali ran us through a couple of special teas from Nepal, as well as some Jin Jun Mei and Hawaiian white.

Tealet Beach House

That’s all I needed. More caffeine.

Day One: Complete.

I’ll make this brief, I swear.

Some of you fine tea folks are either (a) on your way to World Tea Expo, (b) already there, or (c) grumbling about not being able to go. To those in the former two categories, I just wanted to let you know . . . Hey! I’m there, too! (Soon, anyway.) And here’s where you can find me.

On May 6th at 12:30PM, I will be on this panel with three lovely tea ladies.

Amplifying Your Business Voice WTE15 (1)

On May 7th at 2:30PM, I will be on a Tea Bloggers Roundtable Panel with a whole slew of wondrous individuals.

World Tea Expo TBR Final 2015

Arbitrated by author/kilt-‘n-cowboy hat guy – Gary Robson.

And speaking of Gary . . . you should pick up an e-copy of this:

myths-and-legends-of-tea-v1-cover-online

I had the honor of writing the forward. Visit Gary’s blog to find out how to get a hold it.

That’s all for now.

See? Told you that’d be quick.

See [some of] you at Expo!

I’m well aware of the awkward timing of this blog, given recent events. Originally, I’d intended to have this up the week prior. Circumstances of the lazy kind prevented me from finishing it by then. So, here it is, now. And, yes, I will be addressing the really shaky subject matter toward the end. But please allow me to start from the rather pleasant beginning . . .

Three years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of trying my second tea from Nepal. It was from a tea estate dubbed Ilam Chiyabari. I tried to locate it via Google Maps at the time, but found no information on it. After posting a review of said second flush black tea, I actually received a comment from one of the co-owners of the estate – Bachan Gyawali. He said that Ilam Chiyabari was a new outfit, but that he (and his brother, Lochan) also owned a sister tea estate called Jun Chiyabari – located in Eastern Nepal.

Jun Chiyabari estate

Mere months later, I had a chance to try something from the sister estate, a green tea called “Himalayan Evergreen”. I remember being floored by it. Years would pass before teas from that estate would once again grace my cup. Niraj Lama, o’ he of Happy Earth Tea, informed me that he’d acquired a few teas from said estate, and that they were en route to me as he was writing the e-mail. Two black teas, one oolong and a green tea.

Jun Chiyabari

Needless to say I was excited. For two reasons: (1) I wanted to get a better idea of the other teas the estate produced, and (2) I was looking forward to writing a Happy Earth Tea-based blog that didn’t involve dwarves . . . or my brother’s dog. (Long stories; both of them.)

Himalayan Evergreen #121

At the time I tried this, I had no idea it was a variation of the same green tea I sampled three years ago. As with most of the Jun Chiyabari offerings, this was from the autumn 2014 harvest. And like the other teas, their appearance was indicative of the overall style of the Nepalese estate’s technique. The leaves were small, obviously hand-rolled, and – as the name suggests – green. Unlike the other teas, though, the leaves were far greener, and that also showed in the scent, which was herbaceous and sweet – like a Chinese Xue Ya green tea.

For brewing, I went for a light approach – even by green tea standards. I heated water to roughly 175-ish F, used around a teaspoon of leaves and a 6oz. steeper cup. For the safe side of steeping, I went with a three-minute infusion.

Himalayan Evergreen

The results were . . . magnificently pleasant. There was a grassy, buttery introduction that transitioned (creamily!) to a floral conclusion. If there was a top note, I didn’t notice it amidst curling up in an evergreen electric blanket of pleasantness. This was terribly pleasant afternoon comfort food.

Himalayan Oolong

Believe it or not, I’m a bit of an old hat at Himalayan oolongs. I’ve had several over the course of years, and no two are the same. Some are ball-rolled, others are deeply roasted. If one is looking, they can spot a common terroir-related characteristic. But other than that, they’re all quite different. This was no exception.

On appearance, it was like looking at a Darjeeling that’d been coiled like a Chinese Bi Luo Chun. The color of the leaves was distinctly oolong, though – soft greens to hues of purple and brown. A veritable menagerie of mid-oxidation. The aroma also exuded this with a floral, slightly fruity, and almond-like presence.

For brewing, I went with a Darjeeling-ish approach. I brought water to a boil, let it cool for a minute or two, then poured it over 1 tsp. of leaves in a 6oz. steeper cup.

Himalayan Oolong

The results were really peculiar – in a good way. The liquor brewed light amber with an aroma of wine grapes and wilderness flowers. On taste, that’s where things got really confusing. The introduction was all grape, but then it settled down into something more resonant – not exactly floral, not exactly earthy. I would say, close to aromatic, like a Taiwanese oolong but with a Himayalan bend. The finish was light and creamy.

Himalayan Bouquet #130

The leaves for the Himalayan Bouquet were twisty in a hand-rolled sort of way – like an oolong, half-balled. Colors on display ranged from brown to green, to shades of white tea pale. I even spotted some downy furs on some of the lighter leaves. The aroma they gave off was straight nuts and . . . mocha? Chocolate but with a kick.

For brewing, I treated this as any other black tea – a tablespoon of leaves in a 12oz. mug of boiling water for three minutes. I assumed that the liquor would color as soon as I touched-down my little strainer ball. Not the case. The water didn’t start infusing color until well into a minute of steeping. That had me worried.

Then I put nose to cup.

Himalayan Bouqet #130

The smell of nuts was strong with this one. The liquor did end on a pale note – Darjeeling first flush light, on the subtler side of amber. To the taste, though, my eyes widened a little; one brow furrowed. Almonds were the introduction, followed by delightfully floral middle, and it trailed off with a faint astringency that settled on something herbaceous. Had this been a blind man, I thought I would’ve tasted a nuanced Darjeeling oolong.

Himalayan Bouquet #153

The leaves for this offering were different from its other numbered sibling, but not in the appearance. Both the #130 and the #153 looked the same – hand-rolled curly-cue leaves of varying colors. Where they differed was the smell. This possessed more of a traditional, malty black tea aroma, where the #130 was more . . . Spring-like?

I brewed it like I did everything else, boiled water, three-minute steep, 1 tsp., 6oz. steeper cup . . . etc. . . . yadda-yadda . . . ad infinitum.

Himalayan Bouquet #153

The liquor brewed up light amber, just like every other medium-bodied Jun Chiyabari offering. On sight alone, I wouldn’t be able to tell both Bouquets – or the estate oolong, for that matter – a apart. The difference was in the aroma. This had a much deeper aroma and a slightly burlier presence. That also showed up on taste, delivering a bit more astringency at the forefront, followed by a toastier top note, and trailing off into a sea of almonds and flowers.

Just like three years ago, the one that floored me the most again was the Himalayan Evergreen. It had all the things I looked for in a green tea – that being it had nothing in common with typical green teas. Hard to believe, but green tea really isn’t my favorite type of tea. Sure, there are those I like, but I tend to gravitate towards . . . well . . . anything else. To find a green tea I like, let alone one I love is a rare thing, indeed. All the Jun Chiyabari teas were great, but the Evergreen was exceptional.

As I said above, I meant to have this article up a week ago, but then on Saturday (April 25th, 2015) a devastating earthquake devastated the capital city of Kathmandu and surrounding areas. The impact was felt all the way to India. I was at work at the time, and first learned of it from Facebook. Folks I knew (or knew of) in the region were checking in, informing everyone that they were safe.

After getting off shift, I took to Twitter to learn more. Amidst my various inquiries, I actually received a reply to one of my pings from the Jun Chiyabari estate itself:

Jun Chiyabari tweet

Relief tugged at my heart. A simple reply – a mere few characters – reminded me that regardless of vast distances, we’re all connected. Whether by chord . . . or cup.

I can’t cook . . . worth a damn.

The only interest I’ve ever taken in food preparation is, well, how to eat it. That is where my exploration of the culinary arts begins and often ends. Beyond the making of an epic sammich (yes, sammich, not sandwich), my ability to cook, bake, and . . . just generally follow instructions of any kind falters.

What does one expect from a guy who screwed up Easy Mac? Twice. In one session.

I highlight all of this to illustrate that I am the most unqualified candidate for food-related events, such as the one I attended on Saturday.

Steeped

Smith Teamaker had booked a cook book author for a demonstration at their HQ. The author in question was Annelies Zijderveld, and her new book was Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea. As the title suggests, the focus was on how to use tea in a culinary capacity. (Y’know, besides just sprinkling kitchen-grade matcha on everything and calling it a tea recipe.)

Tea MC Tiff, Smith’s social media guru-ess, sent me an invitation to the demo a couple of months back. Initially, I had to decline because of my dodgy weekend work schedule. However, by some stroke of foodie fate, I ended up with the day off. I planned my day around the event accordingly, “hired” the lovely M. Tepper to photograph the proceedings, and the mission was a “go”.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect, having never attended a cooking demonstration before. A part of my mind was picturing Julia Child caked in green tea powder. That non sequitur image was dispelled upon entering Smith’s boardroom. Tiff expertly corralled us press folk, and took us to the back kitchen.

Annelies and her assistant-du-jour were aproned and bustling.

Annelies

There were tea and foodstuffs everywhere. My tummy growled in both frustration and delight. I hadn’t eaten lunch, yet. Said stomach reminded me quite loudly. But back to the book . . .

Annelies’s inspiration for writing Steeped came during her time working for a tea company. Yes, she actually had tea industry experience. One day, while working on something menial, she grabbed a gyokuro leaf and started chewing on it. She liked the taste so much, she figured, why not a cook book?! Stranger inspirations have happened. I once plotted an epic space battle in the shower – sound effects and all.

Participants were first asked to indulge in a tea tasting.

Tasting

Bowls of Long Jing, Roobios, Lord Bergamot, Keemun Hao Ya, Masala Chai, and ceremonial grade matcha lay in front of us. I was surprised at the last one. Usually, in regards to cooking, culinary grade matcha was utilized for recipes – mainly for bulk amount and cost effectiveness. I was a bit elated by this high-brow change.

Palates primed, Annelies then guided us through several ways to use the teas in various recipes. Many called for using a simple coffee grinder to pulverize loose tea leaves into a course (but not matcha fine) powder. Roobios was utilized in a butter recipe that was simply divine – with a capital diva! Long Jing was, quite surprisingly, put to good use as part of a furikake seasoning for popcorn. Keemun was paired with salt for a white bean walnut spread. Masala Chai was used for nifty li’l cupcake thingies. And good ol’ matcha was paired with coconut to form . . . something. (I forgot the name of it. Wasn’t a fan.)

But my favorite . . . oh dear lord . . . my favorite . . .

Earl Grey yogurt parfait

F**king Earl Grey yogurt!!!

Holy bergamot balls this was good. And the best part, the recipe was easy. Put simply, it was dunking Earl Grey (in a filter bag or sachet) in yogurt, repeatedly, for three days, and stirring. Even I couldn’t screw that up. The results were astounding. In plain yogurt, the bergamot notes were subtle and sweet, but still there.

The demo ended with an opportunity to purchase the book and mingle a bit with the authoress. By the end of the two-hour event, I was full and quite caffeinated. Lost track of my appetite. As a parting gift from Smith’s, we were each given a tea “starter kit” to try some of the recipes at home.

starter kit

Now . . . all I need is yogurt. Lots of yogurt.

In more informed tea circles, it is common knowledge that teabags are crap. Those little bags of ass-flavored tea usually contain the dust left over after the good, loose leaf tea was packaged. The taste of an average black tea from a bag is rough and bitter, like licking a chalkboard. (Yes, I’ve tried that.) But what about sachets?

travel mug

Even the word sounds snobbish. The definition isn’t any better: “A perfumed bag used to scent clothes”. However, sachets (sans perfuming or clothing) have been adopted by many tea producers and vendors to package whole leaf tea in a convenient way for undiscerning consumers. Let’s face it. Not all of those that are curious about loose leaf tea want to go through the trouble of using a strainer.

The issue for most orthodox tea drinkers isn’t the idea of a filter bag, but rather the material – and the fact that said sachet may prevent whole tea leaves from properly . . . uh . . . breathing. (Their language, not mine.) Many loose leaf tea drinkers believe that confining the leaves to a foreign material while brewing affects the flavor.

I, honestly, never had an opinion one way or the other. Granted, I preferred brewing tea loose leaf – even so far as to just put leaves in a mug, no strainer. However, there were plenty of teas out there that were duly sacheted I liked. One of my favorite outfits, Smith Teamaker offered consumers the option of loose leaf or sachet, and I flip-flopped between the two.

But it was high-time I finally saw for myself if there was really a difference between the methods. Did sachets negatively influence the experience? I needed a good example to go on. Luckily, I received an oolong from an organic tea garden in Bangladesh, and it happened to come in biodegradable sachets. Perfect for just such a side-by-side comparison.

Teatulia was started in the early 2000s in Northern Bangladesh. It was the first – and so far, only – organic tea garden in the country. They were also among the first farm-direct outfits on the scene. I had the pleasure of trying some of their wares several years ago. Of particularly noteworthiness was their white tea. However, I had no idea they had an oolong among their wares. When they contacted me recently, that was the tea I selected to drench myself in. Er . . . for science.

I brewed a bag once for a work shift, but didn’t pay much attention to it. On a second go-around, I wanted to brew it loose.

oolong loose

I’m glad I did because it gave me ample opportunity to see the leaves up close. They looked similar to Teatulia’s black tea. Many of them were lighter in color – tippier, even – betraying their semi-oxidized process. The aroma also possessed a fruitier lean. Some chocolate also showed up in traces on a whiff.

Teatulia recommended putting one sachet in an 8oz. cup of boiled water for two-to-three minutes. I went about two-and-a-half to be on the safe side. For once, I wasn’t feeling totally rambunctious with my brewing.

oolong brewed

The result was a bold, copper-brewed liquor with an aroma of malt and nuts. The taste initially began with a bitter prologue, but that smoothed out to something floral, sweet and burly! Like getting a hug from a honey-dipped flower on steroids. The finish was all sorts o’ nuanced. I couldn’t pick up on anything specific, other than a gurgle of delight. It reminded me of some of the oolongs from Nepal I’d come in contact with.

But now I had to do some serious business.

side by side

Which method was better? Loose leaf . . . or sachet? Would there be a noticeable flavor difference between the two? Did the leaves really need to breeeeaaaaathe?

Short answer: No.

side by side brewed

Was there a flavor difference? Not a damn one.

Granted, there might not have been a difference because both the leaves had originally been sacheted. Results may have differed if I had acquired some straight-up, loose leaf oolong to properly compare. That and the cut of the leaves was fairly small, thus allowing for ideal brewing by either method. A tea brewed from larger, whole leaves in a sachet might produce different results. But as I see it, there was no glaring detraction from the sachet. No trace of “silk” on the palate.

My subjective, semi-informed verdict: A teabag is bad, but a sachet is okay.

sachet okay

Let’s talk a little about terroir.

indeed

It’s a word usually bandied about by wine folks in order to sound “edumacated”. Blame the French. The word “terroir” derives from the French word “terre”, which literally means “land”. Terroir, as a concept, is applied to plants that are influenced by the “land” where they grow. Geology, geography, climate, and other aspects of the biosphere affect what grows in certain ways. And especially in the case of wine, coffee and tea, the taste of said terroir shows up in the finished product.

Tea plants are especially absorbent of their environment. Case in point (as I’ve mentioned in prior articles), Hawaiian teas taste distinctly . . . well . . . tropically Hawaiian. Wuyi cliff teas taste rather . . . uh . . . cliffy. [Credit: Nicole Martin] And teas from the Himalayas take on a grapy bend, for some reason.

Which brings me back to Doke Tea. Yet again.

Doke

Seriously, I think I’ve written about this tea garden more than any other. I can’t help it. Their teas are awesome, the Lochan family is awesome, and I feel awesome when drinking their wares.

Of the four or five types of teas this garden in Bihar, India produces, I’ve noticed a common underlying flavor profile. It’s difficult to describe, and far different from any other Indian tea growing region. Something about the terroir near the Doke River imparts an ever-present, honey-nut-spice taste trifecta. A trinity of taster notes that is especially present in their flagship black tea – Black Fusion.

I have a very interesting relationship with this tea. One would if they’ve written about it three times. After three successive growing seasons. Only now do I realize how wonderful an opportunity that was, to see a tea’s evolution and growth over the course of a year. And in February of this year, Vivek Lochan offered me a chance to try their 2015 first flush Black Fusion.

A slight digression: The journey of this tea to my cup was especially frustrating. I wasn’t at my apartment when the package arrived, so the courier left a note telling me where to pick it up. The next day, I went to fetch it after work . . . two towns away. I made the trek only to find out that they delivered it to my apartment complex’s office.

Well, why the hell didn’t you do that the FIRST time?! I said to myself (but not out loud).

Two months would go by before I dipped into the new batch of Black Fusion. The day I finally decided to brew it up, my Internet died. I needed something to calm me amidst the downtime.

black fusion loose

The leaves were gorgeous – brown-to-black, large, plump, and obviously hand-rolled. The smell was like last year’s various flushes of Black Fusion I tried – equal parts honey-like, malty, nutty and slightly spicy. The Doke terroir was in full effect, and I was pleased to see it again.

I approached it like I would any other Indian first flush tea, with a little bit of a light touch. I used about a teaspoon of leaves. (Although, with how large they were, it was more like a tablespoon.) I put them in a 6oz. steeper cup filled with 200F water, and waited for three minutes.

black fusion brewed

The result was a dark amber liquor with a deep-bodied, honey-nut machismo to the aroma. When I tasted it, I noticed immediately that it was different than last year’s offerings. The introduction was smooth and sultry, like a dark-haired Latina in a silk dress. As I kept it on my tongue, the honey-nut-spice thing it had going came to the forefront, but absent was the usual astringency that followed. That was the puzzling part. There was no astringency, or at least none that I could detect.

I’ve become sort of an expert on the Doke flagship tea, at this point. I even adamantly declared that August 2014’s batch of the tea was my favorite, May was second, and December rounded out third. All were wonderful; all were different. But they all had a rough character to them. This year’s batch was like a distilled whiskey or a matured wine. It was Black Fusion refined – terroir transcendent.

A day or so after I did my solo tasting, I was greeted with a photo posted to my Facebook Wall.

iced Doke

It read: “Iced Black Fusion from Doke in their office in Siliguri, jealous?”

 

Phil “World Tea House” Holmans had visited the Doke Tea Estate with a bunch of other tea folks I knew. Jealous? Oh yes, quite a bit. Those lucky bastitches were sampling Doke teas straight from the terroir! My only reaction to this was to drink. A lot. Not sure if it was my seething jealousy, or my poor impulse control, but I went on a total Doke bender that week.

During a chat session with other tea bloggers (Rachel, Jo, Nicole, Other Nicole, and Chris, respectively), I was hopped up on Doke Silver Needle white tea.

Doke Silver Needle

About three pints of it.

A mere day after that, I prepped my daily travel mug with some Doke Rolling Thunder oolong.

Doke Rolling Thunder

And brewed it at double the usual strength. Coworkers noted that I was a tad off the wall. One girl even said, “I like you like this.” I was too hyper to properly manblush.

I concluded the week taking the last vestiges of my first flush 2015 Black Fusion . . . and blending it with the two 2014s I had in my possession.

spent leaves

Yes, individually, they all tasted differently, but put together . . . magic ensued. It was like the honey-nut-spice terroir was somehow amplified. All the creamy, sweet, spicy, malty, nutty, and majestic aspects coalesced into the ultimate tasting experience. Like I was tasting pure Doke.

Toward the conclusion of this brew-binge, a friend of mine dubbed me a “Doke dork”. I had no rebuttal to that. If I had, I probably would’ve answered like some terroir-spouting wine snob, “I can quit whenever I want.”

It was a Saturday, as the title suggests. Saturday, March 21, to be precise. It was a really shitty Saturday, in other words.

The work shift was going frustratingly poorly. My student loan sharks announced they were tripling my monthly payment. And finally . . . a panic attack was looming. Not sure how that got there.

Amidst the chaos, I received a text from Misty Peak Teas’ Nick, informing me that there was a package waiting for me at Tea Bar. I kind of knew what it was, but it gave me something to look forward to. After the work shift, I made the trip out to NE Portland, sat myself at the bar like a regular, and ordered a Lapsang latte. My usual.

The barista handed off said Misty Peak mystery package. It was a giant bag of sheng pu-erh. That created an instant “happy”.

Misty Peak Teas

As I was about to nurse my latte, mood improved, I received a Facebook message. It was from someone I rarely heard from, a dude from my gaming circles. For those who haven’t figured it out, yet, I’m a bit of a geek. Occasionally, I’m easily roped into roleplaying and board game events. However, I’m what you would call a “casual”, at best. But I digress . . .

Said dude chimed in with, “Friday Afternoon Tea wants to meet you personally. She is at Gamestorm.”

My first thought was, “What’s a Gamestorm?”

He informed me that there was a gaming convention happening in Vancouver, WA. I knew of Friday Afternoon. I reviewed several of their teas when I still contributed to Teaviews. I remembered being particularly fond of their Snow Day blend.

I said to my gaming pal, “I can be there in twenty.”

It was the truth, I was in N.E. Portland, a mere skip across the river to Vancouver. He was a bit surprised at my impromptu decision, and so was I. But why not?! Up until now, my day had been shite. A little adventure wouldn’t hurt. (Much.) So, off I went to a gaming convention, to meet a tea blender op I’d never seen before.

When I got there, said friend met me at the front and directed me back to the vendor room. Toward the back was a woman with multicolored hair, decked out various pieces of geek flare (including Pac-Man earrings), chatting with other patrons. She was like a cross between Tank Girl, Kate Winslet a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Pinki-Pie.

Pinkie Pie

In a word, “Adorkable”.

She was the patroness of Friday Afternoon Tea, and her actual name . . . was Friday. I was not expecting that, at all. Apparently, sci-fi conventions, gaming events and other geek ephemera were her bread-and-butter; the demographic she catered to. That and her blends reflected this. She had blends themed after Harry Potter, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and so on.

We got along fine.

I arrived just as she was closing up her booth for the day. She easily suckered me into buying a blend dubbed, “Setting Things on Fire” – one of her “Cylons for Breakfast” line of teas. It was a fusion of cooked pu-erh, Ceylon, and Assam – with a little bit of Lapsang Souchong sprinkled in for good measure. It smelled divine, had a kickass name . . . sold, to the gentleman with poor impulse control.

Friday Afternoon

We talked about various things under the geek umbrella, as we walked her daughter – dubbed TeaGirl – to the video gaming room. Before I knew it, two hours had passed. Not quite sure how that happened. She and her young ‘un called it a night, and I (somehow) got roped into a LAN game of Artemis with various other friends of mine at the con.

Before she left, though, she said, “You do know we’re best friends now, right?”

I was too befuddled to answer eloquently.

The next day, I broke in a mug of Setting Things on Fire. (That sentence sounded far less silly in my head.)

Setting Things on Fire, Loose

This was an incredibly even blend. What I mean by that is, all the elements fused well together. They all seemed as if they belonged together. The smaller cut Ceylon and Assam leaf pieces worked well with the more spindly pu-erh strands. The color palette ranged from tippy beige to chocolate brown. Nothing seemed out of place.

That even-ness carried over in the scent – strong contributions of malt, earth, smoke and . . . something fruity that I couldn’t quite place. Maybe I mistook the floral bend of the Ceylon for fruit. Stranger things have happened.

For brewing, I went with a typical black tea approach – 1 tablespoon of leaves for a 12oz. cup, steeped for four minutes in boiling water. Usually, I do three, but for something called “Setting Things on Fire”, I thought an extra minute would be fine.

Setting Things on Fire Brewed

The liquor brewed cedar brown with an alternating burly and sweet aroma. Crimson lined the edge of the soup, while it transitioned into a pool of dark brown. As even a transition in color as I would expect from such a blend. What shocked me was the taste. Contrary to the burly bits in the blend, this was a deceptively smooth operator, starting off with a floral front, ushering in a hint of malt, segueing (or even Segwaying) in a dash of smoke, and ending with a sensation of napping on a forest floor. Very deceptive . . . like a Cylon.

The weekend went from shit to shine.

In 2009, I met an extraordinary man. A legend, really.

smith

He had just opened his newest operation, Steven Smith Teamaker – aptly named after himself. He had reason for such bravado, having co-founded two of the largest tea companies ever. Stash Tea Company and Tazo (pre-Starbucks) were his brainchildren. The man had earned his stripes. And with Smith Tea, he hoped to bring the simple touch of small batch blending back to the forefront.

And – hoo-boy – did he?!

With his wife, Kim DeMent, and a dedicated team, Smith became a recognizable and reliable brand for quality. Much like the man himself. When I first met him, he presided over a tea tasting when I brought friends to the new brick-‘n-mortar Smith HQ. He was humble, humorous, and had the best head of hair of any teaman I’d met, yet.

At the time, my tea discovery was still in its infancy. But as my knowledge grew, I found myself returning to the shop time and again. On a few occasions, as I sat there minding my own business, nursing a pot, he would find time to sit with me and talk. He even let me in on some of the secrets a-brewin’ in their Wonka-esque workshop.

smith hq

A particular favorite of mine was their range of barrel-aged teas. I was one of the first to sample their Methode Noir – a pinot barrel-aged black – as well as one of the first purchasers of their bourbon Assam. Naturally, I wrote about both.

If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think my odd and tangential tea journey would’ve progressed the way it did. I don’t think he was fully aware of this, but he was the reason I started honing my research regarding tea estates and gardens.

I guess one could say if it weren’t for him, his shop, the tea philosophy he cultivated, Steep Stories wouldn’t be what it is today. To date, I think I’ve done more blogs on Smith Tea than I have any other outfit. And there’s a reason for that. Or at least, there was.

On Monday, March 23rd, 2015, Steve Smith succumbed to liver cancer. I found the news out secondhand through a former employee of the company. Naturally, I was shocked. Mouth agape-type shocked, even. My gut reaction, though, was to brew something – anything. Then it occurred to me . . .

I still had some rum barrel-aged white tea Team Smith had produced.

loose

Months back, I negotiated my way to a sample of the stuff, but I never dipped into it. What better time than this? I broke out the Bai Mu Dan leaves, and gave ‘em a good whiff. The aroma was sweet, slightly forest-like, and possessing an undercurrent of – well – rum. Six months of aging will do that to a tea.

The liquor brewed light yellow, giving off a sweet, humble aroma. On sip, it was soft, equally sweet and lingering. Probably the most poetic of the barrel-aged teas they’d released to date. It was the perfect tea to have as a memory to a modern shaman

Every Tuesday, I do cheesy tea haikus. Steve, this haiku’s for you.

haiku

Rest in teas, o’ Peppermint Prince.

Per the Oregonian article on Steve’s passing, his family suggests that those who wish to honor him donate to Mercy Corps’ School Education Retention Program, which aims to help students finish high school in Assam, India.

Full circle, man.

circle

Let me explain.

About a year and a half ago, I did a write-up on Russian grown tea, specifically a black tea from the Krasnodarskiy brand. My verdict was, “Eh.” However, I didn’t disregard the Dagomys region of Krasnodar completely. According to some sources, the tea gardens in the region were stepping up their quality. Part of that was because of last year’s Winter Olympics.

Fast-forward to December of 2014, Natasha Nesic (formerly The Snooty Tea Person) informed me of an online tea company based in the U.K. called What-Cha. Among their many, eclectic wares were “collections” highlighting specific growing regions around the world – India, Nepal, Malawi, Europe (!!!), and . . . Russia.

First thing I notice were the Russian non-black tea collections. That was new. When did they start experimenting with anything but black tea?! I got in touch with the company head – Alistair Rea – to acquire some. And he dropped the biggest bombshell I ever swallowed.

His inspiration for carrying Russian grown tea was because of the blog I wrote on the subject. He even wrote about his search HERE. So, to summarize: I wrote a blog on Russian tea, which in turn inspired someone to carry said tea, and then I approached said company to acquire said tea . . . to write a blog about it.

Like I said . . .  full circle, man.

Of the samples he sent, there were six green teas to sip.

Russian roulette

They hailed from four different tea estates in the region – Solohaul, Dagomys, Matsesta, and Host. There wasn’t much information on any of them, aside from mentions on Steepster (pertaining to What-Cha). I wondered how best to dig into them. One at a time? Side-by-side? Nah . . . all at once! A veritable game of Russian green tea roulette. Six teas; one tasting session.

 

Krasnodar Solohaul Tea Estate Green Tea

Solohaul

 

Appearance/Aroma: The leaves were large, twisted and dark green. The fragrance they gave off was all wintergreen and forest floor – minty, slightly earthy and grassy.

Brewed: The liquor was bright yellow-gold with a faint aroma of melons, more of a likeness to a bold white tea than a green. The flavor was both buttery and fruity with a slight, mellow sweetness on the back.

Verdict: Definitely a hit. An almost-perfect green tea on delivery.

 

Krasnodar Premium Dagomys Tea Estate Green Tea

Dagomys Premium

Appearance/Aroma: The leaves were green and brown, rolled tightly to the likeness of twigs and stems. They smelled like straight juniper berries, in that “gin and tonic” sort of way.

Brewed: The liquor brewed light green with a very . . . uh . . . green tea aroma. It reminded me of a mid-grade Darjeeling green – slightly grassy, but not grapy. There really isn’t much to say about it other than that.

Verdict: A near-hit, chamber misfire. It was okay, but nothing memorable.

 

Krasnodar Large Leaf Dagomys Tea Estate Green Tea

Dagomys Large Leaf

Appearance/Aroma: Contrary to what the name implied, the leaves were smaller cut, conically rolled – very similar to a Chinese Bi Luo Chun, only a more vibrant green color. The aroma was earthy, floral, and vaguely citrus.

Brewed: The liquor brewed fairly dark. Well, by dark I mean light amber. So, dark for a green tea. The steam smelled of sage growing on a cliff side – very oolong-y. On sip, grass hit the tongue first, followed by this burly, floral note, and chased by a nice, wilderness-y finish.

Verdict: A hit. Bullet would’ve gone clean through. A very good, serviceable green.

 

Krasnodar ‘Since 1947’ Matsesta Tea Estate Green Tea

1947 Matsesta

Appearance/Aroma: This was a straight-up Long Jing (Dragonwell) on appearance and smell. The leaves were medium-green, plank flat, and a decent length with an alternating grassy and winy aroma.

Brewed: The liquor brewed bright, almost “radioactive sencha” green with an herbal salad-like aroma. There was a spiciness to the smell that reminded me a little of sage or oregano. On taste, it reminded me of a Chunmee – a lower-grade Chinese green. Not un-drinkable but definitely far too grassy for my palate.

Verdict: Empty chamber. Way too grassy a green.

 

Krasnodar ‘VIP’ Matsesta Tea Esate Green Tea

Matsesta VIP

Appearance/Aroma: The leaves were very small, likely given a BOP (broken orange pekoe) cut, but gave off an aroma of sweetened nuts and barley powder.

Brewed: The liquor brewed an even, medium green with a strange scent of sunflower seeds. I wasn’t expecting that. On taste . . . oh my, yum. Straight almond awesomeness. It ended with a bit of a grassy finish, but it was still lathered in nutty goodness. So nuts! (Badam-bum.)

Verdict: Boom. Headshot. Straight between the eyes. A very satisfying green tea.

 

Host Estate Green Tea

host

Appearance/Aroma: These were the wildest looking of all the Russian green teas, like they were plucked from feral trees or something. Sure they looked picked and rolled, but there seemed something natural about the process. The aroma they gave off was equally “wild” – herbaceous and floral, almost like pre-processed pu-erh maocha.

Brewed: The liquor was a vibrant, lively green with a spry, fruity aroma. The taste just about kicked my head back with “WOW!” I couldn’t tell you what fruit or melon the taste was indicative of, but I was floored by it. It was like a Long Jing paired off with a biodynamic Indian green and came back with a halo-adorned offspring. Christ on a unicycle, this was perfect!

Verdict: I’m dead. Turn me over. I’m done. So wonderful.

In summary, if this had been an actual game of Russian roulette, four chambers would’ve been loaded, two bullets would’ve missed, two would’ve grazed and/or wounded me . . . and I would’ve died twice. A morbid metaphor to end on, but totally applicable.

The clear winner was the Host tea estate. Whatever they’re doing, they can keep on doing it. From what I witnessed, they were also experimenting with yellow tea and oolong tea styles. Good on ‘em. All in all, happy with the results. Russian tea has come a long way in such a short time.

Roulette 2