Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Month: August 2011

Strawberry Jazz for the Soul

Art by David Borzo

Art by David Borzo

After weeks of pondering tea pairings – food, movies, books, etc. – it was only a matter of time before I had to muse on…well…tea and music. While I can say I appreciate many different types of music, I don’t have an affinity for it. I listen to CDs (yes, those ancient things) in the car as background noise for calm in rush hour traffic. I make it a point to discover one new band a year, but I sometimes lapse on that. So, you can imagine that I was overly thankful that there was a vendor that did the music/tea pairing job for me.

The Tea and Jazz House is a relatively new operation out of Baltimore, MD. Their mission statement indicates that tea blends should be unorthodox – just as jazz was (and is). As their musically-inclined site informs, they are in the process of building a teahouse devoted to underground jazz. The first step in that journey was putting out some appropriately named blends for palate perusal.

I chose to sample their one black tea blend dubbed “The McCrea” – named for…um…

To tell you the truth, I had no idea who it was named after. The only “McCrea” name I could find that might’ve fit was John McCrea, the frontman of Cake. Not sure I would consider him jazz, though. If I were to make a suggestion to The Tea and Jazz House, it would be to provide an artist bio on their tea profiles. If only to further cite the inspiration for the blend. (That and “Pureh” is spelled wrong.)

Well, if they intended to make a blend that was inspired by John McCrea, this certainly did smell like cake. Small-cut black tea leaves were paired with mixed berries, strawberry pieces and rose petals. I couldn’t make out any of the fruit pieces in the blend, but the petals were front and center. It was also a relief to see that said petals were the pink kind. Those were best for blending, imparting a sweeter, more subtly floral rose profile than their redder kin.

Brewing instructions on the site linked to a YouTube video about brewing. That was, frankly, far more time than I was willing to devote to brewing, other than the process itself. I went with 1 tsp. in 8oz. of boiled water for a steep of four minutes. My mainstay was usually three minutes (I’m a wuss), but since this was a blend, I risked the extra minute. I prepped it and cued up a YouTube video for Cake’s “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” to pair with the tasting.

(Sidenote: The song choice was oddly fitting for this blend because I found myself – of late – being enamored by blondes in sundresses with Stevie Wonder fixations…and a fetish for strawberries. This smelled like strawberries, and the girl in question had a “mind like a diamond”.)

The liquor brewed to a tawny brown with a strong berry nose. I would even say it was a bit tart. On a blind sniff, I would’ve guessed this had a smidge of hibiscus in it. There was a bitter forefront on taste, which made me think there was a Keemun/Ceylon base. The middle was a fair balancing act between sweet, berry-richness, light astringency, and floral notes. On aftertaste, it left a lingering profile of, thankfully, strawberries.

How well did it pair with Cake? Well, to be truthful, I’m not a fan of Cake – like, at all. John McCrea’s vocals, to me, were often gratingly monotone. “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”, though, was oddly topical, playful, and catchy. That and I clearly remembered the opening riff as the introduction to the TV series Chuck. I don’t know why it took this long for me to make that connection…over tea, no less.

So, end result: Listening to Cake while drinking a berry-blended tea made me want to date a girl in a short skirt that smelled like strawberries and rose petals. Is that a success? I have no idea. But the tea was good; that’s a start.

Addendum: The vendor finally informed me that the blend was inspired by Carmen McCrea…not John McCrea. So, the Cake really is a lie.

Addendum Two: After this writing, musician bios were finally added. So, there’s also that to look forward to on the website.

To buy The McCrea, go HERE.

For more information on The Tea and Jazz House, go HERE.

Tea from Tremalking

If Thirtysomething-ish Me could encounter Junior-in-High-School Me, I would assume he’d take a copy of Wheel of Time: The Eye of the World with him to said time-paradoxical encounter. He would look the zit-faced, sixteen-year-old in the eye and say, “Don’t you dare start this series until 2012.”

Younger Me would probably respond with, “But that’s twenty years from now!”

(Sidenote: Younger me sucks at math.)

Thirtysomething-ish Me would say, ” I know.”

“Surely, the series will be done before then,” Younger Me might whine.

“Trust me, it won’t,” Older/Maybe-Wiser Me would reply. “And don’t call me Shirley.”

(Sidenote: Love of The Naked Gun transcends time.)

What was the point of this little past-versus-future hypothetical? To emphasize a series that has been with me throughout most of my adolescence and into the present day, and it shouldn’t have been! To date the series is thirteen books long spanning over two decades. The original author of the series is dead, and the reigns have since past to another. Regardless of how frustrating The Wheel of Time books were, they are clearly a part of my life. They were my Gen X Harry Potter…minus the Hufflepuffs.

In May of 2012 – barring any further delays or deaths – the series will finally draw to a close. I will either heave a sigh of relief or shake fists at the “fires of Heaven” in frustration. Either way, I will remember the good points – including a nifty little detail that I never caught on to before.

In the story (which I won’t get to here, at all), there is an island called Tremalking. The inhabitants of the island are called the Amayar, a bunch of sea-hippies that follow something similar to Taoism. Like the aborigines of Australia, they also believe the world they inhabit is in a dream-state. A little lesser known fact about these fantasy sea-hippies is that they grow their own tea.

From the "Wheel of Time" Wiki

From the "Wheel of Time" Wiki.

So renowned is this tea that health benefits associated with it include relief of minor food poisoning, relaxation, relief from cramping, and other detoxifying effects. It is known to be a gentle – if bitter – beverage with a soothing character. Mentions popped up here and there in the series, but I never glommed onto them until the most recent volumes. I have two theories as to why this might be:

(1) I never noticed it in prior volumes because I had no interest in dead leaves steeped in hot water back then.

(2) The author that took over after Robert Jordan’s death was a tea drinker.

The mentions of Tremalking Black, and character references (and reverence) of it, seemed more prevalent when the narrative duties changed hands. I found this so fascinating that I wondered if other authors juggled tea in so subtle but subliminal a manner. At times, I find books that have mentions of tea, and – not surprisingly – some of the information is false. An odd occurrence if done poorly in a fantasy novel.

I guess that’s the sign of truly masterful prose – when an author describes a drink so often, and in so vivid a detail, that you actually want to try some. My own fictional pursuits of late have been clunky at best in trying to convey a love of tea with such verve and still keep the story moving. In that, though, I have a long way to go.

In the meantime, I’ll pretend that my spring-grown Ceylon was cultivated by sea-hippies.

From the "Wheel of Time" Wiki

From the "Wheel of Time" Wiki.

Awesome Assam is Awesome!

Teas from the northeastern state of India called Assam are known for many things. First and foremost are their robust and malty characteristics. Second (and this is one I’ve noticed) is their lean towards – how to put it – tiramisu sweetness. Very odd. Part of their unique character comes from the varietal of tea plant used – one that is actually native to the region. Unlike Darjeeling, which uses Chinese cultivars, Assam has its own native bush, the Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Until the British came along, this shrub was only used for Ayurvedic  purposes.

To me and a few others in my tea circle, Assams hold the honor of being the second manliest type of tea in existence. First place, of course, goes to the pine-smoked monstrosity that is Lapsang Souchong. I have since sampled quite a few single estate offerings – some better than others – and all have put a spring in my step thanks to the s**tstorm of caffeine they impart. But no one told me…

That there was a white Assam out there.

White teas are my muse. They started me on the path of tea exploration;  they continue to haunt and heighten it.  I have tried whites from China, Sri Lanka, Darjeeling, and even here in the Pacific Northwest. All were one shade of awesome or another, but I had never had a white Assam.

It’s white buffalo-esque existence came to my attention upon visiting a local tea shop. I was perusing the vast array of loose leaf whites when I came across it. So shocked was I that I could barely form the words, “I’ll get an ounce of this.”

The teller said, “That’ll be $15.”

Like a Tex Avery cartoon, my jaw dropped. I ended up leaving with just my do-it-yourself teabags. My quest was at an end by way of moth-wallet.

A year later, I received a white tea variety pack from Canton Tea Co. They always treated me super well. Of the unique teas in the batch, I expected the Darjeeling white, the Silver Needle, and the White Peony. (I adored all of ‘em.) Quietly tucked away in the mailbag, though, was something I wasn’t expecting. Scrawled in Asiatic-looking script were the words “Assam White”.

I shrieked. My brother/roommate jumped at the sound. His dog looked at me quizzically. My cat’s tail bristled in alarm. I tried to explain the significance of this one shiny, silver bag of “Awesome”…but it all came out like geeky sputters.

I brewed it up the next day.

The dry leaves looked like Silver Needle white tea by way of lawn-clippings – small, reed-like, and light green. The aroma also didn’t give off anything particularly extraordinary. It smelled like grass with a bit of a melon-mint profile – white tea-ish but not uncharacteristic. As a result, I brewed it up as I would any normal white tea; 1 heaping teaspoon in 8oz. of 165F water for three minutes. Big mistake.

I basically brewed…water. It had no character to speak of whatsoever. This being made from the same burly leaf Assam blacks were, though, I knew I’d done something wrong. I did it again, but this time I dialed the temperature on my water kettle to 180F. This was pushing it, but it was for science, damn it!

The results were pure…well..awesome.

Okay, if you want specifics, the liquor brewed to a transparent gold with a strong nose of parsley, sage, rosemary and F**KING AWESOME!!! It had the character of other white teas but with some of the malt that made Assam blacks so delectable. It was like someone said, “Melon meet Malt. Now…FIGHT TO THE DEATH!”  Imagine a Viking in a tu-tu, and you’ll get the idea. Sure, he’s wearing a tu-tu, but you wouldn’t call him a sissy. This was no sissy white tea.

Further proof of its lack of sissy-ness arrived by steep five. Yeah, you heard right. Steep f**king  five. This pitbull puppy of a tea lasted five infusions without letting go of its flavor. I only ran into one other white tea that lasted that long, and that was from the U.S. of A. Most taper off by steep three.

Canton Tea Co. mentions that this white tea is from the Mothola tea estate, one of the only estates in Assam to produce white teas. In other words, this was a rare pleasure indeed, and that sort of explains the high price tag for Assam whites in general. Still, considering how much bang you get for that buck (five steeps!), I’d say fork it over. This was not a white tea for wimps…even though I am one.

To buy Canton Tea’s Assam White, go HERE! (If you dare…)

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