Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Month: October 2011

Making Time for “A Tea Reader”: A [NOT] Book Review

I am a slow reader by design. It takes me an inordinate amount of time to dive into a book. Most can devour a hundred pages in an hour (I would guess?); I can only manage thirty-three. I think that’s my record to date. Attempts to speed read were always met with failure. Suggestions to pursue a career in editing went ignored for this very reason. The time it would take for me to read, let alone edit, a book could be measured in seasons.

Mooched from the Blog of Patrick Rothfuss

Mooched from the Blog of Patrick Rothfuss

That said, I still enjoy leisure reading but don’t do enough of it in my spare time. The times that I do, however, have been chronicled on my website. While not exactly professional literary critiques, they provide my thoughts in as succinct a manner as I am capable (which might not be saying much).

A call went out by a very talented tea blogger – Katrina Avila Munichiello- in my “TeaTwit” circle to review a book she was putting out called A Tea Reader. The concept was genius in its simplicity. It’s a collection of vignettes and short stories – spanning centuries – about how tea inspires. As the books tagline (and, by proxy, the author) states: “This is not a book about tea. This is a book about people.”

I was beyond elated and honored to be chosen to review the book in advance of its official release. And I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little jealous that Mrs. Munichiello beat me to such wonderful idea. She succeeded where many of us tea writers only daydream…er…over a cup of tea. The approach she chose to take for the narrative was also inspired.

Now I just had to find time to read it. Several factors hindered the timeliness of my perusal. One: The aforementioned slow reading pace. Two: A very active “oooo shiny!” gland. And three: Georgia.

I’ve mentioned the last one in passing before. My cat – like many of her ilk – is not one to be easily ignored. She makes this point abundantly clear during feeding time. However, she also voices her displeasure in creative ways when something else holds my attention other than her. Y’know…like a girlfriend. A very…hairy…girlfriend.

Note: This photo wasn't staged. Seriously

Note: This photo wasn't staged. Seriously.

In the case of book reading, “G” will stroll in front of the book while I’m reading it. Attempts to shoo her away are interpreted as play time. Even when I relocate to someplace she wouldn’t normally go – like the couch in the living room – she’s only a step or two behind me emitting her usual growl-purr.

I found moderate success with the couch camping, though. It was easy to position myself in such a way she couldn’t interrupt. Eventually, her tiny little mind forgot what she came there to do. The couch also offered up an opportunity to successfully put myself in tea-reading mode. If there was one thing I learned, this book had to be read with tea a-brewin’.

But there was a second obstacle – the damn dog.

Note: This wasn't staged either.

Yes, folks, there is also a dog in the mix – a very large, year-and-change-old Saint Bernard named Abacus. He belongs to my brother. Every time I brew tea – and I mean every time – he is instantly drawn to my electric kettle. Add a gaiwan to the mix, and he’s enraptured. I can’t really fathom why. Maybe he just really likes oolong a lot. Dunno.

Those were obstacles to my reading Zen that I could not prevent. The preventable ones were the major problem. I blame the Internet. All of it. As one entity. I don’t blame myself. Okay…maybe a little.

Before I knew it, two months rolled by. Here I was, a week past the release date of the book…and I’d only made it halfway through. It wasn’t as if another book had taken its place; I had read nothing for the whole of Fall. I lamented my reviewer FAIL.

Then a thought occurred to me – not so much as a metaphoric light bulb but as a very cheery glowworm. This book was tailor made for distractedly slow readers such as myself. Let me explain: The beauty of anthologies is that they can be devoured a piece at a time. A reader can pick it up and put it down at their own pace, even the molasses ones like myself.

A Tea Reader is even more suited to this than the average anthology because the average vignette is, maybe four-to-five pages – essays, really. Tightly written ones, too, for the easily spacey. I didn’t really have that problem, though. The different viewpoints were ultimately fascinating. Particular standouts (for me so far) were: “I Don’t Drink Tea” (the tale of a coffee drinker’s denial), “The Mistri-Sahib” (about a Scottish engineer in India, what’s not to love?), and “Immersion” (about a woman’s first flight with gongfu).

Each thematic section is divided into “steeps” rather than books or acts, providing one with a figurative tea expression to go along with the read. The author herself provides commentary to bridge each steep with her own thoughts. Her tone is relaxing and concise, marking the perfect lead-in for stories “steeped” (har-har) in the esoteric and evocative.

Which brings me to the book’s one principle flaw…if it can even be called that.

This is not a book for the uninitiated, and by that I mean non-tea drinkers. Tea appreciation has its own language – its own lexicon, if you will. And this book is imbued with it. Part of that is due to the inclusion of older essays as well as new and their dispersion throughout. The author does her best to include footnotes to some of the more obscure terminology, but at times it can be jarring. I, however, didn’t really find this to be a flaw.

As I said earlier, this is a book that screams, “Read me with a cup of tea, damn it!” To not do so would fail to capture the full effect, as far as I’m concerned. What’s the point of reading a book about people inspired by tea if you aren’t reading while drinking tea? That’s like going to a baseball game without a foam finger on one hand. Can’t be done.

In summary, I’m at the “glass-half-full” point of the book, and I’m loving every self-styled-slow minute of it. I start a new vignette with a cup of tea when I have a spare minute between distractions and pet mayhem. I hope to do a follow-up commentary on it once I’ve finally reached the end, but I still felt I had to put something to “paper” in appreciation. Just as these contributors and their maven did…all over an inspired cup of tea.

For more information, go HERE.

Tea Time in Real Life

Ever since I picked up tea as a hobby, there has been an inherent problem. No one else was really into it. My real life friends humored my off-kilter pursuit, and even came to me for recommendations, but – for the most part – it was a geek-ish lean that was entirely solitary. If it weren’t for social media outlets like Tea Trade or Twitter, my tea talk would’ve descended into monologues and murmurs. While connecting with friends of the leaf from far-flung locations had its appeal, the more tangible social connection was missing.

Photo by Jennifer Stewart

Photo by Jennifer Stewart

Enter an unassuming, mild-mannered guy named David Galli.

I had associated with him a bit on Twitter. Our palates for Chinese black teas were about the same. I hadn’t made the connection that he was a fellow Portlander until a couple of months into our tea talk. Around the same time, I also associated with a fledgling group-to-be called The Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance. Turns out that David was the founder/”Head Cheerleader” of the group. Yes, I know. I’m slow.

At around the same time, when I finally put two-and-two together, a promoter friend of mine also linked me to the Alliance and another tea enthusiast. Well, that settled it. I had to meet this self-proclaimed Head Cheerleader. A meeting of the steeps was already in the works, as David had contacted me about a greet-up and exchange of teas/thoughts. We agreed upon Smith Teamaker as our destination, since he’d never been. I was looking forward to going there with someone other than…er…myself.

We were treated like philosopher kings by the co-owner and Tea MC alike. Among the many wares we got to sample was a black tea blended with Douglas Fir tips. It tasted like concentrated Christmas. I so desperately wanted some. Unfortunately, it was only available through Eddie Bauer. Yes, the retail chain. The “Good Morning” blend – as she called it – also came paired with another tea; the packaging looked like a tea fancier’s happy meal. It was that awesome.

At the end of our sipping, the co-owner gave us a brief tour of the operation. Out of the two years I’d frequented there, I never wondered what their Wonka factory looked like. It was spectacular. They even had a break room with its own koi pond. It was the best kept secret in Portland, I thought. (Except that I outed it just now…oops.)

Duly sated and overly-caffeinated, David and I agreed on another meet-and-greet for an unspecified time in the future. The insecure side of me thought I had “regurgitated” my tea talk rather than conversed – like years of pent-up hobby-ing was brought to the forefront in one sitting. It was also oddly refreshing to encounter someone who had me stumped on tea trivia. Example: I hadn’t realized how uninformed I was about oolongs from Wuyi Shan. He had acquired more tea knowledge in a year than I had in three.

Roughly four days after that successful meet-up, plans were made for yet another. This time, it was to involve a slightly larger group – an informal gathering of like-minded folks interested in a fledgling tea group. The location? Smith Teamaker again. I had no argument with this.

I was the first to arrive. Traffic had actually been on my side on the trek there. The Tea MC (Tiffany) waved a “hello” and wondered how many others were destined to show. I honestly had no idea. My exact reply was, “Somewhere between three…and five?”

The second to show was Danyeke, a friend of the same promoter folks I mentioned earlier – a fellow writer and a female Lapsang Souchong drinker. David arrived soon after. A well-rounded Renaissance gent – Kevin – showed up some ten-to-twenty minutes later. Another kindly guy also made a brief appearance but ducked out to get back to work. Tea MC Tiff started us off with a unique taster flight. By unique, I mean it included two single estate Assams…and a PINOT NOIR BARREL-AGED BLACK TEA!

(Left to Right) Me, Danyeke, David, and Kevin

(Left to Right) Me, Danyeke, David, and Kevin

(Sidenote: Yes, it was as awesome as it sounds. Yes, there will be a review forthcoming.)

Our second dig-in was of Smith’s Yunnan Dian Hong, Brahmin’s Choice, a Darjeeling first flush (Marybong estate), and a Keemun Hao Ya B. All brewed to the peak of smoky perfection. These were also the first teas of my day…and technically, they were also breakfast.

We ended up staying at Smith’s for two hours – waxing poetic about tea, astrology, origin stories, fiction, nonfiction, and different countries. It was more well-rounded and camaraderie-filled than any tea outing I experienced up to that point. Rarely was there a moment of awkward pause. Again, the insecure part of me hoped I wasn’t too bombastic a blowhard in real life as I was often considered online. But rarely did I feel that way.

Tea is – by its very existence – a beverage of contemplation, but there is a social element to it as well. I hadn’t really experienced that. For once, I wasn’t the lone steeper in the room…and it was quite wonderful.

The Gold Debacle

Perhaps it is because I have a near-glandular reaction to all things shiny, or perhaps it’s something more visceral. Whatever the case may be, I love teas with the world “Gold” in them. It wasn’t something I was particular aiming for, but more of an epiphany I had over one particular type of tea.

I received a sample of Zen Tara Tea’s Golden Yunnan Special. Looking at it was like beholding beige-like brilliance…and like honey-lathered lightning had hit my tongue. At first, I thought it was possibly a fluke, but then I visited a teashop local to me – the Jasmine Pearl – and picked up some of their Golden Needles. The reaction was just about the same – honey-pepper-nectar-gasm. From that point on, I had a favorite black tea.

Naturally, I wondered if other teas with the word “Gold” were equally as perfect for my palate. The next on the list was the Fujian-grown Golden Monkey – often heralded as the black tea equivalent to Bai Hao Yinzhen (Silver Needle), a distinction I’d disagree with. While having a similar gold-like, tippy presence as the Yunnan variety, the leaves were smaller and curlier. However, they did impart a similar nectar-like flavor, if not as eye-glazing. Okay, second time was the charm; this was definitely not a fluke. Maybe it was an irregularity.

On a random perusal, I ran across a product dubbed a “Golden Assam”. Perhaps it was a Photoshop trick, but the merchandise photo made it look just as shiny as a Yunnan Gold (or Jin Cha). A fellow tea colleague – Michael J. Coffey, ever the steep scientist – urged me to reel in my expectations. According to one of his Assamese contacts (yes, the man has contacts), gold tips are often added for visual flare but have no effect on taste. Much like cornflowers being added to some inferior Earl Greys.

A random tea outing with a gold-haired friend confirmed my “findings”. Their gold-tipped Assam did indeed have some honey texture to go along with the requisite malt. I even ordered another pot of Yunnan Gold just for taste comparison. While the latter was better, the Assam did hold its own.

Some doubts did enter my mind about the “gold standard” when I revisited gold-tipped Assams in the form of a Khongea estate offering. It was really good – malty, hearty, slightly smoky, all those manly adjectives. But it didn’t possess that ‘gasmic “oomph” of the prior golds. Maybe Coffey had a point.

The conversation was revisited, this time with Assam-lover, Ken Macbeth, in tow. It even inspired this write-up from Ken regarding the price one pays for the appearance of a loose leaf batch. MJC even reiterated that while there is likely a flavor I’m subjective to in Yunnan Golds – or to the “golding” process in general – that doesn’t make it universally better. At the time of the conversation, I refused to believe it.

Then I taste-tested two teas from Canton Tea Co. One was a black tea from Fujian (my favorite Chinese province) called Bai Lin Gong Fu. It looked and smelled like a black tea – like a Dian Hong (regular Yunnan black) only tippier. The taste, though…wow. It made me tip my head back in Homer-esque reverie, tongue splayed.

A few months later, I received another sample from Canton for their Superior Bai Lin Gong Fu. I wondered how the heck they could top the regular kind, but – apparently – what made it superior was the appearance. The entire batch was GOOOOooooooOOOOoooold! However…I noted in my review of it, that – while I did love it – I preferred the regular Bai Lin. The honey-nectar presence was there, but it simply didn’t top the silky magnificence of its darker kin.

Superior vs. Inferior (?)

My journey came practically full circle with a revisit to The Jasmine Pearl. The owners – Chuck and Heather – were a very patient couple in dealing with me. They had mentioned in passing that a new shipment was coming in for some Golden Needles, straight from Yunnan, and that it was even better than their last one. Perfect timing since I ran out of my stores of their last batch. They urged me to be patient, though. Deliveries from China were known to be slow.

That didn’t stop me from calling them repeatedly.

Me: “Is it there yet?”

Them: “No.”

Geoff: “How ‘bout now?”

Them: “No.”

Me: [pause] “Now?”

Them: “No.”

Me: “Are we there yet?”

Them: “What?”

Me: “What?”

(Okay, I made that last part up.)

A month ago, I stopped in to childishly ask one more time. Rays of heaven parted when they confirmed with an emphatic “Yes!” that it, indeed, had arrived. There was a problem, though. This was nowhere near as gold-tippy as the last batch. It smelled wonderful – like tiramisu, chocolate, and forest – but the peppery aspect was all but gone. I bought it anyway and did a side-by-side comparison with another Golden Needle I had on hand.

Gold Vs. (Mostly) Gold

Gold vs. (Mostly) Gold

Yep, definitely darker.

Then came the taste-test.

Oh wow.

Oh my…wow…

Oh wowie-wowie-wow-wow.

I rated the last Golden Needles they had a ten out of ten. This was an eleven. It was then that I begrudgingly admitted that there was something to the processing. Here it was, a darker Golden Yunnan, and I liked it better than any of its shinier kin. Fine, I’ll admit it now. The “golding” process doesn’t necessary make it better, but there is still something to it in terms of Chinese black teas. I’m standing by my Yunnan Goldies, even the ones that are rougher around the edges.

Graduating to Guru-ship

A week or so back, two relatives passed on a pair of Craigslist ads. They were “casting calls” of sorts – a survey company looking for tea gurus and tea fans for paid interviews.  As in, they would reimburse the interviewee for his/her time for pontificating about tea on camera. It took me a day or two to sleep on it, but I eventually bit. The problem I had was that there were two ads to possibly answer. One was looking for “tea fans” with a loyalty to a particular brand or type. The other ad was asking for gurus –  tea vendors, teashop owners, and major enthusiasts.

I had absolutely no clue which category I fit in.

First there was the loyalty issue. While there were some vendors I favored above all others, there wasn’t a particular one that stood out in my mind. Part of that was the way my mind worked. (Or didn’t work.) I can’t even do Top Ten lists for fear of leaving something out. Second was the implication of the word “fan”. Some small part of me felt like I’d graduated from fanning…and by extension, leaf fannings.

That left the “guru” ad. I knew it was a long shot because of their emphasis on tea industry professionals, but I felt I could play up the “enthusiast” angle. After all, I had four blogs and four hundred teas tried to my dossier. Granted, I still considered myself an amateur appreciator of the leaf, but I was an experienced amateur, damn it. I answered the tea guru ad.

And waited.

The ensuing period of time was akin to waiting for a phone call back from a potential job or date. On some days, I would literally wait by the phone. At work, I would often sneak a peek at my “other business” e-mail to see if there were any new chimes. It was sheer agony.

The time of the deadline came and went, and I received no call or e-mail. I wasn’t too surprised. The guru bit was a stretch, and I knew it. That wasn’t what bothered me. What had me riled was: Where the heck was I on the tea community totem?

My tea appreciation began in 2005; I became a tea reviewer in 2008, and I started my own website devoted solely to writing around the same time. In 2009, I jumped on the Twitter bandwagon and cavorted with other likeminded tea souls – vendors and sippers alike. In mid-2011, I joined Teatra.de to mirror the “Steep Stories” category of my website to broaden its audience and see where it took me.

That’s six years of palate appreciation. In that time, I’ve also guest-blogged for a major vendor and was even recognized by the only plantation in Great Britain. Some circles valued my opinion, some didn’t. Of course, there were far more experienced people out there. I’m no Norwood Pratt, Pettigrew, Harney, Coffey or Goodwyn, but I liked to think I’d carved out a bit of a niche. Not enough for “guru” niche, though.

It begs the question: What qualifies someone to be a guru? Are there set standards in place that determine this? Do you have to be a certified “tea sommelier” first before you can join those ranks, or do you need some practical experience in the tea vendor trenches?

By extension, how does one become a tea sommelier? That moniker is a wine term reserved for people that can identify brand, type, year and grape varietal on a blind taste-test. Is the same thing even possible with tea? I don’t know about you, fair reader, but I certainly can’t. (I mistook a Wuyi oolong for a Rose Congou once.) And what forms of certification are considered the Gold Standard for the industry? I can name at least five tea sommelier certification classes off the top of my head.

I suppose the biggest (and possibly only) conclusion I came away with was that I’ve got a long way to go still. I’ll enjoy my cup of whatever as I see fit in the meantime, sipping away noisily. Content in my amateur appreciation – label or no.

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