My First Tea Fest

Sunday, October 7, 2012

I hemmed and hawed for weeks about whether or not I would actually go to the Northwest Tea Festival this year. Thankfully, my poor impulse control got the better of me, and – boy! – am I glad it did. To miss this tea-binge-o’-thon would’ve been act of idiocy. I present to you – fine tea reader(s?) – my disorganized and picture heavy coverage of Day #1 of said festival o’ the leaf.

(NOTE: This coverage will not include the workshops that were offered because…er…I couldn’t afford them. Being poor sucks. The end.)

Getting There

Washington, I hate you.

Seattle, I hate you more.

Not only were their cops on every exit along the highway getting there, but once I made it to Seattle proper, the roads turned into some other dimension. I swear, it was like the roads in Seattle were designed by someone on barbiturates. Same could also be said for the Seattle Center, which was difficult to navigate through. If it weren’t for signs pointing to the event, I would never have found it.

The Tasting Booths

I guess I’ll get my one gripe out of the way early. The way they organized the private tasting this year was downright awful. Patrons were only allowed two tasting tickets per day. Keep in mind that the event was only for two days – total. Granted, they likely did this as a way to funnel taster traffic. The event was crowded. Still, there had to be a better way to handle it.

Luckily, most of the focused tastings were featuring teas I already knew about extensively. There were two that I felt I had to do, though.

The first tasting was a 2012 Ice Island Pu-erh hosted by Guitian (Becky) Li – a certified tea master. As she told the large group of fifteen, the leaves for this beengcha were picked from high elevation, ancient tea trees – some as old as five hundred years. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an aged version.

That said, the tea itself displayed differing characteristics per steep – starting off grassy and sweet for the first two, and transitioning to a more winy presence in the successive infusions. I could only imagine what this pu-erh would be like given five years to age. Guitian handled the crowd like a seasoned pro.

On an unrelated note, before the tasting even began, I disrupted the proceedings when I realized I’d lost my teacup in another room. I made a mad-dash from one booth to the next to retrieve it – pants almost falling down.

The second tasting I attended later in the day was put on by Brett Boynton, co-owner of the Phoenix Tea Shop in Burien, WA.  I had wanted to meet this guy for months ever since we traded tea barbs over Twitter. That and he had a fantastic tea blog I checked in on regularly.

He was just as quirky and irreverent in person as he was online. And I truly thought the way he handled a crowd of newbie tasters was the stuff of legend. Keep your eye out, you will hear about the “Burien Tea Ceremony” someday. Hint: It involves jokes. Lots of jokes.

The teas he featured were ones I had tried from their shop before – Korean green teas. Jungjak and Daejak, respectively. But it was a treat to see him doing the prep work for them. Like his partner in tea-crime, Cinnabar Gongfu, he’s a character.

Vendors

The first vendors I explored – in true “comfort zone”-y fashion – were the ones run by people I already knew. First up, The Jasmine Pearl Tea Merchants. Yes, I know, I hang out at their Portland shop all the time. I happened by their booth on several rotations – perhaps too much. However, I tried to hang back because they were slammed with visitors the entire day.

My main reason for hovering, though, was the unveiling of two new blends which used A-MURR-ican-grown tea as a base. They struck a deal with the Sakuma Bros. to use their white tea and new (experimental) black tea for locally-sourced blends. Oddly enough, I preferred the black blend over the white blend; strange because I liked the white tea by itself better than the black. Both were well put together, though.

Right next to the JP folks was the Phoenix Tea House booth, and it was equally as crowded. However, I did manage to scissor my way through to mooch a bit of their Ali Shan and copious amounts of their hei cha (post-fermented tea). Particularly worthy of note was a hei cha that was blended and bricked with rose petals. It was strangely sweet on the front, which is a trait I never associated with hei cha – at all.

Cinnabar Gongfu noted that she was skeptical about them because they were pressed into heart-shapes. (The name for them was “Rose Hei Cha Hearts”, after all). I didn’t come back to buy one until later, but they had unfortunately run out of ‘em within the first couple of hours. Not surprising. However, I did settle on a bit of bricked hei cha…which I’m having right now as I write this.

Of the new tea vendors I knew nothing about, first on my sip-list was an outfit out of…er…someplace in Washington called Snow Lotus Fine Teas. It was owned and operated by Lavina Rao, and she was presiding over the tasting at their booth. The one I took notice of was their Yunnan black – dubbed Honey Orchid. It was a malty beast of a Dian Hong. Naturally, I loved it.

After visiting their website, they are officially an outfit I have to try more stuff from. A lot of their offerings fall into my quirky taste of unique. Their black and white  tea selections are phenomenal.

Teahouse Kuan Yin is based in Seattle proper, and I have no clue why I hadn’t heard of them until now. Guess I’ve been under a rock or something. They had a unique tea for the tryin’, which they dubbed “Taiwanese Assam”. It was from the Assamica varietal and reminded me of…well…just that, but with a bit of a Ruby 18 characteristic for good measure. I almost bought some, but it was only available in 2-oz. bags. I was on a budget.

There were plenty of other great vendors that were represented – especially some big-named ones – but I only wanted to cover the unique“teas” here for good measure. You understand, right reader? Good.

Presentations

I had one goal in mind when attending this festival and that was to finally meet James Norwood Pratt – the proverbial rock star of the modern-day tea renaissance. Others have touted his books and personal appearances, but I had yet to experience them for myself. How could I truly be a tea nerd without picking that man’s brain.

His informal lecture was on the subject of “The Tea Renaissance” in the U.S. and the different factors that led to it. He also reflected upon the dour state of the American tea industry after World War II and lamented the existence of mass-produced, low-quality teabags. What I found particularly interesting was the light he shed on white tea popularity in the U.S.

I had not been aware that white tea experienced a boom in the late-90s thanks in no small part to…Britney Spears. You heard right. Apparently, she was a regular customer at Chado – a popular tearoom in L.A. Somehow, someway, it got out that her personal trainer recommended that she only drink white tea for the higher antioxidants. Teeny-boppers the world over demanded white tea en masse soon after. Naturally, that made me rethink my entire white tea obsession.

He closed off the presentation with a Q-and-A. The only question I could think of for him was one that was un-tea-related. I raised my hand.

I asked, “Is it possible to get a picture with you?”

Laughing, Pratt replied, “You’ll have to ask my wife.”

“I’m his wife,” came a voice behind me.

Well-played, Team Pratt. Well-played.

Right after Norwood Pratt’s presentation was an interesting seminar on pu-erh, presided over by Jeffrey McIntosh of McIntosh Tea. He is a pu-erh specialist that spent several years learning from different tea masters in China. One of the facts he elaborated on that I hadn’t known was the varietal of tea tree used for pu-erh teas. The large leaf Yunnan tea tree varietal was Assamica! Okay, that doesn’t mean anything to most people, but my mind was blown. I stayed long enough to try some Wild Arbor pu-erh but had to depart for a tasting soon after.

Which brings me to…

Meet-and-Greets

I’ll bring this winded entry to a close with an excuse to show off a bunch of pictures with blurbs. Why? Because I’m a dork. Deal with it.

As mentioned above, my primary goal for the NW Tea Fest was to get a photo with James Norwood Pratt. I ended up also walking away with his latest edition of The Ultimate Tea Lovers Treasury. Of course, I also got him to sign it, and – like a true fanboy – made a cheesy grin when the snapshot was taken. He was an absolute pleasure to meet. I want to be just like him when I grow up. (For the record, I’m 36.)

After meeting JNP, I finally had to meet Devan Shah, the purveyor of the Chado Tearoom. I’d heard his name bandied about in tea circles, but honestly hadn’t been familiar with Chado until this festival. I must say, I was impressed with some of his wares. That and he was kind enough to oblige a photo.

This one was a two-for. Chuck – The Jasmine Pearl’s co-owner – had informed me that Richard Sakuma (of Sakuma Bros.) was going to be on hand at their booth. I had wanted to meet him for over a year after having tried their Sun Dried White Tea. The man was humble and good-natured and put up with my many questions with wonderful patience. I absolutely needed  a picture with him and JP’s Chuck.

It wouldn’t be a trip to Seattle unless I caught up with the city’s resident “Tea Geek” – Michael J. Coffey. Strangely enough, he spotted me before I noticed him. He was donned in a lab coat and a TeaGeek.net nametag. We traded barbs and posed in front of a tea plant because…well…tea plant!

On one of my many pass-throughs of the Phoenix Teahouse booth, I demanded a photo-op with the owners Brent and Cinnabar. Both bloggers have my dream job.

I also caught up with fellow Portland teapal, David Galli of Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance outdoors.

I finally met Chris Shaw of Contemporary Clay. His various teaware creations were on display at different teashops I’d frequented. Really genial guy.

And last, but certainly not least, I had shwarma for the first time. The Avengers are right; it tastes like EPIC. How could I not draw this to a close with shwarma?!

 

In short, a spectacular day of hyper-caffeination.

After I made my fond farewells to everyone at the fest, JP Chuck had said, “Don’t fall asleep at the wheel.”

“I WON’T!” I said…happily hopping out the door.

38 Comments

  1. margo says:

    Just looks like it was a lovely time!

  2. So jealous of the JNP photo op!! I will agree that Tea Pratt as you call them do play off one another very well! I liked all the photos – made me feel like I was there…next year I hope!

    1. Well, you have until June to prepare for Vegas – World Tea Expo!

      1. Yeah…did I mention I’m not big on crowds? WT East and it sounds like this are more my speed. But @Jopj promises me a bubble if I can make it out there!

        1. There was still quite a crowd. It was just more…er…open.

          1. Well, from what I hear not as big as the crowd you get in Vegas.

          2. Oh, probably nowhere near.

  3. Avatar of jackie jackie says:

    “What, the end already?” I found myself thinking when I was done reading. Only because I loved this. The photos of all the tea folk intrigued me particularly, I’d “sort of” seen pics but now I feel I’d actually recognize them if I met them. You of course, I know from the video hangouts. Was trying to spy on your pants to see why they’d fall off. Do you wear them slung lo’ bro?
    I feel – a bit like Courtney said, as if I’d been there now too. You told the story well.

    1. Just the effect I was going for. Yeah, this is probably my most pic-heavy update…er…to date. I felt it was necessary, though. Especially with all the luminaries in attendance.

      As for the pants…um…long story short, I forgot to wear a belt. That and I’m one of those that’s in an awkward phase between thin and fat. (But mostly fat.)

  4. I wish that I had been able to attend this fest rather than WTE, it sounds like so much more fun. Someday I’ll make it out there.

    1. From what I gather from all the WTE participants, the tea was better at NWTF. Sooooo much hei cha!

      1. Avatar of jackie jackie says:

        Not only better, but from what I’ve heard from those who attended WTE, a lot busier too. Sounds like a far better attended event, that makes World Tea East look like its poor cousin. I feel, “come on, we can do better (than we did) here in the east.”

        1. Especially strange considering that more of the major tea giants are back East. Sure, the PacNW has some heavy-hitters to, but the East Coast has more.

        2. Well, the NWTF is for anyone, not just buyers/retailers/distributors etc. Plus it is also in the PNW which I hear is much more laid back/easy going unlike folks can sometimes be on the East Coast.

          I really want to try heading out there next year and perhaps *gasp* skip out on WT East.

          1. Laid back/easygoing?! HAHAHAHAHAHA! Oh, dear, the PacNW is many things…but not that. Just watch Portlandia.

            However, I guess the PNW tea afficianados are a different breed, thus leading to some laying of back.

          2. I’ve a friend who lives in Seattle (not a tea friend) and he is the most relaxed person I have ever met. I asked if it was just him or what? He said most folks from Seattle/Portland are like that. I learn something new every day!

          3. Most are only like that if they’re on pot. We don’t get a lot of sun in the PNW. Leads to some crankiness in general.

  5. Avatar of peter peter says:

    Absolutely amazing. What a great write-up. It seems like everything and everybody is much more accessible than at WTE. All of your celebrity watching was cool. Nice to see you meeting up with Brett and @cinnabar.

    And I’m jealous that you got to hang out with JNP too!

    A quick note about Devan Shah that wasn’t addressed. I don’t think Chado Tearoom is his main business venture. He is also the proud owner of International Team Importers, or ITI (http://teavendor.com). It’s a wholesale company, one which JNP himself has regularly endorsed over the years. Have a look at their website, anyone looking to source good teas through a wholesaler really couldn’t go wrong with Mr. Shah and company.

    Thanks again for such a great write-up, just the kind I like to see after a tea expo!

    1. Thanks @Peter.

      Sorry about not including the additional business stuff. Like I said, I had heard his name all around “tea town”, but never pinpointed an exact business until now. He was at NWTF representing Chado specifically, though.

      Brett and @Cinnabar are super-cool. If you ever make it to Seattle, their shop is particularly cozy. @Teachange and I spent almost an entire day in their shop.

  6. Avatar of jopj jopj says:

    I concur your write up is amazing. So happy you decided to go. For me, part of the Expo/Festival experience is being able to connect with like minded people who have now become a part of my brew. The teas you mention sound incredible.
    On my wish list is a time when I can follow you around a festival or expo and try all the teas you choose :-) See you in Vegas!!!

    1. I would hope to encounter you, too, at one of these shindigs, @JopJ. Just a forewarning – as others who’ve met me will attest…I’m all over the place in person. *heh*

  7. Avatar of jopj jopj says:

    What? Are you insinuating I can’t keep up??? :-)

    1. Not at all! *raises white flag*

  8. Avatar of latteteadah latteteadah says:

    So much to take in – thank you for sharing your day. All I can say is “you met Pratt, you met Pratt!” What does one do for an encore to this?

    1. I think I’ll use his career as my statistical goal.

      1. I think you need to meet John Harney….then get him and JNP in a room together and stand back and take it all in.

        1. I’d be worried about being kissed on the cheek.

          1. Hahaha! Why I tell you things I will never know… Almost like you are the big bro I never had, but always wanted.

  9. Avatar of xavier xavier says:

    You are a true fanboy of everyone related with tea. :)
    Beware with your photos, you might be becoming like De Niro in one of his movies.

    1. De Niro, hardly. I’m a pacifist. *heh*

      1. Avatar of xavier xavier says:

        The Pacifist Tea Drinker? Another cliché :P

        1. I’m strangely okay with that.

  10. MarshalN says:

    Actually, “Taiwanese assam” is most likely just Taicha 18, or what you called “Ruby 18″ (the Chinese fancy name for it is actually Red Jade).

    1. Quite possibly. It tasted a bit like Ruby 18 only maltier. I even made that same comparison in front of the gal that was telling me about it. I’ll give ‘em the benefit of the doubt, though.

      1. MarshalN says:

        Probably a matter of age and different maker, water, etc. Taicha 18 is a varietal developed in Taiwan mixing assamica with Taiwanese native tea plants.

        1. I probably didn’t ask specific enough questions – i.e. whether the varietal the Taicha 18 (which I have). All I know is that it tasted slightly different, and their product description stated “Assam”. Oh well, next time I’ll be more thorough in my esoterica.

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