Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Month: November 2012

Throwing in the Towel after a Tea Fight

A couple of weeks back there, I attended a different sort of tea meet-up. The Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance and The Jasmine Pearl Tea Merchants joined forces for a movie night. The movie in question? Tea Fight (or “Dou Cha”) – a Taiwanese/Japanese co-production centering almost entirely around tea, and the people who drank it. One of the Jasmine Pearlites described it as “tea porn”.

Sold.

The Jasmine Pearl were serving up hojicha and Mayucha sencha, while PDX Tea Dave brandished some Taiwanese oolongs. Fitting given the origin(s) of the movie. I was looking forward to it on a scholastic level; I’d never seen a movie that focused completely on tea. Well, except for a rather cool, teacentric episode of Sherlock. The writer part of me wanted to see how it was done so I could compare it to my own tea-fiction-y efforts. Another thought that ran through my head: When/where did Portland get so many hot tea chicks?! (It was ruining my concentration.)

Ahem…

The movie opened with an anime sequence – yes, an anime sequence! – explaining the backdrop. In the distant past, there were two rival tea clans – the Female Golden Tea Clan and the Male Golden Tea Clan. The Female clan brewed tea that instilled a sense of calm and peace, whereas the Male clan’s brew instilled passion and aggression. Due to a misunderstanding involving a Japanese tea merchant (surnamed Yagi), the Male Golden Tea Clan exterminated the Female.

In the ensuing kerfuffle, a little boy combined both the Male and Female liquors, drank them, and turned into a dragon. Realizing the wrong they’d done, the Male Golden Tea Clan scoured the remains of the Female clan’s village for any surviving tea bushes. There were none – save one. A single plant rescued by the Japanese merchant, Yagi.

And that’s just the first ten minutes of the movie.

The rest of it deals with the descendants of the two tea clans and the father/daughter heirs to the Yagi family. I won’t give anymore away than to say that the movie plays out like Karate Kid meets Romeo & Juliet by way of Sideways. The story is told in broad strokes – as it should be – and particular emphasis is placed on tea brewing. Albeit exaggerated.

From a tea geek’s perspective, I found some of the brewing techniques fascinating. The Male Golden Tea Clan pressed their tea into beengcha cakes, scraped leaves off, stone-ground them to a fine powder, and then whisked. The Female Golden Tea Clan…uh…did tea-fu. (No, seriously, it looked like they splashed water in the air, and went all Crouching Tiger with it. Quit epic.)

The Yagi family stone-ground their own matcha!!! I want my own stone-grinder! If I had one, I could finally realize my dream of making green rooibos matcha. And, wow, I’m getting way off topic.

In short, the movie was cheesy in all the right ways. It was the first media-ish piece I’d seen that captured the true grand scale that tea’s multi-millennial history encompasses. And it took me over a week to watch it. I’ll explain…

I actually had to leave the PDX Tea/Jasmine Pearl event early for…beer. Yes, beer subverted tea. A friend of mine made a homebrewed oatmeal IPA and was unveiling it for swigging. Couldn’t be passed up. However, I was able to at least take in over half of Tea Fight before leaving.

And I was humbled.

For the better part of November – as some of you know – I’d undertaken a NaNoWriMo project. For those not familiar, that’s where a writer tries to concoct 50K-word novel in a month. That’s right, a month. My initial goal was to cheat and repurpose old blogs into a book; I called it “CheatoWriMo”. Unfortunately, nine days into the project, I had an inconvenient epiphany – dictating that I start from scratch. The new idea was pure tea porn.

At first, I was engaged in the project, but the narrative was heading in a direction that I didn’t quite like. The entire affair was starting to make me feel uncomfortable, and I wasn’t quite sure why. Maybe it was the fact that it hit too close to home, or maybe it was just bad writing. I dunno. Then I saw Tea Fight…and I was ready to throw in the towel.

While it wasn’t a perfect movie by any stretch, it did what I was trying to do and did it better. What I had put to paper so far didn’t convey what I wanted it to. And Tea Fight did. Toward the tail end of the week, I announced that I was scrapping my little tea tale. I couldn’t even stand to look at the manuscript.

In the interim, fellow Tea Trader and NaNoWriMo participant – Courtney the Purrfect Cup – had reached the 50K mark. I was proud of her. She  and another compatriot – authoress Katrina Avila Munichiello – plus others in the NaNo group  urged me not abandon the project, but instead give it room to breathe. An answer would come, they stressed.

Yesterday, I finally finished watching Tea Fight, and came to a realization. I totally missed the point of the movie. Yes, there actually was a message it was trying to convey, and it was oddly relevant to my mid-writer’s crisis. One of the deus ex machina characters in the movie was the ancient tea scholar, Lu Yu. He appeared occasionally to motivate the characters forward. I won’t give away the movie’s ending, but the overall moral was (paraphrased slightly): “Your true fight is the one with yourself. Tea is innocent.”

All this time, the story made me uncomfortable because I was drawing upon more of myself than from stories prior. Actual life experiences were being used as a basis for the plot. I was blaming the material, but – in reality – it was me. The story wasn’t crap; I was crap for trying to quit. Only time would tell if it was a train wreck.

At the time of this writing, I was undertaking another challenge. The Canton Tea Co.’s Tea Club had sent me some Ali Shan and Li Shan (i.e. Taiwanese oolongs), and they were asking participants to choose a victor. This proved a difficult comparison, but in the end, Ali Shan won me over by a hair. However, the best results came from mixing the two. Unity superseded the tea fight. Right now, I’m swigging the mixture by the pot…

And listening to M.C. Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit”.

To read what I have so far on said “tea porn”, go HERE.

From Starbucks to Star Wars

Yesterday was just like any other day. I got up (far too) early, made a pint o’ Earl, poured cereal, basked in the morning meditation, then went to work. While at work, I did what I normally did…found moments of quiet solace to check my phone. Imagine my shock-‘n-awe when I was greeted by several updates on the Plus That Is Google feed about Teavana being bought out…

By Starbucks.

For 620 million dollars.

The one who broke the news to our little pocket of the tea community was Rachel Carter of I Heart Teas, and our steeping subculture dropped its collective jaw. It took me a moment (or five) to effectively collect mine from the proverbial floor. At first, I wanted to nerd-rage, but then…I had a moment to think on the implications. This might actually be a good thing, I mused.

I have a love-hate relationship with Teavana, as most right-thinking steep-people (steeple?) do. On the one hand, their blends are awesome. C’mon, you know they are – if you’re in to that sorta thing. They actually made chamomile ice-able. That alone deserves a gold star. What aren’t so great are their upselling practices.

Only one example comes to mind: I was hunting down a specific blend with strawberries in it, and the douche-y bro-vendor tried to sell me genmaicha blended with popcorn. No, not the regular rice-popped stuff in normal genmaicha. Actual popcorn. I don’t like genmaicha, and I loathe wet popcorn. He insisted it had a strawberry smell, and I wanted to hit him repeatedly with a canister.

My most infuriating exposure to the tea chain was when I interviewed for them. *Le sigh* Yes, I actually applied for a job at one of their locales. Judge away. During the interview, I was given an opportunity to drink tea while talking. Bad idea, since I was motormouthing a mile a minute. Everything was going relatively well until the interviewer said this phrase:

“We aren’t exactly used car salesmen, but we walk the fine line.”

Everything went downhill from there. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I’m a tea geek, sure, but I’m not a salesman. I don’t even look the part. (I.e. I’m not a cute girl in librarian glasses. Same reason I didn’t get tea jobs elsewhere.)

In short, my history with the chain is dicey but amicable. When I read of the buy-out, I immediately thought of Starbucks’s in-house label, Tazo. While they did little to change the philosophy of that brand, from what I heard from others, there was a slight dip in quality. However, in recent years, they seem to have changed their practices a bit. Example: Switching from teabags to tea sachets for their retail line.

Speaking of retail, Starbucks earlier announced that Tazo would be turned into a brick-‘n-mortar op a la Adagio. If they already had a brand, why the acquisition of another? The answer was obvious.

I couldn’t help but compare the buy-out to another famous acquisition from a couple of weeks back. Starbucks was Disney, and Teavana was Lucasfilm. Think about it.

Imaged mooched from Derek Chappell

Teavana started off as a boutique op out of the unassuming – and un-tea-like – locale of Atlanta, GA. At first, they were focused on bringing knowledge of loose-leaf tea to the masses. However, as they grew, so did their marketing strategy. In the successive (and successful) years, they became known for some questionable decisions.

Lucasfilm started off as a bastion for truly independent filmmaking. Self-sufficient and self-sustaining. As decades rolled by, their acumen changed. Star Wars, once a property that could do no wrong, was given a corporatized treatment in later incarnations. And it showed. Oh, dear God, did it show.

Disney is a bloated behemoth, and so is Starbucks. Both started off in idealistic territory, but grew too big for their britches. However, in recent years, something has shifted. They’ve taken risks. Some have paid off, others haven’t. In the case with Disney, they made John Carter and The Avengers. One bombed, the other was a blockbuster. Starbucks’s brick-‘n-mortaring of Tazo could be viewed in the same light.

What I’m saying is this: Starbucks may be on to something. There’s no denying that a tea renaissance – to coin James Norwood Pratt – is in the making, much like the “third wave” coffee movement of yesteryear. It is only natural for a large company to look at the potential of that and act on it accordingly. For better or worse, Teavana was one of the most familiar names in tea, right behind Lipton. Questionable, though there approach was, they did stress the strengths of loose leaf tea over teabags.

Perhaps the Starbucking of Teavana might gentle some of its more questionable practices. That might be wishful thinking, but – other than the price for macchiato – Starbucks still has an accessible brand. I’m personally looking forward to seeing what happens, just like I’m looking forward to a new Star Wars movie.

With cautious optimism.

Image mooched from Halfsilk.com

Writing Epiphanies and Japanese Pu-erh

I had an epiphany last week…and I abhor it.

While in the middle of filing some tax papers at a temp agency gig, I was attempting to outline my CheatoWriMo project. Motivation was proving hard to muster. The idea of compiling and collating old blogs and stories seemed boring. An odd realization to come by while compiling and collating. If the prospect of preparing such a yarn didn’t appeal to me, how was it going to appeal to a reader? Then something hit me square in the brain – a surge of epic proportions.

It occurred to me that there were two novel ideas I had that I put on mothballs – one was called Brunch with Phantoms, the other was Love at Second Sight. Coupled with those was an idea from awhile back retelling the events from my blog – “The Sex Tea Saga” – in a fictitious manner. None of them had enough material in them to warrent their own novels. But together…

And with that revelation, my CheatoWriMo project became a lot harder. Instead of compiling and repurposing previously written material, I was now going to have to start from scratch. Oh, yippee. The “evolved”/new premise was thus:

 Raymond Elkins is a 25-year-old recent college grad with a life he thought he wanted. Everything was going according to “plan”, until one evening the unthinkable happened. He botched his anniversary with his girlfriend…by not getting it up.

Distraught, the twentysomething consults friends, family and the Internet for suggestions. This eventually leads him to an unassuming leaf found in some male enhancement products – tea. What begins, at first, as a quest for better sex leads him down a surreal and magical road – one wrought with danger and daring-do.

He must dodge vengeful goddesses, succubi,  snake-people, sentient birds and wizards bent on ending his accidental quest. And all he has to guide him are a talking cat, a low-rent psychic, an ill-tempered gnome, and an undead Scottish botanist. Where this journey may lead him, no one can know. But he just might find true love, a good cup of tea, and save the world while he’s at it.

Yeah, I know, it’s bats**t crazy, and starting it was like pulling teeth. I was actually beginning a legitimate NaNoWriMo novel now – albeit very delayed. It also didn’t help that there were distractions along the way. All tea-related.

Friday afternoon, a package was waiting for me when I returned from running errands. It was from Butiki Teas, and I muffled a squeal of delight as a courtesy to the neighbors. One particular tea in the fray demanded immediate attention – a Japanese pu-erh. You heard right, and – no – I didn’t know such a thing existed, either.

Apparently, those wacky Japanese in Shizuoka prefecture were playing around with new styles of fermented tea. I already knew of two, and even tried one last year (which I liked quite a bit). This was a different beast altogether. I can’t even fathom the process that created it. Appearance-wise, it looked like a typical Japanese kocha (black tea), but the aroma was far different – coffee, chestnuts, soy sauce, plums and…er, awesome?

According to the Butiki Teas bio, this was a tea that was fermented for two-to-three days – artificially – with/in a brown rice culture. In other words, a wacky Japanese take on the Menghai shou (or cooked) method of aging pu-erh. To be frank, this smelled a lot better than most cooked pu-erhs I’ve tried. Normally, I can’t stand the stuff. New teas, however? Totally my thing.

There was only one snag; I did not want to share this alone. So, I gave ol’ David of PDX Tea a shout and wondered if he wanted to partake as well. It didn’t take long to get an affirmative. That and he also had better brewing equipment for such an experiment than I did. We prepped it like the Butiki site recommended – 1.5 tsps., boiling water, four-minute wait.

I can’t even being to describe how this tasted. It was part barley, part coffee, part roasted oolong, part Korean black, and all delicious. It was probably one of the more unusual teas I’ve tried all year, and – boy – I’d had some doozies. The cocoa-ish aftertaste lasted well after the sip. A part of me wanted to acquire “moar!” just so I could age it myself for a few years. But, honestly, I don’t have that kind of patience.

Some pu-erh purists out there might be thinking that it can’t be called pu-erh if it doesn’t hail from Yunnan province, China. And they have a point. Technically, this would be a heicha, I suppose. I would call it “Japuerh”, but that sounds kinda racist.

The second tea-related distraction from my writing responsibilities was something I found out right after David and I finished copious amounts of oolong. His Alliance space and Charity Chalmers (of Chariteas fame) were hosting a Portland tea meet-up, and the emphasis was on aged teas. How could I not go?

Besides my own donations to the cause, highlights for my palate were a Yue Guang Bai white sheng pu-erh cake and a Bai Liang bamboo basket-woven pu-erh cake. Both were zesty, earthy, floral, winy and all around Entish. Yes, that’s a good thing. Mrs. Chariteas seemed to know her rare teas, and I made a mental note to visit her shop at some point in the near future.

Saturday, I finally got started on A Steep Story (the new title for the novel). Reliving some of those past, embarrassing events was mildly uncomfortable. Some say you aren’t writing anything worthwhile unless your soul bleeds. I’m not sure I buy that. I would hardly call what I put to paper Voltaire levels of excellence…but it’s a start.

A…very…small…start.

While this is technically playing by NaNoWriMo rules (i.e. starting from scratch), there’s still a hint of CheatoWriMo as well. I didn’t get started until about nine days in, so I’m giving myself nine days in December to continue. Beyond, if I have to. I’ll be damned if I’m not going to do this Little Nemo-meets-Scott Pilgrim yarn justice.

Cheating at NaNoWriMo by the Numbers on an Anniversary

You – fair reader(s?) – may have noticed a very significant change on this blog. No, not the content. Look up. Awwww-yeah! That’s right; this blog finally has its own domain name. I announced it via the social mediasphere, but in case you’re new to this tea musing circus, that’s a big deal to me! And a lot of the thanks goes to the Tea Trade Powers That Be. (I wouldn’t have been able to figure out how to do it by myself, honestly.)

The reasons for finally domain-ing it up are twofold: (1) It’s a helluva lot easier to say, “My blog is ‘Steep Stories’”, than it is to list off a URL. (2) I’m about to start a book, and this is its online mouthpiece.

Some of you might know that November is the time of NaNoWriMo  – where a bunch of would-be writers try to kill themselves by producing 50,000 words in 28-or-so days. I tried it last year…but never started. This year, I was about to opt out, but I had a better idea. I was going to cheat. And it was all thanks to my mother.

Before the advent of NaNoWriMo, my mother had suggested I should compile my blogs as a book. Originally, I thought this was a stupid idea. Then I got to thinking, Wait, I have almost written a novel in blogs alone. And the idea was born.

No, I’m not going to simply compile all the blogs as is into a bundle and shove it on the market. The way they’re formatted currently is not conducive to that. What I am going to do is repurpose them – add nuances and anecdotes, flesh out the details, so-to-speak. That and I have the fictional Steep Stories to finish. The saga was left incomplete.

The idea is this: To transform the blogs, reviews and musings I’ve done on unique teas (and my stories with them) into a cohesive narrative. Then, when those have ended, they will segue into the fictional stories. In total, there “should” be about 60% new content to the endeavor. Be on the lookout for news on Steep Stories: Fact & Fantasy. Let CheatoWriMo commence!

Now, I know what you’re thinking, fair reader(s?), “Don’t you need to have a popular blog for this to work out?”

My answer: “I write about f**king tea.”

It’s an issue I’ve struggled with since the summer, trying to find an audience for this tea blog; fashioning it to receive some attention. I’ll be truthful, the sheer lack of numbers was disconcerting. Especially when I compared the analytics of my own site to this. Measures were taken to ensure some success. Plus, I also learned that my website analytics weren’t as good as I initially thought. Even after four years, I was not properly trying to build an audience. Then it hit me.

“F**k it, I’ll do what I want.”

I put measures in place to start building traffic, but I was not going to make that the end-all goal. Tea is a drink. Most people don’t want to read about a drink unless it gets them drunk – save for we shining few. And for the moment, I like it that way. Tea is what I know; tea is what I’ll show. I also vowed that I would no longer duplicate “Steep Stories” on my main website anymore. The tea tales needed their own permanent home, and that – I will happily say – is Tea Trade. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

Oh yeah…since this is a tea blog, I should probably talk about tea on it. Um…ah! Got it!

On Saturday, my brother and I made it a point to jaunt over to The Jasmine Pearl Tea Merchants for a tea pick-up. My mission: Earl Grey. I had absolutely no Earl in the house anywhere. This was disconcerting to me. I remembered that The Jasmine Pearl carried one that I liked; on several occasions, I’d stopped off to have it iced. My brother – on the other hand – needed to replenish his stores of Golden Needles. (That fact alone brings a tear to my old eye.)

Prior to making the tea trip, I learned that Saturday was also their eighth anniversary. Well, now we had to go. When we arrived, the place was packed with people. The owners – Chuck and Heather – were weaving through tastings and anecdotes like acrobats. For the occasion, they also had some goodies on hand – matcha cheesecake, chai cake, Lapsang Souchong popcorn.

Hold the phone!

Lapsang. Souchong. Popcorn!

It was the most beautiful thing my eyes had ever seen. The taste was equally mangasmic – smoky, buttery, slightly sweet, and – well – manly! I cried tears of machismic joy. On the inside. Never on the outside.

Oh yes, there was also plenty of tea that was had. Two new blends were put on display – Haiku (White Peony-base) and French Breakfast (Assam-base). I actually preferred the latter; maybe it was my French ancestry – I dunno. We bid fond farewells with tea wares in hand with promises of future visits.

As I write this, I’m currently nursing a 32oz. pot o’ Earl like a Picardian boss. Have I started CheatoWriMo yet? Er…no. This has been the one day of relaxation I’ve had in over a week. New jobs (plural!) were delivered to me on a platter. And mandatory celebrations sprang up from those. Okay, the latter bit wasn’t exactly work – just distracting. All said, changes are afoot…and I’m all hands on deck.

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