Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Month: January 2013

Lowbrow, Low Expectations and Lowland Darjeeling

Several weeks ago – mere hours after posting a blog on “Tea Tact” – I learned of something disconcerting. A local blogging network had ousted me from, well, their entire network. I was never given an explanation as to why. Heck, I never even received notification. One day, while trying to post a comment on the group’s Facebook wall, I was greeted by an error message: “You are not a part of this group.

Dude. Harsh.

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I messaged the person that’d invited me to it but never got a reply. Several theories swarmed through my head. There was a case for me not being an active enough participant, but I’d only been a part of it for a month. Surely, there was a leeway period. Guess not. Perhaps I didn’t post frequently enough, or contribute comments to other blogs? There was a strong case for that, too. Eventually, I did the only tactful thing I knew at the time.

I took to Twitter.

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That didn’t even get their attention. Morose, I continued on with my week – brewing tea by the pint and going to work. The most notable of them was a particular Darjeeling that handled abuse and neglect quite well. Most mornings, I don’t have the time (or lucidity) to pay attention to exact measurements or steep times. I put the kettle on, boil water, put leaves in, and let it steep. Forever. Usually until after I’m out of the shower.

This particular morning’s Darjeeling was a low-altitude sort – one from the Rohini estate. The tea in question was a sample of their first flush clonal, generously donated by Happy Earth Tea. Rohini was one of the first Darjeelings that had a first flush out in 2012. They kicked the Darjeeling season off in February.

Someone informed me that, while lowland Darjeeling estates often yield crops earlier than highland ones, their quality is often sub-par. When I brewed the Rohini up normally, however, I didn’t find anything wrong with it. In fact, it was on par with some of the best I had that year. I even reflected upon it in story form.

How did it handle one of my post-shower, ten-minute, forever-steeps-o’-neglect? Perfectly. In fact, if anything, its character was even more pronounced. I’ve treated scores of Darjeelings to forever steeps, and none held up well. They often spinached, bittered or grew vegetal after minute six. Whether it was the heartier leaves, the lower altitude or unicorn magic, Rohini was a MANLY estate.

For weeks, I’d wanted to reflect on this phenomenon, but I didn’t have a proper platform in which to do so. I wanted to compare it to something, and draw the point back to the earlier blog group ousting. What I didn’t have was a proper bridge. Every blog needs a damn bridge – burned or otherwise. One was finally provided…by my cat.

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My Maine Coon mix rousted me from bed at the unholy hour of 4AM. I snatched her up by the “mommy”-scruff and rasped a sharp, “NO!” Then I tried to collapse back into the warm bosom of my ‘lectric blanky. It was too late. Thoughts swam in my skull. Finally, I gave up with a, F**k it, I guess I’ll write.

And there was my bridge.

Like a good lowland Darjeeling, even a lowbrow lad like me can exceed expectations when pushed. True potential can be squeezed at the oddest of times. Even friggin’ 4AM. I am a forever-steeped tea, sweating potential like a steaming kettle, and if other blog networks don’t see it…well…I raise my cup to ’em…

And a middle finger.

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UPDATE: So, it would appear that the culprit behind my blogger group ousting was none other than…

*Drum roll*

Friggin’ Facebook.

Technical difficulties with the platform caused the kerfuffle. The group had nothing to do with it. FB me was the one that threw me out.

Damn you, Zuckerberg!!!

*Shakes tiny teacupped fist*

A Week of “Lasts”: Finali-Tea

This is a continuation of another piece on my main site. For that entry, go HERE. You don’t have to, this entry stands well on its own, but for added revelation, give it a looksy. Thankee.

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I finished the last of my African Grey

My mother was in town. My brother/roommate and his girlfriend were also over. We had just finished watching an episode of Downton Abbey. It was my first time catching an episode; I was hooked. Fascinatingly proper for what amounted to a British soap opera.

My mother exclaimed, “We forgot to brew tea!”

I attempted to rectify this by brewing an “H-Earlbal Grey”, a rooibos/bergamot blend I rather liked from The Jasmine Pearl. Alas, I didn’t have enough for a full pot of the stuff, so I sprinkled in some Joy’s Teaspoon Lemon Zest to round it out.

In a word, perfect.

I finished the last of my Keemun Hao Ya…

The work week was rough. We were busier than was expected for a January. Everybody was running on fumes. Sales blitzes, packed house, lots to do. And, for part of it, I was in charge of my department. For two of those days, I brewed a pot of TeaVivre Keemun Hao Ya to keep me alert that morning. The tea turned out note-perfect. Not too bitter, not too astringent. Perfectly smoky-sweet.

In those two days, I got Employee of the Month.

I don’t think the two occurrences were mutually exclusive.

I finished the last of my Georgian black tea…

One particularly difficult morning, I needed some extra wake-up juice. So, I used the last vestiges of my TeaGeek.net Georgian and overbrewed the heck out of it. The liquor brewed to a perfect red. It never brewed red.

That day, I was on top of all the tasks I needed to accomplish.

I brewed the last of my Yunnan Silver Needle

Again with The Jasmine Pearl.

It was a particularly melancholy day. Work had been a little rough when it should’ve been easy. I had come to a few revelations about myself – some that were uncomfortable. I brewed a pot of Yunnan Silver Needle to feel better, and shared some with my bro/roommate and his girl. It hit he spot

Later that night, I went to a bar/deli by myself. I went their often. Perhaps too often. Once a week or so. That’s what I get for having a crush on a bartender. Somehow, someway, I determined that would be my last night there – my last night seeing her.

I accomplished absolutely nothing. Yet it felt right.

Artist: Shane Semler

Artist: Shane Semler

As I write this, I’m finishing the last of some Formosa Oolong

I’ve had this stuff from TeaFrog for the better part of a year. A cruel year, to say the least. Fitting, considering a song called “Cruelest Year” is playing in the background on my YouTube “Writing Mood” playlist.

The day before, I attended one of Michael “TeaGeek” Coffey’s Tea Salons via Google+ Hangout to discuss Keemun Hao Ya. Of course, I didn’t have any on hand, since I finished the last of mine earlier in the week. But I remembered that majestic pot clearly enough to contribute – in my own non sequitur way – to the conversation.

It was a splendid time, full of laughs and ribaldry. A very animated discussion. I also thought to myself, This is right.

Amidst this week of cupping epilogues and some other sobering realities, tea and tea people were still my one source of positive perspective. I also came to a rather important decision – to hunker down and save money to finally meet many of them.

In four months’ time – if stars and finances align – I will be in Las Vegas for World Tea Expo. What’s weirder is that I have to be there. As part of a panel. Yes! I’m a panelist!

To make this happen, I have to make some changes in my own life. Rampant spending must be curbed, debt must be managed, activities need to be slowed. But at least a goal is in sight.

For every ending, there’s a beginning. For every tea finished, another pot is poured.

Artist: Christoph Andre

Artist: Christoph Andre

Russian Orthodox White Tea?

Roughly six months back, I got it in my head that I had to hunt down some Taiwanese white tea. At first, I wasn’t sure it existed, but I vaguely remembered seeing mentions of it on Upton Tea’s website. Being a sucker for white teas – especially those from odd growing regions – I felt it was time to acquire some. To the Upton site, I went, and…found nothing. Well, not completely true. I found the listing for a Taiwanese white tea, but the item was no longer available.

This led me on a rampant Google search. The first option to come up was Norbu Tea, one of my favorite go-to sites for weird, awesome teas. Like Upton, they had a listing, but the item (at the time) wasn’t available. Strike two.

It took me the better part of a day (give or take real life) to find any other mention of “Taiwan” and “white tea” in the same entry. I had no idea it was such an exclusive item. Taiwan was mainly known for oolongs, so I suppose it wasn’t that much of a surprise. Just disconcerting.

In my Google perusal, I got sidetracked searching for odd white teas in general. I came across a site I’d never seen before. It was the homepage for a secluded Russian Orthodox monastery located on Vashon Island. Don’t know where that is? Apparently, it’s right next door to Seattle. That’s okay, fair reader, I hadn’t heard of it, either.

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Monasteries that sell odd wares were not a new concept to me. I’ve imbibed my fair share of Trappist beers as proof. What was unique was that this particular group blended and roasted their own coffee. They even gained some notoriety due to a feud with Starbucks. The coffee giant sued them for using the trademarked term, “Christmas Blend”.

Really, Starbucks? Suing a Christian monastery for creating a Christmas Blend? For shame.

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Considering the blend is still on the Vashon Monks page, I guess they won that little tiff. But that’s not what attracted my attention. Listed in the right tab was “White Tea”. My natural assumption was that they somehow/someway grew their own tea!

I zapped them an e-mail inquiring about it. And never got a reply. Upon a revisit to their site, I understood why. They didn’t grow their own tea, they merely sold it; this one was…a Taiwanese white tea!!! My idiocy brought my tea quest full circle. The product they were offering was a light-roasted white. And for two ounces, it was a pricey sonuvacup.

A part of me wanted to wait for an opportune time to visit the monastery and buy it then. Several months would pass before I revisited that little inkling. Instead of planning a trip, I decided (once I was gainfully employed again) to simply purchase it. Two days later, I received it.

My first impulse was to tear open the bag and bask in the scents and sights. The leaves were dark brown with speckles of green, and the aroma was straight fruit with a roasty tinge on the back-whiff. I didn’t brew it up until a couple of days later.

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Given a typical Western-ish white tea treatment, the liquor brewed up fairly dark. The taste was roasted nuts on the forefront followed by smoky grapes. Pretty good but not great. Something told me that my approach needed changin’.

The next day, I treated it to a gongfu prep – like I would with any roasted oolong. Four-ish steeps at around forty seconds each. That sounded fair. The results were friggin’ magic. Same smoky-grapiness as before, only more pronounced. The roastiness was more understated and complimentary. No vegetal aftertaste came through, either. I never knew of a white tea that required a gongfu approach for perfection. Then again, I hadn’t heard of a Taiwanese roasted white tea.

A unique, orthodox tea from a unique Orthodox importer.

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For more information on this white tea, go HERE.

Tea, Tact and the Art of Blending Badly

This was originally going to be an entry on some crappy blends I concocted over the last month or so, but the focus has changed in light of some recent events. I won’t go into detail as to what those are, nor will I post links that illustrate the example. However, I will give a Cliff’s notes version:

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Some stuff was written, some stuff was responded to, and some other stuff was further elaborated upon. End result: Pitchforks and torches raised. And – and as far as I’m concerned – with good reason. The problem? Both sides of the fence aren’t directly talking to each other. A dialogue doesn’t appear to exist.

Am I going to give advice on how to properly handle such situations? Heck no. I don’t know a damn thing about diffusing conflicts or tact. But I do know a thing or two about humility and balance. (It’s a Libra thing.) As such, I’m going to compare said crappy blends to some socially awkward tact moments I’ve been involved in.

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Insecurity and the Wild White Mountain

I love Greek Mountain tea. When I can find it in Greek or Mediterranean delis, it is a permanent staple in my tea shelf. What I’d always wanted to do, though, was blend it with something – anything, really. I found a likely candidate in the form of Ya Bao – tea buds from a Camellia varietal other than the tea plant. They were hearty and yielded a strong brew.

What occurred to me after trying them was how closely they resembled the bulbs of the Sideritis plant (i.e. the Greek Mountain shrub in question). With the help of David over at Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance, I was able to give the blending a go. I wanted it to be perfect.

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I mixed the herbs (half and half) in a bowl, then we brewed a strong batch of the stuff. The flavor came out slightly rough, lemony, hay-like, herbaceous, and floral. In short, I liked it. The measurements weren’t perfect, but overall, a good start. I kept asking David, repeatedly, if he liked it.

Later that week, I brewed up another pot to share with my brother. Same thing, I asked him repeatedly if he liked it. He said he did, but he wasn’t as ecstatic about it as I had hoped. This gave me pause.

Social Comparison

Over the summer, I tried to take on a new “blogging style” – emphasizing fiction over form. Most of the entries were well thought out, but they didn’t receive the fanfare I had hoped for. After all the planning I went through to make the change, I had expended more resounding positive feedback. In my disappointment, I heatedly tossed the style aside and returned to business as usual.

What I should have considered – once my passions had cleared – was that I didn’t give it enough time or room to evolve. In this way, it was like blending. The first try is rarely perfect; one has to tinker with the recipe. Had I fostered it better, it could’ve grown into something. Seeking out feedback prior to ousting the project would’ve helped, too.

Hindsight and all that.

Accidents, Smoke and Overreaction

On an underwhelming day in November, I reached for a canister that housed some Darjeeling I wanted to finish. Risheehat Vintage Spring – a delightful first flush from 2011. What I realized far too late was that the canister also housed some Lapsang Souchong. The poor li’l bag o’ Darjeeling smelled like campfire. For a split second, I lamented.

But I recovered rather quickly with a, Smoked Darjeeling?! AWESOME!

I brewed the sucker up. It tasted like muscatel and spice with a hint of smoke. Each serendipitous sip was exquisite. What did I do after? I emptied the Darjeeling into the canister, and placed the Lapsang Souchong in a filter bag. It was a ghetto version of what the Chinese did with jasmine flowers and green tea. Then I waited a week.

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One week turned into two because…well…I forgot about it. After the second week, I took the canister out and gave the contents a sniff. Smoke and wine. Holy wow! It was ready for another brew-up. The muscatel and spice were still there, but the smoky finish was even more pronounced. Not overpowering, however. The balance was near-perfect.

Social Comparison

Recently, I posted a link to the “novel” I had worked on in November. It was rough; I knew it was rough. That and I knew I was inviting criticism when I posted it. Only a few people chimed in, but those that did seemed to like where it was going. One, however, didn’t. I won’t mention names, but they found that it was rather pointless and lacking in emotion.

I was pissed.

To say I overreacted to the criticism would be an understatement. Only after a few weeks of fomenting can I truly say that I could’ve handled that better. The points the responder highlighted were good ones – if poorly presented. Had I given myself time to process the information like a professional, I would’ve seen that.

Just like with the smoked Darjeeling. At first, I thought the accidental smoking-scenting was a bad thing. Yet it led to one of my greatest sipping experiences. All because I gave myself pause.

Happy accidents.

Leonard’s Open Dialogue

I wasn’t expecting anything for Christmas, let alone tea. But right on Christmas Eve, a splendid little package was waiting for me from Canton Tea Co.’s  Tea Club. Instead of being a single origin tea, or a pre-made blend, it was an ounce of Assam and various smaller herbal packages. Licorice root, coconut flakes, cocoa nibs, cinnamon, orange peel, etc. It was a create-your-own-blend care packages.

Simply. Awesome. (Or “Assam”. Heh. Heh. Ahem…)

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to tinker with the blending kit until well after Christmas. The blend I had in mind was something that tasted like a chocolate orange – only…tea-ish. For the first try, I used a tablespoon of Assam, a teaspoon of orange, a teaspoon of cocoa nibs and a dash of cinnamon. All intended for a 16-ounce brew.

I steeped the contents for four minutes and drafted my brother as a taste-testing guinea pig. Moment of truth: The blend looked lovely, but it smelled…off. I couldn’t quite place it. We both gave it a sip and winced a little.

My brother voiced my thoughts, “It tastes like tomato basil.”

Well, shite.

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The next day, I attempted a phase two. Instead of adhering to exact measurements, I used a hefty amount of Assam – sprinkling orange, cocoa nibs, and licorice root conservatively. The result was far better than the first attempt, but other than a citrus front and an astringently malty finish, it still didn’t taste like a chocolate orange. While not the intended result, I still gave it a pass. Even if it was still missing something.

I named the blend Leonard.

Social Comparison

Some years ago – early on in my reviewing days – I was called upon to review a very old sheng pu-erh. At the time, my pu-erh palate was not yet developed. Nor did I know what “gongfu” was. I brewed it Western-style…and tasted straight dirt. I hated it. I wrote about how much I hated it, sparing no hyperboles.

The vendor responded to the negative review – not angrily or defensively, merely with suggestions on how to brew it. That opened up a dialogue that is still in existence today. Said vendor and I still have a professional relationship of sorts. All because – cliché as it sounds – cooler heads prevailed.

I’m not idealistic enough to say that folks in the tea community at large will always get along. We are nowhere near that utopian. If people are involved, there will always be disagreements. Guaranteed. What can be avoided, however, is seething rhetoric. What we say can affect the outcome of a conflict, no matter how small. How one reacts to a situation dictates the future of that relationship .

As the venerable Bill and Ted once said, “Be excellent to each other…”

And tea party on, dudes.

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Thanks to my cuz, Ryan Norman, for the the last-minute Photoshop awesomeness.

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