Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Month: August 2013

It’s a “Dog-Drinks-Darjeeling” World

The time? April or May-ish. Weather? Typical for Oregon – wet. My mood: Panicky.

My one solace between an impending move, a dreaded upcoming vacation, and a soon-to-be-havoc-y work schedule were tea deliveries. A few vendors were contacting me early to get their early Spring wares featured. I was still determining what my blogging focus was, nor had I decided if I was a “tea reviewer” or a “tea feature writer”. Or just some schmo with a tea blog that everyone’d heard about, but no one actually read.

In the interim, teas sporadically arrived at my doorstep. Over the course of this particular week, I was expecting three different deliveries. I had no idea what would be arriving first, only that something would be arriving soon. On this particular day, I was still in my out-of-season holiday pajamas, slippers and “Pot Head” tea-shirt – mug o’ black in hand.

My brother’s dog waited expectantly to be let outside for his morning “constitutional”. I opened the front door, checked to make sure that the gate was locked, let him loose, and went back inside to nurse my tea.

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Then the doorbell rang. That shouldn’t have happened.

Anytime the doorbell rang, and the dog was outside, it usually meant he’d found a way through the gate and was pooping all over the neighborhood. This had happened four or five other times, hence the need for a preliminary “gate-check” before letting him out. While he was friendly – and incredibly stupid – he was also very large. A rampaging Saint Bernard is a scary sight even if he is just pooping…then molesting hapless passersby with doggie kisses of death.

I answered the door, once again expecting a beleaguered neighbor with one hand around the large dog’s collar. Nope, it wasn’t that. It was a short-haired woman in mailman blues with a really guilty expression on her face.

“Um, here’s your package,” she said.

“Thanks?” I said, not even looking at it.

“Um…your dog?”

I narrowed my eyes. “What about him?”

“I…accidentally let him out,” she stammered.

If she wasn’t so Gidget-ly adorable and pathetic, I would’ve decked her with my half-finished tea mug.

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“Which direction did he go?” I asked.

Before she could answer, I saw him two houses down. I cursed, went back inside, and dug around for a pair of shoes, and the dog leash. In the meantime, the mail-Gidget had gone on ahead to track the dog down. I came out, still in my PJs, dashing for where the mailwoman had gone. It was a sad sight. Me, that is.

Mailgal successfully cornered the Saint Ber-doofus in a neighbor’s yard across the street. They had gates like ours, and she shut them behind her – keeping him nice and corralled as he urinated on every protruding object.

I called his name, “Abacus!”

He tried to run away, and went into the neighbor’s car port. I held my hand out like I had a snack and knelt down. The dumbass fell for it, and galloped right up to my hand. After getting a grip on his gargantuan head, I snapped the leash around his collar and towed him back to the house.

I gave the mailwoman a stiff, “Thank you.” Then went back inside. The dog loped over to his usual area, then sat down – staring at me.

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As if to say, “Gee golly, Geoff. That sure was fun! What’re we gonna do now?!”

My attention, however, was on the package that just arrived. It was from Happy Earth Tea – an outfit out of New York I’d done “business” with in the past. (Dwarven business.) I tore it open without a second thought. Inside were five teas from the 2013 first flush Darjeeling harvest. I went with the one I recognized best and went straight to brewin’.

Risheehat.

While there was an Arya Black in the package as well – smelling like a typically lovely first flush with all its spicy verve – I was more drawn to the Risheehat’s uniqueness. There was a nuttiness to the aroma of the dry leaves, as well as a subtly herbaceous lean. The only time I ever ran into that combination was with a Chamong estate first flush. So, naturally – given that it’s, well, me – uniqueness won out.

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Brewing this up wasn’t much of a chore. I used 2 tsps. of the green-leaning leaves for a pints-worth of a brew – 205F water for a three-minute infusion.

 The liquor brewed up bronze with aromatic steam reminding me of Spring (in a good way). On taste, it was toasty, nutty, with a minor vegetal presence on the finish. And, boy, did the caffeine hit quicker than I thought. Definitely not a tea to have on an empty stomach. In the end, I think I was just about panting. Like a Saint Bernard.

In a Dog-Drinks-Darjeeling world, I’m wearing milkbone pajamas.

Moonlight Tandemonium!

It all seems to come back to World Tea Expo, doesn’t it? Well, here’s another one. But let’s start from the beginning before the beginning – i.e. pre-Expo.

Several months ago, the follicly-blessed Jo Johnson talked about a tea from a company called Wild Tea Qi. I’d never heard of them, or their wares, but a scant glance at their website made my geek vein pulsate. The particular tea Jo pointed at was a white tea that’d been pressed somewhat like a zhuan cha, only more reminiscent of a candy bar. That is, several tiny squares segmented and attached at the hip like a Snickers. Win-win, right there.

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It was dubbed, “Ancient Moonlight White Bud Bar”. Just by the title alone, I don’t need to even go into why I wanted it. Ancient tea trees: Check. White tea: Check. It had the word “bar” in it: Check. The only parts that had me worried were the name “Moonlight” and the price tag.

Yunnan whites and I have a rather interesting history. The first Silver Needle I could boil the s**t out of was from Yunnan – assamica leaves, no less. Some non-sinensis var. sinensis leaves also made for a pretty mean white tea variant. There was one white tea I was hit-or-miss with, though. The Chinese-y name for it was Yue Guang Bai, and of all the white teas I ever tried…it was like hay. Sometimes good hay, sometimes bad hay, but always hay. The name loosely translated to “Moonlight White”.

From what I read on the Wild Tea Qi profile, this was similar to that white, only from much older trees. And more artisanal; if that means anything. All said, though, I passed it up because of the price, and I didn’t feel like playing the “blogger card” to acquire it.

Time passed…

Then World Tea Expo happened. Wild Tea Qi had a booth, and I frequented it on my…second day? Heck, I can’t remember. It’s all a tea-drunken blur. Point being, I tried some of their aged wares, and noticed they had the Ancient Moonlight White Bud Bar on sale. I let that sink in for a day before I firmly lost out to my (lack-of) impulse control.

I bought it on my last day.

For a couple of months it stayed in the bag of new, yet-to-be-drunk teas that I had backlogged. In the interim, I moved, I wrote, I worked…and I completely forgot about it. Then the plucky-‘n-preggered Rachel Carter chimed in on The-Plus-That-Is-Google with a suggestion for our next “Tandem Tea Tasting”.

You guessed it.

At first, I didn’t commit to the tasting. My work schedule over the Summer (thus far) had been unpredictable at best. I couldn’t firmly agree to the 6PM Pacific e-meet-up time. However, when the day-of came, I was off by 5. I mad-dashed it out the door. Got home in forty-five minutes, and got to brewin’ shortly after.

Directions on the website said to use water between 180F-200F. I went the lazy route, boiled the water, and let it stand for a couple of minutes. The true challenge was chiseling a chunk off the tea bar itself. Luckily, I’d purchased a pu-erh ice-pick-pokey-thingy at Phoenix Teashop some weeks back.

Now, one would think the best way to go about cutting this up would be to merely cut one of the square pieces off. But ooooooh no. I had to stab at it like some sort of impatient monkey. Or 1990s Sharon Stone.

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Proverbial mess made, I took my tablespoon of leaves, put ‘em in a Ceylon steeper cup, and brewed them “wrongfu”-style for thirty seconds…-ish.

The liquor was pale yellow like a white tea should be, and it tasted like Yue Guang Bai. The “good hay” kind. Not much in the way of nuance, though. Before the start of the tandem tasting, I was already two mini-steeps in. Rachel was the first one there, Jo followed suit, Nicole “Tea For Me Please” Martin logged in next, followed by Darlene Meyers-Perry.

And that’s when my phone decided to crap out.

During the entire chat, I was limited to texting my notes and odd idioms. The results were…um…

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Yeah.

Over the course of that hour, the girls made it to steep three-to-five. I was on steep – oh – fourteen before the event closed off. The final verdict was – if I can put it inappropriately – that the Ancient Moonlight White Bud Bar was like an expensive date that wouldn’t put out until the third-to-fifth outing.

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Not being one to Friend Zone this tea just yet, I gave it another go the following day, while writing tandem blogs about Earl Grey. This time, though, I brewed it Western-style, and lightened the water temp to that of a standard white tea – roughly 175F.

The results were MAGIC HAY!!!

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Really good, like on-par-with-any-Chinese-white-tea good. It held up for a whoppin’ three steeps that way, too. Yielding strong brew after strong brew. Well done, Moonlight.

You saucy minx, you.

For Nicole’s take, go HERE.

For Jo’s take, go HERE.

For Rachel’s take, go HERE.

(I’ll be updating the other tandemer articles as their written.)

Tea. Earl Grey. Burnt.

I’ll start this off by saying: Never before have I encountered an Earl Grey origin story like this.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Sometime back in Spring, I started yacking with a blender in Montana (of all places) via Twitter – one Gary Robson. By sheer appearances and demeanor, he didn’t come across to me as your typical tea person. He came across as very…mountain. No seriously, this is the blender in question.

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Not the type of guy that screams, I like tea. Then again, I’m not either. (Oh, who am I kidding?)

I perused his blog, which inevitably lead me to explore his website. The man was an author (his Who Pooped in the Park seems brilliant), ran his own bookstore (Red Lodge Books & Tea), and in the last few years added a tea bar to it. He was living my dream! What I found even more surprising was the quality of teas that he carried. Sure, there were blends present, but his line of single estate offerings was also quite extensive.

The true test of a tea bar, though, was there white tea section and – inevitably – their Earl Grey. Rule o’ thumb, you can guess the mettle of a tearoom based upon the Earl Grey they carry. Kinda like judging a dictionary by whether or not it has the word “etymology” in it, or a Bible that uses “Nephilim” instead of “giants”. (Whoah, that analogy was obscure.)

My eyes bee-lined to one Earl Grey in particular – Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey. After reading the ingredients, my jaw dropped. It was a Lapsang Souchong variant of the age-old formula. I immediately private messaged Gary to inquire further. By happenstance, he was Vegas-bound in the next month for World Tea Expo. And so was I.

Yes, I had to use this picture again.

Yes, I had to use this picture again.

We encountered each other on the Expo floor, and he ran down the history of the blend. Gary had made a post on the Straight Dope message board about Twinings changing their signature Earl Grey recipe. The conversation did what most dialogues on the Internet did, it gravitated to flights of fancy. One participant – dubbed Mr. Excellent – made passing mention of not liking Earl Grey, rather preferring Lapsang Souchong. However, the idea of a bergamot-laden Lapsang appealed to him.

Gary ran with it. He mentioned to Mr. Excellent that he was going to toy with that very concept. Mr. Excellent added the phrase: “Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey” to a post of approval. And so, it was conceived. Via the Internet.

While certainly not the first to think of a smoky Earl Grey, he wanted to be the first to perfect it. The main problem was finding a balance between the bergamot and the pine-smoked black. When a suitable balance between the flavors was maintained, the blend needed to be cut with the right base. Given that Lapsang is from Fujian province, China, initially, Robson went with a Yunnan Dian Hong as a comparable foundation.

After reaching the right combination of tastes, Gary Robson announced via the same message board that “Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic  Earl Grey” was ready for the masses. Mr. Excellent chimed in with a, “Tea. Earl Grey. Burnt.” And that cascaded into a brief conversation about zombies and their fear of bergamot oil.

Eight months later, Gary commissioned an old college friend of his son’s – Brandon Pope – to create a logo for the blend. The lad came up with this. Gary touched it up with some ghastly font, and it was ready for website whoring.

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I received the blend in July on behalf of Gary Robson’s minions. It came in a bag that could best be described as radioactive. It practically glowed when I put it on my black-corduroyed lap.

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When I opened the bag, what amazed me was how balanced the smell was. Smoke was there in spades, but so was the citrus-sour rind aroma of the bergamot. Both tangoed with each other, rather than tangled in a death match for supremacy. Both shared the aromatic luster with equal aplomb. Like a gentleman’s agreement.

Brewing was simple enough. I treated it like any other Western-style black – 1 tsp. per 8oz. of boiled water, and a three-minute steep. Of course, I did it by the pint.

The taste was a slightly different experience. Pine-smoke clearly took point, followed closely by the citrus. It would seem the gentleman’s agreement could only go so far. Something had to dominate. However, they both wove interchangeably in the middle and trail-off. Balance was still maintained.

IMAG1085A less sophisticated part of me almost wished there was more smoke and more bergamot. If that were the case, though, I don’t think the palate response would’ve been nearly as even. With the balance struck as it was, both smoke and citrus exhibited their strengths – like teamwork against an approaching zombie horde.

Needless to say, this has become one of my go-to teas for on-the-go. I could even give it a neglectful, “forever steep” while taking a shower, and it would still come out perfect. Hearty enough to take whatever fallout I dished it. My next mission: To finally visit Red Lodge Books proper…and acquire this by the pound.

Y’know…for the bunker.

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A Korean Tea Coin and a Firepit

A Korean Tea Coin and a Firepit

A “steep story” by Geoffrey F. Norman

 

Dokk-cha (or “Tteok-cha, as I like to call it) is a type of pressed tea from Korea. If you’ve been following along in my latest exploits, you will recall I made mention of it in my Canadian-Burlington tea-picking adventure. Pedro Villalon of O5 Tea was kind enough to gift me with one of these coins. Learning what to do with it was going to be a challenge.

Dokk Cha

Image Owned by the Cha Dao Blog

I first learned of dokk-cha through the ever-resourceful Gongfu Girl blog. They’d had an experience with some of these tea coins at the Phoenix Tea shop and provided an anecdotal how-to on their preparation. In addition to that, she provided another article posted in Cha Dao (written by Steven Owyoung) about the history of dokk-cha. The word “dokk” is actually an onomonopia referring to both the compression technique used for the tea leaves involved…as well as the sound they make.

Many foodstuffs used to be duly…uh…dokk’d, besides tea leaves. Rice was a common one back in the hither and yon. The making of dokk-cha, unfortunately, fell out of favor during and after the Japanese occupation of South Korea – until recently. Monks, tea farmers, or anyone with a wacky idea have been reviving the age-old technique.

The process for making dokk-cha – unlike other compressed teas like pu-erh – is labor intensive but rather simple. Tea leaves are steamed in an earthenware pot, then taken out once softened. Then they’re given a beating via a mortar and pestle until they become a nice, green paste. Said mulch is then pressed (or dokk’d) into the shape of a coin, or whatever the presser wishes.

The ideal way of brewing a pressed tea coin is to lightly roast it over burning olive pit charcoal. Such specialty charcoal is hard to come by outside of Asia Major, but any ol’ charcoal could be substituted. The roasting takes fifteen minutes, or until the coin is pliable. After that, you place the coin in a pot of water over a stove (on a low simmer), and brew it for three-and-a-half hours.

I didn’t have olive pit charcoal. Or a charcoal stove of any sort. Nor did I have chopsticks, tongs, or whatever else to hold the coin in place. What I did have was a brother…

Who made his own firepit.

FIRE!

Close enough.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have any chopsticks to use as a pair of tongs. However, the substitute suggestion was far better – skewers! I asked him what the skewers were used for prior to fitting the coin on one.

His response was, “Uh…tofurky?”

I left that alone.

Over the course of fifteen minutes, I sat in a chair as my brother added whatever kindling he could to the pit. For a man about to get married, he had quite a bit of wood in the backyard to provide for said cause. Ever the do-it-yourselfer, my brother.

As I waved the coin over the flame, there were a couple of times where I didn’t watch what I was doing. Flame occasionally licked the coin itself. I’d heard that was supposed to be avoided. Once fifteen minutes had passed, I looked at the coin. Part of it was lightly smoking. Oops.

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I took a whiff.

For lack of a better comparison, all I can say is that it smelled like a reefer madness. Roasty, yes. But very cannabis-like. I gave a nervous smile and motioned us over to the second phase – the simmering and long wait. Bro took out a pot, and put the stove on the lowest setting. I plopped the coin in and monitored the progress of the brew every forty-five minutes or so.

On a couple of occasions, I took the lid off the pot to get a good look-‘n-sniff. The water was darkening nicely – a very even, broth-like darkness. The aroma was…hard to describe. At one moment it reminded me of a roasted Dong Ding. On another, later whiff it resembled a Ti Kwan Yin. Very peculiar.

Almost ready

In the interim, my brother and his fiancée were entertaining guests. I tried to stay out of their way as my experiment manifested. They did, however, coax me out of hiding with a sweet potato veggie burger and gelato. I can never say “no” to gelato.

At the three-and-a-half-hour mark, I turned off the simmer, and – with my brother’s permission – poured the soup-like liquor into his French press. The liquor was very shou pu-erh-like in appearance, but the aroma reminded me of a very ancient Taiwanese oolong.

French press

The entire time, my brother kept the firepit stoked. We all gathered around it – them with their beers and juices, and me with my unusual tea. I sipped it gingerly. That aged oolong comparison? Even more accurate in the flavor. This tasted like a tea decades beyond its years – medicinal, kinda floral, mildly roasty, and with maybe a hint of fruit. Somewhere.

Cheers!

Did I do the process correctly? Did it taste like how it was supposed to? Heck if I know.

As my brother said, “It’s good…but not three-hours good.”

I flatly disagreed. I felt like a fisherman, and the flames of the firepit were my sea. And all I had for bait was a very unusual tea.

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Tea and a Tea Garden

One might recall – if they actually read this blog – that I made an impromptu trip to Eugene, Oregon…for a beer. An oolong beer, to be precise. While there, I also stopped by the shop that provided the oolong – J-Tea International. It’s a great little shop situated in the ‘burbs run by Josh (the titular “J” in the name) Chamberlain. While I was there, I was treated to an experiment of his, a black tea made from leaves grown in Oregon. An outfit called Minto Island Growers, in the state’s capital of Salem, had a half-acre plot of garden set aside for tea bushes.

The tea in question was exquisite, very much like a Taiwanese Ruby 18 only – well – ‘Merica.  Deep, medium-bodied and slightly fruity. Color me shocked several months later when I saw a photo of Josh shoveling a bunch of black tea out of a cooker.

Josh and his tea pile

Josh and his tea pile.

More Minto Island black, to be clear. I salivated on my keyboard. Apparently, this time ‘round, he’d acquired enough leaf to make a product out of it. Well, of course, I was going to buy a tea grown in Oregon! And buy I did. On my phone. As I was stepping out of a fast food joint.

It arrived a week later, and I paid it as much fanfare as one could a new baby or puppy. Y’know, skipping, dancing, hooting and hollering; things a thirtysomething-year-old man shouldn’t do unless he intended to scare children. I tore open the bag to get a good whiff. By sight and smell, I could tell this was already going to be a different beast than the Minto Island Black Mark-1. Instead of a Ruby-ish smell, this resembled…maple? Very wildernessy.

When I brewed 2 teaspoons of leaves per pint of boiled water for five minutes, I was shocked by how light it was in color. That said, it still tasted damn good. Instead of a solid Ruby through-and-through, this was more…Li Shan black by way of a Nuwara Eliya Ceylon. High-altitude in character, floral on taste, with trickles of fruit notes interspersed throughout the flavorful experience.

Oregon-brewed

I finally read the description on the J-Tea site and found out why it was so different. The leaves were first flush. Not sure what the Mark-1 leaves were, but my gut tells me they were later. This did have first flush written all over it in both appearance and appetite. Light but with a kick. By sheer negligence, I also learned it could take a punishment of ten minutes or more with barely a tannic tickle.

However, a part of me kept egging me on, insisting that my experience with this tea was far from over. I’d had an urge to visit Minto Island Growers’ tea plot for over a year. If my experience at Sakuma Bros. had done anything, it was to instill a sense of, “Just f**kin’ do it!” And so I did it.

Minto Island Growers

I e-mailed Elizabeth and Chris Jenkins to see if I could stop by and photograph the tea bushes for my blog. Elizabeth responded promptly, gave her consent, and followed that up with directions. The day I was to leave, I hadn’t intended to bring anything, but a last minute thought entered my brain: Brew a pint of Minto Island black and bring it with you!

I’m a “jeenyus”.

The trek was made that Wednesday. And, naturally, I got horribly lost before finding it. I found the Minto Island Growers market stand, and – by chance – got to meet Elizabeth. She pointed me in the right direction again, and – within a minute or two – I was standing in a tea garden again. A mere week after being one in Burlington.

I took my pint of Minto Island black with me. When I was about at the center of the garden, I began swigging. No words can describe what it feels like to drink a tea in the middle of the garden it came from. I could try, but my mere words would only act as a tribute. I now know how tea gardeners must feel.

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Steepless in Seattle; Tea Drunk in Burien

Prior to making the trip up to Burlington, I made secondary arrangements for the day after. It was never my plan to head directly home after the tea-pick-a-thon, but rather to bum around parts of Seattle. And by that, I should specify that my idea of bumming around involves drinking tea for four-plus hours. I had no desire to journey into Seattle proper. So, I intended to stick to a town I was comfortable with based upon my last trip out.

Burien.

The Phoenix Tea Shop was started by fellow tea bloggers Cinnabar GongFu (of “Gongfu Girl” fame) and Brett Boynton (“Black Dragon Tea Bar”), respectively. I’d visited the shop one other time with PDX Tea Dave – two years ago – and left completely wired on Korean greens. It was my goal to get equally tea drunk on various other things this time ‘round. I had roughly four hours to kill, and gave the two owners ample warning that I planned on loitering for that long.

phoenix-tea-storefront

Cinnabar was the one manning the station that day, and she gave me the affirmative. With the added stipulation that she intended to get me tea drunk. I’ve used the term “tea drunk” twice now; perhaps I should explain what that means. Yes, it really is a thing. Unlike with coffee – where you’d get exceedingly wired then sick if overdosed – having tea gradually throughout the day imparts an odd sort of euphoria. It’s hard to explain, and I can’t claim this as scientific proof. All I have is anecdotal evidence based upon the times I’ve hopped around on various cuppas.

The hostess first whipped out a Taiwanese black dubbed “Meishan Hong Cha” – named for the mountain from where it was picked. I thought I knew what to expect from a Taiwanese black, but this…whoah. It was oddly floral and sorta minty. Not at all like an Ali Shan black I’d tried, or the much-touted Ruby 18. At the same time, it was also…burly. Like a massage by a grizzly bear.

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Next on the docket were two other offerings from Taiwan – this time a tasting comparison between a Spring-plucked Li Shan oolong and a Winter. Li Shan was my second favorite mountain in Taiwan; Ali Shan still reigns supreme by a hair. While both did have the same heathery, floral character, there was a lot more going on with the Winter Li Shan. Not sure how best to describe it – details are fuzzy – but it was richer, more poetic somehow in the mouthfeel, if that makes sense.

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After that bit of high-altitude high-brow-ness, I decided to finally try one of their custom blends. I’d seen the tins for Cinnabar’s own concoction “Thyme Machine” before – a steampunk-inspired fusion of Keemun, Nilgiri and (of course) thyme. It was reminiscent of a masala chai on smell and taste, but noticeably calmer on the palate. I didn’t find that the thyme dominated, rather it let the tea base come through every once in a while. Was this enough to make me don goggles and a top hat…er, no. But I would gladly drink it again.

There were two other teas I tried in the interim…but I’m saving those for something “Beastly” in the coming weeks. Stay tuned. Yes, I’m a tease.

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After two-plus hours of tea-ing, I realized, Oh yeah, I need food. Cinnabar recommended a taqueria place just cattycorner to the shop. There, I ran into my first batch of fried ice cream. Exquisitely debauch would be an understatement . Moving along.

The final bit of awesome Cinnabar had to impart from the Phoenix archives was a zhuan cha…but not just any ol’ “brick tea”. This stuff was made of compressed yellow tea. I was a little worried when she mentioned that it was made of the Jun Shan Yinzhen type. But that fear quickly subsided when I tried it. Unlike any yellow tea I’d encountered. Calling it such might be doing it a disservice. Taste-wise, it came across like a Bai Mu Dan by way of an oolong. Very strange but stupendous.

Once that share was consumed, she finally me she had to kick me out. (“You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”) Politely, of course. I made a few purchases while I was at it, going only “slightly” over my allocated tea budget. When I settled out, she pointed me in the direction of a brewery where I was supposed to meet up with my old World Tea Expo compatriot, Lady Earl Steeper. Not that I needed it…I was “drunk” enough already.

But okay to drive.

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A “steep story” by Geoffrey F. Norman

Picking American Tea with Canadians

I kept putting off a trip to the Sakuma Bros. farm for many reasons. All of those excuses revolved around money, time and/or time for money. However, as a good li’l tea geek, I’d been doing myself a disservice by not going. After all, it was the only operating tea grower/seller in the Pacific Northwest. Well, the only one that’s been at it for a while, anyway.

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Photo by Ali Lambert

Even after meeting Richard Sakuma (the man behind the tea) at two different conventions, I still kept putting a trip further north off. That all changed in the last week of July. Reason: Canadians.

If you’ve never heard of the O5 Tea Bar in Vancouver, B.C., you probably should look ‘em up. Especially if you’re a frequenter of this blog. Their mission statement is akin to mine: To explore strange new teas. They first came to my attention via Twitter. The first thing I noticed was that they carried Korean oolong. The second thing I noticed was a wine cask-aged Nepalese black. I bought both. That tells you all you need to know about them.

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Pedro!
Photo by Ali Lambert

The outfit was the brainchild of Pedro Villalon and Brian Noble. Aside from owning and running the tea bar, which has been in business for a year now, they also visited the countries they sourced from. One such location was South Korea, and one of the weird teas they brought back was Tteok-cha. I’ll get back to that. Anywhoozle…

Pedro sent out a request on the O5 Tea Facebook page looking for volunteer tea-pickers. They were heading southward to a tea garden to pick some leaves for experimentation. Naturally, I zapped off an e-mail to Pedro, inquiring about the garden they were picking from. I only knew of two within spitting distance of Vancouver. Pedro replied with, “Burlington.”

My mind whirred. Sakuma!

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Richard Sakuma.
Photo by Ali Lambert

I told him I’d be happy to volunteer, and that I had a standing invitation to the Sakuma Tea area from Richard. Two birds; one stone. Pedro kindly put me on the list of tag-alongs. Friends James and Allison in Seattle were kind enough to agree to put me up for two days so I could make the long trek to Skagit Valley.

Around 9AM on July 24th, I arrived in the beautiful farm country that was the surrounding area of Burlington. So enamored was I by the entire trip, I’d forgotten two things: To eat, and to tea. I made a stop-thru to a McDonald’s, “caffeinated” with some of their overly-pungent sweet tea, and scarfed down to Egg McMuffins. After that, in true “me”-like fashion, I showed up to the tea garden behind the Sakuma Market Stand…twenty minutes late.

I made the acquaintance of Pedro and Brian, Richard Sakuma again, and the eclectic mix of “Canadians” that volunteered for the jaunt. I say that with very bold air-quotes. Of the cosmopolitan group, there was one Mexican (Pedro) – actually, make that two Mexicans, technically –  one San Diegan, one of Irish descent, an Englishman, and a Dutchswedezerlander…heck, I can’t remember. Point being: Yes, they were Vancouverites now, but they were a far-flung enough group that I didn’t feel too out of place in my…uh…’Merican-ness.

On the field, I’ll be honest, I was a lousy tea-picker. On top of having a mean case of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome – thanks to a hard shift at my “day job” prior to the trip – I was also often distracted with asking people questions. Pedro and Richard kindly obliged me and my constant brain-picking. The results of my labors speak for themselves.

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Photo by Ali Lambert

For comparison’s sake:

 

The bucket on the left was mine; the one on the right was someone else’s. Yeah. I have no talent for this.

Once the tea leaf picking phase was done, it was on to Round 2 – making Tteok-cha (or dokk cha) coins. See? I told you I’d get back to that. One of the primary reasons Pedro-‘n-Brian came down to Sakuma was to make tea coins using Northwestern leaves for a truly North American batch. The process was deceptive in its simplicity.

First, they steamed the leaves. Then they took a mortar and pestle and ground the leaves into a paste. After that, the paste was rolled into a ball, put in a plastic film, and stamped flat with a coffee presser-thingy until it was in the shape of a coin. That was it. I was mostly-useless during this phase, so I stood aside and watched others make Tteok-cha magic.

Photo by Ali Lambert

Other leaves after steaming were put through a bit of rolling punishment, Taiwanese-style, for what was to be…

Round 3 was a “cooking” phase of sorts. I have no other way of interpreting it. Richard Sakuma kindly provided a wok to Team O5 for curing and drying the leaves. It was a simple matter of putting leaves in the wok, which was in-turn over a burner. Then they sorted and separated them as they tumbled.

As this was going, I swear the aroma that filled the air smelled like Ali Shan oolong. It was beyond exquisite. Once two baking phases were complete, the leaves were put on mesh sorting mats to dry. The entire tent smelled like the cliffside of a Taiwanese mountain. I would’ve eaten the leaves straight off the mesh if my impulse control were any poorer.

Photo by Ali Lambert

We called it quits once all the leaves were settled. Pedro and Brian told Richard they’d be back the next day to collect their wares. The rest of the volunteer party were northward bound. Me? I could’ve done this for weeks on end. I would’ve been horrible at it, but I would’ve loved every minute of it. Good company helps.

Final thoughts:

(1)    Burlington, or someplace like it, is where I want to die. In a rocking chair.

(2)    Canadians are as nice as the stereotypes will lead you to believe. Seriously, they put up with me for eight hours.

(3)    There’s nothing more fulfilling than picking your own tea.

Because…

‘Merica.

Oh, and ‘Nada, too.

Photo by Ali Lambert

In Memory of Ali Lambert.

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