Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Month: October 2014

With Open Eyes

While it has never been expressly stated, it’s common knowledge that I don’t usually write about tea blends. If and when I do, it’s usually if they have a story behind them. About a year ago, Stacy Lim of Butiki Teas had urged me to try some of theirs, but I was hesitant. Then she explained the story about one such blend.

I was hooked.

Back in December of 2012, Stacy was contacted by Sally Taylor – the daughter of James Taylor and Carly Simon. She proposed that a tea blend be donated to a rather ambitious artistic project. The venture was called Consenses. Its goal was to gather 130 artists from several different mediums and have them build upon each others inspiration with new creations. Think of a weird amalgamation of “Pay It Forward” and a game of “Telephone”. One artist would come up with one piece, another (perhaps a writer) would follow that up with a piece inspired by the prior. Rinse and repeat.

Butiki Teas contributing branch was thus:

She was tasked with coming up with a blend inspired by a painting featuring two creatures. Even more daunting than that? The one following her up – doing a story based on her blend – was Wes Craven.

Yes, that Wes Craven.

To top it all off, she only had a week to prepare it. Blending the right ingredients usually took months of trials. After a few attempts, she had come up with a combination – Long Jing (representing past expectations), strawberries (symbolizing new beginnings) and butter toffee (for hope). Ginger rounded out the blend, I guess, for sass. The blend was dubbed “With Open Eyes”.

The result was a not-too-pungent bouquet of green and bold red with an aroma of berries and wine. At least, that’s what I thought. The problem with using any sort of berry for a tea blend – strawberry or otherwise – is that dried fruits don’t really contribute much flavor. They contribute some, but not enough to be noticeable.

Flavoring is required to create a bolder profile. Luckily, the natural flavoring used for this blend was vegan-sourced. It was the one time I was happy to see the word “vegan” in anything. Reason being, some natural flavorings come from rather…uh…disgusting sources. Case in point, some strawberry flavorings comes from the anal glands of this poor li’l bastard.

That’s right, if you have something with strawberry flavoring, and it’s not vegan…you’re probably ingesting beaver butts. You’re welcome.

Relief aside, the blend smelled wonderful, and I was happy to see that the green tea base used was Long Jing. Not a cheap tea to use. For brewing, I went with the recommendation on the sample bag: 1 teaspoon in 8oz. of 180F heated water. Steep time – two minutes, thirty seconds.

The result was a light green liquor with a pleasant aroma of berries and cream. Ginger was nowhere to be found in the aromatics, but that was alright. In all likelihood, it was roundhouse-kicked by the toffee. I was okay with that.

As for taste, well, it did exactly as promised. Long Jing’s winy notes took point, followed closely by a strawberry-rich middle, and a creamy finish. It did taste like new beginnings.

In August of 2014, the Consenses gallery finally opened up in Martha’s Vineyard.

Butiki’s blend was front and center, next to the other pieces in its artistic branch. The Wes Craven story it inspired was called “The Man Who Vanished”. I hope to someday encounter it.

I had received the blend to try back in April of 2014. Butiki Teas announced they were closing their virtual doors in October of that same year. I didn’t dip into “With Open Eyes” until later that same month. By then, it had completely sold out, which wasn’t a surprise to me. I just wish I had told this story sooner.

In any case, I raise a toast to the Butiki family, to all they’ve done for the tea community at large, and the stories they’ve left behind. May they greet their new beginnings with open eyes…

…And without beaver butts.

Feeling the Universe’s Misty Peaks

Ever hear the one about the young American wanderer who traveled Asia in search of meaning? Okay, that sounds like a lot of people. But this story has a twist. There was this guy who gallivanted about from place to place – from India to study with Yogis, to learning meditation further Eastward. The journey took the young man to Yiwu Mountain, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province, China – the supposed birthplace of tea, and one of the main stops on the ancient “Tea Horse Road”.

He read somewhere that there was a man, who knew a little bit of English, that could teach him about pu-erh tea practices. However, he had difficulty finding the place. After several attempts of asking for directions, he found a local – around his age – drinking tea by himself. Following a brief conversation, the tea drinker pointed the American to the right path.

Once at the top of a hill, the American was greeted by a large dog, one that was not too fond of his presence. Dejected, he turned back around and encountered the tea drinker again. He led the American to his family farm, and both spent the better part of twelve hours drinking his autumn harvest.

Bin dude

And before the American knew it, years had passed.

The American in this tale was Nicholas Lozito; the tea drinker on the side of the road was the inheritor of the Bin family tea garden. And that years-long friendship led Nicholas to form Misty Peak Teas – a farm direct online sheng pu-erh distributor.

I first encountered Nicholas at the Tealet potluck back in August. Before making his acquaintance, I had read their profile on the Bin family, but I’d completely spaced that their distributor was located in Portland. Some childlike pleading at the party led me to acquire one of the family’s 2014 Rolled Pu-Erhs.

I fondly referred to them as “pu-erh balls”.

They were awesome. And, when brewed, they were out of this world.

For a pu-erh so young, there was a fruit note to the taste. Usually, that flavor profile didn’t set in until a few years of aging had passed. I needed more.

Nicholas had left a standing invite to have tea at his place. Although a month would pass before I could swing it, I finally took him up on that offer. On some random weekday, I sat with him at his awesome tea table!!!

And we drank.

A lot.

He guided me through the Bin family offerings gradually. The family had been at the tea game for several generations. The youngest learned from his father, who in turn learned from his father…and so on and so forth. Tea trees on the Bin family farm were at least 500 years old.

We first starting with the 2013 harvest, then the 2012, and on through to the 2010. With each preceding year, the flavor deepened, matured, and took on characteristics of wine and sweet bread. They were already on par with the best Nan Nuo Mountain pu-erhs I coveted close to my man-breast. But the real treat was yet to come…

Good and caffeinated as I was, apparently we weren’t done yet. Before I could even blink, Nicholas brought out something very rare. It was a large (and very weighty) zhuan cha from 1998. Only two were known to exist, and the second sold at auction in Hong Kong for thousands of dollars. It smelled like date sugar. In all my years, I had never encountered straight tea leaves – compressed or not, aged or not – that smelled like straight sweetness.

Chiseling a chunk off, Nicholas brewed it up. The flavor matched the fragrance…and transcended it. The sensation went beyond flavor. One or two sips in, and I was on another plane. Plane of existence? 747? Hell if I know. All I remember is how it felt. There aren’t many teas that deliver that kind of experience. Scratch that…this was the first to do something this oddly profound.

And yet we still weren’t done.

The capper to the evening was tea leaves put in a pot of water. Difference was, this pot was only half full – a concentrate level – and it was set to a continuous boil.

Nicholas had asked me if I had done something like this, prepared a pu-erh concentrate almost-Russian-style and drank it. I meekly admitted that I hadn’t. Keep in mind, I was already well into tea drunk at this point; feeling the Universe and s**t.

By cup two of the rolling boil stuff, I wasn’t just feeling the Universe…I was downright groping it. There is tea drunk, and then there’s tea stoned. I felt like a Buddhist on a bender.

We parted ways after about two hours. It seriously felt like longer, but in the best possible way. As I drove home, I listened to Philosophy Talk on NPR. When I went to bed, I did so feeling one of the best buzzes of my life.

It was like I could feel my brain cells hugging each other. What’s weirder is that I woke up with that feeling. I went to work that morning the calmest I’d ever been. All that from a bunch of leaves given to an American wanderer, who talked to a tea drinker on the side of the road. And in turn, he offered it to a mouthy blogger.

The Universe is nifty.

Mid-Afternoons with a Matcha Maven

This story began – as many of them do – back in June, at World Tea Expo. I was pal-ing around with Nicole (Tea For Me Please) Martin, when she stopped in mid-stride. She insisted I make the acquaintance of a young woman.

Said lady-person was Lauren Danson, the proprietor of an online matcha store dubbed Mizuba Tea Company. Nicole mentioned Lauren was moving out to Portland. The matcha maven confirmed this, yet she looked to be in a hurry. We agreed to touch bases once she was Oregon-bound.

The reason for her move northward? To be with her then-boyfriend/now-fiance – a coffee roaster/organic bread baker/part-time wine bartender. A matcha seller and a roaster-baker-bartender…this couple couldn’t have been more “Portland” if they tried.

Lauren informed me she was stopping off in Portland later that month, and the couple and I agreed to meet up. Over beer. Teabeer to be precise. Lapsang Souchong Porter to be even more precise…because…reasons.

Lapsang Porter

They were wonderful company, and put up with my semi-alcohol-and-expletive-fueled tangents. Before parting ways, Lauren and I set up a tentative matcha demonstration for August-ish. Just as soon as she was fully a Portlandian.

Alas, life happened. I was busy with…um…well, nothing really. She didn’t have much going on, either. Well, except for that whole engagement thing. No big deal.

However, in the middle of September, we agreed on a Saturday for sampling her wares.

matcha prep

I was particularly eager to try them because I had a – dare I say – unhealthy obsession with matcha from the Uji region. And she sourced her matcha from only two farmers in Uji. Liking them was not going to be a problem. Keeping my face from permanently sticking to the matcha bowl; that would prove challenging.

That Saturday, Lauren greeted me with a beaming and disarming smile. Seriously, if she were a hitwoman, she’d get away with murder. Like…all the murders.

First up, she served – what she dubbed – her Daily Matcha.

daily

Just as the taster notes described it was straight cream and froth on the tongue with a touch of grassiness on the back-end. Oooooh yes, this was my Uji. Oh, how I missed thee. While considered her lower-end (but not culinary grade) matcha, I couldn’t tell that from taste. It was just as good (if not better) than some of the high-end Nishio matchas I’ve tried.

Second was her next-level ceremonial stuff, the Hibiki Organic.

hibiki

Instead of serving it in a chawan (matcha bowl), Lauren insisted I prepare it…in a mason jar. I approved of everything about this approach. Instead of needing a whisk, a bowl, a kimono, and/or a newly-minted geisha, all one needed were a mason jar and a healthy handshake.

It floored me. Aside from the requisite notes of kelp, grass and bliss, there was also something akin to macadamias. Well, that is, if macadamias were dipped in vegetarian awesome sauce. I had some difficulty recovering, and my face – as I feared – was glued to the mason jar like a horse trough.

However, we still had one more to go – the really high-end ceremonial matcha – the Kichoen.

kichoen

The smell of the powder was whiff-for-whiff like dark chocolate, and when whisked, there were layers of taste to peel away with my brain. I don’t even have words in English or Japanese to describe it. My mouth ballooned with Zen and belched Bushido bliss.

Of the three sampled, Hibiki was more my speed, which is – as I’ve established before…a really tricked-out moped. The Daily was a reliable and fairly fancy car; Kichoen was a friggin’ spaceship.

As a capper for the afternoon, Lauren even dished out some of the base material matcha powder stemmed from – gyokuro’s prettier sister, tencha.

tencha

I’d wanted to try that green tea for years, but finding it always eluded me. Until that day. Another “Tea WANT!” notched off.

Before I knew it, two hours had elapsed. Eventually, I rousted myself from the balcony bench, bid my farewells, and left with a pretty significant froth-buzz. Portland is a weird, coincidental place.

But if it keeps throwing farm-direct tea vendors in my path…I’ll cope.

Lauren

From Red Lodge Books to Odin’s Armpits

Toward the end of August, my mother asked for my aid in helping her drive from Wyoming to Oregon. One can hardly turn down such a request from their mother, but I added one condition. I would gladly assist…just as long as we made a stop through Red Lodge, Montana. The small town was a mere hour away from where we were staying, and I had a particularly personal reason to go. Tea Expo friends of mine ran a bookstore/tea bar.

I emphasized to her that this was mandatory.

I had encountered the Family Robson at World Tea Expo back in June, but I had yet to behold the place they called “work”. I’d seen some photos, heard them regale their experiences in quixotic anecdotes, and I wanted to experience it firsthand. I informed their kilted patriarch, Gary Robson, to prepare for my coming. And he said he “might consider wearing pants”. (Spoiler alert: He didn’t.)

I flew into Billings that morning, and Mum picked me up in short order. By around noon, we had arrived in Red Lodge. Finding the downtown area wasn’t hard. The town, maybe, had two major roads.

The bookstore was…well…

Bookstore

PERFECT!

The moment you walked in, it was like going down a dungeon made of books. I made my presence known to Gary, who was working the counter – kilted, of course. I asked him where the tea bar was, and he directed me to the back.

At the end of the tunnel o’ books was the tea bar.

Tea Bar

Mum and I grabbed seats, and I made my presence known to Gary’s son, Doug, who was manning the bar. He was zipping back and forth like a plaid-shirted squirrel, handling three or four requests at a time, and somehow finding time to acknowledge my presence with a, “Good you came now; you missed the rush.”

I’ve always said I would like to work at a tea bar, but there was no way I could do it with as much deftness as Doug. The dude was a machine. Albeit a (possibly) very caffeinated machine.

Doug

After Mum ordered her Earl Grey standby, I inquired about the Darjeeling Bai Hao oolong they carried. Doug informed me that there was maybe a cup’s-worth left. I nabbed it.

I’ll be damned if it didn’t taste like the Taiwanese Oriental Beauty style it was trying to ape. Same honey-sweet taste and creepily creamy texture. Very little muscatel intruded upon that.

Darjeeling Bai Hao

After that, I simply sipped and observed. Gary and Doug’s banter was half the reason I came. The other half? Tea, of course.

Case in point:

Gary: (to me) “Oh, you need to try my masala chai.”

Doug: “No, that’s my masala chai.”

Gary: “They’re my ingredients.”

Doug: “…Which I blended.”

Gary: (to me) “We tried to build up his confidence, but I think we overcompensated.”

It went on for a good hour like that, and I couldn’t have been happier.

Alas, all good things had to come to an end. We were on a bit of a deadline, and we said our farewells. Before I left, though, I made it a point to pick up a stash of a few things. Included among them was a blend dubbed “Odin’s Armpits”.

The blend was of Doug’s devising, but Gary named it – Lapsang Souchong, cinnamon, safflower and lily petals. It smelled wonderful, but I didn’t dig into it until a good few days later back in Oregon.

Odin's Armpits

I never would’ve thought cinnamon and smoke would work so well together, but – hooo-boy – does it! It’s like putting your head in a fireplace for breakfast. A perfect wake-up tea. Given Gary’s prowess with Lapsang and Earl Grey, I wasn’t too surprised Robson the Younger could handle such a blend.

I hope to see them, and their tea plant again someday soon.

Pants optional.

Father 'n Son

A Tealet Potluck

Back in August…What? Yes, I’m still on August. There’s a backlog of blogs to get through. Quit yer whinin’, I have to do these in order!

Ahem…

Back in August a local tea event came to my attention. Local tea events never come to my attention. It may come as a surprise (or not), but I do very little tea-related socializing in my neck of the woods. One could even consider me Portland’s most uncharacteristically vocal tea hermit. Heck, I may even want to put that on a “tea”-shirt.

That isn’t to say I don’t know of local tea folks. I’ve even met a few. Nearly all of them are extremely nice, and sometimes I even get invited to things they host. Case in point…

Team Tealet announced back in July that they were snaking their way up the Pacific Northwest, and that Portland was one of their intended stops. Their green-braided tea fairy, Elyse, informed me personally of this, and mere moments after, I received an invite to a tea-tasting/meet-and-greet.

Marilyn “Delights of the Heart” Miller offered her…well…delightful backyard for the event.

Potluck Proper

Photo credit: Delights of the Heart, blog

I was the first one there. Tealet brought many teas for the sampling – offerings from little-known gardens in Nepal, Assam, and even some new biodynamic Nilgiri. I’ll get back to that.

Tealet’s own “Oolong City” Rie did the pouring, co-founder Mike did the schmoozing, while Elyse elaborated upon their paradigm shift of a business model. I’d heard the spiel at World Tea Expo, but Elyse’s command of a crowd was always a sight to behold. Must’ve been the green braids. Had to be.

Tealet

But, Almighty Writer, you ask, what about the teas?

Fear not, fellow reader(s?), I’m getting to that.

Of the many teas featured, all were wonderful. No, that’s not a cop-out answer; simply the truth. However, the most memorable teas came from Teaneer’s Vijayalakshmi garden in Nilgiri, India. I’ve talked about Teaneer before. Roughly a half a year ago, I had the pleasure of trying some of their greens, whites, and even a yellow tea of peculiar design. This time? My tea drunk tongue was treated to a Nilgiri take on a sheng pu-erh.

I’ll let that idea sink in for a moment.

Granted, a tea can’t be considered a “pu-erh” unless it’s been (a) fermented, and (b) hails from Yunnan Province, China. It doesn’t even meet the basic qualifications of the blanket category – Hei Cha (Dark Tea) – unless some amount of microbial change has occurred due to aging. Well…I’ll be damned if this didn’t taste like it qualified.

Teaneer

While the Nilgiri terroir was present on taste, everything else about it reminded me of a raw pu-erh – wilderness-y, earthy, with a developing sensation of wine. If that ain’t a heicha, I don’t know what is. I think I went in for at least two cups of the stuff.

Unique as that was, it didn’t even compare to Teaneer’s flagship black tea, which was just…so much wonderfulness. Easily the best Nilgiri black tea I’ve ever had. I one time noted that Teaneer still hadn’t reached its full potential, yet. Well, I’d like to officially amend that statement. With a declarative “YUM!”

Just like with a good microbrewery, I was the first one there, and the last one to leave. It was good catching up with some of the local folks, and even better seeing Team Tealet in their element. I also accomplished a secondary goal of networking a little bit. (Who knew?!)

I should probably get out of the house more often.

As long as the tea is good…and I get to have all of it.

Tea Aftermath

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