Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Month: March 2015

A Saturday Evening with Friday Afternoon

It was a Saturday, as the title suggests. Saturday, March 21, to be precise. It was a really shitty Saturday, in other words.

The work shift was going frustratingly poorly. My student loan sharks announced they were tripling my monthly payment. And finally . . . a panic attack was looming. Not sure how that got there.

Amidst the chaos, I received a text from Misty Peak Teas’ Nick, informing me that there was a package waiting for me at Tea Bar. I kind of knew what it was, but it gave me something to look forward to. After the work shift, I made the trip out to NE Portland, sat myself at the bar like a regular, and ordered a Lapsang latte. My usual.

The barista handed off said Misty Peak mystery package. It was a giant bag of sheng pu-erh. That created an instant “happy”.

Misty Peak Teas

As I was about to nurse my latte, mood improved, I received a Facebook message. It was from someone I rarely heard from, a dude from my gaming circles. For those who haven’t figured it out, yet, I’m a bit of a geek. Occasionally, I’m easily roped into roleplaying and board game events. However, I’m what you would call a “casual”, at best. But I digress . . .

Said dude chimed in with, “Friday Afternoon Tea wants to meet you personally. She is at Gamestorm.”

My first thought was, “What’s a Gamestorm?”

He informed me that there was a gaming convention happening in Vancouver, WA. I knew of Friday Afternoon. I reviewed several of their teas when I still contributed to Teaviews. I remembered being particularly fond of their Snow Day blend.

I said to my gaming pal, “I can be there in twenty.”

It was the truth, I was in N.E. Portland, a mere skip across the river to Vancouver. He was a bit surprised at my impromptu decision, and so was I. But why not?! Up until now, my day had been shite. A little adventure wouldn’t hurt. (Much.) So, off I went to a gaming convention, to meet a tea blender op I’d never seen before.

When I got there, said friend met me at the front and directed me back to the vendor room. Toward the back was a woman with multicolored hair, decked out various pieces of geek flare (including Pac-Man earrings), chatting with other patrons. She was like a cross between Tank Girl, Kate Winslet a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Pinki-Pie.

Pinkie Pie

In a word, “Adorkable”.

She was the patroness of Friday Afternoon Tea, and her actual name . . . was Friday. I was not expecting that, at all. Apparently, sci-fi conventions, gaming events and other geek ephemera were her bread-and-butter; the demographic she catered to. That and her blends reflected this. She had blends themed after Harry Potter, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and so on.

We got along fine.

I arrived just as she was closing up her booth for the day. She easily suckered me into buying a blend dubbed, “Setting Things on Fire” – one of her “Cylons for Breakfast” line of teas. It was a fusion of cooked pu-erh, Ceylon, and Assam – with a little bit of Lapsang Souchong sprinkled in for good measure. It smelled divine, had a kickass name . . . sold, to the gentleman with poor impulse control.

Friday Afternoon

We talked about various things under the geek umbrella, as we walked her daughter – dubbed TeaGirl – to the video gaming room. Before I knew it, two hours had passed. Not quite sure how that happened. She and her young ‘un called it a night, and I (somehow) got roped into a LAN game of Artemis with various other friends of mine at the con.

Before she left, though, she said, “You do know we’re best friends now, right?”

I was too befuddled to answer eloquently.

The next day, I broke in a mug of Setting Things on Fire. (That sentence sounded far less silly in my head.)

Setting Things on Fire, Loose

This was an incredibly even blend. What I mean by that is, all the elements fused well together. They all seemed as if they belonged together. The smaller cut Ceylon and Assam leaf pieces worked well with the more spindly pu-erh strands. The color palette ranged from tippy beige to chocolate brown. Nothing seemed out of place.

That even-ness carried over in the scent – strong contributions of malt, earth, smoke and . . . something fruity that I couldn’t quite place. Maybe I mistook the floral bend of the Ceylon for fruit. Stranger things have happened.

For brewing, I went with a typical black tea approach – 1 tablespoon of leaves for a 12oz. cup, steeped for four minutes in boiling water. Usually, I do three, but for something called “Setting Things on Fire”, I thought an extra minute would be fine.

Setting Things on Fire Brewed

The liquor brewed cedar brown with an alternating burly and sweet aroma. Crimson lined the edge of the soup, while it transitioned into a pool of dark brown. As even a transition in color as I would expect from such a blend. What shocked me was the taste. Contrary to the burly bits in the blend, this was a deceptively smooth operator, starting off with a floral front, ushering in a hint of malt, segueing (or even Segwaying) in a dash of smoke, and ending with a sensation of napping on a forest floor. Very deceptive . . . like a Cylon.

The weekend went from shit to shine.

The Passing of a Tea Shaman

In 2009, I met an extraordinary man. A legend, really.

smith

He had just opened his newest operation, Steven Smith Teamaker – aptly named after himself. He had reason for such bravado, having co-founded two of the largest tea companies ever. Stash Tea Company and Tazo (pre-Starbucks) were his brainchildren. The man had earned his stripes. And with Smith Tea, he hoped to bring the simple touch of small batch blending back to the forefront.

And – hoo-boy – did he?!

With his wife, Kim DeMent, and a dedicated team, Smith became a recognizable and reliable brand for quality. Much like the man himself. When I first met him, he presided over a tea tasting when I brought friends to the new brick-‘n-mortar Smith HQ. He was humble, humorous, and had the best head of hair of any teaman I’d met, yet.

At the time, my tea discovery was still in its infancy. But as my knowledge grew, I found myself returning to the shop time and again. On a few occasions, as I sat there minding my own business, nursing a pot, he would find time to sit with me and talk. He even let me in on some of the secrets a-brewin’ in their Wonka-esque workshop.

smith hq

A particular favorite of mine was their range of barrel-aged teas. I was one of the first to sample their Methode Noir – a pinot barrel-aged black – as well as one of the first purchasers of their bourbon Assam. Naturally, I wrote about both.

If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think my odd and tangential tea journey would’ve progressed the way it did. I don’t think he was fully aware of this, but he was the reason I started honing my research regarding tea estates and gardens.

I guess one could say if it weren’t for him, his shop, the tea philosophy he cultivated, Steep Stories wouldn’t be what it is today. To date, I think I’ve done more blogs on Smith Tea than I have any other outfit. And there’s a reason for that. Or at least, there was.

On Monday, March 23rd, 2015, Steve Smith succumbed to liver cancer. I found the news out secondhand through a former employee of the company. Naturally, I was shocked. Mouth agape-type shocked, even. My gut reaction, though, was to brew something – anything. Then it occurred to me . . .

I still had some rum barrel-aged white tea Team Smith had produced.

loose

Months back, I negotiated my way to a sample of the stuff, but I never dipped into it. What better time than this? I broke out the Bai Mu Dan leaves, and gave ‘em a good whiff. The aroma was sweet, slightly forest-like, and possessing an undercurrent of – well – rum. Six months of aging will do that to a tea.

The liquor brewed light yellow, giving off a sweet, humble aroma. On sip, it was soft, equally sweet and lingering. Probably the most poetic of the barrel-aged teas they’d released to date. It was the perfect tea to have as a memory to a modern shaman

Every Tuesday, I do cheesy tea haikus. Steve, this haiku’s for you.

haiku

Rest in teas, o’ Peppermint Prince.

Per the Oregonian article on Steve’s passing, his family suggests that those who wish to honor him donate to Mercy Corps’ School Education Retention Program, which aims to help students finish high school in Assam, India.

Russian Green Tea Roulette

Full circle, man.

circle

Let me explain.

About a year and a half ago, I did a write-up on Russian grown tea, specifically a black tea from the Krasnodarskiy brand. My verdict was, “Eh.” However, I didn’t disregard the Dagomys region of Krasnodar completely. According to some sources, the tea gardens in the region were stepping up their quality. Part of that was because of last year’s Winter Olympics.

Fast-forward to December of 2014, Natasha Nesic (formerly The Snooty Tea Person) informed me of an online tea company based in the U.K. called What-Cha. Among their many, eclectic wares were “collections” highlighting specific growing regions around the world – India, Nepal, Malawi, Europe (!!!), and . . . Russia.

First thing I notice were the Russian non-black tea collections. That was new. When did they start experimenting with anything but black tea?! I got in touch with the company head – Alistair Rea – to acquire some. And he dropped the biggest bombshell I ever swallowed.

His inspiration for carrying Russian grown tea was because of the blog I wrote on the subject. He even wrote about his search HERE. So, to summarize: I wrote a blog on Russian tea, which in turn inspired someone to carry said tea, and then I approached said company to acquire said tea . . . to write a blog about it.

Like I said . . .  full circle, man.

Of the samples he sent, there were six green teas to sip.

Russian roulette

They hailed from four different tea estates in the region – Solohaul, Dagomys, Matsesta, and Host. There wasn’t much information on any of them, aside from mentions on Steepster (pertaining to What-Cha). I wondered how best to dig into them. One at a time? Side-by-side? Nah . . . all at once! A veritable game of Russian green tea roulette. Six teas; one tasting session.

 

Krasnodar Solohaul Tea Estate Green Tea

Solohaul

 

Appearance/Aroma: The leaves were large, twisted and dark green. The fragrance they gave off was all wintergreen and forest floor – minty, slightly earthy and grassy.

Brewed: The liquor was bright yellow-gold with a faint aroma of melons, more of a likeness to a bold white tea than a green. The flavor was both buttery and fruity with a slight, mellow sweetness on the back.

Verdict: Definitely a hit. An almost-perfect green tea on delivery.

 

Krasnodar Premium Dagomys Tea Estate Green Tea

Dagomys Premium

Appearance/Aroma: The leaves were green and brown, rolled tightly to the likeness of twigs and stems. They smelled like straight juniper berries, in that “gin and tonic” sort of way.

Brewed: The liquor brewed light green with a very . . . uh . . . green tea aroma. It reminded me of a mid-grade Darjeeling green – slightly grassy, but not grapy. There really isn’t much to say about it other than that.

Verdict: A near-hit, chamber misfire. It was okay, but nothing memorable.

 

Krasnodar Large Leaf Dagomys Tea Estate Green Tea

Dagomys Large Leaf

Appearance/Aroma: Contrary to what the name implied, the leaves were smaller cut, conically rolled – very similar to a Chinese Bi Luo Chun, only a more vibrant green color. The aroma was earthy, floral, and vaguely citrus.

Brewed: The liquor brewed fairly dark. Well, by dark I mean light amber. So, dark for a green tea. The steam smelled of sage growing on a cliff side – very oolong-y. On sip, grass hit the tongue first, followed by this burly, floral note, and chased by a nice, wilderness-y finish.

Verdict: A hit. Bullet would’ve gone clean through. A very good, serviceable green.

 

Krasnodar ‘Since 1947’ Matsesta Tea Estate Green Tea

1947 Matsesta

Appearance/Aroma: This was a straight-up Long Jing (Dragonwell) on appearance and smell. The leaves were medium-green, plank flat, and a decent length with an alternating grassy and winy aroma.

Brewed: The liquor brewed bright, almost “radioactive sencha” green with an herbal salad-like aroma. There was a spiciness to the smell that reminded me a little of sage or oregano. On taste, it reminded me of a Chunmee – a lower-grade Chinese green. Not un-drinkable but definitely far too grassy for my palate.

Verdict: Empty chamber. Way too grassy a green.

 

Krasnodar ‘VIP’ Matsesta Tea Esate Green Tea

Matsesta VIP

Appearance/Aroma: The leaves were very small, likely given a BOP (broken orange pekoe) cut, but gave off an aroma of sweetened nuts and barley powder.

Brewed: The liquor brewed an even, medium green with a strange scent of sunflower seeds. I wasn’t expecting that. On taste . . . oh my, yum. Straight almond awesomeness. It ended with a bit of a grassy finish, but it was still lathered in nutty goodness. So nuts! (Badam-bum.)

Verdict: Boom. Headshot. Straight between the eyes. A very satisfying green tea.

 

Host Estate Green Tea

host

Appearance/Aroma: These were the wildest looking of all the Russian green teas, like they were plucked from feral trees or something. Sure they looked picked and rolled, but there seemed something natural about the process. The aroma they gave off was equally “wild” – herbaceous and floral, almost like pre-processed pu-erh maocha.

Brewed: The liquor was a vibrant, lively green with a spry, fruity aroma. The taste just about kicked my head back with “WOW!” I couldn’t tell you what fruit or melon the taste was indicative of, but I was floored by it. It was like a Long Jing paired off with a biodynamic Indian green and came back with a halo-adorned offspring. Christ on a unicycle, this was perfect!

Verdict: I’m dead. Turn me over. I’m done. So wonderful.

In summary, if this had been an actual game of Russian roulette, four chambers would’ve been loaded, two bullets would’ve missed, two would’ve grazed and/or wounded me . . . and I would’ve died twice. A morbid metaphor to end on, but totally applicable.

The clear winner was the Host tea estate. Whatever they’re doing, they can keep on doing it. From what I witnessed, they were also experimenting with yellow tea and oolong tea styles. Good on ‘em. All in all, happy with the results. Russian tea has come a long way in such a short time.

Roulette 2

A Young Yiwu Pu-Erh Afternoon

morpheus

It’s an honest question.

For years, I was taught that, sure, a young sheng (raw) pu-erh could be good, but it had yet to reach its full potential. After all, pu-erh was meant to be aged – to mature over time. Particularly the raw variety. However, I’m starting to rethink my stance on that. Sometimes, just sometimes, a younger, just-plucked, newly-pressed pu-erh can stand up against its older beengcha brethren.

Two months ago, I received a text from Nick “Misty Peak Teas” Lozito. He had just returned from a sourcing trip to Mount Yiwu, Yunnan province, China, where his farming contact was. Nick direct sourced from one farmer, and one farmer only. All the products he carried were from one dude. I covered his outfit a few months ago. But I digress . . .

Nick practically said, “Dude! You’ve gotta try this autumn flush I got. It’s amazing.”

He was too busy to get together that week, what with a newborn son and all, but he dropped some off at Tea Bar – the local outfit that carried his sheng to serve. I made the trip out to North Portland to try it. And, boy, he wasn’t kidding.

tea bar

I wasn’t used to judging pu-erhs by their recent seasonal plucks. Usually, that was Darjeeling territory. Pu-erh is generally judged by the year it was plucked/pressed, not the month. But there was a definite difference between the spring 2014 Yiwu pu-erh and the autumn. I just needed to judge for myself a bit more thoroughly.

In the meantime, Misty Peak Teas was carving out a niche for itself in the online community. I was hearing rumblings about how good the stuff was from other fellow bloggers. Their wares were even receiving accolades on Steepster. To date, the 2014 cake was the highest rated pu-erh on the site. Impressive, given the competition.

Steepster

Alas, life got in the way, and I didn’t follow up with Nick for a more thorough tasting until . . . well . . . yesterday [at the time of this writing]. He cut out a section of his day in which to entertain my urge to drink more of the autumn tea.

When I pulled up to “Misty Peak HQ”, I was told to come around to the back. There he was on a green blanket, feeding his four-month-old, Vincenzo. It was far too adorable a sight not to snap.

nick and son

Then we got to drinking.

First, as a palate starter, Nick broke out a cake of his 2005. It was the one year from that farm I hadn’t tried yet. The leaves were large and lovely.

beeng

Brewed gongfu, the liquor was a deep brass, and I tasted straight stone fruit, earth, and ancient civilization. Is that a taste? Well, it is now.

2005

I was in a daze, and we had only just begun.

Next up, he offered up the autumn 2014 side-by-side with the spring.

2014s side by side

The spring pluck was fruitier, but the autumn was somehow sweeter – more mature. On a blind test, I couldn’t tell them apart, but the difference in maturity was there, if subtle. The autumn was just a shy bit better. It was like comparing two pieces of cheesecake based upon how many strawberries were topped on ‘em.

Further down the line, we compared two 2012s, binged on some pu-erh that’d been left outdoors to cure. (For the heck of it.) Mizuba Tea’s Lauren Danson also stopped by to join in the festivities for a quick minute or three. What was initially intended as, maybe, an hour’s tasting session turned into three.

After I-dunno-how-many cups of 2005, 2012, and 2014 teas, I was good and basted. Feeling the Universe and s**t. But it was high time to retire. Before I left, though, Nick brought out a really interesting sight to show off. A giant ball of pu-erh. No seriously.

big balls

Look at that thing. Apparently, the farmer plucked it the same month Nick’s son was born, and pressed the ball to the newborn’s exact weight. I held it. The sucker weighed about seven pounds – and change!

As I made my farewells, I made it a point to acquire a cake of the autumn 2014.

autmn 2014 beemg

Oh yeah . . . I was supposed to be devoting this entry to making a case for young pu-erh. Look, it’s a subjective thing. If you prefer the aged stuff, you’ll likely stick to the aged stuff. Young pu-erh tastes young. It’s like a green tea with lofty aspirations, or Luke Skywalker before raging against the second Death Star. All I wanted to show was, a great time could be had with the new as well as the old. And the less stuffy you are about either, the better.

Because . . . GIANT PU-ERH BALLS ARE AWESOME!

That is all.

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