Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

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Making the Most of a “Meh” Year

If I were to sum up 2017 in one image, it would be . . .

Yeah, that about says it.

The year wasn’t quite the dumpster fire that 2016 was, but it did have its ups and downs. Winter flew by like a brisk, cold nap. Spring reverberated with optimism and hope. And summer, like an oppressive heatwave, took that hope and crushed it with a sweaty fist. Autumn tried to resuscitate some shred of exuberance, but flat-lined by the time the holiday season rolled around.

Through it all, my mood soured on salvaging even a shred good cheer. That dour outlook permeated throughout my writing work; and my various social media feeds. Some even wondered if I needed a really long hug. (To which the answer was a resounding, “Yes!”) However, looking back on the past year, I realized there were many positive occurrences that I completely skated over—moments of pure tea whimsy that I forgot to document.

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Notes from the Tea Underground

The idea of an underground tea scene always intrigued me. Not sure when the notion entered the deep recesses of my tea-soaked brain; maybe it was Robert “The Devotea” Godden’s ebook Tea Story, or maybe someone mentioned the idea of it in passing? Whichever, whatever. Point being, the notion always fascinated me. I even envisioned an underground network of “steepeasies” in a story I had . . . yet to write.

Little did I know, though, there actually was such an underground tea network threading itself together. From Austin, Texas, to San Francisco, California, and further northward to Portland, Oregon; people communed over tea just under the radar. I had some affiliations with various members of this fledgling network, and in my various tea blog dealings, one name kept coming up.

Steve Odell.

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AKA Spike My Ceylons with Jessica Jones

NaNoTeaMo, Day 22: “AKA Spike My Ceylons with Jessica Jones”

Before reading the ramblings below, it’ll probably help you to visualize it being read by Humphrey Bogart. To set the proper mood.

Bogie

If that’s too difficult, or way to serious a voice . . . then picture Garrison Keillor as Guy Noir reading this aloud.

Garrison noir

Both are applicable.

*****

It was a chilly Fall evening, and I just finished a rather grueling work weekend. One that made me yearn for food that was bad for me . . . and women that were worse. Luckily, both were in great supply and very nearby. Fast food was easily found and consumed, and now it was time to binge on a fast woman. Faster than me, anyway.

For you see . . . Jessica Jones premiered on Netflix last Friday.

Jessica Jones (2)

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Nut Tea

NaNoTeaMo, Day 10: “Nut Tea”

You – fair reader – might think I’m certifiably nuts, but . . . I asked to leave work early today, so I could write about tea. If I had left at my normal time – 5PM – that would’ve left me with exactly a half-hour to formulate today’s article. And find a tea to write about. Plus, I was getting together with friends later in the evening.

So, like a bonafide tea nutter, I left at 4PM. This insane decision led me to the obvious conclusion of what my next brew-up was going to be. This li’l fella.

J-TEA’s Nut Tea.

nut tea

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The Road to Eugene Is Paved in Tea

The Road to Eugene Is Paved in Tea – Teashop Adventure Week

June was a shitty month.

Between two deaths in the family, a work-related back injury, and a two-week bout of influenza to cap things off, I think it’s safe to say it was the shittiest month I’ve had in nearly a decade. There were small bouts of cheer, however. And one of them came in the form of a text message.

Josh Chamberlain of J-TEA International sent me the following, “When can you come down to Eugene to try all of our iced teas?”

Eugene was about two hours away from Portland, but . . . Fuck it, I thought. I needed a distraction. What better diversion than a day trip. For tea. There were worse reasons. I made it there in record time, got to the store in roughly an hour and a half. Unheard of.

The storefront was just as I remembered it.

JTEA storefront

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Booze Teas for Boob Teapots

Booze Tea for Boob Teapots – The Tea-Totaler Trilogy, Part 2

Around the year, 490 BCE, in the ancient Chinese kingdom of Yue, there was once a beautiful woman who was offered as tribute to an invading king. The woman was so marveled for her beauty, it was said that fish would forget how to swim if she passed by a pond. Her name was Xi Shi, and she was considered one of the “Four Beauties” of ancient China.

Xi Shi

Poems and stories have been written about her. Some industrious individual even sought to make pottery inspired by her very physical form. Well . . . part of her form, anyway. Okay, the perv settled on designing a teapot around her boob. The areola, to be precise.

The Xi Shi design is a classic one utilized for yixing clay teapots, and I learned of this on my last visit to J-TEA International. Owner Josh Chamberlain, while I was interviewing him for an article, showed me his collection of yixing teapots for sale. He regaled me with the ancient tale. Somehow, he knew I’d appreciate it.

And appreciated it, I really did. Not just for pervy reasons. I wanted that damn pot. Several months later, I got that damn pot, and one other.

boob pots

I was already expecting the Xi Shi pot, but I had no idea what the second one was. What did this have to do with anything? Why was it there? Josh couldn’t remember, either, but he assured me that it was also a boob pot of some sort. I checked the name of the product on his site: Red Yi Xing Melon Pot.

Ha! Melons . . . I chuckled inwardly. Yep, definitely another boob pot.

He also included another tea from his barrel-aged line to play around with – a loose cooked pu-erh that was aged in a rum barrel for about a month. It wasn’t available for purchase, yet, but he wanted to get my input on it. I had already set my sights on using one of the boob pots for another of his barrel-aged teas – Drunken Dragon – a three-month, bourbon barrel-aged oolong. This way, I could now play with two teas with both pots.

prep

The Drunken Dragon looked and smelled a lot like its predecessor – Bourbon Oolong. The charcoal-roasted, ball-fisted leaves ranged from dark green to beige-brown. What was different about this batch – in comparison to prior ones – was the smell. There was a deeper, liquor-like smell; likely from the added two months to the barrel aging. That and there was an almost chocolaty sensation on the back whiff. Very titillating.

The Rum Pu-Erh couldn’t have been more different from its bourbon barrel-aged brethren. Sure, the notes of earth, dust and malt were present. It was the same five-year-aged cooked stuff from the Bourbon Barrel Pu-Erh. However, the use of a rum barrel sweetened it quite a bit. It didn’t quite smell like straight rum, but the one-month scenting process gave it an odd cotton candy-ish aromatic vibe. Well . . . cotton candy dipped in liquor, anyway.

J-TEA had no specific recommendations for which type of tea belonged with which pot. There was a passing mention that the “Melon” pot was best for greener oolongs, but that was it. I used that as my barometer, and decided to brew a teaspoon of Rum Pu-Erh in the Xi Shi pot. The Melon pot was broken in with a teaspoon of Drunken Dragon. For both teas, I settled on a gongfu brewing approach – for ease more than anything.

Mulan

Small confession: I had no idea how to use these yixing pots. I should’ve consulted more knowledgeable tea friends in their uses, but – in my zeal – I forgot to. I was already halfway through brewing when I remembered this little oversight. Someone even informed me that I had to “season” the pots before use. I had no idea what that meant, and it sounded like “work”. I wasn’t in the mood to work. Day off and all.

It, also, didn’t occur to me that a clay pot would be piping hot when hot water was added. Nor did I remember how to hold it properly. I did remember a tea vendor holding just the handle, and placed a finger on the lid for support. When I did this the Xi Shi – and attempted to pour – nothing came out. I was, apparently, blocking the little nipple hole at the top. Once I removed my finger from it, liquid poured freely . . . everywhere.

spillage

Eventually, I (sorta) got the hang of it.

The Rum Pu-Erh brewed beautifully dark, and the aroma was both earthy and sweet. All three infusions I test drove with the pot turned up exactly what I hoped for. Earth, sweetness, and a touch of gasoline on the aftertaste resulted. The second infusion was the deepest, whereas the third was more nuanced.

pu-erh

The Melon pot was a different story . . .

Pouring that thing was like trying to use a urinal while drunk. No matter how well I aimed the damn spigot, I made a mess. On the second infusion, I tried to pour a bit more gingerly – same problem. By the third infusion, I figured out that – unlike the Xi Shi pot – I was required to plug the nipple hole with my finger. That concentrated the pour, making the aim of the tea stream flow true. (And, yes, I made it through that entire paragraph without chuckling.)oolong spillage

 

The three infusions of Drunken Dragon all brewed amber with an aroma of butter and oak. It was a much stronger yield of liquor notes this time around, compared to its predecessor. Just as I thought it would be. Bourbon showed up right in the top note, once the roasty introduction gave it some wiggle room. That, then, trailed off into the taster note territory usually reserved for desserts. Or boobs. Or both.

oolong

I can’t say I left this experience a more enlightened tea gentleman than I was before. Like with actual breasts, I had no clue what I was doing. But I’ll be damned if those barrel-aged teas didn’t give me the necessary liquid courage to give it the ol’ college try. Like actual women, one had to treat these teapots with delicacy . . .

boobs

And caution.

Indi’s Awesome Mustache (and Tea)

Imagine a college student discovering tea for the first time, and finding a teashop to frequent. After many visits during his college tenure – and following many dialogues with the owner – he mentions in passing, “I’m going to make a trip to India.” The owner of said teashop then says to the college student, “You should visit tea gardens while you’re there.”

That sort of conversation – albeit paraphrased – actually did take place between then-collegiate, Raj Vable, and Josh “J-TEA” Chamberlain. That small dialogue led Raj to form a partnership that would blossom into a fledgling tea company in late-2013. The company was called Young Mountain Tea, and its mission statement was near and dear to my heart: To promote direct links between tea farmers, tea vendors and tea consumers.

While still a young company, their lofty goals included carrying teas from already-existing small growers and sharing their stories. (Always my favorite.) As well as promoting the development of new farms in new growing regions. (Also my favorite.)

I had the pleasure of meeting up with Raj at Tea Bar roughly a month ago.

He explained their story to me, and also passed along some of the teas they were carrying. The one I had read about prior to the meeting – and immediately caught my eye – was Indi’s Gold. It was a black tea produced in Nilgiri under the management of one Indi Khanna – who may just be one of the most adorable Indian growers ever. Just watch the video and marvel at his adorableness . . . and the epicness of that mustache!

(Seriously, I want collectible plushy dolls of some of these grower dudes.)

Beyond the goal of growing the coolest mustache ever, Indi Khanna took a swath of land belonging to the Coonoor estate in Nilgiri, and turned it into an all-organic tea farm. Until recently, production had been so small scale, that teas produced on this small plot of land hadn’t been introduced to the U.S. market. As of a year ago, due to Young Mountan Tea’s introduction, that has changed. I was only a little excited to be one of the first to write about it.

Okay, a lot excited.

The leaves were small, tight and curly – much like a Bi Luo Chun – resembling snail-like, conical shells. Raj had informed me that Indi Khanna had them hand-rolled this way as an experiment. Whatever the reason, they were lovely leaves. The aroma they gave off was both spicy and fruit-zesty with a dash of something that reminded me of unsweetened vanilla.

There were no brewing instructions for this on the Young Mountain Tea site, but Raj recommended treating it with a light-touch. I figured a Darjeeling-ish technique would work well enough – 1 tsp. of leaves, water at just under a boil, and only a two-and-a-half-minute steep. It was my usual, go-to approach for Indian teas, anyway.

For the sake of full disclosure: The first brew I did at a full three minutes ended up extremely bitter. Like, Assam bitter but with more groin-punching. Two and a half minutes was the steeping sweet spot. One should not go over that.

The liquor brewed a medium-bold amber color with an oddly smoky/spicy aroma. I likened it to a Keemun aroma with a slight Darjeeling bend. On taste, the forefront was all Nilgiri – slightly astringent but satisfyingly apricot. That transitioned into a floral, almost jasmine-like middle, and trailed off into sweetness, spice and silk. The aftertaste was lingering, but not unwelcoming. A second infusion at a slightly longer time turned out even fruitier.

Nilgiri is the one growing region in India that has continued to surprise me in recent years. Often given a bad rep for low-quality teas, farmers like Suresh Nanjan and, now, Indi Khanna have been doing their darnedest to dispel such notions. I’m also overjoyed to see new companies like Young Mountain Tea taking a vested interest in their development.

I’ll keep a bird’s eye view from my cup. In my pajamas. Wishing to grow an epic mustache.

The Pearl to My Earl

Three years ago, I posed a theory about tea and dating, wherein I said that neither the two should blend. After failing at such attempts several times, I considered myself an informed (if bitter) expert on the subject. Granted, there was some…outlying evidence to the contrary; for me it was a no-no. But then I saw an old couple.

I was in a random tearoom, enjoying a sandwich and Silver Needle, and a man in his late twenties arrived with an elderly couple – his parents. Their names, I overheard, were – and I’m not joking – Pearl and Earl. Just hearing their names made my heart sigh.

That’s what I wanted. To skip the travails and rigmarole of dating and go straight to the “old-couple-in-a-tearoom” phase. I wanted to find the Pearl to my Earl.

Years later, I believed I found the candidate. She was one of my coworkers, and she was British. I’d written about her before. Twice, even. She was beautiful, but didn’t seem aware of it. She possessed wit, but was subtle about it. And she was charming…but needlessly downplayed it.

In short order, I thought, I might like her.

We hung out at a coffee shop once over the summer. Both of us ordered tea. She went with the Jasmine Pearls; I went with an Earl Grey. Sparks didn’t exactly fly. Conversation was strained but friendly. I considered it a failure, but a quiet one.

A few months later, she texted me, “Do you want to grab tea sometime next week?”

I responded with a, “Sure!”…but I had no plan in mind.

One arrived the following day when I learned of a coffee shop called The Red E. They were one of the few places in Portland that served cascara – a tisane made from the husks of coffee cherries. Mizuba Tea’s Lauren had told me about it. I posed this idea to the British girl, and she was game.

The cascara reminded me of hibiscus, only more subdued on the tartness. And, boy, was it ever caffeinated. I suppose it helped because our conversation was far more animated than our previous outing. We seemed more comfortable around each other, and conversed like two old friends.

Yep, I like her, I thought to myself.

In the ensuing weeks, she informed members of our work team that she was homesick, and set on returning to the UK. I was saddened to hear it, but figured I better make the most of it. I aimed to spend as much time with her as our schedules would allot.

Our third outing was one we both suggested to each other – The Fly Awake Tea Garden. A couple in Northeast Portland had converted their garage and driveway into a tearoom, herbal shop and herb garden. It was amazing.

We sipped one of the best examples of artisan chai we ever beheld, and were treated to a yixing pot of Da Hong Pao by one of the owners. All the while, we traded barbs, shared stories, and laughed. I could’ve listened to that laugh for the rest of my life.

Whoah, I really like her, I mused.

For our penultimate outing, we were finally able to make it to a place we’d wanted to hunt down for ages. She had mentioned that Pix Patisserie served Earl Grey truffles, and I was craving the idea of them ever since. One random (if late) night, we finally dove into them. Or at least, I did. (She wasn’t fond of Earl Grey anything.)

At first, I couldn’t taste the bergamot. That and there were so many other flavors vying for attention. By the second truffle, I could easily weed out the bergamot base and savored it. Just as I savored her company.

As we walked back to my car, having lost track of time, I realized, Damn, I’m in love with her. How inconvenient.

Our final tea-ish outing was a jaunt to one of my new favorite spots, Tea Bar. She ordered their matcha latte, while I stuck with my new mainstay – their Lapsang latte. They prepped the milk in such a way that the foam formed hearts at the top of the cups.

Right then, I almost told her how I felt…but I held it in.

After all, what was the point? She was leaving, and it was fairly clear the feelings were nowhere near reciprocal. Why push the envelope?

As I write this, she’s on a plane back east.

But I did come to one conclusion. She may have not been the Pearl to my Earl, but I was now open to the idea of finding her. After our repeated tea outings, I realized I rather enjoyed having a partner-in-crime on these little jaunts. My rule needed to be changed. While it still held true that tea and dating didn’t work, the same could not be said for tea and relationships.

Other beverages are temporary. Coffee, beer and wine buzzes are fleeting. They’re necessary only in reminding us that we still have a heartbeat. Tea, though? Tea is a journey. From that first cup to the last. It is a story waiting to be told. And when told with another, it is pure time-released bliss.

There’s a man I know who owns a teashop in Eugene, OR. I’ve probably mentioned him from time to time. He met a girl who came into his teashop. Over the course of time, they got to know each other. Then one day, before he knew it, they were married, and later had a son.

That is what I needed to hold out for. Tea wasn’t for everyone, just as tea and dating weren’t for everyone. It was the perfect way to weed out the wrong ones. I just had to hold out for the right one…

The Pearl to my Earl.

Three Teas, Two Trips, and One Garden

Over the course of the summer, I saw repeated updates that frustrated the hell out of me. Tea drinkers, far and wide – from California to New York – were taste-testing a new, Oregon-grown oolong. The folks behind Minto Island Growers had finally soft-launched their own outfit, dubbed Oregon Tea Crafters. They commissioned a gentleman by the name of Balez Oh’Hops Hanger to do the processing.

Here it was, an Oregon-grown and processed tea…and I was the last person to try it. Even new Portlandian transpants were trying it before me. This had to be rectified with due swiftness, and in September, I planned a trip to the source – Minto Island Growers HQ in Salem, OR.

1 old plot

The garden was just as I remembered it from my visit the year prior. It was a garden; it was pretty. One could kill hours just wandering its wilds. A few things had changed, however. Aside from the 1989-planted, half-acre plot of tea bushes of yore, next to the Minto market stand was a brand new tea plot.

new plot

What made it different from the old plot was fact that it was cultivar-specific. The one from 25 years ago was a test-plot to see if tea plants could grow in the Pacific Northwest. Whereas the new one focused on which cultivars thrived better than others. It was an exciting development to my phone-affixed eyes.

After an informal walk-through of the new plot, I picked up the oolong and green tea, took a photo of the old tea plot…

Oregon Tea Crafters

Then made my way back home.

Upon my return, though, I realized I had made an error. The half-ounce bags I picked up…?

same green

…Were the same exact tea. I’d failed to fetch the oolong.

God. Damn. It.

So! At the end of the week, I went back to Minto Island and fetched it. The last oolong bag, no less. A week or so passed, and then…another Minto-related update appeared in my various social media feeds.

Image mooched from J-TEA's Oolong Times blog

Image mooched from J-TEA’s Oolong Times blog

That’s right. Team J-TEA made a Minto trip over the summer, harvested some leaves and was putting out a Version 3.0 of their Minto Island Black Tea. Of course, I had to get a hold of some – just to complete the trifecta – but I wasn’t making a third trip out to Salem. That and a Eugene trip to J-TEA HQ were not in the cards. I went the wholly-boring (and entirely lazy) route of ordering it online.

After all that effort, how did all three teas fare?

Oregon Tea Crafters Green Tea

Oregon green tea

I remembered learning that this one was wok-fired, much in the same way Chinese green teas were, but the flavor profile turned out far different. It reminded me of a Darjeeling green tea in delivery – crisp, smooth and not very grassy. With just a bit of a fruit finish.

Oregon Tea Crafters Oolong

Oregon oolong

It took me a little bit to pin down what this reminded me of. The dry leaf scent reminded me of a Nilgiri at first, but when brewed, the character changed. Approached from a gong fu angle, it was very similar to a higher-altitude, greener-style Ali Shan – if slightly lighter in body. Aromatic with a floral underpinning.

J-TEA Oregon Grown Minto Island Black

J-Tea

This was far different from the first and second versions of Minto black that came before. The leaves were more oxidized, the aroma was subtler, and the leaf-rolling technique was different. Part of this was because of the later leaf-plucking. Version 2.0 (in 2013) was plucked in May, while this was prepared in mid-summer. And it showed.

While a bit of the Taiwanese influence was still present in its sweet taste, a woodier/mintier character took point this time ‘round. The overall experience was akin to a far subtler Dian Hong, rather than a bug-bitten Taiwanese Ali Shan black. That said, it was as forgiving as ever, putting up with whatever brewing punishment I dished out. Ten-minute steeps and all.

Which tea did I like best?

For taste? Going with the oolong. For ease, effectiveness and overall experience, though? Going with the black tea. Any tea that I don’t have to think too hard on brewing in the mornings is a clear favorite. That and Team J-TEA’s had three years to toy with their technique.

Worth the trips – plural?

Always.

tea plants

Gongfooling Around with Charcoal and Bourbon

Imagine my [NOT] surprise when I saw this on J-TEA’s Facebook one day a couple of months back.

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A brand-spankin’ new Buffalo Trace bourbon barrel from Kentucky.

Okay, perhaps a little background is in order. Back in December, I wrote about a new bourbon barrel-aged pu-erh put out by Eugene-based tea company – J-Tea International. I, quite accidentally, had a hand in its origin story. It was a fantastic tea, and I’m not just saying that out of native bias.

Josh Chamberlain, the shop’s owner, had mentioned wanting to do another tea at some point, but I had no clue it would be so soon. The barrel victim this time around was a mid-to-heavy charcoal-roasted Taiwanese oolong dubbed Charcoal Dawn. And I had no idea how well that would work. My mind couldn’t even comprehend it…and that’s saying something.

This month – May, to you later readers – I was able to acquire some. The package arrived after a period of time that I can only call a “sub-era of suck”. However, once this arrived, everything seemed – I dunno – possible again. Booze-flavored anything has that effect on me.

IMAG1723-1

I immediately demanded scissors from my family members/roommates to tear open the bag. They were unbecoming (and unmoving), so I found ‘em myself and dug in. The first thing I did was just…smell. Roasty notes came first, followed by this wonderful peaty afterglow. Er…if smells could glow, that is.

As for leaf appearance, it – well – looked like a roasted oolong. Ball-fisted leaves of dark greens and blues. Not much more to say than that. So, I went back to sniffing the bag again. And again.

I stopped eventually.

For brewing, I went with an approach that Josh and I had come to call “gongfool”. It’s kinda like gongfu…but you completely negate whatever credibility can be garnered from the original technique. In its stead, you basically “bro” it. Steep how you want, whatever works – at your leisure – in a fashion similar to gongfu.

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The first three thirty-second-ish infusions resulted in amber liquors that didn’t vary in appearance or aroma. What differences could be noticed were found in taste. And – holy balls – was there a taste. As I said, this was a roasted oolong – a charcoal-roasted one, no less. That was obviously going to take point in taste, and it did with a wallop. But then a strange thing happened.

It gentled out into this nice, shot-glass sized note of soft single malt Scotch. Like someone had just punched me in the face, then sat me down with a cigar and a shot glass. Each infusion was like this. Charcoal wallop, whiskey afterburner. Like…uh…a friggin’ jet!

I’m cuing up Kenny Loggins, right friggin’ now.

After a few minutes reveling, drinking, guffawing…and reveling some more, I finally dared a Western-ish style steep of the stuff.

IMAG1725-1

It was all smoke and peat at that point. Mostly smoke. Like you accidentally spilled whiskey in a stove, then tried to lick it up afterwards. Still awesome, but the gongfoolish approach is the way to go.

In closing, is it as strong on the bourbon as the previous pu-erh attempt ? No. Whereas the liquor grabbed the lead on the fermented tea, here the tea flavor went in first. The liquor notes were the wingmen. And what welcomed wingmen they were.

This tea would make sure you didn’t go home with the wrong woman. Or man. Or both. Tea doesn’t judge.

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