Thursday, 25 February 2010

encroaching Turkish ink-like stuff

‘Caffeine was accepted more slowly in Germany and the rest of central Europe (except Vienna) than it had been in the rest of Western Europe. This meant that England and France began to take the caffeine cure about eighty years before their central European neighbors, who continued, during this time, drinking alcohol as heavily as before. At a time when the English, for example, had already started to “dry out”, Germans were largely innocent of temperate alternatives to beer. (Still are-my note) Once the Germans, Hungarians and other East Europeans became converts, coffee and coffee houses became indispensible fixtures of the society and tea and chocolate came into general use across the breadth of the old Hapsburg Empire.’
-from The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World's Most Popular Drug


This place has been in my family for generations, and I’ve never had any problems like I do now. This has always been a Gastst├Ątte (public house). Always had guests late into the night. I could serve my customers until the wee hours, sleep a bit longer than my neighbors, and repeat the procedure the next day. It wasn’t a bad life. Until now, that is.

Until my wife brought this insanity back from Vienna. My father told me about this Turkish drink that’s black like ink. He swore he’d never seen or tasted anything like it. She comes back and insists that we serve it. At first, they only drank it after their mid-day meal, but more and more they’re coming in earlier for it and drinking it later into the evening. This new coffee and these people who drink it make my real, drinking customers uncomfortable, but the wife insists we keep serving it. She has visions of a coffee house, like the ones she saw, and says it’s the only hope we’ll ever have of seeing culture in this place. I don’t care about or even want culture. I just want to sleep a bit longer. This culture is ruining my life.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Daydreaming in Sri Lanka

Wrote about this tea in an early blogpost, but every morning, when I’m deciding which tea to start the day with, I keep coming back to Ceylon Nuwara. As I read from numerous sources, this is the Champagne of Ceylons. Full-bodied and really tasty.

It’s the dead of winter, and I’m sitting in the pre-dawn hours dreaming of being in the mountains of Sri Lanka. I’m not a beach person, so when I dream about the summer, it’s normally somewhere high in the mountains. I’d love to see these tea estates. Apparently, unlike in Assam where excellent tea is grown at much lower altitudes, in Ceylon, as well as many other places, the best tea is grown at the highest altitudes. This Nuwara is no exception.

Here I am on an early summer day, looking out over Lover’s Leap, not remotely concerned with the troubles back home. As a matter of fact while I’m lost in this reverie up on the Sri Lankan cliff, I have neither troubles at home nor a home per se. I’ve tied up all my loose ends and have embarked on a trip through the Subcontinent and China to drink all the teas at their source. And write about them.

These are my longings as I imagine myself sitting high in the mountains in the Nuwaru region of Sri Lanka. More soon about specific teas. Just wanted to share a bit of my melancholy. Brought to you by Germany’s endless winter.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Assam Mangalam

Some people shy away from black tea because it can be really dark and strong. As soon as I say that, I know that of course there are many others who only drink black tea. This post isn’t for them. I’d like to make a recommendation for those people who don’t normally drink black. Think you’ll like this one.

You have to prepare it correctly (boiling hot water and preheat your pot, too) and not let it steep too long, but Assam Mangalam is really something special. All the blurbs I’ve read about it say that this high-end tea has golden red or yellow tips and if you can look at the leaves when you buy your tea make sure you see color on the tips of some of the leaves.

The other thing I read repeatedly is that it has a rich, malty flavor and sometimes a very light aftertaste. I didn’t taste it right after it steeped but as the tea cools, I can detect it. But only a little bit. Oh, one other small thing. From more than one source, I found out that this is a black tea that’s better prepared without milk. Try it.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Eyelids in the Dirt

Reading a really interesting account of the history of tea in a book that was recommended to me recently by Indonique (The History of Caffeine by Weinberg and Bealer). Starts out with a quote from Alan Watts and I’m reminded of my Buddhist leanings when I was a teen-ager. I carried around his books and tried to decipher them, but many of the ideas took years of considering for me to even begin to comprehend.

The quote is:

“If Christianity is wine, and Islam coffee, Buddhism is certainly tea.”


There are a few stories here about the first emperor of China who “discovered” dropping leaves in boiling water, as well as the elderly sage/border guard who stops Lao Tsu as he’s making a run from China and both brews him a cuppa and somehow convinces him to write the Tao te Ching. Great stories. The book also does a good job of relaying that what historical information we have about the history of tea in China has been so thoroughly revisited and rewritten, that what we know is convoluted and very probably loosely factual, if at all. Believing that this or that emperor invented or developed tea personally in any meaningful way is like believing Pope Gregory was individually responsible for all the Gregorian Chants.

The apocryphal story that practically jumped off the page at me is one that’s too good to leave out here. Tea was unquestionably used by monks to keep them from sleeping and allow them to meditate longer. There’s no disputing that. So according to the legend, this one monk, Bodhidharma, was so disgusted at his inability to stay awake (he was already the founder of what we know today as Zen meditation and sat for years on end in silent contemplation) that upon awakening from accidentally dosing off, he took a knife and removed his eyelids (the Asian Van Gogh of sorts, eh?). When the discarded eyelids fell into the soil, they eventually grew to become the tea plant whose liquor continues to help monks meditate to this day. Slashing off your eyelids to stay focused? Ay caramba!

There’s not much left to top that story. We wind through this dynasty and that emperor only to discover that the Chinese word for tea went from meaning many things to finally being only very specifically used for the Camellia sinensis plant, whereas here in the West tea used to mean a drink from the above-mentioned plant and today it can mean one of many kinds of infusions of herbs or leaves.

This is not the last you’ll hear from me about this book. This is exactly the kind of information I was looking to find out when I started this blog.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Tea masculinity and illness

Have blathered on enough about the great milk-in-tea debate, so I’d like to move quickly away from that one. A friend recently told me he drank tea because he grew up with a lot of women, and although men didn’t drink it in his family, he didn’t care. He liked the way it tasted, so there. Funny. I hadn’t noticed what an anti-masculine bias tea had, but I guess it’s really there. I don’t know any British people who have this hang-up, but that’s unquestionably a cultural thing.

The other one that’s funny, and I get this one a lot in Germany, is that people assume you’re ill when you’re drinking tea. I can’t believe how many times people have offered me coffee as I arrive for an appointment and when I politely decline and show them my thermos of tea, they ask, “Oh, are you sick?” Clearly some drink tea only when they feel under the weather.

I don’t see why I need to fight against these two views of tea. Can’t even call them misconceptions if it’s really the case that in some circles only women and the infirmed brew up. It’s merely funny. And when I’m faced with it, as I was again today, I have to laugh. Yes I have both gender and hypochondriacal issues…so? They taste lovely.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Milk-in-my-tea crowd

You know, thanks to all of you in the milk-in-my-tea crowd, I've gotten back in the habit of spritzing my tea with a bit of moo-juice. Read something somewhere recently that adding milk to tea destroys the healthy qualities of tea. And my answer to that? So...

Health benefits of tea are extra for me. I drink enough tea without milk or sugar that I'm sure I'm getting all anti-oxidised the rest of the time. Right now I'm drinking this cup for the taste. And some teas taste better with a bit of milk. Am really digging Ceylon Nuwara these days (wrote about it a while back), but for breakfast I'm drinking Ceylon Bop Uva. Tastes fine without the shot of lactose, but am loving it with.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Comments are free as a bird

Finally fixed it. If you want to comment, now you can. All you want. My minions of readers.

You can comment to your hearts' content.

And they're off...

Up to now

The response to this tea blog thus far has been, on the whole, polite bemusement. I say things like, "Tea's bigger than you think." Or, "Loose-leaf tea's the new coffee," and people just smile at my naivety. Certainly, there's a subset of aficionados, but tea? Are you serious, Ken?

Here I want to briefly review what I've discovered so far. Already, I had a rough knowledge of tea processing and the history of tea, but am devouring new information about these things. And truly enjoying it.

The most useful sites I've happened upon are:

http://leafboxtea.com

http://indonique.com

and

http://steepster.com

They offer completely different things/services, but are undeniably helpful and informative.

The most whimsical tea-lover you'll find on twitter is @thetearooms. Purports he's reporting on every cup of tea he's drunk and although that's not all he talks about, he's desultory in the best sense of the word. Enjoy.

Well, I've drained the dregs of my first pot of the day, and that last mug was sadly a bit cold. Off to brew up. If you're reading this, why not say something? To comment is divine.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Why does everyone think I drink tea?

Is it just because of my skin color? Sure, my parents are from India, but I’ve only been on the sub-continent a handful of times. Have never liked the stuff. Neither does my dad. My mother drinks the occasional cup, but what the…?

It’s as if I was Irish-American and every time someone saw my red hair or heard my name, they said, “…” Oh wait. No. I’m not going to get caught up in making the same rash ethnic generalizations. That’s exactly what I’m railing against here. Fucking racists.

Think about it. The same people who make this stupid tea stereotype…I see them as philosophical progeny of the same people who enslaved India to begin with. Can’t even see a teapot or cup and saucer without making the mental connection…the people who swilled tea, killed natives, raped the land…I really shouldn’t get into this.

My parents aren’t angry about colonization. At all. Don’t care in the least. I guess their parents were more opinionated, but whenever I’ve tried to ask my dad about his parents and their life, he says, “They were poor. Poor as dirt. That’s all you need to know.” So I don’t even think they had an opinion. Why do I even give a damn?

Oh yeah-tea. You asked me about tea. I don’t even drink iced-tea. No thanks. Keep your damned tea.

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Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The best cup of tea

Was asked recently about my best tea memories. Might not be what you expect. Have never been much of an athlete and have lacked the consistency to stick with any sports I’ve attempted to master. There’s still that ornery teen-ager hidden inside of me saying, “Sweating and competition for no real purpose? Why would I want to do that?”

That is until I met hiking. For someone with existential hang-ups and raised to be very skeptical of overt competition, hiking is the perfect sport. You don’t see it as sport? Then what you think of as hiking and what I’m doing are two different animals. Even the preparation for a day of hiking exerts energy that I formerly would’ve balked at. That’s where the tea comes in.

Although I live relatively close to the mountains, to get there in time for the best part of the day one really should rise before dawn. Before I take care of anything else I warm up the thermos (or two) with boiling water before even considering the tea. My teapot makes exactly enough to fill my thermos and one mug of tea. I pack the tea at the bottom of my pack and drink that surplus mug as I arrange everything else. When I have enough room in my pack, I make one thermos of Oolong for the actual hike and another of Ceylon or Assam for the train-ride. That’s normally just enough. Just.

The reason these are my best tea memories are simple. Other hikers will tell you that the tastiest sandwich is the one you eat when you’ve struggled your way up a mountain and break it out of your pack and eat it as you look at the view of the range of mountains. The enjoyment of that cup of tea after all that exertion works according to the same principle. For me, there’s almost always a moment near the beginning of the upward climb where I think to myself, “What the hell are you doing this to us again for?” I ignore that voice. Don’t even reason with it. Have normally had a whole thermos of strong, black tea at this point and am rearing to go.

Surprisingly, it’s only at the beginning that I doubt my sanity. Another reason why I know this hiking lark is for me. The more I get into it, the more I enjoy it. When you can finally see the summit up above is not the moment you should wait for. That might be the next most difficult point. When you’re so close and it’s still out of reach. Soon enough, that’s over and you’re standing on the summit, looking out over the range of mountains that just a few moments ago was only in your imagination. There they are.

This is where the best part comes in. I sit down, unpack my things and crack open that thermos of Oolong that’s been waiting patiently at the bottom of my gear. The food is pleasurable, as well. Absolutely no doubt about that. But there’s something about that piping hot cup of tea while breathing in the mountain air that really does something to me. It’s the best tasting cup of tea I can think of. The best.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Ceylon Bop Uva-what a name, eh?

Going back to Sri Lanka in my mind today. Firstly to talk about the Ceylon Bop Uva that I’m drinking this morning, but then I want to go a bit into tea processing.

With this kind of tea the higher the elevation of growing, the better quality the tea. So many of the best locations for tea growth have names of Sri Lankan mountains. The Uva region is on the eastern side of the island and appears to have the tea plantations nearest the capitol Columbo.

Almost every source I found encouraged one to drink Bop Uva with milk, so after a few sips of it black, I followed their directions. It’s as advertised-spicy and relatively mild. I wouldn’t want to drink this tea every day, but it is a good, light alternative to the dark teas I normally like. Maybe if I had guests who weren’t into tea, I’d try this as a nice introduction. Not much more to say about it. It’s certainly better than any bagged tea I’ve had. By a long shot. Also makes me think of a Cyndi Lauper song I can't remember the exact name of.

What I really want to talk about though is the way tea is processed. The term that’s used repeatedly when talking about black tea is “fermentation”. When I first started reading about tea production, this was the word that dumbfounded me. Fermentation? Really? But when they talk about it in relation to tea, it means something entirely different from sour-mash whiskey.

After withering the tea leaves with large blowing machines, they are cut. This is where the fermentation starts. A long time ago, I read that if this process is handled poorly, the tea can actually grow mold and become toxic. I’ve never heard of that happening, so I suppose they’ve perfected this process and control it relatively stringently. The factors in this process include how long the cut leaves are allowed to ferment, as well as the humidity and temperature of the room.

Once the tea has been fermented adequately, it is then fired. At first I thought this was like roasting coffee, but that’d kill the tealeaves. The leaves are heated lightly to moderately. In other teas, such as Oolong, where you start firing the leaves, stops the oxidation. The shorter the time, the more like green tea it is. But black teas are 100% oxidized. All the way baby.

I’m sure I’ll explain this process in a more detailed refined way, once I understand it better. Although it’s a brief overview, I’m wondering if any of you out there knew about the sensitive and particular way that tea is processed.

As I turn back to my mug of Ceylon Bop Uva, I notice that it’s cooled. Am off to fill it and add a bit more milk.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

With full force? Huh? Yeah, ok.

Know I said I'd keep on with Ceylon, but I tried an Assam today and have to write about it. This specific Assam is called Sephinjuri.

The blurb in my tea dealer's brochure says that this is a great morning tea. It's heavy/with full-force, or at least that's my poor translation of what it says, which is odd because my first impression was that it was fruity and light. After a few sips, the description I read was right. This is a dark tea.

Assams are named after the region in India where they originate. It's the only place outside of China where tea is indigenous. There's a botanical distinction between the plants in China and India, but you very likely aren't looking for that here. This region of India, Assam, is in the east. North of Bangladesh. It's the biggest tea-producing region in the world, according to some sources. If you drink non-descript "black tea" from tea bag, you're probably drinking a mix of Assam and Ceylon teas that couldn't be sold any other way. Not bad tea. Just not noteworthy. This Sephinjuri is in an entirely different league.

A few places I've looked have mentioned workers on tea plantations not earning a fair wage. I suppose I should get into that here, albeit lightly. In India, this is probably a more contentious issue than in other places because of the colonial history. But even as I write that, I think, "Wait." Being underpaid would be disenfranchising in any situation.

I know there are at least two sides to any debate about wages. If you sat down and looked at the books of any business, I'm sure the enterprise is more expensive to run than people might assume.

Am also incredibly skeptical about fair-trade products. Theoretically, the idea of the consumer paying more to assure that the growers earn more is laudable. When you look at the extra amount the growers ultimately get, you become aware that the price increase has only one true function. To make the person buying fair-trade tea feel better about himself. Sweeping generalizations are dangerous. Maybe fair-trade has to start out miniscule and grow. I'm still hopeful that this is how things turn out.

Which brings me back to the original question:

How does one know/make sure that the people who grew the tea are being paid reasonably? One doesn't.

Monday, 1 February 2010

How to get into tea-Step 1

This is going to sound really obvious is you’re already into tea, but I’ve told a few people about what I’m doing here and their immediate response is, “I drink a bit of fruit tea when I have a cold. Real tea? I just don’t know how to get into it.”

So here’s a really simple way to make a cup of black tea more palatable for someone not accustomed to it: a bit of milk and sugar. Or honey. Or whatever Cancer-causing non-sugar sweetener you prefer.

When I say that, I don’t want to give you the impression that drinking tea with stuff added is somehow a less valuable or genuine experience than drinking it black. If you already like tea with milk and sugar, keep doing what you’re doing. I will say that I started that way and slowly weaned myself from adding things. You can better taste the real tea if you drink it alone. But first things first. Start out enjoying it as sweet and milky as your heart desires.

And full disclosure, so I don’t mislead you: I still put a bit of milk in my tea in the morning on occasion. If I order tea in a restaurant or cafe and it’s bitter, I’ll definitely add a little cream. It’s still tea, after all.