Wednesday, 30 March 2011

like a Cheshire Cat

I've had several whole day meetings with some clients, and something very curious happened during the coffee break each day. My tea was brewed and carried to the office in two well-worn flasks. It had to last me through the entire day, so I rationed it very carefully. By the late afternoon, I still had at least one very delicious cup of Darjeeling to savour.

And then it happened.

The break was announced, some headed for the toilets, others went outside to smoke, and one guy broke out his tea stash. I wish I could report that he was a loose-leaf tea drinker. Alas, it was a plastic Ziploc bag with a variety of bagged tea.

Nevertheless. The assortment was carefully arranged. Others were curious what his bag o' tea selection offered and gladly accepted his invitation to pull out their choice of teabag. Someone put on the kettle and soon thereafter teabags were submerged in nearly boiling water.

'Wait just a minute', I hear some of you say. 'You're a tea snob, right? No teabags for you. Why did this put such a ridiculous smile on your face?'

Well, of course loose-leaf tea is the goal. It's what I'm sure people would insist on if they knew how far superior the quality of tea almost always is when it's loose-leaf. We all know the arguments for rejecting teabags. But this was tea (no matter how substandard) being fully enjoyed by a group of people who very likely would've otherwise had yet another cup of overheated coffee. These were my people.

Did I try to lure them over to the leaf-side? I did not. I sipped my perfect cup of Darjeeling and smiled like a Cheshire Cat and took in a deep breath.

And then I let it out. Still smiling.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

pondering tea trends

Found an interesting article in the local paper about trends in tea drinking, and wanted to bring them up here. Maybe you've already heard about these. The title of the article is Teerapie, which is a mix of the German words for tea and therapy.

One thing I like is that the author reports on a thriving tea culture in Vienna, which I was surprised to find last year. He introduces us to Bubble tea, which although I've read plenty about, I have yet to try. According to the article, there are hordes of teenagers drinking wild shades of these tea-based concoctions in the epicenter of coffee culture.

Not just for youngsters, there's also a more traditionalist streak in tea shops. Not just in Vienna but in Munich, as well. The German speaking world is trying Matcha not just as a beverage, but sprinkled on ice cream and as a spice in a variety of rice dishes.

The biggest trend that the writer supports is that tea is growing in popularity while the demand for specialty coffee is actually decreasing. He specifically cites the example of American tea drinking and quotes Wired magazines pronouncement that 'Tea is the New Coffee'.

There's already quite a substantial business in Germany. 18,000 tons of tea annually and growing.

The article ends in the shadow of the Stephansdom back in Vienna. Hass und Haas is a wonderful place I took my mother for tea. If you asked me to list the stereotypical trappings of a traditional afternoon tea, this place had all of them. No matter where the trends take us, there's still plenty of room for a bit of tradition.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Waking up in Mangalam

Ordered a selection of Ceylon and Assam tea that I started my blog with last year. I want to see how my tastes have changed, and find out specifically what I still like about these very traditional black teas. Am also excited to exhibit some of the research skills that I've honed in the last year.

The first tea I'd like to reintroduce is Assam Mangalam. This is an excellent Assam with plenty of golden tips. Although it has a typical malty taste, this tea is absolutely not bitter.

Everything I read about the estate is incredibly laudatory. I plan to dig deeper and find out more about its history. No matter how much I enjoy learning about green and Oolong, there's nothing better to start my day than a strong cup of Assam.

So I'm imagining where these tea leaves were grown. The care that was put into growing and processing them. A part of me is falling asleep tonight wondering what it'd be like to wake up on the tea estate. I'm already there in my dreams. Put on your seat belts...this is going to be an eventful ride.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

sniffing tea leaves...over and over again

If you were accustomed to brewing simple black tea in a pot, what would you think if you started reading about Gong Fu brewing of Oolong tea?

You plug Oolong into a search engine, and find videos of people pouring tea out of little Gaiwan pots and inviting the others at the table to sniff the leaves. It's almost as if you've wandered in off the street into a freaky tea leaf smelling cult.

I've met tea drinkers who want nothing to do with all of this. On more than one occasion, I've explained my fascination with Oolong to someone who already likes drinking tea, but they stare back at me with incredulity. Multiple steepings of the same lea leaves? Really? Can you not afford fresh tea?

No, I assure you-the tea changes as you brew it repeated times. The taste develops. It really does.

But let's say you're still on the fence about this one. You don't know about buying a lot of tea gear for something you're not even sure you're going to like. Some of those sites about Oolong you found talked about the Gaiwan, while others mentioned a Yixing teapot. What is all of this stuff? Is it really necessary?

The complicated answer is that yes, the tea tastes different brewed in a specialist's clay pot. But actually the simple answer is no. I often write this blog with the tea newcomer in mind, and I'd like to describe how I started brewing Oolong before I bought any new paraphernalia.

The first thing to remember is more tea/less water for short steeping times.

For this discussion, I'm going to use Hampstead Tea's Oolong from the Makaibari Tea Garden. I've intended to review this tea for a while, so here's my chance. How much tea exactly? I'm making a small container of tea, so I'd suggest one or two handfuls of tea leaves. Like here.

The initial infusion rarely offer much in terms of flavour. It's custom in some tea ceremonies to even throw the first steeping out. But even if it's just to see if there is much taste, I always sample the first go round at least. For our purposes, I'm using a measuring jug. Remember, we're approaching this with common household materials. Here's what the leaves look like in the glass:

Now this will probably be completely counterintuitive considering you normally brew tea for much longer, but only 20 or 30 seconds for each steeping. Really. Oolong is rarely bitter (it's one thing people really like about it), but if you let so much tea in so little water brew for much longer, it can get strong. That's what happened in the first infusion above because I was taking the photo, but by the second it came out perfectly. A very dark brown cup colour, and a deliciously light, even smoky, taste.

You won't simply dump the leaves into your cup/mug along with your delicious tea. This slotted ladel was almost certainly not intended for this purpose, but all that really matters is that you find something to strain the liquid and separate the leaves. Say what you like, this works for me in a pinch. The third time round is a bit less smoky and there's even a bit of a lemon taste.

So what do you think? If you've heard/read about multiple tea infusions, have you given it a try? Might this description help you jump in and do a bit of your own experimenting?

If you've been doing this forever, how did you come to it? Did you acquire the proper utensils before you ever attempted this? What was your experience early on? Did I leave anything important out that you think is really necessary? Please let me/us know. I'll be over here sniffing my tea leaves.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

tea entrepreneur

Some weeks ago, Neil from Neil's Yard told me a story that I'm sure I've heard before but not in such detail. The way he explained it was that there was a business professor in Berlin who wanted to show his students an example of entrepreneurship. He also happened to really enjoy drinking tea. Darjeeling tea to be exact.

If you've read even a little of my blog, you know that this story quickly got my attention. The professor's name was Günter Faltin and his company is called Teekampagne. He was fascinated with how inexpensive products were in their country of origin, so he resolved to sell Darjeeling tea in bulk with nearly no markup. He was offering fair-trade long before it was the done thing. Here's how he describes how his rationale for not charging more for fair-trade:

'The education reformer Ivan Illich who I got to know in the early 1980s, used to argue vehemently against charging extra for fair trade. In this practice, he argued, the customer pays not only for the product but also contributes to an invisible “charity box,” a modern version of buying “indulgences” (paying money to save your soul) – a trade that Martin Luther was already inveighing against. Although charity has some positive effects, it does NOT challenge the business models that put pressure on commodity prices in exporting countries and inflate prices for consumers at the other end. Since it does not represent a systemic change of business practices, it is also not sustainable: it may stop when the charitable giver’s attention is drawn to
another urgent need. We practice fair trade with a different method: we do not charge the consumer so that we can feel good about ourselves; instead, we challenge costly conventions, and the savings benefit everyone.

That's just one interesting point he makes in a lengthy article called “Citizen Entrepreneurship” for a Meaningful Life. There's enough here to make several meaty blogposts, which I intend to write, but I wanted to quickly introduce him to those of you who might not have heard of him or his company yet. Teekampagne is Germany's largest mail order tea company, as well as the biggest Darjeeling importer in the world.

If you're in the US, you might know his company as Boston Tea Campaign. In Japan, it's called Teeidee. Can't wait to dig in deeper to this guy's ideas.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

pet peeves and off-the-cuff theories

Recently read an article in the New Yorker about Dick Cavett's new book 'Talk Show' and the talk show wars in the US, and one line in the article got me thinking:

...“Talk Show” (Times Books; $25), a collection of the blogs he writes for the Times. A blog is a means of sharing your pet peeves and off-the-cuff theories of everything with the entire planet. To this point in the history of civilization, that is not what a book is. In a book, normally, one’s eye is on a somewhat farther horizon...

So this blog business is normally about topical things. Right? How can I blog this weekend and not somehow deal with the earthquake/tsunami in Japan? It seems like it's on every channel. Is there really anything new I can say about it.

As I sat down to write this, I'd already considered the many Japanese teas I like. Sometimes I hear people talking about green tea, and some Japanese greens are disparaged for tasting grassy. I understand that, but I like grassy. Although I usually write about black tea on this blog, I definitely enjoy green and Oolong tea.

For some reason I turned to a very simple Japan Sencha Fuji, which I've written about at length in the past.

Here's one a little less than a year ago: analog tea tasting.

And then here's one where I started writing about Japan Sencha Fuji and then somehow found myself riffing on the Ten Virtues of Tea.

My not-so-original thoughts as I sip this delicious Japanese tea and think about what unbelievable circumstances the people made homeless in Japan? Well, it's really hard to look at the footage. My experience with the Japanese people has been fantastic. It's one of the nicest places I've ever been.

Here I am watching an old man on television who's lost his home, and he's crying in front of the camera. I know many cultures are said to be loathe to show their emotions, but this was the most raw thing I'd ever seen displayed by an older Japanese person. I was shocked.

Am I sharing my 'pet peeves and off-the-cuff theories of everything with the entire planet' here? There have been so many examples of how small the world is over the last few days. A friend whose son was snowboarding in Japan flew out of Tokyo's Narita airport just hours before all hell broke loose. A Tokyo tea lover I'm acquainted with on twitter was shaken, but she was assuring everyone who asked that she was unhurt.

As I fall asleep in my very safe home in my very safe city, I hope the people devastated by this event are waking up in a safe, dry place. I want to believe that even if these people are sleeping in community centres or makeshift camps, that someone is providing them with decent tea. It might be one of the few things to bring some sort of comfort in this incomparable time. At least I'd like to hope so.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Thai Tea?

What on earth is Thai Tea? One of my colleagues asked me about this, and I'm sure I could do minimal research and find out a bit more.

Instead, I'm opening it up as a question here on my blog. I've had spicy chilled tea with milk while eating at a Thai restaurant, and I'm sure that's a good starting place. And the little I read about it said that it's simple black (red) tea brewed with spices and served iced with milk.

Ok. What spices? Are they easy to obtain? We have tons of Asia markets here in Munich, but they seem to offer mostly Chinese and a few Japanese products. Can you point me to a reliable place to get spices for Thai Tea? What is your experience with this?

Erik Kennedy (@thetearooms on twitter) says of Thai Tea that 'People drink it out of a bloody plastic bag.' Uh...really? Please don't him have the last word on this. Fill me in.

Monday, 7 March 2011

tasting of the flask: carnival edition

It's been mostly a bust tea-wise in Cologne. It's not because there's anything wrong with tea drinking here (that I know of). Instead, it's because Carnival, or as they spell it Karneval, was going on. Many shops were closed, and some even boarded up their show windows. It really looked like the preparations for a hurricane.

So, this whole trip was another example of how a tea lover should be prepared to travel. Almost always rent a flat when it's possible. Making tea in a hotel room is certainly possible, but if there is a kettle, it's normally tiny. So in that scenario, I'd have had to carry my own. Nothing wrong with that, but if you rent a place, a kettle is normally included.

The train ride from Munich to Cologne was a perfect 2-flask event. By the time we arrived, they were empty and I quickly brewed another pot for exploring the city. That night we happened upon the Geisterzug (ghost parade), which I'll talk about more on the travel blog (Lahikmajoe in Bayern), but the nice thing was that the night got colder and colder while I was nice and toasty with my tea.

In the past, I would've trudged from cafe to cafe getting cup after cup of poor quality tea (or coffee if they had no tea). Under the circumstances, it could not have been a better tea drinking experience. I did mention on twiitter the tea smelling of the flask but tasting really good, and someone answered that they hate it when tea tastes like that.

It doesn't taste like the thermos. It can sometimes smell a bit like the metal, but the taste is unadulterated. Others have said that tea is best enjoyed at home in the comfort of one's home. I completely understand that this is the ideal. But I intend to keep perfecting the best methods of travelling with my tea.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

on the road with the mundane

The last several days have been filled with me playing tour guide to my brother, who's visiting Germany for the first time since he was an infant. If you're at all interested, you can see updates over there: #brotherstrip.

Now you might think that all of this endless sightseeing would somehow interfere with my tea drinking, but you'd be wrong. I might be drinking a bit more tea if I were home, but I've taken special care to carry my tea with me. Mostly it's been different Darjeelings that I've written about here recently, but some mornings there was no choice but to go with a strong Assam Khongea or a vibrant Nilgiri Thiashola 'Carrington', which I've been enjoying but haven't yet reviewed.

While I was wandering through the Verkehrsmuseum (transport museum) earlier today, I happened upon this description of the construction of the Darjeeling/Nilgiri/Kalka Shimla railway route. Maybe someone who's not a tea lover might also be interested in this stretch of track, but something from across the room pulled me over to this display. I could so easily imagine all the tea that was transported on these trains.

Tomorrow, we've got a trip to the top of the Zugspitze planned, and I've already decided that's a two-thermos trip. With a bit of loose-leaf tea in a pouch in case I can manage to find a cafe that'll agree to refill one of my thermoses in the late afternoon. We'll see. Don't encourage me too much. I've been known to blog about the mundane.