Monday, 28 November 2011

The World's Special Tea

How early can one get into tea? And how might one go about it?

I'm sure there's no need to encourage a child. If you're seen drinking tea, eventually the small person is going to ask for a sip of that steaming hot beverage. It's inevitable, right? Earlier this year, I had tea with my niece and wrote about it in:

tea party with Amelia

But I stand by my initial thought on this. I have no qualms about a child having a sip of my tea but if a child isn't accustomed to tea, I'd start with an herbal blend. It just seems like the more natural introduction. 

Still, I wondered then what I'd say if she wanted to know about the history of tea. How did people start drinking tea? for example. Or Why does your tea have such funny names?

So imagine my surprise when Jo Johnson asked if I'd like to see a book she'd written that specifically introduced tea to children. I enjoy tea samples and receive my share of them, but I think my writing about tea books has (correctly) led people to believe I'm as interested in tea writing. In case it wasn't completely clear, I'll say right now: I love tea books. They're good for the teablog, they encourage conversation about tea, and finally they're books. One of my weaknesses.

The book is called The World's Special Tea, and it's exactly what I'd want to have had in order to introduce Amelia to tea. It tells the history of tea from it's earliest Chinese origins through Japan and on to Europe. There's a brief explanation of the Boston Tea Party, as well as the English replanting of Chinese tea seeds in India

The book tells about the Camellia sinensis plant, from which all tea is made, and even mentions herbal or Tisane without getting mired in a discussion about what is and isn't tea. I like that. I've mentioned it here before: although I understand the hard-line position that we should only refer to tea as that which comes from the tea plant, I find it's often pedantic and nit-picky. With an adult, I might get into a discussion about this topic, but with a child? A Tisane is tea.
beautiful gift packaging 
And the best part? The book comes with it's own special tea for children (hence the name). Exactly the sort of thing I wanted for Amelia when I served her tea. An herbal blend with a mixture of Rooibus, bits of apple and ginger, as well as orange peels and cinnamon among other things. 

Would I drink this tea? If I were drinking tea with Amelia, I'd drink it happily. Although I rarely think to myself, 'I want some delicious tea,' and then reach for an herbal blend, that's not the point here. Having said all that, I did brew up The World's Special Tea and I could taste many of the flavours that were described in the ingredients. 

Most importantly, this is an inventive answer to my original question: What would I serve a child who was interested in tea? There's a bit in the book about planning a tea party. Not so sure how well I'd manage that one, but I might give it a try. 

The book itself? The World's Special Tea? I can definitely recommend it. Happily.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

tea awakening in the Chicago Tea Garden

Chicago Tea Garden
Several weeks ago, one of my non-teadrinker friends, who happens to live in Chicago, had signed up for a tea tasting at Chicago Tea Garden. My ears perked up and because I write this teablog partially for the tea newcomer and the tea curious, I asked Sue (@sepilipa) if she'd take a notebook along with her to the tea tasting and record her impressions. Sue, being the eager scientist that she is, quickly agreed. For the sake of science. And my teablog.

So because of her diligence, I can essentially mail it in today. Or cut and paste. Thanks Sue. First of all, here's the inside of Chicago Tea Garden:

Here's what she had to say:
First let me say my expectation was that Tony (Gebely) would be a much older guy, but he's probably younger than I am. He was very welcoming to my friend and me and to the other group of five ladies that attended (they were together). His shop is small but cute and his table was set up so there were essentially two groups; one on either side of the center where he worked. The people were all tea novices and there were no mr-know-it-alls in the group, so everyone was comfortable and friendly.

Tony worked on a tea table and had us use a snifter cup for each tea. He gave us basic tea information as he went along and was quite knowledgeable. He told us what plant tea comes from (Camellia sinensis) and told us that everything that does not come from this plant is NOT tea (I didn't know that). 

He briefly described the leaf and anything significant about it each time we started a new tea (ie, white tea smells very floral because it's withered a long time, oolong leaves are bruised and have 15 processing steps, black is fully oxidized, etc). Overall, it was a very pleasant experience. My friend and I had a very good time and learned a lot....well, relatively speaking, of course.

Below are the 7 teas we tasted. 

Name: Wu yu 
Type: green
Notes: used a gaiwan to serve
1st steeping @ 175F; tasted a bit like dusty spinach to me. 
2nd steeping @175; a little less dusty tasting but I still didn't love it. 

Name: Silver Needle
Type: white
Notes: kinda furry,  used a gaiwan to serve
1st steeping @ 175F; light and feathery, not a strong flavor but enough of a flavor to keep me interested. This one was my favorite of the whole bunch. 

Name: Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy)
Type: oolong
Notes: rolled into little balls, used unglazed clay pots to serve
1st steeping @ 190F for 45 seconds; smelled a bit like a root vegetable; I could barely taste it.
2nd steeping @190F for 45 seconds;; felt "meh" about it.

Name: Mi Xiang (honey orchid flavor)
Type: oolong
Notes: rolled long ways, used unglazed clay pots to serve
1st steeping @ 190 for 45 seconds; darker in color, tasted a bit earthy
2nd steeping @190 for 45 seconds; more flavorful. I definitely like the second steeping better than the first.

Name: Golden Bi Luo (tiny snails)
Type: black
Notes: hand rolled into snail shapes,  used a gaiwan to serve
1st steeping @195F  (instructed not to steep longer than a minute or the tea would be bitter); smelled ricey to me but Tony said "malty vanilla finish".
2nd steeping @ 195F ; sweeter and smoother taste, a nice strong flavor. I liked the second steeping better.

Name: Chrysanthemum Toucha
Type: pu-erh
Notes: bird nest shaped; Tony said it makes a good cold brew,  used a gaiwan to serve
1st steeping @ 208C for 45 sec to 1 min; Very dark. Tasted like a forest floor. A comment was made from one of the other attendants that it was like "licking the bark of a tree". I did not care for this tea at all. He made another one that was even darker and more disgusting but I didn't write down it's name.

Name: Yue Guang Bai (moonlight)
Type: white
Notes: Hmm. curiously I didn't make one single note about this one except it's name and type. I don't know why.
1st and 2nd steeping @ 175F for 1 minute

Really nice descriptions for a tea novice, don't you think? I think Sue did an excellent job. Although she's still a coffee drinker with a healthy curiosity about tea, I wonder how long it might take us to lure her over to the leaf-side. Thank you again my Cubs-loving, bicycling, outsdoorsy friend.

Tony Gebely and our staff tea reviewer

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Mago Merlino and his tea world

On the way back from visiting the tea shop that I mentioned in the previous post, I stumbled upon this little establishment:

Mago Merlino Tea 
The manner in which I found it was a bit like something out of Lewis Carroll...almost felt like it sprouted up out of nowhere while I was still teadrunk from a bit earlier. While taking photos from outside, there was a gentleman lurking ominously outside. Turns out he was the proprietor of Mago Merlino Tea, and I was in for an experience.

Here's a bit more about the fellow in his own words:

As he says, 'My name is Rocco Raffaele Jacopini. Some people-they call me "Bellino". Some people-they call me "Mago"...magician, you know? Because when they enter this place and they go to the tea house, they breathe a kind of atmosphere of the long time gone...I want to show my little touch of class. Imagination. Fantasy. It's very important.'

This guy's fantastic. If he were a teablogger, I'm sure we could get him to be a 
Beast of Brewdom.

The little shop above is at: Via Matteo Palmieri, 21/r. But I don't find that anywhere else on the web (thus my surprise at it's very existence). Instead, I think he wants you to come to the Mago Merlino Tea House which you'll find at: Via de Pilastri, 31/r. You might want to call ahead (tel. 055/242 970), because I'm not sure when exactly the tearoom is open.

I went there this evening, but imagine my disappointment at its darkened, shuttered entranceway. There's quite a lot written up about this place on the web, and it looks like a lot of fun there.

Maybe next time I'm in Florence, I'll get to check it out.

The best part of finding Mago at the shop was the tea he had on offer. After showing me some very delicious smelling Tie Guan Yin leaves that I balked at buying, he measured out a nice amount of what he called King Oolong. I had very low expectations of this tea when I brewed it. Boy, was I wrong.

I brewed it and brewed it and brewed it again. This tea was sturdy and delicious and a very nice, delicious Oolong. Seven infusions and that same fresh vegetale flavour that makes some tea obsessives focus exclusively on this sort of tea.

Here I was thinking I would be penalised for not buying the top-shelf tea he offered, but instead I walked away with an unforeseeable gem of an unknown tea. I'd regularly buy tea from Signor Jacopini were I living in or near Florence. And I'm sure he has some stories to tell. Both stories of the tea-related as well as the non tea-related varieties.

quite a selection of tea ware

One more view of this tasteful little shop

Saturday, 19 November 2011

La Via del Te

La Via del Te
It's not in the city centre where the tourists pack the tiny streets. Even in late November, Florence is overflowing with packs of Asian tourists and even those loud American teenagers (or recent teenagers) that you encounter in any popular European city. As I expected when I first looked at this shop on the map, it's a bit of a hike to La Via del Te. Dare I was well worth it.

You round a corner, see an outdoor semi-covered market with stands selling fresh vegetables, cheeses and meat, as well as cheaply-made designer knockoffs. Next to this market is a very unassuming tea shop sign that I doubt I'd see were I not looking for it.
the sign
There's been quite a lot of walking and standing looking at paintings. As much as I'm ready for tea, my feet are even more ready for a break.

beautiful tea cannisters
A charming little shop and tearoom greets me as I push through the door. I already read that they've been in business for decades, and it's obvious that this is a place serious about tea.

For a moment after I order a King of Pu-erh, whatever that is, I worry that she thinks I want two cups of the same tea. Yet as soon as I land on the words 'due infusioni', the tea server's eyes light up with understanding. Infusion is a universal term in the world of tea.

One of the things I like most about good tea: the first infusion only has a hint of how nice this tea will actually become.

Before I leave I decide to take small portions of what they call Oolong Fleur d'Orient and a simple Keemun. Am glad I remember this, because I like to carry a memory of a nice tea shop home with me.

My body is warm and content. My feet are grateful for the rest, and I'm back on my way into the welcoming streets of Florence.  Via the Way of Tea.

one last glimpse of the shop

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

basic tea gear for a tea newcomer

Several weeks ago, I received a question from someone new to my blog.  It was just a general 'What's the best way to brew this stuff?' question, but my heart sank a bit when she indicated that she, her name's Elizabeth, only had teabags and really only wanted to brew up a cup at a time.

Nothing wrong with that, despite what Robert Godden might tell you, but once you've really been convinced about loose-leaf tea, it's difficult to get excited about teabags.  I've been suitably polite about how some teabags from some brands aren't that bad, but even I have a hard time actually believing it most of the time.

Today, I got another question from Elizabeth.  It was more along the lines of, 'How do I get into tea?'  Which really means, 'What sort of stuff do I need to do this right?'

I'm going to keep this blogpost as short as I can.  I 'd like to keep it as simple as possible.  One of the things I try to do with this blog is to pass exactly this sort of information on to people relatively new to tea.  Well, loose-leaf tea especially.

Firstly, I'll ask you loyal readers how you'd answer this question.  How would you introduce drinking tea brewed from whole leaf?

I use filter bags quite a lot.  Especially when I travel.  And I like to have them around for everyday use.  Especially with most black tea, I don't think it really matters.

But with any whole leaf tea, some enjoy watching the full leaves open up as they steep almost as much as they like actually drinking the tea.  For that, a glass teapot where the leaves can swim around freely would be ideal.  If you don't already have one, I'm not sure I'd recommend going out and getting one.

Let's make sure you like this tea drinking lark first, ok?

So my advice is to get a Finum Brewing Basket. The largest size is ideal because then you can make both smaller and larger amounts.  There are certainly other brands.  This is simply the one I know.  And I'd get that permanent tea filter basket first before choosing a teapot.  Just to make sure they fit one another.

Here's my Finum Brewing Basket

And what sort of pot?  I don't know what the rest of you think about this, but the simplest ceramic pot should be good for starting out.  Why not?

I'm sure you can find a Brown Betty or something similar from a variety of sources.  I'm not a teapot fanatic, so maybe one of the rest of you has better advice for this question.

Ok Elizabeth, once you have a few basic pieces of tea gear, we'll move on to the actual tea.  Curious how easy this is for you specifically and if anyone else reading this has additional ideas generally.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

tea for the long slog of a campaign

patriotic sculpture atop a hotel in Washington D.C.

Was spammed by a relatively new blogger, whose twitter avatar was still an unassuming egg.  He was doing his very best at using Social Media to grow his audience.  Unluckily, he happened upon Lisa Galaviz and me.  We subscribe to the old-fashioned method of ridiculing twitter spammers to grow our audience.

But his was a political blog, and I thought, 'I can do that.'  Poorly, but I can certainly do that.  But the thing is: how can I talk about politics on a teablog?  Quite easily actually.  I rarely let an unrelated topic keep me from pontificating on it at length.

Now, I live in Germany & love it here.  I'm obsessed by their politics and the curious way they go about things here in my adopted homeland.  And I read a lot about the machinations of the State in the United Kingdom.  Not sure I could write eloquently about that topic, but I could certainly give it a go.

But the reality is that most of my audience is across the ocean in The United States, and even those living elsewhere are bound to have read at least the bare minimum about those Republicans vying for the opportunity to run against Barack Obama to become the American president.

Just as a quick aside, I don't understand why anyone would actually want that job, but that'll be my one attempt at an actual political opinion here.  Instead, I'd like to ask what sort of tea each candidate might most enjoy.  If I leave someone out, please don't freak out.  This is anything but scientific or serious for that matter.

Had to consult with Lisa Galaviz and her friend @Whoremongers on twitter for the exact ingredients of Texas Tea.  I have bad news for you tea lovers.  This stuff doesn't actually have any tea in it.  As Lisa said it's, 'gin, tequila, vodka, and rum.  Oh, and a splash of Coke.'  (That's Coca Cola people.  This is a respectable teablog).  Any idea who this might be for?  Well it is Texas Tea, after all.  That one's for Texas Governor Rick Perry.  

What about Herman Cain?  No idea where his tastes might lay when it comes to tea, but I'm going to assume he likes strong flavour.  Maybe a smoky Grand Yunnan to go with that cigarette smoking ad his campaign put out.  That should be just right.

Representative Ron Paul, also from Texas, refuses to acknowledge that tea really has to come from the Camellia sinensis plant.  I'm going to give him a nice Caramel Rooibus, but I'm certainly not going to volunteer the fact that it's made from a Red Bush in South Africa.  Maybe the absence of caffeine will help him from getting overly excited.

What about Representative Michelle Bachmann from Minnesota?  Maybe she'd take a drop of milk with her tea, and the nicest Ceylon I know that goes well with a bit of milk is Ceylon Adawatte.  How's that?  I hope she'd like it.

And I don't have any idea if Newt Gingrich would bother with my offer of tea, but I'd certainly make an attempt.  He's seen as an intellectual, so what'd I consider a tea for a thinker?  How about an Assam Khongea, which is strong but not too malty.

I'm afraid Rick Santorum might see taking hot tea as being a bit too effeminate, so I'll save him the fear of embarrassment and offer him a nice glass of iced tea.  You think his Google search results are uncomfortable now, just imagine if 'tea drinker' came up in connection to him.

What in the world is Mitt Romney going to drink?  Now I'm in a bit of a quandary.  He similarly won't want to be seen drinking a cup of tea, but simultaneously wouldn't want to offend me by turning it down.  He's probably got a decent palette, so I'll go ahead and serve him my best 2nd flush Darjeeling Singbulli.  It's flavourful but is rather subtle about it.  No joke, this is some nice tea.  Even if we are out of the camera's eye (update: my friend Denise has informed me that as a Mormon, Mr Romney cannot have caffeine in any form.  Really?  That's unfortunate.  A better teablogger might edit his choice, but I just can't be bothered to think of a decent tea without caffeine).

I've saved the most difficult decision for last.  See, Jon Huntsman was actually the US Ambassador to China, so he's most definitely had some decent tea in his time.  But he's likely had to stick with the best of mainland tea.  My favourite tea from Little China (Taiwan) is an Alishan Zhu Lu Oolong.  I've waxed poetic about it here before.  I'm rather confident that he'll enjoy it.  If he doesn't, I'll have what he doesn't.  It's that good.

Did I miss anyone?  No idea.  But now I've done my political teablog.  It's going to be a long slog of a campaign.  I'm sure this tea will see each of them through.  That is if they even accept my offer.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

there's tea for hard water?

Was at a Markt der Sinne this last weekend, which translates (poorly) as 'market of the senses' or in a more racy way 'sensuous market'.  I know some of you are going to have fun with that one.

But unlike its name might suggest, the Markt der Sinne was mostly artists and artisans selling their wares.  I stumbled round trying not to look some of them directly in the eye.  Although some stands were selling only homemade objects, there were a few shops that had set up their wares.

And instead of buying a necklace made of monkey teeth or a candle that'd help me align my chakras, I found one shop that had different products from The British Isles.  I didn't expect to find anything I really wanted, but then I noticed some packages of loose-leaf tea.

What caught my eye was a package from Yorkshire Gold.  I've mentioned before that I think this tea from Taylor's of Harrogate is a reliable blend of black tea that might be a good beginning for someone just getting into tea.  But this package had something written on it that I hadn't seen before.

It was tea for hard water. Wow, really?

Now, maybe you come from a place with hard water and you've seen products specially made for this sort of thing.  I haven't.

I know the water's hard here, but does it really affect the taste of the tea?  There was only one way to find out.  Something I didn't know even existed a few minutes earlier?  Now, I had to have it.

Then on my way home, I thought, 'Wait.  Is the tap water in Munich even very hard?  I know it has a lot of chalk in it, but does that make it hard?'  Luckily, I found this website that explains Tap Water Quality in Munich.

No idea how accurate that information is, but at least I felt more confident that I had the right hard water for my new tea.

How does it taste?  Hm...I brewed it.  I've actually brewed it a few times.  Even served it to a few people.  It's ok.  The reaction from others has been that it's a bit weak, but...

This isn't a tea review.  I'll do that more seriously when I've had a chance to try it with varying amounts of tea and lengths of steeping times.

I mainly wanted to ask if you'd tried tea specifically blended for certain water where you live?  Have you even heard of this?

Monday, 7 November 2011

third cup of tea means it's time for you to go

tea hospitality
Got into an intriguing discussion with some fellow tea obsessives and something made me stumble over to my bookshelf and pull The World of Caffeine down.  It's a book by Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer that I sometimes turn to for reference.

We were specifically talking about the first mention of tea in Europe, and whether there was anything worth noting before the Dutch started bringing back by ship.  Other than Marco Polo mentioning it in relation to its use being taxed (1285), one particular Venetian wrote about tea while describing his travels to China.

He was called Giambatista Ramusio, and he reported about tea in 1559 in Chai Catai (tea of China) which is part of his posthumously published Navigatione et Viaggi (Voyages and Travels), after he heard about it from a Persian caravan merchant Hajji Mahommed (Chaggi Memet).  So that's the first time tea was officially referred to in Europe.

But while the Venetians were going the overland route, the Portuguese discovered the quickest way to China was around the Cape of Good Hope.  Rather than get more specific about the general history, I'll include an entire paragraph about the Portuguese Jesuit priests and their relation to tea.

'The Portuguese traders and the Portuguese Jesuit priests, who like Jesuits of every nation busied themselves with the affairs of caffeine, wrote frequently and favorably to compatriots in Europe about tea.  Strangely enough, there is no record of their sending tea shipments from the East for the enjoyment of their countrymen.  In 1556, Father Gasper Da Cruz, a missionary, became the first to preach Catholicism in China; when he returned home in 1560, he wrote and mentioned the first mention of tea in Portuguese, "a drink called ch'a, which is somewhat bitter, red, and medicinall."  Another Portuguese cleric, Father Alvaro Semedo, in 1633 wrote an early account of the tea plant and the preparation of the beverage in his book about China, Relatione della Grande Monarchia della Cina (1643).  He mentions the custom, initiated at the Hann Pass by Yin Hsi, of offering tea to guests, and explains that when it is offered for the third time, it is time for the guest to move along.'

(source: The World of Caffeine pp. 61-63)

There are two things I like about this.  Firstly, did Jesuits of every nation really busy themselves with caffeine?  Isn't that a weird turn of phrase?  I must admit it's the first time I've found myself daydreaming of being just such a Jesuit priest.  Purely for caffeine reasons, I assure you.

And the other thing?  Well, of course it's the three-cups-and-you're-out-of-here part.  Isn't that curious?  One of the above-mentioned tea people, I think it was Michael J Coffey, pointed out that this was a funny spin on Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea

The first cup-you were a stranger. By the second you were a friend, and simultaneously while I serve you that third cup, you're both family and I'm going to give you The Bum's Rush.  Here's your hat-what's your hurry?

Saturday, 5 November 2011

the dragon sleeps tonight

Sleeping Dragon leaves presteeping

Relatively often, I hear about what a wonderful community we tea bloggers have.  Tea obsessives go to the World Tea Expo or World Tea East and wax poetic about the generosity of the people they meet there.  

Although I've met many tea shop owners here in Germany (and some in England and The United States), most of my experience with the people who populate the world of tea has been here in cyberspace.  I'm not complaining.  Am sure I'll make it to a trade fair at some point.  Until then, I intend to continue taking advantage of the fantastic opportunities to connect with tea drinkers online.

A week or so ago, I read about a tea tasting that Courtney Powers (otherwise known as @ThePurrfectCup) was hosting where she'd be introducing several sorts of green tea.  Jokingly, I said that I wish I could magically transport myself to Upstate New York and try the tea she was talking about.

Like I say, I was kidding.  There was no way I was going to make it the next day to Courtney's little tea shop.  But she offered the next best thing.  She got my address and sent samples of the tea along.  What an unexpected surprise.

I read her recent blogpost (A Green Tea Tasting) with a different perspective, because I knew that soon enough I'd be able to actually taste the tea she was describing.  My plan was to actually brew up each of the teas she served and pretend I was there.  

Alas, it wasn't to be.  I got distracted steeping and resteeping Sleeping Dragon from Adagio Teas, and then ended up writing a tea review about it.  

I'll link to the tea review when it's been published, but suffice it to say I enjoyed this tea. 
Not sure why they bill it as a tea for a green tea novice, but as advertised it wasn't remotely grassy.  

The best part?  Well, the time that I set aside for multiple teas, I spent really focusing on just one.  The last few weeks, I've been drinking tea functionally.  Good tea-no question. But tea on the run.  Tea for the train ride.  A pot for the other musicians and me before a rehearsal.

In this case, I really gave my full attention to each steeping of this Sleeping Dragon.  It was worth every minute.  Even got a little tea drunk in the meantime.  As a result, I think I might even sleep as well as the dragon.

Thanks Courtney.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

prostate awareness on a teablog?

a bit of facial hair
There's plenty of tea drinking going on hereabouts, but there's a topic some of us male teabloggers are delicately weaving into our narrative.  The month of November has something to do with prostate awareness.  You'll certainly be hearing more about it in the weeks to come, but I'm going to let Robert Godden explain it better than I can:

Tea and the Art of Manliness Maintenance

So, here we go.  I'll still be talking about this tea drinking lark here.  Quite a lot actually.  But there'll be plenty about a healthy prostate, as well.

Here's an explanation over on Joy's Teaspoon blog: We Challenge You to a 'Mo Off' and I just found this description on the Movember website of what we're doing.  Here's how it's written:

'During November each year, Movember is responsible for the sprouting of moustaches on thousands of men’s faces, in the US and around the world. With their Mo’s, these men raise vital funds and awareness for men’s health, specifically prostate cancer and other cancers that affect men.'

And here's Our Movember Team.  Go check us out and donate indiscriminately.  Or discriminately.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

why drink tea?

Enough with my measured, careful claims about tea and its benefits.

Why should you drink tea?

Immortality of course.  If you drink tea, especially good tea, you'll live forever.

No death.  Minimal disease.  You'll be invited to all the best parties.  Can I prove it?  Nope.  Do I have any empirical evidence?  Evidence schmevidance.

You'll live forever.  Basta.

Smile.  Enjoy yourself.  It's going to be a long one.

(Warning: the claims made in this blogpost are not remotely based on fact or any connection to reality whatsoever. That doesn't necessarily mean they're not true)