Friday, 29 April 2011

An oasis on the Eastside

Have been reading about Zhi Tea for a while, and promised myself that when I made it back to Texas, I'd definitely make the trip to see it for myself. Am very glad I did. What a great little shop. When I was a kid, I wasn't even aware there was an Eastside of Austin. Things certainly change.

Have had a rather stressful few weeks travelling, and this was exactly what I needed. They've got plenty of loose-leaf tea for you to take home with you, but are just as happy to brew you up a pot while you're there.

Decided to go with the Iron Goddess Oolong (tie guan yin), whose leaves looked like a medium oxidation.

The first infusion's always a bit weak, but I could already tell this was more highly fermented than I expected. There was a hint of something that reminded me of a Formosa Oolong. But only a hint.

The second infusion was much more flavourful. Delicious. Very fruity and vegetal. Can feel The Iron Goddess working her magic. A bit darker cup colour and here are the leaves as they continue to expand.

The leaves don't look that much different for the third infusion here, but they are quite wild coming out of the infuser. The taste the third time round isn't quite as strong, but still delicious. Every time I drink this tea, I'm reminded of the video Leafbox Tea Called my attention to. Here it is. There's definitely still something in these leaves. I'm going for a fourth time.

Although the leaves don't look that much different, I think I like this infusion the best. There's something incredibly sweet about this time. Much lighter shade in the cup, but incredibly tasty.

They have quite a selection of different teas, and their attractive tins can be found in many places around the city. Here's a photo of one of the displays (the black teas), and below is where I sat and drank the tea and wrote this post.

Am really excited about the excitement about tea in the States. Of course, I read about it on blogs, and see fellow tea fanatics on twitter, but to be able to visit multiple tea rooms while I've been here has been a treat. If you're in Austin or happen to be visiting, you should definitely cruise over to the Eastside and check out Zhi Tea.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

tea in the shadow of Enchanted Rock

Another example of tea making an already fantastic experience fantasticker. Went to Enchanted Rock early this morning, and a day trip just wouldn't be the same without my flask of tea.

I've gone into excruciating detail about preparing my tea for a trip, so I won't bore you with that again. It should be mentioned that although I rose before the sun came up to avoid the hottest part of the day, I made sure there was enough time to preheat my thermos. It made all the difference.

An hour or so later, noticed this German flag while careening through Fredrickburg, Texas. The shops have German names, and there's plenty of indications that people here actually speak German.

Back to Enchanted Rock. While trudging up the face of the rock, all I could think about was that steaming tea waiting for me at the end of all this. Beautiful, can we go drink that tea soon?

Nice view from up above everything. Great day for a hike. Thought when I left Germany that I'd be foregoing hiking until my return. Not a chance. Does this mean I've earned my tea? Yes, I have.

A whole pot of still hot Assam Khongea packed in the early morning for a perfect day.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

A terrible cup of tea

Plopped a nondescript teabag in the cup, and poured boiling water over it. Teabags are notoriously a bit of leaf (if any) and teadirt, so I only let it steep 3 minutes. Took a deep breath and smelled the cup. Not much of a smell, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything.

Waited a few minutes for it to cool down, and then finally took a sip. Bitter. Somehow tasted dirty. Give it a few minutes. It might improve after it cools down a bit.

Not a chance. Just more obvious that the quality of tea in this bag is not remotely acceptable.


A terrible cup of tea.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

are you kidding me?

Ok tea lovers,

Prepare yourselves for a bit of a rant. Am actually a bit surprised at my reaction, but if I don't say anything now I might convince myself that it's not that important.

I've heard people whinge about the price of loose-leaf tea, and I've thought it was rather excessive. Come on people. It came all the way from China or India or somewhere else far,far away. Sure, it's a plant and it's grown in a part of the world where the cost of living is relatively miniscule. Nevertheless, the logistics of getting it here aren't so easy. Some cultures have less of a tea history, and are in desperate need of professional marketing.

But come on. Are you serious?

I'm not going to call attention to any individual tea seller, but if you watch this blog over the next few weeks, you'll know exactly who I'm talking about. $25 for roughly 60 grams of tea? Really? That's not just seems like it'd actually drive some away from tea.

I've had some really exceptional tea in my life. Some rare tea can be quite dear. But nearly everything in your shop? Not helping our cause. Not at all.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

a tea stumble through Georgetown

Had several hours in Washington DC, and after making a quick search of tea rooms I found a few places that looked interesting in Georgetown. Actually, it seems like there are quite a few options for afternoon tea in nice hotels in the city, but by that time I'd already be back on my way to the airport. I think I did pretty well under the circumstances. For example, I've written here about Bubble Tea but had never had it. Well, once I realised that this little tea/snack shop featured some authentic Bubble Tea, if there is such a thing, I had to try it. Here I am on the left pre-Bubble Tea.

The place is called Snap (1062 Thomas Jefferson Street Northwest, Washington D.C. (202) 965-7627) and it's right around the corner from the historic C & O Canal in Georgetown.

Let me first say that I didn't have high hopes for this beverage. I'd even say that I prepared myself to be thoroughly disgusted. The young woman behind the counter was very friendly and eager to explain what the whole phenomenon was about. She said that one of the biggest problems with serving it is that it's made in such a wide variety of ways that people come in with very specific expectations of how it should taste.

There were many different flavours I could've chosen, but I went for a simple green tea. It's iced and served with a healthy portion of milk. Again, this isn't how I'd normally drink green tea, but I wanted the requisite experience in all of its glory. At the bottom of the glass, or in this case plastic to-go cup, are a layer of tapioca balls. Another variation offers little balls or pearls made of jelly. Many think the name comes from these pearls/balls, but it was explained to me that the bubble in the name actually comes from the froth that results when the drink is violently shaken.

Those of you who came for a teablog have likely already changed the channel. I don't blame you. But here's the thing: it wasn't bad. I wouldn't go for it everyday, but I can see why prepubescent South Korean girls go nuts about this stuff. In the future, they are welcome to have mine.

So a few streets over, there was a real tea room. It was immediately clear that this was the sort of place made for tea lovers. All the best things that come time to mind when I say Chinese Tea Room are involved here. The place is called Chin Ching Cha, and they know what they're doing.

The high ceilings and unbelievable selection of tea gear made me want to stay here much longer than my schedule allowed. There were as many Gaiwan and Yixing teapots as you see on many websites. There were some conventional looking packages of tea, but there were also beautiful tea tins with exquisite loose-leaf tea. I was the proverbial kid in a candy shop.

The only thing I'd complain about is that the prices for actually sitting down and drinking tea were rather steep. After perusing the website, I notice that having a meal there (with tea included) might be more economical. The menu I was offered explicitly said that the prices were for individual servings only, so sharing a pot was not an option. When I questioned the prices and the rigid serving arrangement, I was told that it was a tea house not a restaurant. I'm still trying to decipher what that meant exactly.

If you read this blog even periodically, you know I'm rarely negative, and aside from the prices here is no exception. The room was indeed beautiful. Were I living in the area, I might make an excuse to come here sometimes. An important client. A special occasion. Please don't take my word for it. Go see it yourself.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Is tea bad for you?

Had a ton of great responses to my horror story about my kettle from a few days ago. Thanks for all of that. It really is fulfilling to entertain.

So two things happened this week that got me off on another tangent, and somehow I think this'll be appreciated here. Rather than work my way up to it, I'll ask the question here at the outset:

Is tea bad for you?

We often hear about how green tea can cure cancer or halitosis or Tourette's. For every potential life-saving property that's attributed to tea-drinking, there's someone else out there insisting that the science doesn't back up the claims. I'm glad there are people arguing this, but I'm really out of my depth when any of these topics come up.

My response, when the topic of health benefits of tea arises, is to very clearly say that I really don't know. I love drinking the stuff. If there are additional advantages, then I'm all the happier.

But what if all this tea I'm drinking is actually detrimental? Ooh, now this might get interesting.

My friend Art has had some rather monumental health issues that've led him to assess everything he's always thought about nutrition and diet. Anytime he sends me anything, I take it seriously. Partly out of solidarity for him and his struggles. Partly because he finds good stuff. When he locates anything tea-related, I know it's coming my way.

So the blogpost he sent me is from Lindsey "Vee" Goodwin of Vee Tea and it's all about Tea and Iron. It might be two and a half years old, but it seems like all of this still stands. Let me be perfectly clear: she does not say that tea's bad for you.

She does however talk about the effect of the tannins in tea on both anemic and vegetarians, and recommends that those people drink less tea or avoid the black or highly-oxidised Oolong tea that have a lot of tannins. Please don't take any of this from me. Go click on the link, and read what she has to say about it.

She does ask at one point, “You want me to drink LESS tea and plan my meals around my tea-drinking! You must be crazy!” So I wanted to throw this out as a hypothetical:

What if you found out drinking too much tea was, in fact, bad for you? Would it impact your tea drinking in the least? I write quite a bit about black tea. Would I be willing to alter which tea I drink for the sake of my health?

The other thing that happened was much more frivolous. My dentist informed me that it was very self-evident that I was a heavy tea drinker. She said it as if it was an admonition, but I glowed with pride. It's just cosmetic, isn't it? What would you sacrifice for the sake of tea?

But she did convince me to lay off the black tea for the rest of the day. Might sound like it's not much of an inconvenience. I have plenty of really nice Oolong and green tea, but once my black tea was wasn't a pretty sight.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

when my kettle failed me

Went to sleep dreaming about the black tea blend I made last night. Inspired by all the concoctions Robert over at @The_Devotea has been hawking on tea trade, I blended a simple Ceylon and an overly malty Assam. I'll go into more detail on all that another time. The point is that I'd mixed the teas, and fallen asleep thinking that it was going to make for a good train journey.

Like most days, I set my alarm just early enough to heat my flask, brew a pot, pour it in the warm flask with just enough extra tea left over for a quick cup as I'm heading out the door. All of that was fine, but something was conspiring against me. As I filled the electric kettle, and flipped its switch, nothing happened. Nothing at all. The kettle was dead.

Any other day, I'd just heat up water in a pot. If the electricity was out, I could start a fire on the terrace. Fire prevention be damned. But there was no time. My train ticket was non-refundable. And as important as having my tea along for the ride, I had to be reasonable.

Packed my tea blend and was on my way. Made the train in the last second before the whistle blew and we pulled out of the station. There was bagged tea offered in the restaurant car, but I'd had it before. It really was a crime against tea. My anticipation had been so utterly destroyed that I even turned down the coffee. Maybe I could sleep until we reached our destination. No luck. I stared out the window while the countryside rolled by. The beautiful blossoming springtime was lost on me. It was a black day in my heart.

But there was still hope. If I hurried to my appointment, I'd be able to scrounge up a teapot, and brew some of my blend before everyone arrived. But I guess it wasn't to be. I got there early enough. I asked one of my colleagues if she knew where a pot was, and she assured me she'd try. There was coffee, but remember Germany is primarily a coffee-drinking culture. Well, at least southern Germany is. This'd never happen in Bremen or Hamburg.

The meeting started. I was there to give a presentation. I couldn't announce that because of my lack of tea there'd be no power point. Could I? No, I couldn't. Somehow, I went into a fugue state and did my job. It wasn't pretty, but there've been worse moments in Western Civilisation. Not many. But I persevered.

After the visiting clients left, I collapsed onto the floor. At this point, I needed some tea. Seriously. Maybe there'd be relief at some shop or cafe near the train station before my trip home. At the magazine shop next to the track, they apologised that they had no hot water. The woman behind the counter suggested some Iced Tea in the nearby refrigerator. I assured her that whatever was in those containers, they had little or nothing to do with tea. She met my crazed glare with complete and utter incomprehension.

I was babbling incoherently as I stumbled over to my waiting train. The lights around me were getting blurrier as we started moving. Practically hallucinating, my thoughts turned to whether anyone in my building might lend me their kettle. Or was there a place I could still get even a cup of tea before I had to make my way home. Clearly I was a mess.

Somehow, I found my keys and let myself in before any of the neighbours saw me in this state. I looked around the kitchen in a daze, and saw my useless, wretched kettle staring back at me. At this point, I had time to heat water in a pot, but I became more and more incensed at this seemingly innocuous appliance that I'd always taken for granted. So smug and content he was. Knowing that he held the power to ruin my day so completely.

I started to imagine the horrible ways I could destroy the kettle. The humiliations I could subject him to. Dangling him from a bridge. Letting go and watching him smashed to pieces by the rush of passing traffic. Cackling uncontrollably, I found myself weeping and muttering obscenities that I'd rather not repeat.

It was only then I noticed...wait...

The night before I'd tidied up behind the toaster and had to unplug everything. My kettle was still sitting there full of the water I'd poured in in the predawn morning. I carefully fit the cord back in the outlet and turned the kettle on. The red light burned brightly, and for the first time in hours I took a deep breath. Soon there was that reassuring gurgling sound and I was fumbling through my bag for the package of tea I'd waited all day for.

Looking sheepishly over at my beloved kettle, I heard the water start to boil. Soon enough the tea was in the pot, the water was poured and I was somehow calmed. Hadn't yet had any tea, but my body was soothed at the very thought of it.

I heard my voice ask the kettle, 'You know I was kidding about dropping you off of a bridge, right?'

No answer. Not a word.

As I poured my tea, I felt an uncomfortable stillness between us. It actually made me very nervous. It's just a kettle, I told myself as my heart rate slowed and the tea warmed my extremities. At that point, I assured myself that everything was going to be ok.

But still...I unplugged that damned kettle before I went to bed. You never know if he'd come for me in my sleep.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Drink tea if you're man enough

The bar was really raised this weekend in my little community of tea bloggers. Not only was @lazy_literatus hard at work on a tea fantasy of epic proportions (The Legend of Lapsang), but @The_Devotea also wrote a very poignant post about the tea people with whom he cavorts virtually (Bridge Over the River Chai). It really was a treat to read them both.

Everyday, it seems more teablogs appear on the scene. Although there's room for all of them, I'm always considering what might make this blog a bit different. These two compadres continue to do exactly that. Since reading the above-mentioned posts, I've been pondering how to add to the discussion. How to make this place just a bit more off-kilter.

The tea community that I've watched grow around me is really astounding. There are certainly tons of others I could talk about, but these gentlemen deserve special mention.

And the whole topic of tea manliess would've never been brought front and centre without the upstarts over at The Tea Blag .

Drink tea if you're man enough.

Friday, 8 April 2011

from a humble tea company

The last few mornings have started with an Assam Sephinjuri, which I adore. I wrote about this tea here last year, before I very lightly mentioned the issue of fair-trade and sustainability.

My tea supplier in Hamburg says this is an ideal tea for the morning. I've certainly been following his advice. Every morning, as I said. No idea why I like this tea so much. It's not nearly as expensive as an Assam from Mangalam or Hatamari, but there's something simple about it that really pleases me.

Says it's a first flush as well. Had no idea Assam was divided into categories of flushes like Darjeeling, but why not.

Did a rudimentary search to see what I could find out about this region of tea growing in Assam, and I found about Camellia Plc, which started out as The Sephinjuri Bheel Tea Company Limited. I'm certainly not doing any advertising for this company (I don't know any more about them than what they say on their website), but I do like the idea of a modern company involved in many things that started out as a tea company.

But now that I look at it in a bit more detail, they're involved in Agriculture & Horticulture; Engineering & Manufacturing; Food Storage & Distribution; as well as Private Banking & Financial Services. Goodness...that's quite a variety of things, eh?

Wonder what the founders of the tea company would think if they saw all of that today. They'd likely be very proud.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

don't mention it

He says everything and he says nothing.

This is a funny saying that the Germans use when they're talking about politicians. Actually, you could use the phrase when talking about anyone who's using public relations-speak. Many words...not much actual meaning.

A client visited me this evening, and we had a wonderful time that had everything to do with tea, but simultaneously had nothing to do with tea. Nothing at all.

When I serve tea, I regularly put quite a lot of thought into what the perfect tea for that situation is. Maybe sometimes this analysis borders on the obsessive, but as far as I can see it's a victimless crime.

So I've served this client tea many times. I know she doesn't take milk, but often adds a little bit of sugar. I've been on a bit of a Ceylon kick lately, so I decided to serve one that I like a great deal.

Ceylon Nuwara 'Lover's Leap'

I've written about it at length before in a number of blogposts, but this was one I liked from last year in the dead of winter.

Normally, I save my best tea for guests, and this was no exception. But here was the thing: although the tea was appreciated and drunk with relish, there was no mention of it. It's why I say the good time had everything to do with the tea. Yet the fact that it's impact went unspoken, was almost more of a success than if a big to-do was made about it.

Either Jackie or Pete (or both) over at Leafbox Tea/Tea Trade have made the point that we needn't always obsess about the tea we're drinking it. Sometimes the best compliment one can give a great cup of tea is to simply not call attention to it.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Drinking Ceylon BOP Uva and not comprehending Cricket

Have gone back and ordered some of the black teas I was drinking when I began this blog early last year. They arrived last week, and I've been pondering how to reintroduce them. I drank a lot of Ceylon early on, and it seems fitting to spend a bit of time talking about it since the Cricket World Cup Final between Sri Lanka and India is in full swing, as it were.

Just to be very clear up front: I don't know anything about Cricket. That isn't an invitation to try and explain it to me. Many an afternoons sitting in the pub have been wasted by people trying to explain Cricket to me. It's no use. But I can certainly take advantage of the occasion to rattle on about the tea grown in Sri Lanka.

Here's how I talked about Ceylon Bop Uva way back then: BOP Uva, what a name, eh?.

So my question is what do I think of this tea now? Has my opinion changed?

When I talk about green or Oolong tea, I make photos of the beautiful leaves. I took a few photos of this BOP Uva, but it's really nondescript looking black tea. I've spent quite a bit of the afternoon reading about tea growing regions of Sri Lanka, and the most definitive thing I can say about this tea that's labeled BOP Uva, could come from any of a huge number of estates. It's not a small region at all.

What's the BOP part all about? Simply stated, BOP stands for broken orange pekoe. It's described rather well at Wikipedia, but it means that this is medium grade black tea. Rather than full leaves, they're broken into much smaller pieces. It actually looks a bit like very course ground coffee.

The leaves have a very light floral taste, and the tea itself is mildly spicy. Many sources recommend that tea from this region is good with milk. I tried it first without and then added just a bit. It was tasty either way, but the thing that made the tea interesting without milk was completely masked once milk was added.


As the day progressed, the Indians prevailed in the Cricket. When I imagine the fields of tea plants that I see in photos of Sri Lanka, I wonder if the people picking the tea even got a chance to watch the Cricket, or if they'd even want to.