Friday, July 22, 2016

Tasting: Keemun Concerto from Adagio Teas

When folks at Adagio sent me a gift card to select samples for review, I tried to find a few teas from their 'Roots Campaign', because they give bit of information on the farmers providing the teas. I picked a few teas of interest, and decided to start in on the Keemun Concerto first. In the interview with the farmer for this tea, Wang Ai Guo mentions the difficult work schedule and her life in poverty as a tea picker. These are things a tea drinker doesn't usually think about while sipping, a reality that tea drinkers tend to ignore. When I drink tea, I try to take a few moments of gratitude for the many weathered hands that plucked and carried the leaves and for those that processed them. I'm glad to be reminded of these facts while selecting my tea.

Keemun is grown in the Qimen (both the tea and the place are pronounced Chee-Men) county of Anhui and my favorite versions are smooth, rich, and chocolatey. The best ones don't have much if any smoky flavor. The Keemun Concerto dry leaves are thin and twisty with some golden tips. They are very sweet and a bit malty. The infused leaves are smoky and chocolatey. The brew itself has slight tobacco and earthy notes, and strong malt and chocolate flavors with a lingering bit of spice. No real smoky flavor to the brew, it's just in the leaves. The brew is of medium body, and super smooth. It's a very comforting tea, and has helped me relax during a hectic work day. I find the chocolatey smooth characteristic of Keemun to be a great tea to unwind with.

This is a nice everyday drinking tea. Something I could go for in the morning, or to relax with during a stressful day. I had left some on my desk and after a long meeting the cold tea was quite refreshing, so I decided to cold brew some the next day. The flavor was more delicate, but still smooth and malty with a touch of sweet cocoa.

Thank you to Adagio for providing the sample, I have a few more left to review, so stay tuned.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

WTE: My Favorite Gadgets


I know it's been over a month since the World Tea Expo, but I do have a few more things I wanted to say about it. Today, I wanted to mention three noteworthy tea 'gadgets' that I came across...

Qi Aerista- I have to admit, I loved this little tea making machine and the friendly folks behind it. It's a simple machine, with 6 presets for green, oolong, black, floral, milk tea, and cold brewing. You can also customize the brewing parameters and track everything through their phone app. The device is simple, and not too large. Similar to other tea makers such as the Breville, but this one looks a bit smaller and is a little cheaper. I don't own a Breville myself, so I asked my Blogger Roundtable friends to compare the Qi and the Breville. They do seem comparable, but the Breville has a brewing basket that lowers into the water to brew, and the Qi holds the leaves in a compartment at the top of the machine while water circulates through it. Also, the Qi can be controlled through an app, and the Breville doesn't have this functionality. The Qi water temperature settings also appear to be a bit more customizable. The price for the Qi Aerista will be about $200 (the price isn't set yet but this was the estimated price I was told) and it will be 50% off during their Kickstarter campaign. The Kickstarter will be launching in October, so do keep an eye out. They made a video with feedback from attendees of the Expo, and a few bloggers make it into the video, myself included (eeps!).

Teforia: The Teforia machine certainly looks sleek and impressive. It can extract the exact flavor profile you want from your tea, and even change the caffeine level and the amount of antioxidants. It's got lots of bells and whistles. It's a well conceived device and it does make a very good cup of tea (I sampled quite a few). However, I can't say this type of machine is really for me since I don't think it's necessary to pay well over $1000 for a tea maker. I also like the ritual of slowing down and preparing a cup of tea on my own, while interacting with my leaves. At the Expo I was surprised to see all of the demo machines leaking a bit. Someone mentioned they were prototypes, so hopefully they'll get things sorted out before they start shipping them.

The Wall tea steeper. This isn't a mechanical gadget, but a cleverly designed mug. Rachel Carter and I spotted this cup while walking the floor and we instantly fell in love with it. It's just a glass mug with a built in glass strainer that covers half the top, but it's good looking, and very functional. It was originally created for herbals, but it is perfect for grandpa style tea. I've been using it every day and I've been getting a lot of joy out of this mug. They come in 'large' (about 14 oz) and 'small' (about 10 ounces) sizes. I have the large, and it's a perfect size to keep in my office. The mug is large enough to get me through a long meeting with ease. I've even had a situation where the meeting went long, I finished my tea, and I was able to covertly examine the leaves while people kept talking around an issue without actually saying anything of importance. Priceless.

If you attended the Expo or read about other gadgets on display, I'd love to hear about what grabbed your interest. I think I still have a post or two about the Expo left to cover some important seminars. Hopefully I'll get to them soon! This crazy busy summer has made it difficult to find time for blogging, but I'm going to try my best to get it all covered, at least before the weather starts cooling down...

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Tasting: Pique Tea crystals, a New Spin on an Old Technique

I wasn't sure what to think before I opened the package of Pique Tea tea crystals. I liked the minimalist look, and was intrigued by the idea of organic whole leaf tea that's been brewed and then crystallized. I've had instant teas before with less than stellar results, so I proceeded with caution.

Pique's crystalized tea is inspired by cha gao (which translates to 'tea paste'), a method of creating a tea extract paste and then allowing it to solidify into various shapes. For an entertaining look at cha gao, check out this post from the Lazy Literatus. Per the Pique tea website, the instant tea is created through "a proprietary process that slow brews and extracts the fresh flavor and nutrients of whole leaf tea at optimal levels and locks it in a crystal form."

I was sent a few different varieties to try, and I decided to brew up three basic teas: English Breakfast, Sencha, and Earl Grey. I prepared all three according to the package. You put the crystals in a cup, and pour in a cup of water using the correct temperature based on the type of tea.
First up was the sencha. The crystals had a light vegetal scent. Once the water hit them, the brew had a light green veggie flavor. Not the grassy tones I was expecting, I kept tasting cooked celery. It had a savory umami flavor to it, like a celery soup. Not a bad thing, just not what I was expecting.

Sencha crystals
Then I went for the English Breakfast. The crystals had a malty aroma. The brew was dark brown and the flavor was malty and strong but surprisingly smooth with a little astringency. I like an English breakfast blend that has enough oomph to properly wake me up, and this one definitely had that. However, it didn't have the hint of brightness and nuance I usually look for in my favorite breakfast teas. This tea was drinkable, but it would be enhanced with milk and sweetener. The strength would hold up well.

Finally I went to the Earl Grey. The Earl and I don't always play nicely together, but I figured I'd give it a try. The crystals had a citrusy and malty aroma that grew stronger with the hot water. The black tea had a similar flavor as the English breakfast, malty, strong, and smooth. I didn't mind the bergamot flavor in this tea because it wasn't overpowering. It was subtle, but definitely present.

So after tasting these teas, I'd recommend them as good for camping and traveling, basically at times you aren't in the mood to brew loose leaf teas (is that even possible?). They are good basic teas, but lack a bit of nuanced flavor. I like that the crystals are a modern take on cha gao, so it combines new and old techniques. It's always interesting to learn about new ideas in tea, so I'm glad I was able to give Pique a try.

If you are interested in checking out Pique tea, you can get $5 off your order by using code TEAHAPPINESS. Just visit their website here.

Thank you to Simon for the samples!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Tasting Tea With Tony Tellin of Smith Teamaker

I never thought a tea tasting would find me wandering the dark and ironic hallways of the uber-hip (or was it hip 5 years ago? Clearly I'm not hip) Ace hotel, but that's where I met Tony Tellin to taste a generous helping of Smith teas.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

My Tea Favorites From World Tea Expo

So, I was trying to break down my World Tea Expo experiences by individual days, but I think each post would end up as a novella. So I figured I should focus on the tea itself for this post, since well, that's probably what you're most interested in. Over the three days I had time to walk the expo floor, thankfully with various blogger friends who helped me navigate the rows of booths. It was nice to have guidance and company while trying to focus.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

World Tea Expo, Day 1- Re-Evaluating Tea Education

(from right to left: Jo Johnson, James Norwood Pratt, Austin Hodge, Kevin Gascoyne, Darlene Meyers-Perry)
So, here's the thing. I sat down to write a recap of my first full day at the World Tea Expo. I started sketching out my ideas for the Tea Education panel...and realized there was so much to say that it had to exist on its own. In order to spare you a post that would take a few hours to read, I'm going to stick with discussing the panel and everything leading up to it. 

Early in the morning I nervously checked in and received my press badge and met up with a few tea friends, most of whom I had never met in person before, Geoffrey Norman, Naomi Rosen, Rachel Carter, and Nicole Schwartz. It was such a pleasure to meet everyone. I also of course got to see Nicole Martin, which is always a treat, and I met her fabulous 'tea sherpa' fiancee, Jason. Seeing everyone helped dissolve a bit of my 'new girl' anxiety and their friendliness warmed my heart (which was not an easy thing to do in the sub-zero temperatures inside the convention center).

After meeting everyone it was time for my first seminar of the expo, one I was really looking forward to: Re-Evaluating Tea Education. Jo Johnson was the fearless moderator keeping everyone in check, and the panel consisted of several very well respected tea professionals (I consider them tea celebrities): Austin Hodge, Kevin Gascoyne, James Norwood Pratt, and Darlene Meyers-Perry. This star-studded panel had quite a task ahead of them, discussing the future of tea education. This is a hot button topic, as there is no standard for education,and many sub-par programs exist. There are a few well-run rograms but since there is no consistency, tea education in general gets a bad rap. As James Norwood Pratt mentions in the discussion, "information is not knowledge". This is very true. Sitting in a room listening to words doesn't mean you're actually absorbing them. Or retaining anything at all. But of course this statement doesn't mean a student passionate about tea in the right education environment isn't learning anything. He's just saying that generally, you can't assume someone has learned what they need to just by attending classes.

Kevin Gascoyne discussed the importance of knowing the business side of things, which is equally as important as the 'technical' tea side. As students of tea, we need to understand the market,and how to encourage it. This also made sense to me, as you can't be successful in the tea industry (or any industry really) without real-world business experience. There is also huge need for educating businesses on teas they sell, and how to curate them more carefully. There is nothing more frustrating for the consumer than to walk into a store to find hundreds of teas and a staff with a rudimentary knowledge of them.

Kevin said he prefers hiring individuals without a formal tea education so he can teach them from scratch. While I can completely understand why he'd say this, I think it's a bit too general. Of course at this point it's impossible to know what someone was taught, and if the information learned is even accurate. But it seems a bit unfair to completely dismiss someone right off. He did clarify later that he wouldn't completely discount someone that happens to have certification, but he's looking for someone willing to build on what they know and keep an open mind since no one can ever know everything in tea. At one point he said "We're on a journey, not a destination", which I thought was a good way to describe his position.

Jo Johnson explained a bit about her own experience in tea education. She has taken classes because she sought a formal guide on what to study in order to stay focused and not get distracted through  her research. I completely related to this, because whenever I start doing research on teas, I'll look at one thing, get side tracked by an equally interesting tea fact (Ooh! 17th century tea water pumps!) and then end up going off in a different direction. While this is part of the learning process, it is also very time consuming and gets you off topic. Tea education should bring guidance to people like myself that are looking for it, as well as a solid foundation of knowledge.

Everyone agreed the current state of tea education had to change. But we didn't really get into how that could start to happen. There are so many levels to tea education, so where do we start?  You certainly can't get a PhD in tea in the US (and do you really need to?), but why can't there be clear tracks of education, with majors, and areas to specialize in? The most important thing the panelists agreed on is that there needs to be real-world experience in tea education. You can't just read a few books, taste a few teas, and consider yourself educated. It's an ongoing process and interactive experience within the industry is key.  As Darlene Meyers-Perry said, "We will always be learning. You are forever a student of tea."

At this point in the discussion I started to wonder- could the state of tea education be helped with tea internships for students? Working alongside tea professionals, and going on tea-sourcing trips to growing regions could be interesting ways of adding 'internship' experience to an education program. This could be a good starting point for students looking to gain real-world experience in the industry if they don't already have it.

Austin Hodge pointed out that education is a long, ongoing process and it's important for students to realize this. He said "As a tea professional, it'll take you 10 years to realize what you don't know". He wants to see a student that is humble, and continuing to learn since there is never an end to anyone's tea education. Any student that thinks they've learned enough is setting themselves up for failure.

My frustration with the panel discussion is that there just wasn't enough time to even scratch the surface of the issue. This panel shows the importance of continued discussion and action on tea education. We need to find a way for those of us that want formal learning to get the best education possible in and outside of the classroom, and be seen as aspiring tea professionals. We need to recognize educators that are actually running good programs, and help them to be even better. I wished we could hear the panel's ideas on how to change and improve the state of things, but alas we ran out of time. I think this was a good jumping-off point, and I hope the discussion can continue to get deeper into specifics. We need to work together as an industry to get the standards of tea education up to a level where it is truly respected.

...ok, I promise the next post will be about teas, products and tea people I encountered at the expo!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Reflections on The World Tea Expo: Day 1/2

Well, what a whirlwind! My brain is still processing 3 full days of exploring tea and chatting with amazing tea folks at World Tea Expo. I had no idea what to expect other than: "the days are hectic", "you will not have time for lunch", "you WILL be tea drunk" and "you'll need a sweater". These turned out to be important truths.

Even after packing all my stuff, including snacks and a sweater, I was preoccupied. Anxiety is in my blood; I come from a long line of worriers. It's usually my go-to emotion, especially when things are unknown. Anxious electricity filled my stomach in the days leading up to departure. But as usual, I had nothing to worry about. My first expo was a bit overwhelming but the kindness of my fellow bloggers and tea friends made all the difference. It was an incredibly memorable experience. I tried to soak in as much as possible, and as I said, I'm still sorting through the memories. I thought I'd posts by the separate days that encompassed my adventure at World Tea Expo. This post is the 'pre-expo' summary, basically 1/2 a day in Vegas.

My tea adventure started before I boarded the plane. Tea on an airplane is a painful experience. Not just because of the tea they serve- it's the water that ruins the party. I don't know much about the behind-the-scenes of airplane cuisine, but that water tastes terrible. Wherever it comes from, it always ends up tasting like dishwater. So, since I couldn't bring in my own water from home, I decided to take an empty thermos and try to beg for hot water at one of the airport cafes. This proved to be easy to do and I had a full thermos of hot water simply by asking for it. The trickier part was just getting a cup on the plane. When asked if I wanted a drink, I said 'just a cup for tea, I have my own water and tea leaves'. The flight attendant looked at me like I had three heads. To her credit, she quickly regained her composure and asked again what I wanted. I explained again and she got it- I ended up with the right cup, and tea was served. I put my leaves in a refillable tea bag, although I probably would've gone grandpa style. I was worried that the flight attendant would want to clear the cup and take the perfectly good leaves away before I was finished with them. So with a little planning, I had a nice roasted oolong and it helped keep me calm for the whole flight.

After landing, I ran into Jo J. in the airport. It was comforting to see a familiar face after walking through the noise of airport chaos and slot machines. Arriving at my hotel, I decided I'd have a quiet evening to gather my thoughts and prepare for the start of the expo the following day. My inner introvert needed some time to prepare. A few minutes later my phone pinged and I noticed a message in our blogger group. Linda Gaylard was wondering if anyone was free for dinner. I hadn't met Linda in person, but we've chatted online before and I knew it would be nice to get to know her one on one. We agreed on a time and place, and off I went to meet her. We had a lovely dinner that was relaxing and convivial. I enjoyed chatting with her in person, and learning more about her career in tea. If you haven't checked out her book yet, it's a must read for any tea enthusiast. As dinner wound down, we of course asked the server about tea options. We exchanged amused glances over the selection of 'umm, we have an English a green, Oh! And an Earl Grey'.

Back at the hotel I was unpacking a few things, and noticed the most amazing thing. The painting on the wall was tea-art! At least, I assume it was. I mean, look at this:

I think it's too light to be rings of a coffee mug. It must be tea! I took this as a very good sign for the days ahead of me. If there is a painting made of tea in my ridiculously garish Las Vegas hotel, then there is lots of good to uncover in this town. This turned out to be true, as you'll see in my next few posts.