Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Tea Happiness 2016 Gift Guide

If you're still looking for gifts for the tea lover in your life, I've put together a few ideas to help you through the holiday gift-giving conundrum. 

For friends interested in learning more about tea, a tasting is always helpful. How about a gift of tea sent to their door each month? One of my favorite vendors Joseph Wesley Tea has a Year Of Tea which would be perfect for any tea lover. Joe's teas are top quality and carefully sourced. If you know someone looking for a unique tea experience, the White2Tea club is also a great monthly choice. There is a huge variety of surprising teas, and their packaging can't be beat.

Tea books are always a good idea. There are many I've recommended in the past, and this year Tea: A User's Guide tops the list. It's insanely informative and a great reference guide. A must for all tea lovers. There are dozens of tea books out there, one for every type of tea lover.

How about a special teapot? If you are able to find one from Petr Novak, grab it for your favorite tea lover. His pots are are cult favorite. Another one of my favorite artisans, The Jade Leaf just put a few new stunning pots up for sale. Get them while you can! They always sell out quickly. Lower priced options like nice glass teapots and gaiwans are always useful, and much easier to find. With just a little bit of research you can find one for every budget. I love using glass since you can enjoy the color of the liquor and watch the leaves unfurl. Even the most seasoned tea lover would appreciate a new glass teapot.

Decorative sugars are a lovely way to dress up a tea session. They also make great holiday or hostess gifts. My favorites are from Chambre de Sucre. They come in all sorts of fun shapes, colors, and styles. Fun for tea parties or an afternoon treat. They brighten up any holiday!

For something a little different, what about a tea pet? Tea pets can be found on many tea vendors sites, many are made of yixing or similar clay. They come in a variety of animals and objects and range from the adorable to the bizarre. There is definitely a tea pet to suit every person. This is a fun gift for the tea loving friend that has everything. I love these handmade tea pets from my friend Jo Johnson. They are beautiful and special. Jo also makes stunning jewelry, in fact her tea leaf jewelry is on the top of my own wish list.

If there are other gift ideas you're thinking about, feel free to ask questions. I'd love to help you out to make the gift giving process a little bit easier! Of course, you can't go wrong with just about any tea-themed gift. Enjoy the holidays!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Sipping Tea On The 35th Floor

Beautiful tea, a perfect view, and a trained staff do not always equal a good tea experience. This is what I learned at the second afternoon tea I had in London, at the Shangri-La hotel.

The hotel is in The Shard, which is an imposing glass building. It's a strange experience to be whisked up 35 floors to an immaculately decorated hotel. This isn't uncommon in NYC, but every time I do it, it feels a bit surreal. The hotel is lavish yet tasteful. Afternoon tea is served at Ting, the hotel lounge and restaurant. We were sat by the wall of windows with a dazzling view of London. Quite an impressive start.

There is a choice of two different types of afternoon tea. The Traditional, and South East Asian afternoon tea service (interesting- they just changed their online menu to be a Japanese afternoon tea which was not available when I went). I was wondering if there was a difference in serving method, and and asked our steward if there would be gaiwan service for the southeast Asian tea. My server had no idea what a gaiwan was. He looked at me and kept asking if that was a type of tea. Now I don't expect most places to know what a gaiwan is, but if you are a well known Asian hotel I'd hope you would at least be aware of what the vessel is for. Perhaps that is being too presumptuous? It was more surprising still when the 'amuse bouche' tea starter arrived on a gongfu bamboo tea tray with appropriately sized cups. But of course no gaiwan.

I have to admit the amuse bouche was the best part of the tea experience here. Creamy, velvety teh tarik was served in the small gongfu cups on the bamboo tray. The steward then poured water on what must have been dry ice embedded in the tray and the table was engulfed in misty wonder. It was a fun way to start, even if it was nonsensical and a bit too theatrical. I've only had teh tarik a couple of times before, and I must say I'm hooked. It was served warm, and just felt like a hug of pure cashmere.

We chose the Southeast Asian tea, which included various Vietnamese. Chinese, and Thai sweet and savory options. Unfortunately none of the food or pastry stood out for me. Everything was passably good, but not exactly outstanding. The memorable bite for me was the Chinese egg tart. I love Chinese custard tarts, and this one had the right amount of sweetness, crunch and flaky pastry. Many reviewers raved about the prawn dumplings which I found tasty, but far from memorable.

The tea menu here looked promising, and had a few nice choices in each category. I noticed single estate black teas, a sheng pu'erh, as well as two white teas and a longjing. Three oolongs are offered, and I decided on the Tie Guan Yin to see if it would hold up to some of the better versions I've had. 

The tea service started out well. The Tie Guan Yin was steeped for the right amount of time, using an appropriate amount of leaves if you were draining the entire pot at once. I enjoyed the fragrant sips while gazing out at the city of London. Things quickly went south however as the leaves were left in the teapot continuously steeping and producing a bitter, almost undrinkable brew. I asked for extra hot water but it couldn't save my pot of tea. Tea sadness. If this had been true gongfu style tea, all of the water would have been poured into our cups and nothing would have been left to steep. But since a traditional western teapot was used, each subsequent cup of tea was oversteeped. 

Even though the tea wasn't prepared properly, service in general was the right mix of attentive and unobtrusive. And of course, the view can't be beat. I don't think I'd be quick to recommend afternoon tea here, unless you're curious to try the East Asian afternoon tea experience. I'd rather seek out a place that specializes in gongfu tea service without the fancy bites of food. Given all of that, I'm grateful for the opportunity to gaze at such an impressive view in a luxe atmosphere while sipping tea. The teh tarik was delicious and I'm still wondering where I can get one of equal quality in NYC. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Sip Of Scandal Water

Earl grey/shortbread/teddy hook punch

One of my favorite things about London is the history infused in every brick of every building. During my time there in September, I found myself taking pictures on every street, and stopping to read historical facts posted on many of the buildings. I had an afternoon tea experience that combined history with tea, food, and booze. I can't think of a better way to spend an afternoon, can you?

A dear friend checked with a few co-workers in London to recommend an afternoon tea experience that was different from the rest. What they came back with was something called 'scandal water'. Tea was colloquially referred to as 'scandal water' in the 19th century. Back then the women who gathered for tea often gossiped about the goings on of the day, thus developing the phrase. The Scandal Water menu explains how they take this idea and create their own unique afternoon tea experience:

Walking through the airy Edition hotel towards the back leads you to the cozy Punch Room lined with rich wood panelling and hipster staff where beards and waxed mustaches seem to be the uniform. It feels intimate and exclusive and, well, hip. But the vibe here isn't the 'cooler than you' vibe I was expecting. The staff was quite cheerful and our server was extremely passionate about the afternoon tea menu and history behind the selections.

Our server, left, and the bartender, right. 
The afternoon tea experience here has been carefully crafted. As I mentioned it combines tea, small bites, carefully prepared cocktails, all with a nod to the origins of afternoon tea. The focus here is on the flavor experience, not on posh opulence like most modern versions. Scandal Water was created by Henrietta Lovell of Rare Tea Co and Phil Carmichael, executive chef of Berners Tavern. Add in the Punch Room's inventive cocktails and you have a unique experience. Punch Room's Davide Segat created cocktails based on the teas selected to be served. Our server was more than willing to explain the 5 courses available (you get to pick 3) and explain the preparation behind each selection. I was impressed with the depth of his knowledge.

Special brew tea/eccles cake/entoria punch and jasmine tea/chocolate/edition punch

My husband joined me for this outing, and we each chose our 3 courses. We ended up with a few of the same as the ingredients were just too good to pass up. We were also given warm, fluffy English muffins which were far and away better than any I've tried. It was as if I hadn't tasted one before.

Sencha tea/salmon/milk punch and jasmine tea/chocolate tart/edition punch
The teas were lovely and paired extremely well with the crafted bites of food. The most successful course was Sencha tea served with exquisite diced salmon topped with crisp pastry and caviar. The punch served was a milk punch, more on that one in a bit. The experience was vegetal, marine, salty, savory, silky, crispy, tangy.

My favorite tea was the 'special brew' a Chinese black tea blend that was smoky with a bit of citrus and dried fruit. It  paired well with an Eccles cake that had raisins, currants, nutmeg, and cinnamon flavors. The tea was featured in the punch which also included rum, lemon juice, and thyme. It sounds like a lot of complicated flavors but everything really did work. It was a course that felt warming, sweet, and comforting.

Jasmine tea/chocolate tart/Edition punch

The punch brought this experience to a different level. They take punch very seriously here (how could you be called the Punch Room if you didn't?), in fact some of the preparations take a day or more to complete. The milk punch was one of the most memorable cocktails I've ever had- it contains milk but it's crystal clear. The subtle milky flavor and mouthfeel is amazing. The milk is slowly clarified, taking out all the solids but leaving the flavor. It's a centuries-old recipe reimagined. This punch also contained cognac, rum, brandy, the sencha tea, lemon juice, and spices. It sounds insane but as with every punch we tried it was smooth, balanced, and complex. I have a few ideas on how to create my own version of milk punch (without any long and complicated procedures) which I'll be working on in the next few weeks.

How can you not love these guys?

I like that Scandal Water is a departure from the heavy, excessive afternoon tea experiences most people have come to expect. I'll usually need to skip dinner after an afternoon tea but Scandal Water is meant to be more like the afternoon refreshment it was historically created to be. Just something to tide you over. If you're looking for a unique take on afternoon tea, this is the place to go. It feels like a little secret nook far away from the tourists and tumult of London even though you are in a boutique hotel. I have a few more London adventures to recap, I hope to do so in the coming weeks!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Tasting: Adagio Rwanda Rukeri

After weeks of working through a few things, I finally have time for a post! I thought I'd get my palate back in shape by doing a review.

The weather has been crazy lately- in the 70s last week and this week we woke up to temps in the low 40s. Rain, damp, and cold already starting to seep into the bones. I always crave black teas when the temps start to drop, I just can't get myself to steep anything else without first having a few cups of something smacking of malt or dried fruit. So, I decided to try Rwanda Rukeri from Adagio. I chose this sample a few months back since I haven't tried a tea from Rwanda before.

The dry leaves are sweet and woody. I also noticed dried raisin. The infused leaves have a malty aroma which reminds me of this sweet Japanese white bread I love called milk bread. Toasted up it's sweet, starchy, and crunchy. Very comforting. The brewed tea is malty like Assam but it doesn't have the deep honey flavor I usually associate with it. The aroma of the tea also has that toasted milk bread thing going on. There is also a hint of a spice, I keep imagining cinnamon but I'm not sure if that's exactly what it is.

This tea is quite sweet, but in a lighter way, not as deep. It's a little bitter which is something I enjoy, especially on a cold day. When I sip and close my eyes, I imagine delicate small branches of a maple tree right after shedding its leaves. 

I ended up sipping this tea along with some milk chocolate that I brought back from London (you can see it in the first pic. British Cadbury chocolate is so so so much better than the stuff we have in the US). I thought the milk chocolate would highlight the sweetness in the tea, but it turns out it just enhanced some of the bitter notes instead. I'm still a complete newbie at tea pairings. This is a reasonably priced basic tea, and easy to drink. Good for the morning, but I think I'd prefer something with more nuance once I'm fully awake. If you are looking for an affordable basic black tea, this one would certainly get the job done. Thank you to Adagio for providing the sample.

I'm hoping to do a recap of my London trip next week. One of my experiences inspired a tea cocktail that I'm still testing out, and I look forward to sharing that as well! 

Monday, August 29, 2016

Interview: Learn More About Bitaco, unique Colombian Tea

All photos courtesy of Bitaco
Have you ever tried Colombian tea? I've mentioned Bitaco before, and I thought they'd be the perfect company to feature so everyone could learn more about them. I'm very excited to present this interview. You'll learn everything from their unique soil and climate conditions, to how they are helping local communities through tea. My questions have been thoughtfully answered by Juan Guillermo González, their International Sales Director.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Tasting: Emerald Spring Green Tea from Nepali Tea Traders

I had the opportunity to taste a few unique teas from Nepali Tea Traders at the World Tea Expo this past June. The green pearls of Agni were quite memorable, and unlike anything I'd tasted before. I had a nice chat with the founder Maggie, and she generously sent a few samples shortly upon returning from the Expo. The company works with tea farmers in Nepal to improve the economic situation for the farmers and their families.

As much as I wanted to just drink more of the green pearls, I decided to sample a different tea first. The day was bright and sunny with a gentle breeze stirring through the leaves so I decided on the Emerald Spring green tea. It felt like the right thing to try on such a vivid day.

Here is what Nepali Tea Traders has to say about this tea:
After hand-plucking, the leaves are quickly de-enzymed and conditioned. The result is a cup with a lovely green liquor and aroma of wildflowers. The tea is sweet and vegetal, reflecting all the freshness and beauty of spring in Nepal.

When I opened the package I noticed a familiar aroma. I stuck my nose right in and inhaled deeply. It smelled like something I knew, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was. A steamed vegetable? Maybe. After a few more vigorous sniffs (good thing I was alone), an image popped into my head. It’s seaweed. More specifically, the seaweed you spoon out of miso soup and happily slurp up. It has that cooked vegetal seaweed flavor, but also sweetness and a bit of something savory that brings miso soup to mind. I was instantly craving a sushi dinner.

The tea steeped up to a different flavor profile- the aroma of the liquor is much sweeter, and an interesting floral note emerged. I closed my eyes and imagined fresh cut spring grass and steamed asparagus (those two things together create a strange image but hey, that's what I saw. Maybe it was a picnic of steamed asparagus under an old oak tree). The brew tastes sweet and slightly floral but I can’t put my finger on what type of flower it would be. It's a lush springtime flavor. I really enjoyed this tea.

I could see drinking this tea all throughout the warmer months, and possibly in the darkness of winter to bring back images of vibrant green fields and blooming flowers. Thank you to Nepali Tea Traders for this sample!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Yin and Yang of Tea?

My terrible attempt at making a yin yang symbol out of tea

A tea lover's confession: so, I love green tea but it's not often something I 'crave'. I often find myself happily daydreaming about most other types thought the day (you all do this too, right?), but rarely green or white. I never thought much about this until tea class this week. We talked a little about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and yin/yang before diving deeper into the history of Chinese tea. The instructor said tea (particularly green and white tea) is generally yin, which means it it has 'cold' properties. This stuck with me after the lesson, and I wanted to learn a little more about what it could mean.

TCM is about balance. If your body isn't in harmony it can lead to sickness. This balance is a play between yin and yang. As I mentioned, yin is comprised of cold, but also darkness, and things related with the moon and the feminine. It seems a little odd to me to group these things together, but there you have it. I'm not going to argue with ancient wisdom. Yang is associated with heat, fire, and masculinity. 

I thought this passage from good ol' wikipedia illustrates the relationship, but I'm not sure how I feel about the characteristics associated with feminine and masculine...
The relationship between yin and yang is often described in terms of sunlight playing over a mountain and a valley. Yin (literally the 'shady place' or 'north slope') is the dark area occluded by the mountain's bulk, while yang (literally the 'sunny place' or 'south slope') is the brightly lit portion. As the sun moves across the sky, yin and yang gradually trade places with each other, revealing what was obscured and obscuring what was revealed.
Yin is characterized as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, and passive; and is associated with water, earth, the moon, femininity, and nighttime.
Yang, by contrast, is fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, and active; and is associated with fire, sky, the sun, masculinity and daytime

Here is a better image of a yin yang symbol, also called a taijitu

As I mentioned, tea is considered yin in general, but puerh, roasted oolong, and black teas are more yang. The greener/less processed a tea, the more yin it's supposed to be. I started thinking about this and how I could use it on a practical level. I'm always the person that's freezing. In my office I've always been the one to complain about the air conditining being too strong. In fact I gave up the fight and keep a little heater under my desk to fight the sub-zero temperatures. Since green teas are 'cooling' I wonder if that's why my body doesn't often crave them. I'm often chilly enough as it is.  But generally it seems that green teas are recommended for warmer months and black/roasted/puerh is for winter temperatures for their cooling/warming properties.

Matcha has been trendy for ages now,  and everyone from supermodels to hipsters drink it. In tea class we learned that matcha has a very strong yin, because you are drinking the entire leaf. I love a good bowl of matcha to get me through a long day but again it's not a tea that lurks in the recesses of my brain, always whispering to be steeped. Since tea is so yin, my instructor wasn't sure how she felt about cold-brewing. Tea is already cooling, so is it necessary to ice it? I say, if you like it and it refreshes you, why not? Perhaps Chinese medicine practitioners wouldn't recommend it, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done.

TCM has many things to say about tea, even regarding tea drinking based on age. Younger people can drink lots of green tea to cool their 'boundless energy' (although I don't think I've ever had boundless energy) but as you get older, you should switch to teas that lean towards yang. I guess to fire you up? This makes me wonder, should you serve yang teas on a date? This actually reminds me of a tea blend I once saw in a shop called 'sexy tea'. But that should probably be left for another post...

So after learning a few rudimentary facts about TCM and tea, my motto is still drink the tea you want to drink. Enjoy the tea you like, any way you like it. But I do find the yin and yang of tea interesting and would love to study it further if the opportunity ever came up. It would also be interesting to build a food and tea pairing menu based on traditional Chinese medicine principles instead of just flavors to see if there is an effect.  I'll have to keep that idea in mind. If anyone has read any interesting books or articles on TCM and how it relates to tea, please let me know. I'd love to check them out.