Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

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Tea Tales and Mocktails

Two weeks back, I received an invite to go here:

smith-tea-hq-storefront

Okay, I go to both Smith Tea locations quite a bit on my own, but this was a special occasion. Like last year, this was their media-only holiday pre-release party. They were going to be showcasing their upcoming blends, partnerships, and limited edition holiday offerings.  And I was convinced I couldn’t go. Work and all that.

I was so convinced about my lack of attendance, I even shot off an e-mail to lead blender dude, Tony Tellin, to see if I could mooch some of pre-release batches for an article. Y’know . . . to pretend I was there. I’m good at pretending. None of that was necessary because I was magically able to convince my work to let me off early that day.

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A Guy and His Gaiwan

Back in 2009, I didn’t like oolongs. In general, anyway. There were some specific ones I liked, but most of them were off limits. I even explained this to Tony Tellin, lead blender extraordinaire at Smith Teamaker, when he was working the tea bar one day.

He said, “You’re probably not brewing them right.”

He escaped into the back and brought out a gaiwan (lidded Chinese teacup), and then he gave me a quick primer on how to do gongfu cha (literally, “brew tea with skill”). I had seen it done before, but it always intimidated me—multiple steeps, multiple pours, and the equipment required. He assured me that all I would need was a gaiwan, and to remember, “Short, successive steeps”.

Then he gave me his gaiwan.

oldest gaiwan

It’s  . . . seen a lot of use. By me.

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A Weekend of Bug-Bitten Beauties and a Torched Tea Latte

Like a lot of hourly, barely-above-minimum wage types, my “weekend” off doesn’t actually fall on a weekend. I’m lucky if I even get two days off in a row to call a weekend. Lately, though, I’ve been graced with exactly that.

Do I use the time off to party, get things done, or run errands? Nope. I tea. A lot. At least, that’s how it happens on the first day off.

thai oriental beauty brewed

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The Shiny ‘n New Smith Tea HQ

At the beginning of November, I received a curious invite.

Smith Invite

Well, that was new. I don’t get press releases very often, and I certainly wasn’t expecting one from Smith Teamaker. I knew they were opening up their new location, soon. But I had no idea that I was on the short list of press folks to cover said opening.

I, unfortunately, sat on the invite for a week because my mind was elsewhere. Thirty blogs of elsewhere. Smith’s press liaison, however, followed up to make sure I had RSVP’d . . . and I did. Right then.

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Having Oolong Ice Cream Every Which Way

Several weeks ago, I made a trip to Smith Teamaker’s to try out some new tea concoctions they were working on. Tony Tellin, the lead blender was already doing a pouring of their new Masala Chai ON NITRO! . . . and I stuck around to try something else that was not yet on the market. He and a few other staff members had informed me that they partnered with Tyler Malek – owner of Salt & Straw, a local ice creamery – to create a new oolong blend.

This was fascinating to me on two levels. One, when I thought of Salt & Straw, I didn’t think of “tea”. All I thought of were long lines.

Note: Not the actual line (but close).

Note: Not the actual line (but close).

Really long lines. The place was almost too popular a spot in Portland.

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Smith Tea . . . ON NITRO!

Smith Tea . . . ON NITRO! – Teashop Adventure Week

On nitro!

Two words that I greatly missed from my beer-drinking days. From what I heard from a master brewer once, the process of pumping a beer keg full of nitrous oxide was to mimic the character of cask conditioning. The result was a normal-textured, full-bodied beverage with a full, thick head of foam – differing from the fizzy head of modern conditioning techniques. Sure, a regular Irish stout was good, but an Irish stout on nitro was really where it was at.

It was one of those sacrifices I was going to have to live with . . . or so I thought.

Roughly a month ago, Tony Tellin, head tea blender at Smith Teamaker noticed me nursing a pot of Darjeeling in their shop. He came out to give greetings, and also to invite me back to their “lab”. Yes, they have a lab.

Smith Lab

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Steeped Recipes at Smith’s

I can’t cook . . . worth a damn.

The only interest I’ve ever taken in food preparation is, well, how to eat it. That is where my exploration of the culinary arts begins and often ends. Beyond the making of an epic sammich (yes, sammich, not sandwich), my ability to cook, bake, and . . . just generally follow instructions of any kind falters.

What does one expect from a guy who screwed up Easy Mac? Twice. In one session.

I highlight all of this to illustrate that I am the most unqualified candidate for food-related events, such as the one I attended on Saturday.

Steeped

Smith Teamaker had booked a cook book author for a demonstration at their HQ. The author in question was Annelies Zijderveld, and her new book was Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea. As the title suggests, the focus was on how to use tea in a culinary capacity. (Y’know, besides just sprinkling kitchen-grade matcha on everything and calling it a tea recipe.)

Tea MC Tiff, Smith’s social media guru-ess, sent me an invitation to the demo a couple of months back. Initially, I had to decline because of my dodgy weekend work schedule. However, by some stroke of foodie fate, I ended up with the day off. I planned my day around the event accordingly, “hired” the lovely M. Tepper to photograph the proceedings, and the mission was a “go”.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect, having never attended a cooking demonstration before. A part of my mind was picturing Julia Child caked in green tea powder. That non sequitur image was dispelled upon entering Smith’s boardroom. Tiff expertly corralled us press folk, and took us to the back kitchen.

Annelies and her assistant-du-jour were aproned and bustling.

Annelies

There were tea and foodstuffs everywhere. My tummy growled in both frustration and delight. I hadn’t eaten lunch, yet. Said stomach reminded me quite loudly. But back to the book . . .

Annelies’s inspiration for writing Steeped came during her time working for a tea company. Yes, she actually had tea industry experience. One day, while working on something menial, she grabbed a gyokuro leaf and started chewing on it. She liked the taste so much, she figured, why not a cook book?! Stranger inspirations have happened. I once plotted an epic space battle in the shower – sound effects and all.

Participants were first asked to indulge in a tea tasting.

Tasting

Bowls of Long Jing, Roobios, Lord Bergamot, Keemun Hao Ya, Masala Chai, and ceremonial grade matcha lay in front of us. I was surprised at the last one. Usually, in regards to cooking, culinary grade matcha was utilized for recipes – mainly for bulk amount and cost effectiveness. I was a bit elated by this high-brow change.

Palates primed, Annelies then guided us through several ways to use the teas in various recipes. Many called for using a simple coffee grinder to pulverize loose tea leaves into a course (but not matcha fine) powder. Roobios was utilized in a butter recipe that was simply divine – with a capital diva! Long Jing was, quite surprisingly, put to good use as part of a furikake seasoning for popcorn. Keemun was paired with salt for a white bean walnut spread. Masala Chai was used for nifty li’l cupcake thingies. And good ol’ matcha was paired with coconut to form . . . something. (I forgot the name of it. Wasn’t a fan.)

But my favorite . . . oh dear lord . . . my favorite . . .

Earl Grey yogurt parfait

F**king Earl Grey yogurt!!!

Holy bergamot balls this was good. And the best part, the recipe was easy. Put simply, it was dunking Earl Grey (in a filter bag or sachet) in yogurt, repeatedly, for three days, and stirring. Even I couldn’t screw that up. The results were astounding. In plain yogurt, the bergamot notes were subtle and sweet, but still there.

The demo ended with an opportunity to purchase the book and mingle a bit with the authoress. By the end of the two-hour event, I was full and quite caffeinated. Lost track of my appetite. As a parting gift from Smith’s, we were each given a tea “starter kit” to try some of the recipes at home.

starter kit

Now . . . all I need is yogurt. Lots of yogurt.

Smoked Chai for the Momma’s Boy

It’s been a weird and busy month.

In the span of three weeks, I had driver’s license difficulties, car troubles, multiple projects, and some minor financial headaches. Yet all of these things didn’t affect my mood any. Reason being? My Mum had my back.

As if it wasn’t quite obvious, I’m a total momma’s boy. If I’m ever in a jam – and on months like this one, quite often – she’s the first person I turn to. The woman is there for me, and doesn’t bat a lash at some of the…uh…weirder requests I’ve made. Case in point…

For a couple of days, I was without a car. Mine was overdue for a visit to my mechanic due to a service engine light. And the only available chauffeur…was Mum. She even picked me up from a work party. One that got a little silly.

man boobs

Yes, that is me trying to pretend I have large breasts. No, I will not say how much alcohol was involved.

After two weeks of her assistance, I felt it was high time to compensate her for her troubles. Luckily, we both had a similar addiction. That being tea, of course. Because of me, she had developed a love for Smith Teamaker’s brick-‘n-mortar shop. Lord Bergamot was her poison of choice, while I ventured for whatever was new.

This trip – I will confess – wasn’t entirely selfless. I had intended to jaunt to the shop to try Smith’s new Smoked Chai. The process used to create the thing was manliness personified.

smoked tea

Image mooched from Smith Teamaker’s Instagram

Sarsaparilla was cold-soaked in water, bourbon and vanilla. Then the concoction was blended with dry hickory chips, which were (naturally) lit on fire! The smoke was then channeled through a bamboo tray full of whole leaf, tippy Assam. And once all was said, done and burnt, the fusion was rolled in spices.

The resulting brew tasted like receiving a hug from a ginger beer-drunk bear that’d emerged from a chimney. Smoke touched off the flavor, followed by a warm ginger-y blanket of awesome, and trailed off like a smooth root beer. I remember draining my two-person pot in less than ten minutes.

smoked chai

After a two-hour stint, I cashed us out, and then treated Mum to lunch. She acquiesced to my last request, which was to follow me down to my mechanic – Dimitri’s Auto Service in Milwaukie, OR. It was a heckuva request.

That Monday, as we waited for my car’s eventual return to mobility, we grabbed breakfast at an eatery dubbed, “The Bomber Restaurant”. There was an actual B-17G bomber in front of it. My testosterone wept with glee.

bomber

The breakfast was pretty darn good, too.

Moral of this story?

Let your mother take care of you, even when you’re an adult, and always take care of her in return.

And most importantly…real men take their mothers to tea.

mother and son

Photo by Tiffany Talbott.

A Bourbon-Scented, Tea Seeding Saga

Back in June, one of the many wonderful things I came back with from World Tea Expo…was tea plant seeds.

tea seeds

The Camellia Forest Nursery in North Carolina had donated some to the Tealet booth as gifts for passersby. Of course, I was one of those who jumped at the chance. Who wouldn’t want to grow their own tea plant?!

Problem was I was not known for my green thumb. Heck, I killed a cactus back in college. So, a couple of weeks later, I enlisted the help of my amateur gardener brother. He possessed the pots, the soil, and some of the know-how. All we needed to do was set a day…and we did for that following Saturday.

Unfortunately, the day of, I saw a photograph by Smith Teamaker’s resident bartender/photographer – Tea MC Tiff (as I call her).

bourbon mugging

Image owned by Tiffany Talbott.

The bottle of bourbon in particular caught my eye.

I asked about the photo, and if it heralded the arrival of a new barrel-aged tea to Smith’s roster. Tea MC Tiff confirmed that it did. Steven Smith and his blending team got a hold of a Temperance Kentucky Bourbon Barrel and decided to age some Nokhroy estate second flush Assam in the sucker. It was put on the shelves the night before I inquired about it.

I called my brother.

“Um…” I started eloquently. “We have to make a detour before we plant tea seeds.”

And off to Smith Teamaker HQ, we went.

The two teatenders on duty – Claire and Lauren, respectively – allowed my brother and me to share a pot of the stuff.

bourbon black

It was straight bourbon and malt. That’s all I have for taster notes. Bourbon smoke on the front, Assam on the back, like some sort of…tea-alcohol…mullet. Or something.

Short answer, “Wow.”

I lamented the price of a two-ounce box of the stuff, but my brother – to my surprise – said, “Here, I’ll get it. Early birthday present.”

I think I squealed.

In an odd turn of self-control, though, I didn’t break in my personal stash for several weeks. In the interim, I had a newly potted tea plant to take care of. My brother had loaned me a teapot, and – in return – I’d given him one of my tea seeds. I kept the pot by the window, and per his instructions, checked soil moistness once a week.

tea plant

Then came a “Tandem Tea Tasters” Google+ Hangout. The theme for the night was to present a new, unique tea to “share with the class”. That was a tough one, since…well…most of my teas fell into that category. However, I looked up on my shelf and noticed that the Smith’s Bourbon Black Tea hadn’t been open yet. Decision: Made.

private stash

 

I don’t recall the exact details of the evening, but I do remember those who were there – Jo “A Gift of Tea” Johnson and Rachel “I Heart Teas” Carter. And all three of us were one shade of tea drunk or another. To the point where Rachel insisted on using Google’s drawing function to make me a Ferengi/Klingon hybrid…and Jo photographed it.

Klingon Ferengi

After pint…oh…three of the Bourbon Black, I was whistling Dixie. Almost literally. No, there was no alcohol in the tea, but Assam normally packs quite a caffeinated wallop. And, somehow, in my tea drunk haze, I decided I had to water my tea plant.

Forgetting that I had already watered it that day.

Fast-forward to a month or so later. I was over at my brother’s house for dinner, and I marveled at how well his tea plant was thriving.

brother's tea plant

Vibrant green leaves had sprouted and were reaching joyously to the sun.

Mine on the other hand?

seppuku

I think it committed seppuku in the soil before drowning.

Moral of the story: If you’re going to drink bourbon barrel-aged tea, don’t do any gardening…I guess.

V-Day Tea Day with Mum

I think I’ve mentioned my mother’s in town for a couple of months, right?

Unlike some thirtysomething males, I actually like having my mother around. No, not because she buys the food. In fact, I insist that she not do so. However, there are times when she offers that even I can’t refuse. This time, she offered on Valentine’s Day.

I usually don’t mind being single. Contrary to my usual whining, I like my me-time. Who better to keep me company than…well…me? Valentine’s Day, though? It serves as a glaring – and oft omnipresent – reminder that there’s more to life than just me. I don’t like that sort of reminder.

Mum woke me up at the crack of 9AM on V-Day proper. Did I mention I had the day off of work? Oh, well I did. Of all the days I wanted to work, it was this one. Unfortunately, I had nothing to keep me busy, and I had no other plans save for being idle and sulking. Mum had other plans.

“I was thinking we could go have Indian food,” she said.

I mumbled something unintelligible from the pillow.

“I’m buying.”

That woke me right up.

I was showered and ready in thirty minutes. Then a pang of guilt hit me.

“How ‘bout we grab tea after lunch at Smith’s?” I suggested. “My treat.”

“Wonderful idea!” she beamed.

We gorged on various tandoori-ish offerings at our favorite local haunt called Abhiruchi. Best Indian lunch specials in town. Well, as far as I was concerned, it was the only Indian lunch special in town. I practically had to be rolled out of there. All-you-can-eat Indian food is dangerous to those with no impulse control.

Afterwards, we trekked to the Pearl side of Portland and into Smith Teamaker HQ. Mum ordered a pot of Peppermint, I settled on a two-person pot of Bai Hao Oolong. Okay, my request was probably more…uh…specific than that.

smith pots

“Two-person pot of Bai Hao, 180 degrees, two-minute steep, save the leaves,” I requested.

I’m a tea snob, sue me.

As I sipped from my note perfect pot of oolong, we discussed future plans. She rattled off about her future occupational endeavors, as I segued to my bits about a future book I was writing and World Tea Expo. (I’ll get to that in a later post.)We effectively killed two hours, which is par for course with me and Smith’s.

Upon departing, we journeyed a bit through downtown Portland before hitting the freeway. While meandering down a side street, I saw a man holding up a sign.

find

And that pretty much summed up my single person’s viewpoint on Valentine’s Day.

If you’re single, it’s not about sulking in your oneness, but doing something special for someone you care about. In my case, Mum bought me lunch, and I bought her tea. And we were both better (and fuller) for it.

Oh, and Smith’s…I’ll pay my tab next week. I swear.

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