This year, I went to World Tea Expo in Las Vegas with a mission.
And I didn’t visit it once.
In my mind, I kept saying, Eh, I’ve already tried everything they have to offer.
What I should’ve been thinking was, I really need to solidify some of my vendor networking contacts!
Hindsight and all that.
It was the last day of World Tea Expo, and I seemed to have lost my “Way”.
That’s how I felt that morning—kinda lost. Rousting out of bed was difficult, as per usual. But today was particularly hard. Last days of anything usually are. To kick the tiredness to the curb, I went from zero-to-“wake-the-hell-up” with a yaupon RTD.
It did the trick.
World Tea Expo, 2016, Day 2 . . . started early.
Really early. Okay, maybe not that early, but it felt early. Sleep was a rare commodity that week, thus far. I immediately hit the Teas Etc. booth and grabbed an oolong to refuel.
If I was going to spend the morning attending core panels, I was gonna need it. My attention span was rocky at best, already. Add lack of sleep to that, and I was useless to the world.
Returning to World Tea Expo this year felt like a scene right out of Return of the King.
You know the one—where all four battle-weary Hobbits came back. Everything was the same . . . but they weren’t. That’s how the first day of Expo felt to me. This was the first one to be held in Las Vegas since 2013, and it looked like 2013 all over again. However, a lot had happened to me in the ensuing three-to-four years.
I was not the same tea drunk Hobbit. Still tea drunk, sure, but more . . . I dunno . . . worldly? No, that’s not the right word. Perhaps I’ll come up with a better descriptor as I write on.
I needed a vacation.
And I needed it as soon as possible.
That was probably why—when I planned it—I decided to leave for Las Vegas four days earlier than I really needed to. The original intent was to go down just for the days of World Tea Expo. Well, I decided to tack on a few additional vacation days to that. And Naomi “Joy’s Teaspoon” Rosen was to put me up (and put up with me) for those extra days.
What occurred could best (and simply) be described as “tea-fueled tourism”.
Cheating at Tea-Totaling – The Tea-Totaler Trilogy, Part 1
In December of last year, I gave up drinking. The reason? A missing hubcap.
I hit a curb while driving a wee bit sauced. No idea where said hubcap went. My theory’s Narnia.
My poor car was the impetus for what (originally) began as a year-long dry-spell experiment. However, in the ensuing six months, life turned out . . . rather awesome. Not sure what happened, and I’m not sure I owe it to sobriety or something else. Life kinda kicked ass. That and having that extra money in my khaki pants was rather nice.
I will confess, though, that I have been cheating a bit. I’ll explain . . .
In November of last year, I did a DIY experiment – aging black tea in a bourbon barrel. I pulled the stuff out after week, declared it “almost” a success, and did it a second time for much longer. That one wasn’t as much of a success. However, my trials and errors caught the attention of this smiling mad scientist – one TJ Williams, one-half of The Tea Kings.
February of this year rolled around, and I looked at his company’s website and saw – in bold letters: “Cask Aged Dian Hong”. They had aged a bunch of Yunnan black tea leaves in a 1-liter micro-barrel for a period of time. Said micro-barrel had previously housed . . . Appleton Estates spiced rum.
I messaged him about it, “Spiced rum barrel-aged Dian Hong?! Whaaaaaaaaa?!”
He confirmed it, rather proudly. I mentioned in passing that I had done something similar with a bourbon micro-barrel. He responded with, “T’was my inspiration.”
This marks the third time one of my weird blogs had let to a vendor’s future experiments. Shortly after that dialogue, I received both the Cask Aged Dian Hong, and another one – a bourbon barrel-aged Tie Guan Yin. The latter had been aged in a micro-barrel for two weeks, the barrel once being home to Johnny Walker Red.
(Bloggers Note: No alcohol is imparted on tea leaves. Just the scent of what was in the barrel. I swear.)
The Tie Guan Yin Red Label leaves looked like many other mid-oxidized, ball-fisted oolongs of its type, but the smell was definitely altered by the bourbon barrel-ing. Along with the usual butter-flower aroma was a presence of peat on the after-whiff. Not strong, but definitely there; adding a dimension of delicious wrong-doing.
The Casked Dian Hong was a surprise and a half. The leaves were smaller-cut than the usual Yunnan black teas I ran into – leaf pieces ranging from brown to gold. What stood out, though, was the smell. Holy booze-gods, the moment I opened the can, straight rum pummeled my nostrils. Not as strong as the alcohol itself, but definitely as sweet and creamy. And that was only after a week of barrel-aging.
For the oolong, I went with a gongfu (or rather, gongfoolish) approach, but with the Dian Hong, I did the usual western-style brew. Both were brewed with boiling water. It was early morning, and I wanted to bleed whatever essence I could out of them.
After three successive infusions – at around thirty-to-forty-five seconds each – the barrel-aged Tie Guan Yin brewed light green with a subtle, herbal aroma.
No liquor note on the whiff to speak of. It wasn’t until I sipped each one that I witnessed the barrel contribution. Funnily enough, the oolong began with the subtle, liquor-scented note before transitioning to the usual Tie Guan Yin bells-‘n-whistles of butter and minerals.
As for the Casked Dian Hong . . .
Gaaaaaaaaahhhhhh! Before this, I’d only had one other rum barrel-aged tea. I don’t know what it is about rum, or even traces of rum, but the notes compliment well with tea’s natural, oxidized profile. Yunnan Dian Hongs tend to be on the earthier side anyway with trace sweetness layered throughout (in my experience). It seems only natural that those notes would play well with a malty, sweet, chewy . . . pirate-y rum.
To make a long description short(er), the rum and black tea paired perfectly here. The intro taste was like that of a liquor-filled chocolate, while the rest was like burnt oakwood-smoked ‘s’mores. Soooo much sweetness, sooooo much awesome. I could find something more sophisticated here, but I don’ wanna.
Interesting sidenote: In future brewing sessions with both of these, the longer I steeped them for, the more pronounced the liquor note. It was like the scenting process was born to make love to tea tannins. Or something.
Many months later, I encountered TJ at World Tea Expo 2015. He passed along another rendition of their Cask Aged Dian Hong, but this time it’d aged in the barrel for two weeks rather than one. I decided to do a side-by-side tasting of both versions. The results? (Beyond this cheesy tea haiku.)
The longer-aged stuff tasted the same as the shorter, but with more of the spice and oak imparted due to the longer wait-time. I could drink it all day. Both of them. At the same time. Double-fisting.
If this is cheating at sobriety, then screw the rules.
Pocket Oolongs and After-Parties – World Tea Expo, Day 3
I tried to sleep in. Really, I did.
But the anticipation of the last day of World Tea Expo activities loomed at the forefront of my brain. By 8AM, I gave up and rousted from my cousin’s couch (where I’d been sleeping for two days quite comfortably), and went about waking up. Starting off with a swift kick o’ caffeine from an Ito-En matcha shot . . . IN A CAN!
I both love and hate to admit it. I sometimes love easy fixes in cans. It’s a very American sensibility.
Around 9AM, I arrived at the Long Beach Convention Center in my tiny rental car. Before the show floor opened, I hung out in the press room, sifting through social media crap. Amidst my zoning, I noticed Ricardo Caicedo of My Japanese Green Tea had entered. Unlike last year, I spent more than five seconds talking to him. Really knowledgeable and humble guy – a veritable encyclopedia of Japanese tea esoterica.
While we were yacking, I also noticed that Charissa “The Oolong Owl” Gascho had entered – a fellow blogger whom I had yet to talk to at length. Charissa’s blog was probably one of the most unique in the tea community because she hand-wove her own mascots – tea owls. And they were amazing. (Someday, I will have one for my very own! Just you wait!)
After some nudging, I was able to convince the two of them to join me at The Finest Brew booth once the floor opened. Unfortunately, I had my times wrong, and we waited by the door – albeit awkwardly – for about twenty minutes. In that time, Nicole “Tea For Me Please” Martin also joined our waiting party.
Once the Expo floor doors opened, our quartet spilled in and bee-lined for The Finest Brew. The booth folks roped in their Tea MC, “Gee”, and we got to sampling. In the span of ten minutes, our quartet swelled to . . . over double that.
The reason? Well, Gee had made a promise. If Nicole Martin won the Best Social Media Reach award from the night prior, he would break out the aged oolongs he kept in his pockets. True to his word, he broke ‘em out, both Tie Guan Yins – aged twenty-plus years.
Before all of us could sip it, though, Nicole had to do the honors first. She nearly buckled (and chuckled) under our searing stares of anticipation.
Then we dug in. The oolongs were transcendental – toasty, medicinal, floral, aromatic, multidimensional. Just . . . gah. Before I could get more oolong-dazed, I departed to check out the Wize Monkey booth.
The day before, they promised to have their coffee leaf “Earl Grey” variant available for tasting. That and I promised Naomi “Joy’s Teaspoon” Rosen that I’d meet her there. I had tried a green version of coffee leaf tea a year ago and didn’t care for it much. However, the Wize Monkey boys featured a semi-oxidized version that I found quite tasty. With bergamot oil dashed on the leaves . . . well . . .
My inner Earl was quite happy. Naomi was quite satisfied with their version blended with jasmine. It had “Joy” written all over it.
Following that, I intercepted Nicole Martin again, and followed her to the event area where an ITTC cupping was about to take place. Several international growers and wholesalers were displaying their wares for the tasting. There was a Dan Cong oolong, a Darjeeling oolong, a sencha, and one black tea. But not just any black tea . . . Doke Black Fusion, 2015 Second Flush, with a backstory explained by Rajiv Lochan himself.
Still one of my favorite teas presented by one of my favorite tea people; I think I smuggled, like, five cups of the stuff just in that one tasting.
2PM rolled around, and it was time for me to take a brief hiatus from the World Tea festivities. I had promised my cousin we would hang out in Orange County for a bit, and I owed him a dinner for putting me up for three days. The next three-to-four hours were spent bumming around a comic book shop, waxing nostalgic, and eating fancy fish.
Cousinly geekery sated, I was back on the road for the final leg of my World Tea Expo journey – the inevitable Tealet Beach House After-Party.
When I arrived, the place was packed. The beach house was filled to the brim with people – a veritable cornucopia of cuppa professionals. It was a who’s-who of tealebrities. James Norwood Pratt and his son Sterling were there. Tony and Katie Gebely were in attendance. Nigel Melican was instilling sage advice. And – through it all – Team Tealet (of course) were presiding over the menagerie. It was sensory overload.
I lasted about a half-hour before I meandered to the backyard to grab some air. It was around that time that Jason McDonald (of The Great Mississippi Tea Company) was starting his second tea seed germination workshop.
I’ll confess to only half-paying attention because I was drafted to dance around to keep the porch light from shutting down. (It was on a motion sensor.)
Demonstration concluded, I socialized a bit with Tony “World of Tea” Gebely. He even broke out a special Fujian all-bud black tea (Meizhan cultivar) from his personal stash for some of us to try.
It was, indeed, something special. Although, I wished I’d brought my own stash of bourbon barrel-aged Dian Hong as a counterpoint. Oh well.
Tea drunk and (only slightly) teetering, I went out to the backyard again. The only people out there were Michael “JoJo Tea” Ortiz and a tea grower from Georgia (whose name escapes me). They were retelling their tea origin stories. Michael was just about to begin his when Natasha Nesic came out to bid adieu. I regretted that I barely talked to her this Expo. (Next year.)
Michael was about to continue his tea story when I heard my phone ping.
It was a Facebook message from Nicole Martin, it read: “Please help me.”
I said to Michael, “I really want to hear the rest of this, but I have to rescue Nicole.”
(For THAT story, go HERE.)
Nicole and I returned from that little adventure largely unscathed. By then, the gathering out in the backyard had swollen to a gaggle. Nicole recounted her bus stop horror story, and the conversation eventually segued to other things. Somewhere down the line, Nicole mentioned that a tea vendor had one time referred to her as “Tea Lady Nicole” on social media.
I remarked, “’Tea Lady Nicole’? That sounds like the name of an Irish folk song.”
And then . . . to everyone’s amazement (or horror) . . . I began to sing.
(For the full lyrics, go HERE.)
Sterling Pratt backed me up on the chorus. It sounded far too eerily perfect. Nicole was full-body blushing. Mission: Accomplished. Then we were told to keep our voices down by the hostess.
Toward the end of the party, I ventured up to the loft upstairs. It was the unit being rented by Chris “Teaity Tea-Guy” Giddings and Nicole “AmazonV” Schwartz. I had heard a few people were having a mini-party up there, and decided to take a look. When I got up there, though, no one was there – save one.
Nicole Schwartz was the only one there; in her room – door open – on her bed, in her pajamas, reading a book. She looked up in surprise. The whole time, I was thinking, I used to watch movies that started like this. On Cinemax. Late at night.
I turned to see myself out, but Nicole S. convinced me to stay and chat for a spell. Nothing happened, I swear. All we did was talk about past Dungeons & Dragons exploits from yester-campaigns. Seriously, that was it. I behaved myself.
Other folks from the party downstairs weren’t too sure. Throughout our conversation, various people came to check on us, and make sure I was being a gentleman. And I was! . . . uh . . . yer honor.
What finally pulled me away from the gaming conversation was the promise of Phil Tea. What is that? I hear you – fair reader – not asking. Well, I’ll tell you.
Phil “World Tea House” Holmans had processed some green tea at the Doke Tea Estate in Bihar, India. And he was finally test-driving it. Damn, it was quite good. For a tea that was produced via shits-and-giggles.
1AM chimed and my eyelids weighed heavy. I bid farewell to the beach house tea party that was still in progress. On my drive back to my cousin’s place, I was informed that I missed out on an epic game of Cards Against Humanity . . . and later heard that the party continued its caffeine-induced reverie until 5 in the morning.
I slept soundly that night.
The day after, it was off to the airport. My carry-on bag was nothing but tea swag. My travel mug? Filled with Doke Black Fusion.
This was my third World Tea Expo . . . but it was the first where I felt I was part of a greater industry. Part of a greater, international community. Three weeks have passed since those magical three days, and I’m still in awe of it. My passion for this stupid little beverage made from stupid little leaves, poured into stupid little cups has not wavered. If anything, my appreciation has only widened.
Your move, World Tea Expo 2016. See you in Vegas.
Bitter Gourds and No-Pants Awards – World Tea Expo, Day 2
The day wasn’t off to the best of starts. I had to be up at 5:30 for a site tour . . . or so I thought. The day prior, I had agreed to a tour of the QTrade Teas and Herbs facility. Alas, I had my days wrong. The tour was for the next day. Tired ol’ me showed up at 7:30AM, and confused many an employee. Oh well . . . I snapped a picture of the interior anyway.
After that tired mishap, I ventured back to the Long Beach Convention Center. I arrived far too late for two focused tastings I wanted to partake in. Both were oolong-related. That and my stomach was growling at me.
I looked at the World Tea Expo schedule booklet and decided upon another focused tasting to purchase. Wize Monkey – the coffee tea leaf guys – were doing a demonstration in a couple of hours. Well, that sounded nifty. I approached the counter to buy it . . . and . . .
Credit card declined.
Apparently, even after giving my bank a travel notice, they still thought a charge from “World Tea Expo” sounded suspicious and put a fraud notice on the card. I seethed. Thankfully, I had a cup of Assam to take my frustrations out on.
My stomach growled in frustration, again. Luckily, I ran into Jo “Scandalous/Gift of Tea” Johnson, who graciously imparted a red bean moon cake for me to munch on. That appeased me for about a half hour, and then my tummy demanded more.
I wandered the halls like a veritable zombie until I heard my name from one of the rooms. Kathy Robson – Gary’s wife and co-owner of Red Lodge Books & Tea – peaked out of a Tea & Dessert Pairing demo, hosted by Roger Wemischner. They had leftovers and were urging passersby to partake. My breakfast was a fabulous peach mousse with marigold flowers.
Tummy satisfied, I found that it was time for the Expo floor to open. I wasn’t sure if there were any vendor booths I needed to hit, but I decided to poke around, anyway. Maybe there were a few hidden gems I missed during my first survey. Tea For Me Please‘s Nicole Martin also joined me (again) in my wanderings.
Amidst our meanderings, we happened by a North American Tea Championship demo. Several vendors were hawking some of their winning wares for the tasting. Distracted patrons were allowed to taste, ponder, and place a token for whichever winners they considered a favorite. My favorite was . . . drum roll . . .
Fitting, eh? I missed the facility tour, but their green tea was my top choice. Serendipity, I love thee.
Once buzzed off of that minor event, we happened by a tea booth. Chris “Teaity Tea-Guy” Giddings was parked at the tasting tables, and he admitted to having been there for two hours. The company was one I hadn’t heard of before – The Finest Brew – owned by two Sri Lankan brothers. The sommelier doing all the tea prep was dubbed “Gee” because . . . well . . . of course he was.
Gee had us sip a range of their black teas – two fascinating ones from Fujian province, China. As well as a couple of Sri Lankan offerings that were just majestic. But my eyes eventually turned toward (what I thought was) a strangely shaped heicha tea log.
Well, it wasn’t a tea log, nor was it heicha. Gee explained that it was the husk of a bitter gourd vegetable, and the contents within was twelve-year-aged oolong. Then he offered to brew some up. If I wasn’t tea drunk before . . . I was after.
Two hours went by.
In passing, we mentioned that Nicole was up for a “Best Social Media” award at the upcoming World Tea Awards that night. Gee said for us to swing by their booth the next day, for he had some special oolongs in his pockets for the occasion – if she won. Oolongs that were over twenty years old, no less. And, thus, the term “pocket oolong” was born.
Once we could pry away from The Finest Brew booth, Chris, Nicole and I made the mad dash for the panel we were supposed to be on – the third annual Tea Bloggers Roundtable.
It was my second time being on the panel. Gary “Tea with Gary” Robson was this year’s moderator, and was – per our online agreement – adorned in a kilt. Subjects put before the panel ranged from our individual blogger identities, what worked for us, how we (attempted) to garner traffic, and best practices. Nicole “AmazonV” Schwartz live-tweeted the proceedings. The turnout was fair, and the engagement was good.
Following that, we dipped into a celebratory cupping of some Scottish grown tea I brought. Gary was particularly festive about it.
I, later, made the run to the U.S. League of Tea Growers. I remember attending the first annual meeting three years. The fledgling organization had come a long way since then. They were sounding all official-like, now. I even had the pleasure of meeting a tea grower from Texas I never knew of – Josephie Dean Jackson of the East Texas Tea Company. Very charming and enthusiastic woman; I was excited to see what her progress would be in the coming years.
The Expo day finished with reasonable smiles, and it was time for the main event. An awards dinner . . . on a giant boat.
This year’s World Tea Awards took place on the Queen Mary, parked on the port of Long Beach. I’d never been to an awards dinner before. I had no idea what to expect, or who would win what. Rachel “I Heart Teas” Carter had booked our entire blogger group a table. Sitting at the nicely decorated table, overlooking the nicely decorated room, I felt like, “Huh, maybe there is something to this blogging thing.”
Then I saw Gary wearing his formal kilt and re-evaluated that thought.
The stand-out at our table, though, was Jo, who wore a bedazzled “Tea Bloggers Roundtable” shirt to the proceedings.
Way to represent.
The event itself was quite a deal. Dinner was decent. (I ate all my vegetables.) But the real treat was this.
Nicole Martin won for Best Social Media Reach. One of our own had won a tea industry award. You know that feeling you get when your team wins a major sporting event? It was something like that. I nearly cried tears – actual manly tears. It couldn’t have happened to a lovelier human being, too.
Once the pomp and circumstance concluded, it was on to revelry. People mingled. Some drank (a lot), and others (like us) got our photos taken. Sometimes as Avengers . . .
As one does at formal events.
Two very intoxicated, older Australian women even dragged me to the photo booth, and one groped me in a not-so-appropriate place.
So. Not. Okay.
By 11:30, my reserves finally tapped out. I was running on fumes. A few of my fellow bloggers had the displeasure of seeing me when I was tired and cranky . . . and driving. That said, it was easily the most rewarding day at Expo.
A Business Trip with Benefits – World Tea Expo 2015, Day 1
Arriving at the Long Beach Convention Center, and seeing that sign, was like coming home again.
This was to be my third World Tea Expo in a row. The first year was a three-day whirlwind of awesomeness. The second was like a quickie, followed by a long-distance relationship. This year took on an entirely different form. This was a business trip . . . with benefits.
Within minutes of entering, I encountered people in my tea blogging sphere. This was just within the first hour.
. . . And true to Murphy’s law, my camera kept dying right when important things happened – such as meet-ups. Therefore, I had to mooch moments from other people who had the forethought to bring a decent phone, camera or – in one special case – a battery pack.
A particularly noteworthy pleasure was finally getting to meet Katrina Munichiello – an author/editor I truly respected. She was just as nerdy as the rest of us, and a pure delight to boot. Even I violated my usual selfie embargo to be snapped with her, Nicole “AmazonV” Schwartz, and Rachel “I Heart Teas” Carter.
After who-knows-how-long of playing catch-up, I finally hit the Expo floor. My first mission was to see a familiar face. I learned through the tweet-o-sphere that one of my favorite Oregon outfits – Chariteas – had a booth. Per my World Tea News write-up, she was now wholesaling Indonesian teas from one garden – two blacks, one white, and one . . . that was absolutely delicious . . . but I couldn’t quite identify it. It was called Grey Dragon.
It almost needed its own category.
In my floor wanderings, I also encountered Nicole “Tea For Me Please” Martin, who soon became the Maverick to my Goose. If there were folks I needed to talk to; I followed her. If she was in search of something shiny and weird; she followed me. In that first day, we encountered Columbian grown tea, coffee leaf “tea”, and Laotian grown tea. (I’ll get to all of those in greater detail at a later date.)
We also encountered random friends in our wanderings. There was so much to take in that we both said, “Oh yeah, we have a panel to be on in ten minutes.”
Jen “An International Tea Moment” Piccotti had organized four of us boggers for a panel dubbed “Amplifying Your Business Voice Through Tea Bloggers”. It was a serious panel. I’d never been on a serious panel before. No, it didn’t stay serious for very long. Fellow panelists included Jen, Nicole M, myself, and the venerable Jo “Scandalous Tea” Johnson. The goal of the panel was to illustrate how tea vendors could best use tea bloggers to get the word out on their wares. I was surprised by the ample turnout.
And I was even more surprised that – mid-panel – I’d forgotten Jen’s name.
Once the Expo-ing leg of the day was done, I moseyed over to the Tealet beach house rental for a focused tasting. Elyse Petersn and Rie Tulali ran us through a couple of special teas from Nepal, as well as some Jin Jun Mei and Hawaiian white.
That’s all I needed. More caffeine.
Day One: Complete.
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