Tea plants as props? Thanks, #TeaAcrossAmerica!


When we first joined #TeaAcrossAmerica, I had visions of a big bushy tea plant in the front window at the shop. I still think we can build a neat window display around it at some point. When our tea plant, Tea H. White, arrived, the temperature outside was well below zero Fahrenheit. Even the windowsill seemed awfully cold for a little cutting that had just been shipped halfway across the country. So we set him on the tea bar instead.

Tea H White - Mar2014

Tea H. White today, about two months after his arrival in Montana.

Tea H. started out as a decoration and a passive tool for raising awareness of American-grown tea. Every now and then, I’d point at him and say, “that’s a tea plant.” Perhaps I’d explain what the significance is of Camellia sinensis and talk about Tea Across America. Perhaps not. But that slowly began to change.

I found myself saying things like, “we could make black tea, white tea, green tea, oolong, and pu-erh, all from this plant here.” I was pointing at the plant a lot.

Then it got more specific. I’d point at the bud and leaf at the end of a branch and say, “this right here is where the plant concentrates its caffeine.” I’d point at a smaller, brighter-colored leaf and say, “this leaf would find its way into something like this oolong tea we’re drinking, but this big leaf down the stem would probably be broken into dust and stuffed in a Lipton teabag.”

In the last week, I’ve referred to little Tea H. White every day.

I brewed up some taiguanyin, and showed a customer the dried, rolled-up, tadpole-shaped leaves. Then I pulled an unraveled leaf from the infuser and held it next to a similar-sized leaf on the tea plant to show that it really is a whole tea leaf.

I showed someone the soil in the plant’s pot and explained that Camellia sinensis can grow on steep hillsides at high altitudes where other crops can’t thrive, and talked about what that’s done for the economy in places like Kenya’s Rift Valley.

I was talking about the ancient tea forests near Mannong and Manmai in the Yunnan province of China, and I walked over to Tea H. White and said, “little tea plants like this one can grow into 30-foot trees and live for a thousand years or more.”

Just today, someone asked what variety of tea Orange Pekoe is. I started to explain that it’s not a variety, it’s a grade. Then I went over to the tea plant and showed them what a pekoe is.

My tea plant has become an educational tool.

As I’ve said many times before, the primary job of a tea vendor today is education. Learn everything you can about tea, and then pass it on to your customers. It pays back in spades when you can find the perfect tea for somebody and they turn into a tea fan (and a loyal customer)! I live for the aha moment, when somebody really “gets” what tea is all about. Having a real, live tea plant sitting on the tea bar makes for more of those moments.

Someday, that plant will grow into a tea bush, and we’re going to produce a batch of tea from it. Between now and then, however, the plant will help to educate hundreds of people about the world of tea.

An open letter to restaurants about tea


Open letter to restaurants header

Dear Restaurants,

I love you. Really I do. I’m not a picky guy. I’m certainly not a snob. I love a five-course meal at a five-star restaurant, but I also must confess a fondness for a “Snag Burger” at the bar down the street from my shop. I love a good Indian buffet, a medium-rare steak, authentic London fish and chips, and an authentic Inverness haggis with neeps & tatties. Basically, if the chef cares about how the food tastes, I’m probably going to enjoy it. And if your servers care about serving the customers, I’m probably going to enjoy being in your restaurant. I love eating out.

But we’ve really got to talk about your tea.

First, if your restaurant is even half a notch above fast food, you have more than one type of tea, right? It may be powdered sweepings from the factory floor in a Lipton teabag, but you’ll have a black tea, a green tea, something without caffeine, and either Earl Grey or Moroccan Mint. If you don’t offer at least those four, you’d might as well hang a sign that says, “Tea Drinkers Not Welcome.”

So let’s start with that. When we order a cup of hot tea, either ask what kind we want, or present us with a basket or box containing a selection to choose from. Don’t just bring out a cup of black tea and then let us find out later that you had other options.

RULE 1: Tell us (or show us) the options!

Next, don’t grab the water until you’re on the way to the table. If we’re ordering black tea (and that includes Earl Grey), then we want that water boiling, or darned close to it.

RULE 2: Hot water. Really hot water.

And now, a big no-no. Don’t ever ever put the tea leaves (or tea bag) in the water before you bring it to us. The only exception to this rule is if you run a tea shop and your waitstaff plans to monitor the entire steeping process for us, in which case you’ll be controlling the steep time as well.

RULE 3: The tea meets the water at the table.

There are several reasons for this.

First, most serious tea drinkers have their own opinions on how long their tea should be steeped. I typically short-steep my black teas and drink them straight. My friend Angela steeps hers long and strong and adds milk. There’s no way to prepare a cup of tea that will make both of us happy. You have to let us do it ourselves.

That said, if you start the tea steeping in the kitchen, we have no idea how long the leaves have been in the water when it gets to our table. A glass carafe (like the one in this post’s header) helps that, but if we don’t know the particular brand and style of tea you’re serving, it’s really hard to judge by the color.

Additionally, not all tea takes the same water temperature. If I’m drinking black tea, I’ll pour in that boiling water the second it gets to me. If I’m drinking green or white tea, I’m going to let the water cool a bit first. Boiling water makes green tea bitter.

Once our tea is steeped to our liking, we’re going to want to remove the leaves from the water — or pour the water off of the leaves.

RULE 4: Give us something to do with used leaves or teabags.

I’ve been in many restaurants that give me a cup of water and a teabag, but no saucer to put the bag on when I’m done steeping it. I really don’t want a soggy teabag on my dinner plate, and you probably don’t want it on the tablecloth or place mat. Even the nice places that bring me a pot of water with a strainer full of leaves and a cozy to keep the pot warm sometimes don’t provide a place to put that strainer. Oh, and this reminds me of rule five:

RULE 5: Don’t just dump leaves loose in a pot with a spout strainer unless it’s a single-serving pot.

It’s frustrating to pour off a cup of tea and know that by the time I’m ready for the second cup, it will be oversteeped and nasty and there’s not a thing I can do about it.

Those five rules will cover the basics. All but the real tea snobs can make something acceptable to drink if you have a few choices (which need to include unflavored options — don’t just give us Earl Grey, mint, fruity stuff, and herbal stuff) and serve it properly. But if you’d like to upgrade the experience and really make us tea drinkers feel welcome, here are a couple of bonus tips:

BONUS TIP #1: Make sure all of your servers can answer rudimentary questions about your tea selection.

Everyone who works there should know which of your teas have caffeine and which don’t. They should know the difference between green and black tea (and know that Moroccan Mint is green and Earl Grey is black). They should know the teas from the tisanes (herbals), and they should know which ones are organic and/or fair trade.

If you serve leaf tea, as opposed to bagged dust, give the staff a bit more information, like origin and style. You want your server to be able to tell a customer whether that red wine is a Merlot or Zinfandel and whether it’s from Bordeaux or Napa Valley. Why shouldn’t they be able to say whether the black tea is a Darjeeling, a Ceylon, or a Keemun?

BONUS TIP #2: Give us a couple of upgraded options.

Offering a oolong, a white tea, or a pu-erh makes me feel like you really want me to enjoy the experience. I don’t even mind paying more for a Bai Hao or a Silver Needle. It’s like offering some really nice wines in addition to the everyday wines; or offering craft beer in addition to Bud Light. That tea can make a good meal a really memorable one.

Attitude is everything in the service industry. If you and your staff are proud of the food you serve, it shows. Steak lovers look for restaurants that take pride in their steaks. Tea lovers look for restaurants that take pride in their tea. Most of the time, we’re lucky to find a restaurant that will even put a bit of effort into their tea, much less take pride in it.

If you aren’t a tea expert, find one and ask for advice. Show that you’re trying, and that you take as much pride in your drinks as you do in your food. We will notice. You will turn us into regular customers. We’ll be happy and you’ll be happy. We all win.


While writing this blog post, I was drinking Jasmine King, a jasmine silver needle white tea. The touch of woodiness in the tea blended beautifully with the heavenly aroma of the jasmine. I don’t drink a lot of white tea, but I’m getting hooked on this one.

Tea Blogger’s Roundtable in Long Beach


Last year at World Tea Expo (caution: that link autoplays video with sound) in Las Vegas, I attended a Tea Blogger’s Roundtable. It was a great opportunity to talk with some of the big tea bloggers, share experiences, and discuss challenges. This year in Long Beach, California, I’m pleased to be one of the panelists.

WTE Blogger Panel Poster 2014

The panel will be on Friday, May 30th, starting at 5:00 p.m. Anyone registered for World Tea Expo or Healthy Beverage Expo is welcome to attend. If you can make it, please let us know using the email address in the poster above. Prepare questions for your favorite tea bloggers (and the ones you just tolerate, too). Take some time to check out the blogs before you attend, too. We all love getting new readers!

The event is being coordinated by A Gift of Tea (Twitter feed @AGiftOfTea). I will also be posting updates here and on my Twitter feed (@TeaWithGary). The bloggers on the panel (in alphabetical order) are:

I’m really not sure what they were thinking when they replaced Robert Godden (Lord Devotea’s Tea Spouts) with me. Maybe he’s too edgy and controversial. Or maybe he’s just getting old and everyone thought his 45-minute PowerPoint presentation on Australian eucalyptus tea was too darned boring. (I have a feeling I’m going to pay for that comment!)

See you there (except for Robert, unfortunately)!

Tea H. White arrives in Montana


#TeaAcrossAmerica

Back in November, I wrote about #TeaAcrossAmerica, a program that’s putting tea bushes in all fifty states plus the District of Columbia. By joining the program, I agreed to host Montana’s tea plant, which arrived at my tea shop yesterday. The plant, which we named “Tea H. White,” is a China bush (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis), which is tolerant of cold, but not nearly tolerant enough to spend a Montana winter outdoors. The plant can take an occasional light frost, but not temperatures like the -27(F) we had for a couple of days early last month. This means that Tea H. White will be living indoors.

Tea H. White

Tea H. White comes out of his shipping container and gets introduced to his new Montana home.

My tea bar has east-facing bay windows that should be a great place to keep the plant, with full morning sun and afternoon shade. We’ll have to work on the humidity, since it’s pretty dry out here, but we can do that. In the picture above, you can see that our cutting came out of the shipping box a wee bit dehydrated, which is to be expected after a few days in USPS trucks and planes. The first thing I did — after dragging him around the store and showing him to everybody — was get him into the sink, where he soaked up a lot of water and started perking back up.

Tea H White

A very thirsty little tea bush gets a big drink.

Why the name? Well, our shop is a bookstore, which is why we’ve gone with literary names for some of our tea blends (e.g., Lady Greystoke and Fifty Shades of Earl Grey). In looking for the author-related puns, Tea S. Eliot was the first to pop to mind, but Shannon Brewer Land already used that name for the Alaskan Tea Across America plant — although she later changed it to Captain James Tea Kirk.

The Sword in the Stone

The Sword in the Stone, the first book of T. H. White’s series, The Once and Future King.

As it turns out, Tea H. White is a better name for our plant anyway. T. H. White is the author of the groundbreaking The Once and Future King series, which tells the King Arthur legend starting with Arthur’s childhood. We are definitely lovers of fantasy novels and Arthurian stories, and as a children’s author myself, I really enjoy good young adult literature.

As soon as little Tea H. White started perking up, our assistant manager, Doug, was ready to pluck a leaf and start drying it. After fighting him off with my trusty pu-erh knife Excaliber, we decided to let the plant turn into a bush before we start trying to drink it. I sympathize with Doug, though. Patience is not my strong suit either.

I am curious. I’d like to know whether this is the first tea bush in Montana. Has anyone else tried this experiment? Is there a little tea garden growing in a greenhouse in Missoula? A tea bush in a shop in Helena? A cutting thriving in someone’s sun room in Bozeman? If any of my readers know about another Camellia sinensis bush in Montana, let me know. I’d love to compare notes with someone else who’s done this!

Caffeine Math: How much caffeine is in a tea blend?


For some reason, it seems like I write a lot about caffeine on this blog. My three-part series on the subject is the most popular thing I’ve ever posted. My recent post about theanine talked about caffeine as well. One thing I haven’t addressed in detail is what happens to caffeine content when you blend tea with something else.

Caffeine Math

The first thing we have to do is clear our minds of preconceptions. Remember that there’s no simple formula saying that one kind of tea has more caffeine than another (see my caffeine myths article for details). And resign yourself to the fact that there’s no way short of spending a couple of thousand dollars on lab tests to determine how much tea is in a commercial blend, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

Let’s start with an example. Assume you have a tea you enjoy. You use two teaspoons of tea leaf to make a cup, and we’ll say this tea gives you 20mg of caffeine. You decide to use this tea in a blend. What happens to the caffeine level?

Ingredient blends

If you blend with other bulk ingredients, the caffeine calculations are simple ratios. If you blend the tea 50/50 with peppermint, then instead of two teaspoons of tea (20mg of caffeine), you’re using one teaspoon of tea (10mg of caffeine) plus one tablespoon of mint (no caffeine). You’ve cut the amount of caffeine in half. If your blend is 1/3 ginger and 2/3 tea, it will have 2/3 as much caffeine as the straight tea.

If you’re blending tea with other tea, the ratios work the same way. Blend together two tea styles with equivalent caffeine levels and the result will have the same amount of caffeine as the original tea blends.

All of this is contingent upon your measuring techniques. It becomes more complicated if you blend by weight instead of volume. Put together a cup of green tea and a cup of peppermint, and two teaspoons of the blend will contain (about) one teaspoon of tea and one teaspoon of mint. If you put together an ounce of gunpowder green tea and an ounce of peppermint leaves, the result is very different. Gunpowder tea is very dense, and peppermint leaves are light and fluffy. Two teaspoons of that mixture might only have a half teaspoon of tea, which means a quarter of the caffeine.

Extracts and oils

In many commercial tea blends whole ingredients like chunks of berry, flakes of cinnamon, and bits of leaf are more for looks than flavor. Soak a strawberry in hot water for three minutes and you’ll see what I mean. The real flavoring in those blends comes from extracts and essential oils that are sprayed on the tea leaves. In that case, the caffeine content is pretty much unaffected. A teaspoon of flavored tea leaves has the same caffeine as a teaspoon of unflavored tea leaves.

A little tea blending secret: sometimes the chunks of fruit in the tea really are chunks of fruit, but they’re not what you think they are. Tea blenders can purchase small chunks of dried apple that are sprayed with (or even soaked in) flavorings or extracts. Your piña colada blend might just be apple bits flavored with coconut and pineapple extracts. There’s very little flavor in the dried apple, so all you’re getting is the flavoring that was added. Why use them at all? Because it’s easy to experiment with, it doesn’t require the tea company to invest in leaf-spraying equipment, and it adds some visual variety to the blend. The chunks can even be colored.

A couple of real-world examples

Let’s start with genmaicha. This is a classic Japanese blend of green tea and roasted rice. I started with a tablespoon of my favorite genmaicha:

genmaicha

The base tea in this blend is sencha, which is fairly easy to recognize from the color and needle shape of the leaves. I don’t know the exact caffeine content of the sencha, but I can do a bit of Googling and come up with an estimate. Let’s go with 30mg per cup. Now, we’ll separate the tea leaves from the rice:

genmaicha separated

The main thing I learned from this exercise is that I don’t have the patience to pick all of the rice out of a tablespoon of genmaicha! The separation I did showed that a tablespoon of this particular genmaicha contained about 1/3 tablespoon of rice and 2/3 tablespoon of sencha. Since rice has no caffeine, that means a cup of this genmaicha probably has about 20mg of caffeine in it.

I was going to try the same experiment with a Moroccan mint tea, but found that the one I have on hand has no peppermint leaves. It appears to contain only tea leaves and mint extract. That means it has the same caffeine level as the tea used to make it — in this case a gunpowder green tea.

Doing the math

I don’t think you actually have to do much math to estimate caffeine levels. It’s imprecise at best because tea leaves don’t come labeled with their caffeine content. But if you look at a tea blend and it appears to be about half tea leaves and half something else, it’ll have about half the caffeine of the tea alone. Some blends I’ve looked at lately appear to have very little tea leaf — those might as well be decaffeinated tea! Others, like the Moroccan mint I mentioned a moment ago, are almost entirely tea, so treat them just as you would unflavored tea.

Black Tea Friday: A happy story of a frantic day


Black Tea FridayAs Black Friday winds to a close, have you chatted with any retail workers that were on the clock today? Checked out their Twitter feeds? Read a few stories on “Not Always Right“? Have you followed the news, as they talk about Black Friday shootings and crowds? I don’t know very many shoppers that consider Black Friday to be “fun.” Yes, it has good deals, but fighting the crowds to grab that cheap game console can frazzle even the mellowest shopper. But the employees in the stores have it worse. It’s not optional for them. Frantic, harried shoppers tend not to be overly polite to the clerks in the stores, and the employees tend to go home tired and stressed.

As a retailer, this doesn’t sound like a recipe for fun to me, either. But you know what? Today was an awesome Black Friday, and I had fun with it. I am tired, but simultaneously energized.

“Today was an awesome Black Friday, and I had fun with it. I am tired, but simultaneously energized.”

As regular readers of my blog know, my wife and I own a bookstore and tea bar in Red Lodge, Montana. Red Lodge is a small town. Pretty much every store in town was closed yesterday for Thanksgiving. I think the Radio Shack was the first store open this morning for Black Friday, and I doubt they opened much before 7:00 a.m. We didn’t open until 9:00, and things were quiet enough that we could get some Christmas decorating done in between customers. In Red Lodge, the real Black Friday shopping day starts at about 11:00.

We keep things fairly mellow. No 75% off sales. Just a book signing in the afternoon, and a “Black Tea Friday” special discount on all black tea. Still, today was our best Black Friday ever, and one of the best days in the history of the shop. We had a lot of people in the store, and there were times when we struggled to keep up. But I still had a chance to say “hi” to all of the regulars, talk to folks about the book signing, and help people select gifts. Could today have been bigger? Sure. We could have offered steep discounts, advertised like mad, and opened at 5:00 a.m. I’ll bet we would have sold a lot more. But to me, it wouldn’t have been worth it.

The nearest city of any size is Billings, Montana, which is about an hour’s drive from here. A sales representative from the big mall there popped by a while ago to see if we wanted to open a kiosk or small satellite store in the mall for the Christmas season. He threw out some amazing numbers. A little kiosk in the mall could possibly generate more sales in a month than our whole store in Red Lodge — and that’s if the kiosk is only selling tea, which accounts for about a quarter of our sales at the shop.

I’d be silly not to jump at that opportunity, right?

No.

People can get a cup of tea anywhere. Ditto a good book. The reason people come to my store is because we take the time to talk to them. I may spend ten minutes with someone pulling jars down from the shelf and asking questions before they settle on the perfect tea for them. They may describe a tea that they got at a favorite shop a thousand miles away and ask me to blend them something similar. I can help customers find a book based on the sketchiest description (“I think it was set in Wyoming and had a green cover”), and recommend a new author based on what they tell me about themselves.

And that’s what makes owning a store fun!

Spending every day frantically preparing cups of tea until I’m sticky from the honey and agave nectar and I smell like a chai latte isn’t my idea of fun. I don’t think my employees would particularly enjoy it, either. But introducing a black tea drinker to a well-whisked matcha gives one a real sense of satisfaction. Having someone say, “this will be perfect for my cousin for Christmas” makes my day. Hearing a customer call their spouse on their cellphone to say, “you have got to come meet me at this amazing tea shop” puts a smile on my face every day.

The sales numbers for an airport bookstore or a shopping mall kiosk sound attractive, but that’s not my lifestyle. I don’t want to end the day thinking I just can’t stand to look at another customer. I don’t want customers stalking out of my store because my employees don’t have time to explain the difference between sencha and dragonwell, or to help them find a good mystery book set in the West with a believable female protagonist. I want to end the day feeling like I made enough money to pay all the bills, made my customers a little bit happier than they were when the day started, and (hopefully) learned something myself. That won’t happen in Wal-Mart in Denver. It does happen at my store in Red Lodge, Montana, and I hope it will keep happening for many years to come.

“I want to end the day feeling like I made enough money to pay all the bills, made my customers a little bit happier than they were when the day started, and (hopefully) learned something myself.”

Let me end this post with a hearty thank you to all of my customers — my friends — who came in the store to shop today. Yeah, it sounds sappy, but it’s genuine. You give me a reason to open the store in the morning, and I appreciate it.

Tagged! A tea background story


Oh, these silly tagging things that go around. Normally, I ignore them, but Geoffrey Norman (a.k.a. the Lazy Literatus) tagged me for a tea-related Q&A and it’s hard to resist when he looks at you with those big puppy dog eyes…

Tagged!

(1) First, let’s start with how you were introduced and fell in love with the wonderful beverage of tea.

Easy. I hate coffee.

I got my start with tea as a comfort thing when I was little. Any time I got sick, Mom’s immediate response was tea and toast. Tea relaxes me and makes me feel like I’m being taken care of. It was many years later that I discovered the amazing variety of beverages you can produce with the Camellia sinensis plant. There’s a lot beyond black tea in teabags and loose green tea leaves in the Chinese restaurant!

(2) What was the very first tea blend you ever tried?

I hereby define the word “blend” to mean a combination of ingredients, thus disqualifying Lipton teabags and the aforementioned green tea in the Chinese restaurant. That means the answer is “Morning Thunder” from Celestial Seasonings (tagline: The Awakening Power of a Thousand Charging Buffalo). I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, which is where Celestial Seasonings is based, so it was ubiquitous when I was in junior high and high school. Then, my junior year in high school I got a job driving a delivery truck for an office supply store, and Celestial Seasonings was one of my stops.

(3) When did you start your tea blog and what was your hope for creating it?

The first tea-related post I wrote on my other blog was in June of 2011, shortly after opening my tea bar. About four months later, I gathered all of the tea-related posts from that blog and split them off into a new one: Tea With Gary. That’s what you’re reading now.

(4) List one thing most rewarding about your blog and one thing most discouraging.

Rewarding: I have met some awesome people through tea blogging, and I feel like I’ve debunked some myths about tea.

Discouraging: Where are my tens of thousands of screaming fans? Hey, no offense to the hundreds of readers I do have, but I had hoped for more after 2-1/2 years.

(5) What type of tea are you most likely to be caught sipping on?

I drink a lot of different kinds of tea, but the two I’m most likely to be drinking are Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong (a.k.a. Tieguanyin) and various shu pu-erhs.

(6) Favorite tea latte to indulge in?

When I make myself a tea latte, it’s almost always masala chai. I like a nice spicy chai with frothy milk, a dash of agave nectar, and a sprinkle of cinnamon on the foam.

(7) Favorite treat to pair with your tea?

A lightly-salted big soft Bavarian-style pretzel.

(8) If there was one place in the world that you could explore tea culture at, where would it be and why?

Oh, my, that’s a rough question. For tea culture, it would have to be Japan. When I was last there I hadn’t really explored Japanese tea culture and ceremony, and I’d like to go back now that I know a little bit about it. As for tea horticulture, I’d like to visit some tea plantations in either China or Kenya.

(9) Any tea time ritual you have that you’d like to share?

Unfortunately, I don’t take the time for ritual very often. Most of the time I’m making a quick cup to consume while I do something else.

When I do observe a ritual, it really varies with the type of tea I’m drinking. I prepare and drink my pu-erh differently than my matcha, obviously.

(10) Time of day you enjoy drinking tea the most: Morning, Noon, Night or Anytime?

Any time. Any time at all. Being a bit ADD, the caffeine doesn’t affect me the same way it affects normal people. I do have a tendency to drink tea that’s lighter in the caffeine at night, though (e.g., houjicha), or even switch to rooibos.

(11) What’s one thing you wish for tea in the future?

That there’s never one single business and one single variety that reaches the levels of dominance that Starbucks has reached in coffee. I like tea being a different experience depending on where I go and who I’m with. I enjoy every tea shop having a unique atmosphere, a unique selection, and their own way of presenting the tea. Diversity is a great thing, and I want the diversity in the tea world to increase rather than decrease.

Joining Tea Across America


#TeaAcrossAmericaThe more I learn about tea, the more I want to learn. The more I experience, the more I want to experience. I experiment, I read books, I read blogs, I attend tea conferences, and I take classes. I buy tea from all over the world, and try out different blends and combinations. Basically, I do whatever my budget allows.

Teany the Tea Plant

This is Naomi’s little plant (she represents Nevada in #TeaAcrossAmerica). She named it “Teany.” I’m now taking suggestions for a name for my plant when it arrives.

One thing my budget has not, alas, allowed has been traveling to the world’s great tea growing areas and getting familiar with tea bushes. My tea experiences all start with processed leaves, not with the plants themselves. Today marked the first step in changing that.

I got a phone call this afternoon from Naomi Rosen, of Joy’s Teaspoon. I met Naomi at a blogger’s panel at World Tea Expo 2013 this summer (CAUTION: this link to World Tea Expo plays video and makes noise — careful where you are when you click it). Naomi was calling because she’s working with Jason McDonald of FiLoLi Tea Farm and the United States League of Tea Growers on a new initiative they call #TeaAcrossAmerica.

Their simple yet ambitious objective: put a tea plant into every state and the District of Columbia. Some U.S. states already have established tea plantations. Others have hobbyists with a few bushes going. Many states have climates that Camellia sinensis considers inhospitable. I happen to live in one of those states: Montana.

Naomi asked if I’d be willing to represent Montana in #TeaAcrossAmerica, and I jumped at the opportunity. To participate, I need to take a cutting from FiLoLi Tea Farm in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and grow it here in Montana. Jason has written up some directions to make caring for the cutting easier, and I’ll be able to keep it indoors where the harsh Montana winters won’t kill it. My tea bar has east-facing bay windows that should be a great place to keep the plant, with full morning sun and afternoon shade. The only problem will be humidity — it’s very dry here — but we can deal with that.

It’s going to be a month or two before my little tea bush arrives, so we have plenty of time to prepare. I will keep everyone up-to-date on the progress as we get things going. In the meantime, thanks to Jason for the opportunity and to Naomi for suggesting me as a volunteer!

United States League of Tea Growers

Gold Nugget Pu-Erh


As I wrote about in my other blog, we went to Portland, Oregon for a book show last week. I was there to roll out my new book (Who Pooped in the Cascades?) and to take a look at interesting books from other authors — not to mention a whole lot of networking. What I didn’t mention in that other blog was that I took some time out to meet fellow tea blogger Geoffrey Norman for a cup or three of tea (and maybe a beer or two, but that’s completely beside the point). I told Geoffrey to pick his favorite tea shop in Portland and take me there. He chose The Jasmine Pearl on NE 22nd, and the adventure went from there…

Gold Nugget Pu-erh header

My son, Doug, accompanied Geoffrey and I to the shop, and we entered to the wondrous smell of tea blending and brewing. We met the owners and several other staff members, and then settled in to browse.

As I typically do when entering a new tea shop, I explored their tea list to see what they had available. They had the usual selection of flavored teas & scented tea (Earl Grey, Moroccan mint, jasmine pearls…) and old standbys (tieguanyin, English breakfast, gunpowder green…). They also had some very interesting-looking varietals and single-source teas, including kukicha, dong ding oolong, and Gaba oolong.

After we looked around a bit, they informed us that tasting was free and pretty much everything was available to taste. One of the staff pulled out a couple of gaiwans, along with cups, strainers, and other related accoutrements, and asked where we’d like to start.

Jasmine Pearl tea bar

Clearly, she loves her job!

We started with the kukicha and dong ding oolong, and they were both good. The Gaba oolong, on the other hand, was an absolutely wonderful, and it has a great story behind it, too — but that’s for another blog post.

After going through the oolongs, Doug chose to try his favorite, a lapsang souchong, and he ended up loving it.

I, on the other hand, wanted to try pu-erhs.

I asked her what was their richest, earthiest, most complex pu-erh. She immediately guided me to the Gold Nugget. Not to spoil the ending to this story, but I ended up buying some to bring home.

Gold Nugget pu-erh brick

It looks like any other brick of pu-erh when it’s wrapped up like that, but when the wrapper comes off, it gets different. It seems that it has the name “Gold Nugget” for a reason.

Gold Nugget pu-erh nuggets

Some of the “nuggets” broken off from the cake. This is a close-up of part of the picture I used for the blog post header above.

Most pressed tea is made with larger leaf varietals of Camellia sinensis, and the leaves are laid out rather randomly. This requires flaking off bits of the tea with a pu-erh knife or some similar implement. This shu (“ripe”) pu-erh uses whole leaves, but they are rolled up like an oolong or gunpowder tea first. These “nuggets” are then pressed into the cake.

When I’m comparing tea, I like to keep the variables to a minimum. The little pile of nuggets in the picture weighs 7 grams. I put them in my infuser and did a 10-second wash with boiling water, which I drained out completely. Then I added 16 ounces of boiling water and let it steep for three minutes.

To me, three minutes is a long steep time for a shu pu-erh. When I’m drinking my favorite pu-erhs, I usually go for more like 90 seconds. Our first taste of this in the tea bar, on the other hand, was steeped for five minutes, because I told her I liked it strong.

I do, indeed, like it strong, but after steeping for five minutes, the flavors are rather muddled together. That’s why my first pass at home was for three.

The result was exactly what I had asked for: rich and complex are great adjectives for this tea. This is pretty much the polar opposite of the last pu-erh I blogged about. I will, however, be using longer steep times than usual for my first infusion, simply because those nuggets are rolled so tight that it takes a couple of infusions to open them up all the way.

Gold Nugget pu-erh nuggets post-steep

After steeping for three minutes, some of these leaves are still pretty tightly rolled. They do open more with each subsequent infusion, however.

All in all, it was a great trip, and I came back with some great tea, lots and lots of autographed books, and some fond memories. After the tea tasting, we met my wife at a sushi restaurant and had some wonderful sushi rolls and interesting beers. I wouldn’t say Geoff knows as much about beer as he does about tea, but I think we’ll be having some future conversations about the differences and similarities in teas and beers.

Phong Sali 2011 Pu-erh from Laos


At World Tea Expo this year, I picked up a Laotian pu-erh (well, technically a “dark tea,” since it doesn’t come from Yunnan) from Kevin Gascoyne at Camellia Sinensis Tea House. I mentioned this in a blog post back in June, and said I’d be tasting it and writing about it “soon.” Well, since it’s a very young sheng (a.k.a. “raw”) pu-erh, I figured it wasn’t a big hurry, and “soon” ended up being October. Oh, well. Had to get all that Oktoberfest stuff out of the way first, I suppose.

Phong Sali Laotian Pu-erh

Let me begin by explaining the label and the style of this tea.

That big “2011″ on the label is the year that it was produced. Most pu-erh drinkers will tell you that a sheng pu-erh should be aged a minimum of five years before you drink it. I certainly won’t argue that the flavors improve and ripen as the tea ages, but in my humble opinion there’s nothing at all wrong with drinking a young sheng. I enjoyed the bit that I took off of this 357-gram beeng cha (pressed cake), but I’ll be saving most of it to drink as it matures. Will I be able to hang on another three years or more to drink the majority of it? That remains to be seen.

The words “Phong Sali” do not refer to the style of the tea, but to its origin. Phong Sali (or, more commonly, Phongsali) is the capital of Phongsali province in Laos. Technically, as I mentioned above, this tea style should be called by its generic name (“dark tea”) rather than its regional name (“pu-erh”), because it doesn’t come from the Yunnan province of China. Since the little town of Phongsali (population about 6,000) is only about 50 miles from Yunnan (which borders Phongsali province on the west and north), I think we can let that bit of terminology slide.

“Old tree” refers to the tea plants themselves. In most modern plantations, the tea is pruned to about waist height to make it easy to pick. In many older plantations, the tea has been allowed to grow into trees, which can reach heights of thirty feet or more. The particular tea trees from which this tea comes are over 100 years old.

Tasting the tea

Unwrapping the beeng cha provided my first close look at the tea. The leaves are quite large, and the cake is threaded with golden leaves that didn’t oxidize fully.

Phong Sali beeng cha

There is still enough moisture in the cake to make it fairly easy to flake off some tea from one edge. Shu pu-erh is often dried very hard, as it is “force fermented” so that it will be ready to drink earlier. Sheng pu-erh, on the other hand, needs a bit of moisture in it to continue fermenting over time. I decided to try it in a gaiwan rather than making a large cup, so that it would be easier to experiment with multiple infusions and smell/taste the tea as I went.

I used water just a bit cooler than boiling (water boils at 202°F at this altitude, and I used 195°F water for this tea), and roughly 7 or 8 grams of tea. Unscientific, I know, but I didn’t measure it. I steeped the tea for just a minute the first time, and got a delicate but flavorful cup of tea. The flavor is similar to a characteristic Chinese green tea (think dragonwell), but more woody and with a bit of spice.

The picture on the right shows the leaves, uncurled after the first steeping. They are large, supple, and fragrant.

Phong Sali leaves and liquor

That one-minute steep wasn’t really enough to hydrate the leaves, so I went for a second steep at 1:30 (pictured at left above). Much more flavor, but still extremely delicate compared to a fully-aged sheng pu-erh. I enjoyed a third and fourth steep, which had only minor changes in flavor, but was interrupted before I had a chance to keep going and see how it stood up to eight or ten steeps. An experiment for a quieter day, I suppose.

This tea is definitely worth enjoying a bit early, and I will definitely be coming back to it. Again, we’ll see how much survives to full maturity. I’m not very good at waiting!

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