Author Archives: Gary D. Robson
It has been a while since my last post. Ever so much has been going on in my life, and it’s starting to settle back down. Parts have been joyous and parts have been traumatic. I’m not going to try to stuff everything into a single blog post, but I’ll give you a glimpse right now and fill in the rest as I have a chance.
My main blog, at GaryDRobson.com, has been neglected as well, but I’m currently working on a series of updates there that my tea friends and followers might be interested in.
For those who haven’t heard, my book and tea shop, Red Lodge Books & Tea, was acquired by a cooperative in Billings, MT last year. I was excited and enthusiastic. I’d be managing a new shop twice the size of my old one, located right in the heart of Billings’ historic downtown. The 60-mile commute was a pain, but I could live with that.
Unfortunately, that relationship went down the toilet in March. The cooperative owes me a lot of money, including almost half of the money they agreed to pay for my old store, plus repayment of a loan I made to them and money we put on my personal credit card to buy products for the store. They haven’t even paid me my last two paychecks from February & March. But let’s not dwell on that right now.
I’ve spent over fifteen years on the retail side of the book trade, and that’s a long time. I’m still writing and publishing books, but I decided it was time to put my focus somewhere else. My daughter, Gwen, and I decided that it was time to open a new tea shop and drop the book part of the business, and thus was born the Phoenix Pearl Tea Tavern.
The name is a dual reference to phoenix pearl tea (a tightly-rolled jasmine green that I’m quite in love with), and to the fabled phoenix bird rising from the ashes of the old store.
What with opening the new shop and everything else that’s been going on in my life, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to blog about tea. That doesn’t mean, however, I haven’t been learning, experiencing, teaching, and collecting ideas to share on Tea with Gary. Life is still pretty crazy, so I’m not committing to a regularly weekly update schedule, but I am telling you that there will be a lot more posts coming on this site.
It’s good to be back.
As I write this, it’s getting pretty late, so I’m not drinking tea. Instead, I’m enjoying a steaming mug of green rooibos. It’s mild and a bit woody without a hint of astringency, and like its red cousin, it contains absolutely no caffeine. Green rooibos one of my favorite bedtime beverages. I made this cup with 16oz of water at about 200°F and one tablespoon of leaf, steeped for four minutes.
I’m not leaving today, but I am heading for New York New York next month! I’m looking forward to drinking tea, telling tea stories, and signing tea books at a café in NYC called The Monkey Cup, where my friend and fellow tea blogger Linda Gaylard did a book signing last year.
The trip is actually a book tour for my latest children’s book, Who Pooped in Central Park?, but I’m taking a couple of hours off on Sunday June 26 to relax with some friends and some tea and tell some of the stories from Myths & Legends of Tea, including one from the upcoming volume 2. If you’re on Facebook, please join the event page for the signing. If you have questions, I can answer them there.
I love drinking tea. I love telling stories. I love hanging out with other tea lovers. Drinking tea while telling tea stories to tea lovers is my idea of heaven! I hope to see you there.
Thanks to Jo Johnson of Scandalous Tea for setting up the visit!
Tea Stories with Gary Robson
Sunday, June 26, 4:30 pm to 6:30 pm
The Monkey Cup
1730 Amsterdam Ave, NY, NY
As I write this, I’m savoring a cup of Jinxuan Jade Oolong. This mild oolong has a smooth, buttery taste that I just can’t get enough of. If you don’t want to drink it, make a cup anyway, just to watch the “agony of the leaf,” as the tightly-rolled balls of tea open up in the hot water into full pairs and trios of leaves still attached to a bit of stem. I made mine with water just under the boiling point and steeped it for three minutes. Yum!
Developing a good palate for tea really requires keeping notes. Remembering what teas you do and don’t like needs notes, too, for most of us. And I’ve been searching for a tea journal that I really liked for a while. There are some pretty good ones out there, but I’m an individualist. I had to do my own thing. And my own thing is called A Tea Journey: Your Personal Tea Cupping Journal.
(Caution: blatant self-promotion ahead)
This guided journal is designed to guide you through the next 100 teas you taste. Keeping notes about each cup of tea encourages you to drink your tea actively, paying attention to taste, aroma, appearance, and how it feels in your mouth. When you journal about it, tea becomes an experience to savor and linger over instead of just another drink.
Tea is a subjective experience. Between these covers, nobody’s opinion matters but your own. Don’t worry about what other people think of a particular tea; just record your own impressions.
Each tea page is numbered, so you can see at a glance just how many teas you have tasted and written about. Some tea journals (especially the cupping journals intended for experts and aficionados) use terminology that may not be clear to a beginner. At the front of the journal, I included descriptions of the common tea styles and some related tisanes (rooibos, honeybush, yerba maté, and so forth). Also, on the page facing tea number one, I included short descriptions of what to write in each section.
Comparative cupping is a great way to develop your palate. Get two similar teas and try them side by side, recording your impressions on facing pages of the journal.
Obviously, the best possible Christmas present for a tea lover would be one of these journals and a big box of tea — and maybe a copy of Myths & Legends of Tea.
Enjoy, and thank you for putting up with my utterly shameless self-promotion this week!
While writing this blog post, I was enjoying a cup of Houjicha, a roasted Japanese tea about as different from traditional Matcha, Sencha or Gyokuro as you could possibly get. The roasting adds a nutty flavor and a toasty aroma that go beautifully with a cold, windy Montana day.
Okay boys & girls, it’s time for a bit of blatant self-promotion (because, you know, it’s not like I ever do that). I am please to announce that Myths & Legends of Tea, Volume 1 is now available in paperback! The eBooks (both Kindle version and Apple iBook) came out this summer, and now Proseyr Publishing is offering a 6×9 perfect-bound trade paperback edition for a paltry $8.99.
“How do I get my very own copy, Gary,” I hear you cry. Have no fear, Gentle Reader, for I have just the answer you’re looking for (and if you want wholesale information, keep reading)!
You can get a copy of Myths & Legends of Tea, Volume 1 at your favorite bookstore (either brick & mortar or online). Give them the book title and my name — or the magic number 978-0-9659609-5-3 — and they’ll have it to you in a flash.
Want an autographed copy? Not a problem! If you order from my bookstore, you have the option to buy the books plain, autographed, or personalized.
If you just want a regular autographed copy, select “Just signed, no personalization,” and choose how many you want. If you’d like a book personalized to you or a friend, select “Personalize to name(s) shown below,” and type in the name or names in the box below.
If you’re getting more than one personalized copy, you’ll have to add them to the shopping cart one at a time, filling in the options for each. In the picture above, Robert would be getting eight copies, all signed “to Robert” (Those must be for Robert Godden. One is just never enough for that guy). If you want copies signed to each of your friends, family members, and co-workers (you know you do!), fill it out for one of them and click “Add to Cart.” Then change the personalization and click it again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Selling the book
If you want to sell the book in your shop, buying wholesale is easy! Most bookstores already have an account with Ingram, a giant book distributor with copies of Myths & Legends of Tea ready to ship out on a moment’s notice. For tea shops and gift shops, you’ll want to order directly from the publisher, Proseyr Publishing.
What’s in the book? My post about the eBook listed the stories that are included, and I’ve already posted one of them free on this blog and there’s also a preview on Goodreads so you can get a feeling for the book. Here’s a peek at what the printed version of the book looks like — click on the pictures to see a larger version:
The answer to this question should be easy. All tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. It is not grain. It contains no gluten.
For those casually following the gluten-free lifestyle, that answer should be enough. But for those with celiac disease, a bit more detail may be required:
A lot of things are called tea that aren’t tea
As the first paragraph said, real tea comes from Camellia sinensis. But many (most?) people refer to anything that involves steeping leaves or flowers in hot water as tea: yerba maté, rooibos, chamomile, honeybush, and so forth. Technically, they are tisanes or infusions, but they are often sold as tea.
So if you’re buying actual black tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, or white tea, all is well. If you’re buying “herbal tea,” you’d better take a closer look at that label (Tazo Honeybush from Starbucks, for example, contains gluten).
Flavored teas have all kinds of additives
You may be getting a nice black tea that’s totally 100% gluten-free, but many flavored blends are sweetened. One of the things they may be sweetened with is malted barley, which does contain gluten. There’s not going to be very much of it, but it’s enough to cause problems for celiac patients.
So if you’re buying unflavored straight black tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, or white tea, all is well. If you’re buying flavored teas, you’d better take a closer look at that label.
Gluten in teabags? Really?
A number of tea companies use sealants for their teabags that contain gluten. There’s no gluten in the tea itself, but once you dip that bag in boiling water and the glue starts to melt, you’re picking up a tiny bit of gluten. By “tiny bit,” we’re talking a few parts per million in the brewed tea here, which is a tiny fraction of what it takes to cause reactions in someone with celiac disease. But if you’re actually looking for ZERO gluten content, we’re not quite there yet.
So if you’re buying loose-leaf unflavored straight black tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, or white tea, all is well. If you’re buying teabags, you’d better take a closer look at that label.
Now we’re getting into incredibly small amounts, but some tea companies (including Mighty Leaf, according to this article) use the same facility for manufacturing tea as they use for manufacturing products that contain gluten. There is a possibility of airborne cross-contamination from those products.
At this point, we might as well be talking about any other food product on the planet. Can we guarantee that there wasn’t a wheat field next to the farm where your tomatoes were grown? A big mug of tea might use 7 grams of tea leaf. Cross-contamination at 1 ppm means 7 micrograms of gluten. That’s about one millionth of the gluten you’d get from a couple of slices of bread or a pint of beer.
According to this article, “research has suggested that a daily gluten intake of less than 10 milligrams (mg) is unlikely to cause significant damage to the intestines in most people with celiac disease.” The gluten you’d pick up from teabag glue or cross-contamination is less than a thousandth of that amount.
That same article says that, “In most parts of the world, regulations say that to be labeled gluten-free, a product can contain up to 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.” That means a slice of gluten free bread could still contain 100 times the gluten of a cross-contaminated cup of tea!
I am not a nutritionist, medical practitioner, or scientist, but I think those numbers make it pretty clear that if someone with celiac disease wants to drink a few cups of tea every day, it’s going to be just fine.
As I write this, I’m sipping on a cup of Jinxuan Jade Oolong, a rich buttery semi-oxidized tea that has replaced Iron Goddess of Mercy as my regular morning cup. I steep it 3:00 in boiling water, and then get three more cups out of it, adding a half-minute of steep time to each successive infusion. Although it is of the “milk oolong” style, it contains neither milk nor gluten.
As I was browsing the web looking for inspiration and education (a futile effort, much of the time), I came across an interesting blog post entitled, “How Not to Be a Bad Starbucks Customer: 10 Things You Should Do.” It’s an intriguing short post that — at least in my mind — goes a long way toward clarifying the difference between the coffee world and the tea world. We can start with the easy part: it doesn’t say “coffee” in the title; it says “Starbucks.” Granted, the blog is titled, StarbucksMelody: Unofficial Starbucks News & Culture, so I guess it’s only natural to have it Starbucks-centric.
But this is the point: the U.S. doesn’t have a “coffee culture” per se, but there is a “Starbucks culture,” which comes from their undeniable domination of all things coffee. In large part, Starbucks culture is our coffee culture. And people are nervous about it. So nervous that they read blog posts about how not to be a bad Starbucks customer. They don’t want to embarrass themselves.
We need to make sure this never happens in the tea world.
Our job, as tea shop owners, barTEAstas (if I may coin a particularly ugly word), tea writers, tea growers, tea importers, and general denizens of the tea world, is to welcome, encourage, and educate newcomers. It is not to shame them, make fun of their lack of knowledge, or cause them to worry because they don’t know where to stand or don’t know our terminology. Unfortunately, the terminology issue has already reared its ugly head, and a big chunk of the blame falls on … Starbucks. As an example, there’s a wonderful tea drink called “masala chai.” In Punjabi, “masala” refers to a spice blend, and “chai” means tea. An obvious English translation would have been “masala tea,” but Starbucks went for “chai tea” instead, a rather boneheaded phrase that basically means “tea tea.”
But I digress (as I am wont to do) …
“Our job … is to welcome, encourage, and educate newcomers. It is not to shame them, make fun of their lack of knowledge, or cause them to worry because they don’t know where to stand or don’t know our terminology.”
When you walk into an independently-owned tea shop, you are not expected to know that shop’s terminology, customs, or culture. You don’t need to feel anxious about whether you’re going to commit some horrific tea faux pas. You just need to do one thing to be the customer we all love.
What you have to do to be an awesome customer
- Enter the tea shop with an open mind and tell us what you do and don’t like.
We’ll take it from there!
Referring back to the blog post that inspired my blog post, let me re-frame what StarbucksMelody had to say from a tea perspective.
Things you don’t have to worry about
The tea experience is supposed to be calm and relaxing. You shouldn’t be stressed out about whether you’re properly prepared to walk in and order a cup of tea. And you really shouldn’t worry about these things:
- Knowing our sizes — or weird words for our sizes.
We don’t expect you to walk in the door knowing our sizes. We’ll tell you. Or maybe we’ll have cups on the counter labeled small, medium, and large — or 8oz, 12oz, 16oz. Don’t be afraid to ask.
- Knowing what kind of tea we have
Coffee shops usually have a couple kinds of coffee out. They can do many things to it (add steamed milk, add flavor shots, pour it over ice, sweeten it…), but there’s generally just coffee and decaf coffee in that decanter behind the counter.
Tea shops usually have dozens (or hundreds) of different types of tea. Even our regulars don’t know them all, as most tea shops regularly add or drop teas. If you tell us, “I’m looking for a strong hot black tea” or “I’m looking for a fruity green tea,” we can help you find one. That’s our job, and we love doing it.
- Knowing how a particular tea is prepared
You don’t have to know the proper water temperature for white tea, the appropriate steeping time for Earl Grey, how to whisk a matcha, or how to rinse a pu-erh. That’s what you’re paying us for. We do know these things.
- Using the right terminology
You don’t have to know a bunch of super-secret, just-for-the-cool-kids terminology to order tea. If you ask for that floral green tea that’s rolled into balls and left in your cup while you’re drinking, we know what you mean. Often, the terminology changes from shop to shop. The tea shop back home might call that style Jasmine Pearls, and my shop might call it Jasmine Dragon Tears, and they probably come from different producers. Either way, if you can describe it, we can probably figure it out.
- Ordering something strange
It’s very common for people to come into my tea bar looking for something I don’t have. With any luck, I can do it anyway. You want a super-strong ginger Earl Grey latte with soy milk? I will pick the appropriate Earl Grey, add some ginger root, and make it super strong for you. No problem. If you like it, I’ll make you a big bag of the blend and write instructions on the bag for how to prepare it. That’s what brings customers back for more.
- How long your drink has been sitting out
This isn’t a coffee shop. Your tea hasn’t been sitting in a pot behind the counter for an hour. It’s being made fresh right there in front of you.
- Asking questions
It’s okay to ask questions. We encourage you to ask questions. Most of the people working in indie tea shops absolutely love tea and love talking about it. If you want to know which of our teas are organic, how much caffeine they have, or what the Ethical Tea Partnership is, or where our milk oolong comes from, go ahead and ask.
The tea experience is supposed to be calm and relaxing.
It all boils down to this: Tea shops are not a place for stress. Don’t come in worrying about how to be a good customer (although we do appreciate it if you finish your phone call before you walk up to the counter), just come in looking for some good tea and let us help you get it.
Yesterday started out with the return of the bloggers to Tea Expo (it’s kind of like the return of the swallows to Capistrano, except noisier).
I was very pleased to find that The Tea Spot and Teas, Etc. were in the lobby to keep us all adequately caffeinated. I enjoyed cups of their tea before, during, and after the seminars. Interestingly, both companies had chocolate pu-erh blends, and both recommended steeping them for 4-5 minutes. That’s an awfully long time for a shu pu-erh. I went for 3 minutes, and quite liked both of them (sorry, purists).
My first seminar of the day was an absolutely fantastic start to Tea Expo: Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson talked about “A Social History of Tea in the UK and USA.”
They walked us through the history of tea in the western hemisphere from the 1600s to modern times, covering everything from Catherine of Braganza to A&P (originally the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company). A few of my favorite factoids from their seminar:
- “Monkey-picked oolong” isn’t picked by monkeys. That would be cost-prohibitive. It is just a term for the highest-grade oolong in the house.
- The “Queen’s closet” wasn’t a place to store clothes. It’s where she brewed tea and shared it with family & friends.
- “High Tea” isn’t the fancy thing many Americans think it is. It’s a casual family meal. The elegant tea you’re thinking of is “Afternoon Tea.”
- I’ve mentioned this one before, but there were no tea bricks dumped in Boston Harbor in in 1773. The Boston Tea Party tea was all loose-leaf — and quite a bit of it was green tea.
Every year I take another picture of this matcha stone at AOI. It just intrigues me. Last year I described it and even posted video of it, but I just can’t stay away from it.
One of the things I look for at Tea Expo every year is new and different tea. I do love the teas from the big tea-producing countries like China, India, and Kenya, but it’s fun to explore some of the varieties you don’t run into every day, from countries that aren’t represented in every single tea shop. We had a very pleasant tasting of Indonesian teas at three adjacent booths and found some great surprises.
The afternoon session “Amplifying Your Business Voice Through Tea Bloggers” was informative, even for tea bloggers. All of us look at things differently and run our blogs differently. I update this blog every Friday (most of the time, unless I’m late) with bursts of activity during events like World Tea Expo. Nicole Martin has been updating hers every weekday for the last six years. One of the blogs nominated for a World Tea Award this year hasn’t been updated since early 2014.
Some tea blogs are all about reviewing individual teas. Some are about teaware. Some are about stories. Mine is whatever happens to be either exciting me or annoying me at the moment. The big message from this session was, if you wish to work with tea bloggers, do your research first. Read the blogs. If you are selling flavored chamomile blends, don’t pick a tea blogger that’s a single-origin Camellia sinensis specialist. Geoff Norman told us that he didn’t know the difference between Yixing and Wedgewood, so don’t waste your time and money sending him a teapot to review!
Something else I’ll be writing about in more detail later is “Coffee leaf tea.”
The name may be a bit confusing, as this product contains no coffee beans and no tea. It’s a tisane (“herbal tea”) made from the leaves of coffee plants. I can’t stand coffee, but I found the flavor of this drink quite pleasant. The company’s focus is on extending the season (picking leaves when you can’t pick beans) and creating more jobs, but there will be more on that in a future post.
We all have our taste preferences, and mine tend to run towards pure (unflavored) tea. I’m not a big fan of ginger, either, but my wife, Kathy, and I couldn’t resist having our picture taken with this gigantic (and slightly creepy) Korean red ginseng root:
And, just as a close, my birthday is coming up and this automated pyramid satchel tea bagging machine is only $70,000. It would be an easy way to take some of my whole-leaf teas on the road with me. Hint, hint…
Here we go! World Tea Expo 2015 begins tomorrow!
Between the Expo and my new book, my once-a-week blog schedule is completely disrupted at the moment. Look for daily updates this week (possibly multiple updates per day), as well as a fairly steady stream of tweets.
If you’re attending, don’t miss the Tea Bloggers Roundtable that I’m moderating on Thursday from 2:30 to 3:30. It’s free for anyone with a World Tea Expo badge.
My wife and I will also be wandering the show floor and attending various seminars. I have a lot of booths to visit for the shop, but I’m always happy to meet other tea people, so feel free to say hi!