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Steeping Times

Chi Tse Beeng Cha aged pu-erhThe World Tea Expo in Las Vegas has been a phenomenal (and somewhat overwhelming) experience. It will take quite a while for everything to sink in. There were some fascinating trends discussed at the show, and I also learned a lot about just how differently people enjoy their tea.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I am not a tea Nazi. It matters not to me whether you make your green tea with boiling water, steep your Darjeeling for ten minutes, or whisk your matcha with an electric frother. However you enjoy your tea is the right way for you. Personally, I like my tea steeped much less than most of my friends. A couple of minutes is plenty for most robust black teas in my humble opinion, and I give many of them less than that.

Opening day at the Expo for me was the World Origins Tea Tour. We had presentations from representatives of eight different countries, and tasted teas from each one. The conference organizers were clever enough to put the seminar rooms directly across the hall from the restrooms and give us a 15-minute break between countries. Speaking on behalf of the entire audience, I’d like to give the World Tea Expo a hearty “thank you” for that move! I’d also like to compliment the staff on providing 140 people with 30 different teas to sample and getting them all out to us promptly, and prepared perfectly. In case you didn’t do the math in your head on that previous sentence, they served 4,200 cups of tea at the right temperature with both dry and wet leaves to pass around the table. That’s pretty darned impressive.

The audience members at the World Origins Tea Tour asked lots of questions, and many of them were about how the presenters preferred to make their tea. The first country presented was China, and the speaker said that he rarely steeped tea for himself more than about 30 seconds. I’ve been known to steep a nice aged pu-erh (or pu’er or puer or puerh or…) for 30 seconds, but have never actually tried such short steep times on other teas. He drove me to experiment. He also drove me to ask more questions around the show floor.

I came across a brochure that said the traditional way to prepare pu-erh tea was a ten-second “wash” (rinse the leaves in hot water and discard the water) followed by a twenty to thirty-second steep. I also came across a company that was handing out samples of some beautifully packaged single-serving pu-erh discs. The samples suggested a four-second steep time. Yes, I said four seconds. I asked the woman running the booth if that was right, and she said it was. She placed some tea leaves in the infuser of a glass teapot and poured boiling water through the infuser into the pot. The total steep time of the tea was the few seconds it took for the water to drain through the slits in the glass. She poured some for us, and it had plenty of flavor: rich and complex without being overwhelming.

A whole new world has opened to me. I’m going to be playing around quite a bit with über-short steeping times to see what I get. I’m anxious to get back to the Tea Bar and experiment with some of my friends.

As a side note, by the way, we were staying in the LVH (formerly known as the Las Vegas Hilton) in the block of rooms reserved for the Tea Expo. As with my previous experience at Bally’s, the front desk refused to provide any means of heating water in the room so that I could make my own tea. I went to the front desk and asked to speak to the manager. I explained that if their hotel was hosting the WorldTea Expo, they really should let us make tea. He explained that we could rent water heaters, but they only had two, and it cost twice as much to rent one as it would cost to run out to the store and buy one.

Unlike Bally’s, however, the LVH manager said that I could call room service and request hot water a few times a day if I wished. They would rush it up to the room at no charge and do their best to keep it hot. That still leaves them a notch below every cheap motel in Montana (which all provide free coffeemakers and wi-fi), but several notches above Bally’s. I know the decision not to offer a microwave in the room was made way above this manager’s pay grade, so I don’t blame him for the situation. In fact, I’d like to offer him a hearty thank-you for his exemplary customer service.

Traveling with tea

As we packed for the book signing tour and convention, my wife and I carefully plotted what to bring along. Obviously, some good loose-leaf tea was a part of the process. My choices were my own Scottish Breakfast blend for first thing in the morning, our house Earl Grey (one of the most popular selections at our tea bar) for the afternoon, and Rooibos for bedtime. We brought along an infuser to brew the tea.

At most of the motels and hotels, there was a microwave oven in the room where we could heat up our water. Some have the microwave in the lobby. Others provided only a coffeepot, which yields coffee-flavored hot water (I skipped having tea those days).

Then we got to Las Vegas, where we’re attending a convention at Bally’s. We got to the room, and there’s no way to heat water. No hotplate, no coffeepot, no microwave.

Note to self: Travel with a device that heats water.

Not a problem. I’ll just call housekeeping and have them bring something up. That’s where I hit the first snag. I was informed by housekeeping that only “Platinum Players” get coffeepots in their rooms. I explained that I’m here for book signings and a business conference (the NCRA annual convention), not to gamble, and she explained that “it’s the rules.”

I asked for a manager, and she transferred me. Someone at the front desk answered, I asked again for a manager, and I spent 25 minutes on hold listening to advertising for the hotel. Yes, twenty-five minutes! When I first asked for the manager, I was not upset. Amused, yes. Mildly annoyed, perhaps. But I figured this was a minor snag and I would be making tea in a few minutes. By the time I actually got the Bally’s manager on the phone, my patience was starting to wane.

I reasonably explained the situation to her, and she explained that there was 24-hour room service, so I have no need for a water-heating device. I explained that by the time hot water from the kitchen arrived in my room, it would be tepid water, which does not make good tea. She explained that only Platinum Players got coffee pots, and I’m not a Platinum Player.

I explained that I wasn’t there to gamble, and it was my understanding that Bally’s actually welcomed business conferences. She said, “oh, yes, we do welcome business conferences, and the members order from room service.”

I asked if I was the first person ever to request a way to make tea in my hotel room. She grudgingly acknowledged that others have asked as well. I asked if she had blown them off the same way she was blowing me off. She got a wee bit huffy.

Note to self: Avoid staying at Bally’s in the future.

In over 30 years of business travel, my experience has been that good hotels are eager to provide their guests with whatever they need. Did you forget a toothbrush? They’ll give you one. Does your shirt need ironed? They’ll bring you an iron. Did your shoes get scuffed? They will provide a shoe polishing kit. They want your experience to be positive.

Bally’s, on the other hand, wants you to get out of your room and blow money in their casino. If you insist on staying in the room, they want you to buy coffee from room service ($12 for a pot of French roast, delivered in 20-30 minutes). I’m not one of those Tea Absolutists who insists on only the finest first-flush Darjeeling steeped for precisely 90 seconds in 210-212 degree carbon-filtered water. But I don’t want a Lipton teabag from room service, and I don’t want tea made with tepid water that was boiling ten minutes ago.

At this point, it’s not so much about the tea — I am an adaptable kind of guy — but about the fact that the manager would not work with me when I asked nicely, or even when I pushed. She refused to acknowledge that every 2-bit motel in the country is willing to accommodate my request for a way to heat my water, but Bally’s is not.

She made it clear that keeping the guest happy is not a priority for this hotel. Hoovering money out of the guests’ pockets is. Welcome to Las Vegas.

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