Tea Bloggers Roundtable 2015
Once again, World Tea Expo attendees will have an opportunity to share in the wacky (and occasionally educational) world of professional tea bloggers. You’re all invited to the Tea Bloggers Roundtable 2:30 to 3:30pm on Thursday, May 7. It will be a panel discussion featuring some of the names tea aficionados just might recognize.
The panel will consist of Rachel Carter (iHeart Teas), Chris Giddings (Tea Guy), Jo Johnson (A Gift of Tea), Nicole Martin (Tea for Me Please), Geoffrey Norman (Lazy Literatus), Jen Piccotti (An International Tea Moment), and Naomi Rosen (Joy’s Teaspoon). I’ll be moderating the panel, which has the theme this year of “Melding of Voices.” I know, all of those names are in that poster image right below this paragraph, but I wanted to include links to all of the blogs. Check us all out before the event!
One of the things I enjoy most about the world of tea blogging is the lack of competition. I don’t find myself thinking “oh, no, Geoff scooped me on that story,” or “how can I get more viewers than Robert (Lord Devotea’s Tea Spouts) this week?” Instead, we read each other’s posts; we talk about each other’s stories; we link to each other’s blogs; we gain inspiration from each other. We’re not in it to beat each other at the game. We’re in it to share our love of tea and each be the best we can be.
Our blogs all have different themes, too. Some of us just do tea reviews. Some talk about gadgets. Some are very professional in tone; and some are very personal. Some talk about the tea business, and some prefer to just focus on the tea itself. Some blogs, like mine, are all over the map. That’s what makes the tea blogging community such a great environment for newcomers.
It really gets to be fun when we open things up to questions from the audience, and that’s where we find out just how many people in the tea business are interested in blogging. In addition to the prepared questions, if past roundtables are any indication, we’ll also be dealing with questions like how to choose topics, how to get tea to review, the Association of Tea Bloggers, whether to schedule posts, what social media sites work best for promotion, the difference between a hobby tea blog and a professional tea blog, and much more.
If you have a conference badge, there’s no additional cost to attend the Tea Bloggers Roundtable, so take advantage of this opportunity to hobnob with experienced tea bloggers, writers, and social media marketers.
If you have questions, contact Jo Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org. She’ll take care of everything!
While writing this blog post, I was drinking a Vietnamese black tea called Good Morning Vietnam! I brewed this cup for 3:00 using boiling water. As usual, I did not add milk or sugar. Although this is a typical black tea in most ways, there is very little astringency. I don’t think your typical half-tea-half-milk breakfast tea drinker would find it overly satisfying, but it’s turning into my new favorite black tea.
World Tea Expo 2014, Day 3: Revenge of the Pu-erh
If you haven’t already read Day 1: The Saga Begins, Day 2: Attack of the Clonals, and Tea Bloggers Roundtable, you might want to read them first for context. If not, that’s fine. Read on. No biggie.
The third day of World Tea Expo 2014 started rather unexpectedly, as we pulled into the parking garage and encountered Harley Quinn. On roller skates. As we walked to the expo center, we met up with a variety of other comic characters — along with some characters from movie and TV shows. Yes, it was cosplay time at a comic book convention. Parked in front of the expo center, we saw a variety of vehicles: Kit from Knight Rider, three (Count em! Three!) Jurassic Park tour vehicles, the Back to the Future DeLorean, complete with a dead ringer for Doc Brown, and quite possibly the most awesome Batmobile I’ve ever seen.
Once we got past the Star Wars crowd, however, it was back to the business of tea. And most of that consists of placing orders on the last day of expo to catch all of the show specials. Most of what we purchased was pu-erh tea, which I drink a lot of these days. A good part of the reason we buy so much pu-erh at the World Tea Expo is that there’s a rich variety available, but it can be hard to find in the U.S.
Looking for a nice first-flush Darjeeling? Every major tea importer or distributor has one. Sencha? There’s hardly a catalog without at least one. Earl Grey? Even grocery stores in Montana are likely to carry more than one. But if you’re looking for unique and tasty pu-erh teas, you just might have a long (and pleasant) task ahead of you.
At World Tea Expo, there’s a broad variety of pu-erh laid out on tables all across the expansive show floor, almost all of it compressed into cakes of some form or another. One of the most intriguing we came across this year is a jasmine sheng pu-erh. It has the same jasmine aroma that any Chinese green jasmine tea has, but the underlying flavor is much more robust. A touch of the expected pu-erh earthiness comes through, along with more astringency than most. Part of the astringency is explained by the relatively long steeping time that LongRun used in their booth. They steeped for about four minutes. When I got it home, I played around and decided two minutes is more my speed on this one.
Yes, I can hear the faux gagging sounds coming from the purists, aghast at the idea of scenting a pu-erh tea. Pish tosh, I say to you. I’ll drink my straight pu-erh in the morning, but this lightly scented jasmine delight is just the thing for mid-afternoon. Also, being such a young fermented tea (2012), it will continue to get better and smoother for many years, aging like a fine wine. If you end up with enough self-control to put some away for five more years, it will be awesome!
Two other interesting things about that picture: the color of the tea in the glass in the background, and the pu-erh knife in the foreground. If you’re used to shu (“ripe”) pu-erh, which brews up very dark red, this pale green concoction will look mighty odd. I suppose if I wanted to really show the color, I wouldn’t have set it on a dark wood counter, but that’s beside the point. Sheng (“raw”) pu-erhs are much lighter and more delicate than the “in your face” shu pu-erhs.
For breaking apart pu-erh cakes, you don’t want a regular sharp knife. Cutting it will tear the leaves. What you want is a pointed knife that will slide between the layers of leaves and flake them apart. This pu-erh knife, which they call a “needle,” has a very sharp tip and basically no edges at all. I also like the ceramic handle.
In addition to the other pu-erh cakes we bought, my friend and fellow tea blogger Geoffrey Norman slipped me a little present: two “pu-erh” teas from different countries.
I’ve talked about spelling of Chinese teas here before, so don’t let Geoff’s “puer” and my “pu-erh” throw you off. The transliteration from Chinese into English will never be perfect, and often you’ll find different translators spelling the same words in different ways. The spelling Geoff uses is how the town of Puer appears on most maps, so it may end up winning out eventually if we ever come to consensus, but until then I’ll stick with my way.
Speaking of the town name, that’s why “puer” appears in quotes on the tube. Technically speaking, you’re not supposed to use the name pu-erh unless the tea comes from the Yunnan province of China, where the style originated. The tea is named for the town where it was processed and marketed. A fermented tea from anywhere else should be called a dark tea rather than a pu-erh. We’ll see if that works out as well as “masala chai.” Translated into English, that one should be “masala tea,” indicating a tea made with a masala spice blend. Instead, most Americans call it “chai tea,” which translates to “tea tea” and loses the whole meaning. *sigh*
There are fermented teas (pu-erh style dark teas) made in a number of places outside of Yunnan. In addition to the Taiwanese and Vietnamese I got from Geoff, I bought dark teas from Fujian and Anhui provinces, and I am carefully aging a Laotian beeng cha as well.
There is no other style of tea that has the variety pu-erh does. Some I steep for minutes, and some for mere seconds. Some brews so dark you can’t see through it, and some as light as a short-steeped dragonwell. The colors range from yellowish-green to orange to deep red. The flavors are all over the map. You can steep pu-erh leaves a dozen times, and each infusion will be different from the last. If you haven’t experienced pu-erh before, don’t blindly order some online. Go to a tea shop and talk to someone who really knows the style. Try several different ones to narrow it down. Only then, make the investment in a good pu-erh cake to take home and enjoy.
Tea Bloggers Roundtable 2014
Last night at World Tea Expo 2014, we had fun on the Tea Bloggers Roundtable.
The moderator, Naomi Rosen (Joy’s Teaspoon) asked us questions, guided the discussion, and took comments from the audience. The panel consisted of (left to right):
- Nicole Martin (Tea For Me Please)
- Linda Gaylard (the Tea Stylist)
- Jason Walker (Walker Tea Review)
- Chris Giddings (the Tea-Guy)
- Jen Piccotti (An International Tea Moment)
- Gary Robson (that would be me)
Nicole Schwartz (AmazonV) live tweeted questions and answers for those who couldn’t attend, and Geoffrey Norman (Lazy Literatus), who was on the panel last year, heckled us from the audience.
Our friend TeaPigeon from the exhibit floor (pictured below) was unable to attend the roundtable. Something about too much oolong.
We answered questions on a number of topics, and got some great audience participation, too. Among the topics were:
Q: What do you do if someone sends you a sub-par tea to review?
A: Most of us review only what we like, so if we get a bad product we don’t talk about it. If we do, we tend to lay it on the line.
Q: What’s the best time of day to update the blog and social media?
A: For the most part, we don’t post to the blogs on a schedule (except for Nicole, who posts at noon Eastern time), but we try to do the social media links early in the morning, as most folks check their Facebook and Twitter feeds first thing when they get up. Some of us repeat links in the afternoon, typically with different text.
Q: Do you blog about tea and health?
A: That’s a topic that’s in much demand, but there’s so little proper scientific research that we’re all hesitant to do it. Studies tend to be myopic (good word, Chris!), and media coverage of the studies often distorts the results. The dearth of data means everyone’s looking for solid information, but the research is time-consuming and can be expensive; not all of the studies are available for free on the Internet.
Q: How do you deal with word count?
A: Some tea bloggers (Geoffrey, for example) worry about whether their posts are too long and rambling. Others (like me) want to make sure there’s enough content to make them worth reading. The beauty of the Internet, though, as compared to print media, is that we don’t have hard limits. Doug Robson pointed out from the audience that for the first time in history, we have a medium with infinite scrolling. You can fit ten thousand words as easily as you can fit ten words. There’s no reason to trim it back.
Well, I need to get going and hit the last day of Expo, so I’ll cut this post short and talk more about tea blogging later. In case you’re interested, I started my day with a lovely golden tip Yunnan tea from TeaSource. That’s my kind of black tea!
World Tea Expo 2014, Day 2: Attack of the Clonals
There’s more than one way to skin a cat … er … build a tea plantation. The common theme through much of what we saw today was exactly that: how to make tea plants.
Traditionally, humans have allowed plants to go to seed, and then planted those seeds. That involves a male plant and a female plant, and the mixing of DNA, which can have unpredictable results. For many crop plants, farmers came to realize that taking cuttings meant the new plant was identical to the parent plant. If you have a perfect cultivar, don’t pollute the DNA with random Mendelian fluctuations; keep the strain pure.
This process, whether it entails planting cuttings or grafting varietals onto different rootstock, is known as cloning. Today at the World Tea Expo, clonals and interesting varietals of tea plants turned into a bit of a theme for the day.
The day began with fellow tea blogger Geoffrey Norman (the Lazy Literatus) rushing up to me. “Bacon tea?” he asked frantically, “Where did you find this bacon tea?” I took him down to the appropriate booth (see yesterday’s post), and as we waited for them to brew bacon tea, he said, “Did you hear about the smoked green Assam at Tealet?”
I’ve been looking for a good green Assam for quite a while. The overwhelming majority of the world’s green tea comes from Camellia sinensis var sinensis: the Chinese varietal of the tea plant. Camellia sinensis var assamica, the Indian varietal, is quite different.
We wandered over to Tealet’s booth and found that they were in the middle of a video recording. We met up with TJ Williamson, who said that they did, indeed have green Assam (both smoked and unsmoked), but we’d have to wait until they finished the video thing. After we chatted for a bit, he said that he’d like to interview Doug and I for the World Tea Podcast. We spent the next hour sipping tea and talking into TJ’s microphone.
The smoked green Assam was unique. The first hit on the tongue was very astringent, and very different from the aroma. It had a full mouthfeel, and it mellowed to a light smoky malty flavor that was very pleasant. They steeped the first infusion with 188-190 degree (F) water, and the second infusion with 175 degree water was much less astringent and much smoother.
Much of our afternoon consisted of placing orders and tasting tea — two of my favorite things to do. We found a lot of different cultivars (many of them clonals), and ordered some great new tea for the tea bar.
One particularly significant stop was at Ajiri Tea. I know I have said a few unflattering things about a particular Kenyan tea company, but I’d like to note for the record that I’ve never had a problem with Kenyan tea. Ajiri in particular is doing some wonderful things.
When Kenya gained independence from Great Britain in 1963, many of the huge tea conglomerates retained their land and operations. Many tracts of land, however, were broken up into family farms and cooperatives, which now represent almost 60% of Kenya’s huge tea industry. That’s who we prefer to buy from.
Ajiri was founded not just to export tea, but to create jobs (the word “ajiri” is Swahili for “employ”), especially for women. The boxes for their tea are hand-made, as are the beaded string ties for the bags. All of the labeling and decoration on the outside of the boxes is handmade from dried banana tree bark, and profits go back to Kenya for educating orphans. This is a tea operation we can get behind. Look for their products on our shelves next month.
The day continued with a class in rolling oolong teas, and the tea bloggers roundtable you’ve all been waiting for, but it’s after midnight and I am growing weary. I shall sign off now, and continue tomorrow with the World Tea Expo saga…
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.
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:
- Linda Gaylard (the Tea Stylist)
- Chris Giddings (the Tea-Guy)
- Geoffrey Norman (Lazy Literatus)
- Jen Piccoti (An International Tea Moment)
- Gary Robson (Tea With Gary)
- Naomi Rosen (Joy’s Teaspoon)
- Jason Walker (Walker Tea Review)
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)!
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If I learn just one new thing…
Back in my days in the software industry, I used to put on a lot of educational seminars. One day, I was teaching an all-day session and noticed one of my customers, a gentleman by the name of Ken Combs, sitting about fifteen rows back in the audience. At the first break, I went over to him and said, “What are you doing here, Ken? You could be teaching this seminar!” I absolutely loved his response: “I figure if I can learn one new thing, then the whole day is worth it.” Before using this insightful little anecdote to segue into the subject of this blog, I have to tell a little tale of that seminar. It was, as I said, an all-day seminar. I’m pretty good at projecting my voice, and when I’m dealing with small groups, I usually eschew microphones. This particular day, however, I had an audience of about 120 people and we were in a hotel ballroom with dubious acoustics, so I had a sound system. Like most hotel ballrooms, this one had accordion-style dividers that could separate it into smaller rooms, and we were using about a third of the room. The morning session went well, but the afternoon became Public Speaker Nightmare #23 ™: there was a wedding reception in the other part of the ballroom. They had a live DJ. He had a much more powerful sound system than I did. After about an hour with my sound system cranked up all the way, shouting into the microphone, I called a quick break and strolled over to the reception, where I asked the DJ if he’d mind taking the volume down a bit because he was making my job impossible. “Not my problem, dude,” he said as he cranked his volume up higher. We tried everything. We appealed to the bride. We called the hotel’s booking desk. We tried to find the weekend manager. And throughout it all, I shouted my voice raw trying to be heard in the back of the room. I couldn’t talk for two days after that (I’m not sure whether my wife wrote a thank you note to the bride for that or not), and we did end up getting a portion of our rent for the room refunded, but it made for one miserable seminar. Despite all of that, Ken learned his one new thing and I applied his philosophy from my side of the lectern and got much more careful about room bookings for future events. Remember I promised to bring this back to tea? Well, fast forward twenty years or so, and here I am at the World Tea Expo. I still try to follow Ken’s philosophy, and it serves me well. I attended two good educational sessions yesterday, which I’ll probably be writing more about: “Le Nez du Thé” (the nose of tea) and a tea blending workshop. I certainly learned more than one thing in each. After the exhibit hall closed, I went to the Tea Bloggers Roundtable. Mostly, I went for networking purposes, to meet some of these people I know only through their blog posts and tweets. It was a wonderful networking event, but even without that I learned something.
Yes, there was a bit of the mutual admiration society going on there, and the interplay was fun to watch (Godden and Coffey should take their show on the road), but it was also a very worthwhile session. There were more bloggers in the audience — including yours truly, of course — and the format was flexible enough that the distinction between panelist and audience member blurred. As everyone talked and questions were asked (and sometimes answered), it became clear that no two bloggers in the room really had the same objectives. For all of us, the blog is a representation of our personality enveloping the world of tea. Some of the blogs consist almost entirely of tasting notes (e.g., Nicole Schwartz’s “AmazonV” blog) and some have no tasting notes at all. We talked about tea, but mostly about the art of blogging, the expectations of our readers, and the trials and tribulations of trying to keep up any kind of a schedule for blog posts. I hope there’s another blogging event like this one again very soon!