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Tea and Beer


Tea and Beer header

I’m a big fan of beer. In fact, I used to write a beer column for a local newspaper a few years back. I’ll often have a beer when I start dinner, and switch to tea at the end. I even took a seminar at World Tea Expo about pairing tea and beer, looking for common flavor characteristics in different styles of the two beverages. A conversation with fellow tea blogger Robert Godden (Lord Devotea’s Tea Spouts), however, got me thinking about the possibility of actually combining the two. You know, putting beer and tea in the same glass. Yeah, Robert’s a strange one.

But why not?

There are beer styles exemplified by certain flavors, which you might get from additives like fruit or other grains, or you might get from doing strange things to the barley, like smoking it. Why not get those flavors from tea? Especially that smoky one…

A buddy of mine, Doug “Beerbarian” Bailey, works at our local brewery, Red Lodge Ales. Doug is a sales guy, but he still understands beer pretty well. He and I both go for smoky flavors. We drink lapsang souchong and Russian caravan tea. We drink smoky rauschbier. We drink Islay Scotches like Laphroaig, which just ooze peat and smoke. We even enjoy the same pipe tobaccos.

So Doug and I had a long discussion about flavoring beer with tea — especially about making our own variety of rauschbier by adding smoked tea to a nice robust beer. It was a wonderful discussion, but we didn’t follow through on it. And then, months later, I get a private message from him on Facebook:

Beer Facebook chat

In case you can’t see the image, it says, “I need an experimental beer ASAP and I want to try something wacky. Brewing some really strong smoked tea and adding it directly to the already brewed beer in the keg.”

Initially, we’d been talking about actually adding the tea leaves to the kettle while brewing the beer, but Doug was in a hurry. He proposed adding the tea to beer that was already brewed and sitting in the keg. This brings up a few complications, like how to avoid watering down the beer and how to pour tea into a full keg of carbonated beer.

The solution to the first problem was simple: just make the tea really strong so we don’t have to use much of it. In fact, to avoid diluting the flavor of the beer, we went right past “really strong” to “stupid strong.” And as for the second problem, Doug came up with a set of fittings that allowed us to put the tea into an empty keg, pressurize it, and then add the contents of a full keg of beer to it.

The more we talked about the solutions to the problems, the more we realized making just one beer wasn’t going to cut it, so when experiment day arrived, Doug grabbed the kegs of beer and I brewed three stupid strong batches of tea from Red Lodge Books & Tea to match them.

We started by adding carefully measured amounts of the übertea to glasses of beer. Instead of wrecking our palates with the smoked tea, we started with a lighter one. The beer is Helio Hefeweizen, a light and citrusy unfiltered wheat beer. I paired that with a cinnamon orange spice rooibos tea. I had brewed the tea with 1 ounce of leaf to 8 ounces of boiling water and steeped it for six minutes. It didn’t take a whole lot of tea to give the beer a wondrous spicy flavor with an orangy nose. We settled on 940 ml of strong tea in the 5-gallon keg of beer. It was a rousing triumph. We made a bit extra so I could take a growler home with me.

Helio hefeweizen with orange spice tea.

Wait. Was I supposed to take a picture before we drank it? This is the wheat beer we spiced up.

Our second experiment was completely off the wall. Doug did say he wanted something “wacky,” so I paired their Beartooth Pale Ale with an infusion of one of my own special tea blends, which I call “Coyotes of the Purple Sage.” It’s an Earl Grey made with black tea, sage, and a hint of mint. I didn’t brew it quite as strong (same amount of leaf as the first one, but with a 5 minute infusion). Our first experiment was rather overwhelming, so we backed down the ratio, using 750 ml of tea in the 5-gallon keg.

I’m not going to call this one an overwhelming success. The sage and bergamot was just a little strange in the pale ale.

kegs

Here are the four finished kegs. The apparatus for transferring carbonated beer from one pressurized keg to another is in the sanitizer bucket in the lower left of the picture.

The final beer was the one that started all this. We used a Russian Caravan tea, 1 ounce of leaf per 8 ounces of water, brewed for 4 minutes. The base beer is Jack’s Scottish Ale. We played around with the proportions for a bit, and ended up using 900 ml of tea per five gallon keg. We made two kegs: one for Doug’s special event, and one to put on tap in the tasting room that night. Doug named it “Smokin’ Jack.” It was exactly what we were trying to accomplish!

This will not be the last time I bring together my loves of beer and tea. Maybe it’s getting to be time to dust off all of my old homebrewing equipment and get to work.

World Tea Expo 2014, Day 1: The Saga Begins


WTE2014 Day 1 header

So here I am at World Tea Expo 2014. The day didn’t start all that well. I’ve been attending expos and trade shows for decades, and this has to be the hardest one to find ever. Very little signage, and the parking area had no directions to the expo area. We got there late, there was an issue with my badge, and we didn’t get breakfast.

The day got better quickly, though. One of the first booths we visited had BACON TEA! That’s right. Tea with maple and BACON! Yeah, it sounds weird, but it was quite tasty. Also, my magic press pass has a sticker on it that allows me to take pictures on the show floor. I know, I took pictures last year, too, but a large security guard offered to escort me out of the building and take my badge away if I didn’t stop it. This year, it’s kosher.

Tea Expo Badge

It’s okay, Mr. Security Guard. I’m legit this time.

I won’t even try to cover everything in this one post. Steampunk and vacuum tea infusion systems are going to get their own article. I’ll be writing book reviews separately. There will be an upcoming post comparing yaupan with the other caffeinated holly infusions (guayusa and yerba mate). And smokable mate? That’s definitely another subject all on its own!

country breakfast

They call it “Country Breakfast” tea, but I’m a “tell it like it is” kind of guy, so I’m going to call it bacon tea.

The bacon tea is from the Tovah Group. Its ingredients, among other things, are maple black tea, lapsang souchong (for a smoky flavor), maple hickory smoked bacon jerky, and various masala chai spices. I think this will go really well with breakfast!

The next person to improve my day was Lillie at the Modern Tea Girl. She was showing off a line of tea-based frosting mixes (“just add two sticks of butter…”). To demonstrate, she had tasting cups with little tasting spoons, but that’s not all! She went above and beyond the call of duty by making little cupcakes. After Doug and I sampled — just a few, of course — we decided that the Lady Grey and the Chocolate Chai were definitely standout flavors!

Modern Tea Girl

With some cupcakes in my belly and tea samples from a half-dozen booths, I finally felt that I could settle into my rhythm for the day.

With hundreds of booths showing off approximately 4.3 zillion products, you can’t get overly caught up in one booth unless it’s (a) a good fit for the tea bar or (b) a great subject for a blog post. Oh, since I’m with my 21-year-old (single) son, there’s also a (c) that has to do with pretty girls in the booth, but we won’t get into that one.

As I said, there will be more posts, so I won’t describe the plethora of tea storage containers, yixing teapots, infusers, travel mugs, food products, RTD (ready-to-drink) beverages, tea blends, raw spices, electric kettles, and other wondrous things we looked at. We’ll be buying a lot of this stuff and taking it back to the shop. Some of what we looked at had me itching for a bigger budget (would you buy a $400 teacup with real gold in the ceramic glaze?), and some had me scratching my head.

Infuser Tray

Although this looks like the Grand Inquisitor’s tray of torture devices, I’m pretty sure they’re all tea infusers. The one second from the left is really cool!

Two of the tea blends I encountered caught my eye, and the merchandizing part of my brain immediately jumped to the conclusion that they should be displayed side-by-side:

Elmwood Inn Fine Teas has a new small batch bourbon black tea. No, it doesn’t actually have bourbon in it, but they’ve put together a collection of teas and spices (including a smoky lapsang souchong) that really evoke the flavor of bourbon. It reminds me of what Vintage Tea Works did with their line of wine-inspired tea blends last year.

To go with it, we have Hancook Tea’s “Hang-Over (sic) No More” blend. This South Korean company has blended lotus leaf, persimmon leaf, hydrangea serrata leaf, and mulberry leaf to come up with a surprisingly sweet (but sugar-free) hangover remedy. It’s not something I’d drink just for the flavor, but it’s still rather pleasant — and who drinks hangover remedies for the flavor, anyway?

Bourbon and Hangovers

Have you ever seen a toy that you really wanted, but you just couldn’t have? AOI (our matcha supplier) had a matcha grinding stone device in their booth. It’s two pieces of hand-carved stone with some wooden parts. You place dried green tea leaves in the top, crank the handle, and it mills those leaves into matcha powder.

We tried it out, and it works wonderfully. The kind folks at AOI took it apart and showed us how it works. I’m not likely to ever start grinding my own matcha, and this device isn’t for sale anyway, but I’d sure love to have it in the tea bar, just to show off!

We finished out the day with the networking party, which featured the most 70s band ever, complete with bell-bottoms, afros, and Earth, Wind & Fire songs, and headed back to the hotel to wind down, blog a bit, and put together some orders for tomorrow.

And now, it is time to sleep. There will be more tomorrow. Lots more…

If you follow me on Twitter (@TeaWithGary), you can get updates all day long. Otherwise, check the blog at the end of the day.

And if you’re here in Long Beach, don’t miss the Tea Bloggers Roundtable, which will feature me along with a half-dozen or so of my fellow tea bloggers. They’re not all as strange as me (Robert Godden isn’t here, so I guess I have to be the weird one this year), but it should be a great panel discussion. It’s at 5:00 p.m. in room 104B.

 

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.

Tea Dragons


Sometimes my wanderings around the Web are a pure waste of time, and sometimes I end up finding something delightful. This is one of the delightful ones.

While browsing DeviantArt (a website for artists), I decided to search for tea-related stuff. Lo and behold, I found some wonderful drawings of “Tea Dragons” by Thomas S Brown. The dragons are whimsical, and each one just cries out for a story — or at least a good caption. My favorite, with my own caption added, is the White Tea Dragon:

White Tea Dragon by Thomas S Brown

Over and over I’ve explained it to you: don’t use boiling water for a delicate white tea. It ruins it, I tell you. See what you’ve done? You’ve made Brunhilde cry!

Tom, who goes by “CopperAge” on DeviantArt, said that he originally started doing tea dragons as sketch cards for cons and steampunk events. He’s done about 20 of them so far. When he showed them to his wife (and creative partner), Nimue, she came up with the idea of writing a tea dragon book. They are currently shopping the book around with different publishers. According to Tom, she channeled Lewis Carroll a bit as she wrote it.

The steampunk origins of the tea dragons show better in “Tea Dragon Moon,” which I’ve also taken the liberty of captioning. Note that I haven’t read the book, so these captions are coming straight from my imagination and have nothing to do with Tom and Nimue’s book.

Tea Dragon Moon

“I say, Mycroft, the only thing that could improve this tea would be a more automated brewing system.”
“Quite right, Abernathy, quite right. I do believe I have a few extra sheets of copper laying about. Mayhaps you could whip something up in that lab of yours?”

I’m sure the question running through everyone’s mind, though, is what Tom’s favorite tea is. Looking at the “Tea Dragon Moon” illustration, I figured it would be some kind of über-industrial super-smokey lapsang souchong. I suppose his response fits just as well, though. He said he likes a strong black tea, but he’s “not averse to Earl Grey and occasionally a bit of Jasmine.” I suppose, actually, that his “Grand Tea Master” might be brewing up a batch of jasmine tea, or maybe lotus blossom

Grand Tea Master

“You did pick the lotus blossoms when the sun was high and hot, didn’t you, Hu? The aroma isn’t what it should be. I swear, if you waited until it cooled off and the blossoms closed, I’m going to whack you with my magic spoon. And nobody wants that, do they, Hu?”

Since we’re on the subject of lapsang souchong, though, Tom did mention that he was recently commissioned to produce a tea label. It’s for an Earl Grey/Russian Caravan blend. Hmmm. That could end up similar to my own Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey. I’ll have to track it down when it’s ready and give it a try.

A final note on DeviantArt: don’t be put off by the name, or because members are referred to as “deviants.” The site is simply a great place for artists to share their work and communicate with each other. Sure, it has nude elves, but there’s a lot of wonderful traditional art in there, too. There’s a “family filter” you can turn on if you’re offended by nude bodies. If you’re an art fan, go take a look at the site.

A Nice Cup of Tea


George Orwell press photo

British writer George Orwell

On January 12, 1946, the Evening Standard published an essay by George Orwell entitled “A Nice Cup of Tea.” Like almost everyone else in my generation, I had to read his books Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm in school. They told us a lot about society and a lot about English culture, but not much about tea.

Orwell was British, and born in 1903. These two facts tell you a lot about how he viewed tea. I’ve written before about “Tea Nazis,” who believe that their way of preparing tea is the only way to prepare tea, and this essay is a marvelous example of that philosophy in action.

He opens the essay by saying that if you look up “tea” in a cookbook it’s likely to be unmentioned. That was very true in 1946. It is less true now, but even though there are a lot of wonderful books about tea, mainstream cookbooks generally find it unnecessary to describe how to prepare a pot (or a cup) of tea.

Orwell continues by pointing out that tea is a mainstay of civilization in England, yet the “best manner of making it is a subject of violent disputes.” Judging from conversations I’ve had with British friends, I’d have to agree with that. His next paragraph sets the tone for everything that follows:

“When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:”

Since in my humble opinion just about everything related to preparing tea is subjective, I’d like to present my own take on Orwell’s eleven rules. Lets look at them one at a time.

“First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.”

Here, I must vehemently disagree with Mr. Orwell. Perhaps the fact that he was born in India is showing through here. There is excellent tea from China (and Japan and Kenya and Taiwan…). If you want a beverage that will make you feel “wiser, braver or more optimistic,” I would recommend tequila. If you want tea that tastes good, you can find it all over the world.

Incidentally, when Orwell refers to “Ceylonese” tea, he means tea from the country that was called Ceylon when he wrote this essay, but became Sri Lanka when it achieved independence in 1948. We still typically call tea from Sri Lanka “Ceylon” tea.

“Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britannia-ware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.”

He has an excellent point about the small quantities. To me, this means preparing it by the cup rather than by the pot, and there is a lot of excellent teaware available for that purpose. Although china, earthenware, and ceramic teapots do add something to the tea, using plastic or glass pots allows you to watch the tea steep. It also adds (and detracts) nothing to the flavor.

“Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.”

I agree that pre-warming the pot helps to keep the water hot as the tea steeps.

“Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realised on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea-lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.”

My biggest problem with this “rule” is the statement that “all true tea-lovers not only like their tea strong.” In fact, many tea lovers like a shorter steeping time so that the flavor of the tea isn’t overwhelmed by the bitterness and tannins that come out later in the steep.

“Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.”

Philosophically, he’s right. Allowing the water to circulate freely through the leaves does improve the infusion process. I do prefer not to consume the leaves (unless I’m drinking matcha), but a proper modern infuser will catch pretty much all of them.

“Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.”

Clearly, Mr. Orwell was aware of only one kind of tea: black. While boiling water is the right way to go for black and pu-erh tea, you get much better results with green and white tea if you use cooler water. I won’t get into the oolong debate at the moment…

The little aside that he snuck in here about freshly-boiled water is perhaps the biggest point of argument I hear from tea lovers. Does your tea really taste different if the water is heated in a microwave instead of being boiled in a teapot? Does the tea taste different if you reboil water that has been boiled before? In a blind taste test, I can’t tell the difference. Perhaps you can.

“Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.”

I confess. I do this.

“Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold — before one has well started on it.”

Your cup is as personal as your clothing or your car. Most of the time, I use a 16-ounce ceramic mug made by a local potter. When I’m trying a new tea, I make the first cup in a glass mug so I can see it better. I typically use a smaller cup for matcha, a bigger one for chai lattes, and a bigger one than that for iced tea.

“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.”

Unless I’m drinking chai, I do not add milk to my tea. I have made the occasional exception (I actually like milk in purple tea), but I generally prefer to taste the tea, not the milk.

“Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject.

The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”

When I make chai, I don’t use either of Orwell’s methods. I find that the spices extract better with the lipids in the milk present than they do in water alone. In other words, I heat the milk and add it to the water while the tea is steeping. It changes the flavor considerably.

When I’m adding milk to any other tea, I typically put it in the cup first and then add tea to it.

“Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt.”

Good point, Mr. Orwell. Now please substitute the word “milk” for “sugar” in this paragraph. Then go back and read rule nine. I don’t sweeten my tea (chai being the exception again — I like some honey in it), but I see nothing wrong with doing so. Adding a bit of sugar is no different than adding a bit of milk.

Oh, and by the way, tea was traditionally prepared in salt water in ancient China. And one of my favorite chai blends does, indeed, contain pepper.

Orwell continues…

“Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.”

Again, Orwell is speaking only of black tea here. I do not expect bitterness in, for example, a Long Jing Dragonwell green tea. And I would argue that there are a lot of fine black teas that have minimal bitterness: Royal Golden Safari from Kenya, to pick a favorite of mine.

If I had to pick one issue to argue in this essay, it would be that George Orwell considers all tea to be the same (after eliminating the majority of the world’s production by limiting himself to India and Sri Lanka). Even within the world of black tea, there is immense diversity. I don’t use the same preparation methods or expect the same results for a malty Assam tea and a delicate first flush Darjeeling — much less a smoky Chinese lapsang souchong.

My recommendation? Experiment. Try new teas, and try them first without adding milk or sweetener. Use your supplier’s recommended water temperature and steeping time. Taste the tea. THEN decide whether you want to steep it for a shorter or longer time; whether it needs a bit of milk; whether you’d prefer to sweeten it.

The best tea is your favorite tea, prepared just the way you like it.

Yet another new logo: Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey


Mr. Excellent's Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey Logo -- FinalSuch a delay! It was about eight months ago that I came up with the Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey Tea blend (see my blog post about it here), and we finally have a logo for it! This one was drawn by my son’s friend from college, Brandon Pope.

I’ve found that logo art comes out better if I don’t tell the artist what I want, so I gave Brandon little more information than the name of the tea and what it is (an Earl Grey lapsang souchong). If I could draw, I probably would have done something with a dude sitting in the middle of a burned-out town, his shotgun at his side, drinking a cup of tea as the zombies eye him from a distance. In other words, something way to complex to use as a logo.

Brandon came up with the skull and gas mask, with one of the air filters replaced by a teacup. Very simple, yet immediately recognizable. His original was a hand-lettered pencil sketch (see below), which I needed to colorize. Brandon’s shading was great, especially where the texture of the paper showed, so I just added solid blocks of color behind the skull, mask, and teacup.

I really, really wanted to put this one on a black background, and I just couldn’t seem to make that work using his text. I re-did the text using a fun font called “Disgusting Behavior,” stretched vertically to achieve the look and aspect ratio that I was after. A blood-red color for the text with a subtle glow and an emboss effect finished it off perfectly.

For comparison, here is Brandon’s original pencil sketch (below) and the final logo (above). You can click on the final logo for a larger image.

Mr. Excellent's Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey original logo sketch

This whole program of guest artists for tea logos (kicked off by Al Jones and his Hammer & Cremesickle logo) has been a blast. Thank you very much to Brandon for the artwork, and watch this space for guest logos by husband and wife team Doug and Suzanna Bailey, coming up soon.

Meatballs in Lapsang Souchong Cream Sauce


I’ve written about cooking with lapsang souchong here before, but we decided to try something new for the Chamber of Commerce party at the bookstore/tea bar last month (the same one where we served the Hipster Hummus and the Orange Spice Carrot Cake Muffins).

If you’re not familiar with lapsang souchong tea, it’s a Chinese black tea that’s dried in bamboo baskets over a fire made with wet pine wood. The smoke from the fire dries and cures the tea, giving it a wonderful campfire smell. I think it’s a great wake-up tea in the morning, and it adds a great flavor to meats and fish. The lapsang souchong I used in this recipe is Cascade Smokehouse, from our tea bar.

The meatballs for this recipe aren’t really as important as the sauce, because the flavors in the sauce mask the meatballs themselves. Any old meatball recipe will do. Here’s how to do the rest:

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup butter (you can use margarine if you’d like)
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 ounce lapsang souchong loose-leaf tea
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 cup sour cream

Process

  1. Grind up the tea leaves, using a mortar & pestle or small food processor. They don’t need to be completely powdered, just broken into small pieces.
  2. Heat the chicken broth to boiling and add the tea leaves. Set aside for five minutes.
  3. In a small saucepan, melt the butter and slowly stir in the flour.
  4. Add the salt and broth (do not filter out the tea leaves).
  5. Stir over medium heat until it thickens.
  6. Remove from stove, and stir in the sour cream.
  7. Put the meatballs in a crock pot over low heat, and pour the sauce over it.

We left the meatballs and sauce in the crock pot for several hours on low heat before serving them. They went over very well!

Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey Tea


After my blog post a couple of weeks ago about Twinings changing their Earl Grey formulation, I went to my favorite online forum (the Straight Dope Message Boards) and started a poll to see what people thought about it. I never thought at the time that it would lead to a whole new spin on Earl Grey tea.

What picture could I possibly use to illustrate this blog post? Ah, The Four Hoursement of the Apocalypse by Vasnetsov, of course!

During the discussion, a fellow who uses the online moniker “Mr. Excellent” commented that:

“But yah, Twinings is acceptable, but I prefer to get my tea from a local tea shop. And lapsang souchong is more my thing, anyway. (Though adding bergamot could be neat …) “

The idea of a smoky lapsang souchong with bergamot just seemed wonderful to me, and I commented that I was going to give a shot at creating one. Mr. Excellent responded with:

“I’m looking forward to hearing how the Post-Apocalyptic Earl Gray works out! (Named thus because, with the smokiness of the lapsang, it should be like Earl Gray that survived some firey holocaust and came out awesome.) “

Over the course of the day, I played with recipes, and drank a lot of tea. By mid-afternoon, I was getting fairly close to what I wanted, and described it thus:

“The various strong flavors in this tea hit you at different times. As you bring the cup up to your mouth, the bergamot is the first thing to hit the nose, cutting through the smokiness of the lapsang souchong. When you take the first sip, the bergamot all but disappears, leaving the pine smoke flavor, which fades into the base tea (an organic black Yunnan) as it swirls through your mouth. After you swallow, the bergamot returns, blending with the smoke to create a lingering aftertaste.”

My goal was to create a blend that would make you feel like you were sitting among the smoldering remains of civilization, enjoying a nice cup of tea before hefting your shotgun and going back to fighting off the zombies. After another week or so of experimentation, I think I hit it. “Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey” has officially gone on the menu at our tea bar, and as soon as I have the new tea website finished you will be able to buy it online.

Thank you, Mr. Excellent, for the idea and the name. I hope you enjoy the tea!


Myths and Legends of Tea cover[UPDATE May 2012: Our new tea bar website is up and running, and Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey is available for purchase now. It’s also now our second most popular Earl Grey out of the eight that are currently on our menu. I’ve updated links in this blog post accordingly.]

[UPDATE May 2015: My book, “Myths & Legends of Tea, volume 1” is out, and there’s a chapter devoted to the (fictional) backstory of Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey. It’s set in Australia, 20 years from now…

Cooking with Lapsang Souchong


Lapsang souchong is a fascinating tea. People either love it or hate it. I’ve been winning some converts for it at the tea bar, though, by recommending a use other than drinking it: cooking with it.

lapsang-souchong

When using a nice whole-leaf lapsang souchong like this one, it’s very important to crush the leaves before using them as a rub. I use a mortar & pestle to grind them to a powder.

For those unfamiliar with it, lapsang souchong is a black tea that’s smoked instead of using typical tea drying techniques. Traditionally, it is dried in bamboo baskets over a wet pine fire, which gives it an aroma much like sitting near a campfire. A couple of my pipe smoking friends have compared it to a Latakia tobacco. It’s also one of the primary types of tea used in the Russian Caravan blend. I know. Lapsang souchong sounds like a very strange tea — and I’ll confess it’s not your run-of-the-mill Lipton.

I was visiting another tea shop and chatting with the owner earlier this year. As I was buying some lapsang souchong to drink, she asked if I’d tried using it as a rub. That, by golly, got my mind spinning. Since then, my wife and I have tried variations on several different kinds of meats and fish — and on meatballs, too!

Give this recipe a try, and let me know what you think. If you tweak it for your taste, please share that, too. I used the Cascade Smokehouse from our tea bar for this.

Salmon Souchong

Ingredients

  • Four salmon fillets (the ones we use are about 1/2″ thick — thick fillets require longer cooking times)
  • 1 ounce lapsang souchong
  • 1 tbsp fresh ground black peppercorns
  • 2 tsp sweet Hungarian paprika
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 4 cloves fresh garlic
  • 1 small lime

Procedure

  1. Cut lime in quarters.
  2. Crush garlic in press and put in a skillet with butter over low heat.
  3. Moisten salmon filets.
  4. Grind tea into powder using mortar & pestle.
  5. Add pepper and paprika to tea powder and mix well.
  6. Remove excess moisture from fish and place skin side down on plate or cutting board.
  7. Apply tea powder mixture liberally to top side of fillets.
  8. Once butter is melted, turn heat up to medium-high and place salmon in pan, skin-side down.
  9. Cook for about 5 minutes, then flip salmon. If you wish to remove the skin, now is the time to do it. It should lift right off with a spatula.
  10. Cook about another 5 minutes, until salmon is flaky.
  11. Remove from skillet and serve with lime wedges.

Give it a try. It’s also great on the barbecue (my wife prefers that to the pan-fried version). And for goodness’ sake, drink some of that lapsang souchong along with your dinner!

Tea Absolutists (a.k.a. Tea Nazis)


There are a lot of types of tea people. Tea purists, tea snobs, tea ceremonialists, tea sippers, tea guzzlers, tea herbalists, tea totalers (okay — just kidding on that last one). Today’s commentary is on the tea absolutists.

I, like most tea drinkers, have my favorite way of preparing each of my favorite teas. You may well do it differently, and I really don’t care. If you walk into my tea bar and ask for a cup of lapsang souchong, I will make it the way I make lapsang souchong for myself: 1 tbsp of leaves per 16 oz pot, 195-200 degree water, 3:00 steep time, no sweetener or milk. If you then decide that you’d rather use a bit less tea and steep it a bit longer, and perhaps add some stevia and cream, that’s fine with me.

The absolutist, however, doesn’t just have an opinion on how he wants his tea. He has an opinion on how you should have your tea! You see this all the time in books and magazine articles, and on the websites of many tea suppliers. “Use 5 grams of this tea for your 16-ounce pot (because we love mixing metric and English units). Use 195-degree water, and steep for 3:45. Dammit, don’t you dare steep it for 4 minutes or it will become too astringent. And boiling water will scald it. And if you add lemon, you’re a heathen. An uncultured heathen, I tell you!”

The absolutist, however, doesn’t just have an opinion on how he wants his tea. He has an opinion on how you should have your tea!

I am especially amused by the water temperature absolutists. They’ll come into my tea bar and ask if my water is 210-212 degrees. “Well, no,” I explain. “We’re at 5,550 feet altitude. You can’t get water that hot.” They’ll insist that they have to have boiling water, and I’ll explain that water boils at 202 degrees here. Yep, the water is 10 degrees cooler than boiling water at sea level, but by golly it’s still boiling.

I think the absolutist attitude has done much to turn people away from the enjoyment of tea. If someone says they don’t like black tea because it’s too bitter, it’s probably because they’ve been pouring leaves (or dropping bags) into a pot of boiling water and leaving them in there for ten minutes. I’ve had several people who “didn’t like black tea” get very excited about a nice first flush Darjeeling steeped for a scant two minutes. There’s still plenty of flavor, just a tiny bit of astringency, and barely any bitterness.

Darjeeling absolutists are probably starting up their flamethrowers as they read this. “How can you steep it for only two minutes? You’re not getting any flavor out of it!” A quick Google search shows recommendations anywhere from 90 seconds up to 6 minutes for a first flush Darjeeling (I’m one of those 2:00 to 2:15 people), and the majority of them are convinced that their answer is the one and only true answer. If everyone else just followed their procedure, the world would be a happier place.

The correct steeping time for your tea is the steeping time that produces a cup of tea that you like. You. Not me, not the tea expert in the shop down the street, not the guy that wrote that book on your coffee table (or tea table, I suppose). Ditto water temperature. Ditto quantity of leaves. Ditto sweetening. Ditto the type of cup. Ditto lemon, milk, cream, or whatever else you may enjoy putting in your tea.

At our tea bar, we really want people to enjoy the teas we serve. We’re not worried about making it “right,” we’re worried about presenting it well and making it so that our customers enjoy it. It’s very easy to lose track of how long your tea has steeped, so we take care of that for you. We use tea timers and a chart based on our own preferences. But we ask people, how strong do you like it? On their next visit, they may say, “I liked that sencha last time, but it was a bit strong.” So this time, we’ll use a little bit less, and steep for 3:00 instead of the 3:15 that I prefer. Hopefully, the customer will say, “That’s fantastic! Give me a half-pound bag!”

At home, you may prefer delicate porcelain teacups. Here, we use sturdy glass mugs, because they show off the tea well, and they don’t break easily. We keep whole milk, 1% milk, soy milk, and half-and-half at the bar rather than telling customers what we think they should use. We have locally-grown honey, but we also supply sugar and several artificial sweeteners.

When people are trying a new tea, I encourage them to let me make them a cup first, and then take an ounce home to experiment. Sometimes the “guess what I tried” stories I hear later give me ideas for new things to do with tea.

So, tea absolutists, I encourage you to be as anal-retentive as you like when preparing tea for yourself. But lighten up and let everyone else enjoy their tea any way they like. Please?

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