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Myths & Legends At Last!

Myths & Legends Header Since I first announced I was working on a book called Myths & Legends of Tea, a lot has happened. For one thing, the project got delayed, interrupted, and re-prioritized for almost two years. For another, it was broken into four volumes. I am pleased to announce, however, that Volume 1 is done! The Amazon Kindle edition and the Apple iBook edition are available now. I’ll be posting some free excerpts and news about the book over the next week, interspersed with all of my World Tea Expo posts. This first volume in the series features six stories, each accompanied by a profile of the tea featured in the story, and a prologue that sets the stage. The stories are:

Prologue: The Origin of Tea

China, 2737 BC One of the most-recited myths in the tea world is that of Shennong, the legendary Chinese emperor who introduced agriculture to China, worked extensively with herbs to create the first Chinese pharmacopoeia, and invented acupuncture. In working with herbs, Shennong discovered that boiling water somehow made even “bad” water healthy to drink. One day, Shennong settles under a tree to relax with a cup of hot water. As he rests and waits for the water to cool, leaves from the tree blow unnoticed into his cup. After a while, he notices a heavenly aroma. He raises the cup to his lips and becomes the first man to enjoy what is now the world’s most popular drink.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Tea, Serenity & Death

Japan, 1591 It is never wise to offend a daimyo, as Tea Master Sen no Rikyū discovers when his patron Toyotomi Hideyoshi commands Rikyū to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). Rikyū, who developed the Japanese tea ceremony as we know it today, asks Hideyoshi for permission to conduct one last ceremony. Rikyū shares his philosophy, his poetry, and the beauty and serenity of the tea ceremony with four of his disciples. Each is given a gift and all but one of his disciples, Zen priest Nanpō Sōkei, leave the tearoom. Rikyū hands him a sword. It is time.

The Iron Goddess of Mercy

China, 1761 During the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, a poor farmer by the name of Wei is walking to market. He notices a crumbling abandoned temple of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Every time he passes the temple, Wei stops for a while to fix it up. He works on the pathway, the gates, the temple building, and the statue of the goddess. When he finishes, the goddess appears to him in a dream and gives him a reward: the tea plant that becomes the heart of one of the greatest oolong teas.

Earl Grey: This Water Sucks!

England, 1806 Lord Charles, soon to become the second Earl Grey, is content at his home in Howick Hall, save one unhappy thing: the water is terrible, and it produces quite an inferior cup of tea. He and Lady Grey have experimented to no avail, and they finally turn to a tea expert for help. Chen shows up at Howick with a huge chest of tea and a virtual mobile laboratory of bottles and vials containing everything from essential oils to ground herbs. We know the rest. Even though Charles goes on to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, his own fame will be eclipsed by the tea that bears his name.

Teatime in Georgia: The Birth of Southern Sweet Tea

United States, 1870 One oft-repeated story is that iced tea was invented in 1904 by a vendor named Richard Blechynden at the St. Louis World’s Fair. He was having little luck selling hot tea, says the story, and dropped ice cubes in the tea, creating the first iced tea. Nice story, but it doesn’t account for the 1879 cookbook Housekeeping in Old Virginia, which includes a recipe for iced Southern sweet tea. Where did iced tea really come from? Our version of the legend is set in Georgia, where a lady named Harriet Suggett is struggling to come up with an alternative to the popular alcoholic tea punches of the day for an event that includes members of the rapidly-growing temperance societies.

Oriental Beauty: The Braggart’s Tea

Taiwan, 1931 Huang is very good at keeping his head down. He comes from a prominent family that has been farming in Beipu for many generations, but since his father and brother were killed in the uprising almost 25 years ago, Huang has tried not to draw too much attention to himself. When his tea crop is destroyed by leafhopper insects, he is near despair. That field of tea is all that he and his mother, Lin, have to live on. The leaves are chewed, the tips have gone white, and his neighbors have already given up. But Huang doesn’t give up so easily!

Post-apocalyptic Earl Grey

Australia, 20 years from now The zombie apocalypse has spread mercilessly across the country. Only small pockets of the uninfected remain. Sam’s band of survivors is a small one, and they have resigned themselves to a long and difficult road ahead. It will be a much easier road, though, if they can only lay their hands on some tea. Earl Grey, perhaps. Little do they know how much that tea will change their lives… I am particularly excited about the cover of the book, which uses a photograph by Nicholas Han of the sunset over a tea plantation in Taiwan. Myths and Legends of Tea cover

Tea Around the World

Tea Around the World header

I came across a fascinating article the other day with pictures (and short captions) of tea as they drink it in 22 countries around the world. Obviously, picking one tea — and one style of drinking it — to represent an entire country is difficult, but they did an admirable job of it. What I appreciated, though, is that it got me thinking about the way we experience tea from other countries.

I was rather distressed that the caption they chose for the U.S. was:

Iced tea from the American South is usually prepared from bagged tea. In addition to tea bags and loose tea, powdered “instant iced tea mix” is available in stores.

Eek! As much as I enjoy a cup of iced tea on a hot day, I rarely stoop to tea bags, and never to “instant iced tea mix.” If you are one of my international readers (when I last checked, about half of my blog’s visitors were outside the U.S.), please don’t judge us based on that article!

Despite that, the article made me think about something: When we experiment with the drinks from other countries, we usually prepare them our own way. Yerba mate, for example. The traditional method of making mate in Argentina, Uruguay, or Paraguay is in a gourd, with water that Americans would call “warm.” Americans trying out the drink usually make it just like a cup of tea, using boiling water in a cup or mug.

With tea, many of us would have difficulty drinking a cup of tea like they do in another country. Follow that link above and look at their description of Tibetan tea (#5 on the list). I don’t know about where you live, but here in Montana, I can’t easily lay my hands on yak butter.

Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun to research how people eat and drink in other countries and try to duplicate the experience. Even if you’re not doing it exactly right at first, it makes you feel connected with other people and their cultures.

Pouring Moroccan Mint tea

The teapot and glasses are as much a part of the experience as the tea is, as chelle marie explains

When my wife and I were dating, we discovered a Moroccan restaurant that we both loved: Menara in San Jose, California. They had fabulous food, belly dancers, authentic music, and — of course — Moroccan mint tea.

Kathy and I loved enjoyed watching them pour the tea as much as we enjoyed drinking it. We sat cross-legged on pillows around a low table. The server would place the ornate glasses — yes, glasses for hot tea — on the table and hold the metal teapot high in the air to pour the tea.

I am not a big fan of mint teas, generally, and I do not sweeten my tea, but I absolutely loved the tea at Menara (and no matter what my wife tells you, it had nothing to do with being distracted by the belly dancer).

When I made Moroccan mint tea at home, it never came out the same. There was always something off about the taste. I tried different blends, but just couldn’t duplicate the flavor. Then I decided to try duplicating the technique.


Take a look at that picture to the right (a marvelously-staged and shot picture from chelle marie). Look closely at the glass. That, as it turns out, is what I was missing. Pouring the tea from a height does more than just look good; it aerates the tea, which changes the way it tastes and smells.

You’ll find the same thing with a well-whisked bowl of matcha (Japan), a traditionally-made cup of masala chai (India), a frothy-sweet boba tea (Taiwan), or a cold, refreshing Southern sweet tea (USA).

If there’s a tea shop or restaurant in your area that makes the kind of tea you want to try, get it there first. Otherwise, read a few blog posts, watch a few videos, check out a good book, and give it your best try.

Tea is more than just a beverage; it is a window into the cultures that consume it. Embrace the differences. Enjoy the differences. Enjoy the tea!

World Tea Expo 2014, Day 3: Revenge of the Pu-erh

WTE2014 Day 3 header
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.

WTE cosplay

That wookie was BIG! I’m guessing he drinks a lot of good healthy Taiwanese oolong.

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.

jasmine sheng pu-erh

These are 100 gram beeng cha cakes, which are significantly smaller than the traditional 357 gram cakes. This also makes them more affordable for someone who’s experimenting.

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.

Geoff Norman pu-erhs

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.

The Oolongs of Taiwan: Stop 6 on the World Tea Tasting Tour

Taiwan may not have originated oolong tea, but it is definitely at the forefront of oolongs today. At this stop on the tea tour, attendees learned about what oolong tea actually is, and tasted a variety of Taiwanese oolongs, including Bao Zhong, White Tip Bai Hao, and of course Tieguanyin, better known as “Iron Goddess of Mercy.” We’ll also talk a bit about the history of Formosa tea (Taiwan was called Formosa until the 1940s).

For comparison, we also tasted a couple of Chinese oolongs.

The teas we tasted were:

  • Bao Zhong (Pouchong) – Taiwan
  • White Tip Bai Hao – Taiwan
  • Tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) – Taiwan
  • Wuyi (Shui Xian) – China
  • Qilan (Dark) – China
  • Boba (“bubble”) Tea – Taiwan
Taiwan Flag

The flag of Taiwan

Officially, Taiwan is known as the Republic of China (ROC). It is an island off the coast of mainland China, which is officially known as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC lays claim to Taiwan, but the ROC has declared its independence and established its own government, currency, and economy. The island, formerly known as Formosa, is 13,978 square miles — only about a tenth the size of the state of Montana. It’s population, however, is about 23,315,000, which is significantly more than the state of Texas.

A variety of tea styles is produced in Taiwan, but their specialty is oolong. About 20% of the world’s oolong tea comes from this small island.

There have been wild tea plants on Taiwan for a long time. They were first reported to the Western world in a report in 1685. Chinese tea plants were brought out to Taiwan by Ke Chao in the late 18th century, and a Scotsman named John Dodd established a tea export business in 1869. Tea soon became Taiwan’s major export, and the Tea Research Institute of Taiwan was formed in 1926.

Oolong, which means “black dragon” in Chinese, is the most complex of tea styles to produce. Oolongs are generally not crushed or torn, and are only partially oxidized (not fermented), unlike green tea, which isn’t oxidized at all, and black tea, which is fully or almost-fully oxidized.

Generally, we tailor the steep time and water temperature to each individual tea in our tastings, but tonight we wanted to give everyone  a solid basis for comparison, so we prepared all of the oolongs in 195-200 degree (F) water and steeped them for two minutes.



Pouchong is often spelled as “Bao Zhong” to more accurately reflect the way it is pronounced. It’s a very lightly oxidized oolong tea that appeals well to green tea lovers. Because of its mild taste and aroma, many flavored oolongs use pouchong as their base.

White Tip Bai Hao


Here’s a tea with many names, including Bai Hao in the east and Oriental Beauty in the west. In the beginning, it was known as “bragger’s tea” because of the origin story (one of the stories that will appear in my new book, by the way), where a farmer went ahead and used leaves that had been chewed up by insects and discovered that the flavor was so wonderfully enhanced that he got twice his normal price at market.

Tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy)


This style originated in China, but has become a staple of Taiwanese oolong as well. I’ve written about it before. Even with 120 different teas to choose from in my tea bar, it’s rare for me to go more than a couple of days without drinking a few cups of Tieguanyin. It’s generally good for at least 5-7 infusions, and it’s a great everyday tea.

Wuyi Oolong


We then moved to the birthplace of oolong tea: the Wuyi mountains in the Fujian province of China. This tea is highly oxidized and then roasted to give a very full-flavored cup. We tasted it on the first stop (China) of our World Tea Tasting Tour, making this the first tea that’s been in two different tastings.

Qilan Oolong


Staying in that same area, we moved on to an even more oxidized and roasted dark oolong. Qilan (“profound orchid”) is actually a darker and more flavorful tea than many of my favorite black teas, like Golden Yunnan, Royal Golden Safari, and first-flush Darjeeling (all described in previous tasting notes).

Boba Tea


The most recent export from Taiwan is an iced drink they call “boba milk tea,” usually served as “bubble tea” in the United States. It has taken many urban areas here by storm, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, the way most of the mainstream purveyors prepare it, there’s no tea in bubble tea — they use snowcone syrups or similar super-sweet flavorings.

We prepare ours by steeping a strong cup of tea (tonight’s tasting used a mango-flavored tieguanyin as the base). In a cocktail shaker we add ice, simple syrup (sugar water), and a bit of milk. After shaking that into a froth, we pour it over fresh-made tapioca pearls.

This was the sixth stop on our World Tea Tasting Tour, in which we explore the tea of China, India, Japan, Taiwan, England, South Africa, Kenya, and Argentina. Each class costs $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.

For a full schedule of the tea tour, see my introductory post from February.

The World Tea Tasting Tour at Red Lodge Books & Tea

Over the next couple of months, Red Lodge Books & Tea will be taking you on a world tour of tea with a series of tastings and classes focused on teas from all around the world. The events will be at our tea bar on Fridays from 5:00 to 6:30. At each session, we’ll taste five to seven teas from a different country as we explore a bit of the country’s geography and tea culture. I will put a quick summary of each stop on the tour up here on the blog for those who can’t attend or who don’t remember which teas we covered.

The full tour consists of:

Friday, Feb 15All the Tea in China
Friday, Mar 1Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. (England)
Friday, Mar 8It’s Always Tea Time in India
Friday, Mar 15 — Japan: Bancha to Matcha (notes Part 1 and Part 2)
Friday, Mar 22Deepest Africa: The Tea of Kenya
Friday, Mar 29The Oolongs of Taiwan
Friday, Apr 5Rooibos from South Africa
Friday, Apr 12Yerba Maté from Argentina
Friday, Apr 26 — China part II: Pu-Erh
Friday, May 3 — India part II: Masala Chai

Each class will cost $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.

There will be more information posted on the tea bar’s Facebook page before each event, including a list of the teas that we will taste in each event.

UPDATE MARCH 9: As I blog about each of these experiences, I’m going to create a link from this post to the post containing the outline and tasting notes. I’ve linked the first two.

UPDATE MARCH 23: I changed the dates of the last two events. There will not be a tasting on April 19.

Old familiar blends vs. creative house blends

It’s a dilemma for anyone who owns or manages a tearoom: how many different teas shall I carry and how many of them should be funky house blends? Looking at sales for 2011, our top four sellers were very traditional teas: an earl grey, a breakfast blend, a masala chai, and a Moroccan mint (note that only one of those is unflavored). The next six were all creative flavored teas.

UPDATE March 2013: Results for 2012 weren’t much different from the 2011 results cited above.

Reading that may make you think that the classics aren’t important for the tea bar, but let’s look behind those numbers:

First of all, those only reflect our bulk tea sales, not sales by the cup. I don’t have a good system in place for tracking sales by the cup — especially since we make some special by the cup blends for our regulars — but I’d guess that a lot more of our cup sales are straight traditional tea than the bulk numbers indicate. When I’m behind the bar, I sell a lot of Darjeeling, assam, sencha, silver needle, dragonwell, Scottish breakfast, jasmine green, taiguanyin, and shu pu-erh by the cup.

Second, those numbers include web sales. On the web, there are many many sources for sencha or Darjeeling, and we compete against the huge Internet retailers who can undercut our prices. On the other hand, there is only one source for our house blends like Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey or Coyotes of the Purple Sage. We sell very little dragonwell on the web site compared to our house blends.

When deciding what tea to carry in your shop, the first thing to ask yourself is, who is your target audience? If you want to capture the Celestial Seasonings fan, you want to have a lot of flavored blends with colorful logos and clever names. If you want to capture the serious tea fan, you’d better have a good selection of unflavored tea of various styles and origins.

Of the styles, a casual shop would be expected to have black and green at the very least, with at least one white and one oolong. A more serious shop should expand the oolong selection significantly and add a couple more white teas and at least one or two pu-erhs. The sign of a teahouse that really caters to the connoisseur would be an extensive collection of ripe (shu) and raw (sheng) pu-erh in both loose and cake form, and a yellow tea or two.

When it comes to origins, a shop can go two different ways: specialized or generalized. It’s easy to put together a tea selection covering every style where all of the tea comes from China. It’s possible to cover the four basic styles from countries like India and Kenya, although the selection of oolongs and whites will be pretty sketchy. In my opinion, a generalized shop should have tea from, at the very least, China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka.

If you are going to offer house blends, I’ve found that they do best with unique names, preferably tied to your theme or location. Your customers can find English Breakfast and Moroccan Mint anywhere, and many would argue that you should use exactly those names so that your customers can find something familiar. On the other hand, hearty adventurers who find a tea shop in New York offering Buffalo Breakfast and Manhattan Mint are likely to come back for more if they like it instead of just grabbing generic English Breakfast and Moroccan mint at the next store they see.

You’ll want to offer some caffeine-free alternatives as well. It’s a philosophical decision whether you want to offer decaffeinated tea, naturally caffeine-free alternatives (e.g., rooibos), or both. Lately, we have a lot more customers specifically looking for rooibos. Most of them want flavored blends, but there’s enough demand to keep plain organic red and green rooibos available as well.

The bottom line is that your tea shop should reflect your personality. If people want a drab corporate-looking shop, they’ll go to Teavana. An independent tearoom should be unique, and the tea selection is even more important than the decor in conveying that uniqueness.

Free tea! It doesn’t get better than that

Bag of Chinese tea

The mysterious bag of Chinese tea.

A friend of mine stopped by the tea bar the other day. Unlike most tea bar visits from friends, Wanda brought tea in with her. It was a bag of tea from China that a friend had given her. She didn’t know what it was, and she’d had it for five years, so she asked if I’d like to have it.

I cut the bag open and poured out a bit of the tea. It was full rolled leaves; not rolled tightly into balls like Dragon Tears or gunpowder tea, but pretty dense nonetheless. The leaves were hard; dropping them into bowl made a pinging sound. The color was a bit darker than a typical green tea, and the smell reminded me of the Huang Jin Gui oolong we carry at the tea bar.

I brewed a cup — using a bit more tea than I usually would because of the age — and decided it was definitely a oolong, but I couldn’t quite identify it. Good packaging, by the way. Five years old, and it still tasted good.

Here’s where Facebook comes in handy. I took a picture of the large print on the top of the bag (the photo that’s now on this page), posted it on Facebook, and asked if anyone could identify it. Within about 20 minutes, I had my answer: Iron Goddess of Mercy, a lightly oxidized oolong with a unique aroma. After enjoying it for a few days, I started hunting for a good one to carry at the tea bar, and I’m excited to have a fresh batch coming in next week. Given how good the five-year-old stuff at home is, I have a feeling I’m really going to love the fresh tea.

Iron Goddess of Mercy (called “Tae Guan Yin” in Chinese) originated in Anxi, in the Fujian province of China. Today, it is produced in quite a few other areas of China and Taiway. The one we sell at our tea bar is a medium-roasted variety from Nantou, Taiwan. I’ve used the leaves for three infusions without loss of flavor, and I’ve been told they’re good for as many as seven.

The processing of Tae Guan Yin is complex. Traditionally, it follows these steps:

  1. Picking – usually done early in the day when it is sunny
  2. Sun drying (“withering”) – Done  before sunset the same day as the picking
  3. Cooling (“cool green”) – Done overnight, along with the tossing
  4. Tossing (“shake green”)
  5. Withering/partial oxidation – Done the day after picking
  6. Fixing
  7. Rolling/kneading
  8. Drying
  9. Roasting

There are several conflicting legends regarding the origin of Iron Goddess of Mercy, all recounted on the Chinese Tea Culture site. Personally, I much prefer the Wei Yin legend. I don’t know that it has any more veracity, but it’s a better story.

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