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New toy! A Russian samovar


Our new Russian samovar (literally translated: self-boiler) for the tea bar.

We have mostly modern equipment in the tea bar and at home. The Zojirushi water heater does a fabulous job of bringing water up to temperature and holding it there, with multiple selectable temperature ranges and thermostat. But I’ve always loved traditional equipment, and I’m fascinated by the ways different parts of the world prepare their tea.

I just purchased a Russian samovar (see picture) made in 1980. Traditional metal samovars in Russia date back to the early 1700s, when they used charcoal or other fuels to heat the water. A “chimney” ran vertically through the middle of the samovar, where the fuel generated the heat. The vessel was filled with water that would be drawn from a tap on the bottom. Often, a teapot was placed directly on top, so there would be concentrated prepared tea in addition to the heated water surrounding the chimney.

One of the things I’ve always loved about samovars is their steampunk look. They metal is often beautifully worked and etched or engraved. My new one is made of brass plated with silver/nickel. The samovar is designed for a communal tea setting, where it is kept going all day long, and the condensed tea in the pot is diluted by the boiling water in the main chamber every time someone wants a cup.

My new samovar is about 18 inches tall, and powered by good old-fashioned electricity. Since Russian AC power is 220 volt, I’m going to need to make or buy an adapter to let me run it on 110 volt U.S. power, but that’s pretty easy. Given its size and weight, I think I’ll find it a spot to live at the tea bar instead of trying to take it with me wherever I go.

I think this will be a great way to enjoy some of the Russian Caravan tea that I like to drink in the afternoons. Or maybe I’ll get cross-cultural and use it for some Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey. No need to be a tea Nazi, right?

Ice, Ice, Baby!

Valerian Steel - Iced

An iced cup of our
Valerian Steel tea.

When starting up a new venture, it’s a good idea to minimize the amount of cash you put in until you’re sure it’s going to work. In keeping with that philosophy, when we started our tea bar at the bookstore, we bought what the health inspector said we had to buy (e.g., a triple-basin sink and a sanitizing hand soap dispenser) and what the state said we had to buy (a Federally-certified and State-inspected scale that cost ten times what a standard kitchen food scale costs), but we were careful beyond that.

Oh, we bought a Zojirushi machine to keep our tea water at exactly the right temperature and some IngenuiTEA brew pots to prepare the tea for our customers. We did not, however, buy any other fancy equipment. We decided to spend the money on tea instead. One of the things in the “fancy equipment” category was an ice machine.

We figured we would sell some iced tea in the warm days of summer, but our bookstore had a waitress station in the back corner from the old days when the building housed a restaurant. That waitress station had an ice bin. We decided to just buy bags of ice at the grocery store and put them in the ice bin. Our old freezer in the back could hold an extra bag or two, so we’d be all set, right?

We soon discovered the error of our ways. The not-too-well-insulated ice bin allowed the ice to melt all too fast, and we served a lot more iced tea than we had anticipated. The grocery store is just far enough that you can’t really make an ice run when there are customers waiting, so we often bought more ice than we really needed. Bags of ice are pretty pricey at the grocery store, too: about $1.70 for a 7-pound bag. When you’re going through two or three bags a day, it really adds up.

Then we realized that the liquor store right next to us had an ice machine. Perfect! I negotiated a price so we could just run over there with a bucket, fill it with ice, and have them put it on our tab. More convenient for us, a better price for us, no work at all for the liquor store. There were a few minor inconveniences, like the fact that they opened later in the morning than we did and they are closed Sundays, but we could easily deal with that.

Then things began to get surreal. We’d run over and the scoop would be hidden away somewhere. We’d have to wait while someone found it. They shut the ice machine down for a week (without telling us), so there was no ice available. We found ourselves having to run over to the grocery store anyway. And still, we were spending $4 or $5 per day for ice.

I decided to start shopping for ice machines. I got an email from Sysco that they were having an ice machine sale. What perfect timing! Until I found that the sale price on their cheapest unit was close to $2,000. I searched high and low, and then my friend Martha, who runs the Café Regis, suggested a fellow named Mike who deals in used kitchen equipment.

Hoshizaki ice machineAfter a whole bunch more research and several discussions with Mike, we finally settled on a Hoshizaki counter-top ice making machine. It was still pricey, although the $875 we spent is a lot less than the $2,800 list price, but it makes us independent. I know we’ll spend less on ice in the winter than we do in the summer, but I still figure that machine will pay for itself in less than a year, and it’s far more convenient. Not only that, we can put a filter on the line and gain control over the quality of the water used to produce the ice.

Unfortunately, I don’t deal well with plumbing. After three hours of fiddling around and running back and forth to the hardware store, we still didn’t have a functional water line and filter. I ended up having to get a plumber just because none of the connectors would mate without leaking (I still can’t believe you have to fabricate custom hoses and connectors to hook up a water filter to this line — it boggles the mind).

So, at last, we produce our own ice. Nice little pellets of ice — not the big cubes we were using before — which cool the hot tea down swiftly.

Postscript: Just as I finished typing this, I got a call from the bookstore (it’s my day off). The machine is leaking all over the floor. *sigh* I hate plumbing with the burning passion of 1,000 leaky hot-water lines. I really, really do.

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