Wednesday, January 26, 2011

TieGuanYin : A Tale of Two Gaiwans

Fish Design Gaiwan from Chan Teas

I delved into the world of gaiwan tea brewing this week, and the science-art that is Gong Fu Cha.

I purchased the fish design from an upstart tea site because the price was reasonable and the guys running it seem to be genuinely interested in helping others appreciate tea. My humble gaiwan arrived not only intact, but accompanied by a Gong Fu towel and an amazing sample of a Tie Guan Yin. Just what this tea explorer needed!

Zhong Guo Ming Cha - Jingzhihaoli - Tie Guan Yin

What an eye and nose-opener! Steeping and decanting from a gaiwan isn't as tricky as it might appear. If you hold the lid and the saucer taughtly, like a sandwich, it isn't as likely to slip. If you're using good quality whole-leaf and rinsing first as recommended, you don't risk having fannings fall into your cup, either.

The leaves literally came alive, and the first steep was vegetal - something I hadn't associated with Tie Guan Yin before, largely because I wasn't steeping it properly, and because this is likely a light-to-medium oxidized type. The second steep brought more of a balance between the signature vegetal and floral. I want to see where I can purchase more of this grade of Tie Guan Yin. Fabulous!

Leaves after final steeping - whole and lightly oxidized

Steeping in progress

Last weekend I had occasion to join a friend at my local tea shop, where I found gaiwans on display. I picked out a beautiful blue peony design in a larger size and a landscape design in the normal 4 oz. size. The landscape gaiwan has yet to be christened (have to leave something for next week!).

Blue Peony gaiwan from Indigo Tea Company

I was brewing the same oolong I'd had a number of times, but the flavor just seemed to "pop" in the gaiwan. The vegetal notes came through on the first couple of steeps, just as with the Chan Teas sample. The leaves unfurled and magically, I was able to re-steep them nearly the whole day without losing flavor. This is the experience that many tea afficionados discuss and rave about, but it was the first time I had encountered it.

Fancy Grade Tie Guan Yin leaves post-steep

The blue beauty was put through its paces, and I felt like I had tasted the true potential of the "fancy" grade leaves I had purchased previously. There did seem to be a slight difference in the "wholeness" of the leaves compared to the Chan Teas sample, though both were exquisite.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

marketing makeovers : steeped in necessity or should it be bagged?

The news this past week of Starbuck's large logo makeover and 40th anniversary celebration brought the topic of branding to the forefront.

To see more details about the Starbucks announcement, here are a few recommended sites:
Starbucks - a Starbucks product advocate/fan who was invited to the launch
Starbucks Gossip - an unofficial Starbucks news discussion board - visit and add your voice!

But Starbucks isn't the only large coffee/beverage chain that's re-vamped its marketing of late.

Last fall, Caribou Coffee re-designed it's company logo, going with a more stylized, impressionisitic caribou made from a coffee bean. The fact that the caribou is drawn out of a coffee bean was lost on me until I read reports describing the logo change. I'm normally an astute observer of design (my mug and teapot collection is a living argument of style vs. function) - and I didn't even pick up on it. Interestingly, Caribou Coffee had it's strongest quarterly earnings just slightly before the new logo rollout.

This begs the question - is a logo change really all its cracked up to be? Does it draw in more customers, or does it risk hitting the wrong note with regulars and ultimately driving them to re-think their purchases?

I've discovered that there are strong arguments for and against sweeping changes such as Starbucks has just announced. It can turn people off if it isn't carefully thought-out, and yet when it comes to the bottom line, it's the quality of what the logo's sitting on that truly counts.

Starbuck's case:

Pros :
Simplified logo makes it easier to market in different countries
Saves money in printing costs
One step closer to the Mermaid becoming a literal icon

Recognition will be difficult in the short-term, people will have to re-learn the association

They've painted themselves into a corner, as there's nothing further that can be cut or changed to simplify the design. In order to spice up the image when it loses its polish in ten years, they will have to make significant changes to the Mermaid herself - messing with the original mojo.

Caribou's Case:

Modern design makes the original logo feel less "campy" as they're evolving from a 'ski-lodge-at-Mt.-Everest' vibe to a more 'urban-oasis' appeal
The basic elements are still there, there isn't a new learning-curve for the regulars

Nothing has really changed in their product offerings or atmosphere to explain why the changeover was viewed as necessary (from a consumer's viewpoint)

Caribou's been having a great year. They pushed their mocha sales a little more agressively this past holiday season with a new spicy mocha offering and a loyalty card to get one free with every five purchased. On balance, I prefer to get my whole beans there than from other vendors.

Though while they offered good prices on their whole beans, it still didn't seem enough to draw me in this season as in years past. Rather than offering two-for-ones of their Reindeer Blend, they offered a discounted price : $25 for two in my region. Nice, but when Starbucks had an exceptionally good Christmas Blend roast and offered it at 2-for-1 pricing during their 12 days blitz, it's not hard to see why Starbucks got my whole bean holiday bucks.

The larger point being made is that, perhaps, re-branding is only as successful as the quality of your product. Initially there will be a buzz around change for change's sake, but if Starbucks continues to spread itself too thin by expanding into genres that take it further and further away from its coffee bean roots, last week's announcement won't amount to much more than another ripple in a large pool of white noise.

What does this mean for tea? Both of these chains offer a decent selection of tea, but does the new Mermaid logo make you think of a hot mug of Orange Blossom or Zen Tazo? Does Caribou's design being based on a coffee bean do enough to clue you in that you can actually purchase whole-leaf flavored Ti Kuan Yin?

I suspect the tea fans will still be left with cups of cold brew in future logo redesigns, though the Mermaid is at the very least associated with water, giving her an arguable leg-up on her land-locked bretheren.

Do you agree? What kind of marketing appeals to you, as a coffee or tea drinker?


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

connections : assam is my grandmother's front yard

I've read many news reports lately about how the Assam producers are facing a particularly harsh winter season this year, and how this will have an effect on the quality and ultimately the availability and price of Assam tea offerings around the world. Assam is a staple in many favorite tea blends and is the basis of English and Irish breakfast teas.

It's what many people have grown to associate as the taste of Tea (with a capital T) - though thousands of them may not realize this. I didn't make the connection myself until I used up the last of some organic English breakfast that had been sitting in my cupboard. There was enough left in the recycled cardboard tube container to brew about three more pots, so I brought it with me to the office to finish it sooner rather than later.

A quick sip of the first infusion, and I literally felt my shoulders untwist and I sank back down into my chair with a smile on my face. I was ten years old again, in the front yard of my grandparent's small hobby farm in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, gulping down sugar-laden Lipton Sun Tea from a glass that was bigger than my own head, only pausing to breathe when my involuntary nervous system kicked in.

Funny how tea does that to people.

Something grown on the other side of the planet can connect me with summer vacations spent in and outside of a small house on a stretch of land on the Tennessee/Georgia border. Tea was what we drank, and it was rarely made without sugar. Drinking it 'straight' never occurred to us, and it tasted bitter and strange if we ever made the mistake of skipping the sweet..

My grandparents are gone and it's two day's drive to see the old farmstead, but trying that Assam again this week brought them back for a minute or two.

Lipton and Luzianne tea bags don't have a reputation as being the first choice of the tea connoisseur, but this transplanted southerner convert couldn't tell the difference between an organic specialty boutique vendor English Breakfast and a jug of Lipton sun tea brewed twenty years ago. They're both good - but memories are best!

Star-Tribune article on the Assam tea season climate change issue

Wikipedia on the Great Smoky Mountains


Monday, January 10, 2011

moka pot monday mug stories : one

It's Monday again, time to brew some freshpresso in the moka pot and reminisce....

Ft. Worth, Texas and Dallas, Texas - Purchased July 2010

Purchased from: Starbucks, Omni Hotel & Convention Center & DFW Airport

I found myself traveling to Ft. Worth last summer in the company of colleagues who had introduced me to the world of direct sales jewelry. We knew it would be warm (understatement), but hadn't anticipated that the presence of 10,000 human beings rallying together in a building where the air conditioning had given out would end up being so miserable.

With the schedule jam-packed, there wasn't much time to explore downtown, but the few times I did get away from the convention center, I found an oasis.

A shining steel beacon of cold goodness, the Omni Hotel was just across the street and happened to house a full Starbucks store. The air-conditioned marble hallway was heavenly, and it happened to be just after the launch of Iced Via, so it goes without saying that I skipped the convention center lunch when I could and parked my rear at this Starbucks. People came to sip and enjoy the bright jewel-toned walls, plump leather chairs that captured the cold air, and a store front that was entirely composed of glass panels, perfect for people-watching and forgetting your own misery outside on the main street.

City mugs aren't easy to find in every Starbuck's store, so it was lucky to find the Ft. Worth mug hanging quietly in the display as I waited in line to order, the sweat still so profuse that it was dripping from the back of my knees!

To this day, even though I love pouring a moka pot espresso into these mugs, seeing them puts me back in that awesomely cold hallway in July and the memory of five days with nothing more to do than wear jewelry and plan ensembles.

I bought the Dallas mug on my way out of town at the airport, couldn't resist making it a matched set, and I was technically in Dallas twice during my trip.

other memories

The Dallas airport service roads are the trippiest architectural designs I've ever seen. You are driving in circles and elevations, with roads passing and twisting beside and above and below as if you've been miniaturized and put into a Hot Wheels set.

Dallas/Ft. Worth is flat earth. Seriously. No hills 'round these parts.

what to see in Ft. Worth

The Stockyards further in town are also worth visiting, from whence the Steer icon derives. Just be prepared for heat - even the outdoor restaurants keep misty fans on their patrons at dusk to help deal. You can get a great burger at Chef Tim's Love Shack - other places in the Stockyards have great TexMex offerings, but the Love Shack was in the $10 and under price range and not a disappointment.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Arrivage : Samovar Pu-Erh Sampler

I've heard great things about Samovar from tea connaisseurs, and decided to treat myself to a tiny Oolong teapot and a sample of their Pu-erh offerings after spending a New Year's afternoon watching several of their online tea seminars.

Whether or not you're inclined to be a Samovar customer, it's worth visiting their video page to watch interviews with a variety of tea culture names and learn more about tea drinking in general, particularly the "Tea Mavericks of America" seminar.

The teapot is even tinier than I expected. If you had an American Girl dollhouse, it could be put on a table inside one of the rooms to look like a full-size teapot. And I can understand where it may not be viewed as the most "masculine" of tea tools, so tea "ruffians" may not appreciate it's features.

But don't be fooled - this little piece of glass is serious teaware. There's room for a single-serving scoop of tea, and when filled with hot water, it's enough to steep and pour a fantastic 3-4 oz. cup of tea. Pour in another serving of hot water, and you've got another fresh steeping of tea. Clearly designed for an individual experience - there's no room for more than you're going to drink at once, so there's no water left behind to over-steep the leaves for a bitter cup.

The built-in coil filter works wonderfully, though as it's not a mesh, you can't expect it to work for small-leaf teas and greens. Clean-up is a simple rinse. I learned the hard way that there's a steam vent in the knob of the lid that will let water through when pouring a steep or rinsing.

the tea:

A generous packet of each of 3 Pu-erh varieties: Blood Orange, Maiden's Ecstasy, and Royal Palace. Enough of each to make multiple single-serve pots with re-steeps. I was able to get 3 individual amounts from each packet, and yesterday I steeped 7 consecutive Oolong potfuls of Maiden's ecstasy, with two more servings left in the packet.

Don't let the price of a sampler pack discourage you - you get more than a simple one-mug teaser, an economical way to enjoy and find out if you like some of the more exotic or expensive teas.

My favorite of the three is Blood Orange simply because it's suprising. It is an earthy, brothy brew with a strong and piquante ginger citrus finish. You literally feel it as much as you taste it.

Maiden's Ecstasy is a sweet and balanced Pu-erh, and I would say it's an example of what a good Pu-erh should be - not overpowered by the aged flavors (earth, moss, wood, etc) so much as enhanced by them. Very drinkable, and one I would recommend for the Pu-erh newbie looking to train their palate.

Royal Palace is Samovar's priciest offering among it's Pu-erhs, and I haven't as of yet brewed a cup, as I'm still enjoying the previous selections. Stay tuned for my future tasting note on Steepster.

Final notes:

Satisfied with my purchase, definitely recommend the Oolong pot (on sale this week on their web site), recommend Blood Orange to the Pu-erh fan looking for a warm, citrusy kick, and the Pu-erh sampler overall to the tea lover who's not yet sure they want to invest in a full purchase, but curious to know what loose Pu-erh can be.

The Samovar Oolong glass teapot w/Blood Orange Pu-Erh tea

Made in Taiwan, coil filter, cooking-grade glass

Friday, January 7, 2011

Quasiment Bon! Starbuck's Casi Cielo

Ok, ok, ok. I have, in past, been critical of Starbuck's whole bean offerings. And I gave the Bold sampling promotion last spring my very best efforts - but still found the majority of what I've had thus far of their regular offerings to be a little ho-hum. (Yukon was an exception - not sure why, but I found it to be nice.)

It's no secret that the one biggest criticism they receive is that their roasts taste over-done or over-roasted. I do not like Pike Place roast, despite it's having been offered up as the go-to blend each and every day. Strong roasts still make a good cup of coffee when you start with beans from good origins, but as my fellow caffeine freaks can appreciate - certain bean varieties can sing if they're not overpowered by the processing. Different flavors appear at different stages in the heating process.

Yet there's been a marketing push the past year or so chez the Mermaid to re-focus on the beans (with a large detour thru Via land and do-it-your-way Frapps). They're offering more seasonal, dare-one-say artisanal roasts and origins.

Enter my first season of tasting Casi Cielo. The name itself translated evokes lightness, heavenliness, and true enough, there are topnotes of floral as described on the label. A roast with a few subtleties - whodathunk?

I bought a 1/2 lb. this week to give it a try. I was drawn in by the distinctive labeling, and had the barista grind it for espresso. The smell of the newly-ground beans were heavenly and it was tough to avoid grabbing my Moka pot right away as I got through the door at home.

It's delicious done espresso style. If my camera lens weren't sensitive to heat and moisture, I would have taken a photo of the crema bubbling up into the Moka pot. Yummy stuff. My palate is telling me it would be best done as a drip or in the elusive Clover that I hear so much about. Prepared less strongly, it might even evoke other flavors I haven't figured out yet.

Not a knock-me-out selection, but impressive nonetheless. Recommended.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Que La Frangipane Soit! Three King's Day

January 6th is celebrated in France as the day the Three Wise Men made it to Bethlehem to greet the infant Jesus. Quite an enlightening event unto itself.

It is also the day where a tarte composed of almond paste and buttery, sugary goodness is consumed. Otherwise known as the Galette des Rois, traditionally a feve (a.k.a. bean) is hidden away in the pastry and the lucky one who finds it becomes the King for the day.

But it is so much more than a simple pastry and a kid's treat! You can find the special galette just about everywhere beginning with the Christmas holiday and throughout the month of January. Every pastry shop creates their own, in grand fashion, but you can also find commercial versions at the local supermarket.

The bean these days tends to be a ceramic figurine (yes, you need to search before you chew!) of a patriotic, religious, or fanciful character, much like the toy in a box of American Cracker Jacks.

I happened upon an almond pastry at my local cafeteria this week over lunch and it reminded me of this gourmandise. Same flavors and textures, but no prize! Oh well, I can still be royalty for the day in my own mind, can't I? It's a very good thing that they're not mass-produced here in the U.S. as in France. It can produce some mass on your physique if you consume with abandon!

Perfect to sip with Starbuck's Casi Cielo, as I discovered this week - almond and floral combo is pretty good.

Pour les francofiles - voila une recette tiree de youtube si vous etes tente(e,s) d'en faire une vous meme. A native's recipe found on youtube if you're interested in making your own.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My Perfect Holiday Tea Search : Part II

It was a busy holiday season, but I had occasion to try three more varieties of Holiday Tea and found some new favorites!

Harney and Sons White and Black Holiday Tea blends

Part of a 2-canister set sold at Barnes and Noble (purchased at 60% off in post-Christmas sale!)

You can hardly go wrong with Harney for a good cup, and the black tea blend is a nice, if not typical, spice tea. Clove and almond are the heavy hitters in the flavor profile. Best as a hot tea to accompany your favorite holiday cookie or pastry.

I had never contemplated white tea as having the characteristics of holiday, but like Tazo's fruit approach, the combination of subtle white tea and spice works and surprises. Nice by itself or along with a plate of cheese and crackly crackers after Midnight Mass.

Starbuck's Tazo Tea "Joy"

This is a spiced sachet, but it is not your typical clove/cinammon fare. It is a black tea blend with a peach finish and does not overwhelm with aroma - more of a practical, drinkable tea than a special sip-it-and-sigh tea "event" that some might be looking for in a Holiday tea. Refreshing!

I brewed a tumblerfull of it at work and I can imagine this making an ideal iced tea with a slice of orange garnish. I'm hoping Tazo and Starbucks would make it available past the holidays, but I'm content to enjoy it in context.

Indigo Tea Company Black Orange Cinammon

This tea isn't marketed as a Holiday tea, but it is what I consider to be my ideal choice and what comes to mind for me when I think of something comforting to drink at the holidays. Quality black tea that isn't overpowered by the other flavors, a balance of citrus orange and spice. The kind of tea that doesn't leave me unconsciously wincing as I sip it as with other blends that rely on cloves to pull the weight.

I've been enjoying it on its own as a daytime tea and as a dessert.

Trend Notes:

Don't box yourself in when trying to find something special to brew at the Holidays. The point of many celebrations is to bring to the table things that are out-of-the-ordinary or hard to find. Fruit in the peach and melon range, spices like tarragon or cardamom, cinammon that isn't joined at the hip with clove - they're just as festive as egg nog and sugar cookies!

'Til next Holiday season when I explore what I hope are a few new suprises!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Arrivage : Imperial Russian-Inspired 4-Cup Ceramic Teapot

I saw this beauty on display with it's sibling model at Indigo Tea Company last weekend and was smitten. It came home with me and today I inaugurated it with several steeps of a sencha green peach that I picked up the same day.

Blue cornflower design, difficult to tell from the photo but the body is pumpkin-like with sections carved in waves. No mesh filter to lift in or out, it has a filter integrated into the end of the spout, much like a Kyusu. 4 cup capacity, and all I can say is that it has immediately taken its place as the crown jewel of my collection.

Made in Russia and inspired by 18th-century imperial teaware designs, I plan to purchase it's slightly-more-expensive companion in the royal net design when my budget allows. There wasn't much information provided on its manufacturing origin other than the label on the shipping box and the L.A. Times newspaper from August 12, 2010 that was used to wrap the individual pieces for shipping. I'm aware that it's a modern replica piece from a large-scale manufacturer, but it's still unusual to find such beautiful examples in my neck of the woods.

I will endeavor to translate the label as I have time, though if any of my Steepster or Twitter tea friends happen to read Russian, any translation help would be welcome!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

American Tea Rituals : Palate Training

We often hear of the "discipline" of tea drinking, and those of us who take the time to educate ourselves learn about the Asian, European, and South American rituals that have built up over centuries of tea consumption. But as notorious cultural mavericks, one could say that the American tea ritual, as most of us experience it, is less about the discipline of tea preparation and more about the training of the palate and exploration of flavor.

This occured to me today as I joined my family at the one tea lounge that's in my suburban vicinity. One had been craving a Boba tea, having only tried one once before at the same lounge. Another is a budding tea afficionado, having received a beautiful japanese ceramic set for Christmas, however her tea consumption up to this point has been limited to whatever I may have had on hand on a particular day or ordered when she joins us for our tea outings. Vanilla Rooibos and Jasmine Pearls are her current favorites.

The tea protege finally began drinking her white tea, and joked a few minutes later that she wouldn't order it again. That sounded strange to me, so I asked her to explain what she didn't like about it. She didn't know how to explain it at first. But after some questions, it was revealed that she thought it tasted too much like a green tea, and wasn't what she was expecting. We explained that white tea is "fresh" tea - green leaves that aren't really processed like other teas, so they will naturally taste "vegetal" depending on how long you let them steep, but they shouldn't taste "grassy" like a true green tea.

Eureka! As this was being explained to the future tea sommelier - I realized that we were participating in an American Tea Ritual. It isn't so much rooted in the discipline of preparing tea, but in appreciating the flavor of tea. My family is from the South, where iced tea is consumed on a nearly-religious basis, but it's almost entirely the grocery-store bagged variety. Sun tea was a unique break from the norm. Straight or with lots of sugar, and lemon if you were adventurous. Other types of tea weren't really on the radar. Much of what I know about tea now as a middle-aged tea drinker has been gleaned from my own trial-and-error and reading online recommendations on things to try and how to prepare something so it tastes its best.

There is no rhyme, reason, or rule to enjoying tea at an American table - only that you enjoy what you prepare or order, and that you understand what makes it something you enjoy. Conversation over a teacup, knitting a project in front of a steaming clay mug of Oolong, surfing the internet with a thermos of sencha - anything goes. We no longer feel obligated to sit and follow centuries-old etiquette, but we continue to use a shared vocabulary and still see tea as ritual. It's something special that changes the atmosphere of whatever we happen to be doing or talking about at the time.

What is your "tea ritual?" What makes it American? Traditional? New?