Sunday, April 21, 2013

Three times Three

      I had forgotten, and have now almost again forgotten, how the landscape surrounding the Selway River seems always to be moving.   Not because the ever-present spring rain is wearing things down before your eyes or because the wind moves the shrubs around.  But because you are always staring at the river, and when you look up from the rapids, the hills and trees swirl for a second or two.

      Escape from the water is difficult while walking or sleeping on the Selway.  The water roars over boulders near the camps.  The river has cut down deep into its canyon and the few trails that depart from the main path along the river’s edge climb straight up the unforgiving ridges.  A walk in this place is about the river and, for us, it is also about flowers and buds and other sodden forms of life that have not yet emerged in our neck of the woods.  The elevation on the Selway is 1500 + feet lower than Missoula.

      A trip there is also, for us, about not doing much.  Wandering around agape over the fresh plants, staring at the water, drinking tea. 

     The trillium was this trip’s totem.  A favorite of mine from the plant world -with a common name to match its splendor:  Wake robin.  That’s what they called it in Missouri when I was a kid.   The name is spring itself.

Three leaves, three sepals, three petals.

     I had my third, and hopefully final, close encounter with a rattlesnake.  It may have been mourning its relative who lay belly-up and fly-kissed farther down the slope.  I walked within a foot or two of the sluggish, living snake without noticing at all- not until my wife pointed it out with her walking stick.  It did not warn me in any way, and it was not pleased with my presence.   Had it been warmer, I don’t think the trip would have ended well.

      I also broke my third travel gaiwan set from Yunnan Sourcing.  These things are cute as hell and they work great when they are not in pieces.   I'm the one who drags them around in the rocks.  The gaiwan itself survived as well as the cups.  Not so the cha hai.  Who needs them anyway.  It's camping, right?

     Drinking tea was very fine.  We did a lot of it.  So much so that we had to ration our camp stove fuel the last day.  The combination of a couple of really delicious teas from Stephane, the fabulous setting, good water from seeps and springs and the relative lack of distractions made for some of the most enjoyable tea drinking I've done in a long time.  The trip really brought me back to the plant and was a reminder that you don't need elaborate or expensive equipment to brew a great cup.  Good tea, good water, a cheap porcelain cup or two, a bit of breathing room for thoughts, impressions and sensations.  The world is thorny and there is no escape, but tea can be a kind of refuge.  

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Morning Fat Reduction

Two Lapsang Souchongs from the Cha Wang Shop have changed my whole approach to morning tea ritual (which still involves gimping along in the dark til I slurp down three cups of black tea in order to become ''functional'').

The luxuriousness of the pleasantly smokey Fujian Zhengshan Xiaozhong and it's more ethereal, lychee-fragrant cousin, the Fujian Waishan Xiaozhong have made my half and half habit untenable.  Certainly there are many hongchas that are butchered by dumping in a half gallon of cream, and there a few hongchas I've slugged that I could not bring myself to adulterate with a bronze fat cloud.  But I am addicted to the richness of strong black tea (usually a serviceable Dianhong) loaded with lactose.  My Morning Milkshake.  The fats seem also to take the edge off the tannins in the tea, which often make my stomach upset if I have not eaten.

I've always felt self-conscious about the cream habit.  It seems an abomination to pour cream into perfectly good Chinese tea.  One of my favorite things about visiting China was the positive effect the nearly dairy-free cuisine had on my digestion.

I've been off morning cream for a few weeks.  I feel so much cooler drinking my morning hong cha, seeing the cup's bottom through a sparkling ruby tint.  I allow myself the delusion that it's a slight ascetic maneuver- a deprivation for tiny tots.  This is kind of nice because my lifestyle really bends toward the hedonistic these days.

And the lack of cream is great for another reason.  The thing is, I'm getting fat.  My winter desk job combined with my beer, pork and half and half intake have produced my first noticeable spare tire.  A slinky-sized roll.  My slinky.  I don't wish to cut back on the pork.  I've slowed down on beer and sped up on bourbon.  (Just on weekends, mind you).  So I'm glad to be off the cream.

We're leaving tomorrow for our first backpacking trip of the season on the Selway River in Idaho. The elevation is lower and the trillium is, hopefully, blooming.  I'll get a chance to work on my spare tire and use some snowmelt to brew up Stephane Erler's Bi Luo Chun from San Hsia.  This tea has been my annual introduction to the spring tea season for many years now.  I have grown quite fond of it.  It is one of those signs of durability, like the crocus.  It leads out of bleak times and hibernations into more lit, less dark times.

It'll probably be raining on the Selway, but it will be 70, 60, 58 degrees.  You can bet I'll have some hongcha for the cold mornings.  And I won't even be missing my morning fat.

I hope this spring finds everyone ready for something different.

Saturday, March 9, 2013


Inspired by positive reviews of teas sourced by the Cha Wang Shop folks (particularly some of their Lapsang Souchong) I decided to dive in and give them a go.  After fishing around on the Cha Wang webpages I discovered that the company offers a fairly stunning array of Heicha.  I've not had much experience in this realm, but have enjoyed what I have tried.  I still don't really understand what the hell Heicha is.  I'll be searching for a primer in the near future.  Ordering tea from Kunming always provides an excuse to splurge for more than I originally intended to make the most of the shipping costs. 

It has been awhile since I found one of these plump basketballs of  tape-girdled joy on my porch (this time hidden by our sly mail carrier behind a set of shellac Rubinstein recordings left by our friend "The Hippie").  Very reminiscent of Yunnan Sourcing parcels.

I have dabbled a bit in the contents of this box over the last couple of days and have been quite pleased.  The LS is enjoyable and I'm already sorry I did not order more of the '03 Wuzhou Liubao as I see it is sold out and it is my kind of tea.  But more on that in another post.  For now, I'm just so pleased to have some new tea that is exciting for a change.  It should keep me occupied for a bit.  I had a stomach upset today after picnicking on a sunny hillside with a spread of chorizo, roasted almonds, Alishan, blood oranges, green bananas, goat cheese, honeycrisp apples and, of all things, lemon vodka.  (WTF?)  Some liubao set everything right.  And I'm finding I can drink it in the evenings and still sleep like a bag of rocks.  Nothing wrong with that. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Tea Kettle Complacencies

After many years of pussyfooting about, I finally bought myself an electric tea kettle.  It's a 1 liter Bonavita with a long, slender spout.  I was looking for a way to make tea brewing at work more enjoyable.  I spent a lot of time trying to choose a kettle that was not going to lend a bad taste to the water.  The first time I brewed tea with it, a terrible scent whacked me like a 12 foot tube of kindergarten construction paper paste.   Bummer.  Another piece of tea flotsam clogging the the mess of junk in my apartment.  Hster wisely suggested I send it back.  But I am lazy and do not relish a trip to the post office.  It is almost more trouble than it is worth.  So I have kept on with the thing.  I even brought it to work and it tripped one of the breakers a couple of days ago.  I've been hoping the glue smell would dissipate.  And, you know, after a week of operation, IT HAS!  There is no detectable odor and work has become more pleasant. 

It boils water pretty fast.  Way quicker than the Lin's Studios ceramic kettle at home, which leaves me waiting forever while I yawn in the pre-work twilight.  For a few days before I took the kettle to the office, morning tea making was so painless.  Fill it up the night before and flip the switch on the way to my morning ablutions.  It's like.....a coffee maker.  So I think I've gotten spoiled a little and I'm going to buy a Kamjove for mornings at home.  I wonder if they make one that you can program to turn on at a particular time?


Friday, February 15, 2013

Midwest Tea

In the early days of "serious" tea drinking, travel meant a lot of hand-wringing.  Should I bring a gaiwan only to have it pulverize in my bag? Why knock the handle off one of those pots I paid too much for?  Won't I need a little pitcher to decant my brews into?  Should I get one of those travel presses, or a cheesy infuser mug with a lid and a dragon on it?  Do I bring Puerh cha?  Oolong?  How do I wrest the best from these leaves without my little carefully-controlled brewing set-up, my tea table where I can slosh about and make a mess?

For years I drank lots of low grade tea and paid no attention to my brewing vessel or the quality of the water I was using.  I think once I fell in with higher quality leaves my initial tendency was to treat the whole thing way too preciously.  Naturally, I wanted to re-create while on the road or camping the tea experiences I was having at my tea table.  I worried myself unnecessarily.  It's not that tough to make a good cup on the road.  At this point, I leave my best leaves at home and bring my stalwart, go-to teas.  For a few years, I carried a little cup and gaiwan set in a cute padded pouch that I got from Scott Wilson.  It was a decent set-up (perhaps overly diminutive), but I kept breaking the gaiwans.  I went through three of the things.

These days if I'm going somewhere to stay awhile, I just bring a cheap gaiwan.  If it breaks, who cares?  If I'm in the woods or flying somewhere or moving around a lot from place to place, I bring a little thermos for brewing dian hong.  If I want to drink oolong or pu, I just go grandpa and I don't use pristine leaves. 

I recently visited family in St. Louis and my trusty black tea-thermos performed quite well in the mornings.  I just throw in a pinch of leaves, fill the thermos to the 3/4 level and steep in boiling water with the lid off or resting on the top.  If I screw it on, the leaves tend to taste a bit scalded.  The small hole in the pop-up lid of this thermos filters the leaves pretty well.  I might get a few fragments in my cup, but who wants to carry a strainer across the country?  


The weather was quite nice a few of the days.  Sunny and almost 60.  My brother and I were able to do some outdoor painting for my folks and the warmth also drew us out to walk along the wide muddy rivers lined with fat sycamores.  Add to that a large dose of boulevardier-fueled conviviality, some of the best ribs available in the country, a bowl or two of worthy Pho at a converted Burger King on the southside and a monstrous spread of grilled skirt steak, beans, rice, roasted poblanos and homemade chile roja we threw together after a spree at the local Supermercado and you've got yourself a decent vacation.  It was a nice break from sitting at my desk sipping tepid shengpu.  But the snow is melting in the valley, the honkers are circling the river and we saw snowdrops leaning their heads over the muck in someone's yard yesterday.  Bring on the spring and the spring teas.  I'm buying an electric kettle.  TODAY.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mystery Tea Revealed

It turns out yesterday's delivery was one of Scott Wilson's productions, the "Chen Xiang" from Wu Liang.  Though the cakes were pressed in 2012, Scott's description states that the maocha is from 2007 which explains the slightly aged feel and look of the leaves.  Scott says the maocha was stored in Nan Jian township, which, if my google map search results are correct, is at roughly the same latitude as Kunming.  More humid than Montana, but it's not Xishuangbanna.

This morning, at four infusions, the smoke is finally starting to dissipate.  Granted, my brewing set-up at work is not ideal, but I'm not getting the orchid and camphor per the description.  We'll have to drink more at home.   

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Special Delivery

I received a special delivery at work today.  It was ferried to me by a kind, long-lashed person.  When does this ever happen?

As you can see, this little packet was a cute wax-paper affair.  I must admit to feeling a bit nervous opening it up on my desk and taking photos of it.  Just act cool, I kept telling myself.  

Smokey and hairy.

As soon as the tea was unsealed the smell of a campfire wafted into the room.  I sprinkled some of these leaves in my trusty infuser mug and headed to the hot water spigot.

I got three infusions in before work ended.  The smoke kept coming like a barge full of that Lapsang Souchong you bought at your local co-op.  Lots of orange leaves and quite an orange-tinted brew:

I don't know anything about this tea, but it sure made the day more interesting.  Thanks!